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Blue Jays: Why some fans care about the cost of a free agent

Apr 2, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins speaks to the media during a press conference against the Baltimore Orioles at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 2, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins speaks to the media during a press conference against the Baltimore Orioles at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports /
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While the casual Blue Jays fan has little reason to care how much ownership spends on player payroll, how much a player costs will always matter.

As we continue to wait for the Blue Jays to make a significant offseason move, fans will continue to debate about the strategy that Ross Atkins and his staff should implement. Even if it’s been a slow winter, it’s still more fun to discuss the topic when the Jays are realistic suitors for the top free agents available.

Whenever these discussions take place online, you’ll find fans debating how much the team should offer, both in years and dollars. Following that, you’re almost always going to see someone come along with a tired old argument of, “it’s not your money, why do you care how much the player costs?”

For what it’s worth, those people are correct that it makes next to no difference to me how much Rogers profits as the owner of the Blue Jays and their surrounding properties. I do want to see them pushing their payroll higher, and making competitive bids on the best available free agents, and in some cases I’m even okay with overpaying to get the player they need. That said, how much a player costs will always be a relevant part of the conversation, regardless of how high the payroll gets.

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If you need some evidence, look no further than AL East rivals in the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. In 2020, the Red Sox chose to shrink their payroll in order to get under the luxury tax threshold, as it would have been their third consecutive season in that range and the financial penalties escalate a fair bit. That led to their trading away both Mookie Betts and David Price, and it obviously didn’t work out so well after a 24-36 finish last season. The Yankees appear to be exercising some financial restraint right now for the same reasons, and it’s likely impacting the free agent market we’ve seen so far.

The reality is, for every million that’s spent on one player, it can’t or won’t be allocated to another. I fully expect that the Blue Jays will add somewhere between 40-60 million to their payroll before the offseason is over, but there will be a limit to their spending regardless of who they can convince to join them. For example, if they can get George Springer under contract for roughly 25 million per season, that likely means the Jays will bid on cheaper options than Trevor Bauer to improve the rotation.

The Blue Jays don’t have much in the way of “bad” contracts on their payroll. However, wouldn’t it be nice to re-allocate the 12 million that Tanner Roark will make in 2021, assuming he doesn’t bounce back and earn it? There are plenty of folks who are bothered by the 9.33 million that Randal Grichuk will make each season for the next three, and of course, there’s still the last four million owed to Troy Tulowitzki this year before he’s finally off the books. Beyond that though, it’s a pretty clean situation.

Atkins and Mark Shapiro have built a solid foundation for a contender, and they have the resources to make some big roster moves. I hope the time is now for an aggressive move or two toward improving their chances in 2021 and beyond, but I also understand having a limit to what you’re willing to pay. It matters in the short-term, and also with a longer lens, especially when you consider that they’ll eventually have to try to extend the likes of Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, Nate Pearson, Teoscar Hernandez, and maybe more. With that in mind, I can understand why a six-year contract for Springer could be a deal-breaker, or that Bauer may price himself out of their market.

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So while I understand the “it’s not your money, why do you care?” response from many fans, I’ve always thought it was a flawed argument. That doesn’t mean that I hope the Blue Jays are conservative in their efforts to improve the team, only that I realize that for every move you make now, there could be an opportunity cost later.

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