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Richard Griffin: Blue Jays headed for dramatic payroll cut

Toronto Star logo Toronto Star 2018-09-11 Richard Griffin - Baseball Columnist
a group of baseball players standing on top of a field: Russell Martin could be on the trading block next season, while Marcus Stroman is eligible for arbitration. © Carlos Osorio Russell Martin could be on the trading block next season, while Marcus Stroman is eligible for arbitration.

Since 2013, the Blue Jays have featured opening day team payrolls that were each more than $115 million, the highest six totals in franchise history. The 2018 Jays payroll in April stood at $164.1 million, second-highest in team history and ninth in all of MLB among 30 teams, according to figures by USA Today. That streak of free spending by the Jays is coming to an end. 

At a media session late last week at the Rogers Centre, team president Mark Shapiro emphatically spoke of going young for a couple of seasons, of finding out who can play at this level and who can contribute to a winner whenever it is that the Jays turn the ship around. Best guesses internally were 2021. Only when the time is right will the Jays reach to collect expensive help in the form of top-tier free agents or trades for high-priced pieces. This is how rebuilds happen.

“When you enter into these junctures, usually your payroll comes down because you have younger players anyway,” Shapiro said, clearly defining the club’s direction for 2019, leaving no room for interpretation.

The Jays honestly believed they had a chance to compete in 2018. At least they spent money like they believed they had a chance, adding Jaime Garcia as a fifth starter, Curtis Granderson as a platoon outfielder and veteran bullpen pieces Seunghwan Oh and John Axford who had past closing experience.

With the ninth-highest payroll in the majors and with 10 MLB teams qualifying for the playoffs, the Jays were certainly spending enough money to at least believe they could contend. However when you end up with $20 million on the sideline in Troy Tulowitzki, $20 million underperforming with Russell Martin’s dismal offence and $23 million injured early and traded late in the form of Josh Donaldson, it certainly helped remove the Jays from the reality of the post-season.

Forget the past. Let’s look forward and examine the numbers to see how the 2019 Jays can realistically duck under $100 million by opening day.

There are just four guaranteed contracts remaining in for 2019, plus two affordable club options that add up to $64.9 million. The guaranteed deals belong to Martin, Tulowitzki, Kendrys Morales and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. The easy decision options belong to Justin Smoak ($6 million) and Yangervis Solarte ($5.5 million)

There are nine Jays who are arbitration eligible. That list includes Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Ken Giles, Kevin Pillar, Randal Grichuk, Devon Travis, Ryan Tepera, Brandon Drury and Jake Petricka. In 2018, that group of nine combined to earn $24.5 million. The actual 2019 salaries for the arbitration-eligible players will not be known until January or February, but allowing for a generous overall 33 per cent increase, that total for those nine players comes to $32.6 million.

The pending free agents among current active Jays are Marco Estrada and Tyler Clippard. That’s all that remains after GM Ross Atkins spent most of July and August collecting spare parts for veterans and free agents on expiring contracts.

The other Jays players who have played in the major leagues this year all have less than three years service time and are under club control in terms of salaries that they will be forced to accept if they don’t come to terms.

With those six guaranteed contracts and 10 other arbitration-eligible Jays, that leaves nine roster spots with no leverage. Even given an estimate of $700,000 per man, that adds up to just $6.3 million meaning that overall with the current Jays group if there are no non-tenders, trades or releases, the projected 2019 payroll could be in the area of $104 million.

The key then for Atkins and Shapiro — if they want to get below $100 million — is in finding deals with other teams for Martin and for Solarte. Certainly Tulowitzki is untradeable after having missed an entire season-and-a-half, plus the fact he is still owed $38 million through 2020.

Unlike some pro sports, there are no buyouts in baseball, so the best bet with the former all-star would be to have Tulo come to spring training and compete at starting shortstop. If he has a good spring and a healthy first half, it might be possible to trade him if the Jays eat the lion’s share of remaining dollars. That is the best-case scenario for a rebuilding team.

Solarte has two manageable option years and there may be teams who just look at his offensive numbers and might be willing to roll the dice on his defence and intangibles for $5.5 million. But there is absolutely no room in a crowded Jays infield.

As for Martin, he will be entering the final season of his five-year contract. The Jays have been to the playoffs two of his four years.

There are more teams out there than you can imagine who could use a catcher of his abilities, even with a bat that has tailed off dramatically the past two seasons. Contenders like the Yankees could use him to guide a championship staff, while teams with younger rotations could use his experience.

The catch here is that any team interested might see Martin as a $5 million catcher for one year, not a $20 million catcher. The Jays would likely have to eat a huge amount but the payroll savings could still push them under the $100 million bar.

Where might they spend the savings? The Jays are in the middle of a $100-million renovation of the spring training facility that Shapiro hopes will be finished by the start of 2020 so any money saved on payroll the next two years will be put to good use. It seems the Jays are rebuilding in all areas.

Richard Griffin is a sports columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @rgriffinstar

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