Four weeks ago, major league teams declined to tender 2020 contracts to 53 players, including 40 who were arbitration eligible. This was on top of 83 players previously sent outright from the start of the offseason, meaning they went unclaimed through waivers. In total, that’s 136 players who were theoretically available to all teams to reserve if they desired.
While the number of non-tenders was higher than the past couple years (though not unprecedented either), this is largely nothing unusual. While roster churn has picked up in intensity over the last decade, the same types of offseason transaction cycles happened in the 2000s, 1990s, and even most of the 1980s.
In one respect it was quite striking to me. I’ve spent a fair bit of time the last couple months digging through the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail coverage of the Blue Jays from the late-70s birth of the franchise. And a recurring theme was just how hard it was for the front office to find players worth acquiring. By definition, those 136 players referenced above either project as marginal, or whose salaries are beyond their production. Nonetheless, there’s numerous established quality MLB players, and plenty of interesting young players worthy of opportunity, some of whom will go on to quality big league careers.
This was simply not the case back in 1976. Consider that when the Jays joined the American League, it was after a wave of expansion that has increased the Major Leagues by 50% from 16 to 24 teams from 1960 to 1969. Those teams certainly had it pretty bad, especially the four who joined at once in 1969, but at least then the echo of the Baby Boom was resulting in a surge of prime-baseball-aged population entering into the system. That takes time to work through, and then along comes another expansionary wave diluting things.
That meant there was a shortage of talent to go around. Salary arbitration had started just three years before, and while teams were not at all happy pleased with it pushing up salaries, it was a good decade or so before non-tendering became a thing. It was the dawn of free agency, but a much limited version and the expansion teams were frozen out the first year since the free agent draft was the day before the expansion draft. In any event, the Jays weren’t going to be players, and only signed one drafted free agent before 1984 (Luis Gomez, a light hitting shortstop).
Waivers? In September 1977, the Jays claimed 24-year old John Hale from the Dodgers, who had promising AAA numbers but hadn’t translated to the majors (.214/.314/.317 in 478 PA). He promptly refused to report unless the Jays would give him a guaranteed 1978 contract, and you can imagine how well that went down. Two weeks later he was sent on to Seattle for the $20,000 the waiver claim that cost them. The next Spring, the Jays claimed Larry Demery from Pittsburgh, who had thrown 260 innings with a 3.06 ERA in 1975-76. After they got a closer look at his ailing shoulder, they decided they preferred their $20,000 and the claim was reversed four days later. Small wonder they didn’t use waivers for a long time.
In fact, about the only way the Jays did add real talent was when they leveraged their financial resources. They got Ron Fairly from Oakland when Charlie Finley wanted to dump his salary. They sent $200,000 to Texas to acquire Roy Howell, who had signed a three-year to end a holdout but was stuck behind other starters. Well into Spring Training 1978, Rico Carty was surplus to Cleveland and the Jays took on his hefty $135,000 (the entire 1977 payroll was $858,000). Right before the season began, the Royals deemed John Mayberry expendable with and the Jays took on the remaining three years of his contract at a reported $200,000 per year.
But those were the exceptions, and otherwise the Jays were limited to castoffs to try and fill out their roster. Within the first two years, the Jays never had more than 38 players on their 40-man, and more typically 35 or fewer. It was so dire that Pat Gillick purported to have not done trades that he otherwise would have (ie, established MLB players for younger prospects) because they didn’t have anyone who could slot for the departed regular. To illustrate this point, I’ve put a story that I like at the end.
With that in mind, I got to thinking whether a team of non-tendered 2019 players would compare to the actual 1977 expansion Blue Jays. The latter, it may be recalled, won just 54 games though was better on paper with a runs scored/allowed that would suggest 58. Here’s the starting line-up I put together:
The salaries are the MLBTR estimated arb salaries, the WAR is a rough estimate of what I’d project in 2020 and actual 1978 levels. On balance, I think I’d prefer the non-tender group of position players. There’s some holes, but I think my projection of 10 WAR is reasonable, with some upside if a couple players bounce back. The $54-million price tag is hefty, but some could probably be had cheaper.
The thing about the 1977 position players is that despite totalled just 2 fWAR, they surprisingly didn’t lack for solid performers. There were five players who were essentially average regulars or better, and another three who were not below average but not black holes. They totaled about 10 fWAR, the problem is of the 21 players on the roster, only nine had positive fWAR. The other 12 cumulatively had 2,000 plate appearances, and some were just awful, in particular the middle infielders. This is where the lack of depth killed the Jays, and the rest of the non-tenders/outright guys would be better.
The pitching side is a different story:
While I can put together a decent bullpen, I really struggled to just out the staff with players who have started. Kevin Gausman would be decent, and after that…I’d be happy to get 500 innings. I could see getting 4-5 WAR out of those guys, but I’d be wary of giving it all back with the lack of depth and whomever pitched the other 300 innings.
Keeping in mind that the 1977 Jays started the year with nine pitchers, had 10 most of the year and used 15 in total so it was a completely different staff, pitching was the strength of the 1977 team, with 10 WAR. The core of that was the trio of Jerry Garvin, Jesse Jefferson and Dave Lemanczyk turning in 650 innings close to league average at preventing runs, about 7.5-8 WAR. They got nothing beyond that, and Pete Vuckovich was the only contributor out of the bullpen, but that’s still well ahead of the non-tenders.
Of course, all four were acquired in the expansion draft, though other than Garvin at 4th overall none were taken early (19th, 43rd and 47th picks). And to some extent, the three starters all being good was fluky, as each only had one other good season afterwards (which is why despite the emergence of Dave Stieb and Jim Clancy it wasn’t until 1982 that the pitching staff outperformed the 1977 group). It certainly wouldn’t be hard today to supplement the non-tenders with some cheap free agent veterans to stabilize the starting rotation, in depth if not quality. But that’s beyond the scope of this exercise.