Monday, December 2nd is the deadline for MLB teams to tender 2020 contracts to players under team control. After trimming non-tender candidates Devon Travis, Ryan Tepera and Tim Mayza over the last month, the Blue Jays have six remaining arbitration-eligible players. Ken Giles is the only lock to be tendered a contract, so we’ll look at the cases of the other five leading into the deadline.
Previous profiles: Anthony Bass
Background: Acquired in July 2018 trade for J.A. Happ; career 0.1 fWAR / 0.7 bWAR. Three seasons of quasi-full time playing, but has not achieved average regular production in any.
2019 production: -0.6 fWAR / -0.2 bWAR in 447 plate appearances, 66 wRC+ from moderate pop but low BABIP and plate discipline issues
2020 Steamer projection: 84 wRC+, 0.8 WAR/600 PA
Status: 3.165 years of service, $1.3-million platform year salary, one option year remaining
2020 MLBTR Salary Projection: $2.5-million
Estimated likelihood of tender: 70%
It’s safe to say the last couple years have not gone as planned for Brandon Drury. After debuting in late 2015, he proceeded to post almost 1,000 PA in 2016-17 of near league average offensive production (97 wRC+) while moving all over the diamond as a versatile utility player.
Traded to the Yankees just before Spring Training, 2018 ended up largely a write-up between severe migraines causing blurred vision and a broken wrist that required surgery. With those issues hopefully in the rearview mirror, 2019 promised better things with penciled in starting at third base at least to start the season. Instead, the bottom fell out and it ended up his worst season yet production wise, leaving his career at a crossroads and future with the Blue Jays in limbo.
The biggest issue has been the collapse of Drury’s offensive production. When he was a solid producer with the Diamondbacks, his profile was quite consistent. He didn’t walk much, struck out around league average, and posted above average BABIPs in the .320 range driven by a good line drive rates and ground ball rates around 50%. Despite a strong ground ball profile, he still had a good amount of pop, with 29 home runs and 100 extra base hits in 2016-17.
Perhaps it was not the optimal batted ball profile for baseball in the late-2010s, but more than enough to project Drury as an average regular in the infield. Nonetheless, it appears that he’s tried to join the “elevate and celerate” launch angle revolution, as his ground ball rate has fallen to the low-40s in the last two years, and his fly ball rate increased about five percentage points. Statcasr confirms this, with an average launch angle above 13 degrees the last two years compared to an average under 8 degrees previously.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t translated to results. Maybe that makes him a breakout waiting to happen (and reason to give him continued opportunity and tender him), or maybe he’s not suited to this approach. His strikeout rate has increased, with the main driver being a decline in his zone contact rate. He’s simply getting beat more often in the zone.
Interestingly, despite his BABIP has plummeting, he’s maintained solid line drive rates consistent with his past production. Last year he did have a big spike in pop-up. On the side of causes for optimism, Baseball Savant’s interpretation if his Statcast output suggests his production should have been much better (.306 xwOBA vs. putrid .265 actual the last two years). My caveat would be that having dug into that a little, I wouldn’t treat those projected numbers as the gospel.
As mentioned above, Drury has split time roughly even between 2B, 3B, and the outfield corners (with a smattering at 1B and SS). If one thing is certain, moving forward he should be ruled out as an outfielder. Defensively, he grades out horribly (-13 DRS, -10.5 UZR in 908 innings), at his best he hasn’t hit enough to be a regular in an outfielder corner, and the Jays have plenty of options to work through there otherwise.
So can he fit reasonably within the infield mix? The Jays of course have young presumptive starters at the 4/5/6 positions with Cavan Biggio, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette — at least figuring out in 2019 if they can handle those positions. Drury has graded out reasonably at both 2B and 3B, so backing-up both of those or stepping in for whatever reason wouldn’t be an issue.
But he has almost no experience at shortstop, under 200 professional innings, so he’s not really an option there except on an emergency basis. In an era of 13 man pitching staffs and three man benches, that might have been a nail in Drury’s coffin. The 26th roster spot, with the mandate of 13 position players, might be critically fortuitous for him. Even if the Jays carry five outfielders, they could carry six infielders with the DH spot open to be roated through. That would allow for them carrying Drury, as well as a true backup SS.
That still might not be enough. Breyvic Valera does have experience in the minors at shortstop, but is more of a second baseman. He’s out-of-options, so it might come down to him or Drury. Valera hasn;t hit at the big league level, and the Jays don’t same the same level of investment/commitment as waiver claim, but he also has six years of coveted control and a pre-arb salary. And Valera’s hit at the upper levels, and Steamer is quite bullish (1.2 WAR/600 projection). Not to mention any players who are or might become available outside the organization.
In terms of the salary projection itself, $2.5-million would be almost doubling of his 2018 salary. The absolute increase of $1.2-million is more modest, but still seems outsize to the replacement level production. About the only thing going for is he was a quasi-regular. So it wouldn’t surprise me if the actual number came in closer to $2-million. Again, it wouldn’t break the bank to tender him now, and release him in Spring Training if it comes to that, but really there’s a long enough track record that I can’t see a reason not to make a call now.
In all likelihood, the biggest thing Drury has going for him in terms of at least another shot in 2020 is that he was specifically targeted by the front office in a high profile trade, and accordingly they can be expected to extend every opportunity to be proved right. But four years in, the overhaul is such that they’ve brought in almost every player on the 40-man. At some point, that necessarily ceases to be enough.
On purely objective merits, I’d think Drury was at best a 50/50 proposition to be tendered a 2020 contract that will come with a significant arbitration. At the end of the day, if the Jays continue to believe in Drury’s ability, then given the lack of opportunity cost in terms of 2020 payroll space and current lack of serious challengers for playing time, they’ll likely tender a player who will be 27 for most of 2020.
Should the Blue Jays tender a 2020 contract to Brandon Drury?
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