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What bad contracts could make sense as Blue Jays targets?

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Targets to leverage financial flexibility to add for the future

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Toronto Blue Jays Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

After tearing down the roster for the past 18 months, the general expectation for this winter was the Blue Jays would be adding to the roster with a view to building for the future. They have added a couple of decent starting pitchers, but outside those modest upgrades things look a lot like they did a couple months ago. It’s one thing to be outbid for top free agents, but adding to the frustration is that the Jays have passed up opportunities to deploy their vaunted financial flexibility.

Beyond the likes of Jonathan Villar and Blake Treinen (seemingly) available for little more than their contracts, one such transactions occurred last week when the San Francisco Giants acquired 2019 15th overall pick Will Wilson from the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for taking on Zack Cozart’s $12.67-million salary in the last year of his contract. One among us even saw it coming as an obvious target.

Perhaps the Blue Jays were just not that high on Wilson, and (in isolation) that’s fine, but this is exactly the kind of move an “upper middle class” rebuilding team should be making, leverage financial capacity into future assets that they can’t otherwise readily acquire. As I noted yesterday, the Blue Jays right now project at only about $80-million in MLB payroll. That would be an unacceptably low number for a market of the size and potential of Toronto. By contrast, San Francisco is also rebuilding and is closer to $150-million.

With that in mind, I’ve surveyed the rosters and payrolls of the other MLB teams to look for potential targets in a similar type move. The focus here on teams with an incentive to this kind of deal, so perhaps counter intuitively it’s not small market teams who might want to dump a contract but mostly contenders up against luxury tax thresholds (and teams up against internal thresholds).

Many of these have been previously mooted, even publicly, so this isn’t about novel insights so much as a comprehensive look and looking at what best fits.

New York Yankees

With the signing of Gerrit Cole, the Yankees are well past the CBT threshold, and for them paying financially penalties is just the cost of business. However, they still have a strong incentive to get and stay below the $248-million threhold, where they pay a 75% penalty on overage and lose 10 spots in the draft. That makes J.A. Happ and his $17-million salary an obvious candidate to be moved with the Yankees having five other starters, and indeed there have been reports the Yankees are actively trying to do so.

The Jays can still use more starting pitching, and there’s an obvious connection, so this is not just a flight of fancy. Happ had a down but not catastrophic year, and the contract is certainly somewhat underwater. The Yankees could pay some of it down, but especially with the depth in their system is probably makes more sense to balance it with prospect value instead to buy as much flexibility relative to $248-million. It’s really just how much a marginal bidding team buys into a bounceback vs. a new normal of him as a backend inning eater.

Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox appear to be determined on getting under the CBT threshold in 2020, both to avoid paying penalties as they reset course from all-in contention but also to reset future penalty rates. Beyond moving Mookie Betts, they have plenty of longer term deals they could try to dump. J.D. Martinez didn’t opt out, implying he didn’t expect to get more, would they willing to just move the contract? On the flip side, Chris Sale is probably immovable. That leaves David Price and maybe Nathan Eovaldi.

The problem is, the Red Sox have a pretty weak farm system, and they’re unlikely to further weaken it to save money. That probably rules out a deal involving Eovaldi, but Price is still a quality pitcher, if not as durable. As a free agent, I could see him getting something like three years, $42-million. That still leaves the contract maybe $30$50-million underwater, but that’s where there could be a match. The Jays (should) have room to eat money in 2020. The Red Sox need room in 2020, and have more flexibility beyond that. So the Jays could eat something like $30-million in 2020, and then the Red Sox would cover the majority in 2021-22, the Jays on the hook for something like $5-to-$10-million a year.

Houston Astros

The Astros are over the CBT threshold and appear to be up against internal targets, but they don’t really have any bad contracts. The lone exception might be the $12-million due Josh Reddick, with Kyle Tucker available to slot in cheaply. It doesn’t seem like a great fit with the Jays though, they have plenty of outfield options who need the playing time in 2020 to either prove themselves a part of future or not.

Los Angeles Angels

The Angels are still $30-million clear of the CBT threshold, so have capacity to address their significant starting pitching needs. So they’re probably not a fit. However, they’re up near what they’ve spent the year few years, and if there’s internal payroll constraints the Albert Pujols anchor is still there. It’s almost improbable to begin with, and he can block any move so the Jays would probably have to agree to release him. But if the Angels put a 65 FV prospect on the table? Almost unfathomable, but this franchise has done stupider things.

New York Mets

The sheer volume of dead money players the Mets have is stunning. They’re up against both internal constraints and the CBT threshold, but are all-in on contending and have holes to fill. Their best prospects are higher risk lover level players, but have some interesting younger players and the front office has telegraphed a willingness to package some of them with bad contracts.

There’s plenty of possibilities, but what about if the two went really big? Ken Giles makes sense for a contender, and Edwin Diaz could use a fresh start. Dom Smith is surplus with Pete Alonso at 1B, and the Jays have 1B/DH opening. The Jays could eat Jed Lowrie or Jeurys Familia contracts, or even Yoenis Cespedes. Or multiple of them, if the Mets included prospects.

Philadelphia Phillies

Another free spending team all-in on the present, up against the CBT threshold and who could use an addition like, say, Josh Donaldson. David Robertson will miss the year, so his $11-million is purely a write-off, but the Jays could take it on if it was made worth their while. Jay Bruce isn’t a total write-off, but fits in the same boat. Again, he doesn’t make sense for the Jays as a fit. But what about Jake Arrieta? He’s probably beyond betting on a return to his 2013-16 form, but would eat some innings and the Phillies could reallocate the money.

Chicago Cubs

They’re right up against the CBT threshold with a roster built to contend, so in theory they’d make a lot of sense. But they don’t seem very inclined to add, if anything looking to sell off core pieces. Nonetheless, Tyler Chatwood or Jose Quintana have expiring contracts, and would add depth to a starting rotation. I just wouldn’t expect to get prospects, this would be more akin to a Chase Anderson like contract dump.

Colorado Rockies

If their goal is still to contend, they’d got a pile of bad contracts with limited payroll capacity. Put some interesting prospects on the table, and the Jays could any or multiple of the Wade Davis, Jake McGee or Bryan Shaw contracts, and maybe a fresh start rejuvenates them outside Coors Field. Daniel Murphy and Ian Desmond aren’t as logical fits, but again, at the right price why not. Realistically, they’re probably better off conceding a rebuild and eating the 2020 money.

San Diego Padres

The Padres are built to win in the near term, and have spent in anticipation of that. They seem to be up against internal limits, and whose “top priority” is moving Wil Myers and his $22.5-million salary through 2022. A lot rides on what one projects of Myers over the next three years, but maybe a change of scenery helps unlock his potential. And the Padres have the prospect depth to facilitate a trade without hollowing out their system (indeed, they face inevitable Rule 5 crunches and losses).

Again, the Jays and Padres could line up real well. If hypothetically, the Jays assumed $30-million in salary, that could be frontloaded to provide 2020 relief to San Diego, while limiting the hit in 2021 and 2022 to maximize future payroll flexibility for the Jays.

A couple others
  • The Cardinals probably don’t appear to have a need or incentive to do so, but Brett Cecil is owed $7.25-million and the Jays could use a lefty in the bullpen. Even bigger, Dexter Fowler still has two years on his contract.
  • The Reds not up against any thresholds, but probably have internal constraints and are pushing to contend. So one could think about a Joey Votto homecoming. Realistically, the ship has probably sailed on this, it would have made a lot more sense three years ago.