“At this point in the off-season, perhaps it’s time to look at the possibility that the Toronto Blue Jays standing relatively pat is more than just negotiation posturing by Alex Anthopoulos,” opens Shi Davidi’s latest from Sportsnet.
Time to look at the possibility? Sure. Time to believe it, though? I just can’t see how that’s possible. Especially with the one place in the one positional market that he needs to be in on still completely unresolved. The high-end starting pitchers still remain.
Now, if you told me he was ready to take a pass on the trade market, that I’d believe. I mean, if Anthopoulos actually feels he has the latitude to do so, it can be certainly argued that future will be better off with him not blowing his brains out for a guy like Jeff Samardzija. And how much worse will 2014 be, really?
Sure, they’d be better off with two years of Samardzija instead of keeping J.A. Happ in the rotation, or rushing Drew Hutchison back from injury, or Marcus Stroman to the big leagues too soon. But there is already so much uncertainty hanging over this roster that it’s hard to view a Samardzija– who Davidi reminds us the Cubs are still insisting on Stroman and Sanchez for– as the sort of one-guy-to-put-us-over-the-top acquisition that the Jays felt justified the similarly-astronomical cost of R.A. Dickey over a year ago.
The temptation must be there to double down on what they did last winter, but the cost goes beyond the just the precious upper-end talent they’d be further depleting their system of. And thinking about the true cost of moving a package like that is kind of what makes it, to me, doubly weird that the anyone thinks with any kind of certainty that the Jays aren’t going to take a big run at one of the remaining free agent starters.
Thing is, guys like Stroman and Sanchez– not to mention Nolin, Hutchison, Norris, Drabek, and others– are cheap pieces of future rosters. While the idea of paying for a big free agent arm right now may not seem palatable in a vacuum (at least by those of us governed by at least a little bit of realism about the Jays’ financial situation internal to Rogers), consider that not only will Samardzija alone make about $5-million this year and then something in the $7-million ballpark in 2015, but that after that comes either a big money extension, free agency, or a qualifying offer at about $15-million for the 2016 season.
The kind of $20-million-per-season expenditure it will likely take to land a top-of-the-class free agent that is not, but it must also be factored in that by further thinning the cheap top-end talent in the system, the Jays may well be consigning themselves to future free agent markets just to keep the rotation afloat.
Free agent rotation talent isn’t getting any cheaper or more plentiful, and you sort of have to wonder if the Jays would be putting themselves in as bad a spot by offloading key, cheap prospects as they would be by taking on a “burdensome” contract now. Especially since the 2016 version of the club currently has only $27-million in guaranteed commitments, which are entirely comprised of the Jose Reyes contract and several buyouts.
That number could jump to $59-million if options for that year are picked up on Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and R.A. Dickey, and adding a major pitching acquisition this winter would push it towards $75- or $80-million just for five players. But with ownership evidently OK with payroll reaching $150-million, isn’t $70-million or so for the remaining twenty spots pretty alright? Especially with Sanchez and Stroman there on the cheap, as well as pre-arb or first arbitration year deals to potential pieces like Hutchison, Loup, Goins, Gose, Jimenez, Nolin, and Pillar? Even Lawrie, Delabar, Drabek, Kratz and Perez will be heading into just their second trips through arbitration by then, with only Thole, Cecil, and Rogers among those on the current roster set to be hitting their relatively expensive walk years.
Obviously there would be more turnover of the roster than that, and you’d have to account for possible extensions for guys like Colby Rasmus and Brandon Morrow, who would otherwise be off the books by then, but… doesn’t that look workable? And doesn’t it maybe look better than making the deal and ending up in the same situation minus the $20-million free agent commitment, minus Sanchez and Stroman, and either minus Samardzija– who would by then have hit free agency– or with him for something on the order of $15-million, as either a qualifying offer or part of an extension?
And aren’t you better off in 2014 and 2015 too, by keeping Sanchez and Stroman around and adding via free agency? And doesn’t the money kind of work now, too? I mean, the Jays made a cash-neutral deal to upgrade behind the plate, and have held frustratingly firm at second base, in left field, when it comes to finding a platoon partner for Adam Lind, and everywhere else this winter. Word is that payroll could go to about $150-million, and they are currently sitting on a projected $135-million– plus, if they really needed to they could divest themselves of upwards of $13-million more by moving the attractive contracts of Casey Janssen, Sergio Santos and J.A. Happ.
A commitment in the $20-million-per-year range to a free agent pitcher can work here. Just as importantly, it can work in the future, and it may actually save the club money down the line by keeping the heir apparents of their rotation on the roster for dirt cheap. At the very least it would be a lot closer to cash-neutral, I think, than a more rudimentary look at the budget consequences would suggest. (It should, however, be noted that money would be a bit tight in 2015, with current commitments at $96.2-million before the theoretical free agent addition, plus $16.5-million in options on Lind and Morrow still to be exercised, and Rasmus either needing to be extended or off the books– but that leaves a lot of time to find a creative way to get under budget.)
Now… does the equation change if the price for Samardizja, or whoever else such extraordinary demands can be made for, comes down? It does. But with still-huge uncertainty hanging over both of the Jays’ key prospects, I’m not even sure that picking one or the other to bank on is the best path. Keep them both and just spend the damn money.
Of course, all of that is easy to think when it’s not my job, my money, or my budget on the line. It’s easy to say “just go sign a guy” when the expectation is that the club should actually be able to go out and do it and not be left holding a bag of what should have been Gil Meche’s money. Whatever happens there depends on the demands of the marketplace though, too, and the Jays may well come up short. If they believe, as I think they should, that free agency is the answer– and the fact that they have yet to blow their budget flexibility or pull the trigger on a trade suggests that they might– it does mean that their options are very limited, and they’re hardly going to be the only club fishing in the same pond. However, a number of teams have already finished their winter shopping, or extended their budget too far to add another massive piece.
How can the Jays have possibly?
They also, let’s not forget, have led on that they would be comfortable losing a draft pick in order to sign a player (since their two first-rounders are protected), and that they have agreements with agents to be notified before the player agrees to anything with another club. And they’ve, perhaps surprisingly, given very little pushback towards the many published whispers about their budget number being in the $150-million range.
In many regards, then, they’re doing what they can to temper expectations, but have left open some powerful signs that it’s very possible this is exactly how they’re thinking. The fact that it makes all the sense in the world should only add to that feeling.
That said, we’ve conditioned ourselves, for good reason, to believe that the Jays can’t and won’t be big spenders. We’ve also reached points in the past with this organization where it seemed to make all the sense in the world to rip open the purse strings, only to see those quietly come and go. It’s not easy to let ourselves believe that Anthopoulos, who has so avoided free agency in the past and speaks so dispassionately about value for value’s sake, might really be gearing up for a run at a top free agent pitcher. But at this point how can he not be?
How can he seriously not be?
(The answer, by the way, to once again be unequivocally effing clear about it, is not because of the club’s pseudo-policy limiting contracts to five years or less. Because that is horseshit.)