How could the Jays best spend the remaining $15 million reported to be in their budget? The answer might not be what you think
Imagine that you are playing video game baseball.
Your team is projected to win 84 games, but the last wild card position is projected to require 88 wins. You have $15 million left to spend, and no more. And – because this is a video game – every free agent will sign with your team, if you meet their price.
What would you do?
In a videogame world, the answer is almost simple. You would take each of the remaining free agents, estimate how many additional wins they would earn for you and divide that into their price. You would then sign the highest wins-per-dollar player, or players.
Obviously, real life is not so simple. But what if, as an experiment, we applied video game thinking to the Jays’ current situation?
Toronto could spend the $15m on a couple of good relievers. But the bullpen is an area of relative strength, and relievers generally have low WAR, so he incremental wins gained (over the existing relief corps) might not be great.
Toronto Blue Jays
Alternatively, the Jays could spend the money on a good starting pitcher. Not a Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta – even in a video game world, you do not sign players of that caliber for $15m per year. Though you might be able to get an Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn for that price. Suppose that you could, however – how much value would that add? Cobb is projected by Steamer to earn 1.7 WAR in 2018, and Lynn is projected at 1.3. If the season were to start today, the Jays’ rotation would be Stroman, Sanchez, Estrada, Happ and Biagini. The Genie is projected by Steamer at 1.5 WAR in 2018 (21 starts, 145 innings).
Now, you could argue that Steamer is being excessively conservative about Cobb and Lynn, and that their WAG (wins above Genie) is higher than Steamer’s projections would imply. But is it likely that their WAG is more than a single win?
You could also argue that signing a Cobb and moving Biagini to the #6 starter position provides depth. But the incremental wins from having Biagini as your #6 would also be limited, as (barring major injury) he would only have a limited number of starts. And if the Jays have major injuries, as in 2017, their season will likely be shot regardless.
So what is left?
Let’s talk about backup catcher.
Conventional wisdom is to have one excellent catcher who plays 120-130 games, and an inexpensive backup who contributes little value for the remaining ~40 games. You could argue that this is where the Jays stand now, with Russell Martin as the big dog and Luke Maile as the puppy. Martin is projected to earn 2.4 WAR in 2018, and Maile is projected at a replacement-level 0 WAR. But Russell is expected to earn his 2.4 WAR in only 102 games and 406 PAs – which is probably valid, given his age and injury risk. Suppose the Jays decided to spend $5-8 million at the backup catcher position – what kind of incremental value could that create?
Start with a caveat – the Jays have a strong group of catchers in the minors. I am more optimistic about Danny Jansen than Baseball America (how can a player be the MiLB first all-star catcher and not make the BA top 100?), and if Max Pentecost can stay healthy and Reese McGuire can maintain his 2017 hitting breakthrough, both would be strong candidates for a full-time catching gig, much less a backup role. And that does not even take into consideration newcomers like Hagen Danner and Riley Adams. So the Jays would be looking for a veteran catcher with high value who would be willing to accept a one-year deal.
Ordinarily, “high value” and “one year deal” are mutually exclusive. But this is a funny year. Both Alex Avila and Jonathan Lucroy are still looking for a home, and it is possible (?) that , absent a better offer, they could consider a one-year pillow deal. And if they did, what better place to demonstrate their hitting prowess than in the AL East and the Rogers Launching Pad?
So let’s talk about Alex Avila.
Avila is coming off a strong 2017, in which he earned 2.5 WAR for the Tigers and Cubs with a combined .264/.387/.447 batting line and a 124 wRC+. But there are a couple of reasons he has not already been signed. First, because his 2017 figures are all substantially higher than his career averages. Steamer (conservatively?) projects him at 1.3 WAR in 61 games in 2018 with 250 PAs. And second, because of his splits. Alex is a career 117 wRC+ against left-handed pitchers but only 71 against righties. In 2017, that split was even more exaggerated – 134 (!) against LHP and 44 against RHP.
Alex made $2 million in 2017. Would a – say – $5m offer (at this late stage) be enough to tempt him to sign a one-year pillow contract? If it were batting primarily against lefties, in a hitter-friendly park and a hitter-friendly division? And suppose the Jays could offer him time at 1B (backing up and resting Justin Smoak) and as a pinch hitter, to further enhance his value on the 2018-19 free agent market? With perhaps 376 PAs – the same as he got in 2017 – Avila should be good for about 2.0 WAR, or a two win upgrade over Luke Maile. Suddenly the Jays are an 86 win team, within two wins of the Angels for the second wild card, and with $10m-ish left to spend (even before any additional trade moves).
And of course, this does not even take into consideration the advantage of having a backup capable of covering for Martin for a longer term in case of injury.
The bottom line
The problem with looking for value in conventional places is that other teams are looking there too (hence the “conventional”). The Jays are in the unusual position of being able to derive more value from the right backup catcher than most. An Avila (or even a Lucroy!) could be an exceptionally valuable investment.