Going into 2015, Ryan Goins had only played about 100 games for the Blue Jays. But most people had already formed an opinion of his value: very good fielding with flashes of brilliance, and an absolutely terrible bat. Terrible as in “of the 403 mlb players with 300+ PAs in 2013-2014, Goins’ wRC+ of 41 is 401st”. But his UZR/150 of 17.3 over that same period (38th best in baseball for 300+ PA players) and his ability to play both second and shortstop made him a valuable, if limited, bench player.
For the first half of 2015, the Jays got pretty much what they were expecting. Ryan put up a 60 wRC+ with a .226/.273/.321 line, but delivered his usual solid+ defense. But then something happened.
There are many different versions of what happened to Goins’ hitting game in the second half of 2015. Some (including Goins himself) give credit to Brook Jacoby and his team for letting Goins find his own solution rather than forcing changes on him with which he was not comfortable. Some credit a small change that Jacoby suggested, having Goins keep his bat closer to his shoulder. And some say that the greatest trigger was Devon Travis‘ injury on July 28, which gave Goins a full-time starting job and the confidence that he would continue to start even if he had a few bad games. Whatever the reason, Goins exploded for a 112 wRC+ in the second half of 2015.
But Goins is playing every day, you might say. How can he be today’s hidden asset?
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hit
The first caveat about Goins’ performance is the small sample size. It is not uncommon for players to get hot / lucky for a few weeks or months, so Ryan’s August and September have to be taken with a grain of salt.
The second caveat is one of adjustment. In the past, Goins had the reputation of swinging at anything. As a result, pitchers were able to pitch him outside the strike zone and still get him out. Now that he is being more selective, he is drawing more walks on those same pitches. But major-league pitchers are (mostly) no fools. Once they see what a batter is doing, they adjust. So it is not surprise that Travis’ walk rate, which jumped from 7.1% in July to 18.6% in August, has come back down to 9.9% in September. And with it, his wRC+ has dropped from 151 in August to 96 in September.
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So there are very real questions about whether Ryan can maintain his current pace. And, even if we discount the crazy-good August and say that September is a better indication of Goins’ true value, that is a very impressive pace. If Goins could maintain a 96 wRC+ while playing SS at the +11 UZR/150 level he has been doing in 2015, he would be about a 3.5 fWAR shortstop. In 2015, that would have made him the third most valuable SS in baseball. And keep in mind that Goins is not arb-eligible until 2018, and not a free agent until 2020.
Ryan’s role in 2016
It feels strange to be saying this, but it is entirely possible that the Jays would not have room for a 3+ fWAR infielder in their 2016 starting lineup. Neither Troy Tulowitzki at SS nor Devon Travis at 2B are likely to lose their starting gigs, and there is somebody named Donaldson who will be hogging 3B for (hopefully!) a very long time. So the Jays could find themselves with an almost-all-star infielder on their bench. This is not entirely a bad thing – with injuries, and the need to rest (particularly Tulo), Goins would likely get a few hundred PAs. But it begs the question of whether there exists a scenario where Ryan could provide even greater value. Particularly since the Jays have two other “hidden assets” who might be able to ably fill such a bench role in Maicer Izturis and Darwin Barney.
Trade bait or trade catalyst?
It would only take one GM to believe that Goins is for real to make him a very attractive trade candidate. Plus-plus defense at both short and second with an average MLB bat at a MLB-minimum salary should bring a very good return. As valuable as Goins might be on the bench, if he could bring a starting player in trade with equivalent value to the Jays, I would do the trade.
But it is very possible that opposing GMs could discount Goins’ value (or pretend to, for the sake of negotiations) due to the caveats noted above. Then the question shifts: instead of “how much do trade partners believe in Ryan?” it becomes “how much do the Jays believe in Ryan”? Because the alternate trade scenario is for the Jays to trade Tulo or Devon, and to move Ryan into the position vacated.
As for example – suppose that the Mets really are as upset with Matt Harvey as people are speculating, and they decide to move him in the offseason. What would they want in return? Likely a player who brings (a) excellent hitting skills, as that is an area of need, (b) an ability to play in the field, since they have no space for a DH, and Duda seems locked in at 1B, and ideally (c) some star quality, to bring back the fans who could leave if they lose Cespedes and Wright. They would likely also want someone with more than one year of team control left (as opposed to someone like a Bautista, say) as Harvey will remain under team control through 2018. And they would be looking for a top talent – say, 4-6 fWAR – as Harvey is expected to perform at that level. Is it only me, or does Tulowitzki sound like a perfect fit?
But for the Jays to consider moving Tulo, they would need to have confidence that they had a suitable replacement at SS. If they believed that Goins could continue to produce at a ~3 fWAR level, then the incremental gain of adding Harvey to the rotation might outweigh the downgrade at SS and they might consider the trade. But their ability to consider this trade depends largely on their confidence in Ryan.
The bottom line? If Goins’ breakthrough is for real, it adds value both directly (though his own contribution) and indirectly (in the flexibility it could create for the Jays).