Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Ricky Nolasco Signs With Twins, And That's Alright

Well, it seems as though the dominoes may start falling in the free agent pitcher market, with Ricky Nolasco having just signed with the Minnesota Twins. According to Jeff Passan on Twitter:

 There have been rumours the Blue Jays were also talking to the right-handed innings eater, who has been the very model of consistency over his career. I wrote about him back in my free agent pitching piece, saying:
Over his career he's pitched to a 4.37 ERA, but a much better 3.76 FIP. By ERA- he's been 8% worse than league average for his career. By FIP- he's been 8% better. Regardless of how you feel about FIP, that's odd, and it does make me concerned that whatever it is that sees him posting such mediocre ERAs despite such solid peripherals would be exacerbated by a move to the AL East with its elite offenses and band box stadiums.
I mean, if there was anything to the rumours and there were any kind of serious talks going on there perhaps this is a bit of a blow to their off-season plans, but I would hope their sights are set a bit higher than Nolasco at the moment. Whether they were actually after him or not, there might be a glimmer of hope in the Nolasco signing, as at the time I wrote that piece, the word was that he was seeking a contract worth somewhere in the neighbourhood of $80 million. Obviously that was never realistic, but it also didn't sound quite as crazy as it probably should have. Everyone expects this off-season to be a little bit silly, so that he signed for something not far off the Edwin Jackson-style four-year $52 million MLB Trade Rumors projected him for is almost comforting.

Nolasco signed for a little less guaranteed money than Edwin Jackson, who was also younger when he signed his current deal, but Nolasco has a $13 million player option for a fifth year that vests based on innings pitched in 2016-17. It's a lot of money and term for a dependably mediocre pitcher who will be on the wrong side of 30 for the entirety of the contract, but the fact that he was traded mid-season means he wasn't attached to draft pick compensation, and that certainly has a value that might be worth paying a little extra for. It basically pays him to be about a two win pitcher, which he has been by FanGraphs' FIP-based WAR, but not by Baseball-Reference's RA9-based version. Your favourite flavour of pitcher WAR will colour your view of this contract significantly, but either way Nolasco is likely to decline over the course of it.

The point is, it wasn't something completely insane, and given the salary explosion many seem to be predicting this off-season, maybe that can be considered a small victory. It's too early to say that Nolasco's contract will set the market, but maybe it gives a bit of hope that absurd salary inflation won't make wading into free agency any more difficult for the Blue Jays than it already will be. In fact, it's possible that the structure of Nolasco's contract might provide a model for the Blue Jays to look to.

It seems the market is open to some interestingly structured contracts this off-season, as Dan Haren signed an incentive and vesting option-based deal with the Dodgers this week. The Blue Jays will no doubt be hesitant to offer five year deals to any pitcher, given the inherent risk of injury. A vesting player option like Nolasco's might be a way to mitigate the risk, as he at least has to be reasonably healthy for it to vest. It might also be possible to back-load a free agent deal for the sake of the payroll in the short term, until a ton of money comes off the books after 2015. I'm open to some creativity, and I think a bit of it might be necessary for them to help themselves in free agency.

So yes, this deal seems a rich one for a pitcher like Nolasco, but it's probably right about the going rate, and the option year isn't terribly scary to me due to the fact that he has to remain healthy for it to vest. Basically, I wouldn't have been surprised if it was a lot worse,  and it's a model I wouldn't be scared to see the Blue Jays offer to some other free agents out there. Frankly, that's more hope than I was expecting to get when the big name free agent pitcher shoes started dropping.

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Monday, 25 November 2013

Blue Jays Looking to Explore Shark Infested Waters?

So there I was Saturday night, trying to enjoy a 60th birthday party that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be 50’s or 60’s themed, hoping against hope that baseball would cooperate and allow me to ignore it for just one night. However, that was just too much to ask on this particular Saturday, with Brian McCann signing with the Yankees for a potential six-year, $100 million deal depending on what happens with a vesting option. The average annual value is a bit surprising, but might not be by the end of an off-season that will likely be full of surprising contracts. "McCann Signs With Yankees For All The Money" was such a foreseeable headline that I don't even feel the need to spend any time looking at it. Everyone knew it was coming, and if anything is most surprising it's that it even took this long to happen. 

As if that weren’t enough excitement in baseball land though, this also happened:

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Twitter-Inspired Thoughts on the Tigers/Rangers Trade, Alex Anthopoulos, and Pandering to the Lowest Common Denominator

Obviously the big news in baseball this week is the blockbuster trade between the Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers. With the notable names involved, the enormous sums of money moving around, and the near-immediacy with which it went from rumor to reality, it should be absolutely no surprise that the Twitterverse was abuzz with opinions from experts and amateurs alike on who had "won" the trade, because obviously somebody had to. In today's social media driven climate of armchair analysis there must always be a winner and a loser. If the trade was good for one team it must have been bad for the other. Shades of grey cannot exist in an environment that demands something be either black or white.

That's not my intent here though. I think that trade was perfectly acceptable for both teams. I like it for the Tigers a little bit more, not so much because of the players involved, but because of the domino effect it has on the rest of their infield and the cash it frees up for them to either re-sign core players like Max Scherzer and/or go out and upgrade in other areas through free agency or by taking on more salary in trades. The Rangers needed some offense though, and in that stadium Prince Fielder should provide it in spades. It allowed them to clear a spot in their middle infield for the much cheaper Jurickson Profar to play every day. They even got the Tigers to send $30 million their way to make paying Fielder for the next several seasons a little bit more palatable.

Both teams traded something they had a surplus of (in Texas' case middle infielders, in Detroit's slugging 1B/DH types) for something they needed more of. A lot of salary moved around, but neither of those teams are short on cash or afraid to spend it. It's not my money, and neither of the contracts is likely to cripple the finances of either team, so whatever.

What caught my eye in the midst of the maelstrom of opinion, however, was this little nugget from Toronto Star baseball columnist Richard Griffin:

Monday, 18 November 2013

This Week in Things That Just Won't Go Away: Jose Bautista Trade Rumours

In all honesty I've been trying to ignore this topic all together in the hope that it would just burn itself out and go away. Instead, it just seems to be gaining more and more "traction", if that's even the word for the ceaseless troll jobs we've seen coming from mostly American media outlets in recent months. You know the topic I'm talking about. It's the one where the Toronto Blue Jays, in a fit of hopeless despair after the crushing disappointment of the 2013 season, trade star slugger Jose Bautista and his ludicrously team friendly contract to [insert team of the week here] for a back of the rotation starter and a B level prospect.

The suitors for Bautista are most commonly the Rangers, Mets and recently the Phillies, but make no mistake, there are 29 teams in the league that would all love to get Bautista's bat into their lineup. What's more, there is an incomprehensibly large and vocal segment of the Blue Jays' fan base that seems not only willing to entertain the notion of trading the franchise cornerstone, but are ready to drive the all-star outfielder to the airport themselves. 

Now, I don't doubt for a second that there have been inquiries made on Bautista, as I'm sure there have been on Encarnacion, Reyes, Rasmus, and probably others too. The Jays are a team with several desirable pieces, a large payroll that may not have a lot of room to grow, and multiple holes to fill. It stands to reason that rival GMs might see them as ripe for the picking, and that Anthopoulos might be willing to listen to offers. It's his job to listen. I don't really believe in players being untouchable, should the right offer come along. However, that doesn't mean trading one of the best players in franchise history while he's still under contract for two more seasons with an option for a third should be seen as a desirable or likely scenario.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Free Agent Targets: Position Players

Well it's a good thing this year's market is slow to develop, because I wanted to have this out days ago! Life though, you know? Absolutely no consideration for hot stove season. Typical.

Anyways, the other day I posted my take on some of the free agent pitchers on the MLB Trade Rumours Top 50 list that the Blue Jays may target this off-season. If you missed it you can check it out here. It was pretty much every starter on the list except for Tim Hudson who I just can't see considering the Blue Jays at this point in his career, and Phil Hughes because he's Phil Hughes. For position players I'm going to have to go off the list a little bit, because quite frankly pickings are slim at the Blue Jays' positions of need, which are catcher and second base. 

Like I mentioned in the intro to the previous piece, I don't expect them to be players for the biggest names at those positions, which are undoubtedly Brian McCann and Robinson Cano. Behind them the list gets real short real quick, but there are still some guys that would provide upgrades over the gaping black holes of suckitude they got out of those positions in 2013. It will be important to remember when considering some of these unsexy names that the Jays received -1.1 fWAR performances out of the catcher's position in 2013, and -2.1 fWAR from their second basemen. Those WAR totals are good for 29th and 30th of 30 teams respectively. So, while some of the names I mention might be no great shakes themselves, even replacement level players at each position would be a three win upgrade which, coupled with better health all over the diamond (because it couldn't possibly be worse, right? Right?! *knocks wood*) would be very significant for the 2014 team. 

Also, I'm less interested in seeing them lay out big money to fill their holes in the lineup. If they're going to spend big, I'd rather it be on upgrading the rotation. Given the abject terribleness of the incumbents, I think they should have an easier time making modest upgrades that seem huge, considering the very low bar that's been set, and with far less cost either in dollars or prospect capital. So, it may sometimes seem like I'm favouring lesser players, but it's in the interest of best allocating what are still sure to be limited resources, even if the purse strings are looser than they've been in the past. 

Note: I'll be referring to FanGraphs' Steamer projections in this piece, which I didn't do in my piece on pitchers. It may not be entirely justified, I'm no sabermetrician after all, but I find I put more stock in projections for position players than for pitchers. Obviously hitters' performances can fluctuate from year to year as well, but pitchers are so volatile, and projections have such long memories, that when it comes to evaluating free agents I'd rather look at the differences between their career and recent performances separately rather than rolling it all up into one set of projected numbers. I know not everyone buys into statistical projections, so take them with whatever sized grain of salt you choose. I've just included them as food for thought, not as gospel.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Free Agent Targets: Starting Pitching

The happiest time of the year, at least for those of us that spend time spilling digital ink about baseball, is upon us yet again. Free agency opened up this week, with the deadline for teams to extend qualifying offers to their pending free agents having passed Monday at 5 p.m. With free agency season comes MLB Trade Rumors' Top 50 Free Agents list, along with Tim Dierkes' predictions of where they might end up signing. It's worth checking out the whole list as a lot of the predictions seems pretty spot on to me, at least in terms of the types of contracts we might expect to see each free agent sign.

I expect there to be a lot of sticker shock on a lot of these free agents this off-season (because there totally isn't any other off-season, right?), if the contracts the Giants dished out to Hunter Pence and Tim Lincecum are any indication of this year's market. At this point, it's still hard to know whether the Giants went and blew up the market all on their own by setting a surprisingly high bar that superior free agents will expect to surpass, or if the added revenue from new TV deals would have inflated salaries anyways, with the Giants just being among the first to operate in this new climate. 

So, while I expect there to be some eye-popping overpayments to come, I find myself a lot more okay with the Blue Jays indulging in a bit of free agent silliness this off-season than I ever have been before. In my view, the team has a strong enough core, much of which is under team control or signed to absurdly team friendly contracts for the next couple of years, that they are at the point that supplementing that core through free-agency makes more sense to me than trading away the prospects that will hopefully be the core of the next competitive Blue Jays team. The team has very little in salary commitments beyond 2015, and how underpaid guys like Bautista and Encarnacion are should allow them a bit of flexibility to overpay some other players (*cough* Buehrle *cough*). Basically, if Rogers is willing to open the wallet a little bit more for the next two years, the Jays should be able to take on some salary without hamstringing their future payroll or depleting the farm too much.

That being said, I don't expect the Blue Jays to be players for some of the biggest names on the market like Cano, Choo, McCann and Ellsbury. Barring some pretty significant trades, I don't see that kind of money kicking around, and the fact that all of them will be attached to draft pick compensation will be some deterrent, although I feel that with that level of talent it should be a fairly minor consideration, especially with the Blue Jays being in possession of two protected first round picks. For a lot of the second tier free agents on the market, however, giving up even a second round pick and the associated bonus pool dollars will be a significant consideration, and rightfully so if the goal is to build a competitive team in the present without mortgaging the future.

So, with that in mind, here is the first of a two-part look at some names off the Top 50 list that the Blue Jays might be considering address their needs in the rotation, behind the dish, and at second base. First I'll be looking at starting pitchers with position players to follow. My rankings aren't just based on the quality of the player, but also the likely cost to sign them, whether they're attached to a draft pick, and in some cases the likelihood of the Blue Jays being able to convince a player to take their money.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Could The Josh Johnson Era Be Coming To An End In Toronto?

Today's 5:00 EST deadline for the Blue Jays to extend Josh Johnson a $14.1 million qualifying offer has come and gone without the team making the decision to do so, and I've got to say I'm more surprised with this than I was with any of their decisions regarding contract options. Perhaps I shouldn't have been, with the season Johnson had and with Jon Heyman having tweeted days ago that a qualifying offer was "unlikely", but I was all the same. 

What to do with Johnson had been one of the most divisive topics among Blue Jays fans and armchair GMs since he was acquired from Miami last December. During the off-season and early in the 2013 campaign, the question was whether to try to re-sign him to a multi-year deal as soon as possible or to let him play out the year and either re-sign him or extend a qualifying offer at the end of the season. The thinking was that Johnson would be getting multiple years, so if the Jays couldn't lock him up, the next best thing would be to qualify him and take the draft pick compensation should he sign elsewhere.  Somewhere along the rocky road that was Johnson's 2013, however, the comfort that draft pick compensation offered turned to dread that, if qualified, Johnson would most likely just accept it in hopes of rebuilding his decimated value and pursuing a multi-year contract for 2015 and beyond. Johnson's inability to stay healthy had surely cost him that lucrative deal, and now fans were worried that the Blue Jays could end up with $14 million of potentially scarce payroll resources tied up in Johnson's rotation worst 6.20 ERA.

Friday, 1 November 2013

To Exercise Or Not To Exercise, That Is The Option

Well the Blue Jays wasted no time at all in announcing which 2014 options they'd be picking up and which they'd be declining. There is only really one surprise in the bunch, from my perspective at least, and those of you who are familiar with my opinions on various players might be similarly surprised by my surprise. Still with me? Good.

Casey Janssen's $4 million option was an absolute no-brainer. He's been great for a second straight season, posting a 2.56 ERA and a 2.74 FIP while striking out 23.8% and walking 6.2% of the batters he's faced. If you go in for saves (which you don't, because they're kind of silly) he's converted on 34 of 36 opportunities. In short, he's been one of the league's most reliable closers, and given some of the absurd contracts handed out to "proven closers" in recent years, picking up his option was not a decision that Anthopoulos expended much brain power on, I'm sure. It was going to get picked up unless his arm fell off, and while there were times this season that we heard his post-op shoulder was giving him trouble, it remained firmly attached to his torso and never seemed to have much of an impact on his performance. Now that he'll have a presumably surgery-free off-season to rest and recover, paying him $4 million to hopefully do it all over again next year is very appealing, but as I wrote here, I'm not entirely sure it'll be with the Jays. That's not to say I think he will or should be traded, but that salary for that kind of performance will likely be very appealing to other teams as well, so I wouldn't be at all surprised if we hear his name in a lot of trade rumours this off-season.