Les Rays? La Imbeciles?

If baseball bosses were given awards like players, there’s no chance that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred would win a Gold Glove. Clearly Mr. Manfred seems uniquely able to keep dropping the ball every time he gets to it. This month two more examples arise as the players blow the dust off their gloves and bats for Spring training.

First there’s the ongoing Astros debacle. Now, I will say that to me his reaction seemed reasonable. He suspended the Astros manager and GM for a year, he fined the club as much as he could with the limitations of the Collective Bargaining agreement and he took away draft picks. Houston should feel rebuked; Boston should be nervous since they too are apparently under investigation for the same thing and have a direct link through (now fired) manager Alex Cora.

I’m OK with that, as long as there are warnings all around that if it happens again, the punishment is going to be ramped up for players as well as coaches. I am not most fans – or most MLB players – however. Outrage is pouring out of every corner of the baseball world and at a time when the game should be getting an annual dose of positive press – baseball returns after a long winter with games in Florida and Arizona, optimistic projections for even lacklustre teams, players having fun and interacting with fans in small stadiums and so on – it seems story after story revolves around the Astros and their cheating. Apologies have been slow in coming and half-hearted at best from most of the Astros, and perhaps the most believable have been from pitchers (who didn’t benefit directly) and their fired manager AJ Hinch.

As I said to reader Badfinger20 in a comment to the last post, I am not a professional consultant or counselor. But there are such people. The types that companies hire when things go sideways for them – products get tampered with; bosses call minorities the “N” word, engineers falsify pollution tests and so forth. I’m not one of those spin doctors, and neither apparently is Manfred. Maybe he should have used one because this little scandal, now months old, is not only not going away it actually appears to be meta-sizing and snowballing.

Then we have the ongoing problem that is the Tampa Bay Rays. A feisty and usually over-achieving team set in one of the league’s smaller markets, one inhabited it might seem by people who don’t care much for baseball. This is not Manfred’s mistake in itself. The team existed for a couple of decades before he took the job running the league and, when it was awarded a franchise, Tampa seemed like a viable spot for a team. After all, it had an older population (typically more of the generations who love baseball) and has been a major, popular center for Spring training. The Rays should have done fine.

They haven’t. Now, on field, they’ve had some success and post a competitive team more often than not, so they’re A-OK in that department. However, off field things haven’t been so kind to the Rays. They have a stadium that almost everybody despises, in St. Petersburg which is across the bay from most of the metro area’s populace. And attendance is continually abysmal, at or near the bottom of the league year after year. TV ratings aren’t wildly exciting either which clouds the answer to whether the stadium is the problem itself.

Over twenty years in, one might think the answer would be to relocate the club. There are a number of cities of sufficient size and probably enthusiasm that could host a Major League club – Charlotte and Las Vegas come to mind quickly. But MLB has been reluctant to let them move away, and Manfred seemed to double down on that. Tampa it is, sink or swim. Until now.

Once again a ridiculous scheme has come forward and is getting a nod of approval from Manfred. that would be to have the Rays split their season between Tampa and… wait for it… Montreal!

Yes, the big idea is that the team could stay and play half the time in central Florida and play the other half of the season up in Francophone Canada. One team, two cities, two countries! What could go wrong?! they want to implement the plan in 2028.

This is flat out one of the dumbest ideas to come out of MLB’s offices yet… and there’ve been some doozies of late.

First off, neither city even has a suitable stadium right now. The plan necessitates both cities building fine new outdoors parks. Tampa’s, as noted, is poorly located and domed, lacking charm while in Montreal, the Olympic Stadium last used for baseball is equally charmless and actually cost the Expos home games in the past due to parts of it crumbling and being a hazard to fans and players alike. Oh yes, if you haven’t been keeping track, Montreal had a MLB team in the past. The Expos were not unlike the Rays… a team which produced many great players and had some good seasons but lagged in attendance before they moved to Washington DC in 2005.

So far, no one’s been able to come up with funding to make a suitable stadium in Tampa. Taxpayers have turned down additional taxes to fund one and big business hasn’t signed on to build one to profit from either. About the same is true in Montreal. Now up there, it’s not entirely implausible to think someone might pony up for a stadium. Bell comes to mind, the main competitor to Rogers in Canada’s tele-communications market. Rogers owns the Toronto Blue Jays and their stadium; one might imagine Bell wanting a piece of that action down the 401 in the country’s “second city.” It’s more difficult to foresee that happening for a team which would only play half a season per year there.

There are a number of minor issues that come to mind – what would the uniforms say, would there be different ones for the Montreal games than the Floridian ones? There are more major issues.

While a high-profile, high salary free agent (think Gerritt Cole type) might play anywhere at all if the paycheque is right, the arrangement might be a significant deterrent to ordinary free agents when picking a team. If you’re a utility player looking to make $1 million a year, do you want to have to rent a condo in one city or two cities out of your cheque? If you’re from say, Mississippi and have small kids, it might be a family upheaval if you play in California or Illinois… do the wife and kids stay at home until the school year ends, move full-time etc. Multiply that by two. I’m guessing the Bi-national Rays wouldn’t be a popular destination of choice for players who had a choice.

Worse yet, the fans. Announcing this dodo plan now is just dense. It’s not going to rev up fans in Quebec. Eight years away seems a lifetime in sport and the whole thing hinges on a stadium appearing out of the blue. And it seems to suggest that they could see mid-summer games (when the climate is nice there and Florida is humid and prone to thunderstorms most days) but if they make the post-season, the games would be in warm-weather Tampa. Yay! We could watch on TV! Even if a few ball fans there get excited, are they likely to cross a national border and travel 1500 miles to patronize Tropicana Field and “their” new team? Hardly.

On the other hand, one can well imagine that the small, but reasonably loyal, Tampa Bay fans will take this like a sucker-punch to the gut. You get to keep your team, but only halfway. You now have friends in another country, mes ami!

Tampa’s done very well on field the past two seasons; last year winning 96 and finishing second in a tough division. Yet attendance was steady at 1.178 million,or about 14 300 a game. that put them 29th out of 30 teams, ahead of only their counterparts further south in the state, Miami. In 2018, yep… the same. 29th out of 30.

The Rays almost always seem to exceed expectations on field. Still, I can’t envision them matching last year’s 96 win tally with Hunter Renfroe as the cleanup hitter, their top pitcher being 36 years old and a catcher who hit .165 last year. but maybe they’ll surprise. What I am more sure of is that they will be hard-pressed to lure even 14 300 fans out per game with this plan floating over them.

Lead Glove” Manfred strikes again.

Fold Them Sox?

Bernie Sanders vs. Joe Biden has nothing on the debate likely to erupt when you put two baseball fans – especially Boston ones – together in the same room right now. Of course there are topics aplenty that crop up like the fallout of the Astros sign-stealing in 2017, but the one on everyone’s mind currently is the big trade. The three-way trade between Boston, the Dodgers and Minnesota … which is yet to be finalized because the Red Sox are apparently balking a bit at the medical tests of one pitcher they should receive.

We’ll streamline the trade by only really looking at the two main players in it, L.A. and Boston. And boy, the one trade certainly exemplifies a lot of the dilemmas for baseball – its fans and its operators both – these days. Who won? Who lost? Is Boston being sensible or giving the middle finger to its loyal fans? Unfortunately, there’s probably no one right answer to these questions.

As a recap, the Red Sox send “name” stars outfielder Mookie Betts and pitcher David Price to L.A. in return for young outfielder Alex Verdugo, and Minnesota rookie pitcher Brusdar Graterol, while Minny in turn get Dodgers’ pitcher Kenta Maeda.

At the west coast end of the trade, there’s not really a whole lot to debate it would seem, and from here, it seems like their fans are happy. And why not? While the team has won 7-straight divisions and seemed to already be cake-walking to an eighth straight before they even set foot on the grass. But, they have also been frustrated in their attempts to turn that into a World Series championship. Last year, they bowed out unexpectedly in the NLDS to the Wild Card-winning Nationals. There was a thought that they really lacked enough hitting … they had decent hitting, sure, but not the type of combination of bats that would take them to the promised land. Getting Betts should give them that. Meanwhile, David Price, no longer in his prime should be an upgrade over Maeda. They give up a good youngster in Verdugo, but they have lots of minor league talent and Verdugo projects to be a star but not a superstar. The only downside to the deal for L.A. is it jacks up their payroll and probably puts them into the luxury tax bracket.

For the Atlantic end though, the picture is much cloudier. The Red Sox give up their best, and most-popular player plus a good, if not great, starting pitcher and get back that decent, but not great young outfielder and a hard-throwing young minor league pitcher. The roster is clearly weaker now… but they save a bundle of cash and perhaps look better two, three years down the road. They would argue they’re building for the future and just letting up on the gas a bit this year, a season when no one at all was picking them to usurp the first-place Yankees in the division. To the fans though, they’re giving up their heart and soul and throwing in the towel only one season removed from winning it all. Indeed, the Washington Post ran a headline after the trade that read “Red Sox seemingly concede AL East to rival Yankees.” That’s gotta “ouch” if you’re one of the Fenway Faithful.

Let’s look at the details. This was largely a money-driven trade. Seems there’s rarely a different type these days, unfortunately. Betts got an arbitration-awarded $27M for this year and will be a free agent next winter. Price has $96M left over the next three years on his contract. Verdugo on the other hand, isn’t even arbitration-eligible and will earn less than $1M this season, and little more next; Maeda was under contract for about $3M. The trade boosts the Dodgers payroll (per Sportrac) to $215.8M, second only to the Yankees this year. The Sox, on the other hand, drop below the tax threshold to about $179M, fifth highest. (For you wondering, Toronto is ranked as 20th with a $96M bill.)

For L.A., it’s clear. They want to win, they want to win now. Betts was the AL MVP in 2018, the runner-up in 2016, and they hope the even-year trend will carry on and cross league lines. And with good reason. Even last year, a supposedly “down” year for Mookie, he hit .295 with 29 HR, 80 RBI and a .391 OBP. He lead the league scoring 135 runs and won his fourth-straight Gold Glove. His mammoth 2018 season, an injury-marred one no less, he hit .346 and was worth a WAR of 10.9. Betts averages 94 RBI and 44 doubles a year over the past four years. He is as good a bat as they could wish for to add some real “oomph” to the lineup that boasts Justin Turner and NL MVP Cody Bellinger already.

Price may not be a Cy Young candidate anymore – he last won votes for that in 2015 – but with Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw already in town, he won’t need to be. He just has to be a decent #3 starter, which he likely will be. If he’s better than Maeda, it’s a bonus for the blue-and-white. Chances are he will be that too. Even though two of his past three years have seen him suffer injuries, he’s averaged 21 starts, 119 innings and better-than-average ERA through them. In 2018, the Sox World Series year, he was 16-7, with an ERA of 3.58 through 30 starts and a 4.4 WAR. He may not be the 6.6 WAR guy from 2012, or the one who pitched upwards of 186 innings every year from ’10-15, but he’s still a more than capable lefty who should excel in the pitcher-friendly NL West. Maeda on the other hand, while only four years into his MLB career, is 32 in April to Price’s 34, and has been on a slow downward-trajectory since his rookie season in 2016. That year he was 16-11, had a 3.48 ERA that was 58% better than league average and he hurled 176 innings. All those ’16 numbers have been his career best so far; last year he was consigned to the bullpen for a part of the year and had his ERA rise to over 4. Bottom line- L.A. is a better team, and one that has a greater chance of getting to the World Series than they were before the deal. It’s a financially costly one for them, but they are a rich franchise who will make the money back through increased attendance next year and merch sales if they finally bring a championship to SoCal.

Red Sox fans aren’t so sure they are better off though, and it’s easy to see why. Verdugo is a fine young outfielder. He hit .294 in his first full season last year (he had brief call-ups in both 2017 and ’18) and so far in his career, through a total 158 games (about one season in full) he’s .282 with 14 homers and a .784 OPS. Last year he got a WAR of 3.1 including a smart 1.2 with his defense. Athlon Sports last season ranked him as L.A.’s second-best prospect. He’s got decent speed, a good glove and will probably develop a bit of power as he matures. What he isn’t is Mookie Betts, or a likely MVP anytime soon. And the pitcher they get to replace Price is a youngster from Minnesota, Brusdar Graterol. He’s a flamethrower, according to scouting reports, with a 102 MPH fastball, and a very good slider. He’s a rightie and 21. Athlon ranks him as the 38th best prospect in the game. However, there are a few red flags. He’s listed as 6’1” and 265 pounds, which is a little offputting for a young pitcher. We remember how roly-poly Bartolo Colon was, but not everyone’s the Bartman. In addition, through four levels of ball last year (A-AA-AAA-Majors) he logged only 70 innings. Sure he was better than a K per inning in the minors where he had a 1.95 ERA, but he only started in AA. Apparently the Red Sox are having second thoughts about his health and see him as a bullpen arm rather than a starter to add to an “iffy” rotation alongside Chris Sale, Nathan Eovaldi, Martin Perez and Eduardo Rodriguez. Sale had a career-worst year and looked “off” last year, Eovaldi disappointed, Perez has never been more than an innings-eater and bottom of rotation guy which leaves Rodriguez as the closest thing to a sure thing in their rote now. He had 19 wins, 203 innings and the softest-contact rate off him of any AL starting pitcher last year. If Sale rebounds to his old self and Eovaldi improves, they might be OK. If those two see the downward spiral continue, the pitching could be a horror show. Either way, Graterol is unlikely to add much depth to the starting rotation, although he looks like he might be a good set-up guy. They will feel the loss of David Price either way. It’s easy to see why their fans are up in arms.

The Red Sox owners counter though that Betts is a free agent after this year. Sure he might have a monster MVP year, but he’s likely to walk away for 2021 anyway in search of a $400M contract. And even if they pony up that money to keep him, the result is likely going to be an albatross of a contract that no one in Boston would like four or five years into a nine or ten years. Ask Anaheim and their fans about that, vis a vis Albert Pujols. They get an outfielder who could develop into something special and will be around for five years anyway. In shedding Price, they unload an aging star who’s already overpaid in context of the league norms and might be terribly so by 2022. They’ve been prudent, they say, and if it costs them a few wins in 2020, let’s face it, it will only narrow the gap between Toronto and them since they weren’t going to be up there with Tampa, let alone New York. Fans should thank them.

It’s a tough call to make. Baseball is in many ways like poker and as Kenny says, “you’ve got to know when to hold them, know when to fold ’em.” Who is right, who is wrong? L.A. seem to come out clearly ahead, even if Mookie walks away after this season and even if they end up paying an extra $10M or so to the league in “tax” for bumping their payroll. The Red Sox hand was much more difficult to play. On the one hand, they in all likelihood were heading to an about 85 win, third place season out of the post-season, and paying tax on their bloated payroll. After this trade, they now will probably be no better than a .500 team and have every chance of falling behind the Jays into fourth place. But their payroll is trimmed and, if Betts ends up in New York pinstripes next year and if Price continues to show signs of aging; they still have two up-and-coming stars on their roster they wouldn’t have otherwise. Perhaps prudent but still a stinging rebuke to their large, loyal fanbase. One could hardly blame them for forgoing a trip or two to the park this season when it seems clear their team’s bosses have thrown in the towel.

Hold ’em? Fold ’em? It’s more and more a question for a majority of teams and it begs the question is it sensible to go all out to win as much as possible when no one thinks you’re going to be a champion? Owners usually say “no.” Fans usually say “yes!” One might think the 1990 Reds and 2015 Royals would agree.

Small Blocks To Build Something Big

You can almost smell the cut grass… spring training is now a mere two weeks away, and Blue Jays fans have at least a modicum of hope for the 2020 season. Even though most pundits have them firmly lodged in a holding pattern -4th in the AL East- they have improved their rotation considerably from last season and have a quartet of players going into their sophomore campaigns with the potential to be stars. It appears to be, at very least, a team moving in the right direction. To whit, MLB itself puts them on the (lengthy) list of nine teams that have improved in the off-season.

That point made, there’s still considerable room for improvement. And it wouldn’t require a headline-grabbing trade for a Mookie Betts or Nolan Arenado to improve their chances of playing in October. Instead, it could just be a small payout to bolster the depth of the roster with some of the intriguing remaining free agents. So, I suggest the Blue Jays fill out that roster with:

Kevin Pillar

seems a no-brainer by now. We’ve discussed it here before, so we won’t beat that dead horse too much, but it seems obvious that A) the existing Toronto OF is weak defensively, B) Pillar is acknowledged to have been the best defensive OF the team had through the last decade and is still above average, C) he’s popular in Toronto where he’s spent most of his career, and D) teams aren’t batting down the door to get to him, given his so-so hitting capabilities, one assumes. He’s still without a job and the similarly-talented Alex Gordon just signed a one year, $4M deal with his old team, Kansas City. Seems like there’s no reason Toronto and Pillar couldn’t have a similar, affordable reunion.

Brock Holt

the team let a couple of veteran backups walk away from the infield (the popular but injury-prone Devon Travis and the perennial AAA/major league shuttling Richard Urena) but have signed a couple of decent veterans to minor league deals with hopes of filling in the bench – Joe Panik and Ruben Tejada. Decent enough gambles but there’s still a sense that the IF lacks depth. Vladimir is being touted or taunted widely as the worst defensive 3B in the game last year, and while Biggio and Bichette are good at their middle-infield posts (and travis Shaw should be able to handle First), there’s not much of a backup should one get injured. So enter Mr. Holt, arguably the most valuable remaining free agent.

Holt has been a regular with Boston for some years, and what he lacks in “wow factor” he makes up in versatility. The 31 year-old bench player has played a minimum of 64 games a year since 2014, and as many as 129, and has played every infield and outfield position. Last year he put in time in all four IF positions as well as the two corner OF ones. And he does so reasonably well- he’s average or a bit above at all the infield spots. Last year, he made only 3 errors while playing 2B and SS, a total of well over 500 innings. All the while, he hits adequately, or very well for a bench-warmer. He bested his career .271 average last year, hitting .297 with 31 RBI and a .771 OPS.

With a rep as a “utility player” and a lack of bigtime home run power in this “all or nothing” league, Holt’s not going to be getting a convoy of Brinks trucks driving up to his house. It seems like Toronto should be able to sign him for no more than about $3M – possibly less based on other signings this winter – and be a lot more confident should they see Cavan Biggio wince in pain running the bases or Bo Bichette twist an ankle turning a double play.

Bullpen, bullpen, bullpen

It’s ironic that in this age when starting pitchers do less and less- some teams see a guy going 6 innings as herculean now – and closers are being paid king’s ransoms, that no one seems to care about the middle relievers. Yet those guys are carrying more and more of the weight, frequently being asked to hold their team in the game for 4 innings, day in, day out. The Blue Jays are no better,nor worse than most other teams in regards to that.

While the Jays should have a vastly improved starting rote than they did last year, and hence one hopes won’t overtax the middle relief quite as much, the ‘pen still looks flimsy. Sure, they have a grade-A closer in Ken Giles, and a very solid, durable long relief guy in Sam Gaviglio whose 95 innings was most for any AL reliever last year, and a couple more decent enough probables like Wilmar Font, but getting from, say starter in the 7th to closer could be precarious.

Happily, there are still a lot of middle relievers unsigned and those signing on the dotted line are typically doing so for low prices. So time for Toronto to pony up $3 or $4 and sign two or three proven arms to supplement the bullpen. First one I’d look to would be tony Sipp, one of the few southpaws left. Yes he’s 36 and yes, he’s looked at as a lefty “specialist” (probably why he’s not signed yet – the new rule about the three batter minimum may discourage teams for signing that kind of pitcher) … last year, his ERA against left-handed batters was under 1.00, against righties was over 10. That perhaps because he got a decent number of ground balls from lefty hitters, and twice as many flyballs, going , going, gone off the bats of right-handed hitters.

Still, with him only a year removed from a 2018 campaign where he pitched in 54 games for Houston with an ERA of 1.86, and the current bullpen devoid of sure-thing lefthanded pitchers (the best bet right now would be Thomas Pannone, who’s been a starter in the minors but has been used out of the pen in the majors) it seems he’s worth a gamble. Robbie Ross and former-Jay Aaron Loup (injured much of 2019) would also be decent guys to look at. the market of right-handed relievers is more saturated, and it would do the team well to look at the likes of Pat Neshek, Sam Dyson or Javy Guerra (who started 2019 as a Blue Jay before going on to help Washington win the World Series) and sign at least one of them.

So there you have it – three easy moves that would likely cost the team far less than ten million that would elevate the Blue Jays from “better than last year but still way behind Tampa and Boston, let alone New York” to “deep enough to perhaps contend.”

About That Outfield…

It’s not been a bad off-season for the Blue Jays so far. I always try to give credit where it’s due, and Ross Atkins deserves some credit for going out and improving the team’s rather anemic starting rotation, adding a legit Cy Young candidate in Hyun-jin Ryu as well as a couple of solid, inning-eating righties (Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson) and an under-the-radar Japanese pitcher, Shun Yamaguchi. No question that the team will hit the turf in March with a stronger rotation than they ended 2019 with.

However, there’s still work to be done. The front office took care of the question at first base by in a roundabout way trading with the Brewers. Toronto signed ex-Brewer Travis Shaw while in turn, Milwaukee nabbed Toronto’s first baseman for the past five years, Justin Smoak. But the elephant in the room remains the Blue Jays outfield. Everyone agrees it isn’t the OF of a competitive team, but thus far nothing’s been done to remedy the situation.

First let’s recap last year. Lourdes Gurriel, up until then a middle-infielder, was shifted into left field and played acceptably (though far from very well) in his new position, and hit quite well .277 with 20 homers and a .869 OPS in the just over half a season (84 games) he was on the active roster. No big problems there.

Center and right field weren’t so great though. Randal Grichuk, signed to a long-term deal before the season, was probably the best defender but still was hit-or-miss in the field and so-so at the plate. While he did lead the team with 31 HR and 80 RBI, his average was low (.232), his OPS very ordinary at .732 and he struck out nearly five times for every walk he took. Grichuk himself admitted that wasn’t good enough.

This left a whole range of Not Ready For Primetime Players filling in the outfield. Most notable of those was Teoscar Hernandez, who inexplicably was dropped into CF much of the time, despite being an obvious “full time DH” if ever there was one. He hit .230 with 26 homers and a .778 OPS. Add in much-vaunted (by management) Derek Fisher, who hit all of .161 in his 40 games, Anthony Alford – a former can’t miss prospect whose time appears to be running out to make a career out of baseball – who was .179 with one homer in 18 games, and Billy McKinney, a .215 hitter with a .696 OPS in 84 games. And suffice to say, none of those names was going to be mentioned in a conversation about Gold Gloves.

Using the new but currently in vogue “Outs above average” stat, which looks at every play and tries to rank its ease based on how far the runner has to run, how hard the ball is hit and so on, and gauge how hard it is to make the play, only Grichuk comes out with a positive rating. He was seen as adding 6 outs, and being 21st best among full-time OF in the majors. Not too bad, although viewers were sure to notice the day-to-day fluctuations of his fielding. Still that was much better than McKinney (-5 outs), Gurriel (-4) and Fisher who cost the team 3 outs in his limited use and caught the flyballs 4% less than an average fielder. In case you were wondering, the Twins slugger Eduardo Roasario was seen as the absolute worst outfielder by these definitions, with -17 outs.

So we have Gurriel, a decent young hitter who looks mediocre in left; Grichuk, a power hitter with a lack of plate discipline but fair fielding skills… and a bunch of guys who can’t hit, catch or throw. Not a good way to compete with the Yankees or Red Sox, even if the team does now have fairly decent pitching and a promising youthful infield. There’s a clear need for outside help in the outfield.

While there are any number of potential trade candidates, four pretty good OF remain on the free agent market. One hopes Toronto is talking to at least a couple of them. There’s highly-touted Nicholas Castellanos, Marcell Ozuna, former-Jay Kevin Pillar, and the “wild card” in the mix, controversial Yasiel Puig.

Of the four, Puig probably has the highest ceiling, but also the most uncertainties with his health and demeanor. Pillar is likely the best defensive OF of the four, but the weakest hitter. Ozuna and Castellanos are Plan 1A and Plan 1B for a whole range of teams including the Cardinals , White Sox, Cubs and maybe Twins (although they may be spent out now after surprising the sports world by getting 3B Josh Donaldson on board.)

I ran a poll on Twitter and found that an overwhelming majority preferred Castallanos out of the four, by about 4:1 to the both Ozuna and Pillar. Not scientific but a good insight into fan perception of the quartet.

Do I agree? Well, I think any of the four could be beneficial. Let’s look at the four quickly.

Pillar is a known commodity who dominated the team’s “Best Defensive Plays of the Decade” tape. He’s still seen as an above-average defensive OF based on that “outs above average” and is reliable. He’s got 7 seasons under his belt, 6 with Toronto, and has logged 500+ at bats for the past five years. He averages 37 doubles a year over the past four seasons, has good speed and hit a career high 21 homers last year. However, his OPS has never been above the league average, something you’d rather hope an outfielder could do at least once or twice in a career!

Ozuna also has been around for 7 seasons, and has played 123 or more games for the past six. His on base percentage has been .320+ for the last four years and he’s generally around 2 on the WAR scale, although his monster 2017 (37 homers, .924 OPS) with Miami gave him a 6.1, seemingly an outlier of a year.

Castellanos suffered perhaps by playing most of his recent years in the terrible Tigers organization. He also has 7 years experience. He hit career highs last season with 27 HR and an .863 OPS but it’s widely noted that it was the tale of two seasons in one for Nick. With Detroit for much of the season, he had a .462 slugging percentage and one homer per 37 at bats . After being traded to the Cubs at the deadline, he skyrocketed to one homer per 13 at bats and a .646 slugging. If he’s really the Tiger Castallanos, he’s a decent, workaday, nothing unusual outfielder. If he’s the Cubby Castallanos, he’s a budding superstar, a possible 45 HR/125 RBI guy. So discerning which player he is will be of importance to any club wanting to sign him!

Puig too, has 7 years of service and is still only 29 which surprises some. He’s had health issues along the way (missing a cumulative 140 games between 2015-16) but has played 140+ games each of the past three. He’s got some speed, averaging 16 steals a year over the past three, and has posted decent OPS of .833, .820 and .785 over the past three years. He has some home run power and a strong arm. The problem with Yasiel seems to be primarily that he came up as an expected superstar but has developed only into a slightly above-average player, disappointing some therefore, and that he’s perceived as being something of a slacker. Determining whether that last part is true would be of vital import to any team looking at him.

Overall last season, Castellanos had the best WAR with 2.7, followed by Ozuna at 2.2, Pillar at 1.0 then Puig at 0.5. Strangely though, all four posted negative defensive WARS , which seems counter-intuitive given Pillar’s reputation and +outs above average. However, of the 4, only Castellanos had a truly bad defensive rating, of -1.5.

In short, any of the four could potentially be an upgrade for Toronto over Teoscar Hernandez, Billy McKinney or Derek Fisher . Which one would I prefer? Whichever one is willing to sign in Toronto on a one or two year deal that won’t break the bank, given that none of them are likely to be “drive-the-team-to-the-World-series-by-themselves” guys. My best bet is that Pillar would return to the team he knows well at a reasonable rate, or that as spring training draws nearer Puig could still find himself on the outside looking in and go for a one year deal with a low base rate and lots of incentives designed to show he is still a viable star and could really hammer the ball in the hitter-friendly AL East.

Get to those phones, Mr. Atkins!

A Blue Jays Decade In Five Shots

A decade comes to a close and while Blue Jays fans have had a number of things to grumble about – 26 years and counting since the last championship high among those – there have been highlights and things to cheer of course. No World Series but at least we hit the post-season in back to back years which automatically makes it a bit better decade than the one it followed.

For a little recap, here’s my Top 5 Moments To Remember for the team this past decade.

5. 2011

bjm1

Maybe he was the best Blue Jay yet, maybe not. He certainly had charisma and took the town by storm in his brief five years here. And got under the skin of opposition pitchers in a way no one else until a certain rightfielder two decades later. Not to mention being a cornerstone of the two Blue Jays World Series teams. So seeing Roberto Alomar Inducted Into The Baseball Hall Of Fame , the first player to do so representing the team, was pretty special.

4. 2015

bjm2

The diving catches on line drives. The big home runs. The 123 RBI and .568 slugging percentage. Getting the team to within a couple of games of the World Series. That interesting haircut. He made fans forget about homegrown Third Baseman Brett Lawrie. Josh Donaldson winning the AL MVP was a decent consolation prize after the Royals stopped the team in October. Kansas City had its first World Series in 30 years but at least Toronto had its first MVP winner since George Bell in 1987.

3. 2019

bjm3

The season passed was in many ways a total flop. there’s no way to put a very positive spin on 95 losses, nor disguise the fan reaction shown by the second straight year of league-high drops in attendance. However, on April 26 when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. made his long-awaited MLB debut, fans had reason to watch again and to feel some optimism at least. For years the team sported a lacklustre farm system and unrealistically-promoted low-level prospects as “the next BIG thing” but this time, VG2 was being touted by the league itself as the “next BIG thing”… and had the minor league numbers to back it. His season might not have been quite all expected, but he smiled a lot, was darn good for a 20 year old and was soon joined in the infield by two other sons of stars with close-to as good credentials : Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette. Real reason to think Toronto has a chance at a much better decade ahead than behind.

2. 2019

bjm4

A woman speaking on a lawn as a top baseball moment? It was for Jays fans this past summer and there was nary a dry eye on the lawns in Cooperstown that day as widow Brandy accepted the induction of Roy Halladay into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Few, if any players have worked so hard and been so popular with the Blue Jays as “Doc” so even if his family didn’t want to have him illustrated in either a blue “bird” or a red “P” cap in the Hall (so as not to alineate fans in either of the cities he played in) it was a huge moment for Toronto fans everywhere. Not to mention a good finish to the great story of his which got cut so prematurely short in a plane accident.

1. 2015

bjm5

Hard to believe this was so spark-provoking only four years back, now that MLB itself does things like rank the “best” ten of the year,many of which take place in meaningless situations and games. But that blast in Game 5 of the ALDS against Texas was anything but meaningless. the team felt the umpires were blatantly biased against them, the Rangers were arrogant and convinced they had pulled off a huge comeback after scoring a run when the ball appeared to be dead and not in play. Number 19 had different ideas. Always a clutch performer, Jose Bautista’s Bat Flip is as iconic an image in Canada as soldiers raising a flag in Iwo Jima in to the South.

Well, bring on the 2020s! Maybe ten years from now I’ll be posting a photo of Vlad hoisting that World Series trophy!

 

Cooperstown 2020 By The Numbers

With the free agent market beginning to wear thin, expect much of the attention of baseball writers to shift to the Hall of Fame. On Jan. 22 the 2020 inductees to Cooperstown will be announced (and be joining Ted Simmons who was deservedly put in by the Veteran’s committee, who last year puzzled everybody by similarly honoring Harold Baines, a durable but rather average player)

There’s a bumper crop of stars eligible for the Hall treatment, headed up first and foremost by “Mr. Yankee”, Derek Jeter. Among the other notable names being voted on are Jeff Kent, Scott Rolen, Jason Giambi, Andruw Jones and Cliff Lee. In addition to, once again, the ever-controversial Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Manny Ramirez who’ve been denied in the past, presumably because of their confirmed or suspected ongoing breaking the rules regarding steroids and PEDs.

Sometime before then, I’ll probably give you my personal picks for who I think should be voted in. But today though, I thought we’d do something different. We’ll see if grade school math can tell us who will get in.

Essentially, being a Hall of Famer comes down to being very good for a long time. There’s a 10-year minimum before a player’s even eligible, meaning that Mike Trout still has to play out this next season before he’d even be allowed to be inducted , should he suddenly retire. Which no one expects him to, thankfully.

So, I thought, well, maybe Hall of Fame credentials really come down to a simple equation of seasons played and the current baseball buzzword, “WAR” – the suddenly very in-vogue Wins Above Replacement. So I went back and listed all the players voted into the Hall by the baseball writers from 2000 on, and found the number of seasons played (I note that I used an arbitrary 20 games pitched or 60 innings; 40 games played or 100 plate appearances for position players to define a player’s “rookie” season. Thus, some players who popped up for a handful of games as September callups before becoming regulars have fewer seasons played by my count than official stat sheets.) as well as the career WAR. I divided that to find an average WAR per season for each.

Now, I’ll say I’m not a total disciple of the “WAR”. I find it a useful stat, and an interesting one, but not a definitive rating of a player’s value. For one thing, its a subjective rating, using statician’s best estimations, not a hard, fixed number. Thus one will often find different values for the same player depending on whether you look at FanGraphs or Baseball Reference for your number. 40 home runs is 40 home runs, but that could be a 2.5 WAR season to one rating and a 4.0 to another. Second, it ignores the intangibles like how good a teammate a player is, how he performed in pressure situations and so on. A .280 hitter who was a star in a couple of World Series and the most popular guy in the clubhouse was probably a better player than a .295 hitter that was selfish and never played in the post-season, but WAR might not see it that way. But, it’s a number that a lot of execs now see as the holy grail of measuring talent.

I then put my old grade 8 math skills to use and graphed the results. The results were pretty clear – there’s an obvious curved line which players usually need to be above to be elected to the Hall of Fame. (See illustration 1 below). The curve drops lower as the number of years played increases. A player with 13 years to his credit is likely going to need a WAR of about 5 per year; if he’s hung in for 20 seasons, a WAR just below 3 may be good enough. The vast majority of players elected this century follow that trend.

20191218_131716_2

 

As the illustration above shows, there are a few outliers – guys who make you scratch your head a bit. But maybe not so much. the three who fall farthest short of the curve and still made it in are all “closers” – Trevor Hoffman, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter. None of them managed an average of even 2 WAR per season… but they collected a lot of saves. This perhaps suggests closers are over-rated and over-valued in baseball; it definitely is a reminder that a “save” is an iffy stat. Some saves are vital and dominant – a pitcher comes on with bases loaded, nobody out in 9th and a one run lead and whiffs the side – that’s a save. Huge. Likewise, a reliever who comes out and tosses 4 shutout innings to preserve a narrow lead after the starter is lifted. Coming in with a 6-3 lead, nobody on base, two out in 9th, to get the opposing pitcher to ground out – not huge! But still a save in the boxscore. However that shouldn’t come into play this year as no stud relievers are on the list.

So using that graph and rationale, whom should we expect to see go in next summer? Well, illustration 2 gives you an idea. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are so far above the curve they barely fit onto the graph. They theoretically are open-and-shut shoo-ins. Next there’s Larry Walker, Curt Schilling, Derek Jeter and Manny Ramirez, who all fall about equal distances “above” the line. Then we have Scott Rolen, Andy Pettite and Gary Sheffield. Players falling well below the dividing line and seemingly having no chance include Cliff Lee, Alfonso Soriano, Paul Konerko and Omar Vizquel.

20191218_131634_3_resized

So, if we make the assumption that they will certainly not vote in more than five players, and more likely four, the numbers would tell us the 2020 inductees would be Bonds, Clemens, Walker and Jeter and/or Schilling. However, as we cannot eliminate the human element, one has to think that both Bonds and Clemens are still unlikely no matter how many records they set or how dominant they were for better than a decade. The cloud of steroid suspicion and their surly, accusatory natures may well keep them out of Cooperstown as surely as Pete Rose’s betting and arrogance did him. Manny Ramirez was great but not Bonds-great and had the same PED issues hanging over him, so he’s not likely either.

Which leads to the “numeric prediction” for 2020 Hall inductees: Larry Walker, Derek Jeter, Curt Schilling, Gary Sheffield and possibly Scott Rolen. Do I think that’s how they’ll line up? Well, Jeter will be in without question (other than if he will be unanimous), Walker should be, Sheffield and Rolen are iffy and Schilling, good as he was on the mound (particularly in the World Series), seems improbable. His ferociously outspoken political commentary since leaving the game has alienated approximately half the country, including at least some sports scribes and many of them aren’t about to overlook his personality.

By the way – if we look at simply the career, cumulative WAR fo the nominees, this group would be shape up like this:

1) Bonds 163

2) Clemens 139

3) Schilling 79

4) Walker 73

5) Jeter 72

6) Rolen 70

Which compares to the best entrants so far this century:

1) Henderson 111

2) Maddux 107

3) Johnson 101

4) Ripken 96

5) Blyleven 94

6) Boggs 91

7) C. Jones 85

8) P.Martinez 84

9) Mussina 83

10) Glavine 81

The lowest, in case you were wondering, Sutter with 24.

So the numbers tell us it’s welcome to Cooperstown, Mr. Schilling, Walker, Jeter and Sheffield. However, as much as we are in the cybermetrics and Moneyball era there is still an element to the game that isn’t defined in a computer algorhythm. Which will make the January announcement interesting.

 

(Ps- sorry for the poor quality of the images – scanner was acting befuddlingly so I had to grab a couple of quick snaps for it)

Meanwhile, Out In The Outfield…

In the last few weeks, we’ve examined most parts of the Blue Jays roster, with needs highlighted and potential solutions. Today, we look at the last part of the roster, the outfield. It’s an area that all agree needs to improve if the team is going to compete any time soon. While it has a busload of potential players to fill the spots, unlike the infield, it lacks any real hot prospects of “sure things.” The minor league system is also far from loaded with talent in positions “7-8-9”. Ross Atkins has said it’s an area he’s focused on, for what that’s worth.

The Jays used any number of outfielders in ’19, including Jonathan Davis, Anthony Alford and Derek Fisher, but the core trio for most of the season consisted of Randal Grichuk, Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel. Individually, none of them is a bad player. Problem is, all things considered, probably only Gurriel is even league average and collectively that makes for a bad outfield. Weak fielding, weak hitting. An upgrade is necessary, preferably two.

Of the three, Gurriel is the one I’d most like to keep as an everyday player for ’20. He’ll only be 26 next spring, and has shown slow but steady improvement over his two seasons in Toronto. He’s also had his share of injuries, making his two year total a one-year like total of 149 games played, over which he hit .279 with 31 homers and 85 RBI, and a .499 slugging percentage. However, the latter jumped up noticeably in ’19 from .446 to .541. He’s been a negative defensive WAR both seasons, but seemed to be rounding into shape as an OK-ish left fielder after being moved out from the middle infield where he began his major league career. If he could stay healthy he could probably become an average left fielder who could shine with 25-30 homers and a close to .300 average. I’m OK with him being the opening day LF… but wouldn’t turn down a good offer for him if another team wanted him as part of a package to part with a starting pitcher or star outfielder.

Outfield help could come in the usual manner of ways – trade or free agency. This year’s crop of MLB free agents in the outfield is a little sub-par, but not without any hope. Marcell Ozuna is interesting, but with a combination of A) his subpar defense, B) his drop-off in numbers in St. Louis compared to his early career in Miami and C) his standout star performance in the post-season, one has to think his salary might not end up close to his actual value to the team. I’d check in on him, but assuming he’s not going to go for something like three years and $30-36M, I’d move along. I expect I’d be moving along.

More viable options would be Alex Gordon or Corey Dickerson. Both would improve the outfield “D” with their gloves and throwing arms – Gordon’s won Gold Gloves the last three years and Dickerson took one home in 2018. Both hit left-handed too, something of a weakness in the 2019 Jays lineup. Of the two, I’d focus more on Dickerson, being younger (31 to Gordon’s 36 by spring), earning less than half of what Gordon did last year and thus perhaps looking for a little less to sign, and seeming to offer more of an offensive upside. Indeed, Gordon’s hitting isn’t anything special at all – he has a .258 career average and his .266 last year was highest since 2015, but he’s come in below league average OPS for the last 4-straight seasons. However, his great glove still makes him a “+” WAR player annually.

Dickerson on the other hand, is perhaps still on the ascent of his career. It’s noteworthy his numbers didn’t drop off after leaving Colorado as many expected. Last year in Pennsy (splitting the year between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia before having his season ended prematurely with a fractured foot), he got in half a year’s worth of games – 78 – and hit .304 with a great .906 OPS and 12 homers, 59 RBI. His career average is .286.

Another name we’ve heard is Kevin Pillar . Pillar is like a younger Gordon… sort of a Gordon-lite. He’s popular in Toronto,where he spent his first six seasons (and got in 5 games last year before being traded to SF) and has made some of the most spectacular catches seen in the Rogers Centre this century. He did hit career highs with 21 homers and 88 RBI last year, and averages 38 doubles per year over the past three. The downside though is his speed is starting to leave, and his hitting has always been below league-average due to his impatience. Last year he managed only 18 walks against 89 strikeouts and the best on base of his career was a middling .314 in 2015. That was the year his WAR peaked, at 4.9; since it’s dropped by the year to 3.5, 3, 2.5 and just 1 last year. I wouldn’t rule out signing Kevin again if demand for him is low enough to keep the money low, as he’s popular, a good clubhouse guy and still a bit better than average in the field. But I wouldn’t look to him to be an everyday CF anymore and wouldn’t break the bank to bring him back.

However, just because the crop of free agent major league outfielders is a bit weak doesn’t mean the total field is a bust. This winter two Japanese stars are wanting to come on over – Shogo Akiyama and Yushitomo Tsutsugo. Both hit left-handed. Come spring time, Akiyama will be 32, Tsutsogo 28. Of the two, Akiyama is speedier and a better defensive outfielder, being a star CF for the Seibu Lions. Tsutsogo is a big-time power hitter with weak defensive skills but the ability to play the infield corners as well as left field. Akiyama also comes with the bonus of being an unrestricted free agent whereas the younger player will require posting fees be paid to his old club, Yokohama.

Akiyama is durable and a 9-year Nippon league veteran with a .301 career average which has risen to .323/.322 and .303 through the past three. He also averages over 70 walks a year and has 10+ steals seven of his nine campaigns. In 2016,he hit a Suzuki-like .359 with 216 hits in 143 games. He’s a five-time All Star there with great outfield speed. The Cubs are said to be hot in pursuit of him.

The Jays (as well as the Twins) have been heavily linked to the younger Tsutsogo in rumors. If so, they’d better strike soon – the odd international rules mean he’ll have to sign in North America in the next 10 days or play another year in Japan – I don’t make the rules, so don’t ask me why. He’s played 130+ games every year from 2014 on (remember, their season is about a month shorter than ours) and posts a .284 career average with a .525 career slugging percentage. Even though his OPS last year fell to a 6-year low of .899, he still hit .272 with 29 homers. Over the past four years, he averages 87 walks a season (about what Kevin Pillar would get cumulatively in four) and 35 homers. One unnamed exec has said (according to Jon Paul Morosi at mlb.com) that he questions if he has the skills to be a major league left fielder, but his bat makes it worth the while for an AL team to take a chance on it. They could always DH him or put him on first base if he flops in the outfield.

Based on past performance of hitters coming over from Japan, we should expect a drop-off but not a terrible one when they hit the MLB. It’s not unreasonable to expect Akiyama to perhaps be a .280 hitter with 10-15 steals and a good on-base over here; Tsutsogo could potentially be a 30-35 home run guy here with the longer season – particularly in the AL East with our parks.

I’d take serious run at bringing in Akiyama but also be in touch with Tsutsogo. If Akiyama seemed to want too much, or was too focused on going to the Windy city, I’d make a quick offer to Tsutsogo of three years and about $30M (they would also need to pay the Japanese team several million if successful.) A side-effect of the Cubs interest would be if they sign Akiyama, they’re expected to trade Albert Almora Jr., another Kevin Pillar-like player (great person, very good fielder, weak hitter) who might be of use to Toronto. Badfinger 20 mentions that the Dodgers might well trade Joc Pederson, another lefty who never quite became the superstar he was expected to be in his 2015 rookie season but still is a solid hitter (36 homers last year) who at least will take a walk – 50 last year meaning a .339 on base.

Options aplenty, we have to hope Ross Atkins will shuffle the deck and bring on at least one star-quality everyday outfielder, another backup-type one (as in Pillar, maybe speedy Rajai Davis) and be willing to thin out the crop of existing Jays to make roster room for them.

Next time, we’ll have an overview of what the 2020 roster could look like … and start to look at the Hall of Fame and who should be getting in next year.