Tom’s note: John wrote about this for Baseball Babble, and it is something I had been thinking about but hadn’t gotten as far as writing it, so I asked John if he would do a guest post for us.
The 2019 Blue Jays don’t offer much overall team excitement or expectation. In fairness the offseason has only just begun with just a few trades and free agent signings in the books. However the general feeling is that Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins will keep this offseason more low key. Of course if there is one thing to everyone is looking forward to in 2019, it’s the arrival of Vladimir Guerrero Jr, aka the #1 prospect, the 19 year old phenom, MiLB Hitter of the Year, the only ever prospect to receive a 80 grade hit tool and the budding superstar in the making.
It’s no secret, however, that Vlad Jr will not start the 2019 season on the MLB roster due to the extra service year gained by keeping him down in the minors until about the 3rd week or so of April. You can ignore the posturing by Atkins, he will not make the team. We will hear about leadership, defense, refining skills, being a good teammate, giving someone else a well deserved look and a million other made up reasons, but we all know its service time manipulation. In fairness to the Blue Jays, I would do the same thing, the reward of an extra cheap year is worth a few more weeks of slugging bull excuses. They are playing within the rules technically as long as they don’t publicly admit the obvious.
Here is my simple or not so simple solution. Sign Vlad Jr this offseason to a 7 year $80MM deal. Yes, even before he plays his first MLB game, he gets paid. Vlad Jr.’s camp is bound to file a grievance and while that will take years and likely amount to little, it still sets a poor tone. By holding Vlad Jr down for 16-20 days the Blue Jays essentially get 7 seasons instead of 6 years before Vlad Jr. is a Free Agent. Meaning they get a bonus year but would likely have to pay 4 years of arbitration as a Super 2. Of course they could hold off until the Super 2 cut off but that just seems downright wild to even consider. So why pay him upfront?
First off, it allows him to start the season in a Blue Jays uniform, sorry Bisons. They get to avoid slugging the pile of excuses. They make the fans and the player happy. They gain cost certainty and avoid potentially ugly arbitration hearings. They can make the later years look really good by spreading out the money. But really they give fans something to be excited about and make 2019 a season of anticipation. It would create a massive amount of attention. It would make the Jays look like leaders in paying young players. It would be a bold statement about Vlad Jr being the face of the franchise.
Of course this comes with a lot of risk. $80MM is no small fee to pay a player yet to play a Major League game. He could struggle. He could be less Mike Trout and more Manny Machado. Right now Fangraphs projects him to be pretty darn good with 5.1 WAR right between Christian Yelich and Machado. The Jays would be paying in theory 6 years of control and 1 year of FA since he starts the first game in this scenario (and not rot for 3 weeks becoming a good teammate).
However, if the Jays decide to not go that route and go year by year, they might only have to pay $50-70MM over 7 years. That would depend on his performance, its hard to compare other situations as so many variables exist. Machado made around $34MM pre-FA (though arbitration favours power hitters and his service time was not delayed). Bryce Harper made closer to $48MM. After his 2nd of 4 years Kris Bryant, his best current comp, should be around $25MM based on projections with 2 more big pay days ahead. He will likely break Josh Donaldson’s record $23MM 4th year Arbitration number which for the sake of argument could land him in the $67MM range before reaching FA. The high bar of course is Mike Trout who has made $78MM in his first 6 years of service time, since he was called up early and not manipulated he would have been eligible to be a FA this offseason. However extensions have given him a robust career earnings to date.
Let’s assume that Vlad Jr. is the player he is projected to be, making $70MM+ in his first 7 years is not out of the question and if he can mirror Bryant’s career levels. Or if the Jays wait a few years and he is a superstar, should they be able to lock him down on a long term deal he could also make a close to that figure. Of course after 4-5 years you can tear it up and sign a long term mega deal, meaning you took care of the player and fans and keep him for the bulk of his career which is what Blue Jay fans desire.
When you break it down, $80MM would be on the higher end of what Vlad Jr. could make and likely beyond it, even at $70MM its a quality deal for everyone. However, I think this would be a good deal for the Players Association and a positive step towards rethinking paying players earlier which has become part of the conversation with Free Agency no longer giving older players their expected payouts. No one is feeling sorry for Machado or Harper who at 26 are facing $300MM+ mega deals but they are the rare exceptions. The Phillies showed some initiative in giving Scott Kingery a 6 year $24MM deal, allowing him to start in MLB and not attempt to delay his clock. We can say year 1 of that deal hasn’t gone great.
Not only would this be a huge win for the PA, it would be a huge victory for Vlad Jr. to be a trend setter as the face of not only the Blue Jays but join Ronald Acuña Jr. and Juan Soto as the next great kids in baseball. It’s exciting to see 19-21 year old stars emerge, and by paying Vlad Jr. now, the Jays can be seen as a leader in wanting their best players on the field, avoid a player grievance and move towards the next great Blue Jays team with their star in the spotlight. After this we can start to dream on Bo Bichette joining him in the middle of the lineup as our core young kids.