This spring, Randal Grichuk is following Mike Trout. The outfielder whom the Angels drafted with the 24th pick in 2009, one slot before they chose a player who’s already in the conversation for the greatest of all time, is the latest to agree to a long-term extension. It’s significantly less than Trout’s 12-year, $430 million pact, of course, but Grichuk nonetheless guaranteed himself a substantial payday by agreeing to a five-year, $52 million deal with the Blue Jays, covering the 2019-23 seasons. That’s not too shabby for a player who was viewed as a fourth or fifth outfielder when he was acquired from the Cardinals in January 2018.
As the Blue Jays have steered themselves into rebuilding mode by shedding the likes of Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, J.A. Happ, Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, and others over the past 18 months, either via trade or free agency, the now-27-year-old Grichuk has emerged as more than just a backup. Last year, he started 84 games in right field, another 25 in center — largely when Kevin Pillar, who coincidentally was traded to the Giants on Tuesday, the same day that Grichuk’s deal was announced, missed time with a shoulder sprain — and one in left field. Despite hitting just .106/.208/.227 in 77 plate appearances before missing all of May due to a right knee sprain, he set a career high with 25 homers while posting his highest on-base percentage (.301), slugging percentage (.502), and wRC+ (115) since his 2015 rookie season.
Grichuk is a player with significant strengths and glaring weaknesses, as his .247/.297/.490 career batting line suggests. He’s got a ton of power; his .244 ISO is in the 95th percentile among the 330 qualifiers from 2014-18, one point ahead of Bryce Harper, but his 29.8% strikeout rate over the same span is in similar territory, and his 5.8% walk rate is in just the 17th percentile. He punishes fastballs (career wRC+ of 144 against four-seamers and 161 against sinkers) and is vexed by breaking pitches (58 career wRC+ against curves, 75 against sliders, with the latter accompanied by a 20.3% swinging strike rate). He’s got a slight reverse platoon split (111 wRC+ against righties, 106 against lefties) but is playable against pitchers of either hand. Defensively, Grichuk can play all three outfield positions adequately or better; his UZR/150s are above average at both corner spots (8.7 in left field, 4.1 in right), though he’s slightly in the red in center (-1.4) and was not very good there in last year’s limited duty (-2.3).
Overall, Grichuk has produced a 109 wRC+ and 8.9 WAR in 1868 career plate appearances, about 2.1 WAR per season or, prorated, 2.9 WAR for every 600 PA. That’s an above-average player, if not a spectacular one. ZiPS suggests more of the same is in store:
I’m including the 2019 season here because it’s covered by the extension, which is rather front-loaded — so much so that Grichuck is actually being paid more this year and next, which would have been his final years of arbitration eligibility, than for his three free agent seasons. According to SportsNet’s Shi Davidi, the extension increases Grichuck’s 2019 salary from $5 million to $7 million, and pays him a $5 million signing bonus as well. He’ll make $12 million in 2020, then $9.33 million per year for 2021-23, when he would have reached free agency. Via USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, his 2023 salary can increase by $1 million if he makes 1,200 PAs in 2021-22, with bumps to $1.5 million (for 1,250 PA in that span) or $2 million (for 1,300 PA in that span) possible.
So even if Grichuk does nothing more than maintain that two-win production, the Blue Jays are getting his services at a significant discount, as they’re paying less than $5 million per projected win over the life of the deal. They’re paying him more money now, at a time when their payroll is low due to the rebuild, than they will once coming prospects such as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette become more expensive.
They’ll also be sending Grichuk out to the free agent market after his age-31 season, which could mean rough sledding for the flychaser if recent trends hold. Over the past two winters, just eight position players over the age of 30 have gotten deals longer than two years, while the average annual salary of the position players in the 30-33 range who have settled for those two-year deals is only about $8 million. Particularly if Grichuk’s ability to play center field fades or his offensive production slips, it’s not hard to imagine him knocking around on one-year deals after this extension ends.
All of which is to say that even with the discount, Grichuk probably made the right move in locking in this payday. If he were to rise to a new level of performance — say, to hit .280/.326/.569 across a full season instead of just last year’s second half — he might lament settling for this deal, but with nearly 2,000 plate appearances under his belt, the odds of that are dwindling. Even in this age of increasingly malleable skills, it’s not as though his production will surge dramatically if he unlocks the secret of launch angle à la J.D. Martinez, as he already hits the ball in the air plenty.
At the same time, the deal carries some risk for the Blue Jays, as there’s not a whole lot of value left for a two-win player who goes into decline. Given where they are in the competitive cycle, now is a reasonable time for them to invest in Grichuk, and with two trades already under his belt, one can understand why the player would be happy for such a guarantee.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.