Do the Blue Jays overpay and go for a big(ger) name in the free agent pitching market this winter or do they do maintain the status quo by going after smaller fish and maybe overpay but to a lesser degree? The tweet (and the accompanying article) below really caught my attention when perusing Twitter and I think the underlying philosophical question about where the Blue Jays stand in terms of their own willingness to take risks will probably be answered by how they behave in the market.
The @BlueJays are going to have to overpay and they need to decide whether it’s better to spend big on someone who could make a significant difference or to limit risk overpaying a smaller amount on someone with less upside, writes @ShiDavidi.https://t.co/PYrb4sXknX— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 28, 2019
It would seem, according to a tweet by Gideon Turk, that the Blue Jays are not focusing on Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg but the next level of free agents including Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Dallas Keuchel. With Jake Odorizzi taking a qualifying offer, the rest of the free agents are expected to take deals of at least three years for upwards of $17 million per year (although MLB Trade Rumors estimates that Keuchel would get three years at $13 per year).
The Blue Jays clearly have money to spend. Their payroll stands at about $67 million considering an active payroll of about $43 million with players who either have contracts or are arbitration eligible, plus $14 million from Troy Tulowitzki‘s deal, plus about $10 million for players who are yet to be arbitration eligible. That gives us about $67 million on the books right now (according to the site Spotrac).
And this all brings us to the question that Shi Davidi poses in his article. With the Blue Jays out of the running for the biggest names in pitching free agency, do they go towards the higher end of the second tier with guys like Wheeler, Ryu and Bumgarner who could command up to $20 million a year for possibly four or five years? Or do they go for the “fix-em-up” guys who need to make a comeback and have some upside like Matt Shoemaker, who will cost significantly less.
Ideally, it will be a combination of both with Shoemaker likely to negotiate a new deal, particularly if he’s not tendered a new contract.
But here’s the key point in Davidi’s narrative. The Blue Jays are likely going to have to overpay to get the better pitchers. He writes, “To get anything done, however, the Blue Jays are going to have to overpay and a question for them to wrestle with is whether it’s better to spend big on someone who could make a significant different or to limit risk overpaying a smaller amount on someone with less upside.”
Davidi offers us a great quote from Andrew Friedman, the president of the L.A. Dodgers, who said, “If you’re always rational about every free agent, you will finish third on every free agent.”
Looking at that quote with the eye on the Blue Jays, we’ll note that this current management group has yet to “go crazy” (or operate beyond what would be a rational valuation of a free agent’s value) and sign a free agent. They’ve stayed within their cost benefit analyses, preferring to trade for players with upside who won’t cost a lot, particularly in prospect capital, rather than going all out to bring in a free agent who could make a big difference to the team.
Thus, there are two questions that I now have regarding the front office’s philosophies about free agents. One, when will they be ready to open the deep pockets that Rogers Communication has (and has shown that they’re willing to open in the right circumstances)? Is it this year, targeting the free agents mentioned above? Is it going to be next year when the premium free-agent starting pitchers will be Trevor Bauer (who has famously said that he will only sign one-year contracts for his whole career or else lose a bet that involves him being hit in the privates), Robbie Ray, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, Marcus Stroman and Jose Quintana.
One would think that Paxton would be the guy the Jays might target, as a Canadian who has performed on a big stage, but how much is he going to command a year from now, and will the front office be willing to “go crazy” and do whatever it takes to lure him?
How will Zack Wheeler or James Paxton add to what the Blue Jays have? They have a few high-level pitching prospects but you can’t really rely on them. Nate Pearson will be the first to graduate and they have a couple further down in the system who could be strong additions to a rotation but few who could lead it the way Pearson is believed to be able to. The Jays will need to augment their system if they want to contend (and they’ll have a fairly high pick in the 2020 draft), but they could also make trades.
The other question is whether it’s not the timing of a splurge at all but just a frugality from the front office that will never be willing to “go crazy” at any time to bring in a premium free agent.
This is a little more frustrating to the Blue Jays fan base, knowing that the organization has lots of money to spend should it choose to do so, particularly since the last time the club opened the pocketbook and started winning, the fans came out in droves.
The problem that I have with this approach is that if the Blue Jays want to limit their exposure to big contracts that don’t pay off in the final years, they will have to make trades. And, as someone who writes about the minor leagues, I always lament the trades that send our prospects away.
It’s been hit and miss with some prized prospects struggling in the majors (Jeff Hoffman, Daniel Norris), while very few have really been successful like Matt Boyd was last year. Still, it’s hard to give up on guys who you have watched and believe in when the return can be a mid-rotation starter at the major league level.
So we’re left wondering which philosophy will the Shapiro/Atkins regime embrace. Will they go a little crazy to overpay and get quality MLB pitchers as free agents when they feel the time is right? Or will the time never be “right” to overpay free agents and they’ll content themselves to building the system and then trading from it to get controllable players dealing from the system? The next year and a half will be very telling as to what they decide to do.
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