Free Agency Preview: Payroll, Pitching, and Prioritization
Today, Saturday November 3rd, marks the beginning of the MLB Free Agency period. After a long, disappointing season that saw the Blue Jays create more questions than they answered, free agency and the allure of the limitless potential of the offseason has become the focus among the Blue Jays media and blogosphere. As it was one year prior the words Blue Jays and rumour have almost become synonymous and the transactions haven’t even started yet.
The difference is this year unlike last, there seems to be a definite desire for an increase in payroll. As Shi Davidi noted earlier this week Alex Anthopoulos is definitely ready and willing to increase payroll, even stating that, “[the Jays] will be able to look at players we wouldn’t have been as serious about or wouldn’t have fit.” In his article, Davidi speculated that this increase could reach the heights of the $95 million range, which as he notes would leave roughly $15 million in spending money for the 2013 offseason.
After a season which saw 3/5 of the projected rotation spend significant time on the disabled list and the other 2/5 regress past imaginable levels of performance, it’s no surprise that Anthopoulos has made the starting rotation a priority with this newfound increase in payroll. Those in the media as well as the blogosphere have speculated on such options as Zack Greinke, Edwin Jackson, Brandon McCarthy, Anibal Sanchez, and recently declared free agent Dan Haren. Of that list, all of the options seem feasible, save for Greinke, which leaves four pitchers to pine for and analyze until most (hopefully not all) sign with teams other than the Blue Jays, but that’s the pain and fortune of being a Blue Jays fan.
The first of the four pitchers is ex-Blue Jay Edwin Jackson, who MLBTR predicted to be the only one of their Top 50 free agents to land in Toronto. On the surface the thrill of signing a pitcher with Jackson’s unpredictability and general lack of impressiveness seems almost non-existent, because he isn’t exactly the type of pitcher who you would expect to be the missing piece in the quest for a playoff spot. He’s coming off a good year, results wise, but the figures that he’s reportedly looking for aren’t exactly appealing
However Edwin Jackson is exactly the type of pitcher many of us are often describe. He’s an average MLB starter who fits fine into the middle of a rotation and he hasn’t pitched less than 180 innings since his first full season as a starter. Moreover once you realize that in the worst year of Jackson’s career, save for his Devil Rays days, he still posted an fWAR better than any Blue Jays pitcher this year, he seems like a much more appealing option. Even if he’ll never be what he was once projected to become, he is a more than satisfactory option for the middle of a rotation it only depends on whether or not he can get the contract he wants this time around.
The second of the four pitchers is everyone’s favourite Twitter follow, Brandon McCarthy. As a player with perhaps the largest social media following of any in the MLB, McCarthy’s name gets brought up in reference to a plethora of topics, but especially in comparison to the potential signing of other free agent starting pitchers. Toronto is no different, the online baseball community here has become just as enthralled with McCarthy as any other major league fanbase. Be that it may this mindset has gotten in the way of analysis of McCarthy as a pitcher and a free agent option for the Jays.
Brandon McCarthy is a pitcher who has had four 60-Day DL stints and four 15-Day DL stints in his seven season career. He’s also a pitcher who is coming off a skull fracture and a brain injury that some say he’s lucky to come out of functioning to the extent that he is. With regards to McCarthy as a person, what happened to him is terrible and shouldn’t be wished upon anyone, but with regards to McCarthy as a pitcher, signing him may not be the smartest baseball move when he hasn’t pitched since the incident. He’s an alluring figure because he has the potential to be great as we saw in 2011, but there’s no way of knowing how he will pitch once he gets back on the mound or how long he will stay on the mound for before sustaining another injury.
The third of the four pitchers, Anibal Sanchez, could easily end up being the best overall signing. Over his career Sanchez has been an afterthought in discussion, be that because he can be unpredictable or because he was on the same team as Josh Johnson for a majority of his career. Even this offseason, where Sanchez could be the second place prize to whomever doesn’t get or can’t afford Zack Greinke. This is despite the fact that over the last three years Sanchez is 16th in all of baseball in fWAR, above noted pitchers like Josh Johnson, James Shields, and Yovani Gallardo, yet he still doesn’t get the attention he deserves.
Also over those three years Anibal Sanchez’s walk rate has consecutively fallen as has his flyball rate, while he has increased his groundball rate and maintained a relatively consistent strikeout rate. All of those facts are positive trends towards Sanchez’s free agent case, but once again the problem lies in the pay. In FanGraph’s contract crowd sourcing they found a 4 year $52 million contract to be most likely and other estimates have been similar. While an average annual value of $13 million doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for surplus value, it’s a bargain in comparison to the deals given to C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle last winter.
The last of the four pitchers, Haren may perhaps be the most interesting of the bunch. Following the apparent fallout of a deal that would have sent him to the Cubs in exchange for Carlos Marmol the Angels declined their $15.5 million option and instead opted to pay the $3.5 million buyout. Within the confines of that deal there has been an abundance of speculation as to why the deal fell through. Some speculate that it was the medicals, other the money, but either way it stems from Haren’s inability to perform to the level he did in the past.
The often cited reasoning behind Haren’s ineptitude during the 2012 season has been his drop in velocity, but as Michael Barr rather excellent noted in a recent FanGraphs article there’s quite a bit more to it. Barr referenced Haren’s declining velocity, but also his declining swinging strike rate, Zone% as well as his increasing Contact%. While Haren’s numbers in September are encouraging and a case could be made for signing him, the inherent risk of signing a player coming off a down season and an injury could outweigh the potential that Haren offers. Ultimately, like many free agent deals, it will come down to years that Haren is offered. If there is a team out there willing to give Haren a four (or even five?) year contract then there’s no point in trying to beat that. On the other hand if Haren is looking to re-establish some value on a one year deal then give him all you can and hope for the best.
On the whole, the Blue Jays appear to willing to go after one of these bigger name free agents, but with a budget that still looks limited to a certain extent due diligence will be key in the decision to sign any free agent pitcher, or position player for that matter. As it stands the Blue Jays don’t have a whole lot of room for error if they plan on running an efficient payroll with the hopes of a playoff berth. Perhaps unfortunately, as @cantpredictball has taught us, this game we love is inherently erratic, but the key is to squeeze out every bit of added probability for success possible. The Jays can be successful in that manner, but we must wait and see.