All Eyes On…

Yay! Baseball is back, even if it is only spring training games today. Correction – even if its only a weak imitation of spring training games, with new Rob Manfred-initiated rules allowing pitchers to go in and out of the game, games to last as little as five innings and innings being ended when a manager feels like it’s gone on long enough. Anyway, there will be opposing teams on the field hitting the ball, so that’s a nice sign of springtime and something resembling normalcy.

MLB itself recently listed their “seven players all eyes will be on” this season. By and large their picks were reasonable, but I had a few slight disagreements with their picks so here are my Five Players Who Will Be In The Spotlight in 2021, in descending order.

5) Francisco Lindor, Mets. Lindor’s rapidly risen to the ranks of superstar, both with his bat and glove, but up until this year he’d been playing on a small-market, slightly-above-average talent team. This year pressure will be notched up with him playing in the largest city in the game, on a team who’ve stated fairly straight-forwardly they intend to win and are tired of being “that other Big Apple team.” He’s one of the new breed of flamboyant players who seem to crave the spotlight, so it’s his time to shine. If he can indeed thrive in a bigger market and help the Mets take a run in October, he’ll probably be the premier free agent come this winter ( a tall order in a year when Corey Seager, Trevor Story and Marcus Semien will also be available shortstops.) If not, he may be next year’s Semien, a decent enough short-term pickup for a team trying to move up in the standings.

4) Fernando Tatis, Jr. Padres. In two seasons of the bigs, Fernando has played 143 games – about one normal year’s worth. During that “one” season, he’s hit .301, slugged .582, had an OPS 54% better than league average and hit 39 homers. His WAR in that time , a tidy 7.0. That’s impressive for essentially a rookie campaign. But is it impressive enough to warrant a massive 14 year, $340M contract? San Diego think so. There’ll be a lot of people looking at him under a microscope and if he doesn’t pull off the seemingly improbable – getting better than he has been – and more importantly, if San Diego don’t make a very serious run at the Dodgers for the division title, many will think him a bust.

3) Yu Darvish, Padres. Does anyone remember the time before Yu in the MLB? Fewer and fewer do. Darvish has been in North America for nine years now. And while he’s been a “plus pitcher” for years, he had never come close to living up to the extraordinary amount of hype generated by his coming over from Japan, where he was a Bob Gibson crossed with Steve Carlton and a dash of Randy Johnson. Over here he built up a reputation for being fragile (even though he logged 140 + innings five of the first seven years here, which in this day and age is fairly sturdy, alas) and was a goat in L.A. where they blamed him for losing the World Series. That changed last year when he was dominant in the NL Central, going 8-3 with a 2.01 ERA and 93K’s in 76 innings pitched in the shortened season. Suddenly he was the guy Japan had sold us, so to speak, and a solid Cy Young candidate. So much like Tatis, now that he’s in San Diego, there’ll be more eyes on him watching to see if he can propel the Padres deep into October and perhaps tutor a few of their great young arms along the way.

2) George Springer, Blue Jays. Yes, I admit again, this Blue Jays diehard wasn’t ecstatic with his $150M signing by Toronto. I don’t hate it, mind you, but wasn’t dazzled by the optics or dollar amount. But George clearly was set up as the top available position player in the off-season. Toronto had stated they intended to take the next step to go from barely Wild Card to a legit World Series contender, and Springer is the showcase in their turn in that direction. Springer will be carefully watched not only because he’s a home run hitter in the most homer-friendly division in the game but because he still wears a cloak of shame from being a member of the 2017 Champions of Cheat team out of Houston. Nonetheless, Toronto management talked to him at length and figure he’s a solid character who will be a great mentor to the very many talented but raw kids on the roster. A lot to live upto for the big outfielder.

1) Trevor Bauer, Dodgers. Are you kidding me? MLB didn’t think Bauer was the #1 deer in the headlights this year. I figure no player, no five players combined, will attract as much attention as Trevor will. It won’t matter how many Kardashians file for divorce or how many celebrity assistants get shot, the media in L.A. will be nowhere but at the Dodger clubhouse door when he’s due to take the mound. After all, there’s the money, the controversy, the idea of a new breed of player and a World Championship in a city which at times has trouble producing trophy-winners, all rolled into one.

Start with how wherever Bauer goes, controversy usually follows. Nothing if not outspoken, he’s made enemies in the Commissioner’s office wit his criticism over many Rob Manfred decisions (one can only wonder how he’ll respond to potentially five-inning spring games or pitch counts deciding when to end an inning) and with a huge number of Democrats across the country with his rather prolific and outspoken use of Twitter and other social media. His support of Donald Trump and questioning of Barack Obama’s background may be long-remembered in one of the most liberal cities in the land…particularly if he can’t come close to matching his Cy Young winning season of last year. His social media presence extended to his free agency, where he publicly goaded some teams into talking to him, and solicited all kinds of feedback from fans in various cities. One of the few superstars to not use Scott Boras, his agent was a young woman named Rachel Luba. She followed his lead and did much of her negotiating, it would seem via Twitter. Expect other players and agents, for that matter, to watch to see how well the season plays out before deciding if they want to update their methods as well.

And then there’s money. Why wouldn’t people be attentive to how he does? He just broke a new gold ceiling in the sport by becoming the highest-paid player this year and the first to rake in $40M a year. That alone would be attention-getting, but in his context is more so. After all, before 2020, he was an only slightly-above average pitcher by the numbers. He’d only had an ERA below 4.00 once in eight seasons and had only reached 190 innings twice. Last year things changed with him winning a deserved Cy Young with his league-leading 1.73 ERA, and almost 6:1 strikeout to walk ration, not to mention two complete game shutouts, an animal as rare as a dodo bird these days. But one can’t help but ask, how much does his performance over a season that was less than half the normal length, in a schedule adjusted to let him avoid playing any tough Eastern or Western teams really spell out how good a pitcher he is, or will be? With San Diego beefing up their roster and payroll rapidly, you bet all eyes will be on Trevor to see how he answers that question, and if he can get L.A. back to the World Series.

Off-season Shifts Slowly Towards ‘On’

Glory be, spring training is here at last. May it play out better than last year’s! As we start to dust off the crystal ball and look ahead at the 2021 season and begin to acclimatize ourselves to our favorite teams’ new rosters, it wouldn’t hurt to look back at the winter. A few trends were clear.

The Mets are in it to win it with their new owner. Not only did they pull off the flashy trade for Francisco Lindor (which I predicted) and Carlos Carrasco, they added the likes of Jonathan Villar, James McCann, Trevor May, Kevin Pillar and more although missing out on much-coveted DJ LeMahieu and George Springer.

Likewise, San Diego are tired of being patsies and are augementing their young talent in a big way, trading for pitchers Yu Darvish and Blake Snell.

On the other end of the spectrum, Baltimore and Pittsburgh continue to do little other than let what established talent (of a middle income variety) they had go in a race to the bottom.

The Blue Jays are a puzzle, having established a reputation for being active in trying to acquire almost every star free agent or tradeable player available and succeeding in making headlines with their $150M contract for George Springer. He, shortstop Marcus Semien and rehabbing closer Kirby Yates show the team has money to spend and a desire to win…but then that’s bookended by an inexplicable inattention to the team’s weakest area, the starting pitching. So far, Matt Shoemaker and Chase Anderson have moved on, Taijuan Walker is unsigned and all they’ve done to bolster the rote is bring in Stephen Matz, a guy with potential but whose numbers are no better than either of the departees.

One more thing is clear. Despite the owners carping about huge losses in 2020 and the uncertainty about this season and attendance, there is still a lot of money to go around. The Dodgers were willing to make Trevor Bauer the highest paid player in the game and set a new plateau ($45M a year) on the basis of two solid months in 2020, potential and a one year separation from a 4.48 ERA year. The Jays gave out the biggest contract in franchise history for an outfielder with a career OPS of .852 (good yes, but no comparison to the likes of Mookie Betts at .895, let alone Mike Trout and his 1.000) and a history of injuries. Relief pitchers far and wide saw their pay rates skyrocket. One couldn’t blame the Player’s union for being skeptical of cries of poverty coming from the teams.

To do a quick recap of some of the major signings in the off-season, I’ve copied my end of season predictions for free agency and added in the actual signings with the values as clearly as known (some of the contracts are a little murky with so many different options and deferments):

Catchers

JT Realmulto — NY Mets – 6Y, $135M —- (Philadelphia, 5Y, $115M)

Wilson Ramos – Philadelphia – 2Y, $24M —- (Detroit, 1Y, $2M)

Yadier Molina – St. Louis – 2Y, $28M —- (St.Louis, 1Y, $9M)

First Base

Mitch Moreland – Seattle – 1Y, $9M

Justin Smoak – Boston – 1Y, $3M —- (Japan, 1Y, $6M)

Second Base

DJ LeMahieu – NY Yankees – 4Y, $85M —- (NY Yankees, 6Y, $90M)

Kolten Wong – Toronto – 2Y, $20M —- (Milwaukee, 2Y, $18M)

Jonathan Villar – San Francisco – 1Y, $6M —- (NY Mets, 1Y, $4M)

Shortstop

Marcus Semien – LA Angels – 4Y, $40M —- (Toronto, 1Y, $18M)

Didi Gregorius – Cleveland – 2Y, $25M —- (Philadelphia, 2Y, $28M)

Andrelton Simmons – Atlanta – 1Y, $7M —- (Minnesota, 1Y, $10M)

Third Base

Justin Turner – LA Dodgers – 2Y, $28M —-(L.A. Dodgers, 2Y, $32M)

Eric Sogard – Texas – 1Y, $4M

Outfield

George Springer – NY Mets – 6Y, $130M —- (Toronto, 6Y, $150M)

Marcel Ozuna – Atlanta – 3Y, $55M —- (Atlanta, 4Y, $69M)

Michael Brantley – Houston – 3Y, $38M —- (Houston, 2Y, $32M)

Brett Gardner – retire

Joc Pederson – Miami – 2Y, $8M —- (Chicago Cubs, 1Y, $7M)

Ryan Braun – Houston – 3Y, $27M —- (retired)

Designated Hitters

Nelson Cruz – Minnesota -1Y, $19M —- (Minnesota, 1Y, $13M)

Edwin Encarnacion – Tampa Bay – 2Y, $16M

Shin Shoo Choo – Baltimore – 1Y, $9M

Relief Pitchers

Liam Hendricks – LA Dodgers – 4Y, $52M —- (Chicago WS, 4Y $69M)

Kirby Yates – Washington – 2Y, $20M —- (Toronto, 1Y, $5M)

Brad Hand – Atlanta – 3Y, $30M —- (Washington, 1Y, $10M)

Trevor Bauer – LA Angels – 6Y, $164M —- (LA Dodgers, 3Y/ $102M or 2/85)

Charlie Morton – Boston – 2Y, $29M —- (Atlanta, 1Y, $15M)

Mashahiro Tanaka – Minnesota – 3Y, $40M —- (Japan, undisclosed)

Mike Minor – Pittsburgh – 1Y, $3M —- (Kansas City, 2Y, $18M)

Taijuan Walker – NY Yankees – 4Y, $40M

Jake Odorrizi – St. Louis – 1Y, $13M

James Paxton Toronto – 2Y, $25M —- (Seattle 1Y, $9M)

Soon we’ll try to figure out how it all shakes out looking ahead to the 162 games ahead.

Union Fight For The Right To Be Dumb

I never saw ‘Dumb and Dumber’. Seeing the trailer was enough to make me figure it wouldn’t be my cup of tea. Alas, baseball fans seem destined to see their own version of Dumb and Dumber played out again this year. Dumb and Dumber, 2021 Edition seems to showcase the players proving they can be even dumber than their rich owners, who demonstrated their capacity for it last year. Or so their rejection of the league’s proposal to set back opening day would indicate.

Now, to get you up to speed, you might remember the fiasco last season that Covid created. Spring training began then had to be postponed, then we had over four months of downtime while the players union and group of owners went back and forth as to when, if and how the season could proceed safely. You might also recall I was squarely in the players’ court, thinking the owners were being unreasonable with their proposals (eventually given up on) which would have not only imposed severe behavioral restrictions on the players (which largely did remain, such as staying in hotels and not leaving them at all except to go to the stadium) but take a per game pay cut too. It didn’t seem right to me that they should be expected to play games as per their contracts, alter their lifestyles and get less money than the owners had previously agreed to. Eventually they compromised and got full pay per game for a ridiculously shortened season, much abbreviated from what they and we fans had hoped for.

Which brings us to this season, which is fast-approaching. Someone should be just about to get out the vaccuums to clean up the cobwebs at Spring Training sites which will open in some locales two weeks from today.

The problem is of course, the pandemic which played such havoc with last season hasn’t gone away as expected. In fact, it’s gotten worse. Over the past week, the U.S. has averaged 150 000 new cases per day. And that’s resulting in about 3200 people a day dying from it… which is triple the worst week experienced during the 2020 baseball season. If there was reason to worry about having people crowded in stadiums last summer, the worry should be tripled this “spring”.

So, MLB recently proposed a schedule change to the players. The idea was to roll back the season by a month, with it beginning on April 29 instead of April 1, with spring training also delayed somewhat. The season would run about a week later than proposed in fall, and be a 154 game slate (instead of the normal 162 but obviously more than last year’s 60.) But to nip the players’ arguments about money in the bud, they agreed to pay players their full salary for the shortened season – 162 games pay for 154 games played. There would be an expanded post-season of 14 teams, compared to 16 last year but 10 normally, and the “universal DH”, tried out last year would return. The league noted both those were “overwhelmingly popular with our fans.”

The upside of course is that by waiting a month, hopefully millions more people might be vaccinated against COVID and be safe to – and feel safe to – go out to ballparks. And if numbers or cases were dropping, fewer municipalities might have restrictions in place blocking large crowds for games. As a plus, by May, weather is usually much nicer in cities like Milwaukee and Toronto, which could allow for those stadiums to be played open-air rather than with the roofs closed, again cutting down on infection risk.

As for the DH, we all know some National League fans don’t like the change, but we also know the union and owners both have generally been in favor of it for some years. The players figure it will save a few high-paid jobs for the likes of Nelson Cruz who can hit but whose fielding days are largely behind them, and the owners like not having star pitchers risking injury going to bat, not to mention having a few more marquee names to sell for another year or two.

So it should have been a slam dunk, right? Shoulda, coulda… wasn’t. The union turned down the idea cold. “We do not make this decision lightly,” they wrote, noting “we appreciate that significant challenges lie ahead.”

Turns out they didn’t like several things about the league proposal. Amazingly (according to the L.A. Times at least) they balked on the universal DH change, because they want to hold onto that as a “bargaining chip” in talks with the owners next year! Why agree to something you both want now if you can try to blackmail the other party a year from now?

But the main stumbling block was that the proposal would give the league, via Commish Rob Manfred the right to shut down , temporarily or entirely, the season if the pandemic gets out of hand. Manfred had the right to “interrupt” the season if A) “government restricitions prevented five or more teams from playing home games with fans present”, B) “if government regulations restricted travel in the U.S.” or C) “if the number of major leaguers unavailable due to Covid-19 undermines competitive integrity” of the sport. The players worried that there was no guarantee that they would be paid in full for any games suspended in those circumstances.

Man! It would seem to me that if those conditions were met – if for instance, the law wouldn’t allow the Yankees to charter their own plane or bus to drive up to Boston, or if so many players were in hospital with Covid that several teams couldn’t field a squad – then getting their full contract might be the least of their worries, or anyone else’s. It seems rather an insult to the ordinary supermarket clerks and bus drivers who go to work day after work, putting themselves at risk and having no guarantees about tomorrow. Once again it puts the players in the position of seeming out of touch, rich and spoiled jerks.

If they can’t agree to something as mutually beneficial as this, I can’t imagine what next winter will be like when the two sides square off trying to get a new collective bargaining agreement in place. I don’t forsee Spring Training starting on time next year as a result… and if things keep up like this all year, I can’t imagine many people really caring one bit either.

Blue Jays Spring-er Into Action, At Last

At last something for us Jays fans to talk about other than being the Garfunkels and Oates of the baseball world – the also rans. After being “linked” by the media (often with the team’s backing) to almost every big name player who was available this off-season – DJ LeMahieu, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Corrasco, Japanese pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano – only to see them land elsewhere or, in the case of Trevor Bauer and JT Realmulto – balk at the offer, the Blue Jays have been on a bit of a tear in the past 48 hours. In case you were sleeping, or preoccupied by goings on in D.C. (who hasn’t?), Toronto have signed free agent pitchers Tyler Chatwood and Kirby Yates, and the most highly-rated free agent “position” player, outfielder George Springer. And according to multiple reports, they’re just dotting the “i’s” and crossing the “t’s” on a contract with the outfielder I personally hoped they’d get, Michael Brantley. Toronto still has some holes in the roster but are undeniably a stronger team than they were 48 hours back.

The first of the signings, Chatwood, actually didn’t cheer me up much. Sure, he’s an adequate major league arm, a veteran of average distinction with the Rockies and Cubs, but he’s also had one of the highest rates of walks allowed in the league (the opposite of GM Ross Atkins stated priority in getting pitchers throwing more strikes) and I feared he was slated to be the “big” acquisition to finish the starting rotation and replace a better arm like Matt Shoemaker or Taijuan Walker. Seems that’s not the case, and Chatwood is viewed more as just another bullpen hand, and with his history of starting pitching, he could probably be valuable in such a role, working in blowout games or ones where multiple innings are required.

Yates was much more exciting, albeit a player who carries a little risk along with him. The ex-Padre saw his 2020 come to an early end after only 6 (bad) games with elbow pain. He underwent bone chip or bone spur (depending on source) and thus may not be back to normal by spring. Estimates are he will be though, and if so, the team has the proven closer to replace injured Ken Giles. Yates has a good 94 MPH fastball and an above average split finger pitch as well as a great ability to paint the bottom of the strike zone. In 2019 he was arguably the most stellar NL relief pitcher, striking out 101 in 60 innings, with only 13 walks and two homers allowed. Any pitcher who doesn’t walk a lot and isn’t prone to too many flyballs is welcome in Toronto. That year he had a 1.19 ERA and league-leading 41 saves.

Which brings us to Springer. Now regular readers know I’ve not been a Chuck Mangione when it comes to him…I’m not one to be trumpeting him. I thought he was a tad over-rated and destined to be overpaid. I still do. BUT... there is no denying he’s a good, all-star perhaps, outfielder who can hit and comes through under pressure. There’s no denying that’s a good addition to the team, even if the total $150M price tag seems high.

Springer at 31 should be right around his prime, and comes with good numbers by anyone’s standards – a career .361 on base pct., an average 93 RBI and 81 BB per 162 games played. And of course, 19 career playoff homers and a .546 slugging percentage in them. He’s viewed as an above average fielder and while a member of the Champions of Cheat 2017 Houston club (which still irks me a bit), his numbers in 2019-20, after the scandal broke, were actually better than in that notorious season, so maybe the trash can percussion wasn’t the secret to his success.

Which brings us to Michael Brantley, a veteran for sure, but not as long-in-the-tooth as many imagine, turning 34 in May. He spent the last two years in Houston with Springer, and apparently the pair had an interest in signing with the same club, so a win-win for both them and Toronto. Brantley in the past three years has posted .309/.311/.300 batting averages and OPS between 20 and 30% above league averages each year. He has 25 home run power, which might expand to 30-ish with Toronto and AL East parks and is a solid clubhouse personality who might be a good mentor to the many fledgling Blue Jays. I’m excited to have him on board. Or almost there anyway.

Two important takeaways from this for the Jays. One is that they are making a statement to us fans and to the competition, no, this time they’re not lying about “going for it.” We’ve heard that quite a few times through the past couple of decades and seen them carry through on it many times fewer. But by landing the biggest fish in the pond and outbidding the free-wheeling, drunken sailor-spending Mets for Springer then adding another all-star outfielder just for good measure, and a borderline superstar reliever, they show they mean business. This should make filling in the other puzzle pieces a bit easier, make selling tickets (if indeed there are any tickets to sell in 2021) easier and perhaps dissuade the Red Sox from doing anything much to strengthen themselves in the short-run. Catching back up to Toronto just got harder.

Secondly, it leaves the team with a glut of quality outfielders. Gurriel, Grichuk, Hernandez, Springer, Brantley… five stars, four spots even if one is the DH every day. Suddenly they’re in a position of strength to trade one (my hope and guess would be Randal Grichuk, the highly-paid but erratic CF now out of a steady job because of Springer) in order to fill the remaining hole in the infield or perhaps add a starting pitcher. Kolten Wong or Tommy Lastella are adequate free agent choices for the infield, but perhaps with an excess OF thrown in, an even better fit could be acquired by trade.

Things changed in Washington D.C. today with a transition in power. So too in the AL East.

Addendum – as we found out later in the day, after this was posted, the reports of Brantley coming to the Jays, though widespread, were inaccurate. He signed back with Houston on a two year deal instead.

Padres D-to-A Go!

Well, if the yellow-and-brown wasn’t enough to get people to sit up and take notice of that other California team – the one on Mr. Trump’s Mexican wall – the ownership of the Padres have been going all-out (or is it “all in”?) the last few days to make sure the spotlight is on them, instead of their splashier neighbors to the north. In a matter of 48 hours, the San Diego crew managed to trade for two ace pitchers and sign the highest-rated foreign position player available this winter. Not a bad after-Christmas gift for the fans, I’d say.

If you’ve been busy standing in line to return Christmas robes and didn’t notice, this week San Diego signed Ha-seong Kim, a power hitting Korean infielder with a strong upside, traded for former Cy Young winner Blake Snell from the Rays and 2020 Cy runner-up Yu Darvish from the Cubs. The Padres were already the best second-place team in baseball … literally. They finished up with a 37-23 record that would have won them four of the other five divisions and would extrapolate to about 99 wins over a full-length season. They had one of the best young players in the game in Fernando Tatis, one of the best veterans playing beside him in Manny Machado (who finally had the year everyone figured he was capable of after years of good but vaguely disappointing campaigns) and about eight years after he appeared as a sure-fire, superstar to be, Wil Myers finally looking as something beyond an everyday, run-of-the-mill outfielder. And they had a solid young starter in Chris Paddack, just to name a few. However, they had the misfortune of being located near, and in the same division as the L.A. Dodgers, clearly the elite team in baseball right now. Or at least up to 48 hours ago. Suddenly, it’s a legitimate two-way race for that division, and in all likelihood, the NL Championship, Atlanta notwithstanding.

So what does this mean to other teams? I think it’ll start a domino effect of events across MLB. Here are four things to expect soon…

1) Nolan gets eight miles high… or about however high it takes a jet to clear those Rocky Mountains and get Arenado out of Denver. The Rockies have long been rumored to have an interest in trading their superstar third baseman this off-season. After all, Colorado no longer fills the stands and leads the league in attendance (even if fans were allowed into parks right now) and they’re potentially on the hook for $199M to him over the next six years. That’s an awful lot of money for a mid-market team that hasn’t contended for a couple of years, not even mentioning that he had a decent but somewhat less-than-expected ’20 season.

The Rockies are in fact caught between a rock and a hard place with him. He has an “opt out” clause after this coming season. So, if he continues to decline as he did in 2020, they’re going to be paying skyhigh money to a slightly-above-average infielder. If he rebounds, as he probably will (from 2015-19, he averaged 40 homers and 124 RBI a year and had a defensive WAR of above +1 every season) , he could simply bolt for greener pastures anyway. Colorado already finished a dismal 17 games out this year; their chances of even competing for second place in the near future have now been all but erased by San Diego. It makes the choice to get rid of him while the getting is good easier for them… and look for them to send his on field neighbor Trevor Story with him. Story is in the final year of his contract, due about $18.5M in ’21 and an appealing player to many clubs. The past three seasons he’s hit between .289-.294, he’s missed an average of only 8 games a year since he became a regular and his fielding is quite good at short. Unless Colorado management is high, they will be saying “sayonara” to both and looking to stock up a so-so minor league system in hopes of taking a run at things again when injuries or old age eventually take their toll on the West Coast teams.

2) Here’s your coat, what’s your hurry, Francisco? Ever since LA hoisted that World Series trophy, we’ve been hearing that three things in life are inevitable – death, taxes and Cleveland don’t-call-them-Indians trading their superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor. Like Story in colorado, Lindor’s due to be a free agent after this next season, and while not yet under contract, is expected to see a raise to over $20M for ’21 whether by mutual consent of arbitration. The don’t-call-em-Tribe already had money woes and trouble bringing in fans even before the Corona virus. Now their situation is said to be bordering on dire. They won’t have the money to sign him to a long term deal now or next winter, so they’re assumed to be bound to trade him. This situation will be ramped up though because of item #1… now there are going to be one or maybe two other superstar SS/3B available on the trade market. So smart money would be for Cleveland to cash in sooner than later, since the market for those guys is somewhat limited. Once Toronto or the Dodgers grab one, their interest in the other(s) will fall off.

3) the East didn’t get boring in the least. New York fans are not chuffed that their eleven year olds haven’t ever seen the Yankees win a World Championship and plan to do something about it. Toronto has one of the two or three best cores of young talent in baseball and are said to be ready to take the next step to become legitimate championship contenders…and because so much of their roster is young, they have money to spend. Both had a little obstacle to overcome however, in Tampa Bay, the second-best team in the MLB this season.

Tampa Bay has a track record of a few things. Among them – having to have a small budget due to low revenue. Making savvy trades. Developing fine pitchers… and trading them before they wear out or become Boardwalk owners on Monopoly, so to speak. So little surprise they traded off their staff ace Blake Snell. Charlie Morton, a rare splurge on their part, has now signed elsewhere. They’re said to be offering around star centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier as well. Now, TB got a good return of young talent for Snell, but none of the youngsters seem quite ready for the “show” yet, or at least not in a helpful way. Thus the Rays are nowhere near as good as they were this year and the division has tightened up noticeably. Look for NY and Toronto to act on that.

The pinstripes have been wooing their free agent second baseman DJ LeMahieu, and despite rumors of Toronto and the Mets wanting him too, few really expect him to walk away from the Bronx. This week should make New York more eager to seal the deal and keep the batting champion around.

For our Blue Jays, this could be good news. If there are a couple more star infielders potentially available in Story and Arenado (and remember because of the versatility of Biggio and Bichette, it doesn’t matter too much if they add a new SS or 3B) they have more options… and a bargaining “one up” with Cleveland. The asking price might be a bit lower now since there will be more options for buyers …aka Toronto. If Ross Atkins is serious , and most insiders suggest he is, look for them to swing a deal soon.

4) while the bears hibernate… Chicago surprised some by trading off Yu Darvish after he recuped from surgery and had an award-worthy season reminiscent of the ones he was said to have back in Japan. For a team which won a rather mediocre division this season by three games only, it doesn’t speak to them being too interested in giving their diehard fans a second World Championship any lifetime soon. Which should perk up St. Louis, who tied for second, are one of the better-off clubs around and haven’t been linked to… anything much this off-season. Don’t be surprised if that changes and they gear up for a run at it in ’21.The return of Marcel Ozuna, anyone?

Meanwhile, up the Ohio River, the other second-place team, the Reds have been suggesting they might give up their #2 starter, Sonny Gray since their #1 guy, Trevor Bauer is flirting with fans and owners in just about every city not named Cincinnati and is bound to be gone by March. However, a weaker Chicago club and a budget loosened by Bauer’s departure might make them second-guess that, keep Gray and perhaps even spend some of their Bauer savings on a replacement starter who’d come cheaper, like Masahiro Tanaka or Taijuan Walker.

Whatever the fallout might end up being, we can give thanks to San Diego for making the off-season interesting again.

Owners, Managers Care About Making The Green, Winning Gold…Not Black & White

They used to say baseball was “America’s Pastime.” Times change though, and now we know “America’s Pastime” is really bashing baseball. To paraphrase John Mellencamp, “I’m tired of it being your whipping boy, but baseball’s had that pleasure for years and years” America!

We can go back to around 2007 when the so-called Mitchell Report found that up to 7% of all MLB players were using or abusing steroids or other PEDs. Never mind that meant that over 90% of the players of the “Steroid Era” weren’t breaking the rules, before you could say “shell game and political diversion” Bud Selig, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens were shedding baseball caps in favor of business suits and being grilled by U.S. senators. The same ones who ignored the remarkable number of NFL players imprisoned for violent crimes at the time and over-inflated WWE wrestlers dropping dead in their 40s due to problems like liver failure that result from steroid abuse.

Fast forward to this Friday. Doing my daily check on the Yahoo news page, the top story was…not Covid killing its 300 000th American. Not Donald’s latest “trump”ed-up legal gasps to overturn the election. Not a potential blizzard having potential to shut down several large cities for a couple of days. Nope. Instead the banner breaking news story was… “Baseball’s Lack of Diversity is Staggering.”

Excuse me? Seems when I tune in to a MLB game, I see a lot of darker-skinned people. I see a lot of interviews after games when a translator is involved because the player who was the hero of the day doesn’t speak English. But reporter Shakeia Taylor feels baseball’s still a “staggering” racist display… and Yahoo felt like they should not only publish her column but make it the day’s Most Important Story.

I don’t like breaking things down to racial stories. I believe in taking people on an individual basis. Give the job to the best person, race or religion notwithstanding. Treat them as good or bad based on who they are, not what they look like or came from. But these days it’s increasingly difficult to do that, as Taylor clearly shows.

The amazing thing about the article was that Taylor actually quotes the numbers which clearly shoot down her inflammatory thesis. As of the 2020 season, 39.8% of active players are “people of color” to use her words and stats. Wow… four out of every ten players were visible minorities. That would seem a pretty diverse range of players which reflects our society and then some. After all, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 76% of the population classify themselves as “White” and only 13.4% as “Black.” A further 18% pick “Hispanic” to describe themselves, the math not quite adding up to 100% as some Hispanics also check off “White” or “Black.” The same data says 60% of the population is White with no other race or ethnicity…meaning that about 40% among us are non-white. Which, yep, matches the percentages in baseball exactly.

But that’s not good enough for critics. Taylor notes that Seattle had nine “African American” players on their opening roster, or about 32%, but other teams had fewer and that didn’t sit well with her. She added that in the last draft 18% of players selected were Black – again, more than the overall proportion of the population – but laments that in the past “some (of Black players drafted) have to make it from prospects” to the Majors. Yep, if you’re Black and drafted by a big league team you have to play in the minor leagues and may not ever become a big league star. Kind of like…White kids who get drafted and even established Asian stars who come over here to play.

One look at MLB’s recently released picks for the All-MLB All Star Team point out clearly how diverse the game has become. Mookie Betts ahead of Mike Trout in the outfield. Salvador Perez best catcher. Marcell Ozuna the top DH. Yu Darvish, Manny Machado, Kenta Maeda, Hyun-jin Ryu, Jose Ramirez, Devin Williams… a whole lot of faces that don’t look like they’d be likely to be seen in a Vermont Walmart, shall we say. Oh and Williams… yes, Taylor acknowledges that he and Seattle’s Kyle Lewis were both picked as the Rookies of the Year. Both are Black. But apparently that’s not enough for the writer. After all, there is no guarantee that a White kid might not be picked for the award in 2021.

I have no doubt there could be some racists within the huge industry that is MLB. But I have even less doubt that all 30 teams are trying to be as competitive as they can and will roster up the best people for the jobs on and off field, be they White, Black, Asian or even members of the Federation of Planets incoming on a UFO. The last real obvious owner with less than savory opinions, Marge Schott of Cincinnati, an apparent fan of Hitler, won the 1990 World Series with her team… that starred very Black shortstop Barry Larkin and outfielder Eric Davis as well as dark-skinned, Spanish-speaking pitcher Jose Rijo. Maybe she didn’t like those men, we’ll never really know, but she was more than willing to pay them and have her manager use them day in, day out. Winning meant more to her than personal preferences or biases. Imagine how little things like race matter to a team trying to turn a profit and make the playoffs, when they’re not run by someone prone to wearing a Swastika armband.

What’s shocking about the report isn’t the numbers it presents, which actually show how representative of the population baseball is, nor even that some people still shout “racism” at the league. What’s shocking is that a major news site would not only give it the time of day but go out of their way to provoke using it.

By the way, I googled… as far as I can tell Taylor has not authored a paper on the “staggering lack of diversity” in NBA basketball. According to that league’s own figures, 81% of players are Black and all of 0.2% are Asian. But that matters little to Taylor and her fellow critics who see a Klansman pointy hat under every Dodgers or Nationals cap and a big paycheque ahead for themselves by screaming about it.

8 Billion Reasons To Do Some Simple Baseball Math

Figures lie and liars figure. So goes the old, true adage. While numbers don’t lie, it’s not hard to make them tell a less-than-complete story. And then again, there are liars too who just fabricate numbers to suit their purpose…

I have the blessing of being pretty good at math. Occasionally it’s a mild curse; I spend a lot more time doing math in my head than most people I’ve come to realize. So it’s been bugging me that Rob Manfred has been proclaiming the 30 MLB teams lost a cumulative $8.3 Billion in 2020. $8.3 billion. That works out to about $276 million per club. That also works out to BS.

Now there is a ring of truth to the theory. With a shortened season played in empty stadiums, revenue was down… considerably. MLB sources say that ticket sales and stadium “gate-related revenue” (which I presume would include things like programs and the team’s cut on merchandise and food sold in the stadium) is about 40% of all their revenue, or about $4 B in a typical year. But that leaves a lot – around $6B a year in fact – which is not gate-related. Yes, in-stadium advertising was far reduced too this year, since companies wouldn’t pay nearly as much to have their ad posted on the outfield wall in an empty stadium (to be seen only in brief flashes on the TV screen at home rather than by 40 000 people in person). However, money kept rolling in. TV is a huge cash cow. Forbes reported that when TBS renewed their contract with the league, it boosted overall revenue from network coverage to over $2B a year (or over $66M per team, as its divvied up evenly), and that team local TV contracts this year ranged from $20M (the Marlins) to a whopping $250M for the Dodgers. Add in those network dollar s and it would mean the World Champions take in about $330M a year just in money from TV. Which makes it hard to lose $276M.

Player salaries are a big cost to the teams, needless to say, and it’s reported that in 2020, the Yankees paid out the most in pay, $109.4M, followed by those Dodgers at $105M and the Red Sox… they found $84M will buy the best last-place team money can buy. Our Blue Jays were 19th on the list at $54M, while division mates the Orioles were the skinflintiest, at $23M. If these figures sound low to you, remember players were paid pro-rated salaries based on games played, so the teams eventually paid them less than half the contract amount. (ergo, if it was a full season, NYY would have had a payroll of about $270M).

Now the clubs would probably point out that player salaries aren’t their only expenses. Very true that; the numbers don’t even include manager or coaches salaries. They have to pay them as well as trainers, nutritionists, general managers, office executives and ordinary office staff that answer phones,write tweets, take press photos and so forth. They needed to either rent their stadium (for a shortened number of games) or else pay the electric bill there if they owned it. I mention that not in sarcasm; when you look at the number of lights and their brightness for night games, that bill would be no small change. The teams need to rent hotel rooms for the crew on the road and get them from city to city. But even if they took along 20 staff besides the players on the road, they’d be booking 50 hotel rooms a night while on the road. At say, $125 a night (they’d get bulk corporate rates remember) that’s about $6000 each of the 30 or so nights away. A couple of hundred thou. The cost of renting a mid-size jet to go from Atlanta to New York, Google tells me, is about $14 000. Even if they had 20 road trips, add in about a third of a million dollars to cover travel costs.

Add in a few incidentals – minor league player contracts, face masks for their players, laundry services etc – and you still have costs to the team which are only a little above their average $58M they spent on player salaries. Considering that they brought in upwards of $40M per team for TV revenue alone, even when pro-rated for the reduced number of games shown, and you see that it would take some kind of gargantuan mismanagement for any of the teams to accrue a loss of $276M this year. In fact, most teams would have had to pay out $300M in extras above salaries to manage to lose money like that.

Bottom line is this : yes, it was a hard year for baseball teams and yes, some may have actually lost money in 2020. And yes, with the pandemic heating up rather than going away, there are no guarantees 2021 will be much better at all. One can understand why they’d want to be very cautious about signing huge contracts this off-season, or would be ready to part ways with good players who are a little overpaid. But equally true is this : they still generated a lot of revenue this year and they insult our intelligence, as well as that of the players’ union when they suggest those losses topped $8 billion.

Free Agent Wheel Of Fortune

Strange to think that so far this off-season, Toronto’s made the biggest splash in the Free Agent pool… only by re-upping pitcher Robbie Ray. Which leaves us with a few hundred left to go, and a few million rumors and a cumulative few billion dollars to spend. So just for a lark, here are my predictions about where some of the top names will end up, and for how much. I list the player, the team I figure will sign them, the number of years for the contract, and approximate value of contract… in millions of course!

Catchers

JT Realmulto — NY Mets – 6Y, $135M

Wilson Ramos – Philadelphia – 2Y, $24M

Yadier Molina – St. Louis – 2Y, $28M

First Base

Mitch Moreland – Seattle – 1Y, $9M

Justin Smoak – Boston – 1Y, $3M

Second Base

DJ LeMahieu – NY Yankees – 4Y, $85M

Kolten Wong – Toronto – 2Y, $20M

Jonathan Villar – San Francisco – 1Y, $6M

Shortstop

Marcus Semien – LA Angels – 4Y, $40M

Didi Gregorius – Cleveland – 2Y, $25M

Andrelton Simmons – Atlanta – 1Y, $7M

Third Base

Justin Turner – LA Dodgers – 2Y, $28M

Eric Sogard – Texas – 1Y, $4M

Outfield

George Springer – NY Mets – 6Y, $132M

Marcel Ozuna – Atlanta – 3Y, $57M

Michael Brantley – Houston – 3Y, $38M

Brett Gardner – retire

Joc Pederson – Miami – 2Y, $8M

Ryan Braun – Houston – 3Y, $27M

Designated Hitters

Nelson Cruz – Minnesota -1Y, $19M

Edwin Encarnacion – Tampa Bay – 2Y, $16M

Shin Soo Choo – Baltimore – 1Y, $9M

Relief Pitchers

Liam Hendricks – LA Dodgers – 4Y, $52M

Kirby Yates – Washington – 2Y, $20M

Brad Hand – Atlanta – 3Y, $30M

Starting Pitchers

Trevor Bauer – LA Angels – 6Y, $164M

Charlie Morton – Boston – 2Y, $29M

Mashahiro Tanaka – Minnesota – 3Y, $40M

Mike Minor – Pittsburgh – 1Y, $3M

Taijuan Walker – NY Yankees – 4Y, $40M

Jake Odorrizi – St. Louis – 1Y, $13M

James Paxton Toronto – 2Y, $25M

Well, my guess is as good as any, I guess! Time will tell. James Paxton into the Jays rotation and Kolten Wong to the infield? Well, wouldn’t hurt, though as my past few columns have suggested, they wouldn’t be atop my list to go for, but it seems realistic to think of them ending up here. Paxton of course would be a good fit by way of being Canadian and having a prominent maple leaf tattoo! Seeing Matt Shoemaker stay on with the Jays wouldn’t be a surprise, nor a bad thing either.

Of course, lots depends on whether or not Nolan Arenado, Francisco Lindor and Kris Bryant get dealt by their teams in the meantime. My guess on them – yes, Arenado to the Yankees, yes, Lindor to the Mets, and no, Bryant stays a Cub. Anyone else out there got a crystal ball?

Lending A ‘Hand’ To Toronto Planners

As predicted, the baseball off-season’s been off to a slow start, with lots of rumors but very little action so far when it comes to player transactions. All the better for Toronto to plan and talk to various players and GMs who can help push the team into serious contention for 2021.

Last time out we looked at some of the possibilities for addressing the two most pressing needs the team has, starting pitching and another solid infielder. Today we’ll look at the next two priorities: a closer and a centerfield upgrade.

The Jays entered 2020 thinking they had an all-star caliber “closer” in Ken Giles. And why not? He was coming off a season in which he posted a WAR of 2.5 , and since coming over from the Astros, he’s had 38 saves in 76 games with 111 strikeouts in 76 innings pitched. Of course, he got all of one game into the season before blowing his arm out and although technically he’s a free agent, he’s also expected to miss all of 2021 recuperating from Tommy John surgery. If I was Ross Atkins, I might look to San Diego as an example of handling him, and offer Ken a two-year deal. What? I know you’re probably asking why sign a guy who’s injured, but it’s exactly what the Padres just did with star starter Mike Clevinger. He’s in for two years at a relatively bargain price for the team. It gives him a guaranteed job for 2022 and a staff he knows to work with this coming year to rehab back into shape. The Blue Jays could do worse than offering Giles the same chance, if he’d go for it. Say a 2-year, $6 million deal. The Jays, all things being equal would probably get a star reliever back in good shape at a lower-than market price in ’22, while Giles would have facilities for his use between now and then and wouldn’t have to go into an uncertain 2021-22 winter with zero innings pitched the season before.

That wouldn’t help the ’21 team though, and while all things considered the bullpen is a relative strength of the team (at least right-handed arms) it could be better. Now, re-signing Anthony Bass would make sense, and shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. The 33 year old had 7 saves this past year with an ERA of 3.51 and a WAR of 0.6… which was equal to his career total upto then. He’s a reasonably reliable middle reliever or “setup” man. And young Jordan Romano, with his spot-on 90mph slider and fastball nearing 100 shows lots of promise. In 15 bullpen outings in ’20, he gave up just 8 hits in almost 15 innings and K’d 21. He’s seen as possibly the closer of the future. But the team could still do with an established closer, the type that makes opponents lose hope if they’re down after 8 innings.

Two such names are readily available as free agents. There’s Liam Hendricks. an under-rated member of the 2015 Blue Jays, the Aussie’s gone on to be named the top relief pitcher in baseball this past year. Over his last two years with Oakland, he’s appeared in 99 games, got 39 saves and kept the ERA under 1.80. Dazzling. But, alas, also probably too expensive to truly justify…though a call to his agent wouldn’t hurt. A more realistic option though might be to sign lefty Brad Hand while other teams try to outbid each other on Liam.

30 year-old Hand, like so many other great closers (think Eckersley, Gossage, Davis…) started out as a starting pitcher. He did that through 2015 and went 9-25 with an ERA approaching 5 in that role. But turned loose for one inning at the end of the game… a different story! In 2018, he struck out 106 in just 72 innings. He averaged 29 saves a year from ’17-19. This year he had a 2.05 ERA and a 7:1 strikeout to walk ratio for Cleveland. He’d fill another need for Toronto in being a great southpaw reliever and should shore up the late innings admirably… for less than Hendricks would ask for. With the sports economy where it is, it’s not unrealistic to think the Jays might snatch him up for about $18M over two years.

Which leads us to just in front of the bullpen in the stadium… the outfield. While the Jays seem set with Gold Glove nominee (yes, it surprised me too!) Lourdes Gurriel in left and strong-armed, home run bashing Teoscar Hernandez in right the Jays aren’t in bad shape out there. But neither of those two is an all-around great defender to most eyes, and so it would be good to have a centerfielder who can hit and also cover a lot of terrain defensively.

Presently they have Randal Grichuk. Who, truth be told, isn’t bad. But he doesn’t give me, or any other Jays fan I’ve met, a lot of confidence. Streaky is putting it mildly for Randal both at the plate and in the outfield. Some days highlight reel guy, other days going 0-5 at the plate and watching seemingly easy flyballs drop in for hits. Little wonder he’s had defensive WARs of -0.7 and -0.8 in the last two seasons. Granted, his bat redeems him somewhat, with 56 home runs between ’18-19 and a .793 OPS this season, third best in his 7 year career. Not bad, but someone the Jays could do better than … which would also free him up (and his fairly large salary of $33M due over the next three years) for trading to a team enchanted by his home run potential and big, athletic physique.

The way I see it, there are probably two good ways to do this, with a third outlier option. And none of the three are breaking the bank for George Springer, the trendy outfield free agent pick. Springer has power to spare, but also is of course a member of the 2017 Champions of Cheat, the Astros, and a big guy who missed significant time in 2015, and each of 2017-19 with injuries. He’s never yet hit 40 HR in a year nor topped 100 RBI. In short, a decent replacement for Grichuk at the same price, but a ludicrous risk to pay potentially double the money for, or to lock up for six or more years. But the answer to the question might still be found down there in the Texas Gulf region…

I would try for Michael Brantley. The 33 year old’s seemingly just now coming into his own, and joined Houston after the cheating scandal, so is presumably of better character. Despite a reputation of being an injury waiting to happen, he’s missed just 47 games cumulatively over the past three years – less than Springer has. He’s the model of slightly-upwards pointing consistency, hitting .309/.311/.300 over the past three with OPS between 24% and 26% better than league average each of those years. He’s got some oomph in his bat, averaging some 20 homers and 90 RBI per full season of late. On the grass, or turf, he shines as well, with a defensive WAR of 0.7 over the past couple of seasons with the Astros and no errors committed in his stint in right field there. Now, granted we’d want him in CF, which he hasn’t patrolled since 2015 with the Indians, but it seems with his speed and eye, it wouldn’t be a painful transition for him. If Toronto could get him at a salary comparable to Grichuk’s (that is to say $10-12M a year for two or three seasons), what’s not to love?

Failing that, the best option might be to look forward by looking back. Fan favorite Kevin Pillar is available, and probably for far less than Brantley, or Grichuk. The player Jays fans’ loved and accept as the best CF the team’s seen since the world Series days with Devon White had a 0.7 defensive WAR this season and, just like in Toronto, was often making those highlight reel jumping catches at the fence and diving ones veering to his left. And as a bonus, his .288 average and .798 OPS this year were career bests. He had double digit stolen bases annually from 2015-19 and could very realistically be expected to knock close to 20 homers and 40 doubles a season. The Jays could get him, trade Grichuk, save $5M or more a year and improve the defense down the middle.

The third option for center, by the way? Convert Cavan Biggio to the position – he’s already got a few games experience out there – if they can bring in Lindor or LeMahieu and add another, inexpensive but decent infieilder for a year like Tommy La stella to bridge the gap to Austin Martin’s arrival.

Well, there you have it, the top 4 priorities dealt with. And if the Jays can do even three-quarters of my suggestions for them, they should be playing in October, even if they ignore any of the lesser problems we’ll look at soon.

Second Priority, Third Base?

A couple of days back we covered the basic needs Toronto should be prioritorizing for the off-season, and threw out a few suggestions for adding depth to the starting pitching. And we left out mentioning Francisco Lindor‘s name, which took us to the #2 pressing need for the Jays, a solid, star two-way infielder.

The Blue Jays infield as it stands, isn’t terrible. Vladimir Guerrero is expected to play first. He wasn’t great there last year, but to be fair, the position was new to him and he was only thrown into the role mere days before the season began. He’s getting into better physical shape this fall, and should be more at home at first next spring. Plus, as long as his bat continues to advance, people will forgive an occasional pop-up he can’t track down. Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette are projected to be the second baseman and shortstop, respectively. Both have shown great maturity at the plate and are rapidly becoming star hitters like their dads were, and Biggio is quite agile and a plus in the field. Bichette had a few issues with making throws across the diamond but all in all is seen as adequate… and both players could shift around if needed.

That leaves third base, where presently, they’d be having Travis Shaw. Shaw is in his final year of arbitration, and last year earned about $4 million. He’d be due something of a raise this coming year, which is part of the problem. That’s not a huge salary in today’s game, but then again, Shaw isn’t a huge talent , truth be told. He’s an ideal backup-type infielder, but why would Toronto want to pay out such a figure for a potential bench-warmer. Defensively, he’s shown himself to be a more-or-less run of the mill third baseman throughout his career. In ’20, his fielding percentage bested the league average but he was rated a negative in runs saved due to perhaps a limited range and slight slowness on his feet. And at the plate, he improved upon his terrible 2019 (in which he hit just .157 with 7 homers for the Brewers) but his .239 average, 6 homers and .717 OPS weren’t exactly the star-making machinery. Clearly Toronto could spend a bit more, and upgrade here. And the good thing is, because of Biggio and Bichette’s youth and versatility, if a good third base upgrade isn’t in the cards, Biggio could probably handle the spot, leaving Bichette for either second or short and a newcomer at the other. Shaw could be traded, or politely shown the door giving the team a little more money to work with.

Enter Lindor. A four-time All Star, and two-time Gold Glove winner at short, like Shaw entering his final year of arbitration. That however, is expected to earn him well over $20M for 2021, something the small-market Indians aren’t anxious to pay out…especially given his opportunity to bolt for a huge payday after the season. All indications are they’ll trade him over the winter. Cleveland’s loss, could be Toronto’s gain. Although he’s only played shortstop in the field during his career, that wouldn’t be a problem when we’re talking about a Gold Glove caliber player whose 2020 saw him post a .995 fielding percentage compared to the league average of .973, and be credited with 24 “defensive runs saved” between 2018-19. Of course, that’s only half the story, since Francisco is also one of the best hitting middle infielders around. Before the short ’20 season, he had a career .288 average and .842 OPS. This year was a minor drop off for him, to .258 with 8 HR and 27 RBI and .750 OPS, that would still be better than Shaw’s numbers and could potentially lower Cleveland’s asking price a wee bit. Whoever gets Lindor will get a guy who averages over .280, with 40 doubles, 29 HR and 21 stolen bases per 162 games… something he’s likely to achieve since he’s led the league in plate appearances three times. He rarely takes a day off.

I’d be making a lot of calls to northern Ohio if I was Atkins. The Jays are in a good position being able to not only afford a hefty budget increase to pay for Lindor, but having a decent long-term replacement to offer. Jordan Groshans is a Jays minor league shortstop who’s ranked as the #3 prospect in the organization and among Baseball America‘s top 30 in the sport. So far he’s hit .307 with 56 RBI in just 71 minor league games, and is projected to be a AAA star in ’21. His scouting report says he has “potential to hit for average and power “ that he already “consistently hits hard line drives to all fields” and while he’s only average at short, he could be an “above average regular” at third base if shifted. Not a bad report card. Obviously, despite a few utterly delusional Twitter Jays’ fans desires, Cleveland’s not going to go for a straight 1-to-1 exchange; an All Star, potential Gold Glover and 100 RBI guy for a 20 year old prospect. But Groshans could be a very big building block in a package deal…and best of all, is expendable because the #2 prospect is another shortstop, Austin Martin! Lindor could be the perfect one-year stop gap to take Toronto to the playoffs and if he vacates the town after 2021, along comes the next generation of young star infielders to replace him.

Despite the obvious appeal of adding him, one has to remember that there are other teams who’d like him just as much and could perhaps muster up the dollars to pay, so Cleveland could end up holding out for more than the Jays want to part with. In which case, plan B should be a guy most analysits at MLB seem to think will end up in Toronto anyway – DJ Lemahieu.

LeMahieu of course is the top-ranked middle infielder among this winter’s crop of free agents. He wasn’t excessively paid in New York on his last two-year contract, but is likely to see a major pay increase, probably to the Lindor-like levels around $20M a year, and perhaps for three or four years. He is after all, a three-time Gold Glove winner, three-time All Star and coming off the best season of his career, one which he won his second batting title. In 2020, he hit a majors-best .364, led the league with a 1.011 OPS and through his career, he’s hit above league average (.305), steals bases well and is durable, getting 500+ plate appearances annually from ’14 to ’19, a number he would have well exceeded in 2020 if the year was a normal season. While his Yankees fell in October, he showed well with 9 hits and 4 RBI in seven playoff games.

Of course, that’s only half his story. He has played over 100 games at third in his career, but is mainly a top-flight second baseman. He’s been a +defensive WAR player every year of his career, and is credited with 35 defensive runs saved at second base alone between ’18-19. He’d greatly shore up a “so-so” defensive infield Toronto had in 2020, with Biggio perhaps taking over third, or even moving to the outfield (which he’s also played) if LeMahieu and a reasonable third baseman (say, Tommy LaStella ? He’s never made above $4M a year and is overlooked in free agent rankings) was obtained.