New additions to the Blue Jays answer some questions and raise others.

How Many DH’s Does It Take to Fill The Albert Hall (or the Jays infield)
by Jim Silva
    So let’s say you work at Billy’s Cheese ‘N Soup as the soup wrangler. There is only one soup wrangler, and you have been the guy for a few years because you are really good at your job. In fact, you were on the cover of Soup Wrangler’s International last year, and everyone agrees that even though you are about to leave your prime, there is no evidence that you are slowing down.  Billy’s has an opening at the Cheese Ambassador position, but you just don’t have the tools to be a top notch “Cheeserista” so nobody considers you for the opening, and why should they when you are such a diva at wrangling the “hot and steamy”. But your contract is up and Billy knows you’re looking for a big payday, what with your great stats and national reputation. Still, you aren’t worried because Billy would be a fool to lose you, right? But then, just as you were making appearances on Top Ladle and Heads of Chowda, Billy goes and signs one of your rivals from Stu’s Stew! That is essentially what just happened to Edwin Encarnacion when the Jays signed Kendrys Morales to be their designated hitter, the one position where Encarnacion’s glove work (batting glove in his case) won’t hurt the team.  In fact, the two men have a few superficial traits in common. They are both solidly built big men who have no business playing in the field (although once upon a time Morales put up some decent numbers at first base). They both hit lots of home runs, and they are both 33 and like collecting butterflies (not really – but fun image). Upon closer inspection, it is pretty clear that Morales is Encarnacion-light – and I don’t mean just their salaries. Let’s use oWAR (offensive wins above replacement) and RC+ (runs created per plate appearance adjusted to park and league) to compare the two players, since defense isn’t really part of either man’s game these days.
Encarnacion (oWAR/RC+)
Morales (oWAR/RC+)
Looking at the table above it should be pretty clear that Encarnacion is quite a bit better than Morales. Of course, skill is not the only factor in determining which player teams go after. Morales signed a three year contract for $33 million whereas Encarnacion reportedly already turned down a four year offer from the Blue Jays for $80 million. $9 million dollars a season is a big difference when you are comparing designated hitters. However, as teams drop out of the EE auction, his agent must be wondering if turning down the four for 80 deal may have been a mistake.
    Rogers Center, where the Blue Jays play their home games, is essentially neutral, based on park factor numbers from 2016. A lot goes into how a park influences offense including the temperature, so a one year park factor does not necessarily dictate future performance, but last season Rogers Center was not a band box. That said, if you look at who played the most games there, i.e. teams from the AL East, it makes sense that a lot of home runs would be hit there. With that in mind, the Blue Jays signing of Kendrys Morales shouldn’t inspire fantasy baseball managers to run out and pick up the slugger thinking that his home run production is going to skyrocket because he will get to play half his games in Rogers Center instead of Kaufman Stadium, a consistent pitchers park. The Jays also signed Steve Pearce, for $12.5 million, to play first base for the next two years. Pearce, like Morales, hits balls hard (not quite as many home runs) and (unlike Morales) is not limited to the easy end of the defensive spectrum. Also unlike Morales, Pearce gets on base – last season he had a .374 on-base percentage leading to an oWAR/RC+ of 2.3/136 in only 302 plate appearances. His lefty-righty splits were pretty even although for his career he mashes lefties while carrying a .245/.322/.406 slash line against righties. Many players become more than just platoon mashers when they get more exposure to their weak side, so Pearce might have turned the corner and become an everyday first baseman, or even a jack of all gloves kind of player that seems to be de rigueur these days. Assuming the Jays don’t sign Bautista or bring back Encarnacion, Pearce is likely to get a lot of opportunities to answer that question more definitively.
    The middle infield for the Jays is interesting in that they have a young second baseman who is still establishing himself, and an older shortstop who was looking like a lock for the Hall of Fame earlier in his career, but developed a reputation as an injury waiting to happen. The second baseman, Devon Travis, is one of those well rounded guys who doesn’t get a ton of love because he just isn’t spectacular at anything flashy. His glove is slightly above average – his DRS and UZR numbers were 2 and 1.6 respectively. He hits for average but doesn’t draw enough walks to be a leadoff guy with only 20 walks in 432 plate appearances. He hits the ball hard – a .454 slugging percentage – but only 11 of his hits left the park last  season. He is even a solid baserunner with a UBR (Ultimate Base Running) number of 1.6 runs above average, but he only stole four bases, albeit at an 80% success rate. I know – yawn – but do you want him on your team playing everyday? Heck yeah! A second baseman with a wRC+ of 109, a WAR of 2.5, and a slash line of .300/.332/.454 is a really nice piece to have in the middle of your infield and either near the top or the bottom of your lineup. One caution – his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was a lofty .358. Some guys have high BABIPs most of the time, but generally a high BABIP is a sign of possible regression. A lot of Travis’ value is tied up in his high batting average (since he doesn’t walk) so if his BABIP drops to .300, for example, and he continues to eschew the free pass then he will fail to be an above 2.0 WAR guy. If that happens then Travis will cease to be a viable starter. Stay tuned!
    Tulo! Tulo! Tulo! That’s what fans shout when Troy Tulowitzki comes to the plate. He has been one of the more exciting players in baseball since he established himself as a starter for the Rockies during the 2007 season when he was only 22. Tulowitzki has two Gold Gloves, two Silver Slugger awards, finished second for the Rookie of The Year award, has MVP votes in six different seasons and has made the All Star Team five times. He also has failed to get 550 plate appearances since 2011 when he was 26 because he has hit the disabled too many times to count. “But when he plays” – which is likely how the majority of sentences about the 32 year old shortstop begin – he is still one of the best shortstops in the game. He combines a power bat, a decent eye, and a top notch glove to make him a well-rounded star. His career numbers are a bit misleading if you are trying to find out what Tulo is today – in part because he is out of his prime, but also because he has left the launching pad that is Coors Field, one of the best hitters park in the history of Major League baseball. In the course of 11 seasons he has hit 217 home runs with a slash line of .292/.364/.501 in 5142 plate appearances. Those numbers portend a nice retirement for Tulo, but if his goal is The Hall are they on track to be enough?
One way to begin to answer that question is to determine what Tulowitzki is today. Last season is probably more representative of the new normal for Tulo. In 544 plate appearances he hit 24 home runs and slashed .254/.318/.443. His value numbers were a WAR of 3.3 and wRC+ of 106. Diving a little deeper, let’s look at two numbers that might signal a slight decline, and two that say Troy is just fine, thank you.  Pitchers still throw the Blue Jay shortstop the same mix of pitches they have always thrown him and in about the same percentages – about 55 to 58% fastballs, about 25% cutters and sliders, close to 10% curveballs, and the rest a mix of various pitches. What has changed is that Tulo is missing more pitches when he swings the bat. In 2015 and 2016 he hit about 80% of the pitches he offered at which is a drop from 2012 where he made contact with almost 90% of the pitches he swung at. It has declined almost every year since 2012 to 83.7 in 2013 and 82.9 in 2014 – his career rate is now at 83.5%. Also of note over the last two seasons is that when he swings at pitches inside the strike zone he makes contact less often – 85.0% in 2015 and 85.8% in 2016. His career rate is 88.2% and he eclipsed the 91% mark three years in a row from 2010 through 2012. It isn’t the end of the world but you can maybe start to see it from here. Even that is too dramatic, because a shortstop who can hit 24 home runs is a rarity. A shortstop who hits 24 home runs AND carries Tulowitzki’s glove is more than rare – hence all the Hall of Fame talk.
    At 6’3 you’re supposed to be too big to stick at shortstop, but not only has he stuck, Tulo has shone. He has only made double digit errors twice in his career – 11 in 2007 and 10 in 2010 – and currently sports a .985 career fielding percentage. For people who care about records – that’s one right there. He is the all-time leader in shortstop fielding percentage. He is also 6th all-time in Total Zone Runs as a shortstop, showing that he also has range. And he doesn’t seem to be slowing down with the glove as his DRS and UZR were 10 and 4.9 respectively last season. So even with a slightly slowing bat, he is still one of the best all-around shortstops in the game when he is on the field. He already has a case for inclusion in the Hall of Fame, albeit a weak case. For Tulowitzki to nail down a spot for his plaque, he has to have a few more season of 500+ plate appearances at around his current level. At that point it would be difficult to argue against him.
    For A’s fans, the bitterness may never end at the loss of Josh Donaldson, their reclamation project turned superstar third baseman. All he did during his first year in Toronto was win the AL MVP and propel the club into the post-season. Oh, and last season – his second with the club – he had a very similar offensive year with a few fewer home runs, more triples, a lot more walks, fewer strikeouts and fewer doubles all contributing to a one point increase in wRC+ from 154 to 155. So he is basically more than 50% better than the league average hitter at creating runs. Dude! Donaldson’s glove work is solid too. With a DRS of 2 and a UZR of 4.2, his numbers showed a bit of a drop off, but still solid work at the hot corner. Add him to an infield with Tulo and Travis, and your pitchers will be happy campers. Donaldson will be in the mix for the MVP every season for a few more years as he has just turned 30. With 78 home runs in the last two seasons, and a potent lineup in front of him, to go with improving strike zone control, he will put up excellent counting stats – home runs, runs scored, and runs batted in – while maintaining a healthy batting average and on-base percentage as long as he can remain healthy, which doesn’t seem to be a problem for the former catcher.
    Who else will man the infield for the Blue Jays in 2017? This early in the off-season it’s hard to say exactly who will be on their bench, but let’s try. Justin Smoak has been a disappointment since he was taken in the first round of the 2008 draft by the Rangers. Three things are clear about Smoak. He has a lot of power – 106 home runs in 2886 plate appearances in the majors, he can’t get on base – a career OBP of .308, and he has no business wearing a mitt and crossing over the chalk lines onto the field. No business, unless the mitt is an oven mitt and he is delivering his famous double chocolate chip cookies to his teammates during the seventh inning stretch, because nothing says, “I love you” like fresh baked cookies. Slash lines aren’t always the most informative statistics when looking at a player’s offense, but in Smoak’s case his slash line paints a pretty clear picture of what he does – .228/.308/.392. He was pencilled in to be the Jays first baseman before they acquired Steve Pearce, but really he should be a bench bat or a DH when your other DH is injured. Last season was typical for the 6’3, 200 pound masher. He hit 14 home runs in 341 plate appearances, but his slash line was almost perfectly in line with his career numbers. His wRC+ was 90, which is a little low for him and his WAR was -0.1 because his glove was so awful. With 0.3 career WAR you can only hope that he breaks even, costing you about as many runs with his glove as he earns with his long flies – you know – unless you keep him from putting any kind of leather on his hands EVER! Seriously though, looking at DRS and UZR they disagree at times about Smoak’s ability in the field. He has only one positive DRS season and a career total of -16 DRS. With UZR, however, he has only two negative seasons and a career 0.6 UZR total. Last season, both metrics agreed that his kung fu was no good, so the Blue Jays should listen up and minimize his exposure to balls flying at him unless he is toting a bat with which to defend himself.
The Jays are flush with wee lads who play the middle infield including Darwin Barney. Most of Darwin Barney’s value is tied up in his glove. Like Michael Jackson, Barney wears many gloves and wears all of them well. He had positive DRS and UZR numbers at 2nd base, shortstop, 3rd base, and the outfield in 2016 – a lot of his positive numbers stem from his excellent range. Unlike O.J. Simpson – another famous glove-wearer, Barney doesn’t contribute much on offense. His wRC+ of 86 last season was 13 points above his career average but still significantly below average (100). A look at his career slash line is also telling – .249/.297/.343. He doesn’t get on base often, nor does he hit for much power apart from a few doubles. He is not the kind of guy you want to start more than occasionally, but his defense is good enough that he will provide positive value when your starter needs a breather. The fact that he can provide better than league average defense at four different positions allows the Jays to carry an extra bat or an extra pitcher, and there is certainly value in that which doesn’t show up in his statistics.
    Ryan Goins is a slightly younger, slightly weaker hitting, not quite as consistent afield, although quite rangy, version of Darwin Barney. Scintillating, eh? Goins was essentially the starting second baseman for the Jays in 2015, because Devon Travis was hurt quite often, and he wasn’t awful – I know, damning with faint praise. Kind of like Barney last season, he provided value with his glove, but didn’t hit enough to let him do it again – wRC+ of 84 with 1.5 WAR almost all due to his fielding. But 2016 was tough on Goins – he completely fell apart. His fielding dropped off, his bat went downhill and he didn’t get to play much after June. He spent time on the DL because he hurt his forearm pitching the 18th inning of a game. When he was healthy he bounced up and down between triple-A and the majors. It was a lost season. I’m not sure why the Jays would keep both Barney and Goins so we will have to see how everything shakes out.
    Two youngsters to keep an eye on for a future Jays infield spot – probably not 2017 – are Rowdy Tellez and Richard Urena. Tellez is a big man who hits with power and plays first base, hits home runs (23 last season at double-A as a 21 year old), but also walks plenty and doesn’t strike out too much (63 walks to 92 k’s last season in 438 at bats). Scouting stats has its limitations, and Keith Law suggested that he might struggle against more advanced pitching as he struggled to catch up to fastballs during AFL play before last season. If he continues to produce in the minors, Rowdy will get a chance in late 2017 or 2018. Urena is a power hitting shortstop who failed to get on base enough when he moved up to double-A. His walk rates weren’t bad when he was in A ball so perhaps he was just over-eager as a 20 year old facing double-A pitching. He has always hit for average and pounded out a truck load of doubles and triples. Last year he had 44 extra base hits in 518 at bats between high-A and double-A, so his bat is already ahead of most double-A middle infielders. His pattern has been to control the strike zone better in his second turn at a level in the minors, and he is only 20, so keep an eye on his walk numbers in double-A this year. I’m not sure what to make of his glove as he has made a bunch of errors at shortstop everywhere he has played – 30 last year – but again, 20 years old. Blue Jays fans should start to get excited around 2019 or so.
    This won’t happen, but it would be really cool if it did so I WANT it to happen. Encarnacion is in an ugly spot because of the current collective bargaining agreement that forces the team that signs him (if they aren’t the Blue Jays) to surrender a first round pick to the Jays. The Yankees and Astros have both signed DHs in the last couple weeks so the market for him has shriveled considerably. The Jays are really the team best suited to sign him since they only have to give him money, and at this point it would be less money than they would have paid a few weeks ago. The Rangers are still out there if we are talking about teams with money and a need at first and DH, but Encarnacion is competing with Mark Trumbo (who hit 47 home runs for Baltimore last season) who also would cost the signing team a draft pick, and Mike Napoli (34 home runs for Cleveland in 2016) who would not cost a draft pick. Now the Rockies might be interested too since they already gave away their first pick when they signed Ian Desmond. They would likely need to shed an outfielder to make it work and they just gave Desmond a boatload of money, so it would be a bit surprising if Colorado was Encarnacion’s landing spot. All that being said, I want the Blue Jays to set up a deal to trade Morales pending their signing of Encarnacion then go after Edwin, showing him some love, and encouraging him to come home. After the parade for Encarnacion, trade Morales for some useful pieces, even if it means throwing in a little money to sweeten the deal. The Jays are set at third and up the middle, so the only mystery is how they handle first and the DH spot, and they seem to have answered those questions for now, although at what appears to be a downgrade at both spots. The Jays are a confusing team. Are they going for it while giving up on Encarnacion and Bautista or are they switching ponies and becoming a defensively strong group with strong pitching? The rest of the off-season will show what direction the only team left in Canada intends to do going forward.