It feels like knowing you have a dentist appointment soon. You don’t want to think about it but you know it’s coming, and you know how shitty it’s going to be because you’ve been there before.
Although it ended in disappointment, last year’s playoff run was a huge release for a generation of young Blue Jays fans who had been subsisting on the meager hand-me-down memory of ’92 and ’93 like cowboys sucking on stones in the desert. Fans embraced GM Alex Anthopoulos’ all-in approach with abandonment and barely registered the names of the prospects dealt away to acquire David Price and Troy Tulowitzki before the deadline. The front office could’ve set fire to the entire farm system if it brought David Price to Toronto. Thirst like that is a powerful thing, and it essentially authorized Anthopoulos to operate with complete disregard for the future of the team.
That’s not a criticism. There are too many variables that have to line up just right for a team to win the World Series. If you think you have enough of the pieces already in place, going for broke is a defensible strategy. When it works, it seems in hindsight an obvious move; when it doesn’t, it seems reckless and thoughtless.
This conversation is often framed around the concept of a “window”. Every team has one, they’re all waiting for theirs to open wide enough to slip through to a Championship, and the harder you try to force it open, the harder it slams shut. For the Jays, the moment Game 6 of the ALCS ended, the sound of their window closing in the distance has felt like a blunt guillotine.
The window metaphor is elegant, but oversimplifies things by creating a duality of great and terrible that may apply to other sports like the NBA (looking at you Sam Hinkie) but not necessarily to baseball. The Cardinals have kept their window wide open for what seems like forever through careful drafting, prudent trading, and excellent player development. The cash-strapped Rays have remained competitive for years. There is no blueprint, and while the concept of cyclical success embodied by slow rebuilding can work (think the Houston Astros over the last decade), it’s a mistake for fans and front offices alike to accept the tear-down/rebuild as a matter of course.
Just look at how the Jays current window opened: Two of the game’s premier right handed sluggers emerge from out of nowhere and an offensive core is handed to Alex Anthopoulos on a silver platter. There’s more to it obviously (Donaldson trade, good pitching prospects, trade chips, etc.), but a lot of it is just chaos! So instead of despairing, lets look at how the Jays can remain competitive through 2017 and beyond.
The Big Problem
Toronto has 13 key players entering free agency in 2017, but the problem really boils down to this: How will the Blue Jays replace the production of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion? The two combined for 9 WAR in 2015, but WAR isn’t the best measure to look at what these two give the Jays because they’re both defensive liabilities at this stage in their careers (well, E5 always was). Here is what the two have done since 2013 at the dish.
They are the only teammates both in the top 10 in HR, wRC+ and ISO over that span. They’re basically cheap power-hitting clones that the Jays stumbled onto. In fact, Baseball Reference’s Similarity Score pegs them as almost identical.
That kind of well-rounded production isn’t easily replaced. Both can draw about as many walks as strikeouts, and both can homer against any pitcher. The fact that Encarancion and Bautista were both late bloomers with little track record of success before their breakouts in Toronto allowed Anthopoulos to lock them up to team-friendly deals that are both set to expire at the end of 2016. Extension talks over the off-season fell through with both sluggers, and they are expected to enter free agency and get sizable raises.
Bautista is earning $14MM in 2016. Encarnacion is earning $10MM. The table above shows my educated guess at what they might get as unrestricted free agents, based on stuff I read online + recent deals given to comparable players + value assessments. Bautista was asking in the ballpark of $120MM/5 years which I thought was ridiculous, but both of my estimates are probably conservative. They may not be worth more than what I estimated, but I can easily see the Red Sox overpaying for the opportunity to replace David Ortiz’ power and hurt the Jays in one fell swoop.
One of the main sticking points in Toronto’s off-season negotiations was length. New GM Ross Atkins is rightfully hesitant to hand out long-term deals to two aging sluggers (Bautista is 35, Encarnacion is 33). Those kinds of contracts have historically been some of the most franchise-crippling ones. Atkins’ legacy in Toronto will likely be cemented this off-season in any event, and I don’t see him taking such a big risk right out of the gates. With Tulowitzki’s salary burning a hole through the front office’s pockets, Shapiro knows more than anyone the risks that come with signing an aging star.
Lets talk payroll for a second. In their “all-in” 2015 campaign, the Jays bumped their payroll from ~$138MM to ~$148MM. As of now, they have $87.5MM in salary commitments for 2017. Assuming $155MM is a realistic payroll range for 2017, that leaves Atkins~$67.5MM to play around with. That seems like a lot, but when you consider that Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, and Josh Donaldson alone account for $57MM of the 2017 payroll, you begin to understand the dilemma is a tradeoff: Bautista/Encarnacion or depth. Or: aging power hitters with no defensive value or depth.
Even if they backloaded the contracts heavily, Toronto would be left with very little space to build the decimated bullpen (six reliever free agents), add infield depth (Smoak/Barney free agents), fill out the back end of the rotation, and pursue Michael Saunders. With a weak 2017 free agent class and little help available down on the farm due to the aforementioned thorough emptying of the cupboard by Anthopoulos, it’s easy to see why the window closing feels inevitable.
Drew Hutchison, Dalton Pompey, and Andy Burns have all cracked the Majors already, and I expect to see Conner Greene and Rowdy Tellez contribute in 2017. Beyond that, Alford and Harris are exciting prospects but won’t be making impacts for a while.
Letting Bautista Go
Bautista clearly wants to stay in Toronto, and Toronto clearly wants Bautista to stay, but I’ll go ahead and compare this situation to Albert Pujols leaving St. Louis. Unless he gives the Jays a massive discount a la Tim Duncan, he will cause net harm to the Jays going forward. The scale is smaller than Albert Pujols leaving St. Louis, but the decisions made by the Card’s front office are a good blueprint for the Jays.
- Made Pujols an offer out of respect but did not respond to the Angels offer of 10 years/$240MM.
- Resigned Carlos Beltran, signed Rafael Furcal, exercized club option on Adam Wainwright, extended Yadier Molina
- Had winning record next season, made it to the playoffs in the three following seasons
- Watched Pujols contract become baseball’s biggest albatross
Now, when I said earlier that the 2017 free agent class was weak, I meant more that it lacked marquee names. There’s plenty of depth, but Bautista and Encarnacion are pretty much the only superstars available. While it’s generally easier to replace a 1B/DH type than an OF (and the Jays do have Smoak, should they choose to sign him for cheap, and Colabello waiting), in this case replacing Bautista is the better move. First, the outfield crop of free agents is better than the 1B/DH crop. Second, while his body is a money-making temple and he is in the best shape of his life at all times with Booster Juice, Bautista won’t stick at RF for much longer. He spent chunks of the 2012/2013 seasons on the DL, and has posted a -14.7 UZR over the past two seasons. He’s also two years older than Encarnacion, and power begins to decline rapidly at his age.
The Jays have the firepower to sustain his loss, but the one thing they absolutely need to replace is Bautista’s ability to get on-base close to 40% of the time. Luckily, the Jays already have that.
A year after suffering a season-ending knee injury in spring, Michael Saunders has roared back in 2016 and has been the Jays best hitter thus far by wRC+ (161!) with a .308/.383/.594 line. Notice that .383 OBP. Bautista’s OBP since his breakout in 2010: .388. It’s more a testament to Jose’s greatness that he could keep an OBP like that up over close to 4000 PA, and Saunders will regress a bit, but resigning him will be a crucial move for Atkins this offseason.
You could point to his average plate discipline (9.8 BB% / 25.8 K%) and his BABIP (.375), but Saunders posted a .341 OBP with Seattle in 2014 with the same walk/strikeout ratios. He doesn’t do it the same way as Bautista, but he doesn’t have to. Finally, he would offset his inferiority at the plate as a big defensive improvement in right. He owns a 25.7 UZR/150 in RF compared to Bautista’s -2.4.
He’s currently signed to a 1 year/$2.9MM contract, and based on the contracts given out to Denard Span, Dexter Fowler, and Gerardo Parra last offseason, I’d estimate his cost at $10-13MM per season, with a 3 year deal. That saves the Jays around $10MM (in AAV) and would leave them in a better position to pursue some of the intriguing outfield free agents such as Ian Desmond, Carlos Gomez, Brandon Moss, and Josh Reddick – assuming they’re not satisfied trotting out Ezequiel Carrera as a starting OF.
I’m a big believer in the principle that one superstar outfielder is better than two good outfielders. Roster spots aren’t infinite and you should try to concentrate your WAR. But it would be unrealistic to expect Bautista to perform like a superstar into his late 30s.
Letting Both Go
More than anything, 2016 has taught Jays fans the importance of depth. Darwin Barney, Ezequiel Carrera, Ryan Goins, and Justin Smoak have all been valuable with Tulo, Colabello, and Bautista unable to play at times. Depth rules, and it might rule more than Edwin Encarnacion.
Letting Bautista go would allow the Jays to balance the team to some extent, but letting Encarnacion walk and signing a thrifty free agent 1B/DH like Kendrys Morales, Steve Pearce, Pedro Alvarez, Mitch Moreland (Adam Lind is available, too!) would give Atkins room to resign bullpen pieces, pay a solid pitcher like Jeremy Hellickson, Edinson Volquez, or Doug Fister to replace Dickey’s innings. (Side note: All my love to Josh Thole, but him on the Jays is like that pathetic fish that hangs on to sharks to eat their feces. I’ll be glad to see him go.)
Just looking at the 2017 free agent class, the relievers might be the strongest crop, with Kenley Jansen, Mark Melancon, and Aroldis Chapman available. Spending big on relief is almost always a bad idea (especially when you have to bid against the Yankees/Dodgers), but Jansen and Chapman are pretty safe investments.
If I had complete control over the Jays front office I would re-sign Encarnacion but let Bautista go. If you were in Atkins’ shoes, what would you do?
Looking Through the Window
Window metaphor continued. This post has mostly assessed the short-term, 2017 impact of the trade-offs the Jays must make. To wrap up this already-too-long exercise in dreaming, I’m going to quickly outline the ideal path for Toronto over the next few years.
2017: After a long negotiation process, Bautista is not re-signed and leaves Toronto disgruntled and disrespected. The Jays sign Encarnacion to a 4 year/$80MM deal, Michael Saunders to a 2 year/$26MM deal, take a flyer on Carlos Gomez or Brandon Moss, sign Doug Fister or Jeremy Hellickson to a 1 year/$8M deal, build cheap bullpen.
2018: Estrada departs but most of the team remains the same, with Saunders, Donaldson, and Happ in the final years of their contracts. Conner Greene and Jon Harris bolster bullpen/rotation. Jays give Donaldson five year extension.
2019: Anthony Alford is ready to make a big league impact, cracks the starting outfield out of Spring Training. Russell Martin eases Max Pentecost’s transition into catcher in his final year before free agency.
There it is. That’s the grossly over-simplified, nothing goes wrong plan. One thing Jays fans can be excited (or at least intrigued) about in the long run is President Mark Shapiro and Atkins’ reputation for player development. They may not have had much tangible success in Cleveland, but they were behind the development of guys like Michael Brantley, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Drew Pomeranz, Jason Kipnis, and Francisco Lindor.
Toronto may sit the playoffs out a few times over the coming seasons, but there’s no reason for a full rebuild. Lean years are mean years for revenue and Jays shouldn’t let their record surge in attendance dissipate or level out by taking their foot off the gas. Stockpiling draft picks and assets was Anthopoulos’ forte when he was GM, and if the Shapiro/Atkins regime can return to that approach while folding in their player development skills the window doesn’t need to close in Toronto.