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Did front office inaction last December prove costly now?

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They got Jonathan Villar...eventually

Toronto Blue Jays shutout the Seattle Mariners 4-0 Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

In the wake of the trade deadline, I’d like to go back in time nine months. It was a simpler time, before the “invisible enemy” had surfaced and upended life around the global. December 2 was also, coincidentally, the deadline for teams to tender contracts to players for 2020.

To that point in the offseason, the Blue Jays had done very little. Chase Anderson had been acquired to add some much needed depth to the rotation, but beyond that was tinkering at the margins of the roster (and a surprise parting with Ryan Tepera). As I set out looking ahead in late October, the Jays had plenty of financial flexibility, with less than $65-million for the roster as it stood. That figure would include all $18-million in dead money payable to Troy Tulowitzki in 2020, and could potentially have have been shaved down further by more than $10-million with some non-tenders and trades (Ken Giles).

That financial firepower was useful, because as the depth chart from that roster showed, while the lineup was full of exciting potential building blocks, the rest of the roster needed a lot of work:

2020 lookahead lineup

The Anderson acquisition thus seemed to fit very well: using the budget room to take on about $9-million in 2020 with no commitment (but team options) beyond that or other cost for a solid pitcher who reliably threw 150 inning a year. Absent any blockbuster moves or signings, this appeared to be an intelligent blueprint for further moves to improve the 2020 team without mortgaging the future.

So it was notable when reports emerged that the Orioles were uninterested in retaining Jonathan Villar, coming off a 4 WAR season but with a hefty projected salary of over $10-million in his last year before free agency and Baltimore deep in the trough of a rebuilding cycle. Given his ability to move around the diamond, track record and impact potential, many here adamantly wanted the Jays to get him as an upgrade who would cost little beyond 2020 money.

Admittedly, I was far more circumspect. While he had a monster 2019, over his career he was more of a 2 WAR, low-end regular, and $10-million for that is not an obvious slam dunk. He can play almost anywhere on the infield or outfield, but the metrics suggest not particularly well. Depth is has value, but less so for a non-contender and it wasn’t obvious the front office was going to fulfill their rhetoric spend money on significant veteran upgrades for 2020.

So I wasn’t upset or saw it as a real major missed opportunity when Villar was traded to Miami on this day nine months ago for the nominal consideration of a 14th round pick six months. Perhaps the front office didn’t evaluate him highly, and there was plenty of other opportunities to deploy cash to perhaps greater impact. And indeed they did do that, forking out $40-million in 2020 salary on major league deals for Tanner Roark, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Shum Yamaguchi, Travis Shaw, and Rafael Dolis.

But then nine months later, the Jays turn around and trade for Villar, but now at the cost of 2018 second rounder Griffin Conine. While I don’t hate it, beyond a personal preference of not being invested in 2020 results and not wanting to see future assets of consequence moved for 2020 upgrades, I can’t help but feel this reflects very poorly at some level on the front office process.

The flip side or rebuttal is that circumstances have significantly changed, the Jays are actually right in hunt and Villar represents a big upgrade with Bo Bichette hurt and a vacuum on the left side of the infield; Conine isn’t much of a prospect anyway; and Villar might not have even been available to them in the first place. So let’s look at this at each of these in turn.

It’s certainly true that circumstances have changed, and the biggest factor was something completely unforeseeable in the expanded playoffs (without which, the Jays wouldn’t really be buyers). But realistically, any team that commits $112-million guaranteed to free agent starters is committed to some level of contending, where acquiring quality depth has value. And the depth chart above shows how woeful the depth was.

Moreover, the cost would have been significantly less than $10-million for Villar. He ended up settling at just $8.2-million, and teams surely have much more sophisticated models than MLBTR such that they would have known that was likely. On top of that, it would have left little foreseeable role for Brandon Drury, so he could/should/would have been non-tendered saving another $2-million. Net, it would have been more like $6-million. Maybe that means no signing of Travis Shaw—and it was a reasonable gamble on a bounceback— but the 2020 Jays would not certainly not be worse off.

What about the cost, Griffin Conine? A 36% strikeout rate in low-A is certainly a red flag that could be fatal to any type of big league projection. It certainly lowers his value from when he was drafted. But he’s far from a non-prospect or lost cause. The power is absolutely legit, and he’s got a cannon in right field. That’s two at least plus tools as building blocks. Today’s MLB is increasingly three outcome oriented, and the upper limit for strikeouts rates that still work is moving upwards. As I wrote this winter, a profile like .220/.300/.450+ is not implausible.

In any event, it’s certainly the case that even in impaired form Conine represents a massively higher cost than what Miami gave up in the winter. Fangraphs was the least bullish on him ranking him 30th in the system; they still had a 40 FV on him. Easton Lucas wasn’t even mentioned in the Marlins system write-up.

Could the Jays have even got him? After all, Baltimore reportedly put him on waivers, and Miami was ahead of the Jays in waiver priority. This would represent a clean exculpation of the front office. While the story was muddled then and still isn’t clear, I don’t think it does.

Roch Kubatko of MASN originally reported that the Orioles hadn’t found a trade for VIllar and put him on (outright) waivers November 27th. But then there was no mention of the outcome of that. The trade to Miami was broken right after the tender deadline by Jon Heyman, who added:

This frankly makes no sense. It’s not clear how a waiver claim would “fall through”. There are now only two types of waiver claims, outright and release, both of which are irrevocable (as opposed to trade and option waivers in the past, which were). If the Marlins claimed him, that should have been the end of it. Waivers last for two business days, so with US Thanksgiving any potential waiver claim should have been awarded by 1 PM on the Monday (Dec. 2nd) and been public shortly afterwards.

That he was ultimately traded suggests instead that the waiver report was mistaken in the first place. But in any event, even if something weird or beyond my understanding of the Major League Rules was at play, it’s clear the Orioles were shopping him well before that and the Jays could have stepped in and made a deal happen with something more compelling than Miami and well short of Conine’s value.


There’s actually another thread here. A second weird thing at the same time was Oakland non-tendering Blake Trienen after a rough 2019. That was a little surprising itself, but even more so when he turned around and signed with the Dodgers for $10-million, well above the $7.8-million MLBTR projection. Even if that was a significant underestimate, one would think that one of the many teams who pursued him would have offered the Athletics something of some value to guarantee his rights. Maybe Oakland just did him a solid to put him on the open market, but MLB teams are rarely benevolent in this way (and it’s the same organization that was going to cut off its minor league pay before an uproar).

To the extent the Jays weren’t really serious about contending (and hence a big salary for Villar didn’t make sense at the time), then keeping Ken Giles made no sense whatsoever. Had they moved him, reallocating the dollars and betting on Treinen bouncing back would have made a lot of sense in terms of resource allocation.