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What’s the plan for Ken Giles?

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MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

With Spring Training just around the corner as pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report less than a week from now, the traditional offseason is thus drawing to a close. Since the Blue Jays wrapped up their flurry of Christmas shopping with Hyun-Jin Ryu, it’s been very quiet. A few minor league depth signings, the reported deal with Rafael Dolis that is yet to be formalized, but that’s about it.

While the Blue Jays overhauled and rebuilt the starting rotation, the same has not been the case in the bullpen. Given the paucity of relief options on the free agent market this year and how quickly they were snapped up, a number of internal options who could be in play in 2020, and the fact that the Blue Jays don’t project as legit contenders in 2020, it’s not that surprising it wasn’t a huge priority for upgrades.

To the contrary, the greatest likelihood when it came to the bullpen this offseason seemed to be for subtraction rather than addition via a trade of Ken Giles. Having rebuilt his value since with a 2.48 ERA / 2.83 FIP and 105 strikeouts in 72.2 innings since being traded to Toronto, he’s the last obvious trade chip who could potentially bring back a premium future piece for the next contention window. Indeed, were it not for most inopportune timed elbow injuries in the middle of last season, all indications suggest it would have already happened last summer.

In that context, I’m somewhat surprised that Giles is in line to report to Dunedin. But what’s much more surprising — almost shocking really — has been the complete silence on the Giles front with nary a suggestion of even basic talks. In fact, looking at entries on MLBTR, there’s a grand total of just three regarding Giles since the offseason began: settling his 2020 contract a month ago, a note from November 14th of a slow developing market, and Ross Atkins at the GM meetings the day before that indicating that it wasn’t a sure thing the Blue Jays would trade him.

So my question is, what’s the front office plan in regards to Ken Giles? In my mind, there’s three main possibilities for why hasn’t been traded:

  1. Not planning on trading him / aim to work out extension
  2. Market is soft / not developed
  3. Planning to trade at the deadline

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

Occam’s Razor?

While my working assumption was that a trade was likelier than not, the simplest explanation for it not happened is that Giles has never been on the market in the first place (which would likewise explain there being no rumours). That’s not to say a trade would have been completely off the table, but that other teams would need to take the initiative and make a proverbial offer that cannot be refused.

Indeed, especially with the additions they’ve made this winter, there is a significant segment of the fanbase that didn’t want to see the Jays turn around and make a move that takes them a step backwards. Even if 2020 isn’t a true contending season, Giles is only 29 so he figures to be a good reliever well into the future, when the real contention window opens.

It’s certainly justifiable to want to keep someone of his calibre around, but this only makes sense if there’s a strong indication that a reasonable extension is possible or even likely (ideally it would already be done, but this type of business only tends to start happening around this time).

Even then, in my view from a purely rational perspective, it’s hard to see this as having been the optimal plan this winter. A clear eyed view of the competitive landscape is that the marginal value of a couple extra wins from having a premium closer isn’t likely to be much in 2020. Barring him selling himself short, the value for Blue Jays lies in the value of that year of team control.

Moreover, even the best relievers are just so inherently volatile. It’s nice to imagine the Giles of 2018-19 as being a late inning linchpin in 2021, 2022, 2023...but the odds of him remaining largely healthy and effective are pretty long. Committing big dollars to a reliever for three or four years out generally works out quite poorly.

An uncooperative market?

As the line goes, it takes two to tango. If the Blue Jays did enter the offseason with the intention of trading Giles, it still requires a counterparty willing to give up requisite value — and the Jays should be holding out for the right return, in particular quality over quantity to the greatest extent possible. The best laid plans of mice and men go awry; sometimes things just won’t work out. It’s worth noting in this regard that there haven’t been other trades of veteran late-inning relievers by contenders.

That said, while we can’t be sure, I’m skeptical this would be the reason. Particularly once Aroldis Chapman didn’t hit the market, there was a paucity of high quality relief arms available. There was a very robust market for Will Smith, who signed very early with Atlanta for $40-million guaranteed, with a qualifying offer attached that resulted in losing a top-100 draft pick.

But that was basically it in terms of the supply of impact arms, with plenty of teams looking to contend who could use bullpen help on the demand side. I’d consider Giles at least Smith’s equal in terms of talent, so him at a lower salary, without a multiyear commitment, without having to give up draft pick and IFA money compensation (and as I’ll get to below, the ability to recoup some value) would be very attractive and justifying giving up a serious return.

It could be the case that other teams still worried about injury risk in spite of his return to form down the stretch, and that’s causing a soft market. In which case there’s little that can be done, and it might make sense to either hold out for another team getting desperate enough to look past it, or a better offer down the road.

The other possibility is that the market just hasn’t just developed. With the likes of Mookie Betts and Francisco Lindor, and maybe the likes of Kris Bryant and Corey Seager having been on the table, it would follow that other business would get held up until those situations are resolved. Spring training will soon be underway, but Opening Day is still six weeks away and the offseason doesn’t end until then.

We saw last year that the Jays were comfortable leaving significant/disruptive moves until the very eve of the season (Kendrys Morales) or indeed into the first week (Kevin Pillar); there’s no reason to think it couldn’t happen with Giles if the right offer came together, perhaps due to injuries or erstwhile contenders sweating the reality of their bullpen situations. There’s even a direct precedent for an elite closer being traded right before the season, as Atlanta moved Craig Kimbrel to San Diego right before the 2015 season got underway.

See what happens in July?

The final possibility is that the plan was to keep Giles with an expectation of maximizing value in July — which would include the flexibility of seeing how the season unrolls and maybe the teams surprises to the upside and contends, in which case he’s kept and either extended since the contention window would be open or he leaves and the Jays get a qualifying offer.

It’s critical to distinguish here between this being the plan, and it being a fallback if the market is soft or an acceptable deal isn’t on the table. The latter would make sense is the market was unfathomably or just irrationally soft. The former would be a really bad idea; I’d go as far as to call it folly despite allowing some potential strategic flexibility.

The primary reason is quite obvious in light of last year, even a minor injury can significantly impair value and torpedo leverage. Moreover, there’s also performance risk and the risks are highly asymmetric here. Realistically, there isn’t much room (much less likelihood) for Giles to be better, and a lot of room for him to be worse. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before; it’s why the Jays were able to buy low on him in the first place.

But secondly, waiting for a trade entails a deadweight loss in value. A trade before the season begins means the acquirer has the ability to make a qualifying offer, which in the vent in turns in a typically strong season potentially adds a year of control, or could help restrain his market and make him cheaper to retain, or means getting a draft pick to offset value given up. In a midseason trade, that’s not the case,

Basically, this would boil down to relying on a favourable demand/supply balance that causes a bidding war to break out. Beyond the risk factors above that could prevent that, predicting those dynamics ahead of time is highly speculative even setting aside that teams are increasingly hesitant to pay huge prospect prices for a couple months of service.

Poll

When it comes to Giles, the Blue Jays should:

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    Aim to extend him on free agent agent market type terms
    (183 votes)
  • 16%
    Trade him before opening day
    (112 votes)
  • 11%
    Plan on trading him at the deadline
    (78 votes)
  • 46%
    Keep him for now and re-evaluate at the deadline
    (319 votes)
692 votes total Vote Now