With the 2017 season wrapped up, it is time for teams to start thinking about bolstering their lineups with free agents. From the wealthy Los Angeles Dodgers ($265 million payroll in 2017) to the lowly Milwaukee Brewers ($83 million in 2017), each team will be looking for the pieces that will help them topple the reigning Astros. The Toronto Blue Jays ($199 million in 2017) are no exception to the upcoming scramble to improve. With plenty of cash to work with, the Jays have one big question to tackle.
Should they sign one of the top elite pitchers in free agency?
You would think the answer is a resounding “duh”. With big fish to land like Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, and Lance Lynn, it makes sense for the Jays to explore these options. Imagine a rotation where Marco Estrada could represent the number four pitcher. If you are a Jays fan, you can stop salivating now and join me in an objective look at a way to manage the rotation.
Three rotation spots are spoken for when it comes to the upcoming 2018 season. Stroman, Sanchez, and Estrada will all be back. J.A. Happ is still under contract for another season. Joe Biagini may yet find his way into the rotation on a regular basis. It is possible, however unlikely, that a Ryan Borucki or Taylor Guerrieri might find their way into a job. It would be safe to say that right now, the Jays have at least 60% of their rotation figured out just from internal players, with Happ and Biagini representing another spot that could be either shared or part of a competition. Given that Happ is being paid $13m in 2018, it appears Biagini will once again find himself in the bullpen as a 7th inning man or a long reliever.
The bullpen is a bit trickier to figure out because so many of last years’ players are coming back. Tom Koehler, Aaron Loup, and start closer Roberto Osuna are all headed to arbitration, with Koehler and Loup on their third and final meeting. Ryan Tepera, Bo Schultz, Carlos Ramirez, Tim Mayza, Dominic Leone, Matt Dermody, and Danny Barnes are all team controlled. Barring a trade, next years’ bullpen will feature many familiar faces. The tricky part is determining whether there is value in exploring the elite relief pitchers available. Would Fernando Rodney take a demotion to be the 8th inning man on a possible-contender? Is Addison Reed worth the $7.75m he was paid last year by the Boston Red Sox? Is Mike Minor a secret steal at $4m? Do the Jays even feel that any of these elite pitchers bolster the lineup?
You can see how the questions are starting to mount up when it comes to investigating what opportunities are available. The Blue Jay bullpen was middle of the pack last season with a 4.21 ERA and was 29-26. Better writers have already explored the detailed statistical analysis, so I’ll opt to keep things simple: the top bullpens last year were Cleveland (2.89), Boston (3.15), the Yankees (3.34), and the Dodgers (3.38). Houston was middle of the pack, not far behind Toronto in ERA (4.27). The top four all made the playoffs, but the champion came from the middle of the pack. There’s no doubt that a team can ride a powerful ‘pen into the championship; see Kansas City two years ago. Upgrading the bullpen should be high (but not top) priority for the Jays.
With the rotation clearly having an open slot and the Jays with money to spend, it makes sense that they will sign one of the top free agent pitchers. With the bullpen also in need of upgrading, it would be prudent to spread the money around instead of landing Darvish or Arietta and calling it a day. Let’s talk about Lance Lynn.
At 30 years old, Lynn has likely reached his peak a pitcher. That’s fine because to date, Lynn has a robust 72-47 record while sporting a career 3.38 ERA. His WAR last season was 2.9 and he was still able to rock an 11-8 record with a 3.03 ERA on a mediocre St. Louis Cardinals team that already has three good pitchers in Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, and Adam Wainwright. With Luke Weaver and Alex Reyes’ potential the Cards might look at Lynn’s potential cost as unnecessary. They’ll likely tender the qualifying offer ($17.4m) to ensure they will either get another season or compensation from him if he signs elsewhere. In my opinion, he hits the market knowing there’s a long-term deal to be had somewhere else. This is where the Jays enter and sweep him off his feet.
The Blue Jays can offer him a competitive, medium-term contract that would come with a cemented top 3 spot in their rotation. They need retooling in their bullpen as well, and there’s no doubt that Lynn comes at a significant discount compared to the big deals Darvish and Arietta will command. Rather than throw $20-$35m at these players, Lynn is sneakily good at his job and will likely be had for $13-$17m. The Jays get a great pitcher and extra money to throw at a Mike Minor (also sneakily good at his job) and the team suddenly has a better rotation and a bullpen.
As tempting as it may be to blast huge piles of cash at problem areas of the team, Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins probably aren’t going to do that. Probably. Get used to the idea of seeing an almost-elite-but-actually-more-cost-effective player signed for both the rotation and the bullpen.