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Did 2019 and 2020 non-tendered players do better than the early Jays?

Division Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v San Francisco Giants - Game Five Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Earlier this week, for the third year running I stacked up a roster of players who were made freely available to any team (either non-tendered or cleared waivers) against the early rosters fielded by the Toronto Blue Jays who did not have the benefit of choosing from such a plethora of players.

Surveying a market of much thinner pickings, for the my first time my judgment was that such a team would not likely to hold its own or outdo its expansion equivalent, whereas the previous two offseasons based on reasonable projections I thought there was more talent available. But projections are just that, and I thought it would be worthwhile to go back and look at how those freely available players ended up doing.

Of course, the first comparison of players from the 2019-20 offseason is complicated by the disruption of the 2020 season by the pandemic. Nonetheless, we’ll do our best to adjust at least draw some high level conclusions.

19772019 comp corrected

As a reminder, on the right are the starters for the actual 1977 Blue Jays (WAR is the average of bWAR and fWAR to smooth out differences). Then we have the team of non-tendered players, with their projected arb salaries from MLBTR, as well as my rough point estimate at the time. Next is what actually happened — the salaries they instead settled for, playing time, and value. Finally, the last set of numbers pro-rates those stats from 60 games to 162 games.

Position-wise, my team ends up a lot like the 1977 Jays: a couple solid regulars, a few contributors above replacement level, and numerous black holes. The selected players were worth about 3.5 wins over 870 PA, averaging just under 100 PA. Pro-rated to a full season, that’s about 9 WAR, or very close to the 10 projected. Notably, at $25-million, the group ended up costing about half as much as the arbitration salaries. Even at those salaries, they would have been reasonable value at about $6-million per win).

Granted, the vast majority came from two regulars in Kevin Pillar and Cesar Sanchez, and it’s unlikely they’d have maintained the pace of production over a full season. Conversely though, a number of players barely played at all, and it’s likely their opportunities were hampered by the realities of the upheaval and reality of a 60 game sprint not giving time to recover.

Middle infield was always the weak point, and Tim Beckham didn’t play at all. The next choice would have been Jose Peraza, who was replacement level in 120 PA in 2020, just much more expensive. In hindsight, the one mistake was choosing Josh Phegley at catcher over Kevin Plawecki, who posted a decent 0.5 WAR in 89 PA for $1.5-million projection ($1M actual) whereas Phegley barely played.

The more pleasant surprise was the rotation side, as I didn’t expect to be able to compete given the market being thinner, it being the strength of those early teams, and changes in the structure of the game.

But Kevin Gausman’s breakout gave my rotation a legitimate front of the rotation starter rather than mid-rotation guy. As we know, Taijuan Walker stayed healthy and productive coming in above projection and matching what Lemanczyk/Garvin/Jefferson did, and Tyler Anderson had a better than expected year too. I figured they’d provide reasomable value, but I was not expecting the top three to outdo the top three of 1977 Blue Jays.

Of course, that basically exhausted the depth of talent on the market, and I had resort to quasi-swingman Junior Guerra as a4th starter (in reality, he relieved in 2020). And Jacob Nic didn’t even pitch. So while arguably I come up way short here, the caveat is that the modern game uses shot relievers, and the market was deep in those. I could easily make up the starting innings and cover the innings a bullpen did in 1977 well above replacement level.

Overall I’m confident saying the 2019 non-tendered team would have had more success (in 2020) than the 1977 Jays did. That would be even more evident if I had built out an entire roster, since the Achilles heel of those early Jays was depth, and the rest of the roster was well below replacement level. While impact talent drops off quickly in the pool of free players, there’s plenty of by definition replacement type talent.

Turning to the 1978 Blue Jays and the 2020 offseason:

19782020 comp

This time we don’t have to do any pro-rating, and my freely available lineup came in just shy of 7 wins over 2,656 PA, or just under 300 per player. Notably, they did underperform by rough expectations, though that was essentially down to Maikel Franco being completely useless.

Like with the previous year, the value was essentially produced by a couple players, and it was the big boppers. Kyle Schwarber rebounded with a great year, Adam Duvall came in well above expectations, and Eddie Rosario was solid (if short of the total production projection due to injury). Other than Franco, there were no true black holes, though no one else did much.

But they they did give a little ground to the actual 1978 regulars. The one player I missed who ended up productive was Tyler Naquin, worth about 1 WAR in 450 PA. Include him rather than Mazara in the outfield, and it’s closer to a push. That might feel like hindsight cheating, but if I were building a 25 man roster he’d have been on it, and the 1978 Jays didn’t have to pick nine guys and stick with them no matter what. Also Delino Deshields only came up in September and played well, given a full season there might have been moe value.

But once again, it was rotation that surprised. Tyler Anderson was once again non-tendered, and was a solid mid-rotation starter. Trevor Williams was serviceable as a back-end type. But once again, I end up with a frontline starter and even bona fide ace with Carlos Rodon. Once again there was nothing beyond that, but I’d rely on bullpening games with the array of quality bullpen arms that were available in a way the 1978 Jays couldn’t. For slightly moe cost effectiveness, I’d go with Chi Chi Rodriguez over Chase Anderson, since the latter couldn’t even provide innings for $4-million which was the only reason I went with him.