Blue Jays and A’s: Could They Match Up Again?

Could the potential exist for another Billy Beane blockbuster with the Blue Jays?

As anyone who has seen the movie “Moneyball” will know, Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s is constantly fighting an uphill battle.  He strives to be competitive with a budget that in 2015 was the 25th highest in baseball, and just over one-half of that of the Blue Jays.  His response is a paradigm common to many other small-budget teams:  acquire young talent (whether by trade or draft) and take full advantage of their inexpensive early years.  Then, when the players start to become expensive, trade them for cheap young talent to restart the cycle.

Oakland has followed this model for over a decade, from the Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder trades in December 2004 to (and you may remember this one!) the Josh Donaldson trade in 2014.  But the A’s are not alone – do you remember the Indians’ trade of Bartolo Colon to the Expos in 2002, or the Rays’ trade of Price to Detroit in 2014?

Which brings us to the 2016 Oakland A’s.

Most prognosticators are pessimistic about the A’s chances in 2016.  PECOTA projects them to finish dead last in the AL West with a 75-87 record.  USA Today’s projection is even worse, expecting a 66-96 record, and the Vegas odds against the A’s winning the World Series are in the 75-1 range.  All of which means that, if you are the A’s and you have a player asset that you envisage trading this year or next, it might make sense to make that trade now rather than wait a year.  Particularly if you have reason to fear that the value of that asset might diminish over the next year, and not just because he would have one less year of team control.

Which brings us to Sonny Gray.

Gray is 26, and 2016 is his last year of pre-arb.  Based on his excellent performance to date (his ERA since his debut in 2013 is the 10th best in baseball among starters), once Gray hits arbitration in 2017 he will become very expensive very quickly.

But there are red flags as well.  Gray’s SIERA has risen every year, from a #1-starter level of 3.04 in 2013, to a #2 starter level 3.56 in 2014, to a good-#3-starter level of 3.80 in 2015.  

Gray has outperformed his defense-independent pitching statistics every year of his career, his strikeout minus walk rate is very average, and his batted ball breakdown points to a pitcher that has been lucky … fangraphs
Fangraphs projects Sonny at a 3.47 ERA in 2016, or basically an average #2 starter.  Beane is known to be a highly analytic executive, so it is all but certain that he is intimately familiar with these statistics.  Hence the dilemna.  Short of winning the Cy Young in 2016, there is little that Gray could do that would dramatically enhance his trade value.  But given this disturbing trend of peripheral statistics, it is very possible that a poor year could be taken as evidence of a declining trend rather than just a poor year.

 

An injury year could also be a significant issue.  To date, Gray has shown remarkable resiliency.  His 427 innings pitched over the last two years is the 12th highest in the majors.  But Gray is 5’11”, which is small by major league pitcher standards.  This has led to speculation that his major league career could be short, given the strain that pitching at this level places on a pitcher’s arm.  Again, the risks and rewards are not balanced:  a healthy 2016 would likely do little to assuage these concerns and increase his value, but a non-trivial injury could result in a significant negative effect.

The A’s do not have many trade chips of Gray’s value (but then, what team does?)  They can ill afford to gamble on regression or injury in 2016.

Some might say that the A’s should hang on to Gray until the 2016 trade deadline.  This way, they would be better able to judge the A’s own chances, and they might get a better price from a team who believes that one pitcher could put them over the top.  But what if Gray is underperforming, or worse, injured?  And even if he is pitching well, would the trade-deadline desperation be sufficient to offset the lost half-season?

Which brings us to the Blue Jays.

Would the red flags associated with Gray’s performance and size be sufficient to turn off the Jays?  I would argue not.  A team with a larger budget can afford to take chances that a small-budget team can not, as one bad contract will not completely cripple them.  And if Gray *could* continue to produce at his current level, he would be immensely valuable to a contending team.

Would the Jays be a good fit?  Gray is a valuable player, so he would only come at a cost.  Given the Oakland paradigm, it is likely that the A’s would be looking for young, cost-controlled players in exchange, including at least one player who is mlb-ready.  So the recent speculation about an Oakland interest in Drew Hutchison might be valid – Drew is making $2.2 million in 2016 and is under team control through 2018.  But it is likely that, given the number of teams also interested in Gray, the Jays would have to add at least one high-potential young player – likely of the Osuna / Sanchez / Alford / Travis calibre.

Would/could/should the Jays do it?  This would depend largely on the Jays’ perception of what they are getting and what they are giving up.  If they see Gray as a perennial Cy Young candidate, then perhaps yes.  If they see Sanchez or Osuna as the next Noah Syndergaard (whimper), then perhaps not.  But this is not the same situation as the David Price deal in 2015:  the Jays would be acquiring four years of team control of a pitcher whose floor appears to be that of a strong #3.  And the Jays are in the unusual position (particularly for them!) in 2016 of having pitching depth.  So the loss of two #5 starters, or a #5 + a late inning bullpen arm, would not be unthinkable.

The bottom line

2016 is looking like an unusual year for the Jays.  Re-signing Jose and Edwin appears increasingly problematic, and there is not all that much in the 2016 free agent class to replace them.  But with both of them (and Cecil, Saunders, Storen, etc) highly motivated to perform in their contract year, and with a few extra wins potentially being the difference between baseball and golf in October, it might make sense for the Jays to trade a bit of future for an enhanced present.

 

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