Tanaka? More like Ta-NO-ka!

Hilarious, I know.

As the entire world now knows, the Yankees have signed Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka. The deal is quite massive, seven years and $155 million. And that includes an opt-out after four years. That averages out to more than $22 million per year.

While I don’t think anyone can ask why the Jays didn’t bid more, the main criticism toward the organization was that they dropped out after the years went beyond five years. The argument, they say, is that if there was ever a player to go over your self-imposed five year contract rule this guy was it.

He’s only 25! He’s an ace! He’s what they need.

While I’m not terribly happy they pulled out the five-year rule, I don’t think Tanaka is necessarily THE guy to break that rule for. Yes, he’s only 25, but he’s not your typical 25. Since becoming a member of the Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2007 he’s thrown a total of 1,315 innings. That would rank him 19th if he were in the Major Leagues, just behind Edwin Jackson and ahead of Jon Lester. 

And he’d be far and away the leader for pitchers 25 and younger. Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez have thrown 1,180 and 1,113 innings respectively. Though if you add his minor league numbers Kershaw has thrown 1,363 innings, and Hernandez has thrown 275 before 2007.

Still, Tanaka’s up there. He’s thrown a lot of innings, and a lot at a young age. As an 18-year-old he threw 186 innings and has thrown more than 150 every year since. He’s thrown more than 170 innings in six of his seven seasons.

The prevailing thought among Major League teams is to work their innings totals up. A pitcher who was throwing 180-plus innings as a teen could scare some people off. And Toronto, as a team that seems to be slow to build up innings totals of its young pitchers (see Sanchez, Aaron), could have been especially scared off.

Now the flip side is that he’s been quite durable. And I suppose that’s true, but it still is a pretty decent reason for a team to give pause.

If Toronto is loathe to hand out deals more than five years, you’ve got to figure pitchers – as the most volatile and injury prone position – are even less likely to get a longer deal. Add to that a pitcher who wasn’t developed in the same way you believe pitchers should be developed and I could easily buy Tanaka’s not the guy to break the five year rule.

 

A lecture from the Jays

There are a few perks in my real life day job. One of which being that I can get some pretty cool access to some pretty cool events.

That happened last week when I was able to sit in on a presentation to sports management students at Brock University by members of the Blue Jays. It was part of their Winter Caravan, and pitchers Esmil Rogers, Dustin McGowan, Todd Redmond and Brandon Morrow were on hand. For the most part what they had do say, while kind of interesting, wasn’t all that relevant.

But there were also quite a few members of the front office there. Among them was assistant GM Andrew Tinnish. And there was one answer he gave to a student question that I want to focus on.

The question, well it was kind of ridiculous. It was about Moneyball and how that has impacted what teams do. The student obviously didn’t realize the Moneyball concept is a decade old and most teams have moved on and evolved from it. However, it did spark an interesting response from Tinnish regarding the organization philosophy, so I guess the question was fine.

For me, the big takeaway was his discussion surrounding when to use analytics and when to use good, old fashioned scouting. Essentially, Tinnish said the further away you get from the majors, the more you should be looking at scouts’ opinions.

And that makes sense, to me at least, for a number of reasons.

One, the stats kept in the minors, college and high school aren’t nearly as in depth as the majors. You simply can’t do that much with the raw data provided at those levels. Not to mention the fact the data may not be as reliable.

Also, I think the further away you get, the less the numbers really matter. It’s not about what they’re doing, it’s about what they can do. Now obviously the numbers tell a part of the story. But if you’re getting down to the lower minors and high school baseball, I think the number tell you less and less of the story. At that stage in the game there is still so much development for the players to undergo before they’re Major League ready. Is a player with power at A ball going to keep getting bigger and bulkier, turing him into someone without the bat speed to be a hitter? Does the raw, toolsy player have the ability to turn those tools into skills and realize his potential? Has this player filled out or is there more physical development to wait for?

Those questions can’t be answered by numbers, for the most part. A scout with a good eye may be better suited to see those things the will turn a prospect into a major leaguer or bust.

The other part of his answer was geared more towards the major league level. He basically said it’s a 50-50 situation between analytics and scouting. This part of the answer is tougher to gauge, but I’m not sure how I feel. Now obviously, Tinnish is a scout first, so that’s his priority. Analytics aren’t really his thing. And while he did say they have a substantial analytics department, and the scouts will work with the numbers guys, bouncing ideas off each other, I just got the feeling that it’s not as progressive as I’d like.

Now maybe it was because he was already getting further and further from the question, or maybe he just didn’t want to divulge exactly the thinking of the organization, but I just get the feeling the team leans more to scouting and less progressive analytics. 

While that’s not necessarily terrible I’d like to see the team be as progressive as possible and continually look for new ways to exploit the market. AA managed to do that with relievers in free agency, but with that gone, the team needs to find something new and get out ahead of it.

People often talk about copying teams like the Rays or Athletics. While that’s not the worst idea, I’d prefer them to instead leapfrog those teams in terms of progressiveness and new age thinking. 

That’s the way you truly set up your organization for sustained success.

On pitching acquisitions

One thing I’m always hesitant and reluctant to do, when it comes to baseball, is to look too far into the future. So much can change in a year, six months, or even less, that trying to do so is often useless.

And yet, that’s exactly what I’m going to do right now. This offseason’s free agent pitching market has been discussed ad nauseum, with everyone wondering where players are going to go and as Jays fans who, if any, pitchers is the team going to sign. There’s obviously still time, and we’ll see what plays out in the coming couple of weeks, but I’m wondering if the front office isn’t being hesitant to sign anyone because they have an eye towards next year.

Obviously, for a team in a strange position like the Jays – a should-be contender coming off a virtual clusterfuck of a season – there’s pressure to do something to write the ship. However, it’s not like the team is without any pitching options. Morrow, Dickey and Buerhle form a decent top three, with a number of intriguing options to fill out the roster.

As it stands now, next year’s free agent crop of pitchers is quite plentiful. While the big fish, Clayton Kershaw is signed, players like Brett Anderson, Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto, Yovani Gallardo, Brandon McCarthy, Justin Masterson, Jake Peavy, and Max Scherzer could hit the market. Add in some possibly intriguing arms like Chad Billingsley, Josh Beckett and yes, even Josh Johnson, and next year’s FA class has the potential to be very interesting.

Now of course, some of those players are going to be signed to extensions. Not all of them will reach free agency. But some will. And some teams who thought they had playoff shots will also falter. Maybe it makes sense, from a Blue Jays perspective, to wait it out. Try and get by with what you have now. If that fails or there are injuries, a midseason trade maybe makes sense.

Alex Anthopolous is known for having a pretty good read on the pulse of other teams and other GMs. In a trade deadline scenario, I trust him to make good moves, not panic, and potentially take advantage of another team that is panicking.

Also, three months is a lot development time for prospects. The overwhelming comment on the Jays’ farm system is that it’s stacked at the lower levels, but a little light up top. Is it possible that by the end of June some of those prospects will have begun to move up the ranks? Also, the Jays are lined up to have a potentially strong draft. That infusion of talent, plus the hopeful develop of current talent, could put the team in a decent position to trade some young players for a pitcher midseason.

While no one really knows what the team’s budgetary constraints are, it’s widely accepted that there’s no a ton of money to throw around. However, that begins to change in the coming years, There’s only $27 million committed in 2016, $96 million in 2015. By June the team will be that much closer to shedding some contracts that maybe ownership will be willing to take on money for three months, with the possibility of an extension for a free agent to be.

I’m not saying it’s the best option. And there’s going to be some anger and nervousness if the team stands pat. But it’s not like the current crop of free agents are sure things, any of them really. While it’s arguable, many would consider Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka as the surest of the group, and he’s never thrown a pitch in North America. Ubaldo Jiminez, Ervin Santana and Matt Garza all carry great risk. If Toronto signs one of them and they flop, it not only hurts this year’s chances but puts more strain on future payrolls, and might take them out of the running for a pitcher next year who might be better, less risky, and not come with much different of a price tag. 

Doling out the Dough

From signing big ticket free agents or extending current players on the roster, there remains a real fear that AA is either unable or unwilling to spend money.

There seem to be many on the Interwebs who believe the Jays won’t be serious players for Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka. There seem to be many others who want the team to lock up Colby Rasmus, lest he prove last year was not an outlier and quickly price himself out of the Jays’ budget. I don’t entirely get why this is the case.

I mean, sure, historically spending has been pretty lean. Maybe our long memories of Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green leaving, and the club’s inability to utilize the great years of Roy Halladay before he left in pursuit of a World Series have left us as unbelievers, but I think the last couple years should have changed that.

This argument that AA isn’t willing to offer big contracts for free agents or its own players – unless of course they take super team friendly deals like Bautista and Encarnacion – just doesn’t make sense. After all, there was that big offseason, you know, last year, where the team took on bloated contracts. The Jays acquired Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes, along with their overpaid and heavily backloaded contracts, and then overpaid in prospects for RA Dickey. And remember, the former acquisitions came a year after free agency. Trading for both players only a year into their respective deals I think shows AA’s willingness to offer big deals. What I mean is, presumably the most productive years for both players will be the first years in their deals. Neither player is young, and decline is expected. In other words, both deals look worse as years go on. So the fact AA was, essentially, willing to “sign” Buehrle to a three year, $51-million deal and “sign” Jose Reyes to a five year, $92-million deal shows the Jays are willing to offer overpays.

Maybe the Jays get Tanaka, maybe they don’t. Maybe Rasmus goes out and plays well again, maybe he doesn’t. If he does, maybe the Jays extend him, maybe they don’t. But I’m not the least bit worried that there’s no hope from the get go. 

Do we want A-Rod in or out?

The Alex Rodriquez drama continues to play out, with the latest decision being A-Rod’s suspension spanning the entirety of 2014. As Jays fans, how do we feel about this?

Quite honestly, I’m not sure. On the one hand, if he is suspended for the entire year, the Yankees get a ton of money freed up and have a better chance at going after Tanaka, a pitcher the Jays could really use.

However, if he is suspended, the Yankees look really weak in the infield. With the loss of Robinson Cano, New York has an infield featuring Mark Texeira, Kelly Johnson, Derek Jeter and whoever plays third base. With Jeter coming off injury, and Texeira a big risk himself, the Yanks could use all the infield help they can get. If Rodriquez doesn’t play, it looks like they might go with Edward Nunez at third. But then what happens if Jeter gets hurt again? Brendan Ryan would be next on the depth chart. An infield of Nunez, Ryan, Johnson and Texeira? Yikes.

A-Rod helps the infield but hurts the team’s chances of acquiring Tanaka, which in turns helps the Jays’ chances of picking up the Japanese hurler (or any of the remaining pitchers, for that matter). So, as a Jays fan, would you rather have Rodriquez playing, and potentially a FA starter with Toronto, or a weakened New York infield along with a strengthened rotation?

It’s a tough call. But I still think I’d prefer, as a Toronto supporter, Rodriquez in the lineup and a better chance at acquiring a pitcher. Looking at the infield, even with Rodriquez there’s not a ton of depth. And you have to expect some injuries to crop up, perhaps even with A-Rod himself.

I guess, in my opinion, it all comes down to what gives Toronto a better chance at getting pitching help. Because, in the end, I think the Jays squad, with a Tanaka, Jiminez, Santana or Garza, can beat a Yankees team with or without the controversial slugger.

Is a right-handed platoon enough to complement Ryan Goins?

After only 34 games in the big leagues Ryan Goins has become a bit of a polarizing figure among Jays fans.

He came up towards the end of 2013, playing a lot of second base after the position was a black hole for pretty much the entire damn season. Perhaps black hole isn’t appropriate black holes suck everything up, and defensively, nothing was being sucked up at second base for the Jays until go-go Goins came up. Compared to what Emilio Bonfacio and Maicer Izturis had shown up to that point, Goins looked like Robbie Alomar.

He sure didn’t hit like him though.His .609 OPS, including a .264 OBP were not good. Like, at all. And it’s not terribly surprising, as Goins has never been seen as a solid hitter throughout his minor league career.

And that’s where the disagreement comes in. Some argue Goins will be fine as the starting second baseman. It’s ok to have one defence-only guy in the lineup, especially when he plays quite good defence at a fairly premium position.

The others say, BUT HE CAN’T HIT!

The truth is, few middle infielders can hit all that well. There aren’t many out there. Luckily, the Jays have one such middle infielder playing on the other side of second base. They also have a centrefielder who can hit pretty ok. Two outta three ain’t bad? Right?

Well, not really. Three outta three’s much better. 

But with few options to begin the offseason and even fewer now, it looks increasingly difficult the Jays will find a substantial upgrade. 

Could finding a relative lefty masher be the solution? In 2013 Goins’ splits in Buffalo saw him hitting .274/.323/.385 against righties. Not great, but certainly passable. If you can get something along those lines, and find a right handed batter who puts up good numbers against lefties I think that might be a solution.

Now there’s not much on the FA market, a cursory look left me with Nick Green’s career .298 wOBA vs. lefties after spending all of 2013 in AAA as the best option. Maybe I’m missing somebody, but that’s no ideal.

However, trade always to me seemed like the more likely route for second base. If all AA has to do is look for someone who hits lefties well, it seems to me like he should be able to find somebody.

Polar opposites

Topical reference in the headline alert, it’s kinda cold outside.

What I’m referring to, instead though, is the AL East. It’s kinda crazy, really, how the preseason predictions are almost the complete opposite to what they were last year. Last year the Jays were the toast of the division, the Yankees were old but perhaps still had the talent to compete, Tampa was undergoing one of its mini retools, Baltimore was a young and up-and-coming team and Boston sucked.

Now, the Sox are the toast of the division, having won the World Series. The Yanks have brought in some big name free agents, and if they get Tanaka suddenly look like a real force in the division. If the Rays hold onto star pitcher David Price they look like a really strong team.

Baltimore, while still up and coming, doesn’t look so up and so coming anymore. They lost some key players, haven’t upgrade their pitching, and are facing injuries to key players.

And the Jays suck.

So what does it mean? For one, anything can happen. For two, that’s especially true in the AL East. Think about it, there is at least one team in every other division that has as close to zero chance of winning the division as you can get in professional sports. If Minnesota, Houston, Miami, the Cubs, or Colorado win their respective divisions some people are going to make a lot of money.

In the AL East, that’s not the case. Maybe some of my homerism is coming through, but it’s entirely plausible that every team could win the division. The Yanks could slug – or perhaps more appropriately run – their way to first place. Baltimore could get a repeat performance from Chris Davis, a return to form for Matt Weiters and an early return of Manny Machado. Tampa has the pitching and just needs to hit enough, and with Will Myers another year old they might just do that, do win the division.

Obviously Boston’s among the favourites and should compete.

That leaves the Jays. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for any prediction from 70 to 95 wins. The talent’s still there. There are a few players – hello Brett Lawrie – who could take that next step. Despite the cries from many the team does have some pitching. Brandon Morrow stays healthy and Drew Hutchinson comes back from Tommy John at full strength and the rotation looks downright strong.

Or Lawrie continues to struggle with the bat, Colby Rasmus takes a step back, Morrow gets hurt and Hutchinson struggles.

One thing this all means is please don’t give up before it starts. There’s a lot of pessimism heading into 2014, and it’s not unfounded. Last year was a brutal one to be a Jays fan. But the lesson from last year is that anything can happen.

And the fact the Jays do have the talent in place is as good a starting point as any.

Six weeks until pitchers and catcher report.