The Blue Jays Are Strongly Incentivized To Buy Despite .500 Record
(Title photo of Mike Leake courtesy of David, https://www.flickr.com/photos/bootbearwdc/)
The Toronto Blue Jays have endured a very frustrating first four months to the 2015 season. As you are no doubt aware, the Blue Jays lead the major leagues in runs scored by a very wide margin. They’ve circled the bases at a rate that seems out of place in the current pitching-dominated era. And they’ve also allowed a lot of runs. But far fewer than they’ve scored: entering play on Monday, Toronto had the second-best run differential in the major leagues, after St. Louis.
In terms of the runs they’ve scored and allowed, this team should be running away with the AL East! In terms of the actual skill-isolated performance of their players, they should also be performing very well. The Blue Jays as a team have pitched to a 104 xFIP-, hit for a 112 wRC+ and fielded at a roughly average level. This team’s talent level is not as good as their run differential (or summary statistics) suggests, but it’s still a pretty good team.
Alas, they have only won exactly as many games as they’ve lost through 100 games, sitting at an even 50-50. The trade deadline is Friday and the deadline rumour mill is at full strength. Many players who fit the Blue Jays’ needs are available — we’re heading into a very strong market for free agent starting pitchers, and many of these pitchers are on teams that are not in contention.
Scott Kazmir, who projects as a #2/3 starter and had been electric all season for the Athletics, was already shipped to Houston. Other pitchers who figure to be available, or who have already been declared to be available, include Jeff Samardzija, Mike Leake, Yovani Gallardo, Dan Haren, Mat Latos, Cole Hamels, and all of the Padres starters (Ian Kennedy is a free agent after the season and Tyson Ross, James Shields and Andrew Cashner are apparently on the table too).
But should the Blue Jays be buying? At .500, they’re well below the pace of what you would have expected the playoff teams to race. The Blue Jays would need to go 40-22 to reach 90 wins, a fairly typical playoff threshold. That’s a .645 win rate, which converts to a 104.5 full-season pace! The Blue Jays cannot be expected to win nearly 65% of their games over the remainder of the season. But this type of logic belies the fact that the American League has been marked by extreme parity this season. Just five teams have won more games than they’ve lost and only one of those teams is in the American League East. This is not a typical year and 90 games is not an appropriate measuring stick.
The truth is that components central to the Blue Jays situation demand that the team buy at the deadline, and try as hard as they reasonably can to make the postseason in 2015.
The Blue Jays sit 6.5 games behind the Yankees in the divisional race. This is a manageable deficit. Fangraphs estimates that the Blue Jays have a 10% chance of scaling the Yankees and winning the division. The Yankees are a pretty good team — Fangraphs expects them to win at a .537 rate going forward, with the Blue Jays at .522. But there’s still plenty of time for variance to push the Blue Jays ahead. Toronto’s better shot at the postseason is to edge the Twins and win a wildcard birth: Fangraphs rates the probability at 23.9%, for a total postseason probability of 33.9%. There is a very believable scenario in which the Blue Jays stand pat and still make the postseason. They only project for 82-83 wins total, but with a non-extreme amount of luck they could easily reach 87 or 88 and sneak. Fangraphs actually projects the Blue Jays as the second wild card “favourites” — they have the highest probability of winning a wild card spot, other than the top two AL West teams.
Despite a .500 record, the Jays aren’t buried behind any great teams. With a good starting pitching upgrade or two, the Blue Jays could solidify their wild card chances and close the gap on New York.
Deciding not to add pieces at the deadline would signal that the Blue Jays prefer to hold onto their young assets with an eye on 2016. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion will be in the last year of their contracts next year, so 2016 is something of a deadline for the Blue Jays core as currently constructed. Although they have many other great assets under control for longer too and there’s a lot that could happen in the next 18 months. Saying that the Blue Jays should hold onto their pieces and instead gear up in the offseason for an all-in 2016 can be a captivating idea.
However, it is not persuasive. The Blue Jays current roster features an offense that is reliant on post-prime players; Bautista, Edwin, Martin and Donaldson will be over 30. The Yankees don’t have that much payroll flexibility for next year, but they don’t figure to get worse in 2016, while the Red Sox have a lot of money coming off the books and should be much improved. It’s not clear that the Blue Jays could realistically maneuver themselves into a better position pre-2016 than the position they’re in now, after adding a good starting pitcher. They do have expensive players (Buehrle, Dickey, Navarro) entering free agency after 2015, but arbitration raises will cut into those flexibility gains. It isn’t as simple as saying that the Blue Jays offense will continue to excel next year and that the team just needs to fill their pitching holes. In the offseason, every team is simultaneously trying to fill holes. With additional free agents come additional teams with large contracts exiting the books. It’s a zero-sum system.
The Blue Jays should have the cash to acquire a good starting pitcher or two in the offseason, although another factor to consider is that free agent starting pitching have historically declined to take the Blue Jays money. The best way to reverse that trend is to win and show prospective free agents that the Blue Jays are serious about winning. Free agency may be a relatively unlimited market, but the products involved are people who have complex personal preferences that very often do not include coming to Canada. Russell Martin signed for the going rate and has been a great signing thus far, but his citizenship obviously made that a unique situation. Jeff Samardzija, Mike Leake and others who the Blue Jays may target in free agency won’t likely be as drawn to Toronto.
The top prospects that the Blue Jays are excited about may not be that productive in 2016 anyway. Prospects develop at their own pace and it would be unreasonable to expect top prospects Daniel Norris, Jeff Hoffman, Anthony Alford and others to produce much value in 2016. In 2017 and beyond, sure.
So, there isn’t necessarily a better opportunity for the Blue Jays on the horizon than now. And they’re not limited to just acquiring rentals. Many players they’re rumoured to be looking into (e.g., Michael Fiers, Tyson Ross) are controllable at least through 2017. Acquiring such a starting pitcher wouldn’t limit the team to competing in just 2015. It doesn’t sound like the Blue Jays are willing to part with Norris plus other prospects in exchange for a pure rental anyway; the thought that the Blue Jays must pick between 2015 and 2016 is a false dichotomy. They should be interested in rentals because there are so many decent rentals who are potentially available and the prices will be cheaper, but an approach that prioritizes 2015 and 2016 is likely both attainable and attractive.
The last thing to consider is the team’s front office personnel and the mechanics of not making the postseason in over 20 seasons. Alex Anthopoulos is in his sixth season as Blue Jays general manager; he has been building towards this current roster for quite a while. It is clear that management changes will come after the season. Paul Beeston will retire, leaving the door open for any number of possibilities. It has been suggested that should Toronto advance to the postseason, Anthopoulos could ascend to Beeston’s job, hiring someone else (if internally, perhaps Andrew Tinnish or Tony La Cava) to take his own place. Should the Blue Jays again fail to make the postseason, more sweeping changes to upper management could occur. That is speculation, but it’s speculation that has been raised by the Toronto media since the full details of Beeston’s near-ouster last offseason emerged.
In any case, it’s a critical season for the Blue Jays front office regime. Entering the postseason, even if only for a single game (in the case that they lose the wild card game) would have a profound impact on how the front office is viewed by both ownership and the fanbase. The Blue Jays front office surely realizes this critical fact.
The intangible effects related to making the postseason extend to the field too. It’s easier to sign free agents when you’re coming off a good season, especially if it included a playoff berth. It’s hard to say how much this is worth, but I believe that it’s fair to say that the Blue Jays would gain some additional 2016 traction purely from making the playoffs in 2015. There are obviously also revenue-related bonuses to playoff games, including the associated boost to next-season ticket packages.
The 2015 Blue Jays are a good team that could really use an extra couple projected wins, in the form of a great starting pitcher. They probably have a better shot than the 2016 Blue Jays would have. Their playoff drought leaves them in a unique situation, too. It has become very evident that there’s only one thing that the Blue Jays can do this trade deadline and that is to buy.