“Lack of Interest” In Manny, Bryce, Shows MLB Is Learning

The “story” of the MLB off-season so far has really been a non-story. Just like last year, the free agent market has been a bit slow and the two players everyone seems obsessed with talking about – Manny Machado and Bryce Harper – remain unsigned. What’s more, there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much interest in them as one might have anticipated. The market for Harper is, if rumors are correct, limited to the Phillies, the White Sox, the on-again, off-again Nationals (the only team he’s played for thus far) and possibly the Dodgers. The market for Machado is slimmer still – the White Sox, the Phils and if we believe his agent “a mystery team.”

This shouldn’t be as big a surprise as most people think it is. First off, both are quality, star players that could add to any lineup. However, neither is really a highest-level superstar; both also have knocks against them (albeit small ones.) Machado didn’t make any new fans when he offhandedly complained he’d never be a “Johnny Hustle” kind of guy. Perhaps that was a bit of miscommunication due to English being a second language for him, but you can bet it made owners look a bit more carefully at hours of video of every at bat he took last year to see just how much he does hustle. As for Harper, he does seem to slowly be maturing, but he didn’t make many fans with the media with his arrogance and at times flippantly worded answers early in his career. Others note that his Natonals have been the most talented team in their division for almost his whole career but for that they’ve missed the playoffs entirely three times and never advanced beyond the NLDS level. It would be unfair to blame Bryce alone for their lack of performance, but it can’t be ignored that he hasn’t yet rallied a team around him to great heights.

That said, the reasons they are attracting so little attention is obvious. Many teams can’t afford the kind of money they are looking to get and many others which could, prefer not to pay out that much over a long term. And who can blame them? Before Manny and Bryce complain and hint at “collusion”, perhaps they should go and yell at some of their counterparts. Troy Tulowitzki, Miguel Cabrera, Felix Hernandez, Albert Pujols for starters. All were in similar positions of being elite free agents and signed huge, longterm contracts (albeit all of them except Pujols with their previous team). Few of those contracts have paid off well, at least on the long-term.

Take for example, Tulowitzki. He, like Machado and Harper, was a youngish 26 when he re-upped with the Rockies prior to 2011 on a 10 year deal worth $158M. Note that after 2010, the MLB average salary was pegged around $3M even (currently it’s a shade over $4M, give or take. Exact figures vary due to different critieria about which players are counted as rostered, how to factor in bonuses etc.) Tulo was at the time one of the most promising players in the game, an All Star shortstop with a great glove and bat. the two years before his big contract (2009, 2010) he had numbers like this: .297/32HR/92RBI and .315/27/95. His OPS was 31 and 38% above league average those years and his WAR was 6.5 and 6.7. Signing him for years seemed the only thing for Colorado to do.

It didn’t sour right away. His 2011 campaign lived upto all expectations and got him another All Star spot. He hit .302/30/105 that year with an OPS again 31% better than league average and a WAR over 6. However, the injury bug kicked in in 2012, limiting him to 47 games, 8 homers, and a WAR of a mere 0.4 games better than a replacement. His numbers rebounded in ’13-14, but by 2015 (when he was traded much to his consternation, to Toronto) he’d dropped off to .280/17/70 with a .761 OPS that beat the league norm by only 7%. His WAR- 1.5. After a decentish ’16 with the Jays, he got injured again in 2017, playing just 66 games witha lacklustre .249 average, 7 homers, much reduced infield range and a WAR of a microscopic 0.1. In 2018, he collected about $18M to sit out the entire year due to surgery on his feet. As we know here, he’ll be paid about $18M again this year, mostly by Toronto, to play for the Yankees where he’s seen largely as a stopgap bench player. He’ll get over $20M next year too, no matter if he plays or not.

Or look at King Felix, the onetime heir apparent to Randy Johnson as the Mariners best-ever pitcher. Felix Hernandez had won a Cy Young when he re-signed with Seattle at age 27, for 7 years for a then unheard of $175M. He was coming off a 2010 Cy followed by two seasons in which he went 14-14/3.47 over 234 innings then 13-9/3.06 over 232 innings. His WARs those years were 3.6 and 5.3. What team couldn’t benefit greatly from a stud starter who can toss 230+ innings and add about 5 wins to the team’s total? The Mariners could and did, and for the first few years three at least, it worked out not too badly for them. 2013-15 yielded the following numbers: 12-10/3.04, 204 innings; 15-6/league best 2.14 ERA (70% better than norm), 236 innings; 18-9/3.53 over 202 innings. WARS of 5.3,6.4,4.5. that’s when the pendulum swung back against Seattle. Since then, three years of 11-8, 6-5 and 8-14 with ERAS of 3.82,4.36and 5.55. Under 160 innings each year. WARS of 1.4,0.8 and -1.2. Meaning statistically, the Mariners lost one more game by having Felix around last year for his $26.9M than if they’d used any random minor leaguer in his place. They don’t expect a lot of upside for the $27.9M they owe him this year… consider that while they jettisoned their high-paid talented players like James Paxton and Edwin Diaz this winter, they seemed to have no calls at all inquiring about the “King.”

Or perhaps the granddaddy of the bad big contracts, Albert Pujols. Pujols was arguably the best player in the game through much of the first decade of this century, so at first glance, no one could knock the Angels for signing him to a 10 year, $240M deal prior to the 2012 season. Mind you, he was already 32, around the typical peak for a position player, so there were warning flags there alone. The two last seasons he played with St.Louis were stellar, as usual: .312/42/118 with an 1.011 OPS (some 73% better thanleague average) then .299/37/99 , .906 OPS. The WAR those years were 7.5 and 5.3. Brilliant.

Los Angeles Anaheim could have looked good if they signed him to a four-year deal, even though he’s only made the All Star team once with them. 2012-15, he was still a star performer. He drove in over 100 twice, had better than average OPS each year, andwhen his batting average dipped to .244 in 2015 he compensated with 40 longballs. His WAR for the cumulative four seasons was over 13. Not bad. Even 2016, at age 36, was quite good: .268/31/119, WAR 1.3 (by this time, he wasn’t adding anything defensively, it should be noted- he was probably a below average first baseman and frequently was a DH instead.) The last two years…not so good. In 2017, he hit .241 with 23 homers, a below-average .672 OPS and actually had a negative WAR of -1.8. Oops, not pleasant for a team to pay $25M to a player who actually was losing games for them.

2018 was a tad better, but not that much- .245/19/64,WAR of 0.5. The real bad news for the “halos”… they have him under contract through 2021, and due to their questionable bookkeeping, his salary keeps going up! He’ll make $30M in 2021, when he’ll be 41 years old.

So yes, right now Machado and Harper look very good Machado’s last two years saw him miss only 6 games in total, play solid “D” at both third and short and post 33 and 37 homers, WARS of 3.4 and 5.7. Harper, although he missed 41 games due to a knee injury (something you bet owners will have in the back of their minds when looking at his long term durability) in 2017, still posted a remarkable .319 average and 1.008 OPS that year and came back with a 34 homer, 100 RBI year last season. His WAR has added to 6 over those years.

Good? Of course. And in all likelihood, they’ll both be good for the next three or four years. Beyond that… things look a bit foggier. Can you blame a team for not wanting to sign them for ten or more seasons? I can’t.

One more thing. Manny and Bryce should perhaps look at Moneyball. Because while they are almost bound to add to any team they go to; there is a point where the reward isn’t as great as the cost. Statistically, if they get into the $30M or more a year plateau they are asking for, a team could likely add more by spending it on several players. As an example, the Yanks were marginally interested in Machado. But they added pitcher JA Happ who’s had WARS of 3.4 and 3.6 over the past 2 years, for about $17M a year. That leaves them about $13M in which they could add another player. Jed Lowrie went to the Mets for a mere $10M a year and over the past two years he’s tallied an 8.8 WAR. So,unless a team can bank on a huge boost in attendance from a marquee player there’s little benefit in adding one “megastar” at the expense of missing out on two or even three above average “character players.”

Harper and Machado will play somewhere in 2019, and will probably be very good. But they might not have $300 million or more contracts in their pockets… and that is good for baseball.

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The AL East Off Season So Far

As we get to something close to the half-way mark of the “off season”, it seems like much of what we’ve been hearing so far has been what might happen or what hasn’t rather than what has. There are still over a hundred free agents out there unsigned, and despite a few big trades sending players like James Paxton and Edwin Encarnacion to new homes, the majority of big names are still big names in the same cities. It could be awhile until Bryce Harper and Manny Machado sign their huge deals and break the logjam.

That said, there has been enough activity to get a feel for what 2019 might be like. With that in mind, I present a report card on the AL East teams’ off season to this point. And, no surprise, our Blue Jays aren’t at the head of the class.

Baltimore – after an embarassingly bad 2018 which saw them set a franchise record for losses, one would think things could only go up for Baltimore. Perhaps so, but so far, they’re clearly sticking to a philosophy of addition through subtraction. They’ve let fo of quite a few players, and brought in next to nothing. So far, gone from the roster are catcher Caleb Joseph, infielders Luis Sardino and Danny Valencia, DH-type Pedro Alvarez and outfielders Craig Gentry and (franchise player) Adam Jones. One would think unless Jones’ re-signs with them, at a hometown discount, fans will be burning his jersey after he vetoed a trade last summer which would have brought in some young talent. Coming in to replace all those, so far … backup infielder Drew Jackson. And the man with the thankless task of getting them back to respectibility again, new manager Brandon Hynde. Getting rid of some deadweight has to help, but only if they bring in some amount of new, enthusiastic talent. The fans of the Chesapeake deserve better. Grade : F

Boston – thus far, Boston hasn’t added many new faces but are saying “bye bye” to some familiar ones. Right now the bullpen looks a bit shaky with superstar Craig Kimbrel still testing the free agent market and Joe Kelly jumping to the west coast and the Dodgers. However, they’ve retained Heath Hembree and Nathan Eovaldi (whom some speculate will be converted into a fireballing closer), so all is not lost. Ian Kinsler and Drew Pomeranz are currently free agents as well, as is aging DH Hanley Ramirez. After his .254, 6 homers, 0.2 WAR in just 44 games last year, one can imagine the Sox will be happy to see the end of him and his mega-contract. Bottom line – they’ve not done much (I expect they will before April though), however, with 108 wins and a World Series championship , they didn’t need to do too much. Grade : C

New York – one could almost feel sorry for the Yankees. They did everything right last year, won 100 for the first time in nine years, continued to rein in their drunken-sailor-spending habits of earlier in the century, somewhat, have developed some young talent… yet didn’t win the division for the 6th straight year. Clearly, this isn’t acceptable to the powers that be in the Bronx, and nor is seeing the hated Boston rivals win. So the Pinstripers plan to do things differently it seems. They made the first big splash of the off-season, picking up lefty James Paxton, coming off a career year which featured a no-hitter, from Seattle for highly-rated pitching prospect Justus Sheffield and two other minor leaguers. They re-upped CC Sabathia and JA Happ to solidify the rotation just yesterday retained reliever Zach Britton to go along with the already stellar bullpen duo of Bettances and Chapman. Shortstop Adeiny Hechevarria might be missed, particularly with Didi Gregorious expected to be out for half of 2019, but to limit the damage they picked up veteran Troy Tulowitizki when he was released by the Blue Jays, apparently seeing enough potential in a workout they attended to figure he’s back in game shape after missing all of 2018 from foot surgeries. Lance Lynn is a free agent, but his departure should be more than covered by Paxton. Other than that, they’ve not done much. Whether or not they change that by making a big splash on Machado or Harper remains to be seen (my guess, no, but they’ll do something to boost the offence) , but already they’ve done more than the other teams in this division. Grade : A

Tampa Bay – the 2018 Rays were much like other teams we’ve seen from Florida’s west coast this century – making a silk purse from a sow’s ear. The no-name, small budget team amazed both with their strategies and the results, winning 90. This off-season, they let catcher Jesus Sucre, first baseman CJ Cron and pitcher Sergio Romo go the free agent way but they’ve brought in talent too. Catcher Mike Zunino is a defensive upgrade (having a defensive WAR of 1.7 last year) and still has power, clubbing 20 homers,despite a low .201 average with Seattle. He hit 25 with 64 RBI the year before, and with middling outfielder Gil Heredia, it seemed a decent trade even if it gave up very promising young OF Mallex Smith. More importantly, they ramped up their pitching signing 35 year old veteran Charlie Morton from the ’17 World Series champ Astros. Morton’s age might have deterred a few teams, but on the short term, he’s a great addition, coming off a career year with a 15-3 record, 3.13 ERA and 201 K’s being best of his 11 seasons and the 167 innings second-best. His four-year ERA trend has gone 4.81/4.15/3.63/3.13 , so even if he regresses a little he’s likely to be an above average starter. Cron’s career best 30 homers and .493 slugging will be missed but what Tampa need more than a replacement for him is a move to Charlotte, Portland or Las Vegas… the perennially low-drawing Rays announced they’re going to close the upper sections of their dreary stadium, reducing capacity to a league low 26 000, give or take. Grade : B

Toronto – the first impression of the Jays’ thus far is that they’ve sat on their hands and done nothing, but that’s of course not accurate. On the plus side, they did recently add in two pitching restoration projects, lefty Clayton Richard from SD and righty Matt Shoemaker from LAA. Both were fairly cheap by today’s standards, both have great potential if they can stay healthy and pitch up to their capability. Neither has done that for a couple of years. However, they’re good additions and one of them should be a decent replacement for Marco Estrada who was disappointing more often than not in ’18. However, neither is close to a sure bet and given how bad the starting rote was last year, and GM Ross Atkins frequent bleating about better pitching being job 1, it’s rather a disappointing response. Given that JA Happ was interested in returning to Toronto and signed on with New York for – given his record – a bargain price over only 2 guaranteed years, one wonders why the Jays didn’t return him to the fold. Or outbid the Yanks for Paxton, a Canadian with a Maple Leaf tattoo. Meanwhile, the decent but far from stellar bullpen hasn’t been added to, although Jake Petricka and (my choice for their pitcher of the year last year) Tyler Clippard are free agents.

More problematic is the infield. We’ve spoken of it here before, but the Jays did seem to be dealing with a surplus of middle-infielders/third basemen given the readiness of super youths Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette who both will likely be playing before the All Star Game. However, the Jays botched the chance of turning this to their advantage. Non-tendering a contract to Yangervis Solarte was possibly wise, given that the club option for him was worth aroud $5M, a high price for a guy whose numbers dropped all season long and was widely considered to be just “phoning it in.” But then we have the ridiculous folly of Tulowitzki, who the Jays will be paying close to $38M over the next two years while he plays for the rival Yankees! The 100-win team figure he’s good enough to play for them, but the 73-win one figured he was done. The team’s semi-official beat reporter, Gregor Chisolm says Atkins “sidestepped” the obvious question of why they didn’t at least bring him to spring training and have a chance to trade him, even if only for a prospect or two and even if they were going to pick up most of his remaining contract.

Finally there was young Aldemys Diaz, the versatile 2016 All Star (for the cards.) He was decent through ’18, with a 1.4 WAR (because of a solid 2.3 offensive WAR ) and a .263 average, 18 HR and .756 OPS. Certainly he might have been expendable, but one would expect the Jays might have gotten more in return than Trent Thornton, whom they traded him to the Astros for. Thornton will turn 26 this summer yet is still a minor league “prospect.” He was a so-so 9-8, 4.42 with the ‘Stros AAA team last year and scouts figure his fastball is good in delivery and speed (about 94 MPH) he has an OK curve but a below-average changeup… and a “funky” high-leg kick delivery which might catch hitters by surprise but also seems a bit unwieldy. Thornton is currently ranked as the Jays 22nd best prospect, 8th best as a pitcher. Not exactly something to sell the masses on for 2019.

The ultimate problem with this is that there will be eyes focused on the Jays this year, with the hype surrounding Baseball-America’s top prospect, Guerrero. And the Braves show that a great young player or two, combined with a savvy front office making a few small moves, can quickly go from below-.500 to division champs. Yet Atkins seems content to look at a three, or more, year return to respectibility… and with bringing a great young talent into the big leagues in a clubhouse which will seem unfamiliar with winning or striving for greatness. Grade : D-

Money For Nothing And Tulowitzki’s Free

Perplexing.” That’s one of the words Dan O’Dowd used to describe the Blue Jays decision to buy Troy Tulowitzki out of his contract yesterday. Two interesting things about that observation : one, O’Dowd had some insight into “Tulo” and what he can do. He was the General Manager of Colorado through 2014, seeing him play in his prime. Two, that observation was made in a video on the Blue Jays official website! And good reader, when the baseball team’s official promotional site can’t figure out what the heck the GM (Ross Atkins) is doing, it’s time for a clean sweep at front office. Atkins and his boss, Mark Shapiro, who came in at the same time as Atkins, from the same Cleveland organization need to go, faster than a wonky-ankled infielder.

For those not following the news, the team decided to release outright one-time superstar shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Given his injury problems of late (surgery on both feet last year kept him out of the lineup for the whole season) that might at first glance make sense. What doesn’t make sense is that he was still under contract for a whopping $38 million through 2020 (with a buyout included in there) and as the team admits they “are on the hook for that full amount.” Thus they have paid Troy $38 million to go and twiddle his thumbs for the next two years. Should another team decide to pick him up and put him on their roster (as O’Dowd predicts ten teams will attempt to do), they will only have to pick up about $500 thousand of the total… toronto would then be paying him in the range of $37M or more to play… for a rival! Great.

Atkins refers to the 5-time All Star Tulo as “professional and respectful.” Teammate Marcus Stroman, never one to mince words, declared Troy an “unreal clubhouse presence…one of the best baseball minds I’ve ever encountered” and stated his career would be far from over. O’Dowd, who still keeps in contact with his former star, says TT appears to be in great health and is working out to be in game shape by spring. Yet Atkins still declares paying him to go away “the best interest of the organization.” Perplexing to say the least. Downright dumb to say the most.

Now, there are a couple of caveats Atkins has seemed quick to point out this fall. The Jays, coming out of the 2018 season, had a logjam of middle infielders, too many to have them all on the team. Since then he “non-tendered” Yangervis Solarte, making him a free agent, and traded Aldemys Diaz for a non-descript minor leaguer. With Tulo now gone, the Jays could actually be in the position to be shorthanded in April if even one remaining infielder (either major league or budding-superstar, aka Vladimir Guerrero Jr,or Bo Bichette) should get injured. As well, Tulowitzki, just turned 34, is not all that likely to return to his peak, MVP-caliber play. A career .290 hitter with an .856 OPS and Gold Glove-winning defence, has been on the downslope since his mammoth 2014 year with the Rockies. that year he hit .340, had an OPSof a head-turning 1.035 and managing to hit into only 4 double plays all year. His WAR that year was 5.5 according to Baseball-reference. In 2017, in the half season he played with Toronto, he hit just .249, ground into 10 DPs and had a microscopic WAR of 0.1. Anybody who sees him contending for a batting title or driving in over 100 runs, like he did in 2011, is delusional.

That said, if healthy, he can still play baseball. There’s little doubt to that. As Stroman says, he’s a great mature clubhouse presence that would be invaluable on a roster of young kids. He doesn’t buckle under pressure either. After a so-so initiation to Toronto in the latter months of the ’15 season, he came through in the playoffs with a pivotal homer in game 3 of the ALDS and ended up with 11 RBI in 11 games. Ousted manager John Gibbons, in his going-away comments suggested the Jays would have not only not beaten Texas in the 2015 ALDS, but wouldn’t have even made the playoffs without the trade for Troy. Not hard to argue with, since Gibby was right there and Tulowitzki replaced Jose Reyes, who by that point was a huge negative on the field, with a virtual “iron glove” and an attitude. Reyes last year, by the way, hit .189 for the Mets and had a negative WAR, for the third time in the last four years. Probably makes him mad enough to go and beat his wife… which leads to his domestic violence suspension, but that’s a tangent for another day. Point is, Tulo’s Toronto days haven’t been all for naught.

As it stands, the Jays are projecting to begin the year with Lourdes Gurriel as the shortstop and Richard Urena, rapidly becoming a “veteran utility man” as the backup there and at second. Kendrys Morales will be the DH for the third year. Gurriel was promising last year , so no problem with that. But if healthy- and all indications suggest he will be – Tulowitzki is a better hitter than Urena or Morales. If you’re going to pay him anyway, why not have him as the backup infielder/DH , ready to go in case of injury? He’d add some value to the team, to the clubhouse and while it might be annoying to pay around $18M to have a player do that (and about the same in 2020), it’s not as annoying as paying him $18M to do nothing at all. Something is better than nothing. Perplexing indeed.

With the added announcement of a tentative deal for JA Happ and the Yankees, despite Toronto attempting to re-sign him and despite Atkins’ admission that starting pitching is weak to bad right now with the Jays, with their seeming indifference to star Canadian pitcher James Paxton being traded by Seattle when he would have liked to pitch in Canada, the one thing not perplexing is whether or not Toronto’s current administration is up to the task of making a winning, or at least contending team. They’re not. Toronto fans deserve better.

*** ***

The Jays apparent concept that they shouldn’t even try to win in 2019, despite having two of the best prospects in the game readying to appear, is all too symptomatic of the malaise of MLB these days. We’ve seen too many teams in the last two years either deliberately “tank”- lose to save money or else get good draft picks – or at least make a conscious decision to not try to contend. It all ties into the reason attendance last year was down by over a million in Toronto and was under 70 million overall in MLB for the first time since 2003. The 69.6M fans through the gate was well below the 73.8M in 2015. But with ticket prices that continue to rise, making a night out for a family, once hotdogs and a beer for Dad, colas for the kids are worked in, equivalent to a second hand car loan, and teams which flat out refuse to try to provide a winner for the fans, where is the incentive to go out to the old ballgame in many cities? Fix those things, Rob Manfred, before throwing a pitch clock on the dugout wall or trying to ban “the shift.”

Phone Calls For Ross Atkins To Make, Part 2 – New York

Last time we looked at a call Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins should make, to the Indians to try and land a top-flight starting pitcher. Today, another call, another pitcher. Eyeball your I-phone, or activate that Android, Ross and dial

NEW YORK

to remind the Yankees of that Sheryl Crow song – “A Change Will Do You Good.” Why not flip bedeviled starters? Acquire Sonny Gray for Marcus Stroman. This would be very close to “six of one, half a dozen of the other”. Both teams shed a starter with star power who’s struggled of late and might benefit from a change of scenery. Stroman will be 27 next spring, Gray just turned 29. Both righties have had some excellent years in their young careers. Gray in 2015 (with Oakland) was 14-7 with a great 2.73 ERA over 200+ innings. Stroman, as recently as 2017 got some Cy Young votes, going 13-9, with a 3.09 ERA, 201 innings and received a Gold Glove to boot.

But things haven’t gone well of late. Gray was noted by Athlon sports pre-2016 as having an unusual (76.8%) rate of men left on base for him the year before and pondered if he could follow up that level of success. Answer: in Oakland, possibly, in the Big Apple no way. He’s been a big disappointment for the Pinstripers and from all accounts doesn’t like the pressure of the big city, big expectation fans. Since being traded there in 2017, he’s struggled. Last year, he was 11-9, but that was on a triple-digit win team. His ERA was bad – 4.90 – and his Baseball-reference WAR was 0.6 (with an ERA like that on a team of New York’s caliber, one wonders how he added any wins compared to a “replacement.”) His 2015 WAR, for comparison was 5.5. He particularly struggled in the Bronx, being 4-4 with a 6.98 ERA at home, compared to a decent enough 7-5, 3.17 on the road.

Stroman too struggled through 2018. He battled blisters on his fingers all season and was limited to 19 starts and 102 innings. His results were not wonderful, 4-9 with a 5.54 ERA and a not that good 77:36 K to BB ratio, well below his career norm of slightly better than 3:1. His WAR was a scant 0.2, compared to 5.7 the year before.

Both pitchers made around $6.5M last year and are going to arbitration this winter, in all likelihood bringing in about $7M for ’19. It won’t benefit or harm either team financially although Stroman won’t be a free agent until after 2020’s season, whereas Gray will be next winter.

WHY TORONTO LIKE THIS – It brings a new arm to the rotation, one who at worst is probably as good as any pitcher they already have in the #3 or 4 spot. At best, outside of the pressure cooker on the Hudson, he might relax and return to his better A’s form. Encouraging signs for Toronto for that to happen would include his better second half last year (he was 5-2, 3.63 after the All Star game) and his good results against Baltimore, Boston and Tampa last year. He had a collective 2.84 ERA against those 3 teams last year, and of course would see them a lot wearing the blue-and-white. As well, there’s not much difference in his fastball velocity over the past three years. What did change was he threw more “subpar” cutters in New York and he altered his stance a wee bit, holding his hands a bit higher as he went into the windup. Seemingly small things that could be easily changed by Pete Walker.

Getting rid of Stroman would irk some fans, but others would cheer. Little Marcus (one of the 6 shortest starting pitchers this century, at 5’8”) has had a big chip on his shoulder when it comes to the team. While, to his credit, he’s been a cheerleader for the city , he’s frequently publicly bashed the Jays management and fought them tooth and nail in arbitration.

WHY NEW YORK LIKE IT – they get a starting pitcher likely to be as good as, if not better than, Gray has been there and they get him for at least one extra season. As well, he’s more or less a hometown boy, being born in the suburbs. He’s a grinder, which might appeal to fans, and has a better than average ERA every year up to last. Unlike Gray, Stroman seems to like pitching in front of big,loud crowds.

The trade could backfire on either team, such being the nature of sport. But it could also rejuvenate both players’ careers and bolster both teams while being revenue neutral. It’s worth a ring-a-ding, Ross Atkins.

Phone Calls For Ross Atkins To Make, Part 1 – Cleveland

The clock is ticking towards spring training and thus far Toronto (to be fair, not unlike many teams) have done nothing to retool the team to make a run for it in 2019. There’s no time like the present, Ross Atkins. Over the next week I’ll be making a few suggestions for ways the Blue Jays could realistically put together a competitive and exciting team before the March opener. we’ll start by looking a t a few trade possibilities since the team itself has stated the obvious – that there are too many players in some spots and decided holes elsewhere,most notably with the starting rotation.

I, like many Jays fans, was disappointed “Big Maple”, the newly-crowned replacement for “King Felix” as the ace of the Mariners staff ended up in the Big Apple. James Paxton, the exciting lefty from B.C. grew up a Blue Jays fan and would’ve been happy to be pitching in his homeland. Could the Jays have acquired him? That we’ll never know. The Yankees offered up their top pitching prospect, Justus Sheffield, their #22 prospect, a decent AAA pitcher, Eric Swanson , and a solid power-hitting A-level outfielder, Dom Thomson-Williams. Sheffield was the big fish in the group, being 7-6 with a stirling 2.48 ERA in the minors this year and being ranked #12 overall among MLB prospects mid-season. Athlon Sports put him as the Yanks’ 3rd best prospect though, noting “durability concerns but also a huge fastball.” Since then others have suggested likewise he might be better-suited to being a middle reliever than a starter. It’s tough to know what Toronto would have had to divy up to outbid New York, but it’s easy to know they should have been in on the bidding…and no reference was made anywhere at all of Atkins trying to land him.

That being done, let’s start with a suggestion for Phone Call 1 Mr. Atkins should make :

Cleveland

try to acquire Carlos Carrasco and Edwin Encarnacion. In return, we offer Aaron Sanchez, Sean Reid-Foley, Luke Maile and Kendrys Morales.

this would land Toronto a stellar and reliable top end starter and a big bat to supplement what might be a still-weak hitting lineup in ’19, and a bat to defend behind apparent star-in-waiting Vladimir Guerrero Jr. when he makes the ‘Show”.

Carrasco was a solid 17-10, 3.38 over 30 starts this year, with 192 innings, a remarkable 231 K to just 43 walks and a good groundball to fly ratio of 1.22 (important in the hitters’ paradise that is the AL East.) Baseball-reference put him as a 3.9 WAR. All that was a slight drop off from 2017, when he led the league with 18 wins and had a 5.5 WAR. He’s signed on for 2019 at a reasonable $9.75M, but will be a free agent (potentially) after the season and has been publicly offered for trade by the Tribe. At 32 on opening day, he should have a good amount left in his arm and wouldn’t require a huge, longterm investment from Toronto.

Encarnacion will be 36 next spring and did what he usually does this past season as a DH – hit with pop. He hit .246 with 32 homer and 107 RBI over 137 games and posted an .810 OPS. Of concern is his increasing tendency to free swinging. He struck out 26% of at bats this year, more than double his 11% back in his heyday of 2013. Still, he’d be a good power threat and an upgrade over Morales as the DH, and occasional first baseman (he looked quite at home at first in the playoffs for Cleveland, some will remember.)

WHY TORONTO LIKE THIS – as said, a legitimate “ace” for the staff while other prospect pitchers have another year to mature, at a reasonable rate of pay and a good power bat that can probably hit triple digit RBIs again … and returns a very popular player to Rogers Centre. Worth adding, Carrasco is the player to opt for from the Indians’ staff. Corey Kluber, with his Cy Young past and his contract status (two years left potentially on contract) would cost too much and attract too much attention from the myriad of teams (Houston, NY Yankees, Atlanta etc) needing to boost the rote. Trevor Bauer, also being bandied about by Cleveland is toxic. A great pitcher, yes, but his personality would absolutely not work in Canada. I recently noted elsewhere that Jays fans’ as a group never warmed to Roger Clemens, even when he was winning Cy Youngs for the Jays. Bauer is infinitely less popular with his outspoken praise for President Trump and his various twitter rants against other players and fans who he’s wished cancer upon. He would have trash thrown at him from the home crowd even if he was hurling a no-hitter. Carrasco is the one pitcher from Cleveland to get.

WHY CLEVELAND LIKE THIS – sure, it might be good for the Jays, but we have to sell the Ohio Tribe on it as well. And it could be done. They clearly want to reduce salary but remain reasonably competitive… they have no intention of shedding superstars Jose Ramirez or Francisco Lindor. they want to win on a budget. This trade gives them 2 MLB ready starting pitchers for one. Yes, Sanchez was … well, rather lousy this year but he’s only two years removed from an All Star year, leading tAL in ERA (3.00) and winning percentage (15-2). He’ll be 26 next spring, not over the hill by any means, and still has a good 94MPH fastball. A great groundball to fly rate (1.6) shows he still could win and ’18’s 4.89 ERA was the first time in his career he’s been higher than the league average. His main problem is control (194 walks over 458 big league innings) and if the new coach there could right his delivery a bit to minimize that, he might well be an All Star again. And he’ll earn in the range of $4 to perhaps $5M this year, and be Cleveland’s through 2021.

Reid-Foley is the Jays’ third best pitching prospect with an “average fastball and curveball” according to Baseball-America which note his “deceptive arm angle” that makes him hard to hit but also a bit wild. He was a decent 7-5 , 3.90 at AAA but over his head in just 7 big league games this past fall, with a 5.13 ERA. He projects to be a decent but not spectacular mid-rotation starter a year or two down the road and would be the Indians’ for 6 years minimum.

Morales is not quite Encarnacion, but would give them a reasonable imitation (.249/21/57 over 130 games and a .331 on base) at a much cheaper rate… $12M compared to Encarnacion’s $20M plus a $5M buyout or else one more year at $20M.

Maile suddenly becomes valuable to them since they traded star catcher Yan Gomes to Washington this week. Young Maile’s always been regarded as a good defensive catcher, (a career average of 30% of base stealers thrown out and a good head for working with pitchers) but no bat. this year however, he showed a little flair at least at the plate, hitting .248 with 27 RBI and a run-of-the-mill .700 OPS in 202 at bats. He seems to be learning to swing better and at 28 would be a cheap, reliable replacement for the Brazilian Gomes.

All things told, the deal would save Cleveland about $12 to $15 million in 2019 without costing them a great deal in the win column.

Would they go for it? Who knows. But if I was Ross Atkins , I’d be on the phone to find out!

Start Carving Doc’s Plaque

This coming July should hold a special moment for Blue Jays fans, no matter how the team is faring on field. It should mark the second time we see someone inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame with a Blue Jays cap on. Because folks, in 2019, the late great Roy Halladay should be in.

When I first started working on this piece, I actually wasn’t entirely sure of that last statement. Don’t get me wrong. Halladay was my favorite Blue Jay in his dozen years with Toronto and made me cheer on Philadelphia when he was traded. I’d say few were as elated as me when “Doc” pitched that no hitter in the NL playoffs in his first year there (2010) , but in fact I bet half of Canada was. We all loved Halladay.

That said, did his numbers really merit being in Cooperstown? If he gets elected will it be merely a pity vote due to his unfortunate and accidental death last year? The answer to those questions is A) yes he does, and B) no it wouldn’t be. Let’s examine that. And let’s keep in mind some of the starting pitchers likewise voted into the Hall this decade – Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Jack Morris – and one who missed out last year (with about 63% support), Mike Mussina.

To recap Roy’s career, he pitched in 16 major league seasons, pitched 416 games, 390 of them starts, with a 203-105 won-lost record. He hurled 2749 innings, with 2117 strikeouts to a measly 592 walks (which one notes, is fewer than 2 per start.) He completed 67 games and had 1 save to boot. Career ERA was a stellar 3.38. And of course there was the Phillies magnificence with the regular season perfect game and playoff no-hitter, only the second one of those ever tossed. In the limited time he got to appear in the post-season he was 3-2 with a 2.37 ERA over 5 starts. To point out the obvious there, big-game star that he was, he pitched more effectively (lower ERA) in the post-season than in the regular. He led the league in the K:BB ratio 5 times and innings pitched four. All that added up to 8 All Star game selections and a pair of Cy Youngs, one AL, one NL. Baseball Reference company calculate his career WAR (wins above replacement) at 64, or 4 per season.

So how do those numbers compare? Well, his career .659 winning percentage bests the likes of Greg Maddux (.610) and even Randy Johnson (.646). It was even more remarkable when you consider that Toronto, in the Halladay seasons, never made the playoffs and were basically just a .500 team – 977 wins, 966 losses. Take out his atrocious 2000 year (in which he had an ERA of over 10, leading to his demotion to single-A the beginning of the next season and a rapid ascent to the top afterwards) and his career ERA drops to 3.20.

He averaged 6 2/3 innings per start, essentially identical to Maddux and Johnson. And let’s not forget those 67 complete games. It will be a long time ,and require many changes to prevailing managing  strategies for us to see the likes of that again. For comparison, Justin Verlander, as fierce a competitor as one’s likely to find on the mound these days, has 24 over 15 seasons. “Doc” went out there with the mindset that he was starting the game, he was finishing the game and his team was going to win.

His 3.6 strikeouts to a walk is a better ratio than Maddux’s or Glavine’s (Glavine was only 1.7). But perhaps the crowning achievement was the 3.38 ERA over those 16 years, most of them years when longballs and offense-is-everything philosophies were king. That number falls right between Randy Johnson (3.29) and Tom Glavine (3.54, despite pitching in the “easier” National all his career.) What’s more, his adjusted “ERA+” is 1.31, meaning his number was typically 31% better than the league average , which worked out to 4.42 during the seasons he was active. Glavine was only 18% better, Morris a piddly 5%. If you’re thinking, “well, that’s good but it’s not Bob Gibson –good” well guess what? Over his 17 years, the Cards’ superstar posted a 2.91 ERA which was only 29% better than average. Clearly all of Halladay’s stats point towards being very much Hall of fame-bound.

Is there an argument against Roy? Yep, two…and we’ll deflate both.

First, the “yes he was good, but he didn’t pitch long enough” one. I must admit, I thought this could be true. Greg Maddux pitched 23 seasons, Johnson went 22, hanging up the glove at age 45. But that old grinder Jack Morris lasted only 2 seasons more (18) and as just mentioned, one of the all-time greats, Bob Gibson only had one extra year on Halladay. And among recent position players, catcher Mike Piazza had 16 years as well and Blue Jays infield inductee Roberto Alomar, 17. We would have liked to see him hang in there for a couple more years if he felt up to it, but it’s clear 16 seasons is enough for a player with such a high level of success during them.

Last but not least, an argument I imagine many Bronx and Baltimore fans might make: Mike Mussina was good too, and missed out by about 12% of the vote last year. Mussina logged 18 seasons, going 270-153, an average of 15 wins per season and he went the distance 57 times. He’s the only recent pitcher to match Halladay in the strikeouts to walk category and had an OK ERA of 3.68, pitching exclusively in the tough AL East (an ERA we add that was .22 better than Jack Morris’). Basball reference cite Mussina for an 83 career WAR, or better than 4 wins added to his team every season.

Yes, those numbers are impressive. But when looked at in context, all it really tells us is that Mussina was likely ripped off. Somehow he didn’t have the image of a “Superstar” and enough voters must have looked at it that way to exclude him. In time, he’ll probably make it to Cooperstown… as should the late Roy Halladay.

Mariano Rivera should be in unanimously with this winter’s ballot; there are good arguments for the likes of Todd Helton … but whomever is there, we should see Brandy Halladay up on the podium next summer, representing her departed husband, and the Blue Jays organization.

All Betts Off? The AL MVP Should Be…

Last but not least- the American League

MVP – you’d think they’d name it after someone like all the hockey awards. I mean, if the best pitcher award is the “Cy Young” maybe the MVP should be the “Ted Williams” or ‘Babe Ruth award”. Just sayin’… anyway, my choice for the big honor is…

Mookie Betts, Boston. Gotta admit, my first gut instinct at the end of the season was for the runner-up – J.D. Martinez – but upon studying the stats and consideration, Betts deserves to win out. Too bad an ab strain kept him out of the lineup for half of June or he might have been even more clear-cut best. But even with that, in his 136 games, he hit .346, launched 32 homers, 80 RBI and was tied for second in the league with 47 doubles. 81 walks helped his on base soar to .438 and all in all, he was second best in the majors with a 1.078 OPS. Gotta like that he only ground into 5 DPs all year too. Perhaps though the tipping point for me, making Mookie the most valuable on the best team was he played 131 games in the outfield, and rather well too. Which is something my second-place,

J.D. Martinez, Boston, couldn’t boast. Not that his fielding was bad by any means, but he had only 32 games with any fielding mixed in, being by and large the full-time DH. I don’t believe that a desginated hitter can’t be an MVP, but in a virtual tie, you have to give the nod to the more multi-dimensional player. That said, Martinez was a huge addition to the Sox and they probably wouldn’t have won it all without him. .330, 43 HR, major-league best 130 RBI, .629 slugging percentage, 188 hits (second in league)… he did all that New England hoped he would and then some.

third- Khris Davis – Oakland. the outfielder/DH led the world with 48 homers this year, in a division which isn’t terribly inclined to a lot of longballs, and drove in 123. Granted he hit only .247 but his .549 slugging percentage was quite stellar and the award does say valuable not all-around “best.” The A’s amazed, making it into the Wild Card with a, well, kind of lacklustre team, and one has to think that Khris’ dynamic hitting was the thing that lifted them there…. there weren’t a lot of other big bats on the Bay’s east side to back him up!

fourth – Luis Severino – New York. While he finished just out of my top picks for Cy Young, he was a powerhouse on the mound, being 19-8 with a 3.39 ERA over 191 innings. The Yanks had a balanced and talented postion lineup, with Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks ,Giancarlo Stanton and rookie of the year choice Miguel Andujar all contributing well but none were head-turning or completely invaluable. But the starting rotation was shaky for the pinstripes, especially before J.A. Happ arrived, and one has to think that without Severino, digging deeper into their farm system or trying to recycle another aging starter in the Jaime Garcia ilk would have led to problems …and no triple-digit win tally for them this year.

Honorable mentions- Mike Trout – L.A. Anaheim , Blake Snell – Tampa Bay, Jose Ramirez – Cleveland, and yes a bad team but still, Whit Merrifield – Kansas City. How stinky would they have been without his infield glove, league-leading 192 hits and his 45 steals?

Well the owners will be meeting in a couple of weeks, free agents will be flying free and just hours back I saw that soar-backed superstar Clayton Kershaw did what most expected him to do, namely sign an extension to stay in L.A. We’ll look at the off-season, some free agent predictions and what Toronto should be doing this winter in the coming weeks….