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Thoughts on Trading Veterans and the Blue Jays’ rebuild

 

The idea of a Blue Jays rebuild keeps coming up. Here are some thoughts in response.

 

 

 

 

This post started out as a Twitter thread. Once that started pushing an unwieldy 20 tweets, I figured that Shaun Doyle would be upset with me for not just putting these thoughts into a post for our site.

 

On Monday, CBS Sports published an article by Jonah Keri entitled “The Blue Jays need to get more pieces around Vladimir Guerrero Jr. by embracing their rebuild”. The central thesis was that the Blue Jays should speed up their rebuild by trading most of their MLB vets with two years of control or less, namely Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Kevin Pillar, Justin Smoak, Russell Martin and Ken Giles. It’s an idea that I and many other Blue Jay fans are on board with. However, as I read the article (and reread it a couple of times), I felt like the author took a very weird journey to make his point.

 

First off, I give Keri credit for calling for a full rebuild last winter. While I still think that going for the second Wild Card spot in 2018, while also looking to the future, made sense at the time, starting the rebuild a year earlier would have put the team even further ahead today.

 

On the other hand, I struggled with some of the points he was making in support of an immediate sell-off of the aforementioned veterans. In particular, he directed a lot of negativity towards the current trade value of Martin, Giles, Stroman and Sanchez. Undercutting the current trade value of four of the six veterans highlighted as rebuild-kick-starting trade pieces seems to undercut the central point of the article.

 

[I also found it really weird that the Jays’ strong system was only mentioned once, in passing (“with a stable of top prospects rising through the system”). Lumping Bo Bichette in with Anthony Alford as “hitting prospects with more uncertainty surrounding their status” was another perplexing choice. Bichette was one of only three under-21 prospects who cracked 300 PA at the Double-A level in 2018, yet he finished with an impressive 120 wRC+ (73rd percentile). It was also super clickbaity to include Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s full name in the title of a post that was only nominally about him, though I assume that wasn’t the author’s choice.]

 

“Stroman is coming off an abysmal 2018 campaign in which he…flashed an awful 5.54 ERA.” That is indeed his 2018 ERA. However, it’s relevant to separate his pre- and post-disabled list performances. Stro posted a 7.71 ERA (4.63 FIP) in seven starts up until May 8th, after which he was put on the DL. Then, he produced a 3.84 ERA (3.49 FIP) in the eleven straight starts he made after the DL stint. So, he was not great early on, but that’s likely because he was pitching hurt. Then, he returned healthier and pitched well. Moreover, in both stretches, his FIP suggests that he was unlucky to post such a high ERA—his 2018 FIP- was 92.

 

I’m in favour of extending Stroman, something I intend to write more about in the coming weeks. But, if he’s traded this offseason, the Jays will get some good pieces back.

 

On Russell Martin, Keri wrote that “a 35-year-old, injury-prone catcher hitting below the Mendoza line isn’t likely to attract much attention at [$20 million], though the Jays could conceivably get a bit of value in return for Martin’s defensive prowess and ability to draw a walk, if they’d be willing to eat most of his salary.”

 

Overall, his assessment that the Jays could get something of small value if they ate most of Martin’s salary is correct. It’s in the details that I feel the need to push back a little. Calling Martin injury-prone seems harsh. He’s not going to give you 130 games anymore, but he would’ve cracked 100 in 2018 if he didn’t let the kids play in September. Moreover, a Mendoza-line batting average isn’t as big a problem when a hitter produces an above-average OBP.

 

On Giles, Keri wrote that his “late-inning meltdowns were the reason the Astros shipped him to Toronto in the first place, and rival teams would seem likely to pursue some superior options in free agency before potentially turning their attention Giles’ way.” I disagree with this whole assessment. Giles had some poor performances in late 2017 and early 2018, no doubt about it. But he also seemed to have a deteriorated relationship with his manager, which is relevant to why he was traded and not given time to rebound.

 

Don’t let his 4.65 ERA distract you: Giles was good in 2018. He had the 19th highest win probability added (WPA) among all MLB relievers, because virtually all of his bad games were in meaningless situations. In that vein, per FanGraphs, he only had 5 “meltdowns” (games where he produced a -0.06 WPA). 207 relievers had more meltdowns in 2018 than Giles did. On the other hand, he crushed it in high-leverage situations, which led to his strong WPA. For the traditionalists, Giles was perfect in save situations (26/26), posting a 0.36 ERA.

 

Moreover, Giles has something that the top free agent relievers do not: contract affordability and flexibility. He’s projected to earn only $6.6 million via arbitration in 2019 and is arb-eligible in 2020 as well (likely in the neighbourhood of $10 million). If he is a complete bust in 2019, something that can happen to any reliever, his new team can just cut him. That might appeal to lower-budget teams who want to add a good reliever but are concerned by the money and term required to get one from the FA market.

 

The article concludes with a call to action: “The faster the Jays accept their fate as cellar dwellers and cash in veterans for potential Vlad Jr. running mates, the brighter that optimism will become.” I agree with this statement. Moving these vets will give the Jays an opportunity to see what kind of MLB talent their upper-minors prospects have, while also boosting the system’s quality.

 

However, the article seems to make arguments that oppose this idea. It’s suggested that Stroman and Sanchez need time to rebuild their value after down seasons, that Martin will fetch something small (and only if the Jays eat most of his salary) and that Giles ranks low among current available RP options. These points each seem to imply that waiting to move these four vets (especially Stroman, Sanchez and Giles) is actually the best option.

 

Moreover, the tone of the article also seems to imply that the Jays’ front office needs to be convinced of the value of trading these vets. I think that’s mistaken. I’ve improved my Atkinese to a conversational level and he seems very much ready to move Stro, Sanch and Martin for the right return. The team also just paid Tulo $38 million not to play for them, a bold (and correct) move that speaks to the desire of the front office (and ownership group) to turn a page and more concretely work on building the next great Jays team.

 

In conclusion, I agree with the central thesis of Keri’s article, but just feel that he went on a weird journey to back it up. He supported the trades of Smoak and Pillar well, but wasn’t as clear about the logic of moving the other four. Justifying offseason trades of these four Blue Jays is pretty straightforward:

 

Stroman is a good starting pitcher with two years of affordable control, something that teams value a great deal. 5.5 WAR is a fair projection for his 2019-20 production, worth $50 million (at $9 million per WAR). He will receive less than $20 million in salary over these two seasons—MLBTR projects him to earn $7.2 million this year. $30 million of surplus value is a solid amount to work with. That can lead to a package of two or three interesting (40-45 FV) prospects or one, more promising 50 FV guy.

 

For Sanchez, the case for a trade this winter is very different from Stroman’s. I worry that he will not be the pitcher that Jays fans hoped he’d become. His 2016 season might have been a lot more average than his AL-best ERA suggested—no starter had a larger wOBA-xwOBA gap that season. Two seasons of injuries since then have only diminished his shine and hurt his development. Holding onto him into the 2019 season may help recover his trade value (either as a starter or, with perhaps a higher likelihood of success, out of the bullpen). On the other hand, what if the problems just continue and his trade value keeps decreasing? I’m not sure that will be the case, but if one wants to argue for trading him ASAP, this seems like the point to make.

 

Giles is a very good reliever—FanGraphs projects him to produce the 33rd best FIP among 181 relievers projected to get into at least 50 games in 2019—a player-type that tends to be very easy to move. He’s projected to earn $6.6 million this year, so a two-year total around $16 million seems like a reasonable possibility. This offseason, Joe Kelly and Jeurys Familia (two relievers whose park-neutral FIP projection was at Giles’ level) have signed free agent deals of three years, with Kelly getting $25 million and Familia getting $30 million. Familia’s extra money is likely the result of his closer experience, something Giles also boasts. If Familia had signed a two-year deal, the shorter term would have probably justified a deal of about $22 million. If that’s a guide of Giles’ value, maybe the Jays only get a couple of 40 FV prospects or one 45 FV guy for him. That said, it’s worth noting just how good Giles has been in recent years—seventh most fWAR (7.9) among relievers since 2014—which might boost his trade value.

 

Martin will need to be packaged with some cash, but he can return a prospect (or prospects) of value too. He’s projected to produce 1.8 WAR (if he plays 120 games), which is worth about $16 million. If the Jays ate half of his contract, leaving buyers on the hook for $10 million, his surplus value ($6 million) would justify a Giles-like package of two 40 FV prospects (or one 45 FV player). The more salary the Jays eat, the better the package they get in return.

 

The Blue Jays have a near-consensus Top 5 farm system. In 2016, it was a bottom-five system. The rebuild has been in progress for a while now, if also in conjunction with an attempt to remain competitive (without touching any of the team’s long-term prospects). While those attempts did not work, the Jays remain in a very promising position. It portends to get more promising, as these veterans, with varying degrees of trade value, can be moved to further bolster the system’s already impressive depth and quality. The future is bright.

 

 

 

 

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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.