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Blue Jays turn budget space into prospects

Blue Jays acquire Francisco Liriano and prospects Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez in exchange for Drew Hutchison and, essentially, paying for the rest of Liriano's contract.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

On June 20th, 2015, Bronson Arroyo was dealt from the Diamondbacks to the Braves. Arroyo, at this point, had become a fairly mediocre back end starter. Usually, that’s a fairly cheap commodity. However, the Diamondbacks were on the hook for $9.5 million in 2014 and 2015, along with $4.5 million in a buyout in 2016, from a contract signed at the beginning of 2014. Quickly, that becomes a tough asset to move. Then enters Touki Toussiant, the Diamondbacks’ first round pick in 2014.

Dave Stewart, Diamondbacks’ GM, was motivated enough to move Arroyo’s salary off the books for the mid-market team. He then deemed Toussiant as acceptable currency to move Arroyo’s deal. He found a partner in Braves’ GM John Coppolella, who later remarked that Stewart was among his favorite trading partners (in the same way that your cousin who never watches MLB is your favorite fantasy baseball trading partner).

Coppolella sent over utility infielder Phil Gosselin. Since the deal, Gosselin has been worth .8 fWAR over 101 games and 247 plate appearances. Relatively minor, but still a contributor. Arroyo was subsequently dealt to the Dodgers in another money dump deal and never pitched again. Finally, Toussiant entered 2016 as the number 90 prospect on Baseball America’s Top 100 and currently sits at number 95 in their Midseason Top 100. Though you could argue the financial flexibility allowed Arizona to sign Zack Greinke in the offseason has immense value to Arizona, Toussiant, like most predicted, was the prize of this deal. He presents the Braves with either a young player to help grow in their system or an asset to use to acquire different pieces to help them win. He was acquired for, essentially, cash. The Braves used their available dollars, which are mostly free due to the Braves being terrible, to churn out a valuable asset.

Fast forward to the 2016 trade deadling, and the Blue Jays are in a somewhat similar situation. The Jays are a big market club, though they’ve done their best at trying not to act like it at times and in contrast to the Braves, the Blue Jays are most definitely a ball club with immediate World Series aspirations.

The Blue Jays found a trading partner in the Pirates, who are regretting the deal they’ve given to their former top of the rotation starter, Francisco Liriano. Liriano had strung together three good years with the Pirates that led to playoff appearances. This year, Liriano has fallen flat on his face walking 3.2 percent more batters over his career average and giving up almost twice as many home runs. The contract that the Pirates wanted to rid themselves of owed $13.7 million through the 2017 season.

For a small market team like the Pirates, it’s incredibly difficult to carry a deal like Liriano’s without performance that warrants it. Their budgetary constraints force them to place a higher marginal value on each dollar spent on payroll each year. It’s understandable that they might pay a bit to move him off the books. On top of that, after promoting prospects like Glasnow and trading Melancon, you could say there’s also an increased eye toward next season.

Though, the Pirates are only 2.5 games back of that second wild card spot, they’re clearly not "going for it" as much as they are letting the chips fall where they may and thinking longer term. Moving Liriano off the books gives them extra financial flexibility this offseason to add to the stable of young players in Pittsburgh. So, the Pirates are put into a position where they have to consider the long term value of dollars. If they want to get out of the deal, they have to do just as Dave Stewart did, pay with prospects and consequently, Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez were sent to Toronto. Both entered 2016 on Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101 and Ramirez entered it on Baseball America’s Top 100.

McGuire, a glove first catcher, hasn’t hit a ton this season, posting a .318 wOBA and 94 wRC+ in AA. However, being a 21 year old catcher in AA with such an advanced glove is an accomplishment in and of itself. There is some encouragement though. McGuire is posting a fairly good walk rate in AA at 9.5%, which is his highest since rookie ball. McGuire also is striking out at a microscopic rate of 8.6%. So, he makes contact, which is great. That said, it’s not great contact. McGuire, in his entire minor league career, has four home runs. That’s not a lot. He does cut this lack of power with a bit of speed though after tallying fourteen stolen bases last year and four this year. All things considered, McGuire doesn’t have to hit a ton to be a major league catcher with his defense. He’s a plus, plus receiver with a plus arm (Baseball Prospectus’ prospect staff graded him at 70 and 65 respectively at glove and arm). With that kind of profile, you just kind of need to hit enough to play every day.

Harold Ramirez, similarly, has kind of disappointed with the bat this season. Ramirez’ 2015 was stellar. He posted a .404 wBA with a 163 wRC+ along with a very good 14% strikeout rate and a nice 7.3% walk rate. Though the BABIP was high, his physical tools will push the BABIP up a bit. Still, it was too high. This year, the BABIP dropped as he was promoted to AA. Ramirez is now posting a .346 wOBA and a 113 wRC+. The strikeout rate rose almost two percent and the walk rate dropped just over that much. On top of that, Ramirez has never hit for power. In Baseball Prospectus’ prospect analysis of this move, Adam McInturff remarked that it places a lot of pressure on his bat to ball skills to become a quality corner outfielder, which is where he assumes he’ll end up. However, Ramirez, like McGuire, has his fair share of reasons to be optimistic. Ramirez is also 21 and that’s young for AA. Moreover, those bat to ball skills are pretty darn good. Ramirez makes a lot of hard contact, unlike McGuire, and he also has the speed to extend those hits. Harold Ramirez isn’t some super high upside prospect, but he’s got the potential to be an everyday player, like McGuire.

The Blue Jays even have a use for Liriano. Top, 24 year old pitcher, Aaron Sanchez, is being restricted by the team to a stint in the bullpen. This is in hopes of having him available for a playoff run and not putting him on a track to shatter his career high in innings pitched. The only in house options to replace him entering deadline day were Jesse Chavez and Drew Hutchison. Chavez was shipped off for another depth starter in Mike Bolsinger and Hutchison, obviously, was sent to Pittsburgh in return for Liriano.  Liriano’s track record is much longer and more effective than any of those arms. Along with that, R.A. Dickey is an impending free agent. If Liriano can at least be passable at the end of their rotation next year, he can be a nice piece for them. And, if not, they still have Ramirez and McGuire. It’s generally hard to see the downside to this deal for Toronto.

The Pirates did actually get something out of this deal besides financial flexibility. The Jays, as previously mentioned, sent them Drew Hutchison. Hutchison was previously highly regarded in the Blue Jays system and came up a few years ago to join their rotation. After receiving Tommy John in 2012, Hutchison has been pretty mediocre. Outside of his 2014, where he posted a 2.90 DRA, he’s posted DRA’s near or above 5. It had gotten to the point where the Blue Jays essentially gave up on him and sent him down to the minors. On the flip side, this is the kind of reclamation project that the Pirates are known for. Having Ray Searage coddle him into a real rotation piece for them certainly wouldn’t be a surprise. But, even then, Hutchison is no more than a throw in piece at this point in his career. Any use they get out of him will be a boon as the real asset to them here was shedding Liriano’s future dollars.

I understand both ends of this deal. The Pirates are strapped for cash and see a window for themselves. That’s commendable though I don’t necessarily agree with it. On the other end, the Blue Jays used some of their budget space, filled a current and future hole, and added some nice future pieces. Like I said, it’s hard to play devil’s advocate with them here. They did well. All in all, this seems like more of a trend of teams monetizing their budget space for prospects. It’s a trend that I like from a larger market club point of view and something that I’d certainly engage in if the time were right. That said, it’s always hard to like these deals from the point of view of the team giving up those value pieces.

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Anthony Rescan is a Contributing Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyRescan.