Last weekend, the Blue Jays acquired Yangervis Solarte from the Padres in exchange for Edward Olivares and Jared Carkuff. It wasn’t the splashiest move, and likely went unnoticed around most of the baseball world, but it quietly filled a unique need for the Jays. The trade for Solarte, especially when coupled with the addition of Aledmys Diaz earlier in the off season (throw in Gift Ngoepe if you really want), significantly raises the infield floor, and gives Toronto the options it needs to cope with the uncertainty that surrounds these positions.
Uncertainty is the key word here, because nobody knows what the Jays are going to get from Troy Tulowitzki and Devon Travis in 2018. Both have the potential to be highly productive assets for this team if healthy, and unfortunately both also have the potential to miss a huge chunk of the season some sort of injury.
The second scenario is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Tulo and Travis have only appeared in the same game 95 times since they’ve coexisted on this team (75 times in 2016, and just 20 times last season). The Jays have played 386 games since trading for Tulo, and he Travis have only played together about 25 percent of the time.
They each missed so much time in 2017 that if you go to Toronto’s 2017 page on baseball reference, Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins are actually listed as the main second baseman and shortstop because they racked up significantly more plate appearances at those positions than the two men the front office would have liked to have seen holding down those forts.
And this is where we get to the main point. Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins were so bad last year, they actually graded out as negative WAR players. While that’s not exactly new news, it’s worth repeating, because it means it will be easier for the 2018 Blue Jays to add wins to their total than most people realize.
Last year, Barney made his way into 129 games for 362 plate appearances and posted a .602 OPS and a 58 wRC+. Goins meanwhile appeared in 143 games for 459 plate appearances and posted a .643 OPS with a not so nice 69 wRC+. Also, and this is key, both players graded out as slightly negative defensively despite having positive careers on that side of the ball (Not all that surprising when you consider that Barney is now 32 and Goins will be 30 next month). They hurt the team in pretty much every facet of the game last year, and now they’re gone.
This means that the Blue Jays have 821 plate appearances worth of infield at bats (mostly middle infield at bats) where they not only got nothing, but actually graded out as below replacement level. So when you see that Solarte was worth 1.1 fWAR and 1.3 rWAR last year (depending on which metric your prefer), or that he’s averaged 1.8 WAR over the last four years in both metrics, he actually has the potential to represent slightly more value than that to the Blue Jays in a way because because he won’t be replacing replacement level players, he’s be replacing below replacement level players. (Goins -0.3 rWAR and Barney -0.6 rWAR in 2017.)
The thing is though, we don’t know exactly who will be taking those 821 plate appearances from Barney and Goins in 2018 because we don’t know how healthy Tulo and Travis (and you can even throw Donaldson in there simply because Barney going into 44 games at third base when he was injured last year) are going to be once we get into the grind of the season.
Here’s what we do know though. The Blue Jays now have a five man team to cover these three positions. Donaldson, Tulo and Travis as their front line, and Solarte and Diaz are now highly improved backups to fill in wherever needed. We don’t know exactly how this is going to break out, but we can be pretty sure that the vast majority of those 821 disastrous plate appearances are now going to be taken by some combination of these five players.
This is how the Blue Jays have dramatically improved their floor here. It would now take an unlucky chain of injuries for a large percentage of these plate appearances to be covered by someone as bad offensively as Barney and Goins. The Jays are now covered for most scenarios: If Tulo and Travis stay healthy, they’ve got two good options there with Diaz and Solarte being sprinkled in during their days off and also assisting at third to spell Donaldson every once in a while. If Tulo and Travis miss a ton of time again as they did in 2017, they hand the Barney and Goins plate appearances to Solarte and Diaz, which are much more interesting options. The team is largely covered for whatever scenario happens to arise.
Last year, Solarte played all over the place: 79 games at second, 28 at shortstop, 22 at third base, and even eight at first base. It’s this versatility and flexibility that made him so attractive to the Jays. The front office (just like the rest of us) have no idea how many games Tulo and Travis are going to play, but they now know they’ve got a guy who can spot games all over the infield no matter what scenario pops up.
Diaz meanwhile has started almost all of his career at shortstop, but grades out as below average defensively. However, there’s a strong belief that because he’s starting from shortstop (the hardest position to play defensively outside of maybe catcher), he’ll be able to play second or even third as well if needed, and potentially grade out better there.
So both players are versatile in that they can be plugged into the lineup wherever they’re needed, Solarte is extra versatile because he’s a switch hitter and will allow Gibby to play that game, but they’re also both versatile in a third way: Neither player is under a big contract beyond 2018. This is really important with big holes likely to appear on the roster in 2019 with Donaldson, Estrada and Happ all entering their final year of control and $52 million already committed to Martin, Tulo and Morales for just the 2019 season. This is their squeeze year before things open up again, and the front office knows they need to minimize uncertain payroll commitments in this area.
Enter Solarte who after making $4.125 million in 2018, has a $5.5 million team option with a $750,000 buyout. Then there’s also an $8 million team option for 2020 with another $750,000 buyout. In other words, if Solarte bombs, the Jays can get out of this for less than a million next year. If he’s great, he’s only going to cost $5.5 million in 2019.
Diaz meanwhile has less than two years of MLB service time and no long term contract commitment after the original deal he signed with the Cardinals coming out of Cuba has expired. His situation is a bit complicated, but for this article, it basically means that if he’s great, the Jays will have him under team control for a while, and if he’s terrible, they have an easy way out that’s not going to cost them much.
With these two moves, the Jays have very quietly given themselves the best of both worlds. They’ve raised the floor on the 2018 middle infield (maybe even raised it significantly) and haven’t done anything to disrupt 2019 and beyond. In addition to this, because of the slow off season, they were able to get this done and satisfy their unique middle infield needs with almost all of the outfield and starting pitching free agents still hanging around, meaning they can concentrate all of their resources now on those holes.
Transactions like Solarte and Diaz will be overlooked by most of the baseball world, but their impact will likely show up by mid summer when the Jays are fielding a versatile and productive middle infield almost every single day.