Toronto Blue Jays Hot Stove: Finding Ross Atkins’ impact arm and bat

 

Jays From the Couch looks into the options that meet Toronto Blue Jays’ GM, Ross Atkins’ criteria for an “impact” addition this offseason

 

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During his end of season press conference on Tuesday, Blue Jays’ GM, Ross Atkins, outlined the team’s aim to add an impact arm and bat this off-season.

 

 

 

Ben Nicholson-Smith elaborated on what he felt that meant: maybe a superstar, but likely a 1.5+ WAR player (a solid MLB starter type). That jives with what I imagined an impact player to be: someone who is good for a couple of wins, with the potential to over perform in a good season.

 

So we have some idea of what impact means (though you’re free to define it as you wish). Which position will the bat play? And will the arm be a starter or a reliever? In my view, there are three key holes that must be filled for 2018: middle infield depth, right field and starting pitcher. (I am by no means averse to them adding even more talent if the opportunity arises.)

 

Later today, Shaun Doyle will explain why Dee Gordon is a strong candidate to fill the role of middle infield depth. I fully concur with him. Above-average speed and defence, combined with a slightly below-average bat will do just fine. Plus, he’s affordable but still paid enough that Derek Jeter might want to move him as part of his cost-cutting.

 

Right Fielders

Free agency is likely the easiest route. There is corner outfield depth this year and it allows the Jays to flex financial muscle without giving up any prospects. Within this market, there’s a couple ways they could go.

 

Aim high for Martinez or Cain

While J.D. Martinez and Lorenzo Cain are very different players, they’ve both proven to be very productive major leaguers. Martinez brings his value with one of the league’s best bats, but lacks speed and defensive acumen. He would basically be a like-for-like Jose Bautista replacement. Cain has an above-average bat, but his value comes from his speed and defence. He essentially allows the team to take a shot at a Dexter Fowler-type again, only Cain’s faster and better at defence (with a very similar bat). He also has experience playing RF, where he found himself when Jarrod Dyson manned CF in Kansas City.

 

 

Meeting the minimum requirements for an impact bat

If Martinez and Cain are beyond the team’s grasp, they have a few other options. Jay Bruce, the nearly Blue Jay, rebounded well in 2017. He generated lots of good contact and was an above-average defender. Plus, he’s a left-handed bat. He makes sense if the Jays are willing to give their new RF a bit of term, but want to avoid paying the money that Martinez and Cain will get. [Bruce is only entering his age-31 season. I thought he was definitely older than that. Turns out he broke into the league at 21.]

 

If they’d prefer to keep the term short, Curtis Granderson is a good option. 2018 marks his age-37 season, so a two-year deal seems very doable. Granderson produced 2 WAR in 2017, his offence weighed down by a .228 BABIP. Coupled with the fact that he produced 7.7 WAR over the previous two seasons, it would probably be fair to estimate that he could produce 2.5 WAR in 2018 and 2 WAR in 2019. With that kind of production, he’d be well worth the $15 million he earned this season.

 

He generates Cain-esque contact and is a close match to Cain for speed. While his outfield defence was below-average, he seems to fit well at RF, where he produced a 6 DRS this year and 20 DRS since 2015.

 

Michael Brantley?

Michael Brantley has a club option for 2018 for $11 million. It will surely get exercised, because $11 million is nothing for a guy who averaged 3 WAR from 2011-15. But…he has had injury problems this year and last, playing in only 101 games out of 324. He would be an interesting buy-low signing for the Jays if he ended up in the free agent market this year. I have no clue if he and Mark Shapiro have a positive enough relationship to make a move to the Jays more likely, but Shapiro was GM when the Clevelanders traded for Brantley in 2008. At the very least, I thought it best to include him in this post, if for no other reason than to call shotgun on the idea that he might sign with the Jays.

 

Giancarlo Stanton?? I probably shouldn’t get my hopes up, right? But can you imagine???

There are few potential additions more impactful than Giancarlo Stanton. Players this good are rarely available and he does appear to be available. Derek Jeter has discussed having to make unpopular decisions and Stanton himself has said he isn’t interested in taking part in yet more rebuilding. I salivate at the thought of Jeets talking trades with our front office—with their logic and thoughtfulness and track record of great trades (Hutch for McGuire, Ramirez and Liriano’s wild card game performance, then down-season Liriano for Teoscar Hernandez). From Stanton’s perspective, the Rogers Centre would be a great place for him to take a few shots at 60 (or even 74) home runs. And if he doesn’t like it here, he can opt-out and be a free agent in 2020.

 

Importantly, he might be gotten without the prospect loss one would expect. He has ten years and $295 million remaining on his contract (and the 2020 opt-out). With a contract that large, Stanton has limited “surplus value”, the difference between his on-field value and his contract value. His on-field value over the course of the contract can be estimated by first estimating his WAR over the next decade, then multiplying it by $9 million/WAR (the same win valuation the Blue Jays use internally).

 

Stanton’s averaged about 5 WAR per season over his career. Let’s say that he maintains that average for the next five years, before seeing his WAR decrease by 0.5 each of the following years (an aging curve adjustment). Over the next ten years, Stanton could reasonably produce about 40 WAR. His contract pays him to produce about 33 WAR ($295 million divided by $9 million/WAR). So, his surplus value is 7 WAR (or $63 million). [For comparison, Chris Sale had about 13 WAR (or $155 million) of surplus value when he was traded, which is why he cost some top prospects to obtain.]

 

Guessing at the package that would be required is made very difficult by the complete lack of comparables. Nobody has a contract as big as Stanton’s, so no one with that big a contract has ever been traded before. At the end of the day, I think a package that doesn’t include Vlad Jr. would suffice. Given Stanton’s quality, that’s a price most Jays fans would gladly pay, as hard as it is to lose prospects you’ve looked forward to seeing play as Blue Jays.

 

Using Fangraphs’ system of valuing prospects and MLB Pipeline’s (admittedly generous) scouting grades, anyone can put together a package of Jays prospects that meets Stanton’s surplus value ($63 million). Something like Sean Reid-Foley, Richard Urena and Max Pentecost (each worth about $20 million), might do the trick. The Marlins could be receptive, as their system is noticeably light on catchers and shortstops. The Jays, on the other hand, have depth in those positions. In the short term, Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki are blocking Pentecost and Urena’s paths. And when they leave, there will be prospects ready to take their places—Danny Jansen, Hagen Danner and Riley Adams at catcher, Bo Bichette and Logan Warmoth at shortshop.

 

Starting Pitchers

Ideally, the Jays could net an impactful starting pitcher from the free agent market. Unfortunately, the supply of starters is scarce this year. (Also, click here for more analysis of the Jays’ rotation options for 2018.)

 

Yu is even less likely than Giancarlo, but I have to mention him

Yu Darvish had the Jays on his no-trade list this year.  So, while he is unquestionably the best available starter, he is not a realistic option for the team.

 

 

Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb, not flashy but impactful

From 2012 to 2015, Lance Lynn generated the 20th most WAR among starting pitchers. Then, he tore his UCL and had to have Tommy John surgery, missing the 2016 season. In his first year back, Lynn showed some very promising signs. Most importantly, he pitched 186 innings, 26th most in the MLB. He lost a tick off of his four-seamer, which is not a good sign. But he leaned more on his cutter and sinker, to positive effect—according to Pitch Info data, Lynn had the 6th most valuable cutter (5.6 wFC) and the 4th most valuable sinker (12.1 wSI) in the major leagues this season.

 

While his strikeout-to-walk ratio is a bit low, it’s not far from his career average (2.49). Plus, he’s stepped up his weak contact game—his xwOBA on batted balls ranked 15th among the 148 starters with 250+ batted balls against. This jives with the fact that he used his cutter and sinker over half the time this season.

 

Importantly, it looks like the Cardinals might not make an attempt to re-sign him, in spite of his interest in staying with the team.

 

Alex Cobb is a similar case to Lynn, except he essentially missed both the 2015 and 2016 seasons. As with Lynn, his performance prior to his injury layoff was exemplary—from 2012 to 2014, Cobb produced the 38th most WAR among starting pitchers. The 179 innings he pitched in 2017 suggest that he has fully recovered.

 

In his first season back, he posted the 56th highest WAR among starting pitchers, essentially pitching well enough to be considered a #2. His strong performance was driven by limiting walks (5.9 BB%, 22nd lowest) and generating below-average contact (.358 xwOBA on batted balls, 71st lowest). He did so by leaning on his sinker (45.7%) and curveball (34.1%), which rated among the best in the majors—Cobb’s 8.7 wSI ranks 9th, while his 6.8 wCU ranks 12th.

 

Moreover, his time with the Rays appears to be over, so he is available.

 

All in all, there are some interesting names available that could seriously boost the team’s playoff chances in 2018. An infield of Russ, Justin Smoak, Devon Travis, Tulo and Josh Donaldson should still be formidable, especially if Dee Gordon is there to provide high-quality depth. An outfield of Pearce, Pillar and Cain would be well-balanced between offence and defence. A rotation of Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada and Lynn or Cobb would be tough to match in the majors. Kendrys Morales made a lot of good contact (.358 xwOBA in 2017) and is a positive regression candidate. And our bullpen should be fine too, the only constant in a difficult 2017.

 

 

 


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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.

Jeff Quattrociocchi

I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.