Talking American League East with Jay Jaffe

Jay Jaffe is a baseball columnist for Sports Illustrated, as well as being a contributor to Baseball Prospectus and the founder of FutilityInfielder.com. In addition to his writing, you can see him on the MLB Network, on the Clubhouse Confidential show.

I had the opportunity to talk to Mr. Jaffe about his recent American League East winter report card grades. He had a lot of interesting things to say about each team in the division and it’s apparent in talking to him that his baseball I.Q. is higher than most.

Lance Rinker: You did your grades for the American League East; walk me through your process for how you decided on these grades. We’re going off of your final grades.

Jay Jaffe: Basically what I did was I assumed that if a team had more or less done an average job of filling their needs they were going to get a C, any team that exceeded that greatly was going to get a higher grade than that, and any team who didn’t was going to get a lower one. It was a fairly subjective thing based on some rough criteria I had in my head.

I had done several of our hot stove previews and pointed out which teams had which areas of need, and one of the great things about this going through all of these teams was that it really familiarized myself with all of the rosters and depth charts. That’s something I’ve done in fantasy baseball for years but a particular fantasy job I had worked for years didn’t come about this year so this was a great opportunity to familiarize myself with all of these roster issues.

So I didn’t have a hardcore objective scoring system but I tried to think  “this is something that moves the team forward a notch or two and this is something that moves the team back” and just went from there, hoping that everything more or less centered around C. As they centered around C+, I was maybe a bit generous there but I don’t think I did too badly on that.

You gave the Blue Jays the best grade of the off-season; you gave the Indians an A- as their final grade, but the Blue Jays far and away were just an A straight up and rightfully so. The moves that they made though, how do you view those in terms of what they gave up and what they received as far as closing any window for the future or do you just feel that your job is to win now and that’s what the Blue Jays are doing?

Well, I think that yes, they sacrificed some long-term depth in trading guys like Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard to the Mets for Dickey. But at the same time though they got two frontline pitchers and two other starting players [I forgot to count Bonifacio] out of that deal and really re-made their rotation as a whole, re-made the look of their team as a whole. They have a relatively inexpensive and decent, but not optimal, major league catcher who’s still young in J.P. Arencibia and were dealing from a position of strength there to address a position of weakness.

What I liked the most about it is that they seized the opportunity at a time when the Yankees, Red Sox, and even the Rays all look like fairly flawed teams, making it more likely that whatever the Jays did, they were going to get more bang for their buck, this year in particular.

That’s definitely true and I think that’s probably the biggest frustration Orioles fans have, is that the Orioles just came out of nowhere, much like the Oakland Athletics did, won 93 games and got within one victory of the ALCS to take on the Tigers and had one of the quietest off-seasons of the winter. The Blue Jays really did what they felt they had an opportunity to do. Do you think that with Josh Johnson, he’s kind of the wild-card of the bunch because he’s a free agent at season’s end, but how much of them maintaining this A grade throughout the season for you hinges on them re-signing him?

This is not an overall grade that’s applicable to the season; this is a grade to the off-season and how well they filled their off-season priorities. I think people misunderstand, I don’t think that the Orioles are a grade D team, I just think that they are a team that did a poor job of addressing their needs for example.

With regards to whether they keep Josh Johnson, that’s something that will go on next year’s grade if I’m lucky enough to be around to do these again next year and that’ll depend on what kind of performance Johnson delivers and what kind of risk profile he puts forward.

Okay, and as far as the Blue Jays window of opportunity with what they just did this winter. What are you thinking, two years or three years?

Yeah, I have to think probably the life of Dickey’s contract which is two years and an option beyond 2013. So you know, I think they’ve probably got this year and maybe the next couple of years. I know they still have something on the farm but this is about as good a shot as you’re going to get to take control of the AL East. Next year we’re going to see the Red Sox do some more retooling and who knows what the Yankees are going to do. If they can’t re-sign Robinson Cano, then Brian Cashman may just leave town in the dead of night.

But I think, on the whole, this core that the Blue Jays have certainly looks like they can compete for a couple of years. They’re going to get some of their pitchers back from injuries; guys like Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison who underwent Tommy John Surgery or other surgeries hopefully work their way back and they’ll have more depth going forward.

The Red Sox, their season was a complete disaster. They went through this motion of signing every Tom, Dick, and Harry that they could that they felt they could get something out of and all of a sudden traded all of the guys over the age of 30 that were making a good bit of money. Then, this winter they ended up signing a lot of veterans to two and three year deals, but it seems like it was more about the chemistry of the clubhouse then anything overall.

Do you think that your grade of a B has more to do with the fact that they’ll probably have a more peaceful clubhouse, guys that are going to get along better that still has some talent?

I do not spend one moment thinking about the quality of their clubhouse, that’s not something that I’m going to sit down and try to analyze. No, I gave them the grade that I gave them based on the fact that the deals that they gave were intermediate deals, short term one-to-three year deals, and shored up the holes that were left by the big blockbuster trade and the other player moves late last year. It gives them a better team than having James Loney at first base and stuff like that.

I think that there’s reason to believe they’ll be a more competitive team. I don’t know if they’ll win this division or even contend for the wild card, but they’re certainly at least a .500 team. I would expect with John Farrell coming back to the organization that guys like Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, who’ve really fallen far from what they used to be, are going to return to form there.

I’m not crazy about the corner outfield solutions in Johnny Gomes and Shane Victorino, which is why I didn’t give them a higher grade there, but they didn’t spend a ton of money on Gomes in the grand scheme of things, and you can see at least some rationale for Victorino possibly shifting to center field if Jacoby Ellsbury is traded at some point or departs as a free agent at some point. Victorino could probably still fake center field long enough so they still have some coverage there until Jackie Bradley is ready.

But it has nothing to do with clubhouse chemistry in my eyes. I’ll leave that to people who attach much more importance to that than me – you know, the guys who are in those locker rooms every day and want to focus on that particular narrative.

Do you feel that the moves the Red Sox made this winter weren’t necessarily so they could contend for the World Series but were intended to give them some room to breathe and some options a winter or two down the road?

Yeah, like I said, I believe these are intermediate moves with placeholders for guys who are going to come along and hedges against guys moving along like Victorino. They’ve got some good players coming along in their farm system who aren’t quite ready yet that are going to fill in some of the holes they’re going to have.

A year from now Stephen Drew could be irrelevant to the Red Sox concerns for example, if Xander Bogaerts develops.

What about the Rays then? You mentioned James Loney; did you dock them a full half grade because they signed him?

It’s not that they signed James Loney, it’s that they only signed James Loney for their first base situation. That to me, when you look at the Rays, that’s a pretty glaring hole that they still have there with first base and DH. Who’s going to play against left-handed pitching in both of those spots, and if you even think James Loney could be adequate against right-handed pitching, then good luck with that.

I think that all of that is offset by the absolutely shockingly efficient deal they made to get Wil Myers for James Shields. I like that one a lot, very heavily tilted towards that side of the equation even if they did give up another serviceable back-end guy, a reliever, in Wade Davis. They just have so much pitching depth that it made sense to spin some of it off, especially the expensive stuff.

The deal itself kind of made it seem like they’ll still be competitive in 2013 but what they’ve really done is just continued to keep their window of opportunity open for an additional three or four yours, if it all works out as it tends to do for this organization as we’ve seen over the past four or five years.

Yeah, they make smart decisions and they surprise some people with how quickly they’re willing to trade some of their guys. The way they’ve spun off guys like Shields and Matt Garza, and even Scott Kazmir going back, but they have to do that type of stuff to compete with the big boys and keep churning talent and getting good, young players who are cost controlled for as long as possible in that system.

And they still have the great white whale in David Price there to decide what they’re going to do with him, which all signs point to they’re going to trade him.

I think almost certainly he ends up getting traded. I don’t know that it’s going to be this year unless they really fall out of it, but I think the winter is a better time to trade him. They’ll have a better idea of where it sits with another year of performance, if he can live up to his Cy Young performance.

But they’re like eight deep in starters right now with guys like Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi on the horizon and maybe they’ll spin off another guy like Jeff Niemann to carve a spot for one of those guys. They just have so many resources in that regard that they can use to fill all of their holes.

What’s interesting, at least to me, with regard to the Rays and how they do business is that there are so many moves that they make, a handful of moves every winter, and usually half of those moves I kind of want to chuckle at. Until of course the season begins and I’m made to feel like a fool for laughing.

They’ve made a lot of value plays with relievers especially and not overspending on relievers and not buying into the big closer myth. They’ve gotten very good seasons out of guys like Kyle Farnsworth and Fernando Rodney at very cheap prices, but not everything they’ve done has turned to gold. 

Luke Scott, I don’t think that was a very good signing and I certainly wouldn’t have gone back to him for another year based on what they got out of him last year. The reunion with Carlos Pena didn’t go so well, but they’ve had more hits than misses I think.

What about the Yankees? There’s so much talk about them making it a point to stay under that luxury tax threshold of $189 million dollars, that magic number, and so they’ve done pretty much absolute squat. To me, what really signifies the fact they’re just not really willing to do anything of significance this winter is the fact that they got outbid for Russell Martin by the Pirates.

It’s not even so much that they got outbid as they just didn’t even put up a fight. I have a lot of problem with that, I wrote about it from the night it happened I was pretty outraged at the way that that went down, as someone who has watched Martin and has a pretty good sense of his value based on the advanced metric stuff with the pitch framing.

You know, there are things that the Yankees did do well this offseason. They kept it to one year deals with Kuroda and Pettitte. They didn’t sign another A.J. Burnett type situation; you know they didn’t overinvest long-term foolishly. I think if they had actually gone out and gotten even a serviceable insurance policy at catcher I probably wouldn’t have been so harsh on them. But the way that they’ve talked up Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli just doesn’t jibe with my understanding of what those players’ talents are, having watched them more than any other team in the majors over the last 15 years.

I think that’s a real problem there, but I think that getting the draft picks back by letting Soriano and Swisher walk was a good thing, however I don’t think they did a very good job filling right field. I certainly wouldn’t have given two years to Ichiro – star though that he is and as lifelike as his bat was at the end of the season after he was acquired. He’s a guy who needs a platoon partner and I certainly don’t want to project two years for him.

The Orioles, you gave them a D+ which is the second lowest grade in the American League. I love your line that they became the 27th team to pluck Russ Canzler off the waiver wire this winter, granted it’s technically only the fourth, but you make a good point. They’re following the same M.O. that they did last year and it worked for them.

Buck Showalter pulled all of the right strings and Dan Duquette stayed very, very active all season long. Move after move after move, shuffling guys in and out of the organization from the minors back and forth.

Even as optimistic as I am still, I feel that at worst this team last year without all of the bullpen late-inning heroics was a .500 team. I’m still a bit disappointed because I feel that even if they would have gone out and gotten Nick Swisher, that would have been a great deal more help in securing another playoff appearance than only re-signing Nate McLouth.

Absolutely, I think that if you’ll account for some regression, last year’s Orioles club was still probably an above .500 team and the team that finished the year for the Orioles was a much better team than the one they left the gate with. I think the mistake that Dan Duquette is making is banking too heavily that all of those guys, let’s just say Jason Hammel, Miguel Gonzalez, and Chris Tillman for example, who made 50 starts with ERA’s in the threes can do that over 90 starts without any of them regressing or getting hurt.

That to me is just a little bit naïve, certainly when you throw other pitchers into the mix as well to offset that. Maybe Jair Jurrjens recovers from injury but obviously we’ve seen that he’s not even a sure thing to be out on the field given his injuries. Zach Britton, former blue-chipper who’s kind of in the weeds right now. They’ve got a bunch of arms there but I don’t think you can bank on luck breaking just the same way twice though. And I don’t think the Orioles have done enough to make their own luck to give themselves enough chances to win this thing again.

The strength of this Orioles club is that they have so much depth finally, but they don’t have any – I don’t want to call it true premium talent at certain positions such as left field or second base – but you could have done something to shore even left field up.

Another team where left field and DH seem completely unfinished. That was why I pointed out that Alfonso Soriano would actually be a pretty good fit for this team in my Hit and Run on SI.com. If they can get him for the right price he is actually somebody who would work within that construct and add an extra power hitter.

Now they do have premium talent, they’ve got it up the middle where it counts with Matt Wieters at catcher, Adam Jones in center field, and J.J. Hardy is still a pretty good player at shortstop. Second base is just a black hole and as healthy as Brian Roberts reportedly is, you just can’t bank on him given all the injuries that he’s gone through the last three or four years. It’s been sad to watch because he was such a good player. If he is healthy though, that’s a big boost. If he really is healthy then that’s like adding a free agent Brian Roberts circa 2007, 2008, 2009 maybe, and then their off-season starts to look just a little different.

Do you think that they’ll perform at a level similar to their second half, or say August on when Machado came up and helped solidify the defense, or do you think you’ll see something closer to .500 play like the first half?

That’s a good question, I don’t know. I think that over the course of the year, to me they look a bit better than a .500 team but not a ton better than a .500 team. I want to see some of these guys back up what they’ve done, especially in the pitching department, back up what they’ve done over the course of a full season. I want to see 30 starts out of Jason Hammel and Miguel Gonzalez before I’m ready to buy into what they’ve done.

Fair enough. If you have to make some predictions now though, who do you think wins the division?

Right now I think it’s the Blue Jays. I think the Blue Jays have the fewest critical holes right now.

Do you see one of the two, or both, wild cards coming from the AL East?

I think one. It’s tough to envision both, look out west I think that the Angels, Rangers, and A’s could be a very interesting three-way battle. I don’t think the central is going to produce two so by process of elimination that means I’m talking one wild card out of the AL East.

Who might possibly nab that one wild card and finish second in the division?

Well I think that any one of the Yankees, Rays, or Red Sox is capable of doing it but a lot would have to go right for each of those teams in order to play up to their potential. There are reasons why I’m more bearish on the Yankees, but I still think they have a pretty good chance to slip into the playoffs.

Thanks again to Jay for taking the time to speak with me, it’s always fun hearing his thoughts on baseball, and be sure to check him out at SI.com, Baseball Prospectus, and Twitter.

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About the author


Lance Rinker    

Lance is the Managing Editor for Konsume, a crowd-sourced news platform driving passionate journalism. In addition to his work on BSL, you can find Lance’s extended portfolio at his profile on Konsume and you can follow him on Twitter.


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