Toronto Blue Jays transform roster while avoiding perils of free agent market

By Jonathan Reimer on Sunday, December 23rd 2012
Toronto Blue Jays transform roster while avoiding perils of free agent market
Photo: Courtesy of MLB

Coming into the 2013 offseason Toronto Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos had a heady task in front of him.  His team greatly underperformed in 2012, through a combination of crippling injuries and young players not performing to expectations.  While there existed a core of promising players, it was widely recognized that the club still had significant holes or question marks through the roster (starting pitching, centre field, third base, first base, left field) that would impede their competing in the 2013 AL East. While Anthopolous had repeatedly insisted the club’s ownership group would make the money available to fund a winning club, the organization had shown an unwillingness (or inability, based on some reports from their 2011 offseason efforts) to utilize the free agent market and attract premium talent that would fill identified roster holes.

In past off-seasons, Alex Anthopoulos has shown a clear distaste for the free agent market; coming into the 2012 offseason, the largest free agent contract signed under his realm was reliever Darren Oliver’s current two year, $7M pact.  Anthopolos had built the club through a shred mix of trading for upside players that had yet to achieve their potential with other clubs, and signing his core players to team-friendly contracts before they reached free agency. The 2012 offseason was to supplement this core with other players that would fill glaring holes on the roster.  However, the club seemed adverse to the free agent market, while the farm system (while strong) lacked the major league-ready talent at surplus positions that could easily part with prospects to improve the club through trades.

Yet here we stand today, just 53 days from Spring Training and the Blue Jays stand as Las Vegas’ eight-to-one favorites to win the 2013 World Series.

And through this, the largest free agent contract the club has signed under Anthopolous is now a whopping two year, $16M deal.

Anthopoulos’s magnificent 2012 offseason rebuild is a bold statement on the importance of building prospect value that can be used as currency on the trade market, and a cautionary tale of using the free agent market.

First, Anthopoulos and the Blue Jays organization diligently built a scouting, drafting and player development system that has allowed the club to be considered amongst the top three minor league systems in baseball.  The Blue Jays built a minor league system rich in higher-upside pitchers (Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Sanchez, Justin Nicolino, Roberto Asuna, Marcus Stroman), international signees (Adieny Hechavarria) and toolsy position player (Anthony Gose, Travis D’Arnaud, DJ Davis, Jake Marisnick). Recognizing the system was stocked with prospects; Anthopolous switched the majority of his professional scouts’ assignments mid-2012 and had them scout major league players, recognizing the club was at a maturity level that it could deal prospects for high upside major league ready talent.

Second, the Blue Jays organization recognized the perils of using the free agent market to address large and multiple major league roster needs. On the free agent market, clubs typically pay approximately $5.5M per win above replacement level production from players, so in the case of a mid-level starter that may address some of the Blue Jays dire pitching needs, they’d be looking to pay in the vicinity of $15M per season for pitchers that were past their peak and would only decline into their middle thirties. As the 2012 Blue Jays finished with just 73 wins, making the necessary jump to 90 wins would, through free agency alone, likely costing the club approximately $80M in 2013 (roughly doubling their payroll from 2012 levels). Further, the 2012 free agent market simply lacked the players that either offered upside in years beyond 2013, or would likely address Toronto’s roster holes for the short term.

Instead, Anthopoulos has rebuilt his roster through the trade market, largely avoiding the free agent market. In his blockbuster trade with the Florida Marlins, he targeted a club that needed to unload payroll due to operating budget issues. He targeted high-impact players that didn’t have no-trade clauses that would impede their trade to Toronto. In return, the Marlins received a package of largely-prospects (save Yunel Escobar) that did not severely deplete the Blue Jays’ upper-levels minor league system.  The players he traded in large part, were blocked (Hechavarria, Marisnick) at the major league level or had significant question marks (Escobar, Hechavarria, Nicolino, Alvarez) that might delay their continued development. While the trade brought Toronto significant payroll obligations ($165M over twelve player seasons), the obligation was not considered onerous (estimated 11 WAR from the traded players just for 2013) considering the talent coming to Toronto.

His recent trade for the 2012 NL CY Young winner RA Dickey is similar in many respects; he identified a team (Mets) with a significant asset (Dickey) that was not ready to compete within the pitcher’s peak performance window.  The trade sent the Mets the highly regarded catcher Travis D’Arnaud and pitcher Noah Syndergaard, a steep haul indeed, but in return the Jays were provided a 72-hour window to negotiate a team-friendly contract extension with Dickey.  The result was a three year contract that would pay the right hander just under $10M per year, with a club option for a fourth year.  Considering Dickey’s steady three-year progression, there’s little reason to doubt he can’t continue performing at similar level, delivering 3-4 WAR per season, making the trade and contract a steal in comparison to the free agent contract ace Zack Greinke signed.

Alongside these trades were the free agent signings of Maicer Izturis and Melky Cabrera (owner of the two-year $16M contract).  Both of these deals are short-term deals that limit the club’s exposure to a player as he precipitously falls from his peak performance years.

All told, the Blue Jays will assume in additional $40M in 2013 salary commitments and have improved by an estimated 19 WAR.  Projections peg the 2013 club to win 92-93 games.

So why don’t more clubs operate in a similar fashion?  Effectively utilizing prospects to address the club’s major league needs requires that a clubs’ front office is provided sufficient window to focus on player development and long-term asset building.  This protracted timeframe restricts the general manager from short-term roster fixes, instead focusing on the draft, identifying value-oriented players that can be subsequently traded or signed to team-friendly contracts.  Many baseball owners or markets do not have the patience for these development paths.  Instead, free agency offers a quick fix to the major league roster, at expensive prices, while further depleting a club’s future farm system (as premium free agents signings deplete the signing club of a high draft choice in the subsequent year amateur draft).

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