Just Say No: Weighing in on the Blue Jays Free Agent Pitchers Discussion

 

Marcus Stroman

Marcus Stroman

 

Another title that I considered for this post was “Why the hell are people suggesting the Jays go out and pay $15 million for aging free-agent pitchers?” but I thought the other one was a little more succinct.

 

 

Look. It’s not that I think that this year’s free agent crop of pitchers is bad. It’s not great but the fact is that the pitchers who are good enough to provide an upgrade over what the Blue Jays have are all going to command upwards of $15 million per season for multiple seasons.

 

Why isn’t this an attractive proposition? First of all, it’s well known that, for the most part, when you sign a free agent, you’re paying for past performance, not future performance. Unless you get lucky (like Pittsburgh did with Francisco Liriano), shopping for high-priced talent is not going to give you the return on your investment that you had hoped for.

 

This also isn’t attractive because, due to back-loaded contracts, the Blue Jays are on the hook for $120.2 MM in contracts ALREADY for just 16 players without including arbitration-mandated raises for Colby Rasmus, Brett Cecil, J.P. Arencibia and Esmil Rogers. MLB Trade Rumors gives an estimated total figure for the arbitration-eligible players as $11.2 million. So, for 20 players, the Blue Jays will have a payroll of $131.4 million. Add in close to MLB minimum (about $500,000) for another 10 players or so that you’ll have under contract and the payroll is already pushing beyond $135 million.

 

What this means is that in order to add a near or potential top-flight pitcher, you’re going to have to have to push the payroll past the $150 million range. And that’s without addressing the catcher and second base positions.

 

Using Jon Heyman’s handy list of free agents as a guideline, it’s easy to see that anyone who would be considered improvements are asking for at least 4 years and $60 million. These pitchers include Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana. Heyman sees Ricky Nolasco getting four years and about $50 million, but that’s about it for guys that you might get excited about.

 

There are two big questions here. 1) Is Rogers (the company, not Esmil) willing to push the payroll beyond $150 million for the next 2-3 years (or more)? 2) Are the Blue Jays willing to take the chance on a length of contract that has these already or soon-to-be past-their-prime pitchers getting paid big dollars for diminishing results?

 

As you have read from my post’s title, I think that the Blue Jays should “just say no” to free agent pitchers and focus on either making a trade or building from within. Gideon Turk over at Blue Jays Plus thinks that the Blue Jays should trade Kyle Drabek, Anthony Gose and Daniel Norris to the Cubs for Jeff Samardzija. Personally, I’m not on board with this idea. While Samardzija has been good (but not great) for the Cubs, I don’t think that giving up more prospects (although Drabek wouldn’t be considered a prospect at this point) is the answer to get someone like him. I do like the “Shark’s” fielding independent numbers from his two years as a starter (2012: FIP – 3.55, xFIP – 3.38; 2013: FIP – 3.77, xFIP – 3.45) and he has very sexy strikeout numbers (over one per inning as a starter). He’s also a hard thrower who maxes out his velocity at an average of 94.5 mph (last year) which is impressive. However, his fastball actually is a below-average pitch (according to Fangraphs PitchF/X Pitch Values) and it’s his slider that’s the real “plus” pitch. Keep in mind that the transition from the National League to the American League for pitchers is a very real concern and coming to the AL East with small, homer-happy ballparks can be a killer (just ask R.A. Dickey). While cheaper than a pitcher on the free agent market, my gut feeling is that we’d be feeling buyer’s remorse on Samardzija sooner rather than later.

 

I don’t like to speculate on who the Blue Jays will go after in trade, but I want to explore a few pitching possibilities from within their own system. I was recently putting together a depth-chart for the major and minor league teams and basically concluded that the Blue Jays (barring no additions and subtractions) will have 12 pitchers with major league starting experience and I think that at least you could conceivably have eight or nine pitchers competing for the #4 and #5 slots in the starting rotation.

 

My Depth Chart for Starting Pitchers:

 

While you might not agree with the order that I have the pitchers in, I can easily see at least four of these pitchers stepping up to take a job in the majors next year. Rogers was fairly solid overall as a starter and actually had a very respectable 3.78 xFIP as a starter.

 

Another pitcher that might make a bigger jump than expected is Marcus Stroman. While I have him listed at #11, with a good Spring Training, he has the quality of stuff that can translate into a mid-rotation starter, giving him more upside than even Nolin has. Scouts are marveling at his stuff, especially a cutter and a changeup to go along with his already good fastball and slider. He has also added a curveball which give him five potential major league average pitches (and at least two of them are “plus” pitches) that he can throw to batters on both sides of the plate. While people think that he will always be prone to the home run ball due to his short stature, he has the stuff to strike batters out and will certainly have an opportunity.

 

The other dark horse that I wouldn’t count out is Dustin McGowan. He’s already expressed interest in being a starter again and the fact that he’s making major league money (not so bad at $1.5 million) and is out of options so, if healthy, he’s going to be on the major league roster. While he struggled with his control last year, a full spring training to ramp up the innings and fine-tuning on his arm could provide him with the base of repetition in his mechanics that could lead to his first full season in the major leagues since 2007. While it may be too much to ask, McGowan still has the stuff and could be a very cheap option in the rotation. It also helps the bullpen log-jam that contains a lot of players who are out of options. Obviously, no one wants to be too optimistic about McGowan because the potential for disappointment is so high, but he is definitely a guy you want to keep in mind.

 

As for Drabek and Hutchison, they’ve both been showing that their stuff is too good for the minor leagues. Hutchison has been particularly impressive in the Arizona Fall League and will certainly get the opportunity (at least in Spring Training) to show that he can recapture his 2012 form (and grow from it). Drabek was dominant in the minors but didn’t get much of a opportunity to show his stuff upon his return to the major leagues in September. He only pitched two and a third innings so you can’t really read anything into his major league stats. The good sign was that his fastball averaged 93 mph (or, if you believe Pitch F/X, 92.7 mph) and he showed signs of that very sharp curveball. Additionally, his changeup showed the best numbers in terms of pitch value (again, from a very small sample size).

 

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned Todd Redmond yet. In an ideal world, he won’t have to make 14 starts for the Blue Jays next year. In fact, in an ideal world, he won’t have to make any but as a guy who held up over half a season’s worth of starts in the AL East, he’s definitely a guy who will be valuable for providing depth.

 

Will all of the pitchers listed at the #4 spot and lower in my depth chart be a part of the Blue Jays going into Opening Day next year? Probably not. I’m sure Alex Anthopoulos will make adjustments that I can’t see coming but the fact is that the Blue Jays DO have depth. Is it likely that they’ll have as many injuries as they did over the last two years? No. Possible, but unlikely. The fact of the matters is that the Jays need about eight major league ready starting pitchers and they certainly have that. While I’ve said in the past that I think Stroman needs another year in Triple-A before he’s ready, I’m actually willing to admit that I have changed my mind. Another year in the minors certainly wouldn’t hurt Stroman but I think that a lot of teams have had success bringing college pitchers along to the majors quickly (see the St. Louis Cardinals) and Stroman offers far more upside than J.A. Happ or Chad Jenkins do.

 

Barring injuries, trades and free agent acquisitions, I see a rotation of R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow, Mark Buehrle, J.A. Happ and Esmil Rogers being perfectly solid to start the year. Substitute a healthy and more polished Dustin McGowan and ML-ready Marcus Stroman for Happ and Rogers and you could have something really exciting. With Hutchison and Drabek waiting in the wings, you have six pitchers with the potential to go from a replacement-level back of the rotation to something much better. Sure, there are a lot of question marks on the mound for the Blue Jays but the players that we thought would be “sure things” last year proved to be anything but.

 

The question that AA will have to ask himself is, “Can we get better results by spending more money?” My question in response would be, “How much money is necessary to get how much better?” My gut feeling is that if the Blue Jays are going to spending $150 million next year, spend that last $15+ million somewhere else.

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