February 27, 2015
A.J. Preller's Offseason and the Toronto Precedent
By the end of the 2012 season, the Blue Jays had secured their place in baseball as the definition of middling. After their 1992-1993 heyday—the culmination of 11 straight seasons of 86 wins or more—the Jays ripped off a string of seasons that would make a centrist very happy: Only twice in the next 19 years did Toronto finish in last place in the American League East, but just once did they manage to finish within 10 games of the division winner.
Once the Rays found respectability, Toronto dropped from its usual third place, finishing in fourth each year from 2008 to 2012. This was despite a respectable 400-410 record over that span, with three seasons at or above .500.
The time had come for the Blue Jays to do something big. “I’m not going to live through what we went through this season again,” general manager Alex Anthopolous told employees in October 2012, according to Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun.
On November 19, 2012, Anthopolous backed up his words. He pulled off a blockbuster 12-player trade with the Marlins, netting Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle. Less than a month later, Anthopolous did it again, adding R.A. Dickey to the Jays' now-stocked rotation.
The Blue Jays had also shored up their bullpen by trading Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes—then best known as the only big leaguer ever from Brazil, and, according to his 2011 BP player comment, “an unholy union of Esteban Yan and Jonny Gomes sent to remind Rays fans of the lean years”—for a promising righty reliever named Esmil Rogers.
Between those moves and the addition of Melky Cabrera through free agency, the Blue Jays had added 19.3 worth of 2012 WAR to their team, making them the preseason favorites to win the American League East. Vegas, ESPN, and CBSSports.com all picked the Jays to take the east crown in 2014. Dan Szymborski’s “unpredictability index” gave the Blue Jays a paltry 0.57 (out of 2) mark. It seemed certain that the Jays would at least be contenders for a playoff spot. ESPN’s preseason projections gave the Jays a worst-case scenario of 89 wins if “despite all the moves, the vaunted rotation doesn't quite pan out, Josh Johnson or Brandon Morrow gets hurt again, the turf is unkind to Reyes' knees, and 2012 NL Cy Young winner Dickey grows weary of all those AL East sluggers.”
"There is no reason why this team shouldn't win, because it's definitely built to win," Jose Bautista told USA Today. “Alex has given us everything we need to win."
This was the crowning achievement of a front office that had struggled so mightily for nearly 20 years. Alex Anthopolous was poised to do that which Gord Ash and J.P. Ricciardi had not: take up the mantle of Pat Gillick and bring October baseball north of the border.
This all made the team's dismal performance and failure to finish even out of the cellar all the more dramatic, causing some of the same pundits who had hailed the Blue Jays offseason makeover to proselytize on why it was doomed from the start, calling into question the whole idea of the offseason makeover. Maybe it just couldn't be done in one winter. It took time, especially for a mid-to-small market team coming from the cellar—or near the cellar—of its division.
What they do have is Yankees-style gorilla in their division, the Los Angeles Dodgers; as well as baseball's closest thing to a modern day dynasty, the San Francisco Giants. They are the NL West’s answer to the Blue Jays as a franchise neither good nor bad enough to draw the praise or ire of any outside of its hometown faithful. In essence, the definition of middling.
With his flurry of transactions this offseason, Padres GM A.J. Preller has attempted to change that reputation. Looking at Preller’s series of moves, it's hard not to be reminded of that eventful winter of two years ago. Will the Padres’ offseason moves bring them to their first postseason of the decade, or are they fated to fall flat, just as the Blue Jays did?
The primary problem for the Blue Jays in 2013 was starting pitching. The rotation finished with baseball’s second-worst ERA at 4.81. Despite a projected rotation consisting of Dickey, Buehrle, Johnson, and Brandon Morrow occupying the top four slots, the staff was plagued by injuries; the only player who met expectations was Buehrle. The team’s starting pitching depth was sorely lacking as well, as the Jays even trotted out Ramon Ortiz and Chien-Ming Wang for 10 sad starts.
This Padres rotation is projected by PECOTA to be much better than the 2013 Jays’ staff performed. Shields, Ian Kennedy, Andrew Cashner, and Tyson Ross are all solid if unspectacular pitchers. It’s somewhat ironic that Morrow and Johnson are on this team, since they were two of the main reasons that Toronto’s rotation imploded in 2013, but the Padres aren’t depending on their health as the Blue Jays did. Beyond those six, San Diego has Cory Luebke, Odrisamer Despaigne, and, if need be, Casey Kelly and Robbie Erlin.
Still, this rotation is not without its warning flags. Kennedy, who’s had a yo-yo career, is only a season removed from a 76 ERA+. Cashner has struggled with injuries in every season since 2011, and Luebke and Kelly were also hurt last year—not to mention Morrow and Johnson. All of this coming to fruition, however, would be a doomsday scenario. The Padres pitching depth will likely keep their rotation at least adequate throughout the season.
Injuries were what killed the Blue Jays in 2013, not just in the rotation but around the field. Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera, the two position players the Blue Jays landed that winter, provided good value when they were healthy. They often weren't. Bautista, Colby Rasmus, Brett Lawrie, and Emilio Bonifacio also missed time. In fact, the only Jays players to log more than 130 games were Adam Lind, Edwin Encarnacion, and Toronto fan favorite J.P. Arencibia. The Blue Jays’ position player depth was better than that of their starting pitching, but Macier Izturis, Rajai Davis, and Anthony Gose weren’t quite up to the task of filling the vacated cleats of the injured regulars.
Injuries have the potential to threaten any team, and the Padres are no exception, especially with Matt Kemp’s hips roaming right field and Derek Norris a repeated recipient of backswings to the head. However, this is a young team, unlike the Blue Jays, who only featured two regulars aged 27 or younger. Only one of the Padres' projected everyday position players—Kemp—is over 27. The Padres have—mostly—toed the line between acquiring old, overpaid veterans and young, unproven players by nabbing hitters in their mid 20s such as Upton and Norris. Moreover, the Padres outfield depth is remarkable, with Will Venable, Cameron Maybin, and Carlos Quentin, all starters on last year’s team, figuring to make up part of the Padres' bench.
The one burning, glaring weakness that the Padres have is their infield. Besides acquiring Will Middlebrooks, the team didn’t improve on an infield that contributed to last season’s 82 WRC+ offense. It’s such a gaping hole, the kind of hole that the Blue Jays didn’t seem to have going into the 2013 season. Due to regression and injuries, the rotation eventually developed into this kind of liability, but only after Morrow and Johnson went down. This infield, which is below average offensively and average (at best) defensively, will hold the Padres back throughout the season. The fact that the four infield positions—and not some other grouping of four, like second base, third base, right field, and the set-up man—are so weak is doubly worse because it further decreases the team’s depth at each. For most teams, the second baseman can move to third, or the shortstop to second, or the third baseman to first. But since the Padres are so weak at each, they have no depth at any of them. Any injury to this team’s infield can, therefore, created a catastrophic vacuum at the position.
Preller pulled some unbelievably smart moves to overhaul this roster, somehow keeping top prospects Austin Hedges, Hunter Renfroe, and Matt Wisler while making over his outfield and acquiring Norris to boot. In fact, in all but the Upton deal, the Padres mostly dealt relief pitchers and spare catchers.
For Upton, the front office did have to surrender solid- or high-level prospects Max Fried, Jace Peterson, Dustin Peterson, and Mallex Smith. Additionally, it also had to give up former first-rounders Joe Ross and Trea Turner in the Wil Myers deal. But the Blue Jays sent away their top two prospects, Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard, for Dickey.
Now, prospects traded away often don’t pan out. The Blue Jays know this from their experience trading Roy Halladay: The only player the Blue Jays received who ended up making any meaningful contributions in the majors was (or likely will be) d’Arnaud—who, of course, did/will do so for the Mets. But what particularly stung about the Blue Jays rebuild was that some of the other pieces they gave up—non-prospects—budded after they were traded. Henderson Alvarez spent two years in Toronto as a struggling back-end starter before finding himself in Miami. Most painful, however, was the Gomes for Rogers deal. It’s hard to imagine now that Esmil Rogers, by far the worst Blue Jay to see regular time on the mound in 2013 and 2014, was considered a steal from the Indians. Furthermore, it’s shocking that most Blue Jays fans were saddest to see Mike Aviles—a guy who never suited up in a Toronto uniform—dealt, as opposed to Gomes, who has become one of baseball’s best offensive catchers.
I say this not to forecast a 2016 in which Burch Smith is a Cy Young candidate, but rather to point out how unluckily the Blue Jays' overhaul went. Everything that could’ve got wrong went wrong—regression, injuries, and breakouts from players that they traded away. That’s part of the reason why the players Toronto gave up have already outperformed those that they acquired—20.1 WAR to 16.7 WAR, respectively, with the careers of d'Arnaud, Syndergaard and Jake Marisnick just getting started. There were some ill-advised moves—such as the Dickey trade—but by and large, the return the Blue Jays got on their investment had the potential to be high, if not for the catastrophic sequence of events that ensued.
As a productive outfielder still in his mid-20s, Upton seems to be a better bet than Dickey to be worth his price tag of prospects. He figures to regress a little bit, but that’s to be expected, especially in Petco Park, and he still should be a valuable asset in the outfield. The only problem is that he’ll have to do it quickly, since he’s a free agent after 2016 and the chances of San Diego retaining him are low.
The Padres have acquired more value than the Jays did and have done so at less of a cost. They have largely built not just a name-brand roster but one with depth and overlapping risk. Barring the disasters that befell Toronto—which this team seems less prone to—the Padres should at least make a huge improvement over previous seasons' dismal teams. While the infield may hamstring the team, the Padres will likely find themselves contending for a postseason spot this season.