Blue Jays: Three Bad “High-Upside” Free Agent Signings Under Atkins
While Ross Atkins and his staff have done a great job of rebuilding the Blue Jays roster, their record with signing free agents hasn’t been so great so far.
In one of my recent articles, I decided to critique some of GM Ross Atkins trades since his arrival in Toronto in 2015. After thinking about it, Ross Atkins really hasn’t been all that great on the free agent market either. Albeit, the front office’s MO between 2016 and 2019 was to shed salary and develop prospects. Therefore, I am going to ignore any moves during/after the 2019 offseason since this is the period when the Blue Jays front office shifted gears and set their sights on high end free agents like Hyun Jin Ryu, as opposed to fringe, high-upside signings that were often seen in the preceding offseason’s.
Despite the fact that most of these signings were merely placeholders, I still believe it’s important to sign good value contracts during a rebuild phase so that some value like mid-high tier prospects through trade could be recouped from the signing. In this scenario, the Jays would net benefits back from these signings that could’ve helped them during their competitive window, which lingers closer by the day.
Perhaps the Jays should have taken a page out of the Atlanta Braves playbook as it pertains to these types of signings. The Braves have successfully bet big on 1-year deals for comeback candidates like Josh Donaldson and Marcell Ozuna. On the flip side, the Jays have been very in between, often signing high-upside, 1-year contracts to either aging candidates or players who didn’t have much of a ceiling to begin with.
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Let’s take a look at some of the ‘high-upside’ contracts signed by Atkins where it didn’t pan out in the Jays favour.
(1) Jose Bautista – 1 year, $18m (2017)
Jose Bautista was an absolute stud with the Jays from 2010-2015, posting an OPS of .945 over that stretch. However, after an injury mangled season in 2016 that saw his OPS drop to just a hair over .800, many around the industry were expecting a big decline from the 36 year old slugger. I understand that the front office was likely just trying to fill fans in the stands, but Bautista was barely Major League talent in 2017 after the Jays awarded him with a 1-year, $18m deal that gave him a chance to rebuild his value. In the lone season of that contract, Bautista mustered an abysmal OPS+ of 79 and manager John Gibbons somehow let him get almost 700 PA, mostly in the middle of the lineup.
This signing felt like a nostalgia play to soften the blow of Edwin Encarnacion leaving for Cleveland. Bautista was a declining 36 year old who didn’t even have the benefit of a strong 2016 season. Moreover, if an aging slugger like Nelson Cruz was only able to command a 1 year, $12m deal from the Twins in 2020 after having many consecutive seasons as one of baseball’s best hitters, then it makes very little logical sense that Bautista was able to command such a hefty contract at that age.
(2) Kendrys Morales – 3 years, $33m (2017-2019)
Again, this contract was given to an aging and declining slugger in Kendrys Morales. After hitting 100+ RBIs and posting an .847 OPS for the championship Royals in 2015, Morales saw his OPS plummet to a sub .800 OPS in 2016, which is hardly serviceable for a guy who can’t play the field and is there solely to be a professional hitter. At the time, I remember thinking that this signing was a Walmart version of Edwin Encarnacion.
I am not particularly against these value signings, but it felt like the Jays could’ve read between the lines a little more with one dimensional, aging sluggers like Morales and Bautista. The front office shouldn’t have handed out contracts like these based on past performance, but rather future projections of a player. In the case of Morales, this didn’t appear to be the case given his decline over the prior seasons.
(3) Jaime Garcia – 1 year, $8m (2018)
The common thread with all the players I’ve named so far is that they have all retired from the MLB. In the case of Jaime Garcia, he wasn’t particularly old when the Jays signed him (31 years old) and isn’t even that old presently, but he was still well into his decline and on the wrong side of 30. If Jaime Garcia wasn’t three years removed from his prime, I wouldn’t be that critical of this low-risk contract even if it turned sideways as it did in real life. In 2018, Garcia would post a 5.93 ERA for the Jays over 74.1 IP.
Although Garcia was just 31 years old when he signed with the Jays, he was so clearly washed up and out of his prime. From 2010 until 2015, Garcia posted a solid 3.25 ERA over 116 starts, but he fell off a cliff over the succeeding two seasons, posting an ERA+ of 93 over 328.2 IP. He had become the poster boy for major league journeymen, having played for four clubs in his final two seasons. In 2017, he even made starts for three different teams within a two week stretch around the trade deadline.
All things considered, Atkins took way too many risks on players that were far removed from their prime. Contracts should always be based on future performance. When you look at the Atlanta Braves, most of their one and done contracts are given to players who had one injury-riddled or down season in the midst of their prime like Ozuna, Donaldson and Charlie Morton. These signings have often worked out for Atlanta because the players they sign are not that far removed from being impact players.
What’s done is done. The Jays front office has been delightful when it has come to prospect development and creating payroll flexibility, but their history of ‘high-upside’ signings has not been a positive for the Jays since the tenure of Ross Atkins began in 2015.