The recent Astros extension of Jose Altuve has raised the question of whether other teams should lock down their young stars. Should the Jays be aggressively pursuing a Marcus Stroman extension?
ESPN’s Buster Olney recently wrote an article (highly recommended) in which he asked whether the unusual 2017-18 offseason for free agents and the recent mega-deal for Jose Altuve would make young players more receptive to long-term deals. His focus was more on the player perspective, noting that deals like the Carlos Carrasco‘s 4/$22m and Christian Yelich‘s 7/$49.6m have worked out greatly in the teams’ favour, and that agents have accordingly discouraged players from signing away peak years in this manner. (Though of course such deals do not always work out – remember the Jays’ “big 3” signings of Ricky Romero, Adam Lind and Aaron Hill?)
But it takes two to fungo. The team’s perspective also needs to be taken into consideration.
Which brings us to Marcus Stroman.
Many writers feel that the Jays would be wise to lock up Stro’ on a multi-year deal. At a minimum for his three remaining years of team control (he becomes a free agent in 2021) on the basis of “cost certainty”. But ideally, such a deal would include years or options for 2021 and beyond.
Toronto Blue Jays
My view on a Stroman extension is as predictable as it is boring: it is all about the price. A long-term contract is all about the sharing of risk and return. If the Jays could sign Stro’ to a contract that provides an appropriate balance of these factors, they should do so. If not …
And I am afraid that the “not” appears more likely.
First, let’s talk about the risks.
Quick trivia question: in the last 30 years, how many times has a MLB pitcher (starter or relief) 5’8″ or less pitched 100 innings in a year? Answer – it has happened three times: Stroman in 2014, Marcus in 2016 and Stro-Show in 2017. Some argue that a smaller player is automatically at greater injury risk, as his muscles and tendons are smaller in diameter than a larger athlete. While this idea is plausible, I hesitate to accept it without evidence. What I *will* accept is that Stroman is a rare beast, and that we do not have enough information on how pitchers of his stature age. That translates to a wider range of potential outcomes, which affects risk.
Marcus’ 2017 was excellent, with a 3.09 ERA and a 3.4 fWAR. But advanced statistics were less glowing. His SIERA (generally held to be one of the best predictors of future ERA) has increased steadily since his excellent 3.18 in 2014, to 3.28 in 2015, 3.62 in 2016 and 3.85 in 2017. For context, a 3.85 ERA would correspond to an above-average #3 starter. Now, SIERA is not infallible. (But it is interesting – in 2016, there were five players with a SIERA more than one full run higher than their ERA: Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, Tanner Roark, J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez. Give Aaron a mulligan due to his injury. The other four averaged a 1.25 increase in ERA from 2016-2017. Small sample size caveats, but still interesting). But an increasing SIERA, coupled with a hard-hit-% which has increased from 23.5% in 2014 to an almost-exactly-mlb-average 31.4% in 2017 gives cause for concern.
All about the price
The above risks mean that it is possible that Stroman might not meet expectations going forward. But that is true of every player, and teams are usually willing to accept that risk – provided that the contract gives them some upside as well. As for example – when the Jays signed Jose Bautista to that (then huge) 5/$65m contract in 2011, after only a single year of exceptional production, many people felt that the Jays had made a mistake. That contract turned out <ahem> “rather well” for the team.
But Stro’ is in a different place. His earnings under arbitration over the next three years have been estimated at $20-30 million, and it would likely take the high end of that range to tie him up for those three years. Club options for the next 2-3 years would likely have to be in the $20m/year range. As one writer put it:
"Here you have a guy on what is essentially a non-guaranteed three-year contract that will most likely pay him something like $25 or $30 million. Is it worth assuming a full five years of risk by guaranteeing him a bunch of money just so you can ensure that you get years four and five for five or ten million dollars less than what they’d cost in the absolute best case scenario?Hint: it is not."
Even if the Jays were to limit their extension to the three remaining years of team control, does the somewhat nebulous benefit of “cost certainty” justify locking Stroman in at the extreme high end of his potential arbitration range for those years?
The bottom line
Extending Stroman at the right price would make a lot of sense for the Jays. But it is unlikely that Team Shapkins and Team Stroman would agree on what a “right” price would look like. And, as an old financeer once said, “there are no good stocks or bad stocks. Only underpriced and overpriced ones”. Right now, Stro would be an overpriced one.