On Wednesday, Munenori Kawasaki officially cleared waivers, was outrighted off of the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster, and became a minor league free agent.
I get that.
The same scenario played out for Dan Johnson, as well.
I get that, too.
And according to a tweet from Mike Wilner, George Kottaras is likely to join them as free agents as soon as today.
This I do not get at all.
The answer to the questions on Kawasaki and Johnson are easy.
During his lengthy end-of-season press conference, which I recapped in detail earlier this week, Alex Anthopoulos clarified the utility infielder’s contract status, explaining that “Kawasaki, the way his contract is, even though he’s got — I haven’t looked at this, but — two years of service probably, or three years of service, he’s eligible for free agency. It’s just a clause in his contract. Most every Japanese player that comes over now, they’re not part of the reserve, you don’t get them for six or seven years and go through arbitration (unless they’re an amateur, and so on). So Kawa’s going to be a free agent at the end of the year — someone that I think we’re always going to look to bring back, one way or the other.”
Cue warm fuzzies and trips to Buffalo.
Johnson, on the other hand, despite being a prolific Triple-A hitter, is 35 years old and clearly not in the club’s plans, as evidenced by the way he was used in September. He is out of options and not a viable option as a replacement for Adam Lind on a team serious about winning. So that’s good! With the difference between his cost and Lind’s cost there could have been some kind of ridiculous plan to use him as a replacement, but obviously — thankfully — the Jays aren’t that hurtin’ for money and ideas.
I know he’s not Dickey’s “personal catcher” or whatever, but there is actually quite a bit to like about the idea of Kottaras getting the chance to unseat Josh Thole as the club’s backup behind the plate.
First and foremost, he was Tim Wakefield’s personal catcher in 2009, spending 18 games behind the plate for the knuckleballer. If he could do the same ably for Dickey the Jays would clearly have themselves a more capable backup because of the difference on offence. To wit: Thole’s career wRC+ is 78 in 1311 plate appearances, whereas Kottaras has posted a 100 mark through 858 PA. Thole has struggled since moving to a part-time role, and especially over the last three seasons, where he’s posted just a 58 wRC+ in 658 PA — a putrid slash line of .225/.292/.277 over that span. Meanwhile, Kottaras’s last four MLB seasons have produced 109, 113, 103, and 150 marks by wRC+, albeit all in small samples.
Kottaras holds a .246/.338/.431 slash line as a Triple-A player, as well. And his walk rates have only improved as he’s matured: 13.2% with the Brewers in 2010, 13.6% in Triple-A and 8.1% in the big leagues in 2011, 17.7% in part time big league duty in 2012, 19.0% as a backup for the Royals last year, and in 2014, 14.3% for Buffalo, 8.5% in a small sample for Columbus, and 15.8% in the big leagues with three different teams.
It gets better: Kottaras has been stronger against right-handed pitching than against left (105 wRC+ compared to 82 against lefties), which is the exact opposite of Dioner Navarro, who produced just a 96 wRC+ against right-handers in 2014, compared to 103 against lefties, and whose career platoon splits have been even more pronounced (107 vs. LHP, 78 vs. RHP). Thole’s career mark against right-handers is just 85, and that’s lifted by his non-abysmal seasons in 2011 and before.
The Jays, in other words, could legitimately use Kottaras to spell Navarro against right-handed pitchers, even when Dickey isn’t pitching, and get a benefit. He isn’t great defensively, and he isn’t great with respect to pitch framing, but if he could catch the knuckleball the way he’s shown before that he’s capable, it’s a clear win.
So what gives?
Kottaras made $950,000 in 2014 and is arbitration eligible for one more season. Thole, meanwhile, has a club option for 2015, but he’s also arbitration eligible. The Jays could decline the option while keeping control of him, and then — as far as I understand, at least — release him if he loses the position battle next spring while being on the hook for just one sixth of the salary if they’re unable to trade him (a la Reed Johnson). The same would be true of Kottaras were he to lose the battle.
While one sixth of whatever Thole makes (likely a raise on his $1.5-million 2014 salary — i.e. something over $250K) isn’t nothing, it seems like a pretty small cost compared to a pretty big opportunity to make exactly the kind incremental improvement they need on this front.
Am I missing something? Perhaps. CBA stuff is always a bit tricky — ask the Edmonton Oilers! HEYO! — but I’m pretty sure that’s how it works. And if so, I just can’t understand why the Jays would be about to make Kottaras a free agent.
Maybe they tried him out with Dickey outside of public view and didn’t like the results, though that nobody heard any sort of whisper of such a thing is somewhat hard to believe. (Update: Or maybe I just don’t remember and they totally did have him try).
Maybe they think there’s enough opportunity for him here that they can get him to sign a deal that’s more favourable to the club than even what he’d be set to earn next year through the arbitration process.
Maybe they’ll defer to their nominal ace’s preference, though Thole’s half-season in Buffalo in 2013 while Henry Blanco caught Dickey suggests otherwise. Or maybe they don’t want to disrupt Dickey’s spring by having him throw to different catchers for most of it.
Maybe they don’t want to mess with what was a pretty successful combination in 2014 (after a shaky opening four starts, Dickey settled down and pitched to a 3.41 ERA over 30 starts from April 22nd onward), but they can’t really think that comes down so much to his catcher, can they?
Or maybe — hopefully — Wilner is wrong on this one and the Jays will have enough sense to keep Kottaras around for a good, long look in February and March.
(Note: Big crotch grab in the direction of @CWSherwin for the tweet from Brendan Kennedy showing Dickey throwing to Kottaras)