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Numbers Game: Blue Jays, Marlins make 12-player swap

Scott Cullen
11/14/2012 12:03:44 AM
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Shopping at the Miami Marlins' firesale, the Toronto Blue Jays added a pair of starting pitchers, a star shortstop and a couple more veteran pieces in a 12-player trade.

Numbers Game breaks down the deal that, for better or worse, will mark the tenure of Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos.

The Blue Jays Get: SS Jose Reyes, RHP Josh Johnson, LHP Mark Buehrle, OF/INF Emilio Bonifacio and C John Buck.

Reyes, 29, signed as a free agent in Miami last winter, inking a deal for six years and $102-million, with an option for a seventh season at $22-million or a $4-million buyout of that option year. Now, one year later (after the Marlins paid just $10-million of that contract), he's on the move to Toronto, where the Blue Jays will take on the significant financial burden, but also add one of the game's premier shortstops.

In 2012, Reyes played 160 games, his most since 2007, and for the seventh time in the last eight seasons, registered double-digit triples (12) and stole more than 30 bases (40), posting a .287 batting average and .780 OPS, numbers that are just below his career averages (.291 and .782, respectively) and he did that with a .298 batting average on balls in play, his lowest mark since 2005.

His fWAR of 4.5 was the fifth time in the last seven seasons that Reyes finished more than four wins above replacement level and one of the seasons that he didn't, 2009, he played just 36 games due to a calf injury.

What's surprising is that Reyes' defence has declined in recent years. According to www.fangraphs.com, Reyes has registered a negative Defensive Runs Saved in each of the last four seasons, with a minus-17 in 2012 the worst mark of his career. Similarly, his Ultimate Zone Rating has been negative in each of the last four seasons, so it's not as though he comes without blemishes, but it's not as if he lacks the required physical skills to play above average defensively so he could, at the very least, improve on those recent numbers.

(Mildly interesting splits note: Reyes has only played six games against the Blue Jays in his career, but has a 1.106 OPS in those six games, the second-best OPS vs. opponent in his career, behind a 1.115 OPS in six games against Baltimore.)

As he ages, it's fair to worry about Reyes losing some of his trademark speed, but there should still be several more productive years left in those legs. The last years on that deal could be ugly, but that's a known, and apparently accepted, risk for Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos.

Josh Johnson might have won just eight games in 2012, but the 28-year-old was coming off shoulder surgery and should still have ace-calibre stuff that will put him at the top of the Blue Jays rotation. Johnson was more hittable in 2012, allowing 8.5 hits per nine innings, while his strikeouts per nine innings dropped to 7.76, which is still good, but not as overpowering as he had been from 2009-2011.

Johnson started slowly, posting a 6.61 ERA in his first six starts before he started turning in more reliable outings, allowing three earned runs or fewer in 21 of his 25 remaining starts.

What stands out about Johnson's approach last season is that he threw significantly more curve balls than ever before. According to Fan Graphs, Johnson threw curves on 15.7% of his pitches -- his previous career-high was 7.8% in 2011 -- and the increase in breaking stuff came at the expense of his fastball, which was still effective, but his average fastball velocity of 92.8 MPH was his lowest since 2007. Furthermore, Johnson struggled with his change-up, so he didn't throw it as often as he had in the previous couple of seasons.

There is risk involved with Johnson as well, then. If his stuff doesn't quite get back to its previously elite level, he can still be a front of the rotation pitcher, but maybe not a Cy Young candidate. He's also a 29-year-old who has started more than 30 games just twice in his major league career, in 2009 and 2012 so, while health is an issue for every player and especially pitchers, Johnson's track record indicates he's a little higher risk than the average starter.

Johnson has one year, at $13.75-million left on his deal. If he's the legit ace the Blue Jays are expecting, an extension could be a possibility. If Toronto struggles for whatever reason, Johnson will have appeal to contenders at the trade deadline.

Few pitchers are as durable and reliable as 33-year-old Mark Buehrle, who has started more than 30 games in each of the past 12 seasons, with last season's 202 1/3 innings representing his second-lowest total over that span. He's posted an ERA under 4.00 in nine of those 12 seasons while winning in double digits every year, including 13 wins in each of the last four seasons.

While others have more stuff, Buehrle is the definition of a pitcher. His average fastball velocity, according to Fan Graphs, was 85.0 MPH in 2012, leaving Barry Zito and R.A. Dickey as the only starters with slower number ones.

At the same time, Buehrle mixes his stuff, throwing fastballs (such as they are), curves, changes, sliders and cutters. He threw fewer fastballs than ever before last season, adding more sliders to his repertoire and continued to keep opposing hitters off balance.

Buehrle has three years and $48-million remaining on his contract and while there is legitimate reason to worry that he might not be up to the task in the final year of his deal, Buehrle has proven to be awfully crafty with the stuff he has now, so he should be able to get outs even if he finds a way to lose another mile per hour off his fastball.

Utility man Emilio Bonifacio, 27, has played just about everywhere, with shortstop (81 games), centre field (79 games) and second base (65 games) at the top of his career games played list.

While switch-hitting Bonifacio has tremendous speed and has swiped 70 bases on 84 attempts (83.3%) over the last two seasons, he's the slap hitter of all slap hitters, hitting seven home runs in 1838 career plate appearances.

Bonifacio's lack of pop is generally what keeps him in a utility role. He has a .671 OPS for his career, with 2011's mark of .753 representing the only time he's a) played more than 130 games and b) finished with an OPS above .650 for the season. Given Toronto's relative needs, Bonifacio may have the best shot at the starting second base job, where he can compete with recently-signed Maicer Izturis, or Bonifacio may just be the super sub, one even more versatile than Izturis.

Bonifacio made $2.2-million in 2012 and is eligible for salary arbitration.

32-year-old catcher John Buck returns to Toronto, where he enjoyed the best season of his career (20 HR, 66 RBI, .281 AVG, .802 OPS, 2.8 fWAR) in 2010, though he does so coming off one of the worst seasons of his career, hitting .192 with a .644 OPS. Though Buck struggled to hit in 2012, he managed the highest walk rate (12.3%) of his career.

Buck doesn't figure to unseat J.P. Arencibia from the starting catcher's job, and at $6-million is an expensive backup, but will be a reliable complement to a younger starter behind the plate, whether that's Arencibia or top prospect Travis d'Arnaud.

Seeing how backloaded the Reyes and Buehrle contracts are, in hindsight it is patently obvious that the Marlins weren't going to keep them. They made their free agent splash, paid them relatively little in the first year, then dealt them off before the price of baseball got too steep.

The hue and cry around Toronto for years has been that the Blue Jays haven't been willing to spend the money necessary to compete in the American League East, but that argument may finally be put to rest after the Blue Jays not only added big ticket, long-term contracts, they took on some players that present risk, but have high enough ceilings that Toronto baseball fans will be excited about the 2013 season.

After the collapse of 2012, it was going to take a massive deal to get Blue Jays fans back on board for 2013. Here's a guess that this deal does that and might even give the Blue Jays a real chance to compete for a playoff spot in 2013.

The Marlins Get: SS Yunel Escobar, RHP Henderson Alvarez, INF Adeiny Hechavarria, C Jeff Mathis, LHP Justin Nicolino, OF Jake Marisnick and RHP Anthony DeSclafani.

30-year-old Escobar is a talented enough player, one who had a .782 OPS for the Blue Jays in 2011, but he's also inconsistent, finishing 2012 with a career-low .644 OPS and 1.8 fWAR (salvaged by his defence, including a career-high 15 Defensive Runs Saved) while hitting .253 with nine home runs and 51 RBI. That performance alone would have made Escobar expendable, but when he was caught with a homosexual slur on his eye black late in the season, well, it seemed much more likely that the Blue Jays would find a way to unload him in the offseason.

Escobar's contract pays him $5-million next season and then there are two team options, at $5-million per, for 2014 and 2015. That's a bargain rate for an everyday shortstop, but there are no guarantees that the Marlins will want to keep Escobar, even at that price. In any case, he'll take the spot vacated by Reyes.

A lot was expected from 22-year-old Henderson Alvarez after his 10-start audition in the 2011 season (1-3, 3.53 ERA, 1.13 WHIP), but he took a step back in 2012. Despite being healthy enough to make 31 starts, putting him ahead of many other Toronto hurlers, Alvarez ended up going 9-14 with a 4.85 ERA and 1.44 WHIP, striking out a meagre 3.8 per nine innings, easily the worst rate among qualified starters.

Not only was Alvarez not striking anyone out, he was walking more and allowing an obscene number of home runs, 29 in 187 1/3 innings (his 18.1% HR/flyball ratio was second-worst in baseball, better than only Ervin Santana). There's some amount of back luck there, which presents some upside if Alvarez can keep the ball in the park. He also has a 93.3 MPH average fastball, albeit one that was soundly ripped by the opposition in 2012, but if Alvarez can't locate his fastball and come up with some reliable off-speed pitches, then his progress will be stalled.

This isn't a bad buy-low play for the Marlins, however. Alvarez is still young, has shown some nasty stuff already in the major leagues and, most importantly for the Marlins miserly owners, he comes cheap, making $482,900 in 2012.

23-year-old Cuban Adeiny Hechavarria was considered a future shortstop on his way up, but played more at third base for the Blue Jays in 2012. Hechavarria has earned praise for his glovework, which seems to be his ticket to a big league job, but he had improved offensively in the minors before getting called up last season.

Admittedly, Las Vegas is a poor measure since the desert air inflates offensive numbers, but in 127 games for the Blue Jays' Triple-A affiliate, Hechavarria hit .327 with an .823 OPS.

In 41 games with Toronto last season, Hechavarria hit .254 with a .645 OPS, which generally isn't enough to keep an everyday job, but that was his first taste of major league pitching. With even a little improvement, Hechavarria may hit enough to start for the Marlins in 2013. Again, with less than a year of major league service, he's a very inexpensive option no matter where he lands in the Miami infield.

A defence-only backstop, 29-year-old Jeff Mathis finished 2012 with the highest OPS (.642) and fWAR (0.8) of his career, hitting eight home runs in 227 plate appearances. Mathis has never shown that he can hit enough to handle a starting job (some might say a major league job altogether), so he will move into his customary backup role, likely behind prospect Rob Brantly.

Mathis, who earned $1.5-million last season, is arbitration-eligible.

A second-round pick of the Blue Jays in 2010, 20-year-old Nicolino has impressed through his first two pro seasons, going 16-6 with a 2.09 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 192 strikeouts in 185 1/3 IP. He's not overpowering, but has tremendous command and has potential to be a mid-rotation starter eventually.

21-year-old centre fielder Jake Marisnick was a third-round pick in 2009 and moved up the ladder this season, first to Advanced A-ball, where he hit .263 with an .800 OPS before moving to Double-A, where he hit .233 with a .622 OPS, an indication that more time at Double-A is necessary before he harbours any illusions about a spot in the major leagues.

Marisnick can run (84 steals in 104 minor-league attempts) and has tools that, with further development, could land him a starting job in the major leagues in the not-too-distant future, but he may be best served with another year or two refining his game in the minors.

Drafted from the University of Florida in the sixth round in 2011, DeSclafani had a solid pro debut, going 11-3 with a 3.37 ERA and 1.38 WHIP for Advanced A Lansing. He allowed 145 hits in 123 innings, which is far too many at that level. Nevertheless, with a power arm, DeSclafani could develop into a bullpen arm for the Marlins.

There's no way to sugar coat this trade for Miami. They are slashing salary and have given up much better players in order to receive much cheaper players in return. It's a major investment for the Toronto Blue Jays, taking on the Marlins' contractual obligations, but it's a case of the Blue Jays going all-in, making the kind of big investment their fans have been seeking for so long.

At best, the Jays could have Johnson heading a rotation followed by Brandon Morrow, Buehrle and Ricky Romero. If all breaks right, which means staying healthy and productive, that's a rotation for a playoff team.

As the Blue Jays found out in 2012, assuming health for the starting rotation can lead to massive disappointment, but there is much more reason to be optimistic about the Blue Jays' chances in 2013 and, for a team that hasn't seen the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1993, hope is a good starting point.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.




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