Welcome to the second installment in a series of articles profiling organizations that might match up well as trade partners for the Cardinals this offseason. The intent of these pieces is not to propose or analyze specific trade ideas (although I will suggest a framework trade or three, and kicking around specific ideas in the comments is encouraged). The idea is to provide readers with more information about organizations they might not know as well as they know the Cardinals, so they can be more informed for Hot Stove season. Previous entries can be found here.
The Cardinals’ value-consolidation quest would be a lot easier if there was a button they could push to turn teams that probably should sell into teams that actually would sell. That’s going to be a recurring theme in this series, and there’s no better way to introduce it than via the Toronto Blue Jays.
Things to know from 2017
Everything went wrong for the Jays in 2017. But we’re going to need more context than that.
Coming off an 83-win season in 2014, the Blue Jays pulled off one of the great trades of the last decade, getting Josh Donaldson from Oakland. In 2015, Donaldson won the AL MVP. Behind a core of him, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Kevin Pillar, Russell Martin, and trade acquisition David Price, the Jays won 93 regular-season games and went as far as the ALCS.
In 2016, Bautista and Russell faded a bit and Price was gone. But the rest of the core produced (along with 2015 trade acquisition Troy Tulowitzki), and pitchers Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada each stepped up and combined to make up a sneakily good rotation. The Jays won 89 regular-season games and the WC1 spot, and then made a second consecutive playoff run that ended in the ALCS.
In 2017, they (quite reasonably) went for it again. And almost everything that could’ve gone wrong did.
Most of the rotation struggled with either durability, results, or both. Bautista (-0.5 fWAR) fell off the map and, coming up on 37 years old, looks done as a meaningful contributor. Tulowitzki missed most of the season with a series of leg injuries, and was replacement-level across the PA he managed. Martin and would-be-2B-of-the-future Devon Travis played fine but were hurt a lot. In the frequent absences of Tulo and Travis, middle infielders Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney were awful. DH Kendrys Morales managed a sub-replacement season despite 28 home runs. And Donaldson missed six weeks with a calf injury; 40 missed games from a player that great will hit a team’s bottom line. They finished 76-86.
It wasn’t all bad. Donaldson still looks awesome (149 wRC+ and a career-high ISO). Stroman and young closer Roberto Osuna were both excellent. RP Dominic Leone emerged from nowhere with 70 terrific innings. And Encarnacion’s departure didn’t hurt, as his replacement Justin Smoak outplayed him (3.4 fWAR to 2.5). But there’s no avoiding it: the list of bad is a lot longer than the good.
Not all those 2017 disasters will recur; regression, in this case, is the Jays’ friend. But despite one of the best players in the game at 3B and a credible #1 starter in Stroman, right now FanGraphs thinks their current roster would project as only a bit better than .500. However, Bautista (whose team option they’ll surely decline) and Francisco Liriano will be off the books, freeing over $30M in payroll space, and their farm system (as we’ll see) plus budget flexibility means significant additions are possible. For a team with bad 2017 results and mediocre projections, they’re not that poorly positioned for 2018.
The stars: Donaldson is set for free agency after 2018, and is awesome. (Tired of not having Kris Bryant? Donaldson is Kris Bryant.) Stroman is very Carlos Martinez-ish: excellent pitcher, hasn’t quite put himself in the best-of-the-best conversation but he’s young enough and has the kind of stuff that it wouldn’t be a big surprise to see him take that leap, and he’s excellent even without it. Osuna had a hinky strand rate this year but is one of the best relievers out there.
Prospects: Toronto has a well-regarded farm system. It’s top-heavy, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it just means what they lack in depth, they make up for with guys among the elite:
- 3B Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. (yes, that Vlad) is the crown jewel; his ceiling has been described as “his dad, but a third baseman.” He’ll be a top-10 (at least) prospect in all of baseball on most lists this year, but he’s not yet 19 and hasn’t played above high A. Doubtful we’ll see him yet in 2018, but he’s the heir apparent at the hot corner if they neither trade nor extend Donaldson.
- SS Bo Bichette (yes, that Bichette) exploded up prospect lists last year. Long story short, scouts think his swing is weird but all he’s done is hit and hit and hit. He’s only a year older than Vlad Jr., and also has not yet appeared above high A, so we’re again not looking at a 2018 guy. He’s expected to play SS in the near term but outgrow it eventually, maybe sticking at 2B or transitioning to outfield.
- OF Anthony Alford got a cup of coffee in 2017 but broke his hamate bone eight games in; he’s a mega-toolsy former multi-sport athlete who cut way down on strikeouts and started to show a good feel for hitting at AA in 2017. He’s had relatively little AAA time, but should be ready to contribute in the near term. He looks like a really good, multifaceted player if the developing plate discipline from 2017 holds up.
Beyond those three, Toronto has a number of interesting guys. Among others: RHP T.J. Zeuch missed a chunk of the year but showed good command and elite groundball tendencies; SS Richard Urena was rushed past the high minors because the MLB middle infield situation was so bad, but is just 21 and has plenty of time; C Max Pentecost is a promising hitter who some scouts say is starting to overcome doubts about his defense; lanky LHP Ryan Borucki jumped three levels in 2017 with nothing but success and has put himself on the map; 1B Rowdy Tellez and RHP Sean Reid-Foley fell on their faces in AAA and AA, respectively, but have such good raw abilities that that they remain names to know.
Stability in the outfield: Pillar’s elite defense makes him a mainstay in CF despite his light hitting, for now. But with Bautista likely vacating RF, and LF looking like an uninspiring timeshare between Ezequial Carerra (0.7 fWAR in 325 PA) and Steve Pearce (0.0 in 348), the Jays could use both long and short-term options. Alford may well make a case for one corner at some point in 2018, and deadline acquisition Teoscar Hernandez may be an average everyday player, but there is little depth or certainty in the Jays’ outfield at the moment.
Stability in the rotation: Stroman is very good, and Happ and Estrada will eat their share of adequate-to-good innings. Beyond those three, though, the Jays are currently penciling in Joe Biagini (who has been solid as a reliever, but iffy as a starter) and a big question mark (Borucki? A free agent?) at 4-5. [EDIT: I forgot Aaron Sanchez! He’ll be back after missing most of 2017 with a finger injury. So they’re still short a guy, but just one instead of two.]
Stability in the middle infield: Tulowitzki and Travis will enter 2018 as the starters, barring changes. Travis has never managed more than 441 PA in a professional season, and Tulo’s durability problems are well-documented. Infield reinforcements are coming from the farm, but aren’t here yet.
If the Blue Jays can achieve stable production in these spots this year – whether from within or via acquisitions – they’re credible Wild Card contenders again right away. Or, in the alternative…
Additions to a 2019-20 prospect wave: if the Jays think it’s too risky to bet on 2018, they could bolster their coming group of elite prospects, accept going away for a while, and try to re-emerge with a young, elite core and money to spend in a few years. If they’re going to do this, they need more high-end prospects, wherever they can get them.
What should they do?
I don’t know.
Cashing in their chips and pushing their window out a few years is probably wise (if painful) given that both the Red Sox and Yankees look ascendant in the AL East right now, and that even if you squint the Jays need some breaks. But you can’t just convince a team to rebuild with “it’s probably wise.” Owners need to be convinced to forgo attendance and revenue for an uncertain future return. Front office executives need to commit professional capital to the project — risking careers, in many cases. Rebuilds are not guaranteed to work, but tearing a not-bad team down is guaranteed to make it bad for a while. I don’t have more than a hunch of what they should do, nor any idea of what they will do.
How they match up with the Cardinals
Honestly? Pretty well, no matter which path they choose. Especially if St. Louis finds other ways to add a star or two from outside, the Cardinals can offer surplus MLB-level outfielders (definitely), middle infielders (likely), and/or starting pitchers (possibly) to raise Toronto’s floor if they go the Stabilize & Contend route. And with Alex Reyes (and arguably Luke Weaver) and Carson Kelly, the Cards can offer prospects who are among the very best in baseball at their positions to match up with the arrivals of Alford, Guerrero Jr., and Bichette, should the Jays go the Full Rebuild direction.
Regardless of what Toronto ultimately decides to do, they and the Cardinals should at least talk a lot this winter.
Sample trade ideas
- The Big Rental: Donaldson for Jedd Gyorko (and the $7.5M the Padres are still paying for him) and Dakota Hudson. This is modeled after the Jason Heyward-Shelby Miller deal, with the Jays getting an immediately useful average-ish player for three years (Miller had four years of control left) and a decent pitching prospect (Tyrell Jenkins was rated a B-, and Hudson will likely come in at B to B+). If the Jays prefer a prospect to Gyorko, swap in Harrison Bader or Delvin Perez; if you don’t like Gyorko, pick another of the Cards’ controlled 2-3 win players. And if this seems light, well, that’s why the Jays might decide to hold, go for it, and sell Donaldson midseason if it goes south again. Rentals don’t produce blockbusters.
- The Blockbuster: Donaldson and Stroman for Reyes, Kelly, Jack Flaherty, Perez, and Gyorko (with the Padres money). I’ve got that as roughly $120-30 million in projected surplus value going each way (after a sizable post-TJ discount on Reyes). The Cardinals thereby reintroduce themselves to the National League, and the Jays get a hell of a good group.
- The Sensible Disappointment: Randal Grichuk for I dunno, this Zeuch guy and some teenager we’ll all have to look up and then furrow our brows at.
Outside their control though it may be, I sure hope it’s not just the third one. But at least the Bottenfield trade chain would live on.