After the recent release of Troy Tulowitzki and the retirement announcement from Ricky Romero, the Blue Jays have had a few reminders about the risk in long term investments.
In an offseason that was supposed to be dominated by headlines around the mega-contracts for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, things have been pretty quiet. Granted, there are only a handful of teams that could afford players of that financial magnitude, but it’s hardly the arms race their free agency would have been a decade ago.
Budget is a part of that equation of course, but the other significant factor is that teams are learning that long term investments rarely work out for the best. The Blue Jays have been criticized for years for their conservative approach, and their former five year limit on free agent contracts, but it’s also possible they may have been ahead of their time with that line of thinking.
Harper and Machado are a rare breed because they are premium players who are hitting free agency in their mid-twenties. The idea of giving anyone something like a decade long contract is scary, but at least with someone at their age it’s possible and even likely that they’ll still contribute at an above-average rate in their early to mid-thirties, as the contract nears it’s end. That said, an injury or two could change everything, and that’s when a contract turns from a scary possibility into a nightmare.
The Blue Jays have had a few recent examples that could fit that type of description, with the poster child being Troy Tulowitzki. “Tulo” was acquired in the summer of 2015 and was a key part of the Blue Jays making their run into the playoffs and appearing in the ALCS. He may not have starred at the plate like fans hoped he would, but his defence up the middle was invaluable, and the Jays likely don’t make it to the ALCS without him.
2016 was a pretty solid year for the former Rockie, but it’s been disaster ever since because of a variety of injuries. He was paid 40 million from 2017-18 to play in roughly half a season, and the Blue Jays believed they were better off to pay him 38 million to go away rather than keep him around to fill a spot on the 40 man roster, and perhaps block the development of young players like Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Bo Bichette.
Another recent example came into the limelight on Tuesday when Ricky Romero announced his retirement from baseball. The now 34 year old was once one of the brightest pitching assets in the Blue Jays’ cupboard, but he also hasn’t been on a big league mound his 2013. As recently as 2011 he was an All-Star and was even receiving Cy Young votes. Less than two years later he was out of the big leagues for good, mostly because of a pair of bad knees that wouldn’t let him compete at the level he was used to. His investment wasn’t a horrendous loss, but the Jays did pay him almost 16 million to not pitch for them from 2014-2016.
Some of you might be thinking that Russell Martin would qualify for this as well, but I don’t believe that to be the case at all. He’s not really worth the 20 million he’s due in 2019 at this stage of his career, but the contributions he brought to the table in the early part of his contract made him worth every penny of the five year, 82 million dollar pact. He’s a rare example though, and his contract could be pretty rare for veteran catchers going forward as the game continues to trend younger.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that the Blue Jays should rule out long term contracts completely, but the longer that I watch this game the more I understand why a front office might be hesitant to offer an extension before they have to. There was a time when fans were clamouring for both Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson to receive long-term contracts, and with the benefit of hindsight we know that it would likely have been a mistake with the latter, and definitely would have been with the former. We might be saying the same about the injury-prone Aaron Sanchez as well, had he been extended a year or two ago before his injury worries turned into a borderline epidemic with his pitching hand.
This likely won’t be an issue with the next generation of these Blue Jays, especially because their primary building blocks figure to be players like Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Bichette, Gurriel Jr., Danny Jansen, Nate Pearson, Eric Pardinho, and more talented minor leaguers. I’m sure Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro are cautiously smiling at the idea of building a team around these inexpensive potential stars, and having the ability to supplement the roster with veterans as needed.
That said, don’t expect any long term deals to take place in Toronto in the near future, at least not until these young players sort themselves out and prove who will stick at the highest level. In Atkins and Shapiro’s defence, there are enough recent examples to make them wary of such a thing, even if the team was ready for that phase of the rebuild.