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:
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.
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.”
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.
Strange thing about us Blue Jays fans. Almost every last one of us, plus most of the team’s front office, point to the … I’ll say it… lousy pitching last year as the reason the team was a dismal fourth place and lost 95 games. It’s so accepted, it’s pretty much a fact. Yes,I subscribe to that theory too, but the odd reality is that Toronto’s 2018 hitting was arguably the thing which hurt them more.
Consider that while the team’s overall 4.79 ERA was a mediocre 21st best in the majors (and middling 8th in the AL), the team’s .236 batting average was dead last. Teams who hit less than the Blue Jays – nada. They did manage a few walks, and did OK hitting homers (247, 5th best in AL but 60 shy of the surprising Twins) but their .733 OPS was still anemic. Yes, miles better than the Tigers’ .682, but still a distant 11th best in the AL. Bottom line, their 726 runs scored bested only those Tigers, and the Royals and White Sox in the league…and we know where those teams finished up.
The long and short of that is that, even if and when the team bolsters its pitching staff, it’s iffy as to whether they have a team which can do much more than tread water with the current lineup of position players. Mind you, they assume (probably realistically) that it will automatically improve because youngsters like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio will probably improve in their sophomore campaign and even if Bo Bichette doesn’t get better, he’ll probably still play on a high level and for about 120 games more than he did in his abbreviated rookie year.
Fair enough, but one wonders if they can rise above .500 even with those kids on an upwards trajectory with the outfield they currently have and Rowdy Tellez as the DH. Not to mention that right now they don’t have a first baseman to speak of, with stalward Justin Smoak a free agent. So, I wouldn’t tamper with the young trio in the infield of Biggio/ Bichette/ Guerrero, nor move light-hitting Danny Jansen from his spot as regular catcher (a Gold Glove nominee as a rookie, tough to do for anyone but even more so for a kid having to learn how to work with over 30 different pitchers!) but I’d be wanting to rework the outfield to not only generate more offense but hopefully fill those defensive gaps out there. And needless to say, a first baseman is a priority need as well. It seems like somewhere in that group of holes to be filled, the Jays need a reliable veteran bat who can drive in 100 or more. Ideally, these holes could be filled in with free agents, but the snag is that the crop of such players is rather weak this year.
Justin Smoak has been a decent, if not spectacular, hitter for Toronto through the past five years and a great fielder and clubhouse personality, so I’d be trying to re-sign him for First. However, as a guy who seems to have leveled off as about a .225-.230 hitter good for 20-25 homers a year, I wouldn’t be breaking the bank to have him back. A one or two year deal at no more than about $5 or 6M per year would be my upper limits for Justin, which I think he might go for given those very numbers mentioned and how they might limit the number of GMs calling him. But if he held out for more, either in years or dollars, I’d begin looking to either sign a similar free agent… or see if the Jays could make a big splash via trade.
The only “real” first baseman free agent that catches my eye to replace Smoak would be Mark Trumbo, nee of the Orioles. Hard to believe only three years ago he smashed 47 HR for the orange birds. Doubtful he’ll return to that level, but in 90 games played in 2018, he hit .261 with 17 HR and 44 RBI. Last year, alas, he only appeared in a dozen games, at season’s end after a serious knee injury. His age (34 next spring) isn’t a deterrant for a hitting 1b, but his finances might be. Last year he made $13.5 M. A 34 year old 20-25 homer guy coming off a knee injury isn’t worth that kind of gamble. If he’d go for a one-year “bounce back” contract at less than half that price, I’d bring him onboard. I wonder however, if with his past financial history and injuries he might not choose to retire rather than take a massive pay cut and need to try to rebuild his reputation.
If that was the case, my option “C” would be to think outside the box – the First Base box. Todd Frazier is considered a third baseman, and a pretty good one at that, but he’s played over 90 games in the Bigs at first before. And being behind Rendon, Donaldson and Moustakas in the depth chart for the position among this crop of free agents, demand for him at the hot corner may be limited, so he might look to take a job at the slightly less-demanding corner. And, he’d be a good backup to Guerrero for third too. Todd’s played a minimum of 115 games every season since 2012, and averages a WAR of about 2.5 games over the past few. His numbers last year – .251, 21/67 with a .772 OPS for New York – are probably about what one should expect from him at 34 next year, and would be a bit of an upgrade for the Blue Jays.
Now, a more intriguing way to go about adding some firepower to the lineup and filling the first base hole would be to trade for either Freddie Freeman or Josh Bell. Freeman is a perennial MVP-candidate who actually has a love of Toronto and Canada (while American-born his parents are Canadians who married near Toronto and he spent a little of his childhood in Ontario) . Bell had a close-to MVP type year for Pittsburgh this year, only his third full year, with career bests .277, 37 HR and 116 RBI. Problem is Atlanta has no good reason to trade their blue-chip veteran and while inexplicably the Pirates have been rumored to be shopping Bell, with him in his first year of arbitration eligibility, that seems hard to believe. Either way, for Toronto to land one of them would probably require too big a package of star prospects. I’d easily send them a Gurriel or Grichuk, Reese McGuire and a pitching prospect not named Pearson for one of those stars, but methinks nothing short of a multi-player package consisting of a Biggio or Bichette would move either north of the border.
Which leads us to the DH role. While there is nothing inheritantly wrong with perhaps adding in another decent OF and cycling a number of regulars through the DH role from day to day, there’s something appealing about having a stalward Edgar Martinez/David Ortiz type in the lineup driving in the runs. And it just so happens one is readily available. So I say, bring back Smoak for first and then bring back Edwin Encarnacion as a full-time DH. Edwin was happy in Toronto and a fan favorite and while never the flashiest player around, has worked himself into the role of being one of the most consistent power hitters in the game. Despite missing close to a third of the year this season due to injuries, EE clipped 34 homers and 86 RBI with a .344 on base percentage. Yes,he’ll be 37 in spring, but if not having to deal with the physical demands of playing the field, there’s no reason to expect he won’t keep having an eye for balls and working the walks when not driving the long ball. He’s had an OPS at least 10% better than league average 9-straight years and over the last five, he’s averaged 37 homers and about 108 RBI. Precisely the type of guaranteed power the Jays need and the type of established personality popular enough with fans to sell tickets. He won’t be racking in the close to $20M a year he had on his last contract, so it’s well worth it for the Jays to dig deep and bring him back home for a couple of years to finish his career and lead the youth by example.
Last but not least, that less than stellar outfield. What to do with them, next…
A long, long time ago, those of us Blue Jays fans old enough to remember times when the likes of Dave Roberts and Brad Ausmus were players rather than gray-haired managers, might recall the phrase “Stand Pat.” Of course, Toronto sports fans didn’t create the phrase, but they did get a lot of use out of it in the context of expressing the team’s tactic of leaving well enough alone when Pat Gillick was running the show. While in retrospect, the Gillick era did anything but (the biggest trade of the team’s history, arguably, the one with San Diego which brought in Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter was done under his watch, as were free agent signings of big names like Jack Morris, Dave Stewart and Paul Molitor) it was a good enough strategy when the team was continually winning and missed the playoffs only once between 1989 and 1993. However, Gillick’s long since moved onto different organizations and so too have the great years. Coming off a 95 loss season when 21 different starting pitchers were used, “stand pat” would not be a viable option.
So, Monday’s activity in itself is some reason for guarded optimism. Team president Mark Shapiro has said the team needs to get better, and fast, and that has to begin with an upgrade to starting pitching. GM Ross Atkins apparently is listening. The Blue Jays made a few roster moves yesterday, the most noteworthy being a trade with Milwaukee for a starting pitcher; also worth noting, “veterans” Ryan Tepera and Devon Travis have been removed off the 40-Man roster. We’ll start with those.
Travis is the type of player you hate to see go, and the type you root for. Rowdy Tellez pretty much credits him for talking him out of quitting baseball a couple of seasons back and almost everyone in the organization, young and old, cite Devon as one of the most upbeat, positive players they’ve been around. When he came to Toronto before the 2015 season, he was a major prospect, a second baseman with good range and speed and a great bat. Unfortunately, he’s been something of a walking medical journal with injuries that just seem to follow one another like dominoes falling. Damage to his knees is said to have limited his fielding range and the only time he ever hit 400 plate appearances was back in 2016. He missed all of last season, and by now seeing his spot as a regular on the big club blocked by Cavan Biggio, it’s no wonder he chose to refuse an assignment to the minors and become a free agent.
Ryan Tepera is much more of a mystery. The pitcher was “DFA’d” or designated for assignment, and to most fans it seems to make very little sense. Like Travis, he arrived with the Blue Jays in 2015. Since then he’s been one of , maybe the most consistent member of the bullpen. Although he did miss June, July and August this season with surgery on his elbow, the rightie came back in September and looked decent. He pitched in11 games, with a 3.38 ERA. Getting rid of him on a roster with such thin pitching makes no sense, unless as someone suggested to meon Twitter, the team doc is saying more than the public knows. The counter-balance is Shi Davidi, long time TV analyst for the team who suggests it’s just a “Moneyball” cost-cutting strategy. Which I would add will backfire not only in giving away a solid middle reliever but also suggesting to other players there’s no loyalty to long-term players in Toronto.
The Big Deal , and The Price is Right, was the trade with the Brewers. The team picked up starting pitcher Chase Anderson for a AA minor-league infielder/outfielder who frankly showed very little promise. So, a good trade for Toronto as long as they aren’t going to cry “poor”…Anderson has a contract for 2020 at $8.5M and an option for the next year at $9.5M – a bargain compared to projections for Gerritt Cole’s upcoming contract, but not real cheap nonetheless. Too expensive for small-market Milwukee evidently, owing to Anderson’s decent but not spectacular career.
Last year, Anderson was 8-4 with a 4.21 ERA over 30 games and 139 innings. Over his final three regular season starts, he went 4, 6 and 5 innings and gave up just 2 runs. Career-wise, the pitcher with a very good curveball but mediocre fastball will be 32 on opening day and has put together a 53-40 record and 3.94 ERA. Nothing special but by no means bad. He has never topped 160 innings but he’s stayed pretty healthy and clearly said in the news conference that he thought he could’ve gone deeper into the game on a number of starts last season and gotten closer to 200 innings if given the chance – a promising attitude at least. On the upside, he’s been good and fast in his delivery and has managed to get over half potential base stealers three out of his six years. On the negative, although a ground ball pitcher by and large (a very good thing for Toronto), an alarming number of his flyballs fly far and leave the park. In 2018, he led the NL in home runs given up with 30. Not promising in a division with tiny parks and unusual numbers of heavy hitters.
Anderson as reviewers have pointed out, would be a reliable back-of-rotation guy on most teams. Nothing remarkable, but a solid, ordinary #5 starter. On the Jays though, right now he could slot in as the “ace”. His ERA last year, even when converted to AL equivalent at 6% better than average would convert to 4.33 – slightly ahead of Jacob Waguespack’s 4.38 among starters the team ended the year with. And his measly 139 innings would have ranked him second behind rookie Trent Thornton.
Takeaway from it :a good trade since the team gave up little. Anderson could be a very good #5 pitcher, even if maybe a bit overpaid for that role. We’ll give the move a conditional “thumbs up”… conditional on Ross Atkins not saying “voila! I got you another veteran pitcher, we’re done.” Because clearly, the work should have only begun.
In baseball this spring, the big story as usual it seems, deals with money rather than baseball itself, which is rather unfortunate and might just be one of many factors which seem to causing attendance and TV ratings to dip of late. Anyway, the story of the spring so far is the mega-contracts… the top two Free Agents, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, as well as the re-signing of Nolan Arenado with his current team.
Machado of course, signed a 10-year deal with San Diego for $300M; Harper just signed on with Philadelphia for a remarkable 13 years and $330M, while Arenado stays with Colorado for another 8-years and $260M. For those not so mathematically inclined, that equals out to average annual salaries of $30M for Machado, $25.3M for Harper and $32.5M for Arenado.
The surprising thing of that is that each of the 3 players can feel like they won. And then again, shouldn’t anyone getting literally hundreds of millions to do what they like feel that? Harper gets bragging rights for the biggest-overall contract, taking home eventually $5M more than Giancarlo Stanton will on his long-term deal. Arenado gets the biggest annual takehome of the trio and didn’t have to go through the ordeal of posturing and visiting all sorts of parks all winter long to get it. Machado falls somewhere in between but has the comfort of having the biggest contract ever handed out by San Diego and getting a better payday each year than Harper, with whom he was constantly being compared all winter long. For those interested in such things, using stats from Sporttrec earlier this year, Arenado should be the 5th highest paid player in the MLB, Machado tied for 7th and Harper 15th (surprisingly Stephen Strasburg leads this year at $38.3M, followed by his teammate Max Scherzer at $37.4M then Arizona’s Zach Greinke at $34.5M.
As skyhigh salaries go, I think the owners got it right this winter. Of the elite trio, Arenado is best, followed by Machado and then Harper. Let’s look at some numbers:
The numbers above are for (columns left to right): career games played, 2018 homers, career homers, 2018 RBI, career RBI, 2018 batting average, career batting average, 2018 OPS, career OPs and 2018 WAR/Career WAR (as measured by Baseball-Reference.
We can see there’s a strong simlarity between the 3. Last year all were 30+ HR, 100+ RBI, with a better-than-league-average OPS. There of course other factors that went into my evaluation as well as, more importantly, the thinking of the owners. For instance, Arenado isn’t quite the roadrunner on the bases as the other pair… Harper and Machado all had double digit stolen bases, Arenado only 2. Harper led the league with 130 walks, which more than compensated for his lowish batting average. However, other factors all make Arenado and Machado more exceptional than Harper. To start with, the two former ones play more valuable postions than Harper’s. And they do it better.
Arenado has won a Gold Glove every year he’s been in the majors, and at the all-important 3B. Last season was the first time in his career his defense hasn’t been listed at adding 2 or more wins to the team tally. Manny, as we’ve seen is equally proficient at Shortstop or 3B, has two Gold Gloves and has been a plus-defensive WAR every year but last year, when a poor showing in LA made him rate a neutral 0. Harper, on the other hand, plays in the outfield, and only does a fair job of that at best. He actually has a -3.2 defensive WAR. Ergo, he cost the Nationals three games over his years there by his glove, compared to if they’d had a run of the mill minor leaguer. That was surely overshadowed by his heavy bat, but is still a consideration. And while the normal trajectory would show Machado and Arenado having another two or three very good years in the infield before perhaps being shifted to a lower-stress LF or 1B position, Harper will in all likelihood have to become a first baseman, or hope that the NL adopts the dH rule soon to avoid becoming a significant sinkhole in the field for the Phils.
Worse yet, he’s the one of the three with a history of injuries. His past knee injuries are especially worrying to a potential employer, as that tends to be something that keeps coming back with age and wear and tear. While Machado played all 162 games last year (split between the two teams ), and has missed a mere 11 games over the last 4 seasons total and Arenado, just 16, Harper has missed 40+ games three times in his seven year career.
My assessment: all three teams are silly to be giving out contracts this long. Apparently the lessons of Troy Tulowitzki, Prince Fielder, Felix Hernandez etc haven’t been taken to heart yet. But Colorado looks the best out of the three. First, they keep a hometown hero which is of course, good marketing. Secondly, he’s the best defensive player of the trio and is least likely therefore to become an anchor on “D” in the duration of his contract.
Machado is not going to be a Gold Glove-type infielder a decade from now, but could still be hitting 30 or more homers and having an .850 or .900 OPS. Moreover, it shows the Padre fans the team is interested in winning and building a contender in the tough NL West. Coupled with their great farm system (ranked best in baseball right now), with a good added starting pitcher or two, they could be the team to beat by 2020 and stay strong for a few years. Not a bad signing.
Then you have the Phillies. I applaud them for not giving in to Scott Boras and the pressure to give Harper more money per season than anyone else. He simply is not that good. That said, while Harper should add some “oomph” to their improving lineup for a few years, giving a defensive liablility with a wonky knee a 13-year deal is only bound to backfire, and sooner than later.
Now for our Blue Jays… rumors continue that they swept in and signed Clay Bucholz and Bud Norris at the end of last week, which if true will significantly improve their pitching staff and make them a potential .500 club this year , if nothing else. But the team has yet to confirm that, so I’ll look at that if and when …
Baseball has a number of problems right now. The dropping attendance, the fact that spring training is under way now and yet some of the biggest stars- Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Craig Kimbrel etc. – still lack contracts, Rob Manfred’s obsession with the length of the game whether right or wrong…but there’s still a lot that’s right about the game, and about the individuals. Enter John Axford.
Axford is an aging relief pitcher of course. He turns 36 in April and is now 8 years removed from his career best (and league leading) 46 saves with Milwaukee and 7 years down from his career high 75 games. But the lanky rightie still pitches well and spent most of last year with the Jays, going 4-1 with Toronto with a 4.41 ERA over 45 games before being traded to the Dodgers where he looked bad in just 5 games. Oh, and did I mention, Axford was born in Ontario, not far outside of Toronto, and grew up a dyed in the wool Jays fan?
John Axford just signed as a free agent with Toronto, although only on a minor league deal. He says he had offers from other teams but the Canadian had said mid-winter he wanted to pitch in Toronto. He got his wish.
“For me, it’s home,” he explained. “It was a dream last year. I wanted to get back into that situation any way I could.” Thankfully, the Blue Jays with their weak pitching staff agreed. Both sides mentioned how the old (in MLB terms ) pitcher could be a mature presence in the clubhouse and help the teenaged kids in Dunedin this March. Manager Charlie Montoyo says “he should be okay. He’s going to help the young kids too.”
He will. And he’ll enjoy playing in front of his hometown crowd wearing the colors he wore as a youthful fan. His kids won’t have to worry about getting bitten by rattlesnakes when home – but that’s a story for another day, and another baseball division. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with Axford saying he wants to pitch in Toronto either.
The terms of the contact weren’t disclosed yet, but he’s only guaranteed minor league money- truck driver money- but he’ll probably get less than the $1.5 million US he got paid last year. Way less than the $5.5M he got from Oakland two years ago. But… c’mon. He likes Toronto. He was born near it. He’s made probably $20 million playing baseball in his lifetime. He shouldn’t have to worry about his finances until he dies. John understands this. So many don’t, complaining Bryce Harper doesn’t have a contract yet for 2019. Bryce was offered $300M by his old team. Let that sink in for a minute. 300 million. He told them to f-off. We should feel bad now that no one’s wanted to up the ante and ensure him multi-million paydays through 2030? I don’t think so.
No one says Harper should settle for the league minimum wage. Nor Machado, Keuchel or any of the other stars unsigned as of yet. But maybe they need an Axford reality check. They play a game they supposedly love. They’ve already made millions of dollars. They should never have to worry about being homeless or having to go to a shelter for a hot meal, even if they walk away from the sport today. Maybe settling for a little less and settling into a clubhouse and a city where they feel valued and like they can make a positive impact should count for more than an extra million dollars a year. Remember folks, if you’re driving a city bus or working at the neighborhood Target, an extra million dollars to you is not the same as an extra million dollars to them. I know if I had earned an eight-digit figure and I was still in my 30s, I’d value the city’s ambience, weather, fans and coaching staff way , way more than I would whether worry about making $3 million or $4 million! How about you?
John Axford may not be the best pitcher on the Blue Jays roster this season. He should be the favorite pitcher on the Blue Jays roster. And perhaps he should be a favorite for fans in Milwaukee, Chicago, San Diego…
The “story” of the MLB off-season so far has really been a non-story. Just like last year, the free agent market has been a bit slow and the two players everyone seems obsessed with talking about – Manny Machado and Bryce Harper – remain unsigned. What’s more, there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much interest in them as one might have anticipated. The market for Harper is, if rumors are correct, limited to the Phillies, the White Sox, the on-again, off-again Nationals (the only team he’s played for thus far) and possibly the Dodgers. The market for Machado is slimmer still – the White Sox, the Phils and if we believe his agent “a mystery team.”
This shouldn’t be as big a surprise as most people think it is. First off, both are quality, star players that could add to any lineup. However, neither is really a highest-level superstar; both also have knocks against them (albeit small ones.) Machado didn’t make any new fans when he offhandedly complained he’d never be a “Johnny Hustle” kind of guy. Perhaps that was a bit of miscommunication due to English being a second language for him, but you can bet it made owners look a bit more carefully at hours of video of every at bat he took last year to see just how much he does hustle. As for Harper, he does seem to slowly be maturing, but he didn’t make many fans with the media with his arrogance and at times flippantly worded answers early in his career. Others note that his Natonals have been the most talented team in their division for almost his whole career but for that they’ve missed the playoffs entirely three times and never advanced beyond the NLDS level. It would be unfair to blame Bryce alone for their lack of performance, but it can’t be ignored that he hasn’t yet rallied a team around him to great heights.
That said, the reasons they are attracting so little attention is obvious. Many teams can’t afford the kind of money they are looking to get and many others which could, prefer not to pay out that much over a long term. And who can blame them? Before Manny and Bryce complain and hint at “collusion”, perhaps they should go and yell at some of their counterparts. Troy Tulowitzki, Miguel Cabrera, Felix Hernandez, Albert Pujols for starters. All were in similar positions of being elite free agents and signed huge, longterm contracts (albeit all of them except Pujols with their previous team). Few of those contracts have paid off well, at least on the long-term.
Take for example, Tulowitzki. He, like Machado and Harper, was a youngish 26 when he re-upped with the Rockies prior to 2011 on a 10 year deal worth $158M. Note that after 2010, the MLB average salary was pegged around $3M even (currently it’s a shade over $4M, give or take. Exact figures vary due to different critieria about which players are counted as rostered, how to factor in bonuses etc.) Tulo was at the time one of the most promising players in the game, an All Star shortstop with a great glove and bat. the two years before his big contract (2009, 2010) he had numbers like this: .297/32HR/92RBI and .315/27/95. His OPS was 31 and 38% above league average those years and his WAR was 6.5 and 6.7. Signing him for years seemed the only thing for Colorado to do.
It didn’t sour right away. His 2011 campaign lived upto all expectations and got him another All Star spot. He hit .302/30/105 that year with an OPS again 31% better than league average and a WAR over 6. However, the injury bug kicked in in 2012, limiting him to 47 games, 8 homers, and a WAR of a mere 0.4 games better than a replacement. His numbers rebounded in ’13-14, but by 2015 (when he was traded much to his consternation, to Toronto) he’d dropped off to .280/17/70 with a .761 OPS that beat the league norm by only 7%. His WAR- 1.5. After a decentish ’16 with the Jays, he got injured again in 2017, playing just 66 games witha lacklustre .249 average, 7 homers, much reduced infield range and a WAR of a microscopic 0.1. In 2018, he collected about $18M to sit out the entire year due to surgery on his feet. As we know here, he’ll be paid about $18M again this year, mostly by Toronto, to play for the Yankees where he’s seen largely as a stopgap bench player. He’ll get over $20M next year too, no matter if he plays or not.
Or look at King Felix, the onetime heir apparent to Randy Johnson as the Mariners best-ever pitcher. Felix Hernandez had won a Cy Young when he re-signed with Seattle at age 27, for 7 years for a then unheard of $175M. He was coming off a 2010 Cy followed by two seasons in which he went 14-14/3.47 over 234 innings then 13-9/3.06 over 232 innings. His WARs those years were 3.6 and 5.3. What team couldn’t benefit greatly from a stud starter who can toss 230+ innings and add about 5 wins to the team’s total? The Mariners could and did, and for the first few years three at least, it worked out not too badly for them. 2013-15 yielded the following numbers: 12-10/3.04, 204 innings; 15-6/league best 2.14 ERA (70% better than norm), 236 innings; 18-9/3.53 over 202 innings. WARS of 5.3,6.4,4.5. that’s when the pendulum swung back against Seattle. Since then, three years of 11-8, 6-5 and 8-14 with ERAS of 3.82,4.36and 5.55. Under 160 innings each year. WARS of 1.4,0.8 and -1.2. Meaning statistically, the Mariners lost one more game by having Felix around last year for his $26.9M than if they’d used any random minor leaguer in his place. They don’t expect a lot of upside for the $27.9M they owe him this year… consider that while they jettisoned their high-paid talented players like James Paxton and Edwin Diaz this winter, they seemed to have no calls at all inquiring about the “King.”
Or perhaps the granddaddy of the bad big contracts, Albert Pujols. Pujols was arguably the best player in the game through much of the first decade of this century, so at first glance, no one could knock the Angels for signing him to a 10 year, $240M deal prior to the 2012 season. Mind you, he was already 32, around the typical peak for a position player, so there were warning flags there alone. The two last seasons he played with St.Louis were stellar, as usual: .312/42/118 with an 1.011 OPS (some 73% better thanleague average) then .299/37/99 , .906 OPS. The WAR those years were 7.5 and 5.3. Brilliant.
Los Angeles Anaheim could have looked good if they signed him to a four-year deal, even though he’s only made the All Star team once with them. 2012-15, he was still a star performer. He drove in over 100 twice, had better than average OPS each year, andwhen his batting average dipped to .244 in 2015 he compensated with 40 longballs. His WAR for the cumulative four seasons was over 13. Not bad. Even 2016, at age 36, was quite good: .268/31/119, WAR 1.3 (by this time, he wasn’t adding anything defensively, it should be noted- he was probably a below average first baseman and frequently was a DH instead.) The last two years…not so good. In 2017, he hit .241 with 23 homers, a below-average .672 OPS and actually had a negative WAR of -1.8. Oops, not pleasant for a team to pay $25M to a player who actually was losing games for them.
2018 was a tad better, but not that much- .245/19/64,WAR of 0.5. The real bad news for the “halos”… they have him under contract through 2021, and due to their questionable bookkeeping, his salary keeps going up! He’ll make $30M in 2021, when he’ll be 41 years old.
So yes, right now Machado and Harper look very good Machado’s last two years saw him miss only 6 games in total, play solid “D” at both third and short and post 33 and 37 homers, WARS of 3.4 and 5.7. Harper, although he missed 41 games due to a knee injury (something you bet owners will have in the back of their minds when looking at his long term durability) in 2017, still posted a remarkable .319 average and 1.008 OPS that year and came back with a 34 homer, 100 RBI year last season. His WAR has added to 6 over those years.
Good? Of course. And in all likelihood, they’ll both be good for the next three or four years. Beyond that… things look a bit foggier. Can you blame a team for not wanting to sign them for ten or more seasons? I can’t.
One more thing. Manny and Bryce should perhaps look at Moneyball. Because while they are almost bound to add to any team they go to; there is a point where the reward isn’t as great as the cost. Statistically, if they get into the $30M or more a year plateau they are asking for, a team could likely add more by spending it on several players. As an example, the Yanks were marginally interested in Machado. But they added pitcher JA Happ who’s had WARS of 3.4 and 3.6 over the past 2 years, for about $17M a year. That leaves them about $13M in which they could add another player. Jed Lowrie went to the Mets for a mere $10M a year and over the past two years he’s tallied an 8.8 WAR. So,unless a team can bank on a huge boost in attendance from a marquee player there’s little benefit in adding one “megastar” at the expense of missing out on two or even three above average “character players.”
Harper and Machado will play somewhere in 2019, and will probably be very good. But they might not have $300 million or more contracts in their pockets… and that is good for baseball.