Who’s The Ace Of Jays And What’s That Suit, Union?

Some odds and sods for the fourth last Thursday before baseball games that count begin:

Scores are not that meaningful at this point in Spring Training but the summaries sometimes are. One item in the newspaper , here in Texas this morning, caught my eye. In summing up a Jays loss to the Phils, it notes “Toronto ace Marco Estrada made his second start and pitched three shutout innings.”

Did you see it? The thing that jumped out at me was the use of the world “Ace” to describe Estrada. I imagine #6 , The Disgruntled One, might be jumping up and down and looking for the reporter to give him a piece of his mind and set the record straight about who the “Ace” is. But the thing of it is- I tend to agree. Partly it’s a gut feeling, partly a numbers thing, but I think I have more confidence in Estrada on the mound than I do in Marcus Stroman. Not to mention JA Happ or Aaron Sanchez.

Estrada kind of flies below the radar but it’s hard to find fault with his work since arriving in Toronto three years ago. Over 2015-16, he was one of the toughest pitchers to hit in the majors, limiting opponents to a .203 average (and a rather measly .636 OPS). While his 90mph fastball is average, his curve and the similar, drooping changeup befuddle the best of them. Although he only posted a 21-17 record for those two campaigns, his ERA was stellar (3.30) over the 357 innings he logged.

Now, you’re likely thinking “Yeah- but last year. His numbers weren’t great in ’17. But he finished strong and explains his bad stretch mid-season as due to insomnia and anxiety. Throw out the sleepless, bad June and July and you get a guy who was 10-4 with an ERA of 3.85 over 22 starts, 17 of them “quality.” Not bad at all. And through the good and bad months, he ended up with 186 innings logged and 176 strikeouts- career highs.

Now Marcus Stroman was superior last year, and it’s not unreasonable to think that with him just about to turn 27 he may still improve. No complaints about his 13-9, 3.09 ERA, 201 innings last season. But over the previous two years (including a forgettable 2016 after an injury-hampered ’15) he was collectively 13-10, 4.05 with only 21 quality starts to Estrada’s 34. More eyebrow-raising was his OPS those two years was .700 (not bad)…and it rose to .715 last year. Which shows how despite all the stats, baseball is a game to be watched., not defined by spreadsheets. And it’s unpredictable. In theory, Stroman gave up more to hitters last year but he succeeded better anyway. Go figure.

So Stroman or Estrada? Even before Stroman said his shoulder was sore this spring, I might lean towards Estrada. Then again, if Aaron Sanchez has gotten past those blisters finally, his name might enter the conversation too. Then there’s JA Happ, who won 20 two years back. He’s no slouch himself. All in all, it is the reason no one’s yet ready to write the team off in 2018… not many teams have this “problem” of picking the “Ace” among four pitchers of such talent!

****

The ongoing hostility between the players and club owners/management continues unabated even with the signing of a few marquee free agents like Yu Darvish and Eric Hosmer. It got ramped up last week when the Players’ Union filed a grievance against four teams – Miami, Oakland, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay- for not complying with the rules regarding spending their “luxury tax” benefits. I’ve not been overly sympathetic to the griping free agents like Hosmer and JD Martinez grumbling ,seemingly wanting the sun and the moon with no regard to history and the list of bad multi-year deals teams are saddled with. But in this case, I think the players have a legit beef.

The union’s claim is that the four teams aren’t using the money they’re getting back from the league (mainly from Luxury Taxes, as well as some redistributed from local TV deals) to improve their teams . In fact, it could be argued they are deliberately torpedoing their own teams with an eye to fattening their own bottom line. The Pirates disagree, as I bet do the other 3. But it’s hard to argue otherwise with the Marlins stating cutting salary is Job 1 and trading off a perennial MVP candidate in Giancarlo Stanton and other stars including up-and-coming superstar outfielder Marcell Ozuna (of .312/37/124 numbers last year) . The Pirates likewise got rid of the “face” of the franchise, Andrew McCutchen to save about $14 million , which is marginally-defendable as he will be a free agent after this season, and their top pitcher, Gerritt Cole, which is less defendable with him earning less than half that amount and not being a free agent until 2020. Tampa likewise have been conducting a fire sale of veteran talent, while Oakland do nothing at all, apparently content in the knowledge that they’ll always have Moneyball.

Interestingly, the two teams that were the low-spenders last year aren’t named in the suit. Milwaukee and San Diego were skinflints last year (and the Brewers surprised by winning 86 and only missing the wild card by a game.) Both those teams have been active going after, and signing or trading for, players that will help out this season, like the aforementioned Hosmer in SD and Lorenzo Cain and (ex-Marlin) Christian Yelich in the Brew Crew’s case.

While one might cite “free enterprise” and suggest the owners have the right to spend their money, be it from their own team or handouts from the league, as they like, it isn’t the case. The CBA says, among other things, teams receiving payments need to spend “in an effort to improve its performance on the field.” Hard to see how trading off the likes of a Stanton or McCutchen do that,or in the A’s case, how status quo can be a good option for a team which has finished last three years straight. If the owners don’t like that, they can bargain with the players to change the restriction next time around. In the meantime, Tampa, Oakland, Pittsburgh and Miami need to pay attention and give their fans some hope by spending that extra cash.

By the way, the LA Drunken Sailors- err, Dodgers- again paid the most “luxury tax” (for exceeding a “threshold” payroll limit, which was in the range of $182 million + minor league contracts last year) for the 2017 season- $36 million. That due to their huge payroll of approximately $244M…which astoundingly is less than it was in 2015! Milwaukee had the smallest payroll last season, about $68M.

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