It’s easy to dream on clubs like the Braves, Phillies, and White Sox that went full rebuild and are only a couple years out from contention. After all, recent history has favored this team building strategy, as the Cubs, Royals, and Astros have been the last three World Series winners and went through full rebuilds.
This last year, the Blue Jays flirted with .500 all season, but never quite got there, ending up at a disappointing 76-86. The previous offseason, they lost a big bat in Edwin Encarnacion but made up for it with the infamously confusing Kendrys Morales contract. They brought back Jose Bautista, and advanced stats told us that he might still have enough left in the tank to provide some thump in the middle of the order.
Well, fast forward a year later and Morales and Bautista were worth a combined -1.1 WAR. Aaron Sanchez was injured almost all of last year, pitching a paltry thirty-six innings after putting up a surprising 3.8 fWAR season in 2016. The hope was that the duo of Sanchez and Stroman would be a formidable challenge to any opposing team, followed by some order of Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ who had both been excellent in 2016. Estrada was ok, but Happ was once again very good.
Josh Donaldson was only fully healthy for some of the season, but still put up 5.0 fWAR in 113 games. From April-July, Donaldson slashed a “mere” .243/.364/.442 with a 117 wRC+. He was injured during this time and returned to form later in the season where he slashed .302/.410/.698. A marked improvement. Look for Donaldson to contribute another 6.0+ WAR season this year before he enters free agency.
As it stands right now, the Blue Jays rank ninth in baseball in projected WAR at 38.0. This puts them substantially behind the Red Sox (45) and Yankees (46.8). It’s assumed one of those teams will likely take one of the wild cards, while the Angels are still also ahead of the Blue Jays at 41.7.
There hasn’t been much in the way of transactions for anyone this offseason, but the Jays have made some minor acquisitions acquiring Aledmys Diaz and Yangervis Solarte, likely adding two wins in the process. Not a substantial amount, but does put some distance between them and the Twins, and adds some much needed depth for a team still relying on Devon Travis to be a significant contributor. I will add that, though I liked the moves in spirit, the Solarte trade was a tough one to swallow. Edward Olivares is actually a pretty interesting prospect and it’s not difficult to see the Jays regretting this trade down the line.
They also acquired Randal Grichuk, who has long been interesting but frustrating. They gave up a decent piece in Dominic Leone who had a great 2017, but with the volatility of relievers and the upside of Grichuk, it wasn’t a bad move at all.
Anyway, by now you’re probably somewhat bored of reading about how the Blue Jays have been kind of mediocre and haven’t really gotten better. The Jays, as it stands, are not in an enviable position. They have an estimated payroll of $152.2 million, and with their position on the win curve, one likely considers the Jays a bit bloated.
But, look at the roster. There are really no bad contracts. I mean, yes, the Morales contract is bad, but it’s not crippling. Next year, estimated payroll drops to $109.4 million, and the year after, they have a paltry (estimated) $69.7 million on the books. Realistically, next year they could sign one of the big free agents and still have a decent amount of wiggle room. The catch here is they will be losing Josh Donaldson (unless they resign him) which makes them a much weaker team. But the year after, look at the possible 2019-2020 free agent class. It includes Chris Sale, Paul Goldschmidt, Jose Altuve, Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon, Jose Abreu, Xander Bogaerts, Marcell Ozuna, and Jonathan Schoop. It won’t be next year’s free agent class, but it is very good.
So is that the solution? Take the guys under contract in 2020 and sign a bunch of guys to propel them back into being competitive? Well, no. But take a look at the contracts the Jays will have under 2020. Troy Tulowitzki will still be paid a whopping $14 million to scowl at players having fun, while simultaneously pulling every muscle in his body after exerting too much effort from said scowl. But after that the picture becomes much clearer. Roberto Osuna, Aaron Sanchez, Randal Grichuk, Devon Travis, and Marcus Stroman are all in their last year of arbitration. So, while they will likely be somewhat expensive, they’ll still be under their final year of team control.
What we see start to open up is a potentially very impressive two year window in 2019 and 2020. In 2019, Kevin Pillar and Justin Smoak are two other relatively cheap options (final year of arbitration for Pillar, and a $6 million team option for Smoak) despite being weighed down by a combined $52 million for Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, and Kendrys Morales. So where is this optimism for the Jays coming from?
Well, to start, the Jays have a couple guys that I really like, the first being Roberto Osuna who has put up 6.1 fWAR for his career so far and just turned 23. His last season he put up a whopping 3.0 fWAR, and has been historically good for his age. I’m not going to gush about him too much as I would just be doing this article a disservice, but Osuna is one of the best young players in baseball and is often forgotten about.
The next guy came over in the Francisco Liriano trade, and the fact that he was essentially gifted to the Jays from the Astros speaks volumes, again, to how deep the Astros are. Teoscar Hernandez had always put up nice numbers in the minors and made most Top-100 lists, albeit at the back of them. He’s a high floor guy with potential for more. He put up a 132 wRC+ in a small 95 plate appearance sample with the Jays at the end of the season, but the Jays have had a rich history of extracting the most of what they can out of moderately promising offensive profiles and I expect him to be a pretty solid regular moving forward with the potential for more.
The Jays have a decent core of players as it stands, but here’s where it gets really exciting. I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to what’s been happening in the Jays farm system, but they have some dudes, most notable being Vlad Guerrero Jr. who now officially comes from a Hall of Fame bloodline. He’s an easy 4.0+ WAR player even if he might be somewhat limited defensively. He’s the best bat in the minors and will be a welcome addition to the Blue Jays, with a likely cup of coffee this year, and a starting role next year. He’s the #2 prospect in baseball according to our prospect gurus Connor Kurcon and Rhys White who have done an incredible job for the past few months curating their Top 150.
The next guy also comes from a terrific baseball background and exploded onto the scene last year. We have Bo Bichette at #10 and he is another budding star for the Blue Jays with an innate ability to hit despite a somewhat, er, “unique” approach. He should be up by 2019 and will be another great addition to a growing core. Behind Bichette at a still admirable #38 overall is Anthony Alford who has one of the best speed/power combinations in the minors. He’s a gifted athlete and should be up sometime this summer.
Nate Pearson was taken in the first round of the draft this past year, selected at #28 overall. Connor and Rhys have him at a respectable #84 overall which is about where he is on most lists. But this is not a high floor guy in the vein of Jesse Winker or an innings eater-command guy. He has top of the rotation potential, and nearly every list has acknowledged that he could be a huge riser. His potential and ability to move up the list next year or by midseason reminds me of the meteoric rises of Forrest Whitley and Walker Buehler.
I can’t speak much to Eric Pardinho, but Connor and Rhys put him in their 151-160 range which is still impressive. He signed for $1.4 million out of Brazil last year at age 16, making him the highest paid Brazilian prospect ever. I mention him more as an indicator of how deep Toronto’s farm system has gotten, rather than a likely 2019-2020 contributor. Lastly, Danny Jansen. After LASIK surgery last offseason, Jansen made quick work of the minors and ended in AAA with a 172 wRC+. A potential impact bat, KATOH believes in the improvements and projects him for an impressive 5.1 WAR in his first six major league seasons. With Russell Martin’s contract expiring at the end of 2019, Jansen should get significant playing time despite likely needing some seasoning at the big league level.
All the players I just talked about will be pre-arbitration during these years where the Jays were already in an ok position. They could have supplemented their team with free agents to help move them along the win curve, but the natural production they’ll get from a very impressive group of prospects arrives basically exactly when they need it. All of a sudden, the Jays have a very young, very cheap core with some guys remaining in arbitration and two immensely talented free agent classes with money to spend. Sure they may only have a couple great years on paper because all the guys in arbitration right now have to leave at some point, but they’ll still have all the guys expected to come up in 2019-2020.
I do think the Jays can be competitive this upcoming year, but this really isn’t what they’re playing for. Backloading a contract next offseason for one of the big free agents makes some sense, as you still need some actualized value on the field, even if it means being maybe a year early. The Jays may not be overly exciting right now, and I do think projections are down on them a bit. However, it’s hard not to be optimistic about the Jays’ future, especially since teams like the Astros and Cubs have succeeded with elite offensive cores. The Jays never rebuilt, but they reloaded. Expect them to have some serious firepower by the time 2019 rolls around.