St. Louis and the Trade That Makes Sense
At .619 and +132, the St. Louis Cardinals possess baseball’s best winning percentage and run differential, respectively. Even so, they have the upstart Pirates (1.5 GB) and always dangerous Reds (5.0 GB) nipping at their heels in what has proven to be a surprisingly competitive NL Central division. While they don’t have many holes, I suspect the Cardinals will be looking to make a few upgrades before the end of the month. Toronto can’t (or rather won’t) help fill their void at shortstop, but the clubs may have a match in the outfield and bullpen.
Colby Rasmus’ replacement (and starting centerfielder) Jon Jay has a .295 wOBA this season, and while that number is at least slightly respectable against righties (.311 wOBA), he’s been downright atrocious against southpaws with a .237 wOBA. The Cardinals have begun to shift starts in the direction of 28 year old career minor leaguer Shane Robinson, and while he’s produced a .329 wOBA in his 85 plate appearances, I don’t think anyone is realistically expecting him to keep that up. Enter Rajai Davis. The current Blue Jays fourth outfielder would be the ideal platoon partner for Jay, as Davis has throttled left handers throughout his career. While the sample size on his .387 wOBA this season is rather small, his .342 mark in 832 career plate appearances against southpaws offers more reassurance. From Toronto’s perspective, Kevin Pillar – who I wrote about extensively here – is more than ready to take advantage of an opportunity created in the Rogers Centre outfield.
The back end of the Cardinals bullpen has been nothing short of dominant, as in 91.0 innings, closer Edward Mujica and setup man Trevor Rosenthal have combined for 2.0 WAR (via Fangraphs) with 106 strikeouts against just 12 walks. Beyond those two, however, there are a few more question marks. Seth Maness has a 2.70 ERA in 33.1 innings, but the sinkerballer is striking out just 5.13 batters per nine, which is hardly the blueprint for late-game dominance. Randy Choate has a 2.11 ERA in his 21-plus innings, but as Blue Jays fans (and Adam Lind) know, he’s a situational lefty, nothing more. The last few spots in the bullpen have been occupied by converted starter Joe Kelly and a revolving door of other relievers, and the group has been worth -0.8 WAR in 117.1 innings (or an even 0.0 in 102.2 if you exclude Mitchell Boggs and his implosion of a season).
April 10, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Casey Janssen (44) pitches against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
It just so happens that Toronto has a plethora of strong bullpen arms at their disposal; one might even say too many with Sergio Santos not long for Buffalo. The Blue Jays are currently rolling with right handers Casey Janssen, Steve Delabar, and Dustin McGowan, and left handers Brett Cecil, Aaron Loup, Juan Perez, and Darren Oliver. In addition to Santos, the Bisons’ bullpen also currently features Neil Wagner, who in 19.1 innings for the big club produced a 3.26 ERA and 3.67 FIP while featuring a fastball averaging 95.9 miles per hour. This is simply too many assets for not enough roster spots, and in a season where contention now realistically appears out of reach, the Blue Jays would be best served to capitalize on a market that has seemingly put a high demand on quality relief arms.
With his value peaking, there may never be a better time to sell-high on Casey Janssen than right now. He had offseason surgery to cleanup his shoulder, but there have been multiple occasions this season where he was unavailable due to lingering soreness, and given that John Gibbons has used him on back-to-back days just three times this season (admittedly, the failure to consistently be winning back-to-back games has likely played a part), it’s fair to wonder just how healthy the right hander really is. Furthermore, his fastball velocity is down roughly 1.5 miles per hour from the level it was in 2011/2012. With 18 saves, a 2.59 ERA, 2.41 FIP, and 0.9 WAR, Janssen has remained productive, but he’ll be 32 in September and has a long history of shoulder and arm troubles that suggest he may not age the most gracefully.
Janssen would also offer the acquiring team some financial flexibility, as not only is his 2014 club option worth a very reasonable 4 million dollars, but it has no buyout – yet another brilliantly constructed contract by Alex Anthopoulos. From the Blue Jays’ perspective, given that the bullpen has been the one position of strength with ample depth this season, they may see it as advantageous to not only get that future salary off the books (hopefully to reallocate it towards the other holes on the roster), but also to get a valuable asset in return.
For St. Louis, second base went from a weakness to a massive strength in a matter of months. In the offseason they were criticized for failing to upgrade the keystone position, but the front office obviously knew more about its players than the rest of the world, as Matt Carpenter’s transition from third base to second has gone beyond flawlessly. His 4.4 WAR is the most in all of baseball at that position, and despite his .390 wOBA, the value hasn’t exclusively come from his bat. Carp has shown himself to be a capable defender despite just an offseason to learn the position, and at 27 years old he’s only now entering his prime years. Furthermore, the Cardinals have him under team control through 2017.
By no means am I suggesting the Blue Jays target Matt Carpenter. However, his emergence has done Toronto a favor in another way – by halting the ascension of prospect Kolten Wong. St. Louis selected Wong 22nd overall back in the 2011 draft, and for the better part of two years he was the heir apparent to second base. Wong doesn’t have the offense for the infield corners, and his defense prevents shortstop from being a viable destination, either. He is now the epitome of blocked, and at least to me, is the perfect solution to the problem Toronto has been dealing with since 2009. Blue Jays second basemen have been worth a grand total of NEGATIVE 0.9 WAR since Aaron Hill’s 38 home run season. That’s over three and a half years of less than nothing.
Kolten Wong playing for Hawaii (Image credit to Bill Mitchell and Fourseamimages.com)
Baseball Prospectus ranked Wong as the Cardinals 6th best prospect entering the season, and in their midseason Top 50 report, he was up to 4th thanks to the graduations of Rosenthal and Shelby Miller. Jason Parks and staff also now consider him to be the 34th best prospect in all of baseball, saying “… pure hitter likely to find a permanent home at the major-league level in 2014.” Wong is almost the complete opposite of what the current front office has looked for in prospects and amateur talent: he’s more polish than potential, and more baseball player than athlete. But that’s exactly what this team has a deficiency in right now. The roster has enough boom or bust players, what it needs – particularly at the bottom of the lineup, is some reliability and consistency.
Kolten Wong is precisely that. The 22 year old is a career .299/.361/.442/.803 hitter in the minor leagues, and while he doesn’t have any plus-caliber secondary skills, he knows how to take a walk, he’s capable of stealing a few bases, and he’ll give you 10 or more home runs in any given season. In his scouting report on the 5-foot-9 Hawaiian, Parks described Wong as low risk, with the potential to be a solid-average regular. Parks’ concluding bullet perhaps encapsulates him the best, saying “… He’s a gamer all the way, and despite not owning a high-impact tool collection, makes the most of his size and skills. He’s going to hit the baseball at the highest level, with enough sting to keep pitchers honest and defenses aware. It’s not a superstar profile, but Wong is the type of player that will stick around on a major-league roster for 15 years. He’s that guy.”
That guy is exactly the type of player Toronto could use. Forecasting trades in baseball is not only difficult, it’s borderline futile, but sending Casey Janssen and Rajai Davis to the Cardinals in exchange for Kolten Wong makes all kinds of sense to me. Both teams are dealing from a position of strength in order to address an area of weakness, and neither asset is the often ballyhooed two month rental. Brett Lawrie is not the answer at second base (he never should have been moved from third base), but in my opinion, Kolten Wong might just be.