Step off the Ledge, Blue Jays Fans

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It’s officially 2014, but Blue Jays fans and writers alike can’t stop dwelling on the 2013 season. I suppose that’s what happens when Vegas picks your team to win the World Series and they finish in last place. Many people thought Alex Anthopoulos would come out of the gates running this offseason, making moves to improve the team that some still think is a 74-win team on paper. With the lack of moves and an angry fan base bickering back and forth on Twitter and in comment sections of blogs, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the off-season so far.

Payroll Complaints
After only one season where Anthopoulos brought in two huge contracts, something I see all over the Internet is that people think Rogers has no more money to play with. There are certainly some valid reasons to think this is the case, like how they haven’t landed a real option to start behind the plate (sorry Navarro fans, he’s not a true starter) and they have not signed a true starting second basemen and AA has made it pretty clear that they’re content with a Ryan Goins/Maicer Izturis platoon. On the surface these look like nickel-pinching moves, however, the issue with complaining about payroll is that we just don’t know how much more Rogers is willing to give after last year’s salary increase.

The Jays opened the 2012 season with an $82-million payroll. After arbitration-eligible players are settled, the 2014 opening day payroll is expected to be a little over $130-million. That is not a sign of cheap ownership unwilling to spend. If Anthopoulos was indeed cut off and barred from increasing payroll further, however, I would be right there with other fans torching Rogers. It would be a horrible time to hit the brakes and refuse to open the wallets further considering the franchise is essentially all-in and most certainly in win-now mode.

We also don’t know what dialogue Anthopoulos has had with other teams or agents. For all we know, he had better options at second and catcher that just didn’t want to sign to play in Canada, or maybe a trade fell through—we just don’t know what has been explored. People have expressed disappointment with the team not upgrading at second (especially after Mark Ellis signed with the Cardinals), but how do we know the Jays’ brass didn’t try? There are things going on behind closed doors that we simply don’t know about. As Canadian fans, we also have to accept that we aren’t exactly high on the free agent landing spot list. When we talked to Rogers Sportsnet’s Dirk Hayhurst on the podcast he was very adamant about the difficulty of luring American players to Canada.
Looking at the next few seasons, the payroll situation changes dramatically. As it stands now, the Jays have only $27-million committed for 2016 before contract renewals and arbitration. I find it hard to believe that Rogers isn’t willing to bump up the 2014 payroll to cover a short-term deal such as the qualifying offer that could have been extended to Josh Johnson, or a few small deals to improve second base and catcher. As early as 2015, Melky Cabrera, Adam Lind and Brandon Morrow (who does have a $10-million club option) are all off the books. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for Rogers to buy heavily into a three-year window, forking over a massive amount of money only to cut off Anthopoulos and limit payroll a year later after a failed season. The money will be there if and when AA wants it.

What if AA can’t make a significant move?
I don’t think this will happen, but just for fun let’s pretend Anthopoulos can’t land anyone this winter. As I write this, the only departures so far have been Josh Johnson, J.P. Arencibia, Rajai Davis, and Mark DeRosa. With those four gone, this is still a roster that is very similar to the one that prognosticators loved heading into 2013. It may be disappointing that Anthopoulos hasn’t made any significant moves, but it may be a good sign that he hasn’t panicked and made a move for the sake of making a move–he’s being careful with his top prospects and starting pitcher depth on the farm. There are advantages to waiting out the market and if he does choose the free agent route he may not have to drastically overpay—remember what Cleveland was able to do last season grabbing Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn late in the offseason? Or how about Milwaukee with Kyle Lohse?

We knew going into last season that this was an obvious three-year window with the current roster. The 2016 payroll mentioned above will tell you that. The last thing that should’ve happened to start this offseason was a panicked front office selling off Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman for pennies on the dollar, or a massive contract handed out in a weak free agent market.

Anthopoulos is playing it smart by waiting out the market. The starting pitching market specifically has been slow to develop as teams and agents alike wait out the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes. When Tanaka signs later this month, Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez will likely still be on the market and the longer they are, the more their asking prices will fall. At the beginning of the off-season, Jimenez was reportedly seeking a five or six-year deal—now he’s expected to get only four years.

Personally, I wouldn’t want any part of the pitchers I just mentioned. If Anthopoulos can wait out the market and land Garza, Jimenez or Santana on a shorter deal than those three are likely to land then I’ll feel slightly better. Call it a hunch, but I think the reason we haven’t seen a big deal for a starter yet is because Anthopoulos is making a play for Tanaka.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if the Jays do nothing. Essentially the same roster will be on the field that promised so much hope for 2013, but this time, they’ll be fresh and healthy (how long that lasts is still up in the air). Let’s step away from the ledge, shall we?

The “He’s Not Arencibia” Argument
The only addition to the Major League roster this winter has been Dioner Navarro—the shining light that allowed the Jays to finally usher incumbent catcher J.P. Arencibia out-of-town. There was a lot of joy amongst Jays fans when the journeyman Navarro was signed—a common response to any logical negative word written about Navarro was, “He’s not Arencibia.”

No, he’s not Arencibia. He’s provided only two more wins in 335 more games and 1113 more PA’s than Arencibia. He also had five passed balls in 55 starts last season, and is a step down in receiving skills from JPA. The last time he played 100 games he had a worse wOBA and wRC+ than JP’s 2013 season. Navarro has been praised for a new work ethic and patient plate approach, but his 2013 swinging-strike percentage was 9.1%, well above his career average of 6.6%. He did post a very impressive 10.6% BB rate in the first half of 2013, but that dropped to 6.4% in the second half. People seem to be in love with this move despite the risk attached to it. Navarro’s 266 plate appearances in 2013 were very good and Arencibia’s 497 PAs were very bad, however, it’s impossible to ignore what a risky move it is to bring in Navarro to start behind the plate and praise it as an upgrade. It could very well end with a similar sinkhole at catcher that we all suffered through last season.

However, the trade with Philadelphia that brought in veteran journeyman catcher Eric Kratz for underachieving reliever Brad Lincoln was a very nice pick up. Kratz won’t hit a ton but does provide very good defense and he should end up taking some of the load off of Navarro—addressing the depth issue. A big reason Arencibia’s season snowballed on him was that there was no one else even worth considering at the position. He may have been better if his playing time was limited slightly—the same will have to be true of Navarro.

The Hunt for 200 Innings
Everyone wants as many 200+ innings pitchers in their rotation as possible. Sounds amazing doesn’t it? Reliability, consistency, and not seeing ten different AAA lifers making spot starts is all we can hope for in 2014. “200 innings” and “reliability” are the two most important attributes in any starting rotation. When looking through the list of 32 pitchers that cracked 200 innings in 2013 you see some great household names. Two Blue Jays and one free agent on a lot of wish lists are there as well.

Despite terrific second halves, R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle had dreadful starts to the season which crushed their overall yearly statistics. How often did these two go seven innings or more?

Dickey in 2013 had the fourth most innings in baseball, was tied for most starts, 66th in ERA, 74th in xFIP, and 75th out of 79 qualified starters in HR/9. Of his 34 starts in 2013 he was only able to get through the seventh inning 14 times. In 2012 he made it through the seventh 22 times. In 2013 he gave up 7 homeruns in the seventh inning alone against only 66 total hitters.

Buehrle in 2013 was 28th in innings pitched in baseball; he tied for second in starts and was 63rd in ERA and xFIP. He was also 58th among those qualified 79 starters in HR/9. He made it through the seventh inning 12 times in 33 starts in 2013, 16 times in 2012 and 17 times in 2011. Even Buehrle’s overall inning count has been flirting with falling below the vaunted 200-inning-mark in the last three seasons (2011 – 205, 2012 – 202, 2013 – 203). I’m a little concerned that we’ve seen the last of Buehrle pitching 200 innings in a season. He lost his mechanics in the first month of the season and didn’t get comfortable until the end of May. He has never lit up the radar gun, but the one thing he’s been able to do is throw consistent velocity from the beginning of the season to the end. In 2013 he was averaging 85 MPH on his fastball from March to June, but he lost a couple of ticks in his last three months averaging 83, 84 and 84 respectively. He will be making $39-million over the next two seasons and if his greatest asset as a pitcher is his durability, I’d be worried going forward.

Don’t get me wrong, Dickey and Buehrle consistently making 30+ starts and pitching 200 innings year in and year out means two less minor leaguers that have no business pitching for a major league club won’t be in Tornto, but I just think maybe some are looking at the 200 innings number and not looking any further—not to mention that Dickey is 39 and Buehrle is entering his age-35 season. Reliability is fantastic and should be an absolute must, given the team’s track record over the last two years, but let’s just look deeper before getting too excited.

Don’t Jump
Despite my overall positive outlook, I still have obvious concerns heading into the season. Can Jose Bautista and Brett Lawrie both stay off the DL? Will Colby Rasmus and the bullpen continue to dominate like last season? Can Dickey solve his Roger Centre homerun issues? Will Buehrle still make it to 200 innings? Can Izturis and Goins avoid being a black hole at second base?

Despite all the questions, I’m still very confident that this team can be in the wild card hunt as is. I look at a roster with Bautista, Encarnacion, Reyes, Lawrie, Rasmus, Melky, Morrow, Dickey and Buehrle and still get all warm and fuzzy inside just like last off-season. I would however be shocked if the Jays don’t make some improvement to the roster before opening day.

Some people forget that the 2013 Jays were three games out of the last wild card spot in June, right around the time Morrow and J.A. Happ were both injured and Reyes and Lawrie were still on the DL. 3B, SS, C and 2B were all holes in the lineup. While they still lack serious bench depth, the young pitching crop is very promising—we could see Stroman, Sean Nolin and Drew Hutchison fill significant roles for the 2014 Jays.

Be patient Jays fans. If I were a gambling man, I would be betting on something big happening in the next few weeks.

Happy New Year.

Picture via United Nations Association in Canada via Flickr.