How Realistic Is Playoff Contention in 2012?

Yesterday saw the Jays trade for Ben Francisco in a very minor trade for some outfield depth. However, it did spark more intensive discussion about a possible Gio Gonzalez trade. At the same time we're hoping to win the Yu Darvish bidding, while our team has not yet been ruled out of the Fielder sweepstakes completely. All very exciting, but would it be wise for AA to "open the window of contention" right now? The advantages of waiting another year are that D'Arnaud, Gose and Hechevarria are given another year to develop, and that the club can get a better sense of what it has in Lawrie, Thames, Snider, Alvarez and possibly Hutchison/McGuire at the big league level. Disadvantages are that the club would "waste" another season of Bautista and the one year of control they have over Kelly Johnson. Brandon Morrow is also only under control for two more seasons.

So, how good is this team going to be next season with no further additions? Will it be close enough to compete? My methodology here will be to project the WAR for each player and add that up, and then compare it with the other teams in the AL East and the Angels/Rangers. Simplistic? Yes, that's exactly what I'm aiming for. I should note that Pikachu did a similar projection in a Fanpost, which can be found here, but while I'm using the same spreadsheet, I'm not going to agree with Pikachu on every player. I'm using the 2011 American League average wOBA of .324 and American League average ERA of 4.08.

The Hitters

Name wOBA Fielding WAR Notes
J.P. Arencibia .315 -6 1.7 Was injured, expecting some improvement (485 PA).
Jeff Mathis .240 +3 -0.3 Don't expect anything from Mathis (210 PA).
Adam Lind .325 -1 0.9 I expect a slight bounceback (545 PA).
Edwin Encarnacion .340 -1 1.2 Projecting him to fill in some of the time at 1B but mostly DH (550 PA).
Eric Thames .335 -8 1.1 Projecting him to split time between LF and DH (540 PA)
Travis Snider .310 +2 0.7 Projecting Snider just in LF (450 PA)
Rajai Davis .300 -2 0.3 Backup CF/RF (250 PA)
Colby Rasmus .325 -3 2 Pessimistic? Perhaps. I think this is realistic. (545 PA)
Jose Bautista .425 -5 6.3 In RF, no time spent at 3B (595 PA).
Brett Lawrie .350 +3 4 No time at 2B, for those wondering (595 PA).
Mike McCoy .290 0 0.3 Backup 3B/SS (200 PA).
Yunel Escobar .335 +4 3.7 Hoping he stays healthy (595 PA).
Kelly Johnson .325 -1 2.1 Sharply dropping contact rates worry me (545 PA).
Luis Valbuena .290 -1 0.1 Not expecting much from Valbuena (150 PA).

What does it all add up to? 24 WAR. That's a 2.7 WAR improvement over last year's team. Does that seem pessimistic? Well, I was somewhat cautious with the number of PAs our regulars will receive, but the expected regression from Bautista hurts, as does the absence of Jose Molina. If the Jays would sign Fielder, you could optimistically go to 27 projected WAR from position players. But that's still well short of the Rays (31.6), Red Sox (39.2), Rangers (38.9) and Yankees (36.2) in 2011.

The Pitchers

Name
ERA
IP
WAR
Ricky Romero
3.6
210
4.4
Brandon Morrow
3.9
190
3.2
Henderson Alvarez
3.85
185
3.2
Brett Cecil
4.35
195
2.2
Dustin McGowan
4.40
140
1.5
Drew Hutchison
4.25
40
0.5
Sergio Santos
2.80
65
2.7
Casey Janssen
3.15
60
1.4
Joel Carreno
3.50
60
0.7
Luis Perez
3.65
60
0.5
Jesse Litsch
3.75
65
0.5
Carlos Villanueva
3.90
65
0.3
Chad Beck
4.10
55
0.1
Andrew Carpenter
4.40
45
0
Jim Hoey
4.70
30
0

So that, then, adds up to 21.1 pitching WAR, which is actually very good, considering only 5 teams had more pitching WAR in 2011 (the Yankees and Ragners were among those teams). However, Fangraphs' FIP-based WAR might underestimate some pitchers (Jered Weaver, notably, and a lot of relievers) so I'm a little more hesitant to use the 2011 WAR figures as a comparison here. In any case, the 3.89 team ERA would be a huge improvement over the 4.33 figure from 2011, and in WAR the improvement would be 8.6 WAR! That's what you get when you no longer start Jo-Jo Reyes and Kyle Drabek, and expect big time improvement from Brett Cecil and Brandon Morrow (ERA-wise).

How much does Gio Gonzalez improve the Jays? Well, since I'm not buying into leaving a lot of runners on base as a repeatable skill, I'd say a 3.75 ERA is still a fairly optimistic prediction. That improves the Jays by 1.5 WAR, if he replaces fellow lefty Cecil. Yu Darvish? Well, he sure is hard to project, but say I would expect something similar, another 1.5 WAR improvement (replacing McGowan/Hutchison).

With 43.5 wins as baseline (how many wins a replacement level team would get), the 2012 Jays would be somewhere near 88.5 wins, with 94.5 wins being my estimate with the trio of Fielder, Darvis and Gio. However, I still fully expect the Yankees and Red Sox to be in the 95-105 wins range, so they would still have the edge. I don't think AA would be completely out of his mind to try for the playoffs this season, but I do think Gio (pitcher's park and good defense in Oakland) and Fielder (bad baserunner, bad defender) are relatively overrated, and that Darvish is a big unknown. The succes of the 2012 season depends more on bouncebacks and perhaps some breakout performance than on signing Fielder/Darvish. Well, in my opinion. Time to give yours!

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