The trade cost of a true ace is very high. But might the Blue Jays be able to find a pitcher with top-of-rotation potential using advanced stats?
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In a previous article, I suggested that the Blue Jays need to acquire a solid #2 pitcher in the upcoming offseason. This will provide the necessary one-two punch for the 2021 playoffs (!) as well as taking the pressure off Nate Pearson to produce at a ToR level right away.
Problem is, of course, that a true #2 – even one with only a single year of team control remaining – will not come cheap. Texas tried to trade Lance Lynn this past trade deadline, but their asking price was too high. Pitchers like Zack Greinke will likely command a similar price, and if Trevor Bauer insists on a one-year deal the draft pick loss due to his almost-certain qualifying offer (for Toronto, it would be roughly pick #52) will be hard to swallow.
So what is the answer?
The Blue Jays could gamble on a rebound candidate. Someone like Matt Boyd, whose 2019 xERA was 21st in baseball (500 PAs) but who cratered in 2020. Or Robbie Ray, whose 3.76 SIERA from 2016-19 was 28th in baseball among qualified starters, and whose 11.86 K/9 was third (Sale and Scherzer, in case you were wondering) but who melted down in 2020. Players like that might well be worthwhile gambles, at the right price, but they come with high risk. If the Jays are serious about competing in 2021, this kind of gamble could be chancy. Plus, a player like Ray will still be very expensive.
So what kind of gamble should the Jays make?
For each MLB pitcher, Statcast calculates an expected ERA (xERA) based on a careful analysis of every ball that pitcher had put in play over the year. So if a run is scored on a poor defensive play (but not one so poor as to be an error) Statcast does not charge the pitcher with a full run. As you would expect, there are “lucky” pitchers (whose ERA is lower than their xERA) and “unlucky” ones (xERA<ERA). Might the Jays be able to acquire a pitcher (or two) whose xERA indicates breakout potential? And might they acquire these diamonds in the rough for less-than-extortionate prices?
Here are some potential candidates.
Yusei Kikuchi of the Mariners had a 2020 ERA of 5.17. Not great. But his xERA of 3.59 was 32nd in baseball, just ahead of guys like Greinke and Scherzer. Yusei is signed for 2021 at $17 million – making him the second highest salary on the Mariner team. After 2021, his team has an option to extend him for 4 years at $66 million. Not cheap! Kikuchi has a full no-trade, but might he waive it for an up-and-coming team like Toronto – a city with a strong Asian presence? And might a Seattle team in rebuild mode and with financial constraints be tempted to make Kikuchi available?
Trevor Rogers started 7 games for the Marlins in 2020. His 6.11 ERA hid a 3.51 xERA. And Mr. Rogers’ 12.54 K/9 was top-20 in baseball (min 20 IP). Rogers is currently listed as the Marlins’ #6 pitcher – might a Florida team rich in young arms be willing to give him up?
John Means of the Orioles had a decent season, with a cromulent 4.53 ERA and 0.3 fWAR in 10 starts (43 innings). But his SIERA was 3.93, and his xERA was an exceptional 3.11. The O’s are in full rebuild mode, and Means will play 2021 at 28 years old. Might he be available, even to a divisional rival?
Raley Brooks was a starter for 5 years in Korea, averaging over 180 innings per year. He was signed by Houston last offseason, and pitched 20 innings for them in relief in 2020 at a 4.95 ERA. But his xERA was 3.13. Might the Jays acquire him at a reliever price, and try to convert him back to a starter?
The bottom line
Clearly, the best option for the Jays is to acquire a proven, veteran #2. But, even in these crazy times, competition for those arms will be intense. It behooves the Jays to have a backup plan. And even if they *do* succeed in acquiring a Lynn or Darvish or Greinke, a player like Kikuchi would look awful good in powder blue.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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A Jays fan since pre-Series, Jim’s biggest baseball regret is that he did not play hooky with his buddies on 7 Apr 77. But hearing “Fanfare For The Common Man” played from a rooftop on 24 Oct 92 helped him atone.