Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Fillin' Holes Free Agent Style

It's been an odd hot stove season this year, in that it's dragging right on into spring training with some of the biggest names on the market remaining unsigned. Now that Ubaldo has signed with the Orioles (which probably sucks for more reasons than just necessitating a re-write of this post's preamble), the list of players still wondering where their next pay cheque will come from includes Ervin Santana, Stephen Drew, Nelson Cruz, and Kendrys Morales. There are some serviceable ball players still out there, but so far nobody seems to have been willing to offer them a contract in line with what they feel their services are worth. In these cases, the draft pick compensation their previous clubs saddled them with is definitely hurting their value

Of that group, the only players remaining that might fit with the Jays are Ervin Santana and Stephen Drew now that he's reportedly open to playing positions other than shortstop. The Blue Jays haven't been shy about letting their desire to upgrade the rotation be known, but they also have a gaping black hole slated to start at second base. If the season started today the Jays would be going with some combination of Ryan Goins, Maicer Izturis, Munenori Kawasaki, Chris Getz, and Brent Morel. According to FanGraphs' projected depth charts, all those names project to provide a big fat pile of replacement level "production" (0.4 fWAR to be precise) which, while still an improvement over last year's -2.1 fWAR from the position, is not exactly what any team with competitive aspirations should be willing to settle for.

Basically, all of this got me thinking about where the Blue Jays could make the bigger upgrade if they are only able to sign one of the remaining free agents that seem to fit. It's been taken for granted that their biggest need is in the rotation, but they are much deeper in back end starters to fill in behind Dickey, Buehrle and Morrow than they were last season. Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek are both back from their Tommy John surgeries, and Marcus Stroman is by all accounts ready for prime time in either the rotation or bullpen. J.A. Happ, Todd Redmond and Esmil Rogers are also still around and can presumably still be counted on for some solid if unspectacular innings. Could it be possible that the team would actually be better off making an improvement at second base and standing pat in the rotation? I clicked on over to those same FanGraphs depth charts to see what I could see.

As mentioned, the Blue Jays' second base position is projected for ever so slightly more than replacement level at 0.4 fWAR. Projections seem to have Drew figured for right around 2 wins, but that is likely assuming that he plays the majority of his innings at shortstop. Were the Blue Jays to sign him it would be to play second, so we have to dock him half a win for the positional adjustment. Call it an upgrade of about a win if everyone lives up to their projections, but with the potential for the upgrade to be greater. We saw last year that the Jays' second basemen are more than capable of being even worse than replacement level, and Drew has a 4.7 fWAR season on his resume and was worth 3.4 fWAR just last year. Obviously the possibility also exists that the Jays players outperform their projections and Drew falls short of his, narrowing the gap between them. However, if I were to bet on whether the difference would be more or less than a win, I'd definitely be taking the over. Still, for the purposes of this exercise let's just stick with the projection and call Drew a one win upgrade over the pile of second base excrement they're currently planning to fling at the wall in hopes of something sticking.

On the pitching side of things, the top three spots in the rotation are pretty set with Dickey, Buehrle and Morrow. I'd imagine the fourth spot would go to J.A. Happ, leaving Stroman, Hutchison, Redmond and Rogers to duke it out for the fifth. Drabek and Dustin McGowan could also be in the conversation, but after their respective injury troubles I think their futures are more likely to be in the pen. If we extrapolate Happ, Rogers and Redmonds' projections on the FanGraphs projected depth charts to something like 150 innings (which would assume they stick in the rotation for most of the season with a few starts skipped here and there) they all shake out somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1.5 fWAR. Hutchison is projected for exactly 0.0 fWAR in just 15 innings pitched, but in 2012 before his injury he posted 0.5 fWAR in just 58.2 innings, so if we extrapolate that performance over 150 innings he falls right in that 1.5 win group as well. That might be an unlikely workload for him after his surgery though. Still, you see what I'm getting at. Behind Dickey, Buehrle and Morrow they have a whole mess of guys that can optimistically be projected for something like a win and a half should any of them pitch well enough to remain in the rotation for the majority of the season. If any one of them isn't up to the task, some combination of them should be.

You might have noticed that I haven't mentioned Stroman's projection yet, and that's because he's a bit of an outlier in the group. FanGraphs has him projected for 1.2 fWAR in just 76 innings pitched which would extrapolate to more like 2 - 2.5 wins with a 150 inning workload. I agree with the projection in that he's probably the best pitcher of that group, but I also wouldn't be surprised if there is some gaming of his service time that prevents him from reaching a full starter's workload in 2014. I think he might see more than FanGraphs' projected 76 innings, but probably won't reach 150 in the majors. I think about 1.5 - 2 wins is probably a fair projection for him as well.

So, if we take Buehrle's 2.4 wins, Dickey's 2.8 wins, and Morrow's 1.7 wins and then plug in 1.5 wins for the four and five spots in the rotation it gives us a projected 9.9 fWAR from five spots in the starting rotation. This isn't the most scientific way of doing this, especially since pretty much no teams make it through an entire season with only five starters (shocking to Blue Jays fans, I know), but it'll do for our little thought experiment. 

I haven't been shy about expressing my misgivings about bringing Santana's homer prone ways to the AL East, but what do the projections say about adding him into the Blue Jays mix? Well, FanGraphs has Santana projected for 2.7 fWAR. The usual caveats about projections apply, and to be perfectly honest his is one I'd be pretty tempted to take the under on, especially if he were to be facing the potent offenses and bandbox stadiums of the AL East day in and day out, but again let's just go with it for now. That would be about a full win better than any in-house options the Jays could slot into the fourth or fifth spot, so would bump up the projected WAR from the rotation to 10.9.

So where does that leave us? Well, if you buy the projections and my back of napkin math, the Jays could add about a win by adding either of the remaining free agents that seem to be a fit for their areas of need. Santana would be about a one win improvement over one of the Jays' likely back-end starters and Drew would be about a one win improvement over the Jays' second base dung heap. However, that doesn't quite tell the whole story.

If that one win upgrade were happening in a vacuum, it would be easy to conclude that the Jays should be after Drew just as hard as they're after starting pitching. But as well all know (say it with me everyone!), teams don't operate in a vacuum. On the surface Santana and Drew seem like fairly equivalent upgrades, but that's not quite true. 

Drew would be a pretty appealing solution to the second base dilemma, but that's about where his impact ends. Acquiring a starting pitcher, on the other hand, sets off a domino effect that improves the entire pitching staff. It would bump someone from the rotation to the bullpen or the minor leagues, presumably improving the pen and/or their overall pitching depth in the event of injury. I'm sure this effect could be quantified by someone smarter than I, but I have neither the qualifications nor the inclination to try. Sure the bullpen is getting a little bit crowded with out-of-options arms, but some of that pitching depth could make for appealing trade bait to make improvements at say... second base. The same cannot be said of trading some of their second base "depth" to better the starting rotation. 

So yes, the prevailing wisdom would appear to hold true in that the Jays would be best served to target a starter before a second baseman (as they are reportedly doing), but not necessarily because the available starting pitching candidates represent a more significant upgrade over their in-house options which I think are probably better than they get credit for. I would argue that the greater benefit to pursuing a starter is in that aforementioned domino effect and the assets it would free up for a potential trade. Even though I'm on the record as willing to hold my nose and tolerate a Goins/Izturis platoon as long as they upgraded at catcher (check!) and in the rotation (pending...), the closer we get to the season the less comfortable I get with that second base scene. In my heart of hearts, I probably didn't believe the noise the Jays were making about being okay with it themselves, but here we are in mid-February with Ryan freaking Goins still pencilled in as the "strong" side of a keystone platoon. I'm not even close to ready to call this off-season a bust the way more panicky types are, but this whole waiting out the market strategy, shrewd as it may turn out to be, is getting scarier as more and more names come off the list of potentially helpful additions. If, somehow, the Jays miss on Santana (who I really wasn't even interested in until like... today), it would be nice to see them make a legitimate push for Stephen Drew to shore up second base. It may not make the same overall impact, but it would make enough of an impact to be worth doing.

Should the team's off-season strategy come back to bite them in the behind, that is if desperate teams that have missed out on other free agents decide prices have dropped enough to make them reconsider their attachment to the compensatory draft pick involved (as may have happened with Ubaldo and Baltimore), it would be justified to start wondering whether or not Anthopoulos is at times too value-minded for his own good and whether or not it is Rogers' "payroll parameters" that necessitate that kind of thinking. It just makes so much sense that the team should be pursuing upgrades in free agency. With where they are on the win curve, with how the talent is distributed in their farm system after the Marlins trade, and with the team possessing two protected first-round picks this year, it would seem the Blue Jays are in a pretty ideal position to justify filling holes with cash rather than player capital, even if it means going a bit beyond their internal valuations of the available talent and sacrificing a second-round draft pick. So, as trying as this high-stakes game of chicken is for fans, I'm sure it's a lot more stressful for AA, especially if he's having his hands tied by budget constraints. Let's just hope that's not the case and that things resolve themselves positively in the near future so we can all turn our attention to the more important things about this time of the year, like stories about who's in the "best shape of their lives", clubhouse chemistry, and Adam Lind's beard. I, for one, can't wait. 

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  1. I disagree with you on the value of Stephen Drew over Ryan Goins. On a pure WAR analysis, you are right. But Goins number one asset is his defence, and WAR still doesn't quite know how to value that properly. Especially on a team with a lot of ground ball pitchers pitching half their games on the fast carpet of the dome, Goins' range and arm strength are extremely valuable. How many times last year did we see a long inning because the Jays' second basemen couldn't make the play when they needed to?

    Stephen Drew is better offensively, and may be solid defensively at short. But he hasn't played second, so defensively he would be just as much of an unproven commodity as Goins. If not more so. This team has an incredible offense when everyone is healthy. There's no reason they can't carry Goins hitting .240 as long as he continues providing the stellar defence to get the pitchers out of innings faster than last year.

  2. I agree that Goins may well be a better defender at second, but I also think it's a pretty safe bet that most capable defensive shortstops can move down the defensive spectrum to second and remain solid. And yes, defense may be more valuable on the Rogers Center carpet than elsewhere, but those same unreliable defensive metrics you're referring to are grossly overstating his defensive value because of the miniscule sample size they're working with. Goins may be a better defender, but I think the gap is likely narrower than you're thinking.

    The offensive gap is definitely way bigger than you're thinking though. Even if Goins does hit .240 (which I think might even be a stretch), it will be with almost no walks and absolutely no power. The guy hit .257/.311/.345 in AAA last year, and Steamer has him projected for .240/.283/.332 and a 62 wRC+. Defensive value aside, at the plate he has the potential to be J.P. Arencibia without the power.

    I'm not saying they can't carry Ryan Goins' bat if he provides exceptional defense, but they should be aiming for better. As a total package, Drew will almost unquestionably be significantly more valuable than Ryan Goins will be, and with where the Jays are at on the win curve, and especially now that it's looking less and less likely that they acquire a pitcher I think they should be trying to squeeze every possible win out of that lineup.