If there’s anything that last Monday’s non-tender deadline bloodbath taught us, it’s that MLB teams are fighting tooth and nail to clear payroll space this offseason.
That would be understandable from a purely baseball perspective if this free agent class were outstanding and the cost cutting was going to lead to an explosion of expenditure. While there are some gems out there, that’s simply not the case. More often than not, MLB teams are shaving payroll in an effort to improve the bottom line, not their World Series chances.
It’s an unfortunate state of affairs for the health of the sport, but it does create some opportunities for teams willing to swim against the current. Based on their ownership and their history, the Toronto Blue Jays don’t seem like a club likely to take advantage of the frugality of their peers and absorb salary — but their balance sheet is so wide open they absolutely have the ability to do so.
Over that last few years the Blue Jays’ lack of aggression in the free agent market and disinclination to trade for pricey veterans has afforded them some spending power to throw around. The most obvious use of those funds is an overdue dive into free agency. That’s supposedly the plan, and if there’s any truth to the rumours the team is in on Cy Young runner up Hyun-Jin Ryu, maybe they are ready to make a splash.
There is another route for the club, though, one that is simultaneously more creative and less exciting. If the Blue Jays determine that 2020 isn’t going to be their year — not an unreasonable conclusion to land at considering the state of their pitching staff in particular — they could use some of their payroll flexibility to unburden other teams of contracts they are looking to divorce themselves from.
For example, the Milwaukee Brewers are reportedly interested in dealing Lorenzo Cain. Cain turns 34 in April and is coming off a down season at the plate where he slashed just .260/.325/.372 in a hitter-friendly ballpark. He also makes $51 million over the next three years. It’s understandable that the Brewers would want to allocate their somewhat-limited financial resources elsewhere.
That said, if the Blue Jays were to swoop in they could get themselves a guy who’s an elite defender with a track record of durability, who projects for 2.8 WAR next year, according to Steamer. Because of his age, his rough 2019, and the fact he’s under contract through 2022, Cain is considered a net-negative value in the industry. That means the Brewers would also toss in some young talent just to get a club to take him off their hands. So if the Blue Jays made a move for Cain, they could get themselves a sizeable upgrade in centre field (albeit at a higher price than they’d probably like) and buy a prospect or two without relinquishing anything of value. While putting the contract of an aging player on the books isn’t this front office’s style, it’s something they can afford and their distaste for such a move could be offset by the prospects they onboard.
There are a couple of other obvious scenarios that are presenting themselves in this vein as well, although perhaps none that fit as well as Cain. For instance, according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, the New York Mets are also willing to reward other teams for taking on a bad contract or two from them. The two players Rosenthal mentions, Jed Lowrie and Jeurys Familia, represent very different opportunities in that vein.
Lowrie is in the final year of a two-year, $20 million deal and made eight trips to the plate with the Mets last season due to calf and knee injuries and the emergence of Jeff McNeil. The 35-year-old was worth an exceptional 8.6 WAR in 2017 and 2018, but concerns about his age and durability have him projected for a grim 0.2 WAR in 2020 by Steamer. Lowrie is undoubtedly overpaid and arguably a questionable use of a roster spot, but he’s able to play second, third, plus a little short, comes with a hint of bounce-back potential, and is a short-term commitment. If 2020 isn’t your year, carrying him isn’t the end of the world considering it would net you a young talent or two.
Bringing Familia aboard would have far more wrinkles. The veteran reliever has been suspended for domestic violence in the past which should make him a no-go for a Blue Jays club that tried to take the moral high ground with Roberto Osuna — albeit in ham-fisted manner. Familia is also owed $22 million through 2021, which makes him an even bigger liability on the ledger. Theoretically, you could trade for the closer and cut him immediately just to get the prospect capital the Mets are willing to sweeten the deal with, but New York is unlikely to offer something juicy enough to make that make sense.
The Chicago Cubs are also reportedly interested in dumping some salary. According to Jon Heyman, they are looking to make space for the return of Nick Castellanos. It’s hard to find a fit with the Blue Jays, though. It looks like Chicago will either move a guy with limited term like Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo to a win-now club in a blockbuster deal, or try to dump Jason Heyward and the $84 million he’s owed through 2023 on someone. Even if the Cubs heavily paid down the outfielder’s salary, the four-year commitment is probably a touch onerous for the Blue Jays’ tastes.
As we get deeper into Winter Meetings, more opportunities of this nature will continue to rear their heads. While the Blue Jays need to bolster their roster through traditional free agency, the acquisition of big contracts is something that could fit the club’s combination of payroll flexibility and distance from postseason contention.
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