Jays From the Couch looks at the notion that the Toronto Blue Jays do not resemble a team that should rebuild
This post is my own attempt at explaining something that’s been said by our very own awesome podcast (be sure to subscribe on iTunes & Google Play) and on other Blue Jay blogs: the Toronto Blue Jays should not blow the team up and do a full rebuild.
My hope is to contribute to the conversation by looking at the franchise as a whole and assessing whether or not it really even looks like one in need of a rebuild. Ultimately, I’ll show that the current Blue Jays don’t fit the mould of a team needing a full rebuild and would be much better served by retooling on the fly (if the 2017 season continues, as it has, into the summer).
Before I go further, let me clarify a couple of things.
1) Saying the Jays don’t need to fully rebuild doesn’t mean that everything is rosy right now.
Everything is not rosy. We here at Jays from the Couch have been fairly consistent that things haven’t been great and that the losses we’ve already suffered make a recovery (and playoff push) extra difficult. We’ve also been consistent that this team is way better than their record suggests and that it is too early to write the season off.
2) Teams (basically) have three options when faced with in-season difficulties: stay the course, retool on the fly or do a full rebuild.
Staying the course usually entails throwing resources (money and prospects) at veteran acquisitions in order to bolster the team’s quality and chances for a postseason run this year. This can work (the 2015 Jays seem like a good example), but often doesn’t (the Tigers over the last few seasons and the post-2008 World Series Phillies are the standard examples).
Retooling on the fly (the route I think the Jays will/should take if their record doesn’t recover by July) usually entails trading away impending free agents for players that will be useful over the next couple of years. As Blue Jays Nation laid out in detail, the 2012-13 Red Sox are the classic example of this strategy. Franchises that are built to compete every year take this approach during those seasons where everything unexpectedly goes to crap.
A full rebuild involves trading away any player of value (impending free agent or not) for prospects that can be the foundation for the team’s next contender. This approach is usually taken by two very different types of franchises. Some, like the recent Yankees, have a number of unproductive, but high-paid veterans and shallow farm depth (after years of trading away prospects). Others (like the Clevelanders every so often) are small-market teams that don’t have the resources to compete every year. As a result, they must load up on prospects, hoping to build a young, inexpensive 25-man roster that can compete for a few years, before the soon-to-be-expensive youngsters get traded for the next batch of prospects.
Looking at the rest of 2017, the best-case scenario would be for the Jays turn things around and get back into playoff contention. Maybe they make it, maybe they don’t. But, either way, Jays fans will have a fun summer.
On the other hand, the team might stay in the MLB basement into the summer months, especially if the team’s health is a problem all season. In that case, I think the best move for the Jays would be a quick retooling to help make them more competitive in 2018 and beyond. I’m pretty certain that the front office agrees, as they’ve been clear that their plan is to build an annual contender (it’s worth listening to Mark Shapiro’s interview on At The Letters earlier this month and the big-picture ideas he lays out). “Annual contender” does not mean “make the playoffs and ALCS each year”. [I think that the recent postseason success has messed up Jays fans and their idea of how hard it is to make the playoffs and advance.] “Annual contender” means that the team starts every season with an objectively good chance to make the playoffs…like the Jays did to start 2017.
I also think that the Jays fans who are most obsessed with the idea of “competitive windows” need to realize that competitive windows are really more of a small-market approach. The Clevelanders need to win within competitive windows because they struggle to keep their star players once they reach their free agent years. Big-market, annual contenders (like the Blue Jays are evolving into) intend to have a revolving door of quality players. They have a mix of veterans, guys in their prime and prospects in the system. As veterans age out, prospects either take their place or are traded for players in their prime. The competitive window for annual contenders is every year.
Do the Jays look like a team due for a full tear-down and rebuild? No. Are the Jays starting to fit the mould of an annual contender? Big time! Let’s break down the franchise as it currently stands.
The Jays have a veteran team. Their opening day roster was the oldest in the league. In spite of that, the team does not have a bloated contract on its payroll. This is key to why a full rebuild isn’t necessary. There’s no past mistakes to overcome.
For some context, Albert Pujols has a bloated contract. He is owed $140 million over the 2017-21 seasons. He would need to produce about 15 WAR to be fair value for that contract. This is…unlikely. Over the last five seasons with the Angels, he has produced 10 WAR. He’s a legend, but he’s not going to come close to producing 15 WAR going forward.
Impending free agents: Players like Jose Bautista, Marco Estrada, Francisco Liriano, Jason Grilli, Joe Smith, J.P. Howell, Darwin Barney and Chris Coghlan are in the final year of their contracts. If the team isn’t in contention come July, any of these players could be traded for prospects (obviously, some will fetch higher returns than others).
Quasi-impending free agents: J.A. Happ, Steve Pearce and Justin Smoak are signed for the 2018 season at relatively cheap contracts, so they don’t count as “bloated” either. Fun fact: Smoak has already achieved enough WAR to be good value for his 2017 salary.
Josh Donaldson, wild card: Donaldson could be extended and join the next group of veterans. He could be given his arbitration payout and join the previous group of quasi-impending free agent vets. He could be traded away this year (like the first group) and bolster our long-term potential. I have no clue what will happen with Josh Donaldson. That said, a team with money (like the Jays) will have a lot of options after the 2018 season. The following list of players are currently slated to be unrestricted free agents: Adam Jones, Daniel Murphy, Asdrubal Cabrera (all will be 33, like Josh), Andrew McCutchen, Charlie Blackmon (will be 32), Michael Brantley, Brain Dozier, A.J. Pollock (will be 31), D.J. LeMahieu (will be 30), Bryce Harper and Manny Machado (will be 26).
The long-termers: That leaves us with Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki and Kendrys Morales. These are the guys that you could label as having bloated contracts. But you’d be wrong, in my opinion. They provide more than enough value, on the field and off, to justify their salaries. They are not Albert Pujols.
Martin might be the single-biggest reason for the big steps forward taken by the Jays pitching staff in 2015 and 2016. I can’t really back that up with facts, because there aren’t any stats on things like pitch sequencing and game calling yet. But I don’t think it’s an unreasonable opinion to hold. Tulo is basically a player/infield coach at this point, producing tons of value with league average hitting, above-average defence at a premium position and guidance for future star infielders like Devon Travis.
Morales seems, by all accounts, to be a very positive clubhouse presence and has shown an ability to mash this season. He’s been very unlucky so far, with an xwOBA much higher than his wOBA. Obviously, aging curves don’t always progress as you’d expect, but there isn’t a strong case for pre-emptively labelling these three players as over-paid spare parts.
Another big reason to blow a team up and rebuild for the future is that a team lacks young, productive, controllable players. These are fundamental to success in all modern sports. They provide surplus value (produce more value than their contract would suggest) and allow teams to spend on expensive veterans to put the team over the top. A quarter of the Jays’ 25-man roster are guys that could be viewed as franchise cornerstones. [Note: By franchise cornerstone, I do not necessarily mean the Kris Bryants of the baseball world, but instead guys like Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Kyle Hendricks.]
A recurring (and fair) question that has been asked of Team Full Rebuild is what will be the fates of these useful players? When a team rebuilds, their goal is to acquire prospects that will become useful MLB regulars. Lucking out on a star or two is a bonus. Well, we have six young, useful MLB regulars already and a couple of them could easily become stars (an AL ERA title, WBC MVP trophy and all-time saves record for closers under 22 years old are good starts). It seems odd to trade them away in the hopes of producing similar players four years from now on. It’s almost as if the people demanding a full rebuild have not thought their opinion through. At all.
A depleted farm system is a good reason to rebuild. If there aren’t any kids coming up, the 25-man roster will need to built from expensive free agents who are often past their prime. Our system looked somewhat depleted after the big trades of 2015. Fortunately, a good 2016 draft by the current regime, combined with continued progress by the last regime’s prospects, has led to a farm system that John Manuel of Baseball America feels is Top 10 in the MLB. Below, I’ve highlighted 24 prospects that have been scouted by both MLB.com and Fangraphs, with their key strengths noted.
The system has a blend of super-high ceiling (Vladdy Jr.), high ceiling (Bichette, Reid-Foley) and high floor (Zeuch, Urena) prospects, as well as a large number of prospects with an outside (but not that outside) shot at being MLB regulars (Woodman, Perdomo). That last group can usually be counted on for a surprise or two (e.g. Kevin Pillar).
There’s always a large element of luck at play with prospects, but this is a farm system that does not seem to require the influx of talent that a full rebuild would bring. In fact, Eric Longenhagen believes it is robust enough to survive an outflow of talent, if trade deadline moves are needed to help push the team over the top (we can only hope that that’s a possibility this year). There’s also the bonus potential of Dalton Pompey (still only 24), the two first-round draft picks we have this year and the countless other prospects not included in the table (like Tim Mayza, Jordan Romano and Cavan Biggio, to name a few).
Potential Lineups of the (Near-)Future
When you put it all together, the Jays have a very veteran team, but one without the terrible contracts normally associated with veteran teams. The Jays also have six valuable young players and a farm that looks primed to produce more than a few MLB regulars (both pitchers and position players) over the next few years. As a final exercise, let’s look at potential 25-man rosters for the 2018 and 2019 Blue Jays. Just to emphasize the point of this post, let’s tie one hand behind our back and only use internal options. [Note: Let me be super clear. These are not predictions.]
These are promising lineups, which can (and should and will) be bolstered by free-agent signings and trades. These lineups reflect a club that is capable of having its veterans pass the torch to its cornerstone pieces, who will pass on their former roles as young MLB regulars to the next generation of prospects, who will themselves be replaced by a new set of prospects.
This season has sucked so far. It might even suck until September. But let’s not lose our heads. A full rebuild is a long and painful process. It’s easy to pout and say “Blow this whole thing up!” But will those people patiently watch a few 62-100 seasons before their desired rebuild is complete? A much harder (but much more logical and rewarding) thing to do is to accept that this particular 7-17 record is mainly the result of bad luck and not because “Those bums aren’t trying hard enough, dagnabbit!”
In terms of performance, the hitters are running below-average BABIP and HR/FB% and the pitchers are running above-average BABIP and HR/FB%, a textbook example of an unlucky team. In terms of injuries, not even the most pessimistic Jays fan would have predicted that Josh, Tulo and two starters would all hit the disabled list in April.
Times like these are precisely when a hard-working, dedicated group of players most needs their fans behind them, not when they are on a 43-18 winning streak. I’m sticking around because I’m not cheering for the Jays to win the 2017 World Series. I’m cheering for them to win every World Series, “competitive windows” be damned. Fortunately, best as I can tell, the building blocks for that kind of annual competitiveness are already in place.
*Featured Image Credit: C Stem- JFtC
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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.