Dickey, Prospects and Competitive Windows

The dream began when Alex Anthopoulos assumed the general manager position for the Blue Jays on the morning before the Blue Jays penultimate game of the 2009 season.  Marred by pitching injuries, the Blue Jays limped to a 75-87 finish.  As expectations were high after a 2008 season where the Blue Jays allowed the fewest runs in baseball as a team, a failure of this magnitude seemingly warranted as major a response.  On that morning, J.P. Ricciardi – whose list of notorious acts included blatantly lying to the media about the nature of an injury to star closer B.J. Ryan, attacking Adam Dunn’s character without any support on a radio call-in show (on the team and owner’s flagship radio station, no less) and utterly failing to execute  a necessary trade of ace Roy Halladay during the summer of 2009 while creating a media circus in the process – was abruptly dismissed from his position and replaced by Alex Anthopoulos, his supposedly brilliant understudy.

Operating with negligible leverage, Anthopoulos orchestrated a deal that ultimately netted three of Philadelphia’s top prospects: pitcher Kyle Drabek, catcher Travis D’Arnaud, and (by way of the Athletics and then Astros) outfielder Anthony Gose.  This represented a new beginning for the Blue Jays as the farm system had been left rather barren by Ricciardi’s decision to eschew scouting.  However, president and CEO Paul Beeston (who was appointed three weeks after Anthopoulos – before the trade) supported Anthopoulos’ renewed focus on player development & scouting, while promising that money would be available when the time was right to spend  and for the right players.  The following two years were years of growth,  the pain of poor on-field performance mitigated significantly by the hope of what was to come.  2012 was another season of frustration for Blue Jays fans (merely 73 wins in a year riddled with injuries), but despite this, the fans came out in the highest numbers seen in years; possibly driven by a new identity (new uniform scheme) and the sense that the future was very rapidly becoming the present.

The true watershed moment came in January 2012, when at a season-ticket holder event, Beeston said he expected the Jays to make the playoffs in two or three of the next five seasons.  Now on a defined timetable, the  Blue Jays needed to move.  Fast.  This is exactly what the Blue Jays did, trading a number of prospects (including OF Jake Marisnick, LHP Justin Nicolino and SS Adeiny Hechavarria) along with RHP Henderson Alvarez, C Jeff Mathis and SS Yunel Escobar to the Miami Marlins for RHP Josh Johnson, LHP Mark Buehrle, SS Jose Reyes, utility player Emilio Bonifacio and C John Buck.  Prior to the deal, the Blue Jays had signed Maicer Izturis to play second base, replacing the injury- and strikeout-prone Kelly Johnson, to a reasonable three-year/$10 MM deal.  The Blue Jays followed this move by signing outfielder Melky Cabrera, who had been suspended in 2012 for elevated levels of testosterone.  This was risky, but his numbers did not indicate that he had a performance boost from the testosterone (no power spike), but had some help from a high BABIP.  This left the Blue Jays having filled major holes in the rotation, second base and left field, however it was still on Anthopoulos’ mind to add depth and do anything to help cement the Blue Jays’ position as possible AL East favourites.

The starting rotation was a major problem in 2012.  By Fangraphs WAR, the Blue Jays received 239 replacement-level or worse innings from starters over a span of  45 games (~28% of the schedule).  Only two starters accumulated more than 1 WAR, Brandon Morrow (who only made 21 starts) and J.A. Happ, who came over from the Houston Astros on July 19 and made merely six starts before suffering a fractured foot.  Starting pitchers for the Blue Jays in 2012 included re-treads Jesse Chavez and Aaron Laffey, low-grade prospects Chad Jenkins and Joel Carreno and swingman Carlos Villanueva; who started very strongly, but had a hideous final five starts with an ERA over 8.00 while showing signs of having simply run out of gas.

Villanueva, Chavez and Laffey are all gone now and Joel Carreno suffered a head injury (graphic video) in winter ball although he should be ready for spring training.  This left little depth behind the starting five and it appeared that any reinforcements would have to be cobbled together from minor-league free agents.  Given historic injury rates for starting pitchers and coupling that with the fact that Mark Buehrle is the only one of the quintet to avoid the disabled list due to an arm injury (he has actually NEVER been on it), it is likely that the Blue Jays will need to look elsewhere for at least some (a significant number) starting innings.   A selection of minor-league free agents is not what a contending team wants to draw from, especially with the value of a marginal win (shown below – adjust the dollar values for inflation and given the new wild-cards, shift the beginning of the upward turn by ~2 wins)

Value of marginal wins in 2006 by Nate Silver.

Value of marginal wins in 2006 by Nate Silver.

being so high in the American League East (vertically stretch the bell portion of the curve).  This led Anthopoulos to explore other avenues for starting pitching, and lo and behold, he found a match in a man who was one of the 2 best pitchers in the National League:  R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets.

Prying Dickey away from the Mets, who control him next year for $5 MM and want to maintain a sense of respectability, will not be easy.  Throw in the fact that he is a knuckleballer, which should ostensibly extend his career into his 40s, even though he will pitch at 39 in 2013 and the fact that he was the 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner and Dickey will not come cheaply.  A trade has been reportedly agreed to in principle, pending a contract extension between Dickey and the Blue Jays that would send C Travis D’Arnaud and  RHP Noah Syndergaard (the Blue Jays #1 and #2/3 prospects, respectively) along with C John Buck, a low-grade prospect and cash  to cover Buck’s salary to the Mets for Dickey, C Josh Thole (who spent much of last year as Dickey’s personal catcher) and a low-grade prospect.  If this deal occurs, the Blue Jays would likely have three years of control on R.A. Dickey and will have surrendered four of their top 5 prospects this off-season (D’Arnaud 1, Syndergaard 3, Marisnick 4 and Nicolino 5).  RHP Aaron Sanchez, at number 2, would become the highest ranked prospect left in the system.  This may lead some to question if this deal makes sense for the Blue Jays at all.  After mulling it over and struggling with it for a few days, I finally came to an answer.  This trade works for the Blue Jays for one major reason: competitive windows.

In baseball, merely one-third of the teams make the postseason compared to over half for NHL & NBA and 3/8 for NFL.  Given this probability, the probability that Beeston’s prediction is correct (playoffs in any form at least 2 of the next 4 years – the original was at least 2 in 5 years, but 2012 was failure), given a binomial probability model (this has obvious issues since it assumes all teams are on an equal footing in terms of capability) is ~41 percent.  Given the small number of trials, failing in 2013 greatly reduces the likelihood of this occurring (~26%).  Competitive windows are also limited by the performance curves of the players, which are strongly correlated to age.  Most baseball players peak between 27-31 and the begin a decline phase of varying steepness.  Morrow will turn 29 mid-season, Romero will turn 29 at the end of the season, and Johnson will turn 29 in a few weeks.  Three key pitchers are in the middle of their peaks.  Buehrle is post-peak and a pitcher who could have an ugly demise with any further drop in velocity.  Dickey is 38, but he is a complete unknown, given that his fast knuckleball is unique to the game in its’ history.  On the offensive side, Encarnacion will play as 30, Reyes will turn 30 mid-season, Cabrera will turn 29 in August and Lawrie will be 23, while Bautista will turn 33 in October.  However, the prospects in question are probably not ready until 2014 (although a very aggressive path with D’Arnaud could have him in the Majors by mid-2013) and will take 2-3 seasons to reach their peak (following typical curves).  Given that timetable, the core of the current roster will all be in some stage of decline and possibly not productive enough to support the young players around them.  Anthopoulos realizes this, and has accumulated a wealth of peak players in order to win in 2013.  If adding Dickey at the expense of prospects is the final piece that pushes the Blue Jays over the top, the Blue Jays should go for it.

In Alex We Trust.  This should be fun.

Mathis Extension Could Spell Swift End for Arencibia in Toronto

On the afternoon of August 14, 2012, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos held  a small press conference to announce that catcher Jeff Mathis has been signed to a two-year extension worth three million dollars and a one-year 1.5 million dollar club option for 2015.  I initially wondered what the point was given the Jays’ catching depth as well as the fact that Mathis is a great defensive back-up catcher who has a horrendously weak bat (career 48 wRC+, 76 wRC+ in 2012).  These numbers go as far as to cement him as the worst hitter (non-pitcher) in baseball since 2005.  However, Defensive Runs Saved likes Mathis as an above-average defensive catcher (career 34 defensive runs saved).  This is a profile that fits a serviceable, but not stellar back-up who does little more than catch day games after night games, with one extra start every fortnight or so.

Given the team’s catching depth and current needs, this low-cost extension could prove quite useful and open the Blue Jays to great flexibility.  Viewing the roster as currently constructed, accounting for the 40-man and disabled list players the Blue Jays have three catchers for next year: J.P. Arencibia, Travis D’Arnaud and the aforementioned Jeff Mathis.  Arencibia opened this year as the starter and remained in the role until breaking his hand on July 24, potentially ending his season prematurely.  Arencibia’s hitting had marginally improved in 2012 (.316 wOBA and 97 wRC+ vs. .309 and 92 in 2011), but this improvement was driven by a blistering July, where he posted a .345 OBP, .415 wOBA and 189 wRC+.  The rest of his year was much uglier as he hit .224/.263/.404 with a .305 wOBA.  Arencibia is a poor hitter, even for a catcher, who has greater perceived value largely due to his home run and RBI totals.  Travis D’Arnaud is the Blue Jays’ catcher of the future, acquired in the Roy Halladay deal.  Ranked 17th in the 2012 Baseball America preseason rankings, he has shot up the list, currently residing at  8th after a strong season at Triple-A Las Vegas.  With the major caveat that the Pacific Coast League is a severe hitters’ league and that Las Vegas is the second most affected park; D’Arnaud hit.333/.380/.595 with a .414 wOBA, his best strikeout rate in three years and a 31-point Isolated Power uptick (.262 from .231).  Despite the environment, his BABIP only increased nine points from his Double-A year, which would seem to support that his improvement is at least partly genuine.   It is quite possible that D’Arnaud could produce Arencibia-like power, but have a league-average-or-better OBP to go with it, making him one of the truly elite hitting catchers in the game.  He probably will never challenge for a batting title like Mauer, but a Brian McCann type peak is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.  Add in the fact that his defense has been projected anywhere from above-average to elite, compared with the average-to-below average defense Arencibia provides now and D’Arnaud has a chance to be the catcher of the mid-to-late 2010s in MLB.

The primary knock on D’Arnaud unfortunately has been his health.  He caught 114 games last year at Double-A,  but only 71 the year before at High-A, while missing some time mid-season upon injuring his back.  This year, he only caught 67 games before tearing his right posterior cruciate ligament (PCL, knee) and he tore a thumb ligament in this past off-season playing in the World Cup of Baseball.  If D”Arnaud is healthy and has a strong spring, the Jays could face a log-jam and may end up carrying three catchers.  Anthopoulos hinted the D’Arnaud would DH some next year, but I don’t see any logic in having D’Aranaud in as DH, while putting the defensively inferior Arencibia behind the plate.   Given John Farrell’s (ridiculous) penchant for carrying eight relievers, having three players who can play the same position and only that position primarily on a three-man bench would be terribly crippling.
The solution is to carry two of the three.  D’Arnaud could start the year back in Triple-A, while Mathis backed up Arencibia, but one thing is made certain by the extension – Mathis will make the team.  When D’Arnaud gets hot and/or Arencibia struggles, the Jays will be forced to carry three catchers, or trade one of Arencibia or D’Arnaud.  D’Arnaud on his own would fetch more value in trade, but Arencibia’s baseball card stats would fetch considerable value either as a stand-alone, or as part of a package.

The determining factor for the Blue Jays will come down to this question: Is the increase in the value of a return on D’Arnaud vs. Arencibia greater than the increase in value that D’Arnaud can provide on the field over Arencibia.  If the answer is yes, D’Arnaud will probably be shipped out after showing himself healthy, perhaps around the trade deadline, like Travis Snider this year; but if the answer is no; Arencibia will probably be shipped out mid-season, although a hot September could portend an off-season trade.  Consistently rotating between fist base, designated hitter and catcher is no solution for any of the players.  D’Arnaud and Arencibia both produce their best offensive value as everyday catchers, are moderately devalued at DH and severely devalued at first base.  With only  so many innings to go around and Mathis locked in, one of the two catchers must be on the move, as a 50-50 time share does them no good.  Given his superiority in all facets of the game, I would project D’Arnaud to stay.

Travis D’Arnaud is the Blue Jays catcher of the future and while Arencibia provides some value, that value is maximized as a trading chip and in that I clearly see a swift end for him in Toronto.

The Odd Timing of Eric Thames’ Demotion

When the 2012 season opened for the Blue Jays in Dunedin, Florida; the only true “position battle” was for left field – waged between high-ceiling prospect Travis Snider and the incumbent Eric Thames.   Thames was favoured in the role because he had played ~50 games there to end the season and been serviceable offensively, while showing poor defensive skills.  As a result, it was made known that Travis Snider would have to essentially blow Thames out of the water to win the job.  In the end, they had similar decent springs (spring stats are meaningless for a number of reasons, the investigation of which is worthy of a post in and of itself) and as a result, Thames won the job while Snider was shipped out to AAA Las Vegas.

In the month of April, Thames hit a strong .308/.361/.446 with a .345 wOBA and 118 wRC+, he had a passable 16.1 K% although his defense left much to be desired.  Meanwhile, Snider hit .400/.477/.693 in 19 April games with essentially no home/road split.  Unfortunately, Snider injured his wrist on April 26, ending his month.

This could not have come at a worse time for the Blue Jays as Eric Thames began to struggle in May.  Badly.  In May, Thames hit .193/.227/.301, with a .231 wOBA and 39 wRC+.  Thames suffered a 73-point BABIP regression, but the major cause of Thames downfall was a sharp increase in strikeouts.  In the month of May, Thames struck out in 31.6% of his plate appearances, the fourth-most in baseball for a qualified hitter over that span.  As the month progressed, it became increasingly clear that Thames was simply over-matched in the Major Leagues.  However, there was an apparent problem – Snider played seven games in the middle of May, looked awful (.095/.192/.286) then was shut down again with more wrist trouble on May 17, yet to play as of this writing.

After losing 14-3 to the Texas Rangers on Friday May 25 in a game where Brandon Morrow pitched merely two-thirds of an inning and losing 8-7 to Texas in 13 innings the following day, the bullpen was extremely taxed and roster moves were made, as detailed in prior posts, to construct an eight-man bullpen.  Further complications arose when Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar suffered hamstring and groin injuries, respectively, in the Texas series that necessitated the recall of an extra infielder.  At this point, the Blue Jays made an odd response to their situation – Thames was demoted to AAA and utility player Mike McCoy was recalled.

The oddity of the response stems from the upcoming schedule.  The Blue Jays have today off after completing a three-game home sweep against Baltimore, play the Red Sox over the weekend and have Monday off before travelling to Chicago.  Despite the lull in the schedule, manager John Farrell has indicated that the rotation will continue on full turns.  This means that Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow will make their next starts on six days rest, while the back of the rotation will make each of their next two starts on five days rest.   This is hardly a situation that necessitates carrying an eight-man bullpen and a three-man bench of a catcher, an infielder and an infielder who is hurting.  There is no outfield help on the bench at this point and McCoy is the only true viable option, period.  The other downside to the current roster is that the team’s best pinch-runner (who doesn’t hit RHP very well at 78 wRC+ career), Rajai Davis, is now in the everyday lineup with Snider hurt.  It would have made much more sense to demote one of Jesse Chavez or Aaron Laffey, neither of whom are likely to pitch; and either stick with Thames until Snider is ready or bench him in favour of Davis, leaving a left-handed bat and OF available.

Recalling an infielder was a necessity but the manner in which it was done, not only seems illogical, but hurts the team in its’ current state.

UPDATE: Aaron Laffey was sent back to Las Vegas after tonight’s game.  Prior to Friday’s game the Blue Jays will make a corresponding roster move, they announced.  Adam Lind, who has hit .343/.442/.657/.467/183 in 43 plate appearances in Triple-A is a possible recall candidate, as is Vladimir Guerrero; although Alex Anthopoulos indicated he would see time in both AA and AAA to adjust to velocity and off-speed pitches, respectively.

UPDATE: A third candidate for recall is SS Adeiny Hechavarria.  It has been thought that he is not ready offensively (.316/.358/.458/.367/118, but inflated by the league and park) and that he would not be brought up only on a long-term basis.  However recent comments by Alex Anthopoulos that a visa issue had been resolved, thereby allowing Hechavarria to travel to Canada, coupled with the fact that he did not play tonight for Las Vegas are potential indicators that it could indeed by Hechavarria on his way to Toronto.

 

Jays Roster Moves – May 27, 2012

After the Jays crushing 13-inning loss to the Texas Rangers yesterday, during which they simply ran out of pitching, the Jays made a series of roster moves to address these issues for today’s game.  After two hideous outings, Ryota Igarashi was designated for assignment to clear a 40-man spot for RHP Jesse Chavez, brought up to bolster the bullpen on an emergency basis.  Yan Gomes was also sent back to AAA Las Vegas to open a 25-man spot for RHP Chad Beck and give him consistent playing time.  This  leaves the Jays with an eight-man bullpen, which Farrell said is temporary.

Kelly Johnson (hamstring) received a cortisone shot behind his right knee and is unavailable today.  He may see the disabled list of the hamstring continues to be a problem

Despite the moves, the Jays are still short-handed and available players are as follows: Rajai Davis & Jeff Mathis on the bench with Jesse Chavez, Chad Beck, Luis Perez and Francisco Cordero in the bullpen.

 

The Enigmatic Ryota Igarashi

The Blue Jays made a series of roster moves today; placing Ben Francisco on the 15-Day DL with a hamstring strain (some have reported it as a tear), sending LHP Evan Crawford to AAA Las Vegas, calling up 1B David Cooper and moving Dustin McGowan to the 60-Day DL to open up a 40-man roster spot for right-handed reliever Ryota Igarashi.  Cooper figures to spend most of his time on the bench with the Jays, spelling both Edwin Encarnacion and Yan Gomes at first base and designated hitter.  However, it is Igarashi who is the more intriguing of the two call-ups, both for his previous results and the potential value he can provide.

Ryota Igarashi, initially of the New York Mets, posted walk rates of 8.2, 7.7 and 4.0 percent in his three Triple-A seasons, the last coming with the Blue Jays affiliate in 2012.  The problem for Igarashi is that he completely loses the strike zone  at the major league level.  He has walked 14.2% of the batters he has faced in the Majors, contributing to a 1.71 WHIP.  Given his Minor League walk rates, I fail to see how Igarashi’s control becomes such an issue in the Major Leagues.

Igarashi features a low-90s fastball, a curve and a high-80s splitter and has been effective against right-handers in his career.  He has noticeably more issues with throwing strikes to lefties (55.5%) as opposed to righties at 60.2%.  Igarashi’s success against left-handed batters has been limited by his inability to pitch inside to them.  With erratic command of the curve, hitters are able to sit on a fastball and wait for a pitch to drive.

Against righties, however, Igarashi has no such problems.  He spreads the ball around the strike zone with ease and is able to generate swings and misses with his splitter.  Keeping this in mind, Igarashi won’t be a great reliever for the Jays, but deployed as a ROOGY, he could serve admirably, while allowing Frasor and Cordero to take longer appearances.

The Jays’ bullpen was supposed to be a strength of the club, but for much of the year it has been in flux.  Sergio Santos has been injured, roles have shifted and other than Janssen and Oliver, the relievers have been erratic.  Darren Oliver remains strong as a Jays LOOGY and having Ryota Igarashi as his piggyback right-handed complement may not be so bad after all.

UPDATE: Igarashi gave up two runs in one inning during Friday’s game and faced two batters, retiring neither, on Saturday.  That’s One inning plus two batters (ten faced), five hits, two walks, four runs (all earned) and two strikeouts.  Looking at the depleted bullpen and his hideous performance, he is a safe bet to head back o Vegas in time for Sunday’s game.  Oops.

Realignment Proposal: Conferences

 

With the announcement of expanded playoffs for the 2012 season and the movement of Houston to the American League in 2013, the baseball landscape has undergone its’ most drastic change since the 1994 strike.  Each league, starting next year will feature 15 teams in three divisions of five teams each.  The division winners will reach the playoffs, while the two best of the remaining teams will have a one game play-in.  Having such a format in a game like baseball, which prides itself on truly selecting the best playoff teams due to the long schedule, is simply absurd.  Baseball’s biggest advantage in playoffs over basketball and hockey is that mediocre teams (with very few exceptions) simply do not play in the postseason.  Hockey and particularly basketball have been plagued by sub-.500 playoff teams for a few years now, making the first and often second rounds of the playoffs lopsided, thereby decreasing entertainment value.  The baseball season is not a sprint.  It is a marathon, where depth and attrition breed success.  One or two stars cannot carry a team.  Yet, the league has largely abandoned this in favour of artificially replicating the excitement of tiebreaker games, that were played each year from 2007-2010 and the dramatic last day of the 2011 season, which was considered by many to be the greatest day of regular-season baseball in history.  Instead, the decision ultimately required the Houston Astros to switch to the American League in 2013 to balance the leagues into the new format.

Due to the series nature of baseball scheduling, interleague games must be played year-round to prevent teams from taking up to five days off at once at various points throughout the season.  This will result in 18 randomly distributed (most likely three three-game series each home and away) for 2013 with the possibility of an increase to 30 such games in future years.  This could mean 15 games a year where AL pitchers have to bat, despite not doing it otherwise and an imposition on National League teams to find designated hitters (expensive players with typically neutral to negative defensive value) to start in 15 games and potentially struggle mightily on defense in others.  The other option they have is to use a player off the bench, who is likely on the bench for a reason such as below-average power or hitting ability; creating a hole in the lineup.  The obvious solution would be to implement the designated hitter across all baseball.  I personally hate the DH, but it is a cash cow for the players as it has the highest average salary by position and allows many players who would have had to retire due to fading fielding skills to extend their careers – needless to say, the DH is here to stay.

If the DH becomes a universal fixture in baseball, differences between the two leagues will become non-existent.  Both leagues would play with the same rules (except for some absurd difference over how long an umpiring crew had to wait to suspend, or postpone a game in a rain delay – I have no idea why that was so).  The leagues are no longer autonomous whatsoever and are already symbolic “conferences” for the most part, like the American and National Conferences in the National Football League.  Since the leagues have little meaning anymore, why not reorganize the “conferences” into an alignment that reflects geographic convenience instead of arcane tradition.  Major League Baseball would be split into the Eastern and Western Conferences as outlined below:

Eastern:

Toronto, NY Yankees, Baltimore, Detroit, Boston, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington, Miami, Mets, Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay

Western:

LA Dodgers, LA Angels, Oakland, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Texas, Minnesota, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Houston, Arizona, St. Louis, Chicago White Sox, Colorado

It could even be split into divisions if that is what people wanted:

West: Oakland, San Diego, San Francisco, LA Dodgers, LA Angels, Arizona, Seattle

Midwest: Colorado, CWS, St. Louis, Houston, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Minnesota, Texas, Houston

East: NY Yankees, Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington, NY Mets, Miami

Mideast: Toronto, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, CHC, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay

In either format the top four teams in each conference would make the playoffs.  The schedule would be balanced with 11 games against each divisional opponent, with the team winning the previous year’s head-to-head series gaining the extra home game.  That would account for 154 games.  Unless MLB wanted to cut back on games (unlikely), or extend to 168 games (very unlikely), the remaining eight games would be “flex games” consisting of two four-game series against randomly drawn non-conference opponents.  This leaves 95.1% of the schedule balanced – not perfect, but a far cry better than what we have now.

While this method has some flaws, I strongly believe it would offer a more accurate picture of league talent on team-by-team level, while reducing the needs for cross-country treks.  It supports MLB’s initiative of “going green”, all while developing a competitive field where balance is finally restored.