Blue Jays: Current market further heightening value of youth
As the Blue Jays watch watch on as a steep market pays heavily for both past success and future projection, young talent is more valuable than ever
Major League Baseball is hitting a quiet tipping point this offseason where widespread organizational wealth is buoying the free agent value of all players, not just the elite level. Teams are willing to table $200 million offers to Jason Heyward, but at the other end of the spectrum, the act of moving from $3 million to $4 million annually to secure an average relief pitcher barely registers. Simply the cost of doing business in a copycat market.
Regardless of your opinion on the current state of the Blue Jays budget supplied by Rogers, the more time-sensitive worry should be that this budget will increase at a much slower rate than the market around it. Failing to keep up with inflation, if you will. It’s a complicated matter involving exchange rates and hedging and degrees not currently hanging on my wall, but the big-picture market is moving away from Toronto’s wallet in a similar way to the 2015 relief pitching market.
With this comes a heightened importance on young talent, giving it a greater value than their ever has been in the game. Controllable and affordable impact players like Marcus Stroman, Roberto Osuna and Kevin Pillar are absolutely necessary to have on a roster if a team hopes to shop on the top shelf in free agency. The excellent drafting and development in St. Louis is what allows the Cardinals to do this while maintaining success year-to-year.
This now needs to be considered more prominently in organizational decisions, especially trades. In a potential deal including the likes of Pillar or Dalton Pompey, the Blue Jays would not just be losing that physical asset from their outfield. They’d also be increasing and/or expediting the potential of having a “need” in the outfield. That need, if required to be filled through the current free agent market which will only continue to balloon, would prove costly.
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The rise of analytics in recent years has also left few shreds of potential uncovered, which culminated largely in the recent Heyward deal. The 26-year old outfielder will make $184 million over eight years in Chicago with two opt-outs, the value of which cannot be understated. Big dough for a bat that’s produced a .768 OPS and just 38 home runs over the past three seasons.
Of course, that money is determined by his mammoth potential and defensive excellence, another trait that’s being valued much higher financially than in the past. I still question what Heyward would earn in free agency if he were a 5’11”, 190-pound player instead of the chiseled-from-granite physical specimen he is, but that’s for another day.
A 6.0 WAR from Heyward in 2015 tops the 4.3 mark set by Toronto’s Kevin Pillar, and while the latter would have a drastically smaller value in free agency, that gap may not be as significant as we think. A similar situation can be found with Jeff Samardzija, who earned a five year, $90 million contract coming 4.96 ERA season with career-low strikeout numbers and a whopping 29 home runs allowed. While he’s had his runs of success, Samardzija is still being paid for potential at age 30. How far off is that from what Drew Hutchison could soon develop into?
Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins made a habit of leaning on youth in Cleveland, acquiring young impact players like Carlos Carrasco and either enjoying the length of their arbitration years of buying those out at a discounted rate on an extension. With prices so high at the top end of the market, these strategies become more valuable on the bottom end to keep the books balanced. Call it an evil if you will, but with the current budget, it may be a necessary evil.
This is made especially important with the high salaries due to Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin in the coming seasons, not to mention the arbitration raises for Josh Donaldson and impending decisions on Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista.
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If the likes of Pillar, Pompey, or close-to-ready prospects like Anthony Alford can be dealt for impact pitching, taking back a player outside of their controllable years is far from ideal. For conversation’s sake, lets assume Toronto finds a deal involving Dalton Pompey for a pitcher of equal value in the tail end of their arbitration years. Baseball value is not all that can be considered there, as the millions of future salary difference would hinder Toronto’s ability to improve elsewhere.
With this in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some teams exercise a little more caution in when they start the service clocks of their top prospects, instead holding them in the minors just long enough to extend that final year of team control.
The current crop of young talent on the 25-man is encouraging, and you could also add Chris Colabello playing on a contract below what he might currently earn as a free agent. Edwin and Jose are also playing well below their value in contract years. Unless the budget is due to shoot north at a parallel value to the market, though, Toronto will need to increase the number of young impact players on their roster. Otherwise, the financial offset may not be in place for name-brand shopping in the coming offseasons.