TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays fan-base wants David Price back. So far this off-season, they’ve gotten Marco Estrada, Jesse Chavez and now, after he signed a $36-million, three-year contract Friday night, J.A. Happ, three deals that essentially ensure the ace lefty will be pitching elsewhere in 2016.
That’s no real surprise, and in refusing to delve into the type of mega-contract it would take to land Price, the Blue Jays under new president and CEO Mark Shapiro and interim GM Tony LaCava are remaining consistent with past organizational philosophy.
But the handing out of a pair of multi-year contracts to free-agent starters – Estrada was re-signed after he hit the open market, while Happ was lured back after being traded for Michael Saunders last winter – does represent a notable shift.
Before Estrada agreed to a $26-million, two-year deal, the last free-agent starter to get a multi-year contract from the Blue Jays was A.J. Burnett, who took $55 million over five years in December 2005. Between those agreements, the only free-agent starters they signed to major-league contracts were John Thomson, Tomo Ohka and Chien Ming Wang, each a low-risk dice-roll reclamation project.
Based on that recent history, the $62 million committed to Happ and Estrada represents a pretty radical jump. In context, however, the deals are conservative and relatively low risk, especially when compared against the nine-figure contract Price is going to get, while helping fill gaps in the rotation until longer-term starters can be developed or acquired.
Chavez, picked up from the Oakland Athletics for reliever Liam Hendriks, fits that mould as well, and the trio help build up the Blue Jays’ starter depth behind Marcus Stroman, R.A. Dickey and Drew Hutchison, all without surrendering either a draft pick or a prospect.
Think of that balancing the present and future thing Shapiro underlined during his introductory news conference.
The Blue Jays can still try to stretch out Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna, and they can still look for other opportunities via trade or the open market, although they likely don’t have much money left to spend.
Happ’s deal is slightly backloaded, as he’ll earn $10 million next season and $13 million in each of the two to follow. With that on the books, the Blue Jays now have $92.5 million in guaranteed money for 2016 with another $37.5 million projected by MLB Trade Rumors for the club’s 10 arbitration-eligible players. Factor in $5 million or so more for the club’s 0-3 service time players and they’re at about $135 million for 2016, meaning there’s not much left to work with if the payroll is at $140 million.
Now, some financial flexibility can be created by trading or non-tendering some of the team’s arbitration-eligible players. But barring some significant wheeling and dealing, the team’s heavy lifting this winter is probably done.
Happ closed out the 2015 season by going 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA over 11 starts with the Pittsburgh Pirates after posting a 4-6 record with a 4.64 ERA in 21 games, 20 starts with Seattle. He was 11-11 with a 4.22 ERA in 30 games, 26 starts, with the Blue Jays in 2014.
If Happ, Estrada and Chavez can all pitch similarly to the way they did last year, the Blue Jays offence should be able to do the rest, with Stroman providing a front of the rotation anchor and Dickey a 200-inning pillar of stability.
None offer the dominance or wider appeal of a David Price, but as the Kansas City Royals showed in 2015, a successful rotation doesn’t necessarily need to be top-heavy to find success. The Blue Jays, it appears, are trying to emulate that approach.