Last night Alex Anthopoulos made an appearance on Prime Time Sports, a daily (weekday) sports discussion show that is on the air during drive time in Canada’s largest media market (Toronto area) as well as simulcast on other radio stations on the FAN Radio Network and Sportsnet One on television. On the program he discussed Thursday’s game, in which Brandon Morrow was battered en route to a 7-3 loss, the health of Brett Lawrie, Ricky Romero and concern over the sluggish start, among other things. Anthopoulos’ comments (paraphrased) will be in italics, while my comments will not.
On Lawrie’s Injury:
Anthopoulos had not heard the report that Lawrie would be out for a month and indicated that he had not heard that, and that he had read a report on Lawrie from his staff just prior to joining the show. He mentioned that Lawrie had some stiffness initially that day, but after warming up was able to execute all of his baseball activities. Naturally, he would need to get into game and get “quite a few at-bats…it’s been a while since he has played.” Anthopoulos mentioned the upcoming series with the Yankees at home (April 19) as a return date that he had envisioned, with the following Monday in Baltimore the worst case scenario. Most importantly, he emphasized he hadn’t heard anything to change that.
On Ricky Romero:
Anthopoulos told the crew that Romero has been throwing live batting practice every five days as well as bullpen sessions, but has not gotten into games yet. He expects Romero to get into games within seven to ten days. Romero could have broken camp with the big club (I don’t see how given that fact that his command was repeatedly non-existent for extended sequences, and critical games aren’t really the place to undertake major adjustment projects), but the team wanted to make sure the changes were “cemented” before bringing him back. The issues have been both physical and mental in nature owing to the unknown causal relationship between success and confidence. However, he did indicate that the problems were primarily mechanical and that mechanical adjustments have been made. As for Ricky Romero’s return to the big leagues, he said that there is no timetable and that it would be up to what the coaching staff sees of his actual stuff and command, as box score results (especially in the low Minors) are essentially useless as a performance evaluation tool.
I cannot see him returning to the Majors in the near future, especially if Happ continues to pitch well. If Happ takes the fifth spot and runs with it, I could see him spending the year in the minor leagues and being a September call-up.
On the slow start and related fan reaction:
The Jays just need to put everything together in the sense of getting good hitting and pitching performances in the same game. Anthopoulos mentions that things will “balance out” which is layman’s terms for regression to the mean. A pity more fans fail to grasp this, but #mathishard
Anthopoulos admits that Rasmus has started slow in the past, but emphasizes the basic statistical principles of regression and sample size.
The part about Rasmus slow starts seemed to be a cliché tossed out by Anthopoulos in attempt to quell misguided hatred for Rasmus. I was disappointed to see that the numbers don’t bear out what Anthopoulos actually said. Rasmus’ career wRC+ is 98 and in his four Aprils he has posted marks of 87, 207, 144 and 83 (133 career). I am willing to give Anthopoulos a mulligan on this one though, as 2012 was Rasmus’ first April with the club, making it possible that the recency effect played at least a small part in the comments, and also that he likely didn’t have Fangraphs open in front of him during the segment (unlike me, who is writing this at 6 AM).
Anthopoulos again mentions regression and sample size (in simpler terms) with regard to Rasmus. This is a concept that he seems truly intent on driving home, which is good, because it is a simple yet fundamental set of concepts which remains hard to grasp for much of the population although there is no excuse for such difficulty.
A purely quirky note on Rasmus’ strikeouts is that Rasmus’ best season (2010. 4.0 fWAR) when he posted his highest strikeout rate of his career (27.7% vs. 23.2% career).
Anthopoulos mentions that Bonifacio’s nightmare three error day came the day after he made a game saving play up the middle (sample size again), although the comparison to Alomar was a bit much. Good to know that he think Bonifacio could play some outfield if needed. That serves as a critical component to his value. I wish he could play some short, but it sounds like his infield position will be restricted to second base. Still though, a utility guy that isn’t completely useless with the stick can be a surprisingly powerful weapon. That fact that he is a burner brings him to the level of awesomeness. Fans, this (not John McDonald, nor Mike McCoy), is a super-sub.
Anthopoulos also notes the blatantly obvious fact that having Lawrie back will provide a plus defensive fixture and tremendous amount of extra flexibility as one of Izturis or Bonifacio will join the bench. Hopefully that keeps DeRosa off the field, since, as @bluejaysbatboy pointed out, he has the range of a recycling box. Makes sense, I could see him moving if the wind blew hard enough.
Anthopoulos indicated they don’t know Dickey well enough (3 years, ~600 IP), but he was impressed with what he saw, particularly in the WBC start versus the Dominican Republic, facing a juggernaut (including Reyes & Edwin) that went 8-0 en route to the tournament title. Dickey cracked a nail in the first inning on Sunday and it led to him throwing more fastballs and changeups (Pitch distribution below courtesy of Brooks Baseball). While Anthopoulos said Dickey told him that this is a relatively common occurrence and that it was no excuse, I have to think you give Dickey at least somewhat of a break (no pun intended) because when you are throwing 83 mph “fastballs” as more than an occasional surprise, the odds of success aren’t exactly overwhelming.
The Jays will carry eight relievers until Lawrie returns. Anthopoulos was very pleased with the three innings the Blue Jays got from Dave Bush on Sunday (well, insomuch as they were pitched by him and not someone else) and said that eighth spot will be a revolving door. They will return to a seven man (normal size) bullpen when Lawrie comes back and those seven will be the guys. Viewing Cecil as the seventh man, Anthopoulos likes his work so far. Cecil could become a critical cog if the velocity stays where it is now and he could rack up plenty of strikeouts. However, given the sample size, I may temper my enthusiasm somewhat for the time being.
The Blue Jays signed Miguel Batista to a dirt cheap Minor League contract (remember him?) to be a long man and spot starter in Triple-A Buffalo. Yes, Minor League teams need bodies too.
Overall, I am very pleased with Anthopoulos’ rational comments on the state of the club and brilliant methods of diffusing panic. I’m glad to know they won’t rush Romero even if Happ struggles, as the Blue Jays may only have one shot to get him right. The eight man bullpen (and resulting three man bench including Henry Blanco, he of a career 65 wRC+) is idiotic, crippling the offense while the eighth man rots, especially after an off day. The only justification I can see for this iteration of the eight man bullpen is insurance against a rainout resulting in a starter being knocked out, because the forecast in Detroit is lousy. However, even that justification is tissue paper thin and flimsy.
Oh well, the rest of this is just wonderful and only 4.3% of the season is behind us, so let’s stop panicking and enjoy the ride. OK?
For those interested, the original segment is here.
Stats from Fangraphs unless indicated.
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)
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.