Two years ago, a wave of economically motivated non-tender decisions inspired me to compare how a team comprised of only those cast-offs would stack up against the 1977 expansion Toronto Blue Jays. Having been digging into those early expansion years at the time, the juxtaposition was striking. Here teams were readily dumping quality players, while the nascent Blue Jays cobbled together a meager roster from other team’s leftovers already diluted by a 50% expansion from 16 to 24 teams over the previous generation and locked out of any free agent sweepstakes.
Predictably, they struggled really badly to a 54-107 finish in the AL East cellar. It didn’t get much better from there, improving to just 59-102 in 1978. Another rash of 50+ non-tenders last offseason amidst whispers of severe impending austerity from the economic fallout of the pandemic (that never really materialized) gave cause to extend the comparison to a team of freely available players against the 1978 edition.
This offseason wasn’t nearly as drastic with 40 players non-tendered, down from over 50 the last two years and more significantly lacking in bigger names with bigger price tags. However, another 140 players were sent outright through waivers after the end of the season, creating a voluminous pool of freely available players that would have been a veritable bounty of opportunity for the front offices of those expansion era teams.
So while a shallower talent pool against the reality that expansion franchises gradually are infused with real talent in the process of taking their lumps obviates the basis of the exercise the further one gets from day zero, it’s still an exercise worth doing this year given the on-field steps back that occurred as the 1970s ended.
For those 1979 Blue Jays struggled mightily, posting a 53-109 record that still stands as the worst mark in franchise history, and it wasn’t like they were terribly unlucky with a 57-105 Pythagorean expectation based on run differential. It was a dark point for the franchise, as the sunny optimism of 1977 gave way to the harsh realities of life in the cellar.
The regression came despite the first fruits borne from investing in the future. In addition to the quality regulars that had been accumulated by flexing financial muscle like Roy Howell and John Mayberry, 21-year old newly acquired Alfredo Griffin flourished the opportunity of starting everyday. Alas, it proved largely ephemeral in time, but he was a solid regular. In late-June a converted outfielder named Dave Stieb was brought up, and right from the get-go held his own as a solid major league starter.
A freely available team by definition doesn’t get that kind of talent, and one shudders to think how much worse it would have been for the 1979 without those contributions. Needless to say, there were a lot of other holes, and the pitching dealt with multiple injuries while many 1977-78 regulars backslid, so I thought I could put together a broadly competitive roster.
But as I surveyed the landscape of freely available players, it was jarring just how little impact talent there was compared to 2019-20. Just like the real life expansion Jays, it was a always a struggle to find talent in the middle of the diamond, but there were (expensive) bat-first players to build around. Not so much this year. The best hitters available were players with average track records in Vogelbach and Moran.
There’s some interesting younger players with potential and some potential bounce-backs (and some higher upside options than Maile at catcher), but no player who comfortable projects as or really even approaches regular status. My lineup can’t compete with legitimate regulars like Howell, Mayberry, and Griffin (plus Otto Velez had a career year).
Granted, it was (lack of) any feasible depth that really undermined the 1979 Jays, as the non-regulars added up to -3 WAR. Given the sheer number of freely available options, I think I could largely avoid that, but it’s not offsetting the gap in regulars.
Starting pitching was already a challenge the past couple years, as the Jays prioritized young pitching in the expansion draft and it formed the foundation (such as it was) with the likes of Dave Lemanczyk, Jim Clancy, Jesse Jefferson and Tom Underwood. The realities of 21st century baseball mean teams horde remotely viable pitching talent, so the pickings were really thin, but with the caveat of there being plenty of quality relievers who could fill 500 innings much more productively than in the 1970s.
In the past couple winters there’s been some quality starters to build around, with the likes of Kevin Gausman and Taijuan Walker in 2019 and Carlos Rodon last year, even if tey had some risk. Not so this year. Chad Kuhl is reasonable as the backend, and I indulge in an expensive flyer/gamble on Matt Boyd, but the rest forecasts basically as replacement level filler. Even with terrible seasons from Jefferson and Mark Lemongello (the rare Pat Gillick complete stinker) and Phl Huffman disappointing, it’s simply not going to stand up.
In the end, I was stunned by the magnitude of the market turnaround compared to 2019-20. There was simply almost a complete absence of quality arbitration-eligible players non-tendered for salary reasons. Some of that is might be idiosyncratic—usually there’s a few guys whose traditional counting stats result in a much higher arb payday than warranted—but it’s more reflective of a pretty wholesale shift in the broader market.
Consequently, whereas the past couple years I think the teams of freely available players on the market would have been competitive or exceeded the expansion era Jays, this year I think they’d come up materially short of what’s frankly a very low bar.
Which team would win more games?
This poll is closed
2021 non-tenders/freely available
1979 Blue Jays