More Blue Jays WUTS: Encarnacion for Wheeler?

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The beauty of wildly unfounded trade speculation (WUTS) is that it takes many forms.  In previous posts, I have talked about trading hitting for mlb-ready pitching with upside as well as trading prospects for stud rentals,  trading prospects for “flawed” pitching with upside, and even trading stud pitching for stud pitching.

Each of these posts had one thing in common – their primary focus was on providing help for the 2015 year, while not mortgaging the future.

But as we approach the trade deadline, and as the Jays continue to hover around .500, the importance of 2016 and beyond increases.  And a new question emerges.  If it is July 31, and the Jays have lost out on the Cuetos and Sharks – what then?  Do they just stand pat, and see if their existing 40-man can take them to the finish line?  Or is it time , particularly if they are still at ~.500, to think longer term?

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The problem with being a seller at the deadline is that most contending teams are hesitant to break up their existing rosters.  Trading existing strength for new strength only fills one hole while creating another.  Contenders accordingly tend to prefer to trade prospects – but the Jays already have a strong minor league system, so additional unproven prospects are arguably not what they need.

So what the Jays would need is a contending team with a high-upside, relatively proven, moderate-cost asset with a strong pedigree who is not part of their current playoff run and not a critical part of their long-term future.   And what would they have to offer?  The most likely scenario is someone like Edwin Encarnacion – an absolutely elite hitter with 1.5 years of remaining control.

Which brings us to Zack Wheeler.

Going into 2013, Wheeler was ranked the #11 prospect in baseball by Baseball America (#8 by mlb.com).  In 2014, he pitched 185 innings with the 5th fastest fastball in baseball (tied with Strasburg, to be precise) and a curveball with the potential to be a true 7 pitch.  His third pitch is a slider, which has been described as “at least above-average at the moment and should be a third plus pitch at maturity”.  His 2014 stats were more than impressive for a sophomore – a 3.54 ERA with a 3.49 xFIP and 3.54 SIERA, and his 9.08 K/9 was 12th in the majors (just ahead of someone named Bumgarner).

But Wheeler was having elbow pain late in 2014.  Like so many young players (see Colabello, Chris) he did not want to risk losing his roster spot, so he played through the pain. He tried platelet-rich plasma therapy twice this offseason, without success, and finally underwent Tommy John surgery on March 25th.  He is expected to have a recovery time of ~14 months, which would mean a return early in the 2016 season.

So today’s WUTS:  a trade built around Edwin for Zack.

Why would the Mets do this trade?

The Mets are currently only 3.5 games out of the NL wildcard, despite being 21st in team wRC+.  They badly need hitting if they are to contend.  And they are fortunate (read: blessed) to have an exceptionally strong rotation headed by Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and (whimper) Noah Syndergaard.  They are one of the few teams in baseball who do not *need* a Wheeler, and as a result they are apparently listening to trade offers for him.

Jul 11, 2015; Kansas City, MO, USA; Toronto Blue Jays batter Edwin Encarnacion (10) rounds the bases after hitting a two-run home run against the Kansas City Royals during the fourth inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Edwin Encarnacion has been struggling – by his standards – so far in 2015, with a wRC+ of only 116.  But in the last 30 days, this has risen to 129, with 5 HRs.  By comparison, the highest production among Mets regulars over that period is Curtis Granderson with a wRC+ of 122 and 3 HRs.  And Edwin brings the additional advantage of having one of the longest average-HR-distances in baseball, which makes him doubly attractive for games at Citi Field (which is ranked the 3rd worst hitter’s park in baseball).  In fact, Edwin leads the majors in “no-doubter” home runs in 2015 with 11, just ahead of some scrubs named Stanton and Pujols.

Why would the Jays do this trade?

Edwin is an excellent player, and is of considerable value to the Jays.  Why would they give him up?

Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto Blue Jays /

Toronto Blue Jays

In calculating the value of a player to a team, it is necessary to calculate the value added relative to the alternative.  Just as the Mets are crazy lucky to have so much good pitching, the Jays are fortunate (?) to have a logjam of talent at the 1B/DH position.  Edwin has a strong 116 wRC+, but Justin Smoak is 119, Chris Colabello is 142 and Danny Valencia is 131 against LHP … and 136 against an almost-equivalent number of ABs against RHP.  Plus, the Jays have been trying to use DH to showcase Dioner Navarro and to rest players like Jose Reyes and Jose Bautista.  And finally, the Jays have overwhelmingly the best offense in baseball, so if any team could afford to trade hitting for pitching it would be them.

But why would the Jays want Wheeler?

Much has been made of the Jays’ young pitching and their tremendous upside.  But with players this young, there are still questions as to when they will be ready.  Sanchez has an excellent 3.55 ERA in 2015, but with an xFIP of 4.51 and a SIERA of 4.84.  Norris’ mlb SIERA is even higher, at 5.02.  Hoffman, Castro, Osuna and Harris combined have started a grand total of zero major league games, and even Stroman has only pitched 130 mlb innings.  By comparison, Wheeler has pitched 258 mlb innings over two seasons, including a 185-inning season in 2014. And young, controllable pitchers of Wheeler’s calibre are rarely available on the trade market.

Some might say that speculation about trading Edwin is moot, as he now has 10-5 rights.  But it is by no means clear that he would refuse a trade to (a) a contending team where (b) he could increase his future FA value by playing 1B every day and (c) he would get high media attention, finally putting the title of “MLB’s most underappreciated player” to rest.

The bottom line?  If the Jays can tool up for a 2015 run, more power to them.  But it behooves them to have a fallback plan if things do not work out.  And a player like Wheeler does not come available every day.

Next: Is a Blue Jays Trade for James Shields Worth the Risk?

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