Blue Jays: Would better free agents have made a significant difference?

TORONTO, CANADA - NOVEMBER 2: Mark Shapiro speaks to the media as he is introduced as president of the Toronto Blue Jays during a press conference on November 2, 2015 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
TORONTO, CANADA - NOVEMBER 2: Mark Shapiro speaks to the media as he is introduced as president of the Toronto Blue Jays during a press conference on November 2, 2015 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) /
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The Blue Jays have not ventured heavily into the free agent market under Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins. What would the post-2015 seasons have looked like if they had? Surprisingly, with the exception of 2017, not much different.

A baseball organization can improve the Major League club through trades, free agents, and the promotion of players from the farm system.

In a previous article, I outlined the Shapiro-Atkins two-pronged plan.

"“The Blue Jays have tried to thread the needle. Remain competitive with an older team as the organization rebuilds its farm system. The team will not materially sacrifice its future for the sake of competing now.”"

Accordingly, the trade market was unlikely to produce notable, short-term improvements to the post-2015 club. Therefore, one avenue that Blue Jays management could have pursued after the 2015 season was signing prominent free agents. Let’s play a serious game of What If?

Ground rules

It should be noted that the two scenarios presented are not remotely realistic. The purpose of this exercise is to describe cases that offer optimistic outcomes assuming that the Blue Jays had signed bigger-name free agents than they did after the 2015 and 2016 seasons. With these fictitious signings, we can then consider if significantly improving the post-2015 teams through free-agent signings would have changed the playoff fortunes of the 2016-2018 Blue Jays.

The rules are as follows:

The free agents targeted were starting pitchers, outfielders, catchers, and designated hitters;

Each free agent was selected because they had the highest cumulative bWAR from the date signed until August 26, 2018;

The player would be signed to the exact contract that they negotiated with another team;

Any players removed from the Blue Jays roster will have their bWAR eliminated even if the number of innings (pitchers) and plate appearances (position players) do not quite equal those of the newly signed free agents; and

Every additional net bWAR translates into one win in the standings.

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I did not consider the free agents from the class of 2017 (Lorenzo Cain et al) because, as you will see under the scenarios presented, at a minimum the Jays payroll would be the fifth highest in all of baseball. These scenarios are indeed fantasy but adding to the fifth-highest payroll would be otherworldly for Rogers.  Also, according to Baseball-Reference, the Blue Jays were the second oldest team in the Major Leagues in 2016; the oldest in 2017; and the most-aged in the current season to date. Signing big-name free agents from the 2017 free agent class would still leave the club amongst the oldest in the Majors.

Other than the Blue Jays identified in the scenarios, all of Toronto’s post-2015 transactions remain.

All payroll data was obtained from Cot’s Baseball Contracts and is expressed in millions of US Dollars. The Blue Jays actual opening day payroll for the 2016 season was $136.8 (13th highest); in 2017, the comparable figure is $163.4 (11th).

Scenario 1 free agents

After the 2015 season, the Blue Jays decide that R.A. Dickey, Josh Thole, and Michael Saunders are not adequate enough. Instead, the Shapiro-Atkins regime sign Zack Greinke, Matt Wieters, and Justin Upton. Even the Alex Anthopoulos-Paul Beeston Fan Club is impressed.

After the 2016 season, the Blue Jays sign Edwin Encarnacion, Josh Reddick, and Kurt Suzuki. The Kendrys Morales Blue Jays career is fiction; the same for Steve Pearce. Jose Bautista and Wieters depart. Note that Suzuki was selected over Wieters because his post-2016 bWAR has been higher than Wieters.

What happens?

2016

  • The team’s bWAR increases by a net of 3.5 and the Blue Jays make the playoffs like they did in reality (92.5 wins); and
  • The 2016 payroll rises by $56.2 to $193.0 (5th).

2017

  • The Blue Jays bWAR increases by a net of 25.1 and the Blue Jays make the playoffs for the third consecutive season (101.1 wins); and
  • The 2017 payroll rises by $49.0 to $212.4 (2nd).

Scenario 2 free agents

The Blue Jays conclude that the trio of Saunders, Dickey, and Thole are three horses to ride into the 2016 season.  Greinke, Wieters, and Upton play elsewhere. The Anthopoulos-Beeston Fan Club prepare for the Shapiro-Atkins effigy.

At the conclusion of the 2016 season, the Shapiro-Atkins pair sign Encarnacion, Reddick, Charlie Morton, Suzuki, and Yoenis Cespedes. Morales, Pearce, and Bautista are not part of the team.

What happens?

2016

  • There is no change to the team’s bWAR and the Blue Jays make the playoffs like they did in reality (89 wins); and
  • the 2016 payroll is unchanged from what it actually was $136.8 (13th)

2017

  • bWAR increases by a net of 17.2 and the Blue Jays make the playoffs for the third consecutive season (93.2 wins);
  • the 2017 payroll rises by $24.4 to $187.8 (5th)

Additional notes

  • With respect to 2018, Scenario 1 produces the largest net increase to Toronto’s bWAR (7.0) and that would still leave the Blue Jays 13.5 games behind in the wild-card race after the games of August 29;
  • In the two scenarios, the largest impact of the noted signings occurs in 2017. This is primarily due to the fact that Bautista, the catchers (Maile et al), and Morales combined for a negative 3.1 bWAR; and
  • In 2017, Reddick, Suzuki, and Encarnacion produced a total 9.9 bWAR.

Observations

It is interesting that, even with the changes contained in all scenarios, the fantasy version of the 2018 Blue Jays would not be playoff-bound. This is evidence that the core players, and the state of the farm system’s near-ready players, were not good enough in 2018 to make the playoffs. After the games of August 26, Toronto ranked 11th in the American League in bWAR (18.4); Tampa, who does not hold a playoff spot, had a 35.1 bWAR. Furthermore, the Blue Jays leader in bWAR was Justin Smoak (2.1); which is tied for 72nd best in the AL.

It should be mentioned that it was not unreasonable to hold the opinion that Toronto would contend in 2018. Well-regarded writers and models did forecast the Jays to be contenders for a wildcard spot. And yes injuries have played a part in a dismal 2018. However, my view before the season commenced was that the margin of error to succeed in 2018 was razor-thin. Accordingly, it would have been more prudent for the Blue Jays to hit the reset button earlier than they have. The Blue Jays would have likely received better value from trading Josh Donaldson, J.A. Happ, and others.

Next. Blue Jays: Roberto Osuna finally speaks out about. dark

The last word

It is fun to play fantasy General Manager and re-construct the 2016 and 2017 Blue Jays. However, the scenarios used show that the 2018 Jays would still be out of the playoffs as at August 29, 2018. The decision to contend in 2018 and thereby delay the trading of players with expiring contracts was sub-optimal.