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The four-player trade the Toronto Blue Jays made with the Miami Marlins on Tuesday had a multifaceted effect on the team.
Incoming reliever Adam Cimber should help bolster a bullpen that’s been a glaring weakness for most of the season. Corey Dickerson will provide a competent left-handed bat to the lineup that’s often lacking one — as soon as he gets healthy. Removing Joe Panik from the roster is the best method for getting the manager to stop overplaying the punchless infielder. Quite a few Blue Jays fans heard the name Andrew McInvale for the first time. Unless the former 37th-round pick beats some long odds, it'll be the last.
Despite this being a relatively minor deal, there was a lot going on. One of the lesser-discussed, but still significant, elements is the financial component. Although the Blue Jays made a relatively minor addition to their payroll — reportedly close to $1 million — the reason the club was able to get a functional reliever for team control for a non-prospect and a replacement-level utility man was their willingness to provide the Marlins with financial relief, even on a relatively small scale.
Considering the Blue Jays wield significant financial resources, that idea could be applied again in a more impactful deal in the month to come. It’s a template this front office has used in the past when they acquired the struggling Francisco Liriano — who was on a contract paying him $13 million per season — in 2016 in order to also bring aboard prospects Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez. Considering McGuire is currently stabilizing the team’s catching spot, and Ramirez has become a starting outfielder for the Cleveland Indians, it was a worthwhile venture.
Liriano also performed well for the club that year, and was turned into current cleanup hitter Teoscar Hernandez in a trade the next season. Even in that deal, soaking up some salary was essential to greasing the wheels as the Blue Jays grabbed Nori Aoki and his $5.5 million contract to complete the transaction — and released Aoki 29 day later.
In short, taking on “bad money” can be a good way to win trades. Here are three ways the Blue Jays could explore doing that prior to the July 30 trade deadline:
The Surplus Arm
Bad Money Target: Jordan Lyles, SP, Texas Rangers
Contract: $8 million in 2021, free agent in 2022
Real Target: Ian Kennedy, RP
Contract: $2.15 million in 2021, free agent in 2022
How it works: Lyles has given Texas 142 frames of -0.1 WAR ball since signing a two-year $16 million deal prior to the 2020 season. While his durability is admirable, he serves little purpose for a rebuilding Rangers squad that’s better served by giving opportunities to younger starters who might be a part of their future.
While the Rangers would be happy to get out from under Lyles’s contract, the Blue Jays might have a use for him as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency starter, or a long man in the bullpen. More importantly, they could use a Lyles acquisition as a means to getting the real prize: Kennedy.
After many years as a mid-rotation starter, Kennedy has settled in as a high-leverage reliever. In 2019 he managed 30 saves and 1.5 WAR as the Kansas City Royals closer. This season he’s posting a 2.96 ERA and xERA of 3.08 in 27.1 innings.
The 36-year-old is a tried-and-tested back-of-the-bullpen rental on a cheap $2.15 million deal. That makes him a solid trade chip for the Rangers, but packaged with Lyles he would be easier to pry away for a Blue Jays team in desperate need of relief help.
The Dead Weight
Bad Money Target: Gregory Polanco, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
Contract: $11 million in 2021, $12.5 million club option in 2022, $13.5 million club option in 2023, $3 million buyout in 2022 and $1 million in 2023
Real Target: Richard Rodriguez, RP
Contract: $1.7 million in 2021, arbitration-eligible in 2022 and 2023
While Polanco isn’t bereft of offensive talent (his max exit velocity in 2021 is in the 98th percentile) he hasn’t posted a positive WAR since 2018. The grisly .197/.262/.369 line he’s posted since the beginning of the 2019 season doesn’t pair well with sub-par defence, making for a rough all-around package. There might be an argument for trying him off the bench for the Blue Jays considering his past success, his left-handed bat, and a set of dubious alternatives, but that’s not what matters here.
If Toronto took his salary off the Pirates’ books (and paid the $4 million he’d be owed in option buyouts following the season) that might help ease the road to Rodriguez — a true relief ace with two years of control following 2021. To be clear, taking on Polanco’s salary wouldn’t be enough to get two-and-a-half years of a guy who’s posted remarkably similar stats to Kenley Jansen since 2018….
…. but Pirates ownership is notoriously cheap and enabling Pittsburgh to spend even less money could give the Blue Jays the edge in nabbing a perfect addition to their relief corps.
The Outside-the-Box Option
Bad Money Target: Matt Carpenter, 1B/2B/3B, St.Louis Cardinals
Contract: $18.5 million in 2021, $12 million club option in 2022 with a $2 million buyout (his vesting option for 2022 will not be activated)
Real Target(s): Giovanny Gallegos (team control through 2024) or Génesis Cabrera (team control through 2025), RP
There are a number of things that would have to come together for this to work. Firstly, the Cardinals would have to determine that a 2021 playoff berth is far enough out of reach that they’re willing to subtract from their 26-man roster in a meaningful way. Considering they sit two games below .500 and have a 3.7 percent chance to make the playoffs according to FanGraphs, that's not too far-fetched. The Cardinals also rarely make in-season trades and moving a Cardinals lifer like Carpenter (who’s less than a year from 10/5 rights) might not fit the nebulous ‘Cardinal Way’.
If we put those two things aside for a moment, there’s fertile ground for a deal here. Carpenter has become a part-time player for St. Louis this season, but he’s a veteran left-handed hitter with positional versatility who might be able to carve out a role in Toronto. While his 2021 statistics are unimpressive, his Statcast numbers indicate he’s been extremely unlucky.
Anything that Carpenter produced would be gravy, because the real value in acquiring him would be bringing down the prices on a burgeoning relief ace like Gallegos and Cabrera.
Gallegos has a lengthy track record of elite production with 3.5 WAR since the beginning of the 2019 season — fifth best among relievers. However, the right-hander is five years older than Cabrera, doesn’t throw as hard, and is under team control for one fewer season. Cabrera has prospect pedigree, but 2021 (2.65 ERA with a 2.96 FIP) is his first special campaign. There’s an argument to be made for either, but whichever way you slice it you’d have yourself a bullpen staple for years.
Like in the Rodriguez/Polanco situation, adding Carpenter doesn’t mean you get one of the Cardinals bullpen building blocks for cheap, but it could make an otherwise impossible deal tenable.
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