The Jays Put a Springer in Their Step

One of the big puzzle pieces of this offseason fell firmly into place Tuesday night as the Toronto Blue Jays came to terms on a six-year, $150 million contract with free agent outfielder George Springer. Springer, our second-ranked free agent overall, is coming off a .259/.359/.540, 1.9 WAR season in the abbreviated 2020, enough to make him a highly desired player despite the fact that he’ll turn 32 at the end of the 2021 season.

It seems almost like yesterday when I was fielding questions in my chat about whether Springer was a highly touted prospect-turned-bust after a rough first two weeks in the majors that featured a sub-.500 OPS and strikeouts in a third of his plate appearances. In fact, my standard, curt “April” reply originated in response to the initial panic caused by his slow debut. As one would expect from a player with his pedigree, April showers brought May power, and by the end of his second month in the bigs, Springer’s seasonal OPS was up to a much healthier mark in the mid-.800s. His OPS stayed at or above .800 until he was finally stopped in July due to a quad injury that cost him the rest of the 2014 season.

That was pretty much the last thing that stopped him. Starting in 2015, his first full season, Springer hit .274/.363/.494 and 154 homers and 24.7 WAR for the Astros. That’s not even counting his playoff appearances, another half-season of the highest-leverage baseball you can find, where Springer flourished, hitting .269/.349/.546 over those 63 postseason games. His 19 postseason home runs are currently tied for fourth in major league history, though admittedly, there are a lot more playoff games now than when Ted Williams played. All told, Springer’s performance has easily put him in the top 10 among outfielders in recent years.

Top MLB Outfielders, 2015-2020
Name HR AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
Mike Trout 204 .303 .432 .605 .428 177 46.8
Mookie Betts 150 .301 .374 .526 .379 136 38.4
Christian Yelich 138 .299 .386 .513 .381 140 28.5
Bryce Harper 177 .278 .403 .536 .392 144 26.6
George Springer 154 .274 .363 .494 .366 135 24.7
Lorenzo Cain 61 .293 .358 .424 .339 110 19.9
Charlie Blackmon 150 .309 .369 .530 .379 122 19.4
J.D. Martinez 191 .298 .369 .571 .391 145 19.4
Aaron Judge 119 .272 .390 .558 .396 151 18.8
Giancarlo Stanton 158 .265 .353 .553 .377 140 18.0
Marcell Ozuna 140 .279 .342 .475 .347 119 16.7
Cody Bellinger 123 .273 .364 .547 .375 137 16.7
Starling Marte 84 .289 .340 .452 .339 113 16.4
Kevin Kiermaier 61 .245 .306 .408 .307 94 16.0
Michael Conforto 118 .259 .358 .484 .358 128 16.0
Brett Gardner 89 .253 .340 .410 .326 104 15.9
Tommy Pham 82 .274 .370 .463 .358 127 15.5
Jackie Bradley Jr. 94 .247 .331 .438 .329 102 15.0
Andrew McCutchen 115 .268 .365 .455 .352 122 14.7
Adam Eaton 54 .283 .363 .425 .343 114 14.0

Now, Springer’s not Trout, and he’s not Betts, either. But do you think you’re getting Trout or Betts for under $30 million a year as free agents, even at 31? Remember, ZiPS knows if you’re lying.

While Springer’s no spring chicken, he also has the benefit of not starting out on the easy side of the defensive spectrum. You’d have to give me some pretty big odds to plunk money down on him being a competent center fielder by 2025 or 2026, but he’s perfectly adequate there right now. Springer’s faster than you’d expect from his traditional speed statistics like stolen bases — his sprint speed in 2020 was just behind players like Betts and Dee Strange-Gordon — but he’s not reliant on speed to play his position well. When the time comes to start playing right field full-time, I expect he’ll still retain significant defensive value there and not need to go straight to DHing.

ZiPS Projection – George Springer
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2021 .283 .364 .534 506 98 143 24 2 33 97 59 109 5 140 2 4.7
2022 .280 .361 .527 478 90 134 24 2 30 89 54 100 4 137 2 4.2
2023 .273 .351 .501 455 81 124 22 2 26 79 50 92 4 128 1 3.4
2024 .267 .344 .466 431 73 115 19 2 21 69 45 84 3 118 0 2.5
2025 .257 .328 .436 404 63 104 17 2 17 59 38 74 3 105 0 1.7
2026 .250 .317 .404 376 55 94 14 1 14 50 32 63 3 94 -1 0.9

ZiPS 2020 Percentiles – George Springer
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
90% .300 .392 .629 496 106 149 28 3 43 115 69 88 9 171 6.7
80% .292 .380 .590 500 104 146 26 3 39 108 65 96 7 158 5.9
70% .291 .376 .570 502 103 146 25 2 37 103 63 100 6 152 5.5
60% .287 .369 .552 505 100 145 25 2 35 101 60 105 6 146 5.2
50% .283 .364 .534 506 98 143 24 2 33 97 59 109 5 140 4.7
40% .280 .359 .524 508 97 142 24 2 32 94 57 112 5 136 4.5
30% .278 .355 .510 510 96 142 24 2 30 92 55 117 4 131 4.2
20% .275 .350 .488 512 94 141 23 1 28 88 53 125 4 125 3.8
10% .272 .345 .471 514 93 140 22 1 26 85 51 132 3 119 3.4

ZiPS is actually quite bullish — more than I am — that Springer will remain decent in center throughout the contract. ZiPS ages the various components of defense separately when it makes a defensive projection for modern players. Eventually, I hope to integrate even more of this kind of thing with the additional breakdowns of various aspects of defense that Statcast brings to the table, but more time is needed for that. Regardless, ZiPS sees Springer’s lack of reliance on speed as a positive for his defensive projections in center. By contrast, ZiPS sees Tim Locastro, a very speed-dependent player, losing significantly more defensive value in center over the next five years than Springer.

From the standpoint of cruel efficiency, $150 million is probably a bit of an overpay on Toronto’s part (ZiPS would suggest six years, $130 million). But there are important caveats in this case that I think more than cancel this out. While I stand by the notion that the going rate for a win has gone down in this depressed market (I’m using $7 million, similar to how I’ve measured recent offseasons), I’m not sure that’s actually the case for someone who is a legitimate star. I don’t think the Mookie Betts contract or the figures being bandied about for a theoretical Fernando Tatis Jr. extension are outliers. One of the curious things about free agency is that projected wins and salary have had a highly linear relationship over the last 40-plus years, even though they really shouldn’t have this kind of relationship. (My colleague Craig Edwards explored this a year ago in this very space.) When I model recent years, I do see a case for a transition to non-linearity beginning in the projections, and I expect in this environment, with just a few stars available and nearly everyone pinching pennies, that this will escalate. I don’t know for a fact that is the case, and we’ll need a few more years to be sure, but I expect that wins one and two are getting cheaper, while wins three and up are getting considerably more expensive.

It’s also important to note that the Blue Jays are in a position to get a greater benefit from a Springer signing than the average team, meaning they ought to be willing to pay more for his services than the average team. When I ran the numbers for the league after the Lindor trade last week, the Blue Jays came up as the American League team that saw the biggest boost in playoff probability by adding five wins to the ledger, going from 26% to 53%. Springer doesn’t quite add five wins, even over the first season — he’s not quite a five-win player, and the Blue Jays weren’t Rockies-bad in the outfield — but he does add just a hair under four on average.

ZiPS Projected Standings – AL East (1/20)
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS%
New York Yankees 94 68 .580 58.4% 28.8% 87.1% 11.4%
Tampa Bay Rays 89 73 5 .549 27.3% 41.2% 68.5% 6.3%
Toronto Blue Jays 87 75 7 .537 13.5% 34.8% 48.3% 3.6%
Boston Red Sox 77 85 17 .475 0.8% 5.8% 6.6% 0.3%
Baltimore Orioles 67 95 27 .414 0.0% 0.1% 0.1% 0.0%

Signing Springer puts Toronto into the thick of the Wild Card hunt without needing much in the way of additional help. It also opens up a lot more scenarios in which the Blue Jays take the AL East, important under our current playoff structure. After all, the Rays just traded Blake Snell and the Yankees have a rotation that’s very reliant on Gerrit Cole. Even if the Jays don’t do anything else, this is at least enough to make Tampa Bay and New York look over their shoulders a lot more often, and there have been no indications given that Toronto’s finished.

And once again, yes, Springer is 31. This is already accounted for in the projections. Here’s one last chart demonstrating this, projecting his six-year contract assuming different current ages.

ZiPS Projected Springer Contracts by Age
2021 Age ZiPS Projected Six-Year Salary ($M)
33 90.0
32 108.6
31 130.4
30 157.2
29 176.3
28 190.3
27 217.7
26 234.1

The Blue Jays are already getting the age-related discount for Springer; if he were 26 right now, he’d have been a more desirable free agent than Bryce Harper was the year he joined the Phillies (ZiPS suggests a 10-year, $307 million contract in that case).

While it doesn’t affect my overall evaluation as an analyst, I can’t say I’m sad to see Springer get a bit of a bonus given that the Astros played the same game with him that the Cubs did with Kris Bryant, effectively getting his services for seven years instead of six.

With the deal, Toronto moves into serious contender territory, George Springer gets his payday, and we finally see some positive movement in baseball’s molasses-like free agent market. Even a curmudgeon like me can’t find much to complain about here. Thumbs up.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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hombremomento
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hombremomento

Welp. Guess Straw is gonna have to take over center for us;

P.S. Myles please start eating a “balanced breakfast”