About this time of year every season, a cliché goes around that states “You can’t win a pennant in April, but you can lose one”. The reasoning is that there’s nothing a team can really do in the first month to make them sure bets for October, but they can play so poorly as to effectively eliminate themselves by the time May comes around.
This is a bit disingenuous: truthfully, if you can’t win the pennant in April (which you can’t) then you really can’t lose it either. But we do see teams every year that dig themselves huge holes in a matter of a few weeks, holes that can put severe handicaps on their playoff hopes. Just last year, the Astros, favorites in the AL West and fresh off a surprise playoff appearance, sputtered to an awful 7-17 April. Afterward, they played at a clip befitting of a playoff-caliber club, but the early struggles were too much to overcome, and they missed the playoffs by a few games.
It’s still too early to tell if that kind of situation is occurring again with the Blue Jays. Toronto, coming off consecutive appearances in the ALCS, had the look of a playoff contender yet again this year, but sits at a dreadful 6-14 currently. They’re certainly not dead, and there’s precedent for recovering from this kind of hole. But the odds are stacked against them in a way they weren’t just a couple weeks ago.
An Aging Roster
If things don’t turn around in Toronto, many will naturally call for a rebuild. The Blue Jays have one of the oldest rosters in baseball, and they already suffered losses to free agency last offseason in the form of Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Saunders, and Brett Cecil. After this year, Jose Bautista can be a free agent, as can Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano. And Josh Donaldson’s free agency post-2018 looms over it all.
The merits of rebuilding are sound: don’t spend resources on what might be a lost year, and instead flip players for ones that better suit your window of contention. There’s also a fine argument that Toronto should keep the band together. Players like Donaldson are exceedingly rare, and there are still talented contributors like Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, Aaron Sanchez, and Marcus Stroman around him. Perhaps the best course of action when you already have a superstar is to just keep him, and go from there.
But the prospect of a rebuild north of the border is at the least fun to contemplate. Who could the Jays move? What kind of hauls could they expect? Could they quickly and decisively revamp their farm system in a short span, just like the Yankees and White Sox did recently?
Cashing in on the Pitching Staff
Let’s start with Toronto’s pitching staff. Estrada re-signed with the Blue Jays after 2015 for two years and $26 million and has had nothing but success. Since coming to Toronto, Estrada has reinvented himself, and owns a 3.26 ERA in 381 innings as a Blue Jay. Whether the team should look to re-sign him again after this year is tough to say, given Estrada is coming up on his 34th birthday.
But at the deadline Estrada, as a number three starter on a reasonable contract, would probably fetch something from a team with a need in the rotation. As a pending free agent, the Blue Jays probably could only expect to recoup a decent prospect somewhere on the top-10, but not top-5, list of a team with an average farm system.
The same can be said for Liriano, especially if the Jays are willing to eat salary. Liriano struggled mightily with the Pirates last year, but has performed better after his trade to Toronto. Since 2013, he’s tossed 690 innings with a 3.63 ERA and matching 3.64 FIP. Some teams might balk at his $13.6 million salary for 2017, but if the Jays took care of a portion of that, he too should yield a notable return.
The case with Bautista is a bit trickier. Bautista has a hefty $18 million salary for this year and is off to an awful start. His strikeout rate has skyrocketed to 32%, and he’s batting .132 with a .206 slugging. Even so, ZiPS projections still call for Bautista to post a 122 wRC+ the rest of the way, and last year we saw that an aging corner bat can still have value on the trade market when the Yankees extracted the power arm of Dillon Tate and intriguing lefty Erik Swanson from the Rangers for Carlos Beltran.
What is Donaldson Worth?
So just by flipping a few veterans on expiring deals, the Jays should be able to add a handful of decent but not great prospects. That is without getting to the matter of possibly trading Donaldson. There isn’t a whole lot of precedent for trading a player as good as Donaldson: teams that get one typically don’t want to give them up.
To get a precise sense of what Donaldson would be worth in a trade, we can look at him from a simple $/WAR perspective. If the Blue Jays traded him midseason, the receiving team would be getting 1.5 years of near-peak Donaldson. Donaldson has averaged nearly 8 WAR the past four years, but now that he’s in his early-30’s, it’s safer to project a year and a half of Donaldson to be worth about 9 or 10 WAR. Given a raise in arbitration, that year and a half of Donaldson will likely cost between $25 and $30 million.
If we price the cost of one WAR on the free agent market at $8 million, then a year and half of Donaldson appears to be worth over $50 million of surplus value. That’s enough value to justify a team in contention giving up multiple blue-chip prospects.
Donaldson doesn’t have has much value as, say, Chris Sale did when the Red Sox gave up two elite prospects plus a pair of useful ones for the lefty ace. But he could garner a large portion of that haul. So, if the Jays could flip their expiring veterans for a handful of back-end top-10 prospects on an average team’s list, plus Donaldson for two or three top-100 in MLB type of prospects, would that be enough to justify hitting the reset button?
Where Do the Blue Jays Go From Here?
Baseball Prospectus rates the Blue Jays as the 18th best farm system, and rebuilding in this fashion would certainly vault them into the top-10. The team would take a step backward on the field, but given the remaining players like Martin, Tulowitzki, and others, the Jays would still be respectable, and in a position to further rebuild or even reinvest on the free agent market to try and pull themselves back up.
It’s not clear if that’s better than continuing to try and contend the next two years, and trying to bring Donaldson back after 2018, but it’s absolutely something that needs to be considered in Toronto. The upside of sticking with this core could be another deep postseason run, and continuing to sow good-will in a big market sports town that hasn’t seen a baseball team this successful in over two decades. The downside is looking like the Tigers do now, or how the Phillies looked when Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and the like started declining. It’s a tough situation, made only tougher by Toronto’s dismal April. In a few months, we’ll know more about which direction they intend to head.