Sunday, 24 July 2011

What If?

On the occasion of my all time favorite Blue Jay (and all time favorite baseball player) being inducted into the Hall of Fame (a year late) and inspired by a train of thought that I've been musing over for at least half a year, I present for your consideration a bit of speculative fiction. Consider if you will an alternate universe, very much like our own, except in that a couple of Toronto GM's made a handful of different decisions at key points in the '90s.

I concede to you willingly that in order to create this chain of events I have to make quite a few assumptions in the absence of firm evidence. but then, I told you it was fiction - just roll with it!
Another caveat is the so-called Butterfly Effect. that is, you change one thing and a cascade of other changes follow, the wider the ripples get the less predictable the outcome. if it were really possible to go back and makes these changes, injuries wouldn't have necessarily happened at the same time, hits wouldn't have fallen in in the same way and so forth. But if I hold to that concept than this post is useless so don't get too caught up in the details.

What I propose here is three key players, in my opinion, that Toronto let get away who should never have been allowed to leave when they did. i want to transpose the stats these players accumulated elsewhere during the years I contend they should have been here and, where necessary, change other personnel moves which would have been the natural result of their presence here.
Think of these as the Alternate Jays.

For the sake of breaking up the very great length, this post will have an overview of how the 90's might have looked in this other space-time continuum (in quantum theory, it DID happen this way in SOME universe!) and how i justify doing it that way. Then in comments below, there will be two separate comments with elaborations on the theme if you want to read that much.

Let's begin with a modified time-line of the key moves:

December 10, 1991 - Toronto GM Pat Gillick trades Jeff Kent and others to the NY Mets for David Cone and therefore drop negotiations to sign veteran ace Jack Morris.

December 6, 1992 - Gillick decides to invest in the much younger in house option of Jimmy Key instead of aging ace Dave Stewart. Key is signed to a three year deal wort a little over $15 million and Stewart goes to the New York Yankees. This comes a week before the Jays re-sign David Cone to a three year $18 million deal.

November 1, 1995 - Blue Jays declined contract option on Joe Carter.

December 1, 1995 - Toronto GM Gord Ash holds a joint news conference to announce that he has resigned Jimmy Key to a 3 yr. 10 million deal and David Cone to a 3 yr. 18 million deal. As a result, Erik Hanson will never wear a Blue Jays uniform.

December 12, 1995 - Toronto signs Roberto Alomar to 3 yr, $17.5 mil deal.

Winter 1998-99 - Key retires, Roger Clemens is dealt (per request) to the Yankees and Cone leaves as FA for big offer from those same Yankees. Alomar is re-sgned, for 3 years with a 4th year option this time.

Sounds good? Just a few key turning points. Primarily involving three crucial players. Why did I include the departure of Carter? That's part of the answer to what I anticipate to be the primary objection, to wit "they could never have afforded that." I disagree, and I'll show you why.

What follows is a list of the 11 year period of which I speak ('92-'02) with the first column representing the teams actual payroll, as reported by USAToday, the second column being the Alternate payroll per my proposals above (assuming the Jays equal the salary those players got elsewhere), and the third column noting the amount of salary change +/- along with a running total in parenthesis. This also assumes the absence of certain players unmentioned who would have been pushed off the roster or not acquired.
(figures in millions)

'92 - $43.66 - $43.49 - -$0.17 (-$0.170)
'93 - $45.75 - $45.95 - $0.200 - ($30k)
'94 - $41.92 - $48.02 - $6.1 - ($6.13)
'95 - $49.79 - $54.36 - $4.57 - ($10.7)
'96 - $28.49 - $30.36 - $1.87 - ($12.57)
'97 - $45.89 - $48.82 - $2.93 - ($15.5)
'98 - $48.42 - $63.29 - $14.87 - ($30.37)
'99 - $48.17 - $54.67 - $6.5 - ($36.87)
'00 - $46.36 - $52.11 - $5.75 - ($42.62)
'01 - $76.89 - $82.09 - $5.2 - ($47.82)
'02 - $76.86 - $81.39 - $4.53 - ($52.35)

I hope it's obvious I declined Carter to help keep the three guys I retained for '96.

Now, an extra $52 million sounds like a lot, but over 11 years that's only an average of ~4.7 per season which isn't bad at all. Still, it takes a huge leap of faith to overlook the big leap in '98 (almost $15 million). To partially account for this, I'm going to postulate that keeping the big 3 after '95 meant that the Jays didn't sign Benito Santiago after '96, and Randy Myers after '97.

That supposition would mean that the Jays payroll in '97 would only rise $430k and the total increase from '92 to '97 was a paltry $13 million ($2.6 per year). That would also reduce the '98 deficit by ~$8 million for a somewhat more acceptable increase of just under $6.5 mil. Those two contracts would save the team $12.5 million. If you want more savings, I have one more layer to add which works both financially and talent wise. After the ‘98 season they dealt Woody Williams for Joey Hamilton which turned out to be a disaster. Now the easy thing to suggest is just keeping Williams and that saves you ~$4.5 mil over the three years (‘99-‘01). You can re-add a small amount for low priced guys to take the place of these three (a scrub for Santiago while O’Brien starts one more year; a marginal reliever at the bottom of the bullpen and Escobar acts as closer in ‘98; and there were enough in-house pitchers for the rotation as I’ll demonstrate below).

So you have the “Bad Three” to lose to balance the cost of the “Good Three” I want to keep. So here’s the above salary structure with the second column reflecting the second revision:

First five years unchanged:

'92 - $43.66 - $43.49 - -$0.17 (-$0.170)
'93 - $45.75 - $45.95 - $0.200 - ($30k)
'94 - $41.92 - $48.02 - $6.1 - ($6.13)
'95 - $49.79 - $54.36 - $4.57 - ($10.7)
'96 - $28.49 - $30.36 - $1.87 - ($12.57)

With the noted alterations:

'97 - $45.89 - $46.32 - $0.43 - ($13.0)
'98 - $48.42 - $54.87 - $6.45 - ($19.45)
'99 - $48.17 - $50.42 - $2.25 - ($21.70)
'00 - $46.36 -$46.61 - $0.25 - ($21.95)
'01 - $76.89 - $74.84 - $-2.05 - ($19.90)
'02 - $76.86 - $81.39 - $4.83 - ($24.43)

That’s an average increase of $2.22 million a year over what actually took place. Of course, you have to have on-field results to justify the bigger increases. Over half of the additional outlay occurs in just two of these 11 years - 1994 which you would think would be easy to sell coming off back-to-back championships. The other, of course was for 1998. So how do the Alternate Jays do?

Take a break and grab a coffee if you need to - consider this an intermission.....Back? Ok, moving on...

Again, I’m assuming an “all other things being equal” situation when clearly all other things won’t be equal. Also, I’m assuming for the sake of the fantasy that Gord Ash makes the same money-saving choices I would have made. Not, of course, a sure thing - although with Dave Stewart never having worn a Jays uniform, he might not have been here to sell Gord on the idea of Hamilton so there’s that. Anyway, don’t nit-pick me with the obvious “yeah but” reactions. Also, I’m using ERA+ and OPS+ for ease of research and comparison. It makes the points well enough.

The Scenario assumes David Cone with the team from Opening Day and everything else being the same.
David Cone, in our world, got 27 starts for the Mets and was MUCH better than Morris was for the Jays over that period. The Jays went 20-7 with Morris starting though, so one can't postulate too much of a gain in wins, and whoever picks up Morris' September starts likely gives that win or two back (barring another trade but let's not get THAT deep). Call it a wash on in-season wins.

In the ALCS, Morris gave up 9 runs in 12 2/3 IP - Jimmy Key would have likely been the starter in his place and I'm gonna go out on a limb and say he'd have done no worse and likely better, although the machinations of bullpen usage go crazy then. In the World Series Morris had an ERA of almost 9 - it doesn't really matter who would have gotten those IP.

We assume Morris and Stewart were never on the Jays, and both Cone and Jimmy Key remain on their roster in ‘93. Cone’s ERA+ in ‘93 was 138 which was easily better than anyone on that team in our world - Morris’ was 70. Key’s ERA+ was 139, and Stewart’s was 98. They also combined for 490 IP as opposed to the 310 recorded by the aging guys who we are replacing. The team won 95 games that year, with this upgrade it might easily have topped 100.

This is the year that David Cone won the AL CY Young award with an ERA+ of 171, while Key led the league in wins and had an ERA+ of 141. How would that have fit into Our Jays? Dave Stewart’s 82 and likely Al Lieter’s 95 would have not been in evidence. Lieter would probably have displaced Greg Cadaret and Scott Brow in the bullpen and 49 really ugly innings go away.
That ‘94 team went off a cliff compared to the previous years, but this pitching upgrade wold have made a massive difference. This upgrade wouldn’t have turned that 55-60 team into a playoff team most likely, but it would have certainly challenged the O’s for second place.

the ‘95 Jays went 56-88 and finished in last place, 30 games out. Cone started the year with the Blue Jays and was dealt to the Yankees mid-season but in my alternate world, he’s seen as a cornerstone and he’s not going anywhere. However, Key got hurt in ‘95 and had a forgettable campaign. If we assume all things equal we have to assume he would have been little help to the ‘95 Alternate Jays. Still, Cone remaining spares us Danny Darwin and it’s easy to presume an upgrade of 6-8 games in the standings. Enough to get out of last place at least.

For our ‘96 squad we’ve kept these two important pitchers, and we’ve chosen to retain Alomar instead of Carter. Key in ‘96 was just a bit above average coming back from the injury (107+) and Cone missed 2/3 of the season to injury, although he was excellent in his 11 starts. But Key blocks out the awful Erik Hanson (93 ERA+) and Cone at least could have taken the 11 starts that went to Marty Janzen (who we wouldn’t have had anyway in the Alternate-verse) who also sucked. I feel safe in suggesting 3 or 4 extra wins.
As for the hitters, Alomar’s OPS+ was 136 and Carter’s was 95. As a secondary effect, Alomar kills off the awful at bats contributed by Tomas Perez and Felipe Crespo (64 and 67 respectively), while Carter’s ABs go primarily to Robert Perez and Jacob Brumfield (93 and 92) which means that LF is essentially a wash and 2B get’s VASTLY better. I’m too lazy to even attempt to parse out how that affects the wins since a few more marginal wins won’t make them a playoff team - but 8 more wins in all gets them over .500 and I could defiantly see that.

Alomar missed almost a third of ‘97 but was excellent when he played, and Crespo was a competent hitter this year as the likely injury fill in. Carlos Garcia played 103 games in our dimension and “produced” an OPS+ of 47, while Alomar played 112 games and posted a 134. Carter was most often a DH in ‘97 and his OPS+ was an embarrassing 77. Shannon Stewart would be the most obvious candidate to pick up at bats and he was at 113 as a rookie that year. There’s a lot of improvement there.
On the pitching side, Cone posted a 159, Key a 128, and they combined for 407 IP, either of which alone would have produced the second best total on the ‘97 Jays. Key could replace almost all of Robert Person and Chris Carpenter (81 and 89) and Cone would absorb the work of Woody Williams who wasn’t awful. But his 104 pales obviously in comparison.
It’s reasonable, I think, to suppose all this takes a 76-86 record over .500 and into third place - but not to the playoffs.

The last year of our Fantasy monster pitching staff is upon us. We only need to make up four games this year to make the playoffs as the wild card team and the right to face the Indians in the first round. I’m going to stick with Cone blocking Williams which means his 125 replacing Williams’ 103. Key lost his job in the rotation for the O’s that year, despite having posted average work - I’m going to say he remains a starter with the Jays a bit longer than 11 turns. Since I need Escobar to close (where he’ll do a better job than Myers), we’ll start by giving his 10 (good) starts to Key, along with Hanson’s atrocious 8 starts, along with two ugly spot starts by Dave Stieb. The result is an ERA about half a run higher than Key’s was.
On the offensive side, Alomar’s ‘98 was easily his worst year of the decade, with only a 100 OPS+ but Craig Grabek who got almost 2/3 of the starts at 2B in Toronto only came up with a 76. Carter was, of course, gone by now even in the real world.
So, does this equal five more wins? I think so. I can’t guess how it would have went down with Cleveland but Clemens and Cone would have been pretty tough to beat.

This one hurts me because I really expect that if the ‘98 Jays make the playoffs, Clemens doesn’t (unofficially) opt out. I’m going to nod in the direction of what that means but because I want to keep the focus on the three good guys, I can’t bring myself to extrapolate this to the guy who’s turned himself into such a pariah. The truth is, what he did and what Wells did in his place is pretty much a wash in ‘99 anyway.
Alomar, on the other hand, was back in form with a 139 OPS+ which easily destroys Homer Bush’s 96. That would add a couple of marginal wins I’m sure but the team would have still been well back of the playoffs.

Bush slipped to 75, Alomar had a 114. If you want to look at pitching Clemens pitched marginally better than Wells, wins aside. Still, this might have gotten them the 3 games they needed for second place but they were 8 games out of the wild card and you can find that in one player most of the time.

Alomar over Bush 150-89 - Were Clemens here he’d have likely saved us from the dreaded Loaiza acquisition and I don’t need to make that comparison for you do I? Still, while the Jays were only 2.5 games behind for second place, the Wild Card team that year won 102 games so no playoffs.

Robbie is in decline now - would have blocked Hudson who actually hit slightly better both years but likely no major impact on results. This assumes JP would have been kinda forced to pick up the option on sentiment.

How might the Jays fans feel about the team now if the team had only 5 sub-.500 teams in 29 years (1983 through 2010)? True, it would still be 13 years since a playoff appearance but those difficult post-strike years (and most of a decade of sucky ownership) would have been much mitigated by teams which had some hope.

You may be wondering what Key and cone have to do with keeping Robbie Alomar a (nearly) life-long Blue Jay? My feeling is that I can't really justify the assumption we could have kept Robbie on a re-building team. the strong pitching staff represents the "commitment to winning" that both drives revenues and provides motivation to Alomar. There are a list of moves the Jays made, or failed to make, over the years which I'd love to go back and reverse, but none more important to me than the failure to retain Roberto Alomar. It gives me just the tiniest hint of bittersweet emotion about what will otherwise be a glorious afternoon.

(if you haven't had enough yet, see the comments below for more)


The Southpaw said...

So, let’s review the results on a team level, these columns are year - actual record - alternate record:

‘92 - 96-66 - 96-66
‘93 - 95-67 - 102-60
‘94 - 55-60 - 65-50
‘95 - 56-88 - 61-83
‘96 - 74-88 - 81-81
‘97 - 76-86 - 84-78
‘98 - 88-74 - 94-68 (lose to Yanks in ALCS)
‘99 - 84-78 - 87-75
‘00 - 83-79 - 85-77
‘01 - 80-82 - 81-81 (without Clemens)
‘02 - 78-84 - 78-84
‘03 - 86-76 - 86-76

Imagine only one losing record ('95) in 18 years.

The Southpaw said...

Now assuming my fantasy world existed, what would the leader-board look like for the Jays franchise all-time stats?

Robbie Alomar would be a virtual God (as he should be!) Check these out (all stats by Baseball Reference of course):
WAR - 53 (Delgado, the current leader, has 33)
GP - 1875 (Fernandez - 1450)
AB - 7148 (Wells - 5470)
R - 1244 (Delgado - 889)
H - 2182 (Fernandez - 1583)
TB - 3286 (Delgado - 2786)
2B - 420 (Delgado - 343)
3B - 66 (2nd to Fernandez’s 72)
HR - 184 (5th place)
RBI - 953 (2nd to Delgado’s 1058)
BB - 870 (Delgado - 827)
SB - 384 (Mosbey - 255)

On the pitching side, if David Cone is a Blue Jay right through from ‘92 to ‘98 ,and Jimmy Key spends his whole career with the Jays, then they ranks thusly:

WAR - Key’s goes up to 45.7, third only to Stieb and Doc, and Cone is right behind him in 4th place at 36.8

ERA - Cone’s 3.16 would rank first among SP, any only behind Henke overall. Key’s 3.51 comes in 4th among starters (which is actually down a bit from his current rank).

Wins - Key moves to first overall at 186, Cone would rank 7th with 101

W/L% - Cone’s .660 is just a whisker behind Doc for 3rd place (Clemens is first) and Key comes in at 5th.

WHIP - Key slips a bit here too, from second place to fourth, and Cone slides in at third on the list. Among SP they are 2nd and 3rd to Doc

H/9 - Cone leads all starters at 7.321, just a hair behind Ward (Henke leads);

K/9 - Cone lands at second place among SP behind Burnett with an 8.332 mark (Brandon Morrow may well best them both in time) which is 4th overall.

IP - Key climbs to 2nd overall, cone to 7th

K - Cone’s 1277 would be fourth in team history, but coming in 2nd would be Key with 1538 (behind Stieb naturally, with Doc 3rd)

GP - Key would be first overall with 470, and his 389 games started would be 2nd overall.

SO - Key’s 13 shutouts would rank third, while Cone’s 11 would tie him with Jim Clancy for 4th.

ERA+ - Cone surpasses even Doc with a 141 (2nd only to Henke’s 168)

Mylegacy said...

To quote the cute little German on Laugh In back in the 70's (or was it 80's or 90's - time flys when you're drinking single malt) "Veery interesting."

However, I've a hard enough time tying to project when Lawrie is coming up let alone getting into a battle to the death with all the world's Monarch butterflies and their brethren.

I'd be more interested in what would have happened if we'd not made "The Trade" and had kept Fernandez at SS, McGriff at 1st and Olerud at DH or LF - probably DH splitting time at 1st with the Crime Dog.

I think Fernandez, McGriff and Olerud would have been as interesting a trio as Alomar, Carter and Olerud. I know I like the Crime Dog more than Carter and the question is how much worse than Alomar would Fernandez have been offensively. Defensively, both were supercalifragilisticexpiodicious (spelling alert). But I can't help thinking a GREAT SS is more important than a GREAT 2nd baseman.

As I've said on other posts part of the unspoken reason for "The Trade" was that the Jay's feared Fernandez was going to go and become a minister and start preaching - something he'd threatened to do several times.