Jays From the Couch explores possible next moves for the Blue Jays, including trading Kevin Pillar for starting pitching
On Friday, in discussing the Curtis Granderson signing and Joe Biagini‘s potential as the #5 starter this season, I described the Blue Jays’ current situation as “interesting”. After Friday’s trade to acquire Randal Grichuk, things have gotten even more interesting. They basically have the same amount of money as they did before, but now look overstocked in the outfield and a little light in the bullpen. Plus, while Biagini should provide decent production in the rotation, adding a bonafide impact starter would be ideal. Such a move would both raise the ceiling and the floor, with Joe honing his starter’s chops in AAA, serving as a fairly high-quality piece of rotation depth.
It’s within this context that Blue Jays fans have been brainstorming potential follow-up moves. So, I thought I’d offer my own two cents. Most of these ideas have been shared by many others, so my intent is not to claim them as my own, but to try to add something useful to the conversation. Namely, the idea that the Jays should consider trading Kevin Pillar for Tyler Anderson, Colorado Rockies starting pitcher.
Keeping it simple
Following the Grichuk trade, the simplest moves forward would be to use the leftover cash to fill out the remaining holes via free agency. I figured there was about $15 million remaining before the Grichuk trade, so there’s about $13 million left now—Grichuk will earn just under $3 million in 2018, while Dominic Leone will get paid about $1 million.
Fangraphs projects Joe Biagini to be a 1.5 WAR starter in 2018, which can’t be improved upon much via free agency with only $13 million. Nevertheless, a guy like Jaime Garcia could provide a bit of an upgrade. He’s projected to produce 2.2 WAR in 2018 and his track record implies much greater reliability than Biagini can provide. He would leave the Jays with five average or better starting pitchers. Garcia has generated an average or better xwOBA over the last three seasons and is a ground ball wizard who’d fit in well. Dave Cameron guessed that Garcia would receive a two-year, $20 million contract, though the depressed market could definitely see that contract shrink somewhat.
I think Matt Albers would be a good option to shore up the Jays’ right-handed relief depth. He had a 1 fWAR bounce-back season in 2017 and is projected by Fangraphs to put up a better-than-average FIP in 2018. Plus, he produced the 20th lowest xwOBA among relievers last year, suggesting that the bounce-back was real. He seems likely to be signed for no more than the $3 to 4 million I envision the Jays would have left after signing Garcia. Using whatever is left after that on a backup catcher is an option, though I’m pessimistic that there’s even much value out there to be had. Just leave Luke Maile in there until Danny Jansen is ready for the big leagues in June.
Put together, this option raises the team’s production by a bit more than a win, but mainly serves to raise the floor further. I think Jays fans are getting tired of the phrase “raise the floor”.
Raising the ceiling
Something’s got to give, position player-wise. There’s clearly an excess of them—the 25-man roster will have no more than 13 of them (maybe even 12), which would leave out Aledmys Diaz, Teoscar Hernandez, Anthony Alford and Dalton Pompey. While these guys are not bonafide major leaguers, they all have MLB experience (Diaz and Hernandez in particular). Moving a big league piece seems like a necessary part of raising the ceiling, though the details depend on who gets moved.
Moving Pearce or Morales
Two names that fans have focused on are Steve Pearce and Kendrys Morales. Their lack of genuine positional flexibility means that they’re best suited to play 1B/DH. But, with Justin Smoak locked into first base, the number of available ABs doesn’t really justify keeping them both. Moving one of them wouldn’t see an impact arm coming back in return, but it would open up $6 to $11 million in cap space to throw at a top starting pitcher.
In Pearce’s case, the move should be straightforward. He should produce 1 WAR or so, so the one year and $6 million left on his contract are far from prohibitive. Moving him in return for an inexpensive depth reliever could work. In Morales’ case, a trade would likely require packaging him (and his contract) with an okay prospect (something like the first Liriano trade). Perhaps, if the prospect is good enough, the Jays can get a MLB reliever in return, but this might simply have to be a salary dump.
Given Pearce’s solid splits against both lefties and righties, he seems the better option to keep and use as an everyday DH role, precisely why he probably has some trade value. Morales struggled mightily against RHP last year. Plus, Pearce’s ability to play passable defence at positions like LF and 1B makes him far more flexible than Morales. That said, it would hurt to part with a prospect just to get rid of Morales’ contract.
The key outcome of either move would be more payroll to work with. The tricky part is finding someone to spend it on. We can dream on Yu Darvish, but he doesn’t seem interested in playing for Toronto (we were on his no-trade list this season). Jake Arrieta is good, but he’s not a Cy Young candidate anymore—he’s had a 4.23 FIP since July 1st, 2016. I’d rather not pay ace money for a slightly above-average pitcher.
After them, guys like Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb are certainly options. But compared to Jaime Garcia, they’ll both require longer term and a larger annual salary. Both are solid, but it’s worth noting that they’re both projected to produce a worse FIP than Garcia in 2018.
Ezequiel Carrera is the other player fans are eager to see make way. Odds are, the most likely way he leaves the team is via waivers sometime in late March. The only way I really see him being traded for something of value is if an “old school” front office is interested in him. They may look at last year’s .282 AVG and double-digit stolen base total, his “ability” to play all three outfield positions and cheap contract and decide that they’re willing to send Toronto back a depth reliever in his place.
Turning Kevin Pillar into a starting pitcher
The big move that’s been discussed this weekend involves trading Kevin Pillar, something that’s a bit more palatable with Grichuk and his above-average CF defence now on board. This one would rub a lot of fans the wrong way—his aggressive defence has made him a fan-favourite and he has produced the 2nd most fWAR among Blue Jays since 2015 (9.5). But, that’s the point. Moving Pillar might be the only plausible way to add a legit starter to the team. In particular, Pillar might allow the team to add a younger, cheaper, controllable starter (not an option on the free agent market).
He has plenty of surplus value—about $53 million worth over three years—which would attract plenty of teams. [This assumes he produces 2.7 WAR per season, worth a total of $73 million, and receives about $20 million over this three arb years.] The tricky part is finding a trading partner: a team in need of a defence-first centre fielder, with a pitcher they’d be willing to move. A lot of potential fits are flawed in some way.
The Giants seem out of payroll space but are still desperate for a CF to patrol their gigantic outfield. Pillar would suit them well in both regards. The thing is, they don’t have a surplus of starters to trade away. Jeff Samardzija would certainly upgrade the Jays rotation, but would create a massive hole in the Giants’ rotation—it’s pretty thin beyond him, MadBum (untouchable) and Johnny Cueto (ghastly contract). He also has a list of teams he can be traded to without his permission, which the Blue Jays were not on last year.
The Royals would certainly benefit from a top defensive CF. They’re weird though. It’s not clear that they’re starting a rebuild, which they absolutely should. They seem in on Eric Hosmer, for one thing. If they tried to compete (or at least feign competing, as some have implied they are doing), they would probably want to keep their one good starter, Danny Duffy. Duffy is an intriguing option for the Jays. He’s not young (heading into his age-29 season), but he is controllable (five more years at an average of $15 million). That’s a reasonable salary for a guy with the 36th most fWAR (6.1) among starting pitchers over the last two seasons. The guaranteed term is a bit long, though.
The Orioles could be interested. Adam Jones has been a terrible defender in CF over the last two seasons and will be a free agent next winter, so there’s a clear need. Adding Pillar would set them up in 2019 and 2020. In 2018, Jones could be moved to a corner for a season, where they have prospect Austin Hays pencilled in. The only pitcher worthy to come back to the Jays would be their ace, Kevin Gausman. Given how much their rotation falls off after him, I can’t imagine the Orioles would be willing to move him. Their rotation is very, very bad.
The Diamondbacks could definitely stand to improve their outfield. The snag is that their one good outfielder (A.J. Pollock) is a good defensive CF. And a terrific hitter. The Dodgers have tons of rotation depth, but don’t have a bonafide CF—Joc Pederson struggled defensively, while Chris Taylor played his first 395 innings, ever, in CF last season. That said, Taylor has done well so far, producing average defence in CF. The A’s are in perpetual no man’s land, competitively. Boog Powell is slated to start in CF. While Pillar would be an improvement, he’s also more expensive than Powell, a trait that’s especially important to the A’s.
Kevin Pillar for Tyler Anderson
I feel like the Rockies are the best (and maybe only) fit for a Pillar trade. They want to compete in 2018, but are lacking in MLB-ready talent in the outfield corners. Gerardo Parra is bad, while Raimel Tapia and David Dahl are raw (neither cracking 250 big league PA yet). Adding Pillar would allow them to move Charlie Blackmon (and his sub-par CF defence) over to one of the corners. He’ll likely hit the free agent market next winter, creating space for Tapia and Dahl on Pillar’s flanks in 2019 and 2020.
The Rockies’ rotation is filled with young, controllable arms. Their current rotation appears to be Jon Gray, Tyler Anderson, German Marquez , Chad Bettis and Kyle Freeland. Future starters Jeff Hoffman and Antonio Senzatela are likely starting the season in the ‘pen. While I’m sure they’d hate to give one up, doing so would help solve their CF defence and general outfield suckiness problems. Plus, they have two young pitchers ready to jump into the rotation.
My pick of the bunch would be Tyler Anderson. I think he’s the guy the Rockies would most be willing to part with, as he has four years of team control remaining—whereas Gray is untouchable, Bettis is merely okay and the others have five years of control remaining. Moreover, I think he’s good enough to make a big impact for the Blue Jays in 2018 (and 2019, 2020 and 2021 as well).
Since breaking into the majors in 2016, his numbers (over the course of 200.1 IP) have been quite good. Both his ERA and FIP are better than league average (which highlights the quality of his past results), in spite of the fact that he plays in the least pitcher friendly park in the majors (which underlines his upside in Toronto).
While he has maintained better-than-average strikeout and walk rates, it’s his performance on batted balls that stands out. He ranked 12th among starters in xwOBA on batted balls, suggesting that the contact he surrenders is very, very unproductive. In contrast, his high wOBA on batted balls highlights the Coors effect—while he’s generated some of the least productive contact in the majors, he’s managed to allow some of the worst outcomes in the majors.
In a more neutral park, like the Rogers Centre (with its league average park factor), Anderson would likely see both his ERA and FIP plummet. This is evidenced by his strong xFIP—a stat similar to FIP, except it replaces a pitcher’s home runs allowed with the home runs they would have given up if they maintained a league average HR/FB%.
In order to get a better idea of what his ERA and FIP would be at the Rogers Centre, I looked for starting pitchers (from the group sampled in the table above) with similar K% and BB% to Anderson, as well as a wOBA on batted balls similar to Anderson’s xwOBA on batted balls. These are the ten most similar pitchers:
This exercise shows just how much Anderson’s ERA (and FIP) can improve by leaving Coors Field. While Anderson had a better xwOBA on batted balls than all but one member of the group above, he had a wOBA on batted balls that was far worse than every member of the group. Moreover, the group averaged a 3.44 ERA and 3.85 FIP, much better than his low-four marks. Given the similarity in strikeouts, walks and contact surrendered of these 11 starting pitchers, it stands to reason that the key to the outcome gaps is Coors Field. A 3.44 ERA would rank 26th among starting pitchers over the last two seasons, tied with Michael Fulmer. For comparison, Yu Darvish has a career ERA of 3.42. This projected ERA (or FIP) maintained over a full season projects to about 3.5 WAR.
Tyler Anderson’s surplus value depends on how one values his production and estimates his future salaries. Fangraphs projects him to be worth 2.3 WAR in 2018, which equates to 9.2 WAR ($83 million) over four seasons.
This winter, three good starting pitchers (Dallas Keuchel, Patrick Corbin, and Cody Allen) went through their final arb year. We can use their yearly average to estimate Anderson’s cost over the next four seasons: $22.4 million. [They averaged $531,000 in their final pre-arb year, $4.6 million in their first arb year, $6.8 million in their second arb year and $10.5 million in their final arb year.]
These estimates put Anderson’s surplus value at about $60 million. With Pillar’s three-year surplus value sitting around $53 million, one can see that a trade is certainly possible. In order to seal the deal, the Jays might need to throw in a decent young pitching prospect (particularly if the Rockies value him closer to a 2.5 or 3 WAR player themselves). That’s never easy to do, especially after trading away Conner Greene to get Grichuk. However, in this case, it’s a little more palatable, given the fact that they’d be getting a very good, young pitcher (with four years of control remaining) in return. Plus, the system seems deep enough to sustain the loss of two good pitching prospects.
The final question is the least knowable: would the Rockies agree to this deal? I think there’s strong reason to think so. Pillar would be a 2 WAR improvement for the Rockies outfield (in terms of pre-season projections), not an easy thing to otherwise accomplish. Anderson would be a loss, but they have the MLB depth to minimize the drop in WAR. Thus, I’d expect the net effect to be positive for them.
Ultimately, if they were to make any trade this off-season, moving a starting pitcher would be a logical place to start, given their depth there—while the Rockies rotation ranks 12th in projected team WAR for 2018, their positions players rank 22nd as a group. Turning starting pitching into position players (especially in light of the money invested in their bullpen) would create more balance and likely improve the team.
The addition of Grichuk allows this trade to work—he has played 1289.1 innings in centre field, producing 15 DRS (14th most among CF since 2014). With the move to CF, even league-average defence and a career norm wOBA would bump his projection up to 3 WAR. Beside him, Granderson would remain in left field to take the ABs vs. RHP.
There’s a few ways to fill out the rest of the OF, but my preference is to lean on Grandy and Pearce in the corners. It might be a reach, but Steve Pearce has had a JD Martinez season before—in 2014, he produced a 5 fWAR season on the back of below-average defence and a wRC+ in the 160s. Just last season, from mid-June to mid-August, he ran a 140 wRC+ (forgive the cherry-picking there). Plus, he’s strong against righties, so he could face them in RF and lefties in LF. Carrera could remain as the 4th outfielder, until one of the fellas in AAA forces his way up. Similarly, those AAA outfielders represent a costless insurance policy against struggles from Pearce at any point during the season.
A Pillar plus prospect for Anderson trade would actually net about $2.75 million in payroll. With close to $16 million to spend, the Jays could make a splash in the relief market. For one thing, I’d still be in favour of signing Matt Albers. Using the rest to go big on Greg Holland—whose .270 xwOBA ranked 50th among 254 relievers who faced 100+ batters—would be fine.
Alternatively, taking a depth route made of some combination of veteran relievers—like David Hernandez (.273 xwOBA, 59th lowest), Tony Watson (.277 xwOBA, 66th lowest), Fernando Abad (.287 xwOBA, 91st lowest) and Sergio Romo (.288 xwOBA, 93rd lowest)—would strengthen the team as well. I feel like Albers plus a couple from this group would likely cost about $16 million in 2018 salary. Adding these guys to the bullpen would allow the club to keep Matt Dermody, Tim Mayza and Carlos Ramirez in AAA, where they can keep honing their craft and get ready for their next call-up.
There aren’t a ton of easy solutions or paths forward. The free agent market is thin and, while the delayed market might yet bring prices down, it seems that the big four (Darvish, Arrieta, Cobb and Lynn) have kept their asks at four years -plus and $20 million a season-plus. Moving one of Zeke, Pearce or Morales would likely only serve to create more payroll space, useful in its own right. Pillar, on the other hand, has enough surplus value to be worth a solid starting pitcher. The problem is that there just aren’t many clear matches for such a move.
The most logical trading partner seems to be the Rockies. The two teams appear to have complementary depth and need. The Rockies boast a number of young, controllable and promising arms (many already possessing big league experience), while the Jays are still waiting for their system’s pitching depth to mature and can use another strong starting pitcher, both in the short-term and the long-term. On the other hand, the Jays have two-3 WAR centre fielders who play solid defence, while the Rockies currently have one proven big league OF who is a well below-average defensive CF.
Moving Pillar would hurt, given the great moments he’s given us. But it really seems like 1) there’s an opportunity to be had here with the recent moves and the complementarity with the Rockies; and 2) the front office is not really saying anything to refute any move really, so long as it helps the team win. Pillar has been a guy we’ve grown ready to move on from, as it became clear that his defence is the only real driver of his value on the diamond. Now might be a good opportunity to sell high on him. If a very good, promising pitcher with four years of team control is coming back the other way, Jays fans would eventually view it as a tidy bit of business. And I’m sure that, eventually, Pillar himself will appreciate the move much closer to his California home.
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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.