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Reevaluating Shapiro/Atkins after five years: free agents

26 major league signings later, how well has more than $300-million been spent?

The Toronto Blue Jays host a media availability with new signed free agent left handed pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Two years ago, I looked at the performance of the Shapiro/Atkins front office after three years in charge, a time when the Blue Jays were at the trough of a rebuild and they bore the weight of the disenchantment. Now on the other side, coming off a postseason appearance of sorts and things broadly looking up, I thought the end of the year was a good to update/repeat the exercise at the five year mark with more information and data now available.

2018 three year evaluation: Free agents | Trades | Other moves | Strategic direction

In this first post, we’ll revisit the free agent signings they’ve made. For these purposes, I’m looking at signings in terms of pure exchanges of value, not the broader context. As before, I’ll circle back to the broader strategic considerations of how resources were deployed at the end.

In the first three offseasons, the Blue Jays made 16 major league signings, as well as four essentially proforma minor league signings whose contracts were selected by the start of the season for a total of 20 (plus Mike Hauchild; never forget Mike Hauschild). I’m not going to go through all of them again (details at the link above) as only two were still in force and thus incomplete at the end of 2018:

  1. 11/12/2016: Lourdes Gurriel Jr., 7 years/$22-million
    Though more of a prospect signing than a true free agent signing, Gurriel had been paid $4.6-million with a half a season of MLB time that raised more questions than answers. Two years and a move to the outfield later, Gurriel has not only proved a bargain with 3 WAR for $7-million (adjusted for 2020), but is a significant asset with three more prime aged years at $13.4M remaining. Even with the projection systems hesitant to buy in, seeing as more a solid 2 WAR contributor, that alone is a bargain plus upside potential.
  2. 11/18/2016: Kendrys Morales, 3 years/$33-million
    At the time there was one year left with the Jays having already paid $21-million for essentially replacement level production of a 102 wRC+ over 1079 PA. The deal got even worse as Morales was about -1 WAR in 2019 (63 wRC+ in 201 PA), but the Jays cut their losses a little before the season, eating $10-million but saving $2-million and getting international slot room, not to mention reallocating the playing time to Rowdy Tellez.

Meanwhile, in the last two years, the Jays have given out 10 major league contracts and a few minor league deals. Three of those deals are still ongoing, with a significant $75-million left, but let’s take an in-depth look through:

  1. 12/28/2018: Matt Shoemaker, 1 year/$3.5-million (arbitration eligible in 2020)
    A nice start in 2018, but just couldn’t stay on the mound. Considering he didn’t throw 60 innings, big split between 0.6 fWAR and 1.8 bWAR which drives how much value there ultimately was.
  2. 1/12/2019: David Phelps, 1 year/$2.5-million + 2020 option
    Velocity didn’t fully bounce bac after Tommy John, and results were more solid than standout after midseason debut, but brought back a nice prospect return.
  3. 1/29/2019: Freddy Galvis, 1 year/$5-million + 2020 option
    A solid stopgap until Bo Bichette was ready and they let him go on waivers. Perhaps the tacit understanding to sign in the first place he would start or be moved to a team with an opening if not, but in hindsight, having Galvis as middle infield depth in 2020 on that option would have been beneficial.
  4. 3/5/2019: Clay Buchholz, 1 year/$3-million
    Buchholz couldn’t replicate the magic from 2018 with Arizona making 12 forgettable starts.
  5. 3/25/2019: Daniel Hudson, 1 year/$1.5-million
    A last minute addition, Hudson was serviceable before being moved at the deadline to Washington where he ended up an integral part of the their bullpen to the point of closing out the World Series.
  6. 12/18/2019: Tanner Roark, 2 years, $24-million
    This didn’t seem like the greatest value at the time, but the fall from the fall from solid backend rotation type to below replacement cannon-fodder was shocking. The question is whether some value will be salvaged in 2021. The Jays are fortunate it only cost them $4.4-million, though they’d probably be happier if 2020 had gone off normally and perhaps Roark is playable in that alternative universe.
  7. 12/27/2019: Hyun-Jin Ryu, 4 years/$80-million
    As good a start as could be hoped for. The only shame is that in a year Ryu was healthy and very effective, there was only 40% of a season and in what would be expected to be the most productive season of the contract.
  8. 12/28/2019: Shun Yamaguchi, 2 years/$6.35-million
    On the plus side, little ventured. On the negative side, nothing gained.
  9. 12/30/2019: Travis Shaw, 1 year/$4-million (arbitration eligible in 2021)
    This rebound bet didn’t really work out, but wasn’t a disaster either as Shaw was competent.
  10. 2/8/2020: Rafael Dolis, 1 year/$1-million + 2021 option/subsequent arb
    This low cost signing paid off as Dolis ended up anchoring the bullpen with a 1.50 ERA and quality 3.02 FIP in 24 innings. They’ll have him for an equally affordable $1.5-million in 2021, after which he’ll have 3+ years of service and the Jays essentially have three more year by year team options through the arbitration process.

Minor league signings:

  • Javy Guerra, 1 year/$800,000
  • A.J. Cole, 1 year/$850,000
  • Joe Panik, 1 year, $2.85-million

Pivoting back to a high level assessment, let’s look at how they’ve spent by year and in total:

Shapkins five years FA

There’s been a mixed bag of approaches over time. A couple years they’ve spent big, a couple years very little. Overall, they’ve committed $337-million in free agent contracts. About $75-million is contracts signed last winter that relates to future years, and a further $29-million of that never got paid out due to the shortened 2020 season.

That leaves $232.7-million in money spent in the four offseason from 2015-16 to 2019-20. With the exception of Gurriel, the books are otherwise closed on that spending. For the $219.3-million out the door, they’ve bought themselves about 30 WAR (27 fWAR, 33 bWAR), or a cost of roughly $7.3-million per win.

The overstates the actual cost, since unlike with most free agents the backend of Gurriel’s contract is an asset, not a liability. Taking the projection that see him as roughly a two win player would add about another 6 WAR, and would bring the cost per win down to about $6.5-million. If one is more bullish and figured he’s an above average regular who puts up 10 WAR, it would be more like $5.8-million.

In 2020, the Jays got just 3 WAR from their signees (basically all Ryu and Dolis) for about $16.25-million. Any team would be happy to pay ~$5-million per win in the open market, though that $75-million will be far more important. The $235.5-million in total actual spend for 33.3 WAR works out to $7.1-million per win.

Assuming some regression from Ryu (3/2.5/2 WAR) and concomitant bounceback from Roark (1 WAR), adding in Dolis (1 WAR) and some value for team control beyond 2021 to Gurriel (6+), a reasonable forecast could getting something like another 17 WAR. That would result in a total of 50 WAR purchased for a little over $300-million, or a little north of $6-million a win.

That’s actually a pretty solid rate of return, and an improvement from the estimate two years ago of perhaps $7.5-million. Granted, not all of that has accrued to the Jays, they’ve traded a good portion of it away for other forms of value with varying degrees of success, but that’s the subject for tomorrow.


For free agent signings, the Shapiro/Atkins regime rates a grade of:

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