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Looking ahead to 2019

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at Toronto Blue Jays Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Every year when the season ends, I like to take a look forward at what the next year’s Opening Day roster would look before the offseason gets going, based only on existing organizational players. This is what things would look like if the Jays simply closed up business until mid-February and did nothing. In some sense, it represents a “replacement level” floor for the front office this winter, since there’s no reason the Opening Day roster shouldn’t be at least this good.

At least that’s the case when the goal is to contend, as has been the case each offseason since 2014 when I started doing this exercise. It’s not quite so straightforward when the team is positioned to trade current year wins for future assets and longer term wins, but it’s still a worthwhile baseline. We’ll consider potential moves of otherwise core roster players at the end.

The first step is to categorize the current roster into groups, according to contract/control status, service time, talent, and option status (the latter two going to the likelihood of being on the roster). It looks like this:

2019 lookahead

There are currently 43 players on the 40-man roster (players on the 60-day DL don’t count towards the limit), which I divide as follows:

2019 40 man breakdown

Some high-level points on each group:

  • Free Agents (2): This group is much smaller than usual, mostly due to eight of the Opening Day players with expiring contracts having been already moved. Overall, there was $75-million of Opening Day payroll tied up in expiring contracts, of which the Jays paid about $65-million and received about 6 WAR. I’d expect at least half of this payroll room to disappear as payroll declines in the wake of revenue declines.
  • 2018 Contracts (4+1): Another category that is much smaller than usual. Justin Smoak’s team option is a no-brainer, so he’s included here. These five players produced 2.9 fWAR in 2018 (though 4.5 bWAR) at a cost of $56.1-million in salary, which rises to $61.5-million in 2019. Obviously, there’s considerable contractual dead weight here, but I’d still expect two or three of the veterans to be moved this winter.
  • Arbitration (8): This group combined for $21.6-million in 2018 salary. MLBTR projections aren’t out yet, but my rough guesses put the 2019 total at about $30-million as most did not have good or full seasons and unlike last year only three are jumping from pre-arb salaries near the minimum. Brandon Drury will be a Super Two and Joe Biagini will be right near the cutoff; if he comes up short he’d be in the renewals group.
  • Non-tender candidates (2+1): I’ve included Yangervis Solarte here since the option decision is effectively the tender decision. If the Jays don’t exercise their team option or trade him, he’s almost certain to be non-tendered given that a raise on his $4-million base will bring him pretty close to the $5.5-million option salary. Jake Petricka showed flashes but ultimately a 4.53 ERA; it’s not even the money so much as if that merits a 40-man spot over the winter. These three combined for $6.8-million in 2018 salary, my estimate would be modest raises to about $9-million if all were tendered.
  • Pre-arb renewals (15): This group is pre-arb players who have positive expected future value based on on-field performance or potential, to the extent that they are clearly assets. As such, they will hold 40-man spots over the winter and have their contracts renewed (at or near the minimum when at the MLB level, except Aledmys Diaz). The line between the backend of this group and the bubble is usually somewhat subjective, but given the impending roster crunch I’ve been more exacting in putting players in the next group where there’s any doubt. I really can’t see any of these players losing 40-man spots.
  • Bubble (7+3): Shortly after the World Series, the 40-man once again becomes a hard limit. With 43 players and only two free agents, they’ll have to cut between now and then just to get down to the level. That’s before any spots needed over the winter for players signed or acquired and Rule 5 additions, which potentially puts a lot of these roster spots in danger. Last year, all five bubble players without 2018 options were all gone by early December.

    That won’t necessarily be the case this year, as I’d think Danny Barnes has shown enough to get another shot to really establish himself in the bullpen in a rebuilding years. The writing seems to be on the wall for Dalton Pompey, and my further expectation would be only one of Dwight Smith Jr. and Jonathan Davis is kept absent a paring of the outfield options above them on the depth charts.

With all that considered, a 2018 Opening Day roster constructed solely with existing organizational resources would look something like this:

2019 lineup

A few points and thoughts:

  • Priority is given to out-of-options players where it’s close. Green is for players who can be optioned unilaterally in 2019, blue is for those who cannot.
  • Mark Leiter Jr. does not appear as the player “DFA’d” to get down to the limit of 40. There are numerous candidates, some perhaps more obvious; I had Jon Berti here before he was actually DFA’d on Friday on a LIFO basis (last in, first out from the bubble) so I’ll stick with that method and go with Leiter
  • Pompey as backup outfielder is more wishful thinking than anything at this point; Billy McKinney would slot in if (when) the former is removed from the 40-man roster.
  • Given the number of infielders (even before the impending arrival of Vladimir Guerrero Jr.), I thought about leaving off Troy Tulowitzki entirely given that it’ll be 20 months by Opening Day since he’s played a game and was replacement level in his 2017 half season. He’s a huge wild card, but at this point it cannot be assumed he’ll be a starter so the compromise is to just put him in the infield mix for now, at the expense of Brandon Drury.
  • Solarte is at the utility position essentially by default since he’s on the 40-man now. If he’s jettisoned this winter, Drury would fit there in his stead.
  • By my estimation, the total cost of this Opening Day roster would be about $109-million. Non-tendering all three listed above (and replacing with pre-arb players) would bring the total to about $101-million. Payroll is undoubtedly going to fall significantly, but there should be some room to add salary.
  • It seems likely that a number of core veterans could/should/will be moved this winter. Without considering any players coming back, the lineup would be adjusted as follows for the following players being traded (most of these are quite obvious, but for completeness):
    A) Martin: Danny Jansen to starting catcher
    B) Smoak/Morales: Rowdy Tellez to 1B/DH
    C) Pillar: Grichuk to CF, McKinney to RF (or an OF corner in any event)
    D) Stroman: Gaviglio to the starting rotation