Last October after the season ended, I took a look ahead to how the 2021 roster would look using only players that were either under contract or organizational control for 2021. For a non-rebuilding team, in my view this represents a “replacement level” floor by which to measure the front office’s offseason performance.
Now that the roster has taken shape, we can compare that product against the baseline if they literally had did nothing as an assessment of their offseason machinations and deployment of resources. It’s far from definitive since much obviously rides on how the players perform over the season to come, but it’s also the best time to make a strategic evaluation untainted by hindsight bias from what ensues.
So let’s look at how the roster on Opening Day compares to that would-be roster from six months ago in terms of expected production and cost. 14 of the 26 spots (substantially) overlap, including seven in the starting lineup, three starting pitchers, and four relievers. The WAR production estimates are generally an average of the preseason projection systems at FanGraphs, with discretionary adjustments (mostly to playing time). .
(Green for players who can be unilaterally optioned in 2021; blue for those that cannot)
A reasonably robust picture necessarily involves considering depth, so primary depth options are included in order to better reflect the overall organizational position and fill-in the playing time that the players in the 26-man won’t accrue. For those players, estimates are based on the expected playing time flowing down from above, not what the player would do in a full season.
Looking at a high level, the replacement offseason Jays projected around 81 wins (47.7 win team replacement level + 33 WAR), and the current Jays project around 42 WAR, which roughly matches FanGraphs depth charts (though the implied 90 wins is ahead of the 87 in their standings). That +9 WAR for 2021 was achieved with the team payroll increasing by $67-million from $75.7-million to $142.7-million.
There’s a lot in that chart, and to the extent that we’re interested in the marginal changes, the aforementioned 14 holdovers in the same roles don’t affect the analysis. The Jays brought in two new positional regulars, two starting pitchers, three relievers, and then a number of those moves has cascading effects down the depth charts. Below is a simplified version of the chart, showing and grouping the net changes:
Adding impact talent in Marcus Semien and George Springer to the positional regulars over Travis Shaw and Randal Grichuk provides an expected upgrade to the starting lineup of 5 WAR at an increased cost of $36-million, as well as $118-million in future commitments. That’s a pretty reasonable cost of acquisition for 2021 especially considering it was for premium talent, albeit with significant future risk.
That also added significantly to bench depth, with Grichuk at worst a fringe-regular in his own right and available in the case of injuries and to spell others regularly in the field. The other expected upgrade moving the needle is replacing Reese McGuire with Alejandro Kirk, though part of that is assuming he picks up some games at DH and that means he really has to hit. Overall, the bench is about $10-million more expensive, but with a couple added wins. The drag here is choosing Joe Panik to round things out, both relative to internal options like Santiago Espinal or another veteran.
An alternative baseline not including Shaw could have had Vladimir Guerrero Jr. slotted at 3B, Rowdy Tellez at first base, and with DH covered by some combination of Kirk and Teoscar Hernandez. That would make the acquisitions about a $40-million upgrade against baseline, though would have lowered the replacement Jays projection too by stretching the talent thinner.
The pitching side is certainly the more controversial part of the winter, as it was a clear area of need and the Jays did not make major/clear upgrades to the rotation in bringing in Robbie Ray and Steven Matz. In addition to costing some fringy pitching prospects, those acquisitions added $12-million in cost to the starting five. It added some additional expected innings, though not necessarily much to the total expected production.
However, considering only the prototypical five man rotation is an anachronism, especially with Nate Pearson representing a huge wild card. Starting pitching is best assessed in terms of depth seven or eights guys down, and that’s where the expected upgrade shows up. Matz and Ray are highly uncertain themselves, but project as upgrades in terms of innings and likely quality over Trent Thornton and Anthony Kay.
The big question of this offseason will be whether the Jays did enough here, if the season falls apart it will likely be because starting pitching undermined the team. There are really two factors to consider in this regard.
First, will the Jays regret the choices they made in allocating the resources they did? If Ray and Matz are terrible, that will be $10-million-plus that could have been used on other pitchers. Granted, the pickings on the market were pretty slim, but if nothing else there were options that represented more certainty.
But even if they live up to, or well exceed the cost, it’s possible the pitching will still fall short. Thus the second part: did the Jays allocate enough resources here? They spent more than $75-million just for 2021, with two-third of that going to the starting lineup which was already a strength. Of the remainder, about half went to the bullpen, so only about 17.5% of 2021 dollars went to addressing the rotation. And beyond financial resources would have been the option to trading prospects.
Finally, the bullpen, where the Jays made some modest upgrades spending about $11-million. Overall though, they project roughly in line with how they did coming into the offseason. Obviously, a big part of that is losing Kirby Yates, who projected around 1 WAR on his own, but that was the nature of the gamble and the bottom line is it flopped.
Tyler Chatwood should be a solid complementary piece, and David Phelps adds depth though hasn’t really moved the dial since 2017. In large measure however, they’re betting on the guys who were already in the organization to be strong contributors, stay healthy, and/or take steps forward — Romano, Dolis, Merryweather, Borucki, and hopefully Thomas Hatch.
While there are significant question marks about the resource allocation and the specific bets made, at the strategic level the bottom line is the front office was aggressive in upgrading the roster along a critical component of the win curve. The Jays now comfortably project from the mid-80s on the lower/pessimistic end to the low-90s on the optimistic end, up from around .500 to start the offseason. For a second straight winter, they landed an impact free agent.
Adding about nine expected wins to the roster for $67-million works out to between $7- and $7.5-million per win, which is quite reasonable. That was done without touching the farm system (more than peripherally), or mortgaging the future financially. They may come to regret the investment in George Springer, but it blowing up will not destroy the medium term outlook.
Overall, I’d give it B+ right now. Ray and/or Matz working out, especially if some reinforcements arrive from the farm to show the overall resource allocation was not misplaced, could move that up a notch or two come October. And the reverse is certainly true as well, even moreso if the errors of the late-90s were repeated with a strong lineup undermined by inadequate and inadequately addressed pitching.
The preliminary offseason grade for the front office should be:
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