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2019 non-tender candidate: Devon Travis

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Friday, November 30th is the deadline for MLB teams to tender 2019 contracts to players under team control. The Blue Jays have 10 arbitration-eligible players, two of whom I identified at the beginning of the offseason as less than complete locks to be tendered (in addition to the already departed Jake Petricka). Yangervis Solarte was examined yesterday, today Devon Travis and then tomorrow a brief survey of the others.

Background: Acquired from Detroit in November 2014 for Anthony Gose. Career 4.8 fWAR and 6.5 bWAR in 1246 plate appearances, 102 wRC+

2018 production: -0.5 fWAR / 0.6 bWAR in 378 plate appearances; 77 wRC+ with the difference driven by baserunning and defensive ratings

Status: 3.163 years of service, $1.45-million platform year salary, two option years remaining.

MLBTR 2019 Salary Projection: $2.4-million

Estimated likelihood of tender: 65-70%

2018 represented quite the dichotomy for Travis: it was arguably his healthiest season (at least major league season) with his PA total suppressed by mandatory days off especially early in the season; but it was also his least productive season as well. In particular, whereas they previously saw him as a solid-to-decent defender, both UZR and DRS rated Travis quite poorly. Personally, I didn’t think he was a significant liability — but it could well be that all the injuries have caught up with him.

Travis of course got off to a terrible start, hitting .148/.212/.246 prior to his demotion to Buffalo while sitting once every third game. Given that he didn’t hit much better in AAA, I was surprised be came back to soon, but for the three months from his late-May recall through mid-August, Travis was a solid contributor with modestly above average production. And then his production again fell off a cliff before he was shutdown for the last couple weeks.

More concerning is the broader career trend for Travis, that of continuous decline from a well-above average 136 wRC+ in 2015 to 111 to 90 to the well-below mark of 77 in 2018. Whereas his walk rate, strikeout rate and power have been relatively consistent, the biggest driver of that decline is his BABIP, from very high rates in 2014-15 to a poor number in 2018.

I never really bought Travis as a player who should maintain a BABIP in the .350 range, but likewise there’s good reason to believe in a bounceback from the lows of 2018 (as forecast by Steamer, projecting a .296 BABIP and 96 wRC+ in 2019). His batted ball profile has bounced around more than typical, but he’s always maintained at least a decent line drive rate, so that’s not an obvious culprit.

Per Statcast, his exit velo was in line with before, with a decent barrel rate, which isn’t indicative of a collapse. It requires a grain of salt, but Baseball Savant’s parsing of the data indicated his output should have higher given the underlying contact quality. The one red flag is that his popup rate did spike in 2018 (offset by fewer fly balls overall).

So, where does that leave Travis and the Jays? A second baseman who is decent defensively and league average or a little better at the plate is quite valuable, especially with three years of team control. Against that is the big question of what level of performance can be expected on both sides of the field given his injury history, in addition to the ever present issue of how much he can stay on the field.

With injuries and health such a big factor, the Jays have so much insight than anyone form the outside, and perhaps their information is such that they’re ready to move on. There was certainly a glut on the infield at the outset of the offseason and some culling of existing options was inevitably, but it would nonetheless be a surprising to see them move on from all three of Aledmys Diaz, Solarte and Travis. It wouldn’t leave them actually shorthanded, especially if Russell Martin is retained and plays some infield, and there is this from a media conference call yesterday:

Non-tendering Travis would create an obvious path to everyday playing time for Drury. Given his career record, I personally don’t really see something you go out of your way to do, but Drury is a coupe years younger and with an extra year of control.

That said, 2019 is going to be a year for sorting through options, and it seems to me that Travis fits into that, especially given the modest cost. If they do tender him, it’s almost certainly the case that 2019 would be a last opportunity for Travis to show be can be a (mostly) everyday regular player. But from the outside vantage point, that looks like the best cost/benefit decision.

Last winter, the Jays tendered Ezequiel Carrera despite an even less clear outlook for playing time and an even more marginal future production outlook. Granted, they ultimately walked away from him at a cost of $300,000 in Spring Training, but it would seem odd to me to do that then and one year later turn around and non-tender Travis. Worst case scenario, for something on the order of $600,000 (or less if done earlier), the Jays can see what he looks like in Spring Training — relative to other options — and make a decision to cut bait at that point.

Given all that, I’d think it’s likelier than not, though not certain, that the Jays tender Devon Travis a 2019 contract. Even if it doesn’t mean he’s on the Opening Day roster.


Should the Blue Jays tender Devon Travis a 2019 contract?

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