Tagged: Brandon Morrow

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.

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Blue Jays Christmas Wishlist 2011

This Christmas has become something of a disappointment for Jays fans.  For several days and especially for a few agonizing hours, there was hope that we would receive a great gift, the talents of Japanese ace Yu Darvish.  Unfortunately, the Texas Rangers won the bidding for Darvish’s rights with a record bid of $51.7 million.  We also hoped that a Prince would come to save us, but according to Alex Anthopoulos and Paul Beeston, fans can forget about that too.  Something about not giving contracts in excess of five years to hitters and three years to pitchers.  However, the team has several good pieces in, or not far from The Show and could surprise many people in the next two years.  That said; here is my Christmas list of the top ten Blue Jays desires in 2012: 

10: Production from Kelly Johnson
When Aaron Hill put forth another putrid season with the Jays for four-and-a-half months in 2011, it was clear that the Jays needed to make a change.  Since hitting 36 homers in 2009, Hill has never been the same.  Keep in mind, the 36-homer,, if extrapolated over a full season would have put him 4.1 fWAR season came AFTER his concussion, indicating that the concussion seems to have little impact on his performance drop, contrary to what some have suggested.  Hill was packaged with John McDonald to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Kelly Johnson, who enjoyed a 128 wRC+, 5.9 WAR 2010, but was struggling in 2011 with an 87 wRC+ at the time of the swap.  He went on to post a 114 wRC+ in 33 games with the Jays and 0.8 WAR after playing 113 games with Arizona for 1.1 WAR.  Hill posted 104, 61, -0.8 with Toronto and 33, 134, 1.6 in the desert.  All the best to him.  Johnson ‘s 114 wRC+, if extrapolated over a whole season would have had him seventh in the Majors at his position, right between Dan Uggla and Brandon Phillips – decent company.  Johnson is somewhat cost-controlled through his acceptance of arbitration and his solidification of a perennial weak point for the Jays could be a key factor in 2012 success.

9: Emergence of Colby Rasmus
Colby Rasmus came to the Jays at the trading deadline as part of a three-team deal with the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago White Sox.  While the Jays did give up pitching prospect Zach Stewart and lefty killer Marc Rzepczynski, who each proved their worth at times with their new clubs (The Cardinals won the World Series thanks in no small part to the duo of Octavio Dotel and Rzepczynski who proved to be stellar antidotes for the Milwaukee Brewers duo of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, respectively, along with neutralizing Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers in the World Series)  , if Rasmus blossoms into the star he was projected to be when he was drafted, the trade will end up going down as a heist.  Rasmus struggled mightily in Toronto with a .517 OPS, .225 wOBA, 34 wRC+ and -0.5 WAR over 34 games, although he did have a hot streak in August that was interrupted by a wrist injury.  He posted a .859 OPS,   .366 wOBA, 129 wRC+ at age 23-24, so there is a lot to like, especially at a premium defensive position.  A return to those numbers or beyond isn’t out of the question and could allow Anthony Gose to marinate properly in the minor leagues into a true five-tool player.

8: Stability in the ninth inning
The Jays bullpen blew 26 saves last year  (part of that was due to the gutting in the Rasmus deal) and the duo of Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco struggled with save opportunities at times.  Both left as free agents and AA wanted to find a dominating closer for the ninth inning.  The price of free agent closers has been ridiculous (Jonathan Papelbon signed for 4 years/$58 million with Philadelphia) so he decided it would be best to go the trade route.  He acquired right-hander Sergio Santos from the Chicago White Sox for pitching prospect  Nestor Molina who put up a 2.45 FIP in 108.1 IP and a 0.47 FIP in 22 innings at Single- and Double-A respectively as a 22-year-old.  Steep price it would seem, but as Kevin Goldstein put it: the numbers don’t match the stuff and the numbers tell a rosier story.
Santos, a converted shortstop and former Jay, recorded over 13 K/9 last year, closing some for Chicago.  His number one pitch is a wipeout slider, generating memories of B.J. Ryan, although Santos will throw from the right side.  If he can have a season somewhat close to Ryan’s 2006 in Toronto, Jays fans will be very happy and his club-friendly deal negotiated by Chicago could easily set him up for six years of reasonably priced service north of the border.

7: A full-time left fielder
When the Jays drafted Travis Snider in 2006 out of high school and brought him to the big leagues as a 20-year-old, the idea is that he would stick and go on to become one of the best young hitters in the league.  However, things have gone according to plan.  Snider has played parts of four seasons at the big league level, struggling in all of them to a degree.  During this time, Eric Thames (drafted in 2007 (39, 1191))  shot to the majors, taking over when Snider struggled in left this year, posting 12 HR, .313 OBP and a .333 wOBA in 95 games.  Now with two left fielders both performing poorly, although Snider is 23 and could be age-appropriately at Double-A, it is up to one of them to seize the job.  Snider is younger and has much greater potential, while Thames has the greater recent results.  This spring training will be a key time for the Blue Jays organization as they choose which player they want to travel forward with as their left fielder, while potentially trading the other.

6: Prospect Development
With the hiring of Alex Anthopoulos and trade of Roy Halladay in the winter of 2009, the Jays entered a temporary rebuild.  However, this was different.  AA did not want to just build a one year winner, but a team that could perennially contend.  He started on his vision by almost doubling the size of the scouting department and acquiring Kyle Drabek, catcher Travis D’Arnaud from the Philadelphia Phillies and through a series of trades ultimately outfielder Anthony Gose by way of the Houston Astros.  Drabek saw time in the Majors this season, struggled with his control and spent most of the year in Las Vegas, battling what seemed to be emotional problems with a newfound lack of success.  D’Arnaud and Gose were part of the Eastern League Champion New Hampshire Fisher Cats at the Double-A level.  Gose hit more home runs in 2011 (16) than in his three previous minor league seasons combined (9) thanks to some swing tweaks, but still stole 69/85 bases (81.2%) on the year.  He also flashed a plus, plus arm in centre field and decent range.  If Gose keeps on his upward development path, a Gose/Rasmus confrontation could be inevitable and interesting in a few years.  D’Arnaud was named Eastern League MVP and Keith Law called him, “the real deal”.  He tore some ligaments in his thumb playing in the World Cup of Baseball, but should be ready to go for Spring Training.  Of course, the focus is on a speedy recovery.

5: Brett Lawrie Avoiding the Sophomore Slump
Brett Lawrie arrived in the Majors on August 5, as the most hyped Jays prospect in recent memory by a long shot.  He had an RBI single in his first at-bat, homered the next day and hit a grand slam at home on August 10.  He also had a walk-off homerun for the first 1-0 extra inning walk-off win in the bottom of the 11th inning against the Red Sox on September 5.  Although he did not win Rookie of the Year, he led all American League rookies with 2.7 WAR (4th in MLB) despite only playing in 43 games totalling 171 plate appearances.   As with any data sample, one must be cautious of the small sample size here.  Expecting Lawrie to duplicate these numbers over a full season is clearly unrealistic, but if he can put together a 5.0 WAR season, he could become the Jays long awaited answer to a #5 hitter.

4: Brandon Morrow Gaining Efficiency
Brandon Morrow showed his electric potential this past year by leading the AL (2nd in MLB) in K/9 for qualified pitchers at 10.19.  Unfortunately, this also came with a 3.46 BB/9, which capped his average outing length to just less than six innings per start.  He allowed two earned runs or less in 14 starts, allowing one or zero in nine of them.  However, in eight of them he allowed five or more earned runs, capping out at nine in a game against Boston.  Eight of his starts lasted 5.0 IP or fewer, while he completed seven innings ten times.  By cutting his walks, he can maximize efficiency and hopefully gain some consistency, as he has the stuff to challenge Romero for the role of team ace.

3: Ricky Romero Becoming Elite
Ricky Romero won a career-high 15 games, while finishing sixth in the AL with a 2.92 ERA, a number that has improved for him every season in the Majors.  Unfortunately, this masks a less attractive 4.20 FIP and 3.80 xFIP.  He needs to cut his walks (3.20 BB/9), increase his strikeouts (7.12 K/9) and elevate his strikeout to walk ratio to at least 3.00 as opposed to the 2.23 where it sits now.  He seems to have figured out a solid gameplan against the Rays, but needs to find ways to be more efficient against the highly patient Red Sox and Yankees, who seem content to allow Romero to work himself into jams.  Due to his best weapon being a changeup, left-handed hitters gave him much trouble to a FIP/xFIP line of 5.47/4.87  compared to 3.7/3.42 line against righties.  Improvement of command, especially of his curveball and slider would help to straighten out his split.  Beating the Red Sox and Yankees more frequently will be key for the Jays to climb in the East and Romero will have to be a big part of that, an answer to the big lefties: CC Sabathia and Jon Lester.

2: Health
Jays used the DL 21 times for 19 players and lost 706 man-games.  Jesse Carlson missed the entire season after a labrum tear, so discounting that, the Jays deal usage was 18 for 20 and 544 man-games.  Still staggering.  Bautista struggled with injuries in the second half and Adam Lind’s back broke a six-week hot streak and he wasn’t the same after that.  Keeping the middle of our lineup healthy and our pitchers on the mound (Romero and Morrow each 30+ starts) will be key to our success in 2012, especially against aging New York and Boston rosters.

1: Fan Support
Paul Beeston made it simple: when more fans come, more money will be spent.  If the fans are truly serious about wanting a winner, they need to come out support the good, exciting young team we have now and allow Alex Anthopoulos to gain permission to chase the final pieces.

Christmas Dream: Prince Fielder
We all saw Prince work in Milwaukee and putting him behind Bautista would make the best 3-4 combo in all of baseball.

Merry Christmas Blue Jays fans!  See you in April!

Cheers,
A-Hume

The Sun Will Come Out To-Morrow

A few weeks back, the Jays sent relief pitcher Brandon League and outfield prospect Johermyn Chavez to their expansion cousins, the Seattle Mariners, for pitcher Brandon Morrow.

Initially, I was disppointed in the move, given Morrow’s abuse at the hands of the Mariners, bouncing him back and forth between the rotation and ‘pen like a ping-pong ball.  Trading Chavez initially appeared to be a mistake too as he hit .283/.346/.474 with 21 home runs and 89 RBI in A-ball as a 20-year-old.  However, upon further inspection, the deal actually seems better for the Jays than I originally thought.  At worst, it should be a classic even baseball trade.

I was disheartened by the fact that the Jays were giving up on League and his 98 mph sinker as well as that split-change that was swung on and missed 35% of the time (most for any one pitch in baseball in 2009).  I was also concerned that letting Chavez and his great arm (rated #3 in the Minors) go would rob the Jays of one of the few strong prospects they had.  That was until I looked at the numbers in closer detail.

Morrow has walked 5.83 batters/9 IP in his Major League career and will be 26 at the end of July, but is much younger developmentally and definitely has room to improve.  The key for the Jays will be to settle on a role for the young right-hander.  The Jays see him as a starter and providing that his diabetes does not get in the way, he should turn out to be a good #3 or serviceable #2 in most rotations.  Ultimately, this is where Morrow’s future lies.  His walk rates are too poor to be an effective late-game reliever.  The Jays should use him as a starter and commit to that (whether in the Show or minors) regardless of the outcome.  Every role switch is a leap back in his development and the time has come where all strides must take place in the same direction – forward.

Chavez did put up good numbers but stikes out a ton (27% in 2009 in A-ball)

League arguably had his best year in 2009 with a 3.16 xFIP, however this simply amounted to 1.0 WAR.  This seems right as top relievers rarely reach 3 WAR (Jonathan Broxton led the way in 2009, being worth 2.9 WAR).  3 WAR is what you would expect from a #2 or #3 starter (A.J. Burnett, Randy Wolf, John Danks).  That’s right, the top relievers are worth about the same as #3 starters.  That’s not the greatest advertisement for relievers.  League will all but never have a chance to close in Seattle given the presence of David Aardsma and his penchant for wildness (3.25 BB/9) would also preclude him from being considered as a backup plan.  This will provide a career path of a decent, to above-average setup man, really not that much.  1.0 WAR last year was the approximate value of Ross Ohlendorf or Jeremy Guthrie and this is around where League will likely peak.

On the surface, the trade seems rather odd.  However, the question truly becomes, “Would you trade Ohlendorf or Guthrie for Morrow?”  That requires a one word answer:

“Absolutely.”