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July 28, 2015

Transaction Analysis

Tulo, Eh?

by Matthew Trueblood, Christopher Crawford, Mike Gianella and Bret Sayre

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired SS-R Troy Tulowitzki and RHP LaTroy Hawkins from the Rockies in exchange for SS-S Jose Reyes, RHP Miguel Castro, RHP Jeff Hoffman, and RHP Jesus Tinoco. [7/28]

The trouble with building an organization around young pitchers is that they so often get hurt, or derail developmentally. The problem with building around young position players is that it takes so very, very painfully long. Position players follow aging curves, and that means growing pains—years of them, sometimes—for even very good young players. One must not only have the patience to foster those players’ development, but have the good fortune, good timing and smarts to make the most of the moment when those young hitters gel. Before you know it, that moment passes, or else it lingers, but the players are all too expensive to keep for long once it does.

The trouble with building through free agency, as we well know, is that free agency is a marketplace, and winning the bidding for good players in that marketplace requires unhappy sacrifices. It’s not so much the money one pays—smart executives don’t begrudge great players their huge paychecks—as the extra years to which one commits. In most cases, one wins a free-agent bidding war by being the team who will pay the player his current market price for an extra decline year (or two, or three, or four, as we have seen) in order to buy up the last few of their prime years. That’s how albatrosses happen.

Maybe Alex Anthopoulos really is the wunderkind he looked like when he started as the Blue Jays’ GM, though, because he’s successfully executing a model of which most teams only dream. Anthopoulos has Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion in the middle of his lineup because he pounced on their breakouts and signed them to reasonable extensions as soon as he possibly could. Bautista is 34; Encarnacion is 32. This season, each is showing some sign of fading from their dominant peaks, but that’s okay: Toronto holds club options on each deal for 2016.

Since Anthopoulos anticipated some drop-off from the two as they entered their mid-30s, though, he immediately went about adding more elite position players in that late-20s age bracket. It was just four months after extending Encarnacion that he made the huge deal in which he landed Jose Reyes, to whom he knew he would owe a huge sum through 2017 (Reyes’s age-34 season). By doing so, though, he avoided having to wade into a free-agent market that included Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton, Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. (Those aren’t cherry-picked; they were the top four positional free agents of that winter.)

As uneven as 2013 and 2014 were for the Blue Jays, Anthopoulos had set himself up as a perennial contender. In Bautista, Encarnacion, and Reyes, he had a solid core, something on which to build. Over this past winter, he begrudgingly ponied up for Russell Martin, a free agent whose $85-million contract will carry him through age 36. Crucially, though, he doubled down on that addition by trading for Josh Donaldson, who is playing just his age-29 season now and will reach free agency at 32, unless he signs an extension first.

This is Anthopoulos’s model: pay whatever it costs to acquire players in their prime with elite-level all-around skills, without overcommitting to them. That’s not a cheap strategy. It’s using up much of the Blue Jays’ payroll, and more importantly, it costs a lot of talent. That was evident in the Reyes deal, was evident in the Donaldson deal, and is very evident in this latest deal, which brings Troy Tulowitzki into that fold for the rest of his age-30 season, plus all of his ages-31-35 seasons. Still, no model provides a sturdier cornerstone for a good team. It takes only the courage to keep dealing away prospects and grabbing the best player those prospects can buy.

Tulowitzki is unique. There are no players in baseball history who have been this good through age 30, despite being this plagued by injury. He’s had a bizarre season so far, swinging much more often than ever before, and going from a (career-best) 57:50 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2014 to a (career-worst) 72:24 one this year. He’s still hitting, though, and the track record says that will continue for as long as his health allows. His .283 True Average—atypically low for him, a real down year—is the fourth-best among shortstops with at least 200 plate appearances this season.

Like most 30-year-old shortstops, Tulowitzki is somewhat diminished defensively, but he’s still about average—and thus, a mile better than Reyes. There’s been a good deal made of Toronto’s choice to make this move instead of diverting resources toward a trade for a starting pitcher, but:

  1. Fielders prevent runs, too. Boosting one’s defense at shortstop can be worth as much as adding a solid starting pitcher, depending on in-house alternatives to the latter.
  2. Value is value, and improvement is improvement. Tulowitzki is a huge upgrade to the Jays’ previous roster. Which side of the ledger he betters shouldn’t matter all that much.
  3. See above. The Model says allocate resources toward prime-aged stud position players. It’s a good model, but you have to stick with it.

Getting to trade Reyes and his deal for Tulowitzki and his is a huge win for the Blue Jays. They now have the best left side of the infield in MLB, bar none. They’re committed to Tulowitzki for three years longer than they were committed to Reyes, but that hurts less when you remember that Bautista, Encarnacion, Mark Buehrle, and R.A. Dickey all will come off the team’s ledger by the end of 2016. And in the meantime, this positions the team well for a serious run at the playoffs, in a year when there is no team guaranteed to steamroll any other once things get that far.

PECOTA says Reyes should be worth 1.0 WARP through the end of the season; it has Tulowitzki down for 2.3. At this time of year, using a projection system with a certain degree of baked-in expected regression, that’s a tremendous upgrade. The Blue Jays had 42.3-percent Playoff Odds going into Monday’s play, with PECOTA tentatively projecting them for the second Wild Card berth. This should boost them up to clear favorite status for that spot.

LaTroy Hawkins is a walking dinosaur, but the Jays can ride his ancient arm for a few months, guilt-free. He’s only issued three unintentional walks in 89 batters faced this season, and in Colorado, his 3.58 FIP is rather impressive. The Blue Jays did need some inventory on the pitching staff, and Hawkins helps provide it. —Matthew Trueblood

Fantasy Impact

Troy Tulowitzki
He moves to a team with a better lineup and more run scoring and RBI opportunities, but there is no way to put a sunny face on it whenever a player moves out of Coors Field to any another venue. Tulo is a superstar and a premier player when he is on the field, but the dip in home runs and batting average will happen, even if it isn’t as pronounced as it would be for a player of a lesser caliber. The move to the AL East and the opportunity to play an imbalanced schedule in mostly hitters’ parks mitigates this somewhat, but Tulo will likely lose about $3-5 of fantasy value the rest of the way. In addition to the projected value hit, it's never a good thing when an injury-prone player goes to play half his games on turf, so the risk on Tulowitzki may be slightly elevated as well. —Mike Gianella

COLORADO ROCKIES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired SS-S Jose Reyes, RHP Miguel Castro, RHP Jeff Hoffman, and RHP Jesus Tinoco from the Blue Jays in exchange for SS-R Troy Tulowitzki and RHP LaTroy Hawkins. [7/28]

What happens next with Jose Reyes might be the most interesting part of this entire trade, which is saying a lot. Reyes is owed $55 million between now and the end of 2017, which sounds like a lot, because it is. Reyes isn’t worth that. The Rockies have to be signaling the end of one era and the definitive beginning of another with this move, and if that’s so, they should be looking for young players whose futures are brighter than their pasts. Reyes is, to say the least, not that kind of player. There’s no way Colorado went through the trouble of this trade to install Reyes as a true Tulowitzki replacement and pick up whatever prospects they could in the process.

The problem with flipping Reyes, though, is that, again, he isn’t worth what he’s due to be paid. As such, although no money changed hands in this trade itself, the Rockies will eventually pay money to finish it off. They’re going to have to eat some of what Reyes is still owed—half would be a good bet—in order to get something worthwhile for him, and if they don’t get something worthwhile for him, they haven’t executed this trade the right way.

As things stand, what the Rockies have done is to increase their pitching depth, adding a couple of impressive (though unpredictable, at least in the short term) arms to a system that needed them. They’ve also unburdened themselves of Tulowitzki’s final three years of salary commitments, which had little chance of being onerous but not much better a chance of being profitable. I leave the evaluation of the prospects accompanying Reyes to more expert eyes, but it seems that the resolution of Reyes’s seeming limbo will determine how good (or, just as likely right now, bad) this ends up looking for the Rockies. Tulowitzki is a generational player, a possible future Hall of Famer, and the Rockies just traded him away just a year or two removed from his absolute peak. The return, even given his injury problems and his contract and the team’s predicament, doesn’t seem worthy of the man. Yet. —Matthew Trueblood

Hoffman was considered one of the few challengers to Carlos Rodon for the top pitcher in the 2014 draft (sorry Tyler Kolek), but a torn UCL forced him to undergo Tommy John surgery last spring.

When healthy, Hoffman’s arsenal is impressive, led by a mid-90’s fastball that has gotten as high as 98, and there is some downhill plane to the pitch as well. The former ECU star will also show a curveball with two planes of break and depth, and when he’s at his best it’s a plus-plus pitch that he can throw for strikes or bury out of the strike zone when ahead in the count. The change is not at the same level as those two pitches, but it isn’t just a show-me pitch, as he has deception from his quality arm speed, and can locate that pitch for strikes.

The issues with Hoffman do not come from his potential arsenal, but his consistency. Even at East Carolina, Hoffman would have spurts where the stuff/command would back up on him for spurts, and instead of looking like a 70-70-55 pitcher it’s more along the lines of 60-50-50—which is certainly still a nice pitching prospect, but not an elite one. He also hasn’t consistently missed bats in his time with the Blue Jays stuff, though several scouts have told me that has more to do with working on certain pitches in outings which limits the strikeouts. If Hoffman maxes out his potential, he’s a potential No. 1 starter who can give you 200 innings and 200 strikeouts. I’d like to see him show the elite stuff on a more consistent basis, but there’s plenty of time for him to become that type of arm.

Miguel Castro’s arm strength is impressive, and he uses that arm-strength to consistently touch the high 90’s in short spurts, and he’ll sit 93-95 in his starts. The pitch does have some movement to it, which he’ll need in the pitching cesspool we call Coors Field. The fastball is an out pitch, but the rest of the arsenal isn’t quite there yet—at least if he is going to pitch every fifth day. Castro’s best secondary offering is his change; a pitch that he has quality feel for and offers good velocity separation from his fastball, along with some downward tail to the pitch. The slider isn’t where it needs to be though, as the pitch too often is short from his three-quarter arm slot. When he finishes the delivery, it’ll show hard, downward bite, and there have been flashes of it being a swing-and-miss pitch. The command is below-average right now, but he’s gotten better at repeating his delivery, and it’s not so bad that it’s impossible to imagine him giving you multiple innings. His floor is high-leverage reliever, with ceiling of no. 4 starter who can miss bats.

Coming into 2015, Tinoco was purely an arm-strength pitcher, but scouts tell me he's shown a more complete profile this spring. The fastball is still his bread and butter, and his 92-94 mph heater will touch the mid-90s; his projectable frame suggests more could be on the way. Both secondary offerings are below average at this point, with the curve being slightly ahead of the change thanks to its depth. The command also has taken a step forward this year, though he has a tendency to lose his delivery and his arm slot isn't always consistent.

Tinoco's ceiling is back-end starter, with a floor of multi-inning reliever looking like a more realistic landing spot.—Christopher Crawford

Fantasy Impact

Jose Reyes
Reyes is having a down year, but in fantasy the opportunity to play the rest of the season in Coors can only push his value up the rest of the way. Reyes isn’t a significant power source, but he could hit a few more homers than he would have with the Blue Jays thanks to the offensive boost of Coors in the late summer. He has 16 stolen bases thus far, and there is no reason to think that the Rockies will put the red light on given their base running tendencies. Given the thin state of the position, Reyes jumps up significantly in the shortstop rankings the rest of the way. —Mike Gianella

Jeff Hoffman/Miguel Castro
If there's a fantasy fever dream, it's waking up to find your pitchers being dealt to the fantasy black hole that is Coors Field. This doesn't preclude prospects. Hoffman was ranked 18th on my mid-season fantasy prospect update, which may sound aggressive, but aggression on potential top-of-the-rotation starters is necessary (Ben Carsley wrote a wonderful essay about the flip side of this in the Futures Guide). But Colorado is bad news—very bad news—and not just because of the altitude. Whether it's fair or not, the Rockies have done a very poor job as an organization of developing pitching—with Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler being the latest two examples. As outsiders, we don't know how much of a systemic problem this is, or whether they've just gotten unlucky, but we make fantasy decision off the best information we can get, and their ineptitude in this area needs to be factored in. If I was re-ranking fantasy prospects today, Hoffman would still be in the top-50, but it may not be by much. Castro is less of a tick down, as he's a reliever and closer to a finished product. I guess it's possible that he could be considered a darkhorse for saves if John Axford is dealt, but he hasn't been all that great in Triple-A since losing the role for the Blue Jays in April. —Bret Sayre


Matthew Trueblood is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here
Christopher Crawford is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christopher's other articles. You can contact Christopher by clicking here
Mike Gianella is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here
Bret Sayre is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bret's other articles. You can contact Bret by clicking here

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