Breaking: Rogers is cheap no longer

Well he’s finally done it folks. Alex Anthopoulos has made the move that makes the Blue Jays an undeniable contender in the AL East. The young phenom who had won the fans early with shrewd acquisitions of Yunel Escobar, Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie and the difficult but quite necessary departures of Roy Halladay and Vernon Wells had begun to lose favour with the fans of the ‘Rogers is cheap’ mantra. Some of the media elite had begun to question AA’s ability to build a contender because of the team’s step backwards in 2012 (while ignoring the painfully obvious extenuating circumstances that were beyond a GM’s immediate control). This blockbuster deal, more than 3 years in the making and is the culmination of his rein as Jays’ GM, will silence those who believed that AA was all smoke and mirrors.

By acquiring SS Jose Reyes, RHP Josh Johnson, LHP Mark Buehrle, C John Buck, 2B/OF Emilio Bonifacio AND $4M in exchange for SS Yunel Escobar, SS Adeiny Hechavarria, RHP Henderson Alvarez, C Jeff Mathis, CF Jake Marisnick, LHP Justin Nicolino, and RHP Anthony DeSclafani the Jays have immediately put themselves in the conversation for the AL East in 2013 (and beyond) while at the same time increasing their annual budget to ~$110M with more increases to come. The move immediately improves what was a woefully bad starting rotation and a liability into one of the better rotations in baseball and a position of great strength moving forward while at the same time acquiring an All-Star SS who can be an elite leadoff hitter as well as a versatile, speedy player for the infield/outfield.

Josh Johnson, a former Cy Young candidate who pitched well in 2012 considering his return from Tommy John surgery, has been a legitimate No. 1 starter when healthy and will likely contend with Brandon Morrow for the title of staff ace in 2013. If he stays healthy, he could provide 200+ innings for the Blue Jays with elite production. He’s provided 6 bWAR in the last two years despite undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2011 and has earned 5 bWAR for every 30 starts he’s received in career. If he were not a new acquisition, he’d likely be the team’s opening day starter in 2013. Teams are willing to pay an arm and a leg for a year from a guy like Josh Johnson or even a few months and his acquisition alone would have been enough to turn heads. With a salary at less than $14 M, Johnson is actually likely to provide surplus value for the Jays on the final year of his contract and at minimum will net the Jays a compensatory draft pick if he rejects the Jays’ qualifying offer and signs with another team in 2014.

Add to this the acquisition of one of the most consistent and durable pitchers of the last decade in Mark Buehrle and the Blue Jays have suddenly assembled the talent necessary to field one of the better rotations in baseball. Buehrle, who had a decent but slightly disappointing season for Miami, is a classic innings-eater who has pitched at least 200 innings in every year since his rookie season in 2000. Consistency like his does come at a price though and Buehrle will earn an average of $16 M over the course of the next 3 years but would provide the Jays with at least fair value if he can maintain or improve upon his performance from 2012. However, it is certainly possible that Buehrle will be the most disappointing acquisition if his fastball loses any more velocity in 2013. After so many years of logging 200+ innings, the workhorse lefty might always suffer a rapid decline but then again he has never really relied upon overpowering stuff but rather the ability to induce weak contact. Certainly, there is cause for concern when a pitcher’s peripherals decline after a move to the NL but it still seems highly unlikely that Buehrle declines fast enough to make the Jays regret it. Buehrle will more likely provide somewhere between 3-3.5 WAR a year and give the Jays fair value assuming roughly $5M per WAR.

Though Henderson Alvarez showed glimpses of an elite pitcher in his short 2011 debut, his 2012 season seemed to expose his lack of a third pitch and his complete inability to strikeout batters. Despite great groundball numbers, Alvarez gave up an unsightly number of home runs and was largely ineffective in a 187 IP in 2012. It was hoped that acquisitions by the Jays would allow them to return Alvarez to the minors and have him develop his breaking ball into an at least average offering. However, the acquisition of two quality starters make the loss of Alvarez who would likely have been passed soon on the depth chart by the Jays’ great prospect prospects in the lower minors anyway. He could go on to a productive MLB career especially if he can develop his slider but was not a key piece for the Jays going forward.

Barring another move, the 2013 Jays rotation will likely look like this:

1) Brandon Morrow 2) Josh Johnson 3) Mark Buehrle 4) Ricky Romero 5) JA Happ with Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison, Dustin McGowan (he’s pencilled in as a contender for the Blue Jays rotation every year until I see his obituary is published), Chad Jenkins, Deck McGuire, Sean Nolin and John Stilson among those ready to step in should anyone falter.

Considering the number of starts given to the likes of Chad Jenkins, Aaron Laffey, Henderson Alvarez, etc. in 2012, the Blue Jays should expect a vast improvement on the performance of their rotation in 2013 even without a bounceback season from Romero. The instant improvements to the rotation should also have a corresponding effect on the bullpen as it will allow the new manager to utilize their best relievers more often in high-leverage situations.

With the pitching staff vastly improved, this deal managed to also immediately improve the Jays at what was already a position of strength. Despite his non-baseball related issues and off-year offensively, Yunel Escobar was still a near-elite option at SS who provided above-average defence and the promise of a return to elite offensive production for the position all at the bargain basement cost of $5M/season. However, the eyeblack incident and other grumbles about his clubhouse intangibles during the 2012 season made it seem likely that Yunel would be moved out of town. Further, it looked likely that the Jays would be forced to move for significantly less than his market value.

Adeiny Hechavarria looked positioned to take over for Yunel at SS in the event of his departure if he wasn’t moved instead but the Jays caught everyone off guard by packaging both Cuban infielders to Miami in exchange for 2011 NL batting champion, perennial All Star and prototypical leadoff man Jose Reyes. Optimistic fans pined over Reyes in the 2011 offseason but he was always considered a pipe dream because of Toronto’s inability to attract top flight free agents in the past. Fast forward one year and the Jays have now acquired one of the best offensive and defensive shortstops in the game albeit one with an injury history who is signed for the 5 years for nearly $20M/year. Reyes is certainly the most risky acquisition for the Blue Jays but is also the one who could provide the greatest return. He has shown himsel to be capable of MVP-calibre seasons and should provide the Jays with their first truly elite leadoff hitter since Devon White in the early 90s.

While the loss of Hechavarria is certainly not negligible, the questions about his bat being able to keep his glove in the field are enough to forget him by tomorrow. With Reyes, Hechavarria would have been pushed to 2B and his offensive production would have looked worse without the benefit of the positional adjustment for SS. As expensive as the Reyes contract will be for the next 5-6 years, the acquisition of quality starting pitching (the team’s greatest need) more than offsets the loss of surplus value provided by Yunel’s team-friendly option-laden contract and Hechavarria’s remaining years of control.

If the acquisition of Johnson, Buehrle and Reyes weren’t enough of a bounty, the Jays also acquired a potential gem in Emilio Bonifacio who will likely see time at 2B and in the outfield for the Jays in 2013. Although he struggled in 2012 with a thumb injury, Bonifacio is just one year removed from a BABIP-fuelled 3.3 bWAR season in 2011 and is a legitimate threat on the basepaths having stolen 70+ bags in the past two seasons with a good success rate. He has two years of control remaining and could provide plenty of surplus value in that time if he manages to bounce back to anywhere near his production from 2011.

(With the signing of Maicer Izturis, the Jays seemed to be hedging their bets slightly by acquiring someone who could be an everyday 2B if needed but would likely be best utilized off the bench. Had he known that he would acquire Bonifacio, would Anthopoulos have still signed Izturis earlier in the week? There’s certainly room for both on the roster but having 2B open for Bonifacio would leave LF open for an acquisition with a little more power.)

This leaves just the reacquisition of C John Buck who was the Jays’ 2010 starter who surprised everyone by hitting 20 HRs that year and cashing in for a 3 year deal worth $18M. His performance has certainly dipped since his All Star campaign in 2010 which likely wasn’t helped by the move from the AL East’s hitter-friendly parks to the cavernous new stadium in Miami. He’s likely going to provide negative value in 2013 on his $6M salary but almost provided fair value with his defence alone in 2012 according to Baseball-Reference.com. Should his bat recover with a return to the Rogers Centre (I typed SkyDome initially but as part of my newfound duty to show my gratitude will let that grudge go), Buck would likely provide at least fair value and could actually be an easily overlooked positive from the trade.

It’s hard to believe that after a year, Jeff Mathis would be looked back upon fondly given his reputation as a black hole in a lineup card but he did manage to endear himself to fans slightly with some stellar defence behind the plate and some unexpected pop. His inclusion in the deal seems a little surprising given his extension near the end of the year but if the Marlins were intent on shedding salary at the C position in a swap, the Blue Jays were smart in retaining both their incumbent starter JP Arencibia and Travis d’Arnaud, one of which (likely the former) can now be moved for another piece.

As for the prospects going back to Miami in the deal other than the Major League-ready Hechavarria, the biggest loss for the Jays’ system was undoubtedly CF Jake Marisnick who split time between Dunedin and New Hampshire in 2012 at the age of 20. He has the potential to be a 5-tool outfielder but many talent evaluators believe that his complex swing and large frame for CF could prevent him from reaching his ceiling. Marisnick started 2012 slowly before recovering in time for a promotion to AA midseason where he scuffled against much older competition. He was having a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League hitting over .300 with good amount of doubles. However, the presence of Colby Rasmus and Anthony Gose ahead of Marisnick on the depth chart meant that even if his maturing frame allowed him to stay in CF, he would likely be pushed to a corner outfield position anyway and would lose the positional adjustment given to centre fielders. With 2012 1st-Round draft pick DJ Davis, Dalton Pompey and Anthony Alford, the Jays aren’t without more centre field prospects in the system so the loss of a prospect like Marisnick is not nearly as draining to the Jays’ system as it would be to the majority of baseball.

The other names going south, Justin Nicolino and Anthony DeSclafani, are also manageable losses. Nicolino was the better prospect of the two with possibly the best changeup in the organization but he was not projected to be anything more than a #4 starter at the Major League-level. His stuff lagged behind his teammates in 2012 and fellow top prospects Aaron Sanchez and Noah Syndergaard though he had a more advanced feel for pitching, pinpoint command and a faster path to the Majors. His greatest positive would have been his ability to contribute sooner than those power arms but with the acquisition of Johnson and Buehrle the need for pitchers that could advance quickly has faded.

Anthony DeSclafani, a college draftee, who enjoyed success in 2012 for Lansing was old for the level and lacked the raw stuff to project as anything more than a fringe MLB player who would likely be destined for the bullpen if he continued to rise. His inclusion provides Miami with some pitching prospect depth but is really just a throw-in that affords Loria the a lottery ticket with the minute hope that he’ll strike it rich in prospects, win aonther World Series and have another fire sale.

Oooops… Almost forgot that the Marlins threw in $4M in salary relief in the deal. Though just a drop in the bucket when seen beside the $160M+ in salary commitments taken on by the Jays but is still surprising considering the wealth of talent headed north of the border.

The deal is an undeniable shift in the landscape of the AL East, the Blue Jays have signaled they’re ready to compete in 2013 though it comes with a certain amount of risk due to the incredible amount of salary committed to Reyes, Buehrle, and Johnson. Regardless of the risks, the Jays seem poised for increases across the board in attendance, ratings and merchandise in 2013 to help offset the costs especially if they are indeed competitive. There seems to be a growing momentum behind the Blue Jays that is spreading across the country, this deal will only get that ball moving faster.

…And with the Jays looking poised to move JP Arencibia as they use John Buck to break in another rookie catcher, the Jays could look to acquire another piece for the rotation or a legitimate 1B/DH/2B to replace the knockoffs that are currently on the roster. It’s a great day to be a Toronto Blue Jays fan. Take it all in.

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