Friday, 15 November 2013

Free Agent Targets: Position Players



Well it's a good thing this year's market is slow to develop, because I wanted to have this out days ago! Life though, you know? Absolutely no consideration for hot stove season. Typical.

Anyways, the other day I posted my take on some of the free agent pitchers on the MLB Trade Rumours Top 50 list that the Blue Jays may target this off-season. If you missed it you can check it out here. It was pretty much every starter on the list except for Tim Hudson who I just can't see considering the Blue Jays at this point in his career, and Phil Hughes because he's Phil Hughes. For position players I'm going to have to go off the list a little bit, because quite frankly pickings are slim at the Blue Jays' positions of need, which are catcher and second base. 

Like I mentioned in the intro to the previous piece, I don't expect them to be players for the biggest names at those positions, which are undoubtedly Brian McCann and Robinson Cano. Behind them the list gets real short real quick, but there are still some guys that would provide upgrades over the gaping black holes of suckitude they got out of those positions in 2013. It will be important to remember when considering some of these unsexy names that the Jays received -1.1 fWAR performances out of the catcher's position in 2013, and -2.1 fWAR from their second basemen. Those WAR totals are good for 29th and 30th of 30 teams respectively. So, while some of the names I mention might be no great shakes themselves, even replacement level players at each position would be a three win upgrade which, coupled with better health all over the diamond (because it couldn't possibly be worse, right? Right?! *knocks wood*) would be very significant for the 2014 team. 

Also, I'm less interested in seeing them lay out big money to fill their holes in the lineup. If they're going to spend big, I'd rather it be on upgrading the rotation. Given the abject terribleness of the incumbents, I think they should have an easier time making modest upgrades that seem huge, considering the very low bar that's been set, and with far less cost either in dollars or prospect capital. So, it may sometimes seem like I'm favouring lesser players, but it's in the interest of best allocating what are still sure to be limited resources, even if the purse strings are looser than they've been in the past. 

Note: I'll be referring to FanGraphs' Steamer projections in this piece, which I didn't do in my piece on pitchers. It may not be entirely justified, I'm no sabermetrician after all, but I find I put more stock in projections for position players than for pitchers. Obviously hitters' performances can fluctuate from year to year as well, but pitchers are so volatile, and projections have such long memories, that when it comes to evaluating free agents I'd rather look at the differences between their career and recent performances separately rather than rolling it all up into one set of projected numbers. I know not everyone buys into statistical projections, so take them with whatever sized grain of salt you choose. I've just included them as food for thought, not as gospel.

Catcher

Carlos Ruiz: MLB Trade Rumors has Jarrod Saltalamacchia as the second highest ranked catcher on their list, but in my humble opinion the 29th ranked Carlos Ruiz is a much better fit for the Blue Jays this off-season. He had a mediocre 2013 after beginning the season with an Adderall suspension (instead of just getting a phony prescription like the rest of the league... duh!) and playing through hamstring issues after his return. He got into 92 games in 2013 and had a down offensive year by his lofty standards, putting up a .268/.320/.368 line for an 89 wRC+. That's still not bad for a catcher, and the 1.4 fWAR he posted is a full 2 win upgrade over Arencibia. That being said, from 2010-2012 he hit .303/.388/.456 for a 128 wRC+, and with his competent but never elite defense provided an average of 4.1 fWAR per season over that span. At his age it's probably not wise to expect him to be that guy any more, but even if he's somewhere in between as a 2-3 win player, that's a great acquisition, if the price is right. That's actually right about what Steamer projects from him too, calling for a .274/.344/.415 line, 109 wRC+ and 3.0 fWAR. It sounds like the price may not be right though, as there are rumours that Ruiz has been offered a two-year $20 million contract. A contract like that is likely too rich for the Blue Jays, even if it's not an atrocity from a $/WAR perspective. It just depends on what they're able to do in the pitching market, and how likely they think it is that he can still produce enough at his age to warrant it.

Dioner Navarro: This seems to be the popular sleeper pick on the free agent market, despite the fact that he didn't crack MLB Trade Rumors' Top 50 list. He had a great season with the Cubs in 2013, though he only got into 89 games as he was splitting time with the younger Wellington Castillo. However, when he played he had a resurgent offensive season, hitting .300/.365/.492 for a 136 wRC+ and 1.7 fWAR, which is a healthy total for his limited playing time. Those numbers absolutely dwarf his career .251/.313/.371 and 83 wRC+, but give hope that even with some regression he might be able to be a league average-ish bat from behind the plate. That's about what Steamer projects for him in 2014, a .254/.321/.398 line and a 98 wRC+. If that projection is close, and it's true that he might be had on a short term deal for backup catcher money, a team could end up with a tidy little bargain on their hands. If the Jays miss out on Ruiz, I'd rather they go after a cheap option like Navarro or pursue an upgrade through trades than throw money at a couple of the other guys I'll touch on.

Jose Molina: I'm reaching off the Top 50 list again here, but welcoming Jose Molina back to Toronto is absolutely a viable option in my mind. He seems to be a trendy pick in some circles, given his newfound reputation as the Obi Wan Kenobi of pitch framing, itself a trendy new area of research in the sabermetric community. I don't want to belittle that research as a lot of it is excellent and I don't doubt for a second that pitch framing is more valuable than we realized even a few years ago, but I still feel like the research has a long way to go before we are really able to quantify it accurately and determine whether or not a catcher's receiving skills are enough to offset a complete and utter lack of any hitting ability whatsoever. That certainly applies to Molina, who has a career .238/.287/.340 career line and 68 wRC+, and who Steamer projects to be about the same in 2014 with a .229/.289/.329 line and a 75 wRC+. His defensive abilities certainly mitigate his offensive ineptness quite a bit, but I always feel there's a bit of the hip new indie band thing going on, with some people wanting to be able to say "I was into Jose Molina before you ever even heard of pitch framing". Again, that's not to belittle the value of pitch framing or the research that's been done in that area, I just feel that it might be a bit premature to favour an excellent pitch framer over a more offensively capable backstop. That being said, he'll also probably come quite a bit cheaper than someone like the next candidate, which to me is enough to put him ahead as a preferable option.

A.J. Pierzynski: Most fans know #33 ranked A.J. Pierzynski as much for his loud mouth, obnoxious personality and bro-approved frosted tips as for his solid but unspectacular play over his 15 year career. That's probably a bit unfair to him, as 15 straight years of dependable average-ness is no small feat. His mother should be proud. Unfortunately she's probably the only one, as his peers have often rated him among the most hated players in all of MLB. It's remarkable that people don't know more about him, as he's one of the most extreme free swingers in the game, and players with extreme approaches tend to garner more notice than Pierzynski has. 

He rarely strikes out with an 11.5% career K rate, but walks pretty much never, as evidenced by his career 4.0 BB%. His contact skills and solid power have allowed him to hack his way to a career .283/.322/.428 line for a 94 wRC+. Despite his age, he wasn't far off that career mark last season when he posted a .272/.297/.425 line and a 90 wRC+. He's never been known as a great defensive catcher, but reportedly works very well with a pitching staff, which is no small consideration. I imagine he'll sign for something similar to his 2013 deal, which was a one-year, $7.5 million pact with the Rangers. If he lives up to his 2.0 fWAR Steamer projection, hitting .259/.297/.396 for an 88 wRC+ that would be alright, and might even look a bit better if he were used in a platoon-ish role with Arencibia. It's just that if the bar is going to be set at that kind of production, I'd rather they try to get it out of someone that will come more cheaply, like a Dioner Navarro, or who will make up some of the offensive deficit with excellent defense like Jose Molina.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia: The backstop known as "Salty" is arguably the top free agent on the market, but a lot of that has to do with how much stock you place in his breakout 2013 season. Regardless of how you feel about the likelihood of him repeating what was admittedly a very strong season, there can be no doubt that at just 29 years old he'll be signing the biggest contract of any catcher this off-season. Saltalamacchia has always had good power and a bunch of strikeouts, as evidenced by his career .184 ISO and 29.6% strikeout rate. That skill set has been enough for roughly league average production at the plate with a career 94 wRC+. This year, however he hit .273/.338/.466 for a 117 wRC+, which is almost a 30 point jump over his career batting average and on-base percentage, and a 50 point jump over those same numbers in 2012. 

One might be tempted to shoehorn Salty's success into some sort of narrative about catchers taking longer to mature offensively due to the defensive demands of their position, but that would probably be dumb, and paying him for it would be even dumber. One need look no further than his .372 BABIP to see the regression express steaming straight towards him, which makes the four-year, $36 million deal that Tim Dierkes predicts for him likely regrettable. Also, if it's true that Ruiz has an offer with a $10 million annual value in front of him, 4/$36 million might even be the low end of what Saltalamacchia can expect for himself. When you factor in the fact that he's defensively suspect (part of the reason he was benched in favour of David Ross in the World Series) and needs a platoon partner despite being a switch hitter (career 110 wRC+ vs. RHP, 56 wRC+ vs. LHP), that's a lot of money for a player with quite a few warts, probably a league average ceiling (which is what Steamer projects for 2014), and who is likely to decline some over the term of the contract. Pass!

Second Base

This is going to be a mighty short list with only really a couple of guys worth talking about on the market currently, especially now that Nick Punto has signed with the Athletics. The Blue Jays have been mentioned in trade rumors for a few intriguing names (and Gordon Beckham too!), so maybe they make a move on that front. Odds are that any major upgrade they make will involve taking on salary that I'd rather see directed to the rotation or the catching situation. So much so that, despite what I wrote here, I might even be willing to hold my nose and go into 2014 with a Goins/Izturis platoon at second if it meant significant upgrades to those other spots. That being said, if they're looking to upgrade through the free agent market these are pretty much the guys.

Mark Ellis: It's a sign of how thin the second base free agent market is that my preferred guy isn't even on the MLB Trade Rumors Top 50 list. He'll be turning 37 next season, so will only get a short term deal, maybe 2 years at $6-7 million per. That isn't a bad deal for the 1.8 fWAR he produced for the Dodgers last year, even if most of it is provided with his glove and not his bat. He hit .270/.323/.351 last year, for a 92 wRC+. It might not be fair to expect that of him again at his age, though it's close to his career line, and Steamer has him projected for .254/.312/.356 and an 85 wRC+. However, by DRS he's been worth an average of 13 defensive runs saved over the last three seasons, so it's probably reasonable to expect him to live up to the projected 1.4 fWAR unless his defense suddenly falls off a cliff. His offensive value could perhaps be optimized by occasionally platooning him with the switch-hitting Izturis, who almost can't possibly be as bad in 2014 as he was in 2013. I'd like to see them try something like a one-year $6 million deal with a $6.5 million option year and a $1 million buyout. I'm not too keen on locking into paying him for the next three years or anything, but if they can swing some sort of contract that allows for a bit of future flexibility he could be a nice little upgrade at the keystone sack.

Omar Infante: After a very nice 2013 season, Omar Infante comes in at #18 on the MLB Trade Rumors Top 50 list, behind only Cano among second basemen. As such, he is well positioned to sign himself a decent contract for 2014 and beyond, perhaps something like the three-year, $25 million that Tim Dierkes predicts. However, given all the money floating around the league all of a sudden, and with the scarcity of second basemen on this year's market, I could see him getting more than that in either dollars or years. There is no doubt he had a fine offensive season, hitting .318/.345/.450 for a 117 wRC+. Some offensive regression is likely looming though, since his career line is .279/.319/.402 with a 92 wRC+. It's not real common for players to have sustainable breakouts in their thirties and so along with regression to his career norms, we can also probably expect some age-related decline over the term of this contract. He's not a great defender, which further narrows the gap between him and Ellis. In fact, let's have some fun with WAR calculations. By FanGraphs' flavour of WAR, in 2013 Infante was worth 3.1 wins to Ellis' 1.8. However, by Baseball Reference's version of WAR, which is calculated to more highly value defense, it is Ellis that comes out on top with 3.0 WAR to Infante's 2.4. I'm not going to wade into the debate over which version of WAR is better, but at the very least this exercise can help us realize that the two players are likely to provide roughly equivalent value, with Ellis doing it for less money on a shorter term contract. 

Conclusion

As you can see, there are a handful of options out there on the free agent market that would help the Blue Jays with their catching situation, but really only a couple of second basemen I see as worth making a run at rather than standing pat and hoping for internal improvement, either with Goins' excellent defense, a bounce back season from Izturis, or a platoon of the two of them. It's not ideal, but with upgrades elsewhere it would probably be enough, assuming better overall health over the course of the season, to make for a much more competitive 2014 season.

All things considered, I suspect that they'll be making their biggest free agent pushes in the pitching market. Upgrading in that department through trades will be either prohibitively costly, or involve taking on a player that comes with significant risk. Additionally, much of their most desirable, close to the majors prospect capital is in the form of pitchers, so trading away that depth to upgrade the major league rotation could end up being an instance of cutting off their nose to spite their face if injuries should strike the rotation yet again. Pursuing players that only cost money (and perhaps a second round draft pick) is a much preferable option to me.

After that a catcher should be their biggest priority. There's more possibility of getting something done in a trade here, so I'm not discounting that option, but there are also a few appealing options in free agency and I would prefer that to trading away that same prospect depth that I mentioned earlier. I fully expect Arencibia to be back on the roster, but in a backup or time sharing role. I think in that kind of situation he might have more to offer at the plate. It's hard to overstate the demands of catching as many games as he has over the last three seasons, both physically and in the amount of preparation required between games. It doesn't leave much time for a young catcher to work on improving their defense and approach at the plate. I think that in a diminished role, he might have more time to focus on improving his own game which can only be beneficial for the team. Either that or they can trade him for a bag of balls and I won't shed any tears, but in either case a catcher needs to be on the shopping list this off-season.

Upgrading at second base would be great, but it's a distant third priority behind the first two, especially in the thin free agent market. Several of last year's playoff teams made it there with at least one of two middle infielders being offensively inept, and the Jays already have shortstop covered. They should be able to carry a glove first second baseman without adversely affecting their overall offensive production, especially with a couple of other improvements elsewhere.

Whatever happens, it's sure to be a fun off-season for Blue Jays fans with Anthopoulos being mentioned in connection with almost every player that might be able to fill one of these holes. Stay tuned, as he's shown in the past that there's rarely a dull moment when he's looking to wheel and deal.

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