Spring Training is soon to begin, and as a baseball fan... You know what, I'll just save the pleasantries for later and get right into it. By my view, the Blue Jays have a less-than-optimal roster construction, with questions at the back end of the rotation, a less than viable second basemen, and issues on the bench. After seeing other teams fortify their rosters over the winter, it seems counter-intuitive for a team within the supposed window of contention to sit back and not make improvements where possible. The off-season has been an emphatic disappointment for me, but as the title suggests, my hope that the Blue Jays can still make some improvements to their roster with some spring training trades has not yet been vanquished.
A couple nights ago I gleaned through every 40-man roster and non-roster invitee to spring training in an effort to find solutions to some problem areas. I looked to identify spare parts within separate organizations that could really help strengthen some obvious weaknesses. As I alluded to earlier, I'm not comfortable with the options for fourth outfielder, starters in the back end of the rotation, or infielders to play second base. Without further ado:
1. Ed Lucas (Miami): The 31-year old journeyman is likely out of a job with the Marlins signing Casey McGehee to play 3rd, Rafael Furcal to play 2nd, Garret Jones to play 1st, and Jeff Baker to back up all non-Adeiny Hechavarria positions. With Donovan Solano, Gregg Dobbs, and Derek Dietrick all capable of playing multiple positions on the infield and also on the 40-man roster, the right-handed hitting Lucas might be viable option as a platoon partner with Ryan Goins. According to Minor League Central (a lovely tool I will be referencing throughout the post), Ed Lucas has had quite a successful run against LHP's since 2011. In 332 minor league plate appearances the past three years, Lucas has slashed an impressive .302/.350/.522 against southpaws. In his only major league sample (43 games, 116 plate appearances), Lucas hit to the tune of .330/.374/.509 and a 143 wRC+. In his major league sample, he almost cut his strike out rate in half v. LHP's (12.9% from 23.5%), boosted his LD%, and maintained a stable BB%.
His minor league numbers reflect similar improvements, and I think given the information, he might be a worthy platoon option at 2nd base capable of providing above-average defense at every infield position. There's some value there.
2. Danny Espinosa (Washington): In a fine article by Mike Petriello going into some detail about the problem at 2nd base, Espinosa's name was mentioned as a possible trade target. Given the presence of the seemingly under-rated Anthony Rendon, and the role of backup infielder occupied presumably by Zach Walters, Espinosa's best chance of getting at-bats every day are probably not in Washington. Now Danny has some definite warts (specifically his propensity to strike out), but as Petriello sums up rather succinctly, "he's also a guy who was worth three wins in both 2011 and '12, combining good power with solid defense, and his 2013 struggles can at least partially be chalked up to his wrist and shoulder. Espinosa might be done entering his age-27 season, or he might be worth taking a buy-low shot on." Given the vacancy in Toronto, I think Espinosa has a compelling skill set that warrants interest.
In 394 major league PA's v. LHP's, Espinosa has managed a moderately impressive 116 wRC+, with a triple slash of .262/.334/.453 and a wOBA of .344. His minor league numbers the last 3 years are less impressive, but trying to find any signal in 83 PA's of noise is pretty well futile. His .226 BABIP suppresses most of his rate stats within that sample, but his batted ball numbers are stable and his strike out rate is 16% lower v. LHP's than v. RHP's. He plays pretty darn good defense by eye-tests and by UZR/RngR, is capable of backing up shortstop (and likely 3rd base), and will only cost $540K in 2014 in his final season before 3 years of arbitration eligibility.
3. Jeff Keppinger (Chicago White Sox): With Alexei Ramirez, Leury Garcia, Marcus Semien, Matt Davidson, Gordon Beckham, Jake Elmore and Connor Gillaspie all in the fold to play the non-1B infield positions, Jeff Keppinger's role on the White Sox is pretty clouded at the moment. An owner of a 121 wRC+ and 3.8% K rate in 900 PA's vs. LHP's for his career, Keppinger presents a pretty interesting buy-low option. The last 5 seasons before 2013 (2008-2012) Keppinger's worst wRC+ vs. lefties was 110, ranging from 110-158. In 2013 he was hampered by injury and ineffectiveness, prompting a shoulder surgery in September.
Given the information, I'm willing to bet that 2013 was a statistical outlier and Keppinger will return to being a productive hitter against southpaws. He doesn't play near the same defense at second base as somebody like Ryan Goins, but his ability to hit could be a real asset. He's owed 8.5$ million over the next two years, and he's entering his age-34 season.
4. Nick Franklin (Seattle): Franklin kind of feels like trying to put a square peg in a round hole, because his strength as a hitter is against RHP's. Not to say I wouldn't be excited by the notion of the Blue Jays acquiring him, but the fact is that he likely supplies less surplus value to the Jays than other teams makes me hesitant to advocate trading for him. His minor league track record suggests that he is probably going to have to be platooned. He has an OPS difference of more than 240 points (.626-.870) from hitting right-handed to left-handed, hits way less line drives, and walks less as a right-handed hitter.
This sample has been built over 1000 minor league PA's, and his rookie year in the major leagues suggest similar issues (101 wRC+ v. RHP's, 66 wRC+ v. LHP's). Additionally, his defense has long been considered fringe-average, and nothing I saw watching him last year makes me think he can be better than league average at best. All told I think the Jays would be better served finding an infielder who can hit left-handers well, instead of making a semi-lateral move on a player that hits righties well.
1. Cody Ross (Arizona): With the off-season acquisition of Mark Trumbo, there seems to be pretty crowded outfield in Arizona. Gerardo Parra/ Martin Prado/ Tony Campana/ AJ Pollock and Mark Trumbo all capable of playing outfield to varying degrees, there doesn't seem to be much of a fit for Ross anymore. It's said that he will likely be in a strict platoon with Gerardo Parra in left field, but that doesn't seem like the best way to use 9.5$ million dollars (what he's owed annually the next two years). He's 10% below average the league average against right-handed pitchers (90 wRC+), but over his entire career he's been an absolute menace against southpaws (145 wRC+, .396 wOBA). He isn't unplayable against RHP's, he can fill in at any outfield position in the event of an injury (he's much better suited to play the corner, but is capable of playing below-average defense in center field), and the Dbacks might prefer the salary relief and roster flexibility rather than having him on the team.
Interesting of note, Howard Bender of Fangraphs added that "Prior to being shut down in August for hip surgery, the 33-year old Ross was having an interesting season for the Diamondbacks in 2013. He wasn't hitting for as much power as usual, likely due to the hip problems he was having, but he was hitting for a higher average thanks to a significant drop in strikeouts -- from 24.4% in 2012 to just 14.4% last year -- while maintaining a very similar walk rate". If Ross can maintain the change in plate discipline and regain his power stroke to some extent, there's potential a quality outfielder, and a replacement to Melky Cabrera in LF in 2015.
2. Chris Denorfia (St.Diego):With 10 outfielders on the 40-man roster in Ron Burgundy's stomping grounds, Chris Denorfia is likely an acquirable player for the right price (duh). Cameron Maybin is back healthy, Wil Venable turned himself into an everyday player, and Carlos Quentin/Seth Smith/ Kyle Blanks/ Alex Amarista are all vying for time in the same outfield. Lucky for Denorfia, there's many a team who'd like a player who's a positive base-runner, fielder, and hitter. Denorfia can do a little bit of everything, but his biggest strengths are defensive versatility and the ability to punish left-handed pitching. The 33-year old outfielder has mashed lefties to the tune of a 134 wRC+ over 755 PA's.
Denorfia is stuck behind two of the most injury prone players in recent memory in Maybe and Quentin, so the Padres assuredly value the depth he offers. That said, if Quentin/Maybin are healthy in spring training, and a separate need arises, Denorfia is just the type of player to compliment Colby Rasmus, who could simultaneously fill in for either other outfielder.
3. Collin Cowgill (LA Angels): Incidentally I've chosen an outfielder to target already (Ross) who throws left-handed and bats right-handed, and Cowgill is one of the rare position players who do the same thing. Collin Cowgill is a cheap outfielder who hits lefties at a league average rate, and is capable defensively and offensively of being a platoon-mate with Rasmus. Trading for him would also allow Kevin Pillar time to continue to develop in the high minors.
4. Dayan Viciedo (Chicago White Sox): Viciedo doesn't really fit the same mold as the others I've suggested, but I think the opportunity to acquire a talented player at quite possibly his lowest value to date might be a good idea. Now into his post-prospect years, at 25 years old, patience with Viciedo might be running out. With the acquisitions of Avisail Garcia, Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton, the White Sox seem to be moving away from Viciedo, and perhaps for good reason. If there is a glimmer of hope in Viciedo's game it's his terminator-like destruction of left-handed pitching, and his very strong arm. Through 336 major league plate appearances, "The Tank" has punked LHP's with a 144 wRC+. His strike out rate is more than 8% better vs. LHP's, and if you've ever seen him take batting practice, you'd know the power is very real.
Viciedo might be a "change of scenery" guy with immense physical talent that AA loves to acquire. If there was a guy I wish I could nominate for the #BSOHL, I wish he would cut weight and take his career seriously. He can play 1B/LF/RF, though unspectacularly.
1. Charlie Morton (Pittsburgh): Detailed wonderfully by Grant Brisbee at BaseballNation, Morton has cloned himself to deliver a baseball not unlike Roy Halladay. It's truly uncanny to watch him and see how similar their sinker/curveball repertoires are, as well as their deliveries of course. Morton parlayed the imitation act into a 3.69 FIP in 2013, on the back of a staggering 62.9% ground-ball percentage. He had a career high K% (17.2), and experienced career bests in ERA-, FIP-, tERA, and SIERA.
That's the good news. The bad news is that he's pretty well incapable of getting left-handed hitters out. In 2013, left-handed hitters hit Morton very hard, resulting in an opponent wOBA of .380, a 4.64 FIP, and 4.83 xFIP. He's much like Esmil Rogers in that they share a platoon problem. That said, what separates Morton from Esmil is that Morton is better than Rogers against same-handed hitters, and the same level of bad against opposite-handed hitters. Morton still maintains a strong GB% and a stable K% against his left-handed counterparts, and the .367 BABIP they had against him looks like it ought to regress.
If Morton can be more competitive versus left-handed hitters, it stands to reason that he could have some decent upside. As he becomes more familiar with his re-worked repertoire, perhaps he will make strides with a change-up offering the same way Halladay did in Philadelphia. If the Pirates are still looking for somebody who can crush right-handed pitching to play 1st base for them, the Jays have an Adam Lind for sale that could entice them to a degree.
2. Edwin Jackson (Chicago Cubs): Wins and ERA be damned, Edwin Jackson didn't pitch all too differently from how he had been for the three years prior. I think of one pitcher to have a bounce back, it's Edwin Jackson. His BABIP jumped 44 points in 2013, and LOB% (strand rate) was the lowest it's been in his career as a starter. His FIP was a solid 3.79, and more than a full run lower than his ERA (4.98). He's made at least 30 starts in seven straight seasons, and his averaged fastball velocity was still over 93 miles per hour.
He's entering his age-30 campaign, and with three years and $33 million left on his deal, I don't see regression to be a big deal. He's comfortably been a 3-win pitcher 4 out of the last 6 years, and after he posted his best GB% of his career as a starter I think he can maintain his current productivity (2-3.5 WAR) through the life of his contract.
Sean Nolin, Deck McGuire, and John Stilson are all semi-interesting pitchers who kind of fit within the time frame of when the Cubs are expected to contend, and if the Jays eat the whole contract, I wonder what the asking price would be and if the Jays could acquire Jackson without giving up Norris/Stroman/Sanchez or core position prospects (Nay/Barreto/Davis').
3. Blake Treinen (AA- Washington Nationals): Orginally drafted out of South Dakota State University in the 7th round by the Oakland Athletics, Blake was involved in another stroke of genius by Billy Beane when he was traded with AJ Cole to Washington (and included Michael Morse to Seattle, with John Jaso going to Oakland). Since he's been in Washington, the imposing 6'4 sinker ball pitcher has put together an impressive season. With an extremely heavy fastball between 92-97 and a hard slider, the 25-year old put up 118 2/3 innings of 3.64 ERA (3.67 FIP). He induced a 2.08 GO/AO ratio in his 2013 season, and it was the most innings he's thrown as an amateur or professional. A late bloomer in college, Treinen has not endured the same amount of stress on the throwing arm as many college pitchers.
Okay, I'd love to hear what you guys think/whom I mistakenly omitted/who you don't agree with! Go Jays, and thanks for reading if you managed to make it to the end.