Where there’s Smoak there’s fire

I was not a believer in Justin Smoak when this season began. When the Blue Jays signed him to a two-year extension at $8.5 million I figured it was a good price to pay for a backup first baseman, and guy to slot in at DH to give guys a day off here or there. What he has done thus far in 2017 has been nothing short of extraordinary.

He has already surpassed his RBI and extra-base hit totals from last year and has done so with 123 fewer plate appearances. Many have pondered the reasons why.

Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler (referred to as Tabby from here on out) have discussed ad nauseam why he is doing so well this year. Is it the consistent play? Is it the fact he has the security of a contract? Is it his approach at the plate? I figure it’s a combination of all three because each one plays into the other.

With the security of the contract (and the lack of an alternative at first base) comes consistent play, and with the consistent play comes a more patient approach at the plate.

But there’s more than just that because he has had consistent playing time in the past (news flash, he is 30 years old and this is his 8th season in the MLB, only one year with less than 100 games).

Something changed in the way he comes to the plate this year, and the only real answer I can think of is Blue Jays batting coach Brook Jacoby.

Since Smoak joined the Blue Jays he’s been a relative afterthought. Edwin Encarnacion was going to be our first baseman, and our hitting coach would be more focused on getting our starters as ready as they can be for an MLB season. Smoak had power, was a switch hitter, and a useful bench guy, but Jacoby wasn’t spending sleepless nights thinking about how to get him to breakthrough as a batter.

 

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Credit: Keith Allison/Flickr CC

 

When Encarnacion wasn’t re-signed, and it was clear Smoak was, at the very least, going to start 100 or so games at first, I’m sure Jacoby put in some time to figure out why his ability to hit wasn’t coming through consistently.

And as I said he has had several seasons with over 480 plate appearances (2011-2013 in Seattle) and none have come close to what he is doing right now.

His best batting average in those three years was .238 in 2013 (he is at .291 right now). His career-high in homeruns also came in 2013 at 20 (he’s at 17).

Justin Smoak has the most RBI’s of AL first basemen, and is fifth in the Majors. Justin Smoak has the third-best average in the AL among first basemen. Justin Smoak is tied for first in home runs among first basemen IN THE MAJORS.

If you can’t tell, I did not think Justin Smoak was going to be doing what he is doing.

The biggest difference at the plate this year is patience, at least compared to last year’s K-hole (and not the cool rock n’ roll kind).

Up to this season in his career, Smoak struck out in 24 per cent of his plate appearances. This season it is 18 per cent. On top of that he is actually averaging more than one walk for every two strikeouts, something he’s only done once before in guess what year….2013.

So this becomes a question of whether the big Smoak is for real, or whether we’re in for a Michael Saunders-style regression in the second half of the season.

It is hard for me to now step on the train to believing-town, when for months I was on the platform waiting for dumpster fire station, but here’s why I want to think I was wrong.

Smoak has put up these numbers with no one helping him out. If there was a time when he might abandon a patient approach, you would have to think it would be with no clear protection. Think of how much easier it was for Bautista when Encarnacion was waiting on deck.  He has been our number five hitter all year long, and until Troy Tulowitzki came back from the DL, that means he actually had Devon Travis, Steve Pearce and Russell Martin on-deck behind him.

Those guys have had good streaks, and helping Smoak out, since May 1st Travis and Pearce were both tearing the cover off the ball before they both went on the DL (Travis was batting .352 with a .974 OPS and Pearce .276 with a 1.092 OPS).

We never know what is to come, but let’s hope Smoaker becomes the Dart Guy for the Blue Jays.

 

To trade or not to trade: Marco Estrada

As I write this the Jays are one game under .500 and have a 1-0 lead over the Oakland A’s. If all goes well, the team will even their win-loss record for the first time this year, and with no team dominating in the AL East as of yet, the division is still a possibility.

I have to believe Boston will put up a solid record over the coming months on the strength of their rotation, and the Yankees and Baltimore have offensive lineups that can do some serious damage. In my estimation, the Jays could still pull off winning the division, but could also miss the playoffs by a game or two.

I am prefacing the meat of my ponderings with this because I think what becomes of Marco Estrada will depend heavily on how the team is doing. I am going to break down the reasons why the Jays should trade Estrada and go through the scenario in which he stays.

Why he sticks around

I am starting with why Estrada ends the season a Jay because from my perspective it isn’t all that likely, and once you finish reading (I know you can do it!) you’ll see the reasons why it might make a lot of sense to move him.

The team is starting to turn a corner, they’re getting healthier and are getting some surprise performances thus far (Justin Smoak, I’m looking at you). The problem 57 games into this season seems to be that the runs aren’t coming like they were the last couple of years, and the bullpen, apart from Joe Smith and Roberto Osuna is a tire fire.

I think the only way Estrada isn’t traded before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline is if the Jays are playing well and within five games of the division. They are only that close right now because the other teams in the East have been just as inconsistent, with far fewer injuries. If the team shows another ugly month in June or July I think Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins will try and get what they can for Estrada before he becomes an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.

Why trade him?

So why would the Blue Jays want to trade their most consistent pitcher over the last two seasons? The guy who put up a 3.13ERA in 2015 and 3.48ERA in 2016 and led the AL in opponent batting average both of those seasons, and averaged less than seven hits against in both of those seasons might get traded? Wel, let me break down why I think it might be the best move to trade him.

Holes to fill

I think the decision to trade or not to trade Estrada will come down a few factors. The first is that with his numbers he could get a nice package in return. It wouldn’t be crazy to think a good pitching prospect and serviceable corner outfielder could come back in a trade for Estrada. Depending on how he is doing, and the team trading for him, it could be more than that.

On top of that, Joe Biagini has shown he can fill a starter’s role and if he was the number four or five pitcher in the rotation it wouldn’t be the worst situation to find yourself in. Upgrading the abyss that is the Jays left-field spot and getting a young arm could be enough to sway the Jays front office into making a deal.

Many more holes that need filling

The bigger factor in deciding to keep Estrada is the coming offseason. The Jays have $91 million committed already next year, and that is for seven players. Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitski ($20 million), Jose Bautista ($17 million), J.A. Happ ($13 million), Kendrys Morales ($11 million), Steve Pearce ($6.25 million) and Justin Smoak ($4.125 million) are the only guys under contract for the 2018 season. Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Josh Donaldson, Devon Travis and Roberto Osuna are the notable arbitration cases and that will add another $25 or $30 million in the most conservative of estimates.

The team has a $168 million payroll this year, but I have to believe that Shapiro and Atkins will try and cut that down to around $150 million meaning the team would have around $30 million to play with in the offseason. Estrada is finishing a two-year $26 million deal and I don’t see why he would make any less money unless he got a longer term.

Estrada is 34 years old now, and signing him to a deal more than two years long just wouldn’t fit into the Shapiro/Atkins MO. They will look to lock-up Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez to deals similar to the one they signed with Corey Kluber in 2015: A five-year $38.5 million contract loaded with incentives ($77 million ceiling). That wouldn’t leave much space for another pitcher making an 8-figure salary.

I also think that replenishing the farm system is a top goal of the front office, especially with the paltry pitching prospects the team has coming down the pipeline.

Maybe, maybe not

Whenever I think of a trade that would make fans angry but might be the right move I think of the move Pat Gillick made trading Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez, both fan-favourites for good reason, for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar. If the Jays could get a top-tier prospect for Estrada it might make people angry now, but they’ll get over it if that prospect turns into an ace or an everyday position player.

Not only that but if they don’t trade Estrada and miss the playoffs they will either pay up to keep his services or lose him for nothing. The front office didn’t come into Toronto with intentions of spending a lot to win now (see Edwin Encarnacion), they are going to keep the team competitive while re-stocking the prospect cupboard (with moves like trading Estrada this year, and possibly Happ next year) while keeping club control of younger players that will be the core of the team (Stroman, Sanchez, Pillar and Travis come to mind).

Of course, the team could go on a run and start looking more like a World Series calibre team, in which case I don’t know if the Jays would pull the trigger. But they are currently down 4-1 to the worst team in the American League, seemingly destined to hover a game under .500 for all of eternity, and if they keep this up it could spell the end of Estrada’s time in T.O.

The Bullpen and a lineup crunch

The Toronto Blue Jays greatest weakness in 2016 was the bullpen. With 22 blown saves during the regular season, the ninth-most in the Majors, the team had some holes to fill in the offseason. After the departure of Brett Cecil, the team’s only reliable lefty, things didn’t look good coming out of the gate. But the Jays’ front office has cobbled together a group that could be better than last year.

A little background

Bullpens are fickle creatures. A guy can have an outstanding season only to come back the following year and post pedestrian numbers. To try and get something more than words behind this, I checked the last five years of data on relievers that had pitched at least 40 innings in the course of a season. I used Fielding Independent Pitching to illustrate how difficult it is for relievers to stay at an elite level, year after year. FIP is a way of measuring a pitcher’s effectiveness independent of the guys playing behind him. It is based on strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches, and home runs allowed, approximating a pitcher’s ERA based on those statistics and the league average outcomes on balls in play. This can all be found in more detail at Fangraphs. After looking between 2012 and 2016 it becomes apparent that there are few relievers who can keep their game at a consistent level season after season.

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I looked at the top five relievers based on FIP for each year and only one made the list more than 2 times, Aroldis Chapman. Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances and Zach Britton each got on twice. Now I am not saying guys can’t have long, fruitful careers as relievers, my point is just that even the most talented relievers have trouble pitching at a consistent level. This is a product of several things. First, with limited opportunities, it can be difficult for guys to rebound from a bad start to the season or a stretch of bad outings, especially when confidence is lost.

On top of that, a lot of relievers are put in the bullpen because they don’t have enough pitches in their arsenal to be a starter. Take Cecil for example. In 2015, after starting the season as our closer, which ended quite horrifically, he put together a 26 inning scoreless streak, tying the longest such streak ever by a Blue Jay reliever. Last year he wasn’t the same guy. He was dealing with some triceps issues but the thing many people were talking about was his curveball not hitting the strike zone. Because of that, teams were sitting on his average fastball and taking advantage of him.

Again I am not trying to make some claim about Cecil’s abilities, but trying to show how quickly a reliever can become ineffective. Even if the guy rebounds the next year, who knows what the rest of the team will look like, and whether or not your one inning pitcher will have an impact when you look at the bigger picture. This is also reinforced by Chapman’s presence in the top five in four of the five years I looked at. When your main pitch is a fastball, and that fastball regularly tops 100MPH, it won’t be as difficult to stay consistent(one reason the Yankees were willing to pay $86 million over five years for him). But imagine how ineffective he would be if he lost two or three miles on that fastball if guys didn’t have to swing before the ball even left his hand to have a shot at a hit.

This is also reinforced by Chapman’s presence in the top five in four of the five years I looked at. When your main pitch is a fastball, and that fastball regularly tops 100MPH, it won’t be as difficult to stay consistent(one reason the Yankees were willing to pay $86 million over five years for him). But imagine how ineffective he would be if he lost two or three miles on that fastball if guys didn’t have to swing before the ball even left his hand to have a shot at a hit.

This is all part of the thinking behind the Jays’ decision not to invest the kind of money (and term) in Cecil that the St.Louis Cardinals did. It also illustrates why the Jays have taken the approach to the bullpen that they have.

Lightning in a bottle

J.P. Howell
J.P. Howell Credit: Keith Allison/ Flickr CC

The Jays added three arms through free agency. J.P. Howell comes to us from the L.A. Dodgers and fills the role Cecil leaves open. A left-hander that has had several stellar seasons, he’s coming off a rough year, posting a 4.09 ERA, his highest since 2011. With three consecutive years of good work culminating in a 2015 season that saw him finish with a 1.43 ERA in 44.0IP, I am hoping that 2016 was an aberration. He was probably undervalued because of the down season in 2016, which was probably a big factor in why we signed him. If he gets back to the kind of work he did between 2012 and 2015 he will be one of our most valuable assets coming out of the pen.

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Like his name suggests, we shouldn’t expect anything flashy from Joe Smith. If he makes the team out of Spring Training (given the guys he’s up against, he should) he will provide middle inning relief with some consistency. His best year came in with the Angels in 2014 when he posted a 1.84ERA in 74.2 innings of work. Mat Latos comes into camp as a guy that could be relied upon for a spot start when necessary, but will likely fall into a middle relief role as well, albeit with a track record that suggests he could go for two or more innings. The Blue Jays will be his sixth team since the beginning of 2015, as he’s never really regained what he had in San Diego and Cincinnati between 2010 and 2014. Over the course of those five seasons, he pitched 901.1 innings posting a 3.27ERA. If Pete Walker can get the best out of these guys there could be a renaissance of sorts happening in the Jays pen in 2017.

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Old faces

After a breakout year in 2016, Joe Biagini could be looking at a higher pressure role this coming season. With no clear setup man, the thinking seems to be that Biagini and Jason Grilli will be relied upon as the seventh and eighth inning guys. From what Biagini showed us last year, I am hoping one of either Latos or Smith steps up and takes the seventh (Howell being our only solid lefty precludes him from this role in my opinion), leaving Biagini open to eat innings when needed. We can also expect the same fire from Grilli whose play after being traded to Toronto was far beyond what many expected when he arrived. He brings experience and a love of tense moments often (hopefully) ending with belligerent fist pumping and screaming on the way back to the dugout.

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Roberto Osuna continued to impress last year, though the six blown saves were a little concerning. Only 22 entering the season, all we can do is hope he continues to get better under the tutelage of Walker, and maybe stops making games that are seemingly in the bag nailbiters. Time and again last year he was thrust into games in non-save situations (tomorrow I will write about the front-office and coaching to address this among other issues)that quickly went from four-run leads to one, but more often than not he settled down when the pressure was greatest. He is mentally tough, and as Drew Storen sadly showed, that may be the most important part of his game.

That is six of the seven spots in the bullpen filled, presuming we have seven in there. With our strong starting rotation, the Jays could theoretically try and run with a six-man bullpen for the first part of the season. This would give John Gibbons a chance to sift through the plethora of bench options we have as there are six extra bench players to fill four or five spots depending on how many guys we have in the pen.

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If Steve Pearce, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Darwin Barney are given to make the squad, with seven men in the pen that would mean only one of Goins, Carrera, Pompey would make the team. This is the biggest issue with filling Edwin’s role with a sub-par hitting first baseman that needs to be offset with a DH that is solid at the plate.

There are five guys familiar to fans that could fill the last spot in the bullpen. Aaron Loup, Gavin Floyd, Ryan Tepera, Danny Barnes and Bo Schultz. Al of them had time in the Majors with the Jays last year and I would think either Schultz or Loup grabs the spot (Loup is lucky he is left-handed!).

Barring injuries to the pitching staff, I don’t see the need to have a seven-man pen to start the season. This would give Pompey or Carrera a chance to showcase their skills and possibly fight their way into the lineup. We will see how all this shakes out in the coming weeks.

The bullpen looks like it could turn out to be better than last season, and the pitching staff, in general, is much deeper than this time last year. Here’s hoping Ross Atkins managed to catch some lightning in a bottle.

Jays 2017 Preview

The 2015 and 2016 editions of the Toronto Blue Jays were great teams that fell just short of their goal. The 2017 team will look different but should still contend for the club’s first title since ’93.

Going into last season expectations were high for the Jays. Coming off their first playoff appearance in 22 years and reaching the American League Championship Series in the process put lofty goals in the minds of fans across the country. The team was almost identical to the one that had gone 48-23 in the second half of 2015 and boasted some of the biggest bats in the game.

The most significant change in 2016 came from how the Jays were winning games. The team relied much more on consistent pitching from their starters rather than a behemoth offence. The 759 runs scored was a far cry from the 891 that crossed the plate in 2015. And even though they scored 132 fewer runs they only lost four more games than in 2015. This demonstrates the value of a strong rotation and gives us a good starting point (see what I did there?) for the 2017 preview.

Mound Presence

With the best ERA(3.78) and second-most innings pitched(1459.1) in the American League, the Blue Jays starters showed how important a strong rotation is. This is especially true when the bullpen was as bad as it was. The strength the 2017 Blue Jays comes from the men on the mound.

Marco Estrada
Credit: Keith Allison/ Flickr CC

Marco Estrada has shown that he is an elite starting pitcher over the course of the last two seasons. After breaking out in 2015 with a 3.13 ERA and 13-8 record, he battled back problems for much of the 2016 season and still posted the 11th best ERA in the AL at 3.48. If he can give the Jays another year like 2015 or 2016, he will be earning the contract he signed before the start of last season.

J.A. Happ
Credit: Keith Allison/Flickr CC

J.A. Happ has been on quite a run since being traded to Pittsburgh in the middle of the 2015 season. He only has six losses since that trade, and though wins and losses aren’t the best indicators of pitching performance, he has to be doing something right. His 3.18ERA was good for sixth in the AL and his 20 wins put him tied for second in the Majors with Washington’s Max Scherzer.

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Credit: Terry Foote/Flickr CC

The Aaron Sanchez affair was the best kind of controversy the team could have hoped for. Fans watched with bated breath as rumours of shutting the youngster down swirled from the moment he showed he could pitch at an elite level. He led the AL with an ERA of 3.00 posting 15 wins against two losses. He also pitched 192.0 innings in the regular season brushing aside thoughts that he couldn’t handle a Major League workload.

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Another former Pirate, Francisco Liriano came over in the lopsided deal that got Pittsburgh out from under his $13 million contract this season. And while he was struggling when he was traded, he posted a 2-2 record with a 2.52 ERA in 49.1 innings pitched. While that is a small sample size as many of you already know, Liriano’s numbers with Russell Martin behind the plate are nothing to scoff at. When Martin was with the Pirates in 2013 and 2014, Liriano posted ERA’s of 3.02 and 3.38 respectively, the best since his breakout 2006 season in Minnesota.

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Marcus Stroman was the only Jay in this rotation who had an off year. Although it was technically his third season in the Majors, I count it as a sophomore slump after missing all but four starts in 2015 due to an ACL tear. Stroman has a lot of pride and I could see him having a Sanchez type of breakout year in 2017. In 2014, his rookie season, the Stro-show pitched 130.2 innings and posted a 3.65ERA. His September starts in 2015 (Four wins, no losses, 1.67ERA) showed the ability he has to shut down the opposition, and his team-leading 204.0IP last season shows he is capable of handling the rigours of a full season.

My Best Bet

Barring any lengthy injury absences the Jays rotation figures to be the strength of the team yet again. Happ and Estrada should continue to post the numbers expected of top-of-the-rotation guys, keeping us in games most of their starts. Liriano will probably be the best number five in the American League, a guy who should give the Jays six innings of good ball with relative consistency.

Here is where some may disagree with me. I don’t think Sanchez repeats his ace-like 2016 this year, as teams focus much more on him from the start of the season this year, and he deals with the usual regressions of a second-year player. That isn’t to say he won’t be effective, but I could see a Stroman-like slide to more average numbers in his sophomore season.

What fans have to hope for is that Stroman has a Sanchez-like season establishing himself as the Jays defacto ace. He has shown he has elite pitching ability and Major League endurance over the course of his young career. Coupled with the aforementioned pride and willingness to work, I could see Stroman breaking out in 2017 as one of the best pitchers in the American League, and quite possibly the Majors.

I’ll be back this weekend with a look at the starters in the field, the batting lineup and the bullpen.