Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Super Bullpen

What's that on the field a catcher an outfielder, no it's the Super Bullpen
Yesterday the Blue Jays signed former closer (not that it matters) Francisco Cordero. Surprsingly to some fans at only 1 year and $4.5 million Cordero's contract is the largest guaranteed free agent contract that Alex Anthopoulos has signed in his short tenure as Blue Jays General Manager. Now as the offseason is coming to a close Anthopoulos has acquired four top end relievers in Sergio Santos, Jason Frasor, Darren Oliver, and now Cordero. With the Jays having already had Casey Janssen they now have five different guys with late inning experience. To me that doesn't matter, but to the fans who believe in the flawful (Yes I made that up) save statistic, it carries a lot of weight.

Beyond that on paper the bullpen surely looks good, definitely one of the better bullpens the Jays have had in the past decade, well until we see the production of course. Collectively Sergio Santos, Darren Oliver, Francisco Cordero, Casey Janssen, Jason Frasor, Carlos Villaneuva, Litsch had a 3.23 ERA in the 2011 season. That number would rank 6th in the league, which is 15 spots higher than where the Blue Jays 3.88 bullpen ERA ranked this year. Of course that looks good, but rather than hyping up the bullpen as many are, I thought I'd take a conservative approach.

As I said before the bullpen sure looks good on paper and has pretty good depth with Joel Carreno, Chad Beck, and more, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will perform. Last offseason the Jays signed Jon Rauch and traded for Frank Francisco expecting a couple of pretty good pitchers. In 2010 the collective ERA and FIP between the two of Rauch and Francisco was 3.44 and 3.03 respectively. Only one year later at the end of the 2011 season their collective ERA and FIP was 4.20 and 4.53. The collective ERA was 0.76 points higher and the FIP was a whole 1.50 points higher. Granted some of the production loss can be attributed to injury, but injuries are just another potential issue with relief pitchers.

Now getting to this year's potential relief pitchers there is some upside, but there's also reason to be concerned.

Sergio Santos
Being a converted shortstop, despite being 27 this will only be his third year in the MLB. So far he has been effective with a 3.29 ERA, 2.97 FIP, and 31 saves if you care about that stuff. On top of that Santos raised his strike rate and lowered his walk rate in 2011. Though all that is encouraging what also happened last year is Santos' HR/FB% raised to 11.3% and his BABIP was a concerning .269. Granted these numbers could be statistical anomalies as both were more "average" in 2010. I guess the real problem here is just that there isn't a lot of data on Santos, but he does have one of the best sliders in the league and doesn't have a whole lot of innings on the arm.

Darren Oliver
Oliver at 42 is almost twice the age of Brett Lawrie, but like a fine wine has only gotten better with age. The whole thing on Oliver is that he has posted a better ERA every year for the last five years, but what is even more encouraging is the 2.77 FIP that he posted in 2011. One thing to consider is that his strikeout rate dropped last year, but so did his walk rate so it kind of balances it out. The only real knock on Oliver would be his age and how long he can sustain success, but even that is a argument with really no basis.

Francisco Cordero
Cordero on the surface looked to have a pretty good year in 2011 with a 2.45 ERA and 37 saves (Whoopee!), but just a quick look at his FanGraphs page has quite a few reasons why he wasn't very good in 2011. For starters Cordero's FIP was at 4.02 and 1.57 points higher than his ERA, which is never a good thing. Beyond that it looks like he was pretty lucky in 2011 with an unsustainably low BABIP at .214, 80 points lower than his career average and a LOB% at 82.3%, 5.4% above his career average. Finally the stuff seems to be declining as according to Pitch/FX (via FanGraphs) he lost 1.5 MPH on the Fastball velocity. All of this sums up to an interesting 2012 for Cordero, if he doesn't get lucky again, we could be looking at a long season.

Casey Janssen
Janssen had a very good 2011 and was arguably Toronto's best relief pitcher. Beyond that there isn't much need be said. The peripherals match up with the ERA, the velocity was consistent. The only real knock I see on Janssen is that from year to year he has been a bit inconsistent, but this year and previously in his career he has shown he can be a great relief pitcher. The question really is will we see that great pitcher in 2012?

Jason Frasor
Frasor was a piece of the Colby Rasmus trade at the 2011 trade deadline and now its seems the Jays only payed pennies on the dollar to re-aquire Frasor. Besides that, over his career Frasor has been as consistent as a relief pitcher not named Marian Rivera can be. He has only posted an ERA above 4.50 once and and posted the third best numbers of his career last year. I'd really like to point out something wrong with Jason Frasor, but to my knowledge there just isn't anything.

Carlos Villaneuva
Last season Villaneuva was the swingman of sorts for the Blue Jays. He filled in when the Jays needed a starter and he wasn't as bad as Jo-Jo, but that sure isn't saying much. This year with a bevy of options for the rotation Villaneuva will almost surely be in the bullpen, where he belongs. Though despite that what is concerning about Villaneuva, last year he almost cut his K% in half, which is never a good thing. Maybe it was the extra innings that caused a lack of Ks, but I'm not so sold. Villaneuva had similar production to the rest of his career, but if he doesn't start striking guys out it could be difficult to sustain success and he could add another half a point on his ERA to match his xFIP.

Jesse Litsch
I remember the days when Jesse Litsch was pitching way above his head to a sub 4.00 ERA as a starter and how the peripheral stats suggested he would regress. Now he has reached that point and stats like xFIP and SIERA suggest that he will get better and sometimes I just don't get it. If he pitches to his peripherals again he could put out some very good production and if he doesn't well then he just won't be a very good pitcher, kind of like last year.

Final Thoughts
On paper the Jays bullpen looks scary good and maybe the best they've had since the early 90s. But as we baseball fans should know bullpens are volatile and things don't always turn out the way they were "supposed" to. Notwithstanding the great bullpen that Anthopoulos built, I don't really see the value in all the money on the bullpen, when for example you could have let Joel Carreno pitch instead of Francisco Cordero and he could not have possibly been much worse. Some say that Anthopoulos is stockpiling arms for the trade deadline, but once we get to the deadline I'm sure we'll realize teams are willing to pay as much as they used to.

The reason being that in past years when a good, but not great relief pitcher went to free agency he'd likely end up being a Type B free agent, meaning the Jays could have gotten a supplemental first round pick out of him. That means that in negotiations at the deadline Alex could have always said that whatever you're offering, it better be worth more than a supplemental first round pick.

Now with the new CBA nixing the Type A and Type B free agent systems all of these good, not great relief pitchers will be worth nothing come the offseason. So rather than having the leverage of the possible pick that Anthopoulos could obtain, if he really wants something out of them, he'll have to take whatever he can get. More often than not I'm guessing the "prospect" will not be better than a supplemental first round pick, nor will it be worth half of the salary that is paid out to the reliever. If Alex Anthopoulos truly wanted a good bullpen thats fine he built one, but to suggest he's stockpiling arms seems a bit naive.

Of course we haven't seen how the market will react to the new CBA, so come July 31st I could be the one looking like the idiot. Because we all have to remember that last year Anthopoulos did trade some relief pitchers for one of the better young outfielders in the game at last year's trade deadline. At the very least this "Super Bullpen" should shush up the FAN 590 Jays Talk callers, and for both our sanity as well as Mike Wilner's I sure hope that happens.

As a side note I know the last couple posts have been kind of crapping on people's expectations, but in the next post their will be something quite a bit more optimistic so you can stay tuned for that.

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Sunday, 15 January 2012

Time to Play the Waiting Game

Depending on who you ask the 2011-2012 offseason for the Jays could be classified as any number of things. On one hand Anthopoulos hasn't addressed all of the pieces on his wish list, having only bolstered the bullpen, but not acquired the middle of the order bat and front of the rotation starter that I'm sure both he and the fans wanted. Though on the other hand he did address the most pressing need, the bullpen, by acquiring Sergio Santos and Jason Frasor through trade and signing Darren Oliver in free agency.

Some people would call that a quiet offseason, but those three changes to the 25 man roster are the same amount that the Yankees have made. Maybe the fans are just a wee bit spoiled from last offseason when there was five trades (6 if you count Olivo) plus another two major league signings, but theres no way anyone can expect that pace to continue. Last offseason many of those trades and signings were completed to fill roster spots, but this year is that really needed?

The Jays already have five solid guys in the infield (Arencibia, Lawrie, Escobar, Johnson, Lind) and another two in the outfield (Rasmus, Bautista) and that doesn't include the Thames/Snider battle in left field. Then in the rotation you could say three spots are filled with Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, and Henderson Alvarez and then there is at least three worthy candidates to fill the last two spots. Granted you could always sign or trade for better players, but in a year that at least I don't think the Jays are ready to compete in, why not let the guys already there play?

If the Jays sign Prince Fielder, sure he'd be an upgrade over Lind, but to what extent? Lind does have "some" upside if you believe in his 2009 season and Fielder has downside in his inconsistencies. Then if the Jays trade for a front of the rotation starter it would be an upgrade and give the Jays some piece of mind, but again you have to think of what the other players could become.

Before the year Kyle Drabek had, some pegged him as a guy with #2 starter upside and before all his injuries Dustin McGowan had top of the rotation stuff. What's to say one of those two starters or even a player like Henderson Alvarez doesn't step it up and improve. Beyond that even a player like Brett Cecil could return from mediocrity, or a player like Brandon Morrow could finally live up to his peripheral stats. Of course this is for the most part highly unlikely, but with this much uncertainty in what the above players could do and also what players like Travis Snider, Colby Rasmus, Eric Thames, and even Brett Lawrie might do, why rush the process?

Looking at the Jays record last season they finished at exactly .500 a record of 81-81 and ten games out of a playoff spot. Some players will surely improve and having Brett Lawrie at third instead of Jayson Nix is definitely a plus, but how can we know how good the team will truly be? Using Sky Kalkman's WAR Calculator as well as the Bill James projections (via Fangraphs) I found that James puts the Jays' win count around 90 wins, but he also puts both the Yankees and Red Sox at around 105 wins meaning he thinks the Jays are still 15 games worse than the beasts of the east. Looking at other projections systems the sentiment seems to be similar.

In the latest Cairo projected standings (A projection system I generally like) they have the Jays at 78 wins and 15 games out of a playoff spot. No matter what projection system you use be it Bill James, Marcel's, PECOTA, Cairo, or even just your gut feeling, there is very little way to work the numbers such that they end up with the Jays in a playoff position. As well according to the two projection systems I cited, not even 2001 Barry Bonds would push the Jays into the playoffs in 2012.

With all that said there's no need to punt the season and call it quits now (like the Oakland A's), but rather take a wait and see approach and with knowledge gained in 2012 to put that towards a better team in 2013. By 2013 prospects like Anthony Gose, Deck McGuire, Drew Hutchison, and Travis d'Arnaud will likely be pushing for spots on the 25 man roster out of spring training. As well if the Jays feel like they are really one player away at the point a quick look at MLBTR's 2013 Free Agent Class page shows that top of the rotation starters Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, and Zack Greinke could all be potentially available with a more than formidable supporting cast of Anibal Sanchez, Francisco Liriano, and Brandon McCarthy all of which have had at least one 4 WAR season in the past two seasons.

Of course any number of these guys could be extended particularly Hamels and Cain, but with a more certain team going in to 2012, the Jays will have a better view on what their financial flexibility will be as well as their playoff proximity. Furthermore rather than attempting to acquire a top of the rotation starter in a weak market (i.e. 2011-2012 offseason) they would be doing it in a saturated pitching market. We saw what happened to a less saturated pitching market this year when Buster Olney tweeted that free agent starters Roy Oswalt, Edwin Jackson, and Hiroki Kuroda were dropping their asking prices. As well as the major pay cut that Madson took because of a saturated closer market. All even more reason to wait out the 2012 season. And as an added bonus in 2013 there is the possibility that there may be two wildcard teams an indescribable addition to the Blue Jays playoff chances.

On the whole despite what some may believe the Jays haven't and won't really "need"anything this offseason. Anthopoulos recently responded to the question of whether or not the roster the Jays have now will be the one they have going in to spring training while on the FAN 590 stating that, "Right now I would say yes, but I'm hopeful that something breaks in the next 2-3 weeks." Some are hopeful that this means something will happen, but I take it as Anthopoulos just continuing the interest in the team, but still stating that he pretty much has his team set for spring training. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is your choice, but in my opinion I am more than happy with the Jays offseason. They addressed their biggest need without sacrificing too much of the future and they left themselves in a position to let players like Travis Snider the ability to work out their issues. Here's to a hopeful 2012 that gives us a better picture of what is to come in 2013 and beyond.

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Thursday, 5 January 2012

An In-Depth Look at Extending Brandon Morrow

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With the Blue Jays offseason in a bit of a slump and the Darren Oliver signing being the most exciting thing at the moment, I found myself having to write about something different. Rather than speculating on Garza rumours or a possible (I use that term loosely) Prince Fielder signing, I have come to the realization that other than the occasional non-consequential signing the Jays likely won't do much in terms of roster changes this offseason. Instead they will likely stick to their plan of building from within and then keeping the talent in the organization. Up to this point the latter half of the plan has only needed to be addressed to a small extent, but now with young talented players like Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, and the centre of this writing piece Brandon Morrow all possibly needing extensions, Alex Anthopoulos definitely has his work cut out for him.

Morrow as most of you probably know was traded to the Blue Jays from the Mariners in December 2009 for right handed reliever Brandon League. Seattle had drafted Morrow in the 2006 draft with presumably the intention of making him their closer. At the time this seemed fine as Morrow had the velocity and plus pitch that you traditionally look for in a closer, but as time went on the Seattle front office and coaching staff created some kinks in Morrow's development. These kinks being that towards the end of the 2008 season, the Mariners decided that they would begin to move Morrow to the starting rotation and out of a relief role, utilizing the ole Earl Weaver strategy.

Long story short Morrow's stints as a starter didn't turn out as expected and it resulted in the Mariners demotion of him to AAA as well as the multiple changes between roles in the starting rotation and the bullpen. Due to this Morrow began to become a "change of scenary" for Seattle in the sense that he didn't need to be traded, but would likely have trouble succeeding in Seattle organization through the development process they had created. Ultimately all of this hoopla turned out well, for the Jays at least, as it led to the trade that landed them Morrow in 2009. Reports initially coming from the Blue Jays organization subsequent to the trade suggested that they intended on using Morrow exclusively in the starting rotation, giving Morrow a clean slate to work on.

Now what does all this mean and why is it at all important to a possible contract extension. Well if you simply look at Brandon Morrow's service time and age you would see that he is heading in to his second year of arbitration and is eligible for free agency after the 2013 season. But if you take into account the time that Morrow spent with the Mariners and how he was never really used as a full time starter there, then Morrow is in some sense of the word a third year player.

In terms of the actual contract extension this means that rather than the negotiations acting as if Morrow is a guy with 4 years of service time, Anthopoulos could make the argument that Morrow is really just a third year player coming off his sophmore season. I'm sure Morrow's agent would have something to say about that, but it would be a good argument for Anthopoulos to make. If that is the route that Anthopoulos takes I'm sure guys like Jon Lester, Yovani Gallardo, Ricky Romero, and Jaime Garcia would come up in terms of comparable contracts, all of which signed for around 5 years and $30 million.

Now obviously it is quite unreasonable to expect Morrow to take that type of contract when MLBTR already projects him to make $4.2 million in arbitration this year. Instead I'm sure Morrow's agent will come back comparing Brandon Morrow to the recently extended John Danks and rightfully so. Danks signed an extension for 5 years and $65 million with the Chicago White Sox this offseason. Had he not signed the extension, Danks would have been eligible for free agency after the 2012 season one year before Brandon Morrow.

The Danks comp likely to be brought up would be interesting as Danks and Morrow are very similar but different at the same time. They are similar in the sense that both players are in their fifth year in the MLB and close to free agency, but due to time spent in the minors Morrow has one less year of service time and 3 less years of full time starting experience. Other than that one similarity they are pretty different in their execution, but both have been good starters over the last three years. Danks has the higher fWAR in the last three seasons, due in large part to a higher innings count. He also holds a lead in the traditional stats like ERA and Wins, which often increase arbitration and sometimes free agency earnings. Though on the other side Morrow holds a firm lead in his K% as well as the more sabrmetric and predictive stats such as FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. (Customized FanGraphs stats table here)

What this all boils down to is that in the end Morrow will likely get a lot less guaranteed money than John Danks, but also significantly more than Ricky Romero. Danks' contract is worth about $65 million and Romero's is worth $30.1 million, it seems like such a simple-minded way to do it, but if you take the average of those two contracts it is about $47.5 million over 5 years. If there is to be a $47.5 million dollar extension proposed, I'm thinking it will probably work out something like this...

If you look at the layout of the proposed contract, depending on how good they think Brandon Morrow really is, the contract seems to work out for both sides. Morrow gets some added financial security and the Blue Jays get 3 years of Brandon Morrow's free agency at a reasonable price with a chance at quite a bit of upside. Using the current assumption of approximately $5 million = 1 WAR we can figure that for Morrow to be worth the contract extension he only needs to produce 1.9 WAR per year. If we use FanGraphs version of WAR we see that over his past two years as a starter Brandon Morrow has averaged 3.5 WAR per season, far and above the value he would need to provide in order to fulfill the proposed contract extension.

Even if we use the less optimistic Baseball Reference version of WAR we can see that over the past two years Morrow has averaged 1.5 WAR. Then using Sky Kalkman's WAR Spreadsheet, we can figure out how much Morrow has to improve to fulfill his contract. As expressed in the first table over the course of his contract Morrow has to be worth an average of 1.9 WAR per year. In the past two years Morrow hasn't been at that mark, but if you take his average ERA from the past two years and then assume a steady innings increase you get a total of 11.0 WAR, which is still 1.5 WAR in surplus value. Even if you assume that he misses some time to injury, Morrow would still have to miss roughly 140 innings over the course of the contract, which isn't unprecedented, just to be worth the 0.1 WAR less than the value of the contract.

Finally if you at all believe that Brandon Morrow will reach his "potential" that predictive stats such as his 3.51 xFIP or 3.31 SIERA over the past two years indicate, then that is all just added value. If you believe that over the course of his contract that Morrow will match his xFIP (top half of the table below) with the same innings counts as in the above table then he will be worth approximately 24.8 WAR, which is 15.3 wins of added value. Then if you are a real dreamer and believe that Morrow can match his SIERA (bottom half of the table below) he will be worth about 27.6 WAR, which is 18.1 wins in surplus value.

Of course almost all of this is speculative research and depends quite a bit on Morrow accepting a contract similar to the 5 year $47.5 million dollar contract proposed earlier, but the contract at least in my opinion seems pretty fair and through this has a very good chance of providing surplus value. Though as I stated there is always the chance that Morrow would turn down that contract as he has been known to follow some sabrmetric stats or as he calls them "nerd" stats. He may feel like he has more potential to outperform this contract, but financial security is always nice too, especially for a pitcher. Then there is also the off chance that the Blue Jays organization feels like he isn't even worth the proposed amount. Whatever it is we as fans can only hope that at some point Brandon Morrow reaches his "potential" and doesn't just become one of those players with the great peripheral stats, who never lives up to them.

The Anthopoulos regime has been good with extensions thus far after handing them out to players such as Jose Bautista, Ricky Romero, and Yunel Escobar, we can only hope that the Jays front office continues the trend going forward. With Brandon Morrow and whatever other young cost controllable player the Blue Jays acquire.

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Monday, 2 January 2012

Jays Bolster Bullpen by Bringing Back Frasor

Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Jason Frasor (54)
Frasor closing for the Jays
On New Years Day the Jays traded minor league right handers Daniel Webb and Myles Jaye for relief pitcher Jason Frasor from the White Sox. On the surface the trade truly brings back a semi-true Blue Jay in the sense that Frasor has been a Jay almost his entire career save for the half a season he spent in south side Chicago. As you delve further you see how the trade helps the Jays as well as the effect that is has on Frasor.

Another plus in the trade is that the Jays only had to give away a couple lower level talents in Webb and Jaye. Webb is a 22 year old playing in A ball (so a little old for the league) and only pitched to a 5.59 ERA and 4.40 FIP. Granted the rate stats such as the 2.13 K/BB ratio are somewhat encouraging, but either way this definitely isn't a prospect that you'd see on any Blue Jays Top 10 Prospects list and likely not on any top 30 lists either.

As for Jaye, he has a little more polish and potential. He was the Blue Jays' 17th round pick in the 2010 draft, but was signed for $250,000 which is well above slot. As a deadline signee Jaye didn't play in short season ball in 2010 but in 2011 with the Bluefield Blue Jays of the Appy league he posted a 3.00 ERA and fantastic peripheral stats. Jaye may be better than Webb, but like Webb he won't be popping up on any Keith Law or Kevin Goldstein lists any time soon, well at least on the Jays side.

To go along with the very little that the Jays gave up because it was part salary relief, in Jason Frasor the Jays bring back a solid bullpen arm and a guy who has been among the most consistent relievers in the MLB over the past decade having only posted an ERA above 4.50 once in his career. As well with Frasor comes some veteran leadership that casual fans just eat up and a well known face because of all the time spent with the Jays.

In the bullpen, the role that Frasor likely fits in to is a share of the right handed setup man role with Casey Jannsen. He figures to add yet another piece to the surprisingly quick built bullpen in Toronto as so far this offseason Anthopoulos has added Sergio Santos, Darren Oliver, maybe Aaron Laffey and now Frasor to a bullpen that was in the bottom half of the league in most conventional and sabrmetric statistics.

Jason Frasor
Frasor while with the White Sox
AA took ahold of the Andrew Friedman method and quietly built a strong bullpen much like the Tamba Bay Rays last offseason and in their pennant winning 2008 season. The Rays are often cited as an example of why you don't need to spend big bucks on the bullpen and how bullpens can be built in a year. From the looks of it Anthopoulos has taken note from a division rival and hopefully like it did for the Rays it works for the Jays.

Overall there really doesn't seem like any downside to this trade for the Jays and almost limitless upside. The prospects really don't figure to turn in to too much as they don't seem to have large amounts of promise. In the endwhat the trade boils down to is just a feel good trade for the Jays, something the Jays desperately needed after the Yu Darvish fiasco and the Prince Fielder drama. Because no one can complain about bringing back the Johnny Mac of the bullpen, Jason Frasor.

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Both photos courtesy of Keith Allison and licensed under Creative Commons