Why the Blue Jays have payroll flexibility beyond 2018

Blue Jays prospect Anthony Alford tells Jeff Blair he doesn’t exactly know where he stands with the organization, but is just looking forward to competing for a spot, and working hard wherever he goes.

TORONTO – There’s a ruthlessness to the way that teams have traded franchise players like Giancarlo Stanton, Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen this winter.

Rebuilding teams like the Miami Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates are prioritizing the future, often at the expense of present wins and fan sentiment. They aren’t alone, though. Perhaps wary of a Detroit Tigers or Philadelphia Phillies-like crash, even win-now teams appear to be placing a high value on future seasons.

The New York Yankees acquired Stanton without dealing away their best prospects; the Houston Astros acquired Gerrit Cole while preserving their top talent; the Los Angeles Dodgers and Yankees are both working to stay under the competitive balance tax.

This austerity may have deprived the hot stove of some of the maverick-style, win-now moves we witnessed in past off-seasons, but objectively speaking it makes sense to pursue deals that allow for sustained contention, even if it means saying no to some intriguing present-day possibilities. At least that appears to be the preferred approach in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Houston, Cleveland and St. Louis.

In Toronto, Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins have made clear their desire to build a sustainable winner rather than a team with an expiry date. There’s clearly work to be done following an 86-loss 2017 season, as the Blue Jays scored the fewest runs in the league last year and haven’t made a meaningful upgrade to a potentially vulnerable pitching staff.

That said, the Blue Jays have considerable financial freedom beyond 2018 and that flexibility’s worth watching as the club pursues upgrades.

This season, the Blue Jays’ guaranteed payroll commitments would sit below $150 million even if they were to lose both of their outstanding arbitration cases. While players earning the MLB minimum salary of $545,000 must also be accounted for, Atkins still appears to have breathing room before reaching the $165-million range, where the club’s payroll sat in 2017.

Beyond 2018, the Blue Jays payroll really opens up. Josh Donaldson, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, Steve Pearce and Aaron Loup will combine to earn more than $57 million this season, but are all entering walk years.

In fact, the Blue Jays have just four players locked in for 2019: Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin will earn $20 million apiece while Kendrys Morales will make $12 million in the final season of his three-year deal and Lourdes Gurriel will earn $1.929 million. That’s it, at least when it comes to guarantees: $54 million.

Of course that figure’s somewhat misleading given that the club options for Justin Smoak ($6 million) and Yangervis Solarte ($5.5 million) look likely to be exercised. Add in arbitration raises for Marcus Stroman, Roberto Osuna, Kevin Pillar, Aaron Sanchez, Devon Travis and others and the Blue Jays’ likely commitments surpass $100 million for 2019.

Still, 20 MLB teams have already made more hard commitments to their 2019 payrolls than the Blue Jays, according to data available at Cot’s Baseball Contracts. Eight of those teams are already locked in for more than $100 million.

The following year, the only guaranteed money on the Blue Jays’ books is Tulowitzki’s $14-million salary plus $2.929 million for Gurriel. Only six teams have committed less guaranteed money: the small-market Pirates, Brewers, Rays, Athletics and Twins plus the rebuilding White Sox.

Contract options and arbitration salaries will impact the Blue Jays’ 2020 payroll, of course, and by then the Stroman-Osuna-Pillar-Sanchez-Travis group could be quite expensive. But none of those contracts are locked in, so the team’s insulated against injuries or poor performances.

That flexibility has the potential to help the Blue Jays in a few ways. Short term, it could allow them to backload a multi-year free agent contract the way they did with three-year deals for Happ and Morales.

Beyond that, the Blue Jays could attempt to keep their top performers in Toronto by locking up arbitration-eligible players to multi-year contracts or even extending Donaldson.

The trade market also has potential. The Blue Jays could either pursue talented players earning significant money or take on bad contracts to land prospects the way they did in the 2016 deal that landed Reese McGuire and Francisco Liriano.

Ultimately, the financial flexibility doesn’t amount to much if the Blue Jays don’t use it on the right players. Their roster has significant needs for 2018 and even more questions beyond that. But if nothing else, this current payroll flexibility gives them options in their ongoing effort to join the select group of teams that sustain success year after year.

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