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April 6, 2008

Transaction of the Day

The New Blue Jay Extensions

by Christina Kahrl

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TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Team Audit | Team DT Cards | Team Articles | Team Statistics

Signed RF-R Alex Rios to a six-year, $64 million extension covering the 2009-14 seasons, with a $13.5 million club option for 2015; signed 2B-R Aaron Hill to a four-year, $12 million contract with a provision for options for one, two, or three seasons after 2011.

It's all very sensible, signing players to long-term extensions that overlap their future eligibility for free agency. Everybody's doing it, if not always with the right players, but the benefits are usually pretty obvious: you can skip however many potentially fractious arbitration fights, forestall any potentially demoralizing free agency-generated defection to some far-off date to be named later, and with the engine of inflation an almost permanent feature of both the general economy and that of baseball, your future dollar expenditures are always going to be worth less than present-dollar expenses. Whether you want to credit the Indians in the early '90s or the White Sox from even earlier or whoever else for inventing this particular gambit for talent and payroll management, it's generally accepted as something the kids at the head of the class do; sign young players to long-term deals, and you're almost automatically called smart.

In terms of the players and valuation, the math's sort of straightforward. If the standard is Hill's value over a replacement-level second baseman, he's obviously worth the money. If the standard is Rios' value over a replacement-level right fielder, sure, very probably, in the near term, after which the Blue Jays end up paying a home-town premium to acquire Rios' loyalty in his age-32 and -33 seasons, and possibly his age-34 campaign. In this respect, Rios' contract might wind up being very like that of Vernon Wells, in that neither player's likely to be anything more than an adequate regular by 2011, but they'll be making the kind of money that will significantly affect the team's ability to buy premium talent on the market. The intricate layering of risks and expenditures in Hill's deal is a little more creative, in that the Jays will have a choice to make by Opening Day of that same year, where they could pick up a three-year option covering 2012-14 for $26 million, or punt on that and instead make a post-2011 decision to pick up an $8 option for 2012, a $16 million option for 2012 and 2013, or just let Hill slip into free agency.

So, doing the clever things with extensions that other clever general managers do is de rigueur, but what does this really mean for the Blue Jays? Is it just a matter of sensible player management, or part of some larger plan? Consider the Jays' major financial commitments in their lineup the next four years, with probable production (via Nate Silver's Seven-Year Forecasts in PECOTA):


                   2008       2009       2010      2011
Pos Player         $   EqA    $   EqA    $   EqA    $   EqA
1B Lyle Overbay   5.8 .270   7.0 .268   7.0 .265   --   ---
2B Aaron Hill    ~3.0 .260  ~3.0 .264  ~3.0 .265  ~3.0 .262
3B Scott Rolen   11.0 .268  11.0 .264  11.0 .270   --   ---
CF Vernon Wells   9.0 .277  10.0 .269  12.5 .269  23.0 .270
RF Alexis Rios    4.8 .285 ~10.5 .285 ~10.5 .284 ~10.5 .278
DH Frank Thomas   8.0 .297  10.0 .283    --  ---    --  ---

Even allowing for the fact that these are median projections that overlook the players' varying abilities to break out, that looks like a lot of adequacy to me, or even less than that in Overbay's case. A fully-functioning Rolen might generate a lot more than these numbers, providing bang for the buck, but balanced against that you've got the risk that the Big Hurt breaks this year, let alone earns his option for '09. For the Jays, Rios' deal is an eminently reasonable bet that his performance in the last two years is what's more likely to happen than his comparatively weak year as a 24-year-old in 2005, and that he'll outperform these projections, but for the deal to really work out to their benefit and give them a significantly better-than-average player in their lineup, he has to.

If you can, forgive me a strained bit of compare and contrast, because when it comes to the active pursuit of realizable objectives, I guess I find the Blue Jays and their lack of vision in some ways the exact opposite of Wilhelmine Germany, but also in some ways very similar. The German Empire should have been a satisfied power, top dog not just in the Central Division but also in the European League, with no extra major objective that might be achievable or realistic. But instead, the hyper-paranoid striving of Kaiser Bill's foreign policy guaranteed that the Second Reich chased after dubious add-ons in the realm of dynasty-building, like a navy (which Churchill acidly characterized as Willy's "luxury fleet") and lucrative colonies in such generally-attractive locations as the present-day Cameroon or Tanzania (what, you don't get the tourism brochures?). Added to a number of almost ludicrous diplomatic faux pas, the Reich generated the worst possible fulfillment of its own fear-mongering, engendering a general recognition amongst the leaders of England, France, and Russia that they had to stick together to avoid getting stomped by those nutters up the middle.

The only thing these two entities might have in common is a seemingly bi-polar leader, with both the Kaiser and Ricciardi swinging between publicly-articulated delusions of grandeur balanced against subsequent defensive self-justification, and with both men hampered with a sometimes dodgy relationship with truth, reality, or sensible strategic planning. In both cases, there's a motivating desire for self-preservation, and in both cases, neither seems to have been capable of making decisions that might have made or make that preservation possible. They just did (and do) a mix of enough seemingly-sensible things balanced against the real head-slapping missteps that wind up undermining any progress.

Toronto's odd relative satisfaction with their lot without achieving anything makes for an obvious contrast, although like the ill-fated empire, the Jays acquire generally pointless add-ons that don't really help them realize any important objective. Sign Frank Thomas to a multi-year commitment? It's nice for him, but it also didn't really make the offense tremendously better in the near-term, not when the unit slipped from posting a .266 Equivalent Average in 2006 to a putrid .253 in 2007. Thomas might be very nice in his way, but he's no longer the kind of offensive player who can make all the difference in a lineup; adding him to a generally mediocre assemblage of talent just gives you a merely decent high point, sort of like an overpass in Nebraska. It looks like something that'll get you some elevation, but only because so much of everything else around is flat.

In a sense, Hill and Rios are potentially as much a part of the problem as they are building blocks for the future. As I've said, Rios' deal is a worthwhile bet. If you give Hill's brilliant defensive skills their due, it's clear he can add some of the elements that would contribute to a championship-level ballclub. But he's also not a hitter with an exceptional offensive upside; last year's impressive 66 extra-base hits were as much a function of getting more than 650 PA in his age-25 season as anything else. He's not going to be Jeff Kent with a glove, because there's not a lot in his performance profile across his career to suggest that he could be. He's a damned good player on a team without many-or perhaps any-great ones in the lineup.

Now, not much of this is really revelatory; Joe Sheehan did a great job of talking about the problems with J.P. Ricciardi's once and future Blue Jays lineup in this year's edition of the annual, and locking up Hill and Rios really only eliminates a couple of medium-term variables. Assuming that their young pitching continues to develop and balances out whatever they get out of key veteran hurlers like Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett, and B.J. Ryan, they're left with trying to find difference-making bats at catcher, shortstop, and left field. In terms of supply and demand and finding a premium offensive performer, one of these things is not like the other, and even if the Jays threw mounds of cash at Pat Burrell this winter after a great season, I'm not sure even that really fixes the problem of underwhelming adequacy this constellation of talent seems condemned to. As a result, while achieving cost certainty for their second baseman and right fielder for the immediate future is all well and good, it doesn't obviate the more desperate quandary over what Ricciardi should do if he ever wants to live up to his early and subsequently sporadic rhetoric of building a contender in Toronto.


Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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