Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Catching knuckles

Strike, or passed ball?  Beats me.

The Jays really need to move Dioner Navarro.

I know the arguments for keeping him.  He’s a better bat than Josh “T-Hole” Thole.  He could play almost every day if Russ Martin got hurt.  He can DH some (but not really, with a career wOBA of .304, worse than all of Dayan Viciedo, Valencia, and Smoak).  The team doesn’t want to give him away for nothing.

I get all that.  So let’s say the Jays keep Navarro, and Thole gets through waivers to Buffalo (these are a kind of revocable waivers, so he’ll likely pass through – teams seldom claim guys that they know can be pulled back by the club attempting the waiver).  Rah Dickey gets to throw to Russell Martin, and Navarro is the backup.  What’s bad about that?

Well, for starters, Martin’s going to need somewhere between 30 and 50 games off from catching.  If Martin catches all of Dickey’s starts (and he will, if his backup is Navarro), then Martin also will catch somewhere between 100/130 and 80/130 of everyone else’s starts.  Yes, you could have Navarro catch Buehrle (they seemed to work well together last year), but doesn’t it make sense to have an elite pitch-framer catching a finesse pitcher like Buehrle?  And doesn’t it also make sense that Martin catch the youngsters (Hutchison, Sanchez, and likely Norris), considering the rave reviews he gets for game calling and managing young pitchers?

The other point is that there is no guarantee that Dickey and Martin will work well together when the real games start.  Sure, the reviews look good now, and both guys are saying all the right things.  What else could they say?  Maybe stuff like this, this and this?  Every time I read about Dickey and Martin this spring, it seems like I’m reading about Martin adopting new stances, the odd missed pitch, and both guys talking each other up.  Eeerily like 2013, and not really reassuring

Alternatively – if you keep Thole, you keep a guy that Dickey is comfortable with and give 32 starts to him.  Dickey has had most of his best performances throwing to T-Hole, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  Martin can have 110-130 starts with the other pitchers and Thole can catch up to 20 more.  That means Martin will do most of his work where he’s most needed – with the young pitchers and the guy (Buehrle, as opposed to Dickey) who benefits more from pitch framing.

And the other thing is, T-Hole is the only guy in the system who has knuckleball experience, and he must pass through revocable waivers to be sent down to Buffalo.  As I said, it’s likely that he gets through – but if someone claims him, what do the Jays do?  Go with three catchers, when it’s possible the team may want to hide an out of options pitcher (Kyle Drabek) in the bullpen?   That doesn’t leave much of a any bench.  Let Thole go?  That might have worked when Mike Nickeas (who has caught Dickey’s knuckler) was stashed in the minors, but Nickeas is now retired, leaving the Jays without a safety net if Martin gets hurt.

If Rah Dickey wasn't on the team, I'd say the team should keep Navarro as a passable backup to Martin and not worry about whether Navarro would be happier as the #1 catcher elsewhere.  But that's not the situation the team is in.  The way things are now, it makes more sense to have pitchers throwing to catchers they are confident in, and whose catching skills complement those of the pitcher they are receiving from.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Head to Head: Battles for 2B, 4th and 5th starter, bullpen

So, we’re about 2 weeks from the season opener.  Who has the edge for 2B and relief?  And who will be the 4th and 5th starters?  Well, since you asked... (stats as of Mar 19)

Devon Travis has played a lot and looked fairly good doing so – he sports a .300/.344/.367 batting line, over 32 PA.  Defence passes the eye test.  Sooner or later, he'll be here.
Ryan Goins has been even better, .346/.393/.462.  With his defensive rep, you could knock 100 points off each of those numbers and he’d make the team.
Steve Tolleson has been .250/.318/.450.  He’s out of options, but I don’t see the team keeping him around when the season starts.  Back to Buffalo, if he can sneak through waivers.
Maicer Izturis has a nasty .067/.222/.133 line over 18PA... and a guaranteed contract.
Munenori Kawasaki has a .364/.533/.545 batting line over just 14 PA.  As usual, I think he’s the fallback option.
Ramon Santiago looked better than any of them, but is out for 10 weeks.

If the Jays weren’t already committed to paying Izturis $3MM, I think the job would go to Travis.  As it is, I think it’s still Izturis if he hits at all over the next 2 weeks.  Goins would back up both SS and 2B.  The problem with bringing up Travis (or Tolleson or Santiago or Kawasaki) to start at 2B is that you’d be stuck with Izturis as a backup infielder and he’s not good enough to back up SS or 3B.  That, or carry 2 backup middle infielders… which won’t work if the team needs to find roster spots for one or both of Navarro and Thole, Valencia, and a 4th outfielder.

After Dickey, Buehrle and Hutchison, the contenders look like this:

Marco Estrada has a horrible 9.39 ERA for the spring, but 7 of the 8 ER he has surrendered came in a 2/3 inning appearance vs Tampa that I had the misfortune to watch.  Throw that out and he looks much better.  And throw out his good performance the last time out, and he looks much worse *shrug*

Aaron Sanchez has an ERA of 4.70 over 7.2 innings.  Does this teach us anything?  Probably not, but with Stroman out, it’s pretty much down to 2 of him, Norris, and Estrada for the rotation. 

Daniel Norris hasn’t had dramatically different results than Sanchez has, but his 9 Ks over 7 innings looks better than Sanchez’s 4 over 7 2/3.  Ridiculously small sample size, but I’m of the opinion that the 5th starter job was his to lose when spring training started.  So, book it: Norris will make the rotation.

Right now, I think it’s Norris and Sanchez to the rotation, with Estrada available as a replacement if one of them gets lit up repeatedly and sent back to the minors.  There’s also the possibility of Johan Santana breaking into this group in future, but that’s not to be counted on. 

Aaron Loup and Brett Cecil will be here.  So will Steve Delabar and Todd Redmond… probably.  Both Delabar and Redmond have done nothing to hurt their chances of making the roster.  That leaves 3 spots.  One of those spots will go to Marco Estrada, and if Estrada somehow makes the rotation, it’ll go to Sanchez.  Miguel Castro has been very impressive this spring, and I can’t see how the club can avoid bringing him up when the season starts.  That leaves one spot remaining.

I had thought that Chad Jenkins would be a cinch to make the team, but he’s struggled badly to this point in the spring, and he has an option left.  So, no.  Kyle Drabek doesn’t have an option, and he’s been ok… but not really impressive.  I guess the team could bring him up over Jenkins.  Better options would be Colt Hynes or Bo Schultz, and late-addition Randy Wolf may make a run at a spot.  I’d add Roberto Osuna to the list of possibles, but it seems a lot to ask 4 rookies or near-rookies (Sanchez, Norris, Castro, and Osuna) to make the pitching staff out of spring training.

Jeff Francis, Liam Hendriks, and Scott Copeland have blotted their copybooks, I think.

So right now – I’d say Cecil-Loup-Delabar-Castro-Estrada-Redmond and give the last spot to Drabek (or someone else, if that someone has an impressive 2 weeks ahead of him).  If Drabek gets shelled, the team will likely cut him loose to whoever is willing to take him.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The 9 most devastating injuries in Blue Jay history

Right after it had sunk in that the Jays had lost Marcus Stroman for the season, I started to dwell on some of the less obvious (but still depressing) ramifications.  The Jays lose a year of Stroman when he's cheap.  The club loses one of its best pitchers for a year when their window to contend may be down to 2 years.  Other young pitchers may get rushed to the majors, starting their arbitration clocks early and possibly hurting their development.  Et cetera.  We won't know the full impact of Stroman's injury until we have the benefit of hindsight, and even then, we can only guess what he might have done in a healthy 2015.

What we do have, when feeling morbid, is the benefit of hindsight when it comes to other injuries.  These all hurt, but some really hurt.  Stroman's injury would make this a list of 10 - your guess is as good as mine as to where it will end up falling in terms of impact to the team.

So let's take a trip down bad memory lane, shall we?

9. BJ Ryan, 2007:

The dreaded "inverted L"

Ryan blew 4 saves in all of 2006.  He and his replacements combined to blow 8 saves in 2007… and the team finished 13 games back of the playoffs.  OK, the onfield significance may not have been that great, but Ryan’s injury marked the start of J.P. Ricciardi’s (“it’s not a lie if we know the truth”) downfall.  And then again, that might not have been a bad thing, either.

8. Morrow/Drabek/Hutchison, 2012:

This was 3 injuries, but they happened so fast that it felt like one big, crushing injury inflicted over the course of 7 days. Yes, the 2012 team wasn’t going anywhere in all likelihood, but losing 3 starters in a week was devastating, in case you had forgotten.  Throw in Ricky Romero’s falling apart, and the entire (fairly promising) 2014 rotation had to be replaced. 

7. Duane Ward, 1994:

Duane Ward was a beast for the 1991-93 Jays – putting up 9 WAR of value from the bullpen, saving 88 games as a setup man and closer and being a workhorse in general.  Unfortunately, pitching workhorses tend to break down eventually, and that’s what Ward did.  Bicep tendinitis cost him all of 1994 and after an ugly comeback attempt in 1995, Ward retired.  The mid-90s Jays teams weren’t great, but it didn’t help that a team that had relied on a Ward/Henke combination for so long now had to suffer through a list of closers comprising Darren Hall, Tony Castillo, Mike Timlin, Kelvim Escobar and Randy Myers.

6. Edwin Encarnacion, 2014:

The Jays were 47-42, 1 game out of first place on July 5 when Encarnacion got hurt.  He returned on August 15, by which time the Jays were 7.5 games back, and basically buried.  Having a healthy EE (who was among the league’s offensive leaders when he was injured) might not have prevented the Jays slide, but it probably would have kept the team closer to the wild card spot, which they missed by 5 games at the end of the season.

5. Jose Reyes, 2013: 

So, so much went wrong in 2013, but the lasting image of the club's misfortunes is of Reyes sliding awkwardly into second base 10 games into the season and being helped off the field in tears.

Reyes would go on to miss about 3 months.  And while his absence did lead to us all getting to know Munenori Kawasaki, his injury did sort of suck all the enthusiasm out of the season before April was even over.

4.  AJ Burnett, 2006: 

Would be a better picture if AJ's whole face was in shadow.

Burnett missed a dozen starts in May-June 2006.  It’s hard to say who those starts would have gone to, but one would think a healthy Burnett would have displaced Josh Towers from the rotation.  While Burnett was out, Towers went 1-9 over a dozen starts, with a 9.11 ERA.

(Wait… Towers, with a 9.11 ERA?  Whoahhhhhhhh.)

3. Jimmy Key, 1988:

This one might be forgotten by many, but Key missed 10 starts early in the year, and those starts went to Todd Stottlemyre who was 2-6 with an ERA over 5 over those games.  The Jays finished 2 games out of the AL East in 1988.  Would Key have been 2 games better than Stottlemyre over 10 starts?  Almost certainly.
2. Chris Carpenter, 2002:


Before there was the Lansing Three (Syndergaard/Nicolino/Sanchez), there was Carpenter-Escobar-Halladay in 1999, a trio of 22-to-24 year old pitchers who were expected to be the core of the rotation for years.  Kelvim Escobar had a few good years with the Angels after bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen in Toronto, and Halladay, you know about.  Chris Carpenter had a few rocky years in Toronto (49-50 record, ERA+ of 98, which is slightly below league average) before blowing out his shoulder, and the Jays cut him.

Would the Jays have cut ties with Carpenter if he hadn’t wrecked his arm in 2002?  I doubt it, but that’s just guessing.  Carpenter had a ton of talent, but he had been inconsistent and injury prone with the Jays.  In any case, the Jays let him go, the Cardinals picked him up, and Carpenter finished top-3 in Cy Young voting 3 times in his 6 healthy seasons with St Louis.  How would the 2006 Jays (see Burnett, #4 above) have looked with Carpenter on the team?  Better, to say the least. 

1. Tony Fernandez, 1987:

Those of you under age 35 probably don’t remember this.  And that’s probably a good thing.

On September 24, 1987, the Blue Jays were neck and neck with the Detroit Tigers for the AL East lead, the Jays up ½ game to start the day.  And then this happened:

  Image from 

Bill Madlock of the Detroit Tigers took out Tony Fernandez of the Jays on a double play ball.  Fernandez fell hard, his elbow breaking when it hit the cutout frame around second base.  Fernandez was a 5 WAR player for the Jays and batted either first or 3rd in the batting order, setting the table for hitters like Bell, McGriff, Barfield and Whitt.  The Blue Jays were averaging 5.3 runs per game up to that point; with Fernandez out, they scored just 3.2 runs per game over their last 9 games, going 2-7 in that stretch and losing the division to Detroit.  Add in that Madlock was out of the baseline when he hit Fernandez (meaning it was an illegal play) and the memory of that play still hurts.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Buehrle Buehrled, and Estrada got E'Smoked: Impressions from the ballpark for March 12, 2015

I felt a little like I was going to a funeral, and not a baseball game, this afternoon.  It's been 2 years since my last spring training game, and I was looking forward to it.  But now, the Blue Jays have lost their best or second-best pitcher, Marcus Stroman, for the season.  With 2 spots in the rotation now up for grabs, spring training performances just got a lot more meaningful.  If the Jays are going to contend in 2015, they'll need some players - young pitchers, probably - to exceed expectations.

So - Jays at Devil Rays!  The lineup looked promising for the good guys:

Pompey, Donaldson and Smoak all figure to play regularly, if not daily, in 2015.  We'll hope that Devon Travis plays his way onto the team, and Josh "T-Hole" Thole may yet find a way to hang onto a roster spot.  Ryan Goins was there, too,

If you're in non-west coast Canada, you're gonna hate me for saying this:  It was a sunny, hot day in Short Harlot Port Charlotte - maybe even too hot, in the high 80s.  Above, you can see a few of the Jays warming up, notably Donaldson (20) and Travis (77).

And on the hill would be Mark Buehrle, seen warming up above.  Note the lawn seating down the left field foul line,  If you don't know the park, Charlotte Stone Crab Stadium (or whatever they call it) seats about 8000, with lawn seating in the left field corner and a boardwalk/concourse stretching from left-centre field all the way around to the right field corner.  The outfield concourse features a thatch-roofed bar with a decent beer selection - we had the 16 oz Coronas.  Too hot for anything heavier.

The game itself started pretty well.  The Jays scored a run in the second and 2 runs in the 3rd inning, to take a 3-0 lead.  Dalton Pompey continued to have a good spring, going 2 for 3 with a double and a run scored.  Donaldson drove in 2 runs with a single, but also struck out twice, and Devon Travis drove in the other run, going 2 for 4 on the day.
 If you know who this is, email me.  I think it's Donaldson, but I misplaced my note on this one.

 Mark Buehrle did Mark Buehrle things, going 3 1/3 innings, allowing 2 hits, no walks and striking out 2.  He was pulled due to a pitch count limit, I think, and Cory Burns finished the 4th.

And then Marco Estrada's bad day happened.

A couple of days ago, Marco Estrada got a huge gift from the baseball gods, a gift that was disguised as the flaming newspaper wrapped around a turd that the rest of us got:  Marcus Stroman's injury.  With Stroman gone, both the #4 and #5 rotation spots are up for grabs, and while I think Dan Norris would beat out Estrada for one spot, Estrada did look like a cinch to take the other.

Except, maybe not after today.  Marco Estrada had one of the worst days I've ever seen a pitcher have in a spring training game.  No, it didn't help that there was a decent wind blowing out to left, but I don't think the wind would have mattered.  Estrada gave up 7 hits - all of the hard hit variety - and got just 2 outs (one of which was also a rocket) while getting tagged for 7 runs.   It was ugly, and after Matt West got the last out (and was charged with another run, himself) the Jays were down 8-3.  Estrada stepped in the flaming newspaper, as it were.

Beyond that?  Justin Smoak (1-2, 2 walks) and Caleb Gindl (double) looked good.  Gindl's in the conversation for a 4th outfielder job, I guess.  Liam Hendriks had a clean inning (1 hit, 2K) and may well be in the conversation for 5th starter unless Estrada shapes up.  And there was a Jeff Francis sighting:

Francis had a clean inning, too.  A longshot for the bullpen, I think, but if Brett Cecil isn't back and pitching in a week... maybe he's in the running for real.

Did I mention that the wind was doing this?

Tough luck for Preston Guilmet, who gave up a long HR to left and 2 runs in the 8th.  Final:  10-3 Rays.

At least it doesn't mean anything.  Unlike bunt drills (ugh).  So let's take it for what it was - a day spent outdoors in short sleeves and sandals, watching baseball.  That's enough to make one forget the recent bad news, for a little while.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015


I had thought about making this post a tongue-in-cheek guide to the 7 stages of Blue Jay fan grief. At this stage, why fight it?  Unfortunately, the first stage of grief - denial - blows that whole idea out of the water.  I mean, really... denial?  This sort of thing is painfully familiar.  From AJ Burnett missing the start of the 2006 season,  to Edwin Encarnacion blowing out a quad running the bases (on a grass field, no less) last year, this stuff happens to the Jays all.the.damn.time.  Denial would be like denying the seasons.

Between those 2 injuries, of course, we have Jose Reyes wrecking his ankle in the second week of 2013 (also on a grass field), Brandon Morrow and Drew Hutchison suffering long-term arm injuries in the same week in 2012.  Shaun Marcum and Scott Rolen in 2008, BJ Ryan in 2007.

It's exhausting to be a fan of this team, at times.

I'm sure there is some local-fan myopia in feeling that the Blue Jays are particularly unlucky.  But the thing is, other teams are unlucky and they overcome that bad luck.   The Jays have yet to do that.  Maybe that's just more bad luck, maybe the team is badly run and never has the right kind of depth, and maybe it's something else.  But when you are sitting on the longest playoff drought in your league, in a town where the failures of the local sports teams are the stuff of legend, it becomes harder to argue that "this (stuff) happens to everyone".

There's a lot riding on this season.  Alex Anthopoulos and John Gibbons have their jobs on the line.  Decisions will have to be made on whether to offer extensions to Bautista and Encarnacion.  Mark Buehrle is likely gone after 2015.   Jose Reyes and RA Dickey are each a year older.  If things don't work out this year - for a third year in a row after the big moves in 2012 - I can't see how it could make sense to try again with the same group of players.  And it sure doesn't seem like there is much appetite at Rogers for throwing (more) money at the problem.

Could things work out for the Jays in 2015?  Sure they could.  The Giants won last year without Matt Cain, who was expected to be their ace.  The Cardinals won a few years back without Adam Wainwright, their co-ace with Carpenter.  Drew Hutchison could be a lot better, based on his strong finish last year.  Dan Norris could win a starting spot and have a Stroman-in-2014 kind of year.  The Jays still look to be very good offensively, better than last year perhaps, regardless of what the pitching does.  But now the margin for error gets even thinner.  The team cannot afford to lose a Hutchison or an Encarnacion for even a couple of months.

Avoiding another major injury through a 6-month season is a tall order.  Based on recent history, it's tough to blame Blue Jay fans for thinking it an impossible thing to ask for.

Monday, 2 March 2015

The 5 free agent archetypes

That ├ęclair wasn’t in the garbage, it was sitting on top!

Are you sick of Alex Anthopoulos’s picking over the waiver wire, signing nobodies to minor-league deals and pointless spring training invites?  Wondering why the team didn’t sign a real second baseman, or some relievers?

To answer the second question, it’s because there’s no money.  Or there is money, and nobody would take it.  Or there is money, but it’s being saved for later, unless between now and later, someone at Rogers decides they really don’t have that money, after all.  On second thought, let’s not answer the second question.  To answer the first question – for myself, I do find it kind of tedious, but there is some method to the madness.  Not all free agents are expected to make the team, or to contribute in any but the most dire of circumstances, but that’s not to say there isn’t a purpose to all the so-called dumpster diving.  What follows is a breakdown of the hierarchy of free agent signings.

AAA depth:  A player signed to make the AAA team better.  Not expected to compete for a job in the majors.  Hey, minor-league teams need a complete roster, too, and they can’t always have bonafide prospects in every position.

Example:  Greg Burke

Raising the floor:  A player acquired as a depth piece, not expected to start.  Usually acquired because the team has a good starter, but the only depth behind him is in the low minors, or terrible.  If the starter is unavailable or struggles to the point where he is sent to the minors, this player will provide replacement-level backup until the starter is right again.

Example:  Munenori Kawasaki

The Stopgap:  A player signed to replace an injured player.  Once the injured player returns, the Stopgap may be released or sent down to AAA, if he clears waivers.  In some cases the team may have an agreement to release the Stopgap once he’s no longer needed on the major-league roster.

Example:  Dayan Viciedo

The Lottery Ticket:  A player who is coming back from a longterm, career-threatening injury, or who has fallen out of favor due to years of being ineffective.  The Lottery Ticket gets signed in the hope that if he’s healthy, he can recapture his old form, or that a more forgiving ballpark may lead to a bounce-back season.   Agreements to release the Lottery Ticket if he doesn’t catch on with the team are relatively common.

Example:  Johan Santana

The Impact FA:  The kind of free agent fans always want their team to sign.  Unlike all the other guys on this list, the Impact FA is sought after and expensive.  He’ll impact your team in one of two ways:  He’ll make them better, or he’ll be a drag on payroll for years to come… maybe both!  Impact free agents can be signed away from other MLB teams, or from Japan, Cuba, or elsewhere in the lawless, draft-exempt Latin American region.

Example:  Russell Martin

All the foregoing is not to say that “AAA depth” can’t occasionally become Stopgaps, Lottery Tickets, or even Impact FA.  And impact FA become AAA depth sometimes, too (hello again, Ricky Romero).  The point is, not every free agent is signed with the intention of fighting for a spot on the opening day roster.  Boston has enviable depth; if the Jays aren’t quite where the Sux are in prospect depth, at least they’re trying to find bodies who could be credible fill-ins if needed.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Doomed heroes and knee injuries

The injury bug has ruined many a Christmas, and not a few baseball seasons.

I'm not sure how I'm supposed to feel about Michael Saunders' knee.

Before Saunders had surgery today, I was planning to write about how odd it was that the same people who were wringing their hands about the absence of Michael Saunders from the lineup, were many of the same ones who were complaining about how he wasn’t going to hit after the Jays traded for him.

Anyway.  Now we probably don't have to worry about whether Kevin Pillar or Andy Dirks could fill in adequately in LF (they could have, but if Pompey got hurt or struggled, the team would be in dire straits in the OF).  Point being, losing Bautista or Donaldson would be would be disastrous; losing Saunders isn't.   J-Bau and J-Don are both expected to produce 5+ fWAR, while Saunders has never been worth more than 2.1 fWAR and Steamer has him projected to 1.7 WAR (over 113 games, and he may yet reach that threshold!).  Saunders' replacements might be worth half a win less over a half season.

But now all those concerns are behind us, because Saunders didn't have the meniscus in his knee repaired, he had the damaged part of the meniscus removed.  Removing the meniscus cuts the recovery time to 5-6 weeks, instead of 4-5 months.

I understand that the damage to the meniscus was severe enough, once the doctor had opened up the knee to look, that the torn portion was irreparable and had to be removed.  That makes me feel a bit better about the fact that Saunders had reportedly decided to have it removed, regardless of whether it could have been repaired, so he could come back sooner.  His coming back sooner is obviously in everyone's best short-term interest, but losing the meniscus will make it more likely that Saunders suffers from serious knee issues (arthritis), later on in his life.

I can totally understand why Michael Saunders wants to be back sooner - aside from wanting to play baseball and contribute to his new team, he's going into his final arbitration season, and missing 60% of it will likely cut into his future earnings.  Pro athletes have short careers; baseball players play longer than football players do, but even so, Saunders might only have 3 or 4 good years left.  Missing significant time this year could really cost him, earnings-wise.

All that makes perfect sense.  But isn't Saunders deciding to get important parts of his knee removed so he can keep playing analogous to a guy with a concussion getting back on the field so he doesn't lose his job?  Knee injuries aren't brain injuries, but isn't the principle the same - a player (or his team) risking his long term health so he can help the team in the short term?

Maybe Michael Saunders doesn't turn into Mo Vaughan by his mid 30s.  Maybe he has a great career and an arthritic knee in retirement is a price well worth paying.  But I'm glad, in a way, that the injury was so bad that repair wasn't an option.  Because if there was a choice, I would have a hard time feeling good about the choice Saunders made.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Six spring training questions

As you are no doubt aware, the Blue Jays made some well-regarded moves in the early stages of the offseason, landing Russell Martin, Josh Donaldson, Michael Saunders, Marco Estrada and Justin Smoak.  After that, the club incrementally ran out of money sat on its hands for the last 2 months, and here we are at the start of spring training with unanswered questions at 2B and the bullpen, same as was the case at the end of 2014.

I don’t think that unanswered questions are necessarily a problem, mind you.  Last year, the answer to the second base question was “Ryan Goins!” even though most people knew that Ryan Goins was a terrible idea.  This year, there are options.  Better options than last year.  So let’s dig in and take a look.

Question 1:  Who plays second base?

Last year, Maicer Izturis got the job and after an unsustainably hot start with the bat, he suffered a season-ending knee injury.  Now, Izturis returns to battle for the job with Munenori Kawasaki, Goins, Steve Tolleson, Ramon Santiago and Devon Travis.

At this point, it’s almost a sure thing that Maicer Izturis is on the roster, either as the starter or the infield backup.  Izturis is out of options, and he’s being paid $3MM, so the club is unlikely to just cut him loose or try to ship him off to Buffalo.  I’m not sure you can discount his horrible 2013, but if you do, Izturis is a decent defender at 2B and a better hitter than any of the other known options for the position.  That said, Izturis is now 34 and coming off major knee surgery.

Goins, we know about:  Probably the best defender in the group of 2B options, and very likely the worst hitter.  In a perfect world, Goins would be on the roster as a defensive replacement behind a better hitting starter and behind Reyes at shortstop.

The other player on the 40-man roster is Tolleson, who is coming back after surgery to correct his vision.  We might see a boost in his play post-surgery, but Tolleson hasn’t been great at 2B (in limited time there, admittedly) and his bat doesn’t look to be any better than Izturis’s.

Kawasaki is a better fielder than Tolleson (from what we can see from the sample we have, anyway) but like Tolleson, doesn’t figure to be better than Izturis overall.

Ramon Santiago is a utility infielder who doesn’t hit or field any better than the guys higher up on this list.

Devon Travis is the guy to dream on, here.  Travis came here in exchange for Anthony Gose last fall – he was the top prospect in a pretty bad Tigers farm system.  He’s 24 and hasn’t played an inning above AA, but Fangraphs in particular is very high on him – he’s regarded as a steady defender with a good plate approach, and is expected to compete for a job this spring.  If he fulfils the expectations that many have for him, he’s the best player on this list and starts at 2B on opening day.  On the other hand, he’s never played above AA and the club might feel he needs more at-bats in Buffalo before promoting him later in the season, if at all.

Likely answer:  Izturis starts.  Whoever has the best spring out of Goins/Tolleson/Kawasaki/Santiago backs up, with the edge going to Goins or Kawasaki.  Travis starts in Buffalo barring an amazing spring performance.

Question 2:  Who’s the 5th starter?

Barring injury, the top of the rotation will be Dickey/Buehrle/Stroman/Hutchison.  The battle for the 5th starter job looks to come down to Dan Norris, Aaron Sanchez, or Marco Estrada.

Estrada will make the team, as a starter or as a reliever, while both Sanchez and Norris could possibly end up in Buffalo when April hits.   Estrada, as I outlined yesterday, had a decent track record as a starter in 2012-13, but was victimized by the home run in 2014.  Top prospect Norris roared through 4 levels in 2014, going from A+ to AA, AAA and the majors.  Sanchez went from AA through AAA to the majors last year. 

Likely answer:  If Norris has a good spring, he’s the 5th starter when the season starts.  If he doesn’t, Estrada gets the job and Norris is in Buffalo.  Sanchez ends up in the bullpen – he doesn’t have the control to start in the bigs, but he’s too valuable in relief (and the Jays are too thin in the bullpen) for him to get sent back to AAA.

Question 3: Who’s in the back of the bullpen?

Brett Cecil, Aaron Loup, Todd Redmond and Chad Jenkins look like locks, or near-locks, for the top 4 bullpen spots.  I think Aaron Sanchez gets a spot as well.  That leaves 2 spots open, or 3 if I’m wrong about Sanchez.

I went over the bullpen options at length here but saved my guessing for this post.  As already noted, Marco Estrada gets a bullpen spot if Norris wins a starting job.  I’d say that both Steve Delabar and Miguel Castro would be locks for the bullpen with good spring performances.  If not, look to Preston Guilmet or Wilton Lopez to take bullpen spots – and if the Jays are fortunate enough to get good performances out of more than 3 of Delabar, Castro, Guilmet and Lopez, we could see Aaron Sanchez in AAA to work on his third and fourth pitches.

Likely answer:  Delabar, Guilmet (or Estrada if Estrada doesn't start), and as noted earlier, Sanchez.

Question 4:  Who’s the CF and 4th OF?

Well, the CF job is Dalton Pompey’s to lose, I think.  If he has a good spring, he’s the man.  If not, I think Chris Dickerson (covered yesterday) will platoon with Kevin Pillar, with Dickerson (lefty bat) getting most of the playing time, and Pompey in AAA.  Ezequiel Carrera figures to be minor-league depth unless he has a great spring and Pompey doesn’t.

Who backs up Pompey is a trap question – you’d think it’d be Pillar, who played well at times in 2013-14 and is a RH bat, which fits nicely when you consider Pompey hits better from the left side.  However, Pillar has options and Carrera/Dickerson don’t.  Still, I’d give the inside track to Pillar.

Likely answer:  Pompey CF, Pillar 4th OF.

Question 5:  Navarro, Thole, or both?

There are a couple of moving parts to this question.  Can Dickey throw successfully to Russell Martin?  And, can the Jays find a trade they like for Dioner Navarro?

The Dickey question isn’t just about whether Martin can catch the knuckleball, but whether Dickey performs well throwing to him.  In 2013, Dickey pitched to JP Arencibia for opening day, and then pitched to Henry Blanco for his next 12 starts, which ran through April and May to the first game in June.  In April and May of 2013, Dickey’s ERA was over 5.  After that, he pitched to Josh Thole, and his ERA was about 3.80…. right around where it was in 2014 (3.71), when he pitched to Thole for the full season.  Thole also caught 27 of Dickey’s 33 starts in 2012, when he won the Cy Young award; the other 6 were caught by Mike Nickeas.  Point being, Dickey may well perform better when throwing to Thole and not just any “knuckler-ready” catcher.

The Navarro question is easier.  I’ve said before that Dioner Navarro isn’t the kind of guy you would want to DH regularly, and if he’s not DHing, he’ll get less than 60 starts at catcher (even fewer if both he and Thole are somehow still around).  That said, injuries happen.  If Russell Martin were to get hurt, Navarro could be the everyday catcher (and there are no other decent options to replace Martin with in the event of injury).  If Smoak or Encarnacion get hurt, he can DH more often.  The 2015 Jays don’t figure to have a bench full of great hitters, and Navarro’s .315 wOBA looks pretty good when you compare it with Pillar’s .304 or Valencia’s .295.  In short, Navarro has too much potential value for the Jays to trade him on anything other than their own terms.

So, likely answer:  The Jays have invested a lot in Russell Martin (and he's far better than Thole in every other way), so unless he’s awful with the knuckler, the Jays let him catch for Dickey and Navarro backs up.  Thole is out of options, so the club will try to sneak him down to AAA and hope that his $1.75MM contract deters him from declaring himself a free agent.  And if Thole does get claimed, the Jays still have Nickeas.

Question 6:  Who are the “out of options” guys who the team might lose?

This is an easy one, thanks to Bluebird Banter’s handy guide.  As far as the players you have heard of, I expect Kyle Drabek, Liam Hendriks and Steve Tolleson to not make the roster.  I suppose someone might take a flyer on Drabek, but I’d consider it more likely that Tolleson and Hendriks get claimed.  As noted above, they might lose Thole, too.  Chris Dickerson, Ezequiel Carrera (CF candidates) and Ramon Santiago are also out of options and could be lost if they don’t make the team.

Likely answer:  Lots of guys, with Drabek, Hendriks, Tolleson topping the list.  Fortunately, I don't see any of these players getting added to the 25-man roster as dead weight, the way Jeremy Jeffress was last year.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Quick review of the new faces

This past offseason, the Blue Jays somehow managed to turn over almost 2/3 of their lineup without managing to address second base and the bullpen.  Huh?  Oh, you heard about that, did you?

What follows is a field guide to explain who’s replacing who, and what we can expect from them.

Josh Donaldson: Replaces Brett Lawrie.
Distinguishing feature(s):  Fewer tattoos, veins in neck less prominent.
Upshot:  Josh Donaldson should be a major improvement on Brett Lawrie.  Donaldson is a much better hitter and a better defender (although not without flaws).  He has a lot of range and is a better bat than Lawrie or any of the other hitters (Lind, Cabrera, Rasmus) that left the team after 2014.  The other thing Donaldson brings is health.  It’s not that Brett Lawrie was a bad third baseman (he was average to good, usually), it’s that Lawrie played just 303 of a possible 486 games the last 3 seasons, mostly due to injury.  I don’t know if staying healthy is a skill (and I’m pretty sure you can’t blame Lawrie’s oblique issues and broken finger on Astroturf, either) but Donaldson looks like a much better bet to get into 150+ games.  Fingers crossed.

Russell Martin:  Replaces (directly) Josh Thole, or (indirectly) Dioner Navarro.
Distinguishing feature(s):  Bigger beard, smaller belly.
Upshot:  No matter who the backup is, Martin makes the Jays’ catching corps much better in 2014.  Even if 2014’s great batting numbers are an aberration, he’s a better hitter than Navarro and a MUCH better hitter than Thole.  He grades out better defensively than both Navarro and Thole, and he’s a much better pitch framer (receiving a pitch to make it look like a strike) than either.  Either Martin can catch Rah Dickey’s knuckleball (more on that in a later post) or the Jays need to keep Josh Thole to do that.  If he can, Martin probably catches 100+ games and DH’s a few when Navarro catches.  If he can’t, Martin probably catches almost all the games other than the 32 or so Thole gets during Dickey’s starts. 

Justin Smoak:  Replaces Adam Lind.
Distinguishing feature(s):  Eyes fractionally more open.  No squirrel on face.
Sort of replaces Lind, anyway.  Despite John Gibbons' suggestion that Encarnacion will play first base, I figure Justin Smoak should play 1B against RH pitchers (the same way Lind did) with Danny Valencia playing 1B or DHing against LHP.  He will miss some time when Encarnacion does play 1B so that Bautista, Reyes and Martin get time at DH.  Point being, I would be surprised to see Smoak get 300 PA in 2015, unless things go very well for him, or very badly in other areas.  Smoak’s a downgrade from Lind at the plate, but he does seem a bit better defensively and he’s been healthier as well.  As was the case with Brett Lawrie, Adam Lind’s batting abilities were often frustratingly unavailable due to frequent injuries.

Michael Saunders:  Replaces Melky Cabrera
Distinguishing feature(s):  Work ethic/toughness baggage instead of PED baggage.
Saunders is younger, faster, and better defensively than Cabrera.  He probably won’t hit as well as Cabrera did in 2014, but in fairness, nobody expects Melky to hit as well in 2015 as he did in 2014, either.  So I expect a bit of a downgrade offensively, but I doubt we’d be any happier with Cabrera still in the fold, and Saunders IS a bit better than Melky in the field.  The caveat is that Saunders has had health issues (and then again, Melky hasn’t been aging well either).

Marco Estrada:  Replaces J.A. Happ.
Distinguishing features(s):  Sometimes smiles in pictures.
Estrada has been more valuable than Happ in 2 of the last 3 seasons, but Happ was better in 2014.  Happ goes to Seattle as the likely 5th starter, while Estrada could be the 5th starter (if one of Norris/Sanchez doesn’t win the job in the spring) or in the bullpen.  Estrada was quite good as a starter in 2012-13, but was much better in the bullpen in 2014… and the difference mostly comes down to home runs.  Estrada gave up 27 HR in 107 innings as a starter, but just 2 in 43 innings as a reliever.   A more normal propensity for home runs would go a long way to making Estrada more palatable as a starter.  Nonetheless, he appears to be a slight downgrade on Happ, just based on recent trends.


Chris Dickerson/Ezequiel Carrera:  Replace Colby Rasmus
Distinguishing feature(s):  No mullet/cornrows/goatee.
It’s a lot more likely that Dalton Pompey replaces Rasmus as the full time CF, or that Pillar and one of Dickerson or Carrera platoon in CF this year.  Both Dickerson and Carrera are lefthanded bats who can back up across the outfield, but Dickerson (in a very limited sample) has been better defensively in CF and better with the bat (even if he strikes out a LOT) too.  If Pompey makes the team, I can’t see either of them beating out Pillar for the 4th outfielder job, but if Pompey has a bad spring or gets off to a slow start… look for one of these two to be bumping asses in 2015.  Are either of them better than Rasmus?  Oh hell no, not even close.  The hope is that one of them + Pillar or Pompey might come close, though.

Friday, 13 February 2015

The outlook for the 'pen

Early in the offseason, Alex Anthopoulos indicated that his priority was fixing the bullpen and that second base would be addressed.  You can quibble about whether adding Devon Travis as the 2B of the future and getting Maicer Izturis back from injury "addresses" second base, but at least there are new faces for the position.

Things have been very quiet on the relief pitching front, though.  Do the Jays have the personnel to cobble together a competitive bullpen?

2014 did a wonderful job of demonstrating the adage that reliever performance is volatile.  After a strong 2013, the 2014 bullpen was terrible, despite being made up of pretty much the same group of pitchers as the year before.  Here’s how the group performed in 2014:

Last year:                      IP         ERA     FIP       xFIP     rWAR**  fWAR               Other

Redmond                      75         3.24      3.56      4.47      0.6        0.4                    4.6% HR/FB
Loup                             69         3.15      3.83      3.92      1.2        0.5                    .246 BABIP
Cecil                             53         2.70      2.34      2.51      1.4        1.2                    4.56 BB/9
Janssen                        46         3.94      4.14      4.22      0.2        0.1                    5.52 K/9
McGowan                      43         3.35      4.99      4.13      0.4*      -0.3                   .224 BABIP
Sanchez                        33         1.09      2.80      3.00      1.5        0.6                    .157 BABIP
Jenkins                         32         2.56      3.48      3.87      0.7        0.2                   
Delabar                         26         4.91      5.59      5.51      -0.1       -0.4                   6.66 BB/9, .235 BABIP

* - Baseball-reference doesn’t include WAR in their splits page, but considering that McGowan had a 5.08 ERA as a starter and a 3.35 ERA as a reliever, I’m going to assume that of the 0.5 WAR he was worth in 2014, 80% of that can be attributed to his relief work.

** - recall that rWAR tells us what a pitcher actually did, whereas fWAR tells us what his peripherals would lead us to expect him to do.

The names above are the top 8 relievers in 2014 by innings pitched.  Out of those 8, one (Janssen) is gone, another (McGowan) is likely gone, another (Sanchez) may be unavailable due to being in Buffalo or the rotation, and the last (Delabar) may be unavailable due to not pitching well.

The 4 guys who are left (Redmond, Loup, Cecil, Jenkins) combined for 3.9 rWAR and an ERA below 3.  The others (excluding Sanchez) were worth 0.5 rWAR and had a combined ERA of almost 4.  So it’s not as if they Jays have watched some incredible 2014 performances walk out the door.  Also gone are Sergio Santos, Esmil Rogers, and Neil Wagner, all of whom were awful on last year’s team.

So, who’s left?  What can we count on?  Well, Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup have both been pretty good for 2 seasons running.  Todd Redmond and Chad Jenkins, the other 2 holdovers, are not quite on that level – Redmond has only 1 year of relief experience and his xFIP (normalizing the home run rate) suggests he may regress.  Jenkins draws comparisons to Burke Badenhop, but I don’t think we can say that, yet – Badenhop has generated groundballs at a 55% rate over the last 4 seasons (260 innings) with an ERA in the low threes.  Jenkins has just 68 relief innings over 3 years and his groundball rate cracked 50% for the first time last year.  Could he be ok?  Yes, but he hasn’t pitched enough to be counted on.  For what it’s worth, Steamer projects both Redmond and Jenkins to be replacement level in 2015.

Despite the possible likely mediocrity of Redmond and Jenkins, they're probably a safe bet to make the bullpen out of spring training, joining Cecil and Loup.  The other candidates for the other 3 bullpen spots look like this:

Marco Estrada – RH 31 year old.  Will make the team, either as 5th starter or in the bullpen.  If he’s here in the 'pen, that likely means one of Norris or Sanchez cracked the rotation. Was worth 3.1 rWAR from 2012-13, but struggled as a starter in 2014 before being moved to the bullpen, with better results.

Steve Delabar – RH 31 year old.  If he gets the walks back under control and his velocity is back, he makes the team, IMO.

Kyle Drabek – RH 27 year old.  He’s out of options, so he likely makes the team if he’s even serviceable at all in spring training.  After 2 TJ surgeries, if Drabek can’t get the walks under control at the MLB level, he’s likely gone.

Aaron Sanchez - RH 22 year old.  Sanchez is the one guy on this list who everyone thinks would dominate in the 2015 bullpen, based on a really good 33 innings last season.  Is that fair?  Maybe not - Sanchez benefited from a ridiculous .157 BABIP allowed and walked hitters at a (for him) unusually low rate.  Even though Sanchez reportedly made a mechanical adjustment that helped him cut his walk rate, that may not be sustainable.  For sure, the BABIP isn't.  Regardless, Sanchez is viewed as an 8th-inning guy or closer material, if he does relieve.

Miguel Castro – RH 20 year old who finished in High A ball last year, but is considered to have a chance to join the Jays’ bullpen in 2015.  A hard thrower.

Liam Hendriks – Heeee's back!  RH 26 year old who has struggled over parts of 4 MLB seasons (5.92 ERA, 188 innings).  I don't see him as a good bullpen candidate, but the Jays seem to like him, so.... maybe?

Rob Rasmussen - LH 25 year old who had a cup of coffee in 2014 with the Jays.  If he can keep the walks under control, he could help.

Preston Guilmet – RH 27 year old who closed in the minors for Cleveland.  Great minor league K/BB ratio.  Has a chance to help.

Daniel Norris – LH 21 year old.  Could be starting, could be relieving, could be in Buffalo.  Like Aaron Sanchez, in the long run, Norris would probably be better off starting the season in Buffalo if he’s not in the rotation.  Desperate times (i.e. no relief help) may call for desperate measures, though.

Juan Pablo Oramas – LH 24 year old claimed from the Padres this past winter.  Has a good K/BB ratio as a minor-league starter, and missed time in 2012-3 due to TJ surgery.

Wilton Lopez – RH 31 year old.  Lopez actually has had success not that long ago (2010-2013) and has accumulated 4.3 rWAR over 305 relief innings.  Doesn’t walk anyone.  Could be a guy.

And on top of that list, there’s the usual crowd of org guys, non prospects, and likely starters invited to ST:

Jayson Aquino – LH 22 year old, former top Rockies prospect.  I’d expect him to be tried as a starter in AA/AAA as he has never relieved in the minors.
Scott Barnes – LH 27 year old.  Strikeout pitcher with a good slider.
Colt Hynes – RH 29 year old.  Seems like an org guy.
Bo Schultz – RH 29 year old, strictly an org guy, I would think.
Ryan Tepera – RH 27 year old, 6 year minor leaguer with the Jays.  Has a good fastball and the ability to get strikeouts.
Matt West  - RH 26 year old, formerly a hard-throwing Rangers prospect.  Due to injuries, last year was the first year he pitched more than 27 innings as a pro.  Struck out lots of batters in AAA last year but I'd think he'd be a longshot to help.
Gregory Infante – RH 27 year old who saved 22 games in AA last year.  Lots of Ks at AA and AAA.
Scott Copeland – RH 27 year old who put up decent numbers between AA and AAA last year.
Cory Burns – RH 27 year old.
Greg Burke – RH 32 year old with 72 relief innings split between 2009 and 2013.
Andrew Albers – LH 29 year old who made 10 not bad-starts for the Twins in 2013 but spent all of last year in the minors.

Looking at those two groups (the possibles and the less-likelies)… the bullpen could work out.  One of Norris or Sanchez could push Estrada to the bullpen, and Estrada could do solid 7th inning work.  Or Estrada could start and the Jays could throw caution to the wind and stick Sanchez or Norris in the pen to share late innings with Cecil.  Delabar could rediscover his control.  Oramas or Castro could claim a spot with a good spring, and Wilton Lopez could turn into a serviceable middle relief arm.  If any two of those things happened, that would be fine.  On the other hand, an injury to either Cecil or Loup would be disastrous, and as Jays fans, we should be prepared for the injury bug to hit.   For that reason, I’m really hoping that the Jays have the $1.4MM savings from the Donaldson arbitration earmarked for some kind of veteran reliever.  Without another relief arm, there isn’t a lot of quality depth to the 2015 ‘pen.