At its essence, the agreement allows the team that scored the fewest runs in the American League to improve its woeful production against right-handed pitching. The cost? $5 million plus incentives based on playing time — bench player money, more or less. There you have it. That’s the deal.
And yet the move warrants a closer look, not only because of Granderson himself but because of who came before him and what his arrival suggests about the moves that will follow.
First there’s Granderson, and let’s start with his weaknesses. Most noticeably, he doesn’t hit lefties (.696 career OPS, .668 OPS in 2017). The Blue Jays will have to find another way to solve Chris Sale.
Though he was once a fleet-footed centre-fielder, Granderson has lost a step a couple of months away from his 37th birthday. He’s about as fast as Steve Pearce or Hanley Ramirez now, slower than about two-thirds of big-leaguers.
That loss of footspeed may have impacted his defence, too. Though Granderson spent roughly half of his time in centre field last year, his overall defensive ratings have been slightly negative in each of the last three seasons, as measured by FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.
Lastly, he struggled down the stretch after the Dodgers acquired him, posting a .654 OPS with Los Angeles during the regular season before struggling in the NL playoffs and losing his roster spot ahead of the World Series.
Then you have the positives. It’d be disingenuous to point to the distant past when discussing a player entering his age-37 season, so let’s focus on recent history. Not only does Granderson have an .854 career OPS against right-handers, he has posted an OPS of .800 or better against them in each of the last three seasons (.806 OPS, 21 HR in 2017).
If used selectively, then, he can balance out a Blue Jays lineup that has skewed heavily to the right in recent years (the Toronto outfield looks particularly right-handed, with Kevin Pillar, Pearce, Teoscar Hernandez and Anthony Alford all batting from the right side). Along those lines, his defensive versatility gives manager John Gibbons flexibility before or during games.
And while Granderson’s late-season struggles are troubling to a degree, the World Series-bound Dodgers wanted him on their team a matter of months ago. They rostered him for the NLDS and NLCS even after witnessing his late-season struggles. Presumably, that information counts for something.
So does Granderson’s personal reputation. A 14-year veteran, Granderson’s respected by his peers and active in the MLBPA. Off the field he’s a Roberto Clemente Award winner who personally donated $5 million for a youth baseball academy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Blue Jays decision-makers will surely cite Granderson’s leadership ability once the deal becomes official.
All told, Granderson may be an imperfect player, but he’s still capable of helping a contender in a meaningful way (2.1 WAR per FanGraphs, 1.4 WAR per Baseball-Reference). As for the $5 million he’ll earn, that’s pretty standard for platoon-type bats, as recent deals for Mitch Moreland and Trevor Plouffe show. This deal looks entirely reasonable for both team and player, objectively speaking.
Of course, the Granderson move didn’t happen in isolation. The Blue Jays might keep adding to their outfield, but until that happens Granderson looks like a leading candidate for playing time in right field, the longtime home of a Blue Jays icon.
If Jose Bautista had put together a vintage season in 2017, it would have been easier to ignore the risk inherent in the aging but powerful outfielder on a short-term deal. But Bautista declined rapidly, posting a .674 OPS and striking out a franchise-record 170 times. As such, the risk in replacing a 36-year-old with a soon-to-be 37-year-old looms large.
At the same time, Bautista’s struggles don’t necessarily foretell disaster for Granderson. He was the far more productive player in 2017, with an OPS 101 points higher and 2.6 more wins above replacement, as measured by FanGraphs. While Bautista started 155 games last year, the Blue Jays can use Granderson more selectively to ensure he succeeds.
And even if Granderson’s production doesn’t continue in 2018, you’re left with a player earning just $5 million compared to Bautista’s $18.5. Meaningful differences exist between the two players and the ways they impact the Toronto roster.
More importantly, there’s the question of what comes next. Granderson’s deal means the Blue Jays have approximately $15 million to work with as they look to address their remaining needs. The club doesn’t appear to have ruled out adding another outfielder, but must also balance the need for a starting pitcher, bullpen help and a backup catcher. Until those needs are addressed, Toronto is an Aaron Sanchez blister away from relying on Joe Biagini as its fourth starter.
In that context, there’s a clear opportunity cost to signing Granderson, and he won’t transform the Blue Jays’ offence single-handedly. At the same time, a capable bat earning a bench player’s salary shouldn’t prevent the Blue Jays from addressing those remaining needs. If anything this addition clears the path for more activity from a team that still has work ahead.