I’ve spoken a lot in recent weeks about the need for the Jays to actually spend some money this winter, and not spread their precious assets thinner and thinner by trading prospects they should keep and players they can use to fill holes elsewhere. However, there actually are some parts of their roster where they have enough depth to justify looking at a trade as a positive, rather than a lateral move.
The desperate nonsense we hear about moving Jose Bautista certainly isn’t that, but the club does have some young outfielders who are probably better trade assets than they are big pieces of the club’s future. They also have some back-end starter types, some with upside, who could surely fetch something, but given injury and inexperience, are not exactly at the zenith of their value.
Where the club does have players who will never be more valuable, and yet can be relatively easily replaced, is in the bullpen. Relievers being the most fungible of roster members, however, makes the task difficult, but we can look to a number of recent examples to see that it’s not impossible to pull the kind of trick that Alex Anthopoulos will be attempting this winter. In fact, he’s already pulled some of them himself– or had them pulled on him, as it were.
Trading a reliever in the winter isn’t quite the same as doing in July, so while there have been a few deals from around the time of the trade deadline in recent years that might give us hope for this winter’s possibilities– Matt Capps for Wilson Ramos, Koji Uehara for Chris Davis, or Jason Frasor (and Zach Stewart) for Edwin Jackson– I think the difference in circumstances require us to look elsewhere.
That being the case, I think there are five deals that have happened during the Anthopoulos era that can make fans feel a bit more hopeful than maybe they currently are about the possibility of the club actually finding a viable piece from out of their bullpen surplus.
They are: Brandon League for Brandon Morrow, Frank Francisco for Mike Napoli, Mark Melancon for Jed Lowrie, Sean Marshall for Travis Wood, and Esmil Rogers for Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes.
The fact that the relief market is perhaps flooded more now than in most years may reduce the parallels, but at least, looking at that list, on the positive side, Anthopoulos clearly knows a thing or two about those sorts of trades.
On the negative side, it’s been a loooong time since he wasn’t the one vastly overvaluing a relief pitcher and underestimating the worth of the players he was giving up. I mean… if only he could find a sucker willing to give up Yan Gomes and Mike Aviles for Esmil Rogers, he’d be set!
Of course, the deals were far more complicated than just that. Contracts, service time, options left, and roster issues are just a few of the components to any MLB deal, and these were no different. Let’s look at them a little closer, and try to see where we might be able to find some parallels with current Jays players, and some of the club’s potential trading partners.
Brandon League and Johermyn Chavez for Brandon Morrow (Dec. 2009)
The Seattle Mariners could never decide whether they thought Morrow was a starter or reliever, but when the time came to trade him they clearly felt his future was in the bullpen, flipping him for a similarly hard-throwing but unsteady right-hander in Brandon League, sending him to a Jays team that immediately decided to move him to the rotation– where, when healthy, he’s been quite good. Morrow had been doubly frustrating for the Mariners because he carried with him the baggage of having been drafted ahead of local boy Tim Lincecum, who in 2009 had won his second straight NL Cy Young award for the Giants. This was a bit of a weird one, so finding a parallel may not be the easiest. Is there a team out there right now who’d want to add a slightly more reliable reliever, with some team control, for a starter-turned-reliever-turned-starter who has even more years left before free agency? Would you want to bank on that guy if there was? I mean, the Diamondbacks seem to like Josh Collmenter as a long guy, but… I don’t know, maybe?
Frank Francisco and cash for Mike Napoli (Jan. 2011)
Another one that isn’t particularly instructive for us, as the Jays’ acquisition of Frank Francisco for Mike Napoli was all about the draft pick Francisco turned into– which the Jays used to select Matthew Smoral in June 2012. Nobody knew what Napoli was about to turn into (though many, it must be noted, saw more value in him than Anthopoulos did), but the Jays were still in “asset accumulation” mode, coveted the pick, and possibly saw Napoli as a not-great two-year impediment to their ability to get a read on J.P. Arencibia and Travis d’Arnaud (who at the time of the deal was ready to graduate to Double-A). Obviously it turned out to be an awful move, mitigated slightly by the fact that Napoli was free money after Anthopoulos actually managed to find a taker for Vernon Wells. And with the new CBA all but eliminating compensation picks for middle relievers, the Jays will have to look elsewhere to find a template to build a deal on this winter.
Mark Melancon for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland (Dec. 2011)
Here’s an interesting one: in December of 2011 the Astros gave up a very good reliever in the North Shore Strangler, who still had a tonne of service time left– more than Steve Delabar currently does– to Boston for an actual potential middle infield starter. Not only that, a potential starter with three years of team control left– albeit one who’d had limited success over four partial seasons. Jed Lowrie, at the time, had never played more than 88 big league games in a single season, and while he had posted a .321 wOBA over 920 plate appearances, he got to that number after some wildly divergent stretches– for example, in the 341 PA he’d managed in 2011 he’d posted a wOBA of just .298. He has gone on to have two very successful years since, posting a combined 6.2 WAR for the Astros in 2012 and then the A’s this past year, and so maybe this kind of a deal can give Jays fans hope that something similar is out there. Of course, the Astros were in a position to take a bit of a risk on Lowrie at the time that maybe the Jays currently aren’t– especially given the state of the relief market, and the fact that a guy like Mark Ellis is available as a free agent, with other second basemen, like Howie Kendrick or Brandon Phillips, possibly available in trades that will certainly need to be expanded beyond what we’re talking about.
Sean Marshall for Travis Wood, Dave Sappelt, and Ronald Torreyes (Dec. 2011)
This one maybe isn’t quite as strange as it seems on the surface– the fact that it was an inter-division trade between the Cubs and Reds not withstanding– as the rebuilding Cubs deal away a reliever they didn’t really need, who was coming off a fantastic season, to the Reds for a starter they didn’t really need, who was coming off a down year. Sean Marshall was worth 2.6 wins for the Cubs, per FanGraphs, in 2011, after appearing in 78 games and posting a 2.26 ERA with a 1.86 FIP. Meanwhile, Travis Wood was coming off a down year, following a nice 2010, and the Reds– having just acquired Mat Latos to join a rotation already set with Cueto, Bailey, Arroyo and Leake– needed some bullpen help, especially since they’d just “lost” *COUGH* Francisco Cordero. Wood’s walk and strikeout rates had taken a step backwards, but he’d been durable– making over 25 minor league starts in 2008 and 2009, and 30-plus in 2010 and 2011– and was under team control for five more seasons. Wood put it together this year, having nearly a three win season for the Cubs, but waiting for him to do so was a risk the Cubs could better afford than the Reds.
Esmil Rogers for Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes (Nov. 2012)
This one we know a thing or two about, as Alex Anthopoulos continued his disturbing pattern of undervaluing a catcher in order to get himself one of the commodities most easily available in the game: a reliever (which you can probably include J.A. Happ as, if you want to). Not that Esmil Rogers was bad, or that Mike Aviles is any great shakes– his awful .252/.282/.368 line in 2013 contributed to a season of just 0.3 WAR in 124 games for Cleveland– but how fucking much easier would the life of Alex Anthopoulos be right now if he could have a do-over on this one? At the time, of course, Gomes was way down the Jays’ catching depth chart, but their criminal undervaluing of him is hardly an excuse. But hey, at least the deal shows that finding a starting catcher for a relief pitcher can be done, right???
What all– or at least the majority– of these deals seem to show is that, unfortunately, an excellent reliever is not enough to net the kind of sure thing that the Jays will be looking for this winter. They’re not the only possible examples, of course, but the deals all have a more-than-healthy element of risk to them. That is naturally the case for just about any transaction, but it seems obvious from these few examples that an excellent reliever will usually only get you pieces that are untested or uncertain to make good on their high promise. That makes sense, given the volatility of, and limited use teams have for relief pitching, and it certainly doesn’t mean that these sorts of deals are ones that Alex Anthopoulos should avoid, it’s just that it’s hard to envision him landing a player in one that doesn’t come with giant question marks attached– which… uh… actually is precisely the thing he probably ought to be looking to avoid.
Yes, questions are unavoidable to a degree– as I’ve noted before, even the Boston Red Sox were not nearly as conservatively built as the myth suggests– but the guys dealt for with the relief pitchers in these examples are so dicey that you almost wonder if the Jays, given their fleeting status as possible contenders, would be better to be on the other side of the League or Marshall equation, giving up a high-potential, less reliable guy like Kyle Drabek to a team that knows it isn’t ready to compete, and can maybe afford to shed a quality-ish piece– though not a reliever, obviously– for that kind of lottery ticket.
Either way, taking either of these routes to improve the team won’t be without risk, but it can seemingly be done. And they’re probably a whole lot more plausible than what a lot of people have been dreaming on this winter. Alex Anthopoulos doesn’t have to “win” the off-season again, and doesn’t necessarily have to win back disaffected fans either. What happens on the field in 2014 is all that matters, and given that it can’t be that difficult to improve on the gigantic black holes the 2013 Jays had behind the plate and at second base, he’s maybe not even in quite as unenviable a position as a lot of people think.