Alex Anthopoulos has already pulled an impressive trick this winter, I think. His passivity on the player acquisition market maybe shouldn’t have been as stunning as we’ve made it– this is, after all, a GM who, we once lamented, spent an entire calendar year on the job while adding only seven non-relievers from outside the organization to his big league roster: J.A. Happ, Aaron Laffey, Jesse Chavez, Jeff Mathis, Ben Francisco, Yorvit Torrealba and Omar Vizquel– but beyond those sorts of fans who are going to bleat out horseshit regardless, just for the sake of hearing their own entitled, know-nothing voices, there seems to be an odd serenity he’s created.
The consternation and anger that welled up in the weeks following our pretending that the fucking Red Sox didn’t win the World Series seems to have abated, though certainly not in the way that last winter Anthopoulos re-energized the fan base with his splashy moves and ability to get Rogers to make gigantic financial commitments.
Our old friend the Tao of Stieb thinks that it’s apathy, but I’m not so sure. And if it is, what this book presupposes is, maybe it shouldn’t be.
Admittedly, things would be different if the top end of the pitching market had budged yet, but apart from the Tigers’ bizarre and disappointing move of Doug Fister, it really hasn’t. That leaves lots of room for Jays fans to fantasize about the club landing one of the remaining big targets, and while the worry in this city is always there that such daydreams are mostly built on total delusion, as I wrote last week, there remains plenty of reason to think that the Jays won’t stand pat.
In that piece I focussed on how the club ought to be able to make the money work, and how badly it is to their advantage to make a play now for a free agent. In essence: for all the words Alex Anthopoulos has spilled about not creating roster holes by dealing key big league pieces in order to fix positions elsewhere on the diamond, by shipping away what little upper-end pitching prospect depth he has (especially the ones with front-line potential, like Sanchez and Stroman) he’d simply be setting up similar holes on future rosters, which will likely have to be filled in expensively via the market anyway. So why not just spend now and keep the prospects?
Waiting out the market with that sort of a pursuit in mind wasn’t necessarily the only course of action the Jays could have taken this winter– we know this for a fact thanks to a rumour that arose during the Winter Meetings, suggesting a deal had fallen apart earlier in the winter, which would have moved Sergio Santos (and presumably more) in exchange for a starter– but it makes sense why the club may be stridently following such a path now. Not only would it enable them– as I argued in last week’s piece– to save their prospect capital, and mitigate potential future rotation woes, but precedent suggests that the longer they wait the more the prices for the free agents they covet may come down.
This year’s market may buck that trend, as it’s so late-developing due to the Masahiro Tanaka situation, but the advantages for the Jays are still adding up: many teams have already spent themselves out of the picture or filled their rotation through other means; many won’t touch guys who’ll cost them a draft pick, or already have and won’t want to blow their 2014 draft any further; and while it’s hardly a buyer’s market, Rakuten finally making the decision to post Tanaka has brightened the picture by adding to the available supply of top-end arms in a huge way.
It’s hardly a certainty that the club will be able to find a quality starter who’ll take their money, however. And it is perhaps with that in mind that the club has been subject to such paralysis when it comes to addressing their other areas of need. Maybe I’m being too hopeful and too quick to construct a narrative that conflicts with some of the things Alex Anthopoulos has openly said this winter– and, as with his stated preference for the trade market, that he has demonstrated time and again in the past that he truly thinks– but I tend to believe that he is actually intentionally holding all of his bullets. He’s holding money to make sure he has room in his budget to fit the free agent he’s aiming to go after, and he’s holding prospects (which could be used to make upgrades elsewhere– most glaringly at second base) to make sure he doesn’t deal away anything that could be used to net a top arm on the trade market, just in case he misses out.
The concept works in one sense because it insulates him better against missing on the kind of difference-making pitcher he so badly needs.
It works in another, though, because as desperately as it seems like he needs to make an addition, Anthopoulos can take the posture that he can stand pat a lot more confidently than I suspect a lot of fans realize. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he really did believe he could get away with doing nothing.
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That sounds crazy to a lot of people, I’m sure. The perception certainly is there that the Jays have been spinning their tires as much of the rest of the American League has zoomed past them, but that’s just not necessarily true. At least, it’s not true if you believe a thing like the 2014 projections put together by FanGraphs on their team depth charts pages.
Granted, the Jays’ front office surely isn’t just looking at this sort of publicly available data to assess where they really sit in the current American League landscape, but I don’t think it’s entirely unfair to use it as a crude proxy for what their proprietary numbers are likely telling them.
Naturally, the results of any projection system are somewhat dubious. We can’t simply swallow the conclusions they make and expect the season to play out the way that it has been foreseen by the mighty formula, and a generous projection on a website hardly constitutes grounds for a club to stop trying to acquire players who will increase their total accumulation of value over the course of the season. We also, before drawing broad conclusions from them, need to go through what the projections are saying with a fine-toothed comb to make sure what it’s telling us makes any damn sense.
There’s a lot of leeway that needs to be given to these numbers, in other words. But that all said, there are things to be genuinely encouraged by here.
We’ll start with the big one and try to make sense of it all from there: the Jays, as currently constituted, project to 39.9 WAR.
That number places them eleventh in baseball, just one tenth of a win behind the St. Louis Cardinals.
It’s an especially useful number since the figure is based on comprehensively up-to-date rosters and carefully done playing time projections for each club. As we can see in the breakdown on their team depth chart page, the innings projected the club’s pitchers add up to 1458– in 2013 Jays pitchers tossed 1452 innings– while the plate appearances for the club’s hitters total 6240, which lines up relatively closely to the 6152 they took in 2013).
It also, in my view, doesn’t offer a lot in the way of glaring generosity when you look at it on a player-by-player basis.
Granted, the 39.9 WAR projection places the Jays behind the Red Sox, Tigers, Rays, Rangers, Royals, Angels, Clevelands, and Athletics in the American League, but for the most part only slightly. By these measures they’re in about the same ballpark as all but the top two of those clubs, and given that there is a pretty severe limit to how precise any of this stuff can be, that’s actually pretty good shape.
Better still, getting back to the original question– the question of the club’s entire off-season– we see that if they can add a three-win pitcher to replace the 190-ish innings projected for Todd Redmond, Chad Jenkins, Sean Nolin and a couple replacement-level guys on spot starts, you’d see their projection jump up into very clear Wild Card territory. Find a piece at second base that improves the barely-replacement-level production that’s forecast there by even a single win and they’re right with the Rangers and Rays, a couple of wins behind the Tigers, and about four-and-a-half behind Boston.
Projections, yes. Don’t mean anything– I get that. They play the games on the field, and that’s all that matters. I agree, we can’t lose perspective on that. But in terms of actually assessing the level of talent that’s currently on the club, and how that talent can be expected to compete in 2014, this is actually pretty compelling stuff– and, at least in my assessment, for the most part not terribly outlandish.
Sure, there will always been variance in terms of how teams over- or under-perform their projections, but what we’re seeing here, when looked at more closely, actually makes a good deal of sense, and offers much stronger reasoning as to why Alex Anthopoulos is acting (or not acting, as it were) like he is this off-season than whatever the donkey-brains of the braying moron set might be able come up with.
And don’t forget that we learned last year that these numbers are usually a whole lot more rational than we are. While they missed on the magnitude of how awful the 2013 Jays season would be, forecasts like these were consistently down on the club, at least compared to the unbridled enthusiasm of
Billy Mumphrey the fan base. This year, hopefully, the opposite can come true– and hopefully the Yankees, who currently project to about three-and-a-half wins behind the Jays, are the ones who will, this time, see a splashy off-season go up in smoke.
That all said, it’s not like there isn’t anything questionable or fuzzy about it all either, so let’s take that closer look…
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On the bright side, one reason I say the numbers aren’t terribly outlandish is because if you look where the club stands, position by position, nothing seems terribly out of whack. The Jays are in the bottom third of baseball in projected catcher production. They’re second last in terms of production from second base. They’re bottom third in terms of left field, really high in right field, at shortstop, and at DH, but regressed down to the middle of the pack in centre. Their starting pitching looks middling, and their bullpen again looks excellent.
The forecast has been kind enough to think the Jays aren’t going to run unplayable garbage out a three positions on the diamond next year, and that seems to me to be about right. Second base up to mere replacement level? Plenty realistic. Melky Cabrera in left field at 1.3 WAR? That’s a big swing from last year, but not really a whole lot to ask of a four-win player in 2011 and 2012 who was debilitated by a since-removed spinal tumour in 2013 and ought to have all the motivation in the world as he heads into his walk year.
I honestly don’t even think the 2.8 wins the Jays are projected to get out of their catchers is crazy– not even the fact that 1.2 of that comes from giving 250 plate appearances to Erik Kratz, who I think might end up being a sneaky-good pick-up– but if you wanted to find a place to knock a couple wins off the club’s projection, that’s probably not a bad spot to start.
The bullpen is another place I think you could do that. Relievers are just so volatile, and while it doesn’t seem entirely out of line that the Jays’ ones as a group are projected out to 3.6 wins, that gives them more than a full win advantage over two thirds of baseball, and two wins over nearly half the teams in the game. Possible, sure, but a spot where the projections maybe look a little too crooked in their favour. The reliever projections are even more favourable for the Royals, Red Sox, and Rangers, though, too, so it’s not like this is the main reason the Jays come out looking as close to those teams as they do. Still, perhaps a bit high
And the big spot where the forecast looks maybe too favourably optimistic for the Jays, is at third base, where the systems see a rather large step forward in terms of power for Brett Lawrie in his age-24 season. A twenty point BABIP increase over 2013– up towards his career mark of .300– makes a little bit of sense, and drives the projection’s jump of his average to .274 and his OBP to .338, but it doesn’t fully account for the 19 home runs, .451 SLG, or the 34 point jump in ISO to .176. Maybe those improvements come down to his age or undue influence from his sizzling first 43 games as a big leaguer, but a bat-driven 3.7 wins is definitely on the hopeful side for Lawrie. Possible, for sure, but mostly just hopeful at this point.
Other than in those places, though, you could argue that the projections may even look light.
The danger of getting too excited about that suggestion is that it’s probably true for just about every club, and the varying magnitude of such discrepancies may make some of the cumulative numbers a little misleading. The Rays, for example, have Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar, combined, projected to about three wins less than the duo provided last year. There’s also at least that much of a difference between where the Rangers’ Shin-Soo Choo and Alex Rios are projected and what they did in 2013, while Mike Trout is (not shockingly) projected to not quite hit the 10-win heights of his first two seasons again, which is not a bet I’d take.
There are some Jays players who I think make good bets to beat their projections too, though– a fact probably aided by all the under-performance on last year’s club. That’s actually the reverse of the story of last winter, where we were hoping for guys with a lot of volatility in their records to continue the big things they had accomplished in 2012. Now they simply have to exceed marks that they’ve clearly shown themselves capable of. R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow, Jose Reyes, and Melky Cabrera are perfect illustrations of that. Each of those guys provided two fewer wins in 2013 than they did in 2012, and largely because of that could easily outstrip what’s being forecast.
The 1.8 wins for Morrow, for example, are well below the 2.4 mark he posted in just 124 innings in 2012, which itself was a full win lower than his previous two years. Reyes is projected to 3.5 wins, which is maybe a lot for a shortstop who’ll turn 31 in June and no longer puts up the elite defensive numbers of his early career, but is still at least a win-and-a-half below what he put up in all but one of the last six seasons in which he made 500 plate appearances or more.
Dickey’s 2.7 win projection is well below his 4.5-win Cy Young season in 2012, and it would still make for the second most valuable season of his career, meaning he maybe doesn’t quite belong grouped in with these other guys. However, with the way he pitched with renewed health and a closed dome at the end of 2013, I’d still take the over. And Melky checks in with a projection of just 1.3 WAR– more than a full two wins higher than 2013, so maybe “reasonable” is a more sensible label than “light,” but the upside is there to be a whole lot better. (No, really!)
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I could nitpick more deeply, but as you’d expect to be the case with projections, reasonable really is the word. Dickey, Buehrle, and Morrow are the only pitchers projected above 1.2 wins for the Jays; Marcus Stroman gives the club a nice 1.2 win boost in the forecast for his rookie season, with Santos, Janssen, Happ, and Rogers checking in at about one win apiece; four more pitchers project in the 0.4 to 0.6 range, and the rest are at 0.2 or below. On the offensive side, the difference is more-or-less split between 2012 Colby Rasmus and the 2013 version, as he projects to 3.2 WAR; the forecast is a little light on Encarnacion, at 3.6 wins over 644 PA, but maybe heavy on Bautista at 4.5 in 560; Adam Lind is expected to be about the same (1.7 wins), and none of the second basemen or backups (save for the aforementioned Kratz) are projected to be worth much of anything at all.
The reasonableness on a player-by-player basis is, of course, what’s especially buoying about the exercise, particularly when coupled with where the club currently stands in terms of their total WAR projection. Obviously, as I’ve tried to be clear about, there is a large possibility for massive divergences between what the forecasts suggest and what actually happens on the field. It’s also true that WAR itself won’t necessarily translate to on-field success. However, as Jeff Sullivan noted in an excellent piece last week on much of this same stuff and how it applies to the Angels, the correlation is pretty seriously strong.
Sure, the Jays could very certainly under-perform the projections and their cumulative WAR and end up well behind even these somewhat middling expectations, or other clubs could wildly over-perform one or the other and relegate the Jays to non-factor status, but as it stands, in this very reasonable on-paper assessment the team is right there.
They’re less than two wins of value behind the Royals and less than three behind the Rays, and those are the two teams that would be slotted in for the American League Wild Card if the season played out according to these admittedly-fuzzy WAR-based mid-December projections.
The schedule won’t help them, and the level of competition is thick, but still!
Plus, things remain fluid: the Rays, for example, are may move out David Price for less immediate value than he’d give them, and most important of all, Alex Anthopoulos still has plenty of work to do himself– and still very much can accomplish what he needs to.
I mean, adding a three-win pitcher without moving anything off his big league roster– which, for the purposes of these projections, includes Marcus Stroman (hint, hint)– would obviously provide a huge boost, and send the Jays farther up the list. If he can’t do that with money, he at least has been keen enough to have saved the chips to revisit his options on the trade market. And if he can do it with money? There may then still be the possibility to upgrade at second base too– and think about where that would take them.
The bigger point, of course, is that even if he isn’t able to do any of that, the 2014 season is hardly the sort of lost-cause-before-it-starts that I’ve felt a lot of people seem to believe– or, worse, that some seem to want to believe.
I’m not trying to suggest that it ought to be easy to get excited for the notion of going into a season with this exact crew still together, but these very reasonable and meticulously put-together projections that FanGraphs have made available should be more than enough to coax us towards the belief that, even if they do nothing more, Toronto’s summer of 2014 isn’t already consigned to hopeless futility. And with the six best pitchers available at the start of the winter remaining eminently available– Tanaka, Price, Garza, Samardzija, Jimenez, and Santana– those already-doomed feelings are even more worthless still.
Main image via BlueJays.com.