Deconstructing the Blue Jays Spine


I had been mulling over a post looking at the spine of the Jays for quite awhile, but a bad dose of procrastinitis set in.  I knew I was going to have to do a bit more studying of advance metrics to ensure I didn’t make any poor judgements on the players in question.  And, for whatever reason, I wasn’t leaping at the chance to look at spreadsheets until my eyes started spinning.  I also thought I had a bit of time, as surely no real decisions would be made on any of the players in question until the winter meetings at least

But, this tweet spurred me into action.  I have to admit, I am quite surprised that AA would a) comment on any roster construction for next year at this time and b) use the word ‘entrenched’ for a number of players who are in the midst of pretty poor seasons.  By making this statement now, Anthopolous has removed a lot of the winter speculating fun we would have had.  Or did he?

The spine of a baseball team is often regarded as the defensive foundation you build on.  However, especially in the AL East, man cannot live on defense alone.   So let’s look at the overall games of the current middle and how it may look next year.  Despite AA’s best efforts to remove any doubt as to who will be in Jays blue come April 2013.

Since there was only one position in the Jays spine that is seemingly not set for next year, we’ll start at second base.  My colleague

Sep 5, 2012; Toronto, ON, Canada; Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar (5) catches an infield pop up in the first inning as third baseman Adeiny Hechavarria (3) gets out of the way against the Baltimore Orioles at the Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

Kyle Matte wrote a very good piece on Kelly Johnson’s struggles and who may replace him next year.  I agree that the chances Kelly returns are very slim.  He is an excruciatingly frustrating player to watch, with a K rate at 27%, he consistently strikes out in any and all situations.  As a left handed pull hitter, moving a runner from second to third would seem one of the more basic things to do.  But no, Kelly often confounds expectations by whiffing.  That being said, I don’t believe the Jays will be ready to contend next year so, if the market for KJ totally collapses this off-season, I do see a situation where he comes back on a cut rate one year deal.  That would work for both parties in that the Blue Jays get a warm body to fill a hole while waiting for one of their minor league middle infielders to develop, a trade option to present itself, or hope for a better free agent class in 2014.  And Johnson gets another opportunity to create a better market for himself, hoping for a long term deal.

If I were to put a number on it, I would say there’s a ten percent chance Johnson returns.  For me, there’s even a less chance we see the position occupied internally by Adeiny Hechavarria.  Having appeared in twenty-six games for the Jays so far this year, I think we can ascertain two things, despite the small sample size.  One, Hechavarria is very good defensively and would be wasted at second base.  And two, he can’t yet hit at the major league level.  He strikes out even more than KJ despite seeing a large percentage of fastballs.  I still believe he will get there, but another year at Triple-A wouldn’t be a bad thing for him.  If he does, due to necessity, start 2013 in Toronto it should be at shortstop.  Which leads us to….

In all honesty, Yunel Escobar hasn’t been much better than Kelly Johnson.  He may not provide the negative optics of a strikeout per game but he also doesn’t really get on a base, leading to an abysmal .285 wOBA.  This season, all his value has been on the defensive side of the ledger.  Advanced defensive metrics can be a bit misleading though, and with Escobar to turn thirty this off-season, you would expect to see a decline in defensive value going forward.  Which is why, if one of the middle infield positions must be filled from within, Hechavarria should play short while Escobar shifts to second.  He may not like it, but I don’t think there is any argument that Hechavarria is a better shortstop.  You are also now hiding Hechavarria’s bat at a premium defensive position while hoping Escobar has a bounce back season at the plate.

And if a position move gets Escobar too bent out of shape then he is always a very good trade candidate due to his team friendly contract.  I don’t believe AA will explore that option this off-season and Escobar will start 2013 with the Jays, but with Hechavarria waiting in the wings, Escobar could eventually either shift to second or be dealt.

Moving to the outfield, and I’m starting to sound like a broken record here, Colby Rasmus, in center, has had a poor season.  In fact, Fangraphs has him as the second worst qualified center fielder in terms of WAR.  AA, in the same scrum that discussed the entrenched positions, had this to say about Rasmus’ season.  I can only guess this was said to protect his player.  If he genuinely believes the ex-Cardinal has had a good season, then well, I’m not sure what team he’s been watching.  Colby has shown flashes of what hopefully can be, but these highlights were mainly crammed into the month of June when he put up a 137 OPS+.  Since then though, it’s been below average, including a horrific August.  Despite his struggles, Colby will definitely (barring injury of course) start next season in center.  It’s beyond 2013 where it gets interesting.

I’ve been reading a bit of debate lately on whether Rasmus should be extended.  Given the season he’s just had, that’d be foolish  Toronto has a glut of center fielders in the system, from those that are almost ready, Anthony Gose, to those that are a few years away: Jake Marisnick, Dalton Pompey, and this year’s first rounder DJ Davis.  Rasmus should get another year, but if he doesn’t improve on this season, then Gose will be ready by 2014, and the other three will all have moved up a level.  Colby was bought low so selling him after a poor season wouldn’t be so terrible.  If you are going to progress in such a difficult division, then you need your prime position players to be better than what Colby has provided.

At the base of the spine, the ‘sacrum’, so to speak, we, again, have more questions then answers.  I could be off-base here, but I am presuming that AA’s entrenched catcher is J.P. Arencibia.  Which is why I’m not taking the statement at face value.  If anyone has a chance to be traded this off-season, it is JP.  I have to admit, I am confused by the re-signing of Jeff Mathis.  This makes it very difficult to carry both JP and Travis D’Arnaud next year.  It’s possible, with D’Arnaud’s knee injury taking longer than expected to heal, if he misses the at bats he was going to get in the Arizona Fall League, then Toronto will start him in Triple-A next year.  However, if he hits like he did this past season, he will officially be finished with the minor leagues.  Then what do you do?  You have to call up D’Arnaud as a catcher.  You can’t put added pressure on him by moving him around the diamond or asking his bat to play at DH.  Arencibia’s bat doesn’t play anywhere but behind the dish.  In fact, if you look at the last two seasons of WAR, he, like Rasmus, is at the lower end of the positional rankings.  I would be happy to have both Arencibia and D’Arnaud on the roster as both are young, cheap, and controllable, but we now have one of the worst hitters in baseball signed for a buck and a half to back up whoever is the starting catcher.  I’m shaking my head right now.  My best guess for 2013 is that D’Arnaud supplants Arencibia as the starting catcher around May and JP is packaged with with a prospect or two, and, maybe Escobar for a second basemen or starting pitching.

I looked at the value of the Jays spine versus those of the three American League division leaders (using the Yankees for the East as still can’t believe the Orioles are there).  The Jays 5.5 WAR trails New York’s 13.4, Texas’ 13.8, and Chicago’s 8.4 by some margin.  By no means is this the only reason the Jays have only sixty-five wins, but if you want to compete in the ultra-competitive AL East then you need better performances from the middle of the diamond.  Toronto needed a lot of things to break right this season if they were going to have a shot at the playoffs.  Instead, things went horribly wrong, which only goes to show, that if you are relying on players having bounce-back seasons then more often than not, you’ll be disappointed.  I agree with AA that LF, 1B/DH, and starting pitching are his main priorities this off-season, but he can’t overlook the fact his spine has been so weak this season.  If things start off as poorly next season, he will need to be pro-active in making the changes necessary to solidify those positions.