Last season, the Toronto Blue Jays looked like a team deeply entrenched in rebuild mode.
Their 67-95 record was fifth-worst in the majors, they spent the trade deadline shipping away veteran big-leaguers like Marcus Stroman and Eric Sogard for prospect packages and their average position-player age was the lowest in the league (25.9 years).
It’s quite possible that 2020 will be just another chapter of the rebuild, as Cot’s Baseball Contracts projects the Blue Jays to have their lowest payroll since 2012. Still, it’s never too early to have an eye on when the competitive window will open — and preparing the roster (and subsequently, the payroll) accordingly.
Speaking with Stephen Brunt and Jeff Blair on Writers Bloc on Sportsnet 590 The FAN on Tuesday, Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro spoke about the mindset of signing some of Toronto’s team-controlled talent, including Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, to long-term contracts that would buy out their arbitration years and ensure they’re around well into the future.
“That is a strategy which (has been) a very big part of my career,” said Shapiro, who did the same in Cleveland with Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and all-star Jason Kipnis. “And it’s something that we believe strongly in.
“Whether we do anything or not, I would assume we’ve explored it or are exploring it with every one of our young players that we have a strong belief are gonna be good players here for a long time.”
In baseball, players who accrue roughly three years of “service time” (calculated by adding the number of days a player is on the active roster or the major-league injured list) are eligible for salary arbitration. After six years of service time, they become free agents.
There is no obligation for MLB teams to extend multi-year contracts to players in that arbitration window (or pre-arbitration, for that matter). Doing so has risks and benefits for both the team and player involved.
“The player is obviously risking some upside that he’s gonna get (more money) in free agency or going through the arbitration process,” Shapiro explained. “For security, for the certainty of maybe being able to have peace of mind and putting that aside.
“For the club, you’re giving up the risk of injury, for some reason a dip in performance, anything else that can enter into the orbit of affecting a player’s performance.”
Guerrero Jr. and Bichette, who are both still in the pre-arbitration phase, earned the league minimum ($555,000) last year despite being key contributors for the Blue Jays down the stretch.
Meanwhile, Toronto paid veteran catcher Russell Martin $16.4 million in retained salary to play somewhere else.
If players like Guerrero Jr. and Bichette want to earn more money in the short term, signing a multi-year deal makes sense. But that might require them to sign away their first couple years of free agency (depending on the terms of the contract), which could mean missing out on a major payday.
“You’re looking for that sweet spot,” Shapiro said in reference to which players and teams fit the contract type. “Where both are comfortable feeling uncomfortable. Both are comfortable sharing that risk.”