Blue Jays: Where Now With the Rebuild This Off-season?

ST LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 15: Chase Anderson #57 of the Milwaukee Brewers delivers a pitch against the St. Louis Cardinals in the first inning at Busch Stadium on September 15, 2019 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
ST LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 15: Chase Anderson #57 of the Milwaukee Brewers delivers a pitch against the St. Louis Cardinals in the first inning at Busch Stadium on September 15, 2019 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images) /
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With Justin Smoak now a free agent, reliever Ryan Tepera designated for assignment, and 2B Devon Travis outrighted, no players from the 2015 and 2016 Blue Jays ALCS teams remain. So where does the rebuild go from here?

Jays President & CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins enter their fifth off-season running this organization with no remaining ties to the ALCS playoff rosters of 2015 and 2016. So with the offseason in full swing, what is the current state of the roster, and where do they go from here?

According to Spotrac, the Blue Jays currently have only three players under contract in Randal Grichuk, recently acquired Chase Anderson, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., plus six who are arbitration eligible for 2020, including recent waiver claim Anthony Bass. Using MLBTR projected 2020 arbitration salaries for Ken Giles, Matt Shoemaker, Brandon Drury, Bass, Derek Law and Luke Maile, the total projected payroll commitment to nine players is $43 million (all figures USD).

The remaining retained salary for 2020 is the $14 million owed to Troy Tulowitzki, which takes the current 2020 payroll to $57 million. That’s the third lowest in MLB as per Spotrac, ahead of only the White Sox and Marlins, and only half of 2020 league average $113.4 million. Remember 24 of the last 25 World Series Champions had a payroll in the top half of the league on Opening Day.

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Of course things can change quickly ahead of the November 20th 40-man roster deadline for Rule 5 draft protection, and arbitration eligible players can be non-tendered up until December 2nd. We could see additional trades, waiver claims, and free agent signings before then. Ken Giles could be offered a more lucrative extension beyond the remaining one year on his contract.

But for the sake of anchoring the currently constructed payroll, let’s assume that; 1) the MLBTR arbitration numbers are correct; 2) only Luke Maile (projected 2020 salary $800,000) is non-tendered which frees up a spot on the 40-man roster for a Rule 5 draft pick; 3) Ken Giles isn’t extended and wins $8.4 million in arbitration; and 4) the remaining 17 spots of the Jays 26-man roster are filled by pre-arbitration players making the 2020 major league minimum of $555,000 plus a ~2% cost of living adjustment from 2019, so approximately $9.6 million.

That implies a total payroll of $66 million for 2020 all else equal. Given the competitive balance (“luxury”) tax threshold of $208 million, ownership and the front office have ~$142 million in payroll flexibility under the luxury tax threshold.

With $10+ million in additional payroll already committed so far to Anderson and Bass, how much more are Rogers and management willing to increase the payroll through the start of the 2021 season when Atkins has promised a “competitive” team?  Where will that budget be allocated for contract extensions, trades, free agents, taking on bad contracts in deals including promising players, international player signings, and slot money for the #5 draft pick next June?

Sportsnet beat writer Ben Nicholson-Smith recently implied that the Jays are willing to increase their total spending by $60-70 million this offseason:

After the $10.2 million committed so far to Anderson and Bass (assuming he gets a $1.7 million arbitration award as per MLBTR), that still leaves $50-60 million in additional budget to spend.

Calendar

Here are some key upcoming dates as management assesses talent upgrades available to them this offseason:

November 11-14: GM Meetings in Scottsdale, AZ

November 14: Deadline for the ten players given Qualifying Offers to accept them

November 20: 40-man roster deadline for Rule 5 draft protection.

December 2: Non-tender deadline for arbitration-eligible players.

December 9-12: Winter Meetings in San Diego, CA

December 12: Rule 5 draft in San Diego

February 10-12: Pitchers and catchers report

February 21: First Spring Training games

March 26: Opening Day

Extensions

29-year old closer Ken Giles is arguably the Jays best trade chip this offseason with another year of control, and elite stats in 2019 (23 saves in 53 innings, 1.87 ERA, 14.1 Ks/9, 2.73 xFIP and 2.49 SIERA, plus a well above average pitch mix according to Baseball Savant with a 97 mph fastball and an 86.4 mph, knee buckling slider). After Aroldis Chapman re-upped with the Yankees, the free agent market for premium closers is very thin, so depending on the package offered (Ken Rosenthal tweeted on Sept 3rd that the Yankees were close to a deal offering three prospects for Giles the day before the July trade deadline), if Atkins is blown away he may look to move him.

However, given he’ll only be 30 when the Jays are promised to be “competitive” from 2021, there is real sense in extending Giles for another 3+ years. As a guide, soon to be 32-year old Chapman will make $15mn, $15mn, and $18mn over the next three seasons ($16mn AAV). Giles likely deserves less given a shorter track record of success, but likely quite a bit more than the $8.4mn he is expected to win in arbitration for 2020 as per MLBTR.

In addition to being a great selling point to free agent starters Atkins is trying to sign, saying there is a lock-down closer in the bullpen, Giles has said he wants to stay in Toronto. He’d only be 33 at the end of a three-year extension. Committing $4-6mn more of the added payroll to Giles gets him to a $12-14mn AAV; he’s earned it, and is a player in his prime that helps to balance out a Jays roster which is heavily weighted towards younger players with an average 40-man roster age near 26 years old.

Another potential use of payroll flexibility could be using the model first used in Cleveland by Jon Hart in the 1990s to extend the young core of Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.. Craig Biggio and others by buying out their arbitration years now and getting extra free agent seasons in return, potentially also saving some future payroll cost as well.

Conversely, it wouldn’t surprise many if Luke Maile was non-tendered by December 2nd given the effective Danny Jansen/Reese McGuire platoon, plus top thirty Jays prospects at catcher in Gabriel Moreno, Alejandro Kirk, and Riley Adams. That would save the Jays an estimated $800,000 and free up a 40-man roster spot.

Free Agents

My colleagues have contributed some great work on who the Jays should target in free agency this offseason, so I won’t go in to too much detail here except to say that, sadly, it appears unlikely the Jays will be legitimate contenders in the Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg sweepstakes. Given the draft pick compensation (after the first round) associated with signing one of the players who received a qualifying offer, it’s also probably unlikely that Atkins will pursue free agent starters Jake Odorizzi, Zack Wheeler or Madison Bumgarner, 1B Jose Abreu or OF Marcell Ozuna.

There’s has, however, been lots of discussion around top-tier starters not tied to a QO, including Hyun-Jin Ryu (MLBTR predicts 3 years/$54mn), Dallas Keuchel (3 years/$39mn), Cole Hamels (2 years/$30mn) Julio Teheran, Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles, as well 1B/OF types like Nicholas Castellanos (4 years/$58mn) and 28-year old Japanese posted player Yoshitomo Tsutsugo. There are great players available here; if Atkins can get creative, he could front load a ton of money now with the added payroll flexibility.

To illustrate why now may be the time to splurge on top of the rotation talent, note the Cubs added 30-year-old free agent Jon Lester on a 6 year/$155 million deal the December after losing 89 games in 2014. Two years later, Lester would go 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA over 32 starts (202 2/3 innings), win the NLCS MVP award, and go 3-1 over 35 2/3 innings that post season to help Chicago win its first World Series since 1908. Plus there’s no guarantee that top pitchers will be willing to sign with Toronto in the 2020-21 offseason when James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, Trevor Bauer, Marcus Stroman and Jose Quintana are the best available free agent starters.

MLBTR predicts that only one 2019-20 top 50 MLB FA will sign with Toronto this offseason: back of the rotation starter Tanner Roark for 2 years/$18 million. They see the same 2 years/$18 million being offered to Kyle Gibson and Julio Teheran, or one year deals around $8 million for veteran starters coming off injury like Alex Wood, Rich Hill, Ivan Nova and Michael Wacha.

There was an interesting MLBTR live chat with Tim Dierkes held November 5th on the top 50 free agents, with the transcript here:

The key Blue Jays related comments were – no surprise – that Toronto is “not a top free agent destination, so they need to overpay to get guys. Like a second year for Roark, or a third for Keuchel.”  In addition to saying he likes Keuchel to the Jays, Dierkes also said he “thought that if the Braves had picked up Julio Teheran’s option, the Jays would have traded for him” despite his “deteriorating profile, with so many walks and declining velocity” including a below average 89-90 mph fastball and 82-84 mph off speed stuff. Perhaps the Jays pitching coaches could get him to throw his 75 mph slow curve – with an above average spin rate – more than 6.4% of the time?

Dierkes thinks the Jays “won’t go hard” on Odorizzi, MadBum, or Wheeler. As for “low key” starting pitching targets like what the Astros previously found in Charlie Morton and Wade Miley, he likes Wood, Wacha, Brett Anderson, Martin Perez, Drew Smyly and Matt Moore, as well as Josh Lindblom who hasn’t pitched in MLB since 2017 with Pittsburgh, but has had success in the Korean Baseball Organization over the past three seasons. “Buy low” starting pitching targets include Lyles and Moore. And let’s not forget that Shapiro and Atkins may have interest in seeing if their former Indians starter Danny Salazar – whose best season in Cleveland was their last year there in 2015 –  has anything left? Could the soon to be 30-year-old get an incentive-laden minor league deal, with an invite to spring training, given his injury history and only four major league innings since 2017? As for potential free agent 1B/OF targets like Castellanos and Avisail Garcia (2 years/$12mn), the Twins, White Sox and Marlins are seen in on them.

Rule 5 Draft on December 12th

A number of minor league prospects still need to be added to the 40-man roster by November 20th to protect them from the Rule 5 draft, like RHP Thomas Hatch, OF Forrest Wall, and 2B/3B Santiago Espinal. The Jays could non-tender reliever Derek Law and save an estimated $1.3 million and another roster spot, plus save another $2.5 million and roster spot by non-tendering utility IF Brandon Drury, who they could then re-sign to a minor league deal as a depth move?  Or two roster spots by waiving Derek Fisher and Anthony Alford, who are both out of options?

Given 2020 will be another rebuilding year to assess players and see what’s available internally, plus the fact that the active roster expands to 26 players, will Atkins target another young arm like 26-year-old Joe Biagini in 2015 and 19-year-old Elvis Luciano in 2019? The Jays pick fifth. Remember the Cubs got former minor league starter Hector Rondon from Cleveland in the 2012 Rule 5 draft. He became their closer in 2014, with 77 saves over the next 2.5 seasons.

Jays Journal Contributor David Corcoran already took a great look at left-handed reliever options for 2020; with Tim Mayza injured and Buddy Boshers outrighted, Thomas Pannone and Anthony Kay are the Jays only current lefty options with major league experience. Assuming he won’t be chasing Giants lefty closer Will Smith who received a QO, could Atkins target a LHR in the Rule 5 draft? Or an OF like when Pat Gillick picked up George Bell from the Phillies in the 1980 Rule 5 draft, or when the Phillies drafted CF Odubel Herrera from the Rangers in 2014? We’ll know more about who mighty be available after the 40-man roster deadline for Rule 5 draft protection.

Trades

Trades have been an effective way to find aces and closers in MLB.  Justin Verlander, Cole, Zack Greinke and Roberto Osuna were all acquired by Houston via trade. Detroit traded away David Price, Justin Verlander, and Rick Porcello. Tampa traded Price, Odorizzi and Chris Archer.

As we’ve already seen with Chase Anderson, Atkins is willing to use his payroll flexibility to add salary and club options via trades. Whether he’s moved in a 2020 trade deadline deal to get a better prospect than who we gave up in AA prospect Chad Spanberger, or whether this is a sign that the Jays front office is committed to upgrading their starting pitching talent, instead of signing placeholders like Jaime Garcia, Clayton Richard, Edwin Jackson and Clay Buchholz, remains to be seen. It’s likely too early in the process to trade top prospects for elite talent, but the added payroll should give the front office options to get creative in upgrading their talent.

For example, the Twins traded for two years of control of 28-year-old starter Jake Odorizzi for only 21-year-old High A SS prospect Jermaine Palacios. Odorizzi made 62 starts and pitched 323 1/3 innings at a 4.01 ERA for the Twins over the past two seasons and stands to get a rich contract this off-season. The Mets got 1.5 years of control of 28-year-old Marcus Stroman for prospects Anthony Kay and 18-year-old Simeon Woods Richardson.

Ideally, Atkins will at least ask what it might take to get a future ace like Luis Castillo from the Reds or Noah Syndergaard from the Mets when they’re ready to move prospect capital?  Castillo looks like a future Cy Young winner, will only be 27 in 2020, has awesome velocity (average fastball 96-97 mph, change-up at 87 mph and slider at 86 mph), is well above average on all Baseball Savant pitch mix metrics, and had an xFIP 3.48 and SIERA 3.95 in 2019. Wouldn’t he look good on our mound as Juan Guzmán 2.0?

So what would it take to get a future ace like Luis Castillo from the Reds? Something like a package of three prospects (including consensus top 100 prospect Daz Cameron) plus catcher Jake Rogers that the Astros traded for Justin Verlander? A package of four players, including MLB top 100 prospect J.B. Bukauskas and 2018 1st round pick Seth Beer that the Astros traded for Zack Greinke?  Or the package of Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, and consensus top 100 prospect Shane Baz that the Pittsburgh Pirates sent to the Tampa Bay Rays for Chris Archer?

Bad Contracts

As Jays Journal Contributor Tyson Shushkewich recently wrote, a creative use of 2020 payroll flexibility might be to take on a bad contract in exchange for players with high ceiling upside? Preferably Atkins won’t be helping AL East peers by taking on a bad contract like Jacoby Ellsbury or J.A. Happ from the Yankees, or David Price from the Red Sox.

Atkins could find creative ways to use that payroll space to get prospects along with a bad contract once Strasburg, Cole and Anthony Rendon are signed?  For example, if the Padres are able to sign one of Strasburg or Cole after adding Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer in the past two off-seasons, maybe they would look to move an expensive contract like the $22.5 million due annually to 28-year-old 1B/OF Wil Myers through 2022, with a $20 million club option for 2023?  He has a career .327 OBP which improves on the Jays .305 team OBP in 2019, and was a finalist for a Gold Glove at 1B in 2016, with 303 games played there in 2016-17 before Eric Hosmer was signed in 2018.

In exchange for taking on his contract, could Atkins ask for a young starter like Port Hope, Ontario native Cal Quantrill, who made 18 MLB starts in 2019, and pitched 103 innings with a 5.16 ERA, but an xFIP 4.53 and SIERA 4.58 suggesting likely improvement?  He features an above average 94.5 mph fastball, 85-86 mph off-speed stuff with a slider and change-up, and profiles above average like Chase Anderson on exit velocity and hard hit balls percentage.

Or maybe Atkins can just use that budget to trade for former stars coming off of injury-plagued seasons, i.e. former Gold Glover Ender Inciarte from the Braves to play CF?

Conclusion

The next month through the Rule 5 draft on December 12th offers a clear opportunity for Jays management to accelerate their rebuild with talent upgrades via free agency, trades, and adding a player to the 40-man roster with the 5th pick in order of selection in the Rule 5 draft. They can also wait to see how the market shapes up and look for lesser talent ahead of Opening Day next March 26th, as they’ve done the past two off-seasons. Their ~$142 million in payroll flexibility under the luxury tax threshold and additional $50-60 million salary budget ahead of the 2020 season gives them lots of ways to be creative in acquiring talent, whether it be taking on a bad contract for prospect upside, buying out the arbitration eligibility of their younger core in exchange for more free agent years, or looking for players like Chase Anderson with club options that could prove to be valuable trade chips heading in to the competitive window from 2021.

Or Atkins could continue to have his coaching staff work with what’s already here in terms of in-house 1B/DH (Rowdy Tellez, Brandon Drury, Teoscar Hernandez), OF (Anthony Alford, Derek Fisher, Billy McKinney, Socrates Brito, Jonathan Davis and Hernandez), and pitching options (Trent Thornton, Jacob Waguespack, Anthony Kay, T.J. Zeuch, Nate Pearson, Wilmer Font, Sam Gaviglio, Thomas Pannone, Jordan Romano, Justin Shafer, Jason Adam, Derek Law), and then look to make bigger upgrades after the 2020 season?

If they can spend another $50-60 million on payroll this off-season, it’s possible Atkins could get:

  • a 3 year extension done for closer Ken Giles, taking him through the 2023 season
  • one of Ryu and Keuchel, and one of Teheran, Wood or Gibson as top of the rotation starters
  • Castellanos or Tsutsugo as 1B/OF options
  • Ender Inciarte (and his former Gold Glove in CF), or a salary dump like 1B/OF Wil Myers (former Gold Glove finalist at 1B) if the Padres included a young gun like Cal Quantrill

Next. New and notes: Anderson, Russell Martin and more. dark

An off-season like that would be a home run for Atkins and the front office given Strasburg and Cole are most likely pipe dreams, and Bumgarner, Wheeler, Odorizzi, Abreu, and Ozuna would all cost a draft pick after the first round. Now is the time to start upgrading the talent level of this team if the competitive window really is supposed to open in 2021 as promised.

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