Friday, November 30, 2012

Why the Negativity about the Jays' #5 Starter?

While 'tis the season for prospect analysis, I figured since we've already got a series about that going on here (and I happen to also know jack about prospects or how to project them), I'd pitch in (get it?) a series on analysing the performances of some key players over the past season, and using that information to project what we might see from them in 2013. I have no idea how long I plan to keep this up for, or how many players I intend to look at, and I'll also interrupt it with random posts about potential roster moves over the rest of the winter (especially now that the winter meetings have begun), but I do know one thing for sure. And that is that I'm going to talk about JA Happ right now. So without further ado...

JA Happ is someone AA really tried to get in the Halladay deal, but the Phils wouldn't part with him. The Halladay deal, as you probably know, is a great exercise in analyzing prospect value. The Phillies' 4 best prospects at the time were Happ, Gose, Drabek and Dominic Brown. The Jays were able to get only Drabek from this list, and unfortunately he's kinda flamed out. So did Brown though, and then so did Happ. Ironically though, the Jays ended up eventually landing both Gose and Happ later on through other teams. We're still not sure whether Gose is gonna be a defense-only 4th OF, or fringy regular, or whether he'll find that elusive hit tool and become an all-star. But that's for another time. This is about Happ.

Happ was very highly regarded as he rose through the Phillies' system, and broke into the majors in 2008 and 2009, where he did some work in the rotation and the bullpen. In 2010 he became a full-time starter, playing for both the Phillies and then the Astros, though he was limited in innings due to injury. In fact, he has never made it past 166 innings in any season of his career. Still, from 2008-2010 he did pitch quite well. At least in terms of the results. His ERAs looked very nice those years, but the truth is his peripherals didn't at all. His BB% was always well above average, and his K/BB below 2:1. This made for xFIPs that were consistently in the mid 4's, well above his ERAs. But still, guys like Jarrod Parker are still pretty highly regarded even though his ERA was also way better than what his peripherals would suggest. In 2011, though, Happ's luck seemed to finally run out, as his xFIP remained in the mid 4's but his ERA ballooned to 5.35. This seemed like expected regression, and Happ seemed like a pitcher who would average out to an ERA of about 4.50 over his career. That's a fringe 5th starter on most teams.

And then 2012 happened. In about 150 innings, Happ's ERA hovered around the mid 4's, which is close to his career average, and also in line with what his advanced stats always predicted he would do. The thing is though, those advanced stats went way up. In 2012, Happ's xFIP was 3.92 and his SIERA was even better at 3.79. These numbers are why Happ was worth a 1.8 fWAR in just 145 innings. What's more, is that one could argue that his numbers were perhaps even lower than they could have been, since he did spend some time moving between the bullpen and rotation, hurting the consistency that many players feel they need. Also, if my memory serves me correctly, in his first few starts as a Blue Jay, he was terrific through 4 or 5 innings, and then seemed to tire around the 5th or 6th inning, which really took away from how well he had pitched until that point in the game. If you chalk that up to adjusting from the bullpen to the rotation, then it's possible that Happ was even significantly better as a Jay than a glance at the total numbers would suggest.

Let's take a look at what led to that big improvement in xFIP and SIERA this season.

Well, to sum up, Happ basically just flat out improved in almost every advanced category across the board. His good xFIP/SIERA was no fluke. Happ's K/9 spiked to an elite 8.95, a K% of 23%. To bring these numbers to life, that means Happ made every batter he faced strike out as often as Colby Rasmus! And what's more, is that this spike in strikeouts is actually supported by his plate discipline numbers. Happ had a SwStr% of 9.5%. That's well above his career average of 8.1%, and 9.5% is an elite number in that category. One high enough to justify a k/9 close to 9.00. Batters made less contact on his pitches (79.5% compared to 81.8% career average), and the biggest difference was he got opposing batters to swing at 31.1% of his pitches that were out of the zone, compared to a 26.1% career rate. These all strongly suggest that Happ developed some legit swing-and-miss stuff this season, highlighed especially by getting batters to chase his stuff out of the zone.

Happ also dropped his BB/9 down to 3.48, which is still not great, but it's a nice improvement over his career 3.94 number. For a high strikeout pitcher, a 3.48 BB/9 is very acceptable. This improvement in control is also supported nicely by Happ's huge jump in F-Srike% to 63.6% up from a career 58.3%. Happ was getting ahead early in the count more often, and then getting batters to chase out of the zone once he was ahead. This sounds like a pretty good recipe for a successful 2012.

What's more, is that his batted ball profile also improved. Happ increased his GB% to 44%, up from 37.8%. While 44% is still not a great number, it's a huge improvement. These extra ground balls replaced about an equal number of fly balls and line drives.

Happ's improvements did not go unnoticed among the stat heads. Mike Podhorzer of Fangraphs wrote this about Happ at the end of August (a nice summary of everything I've said until now):
"This year, his skills are actually the best they have ever been, with a surge in strikeout rate, accompanied by better control and a sudden ground ball tilt. Yet, his luck is back on the bad side of the ledger and so his ERA is above his SIERA for the second year in a row. While his pitch mix is about the same as usual, his SwStk% has jumped to a career best and he is throwing first pitch strikes with great frequency. I’m not sure what he is doing differently, but the advanced metrics support the improved peripherals."

The Mockingbird also had an analysis of Happ when he came over to the Jays, suggesting that his peripherals were steadily improving, and also suggesting that Happ might want to ditch his curveball which had become one of his favorite pitches over the past few seasons. Happ did start throwing his curve less in Toronto, and positive results ensued, as discussed above. 

Happ, in my opinion, has kinda been pushed under the rug here in Toronto. Even after acquiring Johnson and Buehrle, a lot of fans and bloggers out there are still pushing for another addition to the rotation. A Marcum, or a Dempster, or a McCarthy or a Haren. What I'm trying to say is that while those guys can certainly come in here a post a season of 4.0+ WAR, the odds of them doing that are much more slim now. It's likely they fall somewhere between 2-4 WAR, or even worse if they succumb to injury. And the fact of the matter is that we likely have a 2-3 WAR pitcher in Happ already in our hands, for much cheaper and under control for 2 more seasons at least. The improvements he made last year were real, and hopefully they're here to stay, and hopefully his ERA catches up to his peripherals next season. His pro-rated 2.0+ fWAR in 2012 was no fluke, and that's why I believe that if there is money left to be spent on upgrades to the big league club, it would be better spent on a DH to replace Adam Lind than a marginally better but riskier pitcher to replace Happ in the rotation.

-Martin

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

2012 Positional Rakings: Catchers

Pretty much the easiest position to order right now, if not as deep as it once was, with JPA now entrenched in the majors and Chris Perez and Yan Gomes dealt.You'd think it wouldn't have taken me almost a month to get it posted, wouldn't ya?

1. Travis d'Arnaud (2/10/89) - Likely the top catcher prospect in major league baseball, d'Arnaud is almost a finished product - to the extent that a catcher who's not played in the majors CAN be complete. The Jays have chosen, wisely given the circumstance, to let him go down to Buffalo and build his case. If they are planning on going for it, then it's to be expected they won't just hand such a crucial position to a rookie.

2. AJ Jimenez (5/1/90)  - If d'Arnaud rates an "incomplete" grade due to his injury, Jimenez rates something less than that. While d'Arnaud, in AAA, got a bit past the halfway point of his season before going down, New Hampshire's  Jimenez barely got to 1/4 of the number of games he'd played the previous year in Dunedin. Jmenez is reportedly a very good fielder but so far demonstrates a just okay bat. Fortunately for him, the offensive expectations for catchers are considerably lower. If he stays in the system, he has a chance to be a classic defense-first reserve catcher behind d'Arnaud for a while.

3. Santiago Nessy (12/8/92) - still 3-5 years away, Nessy is gaining more and more positive reviews. Arguably, he should be second on the list and he's only not because distance (from the majors) provides more opportunity for things to go wrong. He surely will return to Vancouver, where he played the last couple of weeks of the 2012 season. and the Blue Jays have the luxury of going slow with him. He has shown quality defensive tools and plus power potential, but time and repetition will certainly provide him with the opportunity to polish his skills.

4. Sean Ochinko (10/21/87) -In a sense, this is Yan Gomes all over again. Competent catcher, interesting but limited bat, potential positional versatility. He doesn't have starter upside at any position,  but might have a future as a capable backup, certainly if he can bring a decent glove to the corner infield positions.  But he's absolutely going to need a couple more years in the minors and the BB:K ratio could stand serious improvement.

There's really no one else on the radar right now in the Blue Jays system with a prayer of being a major league catcher.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Gibby rides again!

Asked . . . And Answered.

Martin's most recent post posed the question - What next?

Bob Elliot believes he has the answer. The return of John Gibbons as Toronto Blue Jays manager. According to Elliot, the Jays will introduce Gibbons as their hire on Tuesday. An excerpt from the article:

It’s not Cito Gaston 2.0, but John Gibbons 2.0.
Gibbons, who managed the Blue Jays for parts of five seasons from 2004 to 2008, will be introduced Tuesday morning as their next manager.

At the general managers meeting in Indian Wells, Calif., Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos said he was “looking for someone he could work with, someone his staff could work with, someone who was good for the city, good for the whole country.

And:

. . . under J.P. Ricciardi. Anthopoulos and Gibbons were close friends, working well together.
Anthopoulos and Gibbons were spotted dining in Yorkville Sunday night.

 Just my personal opinion - I LOVE it. I always liked Gibby when he was here before, and was not in favor of his dismissal. He's not perfect but no manager is. But he brought more of the qualities I like in a manager than most, by far. I've been jokingly tweeting, on occasion, "Bring back Gibby!" - not because i wasn't seriously interested but because i had no clue the Blue Jays would every actually consider it, let alone do it.

If I'm to watch this team make a run deep into September as a contender, even make the playoffs - I'd much rather see Gibby get the chance to enjoy that success than, say, Mike Hargrove or Tim Wallach. I may have a certain emotional bias but that's okay.

All that said, I want to see Manny Acta as 3B (or Bench) coach. We need what he brings to the staff, without having to worry about whether he's actually well suited to be a manager.

Is it spring yet?


EDIT: Yes, I know it's been almost 3 weeks since a minor league ranking, but the flood of big news kind of interrupted that. Even though Jays Journal is ripping off my schtick ( I love you guys, seriously!) I'm not going to forget to finish. Just be patient.

Monday, November 19, 2012

So... What Now?

It sure was an exciting week last week, between the blockbuster trade and the signing of Melky Cabrera. You've seen already two different responses to the blockbuster trade, and I do also share the positive feelings about the Melky signing (although I have to respectfully disagree with the lineup configuration described in the previous post and the idea that Kinsler might be available to us is just... well... not gonna happen). That being said, let's take stock of what the Jays have accomplished so far this offseason, and maybe provide some thoughts for what could/should be in store for the rest of the winter.

Referring back to my "Intro to the Offseason" posts, the Jays had holes at 2B, DH, LF and needed two SPs. They've certainly filled the LF hole with a guy who could end up being here and being productive after his current two year contract expires, if things work out that way. If not, well, we're set for two years anyways, and by 2015 things could be completely different (with Rasmus eligible for free agency if he's not extended, or if he is perhaps he's been shifted over to LF to make room for Gose, or maybe other new LF options become available).

The Jays have also filled their 2 SP spots with Johnson and Buehrle, with one of them (Buehrle) being under contract for several years and the other (Johnson) being under contract for only one year. Although I did originally say the Jays should acquire one long term and one short term SP, that was under the assumption that Alvarez would be ready to return to the rotation in 2014. Now that he's gone though, I don't really see any exciting pitching prospects that look to be ready for the big league rotation before 2015, and by then Happ would be a free agent (unless he's extended), so perhaps two long-term options would have been better. It would have also been nicer if the positions were flipped, where Johnson was the one we had long term and Buehrle was only here for the short term. That being said, it's still possible they extend Johnson (maybe they've already even begun these discussions- hopefully). For now anyways, the rotation has been filled out.

What is lacking now though is pitching depth. Right now Chad Jenkins and Deck McGuire are their 6th and 7th starters. That's not a great situation. It is rumored that the Jays are still seeking another starter, but I think it's more likely, given their budget, that they'll pursue some depth guys to be numbers 6 and 7, rather than someone who is going to slot in somewhere in the top 5.

The 2B hole now has Izturis and Bonifacio as potential fillers. The bad news is that both of them are really seen as great bench/utility guys, but as below average starting 2Bs. But still, to have one position that can be filled in by two serviceable guys who are not expected to produce much anyways is not the worst thing in the world. Bonifacio has also never really had a full season to show what he can do, so if he has the upper hand on the starting job right now (which I'm not sure he does. It's pretty much a toss-up), then it might be worthwhile to see if he can run with it before handing over the job to Izturis. The Jays will likely take the approach here of upgrading if something falls into their lap, but otherwise being satisfied with who they have.

the DH spot is still filled by Adam Lind. Hopefully this changes before April. Enough said.

What I also wrote about back then was the trade chips the Jays had. Let's update that as well. The Jays still have an important surplus at catcher, even moreso now with the addition of John Buck. Well unloading Buck's $6M salary might seem like the best option, he unfortunately has negative trade value, so losing him would just mean a salary dump. Which is fine, but I suspect the Jays will use his presence to their advantage by trading JPA for good value, and using Buck to fill in as the starter (with Bobby Wilson backing up) until D'Arnaud is ready to take over the starting role a few months into the season.

At CF the Jays still have Rasmus and Gose, but now that they are without Marsnick, I doubt the Jays part with Gose anymore, because they need him as insurance in case Rasmus doesn't pan out this year. You don't want to go from having good depth to having no depth at an important position like CF when your current starting CF is a big question mark.

In terms of pitching prospects the Jays still have several good ones, but I suspect they might be pretty close to done dealing from that depth as well. The farm system was deep enough that it survived the blockbuster deal, but I don't think it could take too many more hits at this point.

In terms of SS depth, the Jays gave away both of theirs in exchange for Reyes, so the depth doesn't exist there anymore. But Reyes should hold down the fort himself anyways for a long time, and either Izturis or Bonifacio are both capable backups in case of injury.

In terms of money, the Jays appear to be up to about $120M now, and I would think that that's pretty much as high as they're able to go for this year. I wouldn't expect them to take on much salary from this point on, unless they dump salary from somewhere else.

So in summary, the Jays have probably pretty much reached their spending limit, though they still have a catcher to shop around, are still in need of a DH (or at least someone to platoon with Lind) and pitching depth, and will take an upgrade at 2B if one comes to them.

And now a brief word about what I think they might/should do over the next few months. The good thing about their needs is that they can all come cheap, which is good because they don't have much money left, I don't think. I'll try to write a separate post in the near future about DH options out there, but for now I'll just throw out one name who probably has the most upside on the market and might come for just a few million dollars on a one-year contract. Lance Berkman. In my opinion, he's the guy the Jays should be after. I'll break him down, as well as some other options, in a future post.

In terms of pitching depth, I'll try to write a post in the future about these options as well, but I think the goal would be to get a couple of guys from the following list: Francisco Liriano, Eric Bedard, Rich Harden, Dallas Braden, Scott Feldman. Each of them could either be signed to minor league deals, or be stuck in the bullpen as a long relief option until they are needed in the rotation. They should all come on cheap one-year deals, but serve as huge upgrades to Jenkins and McGuire.

Even though these options are cheap, by the time you get a few pitchers and a DH, it does add up, and it could end up costing close to $10M by the time you're done. Maybe Rogers will let them spend that money, but if they're at their max already, the money has to come from somewhere. And here is where I go out on a limb. I think the best move they can possibly make this offseason is actually to trade Mark Buehrle. Yes, I know we just got him, and I know he's great and reliable and 200 innings and everything, but the fact is he's just not worth the money that he'll be making over the next few years, especially starting in 2014 when he's making almost $20M. In fact, his contract is so backloaded that I think his trade value is pretty minimal, if he has any trade value at all. I believe this so strongly, that I still am in a bit of disbelief of how much AA had to give up in order to get the package of players he got from the Marlins. And because of that, and because I think AA is a smart guy, I have to wonder if whether AA might already even have a deal in place, involving sending Buehrle somewhere else. Kinda like he did with Edwin Jackson when he traded for Rasmus. For all we know, Buehrle could be already heading somewhere else, it just can't be announced until the MLB approves of the Jays/Marlins trade, which should happen today. We'll see if my hunch is right.

But even if it's not and the Jays have Buehrle for now, I still think that the Jays should be shopping him this winter if they can replace him with a cheaper, better starter. And one great way I think they could do that would be to package him with JPA, and trade them both for a starting pitcher. For me, the ideal trade of this winter right now would be something like JPA and Buehrle to the Mets for Jon Niese. I would even be willing to send cash over to the Mets to help cover some of Buehrle's salary in a deal like this. Not only would the Jays get a better and younger pitcher, they would also free up some money that they need to fill in the little holes they have this winter, and also to have some financial flexibility at the July trade deadline. Or perhaps more importantly, to have extra financial flexibility a year from now when Buehrle's contract really goes up.

Now, I'm not sure that package is enough to get the Mets to part with Niese, and I'm not sure they're interested in Buehrle's contract any more than I am, but I can dream, can't I? Oh, and they also happen to have someone named RA Dicky.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Kudos!

In what I consider to be an absolutely perfect move, the Jays llived up to the implication that they would move quickly this winter by adding what might be the last major piece to their 2013 lineup by landing switch hitter Melky Cabrera. Which you know of course. So let me hit up some of the major talking points floating around from the past weeks activities.

1. Don't worry about the steroid thing. Has no one noticed that Cabrera's home run total last year, pro-rated for a full season, comes to sixteen? Have we not been indoctrinated to believe that steroids boosts power, not average? Also, we have to assume he was using in 2011 to if we are saying he's not much of a hitter without the drugs. I, personally, am on record as saying I'm REAL skeptical just how much PEDs actually E - that said, i'm a hundred times MORE skeptical that they will kick up a player's batting average. if he only gives you something like his 2011 numbers he's a massive upgrade in LF. Plus, that's a lot of glove for LF.

2. Josh Johnson's agent did NOT imply he wanted his client traded. He was expressing the same skepticism over the Jays being big spenders that many Toronto fans and media types bring to the table every day. you have to be looking for it to see a "demand" there. Buehrle, on the other hand, is an open question. He will surely be a god soldier and do his job BUT he's also a guy who's always been vocal about wanting to be near his home, and there was a time it was assumed he would eventually play for the Cardinals. Probably the team will talk with him about how comfortable he is being a Blue Jay and whether or not anythign other than geography will play a part in where he would like to play. for instance, if geography is more important than winning, then the Blue jays might very well find an eager trade partner in Kansas City if the return justifies sending some money along in the deal. Probably ideally you'd like to deal with the Rangers. imagine, for instance, Buehrle and JPA for Kinsler and Ogando.

3. Watch to see if the Jays go to an all dirt-path infield this year, in respect of Reyes' hamstrings. If they are not thinking about that they are not paying attention. Not to dismiss, of course, the reality that pretty much everyone wants grass in there!

4. A lot of talk about AA still wanting another SP, but before your speculation runs wild remember - we are talking the 5,6,7 spots so the acquired guys, should there be some, will either be young enough or fringy enough that they can be stashed in AAA or at least in the bullpen (which is itself full). And probably by trade rather than free agency. But if you look at the free agent list, you'd be looking at guys like, frankly, Carlos Villianueva (if he wasn't obsessed with having a clean shot at a full time starting slot). or you might pick up a couple of fragile guys like Rich harden who might be willing to work their way back in Buffalo. If you want something better than that, then you are gonna have to make a trade for a pitcher with options.

5. There's something of an interesting question about the lineup now. Mainly turning on the fact that Cabrera's OBP is BA driven, rather than walks.In all other respects, he profiles nicely in the #3 spot. His BABiP last season was ridiculously high in 2012 and that's normally considered unsustainable. so you ask yourself whether or not he really is a guy who's going to hit consistently well over .300 and how you answer that dictates how you put the lineup together.. So, asuming that he does hit that well (or projects too)

1. Reyes - SS
2. Bonafacio (or Izturus) - 2b
3. Cabrera - LF
4. Bautisa - RF
5. Encarnacion - 1B
6. Lind/ (ideally Davis v LHP and hitting 9th)
7. Lawrie
8. Rasmus
9. Arencibia

Cabrera not all that and you believe in Lawrie? Flip those two and give Lawrie the benefit of a ton of "protection"

Of course if you are more conservative, stick with Bautista 3rh and EE 4th if you can live with Lind (for the LHB) hitting 5th. That would in theory regulate Cabrera to 6th.

6. "The next manager must speak Spanish" - no not really but he needs a god guy on staff to deal with that if he doesn't. The stat heads would love Manny Acta though he had some issues in Cleveland. I love the idea of having him on staff, but the smarter play might be to hire Acta as the bench or s a 3B coach then as the actual manager.

7. Now, here's the fun part. Trusting my math here might be shaky but we'll have to roll with it. The 2012 NY Yankees collectively added up to a WAR total of approx. 52 There are some variables). The most likely 2013 roster for the Blue Jays, if they broke camp tomorrow(includes Gose to make 13 hitters but one presumes it will be an infielder instead) produced a total war last season of 58.1 - how ya like them apples?

Yes, there will be fluctuations of course but consider - you have EE and Cabrera who have some decent potential to regress, BUT you also have Bautista having missed almost half a season, Laswrie having missed significant time, Morrow having missed significant time, Santos having missed virtually the whole season, Johnson with some room between last year and his peak, and a pretty good potential that Romero will bounce back to his 3 or so WAR level.  If I may be so bold as to assume, rather than dig into the totals for each team, that the yakees were as good as any team in the AL last year, then i will say with boldness that the jays are as good as that team right now.

If - and it's a huge if - everyone on this team stays healthy and no one has an inexplicable lost year like Romero had last year, this team is good enough to win 95+ games and go to the World series. Albeit no one can tell how good an "on paper" powerhouse will jell into a winning TEAM.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Oh. My. God.

As of four hours ago, the twitter account Blue Jays Aggregator  had noted over 50 articles about the little ol' trade you might have heard about tonight.but since there's really no point in having a blog if you don't discuss something of this magnitude, here's my run down:

Leaving-

Yunel Escobar: I think this is not a huge talent loss and it clears some drama off the roster, not just because of "The Incident" but because of whispers the teammates didn't like some of his on-field antics.

Jeff Mathis: No big deal, nothing to worry about.

Henderson Alvarez: the kind of guy you have a soft spot for, but limited upside unless he expands his arsenal. At best a #3, but should benefit from pitching in the NL

Adeiny Hechavarria: it's been observed many times that he's more suited to be an NL shortstop.
Should be beloved by the couple of dozen remaining marlins fans.

Jake Marisnick: I love the guy, in a lesser deal it would be a tear-jerker to lose him. Clearly the jays liked Gose better.

Justin Nicolino: his upside is, essentially, Buehrle. But he's 2-3 years or so away from being a major league regular and there are no guarantees. of the Lansing 3, he was always the most likely to be dealt. A loss but not a huge one to a team with eight SP in the top 12 prospects (as ranked by me).

Anthony DeSclafini: if everything breaks just right he might have a middling career as a middle reliever. Forget him.

Arriving-

Josh Johnson: it remains to be seen if he can return to his pre-injury form, but for a guy coming off an injury he did pretty good last year - he had exactly the same WAR as Anibel Sanchez, if that tells you anything, and that's a good sign. the question on everyone's lips is whether he'd be willing to sign an extension but if not, there's draft pic compensation here too (a year from now).

Mark Buehrle: in a rotation desperate fo a big ol' dose of stability, it's hard to imagine a better Rock than Buehrle. He's not an "ace" but he's quite good and very reliable.

Jose Reyes: The jays have the potential of feilding a lineup with 3 guys in a row capeable of stealing 40+ bases. the go-Go Jays? Reyes represents the most excitment in the deal, and the longest contract, but he does have a history of hamstring issues and there's the turf to worry about.

John Buck: a wash with Mathis, of no real import except that he brings with him the possibility that the jays are freeing up their hands to market JPA with the idea that Buck is a better safety net while the work in d'Arnaud than Mathis would have been.

Emilio Bonifacio: they say his last season was riddled by injuries. if we can lok to 2011 as a sign of his talent level, then you start speculating about him doing that at 2B next year, and maybe hitting in the 2 hole behind Reyes....that could be fun. At worst, he brings a lot to the bench and as a bench player he, perhaps, makes Davis expendable.


I'll save the actual calculations for another post when the hour is not so late/early, but if everyone stays healthy and Romero returns to form, there's something like a 22 WAR bump on paper and the off-season isn't done yet.

While i can see the potential for a couple of things to blow up, on the whole I'm a happy girl right now.

Now That's What I Call A Blockbuster

By now you are all familiar with the biggest trade in Blue Jays history that went down last night. The blogosphere as a whole are pretty excited about this deal. However, I'm gonna go out on a big limb right now and actually chalk this one up as a loss for the Blue Jays. I think the major victory, and the source for most of the excitement, is really just about the fact that Rogers finally has allowed the payroll to increase so significantly. But when you actually consider whether or not the Jays got good value on their money and their prospects from a baseball perspective, I'm worried the answer might be no.

To sum things up, the Jays took on almost $45M in payroll from the Marlins for 2013, and significantly more after that, and also sent over an established above average MLB shortstop in Yunel Escobar, 3 out of their top 10 prospects and Henderson Alvarez who has potential to become a mid-rotation guy if he can learn how to throw a breaking ball. In return they get one of the best shortstops in the game, a potential ace in Josh Johnson, a solid back of the rotation guy in Buehrle, a good controllable cheap utility guy in Bonifacio, and John Buck.

I have a lot of points to make about this deal, and I do tend to sometimes get wordy when writing in paragraph form, so I think I'm gonna go for numbered lists here. Just easier for everyone that way. Let's start with the positives:

1) Rogers spent money. Yay!
2) The Jays established themselves as being serious about winning now and as a team in the top 1/3rd of payrolls
3) The Jays get 5 years of an all-star SS in Reyes. A significant improvement over Escobar and one of the best leadoff hitters in the game.
4) The Jays fill their pitching holes emphatically, with a top of the rotation guy in Johnson, and a mid-to-bottom guy in Buehrle. A rotation of Morrow, JJ, Romero, Buehrle and Happ looks pretty darn good.
5) The top of the order of Reyes, Lawrie, Bautista, EE (and Rasmus?) looks pretty formidable also.
6) With an offense better than last year's which was already pretty good, and now a well above average rotation, the Jays will contend in 2013 and beyond.
7) The Jays still kept enough prospects to have a very good farm system.
8) The Jays still have a surplus at Catcher and CF, which they could use to make improvements elsewhere.
9) The players we gave up are not as significant as they sound. All had big question marks surrounding them.
10) Although the Jays took on $165M in total payroll (owed to Reyes, Johnson and Buehrle combined) over the next several years, that's still less than the $175M that Josh Hamilton is asking for, and that's only for one player.

But the negatives:
1) After taking on $45M for 2012, the Jays' payroll projects to already be at the $120M mark, which I think might be its upper limit, because that is the number Beaston gave for the eventual payroll in the past.
2) This means that there probably isn't much money left to be spent this winter.
3) The Jays still have holes at LF and DH, and their starting 2B situation is a bit underwhelming.
4) The Jays 6, 7, 8, 9 hitters project to be Lind, Rajai, JPA/Buck, Izturis. All are pretty close to replacement level offensively.
5) Johnson is not the ace he was in 2010. His 2012 ERA and advanced stats will tell you that much. He's still a more than capable #2 guy, which is just fine, but don't view this deal as if he's one of the best pitchers in baseball anymore
5a) We only got 1 year of Johnson
6) Reyes has a long history of injuries, and relies a lot on his speed for success. These two factors usually don't bode well for aging players.
7) There are only two pitchers we have who I can say with confidence will have ERAs below 3.90, and both are significant injury risks.
8) While they're much better than 2012, the 2013 Blue Jays still have major holes offensively. They're good offensively, but not quite the Yankees or Rangers. Pitching-wise, they're improved even more significantly, but still aren't the Rays, Giants, Phillies, Braves or Nats, and maybe not even the Yankees.
9) The Jays will contend, but they still are probably not as good as the Yankees overall, and aren't guaranteed by any means to make the playoffs.
10) There might not be any money left to make more improvements, since they're already at $120M
11) Reyes and Buehrle get a lot more expensive in 2014, and by 2015 the Jays will spend $41M on just those two players. And by then they won't even be as good as they are now, and neither will Bautista, for that matter.
12) In 2014 and 2015 the Jays don't have much money coming off the books and will owe a lot more to Reyes and Buehrle. In 2014 they lose Johnson, and in 2015 they lose Happ. If they want to acquire 2 more pitchers, will they have the money for that? Only if their payroll can approach $150M...
13) AA has always said that when you sign a free agent, it's assumed that player now has very minimal trade value, because clearly no other team was willing to pay them as much money as you just did, because otherwise they wouldn't have signed with you. Buehrle and Reyes are coming with the deals they signed as free agents last winter. Since the Jays are taking on their full salaries, their combined trade value is really not nearly as high as you would think it is just based on who they are as players.
14) It seems like the Jays gave up a lot to get 1 year of Johnson, and then Reyes and Buehrle with much less trade value than you think.
15) Many people have argued that it's amazing the Jays could get this much talent without giving up their best 4 prospects. While that is true in a sense, I think it's more a testament to how good their farm system is than how good this trade is. In other words, just because we had enough great prospects that our future still looks bright even after this deal doesn't mean we can ignore the amount of value that the prospects and players we gave away had.

The cons outweigh the pros, in my opinion. With all of this being said, I think this deal is a great step in the right direction if payroll can really climb up to $130M this year, and $150M by 2015. We got some great players that we control for many years, we got a potential ace for 2013 who we could hopefully try to extend, and we did so without mortgaging the future. We still have D'Arnaud, Gose and 2 of the big 3 plus Osuna. And yet, with all of that, the way our team stands now it might still not be enough to make the playoffs. And if we were going to give away all of those prospects and also get payroll up to $120M, I can't help but wonder whether it would have been better to just pay Anibal Sanchez the $90M over 6 years he wants, sign Shaun Marcum and trade for Choo. Even after all that we'd still have prospects left over, and a lot more payroll flexibility for the future to make additions as needed.

As it stands now, the Jays are only good enough to really strongly contend if Reyes and Johnson stay healthy and if Rasmus and Lawrie can bounce back. If you want more assurance of contention you probably still need to go out and get someone better for LF at least, and ideally even DH and 2B. I'm just worried that the resources to go out and sign a guy like Melky have all been drained, and that we might be spiraling back to the 2006-2008 days of high payrolls and teams that were very good but not quite good enough.

But to end on a positive note, there is still a lot of offseason left to be had. The Jays will almost certainly trade a catcher which will hopefully bring back a good asset to fill one of the remaining holes. Maybe this is only the beginning and there really is still enough money left to sign Melky Cabrera. There are also still several cheap-ish options out there at 2B and DH with plenty of upside to them. These will have to be subjects for future posts.

So in summary, if this trade is the end and the Jays have reached their payroll cap, then I have to consider this trade a loss for the franchise. If, however, it's just a sign of things to come from Rogers, then we might have a really fun winter on our hands, and although I wonder if the Jays got the best bang for their buck in this deal, if there's more buck out there for them to use anyways, then that's not really as important. Contention is here.

I know many are jumping for joy at this trade, so let me have it in the comments!

-Martin

Monday, November 12, 2012

Is Yunel Being Shopped?


It seems the popular opinion of late is that the Jays are shopping Escobar. The combination of Escobar’s poor season, the fiasco at the end of the year and Farrell’s comment that he has had private discussions with Escobar before that incident have essentially confirmed the assumption that Escobar is a clubhouse disturbance.

Although it is true that Escobar has seriously damaged his reputation and it is possible the club will look to rid themselves of him in order to save face, I would actually like to argue the opposite: through this recent scandal, Escobar has actually backed the Blue Jays into a corner, in which they will be pressured to keep him around for the next three years. The Blue Jays have somewhat of a surplus at shortstop heading in to 2013. I think there are four options for how they can proceed:

 1) Keep Hechavarria in the minors for 2013, let Escobar play out the 2013 season, and then let him walk and give his job to Hechavarria.
 2) They could trade Escobar this offseason, and give the starting SS job to Hechavarria for 2013.
3) They could trade Hechavarria, and exercise Escobar’s options, keeping him around for the long term (until 2015), unless a better offer for a different SS comes along.
4) They could keep them both, let Hech play in the minors for 2013, and at the end of the year, evaluate how each of them did, and then go from there. At that point, there will be a lot more pressure on the Jays to trade one of them unless they just slide one over to 2B.

 Some bloggers and writers out there believe that the Jays should choose option #1. I believe this approach would be detrimental to the team’s long-term success, whether or not the rumors about what Escobar does to the clubhouse are true. It is generally estimated that a team gets fair value at about $5M per 1 WAR. As Escobar is owed $5M per season for the next three years, the Jays get fair value if he produces 1 WAR per season. However, even in his disaster of 2012, Escobar will still be worth double that at 2 fWAR. He has also been worth quadruple that at approximately 4 WAR in 2008, 2009 and 2011. Even in his rookie year in 2007 he was worth 2.6 fWAR in just over half a season. So in 4 seasons out of his 6-year career, Escobar has given his team approximately $20M in value, and even in his two down years he has provided about $10M in value. That kind of worth at a premium position on such a team-friendly contract is not something you let walk away for nothing when you’re trying to contend, notwithstanding the speculation about his negative intangibles.

That brings us to option 2. A surplus at SS, a position in high demand, can go a long way towards filling some of the holes on the roster. Were Escobar not involved in this scandal, even with his down year, he would have had a lot of value on the trade market. However, even if you don't think he will ever go back to being a perennial 4 WAR player, it's still probably true that he is now at a low-point in his trade value. If he sticks around for 2013 and just has a season somewhere in between his 2011 and 2012, it would do wonders for his trade value. So while he still has significant value right now, AA is not known to sell low on his players.

 That leaves us at options 3 and 4, trading Hechavarria and keeping Escobar, or keeping them both. Hechavarria is still very unproven with the bat, and may never develop into anything better than what Escobar is in his down seasons. If he were to start in the majors right now, he would probably contribute something similar to what Jonny Mac would contribute for 2013. Of course Hech is younger, more athletic and has the upside, and that's why he has value. But Hech did show some promise with the bat in September, and if some other teams noticed, then he might be at the height of his trade value right now. Especially in an offseason where shortstops are in very high demand, and the Jays have holes that they want to fill now on the MLB roster, Hech can be a very nice chip. If you could bring in a quality starting pitcher for someone who is just as likely to become a no-bat defensive specialist as he is an above-average regular, I think I would bite. With Escobar essentially removing himself from the trade market, I think AA's course here should be pretty clear.

-Martin

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Season for Listing

We're in the midst of that very special season in which baseball fans seek out lists and make their own. One of my favorite pastimes, to be sure. While I'm in the midst of the ponderous process of doing the positional rankings, let me interrupt the series to report to you that two of the more respected major publications have listed their favorite Bllue Jays' prospects for the upcoming year.

Baseball America, of course, ranks as the Grande Dame of such endeavors. Their list contains at least one notable surprise:

1. Travis d'Arnaud
2. Jake Marisnick
3. Noah Syndergaard
4. Aaron Sanchez
5. Justin Nicolino
6. Roberto Osuna
7. Marcus Stroman
8. Adeiny Hechavarria
9. DJ Davis
10. John Stilson

Stilson,. of course, being the surprise as no one seems yet certain whether he will stick as a starter. But the reports suggest that if he is in the pen, it would be as a guy who has all the makings of a premium closer. His spot comes at the expense of Daniel Norris who just had too bad a year for some on their panel to be comfortable putting him in the top 10. Matt Smoral was also considered, and if he's anything like as good as many are saying, he may well be in there next time.

The other list that's out comes from the ever excellent Marc Hulet at Fangraphs.

1. Travis d'Arnaud
2. Aaron Sanchez
3. Noah Syndergaard
4. Roberto Osuna
5. Justin Nicolino
6. Jake Marisnick
7. DJ Davis
8. Daniel Norris
9. Sean Nolin
10. Adeiny Hechavarria
11. AJ Jimenez
12. Marcus Stroman
13. Santiago Nessy
14. Matt Smoral
15. Alberto Tirado

I'll reserve too much comment on any of these guys until i do my own lists, Still, this gives you a bit of an idea of how the lists flesh out (honestly, no one who's been paying atention should have much doubt who the first 5-6 guys are, even if they are not in the same order).

D click through the links and read they info available at the home sites.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

And We Have a 2B!

MLBTR reports that the Jays have signed Maicer Izturis (formerly of the Angels) to a 3 year deal worth $10M, with a club option for a 4th year. The reaction in comments I've seen so far seems to be pretty positive about this signing. Just over $3M per year is only a bit more than what the Jays were gonna have to pay Aviles anyways, and Izturis is a pretty similar value to Aviles (Aviles has more power but Izturis has a better BB%).

Let's take a minute to predict what kind of production we can expect from Izturis going forward. Was last year's ugly .256/.320/.315 line the new Izturis, or can he return to his 2009 for where he hit .300/.359/.434 (or at least his 2011 where he hit a passable .276/.334/.388)?

Izturis has had a solid BB% around 8.0 and a very good K% around 11.0 for his whole career. This means he's a hitter with a solid approach, the ability to take a walk and is a great contact hitter. He's been remarkably consistent about that every season, including 2012. His BABIP has hovered around .300 for his entire career, and so his .289 mark in 2012 can't really be an explanation for his struggles either. What did drastically change was his ISO, which fell to .059, exactly half his career rate. However, the stat people claim that ISOs are only really reliable numbers after 500 or so at bats, and at just over 300 at bats in 2012, Izturis's is still considered a small sample size.

Plus, while his LD% stayed within range of his career numbers at 22.9%, his FB% dropped about 8% down to 29.7%, and his GB% spiked to almost 50%. So Izturis started hitting a lot more balls on the ground instead of in the air in 2012. Normally this helps a player's BABIP, especially when they have good speed, but that wasn't the case for Izturis in 2012. All it did for him was take away his power numbers. But these kinds of things have a way of normalizing over larger sample sizes, and I wouldn't be surprised if Izturis's batted ball profile is back to normal next year. We shouldn't write off his power completely.

But let's look a bit deeper into his peripherals. While he was able to keep his walk and strikeout rates in line with his career numbers, he seems to have lost something in his approach. Maicer's 4.3% SwStr and 56% F-strike rates are right in line with his career numbers. So he wasn't falling behind in the count, and he wasn't swinging and missing any more than he normally does. His total contact rate of 89.5% was still excellent and right in line with his career numbers. However, while his zone contact rate was a solid 95%, his out of zone contact rate climbed up a few percentage points to 81% (his career average is 77%). So Izturis made more contact on pitches that were outside the zone in 2012. Similarly, while he swung at 41% of pitches in 2012, which was in line with his career, he actually only swung at 55% of pitches in the strike zone (down from a career average of 58%), and swung at 29% of pitches outside the zone, up from his career mark of 24%.

In a nutshell, for those of you less familiar with the meaning of these numbers, it seems that Izturis has started chasing more pitches out of the strike zone, and looking at more pitches that are in the strike zone. And although he is still making contact with these pitches, making contact with pitches outside the zone is usually not a good idea. It leads to weak contact, which causes lower BABIPs and worse power numbers. This is actually a trend that started in 2011, and there it actually showed up more clearly too as he posted career worst BB% and K% in 2011.

It's impossible to say, really, what caused this change in approach. It could be anything, including the simple explanation of declining plate discipline, declining skills and declining bat speed. If this is the case, I don't think we're ever going to see the .350 OBP guy that Izturis once was, and with serious questions about his power too, this really is not a guy that you want as your starting 2B.

So while I mentioned most of the reaction is positive so far out there about this signing, I'm still a bit torn.
On the one hand, even in his worst season (this past one), Izturis was still worth 0.7 fWAR as a part-time utility guy. According to the generalized $5-6M per 1 WAR equation, that value Izturis provides is worth about $3-4M per year. To make any FA signing where you actually get a bit better value in WAR than what you're paying is pretty rare, and it seems AA has accomplished that here.

But on the other hand, if Izturis is destined to be a bench player utility guy, I'm worried AA is wasting valuable money on someone who isn't expected to be a starter. It has seemed more and more likely over the last few weeks that AA is really having to pinch every penny, and that if he wants to spend on pitching, he's going to have to save money everywhere else he can. And in that scenario, $3M+ seems like a lot to spend on a bench guy. Combining that with the $7M (5 + $2M buyout) they owe Lind, the $3M they're paying Rajai Davis and the $1.5M they're paying Mathis, the Jays could have themselves a $15M bench in 2013. That's a lot of money to spend on a bench for a team that desperately needs to allocate funds towards starting pitching, or all-star caliber position players. AA has had a tendency to overpay for bench players over the last few years (Francisco, Mathis, Rajai, etc), and each deal in a vacuum seems like it won't make a dent in the payroll, but when you add them all up they really start to. If the Jays are strapped for cash and the extra $3M per year could really make a difference between affording a starting pitcher or not, then I can't help but think they might be better off letting McCoy be the utility guy and saving the money.

This signing would make more sense, however, if the intention is for Izturis to be the starting 2B in 2013. But as I explained above, I'm not sure I really want this guy starting, and if I really thought I couldn't get anyone better for that price (personally I'd rather take another shot at Kelly Johnson), then I wouldn't have wanted to lock myself in for 3 years of an overpaid declining bench player. Unless, of course, there is more money to go around than what we've been led to believe...

-Martin

Monday, November 5, 2012

Should the Jays Pursue Greinke? A Word of Caution About Pitcher WAR


It's certainly no secret that the Jays need starting pitching (2 of them, in fact, as per my earlier post), and it is also no secret that the only "bona fide ace" out there on the open market this winter will be Zack Greinke. Putting two and two together, there are many fans out there who would love to see the Jays make a hard push after Greinke. While I certainly agree that Greinke is the best pitcher available, I can't help but think that pursuing him would actually be detrimental to the Jays in 2013 and beyond.

Landing someone like Greinke would probably take a deal in the range of $25M per year for at least 6 years, if not more. Now, in the scenario that the Jays' 2013 payroll sits around $100M and they have about $25-$30M to play with this winter, signing Greinke would basically eat up all of their money. That would mean that 2B, LF, 1B/DH and another SP would all have to be filled either internally, or with extremely cheap options. Given that our internal options for those other holes are all pretty close to replacement level players (Gose, Rajai, Hech, Alvarez, Lind), I just can't imagine that this scenario of getting Greinke would be tenable.

Even in the more optimistic scenario where payroll sits around $120M and the Jays would still have about $20M left to play with after getting Greinke, filling all of those other holes on $20M is not such an easy task either. It means waving goodbye to anything but cheap options at 2B, LF and DH or another SP that's any better than a back-of-the-rotation innings eater. Even if Greinke could provide an extra 2 or 3 WAR per year more than the next guy (which, as I'll discuss soon, is not so clear at all), would that really be worth locking yourself out from so many other players? There seems to be a big price hike that comes with signing an ace.

Saving $10M per year on a pitcher by going after someone like Anibal Sanchez instead of Greinke might only mean a reduction of 1 or 2 WAR per season, but that same $10M saved invested into a position player could be the difference, say Shin Soo Choo and Anthony Gose, for example. And that difference is likely more than 1 or 2 WAR. Just in terms of getting bang for your buck alone, I think the much cheaper but still highly effective non-ace-but-front-of-the-rotation guys are the much better value buys, especially when you don't have the Yankees' payroll. And there are plenty of these guys available this winter, like Sanchez, Marcum, Dempster, Kuroda, McCarthy to name a few.

But stepping back for a second, even if "aces" were really worth the extra money, is Greinke himself really deserving of that title? He certainly has as much talent as any pitcher out there, that's for sure. But I want to take a closer look at what kind of value he has actually provided over the last three seasons, since his out-of-this-world 2009 season. A quick glance at his fWAR shows that he's accumulated 14.2 WAR from 2010-2012, averaging over 4.5 fWAR per season. His average xFIP and SIERA from 2010-2012 are both in the low 3's, which is certainly excellent. However, there's an issue that I have with relying too heavily on pitcher fWAR, and that is that it uses the fielding independent pitching stats (FIP), as opposed to ERA, in order to calculate the value of a pitcher. In effect, what this really means is that a pitcher's fWAR is not at all a measure of what kind of value that pitcher provided over the season, but rather what kind of value the pitcher could be EXPECTED to provide if luck was neutralized. Stats like FIP and SIERA are supposed to be more predictive of a pitcher's future performance than ERA, which can be heavily influenced by luck.

Sometimes, though, trends develop that make you consider whether certain pitchers are exceptions to these advanced stats. It is widely known, for example, that Matt Cain consistently pitches better than what one would expect based on his FIP or SIERA, since a lot of his success comes from inducing weak contact of fly balls, something which FIP does not recognize as a skill. FIP relies heavily on K/BB ratios, and assumes balls put into play are largely subject to luck rather than skill of the pitcher. Thus, it heavily favours pitchers with good control and high strikeout ability.

Just like there are known exceptions of people who outperform their peripherals, there can be exceptions the other way too. Zack Greinke might just be one of those exceptions. His average ERA from 2010-2012 sits in the high 3's. Here I like to look at a different WAR calculation called rWAR, from Baseball Reference, which uses ERA rather than FIP. Here, we see Greinke only accumulated a 7.9 rWAR from 2010-2012. Even if I give him a generous extra 1.1 WAR for his time lost to injury in 2011, that's still only an average of 3.0 rWAR over the last three seasons. Let's compare those numbers to those of some other established "aces" who have either signed deals worth $20M or more per year or would be worth that much on the open market (from 2010-2012):
CC Sabathia-    14.7 rWAR, 17.1 fWAR
Cliff Lee-          17.3 rWAR, 18.8 fWAR
Cole Hamels-   15.7 rWAR, 13.1 fWAR
David Price-     13.2 rWAR,  13.9 fWAR
Matt Cain-       10.6 rWAR, 12.3 fWAR
Roy Halladay-  17.5 rWAR, 17.1 fWAR
Zack Greinke-  7.9 rWAR,   14.2 fWAR

So well Zack's fWAR is in the middle of the pack, his rWAR is well below the group. And perhaps more importantly, he has easily the greatest discrepancy between his fWAR and his rWAR. This could suggest a real trend that he consistently pitches below his peripherals. In fact, there might even be a reason this is the case. Greinke has said in public that he purposely attempts to keep his FIP low. This means he works on increasing his K/9 and lowering his BB/9. While this is normally a good idea, it could lead to harm as one FanGraphs writer (can't find link now) proposed in 2011 that Greinke may let too many pitches catch too much of the plate when he's behind in the count, because he wants to avoid walks like the plague. An approach like this could lead to a high BABIP, and mean that Greinke's high BABIP and relatively high ERA compared to his FIP is not a product of pure bad luck.

While we're on the topic of comparing WAR values, let's compare Greinke to these two mystery players (from 2010-2012):

Player X-           9.0 rWAR, 12.0 fWAR
Zack Greinke-  7.9 rWAR,  14.2 fWAR

Player X is strikingly similar to Greinke. Player X is Anibal Sanchez. He will be available this offseason for significantly less than Greinke. In fact, you could probably get him and Marcum or Edwin Jackson for the price of Greinke. I think it's pretty clear which is the better value buy.

-Martin

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Quick Trade Reaction

As you should all know by now, the Jays have trade Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes for Esmil Rogers. After spending so much time pondering whether Aviles was a good return for a manager or not, what do we make of this?

My first reaction was that this trade was kinda a head-scratcher. After the disappointment that were weren't getting Pedroia for Farrell faded away, I think many of us had sorta come to like Aviles. He offered the team some insurance at 2B in case they couldn't come up with something better, and at the very least he filled a hole that the team had: utility infielder. He was set to either be a serviceable starter at 2B, or a great utility/bench guy, which we were coming to think was actually quite valuable. Even though they don't contribute much in terms of WAR, a good utility guy like Aviles allows the Jays to rest Escobar and whoever the starting 2B is if need be, and that could preserve them over the course of the year. It's likely that at least some of the struggles of Escobar and Kelly Johnson this past year were due to the fact that Farrell didn't feel comfortable letting them rest for an extended period of time when they needed to and replacing them with Omar Vizquel.

Furthermore, I figured the Jays had pretty much already set their bullpen for next year, with Jansen, Oliver, Lincoln, Santos and Delebar already there, and Cecil or Loup available to be the second lefty, plus it seemed they were going to go after either Frasor or Lyon to fill out the pen. The pen seemed like an area of depth rather than an area of need.

That being said, the more I think about it, I think this deal is a win for the Jays. They get an arm with a lot of potential who is cheaper than Aviles and has two more years of control. As valuable as Aviles could have been from the bench, at the end of the day a bench player is a bench player. In the heirarchy of players, relievers are ahead of bench players in importance, and any time you can swap a player of less importance for one of more importance, it's usually a good move to do so. Having Rogers in the pen for 4 years without having to pay much is much better than needing to spend $4-5M on a less talented, more short term and older option like Frasor or Lyon. Plus, if the Jays do find themselves with a surplus of great bullpen arms, they can always be used as trade bait. There are more teams out there looking for bullpen help than utility infield help. If that extra $4M can be spent towards acquiring a better 2B than Aviles would have been, then it's really all for the best.

- Martin

Friday, November 2, 2012

Is Shoring Up the Rotation More Important than Filling Offensive Holes?


AA has made it clear that his first priority this winter will be to improve the starting rotation. However, I think many people out there have a misconception about this need that I'd like to correct. Just because the offense has shown that it can be good as is, and the pitching needs serious help, does not mean that AA should put all of his money and resources into buying and trading for pitching, while ignoring opportunities to improve the offense unless something happens to fall in his lap.

The argument is simple, but I think in light of the way people have been talking, it needs to be stated. The bottom line is that the team needs to win more games. You can accomplish that in two ways: by either allowing less runs, or by scoring more runs. Winning a game 7-5 is just as good as winning it 4-2. The Rangers made the playoffs with a great offense and a disaster of a rotation, and the Rays competed with below average offense but top pitching. If you'll indulge me for a gross simplification of the advanced stats just to clarify my point, if you can add a player who will provide more WAR for your team than what you already have, that will help you the same whether they are a pitcher or a position player.

The name of the game, then, is just to get as many players as you can that will provide more WAR than what you already have at that position. The reason AA will look first to obtain pitching help first is because besides for Romero and Morrow, there aren't many guys here we can count on to provide much WAR. For example, say we're looking to get two pitchers to replace Alvarez and the other vacant spot in the rotation. Alvarez provided about 0.5 fWAR this past season, and options freely available to the Jays at this point would be basically replacement level, meaning about 0 WAR. If we could replace each of them with pitchers who will get about 3.0 WAR each, we'd be 6.0 WAR overall better off. On the other hand, many position players in the Jays lineup are better than replacement level already, meaning it's harder to find replacements for them that will provide a huge boost in WAR. Even when you consider the holes at 2B, LF, we can assume that Gose or Rajai Davis or Aviles at least have the potential to provide 1.0-2.0 WAR in a season, so to get the same 6.0 WAR improvement at 2B and LF would take getting players that each provide 5.0 WAR. This is pretty hard to do since players like that are hard to find, and expensive. But, for example, if the Jays were able to land Justin Upton and Ian Kinsler to fill those holes, that would be as worthy an expenditure than getting two good starting pitchers.

Pitching is the first place to look because we have so little of it. It's easy to accumulate extra WAR when replacing guys that gave you very little value. In other words, the reason pitching is a priority this winter is simply because of convenience. It's not because contending teams need to have balance between good hitting and good pitching. Rather, it's because pitching is just the easiest place for the Jays to build up extra WAR.

This should illustrate that the goal here is accumulating more WAR. The best way to do that is by replacing low WAR players with high WAR players. Right now, that seems easiest to do with pitchers, but doing so in the offensive positions where help is needed would also be just as good. Ideally, of course, it would be nice if AA could pull off both of these tricks.

-Martin

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The 2012 Offseason: Part 2


Now that we've clarified what the holes are on the Jays' roster, what surplus they have to parlay and what kind of financial resources they should have available to them, I just wanted to quickly discuss the type of players they should be looking for to fill each of their holes. Which positions could do fine with short term fillers, and which warrant a more long term approach, and how should the Jays look to divide up their financial resources.

SP: Since pitching is the team's number one priority, we'll start there. I noted in part 1 that two starting pitchers should be added for 2013, and ideally both would be middle of the rotation caliber. Hopefully this would allow Alvarez to get back to AAA Buffalo, and it would mean the Jays will not be relying on any of their younger guys coming back from injury (Drabek, McGowan, Hutchinson) or down seasons (Jenkins, McGuire).

However, all of these guys will be back eventually, and if Alvarez does successfully develop a 3rd pitch in AAA in 2013, you'd like to see him back in the rotation for 2014. Getting two SPs long term might block that from Happening.

On the other hand, Alvarez would only be blocked if a lot of things go right in 2013. IF he develops a 3rd pitch, and IF Romero bounces back and shows he's worthy of remaining in the rotation, and IF Happ has a strong year as the #5 starter and the Jays want to keep him there for 2014, and IF the two new SPs plus Morrow, Romero and Happ stay healthy, then yes, Alvarez will be blocked in 2014.

While I think it might be naive to think all of that will go right in 2013, it's not really so crazy either. I think the odds are in Romero's favour to bounce back and at least be a mid-rotation guy. I think by losing the curveball, the Jays might have cured what ailed Happ in Houston. He certainly had excellent peripherals in his brief stint in Toronto. Health is always up in the air, but on the other hand the even if there are some injuries, the Jays will still have Drabek, McGuire, Jenkins, and Hutchinson all waiting in the wings to fill in temporarily in 2014 if necessary. Or even better, maybe one of them turns a corner in 2013 and becomes a real full-time rotation option themselves. And on top of all of that, the so-called "big three" pitching prospects will probably be up in AAA at least by 2014, and can serve as depth to the MLB roster themselves if the need should arise.

For all of those reasons, I think it might be a waste of resources for the Jays to go out and sign two expensive pitchers to long term deals this winter. Instead, I'd rather see them sign one pitcher long term (I'm crossing my fingers for Anibal Sanchez, but the options out there and my thoughts on them will have to be subject for a later post). The other SP spot should be filled with a one year contract, perhaps with a team option for a second year. There are several older pitchers on the FA market this winter who might end up signing short term that the Jays could look at (again, to be discussed in future post), but the best case scenario would be to land someone in a trade with one year left on his contract (again, future post for these options).

These moves would end up costing between $25-30M in 2013, eating up more than half of the money they have for this offseason. But that's okay, because it's being spent on two pitchers rather than one and the short term contract will allow for a bit of money to come off the books for 2014.

LF: Justin Upton is of course the prize here, and if he is available and the Jays are able to get him, then you do it and don't worry about who you're blocking. However, I'm pretty sure Upton will be staying put in Arizona. That being the case, the issue here is what the Jays' plans are with Anthony Gose and Colby Rasmus. If the Jays plan to keep both of them, keeping Gose in the minors and then moving either him or Rasmus to LF for 2014, then you'd only look for someone with one year of control this winter. However, if they trade Gose this winter (which I hope they do), or they aren't high enough on his bat to see him as our CF/LF of the future, then a bit of a longer term solution would be best. However, with Jake Marsnick likely to be ready by 2015 at the latest (and potentially for 2014 if he's needed), then a one or two year solution might be ideal regardless of what they think of Gose. Fortunately, one and two year options are most of what is out there this winter if Upton isn't on the market (see future post for LF options)

1B/DH: With the only in-house option being Adam Lind, and the lack of any "1Bs of the future" in the minors that are anywhere near MLB ready, the Jays really could use a long term solution here. However, there are only so many Joey Vottos, Prince Fielders and Adrian Gonzaleses to go around. Given that EE can play 1B, acquiring a pure DH is also an option here. DH's for the most part are older players who by nature receive short term contracts. One of the reasons AA never worried much about the DH position is that he always maintained it was an easy one to fill when the time was right (i.e. when the Jays are ready to contend there are always short term solid DH options available). That notion probably does hold up, and I expect the Jays plug this hole with somebody on a 1-2 year contract. It's likely that in 3 years or so Bautista might need to shift over to 1B anyways, and even if not, there will always be new options available in 1-2 years again. See future post about 1B/DH options this winter.

2B: Jays Journal recently put out a great review on the Jays' middle infield prospects. Unfortunately, the picture is pretty grim. The Jays could really use a long term solution here, and there aren't any prospects to come save them. Unlike 1B/DH, 2B is more of a premium position, and it's probably not in the team's best interests to keep plugging the hole with mediocre players on short term contracts. Because even players like Kelly Johnson aren't always readily available. That being said, since there do happen to be some cheap short term options this winter who could do a pretty solid job, and since they might run out of money after spending on pitching, LF and 1B/DH, they might need to settle for one of those cheap options (or just use Aviles). It's not like there are any all-star 2Bs available anyways.

-Martin

The 2012-2013 Offseason: An Introduction

As you might have read in the addendum to the previous post, I'm the new guy around here. I just wanted to say that I'm very excited to have the opportunity to be a writer for this blog and I look forward to sharing ideas and opinions with Blue Jays fans worldwide. Of course, discussion is always more fun than monologues, so comments are always welcome and encouraged. Below you'll find my first post, which is the first of a short 2-part series. Enjoy!

-Martin Klayman

Since a nice chunk of what I hope to do around here is d what kind of discuss roster moves the Jays should or shouldn't try to do and analyze the performances of the relevant players, I figure it would be helpful if I just opened up with a general introduction to the offseason. Specifically, what exactly should the Jays be looking for, and what resources do they have to go out and get those things? This should give context to future posts.

What Do the Jays Need?

AA has discussed "entrenched" players on record, so this shouldn't be too hard. It's also glaringly obvious what the needs of this team are. But here's a numbered list for you:

1) 2B: With Kelly Johnson hitting the open market, the Jays don't have a starting 2B on the roster for next year. What they do have, though, are three potential shortstops in Escobar, Aviles and Hechavarria. If necessary, one of them could slide over to 2B and fill that hole. However, putting Hech at 2B would seem to be a waste of his tremendous defense, which is really all he would bring to the table at this point. If the Jays are to hang on to him, he would ideally stay in the minors for one more year. Aviles could do an okay job filling in here, especially in a platoon role, but ideally he opens the season as your utility INF.

2) 1B/DH: Encarnacion is set at one of these two positions, but the other one is up for grabs. AA has said pretty explicitly that he does not want to go forward with Adam Lind in his starting lineup. He will likely find himself either traded or on the bench in 2013. Thus, there is a hole here.

3) LF: Travis Snider was the LF of the future for a long time, but now he's gone, and so far he hasn't done anything to make us miss him (at least on the field- that interview was pretty awesome though). AA has also said he sees Rajai Davis as more of a 4th OF, and ideally Gose should spend one more year in the minors. Plus, like with Hech, having Gose in LF is also a bit of a waste of defensive talent, which is really what his game is all about right now.

4) SP: The Jays have Romero and Morrow entrenched at the front end of the rotation, and they have to be pretty HAPPy with what the saw from Happ this year. He should have a job at the back end of the rotation. There are plenty of other internal options to fill out the rotation, such as Alvarez, Lincoln, Jenkins, McGuire, McGown, etc. But it would be pretty disastrous if any of them were actually given the job to start the season. Alvarez is the only legit candidate here, but AA has said he won't be afraid to option him to the minors in 2013. Personally, I wish he'd be a little stronger about that, because if it was up to me I would definitely send Alvarez to the minors at least to start off the season, and keep him there until he's finished developing an out pitch. Hopefully AA understands that too (as everyone with half a brain seems to realize Alvarez needs another pitch), and just isn't being so explicit about it. Either way, with Romero, Morrow and Happ, there are two more spots open in the rotation that need to be filled from outside the organization. AA has said he doesn't care about labels on pitchers, so I'm not gonna say the Jays need a "number 3" and "number 4" pitcher. Because they don't. They just need the two best pitchers they can get, for an appropriate value, with the resources they have.

The goal of the offseason is to fill as many of these holes as possible, with the best players available under the circumstances.

What do the Jays have to Offer?

If the Jays try to fill any of their holes via trade, or more importantly, if I want to speculate about trades they could make, then we have to know what assets they have to offer to other teams. The Jays seem to have a surplus in 4 areas:

1) Pitching prospects: No big ones that are really major league ready, but there are a pretty good number of them who are a year or two away, and more lower than that. The thing with prospects is that the really exciting ones you want to keep, and the less exciting ones are hard to get value for, especially when they're not major league ready. But AA has expressed a willingness to part with prospects, and to get something good you have to give something good. AA has made clear that his priority is now the major league team, rather than building the farm system, so if he finds the only way he's able to fill the holes on the MLB roster is by giving up one or two of our big pitching prospects, I have to think he'll be inclined to pull the trigger this year.

2) CF: The Jays have Rasmus through 2014 and are handing him the starting job for the 2013 season. However, they do have Anthony Gose waiting in the wings, who projects to be back in the minors to start the season (unless he is needed in LF- which he shouldn't be). Another year in the minors should do good things for Gose, and it also would give them the opportunity to keep Gose as the potential CF of the future if Rasmus can't turn things around in 2013. So it's not as if the Jays need to trade one of their two CFs. On the other hand, Gose is close to major league ready (even though his bat still needs help), and there are a lot of teams out there looking for a CF. So despite the advantages of keeping both Gose and Rasmus around for another year, Gose is a very nice trade chip and may need to be flipped to fill an area of need on the roster. Plus, keeping Gose in the minors this year has its disadvantages whatever the outcome. If he has a down year, he loses serious trade value, and might not be seen as a solution here locally either. If he has a good year and is deemed major league ready, then AA loses a bit of leverage in trade talks because he will be under more pressure to trade one of them (unless he ends up slotting one of them in LF, which could be a possibility, I guess).

3) SS: Despite all the rumblings about Escobar maybe not being so "entrenched" anymore, I think he probably still is, and certainly should be. But Hechavarria is waiting in the wings and Aviles is around too. Again, if they choose to slide one of these two over to 2B, and put the other in the minors (for Hech) or on the bench (for Aviles) then there's no more surplus. But assuming they look elsewhere for 2B help, which I hope they do, there will be several SSs on the roster. As was the case with Gose in CF, Hech could use another year in AAA, so keeping him down there for 2013 is an option. But that comes with the same disadvantages that doing so with Gose came with, and I'm less confident about Hech figuring out how to hit than I am about Gose. He might be at the height of his trade value now, and if you have a chance to get a lot of value out of someone who might end up just being Johnny Mac 2.0, then you might want to take that opportunity while you have it. There are many teams out there looking for a SS.

4) Catcher: The Jays have JP Arencibia "entrenched" for now, but have Travis D'Arnaud who has been deemed major league ready. JPA has experience in the big leagues, so he's more of a known commodity and has been pretty durable. D'Arnaud is still a prospect and has seemed quite injury prone, though he projects to be the better overall player of the two. Assuming AA isn't dumb enough to have both of these guys in the starting lineup, with one of them getting at bats at 1B/DH as so many fans seem to be wishing for, one of them is gonna have to go. My personal preference would be to keep D'Arnaud. 4 years of control on JPA could bring back a nice piece in a trade.

Well, there you have it. Now, the name of the game is to match up teams with the Jays who have what the Jays want, and/or need what the Jays have. I hope you're as excited as I am. But before we get to that, we must not forget about the open market. It's an avenue the Jays will surely explore this winter to fill some of their holes. So let's look at what kind of money they might have to throw around this year.

Payroll Expectations

The payroll in 2012 was around $83.7M, and AA has vowed that it will go up. Although he didn't give any specific numbers, I think it's safe to say it can potentially go up to at least $100M. Now, with several players coming off the books, the Jays have committed something around $65M already to next year. Factoring in what they'll have to pay to the arbitration eligibles, let's set the amount committed to 2013 at around $70-75M. I'm not bothering to work this out down to the dollar, because AA has implied that the payroll is a general area that he is asked to stay around, not an exact number set in stone. Plus, this post is too long already.

Putting this all together, I would think the Jays should have at least $25-$30M to play with this winter. If the payroll can go up to the range of $120M as Beeston has said in the past, and I have a sneaking suspicion (read: desperate hope) that it will, then the Jays may have as much as $40-$50M to spend this winter.

The truth is, as cheap as Rogers has been with the Jays recently, I really do think it must be the better business move to invest an extra $10-$20M in this year's team (and increase payroll to $120M now) if that will put the team over the top (which I think it will). Spending a bit more to get a contending team will lead to greatly increased revenue. Spending more than last year but not quite enough to contend will just anger an already frustrated fan base, and probably lead to lower revenues than what they got in 2012. So say what you will about Rogers, but my money is on a payroll approaching $120M this year.

Now, although $40-$50M sounds like a lot, it's really not as much as it sounds. Needing a 2B, LF, 1B/DH and 2 SPs means at most they have an average of $10M to spend to fill each of these positions. So even with an increased payroll if you're one of those fans crossing your fingers for Greinke, then you better be okay with settling for pretty cheap options everywhere else.

~~Martin

2012 Positional Rankings: Corner Infielders

As the ongoing speculation rages over the Jays manager position, about which I have not enough information to add anything worthwhile except as already stated regarding the coaches, I will get back to my series and in so doing I come to the position which is likely the weakest in the system, in terms of depth of potential major leaguers. Nevertheless, it must be addressed so let's dig in.

1. Matt Dean (12/22/92) - A year ago, Dean was considered to be quite the coup for the Blue Jays. A "hard sign" - so it was believed - he fell down the draft boards all the way to the 13th round where the Jays took a gamble and made it pay off by getting Dean's name on a contract. A power-potential 3B who was said to have good contact skills and solid or better defense. John Sickels ranked him the Blue Jays 16th best prospect last spring. Funny thing is, that guy kinda didn't show up this season. The power was nothing remarkable, the contact was worse, and the defense was awful. He made 24 errors in short season ball and eye-on reports insist the total is not at all deceptive. That said, you cannot simply dismiss a guy's glamorous prospect status over a shaky debut season as a pro. On tools and ability, he's well ahead of the next guy on this list. Check with me again a year from now.

2. Mike McDade (5/8/89) - I'll get some grief for not listing him #1, and in truth I'm going to regret not listing him #3 I fear. McDade has impressed some fans, in some respects - but ask any professional evaluator (at least those who comment publicly like Keith law or Kevin Goldstien) and they will tell you the guy's not a major leaguer. I remember when Brian Dopirak impressed a lot of us, to some degree, for a time, and we were told repeatedly he was a non-prospect. That evaluation was correct. McDade will have to prove the doubters wrong. Maybe he will.

3. Mitch Nay (9/20/93) - in some ways he brings a rep similar to the one Dean brought to his signing. While Dean signed too late to play in 2011, Nay signed earlier - thanks to the new rules - but promptly suffered an ankle injury that kept him off the field through the end of the rookie league season.  So we've seen nothing professional from him yet and this ranking is based entirely on the scouting reputation he brought into draft day.

4. Kellen Sweeney (9/14/91) - Sweeney was drafted in 2010 with a reputation as a guy with had a very good bat tool and a solid to plus glove, but perhaps would lack the power usually expected from a third baseman. The defense has been as advertised, but the bat has been slow to appear. He started 2012 in Lansing and played his way back to short season ball when those teams got started. Initially, nothing changed as he continued to struggle into Late July. Then something clicked in. August was far and away his best month as a pro. His numbers soared across the board and his K rate fell by half from it's July figure. He posted an .802 OPS for the month. If Sweeney has ironed out his offensive issues he could still end up rebuilding his status.

5. Gustavo Pierre (12/28/91) - last year it was Pierre who played himself out of Lansing. Shipped back to short season ball he continued to struggle horribly both on offense and defense. He did begin to recover with the bat a bit towards the end of the season, but the progress was tempered by the fact that he was at Bluefield, and by the reality that he was clearly never going to cut it as a shortstop. He opened 2012back at Lansing, and playing 3B. While he learned to handle the new defensive position, his offensive struggles continued into the new season. He missed April, was abysmal in May, and bad in June. By the first days of July it was growing near impossible to consider him even a fringe prospect anymore, tools or no tools. But then, as with Sweeney, something clicked in. From July 1 to the end of the season he posted an OPS of .779 which was far better than he'd shown himself capable of before. There's still a major hole in his game when it comes to BB:K ratios (an area where Sweeney is MUCH better). But it's no longer completely silly to think he might recover his once highly regarded status.

6. Gaberiel Cenas (10/16/93) - still looking to find his bat as a pro, but played the year as an 18 year old when some prospects are just getting drafted. He was paid well enough to sign as an international free agent that we should with caution give up on him.

7. Art Charles (11/10/90) - low average, lots of sexy homers, seems to have a knack for good timing. So why isn't he higher? Because he's older than everyone on this list but McDade (who's in AAA) and he spent the year in short season ball. The sort of guy who'll be quickly exposed at higher levels.

8. KC Hobson (8/22/90) - I really want to be able to list this guy higher, and he did improve his offense substantially this year (from weak to below average) but he as repeating Low-A and his age is catching up with him. More importantly than that, however, is that he seems to be an absolute butcher at 1B (he made 25 errors in 2011, 18 in 2012 - horrid for 1B). If he's going to be a DH he has to have an eye-popping bat at this level and it's just not there so far.

9. Jon Talley (2/18/89) - this was the year Talley pretty much had to step up big time or be regulated to organizational soldier. He didn't. In  fact, his HR total fel by over 50% despite having more at bats.

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On an entirely different note - and frankly one deserving of it's own post, except that I've posted so irregularly that I simply HAD to get another installment of the series in, things are changing at The Southpaw. Due to the fact that this summer has seen my post rate fall dramatically as real life considerations have intruded on my time (which given my tendency toward procrastination is magnified) I've decided to add a "junior partner." It has not escaped my notice that as the post frequency has declined, so has the readership and the comments in response. This is to be expected but is nonetheless regrettable.

When Martin Klayman approached me about possibly doing some writing for the site it was a welcome solution to the dilemma. In the next few days you will see the first of what will hopefully be many fine entries from his keyboard and i hope that you will make him feel welcome. We may not always agree, but the work I've seen in the early going seems to reflect my general take on the Toronto Blue Jays. You all know that my specialty is realistic optimism. I refuse to surrender to the chronic cynacism and negativism I see in so many of my fellow fans. As long as Martin stays clear of that cancer, we should get along famously. I hope you agree that he's a valuable addition here.

Look for his first post in the next couple of days.