Are we there yet?

The way a team plays / manages / drafts / trades changes depending on where they are in the competition cycle.

Most teams alternate between periods where they are serious playoff contenders and period of rebuilding. In the contending years, the focus is on the here and now. Free agents are more actively sought, and teams are more willing to trade prospects for that final piece that could put them “over the top”. Remember the Jeff Kent – for – David Cone trade in 1992? Conversely, when a team is in rebuilding mode they are more likely to trade the Cone for the Kent than the other way around.

The Jays are in an interesting position in 2012 imho – potentially just entering the contending period.

Last year, the Jays won 81 games. Even without a major trade or FA pickup, they should be stronger in 2012 than they were in 2011: full years of Alvarez/Lawrie/Johnson, potential for some level of rebound from Rasmus/Encarnacion/Lind, and a stronger closer in Santos. My projection – largely intuitive – is that they would be an 85 win team without any further moves.

MLB proposes to add an additional wild card to each of the AL and NL starting in 2012. In 2011, if a second wild card had existed, it would have been Boston with 90 wins. In 2010 it would have been Boston again with 89 wins, and in 2009 in would have been Texas with 87 wins. So, “for the sake of the argument” (as we Irish say!) let’s assume that the Jays would need about 90 wins in 2012 to make it into the playoffs as the second wild card.

That means that the Jays would need an additional 5 WAR, over and above the organic growth, to have a serious shot at the 2012 playoffs.

Darvish is generally projected to have a WAR of 4 – 4.5, with some upside (think Dan Haren, or Matt Cain). The Jays pitcher with the 4th highest number of starts in 2011 was Jo-jo Reyes, with a WAR of about -0.6. By replacing Jo-jo, Darvish would (if he pitches to expectations) accordingly increase the Jays win total to 89-90. So we would be (pardon the pun) “in the ballpark”.

But a second acquisition would put the Jays squarely in contention. Prince Fielder had a WAR of 5.2 in 2011, 4.5 higher than Adam Lind’s 0.7. That 4.5, added to the ~89, would all but ensure one of the wild card spots. But Prince will be a difficult sign (even if I do not believe that he will get the 10 year deal he is looking for).

A player like Carlos Beltran might be a better solution. He is looking for a 2-3 year deal, and his 2011 WAR of 4.4 would be a substantial improvement over Thames (0.8 in a half season) or Travis (negative). Obviously with Carlos there are injury concerns, but that will likely reduce his price to a more manageable range (he is projected at 2 years, $20 million or 3 years, $27 million – less than half what Fielder would command.)

What are the other implications of the Jays being in contention?

  • They will not have the luxury of being patient. Every win counts, so if a Snider had a .184/.276/.264 April (as he did in 2011) he would be on the bench … or back in Las Vegas
  • They would be limited in their ability to “ease in” a Darvish by giving him an easier schedule earlier in the season
  • Rookies (or returning players like McGowan) would be expected to contribute immediately – not much time for learning curves.
  • There would potentially be more platooning and pulling players later in the game for better matchups. Players don’t generally like that, but …
  • There would also have to be an increased emphasis on team rather than individual stats. As an example – say one of our SP is pitching in the 9th in a close game, but tiring. He wants the CG, but the best thing for the team to do is bring in Santos.

Of course, all of the above is subject to the usual caveats about predicting 2012 based on 2011, about basing analyses on WAR, and on whether Darvish and the second wild card actually happen. But – whether in 2012 or later – the Jays are clearly improving, and sooner or later will have to shift mindset from “getting there” to “there”.

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