Jonah Keri’s Blue Jays Mail Bag: Is any player untouchable?

Welcome back to Sportsnet’s Blue Jays Mailbag!

We asked you for questions via Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #JaysMailbag, and you came through in the clutch. For the final time this season, here are a few of your burning Blue Jays questions, plus our answers.

Maybe not as screwed as you’d think! First off, the Blue Jays are on track to lead the American League in attendance for the second straight year, a strong reminder that we tend to see the biggest boost in butts in seats the year after something great happens, and that said boost can withstand even something as buzz-killing as a last-place season. Continued, strong fan interest both at Rogers Centre and in terms of TV viewership bode well for the team’s finances.

After that, it’s a matter of what Rogers will greenlight in terms of payroll, and how aggressively Jays management wants to use whatever wiggle room it’ll have. The Jays’ opening-day payroll of $163.4 million this year was easily the highest in franchise history. General manager Ross Atkins has said that he thinks the team can contend in 2018, so we should probably expect a comparable or maybe even slightly higher payroll next spring.

It’s true that Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki and Kendrys Morales will combine to earn $51 million between them, and that none of the three are good bets to earn their keep given their advancing age and recent results. But the likely departure of Jose Bautista combined with the development of exciting young outfielders Teoscar Hernandez and Anthony Alford should give the team more youth, speed and defence. Meanwhile, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has developed so quickly, he could be a candidate for the big league roster by next summer, which would give the team even more skill, and youth. Meanwhile, the starting rotation looks mostly set for next season before we’ve even finished this season (more on that in a second). And the three best holdover relievers on the roster (Roberto Osuna, Ryan Tepera and Dominic Leone) are all under team control at low prices next year.

Add it all up and Atkins’ convictions for next season might not be that far-fetched, especially if the Jays can make a shrewd move or three, along the lines of the J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada and Justin Smoak deals of recent vintage.

The Jays announced on Wednesday that they’d re-signed Estrada to a one-year, $13-million deal, so that’s a terrific guess for 2018, and they didn’t even need to commit to him beyond next season to get the deal done. Re-signing Estrada gives the Jays a potential 2018 run-it-back rotation of Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Estrada and Joe Biagini, assuming Sanchez can solve his blister problems and the Jays want to roll with Biagini in the rotation from Day 1. Atkins said after the Estrada announcement that he’d like to bring eight or nine major league-calibre starters to camp next spring, so count on that quintet, along with a potential return invite for lefty Brett Anderson, and possibly another couple of low-risk, moderate-reward pitching pickups.

He’s probably done, sadly. Whatever traces of speed and defensive range he once had are now gone. Which means he needs to hit a ton to be a playable major league starter. Given that he’s batting just .205/.311/.371, walking less often than he has in nine years, and striking out more often than ever before, that big bat is no longer there.

As for where he ranks among all-time Blue Jays, I slotted him third behind only Dave Stieb and Roy Halladay (and ahead of all other Jays position players) when Sportsnet did its Top 40 Blue Jays rankings. Rather than bemoan his diminished skills, let’s celebrate his all-time greatness for the franchise. I recommend these odes by Andrew Stoeten and Drew Fairservice to get you in the proper bat-flipping mood.

Unless Atkins has been pulling a giant rope-a-dope all along, Donaldson will head into the 2018 season as the team’s starting third baseman. The Jays brass is acutely aware of the healthy revenue streams being generated by the team even during a rough season, and they’re likely not all that motivated to flip Donaldson for a bunch of prospects right now, even if building a sustainable winner is the ultimate goal. And frankly if the Jays wanted to get big value for him and use Donaldson’s MVP credentials to rebuild the team, the time to do that would have been a year ago.

The real wild card here could be a potential contract extension offer. Donaldson’s flashed his MVP form of old over the past two and a half months, he’s still a plus defender, and he’s a fit and lean player who doesn’t have the Mo Vaughn type of build that typically spells doom for a player in his 30s hoping for a gentler age curve. Granted, he’ll turn 33 when the 2018 winter meetings hit, making the deal of five years or longer that he’ll likely get a big risk, even with all those positive traits working in his favour. Then again, the Jays could conceivably let their last few eight-figures-a-year contracts expire between now and the end of the 2019 season, then use Donaldson as the anchor player in a reloading phase that sees players like Guerrero, Bo Bichette and others become the new faces of the franchise.

The question of what to do with Donaldson might ultimately come down to this: Beyond wins and losses, beyond the usual stats, can any one player generate significant value for a franchise just by being there?

As good as Donaldson is, you can’t consider him anything close to untouchable, not when he’s a year away from becoming a free agent. That makes Stroman, Sanchez, and Osuna, three significantly younger players who all can’t test the open market until after the 2020 season, better fits for that label.

Still, I don’t see any of those pitchers as untouchable either. I made my case for why the Jays should trade Osuna back on June 15, when Osuna was pitching like Mariano Rivera … so obviously I don’t see him as indispensable now that we’re three-plus months further into the season and he’s struggled mightily. All relievers are expendable, because relievers are almost always pitchers who weren’t good enough or durable enough to start, thus relegating them to lesser roles. Trade any relief pitcher the second his value shoots up, and you’ll be right far more often than you’re wrong. Sanchez certainly can’t be considered untouchable either, after an injury-plagued season in which he made just eight starts due to severe blister problems.

That leaves Stroman, who we can safely call the closest thing to an untouchable player that the Jays have on the active roster, as he closes out a season in which he ranks fourth among all qualified AL starters in ERA and first in groundball rate. Still, pitchers always carry significant injury risk, Stroman lacks the elite strikeout stuff that make pitchers like Chris Sale and Corey Kluber perennial Cy Young candidates, and he’ll get his second arbitration award this winter, meaning he’s no longer the dirt-cheap mega-bargain he once was. You don’t go out of your way to shop a quality 26-year-old starter like Stroman by any means … but you don’t hang up the phone if another team offers a king’s ransom either.

The only player you can more or less call untouchable within the entire organization is Guerrero, because 18 year olds with huge power potential and supernatural batting eyes who’ve already mastered high-A ball come around once in a generation. The Jays are very unlikely to trade Stroman, Sanchez or Osuna this off-season. But if they started to lean that way, you could live with it, assuming the returns are juicy enough. You trade Vlad Jr. only if you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the sun is about to explode.