The Blue Jays and the Free Agent SP Market

 

The Toronto Blue Jays are said to be all over the free agent pitching market, but what does that look like?

 

 

 

 

A few weeks ago, before the off-season had really gotten started, I highlighted Jake Odorizzi, Zack Wheeler and Jordan Lyles as starting pitchers I really hoped the Blue Jays would make a push for. In a (realistically) ideal world, I hoped the team could sign a potential four-plus win pitcher (one of Odorizzi/Wheeler) and add Lyles as a solid pitcher who provided some upside.

 

Soon after I wrote that post, Odorizzi accepted his qualifying offer from the Twins. A few weeks after that, Wheeler signed with the Phillies. This past week, Lyles signed with the Rangers. So much for my plan. While I’m disappointed the Jays weren’t able to sign any of the three, I don’t know how the negotiations played out, so I don’t feel comfortable going after the front office too hard yet.

 

Factors like a player’s willingness to move to a short-term non-contender/Canada/the AL East are important, yet out of the front office’s control. I’m curious to see if the front office grows a willingness to overpay relative to their valuations as the supply of free agent pitching decreases. That said, I agree with Shaun that they are better served staying out of the media until a meaningful move has been completed.

 

Any conversation about free agent pitching this off-season must start with Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. Unfortunately, they are not options for the Jays. In a vacuum, there is a lot of logic behind the Jays adding one (or even both) of them. The team has tonnes of payroll space and a rich owner. The two are fantastic pitchers and likely will continue to be through most (if not all) of the young Jays’ team-controlled seasons. I am very much in favour of signing one of these guys.

 

In our real world, factors complicate the likelihood of a good thing like that happening. Obviously, there’s Rogers’ potential unwillingness to drop $200 million-plus on a pitcher right now. Until anything happens to change it, Jays fans will remain in the dark as to what exactly “financial flexibility” means in terms of investing in a winning team. The players’ own preferences might further complicate things from the team’s perspective. Whatever the top bid is between teams like the Yankees, Angels and Dodgers, the Jays (given their noncompetitive 2019 and geographic location) will have to probably outbid that by a meaningful amount.

 

Unfortunately, that leaves a very small group of free agent starting pitchers who could truly be considered impact additions of the kind teased earlier in the off-season by the Jays’ front office. My pick would be Hyun-Jin Ryu. He’s had some injury issues, but is excellent when he’s on the mound. In 2019, he generated strikeouts, walks and weak contact at better-than-average rates and produced the 12th-most fWAR (4.8) among big league starters.

 

The only other two free agent starters who would get fans excited are Dallas Keuchel and Madison Bumgarner. When Keuchel generates a lot of weak contact, he can be a very good pitcher. He generated a lot of ground balls last season (60.1% GB rate) and limited the contact quality on those grounders effectively (.227 xBA on grounders, 37th among 187 SP, min. 50 GB). However, in addition to posting another below-average strikeout rate—2019 K rate of 18.7%, career K rate of 19.1%—he gave up high-quality fly balls and line drives at a higher clip than any other starting pitcher in baseball (.698 xwOBA on FB/LD, 152nd among 152 SP, min. 100 FB/LD). It’s not my money and I wish Keuchel the best of luck at getting paid, but given the current constraints of the game we all love, I’d rather the Jays not overpay on a guy who has more downside than upside to his 2019 projection (2.6 WAR).

 

Bumgarner has an excellent track record, but I still think he signs with Atlanta. Plus, he gave up a lot of homers away from home last year (1.59 HR/9). Not neccesarily a deal breaker, but it is concerning when a guy who spent his career in a pitcher-friendly park heads to the AL East.

 

The remaining pitchers beyond them that are expected to get multi-year deals have varying floors and ceilings, including Rick Porcello, Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez and Ivan Nova. I don’t think any of them would really quench the thirst of Jays fans, justifiably so. As a result, I’d probably opt to sign a couple of guys to one-year deals and kick the can to next Winter, when the Jays could blow people’s minds and add James Paxton to the rotation.

 

Homer Bailey‘s solid numbers last season, including roughly average strikeout, walk and weak contact rates, as well as 2.9 fWAR, put him at the top of my list among this Plan B group. With Bailey, the bet is that his improved strikeout rate (21.4% vs. career 19.2%) is legit. The fact that he managed to improve his swinging strike rate (10.8% vs. career 9.5%) leads me to think it could very well be legit.

 

I also don’t mind Wade Miley and his very strong xwOBACON, though I think Jays fans would revolt if they added the former AL East punching bag. The bet is that he is more his April to August self (.292 xwOBA, 20th among 105 SP, min. 400 BF) and not the less-effective September version (.415 xwOBA, 139th among 140 SP, min. 50 BF).

 

Alex Wood is the classic “he was pretty good recently” kind of signing. 2019 was forgettable, but Wood was solid from 2014 to 2018 (aside from an injury-shortened 2016), posting a least 2.4 fWAR in each of those seasons (aside from 2016). He produced consistently solid strikeout, walk and weak contact rates during that stretch. A one-year guarantee with a 2021 club option could provide both sides with value.

 

Josh Lindblom is another option. He’s returning from a very successful stint in South Korea, so there’s a lot of upside if he can perform in the majors remotely as well as he did in the KBO (he won the 2019 MVP award). Jays from the Couch’s own A.J. Andrews has been a big proponent of Lindblom’s, which is more than enough to get me on board. Lindblom’s projections speak to the uncertainty associated with a guy coming back to North America from South Korea—Steamer is somewhat pessimistic, projecting him for a 5.42 ERA, while Clay Davenport projects him to produce a 4.98 ERA—which is baked into his contract projections (two years, $8.5 million total).

 

It’s easy to say the front office should pivot to the trade market, but as The Athletic’s Andrew Stoeten found when he dug into the starting pitchers who are signed for more than a couple of seasons, there aren’t many options out there. Perhaps, if it’s indeed best for the team to spend financial capital rather than prospect capital, it might make more sense to wait until next year to try adding a multi-year contract to the rotation (if Ryu ends up signing elsewhere), unless a really good deal comes along.

 

Of the small group of impact additions via trade that Stoeten highlighted (Matthew Boyd, Marco Gonzalez and Joe Musgrove), I’d lean towards Musgrove. He’s got a consistently average strikeout rate (21.3% career K rate, 72nd among 138 SP since 2016, min. 350 IP), but really excels at limiting walks (5.5% career BB rate, 15th among 138 SP since 2016, min. 350 IP) and effective contact (.366 xwOBACON, 47th among 131 SP since 2016, min. 1000 batted balls). During potential trade negotiations, Ben Cherington’s knowledge of the Jays organization might be a negative factor (he only accepts high upside prospects) or a positive one (it’s easier to figure out how each team’s excess strengths can solve a problem for the other team). Probably both.

 

I’ll conclude by referencing a second article from The Athletic—I’m certainly getting my money’s worth with my subscription—this one by Marc Carig and Andy McCullogh. When it comes to the Jays’ efforts to sign a good free agent starter, “it’s hard to imagine the Blue Jays beating out others that are also desperate for pitching.” There are enough other teams who are closer to (or in the midst of) contention that a free agent has no shortage of teams 1) who can offer immediate contention for a deep playoff run and 2) to drive up their price beyond where the Jays are willing to go.

 

On the other hand, “there’s already so much young talent in place that it feels like contention is only a year away…whether the big upgrades come this year or next, the franchise’s long-term forecast is favourable.” As much as I’d like to see the Jays make a big move this off-season—to make the 2020 season more fun to watch, get the team used to winning a bit more often than they have been and prove, once and for all, that this front office is indeed willing to spend a lot of money when it’s prudent to—it’s not yet truly make or break time for the big moves. A year from now, it’ll be a different story.

 

 

 


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Jeff Quattrociocchi

I'm an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.