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Looking ahead to 2021

A roster breakdown and assessment before the offseason

Tampa Bay Rays v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Every year when the season ends, I like to take a look forward at what the next year’s Opening Day roster would look before the offseason gets going, based only on existing organizational players. This year of course, there is the underlying uncertainty of what exactly the 2021 season will look like — or if there will even be one — but nonetheless, the offseason beckons with the World Series about to end.

This is what things would look like if the Jays simply closed up business until mid-February and did nothing. In that sense, it represents a “replacement level” floor for the front office this winter, since there’s no reason the Opening Day roster shouldn’t be at least this good given a team with contending aspirations.

The first step is to categorize the current roster into groups, according to contract/control status, service time, talent, and option status (the latter two going to the likelihood of maintaining a roster spot). It looks like this:

2021 flowchart

There are currently 43 players on the 40-man roster (players on the 60-day IL don’t count towards the limit during the season), which I divide as follows:

2021 40-man breakdown

Some high-level points on each group:

  • Free Agents (7+1): This group is almost as large as the last three offseasons combined, as a result of rentals added for the playoff push instead of veterans being traded before hitting free agency. The eight had total full year salaries of $46.6-million, of which the Jays were responsible for about $30.6-million (obviously they paid out much less than that, but that’s the full year run rate). That’s a significant amount of money coming off the books, plus there’s the $14-million for Troy Tulowitzki finally off the books (I assume the $4-million buyout, even if technically yet to be paid out in cash, has been long planned/accounted for and doesn’t factor into 2021 budgeting).
  • 2020 Contracts (5+1): The 2021 option on Rafael Dolis is a slam dunk and should be a mere formality, so I’m including him in his group. In total, these six had salaries of $52.7-million in 2020, which actually decreases to $50.5-million due to the frontloading of Randal Grichuk’s extension (somewhat offset by increases).
  • Arbitration (2): This is a very small group for 2021, which is especially fortuitous given the uncertainty and potential for acrimony. For as bad as was Ross Stripling’s 2020, it would be absurd to give up what the Jays did and then turn around and non-tender him. MLBTR is projecting combined 2021 salaries of $5.2- to $8-million depending how the process shakes out, an increase from about $1.3-million that the Jays would have paid in a full 2020.
  • Non-tender candidates (2): Another small cohort here after six last year, of whom only two were eventually tendered contracts. A.J. Cole has a solid season and won’t cost much to return so while I’d lean towards him being tendered, his performance was similar to 2019 when he was nonetheless sent outright and signed a minor league deal. Conversely, I’d doubt Travis Shaw is back at $4M+.
  • Pre-arb renewals (18): This cohort is pre-arb players who have positive expected future value based on on-field performance or potential, to the extent that they are clearly assets. As such, they will hold 40-man spots over the winter and have their contracts renewed (at or near the MLB minimum). In reality there is a continuum, with about a half dozen “core” building blocks, then another half dozen or so “complementary” players with less upside but a pretty clear MLB role in 2021, the a further less-established group but with enough intrigue or potential to likely merit a 40-man spot into 2021, and then finally moving closer to the roster bubble.
  • Bubble (5+2): Unlike the last few offseasons when the organization was taking flyers on marginal talents, this year is a much smaller and softer bubble. Shortly after the World Series, the 40-man once again becomes a hard limit, but there figures to be five spots open after free agent declarations. Even with some holes to fill and prospects to protect, that limits the pressure on bubble players. Players who would qualify for minor league free agency cannot be sent outright (at least unilaterally) until March after the five day window following the World Series, so teams may opt to remove them now even without imminent numerical pressure and they are noted above.

    That being said and keeping in mind that the renewal/bubble line is subjective, there’s not many glaring removals at the backend of the roster. Jonathan Davis is probably safe, but the Jays could always seek a more established fourth outfielder. Likewise, Yenssy Diaz (assuming health) and Hector Perez haven’t obviously jeopardized their spots, but could be casualties if enough spots are needed. That could be the case for Reid-Foley and Waguespack as well. The more pressing matter is Derek Fisher after yet another underwhelming season. Does he get anther chance?

With all that considered, a 2021 Opening Day roster constructed solely with existing organizational resources would look something like this:

2021 lineup

A few points and thoughts:

  • What happens in 2021 is really anyone’s guess, but I’ll assume active roster limits revert to the intended 26, with a requirement of 13 pitchers and 13 position players,
  • Priority is given to out-of-options players where it’s close. Green is for players who can be optioned unilaterally in 2021, blue is for those who cannot.
  • The starting lineup appeared largely set last year, and 2020 only consolidated that with eight of the starters in last year’s forecast carrying over, albeit a little differently configuration.
  • Conversely, the bullpen has totally turned over from last year’s exercise. Only a handful are really locked in though: Ryan Borucki, Dolis, and Jordan Romano have earned the spots if healthy; Shun Yamaguchi’s contract makes him very likely and Julian Merryweather makes sense but his role isn’t locked in
  • The rotation picture is far more clear this year, even if there’s a fair bit of uncertainly on several of the names. Tanner Roark had a very rough 2020, but I’d be shocked if the Jays cut bait before seeing if he rebounded given the highly unusual circumstances. But it’s almost certainly they add at least one starter.
  • One consequence of the slimmed down bubble is there’s not any logjams involving out-of-options players at this point, though additions could obviously change that.
  • The total cost of this Opening Day roster would be about $74-million. Non-tendering Shaw would shave maybe $4-million down to $70-million, with maybe at most $1-million saved by non-tendering Cole as well. It’s a top heavy payroll structure right now, with over half of the salary attributable to three players, and at most another seven due to make more than $1-million (and potentially only four above $2-million)
  • With the loss in revenue for 2020 and great uncertainty regarding the 2021 revenue outlook and even beyond that, it will be fascinating to see how the market adjusts. The Jays are very fortunate to have a very flexible payroll structure as is, and should be one of the better positioned franchises to navigate and withstand financial pressures. That’s not to say I expect the floodgates to be open, but if the market ends up frozen this winter and/or other teams become motivated salary sellers, they could certainly be in line to benefit.