Blue Jays: Is Now the Time to Speed-Up the Rebuild?

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 17: Cavan Biggio #8 of the Toronto Blue Jays celebrates with Lourdes Gurriel Jr. #13 after hitting a two-run home run in the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on September 17, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 17: Cavan Biggio #8 of the Toronto Blue Jays celebrates with Lourdes Gurriel Jr. #13 after hitting a two-run home run in the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on September 17, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images) /
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There has been a lot of discussion recently regarding the timing of when the Toronto Blue Jays should speed-up the rebuild and aggressively add to the MLB roster. Is it the upcoming off-season or the one after?

I find it easier to answer the rebuild question with the aid of a framework. Lo and behold, local radio came to the rescue. Dan O’Dowd, former General Manager of the Colorado Rockies and current Analyst for MLB TV, appeared on Sportsnet Fan 590’s Baseball Central show. O’Dowd cited his experience with rebuilds: with the Cleveland Indians, where he worked with Mark Shapiro, and with the Rockies. It was an interesting discussion that covered many subjects; I encourage people to give it a listen.

This article will deal with the timing of the acquisition of starting pitchers via free agency.

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Spoiler alert

My view is that the Blue Jays should speed-up the rebuild by signing at least one top-of-the-rotation starter in the upcoming off-season. Another one can be acquired via free agency in the following off-season.

Overview

Before addressing O’Dowd’s framework, some of the additional highlights of the interview are as follows:

  • O’Dowd stated that he liked the young, impact position players assembled by the Blue Jays. He cited the catcher (I assume he meant Danny Jansen), Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Vlad Guerrero Jr., and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. 
  • O’Dowd opined that it is easier to evaluate position players than pitchers because there is more consistency in performance compared to pitchers

Rebuild framework

My summary of the O’Dowd rebuild model is as follows:

  • Focus initially upon young, impact position players
  • Base the decision to speed-up the process upon where these players are on the development/winning curve (discussed in the next section)
  • Augment the pitching group, which will have some internal impact arms, by being aggressive in the free agent market

Development curve

For O’Dowd, a critical element of his model is the performance curve of the young, impact position players. That arc, which O’Dowd also calls the winning curve, has three stages. They are as follows:

  • Stage 1 – Figuring the game out at the Major League level
  • Stage 2 – Being contributors in the Major Leagues
  • Stage 3 – Becoming championship-caliber MLB players

Although O’Dowd did not specify how one determines what stage a player and/or the group is at, I developed (okay, made up) my own chart for players based upon fWAR.

  • Figuring it out – 1 to 2 (role player)
  • Contributor – 2+ to 3 (solid starter)
  • Championship contributor – 3+ to 5 (good player / All-Star)

According to O’Dowd, a team should be aggressive in the pitching free agent market when Management concludes that the core impact position players are in Stage 2 and are transitioning into Stage 3.

Test drive

I tested O’Dowd’s rebuild model using three teams: Boston, Houston, and Colorado. I selected young, core position players from each team during their respective team’s ascension. Boston and Houston were selected because they both ranked high in my recent MLB June Draft article. Colorado was included because that was the team where O’Dowd applied his model. All three teams eventually made the World Series.

Table 1 captures the relevant data.

Observations

It should be noted that there was not a third young position player of note for the Rockies to list on the table.

The Blue Jays

Although the example of the Rockies puts a dent in the O’Dowd Model, I think it is a helpful tool to use when determining when the Blue Jays should become more active in the free agent market. This article will focus upon the free agent market; not on what players to target but when to aggressively enter the market.

Table 2 summarizes the 2019 fWARs of the core position players identified by O’Dowd: Jansen; Bichette; Biggio; Guerrero Jr.; and Gurriel Jr. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call them the Gang of Five.

Based on the data in Table 2, taking into account that there may be injuries, regression, etc., I think it is reasonable to expect that the 2020 Gang of Five can approach the performance levels posted by Betts et al during the 2015 season.

Application of the O’Dowd framework

The anticipated improvement in the Gang of Five’s fWAR during the 2020 and 2021 seasons supports the conclusion that they may enter Stage 2 in 2020 and possibly transition towards Stage 3 by 2021. Accordingly, the O’Dowd framework suggests that the Blue Jays should enter the starting pitcher free agent market in the off-season leading up to the 2021 season.

The 2020 and 2021 pitching free agent market

"Too often, the opportunity knocks, but by the time you push back the chain, push back the bolt, unlock the two locks, and shut off the burglar alarm, it’s too late."

Rita Coolidge

This quote should give one pause. Even if one firmly believes in the O’Dowd Model, and that 2021 is the optimal time to enter the pitching market, the scheduled availability of free agents should be considered.

Table 3 presents free agent starting pitchers for both the upcoming off-season (2020) and the next (2021). The pitchers presented are scheduled to be available in the off-seasons shown. I have assumed that the Blue Jays would want to sign a pitcher that would, at least initially, perform at the level of a #2 or #3 starter and also be valuable for at least three seasons. Accordingly, I eliminated any pitcher over the age of 32 from the list. I projected the value of each pitcher using their 2019 season-to-date fWAR.

The 2020 free agent pool includes Gerrit Cole, Zack Wheeler, and Jake Odorizzi. 2021 will see the likes of James Paxton, Jose Quintana, and Trevor Bauer hitting the free agent market. Certainly, the 4+ fWAR candidates are all in 2020; 2021 is slated to offer more pitchers in the 3.0 to 4.0 fWAR range.

Conclusion

I think the Jays should venture into the 2020 starting pitcher free agent market. My reasons for doing so are as follows:

  • The number of candidates with 2019 FWARs greater than 3.0 is the same (4) in both off-seasons. Neither years offer a long list of high-quality pitchers.
  • Why wait until 2021 if there is an attractive pitcher available in 2020?
  • It is possible that the 2020 Gang of Five transitions towards Stage 3 in 2020
  • My assessment is that, other than Nate Pearson, no starter in the Blue Jays organization realistically projects to be at least a #2 in 2020 or 2021. Top of the rotation starters are needed before 2021.
  • By aggressively pursuing and signing free agent starters, the Jays can use player capital to address other needs (for example, the outfield).

A rational approach would be for the Jays to be active in both the 2020 and the 2021 starting pitcher free agent markets; sign a quality free agent in each off-season. If the Gang of Five does not display in 2020 that it is transitioning towards Stage 3, straddling the 2020 and 2021 markets is a sort of dollar-cost averaging strategy.

Next. Smoak again demonstrates the value of veteran leadership. dark

The last word

The Gang of Five had a productive 2019 and, based on an extrapolated full-2019 season, it is not unreasonable to expect improvement in their play in 2020 and 2021. Accordingly, the Blue Jays should speed-up the rebuild and become aggressive actors in the 2020 and 2021 starting pitcher free agent market. Top-of-the-rotation starting pitching is a short-term organizational deficiency of the Blue Jays. As the Nike slogan says, just do it.

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