I'll be the first to admit I kinda sleep-walked through the last few weeks of the 2019 season. It's not to say I didn't enjoy watching some of the younger players gain experience in the big leagues, but I just couldn't help but look ahead to the off-season and envision some pathways to more competitive baseball. Granted, as a fan of both the Cleveland Browns and Milwaukee Bucks, some of my closest friends have convincingly argued that I thrive in the misery of cheering for hopeless teams. But rest assured, I do not like watching bad sports. I like watching good sports.
Across most sports, there is a pretty linear relationship between spending and winning. The more resources a team dedicates, the better a team generally performs. Now of course exceptions exist for every rule, but by and large successful teams spend money. In 2019, the Toronto Blue Jays did spend money, though as Craig Edwards of Fangraphs pointed out, a significant portion of that money was ‘dead'. Before the season ended, the Blue Jays retained and released a whopping sixty-five (!!) million dollars worth of player salary last year. The Blue Jays had a total payroll of ~$110,000,000 last year, which means more than half of that money was not actually invested in the on-field product . I appreciate ownerships willingness to eat money, as not all front office groups have this luxury (Cough*, Kansas City not willing to pay down Ian Kennedy's contract, Cough*), but there needs to be a renewed commitment to investing into the on-field product. All of this is to say, the Blue Jays have shown at least a willingness to rebuild aggressively, and I'm moving forward with the assumption that ownership and management wants to return to competitive baseball as expeditiously and responsibly as they can.
Operating on the presupposition that the Blue Jays will indeed spend money, the next question becomes how much. Spotrac has the average 2019 payroll around $137,000,000 which doesn't seem like a wholly unattainable number for a major market franchise. As our resident expert in all things baseball Matt W noted earlier in his look ahead to the off-season:
The total cost of this Opening Day roster, including the obligation to Tulo, would be almost bang on $60-million (or $46-million for the actual roster). Realistically, Ken Giles is almost certain to be moved, which would cut that to $52-million/$38-million. Non-tendering all listed in the previous section (and replacing with pre-arb players) could shave maybe another $4-million.
Now I don't expect the Blue Jays to add as much $80,000,000 to their 2020 payroll figure, even if that would approximate a league average payroll. That said, it goes without saying that the Blue Jays are at the floor of their spending threshold. The worrying attendance figures have been written about several times over, and the quicker the Blue Jays can play 6 months of competitive baseball the quicker fans will reinvest and everyone can be happy.
Working off the aforementioned $60,000,000 figure (updated to include the recent trade for Chase Anderson*), I've given myself a $120,000,000 total payroll to play with (a slight bump above 2019's total figure). That's well below what will end up being the league average payroll (which I accept given where the Blue Jays are in their competitive cycle), but it still leaves me with a whopping $60,000,000 of hypothetical Rogers money to materially improve the organizations talent pool.
Free Agent Targets
RHP Zack Wheeler (Contract estimate: $25,000,000 AAV x 5)
Oh ya, you're reading that AAV correctly. Back up the Brinks truck. Let's do this thing. Who has a top-10 FIP among all starters the past two years, you might ask? Zack Wheeler does! Who is throwing harder than ever (96.7mph average)? Zack Wheeler is! Who is among the 34 pitchers in major league baseball who've made 60 or more starts the past two years? Why, that's Zack Wheeler! Who throws 4 pitches with above average pitch values? You guessed it, Zack Wheeler! Here's a small sample of the ease in which Wheeler launches baseballs up to and including 100mph:
It's not just his fastball that can be devastating. Here's Wheeler baptizing the world's greatest 21-year old hitter with a hellion slider, brilliantly narrated by the great Rob Friedman.
Sword of the Week:— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 20, 2019
Zack Wheeler's 92mph Slider vs Soto. ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/2fXUIbQ9YP
(For a complete visual representation of his absolutely mind-melting stuff, I refer you to his Pitchers List profile)
One of the great laments of the last several seasons has been the absence of a game-changing starting pitcher. We got a brief taste of that with David Price in 2015 (or perhaps this intoxicating 17 strikeout performance by recently released Brandon Morrow way back in 2010), but Blue Jays fans have rarely had a pitcher with such eye-popping stuff. Not since AJ Burnett have the Blue Jays secured the services of a franchise altering pitcher via free agency. All Zack Wheeler would cost is copious amounts of monies. The Blue Jays have nothing but monies available!
Now we can't really talk about pitchers without taking into account their injury histories, and Wheeler does have a significant surgery under his belt. In March of 2015, Wheeler's elbow was reconstructed and his UCL replaced. It was a long and difficult road back for Wheeler, but his performance has been exceptional in the past ~24 months (only 9 pitchers in baseball have been more valuable in that time). The 29 year old is healthy, performing, and by golly he's a perfect fit to lead the Blue Jays pitching staff for the next half-decade.
If Gerrit Cole is your Coca-Cola classic, Wheeler is your diet Coke. Most days you can hardly tell the difference.
LHP Drew Pomeranz (Contract estimate: $7,000,000 AAV x 2 + option w/ $2,000,000 buyout)
The highest paid collegiate pitcher in the 2010 draft and considered a top-50 prospect in 2011, Pomeranz has had a productive, albeit uneven career to date. Coming off back to back 3 WAR season as a starter in 2016-2017, Pomeranz absolutely cratered in 2018. From the start of 2018 to his last start on July 16th 2019 (spanning 28 starts), the burly southpaw limped to a 4-15 record. His 6.09 ERA was unsightly, but so too was his 5.50 FIP and 5.00 xFIP.
But upon being put in the bullpen in mid 2019, he excelled. In his 31 ⅔ IP relief sample last season, Pomeranz was a surgeon, carving opponents offences with a 1.99 ERA, 2.36 FIP and 2.04 xFIP. He struck out an obscene 45.7% of hitters (!), and shaved his walk rate from 10.3% as a starter to 7.8% in relief.
The drastic change in performance was brought on by a few factors, namely his reliance on an improved fastball. Pomeranz gained more than 2 miles per hour (91.9mph as a starter, 94.3mph in the bullpen), and he cut out both his cutter and his change up. He went from throwing his fastball 55% of the time as a starter, to throwing his heater 75% of the time as a reliever. He also firmed up his ferocious breaking ball a full 2 miles per hour. Look at this weapon:
I see a lot of peak Brett Cecil in Pomeranz, and I would be more than willing to pay for that type of profile. Tim Mayza did his absolute best last year to be the lead left-handed pitcher out of the bullpen, but his absence following elbow surgery is going to make adding someone like Drew Pomeranz all the more important. Much like Wheeler, Pomeranz would do well to secure as much money as possible. I hope the Blue Jays are the team to offer him that.
OF Shogo Akiyama ($5,000,000 AAV x 3 + option w/$3,000,000 buyout)
For years, teams around the league have invested significant amounts of time and energy into the Pacific Rim. The Blue Jays organization has not been one of those teams. Thankfully for them, 31-year old outfielder Shogo Akiyama informed the Pacific League club Seibu Lions that he would file for free agency and seek out a major league contract.
Akiyama's skill set is something the Blue Jays frankly, do not have in their outfield. He's a left handed hitter who is capable of handling defensive duties in CF, he's incredibly durable, he's shift-proof, he rarely strikes out, and most importantly, he reaches base often.
To wit, the outfielder has posted on-base percentages between .385 and .419 the past five seasons, all the while never missing a game in that period (seriously, that's crazy). As former Philly and Cleveland RHP Frank Herrmann notes, ‘[Akiyama] has a record of playing every inning, of every game, for the last five years in a row. That speaks to his work ethic ... he's always very interested in getting better.' Former Dodgers righty Mike Bolsinger compares him to World Series winner Adam Eaton in his approach, and continued to heap praise saying he's ‘100% sure Akiyama will be an every day player in MLB'. Bolsinger continued:
"He can hit the ball the other way really well. As a pitcher, it’s frustrating to face him. You’re always asking, ‘How did he hit that ball? In the States, that would be a strikeout.’ I’ve seen him hit it off the ground before."
To give you an idea of what Bolsinger is talking about, here's some World Baseball Classic footage of Akiyama blistering a baseball and giving RHP Tanner Roark some sweet chin music.
Of course, there are some yellow flags to take into account. Over the last several years, Akiyama's defence has begun to decline. As Jim Allen, seasoned overseas baseball watcher warns, ‘Once a terrific defensive center fielder with an above-average arm and very good range, Akiyama's defensive results as tracked by Delta Graphs and Win Shares show a steady decline.' Akiyama's also recently suffered a broken foot, clouding an otherwise pristine health record.
JP Morosi thinks he'll ultimately settle into a role not too dissimilar from former Blue Jays alum Norichika Aoki, another left-handed outfielder who came over at 30 years old and had several successful years in the big leagues. All told, I'm a believer in Akiyama. Baseball Prospectus contributor Kazuto Yamakazi is a backer as well, confidently proclaiming he has little doubt Akiyama is an average CF regular. Pay the man!
LHP Martin Perez ($5,000,000 AAV x2 + option w/$2,000,000 buyout)
Among all left handed pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched, Martin Perez possessed the 3rd best average fastball velocity (94.1mph/max 98.0mph), behind only Cy Young winner Blake Snell and pride of North Delta, BC James Paxton. Once considered a top prospect, Perez has settled in as a backend starting pitcher over the first 6+ seasons of his major league career. Always capable of generating ground balls (career 50.6% ground ball rate), Perez hasn't been able to put it all together to date. However, I think there can be a compelling argument made to put Perez in the bullpen, compress his outings, air out his fastball and see what he can do.
For his career, Martin Perez hasn't managed right-handed hitters very well. Against righties, his K-BB% totals crater (4.4%), they lift the ball significantly more, and his 4.81 FIP/4.82 xFIP tell a story of a southpaw who isn't capable of getting through lineups with several right-handed hitters. However, suffice it to say left-handed hitters are in tough against Perez.
His K-BB% is a much more palatable 13.8%, he generates ground balls at a 55% clip, and his 3.34 FIP/3.57 xFIP suggest there's a real role in the bullpen for him. It is not outrageous to suggest that Perez has a legitimate skill set for medium-high leverage relief work, provided a manager is capable of optimizing who he faces. There is nothing the baseball industry covets more than fastball velocity, and Perez has it in spades. I'm willing to pay a premium to see how it plays in the bullpen. I can squint and see a pathway to him being a Zack Britton-lite.
RHP Arodys Vizcaino
RHP Jeremy Jeffress
LHP Tony Cingrani
INF Zack Cozart (1 x 12,666,668) + RHP Jose Soriano for RHP Sam Gaviglio
As mentioned previously, the Blue Jays have demonstrated a willingness to leverage their financial flexibility to facilitate trades. With the Angels looking to trim salary (telling Kole Calhoun to kick rocks and declining his team option) to chase down some pitching (and dare I say, Yasmani Grandal), the Blue Jays represent a team who stands to benefit from the Angels mandate to free up money.
Fresh off an impressive 5 WAR season in 2017, the Angels fatefully paid Cozart $38,000,000 on a three year pact to man the hot corner. For their money, they've received below replacement level production the past two seasons. Cozart's .557 OPS (54 wRC+) across 360 PA's gave way to defensive wunderkind David Fletcher to take hold of 3rd base, with resurgent Tommy LaStella having a revelatory season at 2nd base cut short by a broken tibia. Couple those two with Ozzie Smith impersonator Andrelton Simmons entrenched at shortstop as well as the impressive Luis Rengifo fully capable of subbing in around the infield, and the Angels are left without a role for Cozart and a desire to shed payroll.
Enter the Blue Jays. Despite my obstinance surrounding the virtues of Freddy Galvis as a capable backup infielder for the triumvirate of rookie infielders (and my consequent disappointment in Galvis being given away for nothing), Zack Cozart could prove useful in Toronto occupying the same role. With a documented history of being a well above average shortstop (+55 Defensive Runs Saved in 6300+ innings) as well as some recent experience at both second and third base, Cozart could fit in pretty seamlessly as the backup infielder in the last year of his contract.
That said, the real prize is the 21 year old right handed pitcher Jose Soriano. Armed with a high octane fastball (92-96mph, 98mph max) and a well above average breaking ball tucked into a 6'3 body, Soriano also throws the ball incredibly easy (video). While he's still raw and likely in need of multiple years of minor league work, he would be a worthy addition to the Blue Jays organization. Here's what the prospectors at Fangraphs had to say about him entering the 2019 season:
‘Soriano struggled to harness his newfound velocity in 2018. The year before, he was a skinny 18-year-old sitting just 87-92. When he arrived in the spring of 2018, he had added sculpted muscle mass to a prototypical frame, and his fastball was humming in at 94-97 early during spring outings. After some time in extended spring training, Soriano spent the end of last summer in Low-A as a 19-year-old, and had issues with walks. Though his delivery is devoid of violence, he struggles with release consistency and has scattershot fastball control as a result. Soriano's feel for locating his terrific curveball is often superior to his fastball command, and while this approach is becoming more acceptable in the majors, ideally he'd refine the latter.
It's odd to look at Soriano's numbers and argue that he took a step forward last year, but he accomplished a third of the things we hoped he'd develop — more velocity, better command, and a better changeup or some other third offering — before turning 20. If either of the last two components fails to progress, Soriano will end up in the bullpen. If they both do, he'll be a mid-rotation starter.'
For the Angels, they'll get the versatile and surprisingly reliable RHP Sam Gaviglio to eat up innings. With a career ground ball rate of 48.5% as well as an allergy to walks, Gaviglio stands to benefit from the more than capable defensive unit the Angels deploy. Onto the next one!
OF/1B(?) Jesse Winker for RHP Ken Giles
Since entering the league in 2014, ‘100 mile Giles' has performed among the elite relievers in the sport. Among relievers with at least 300 innings pitched, Giles ranks 4th in WAR accumulated (9.7), 3rd in FIP (2.37), 7th in xFIP (2.83), 6th in K%-BB% (25.8%), and he's excelled against both right and left handed hitters. In short, he's one of the very best relievers on the planet. As with most pitchers, injury caveats apply. His elbow barked frequently during the 2019 season, and of course that needs to be taken into account.
That said, Jesse Winker has his warts as well. Winker has a checkered injury past, with shoulder surgery in 2018 and some IL stints in 2019 with back spasms and a cervical strain. More worrying, Winker's body may not allow him to feasibly play the outfield much longer. With a sprint speed of 25.6 feet per second, Winker ranks in the 24th percentile around the league. What's more, with Fangraphs' baserunning measure BsR showing him costing more than 6 runs on the basepaths the past two years, it can be reasonably argued his foot speed and generally lacklustre athleticism is a real problem moving forward. These problems have also manifested themselves in the outfield. In 1500 career innings as an outfielder, Winker carries with him a -12.8 UZR/150 and -21 Defensive Runs Saved. Statcast also has him in the 3rd percentile for outfield jumps and the 10th percentile for outs above average. More simply, this is a player who ought to be moved somewhere easier on the defensive spectrum. Without a DH position and Joey Votto holding down the fort as the Redlegs' 1st baseman, that move won't occur in Cincinnati. Considering the presence of budding superstars Nick Senzel and Aristedes Aquino in the outfield, Winker has a pretty tenuous claim to any consistent plate appearances without a change of scenery.
Which is too bad, because wherever he goes, rest assured Winker will hit. Carrying a lifetime 122 wRC+ into 2020, Winker possesses a rather extraordinary ability to control the strike zone that buoys his production at the plate. Every year he's been in the big leagues, Winker has maintained above league average walk rates, and below league average strikeout rates. He rarely chases outside the zone, seldom swings and misses, and he's demonstrated he has power to all fields:
With Justin Smoak out of the picture and resident chonk boi Rowdy Tellez making a rather unconvincing case as the future 1st basemen, the door is completely open for Winker to trade in his outfield glove and be a middle of the order threat in Toronto for the next several years as their 1st baseman.
RHP Blake Treinen (~$7,000,000 x 1) for RHP TJ Zeuch
Inspired by this recent article that indicated the Athletics are likely to trade (or even non-tender) Treinen rather than give him a raise on his $6,400,000 salary, it's my belief that Blake Treinen would represent an excellent replacement for the presumably traded Ken Giles.
Known for his high velocity ‘turbo sinker', Treinen had been able to generate ground balls at an alarmingly high rate in his career. Among pitchers with 400 innings pitched, Treinen possesses the 7th highest (56.9%) ground ball percentage in the league. It had been a core skill of his, something that up until last year he had relied to get outs and keep games close.
Marred by an injury and consequent regression in nearly every discernible measure, Treinen is available and ought not be prohibitively expensive to acquire. He's the hardest working person I've ever been around in the game of baseball, and outside of a recent stress fracture to his back, I'm not sure he's ever been injured. For a guy 12 months removed from one of the greatest reliever seasons in the history of the sport, I'd be more than happy for the Blue Jays to pay down ~$7,000,000 and see if they can't help him get back to being a special talent. After all, from 2017-2018 he was the most valuable reliever on the planet, accumulating 5 WAR across 156 high leverage innings. If everything works out, the Blue Jays could rehabilitate his trade value and get something plenty interesting.
My freshmen year at South Dakota State, I got there a couple weeks early with my family to get a lay of the land. Treinen was in town as well, and my coach got us in contact so we could throw together. As a 17-year old Canadian, I had never seen anything like his stuff before. Even playing catch was difficult! In fact, he broke through my all-time favourite glove in the first few days (and I had to go to the local Wal-Mart and use a replacement glove for a few weeks) with one of his physics defying breaking balls. Look at Yonder Alonso try to hit this thing!
As the days went on eventually I got more comfortable being able to see his breaking ball and catch it with relative ease. The pitch of his that would constantly bust my hand up playing catch however, is this godforsaken super sinker that Hades himself couldn't throw. Warning, this makes zero sense and shouldn't be humanly possible.
Blake Treinen with your Standard 98mph Back Foot turbo Sinker. pic.twitter.com/3cAYX5EGyb— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 4, 2018
As for TJ Zeuch being the return, the A's have a constant need for cheap players. Zeuch has shown himself to be a ground ball pitcher in his own right, and the A's feature one of the best defensive infields in the game. I don't see Zeuch being a viable starter, personally. However, I think it's worth it for the A's to find out, and I think it's worth it for the Blue Jays to get a talent like Treinen in the back end of their bullpen.
BONUS TRADE! RHP Bryse Wilson for C Reese McGuire
If you've made it his far down my stream of consciousness, here's one last trade I'd like to see get done. I'll try to keep it as short as possible.
The Braves have a ton of pitching depth, several millions of dollars to spend on more pitching, and nobody to catch the other half of games with newly re-signed Tyler Flowers. They're considered the odds-on favourites to secure LHP Madison Bumgarer's services (seriously, there have been a bazillion articles linking the two). Atlanta only has $87,000,000 committed to their 2020 payroll (even after signing Nick Markakis and Flowers), so they're likely to throw their weight around and try to take the next step.
Their depth is also relatively insane. They've got sensational young pitchers Mike Soroka and Max Fried, the supremely talented and reliably frustrating Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz, as well as Touki Toussaint and 2017 5th overall pick Kyle Wright needing real roles shortly. Rather than convert Wilson to relief or have him take his 3rd trip to AAA, I think it would behoove Atlanta to make use of their pitching depth and square their catching tandem away. McGuire has proven himself a valuable pitch framer like Flowers, he possesses a somewhat mysterious .242 ISO and 133 wRC+ in his big league trials, and I think he'd form a formidable pair with Flowers.
Bryse Wilson is one of my favourite pitchers yet to break through in the big leagues. Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel at Fangraphs also have some glowing things to say about him:
Wilson is a scout favorite, as an aggressive bulldog who relies on spotting his fastball in all quadrants of the zone, with the velocity, movement, and command all grading above average on his various fastballs. His slider will flash 55 in ideal situations, but plays closer to fringe average regularly, while his changeup also flashes 55 at times and is better than the slider most games.
With three legitimate pitches including a simmering fastball sitting at ~95mph and touching as high as 98.2mph, all I think Wilson needs to break out is opportunity and a long leash. Toronto can give him both of those things.
(Thank you for taking the time! I welcome any and all comments, and I look forward to discussing the off-season with y'all. Go Jays, go!