The Blue Jays Should Rebuild

Earlier than they wanted to confront this reality, the Blue Jays are now in offseason mode. Their 2016 campaign was laid to rest yesterday by a rookie with Mark Buehrle’s fastball and a reliever with an unhittable slider, so today is day one of the remaking of the Blue Jays roster. And perhaps more than any other team this winter, they’ve got some big decisions to make.

You know about the two big ones; Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are both eligible for free agency, and in a thin market, both are going to be looking for significant raises. The Blue Jays almost certainly won’t bring back both; they might not bring back either one. Toronto’s potent lineup is going to change, and the 2017 Blue Jays are going to have to take on a different identity than the teams that slugged their way to the ALCS in consecutive seasons.

But the decisions don’t stop at whether to re-sign one of their sluggers; the Jays probably have to decide how aggressively they want to push in on the short term, and whether they’re going to try to keep their current window open, or pivot more towards a long-term outlook that might make 2017 a lesser priority. Bautista and Encarnacion aren’t going to be the decisions; what the team does with those two will be the result of the organization’s larger decision. And in looking at their options, I think there’s a strong case to be made that the Blue Jays should not just tweak the roster this winter, but intentionally take a step back next year.

There are certainly players on the roster who would argue for pushing forward with a win-now philosophy. Russell Martin turns 34 this winter, and based on his career workload behind the plate, he can’t be expected to perform at a high level for too much longer. The 2017 season could very well be his last productive one as a full-time starting catcher, if 2016 wasn’t already that. Troy Tulowitzki has a bit more life left, most likely, but he’s 32, and is more of a good player than a great one now. J.A. Happ (34) and Marco Estrada (33) aren’t likely to keep up their recent performances for too much longer. Francisco Liriano (33) will round out the rotation, and assuming the team picks up Jason Grilli’s option, they’ll have a 40-year-old setup guy.

Even if Bautista and Encarnacion are replaced by younger facsimiles, this team will be inescapably old in many of the key spots on the roster. And that fact means that the team is either going to have to predict when it’s necessary to rebuild, risking blowing things up a year too soon, or have the rebuild thrust upon them, if they end up rebuilding a year too late. While it’s certainly possible that the Jays could be right back in the postseason with a retooled roster next year, I think circumstances suggest the team should be proactive in getting younger, even if that means reducing the likelihood of winning in 2017.

One of the big variables in any decision like this is how the market is likely to act in a given winter. With a dearth of quality free agents but a continuing demand for talent from teams who don’t want to rebuild, prices are likely to be high again, with the price of a win likely over $8 million, maybe even pushing up towards $9 million depending on how the new CBA shakes out. Re-signing either of the team’s sluggers will be expensive, with both almost certain to command between $20 and $25 million per year on multi-year deals. The Blue Jays have about $115 million in committed salaries to about 15 players, and they ran a payroll of around $140 million in 2016, so re-signing either one would put them right up near their likely budgetary limit, leaving them few options for filling the team’s other holes.

And they have real holes. With Michael Saunders also a free agent, the team’s current outfield is something like Melvin Upton Jr. and Dalton Pompey flanking Kevin Pillar; that’s not a very impressive group of hitters. Either first base or DH would be a hole even if the team re-signed one of their two sluggers, with Justin Smoak likely penciled in as a regular at the moment, despite being essentially a replacement-level player. And in the bullpen, the team is going to lose Brett Cecil, weakening a relief group that was already one good arm short.

Even if you bring back Encarnacion and try to make some moves to add depth, you’re going to be looking at a team that projects as a mid-80s winner for 2017, with lots of downside risk given the team’s age. There won’t be money to make sure the team has real depth behind Tulowitzki or Martin, and the team is already dealing with the questionable health of second baseman Devon Travis, who will come to camp rehabbing after knee surgery. If they just bring back Encarnacion and try to fill out the roster with pieces they can fit into the budget, the team will be a fringe contender that could be taken apart by injuries, while relying on players at ages where breakdowns are common. It’s a recipe for potential disaster, and even if things break right, they might simply end up as next year’s version of the Tigers, a good-but-flawed team that falls just short of the postseason.

But there’s another option, and the weak free-agent market sets them up potentially to pivot without needing to enter a long-term rebuild. Because there isn’t much available in free agency this winter, contracts for aging players who still perform well will be easier to move than in winters with lots of available options, and the Jays are setup to take advantage of this market.

Tulowitzki has $78 million over four years remaining on his deal — or $89 million over five years if his 2021 option is picked up, which might be necessary to get him to waive his no-trade clause — but as a roughly +3 WAR player, that’s a reasonable enough price in this market. Martin’s a tougher sell at 3/$60M, but he could probably be moved if packaged with a player who had some positive value; say, Marco Estrada, who will make $14.5 million in the last year of his contract.

Just subtracting all three of those guys from the roster would take the Jays out of Wild Card contention in 2017, most likely, especially since neither Encarnacion or Bautista would re-sign if they saw veterans being shipped out. But it would also remove $40 million from the books in 2018, setting the franchise up to make a few big splashes the next time there are some better younger free agents, guys who could fit into a rebuilt young core better than the senior citizen’s brigade the team currently has.

And if you take a step back in 2017, you can give Dalton Pompey a fully year to evaluate what he might be as a big leaguer. You can work Rowdy Tellez into the lineup in the second half of the year. You can put a placeholder at shortstop for a year while you see how close to the big leagues Richard Urena might be. Heading into 2018, you could have a much better idea of what the team’s young position players could be, and if a couple of those guys develop, you’re in position to get right back into things in 2018 with some strong additions.

Most importantly, the financial flexibility gives the team the chance to lock up Josh Donaldson long term. Despite Bautista being the face of the franchise, Donaldson is the cog that made this team good, and he remains an elite player even now that he’s on the other side of 30. Keeping him from hitting free agency after next year won’t be cheap, but the team can afford one big commitment, and if they let both of this year’s free agents walks, they can keep from having to make the same painful decision after 2018. Yeah, he’d have to be convinced that the tear-down is temporary, but if the money is reallocated wisely, he might be willing to buy into the team’s plan for long-term sustainability.

In 2018, if you have Donaldson flanked by a few young position players who have shown to be ready to play roles on a winning team, and you still have Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez in the rotation, and you have a bunch of money to play with, the Blue Jays could be legitimate contenders again, and for a while. Taking 2017 off to consolidate their roster and build back up could produce another few year run that allows the team more than one chance to bring a World Series title back to Toronto.

If they stick with what they have, and just try to mitigate their losses as best as possible, it’s probably 2017 or bust. They probably won’t have the money to keep Donaldson, and when Tulowitzki and Martin become dead-weight contracts, the team will have to go through a painful rebuild while a large chunk of the payroll is committed to guys who aren’t good enough to get you to the postseason. Perhaps it would come after a 2017 World Series parade, and the cost would be worth keeping this group together for one last run, but I think the Jays have a better chance at a title in the next five years if they surrender 2017 to make the 2018-2020 run more likely.

Better a year too early than a year too late. This is the Jays chance to be proactive and rebuild for the future before they don’t have a choice.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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7 years ago

ehh I’d personally like to see them go for it for one more year, Saunders, EE and Bautista combined for 6 WAR, I feel like that can be replaced reasonably easily

7 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

So approximately the amount their payroll should go up from last year in a just and fair world

7 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

Or you could try EE, Carlos Gomez, and Pompey and might even improve on that 6 WAR, for about…30M?

7 years ago
Reply to  pastlives

“Might” seems to be the operative word. And that’s assuming the Jays re-sign EE and sign Gomez, neither of which looks particularly likely atm.

7 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

Right, so not much for the team that owns their network and enjoys far and away the highest television ratings.

7 years ago
Reply to  jianadaren

The shareholders own the team and network. Jays payroll on the corporate budget and subject to shareholder scrutiny. Not as easy as being private and not accountable to the public

7 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

it didnt cost $50 mil for AJ Prelller…just a 30 day suspension. #bargain