Friday, February 23, 2018

Whither the Jays ... Thoughts on a Season about to Begin

Each new season opens with promise ... sometimes that promise is enjoyed by the other teams because, let's be honest, the Jays are *not* a favourite in the AL this year. The fans I've been talking to don't hold out much hope. The feeling is a lot different than last year, where we began the season thinking that if everything went right, the Jays would be in the playoffs again. It didn't happen for a range of reasons, but two stand out: injuries and the decline of some players (most particularly Bautista's decline to a negative WAR player and Pillar's increasingly shaky play both at the plate and in the field).  The Jays management did attempt to address these problems over the winter. In the talent-deep AL East, however, it is likely not enough. To be clear: I don't expect the Jays to be out of it. I don't think the season will be a right off. Instead, I think it will be one of those seasons that fans find so frustrating. The Jays will be on the margins of the race: never fully in it, never fully out of it. Enough to keep you watching but also enough to give you blood pressure problems.  Overall, however, I think there is actually a great deal to be upbeat about if you are a Jays fan.  Why say that?

First, the Jays did make what might be considered important strategic moves. They didn't fall for the pressure to go out and offer $140+ mil to a big name or throw money at an aging vet that might cripple their payroll for years to come. I have some serious problems with the nickel and dime game they played with Stroman but I like a bunch of other decisions ... at least I like them now before the start of the season. What ones?

I like the decision to *not* try to go after Hosmer or Cain or Darvish. They could all have great seasons but the Padres just signed Hosmer to a contract that will keep him with the team until he's 35 -- so this must have been the length he wanted -- and while it is front loaded (which is a good thing), the Padres will be paying Hosmer $13 million per year when he is 34 and 35, and, quite frankly, likely not their starting first baseman. So, they'll either have to find a way to unload him (which will involve eating part of the contract) or they will be paying a backup 1B/PH 13$ mil. Moreover, 144$ mil is a lot of loot for a guy whose primary value is defensive at the easiest to play defensive position in the baseball.  I also worry about players who have their best year in contract years. His age means that last year might not be a fluke but I'd have no desire to pay 144 $ million to find out and it appears the Jays did not either.

Likewise Darvish is a good pitcher. He had a good year and much has been made of his better play with LA, but for me that is a warning sign. LA has one of the best pitcher's parks in baseball. His numbers were inflated playing in that sandbox in Texas, to be sure, but he's 30 years old with a serious injury history and has pitched more than 200 innings once his career. The Cubs we willing to give him 126$ million and I honestly hope he has a good season because I like him and the Cubs, but the Jays are already have a couple of aging pitchers with injury histories. Is paying 126$ mil for another a good way to address starter depth?

So, the first thing I like is the moves the Jays did *not* make. They were sound financial and prudent baseball transactions. They continue a pattern of dramatically reducing the Jays long-term financial commitments, particularly to players who may not be playing (or, may not be playing well). The chart below, I borrow from Matt W's column at Blue Bird Banter:

As Matt W points out, the Jays post current season financial commitments are lower than they have been in ages. And, are lower than their current salary for the first time in something like 15 years.

The second thing I like is the transactions they did make. Bringing in Diaz, Grichuk, and Solarte addresses at least some problems and these were inexpensive players with a potential upside. I have a rule, never trade for a player that the Cards want to get rid of because the Cards are a good baseball organization and don't make mistakes. If they are giving up on someone ... there is a reason for that. Yet, for the Jays, each instance is a step up. Both players they got from the Cards have problems. But, the truth is that our middle infield and backup and right field (overall) last year was not good.

With regard to middle infield, I hate to say that because I like both Goins and Barney and I hope they land on their feet. Goins had a great RBI rate but has a 640ish OPS. Barney had a 600 OPS. Since there is a good chance that backup middle infielders for the Jays are going play a lot, those are just not offensive numbers with which one can live. There is also a problem with defense. Goins, in particular, more than passes the eyeball test, but his dWAR (his defensive value above a replacement player) actually works out to 0.2. That means he is 1/5 of one win better defensively than a player who would replace him, and that is not good enough to compensate for his overall bad offensive numbers, leaving him with a negative overall WAR (wins above replacement).  Goins WAR was close to zero -0.2 overall; what that means is that he did not contribute to the team and cost them oh so slightly it the wins column.

Barney was slightly worse, with Baseball Reference reporting a -0.7 war. Dias clearly had a bad year last year but his potential upside is, simply, a lot more than Goins or Barney. We don't know whether his 2016 numbers (.879 OPS) are accurate but we know that Barney and Goins are not going to get any better. Likewise Solarte's 1.3 war is an upgrade. I don't know if Grichuck is going to be good or bad but I know that Bautista had become a bad player by the end of the last season. Taking a chance on a low cost guy who has some tools is, in this situation, not a bad chance to take.

I don't have the reference with me but various mathematical projections for the upcoming season suggest that the Jays will win somewhere between 78 and 86 games. That is a wide range, likely because it is difficult to project who will actually be playing for the Jays come mid-season noting the injury history of some of their players. If Devon Travis can play a full seasons, if Smoak repeats what he did last year, if Donaldson does not get injured, if Pillar could finally take a step forward instead of another step back, if ... if ... if. There are a lot of ifs. And, generally, one should avoid a team with a lot of ifs. The projections suggestion, however, that there is talent on the team and the higher end projections suggest that the Jays could remain in the hunt for a playoff spot until late in the season.  From what I see, I agree with that.

There are players who are on the bump and the depth the Jays are developing will make those decisions easier. Last year, for instance, the Jays had little choice but to send Bautista out into right field (a position he could no longer really play) and bat him lead off, despite a negative offensive war. This year, I suspect several things:

  • The Jays will be a surprisingly good team. Look for them to win more than 80 games and be on the margins of the race the entire season. 
  • Pillar will lose his job and will, perhaps, be traded if he does not take a step forward
  • Travis will lose his job with one more long-term injury
  • Tulo is harder to ditch because of his big salary (accounting for over 40% of the Jays post-2018 salary commitment by himself) but the Jays might be willing to eat salary to deal him and clear at least some payroll if there is a suitor
  • Donaldson will be trade bait if the Jays are not in the race since he seems ready to go free agent at the end of the season
Those are worst-case scenarios. I don't actually think they will happen. Instead, the Jays will go through the season surprising us with their competitiveness but frustrating us by never getting over the hump. 

Did anyone think that Gibbons would outlast Farrell? 

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