Saturday, 21 September 2013

Anthopoulos Has His Work Cut Out for 2014

This man's job is harder than your job.
 Tom Maloney at the Globe and Mail wrote a very interesting and enlightening article yesterday, in which he takes a very business oriented look at the challenges facing the Blue Jays this off-season (hat tip to @TaoofStieb for linking it). Upon reading the piece, I got into a bit of a Twitter discussion with @Stivbators and @ericviola_ about just what implications it might have for the team in 2014.

There's a lot of comfort that can be taken from the article, as Rogers Media president Keith Pelley is quoted as saying a lot of the right things about being committed to the Blue Jays as an investment in content for their various media platforms. This makes a lot of sense, as in the age of PVRs and cable cutters, live sports is one of the few types of content that still makes for reliable appointment viewing and the advertising revenue that goes along with it. Pelley and Rogers have obviously come around to the realization that a winning ball club is a much better investment than a losing one, and that has been reflected in the massive jump in payroll last off-season.

What I found less comforting, and the nugget which was the center of our little Twitter round table, was the line from Maloney that reads "observers expect the Jays to seek ownership’s approval on a payroll increase of $20-million to $25-million – up from about $127.8-million (U.S.) this year – without raising ticket prices." That sounds like a lot of money (okay it's a ton of money, but we're talking in baseball terms here), but we were all curious exactly how much flexibility that would leave Anthopoulos to make the kinds of upgrades that will be necessary for the team to reverse its fortunes in 2014.

My calculations were less than encouraging.
That's not to say the situation is hopeless, far from it in fact, but it also isn't as simple as just thinking that the team has $25 million to go free agent shopping. Let's assume best case scenario, that the team has roughly $153 million in payroll to play with this off-season. Coming off the books will be Rajai Davis ($2.5 million), Darren Oliver ($3 million) and Josh Johnson ($13.75 million). Getting hefty raises will be Jose Reyes (up $6 million), Mark Buehrle (up $7 million) and R.A. Dickey (up $6.75 million). Smaller raises will be going to Edwin (up $1 million), J.A. Happ (up $1.75 million), and Sergio Santos (up $1 million). I also think it's pretty safe to assume that they pick up Adam Lind's option that will see him make $1.85 million more than in 2013. Love him or hate him (and I've been squarely in both camps), it would be hard to replace his production for similar money.

Facing arbitration for the first time will be Cecil, Rogers and Arencibia so they'll get small raises, but Colby Rasmus is entering his final year of arbitration and will likely get a pretty significant raise. Looking at some comparable players, it's probably safe to count on him getting at least another $3 million on top of the $4.675 million he's making this year given the superb season he's had.

Now I don't claim to be an expert in Major League Baseball payroll intricacies, but if you accept my assumption that they pick up Lind's option, by my calculations that would leave the Blue Jays with $136.9 million already committed for 2014.

That would leave them approximately $13-15 million to upgrade the rotation as well as fill the gaping holes at catcher and second base.

If all we're looking at is free agency, $13-15 million might be enough to upgrade the rotation OR fill those holes, but it definitely isn't enough for all three.

Now that sounds like a pretty bleak situation, but like I said earlier it isn't hopeless. Some trades will have to be made.

They could clear up $7.75 million by getting rid of Ricky Romero, given that from the sounds of it he'll be removed from the 40-man roster again this off-season. Regardless of how you may feel about Romero and his chances of returning to form, that's a ton of money to pay a guy to pitch for the Buffalo Bisons given that it's hard to even look at him as reliable depth at this point. With Hutchison and Drabek recovered from Tommy John surgery and Nolin and Stroman each a year closer to the bigs following outstanding season in the Minor Leagues, it's hard not to think that they could find a much better use for Romero's salary elsewhere. The problem is that every other team also probably realizes they could spend that $7.75 million better elsewhere, so odds are the only way the Jays can move him is by taking back something similarly ugly. Even then it's pretty unlikely, but hey, so was moving the rotting husk of Vernon Wells.

Mark Buehrle's rather ridiculous $19 million would be another place to look for some salary relief. As good as he's been this season, that's way too much to pay for a 4.17 ERA that matches up almost exactly with his 4.13 FIP. If dollars/WAR is your thing, they'd be looking at more than $9 million/WAR given that he's been about a 2 fWAR player this year and last. The going rate in free agency is a lot more like $5-7 million/WAR, so paying $2 million more than that for a declining pitcher (even one as reliably durable as Buehrle) doesn't seem like the best use of limited resources. I won't bother to speculate on what sort of return they could expect for him because it would depend almost entirely on how much salary the Blue Jays would be willing to eat.

As big of a Colby fan as I am, I could even envision a scenario in which they move him while he's still a bargain rather than face a tough decision as he approaches free agency next year. The young man is going to get seriously paid unless he falls of a cliff next year, and if that happens it would only make the Blue Jays' decision harder. He could be replaced with Anthony Gose whose elite speed and defense would likely make him only a bit of a downgrade from Colby even if the gulf between their offensive outputs is exactly as cavernous as we should probably expect it to be. If the several million dollars in savings helped them make gains elsewhere there's a very good chance the outcome would be a net positive. Hell, even a replacement level second baseman would be enough to balance it out in terms of WAR with anything more than that being gravy.

Now I'm not really predicting which of these moves will be made, or even advocating for any or all of them to be made. These are just the areas in which I see some flexibility for Anthopoulos to play with in order to get maximum value out of the approximately $150 million dollars he seems to be expected to have at his disposal.

I don't envy him the job.

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  1. Nice job, this is a good analysis. It will definitely take some salary snacking to get rid of Romero, but crazier things have definitely happened!

  2. Another thought: completely agree re: Buehrle's utility. A decent mid to back of rotation guy, and a good innings eater, but not nearly enough quality to justify that kind of salary. If the Jays were contemplating moving his contract for some salary relief, would they typically just have to absorb some portion of his 2014 salary? Or a commitment to absorb a set amount for the remainder of his contract do you think?

    1. Yeah it's one thing to overpay in terms of $/WAR for a premium talent, but for a 4 ERA innings eater, no matter how durable, doesn't seem too efficient. Hell, no matter how durable he is for $19 million you should be able to get two guys that give you similar production just in case one of them breaks. Easy for me to say though! Much harder for AA to execute I'm sure.