Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The Winter of Our Discontent

"What're we doin' here Paul?"
 
"Apologist" has become my least favourite word in the English language, and I'll tell you why.

Many sports fans see the world in black and white. Every team decision is either brilliant or indefensible. Every trade must be won or lost. Every contract is either a "good contract" or a "bad contract". Fans are also very fickle. Their judgment on the moves teams make is often passed with the benefit of hindsight, which is of course unavailable to the front office executives who are required to make decisions without the benefit of the crystal ball we all wish we had, but which none of us really do. Outcomes are pointed to as proof of good or bad process, as if a series of sound decisions have never before been rewarded with nothing but disappointing results.

As someone who often tries to navigate the shades of grey and layers of nuance in the types of decisions front offices make, and who considers it a public service to point out the flaws in this kind of hind-sight empowered, dichotomous thinking, I get called the A-word all the time. No, not that one (but sometimes that one too). I'm talking about "apologist". As though a willingness to consider the pros and cons of any particular move and, even if I don't always agree with the final decision, at least acknowledge the thinking behind it as defensible makes me some sort of propagandist (been called that too) for the Blue Jays, Rogers, and most commonly the Alex Anthopoulos regime.

I've been hearing it all off-season, because all off-season I've been urging patience and understanding. In isolation, I get the thinking behind the moves the Blue Jays made (but mostly didn't make) this off-season. However, my rationale as we watched free agent after free agent come off the board, and saw some potentially useful pieces traded for affordable returns, was that Anthopoulos was saving his bullets for a late run at one of the starting pitchers that had been saddled with draft pick compensation and whose asking prices dropped considerably over the course of the off-season. It was a risky strategy with the potential to prove very shrewd, but now that there are real-ish baseball games being played in the sunny climates of Florida and Arizona, and the Jays' off-season is looking pretty much over, it seems safe to say that the strategy failed utterly. It's hard to know how much of his own value jargon Anthopoulos actually believes, and how much of the Jays' failure to upgrade is because Rogers might have pulled the payroll rug out from under him, but at the end of the day the Blue Jays only addressed one of the glaring holes they had around the diamond, and it's a pretty modest upgrade at that.

At catcher, the Jays non-tendered the woeful J.P. Arencibia and replaced him with free agent Dioner Navarro for the same term and salary they would have been giving to JPA had he not been completely unplayable for five months of the 2013 season. Navarro almost can't possibly be as bad as Arencibia was last year, but then again I have a hard time believing that even J.P. Arencibia will continue to be as bad as J.P. Arencibia was last season. They also traded the out-of-options Brad Lincoln to the Phillies and received Erik Kratz in return. Kratz has pretty much been a career backup and will likely be competing for the gig with Josh Thole. He has a nice, well rounded skill set for a backup catcher, but the deal breaker will likely be his ability to catch R.A. Dickey's knuckler as Navarro's defensive reputation doesn't lend much hope that he'll be up to the task. I think he could be a sneaky good pick up, because if something happens to Navarro you could do a whole lot worse than having Kratz waiting in the wings.

To me, these were perfectly acceptable value upgrades at the time. I'm optimistic that, even with a fair bit of regression, Navarro's offensive outburst last season will carry over well enough to make him a passable starting catcher, or at least the more active part of some sort of time sharing arrangement with the aforementioned Kratz or Thole. Steamer's projections are calling for him to provide 1.7 fWAR in 365 plate appearances, but I wouldn't be surprised if he gets a few more than that with the Jays since they're saying all the right things about him being more of an everyday guy. He's only making $8 million over the next two years, which is pretty much exactly what JPA was likely to receive in arbitration. Navarro and Kratz aren't flashy additions, but with them in the mix FanGraphs projects 2.9 fWAR from the Blue Jays' catchers, which would be a full 4 win improvement over the -1.1 fWAR they got out of the position last year.

So, by adding pretty much nothing to the payroll, Anthopoulos has potentially upgraded the catching position by 4 wins. One would think that such a value-minded GM would be trumpeting those additions as a big success, and he has at times, to an extent. It just made it seem all the more bizarre when he said:
"I would have preferred to do one year and lower dollars [for Navarro]. We really felt we needed to make a change there, and we stretched. We went two years, we went more money than we wanted to a year, because we felt we needed to make a change."
On the one hand, I can see his point. The statement was intended to point out that he has overpaid for free agents in the past (hello Maicer Izturis!), but just wasn't willing to do so for a starter when he feels much more confident about their in-house options on that front than at catcher. Still, to pretty much throw your one and only, already somewhat underwhelming (at least in the context of the rest of the off-season) free agent acquisition under the bus in such a way before he's even played a game seems really odd and un-Anthopoulos-like. I mean, how long did he defend Arencibia for? And now, before Navarro (who has bit of a reputation as a malcontent) has even played a game, he's calling him overpaid even though he's making the same money as the guy that was so bad they cut him loose for nothing. Welcome to the team Dioner! Besides, Navarro is only making $8 million for the next two years. In $/WAR terms he's getting paid for barely more than a win. If they're honestly worried that he won't live up to those expectations, they either shouldn't have gone near him in the first place or they seriously need to adjust their expectations of finding "value" in free agency. It seems more like a deal that Anthopoulos should be holding up as an example of the type of value deal he was seeking in the pitching market. By already dubbing him an overpay, I feel like he's done nothing but tarnish Navarro in the eyes of fans which is unfortunate, especially if the old replacement level Navarro makes an appearance at any point during the season. 

This is probably way too much to read into a single statement to the media, but it just reeks of cow manure and sounds very much like Anthopoulos is on the defensive. If I had to guess (and I do, because I can't know and neither can you angry Twitter person!) he recognizes that his off-season strategy fell flat on its face and now he's making excuses for not spending money that was available to him, or protecting ownership if money he expected to be there suddenly wasn't. Either way, it just plain sucks.

As underwhelming as their catching upgrades seem, at least they actually exist. Second base was arguably an even deeper, darker hole heading into the off-season, with Ryan Goins and Maicer Izturis slated to hold down the keystone sack. Now, four months later it's still Goins and Izturis and their combined 0.1 fWAR projection (combined!) pencilled in at second, and that's factoring in a full two win bounce back from Izturis' worst-player-in-baseball 2013 season. 

I've said before that I'd take Goins' glove at second if it was the bitter pill we had to swallow to get improvements at catcher and in the rotation, but we didn't get both of those things did we? They were never going to be in on Robinson Cano, but now I find myself looking longingly at Omar Infante, a player I had zero interest in back in November, and his four-year $30 million deal and wondering, "Why not the Blue Jays?".

Sure, Infante is old and overrated, and he probably won't be earning his $8 million by the fourth year of the contract. However, his Oliver five year projection has him producing 9.1 WAR over the four-year term, which is well worth the money regardless of which flavour of $/WAR you buy into and without even accounting for any salary inflation. Assuming he remains reasonably healthy and an every day player, it's a pretty reasonable free agent contract, and would hardly have been crippling for a team with financial resources like the Blue Jays'. He's only making $5 million in the first year, and if they decided they wanted off the hook for the rest of the money after 2014 the final three years (and $2 million buyout on a $10 million option) shouldn't be unmovable.

When the off-season began, the target that made the most sense to me was Mark Ellis. Slick with the glove, competent at the plate, and old enough not to expect more than a one year deal, maybe with an option to sweeten the pot. Much like Navarro, he seemed like a good fit as a modest upgrade who wouldn't require a long term commitment to bring on board. Unfortunately the St. Louis Cardinals felt the same way, and signed him to a one-year, $5.2 million deal despite having no apparent need for him in their infield, at least in any starting role.

Obviously the opportunity to join the reigning NLCS champion carries a lot of appeal to a player of Ellis' age, the type of opportunity that would be hard for the Jays to compete with even if they would have been able to offer him a starting gig. The Royals, on the other hand, are in a situation very much like the Blue Jays. They're unlikely to win their division, but possess enough talent that they should be in thick of things late into the summer should a few things break in their favour. It's hard to see what, besides of course the money, would make the Royals a more desirable landing spot for Infante than the Blue Jays. With pretty much all free agents, money and term trump all other considerations, and I can't help but believe the Jays could have landed either one of those free agents had the desire and financial backing from ownership been there. At the time, I was accepting of their apparent lack of interest as I figured it meant they were saving their available resources for the stating pitching market, which of course brings us to that.

When the Blue Jays season ended in September, as it has for the last twenty years, Anthopoulos immediately began making bold statements about the club's need to improve the starting rotation. It was a rare display of straight talk from a general manager known for playing his cards close to his vest. It was refreshing after the debacle of 2013 to hear that after making such a significant outlay of money and prospect capital the previous off-season the team was still committed to improving, even after things went so catastrophically wrong. They were in an advantageous position to do so in free agency, as their two protected first-round picks meant that the draft pick compensation attached to some of the starters should have been significantly less of a deterrent to the Blue Jays than to pretty much any other club. Despite that advantage, it was still easy to understand their waiting out a market held up by Masahiro Tanaka in an attempt to extract the maximum value from any free agent signing.

Now it's looking like they're going to have to fill out the rotation internally, which hopefully won't be as big a problem as last season's pitching woes would suggest. Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek are both back from their Tommy John surgeries, J.A. Happ presumably won't get brained by any line drives this season, Marcus Stroman is sounding ready to make an impact in some capacity in 2013, Dustin McGowan is being stretched out as a starter, Sean Nolin remains a guy who throws baseballs for a living, and last year's emergent fill-ins Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond are still in the fold as well. There are a lot of bodies vying for two spots in the rotation, and those who miss out on one of them should serve as more capable depth than was available last year.

I get it if Anthopoulos is feeling confident enough in his internal options to pass on all the available free agents, but if that was the case all along why bother making so much noise about acquiring a starter in the first place? Maybe Stroman's excellent performance in the Arizona Fall League made them more certain that he'll be an impact starter this year, but eleven innings is one hell of a small sample size from which to make such a determination, and it's hard to see what else could have changed since the end of September. By making such definitive statements in the first place, all he did was set for himself a goal that he has now failed to achieve, effectively throwing gasoline on the tire fire of whiny fans' expectations.

Particularly disappointing, to me at least, was seeing Ubaldo Jimenez sign with a divisional rival in Baltimore for four years and $50 million. At this point in his career, Ubaldo probably isn't anybody's saviour, but if there's one thing he's always done it's eat innings. With all the health issues that have struck the Jays' rotation in recent years I'd have thought that would be something they would be willing to pay for. I said here that I'd be happy to give Ubaldo the Edwin Jackson four-year, $52 million deal even with the draft pick compensation attached. That's pretty much exactly what he signed for, but the thing is his $50 million is actually more expensive for the Orioles than it would have been for the Jays. 

In a recent FanGraphs piece, Dave Cameron looked at putting a dollar figure on draft pick compensation. He concluded that teams appear to be valuing those picks at about three times the assigned slot value for their draft pools. That would mean that the $2.2 million assigned to the #17 pick that Baltimore forfeited to sign Ubaldo is really worth more like $6.6 million dollars. This is because the amount teams can spend in the draft is restricted so draft dollars are worth more than just their face value. By that same token, the #45 pick the Jays would have had to forfeit is worth about $1.2 million dollars in real terms, but $3.6 million once we factor in the 3x valuation.

There are two ways to look at this. From one perspective, that $50 million contract is costing the Orioles $56.6 million once you account for the lost pick, but would only have cost the Blue Jays $53.6 million had they been willing to sign him to the same deal. Another way of looking at it is that due to the lesser value of the pick the Jays would be surrendering, they could have offered Ubaldo more total money, about $53 million, and still only have spent what the Orioles did by offering him $50 million. Would that extra three million have been enough to entice Ubaldo north of the border? We'll never know for sure, and I think it's more likely that it came down to an unwillingness to guarantee a fourth year, but it's still disappointing to see the Jays squander the advantage their two protected picks gave them. Ervin Santana is still out there, and I suppose it's conceivable he lands with the Jays, but it sounds a whole lot less likely than it did a couple of weeks ago, and I have a hard time believing that he'll be going anywhere for any less than what Ubaldo received. If they weren't going to go there for Ubaldo, I don't see why they would for Santana.

This of course begs the question of why they were unwilling to go there if they were so determined to upgrade starting pitching and weren't willing to part with their top prospects to do it (rightfully so, in my opinion). If you accept that they were sincere about the necessity of improving the rotation, then I basically see two possible scenarios. 

The first is that the front office had totally unrealistic expectations of finding the value they were seeking on the free agent market and walked away when the prices didn't fall to anything they were comfortable paying. Based on some of the reports we heard of them having extended offers in the neighborhood of 3/$30 million, I think this is a possible explanation. If that was their line in the sand, then they were delusional from the start. It only takes one of twenty-nine other teams to be willing to guarantee an extra year or a few million more dollars to outbid them, and every year we see teams do far crazier things than that. Quite simply, while it can be possible to find value on the free agent market (hopefully Navarro will be an example, and Melky may be yet), counting on it is foolish, especially when you're targeting some of the bigger names out there. Those guys almost always get overpaid, and the strategy should be to have enough value already on the roster to be able to be able to overpay a bit when the circumstances dictate. The Jays are right about at that point on the win curve where overpaying for wins starts to make a whole lot more sense.

The other possible explanation is that the money just wasn't there, or was there early in the off-season and got yanked back into the Rogers vault somewhere along the way. I can't believe they would have taken on as much salary as they did in the Marlins trade if they didn't have reason to believe there'd be more money available in the future. Anthopoulos just doesn't seem like the type to financially handcuff himself like that. Maybe Rogers got gun shy after the 2013 debacle, but to me that's no excuse. I can live with a GM who is sometimes too value-minded for his own good, but if he's working for an owner who will open the purse strings one off-season only to yank them shut the next, how can you really blame him? That kind of financial fickleness would make it mighty hard to formulate and follow through on a coherent plan and would really help me understand how this off-season ended up as such a disappointment. 

I'm sure this is reading as a whole lot of doom and gloom, and I'm really not trying to be the guy that rains on the parade of optimism that always comes with finally being able to watch real live professional ball players doing baseball things on our televisions. I'm certainly not trying to embolden the critical thinking averse segment of the fan base who see last year's 74-88 record, see essentially the same roster, and can't wrap their pea brains around the notion that the exact same team is capable of winning a lot more games through positive regression alone. FanGraphs' projections have them finishing fourth in the AL East with 82 wins, but the third place Yankees are only projected for 83 wins, and the second place Rays for 84. According to the projections they're right in the thick of their division, and with the kinds of error bars that exist in team win projections, any one of them could conceivably win the division.

All these many thousands of words were also written on the assumption that the Blue Jays won't be making any more additions before the beginning of the season, which isn't necessarily the case. Ervin Santana and Stephen Drew are still out there and would offer improvements at positions of need, and there is always the possibility that they do something in the trade market. Hell, maybe they're saving their pennies to extend Colby Rasmus or something, which would be pretty cool too. Still, it hasn't exactly been the type of off-season you would hope for from a team with competitive aspirations, a coherent plan, and the financial resources to execute that plan. At this point we can't really know whether that reflects on Anthopoulos' front office or Rogers' ownership, but I can understand why a lot of fans don't particularly care and are simply looking to vent their frustration, even if the tone often gets entirely too hysterical for my tastes.

Let's just hope that the Jays get off to a much better start than they did last season. After the crushing disappointment of 2013 and the four month long blue balling that was the off-season, a hot start to the season is exactly what's needed to shake off the malaise that seems to have settled over the fan base, in stark contrast to the excitement that surrounded almost this exact same team just a year ago. 

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