As of the conclusion of last night’s game against the Royals, the Jays have now played 81 times in 2012, exactly half of the season’s schedule. For now the club still clings to a winning record, and might seem poised for a potential second-half surge were it not for the fact that the rotation is in absolute shambles. The trade market has yet to develop, but even if it were to materialize this instant, the Jays’ front office may not see the value in giving up vital futures in an attempt to put a band-aid over the hamburger that is their pitching staff. There appears to be little to do but to wait and hope that their makeshift starters bridge the gap between now and when Brandon Morrow’s health, or the trade market, can provide them with some help, or that it at least becomes clear by July 31st that they must be sellers, at which point they can begin acquiring assets and looking ahead in earnest to next season.
In my view– which should come as no surprise if you’re a regular reader– there’s not a whole lot of value to be mined by worrying too intensely about the upcoming weeks, which will nominally “make or break” the season, but not exactly in the grand sense that the phrase should be reserved for. One way or the other, we’ll soon know for sure what kind of season 2012 will be remembered as, but what’s important isn’t so much where the Jays are at and where they’re going in this particular year, but where they stand in the context of their entire development arc.
The samples of data from this season have grown enough, I believe, that we can start to adjust our beliefs about the long-term future of certain players on this club, and in this organization, in accordance with what we’ve seen this year. So let’s take a position-by-position look at where the club is at, and which areas of need should be focused on as we begin looking past whatever we think is going to happen with the rest of this year.
We’re going to start with the easy positions to assess, and at the moment there’s none easier– not even right field– to slam through quickly than third base, where Brett Lawrie is unquestionably a core piece of the Jays’ future.
Lawrie hasn’t exactly picked up where he left off in 2011, but he’s looked much better at the plate since a move to the top of the lineup, and his defence at third has been very good– though perhaps not on the Brooks Robinson-esque level that DRS and the WAR formula at Baseball Reference seem to believe. Still, there was once talk of Lawrie having to eventually be moved off of the position, all of which now seems rather quaint.
He’s a long way from needing to be shifted elsewhere– unless, perhaps, it’s to the outfield to accomodate Yunel Escobar’s eventual move to third, with Jose Bautista moving to first or DH– and, frankly, it makes you wonder just what the hell anyone saw wrong with him in the first place. Troy Glaus and, to a much, much greater extent, Scott Rolen, were big-bodied guys who we saw excel defensively at third base here in Toronto, and Lawrie is easily athletic enough to be mentioned in the same breath.
Um… yeah, and he’s also still just 22. And his wOBA numbers have risen this season from .305 in April, to .322 in May, to .369 in June– a month in which he struck out just 8.1% of the time, with his walk rate of 7.3% creeping closer to the heady 9.4% he posted in last year’s sizzling debut. Consider him a stalwart.
This may have been a different conversation at the start of the season, back when Jose Bautista was struggling to square up on the few mistake pitches that crossed his path, but with him back atop the home run leaderboards, the right field position at Rogers Centre is his, in all honesty, probably for as long as he wants it.
Sure, there are hypothetical configurations that could force him to first base, or to DH, or maybe even back to third. But despite what we saw last year, prior to Brett Lawrie’s call-up– and like Vernon Wells before him– I suspect it’s Bautista’s call that he is the club’s right fielder. It’s up to the front office to construct their outfield around him, and for now, I think that’s OK.
I mean, it’s not like the options to move him off the position are particularly feasible anyway.
Sure, Travis Snider and Anthony Gose are capable of playing right field, but for either to displace Bautista they’d both have to force their way onto the club, and the Jays would somehow feel it worthwhile to play either Gose or Colby Rasmus in a corner outfield position, where their defensive value is diminished, and where Gose’s bat won’t play– and very possibly not Colby’s either, despite the positive strides he’s made in the last several weeks. Even if a left fielder came from outside the organization, it’s near impossible to see the Jays forcing Bautista elsewhere so one of their internal options could take over in right.
Sure, we can foresee a day when Bautista will play elsewhere on the diamond, but it probably isn’t going to be any time soon.
Yes, centre field. I know, everybody is waiting with bated breath for the ridiculous tools of Anthony Gose, but his hitting can– by most accounts, and by the paltry-for-Vegas numbers he’s putting up this year– still be charitably called a work in progress. And until the league figures out how to work around the mid-season changes that Colby Rasmus made to his swing, the incumbent is the far, far better opttion.
Granted, Rasmus won’t stay quite as hot as he has been– much like Lawrie, Rasmus has raised his wOBA from .297 in April, to .323 in May, to .372 for the month of June– but I see no reason why the Jays would feel that they need to force the issue with Gose, or why he shouldn’t be back in Triple-A to start the year next season. Sure, PCL stats count for very little, but the 200 point gulf between the OPS put up by Travis Snider and the one put up by Gose has to mean something. And if the Jays are going to hand an Opening Day spot in the outfield to an untested player, I just don’t see how the difference between Gose and Snider’s bats doesn’t erase whatever defensive value the club might gain by playing either Gose or Rasmus in a corner spot.
This one could definitely be up for reassessment at the end of the season, especially if something drastic changes with the way that Gose and Rasmus are hitting, but the notion of handing a job to a hitter who is behind Las Vegas teammates David Cooper, Ruben Gotay, Dan Perales, Travis d’Arnaud, Travis Snider, Yan Gomes and Adam Lind in wRC+ and wOBA is a little bit ridiculously far fetched. Rasmus, as far as I’m concerned, is in the clear.
Obviously this is a position that I can only tentatively view as secure for the Jays going forward, as Edwin Encarnacion is steaming towards free agency in the midst of a career year, but the Jays can, and should, lock him up. That’s, of course, not entirely up to them alone, but Encarnacion has had a superb first half and deserves a fair reward for what he’s done this year, and what he’s capable of producing as he heads into his age 30 season next year, and beyond.
It’s hardly a given that a multi-year deal with Edwin will work out, especially considering how poorly he performed in the first half of 2011, and maybe I’m just being overly optimistic, but I’d prefer the Jays, not some other team, reap the rewards of the patience they’ve shown Encarnacion, and the mechanical changes they’ve coached him through, which appear to be behind his finally putting it all together– if that is, in fact, what we’re seeing.
Of course, DH is typically one of the easiest positions on the diamond to fill, so perhaps the Jays simply make Encarnacion a qualifying offer large enough to net them a draft pick if he walks, then try to fill the position with a free agent or someone acquired in trade (note: not JP Arencibia or Travis d’Arnaud), which may even be a better use of resources, depending on how expensive Edwin makes himself in the second half.
Hopefully, though, he stays, as it would mean the Jays will find themselves in 2013 with a pretty terrific top of the lineup, including the rest of their current one-through-four, Lawrie, Rasmus and Bautista.
It’s certainly a position in flux for the Jays, but it’s not difficult to see who the long-term catcher here will be, or how Travis d’Arnaud can be identified as just about as close to a core piece as any of the players listed above. Yes, the frequency with which d’Arnaud finds himself injured is something of a concern, but none of his ailments appears to be chronic, and he projects to be a much better all-around catcher than what is currently on the roster– though JP Arencibia is a capable-ish stopgap as we wait for one of baseball’s best minor leaguers to arrive.
OK, so maybe I’m a touch guilty of counting my chickens before they hatch on this one, but despite his mistake-power and his charm, it’s a little preposterous to view Arencibia any other way, given d’Arnaud’s presence. The Jays’ current number one offers little defensively and currently sits last among qualified catchers (all 13 of them) in wOBA and wRC+. If you expand the leaderboard to include all 29 catchers with over 150 plate appearances or more, he finds himself in 22nd in weighted runs created, 21st in weighted on-base.
A passable-enough catcher with enough power to hit 20 or more home runs isn’t without value… which is exactly why it’s not likely that the Jays will hang on to Arencibia as a backup– he’s worth more in trade than he is playing 60 games a season. And before you start making the ridiculous suggestion of putting him at first base, look again at those absurdly bad numbers.
No, while it may not happen this summer, and it may not even happen this winter, it’s a very safe bet that the fan favourite will find himself traded in the near future. But that doesn’t mean the Jays will have to worry about finding a solution to their catching situation anytime soon– or that it isn’t going to be a position of strength for the club.
There have been growing whispers of late that Yunel Escobar ought to be listed among the Blue Jays to be traded this summer, just as soon as the club’s currently-spinning wheels finally fall off for good. Part of that has to do with the fact that Adeiny Hechavarria has spent the season in Triple-A, which is generally taken to mean that he could be pressed into big league duty at any moment.
Sure, I suppose he could, but there’s a real rush among some fans to want to see Hechavarria among the Jays’ starting nine– sometimes, even, at the expense of Escobar– by virtue of little more than the fact that he’s managed to get himself promoted to Vegas. Like teammate Anthony Gose, though, the numbers he’s put up there suggest a different reality. The .812 OPS the young Cuban has put up so far is above the .778 league average this season across the hitter-friendly PCL, but well below the .850 team average for the 51s.
Word is that he’s making progress, but what makes anybody believe that Hechavarria’s bat wouldn’t create a giant black hole in the Jays’ lineup next year is beyond me. And, otherworldly or not, I just don’t see how his defence closes the cavernous gulf between his bat and Escobar’s.
No, Escobar hasn’t had a strong first half, and he’s frustrating as hell to watch when he struggles at the plate, and he doesn’t seem like he’s all too concerned about his body getting too big and too slow for the position going forward, but the 4.3 wins he put up last season, per FanGraphs, looks a whole lot, to me, like what might be a career season for the light-hitting Hechavarria, if absolutely everything goes well.
Why move away from the more sure thing– who is signed to a fantastic contract, I might add– to take a gamble on the kid matching his production? For one, I suppose, because Hechavarria is at least a somewhat viable replacement, and Escobar is a nice trade chip, precisely for all of the reasons the Jays have for liking him. But if it were up to me, I’d be more inclined to let Hechavarria be had– for the right price, of course– or at the very least to give him another year in Vegas. It’s not like anyone in the system is going to push him for his place there, but more importantly, it’s not like Escobars– a career .360 OBP shortstop who currently sits third in baseball in UZR at the position and hasn’t been below average by either that metric or DRS since his rookie season– grow on trees.
If you’ve ever wondered why the more statistically-inclined among us make a big deal about sample sizes, have a look at the case of Kelly Johnson. In the midst of two offensively fantastic months, where he was worth 110 and 125 wRC+ and carrying the club offensively, Johnson seemed like a player the Jays needed to be serious about keeping, as he heads into free agency this winter. Around here we had even debated whether he was worth making a $12-million qualifying offer to, an admitted overpay, but one that seemed potentially reasonable, as it would either keep the Jays’ middle infield together for one more year, or net the club a draft pick.
How quickly things can change, as Johnson suffered an absolutely atrocious June– 62 wRC+ and .265 wOBA– which has helped knocked his season totals down to .315 and 96. Those numbers are still decent– good enough for 10th among the 23 qualified second basemen in the league– but hardly the must-keep production we saw earlier in the season, before a hamstring issue sidetracked him significantly. Add in the gut-punch fact that ex-Jay Aaron Hill sits second on that leaderboard, with 130 wRC+, and you no longer feel so sure that Johnson needs to stay.
Much like at shortstop, though, there isn’t an immediate replacement on the horizon, unless you count Hechavarria, whose bat looks even worse at second base than short, and who would provide even less defensive value if shifted there– as many expect he would be, out of deference to the incumbent veteran Escobar. The list of free agent shortstops and second basemen slated to hit the market in the upcoming off-season is at least as, if not more underwhelming, with Marco Scutaro and potentially Stephen Drew headlining the list, along with Johnson.
So, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the value he’s provided at the position, or to want to see the Jays move him at the trade deadline. Whatever the case, the notion that they might move both Johnson and Escobar seems pretty far fetched after surveying the club’s options to replace them. Because of his contract situation, though, Johnson seems to me the likelier of the two not to be here on Opening Day 2013. Perhaps they feel more confident that I that they can carry Hechavarria’s bat, but they certainly can’t both he and Anthony Gose. Speaking of which…
It may be the position that’s the most in-flux for the Jays, but I think that left field also has as simple a path going forward as just about any, and it begins– though maybe doesn’t end– with Travis Snider.
Sure, many a buffoon is quick to scoff at the Jays’, and the subset of their fans with a modicum of intelligence, infatuation with the club’s one-time top prospect. He’s “failed,” you see. No matter that he’s been often hurt, dicked around, and hasn’t yet taken a Major League at-bat when over the age of 23– those are just “excuses.” And no matter that he’s been as valuable in his MLB career as Eric Thames was heading into this season, or that he continues to crush the ball at every level (when healthy), either. Move on, they say.
Snider, who turned 24 in February, is hardly yet a failed prospect, and he’s made some mechanical changes this season that the club feels will help him finally realize some of the wealth of potential he still absolutely possesses. He has also turned himself into a fine defender– even seeing some time in centre while up with the Jays last season.
We certainly can’t know yet that Snider is the answer in left, but now is the time for the club to find out. Despite his strong play this season, Rajai Davis is much more a fourth outfielder than someone to be relied on as a starter come 2013, so for the bulk of the second half of this season, Snider needs to be played ahead of him. If he finally succeeds, the club can confidently cross “left fielder” off of their off-season shopping list, knowing that if his old struggles return next summer, even if Davis is moved or his $3-million option not picked up, there will still be Thames, Gose and others waiting in Triple-A to get a crack at the position.
If it doesn’t click for Snider this time around, then sure, move on– and there will be several options available in free agency. But not yet. Not with that talent, right there waiting perhaps to finally blossom.
I could just as easily have left the DH position blank and written Edwin Encarnacion’s name here, but that would have meant for a misplaced conversation about how neither Adam Lind nor David Cooper is the answer at first base for the Jays, despite the successes that both of them have had at the Triple-A level. And let’s be clear, this is the place where we need to have that conversation, because no matter how well Adam Lind performs during the second half of 2012, there is absolutely no way the Jays can head into next season carrying him as either their starting first baseman or their DH.
A change needs to be made, and we’ve reached the point where it doesn’t even matter if Lind moves on and finds success elsewhere. Sure, were a thing like that to happen it might hurt a little– it does with Aaron Hill, as he continues to have a great year in Arizona– but the Jays and their fans will be able to feel secure in the knowledge that it just wasn’t going to happen here, in fact, it couldn’t have happened here, which will mitigate just about any pain for his loss.
Yes, Lind still shows flashes of his old self from time to time, and has had a bit of a power streak since coming back from Las Vegas, but we’re still only talking about six hits and two walks in 26 plate appearances, so… if it makes some other team think that he’s come back from the brink, great, but no more. No more.
It won’t be a terribly difficult position to fill from outside the organization– which they’ll have to, should and probably will do. The mid-season demotion appears to demonstrate, at least, that the club seems finally ready to turn the page on Lind– as they would have been better off doing this winter, rather than begrudgingly, and cheaply, giving him one last chance at providing the hefty return on investment they felt he was capable of when they signed him to a “team friendly” deal following his 2009 breakout.
Here’s the big one, as the Jays rotation finds itself in tatters midway through the 2012, mostly due to injury, but partly through the club’s own doing. You can argue that it would have required some reckless diminishment of their future viability if they’d wanted to beat out offers made by other clubs in the deals for the top pitchers available last winter– and I have– or that it wasn’t worth the marginal on-field improvement to block younger pitchers who needed big league innings with middling veterans. But it’s not like the it wasn’t apparent all along that the club needed contingencies for the likes of Henderson Alvarez, Brett Cecil, and especially Dustin McGowan, each of whom was pencilled into the Opening Day rotation, though two of the three failed to make the trip north.
The Jays had contingencies, of course, they were just not without their own question marks. Drew Hutchison was drawn into big league action far sooner than expected, Kyle Drabek was thrown to the wolves out of the gate after a strong spring, Chad Jenkins and Deck McGuire were believed to be capable of carrying some innings for the club– a notion which turned out to be false– and Carlos Villanueva, prior to his dead arm troubles, Luis Perez and Joel Carreno were thought to be capable of filling in in a pinch as well. Jesse Chavez and Aaron Laffey existed, too.
Certainly not sexy names, but arms at least who could be cobbled together to get the club through whatever minor injury or arm-shittiness storm that may have come at the club in the early season, before the rotation was bolstered by a trade or through talent like Hutchison, Drabek, McGuire or Jenkins forcing their way into the picture.
Of course, it didn’t quite happen like that, and the Jays have been hit over the head by catastrophe. McGowan inevitably got hurt, Cecil pitched his way out of the job, and Carreno didn’t look good in an Opening Weekend spot start. Though Hutchison, Drabek and Alvarez impressed out of the gate, helping to carry a club whose offence– it seems preposterous to think of now– couldn’t its act together, with Cecil, McGowan and Carreno turning up hurt or unworthy, and McGuire and Jenkins pitching their way out of consideration in New Hampshire, the margins for error suddenly became very thin.
The club maintained, even as Drabek’s wheels began to fall and the peripherals began to drag Alvarez back to earth, but the injury to Brandon Morrow on June 11th, at the height of what was shaping up as an ace-making career year, followed so quickly by a Tommy John diagnosis for Drabek and an elbow tear for Hutchison, changed everything.
So that’s where they are now, but fortunately, the picture of where they’re going isn’t nearly so dire.
Morrow’s injury is the least severe of anyone’s, meaning he’s on track to be healthy at the start of 2013, capable of throwing up to 200 innings, most likely, and will hopefully be able to pick up where he left off this year, blossoming into one of the best pitchers in the American League.
Ricky Romero has been awful of late, but it’s far too early to start making funeral arrangements for his career, and the possibility of a more forgiving second half (i.e. less worries about contending) means that Henderson Alvarez may have more opportunities to keep trying to throw the out-pitch that has so far eluded him. He’ll be in the mix next season, as will Hutchison, provided his rehab is successful. Also, despite the fact that the biggest wave of pitching talent the Jays have is now at Lansing– including now the just-drafted Matt Smoral– there are still guys like John Stilson and Sean Nolin, currently at New Hampshire and Dunedin respectively, who may put themselves in line for a mid-2013 call-up. That is, if they’re still around.
Of course, any of those pitchers could find themselves in another organization before Opening Day rolls around– or even by the end of this month– as it becomes more and more clear that Anthopoulos has to make a deal for at least one additional mid-rotation-or-better starter. With the talent he has floating around the fringes of the team’s core he could conceivably make two. It certainly wouldn’t hurt a 2013 club that could be a serious contender with Morrow, Romero and a very strong lineup core– provided Edwin Encarnacion sticks around.
But it’s not like he’s backed into a corner to make a trade, either. While it’s likely unrealistic to start dreaming about about laying out hundreds of millions on Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke, there are some intriguing options who could be available in free agency. Ryan Dempster, Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda, Colby Lewis, Brandon McCarthy, Jake Peavy and Anibal Sanchez are all pitchers who are slated for the time being to hit the market, and one of them may even come to the Jays at a price and term they’re willing to offer.
Options are plentiful, and it’s crazy to believe anything but that Anthopoulos will take them. That it’s even a question among fans who want so badly to extrapolate organizational philosophies to drown the GM with based on this last, quiet off-season is simply laughable. I understand that we haven’t seen it yet, but even if 2012 has been a farther step back than hoped before they take the next one forward, with the prospect capital available to him, and a number of good lower-priced starters hitting the market, it seems to me like it’s all going pretty much according to plan, and that the next step is to actually go and get something done.
It’s kinda funny that the Jays bullpen was thought to be a strength for the club heading into the 2012, and that it has perhaps been their weakest link. But that’s kind of emblematic of the volatile nature of relievers in general and bullpens on the whole– as is that fact that, despite all the ink spilled over the possibility of the Jays getting themselves a “Prooven Clozer” over the winter, they appear to have had exactly what they needed in-house in the form of Casey Janssen.
You wouldn’t know it if you were to ask the average fan, I suspect, but the Jays have four relievers with FIPs under four– Janssen, Darren Oliver, Luis Perez and Jason Frasor. They also have Jesse Chavez and Joel Carreno, who have each pitched well in very limited relief innings, though they’ve mostly been in the minors and forced to stay stretched out to pitch multiple innings due to the club’s rotation struggles. Carlos Villanueva can be a valuable bullpen piece, Sergio Santos is far from the write-off that the putridly negative subset of fans seem to, oddly, want him to be, and the club has reliever Sam Dyson in New Hampshire looking like he has some potential, and possibly the just-drafted Marcus Stroman as arms to be in the mix next year.
Granted, Frasor and Villanueva will be free agents this winter– as will Francisco Cordero, if you somehow care (and no, Darren Oliver won’t as the Jays have a $3-million club option on him for next year)– but that’s actually a pretty good core group, going forward. And it’s not like it’s difficult to cheaply add bullpen arms through free agency.
Better still, the Jays will be able to add to the group internally, provided they’re able to add a couple of starting pitchers from outside the organization, which will give them the flexibility to send guys to to ‘pen that they just haven’t had this year– Carreno and Chavez being prime examples of guys who could have aided the bullpen at the Major League level, had the club not needed to keep them stretched out when their starting options started thinning out with the injury to McGowan, the demotion of Cecil, and the subsequent injuries to Morrow, Drabek and Hutchison.
There will probably be a lot of talk next winter about fixing the bullpen– and if the club chooses to deal Oliver and Janssen before the trade deadline, I suppose it will be warranted– but it’s really not going to be as difficult a job as I suspect it will be made out to be. There are lots of pieces there.
So, after all that, I suppose it makes sense, and is only fair, to take a step back and think of the overall. What would a team constructed around the suggestions and projections that I’ve made look like? I guess something like this…
3B Brett Lawrie
CF Colby Rasmus
RF Jose Bautista
1B Edwin Encarnacion
DH LHB ACQUIRED VIA TRADE/FREE AGENCY
SS Yunel Escobar
LF Travis Snider
C Travis d’Arnaud
2B Adeiny Hechavarria
SP1 Brandon Morrow
SP2 ACQUIRED VIA TRADE
SP3 Ricky Romero
SP4 ACQUIRED VIA FREE AGENCY
SP5 Drew Hutchison
CP Sergio Santos
RP Casey Janssen
RP Darren Oliver
RP Jason Frasor (RE-SIGNED)
RP Luis Perez
RP Joel Carreno
RP Marcus Stroman
Can you live with something like that? I certainly can.
Image via Urban Toronto.