Blue Jays Plus has once again done some excellent digging around with sources purported to have knowledge of the inner workings of the Jays, revealing on Monday that “multiple major league sources” are saying the club is “heavy on Masahiro Tanaka, along with the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers.”
It would be easy to scoff — none of the major media outlets in this city have reported as much, including ones from the supremely-connected outlet that shares an owner with the club itself — but I kinda can’t, because I’ve actually heard some of the same types of things myself. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has noticed my unwillingness to be dismissive of the club’s chances on Tanaka, or some of the comments I’ve made over the course of an increasingly anxious winter. I don’t know how much I believe it, but I definitely believe that even if it was true, the Jays would be real mum about it — more mum than this, you’d kinda think — given what happened the last time a notable Japanese player was posted. But it is what it is.
Now, does the fact that people from two blogs have heard rumblings that the Jays are far more interested in Tanaka than they have allowed to be publicly known mean that it’s necessarily true? Shitballs no. Especially given that we’re talking about a club with a secrecy-loving general manager who can have it suggested, without anyone blinking an eye, that “sometimes his own talent evaluators don’t know what he’s doing,” as Nick Cafardo did in his latest for the Boston Globe back on Sunday. And it certainly doesn’t mean that, even if they are more deeply in pursuit than seems plausible to most, that the Jays would actually be able to outbid a determined New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers, given the disparity in the kinds of financial resources it’s believed are available to each club.
We all know who owns the Jays, though. And there are many levels on which it makes sense to at least try, and try really fucking hard.
Tanaka is the best free agent available in the area of the Jays’ biggest (or, let’s be honest, second-biggest) concern; he’s a supremely young free agent, as he’ll pitch 2014 as a 25-year-old; he’s a supremely talented player, who Baseball America ranks behind just three prospects in all of baseball; he costs no draft pick and nothing in terms of young talent to acquire; maybe best of all, swiping him from the clutches of the Yankees would be a tremendous win, not unlike the Mariners’ swoop for Robinson Cano, that would instantly undo so much of the grief of a stagnant off-season, and go a long way towards re-energizing a fan base beaten so badly down by a thoroughly dispiriting 2013.
The beauty is, too, that if, as you’d completely expect, they come up short in this supposedly-heavy pursuit, it’s not like they don’t have contingencies waiting for them, either. Specific ones, according to Blue Jays Plus.
In the post I wrote on Monday morning I looked at the suggestion from Ken Rosenthal that the Jays are a leading candidate to sign either Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana, but a single source who spoke to Blue Jays Plus suggests it’s not quite so up in the air. The Jays, they were told, “prefer Santana to Jimenez because the latter’s wonky mechanics are very unconducive to repeatability.”
Not only that, their source claims that “many teams (about half of major league baseball actually) are talking with Santana’s camp and have been throughout the winter, but it appears as if only two teams will make formal offers once the dust settles with the Masahiro Tanaka negotiations. The first is the Blue Jays, and the other team is the team that loses out on the bidding for Tanaka between the Yankees and Dodgers.”
The current demand, they’re told, has dropped to about five years and $85-million, down from an initial asking price of $105-million over the same term.
For the record, I haven’t heard any of this stuff (not that I hear a lot of stuff anyway), and while elements of it seem realistic enough — the supposed prices are in line with expectations — I definitely have a hard time swallowing the idea that anyone knows already which teams will make a formal offer for Santana three weeks from now– and that it’s only going to be two.
The bigger question is, though, should it be Santana that the Jays are zeroing in on?
For an organization a little worryingly scouting-focussed, citing mechanical issues as the key separator between the two pitchers doesn’t seem entirely out of character. A simple Google search for “Ubaldo Jimenez mechanics” gives some idea of the vast extent of the problem over the years — peaking, as they did, with a major drop in velocity during a horrific 2012, in which he was about replacement level, posting a 5.40 ERA and 5.06 FIP — and while it’s true that most of the stories from the second half of 2013 onward are overwhelmingly positive, it’s hard to think that Jimenez is out of the woods in terms of harnessing his command just yet (durability, unlike with most “poor mechanics” guys, isn’t the issue here).
“Cleveland pitching coach Mickey Callaway started to work aggressively with Jimenez this past spring, getting him to speed up his delivery and keep himself more online toward the plate when he strides,” wrote Keith Law in his Top 50 Free Agents piece for ESPN.com back in November. It sounds encouraging, but he nonetheless called the lack of track record with these changes “terrifying.” Ultimately, though, he ranked Ubaldo the fourth-best free agent available (Tanaka was third, Santana was sixth), due mostly to his age, pure stuff, and that sweet delicious control, rediscovered just in the nick of time.
Santana’s transformation into a pitcher capable of commanding the type of dollar figures he’s asking for wasn’t exactly smooth, either. In fact, he was somehow worse than Ubaldo in 2012, but fantastic in 2013. In Law’s capsule he cites a drop in home run rate — coupled with the move from spacious Anaheim to Kansas City, which (though Kauffman is hardly a hitter’s paradise) makes it all the more impressive, and the increased use of a sinker with newfound life, which should make the changes more sustainable — as the biggest reason to believe in the turnaround.
What’s problematic about the stories of both of these pitchers, then, is the fact that neither is really the same guy as we’ve seen for the bulk of his track record. That would make 2013 the ideal season to look at to compare the two, but that isn’t so easy either, as Ubaldo’s 2013 was a tale of two halves. He was brilliant in the second half of the season, but awful in the first.
Even then — if we’re willing to focus so narrowly on such a small range of data — there is a strength of schedule issue that needs to be accounted for when comparing the two, as Santana faced considerably stronger lineups from July 1st onward. This came up in the comments the other day, and a bit of crude math led me to find that, on average, the lineups faced by Santana from that point on had about a ten point advantage in wRC+ over the ones Jimenez faced. That said, it’s not like the results from each pitcher were even, either.
In the second half Ubaldo posted a 1.82 ERA, a 2.19 FIP, a 2.99 xFIP, a .271 wOBA against, and — most impressively, for him — a 29.1% strikeout rate, and a walk rate of just 7.9% (his career rate is 10.5% and in the first half of 2013 it was an awful 12.2%).
For Santana, the second half yielded a 3.07 ERA, 4.01 FIP, 3.92 xFIP, a .299 wOBA against, and walk and strikeout rates of 6.6% and 17.4% respectively.
The difference in the strength of schedule ought to make those numbers a little closer than they appear, but it looks like an impressive advantage for Jimenez. If you believe in the mechanical changes and this woefully small sample, that is. Poke at it a little, though, and the water gets quite muddy again.
For example, though we’ve established that it isn’t entirely fair to evaluate these pitchers based on their track records, there are a couple of things that I think warrant attention. One is innings pitched. While both have been extremely durable – between the majors and minors, Santana has made at least 30 starts per season since 2005, save for one (2009, when he made 26), while Jimenez can make the same claim of every season since 2007, before which he was exclusively playing the shorter, minor league schedule, making at least 25 starts each year since his first year of A-ball in 2003 — Santana has tended to go deeper into games. Over their last 128 starts — which for both men includes a disastrous 2012 season — Santana has thrown 840.1 innings to Ubaldo’s 769.1. Some of that can be explained away by the boom-or-bust nature of Ubaldo’s recent years, or the fact that he was bad for longer, or that he pitched in the NL for one of those seasons, but it’s a fact worth noting.
Also worth noting is the difference between what FIP and what straight-up runs allowed (i.e. RA9) tells us. FanGraphs’ FIP-based WAR gives Jimenez a two win advantage over Santana over the last three seasons (6.6 to 4.6), though they were both worth about the same in 2013 (albeit with Ubaldo having thrown nearly 30 fewer innings). By RA9-wins things look vastly different: Santana has been nearly five-and-a-half wins better (8.5 to 3.1) over the last three years, and as such, he looks better by Baseball Reference’s RA9-based WAR. In fact, Ubaldo’s rWAR is just 2.7 in total over the last three years, while Santana has twice exceeded that value in a single season. His poor 2012 knocks him back to 4.5 wins in total, but it’s still impressive.
Then again, take the two seasons before that and Ubaldo kills Santana, 13.1 wins to 2.8 in total, which pretty much brings us back to our original problem, and ultimately takes us away from the more immediate questions at the core of this debate: has Ubaldo genuinely turned a corner, and will Santana’s newfound use of the sinker legitimately suppress a home run rate that would be hard to stomach at Rogers Centre?
In his disastrous 2012 Santana gave up 39 home runs, and pitching at Rogers Centre, he certainly can’t be that guy again. Even the 26 he surrendered in 2013 are bad enough, but that’s back to about his career norm for a season total, and it’s certainly understandable how it happened, given a small uptick in velocity and the massive increase in slider usage that Keith Law identified. According to Brooks Baseball (since the sinker isn’t picked up in the data available at FanGraphs) Santana used the pitch 21% of the time last year after not using it at all in 2012, and even that adjustment takes him down to only just barely palatable.
He doesn’t have stuff Ubaldo can flash, but nor will he give up the walks. He’s durable, his groundball rates have increased in recent years — he even induced grounders at a higher rate than Ubaldo in each of the last two seasons, despite his career mark being nearly 8% lower — and some of the scary one- and two-range WAR figures you see on his FanGraphs page are very possibly mitigated to an extent, for whatever it’s worth, by how well he’s outperformed his FIP in terms of RA9.
Add all of that to the fact that he doesn’t have the mechanical concerns — and, perhaps, to the possibility that the Jays are terrified by the memory of last year’s constant, futile tinkering with Josh Johnson, not to mention so many of the same sorts of fantasies about him having actually figured his reinvention out in the back half of 2012 — and you can start to see why they might genuinely be edging Santana’s way.
The lure of Ubaldo and all those strikeouts and that superb second half has got to be strong — I’ve certainly felt he was by far the better option, basically until I was about halfway through this post — but if this off-season is to be about cutting down on the volatility, removing as much of the boom-or-bust from the roster, and appreciating the high floor over the high ceiling, I can see it. I can definitely see it.
At least he won’t issue a bunch of walks before the billion home runs he’s going to give up, wherever he lands in 2014. And if you read the Blue Jays Plus piece you’ll also see that, apparently, Santana is pals with Bautista and Encarnacion, and they’re pushing for him, too. Hey, at least it’s a reason to think he’d maybe choose the Jays in the end, even if the Yankees or Dodgers end up sniffing around. Because, hoo boy, they can posture all they want about internal options, but they really do need someone.