TORONTO — The $52-million bet the Toronto Blue Jays are making on Randal Grichuk is reminiscent, even if not entirely comparable, to the $64-million gamble the club took eight years ago on Jose Bautista.
Now, like then, the team was in a transitionary period, although this rebuild has certainly been far more extreme. While Grichuk was two years away from free agency compared to Bautista’s one and wasn’t platforming off a club-record setting 54-homer year, both outfielders were coming off one strong season with the Blue Jays at the time of signing, with intriguing shared risk between player and team. And, in both cases, the player represented the most significant financial outlay made by the respective GMs, Alex Anthopoulos then, and Ross Atkins now.
Bautista’s deal turned out to be the first step that led to the renaissance of 2015-16. The Blue Jays can only hope that Grichuk’s deal, coming hours after the trade of Kevin Pillar to the San Francisco Giants further extended the current teardown, is the first cornerstone laid for the core of the next prospective contender.
“The offence has always stood out, he’s always performed, he’s always hit the ball hard and he’s always hit it far and it usually goes over the fence at a pretty good rate. In our view he’s been an above-average defender and those are hard things to piece together,” Atkins said of what he’s seen from Grichuk to merit the commitment. “It really is much easier … to recommend it to our ownership when you know the commitment from a teammate and a professionalism standpoint and you’re not worried about off the field distractions, you’re not worried about his commitment or desire to be great. That makes it a lot easier to push things forward.”
Grichuk — a 27-year-old acquired in a one-sided January 2018 trade that sent reliever Dominic Leone and prospect Conner Greene to the St. Louis Cardinals — was set to earn $5 million in 2019. The new contract reworks his salary to $7 million this year and adds a $5 million signing bonus. Next year he’ll earn $12 million followed by salaries of $9,333,333 during the three free-agent years purchased from 2021-23. There are no club options or player opt-outs.
Now, if Grichuk’s performance in the second half of 2018 is a harbinger of what he will be moving forward, the contract will work out swimmingly for the Blue Jays, locking up a productive bat and strong defender that can provide some bedrock at a reasonable cost for the developing core.
There’s the potential for surplus there.
At the same time, Grichuk’s career has featured lots of stops and starts, some caused by injury, others by inconsistency. That’s the risk the Blue Jays take to buy the potential surplus.
Part of the thinking is that there’s piece of mind in taking the money and taking the security as opposed to leaving matters to chance in an attempt to max out in free agency after 2020.
“There are a lot of guys that play the game scared with the unknown of wanting to set yourself up (financially). Injuries happen, struggles happen,” said Grichuk. “If I go out there without any pressure, any fear or doubt or uncertainty, just go out there and play, my talent will take over and I’ll be where I want to be. So this is allowing me to do that.”
Grichuk is far from alone in taking the security, as roughly two dozen players across the majors have signed extensions over the past two months, a remarkable figure that’s sucked lots of potential out of future free-agent markets.
In that way, the Blue Jays are just following the trend.
“It is interesting that it has occurred,” said Atkins. “The shift in free agency, the shift toward playing younger players, the reliance and dependence across the industry on your farm system, on scouting and development has contributed to that. And as human beings, whether on the team side or the players side, we are a copycat world and that does influence you. You certainly try not to let that influence decision-making, but teams and players become more open-minded to concepts when they’re occurring more frequently.”
Despite that, Grichuk insisted that “the other guys didn’t impact me at all,” although he added that, “it’s good to see money given to players that deserve it.”
For him, “what it came down to was, is this a city I want to play in, are they going in the direction I want to go in? Five years in baseball life is a long time,” he continued. “And just making sure the money is fair, and I thought it was. I was definitely happy to get the offer and be able to sign it.”
And so, the Blue Jays have fully committed to a core piece moving forward, one that comes from their group of players with four-plus years of service time. Like the just departed Pillar, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Matt Shoemaker and Ken Giles all fit into that category, too, and are candidates to be traded before the deadline.
The accumulation of assets-phase of all this isn’t over.
The latest additions there are outfielder Socrates Brito, infielder Alen Hanson, reliever Derek Law and pitching prospect Juan De Paula, who each join the organization in the wake of the Pillar trade.
Brito will be given a chance to become one of the outfielders alongside Grichuk, competing with Teoscar Hernandez, Billy McKinney, Anthony Alford and Jonathan Davis. Atkins raised the possibility of some of the club’s infielders possibly finding at-bats in the outfield, as well, and while he didn’t mention names, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Devon Travis, Brandon Drury and prospect Cavan Biggio all come to mind.
The eventual arrivals of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette will further the rebuild, and the team still needs to find pitching, desperately. Young arms that will better align with the core are sure to be the target as teams call on Stroman, Sanchez and Giles.
The same goes for pending free agents this fall like Justin Smoak, Clay Buchholz, Clayton Richard, Daniel Hudson and Freddy Galvis (who has a club option).
More players will go, more assets will come.
“You always want to be kept in the loop but as a player it’s something you can’t think about,” Smoak said of living with the uncertainty. “It’s the nature of the business. I’ve been traded twice, it happens, it’s not always something that you want to happen but to see two of our veteran guys go quick, there’s definitely a chance it could happen. But I can’t go out there and 2-0 count start thinking if I’m getting traded or not. I’ve got to go out there and play.”
Painful as it may be, this is what rebuilding teams do, turning major-league players on expiring, or soon-to-be expiring contracts into longer-term pieces, aiming to accumulate enough talent that blossoms and pops in relative unison.
In among them now is Grichuk, too, the Blue Jays hoping that their history with extending an outfielder in a similar spot repeats itself.