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The Blue Jays’ Incredible, Shrinking Future Payroll Commitments

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MLB: Toronto Blue Jays-Workout Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It has been well documented how weird an offseason it has been. For the Blue Jays, this has manifested most obviously in the unprecedented amount of business they have transacted in the New Year. The Jays were hardly alone in this respect, as it was a league wide phenomena.

But it’s also been an abnormal in another way. With Spring Training underway, the offseason shopping should be mostly over other than perhaps a couple more minor additions. Thus far this offseason, the Blue Jays have not acquired or signed a single player to or with a guaranteed contract beyond the 2018 season. If that doesn’t change between now and Opening Day (and it very well could, this is a common time for extensions), it would be the first time that’s happened in nine years, since the 2008-09 offseason.

This isn’t a completely unprecedented path, especially when the team is at a crossroads or undergoing a rebuild. When J.P. Riccardi took over in 2001, they didn’t make any multi-year commitments that winter, or really the next winter (they extended Vernon Wells and Eric Hinske in Spring Training for five years, but not buying any free agent years).

As a result of this, the Blue Jays have essentially added no future salary commitments (which I define as all guaranteed payments beyond end of the current season). In trading for Yangervis Solarte and signing Jaime Garcia, they did commit themselves to $2.75-million of buyouts if they don’t pick 2019 options. And it’s in this level of future salary commitments where the Jays are in uncharted territory.

At this point, the payroll commitments beyond 2018 stand at $90.4-million to seven players: Troy Tulowitzki ($38M), Russell Martin ($20M), Lourdes Gurriel ($17.4M), Kendrys Morales ($12M) and buyouts for Garcia, Solarte and Justin Smoak ($3M). Cot’s Contracts has detailed contract information going back to 2009, and this total is easily the smallest of those 10 years, with a peak of $253-million after the 2012 offseason. Using my own data, I extended back to the 2000 season to put this further in context:

future commitments 1
future commitments 2

(The charts show the same data, I just couldn’t decide if a bar or line chart was easiest to read so included both)

The current total of $90.4-million is the lowest since $69.4-million after the 2005 season. But even that understates how low the current tally is due to significant inflation in baseball salaries since then.

One way to at least partially account for that is to look at the future commitments relative to the current year’s payroll. Even back in 2004 and 2005, future commitments were larger than each year’s Opening Day payroll. 2003 is the last year in which future commitments were less than the payroll, and only marginally. By comparison, the current future commitments are not even 60% of the roughly $160-million Opening Day payroll of the current roster.

To get a comparable payroll situation to what currently exists, one has to go back to Opening Day 2002, when J.P. Riccardi had spent a winter tearing down the bloat built up during Gord Ash’s tenure. His slashing dramatially reduced future commitments to under $50-million, but there was a lot locked into the 2002 payroll that had to be run off (payroll fell from about $76-million to $50-million the next year).

To be clear, this is not a criticism of the front office, simply an observation of interesting historical trends. The reality from 16 years ago is certainly not analogous to the current situation, though the end result might be similar. The Jays are looking contend in 2018, but if things go poorly a lot of the salary rolls off in 2018. The Jays will rebuild/reload/reset, with payroll likely dipping. But the Jays retain strategic flexibility as they’re not locked into a signifiant future obligations.

Let’s break down the annual changes in future commitments a little more. In each annual cycle (basially from one Opening Day to the next), there’s three different buckets. Teams add to future commitments, via extensions, signings and trades (only the amount beyond the current season). They subtract future commitments through moving players (ie, Alex Rios being let go on waivers). Finally, future commitments “run off” over time, as future years become current years.

So for example, when Kendrys Morales signed for three years, his $10M 2017 salary went into the current year’s payroll, with the rest assigned to future commitment. At the beginning of this offseason, his $11M 2018 salary “ran off“ as 2018 became the current year’s payroll, leaving $12M in future commitments.

future commitments 3

(Note that the year is for the year ending on Opening Day of that year)

What’s interesting is that unlike in previous cycles where future commitments were rapidly drawn down, it hasn’t been accomplished via dumping players and their guaranteed future salaries. The current front office hasn’t done it at all, and really it hasn’t ever happened since 2009. The 2015-16 subtraction is a bit of a misnomer in that it represents ditching Jose Reyes, and that involved taking Tulo’s even bigger contract.

Instead, it’s been about running down those commitments ($175-million the past two years), while limiting new additions ($70-million). They’ve added less this winter even than in 2013-14, when Alex Anthopoulos spent all his money the previous offseason and had to resort to passing the hat around to try and sign Ervin Santana. Even then, he inked Dioner Navarro to a two year deal.