Tao of Stieb: MLB’s shrinking middle class could cost Travis, Pillar

Kevin Pillar and Devon Travis are among the Blue Jays' arbitration-eligible players (Duane Burleson/AP)

With baseball’s non-tender deadline coming up Friday, it might be time to spare a thought for the sport’s middle class, and those trying to join it.

As the understanding of the economics of the game advances rapidly, we see teams applying what had until recently been theoretical notions on the value of players, and the results can be surprising.

The past two off-seasons have raised many eyebrows, as veteran players who would previously have cashed in on free agent contracts were left scrambling to find jobs well after spring training commenced. More recently, the Tampa Bay Rays walked away from their 28-year-old first baseman C.J. Cron, despite his 30 homers and wRC+ of 122 in the previous season.

For all that we talk about controllability, the Rays had control of a young, productive player but chose to take their chances on finding a suitable replacement on the market rather than paying him a fair bit less than what Justin Smoak will make this season.

The Rays are clearly the most extreme example of how a team’s player personnel is managed, and they won 90 games last season after pulling a similar maneuver with Corey Dickerson. Still, it shouldn’t surprise us to see several notable names pop up on the transaction wire Friday after teams non-tender them.

Until recently, baseball’s economic system seemed to operate in a way that would moderate the earnings of young players before they became veterans and broke the bank. Then, teams seemingly got smarter, with only a few super-rich deals getting handed out, while others settle for less term or less money.

Now, players aren’t even getting to the end of their controllability cycles before teams make harsh judgments on their future values and prune them from their payrolls before they reach the marginally more expensive end of their arbitration years.

It’s hard sometimes to understand if this is a perversion of the system, or if it is working precisely as designed.

For the Blue Jays, three players stand out as potential non-tender candidates this year. Yangervis Solarte’s non-tendering is almost a given at this point, with his age and his precipitous drop-off at the end of last season serving as a credible rationale. But also on the bubble are two fan favourites, Devon Travis and Kevin Pillar.

In one of those examples of how time antagonizes us all, somehow both Travis and Pillar have passed from being up-and-coming contributors to a contending team to veterans who may have reached already the top of their potential.

When and how did that happen?

Complicating matters is the full roster the Blue Jays are already carrying into the 2019 season, especially with position players. The coming year will have less to do with contention for pennants, and more to do with multiple players contending for full-time and long-term jobs on the big league roster. Some players in that mix have at least the perception of upside that can be mined to the benefit of the next great Blue Jays team.

If the Blue Jays aren’t adding a great player in this offseason, they’ve certainly amassed a lot of players who could be pretty good.

Moreover, beyond those already affixed to the 40-man roster are some obvious high-profile prospects who figure to graduate to the MLB level in 2019, and some of those players will be pushing to get at bats from Pillar and Travis.

Pillar would seem to have the strongest argument for being retained. MLB Trade Rumors anticipates a $5.3 million arbitration award for the centre fielder, and while there may not be much more offensive ceiling to wish on at this point, and his defensive value may see some slippage as it did last year, he has remained a steady two-win player, and is projected for the same next season.

Still, the question remains as to whether if the Jays couldn’t get that same production from a rotation of Anthony Alford, Billy McKinney, Jonathan Davis, or Dwight Smith Jr. along with likely starters Randal Grichuk and Teoscar Hernandez. Pillar’s saving grace may be that he is by far the best defensive player of that lot, even with some Statcast data showing he may have lost a step last year.

Travis’ future with the team might be a more complicated decision for the Blue Jays. He managed to stay healthy last season, but came away from the season as a negative value contributor. Some of that was bad luck (.255 BABIP), and a terrible start to the season. But there’s also a question as to whether we have already seen the best he has to offer, and even what that was. In his 2.4 win season in 2016, he was conversely quite lucky, posting a .358 BABIP at a time that shifting for every batter was the exception rather than the rule.

At an anticipated $2.4 million arbitration award, and with Richard Urena and Brandon Drury posing immediate competition with Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. poised to pleasantly complicate matters, there may not be much room left for Travis.

Both Pillar and Travis are genuinely likeable players, and should either of them be non-tendered, it would be a shock to many fans. Though given the circumstances, not necessarily a surprise.

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