Sunday, August 02, 2009

On Rolen, Halladay and why Ricciardi must go

So, Friday's Scott Rolen trade upset me (and many other Jays' bloggers) considerably, as you probably already know if you follow me on Twitter. I already broke it down a bit in my Last Call post at The Rookies Friday night, but I figured it was worthy of some further analysis. Without further ado, let's get to it.

First off, let's consider what the Jays lost. Rolen was hitting .320/.370/.461 in Toronto this year with an OPS+* of 122. Looking at Baseball Reference's batting leaderboards for this season, that's the 30th-highest OPS+ in the entire AL and the second-highest on the Jays (behind only Adam Lind). Even more impressive is when you compare Rolen's OPS+ to that of other third basemen; only Michael Young (137), Alex Rodriguez (135) and Evan Longoria (127) rank ahead of Rolen among third basemen (Kevin Youkilis is also ahead of Rolen with an OPS+ of 145, but he's only played 29 games at third this year and has played 59 games at first base, so he doesn't really count). Thus, he's having a pretty incredible year offensively. Part of that's because of his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .347, which likely isn't sustainable. However, Rolen's offence isn't necessarily an outlier, though. His numbers this year are above what he's done in his last couple of seasons, but slightly below his career average of .280/.370/.500 with an OPS+ of 124.

*For those unfamiliar with it, OPS+ basically takes OPS (on-base plus slugging) and adjusts it for park, league and era factors. More details can be found here. It's a convenient way to compare different players' batting skills. 100 is generally considered to be league average.

Yet, Rolen's bat is often mentioned behind his glove, and he's been very good in the field as well. John Dewan's Fielding Bible plus/minus system (basically, adding points for making plays others at the position miss and taking away points for missing plays others at the position make) ranked Rolen as the fifth-best third baseman in all of baseball from 2006-2008 with an impressive +47 rating. He made plenty of spectacular stops, as this Top 10 list from Ian Hunter over at Blue Jay Hunter showcases, but he was also good at making difficult plays look easy. The plus/minus stats for this year aren't out yet, but FanGraphs' fielding stats have him taking a bit of a step back; his fielding numbers are still very good, though. Rolen will be difficult to replace, both at the plate and in the field. Some will argue that he's due to regress, as he is 34, but his production this year is a considerable improvement over last year. He'll likely be very good for at least this year and the next, and perhaps even longer.

Now, let's consider what the Jays received in return from the Reds. They got third baseman Edwin Encarnacion and pitchers Josh Roenicke and Zach Stewart. Encarnacion is much less of a threat at the plate than Rolen; he's hitting .209/.333/.374 this year, with an OPS+ of 85. Now, that is slightly less than his career averages of .262/.345/.449 and an OPS+ of 102, but even those numbers aren't incredibly good. For a great defensive third baseman, his career numbers would pass muster, though.

Unfortunately, Encarnacion is anything but. He has an Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR, explained here) of -6 and a UZR/150 (UZR per 150 defensive games, so basically averaged over a season) of -23.1 this year. That's considerably worse than his career UZR/150 of -12.1, which is bad enough on its own. By comparison, Rolen has a UZR of 4.8 so far this year and a UZR/150 of 7.9, and his career UZR/150 is 7.9. Encarnacion's career stats are lacking both at the plate and in the field, and he appears to be getting worse, not better, in both areas. Also, he's already 26 and is in his fifth season in the majors, so it doesn't seem too likely that he'll suddenly morph into an amazing player. Maybe a change of scenery will do him good, maybe it won't.

In my mind, the Jays would be better off going with Jose Bautista at third; he's hitting .243/.365/.322 this year with an OPS+ of 91. That's a bit better than Encarnacion, especially in the area of on-base percentage, and the Jays could use a guy who gets on base more than another power hitter with on-base issues. Moreover, Bautista has a UZR of 1.2 and a UZR/150 of 11.6 in 139 innings at third this year; that's even better than what Rolen has offered in the field this year, at least by that measurement.

Now, if Rolen was moved to make way for Bautista, this trade makes much more sense. It doesn't sound like that's the case, though, given the limited use of Bautista so far this year despite promising signs. Moreover, chief moron-in-charge general manager J.P. Ricciardi has already spoken glowingly about Encarnacion, saying "We got a younger player at third base with a little bit more power." I don't quite get how moving from Rolen's .461 slugging percentage (.500 career) to Encarnacion's .374 (.449 career) is an upgrade. However, Ricciardi is the man who famously said "They're not lies if we know the truth" after misleading the Toronto media about an injury to B.J. Ryan, so this is positively logical by comparison.

Let's take a look at the other players involved in the trade. Roenicke and Stewart both have some potential, and Stewart's perhaps the key player; he's been highly touted by plenty of commentators and analysts for his performance in the minors, and he's only 22. Roenicke is 26 and has started to make his mark as a reliever this year (a 2.70 ERA, 1.28 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) and a 164 ERA+ (ERA adjusted for park and league factors) in 13.1 innnings this year in the majors). Stewart has a combined ERA of 1.52 and a WHIP of 1.28 in 124 innings over the past two seasons in the minors, and many of those innings came at the AA and AAA levels. Those numbers are certainly impressive and renowned ESPN analyst Keith Law is high on both pitchers, according to Bergkamp over at Drunk Jays Fans, so they could turn into something good. We'll have to see how they do as time goes on.

Thus, this trade makes some sense from a time-independent baseball perspective. Encarnacion is relatively useless, but he could improve. This could also clear the way for Bautista. The pitchers have a lot of potential, and even though Rolen was having an amazing year, he wasn't going to be productive forever.

From a time-dependent perspective, though, it hurts. The team's been telling everyone for years that they'd make a big push in 2010, and it certainly seemed very plausible considering the return of Shaun Marcum and Jesse Litsch and the likely promotion of Travis Snider. That was the main strategy they were using to keep all of us Jays fans interested throughout the last couple of poor years, and it worked for a while.

The first cracks in the facade came with the discussions of trading Roy Halladay, though, as that's clearly not a move to make if you're trying to contend. That didn't happen, but it wasn't for lack of trying. However, if you listen to Ricciardi's comments in Bruce Arthur's National Post column, the 2010 plan is still on: "'If we're going to keep Doc here, which we want, then to take away the other parts that are going to help us be a good club going forward would have been counterproductive,' Ricciardi reasoned Friday."

That's what Jays' fans want to hear, but the trade of Rolen demonstrates that it's patently false. If this team's planning to contend next year, they need a good third baseman. Encarnacion certainly isn't that guy and Bautista probably isn't. No, Rolen was moved to save $5.25 million and to pick up prospects who may someday contribute. Drew Fairservice from Ghostrunner on First accurately called it "a cold-blooded salary dump that has taken the best third baseman of his generation out of town." That's not the move of a team trying to contend, it's the move of a team rebuilding for the future, regardless of what comments are coming out of Ricciardi's mouth. Also, I find it a little hard to buy the "personal reasons" line he used, especially considering how similar it is to the comments he made to justify trading Troy Glaus for Rolen back in 2008.

However, failing to get deals done for Halladay and other veterans such as Marco Scutaro and Lyle Overbay demonstrates that the Jays aren't wholly committed to this rebuilding plan. It's as I commented Friday on Twitter: they can't even figure out how to hold a fire sale properly. Going for it next season and acquiring extra players in the offseason is risky, but could offer a massive payoff. Personally, it's the strategy I favoured, which is why I would have loved to see them keep both Halladay and Rolen. Dealing the veterans now and going into a full-fledged rebuilding campaign is safer and could let the team compete four or five years in the future. The middle road, of keeping some veteran talent but not making the necessary moves to give them a chance to win, accomplishes nothing. Unfortunately, it's become the standard one in Toronto, and that's why the likes of Arthur and Yahoo! Sports columnist Jeff Passan are calling for Ricciardi's head on a silver platter. Let me quote a bit from them:

Arthur: "If this team is loading up for 2010, it's happening at Wal-Mart.

And you still have Ricciardi. Maybe the kids coming back in the Rolen deal turn into something, and maybe this team has some better building blocks, and blah blah blah. We've heard it all before. Nobody buys what J.P. is selling anymore, whether it's his plan for the future or the best pitcher in baseball.

This should be the beginning, at long last, of the end. This should be the last act of J.P. Ricciardi's overlong, acrimonious, gaffe-prone and soul-deadening reign as the man in charge of the Toronto Blue Jays. We've seen the man behind the curtain. He's exactly who we thought he was."

Passan: "There is a fundamental and simple truth to success in the world of commodities: sell high.

Usually, it’s a guessing game. Which makes the case of J.P. Ricciardi and his absolute murdering of the Roy Halladay(notes) trade market that much more egregious. He didn’t have to speculate. He knew the value of Halladay would never be higher than it was for the past three weeks. He understood that the second the clock hit 4 p.m. ET, he would be staring at his very own Black Friday.

And do you know what he did, the Toronto Blue Jays general manager who has overseen a truly mediocre (616-619) team for nearly a decade and lavished $126 million on the underachieving Vernon Wells(notes)? Guess how he handled his chance to remake a franchise that in the cutthroat American League East dances the dance of inconsequence year after year?

He bungled the whole thing. He held when every iota of logic oozed sell. If that alone isn’t a fireable offense – and it is – surely combined with the Blue Jays’ performance and the Wells contract has Ricciardi earned his way to unemployment."

Jeff Blair of The Globe and Mail seems to have taken issue with my "fire sale" comment in the opening bit of his piece, but he's still quite critical of Ricciardi's actions as well. He does make the valid point that the Jays may still be able to get a good bit for Halladay in the offseason, as more teams may feel they have a shot of contending then, but in my mind, only having him for one season instead of two potential playoff runs will cancel that out. Like the others, Blair seems rather unimpressed with the Jays' long journey to the middle under Ricciardi. As he concludes, "Nothing that happened yesterday will remove the doubts lingering over this team – that they have just slightly interested ownership and no direction, bouncing from crisis to crisis while awaiting a 2010 payroll that will likely be right in the middle of the major-league scale. Welcome to life in baseball’s middle class. Sucks to be us, doesn’t it?"

And that lack of direction is the crux of it, for me. This is perhaps, but only perhaps a defensible baseball move, but even that's only if it's accompanied by the logical accompanying moves. It hasn't been, and that's a problem. Moreover, it has instead been accompanied by a bodyguard of conflicting nonsensical moves and explanations from Ricciardi, and that's an even bigger problem. His five-year-plans have turned into eight years of dithering. I was never really confident in his leadership, but I've now lost what faith I once had. I'll follow this up later with a post about the way forward for the Jays, but for now, it's enough to say that Ricciardi must go, and the sooner, the better. I'm not sure of the ideal candidate to replace him at the moment, but I'd take almost anyone over Ricciardi at this point. At least they'd be likely to have a plan.


  1. You forgot the part about how Rolen is 34 and can't stay healthy. I'm surprised they got anybody for him, but the Reds are always willing to help a brother out with their own shitty management.

    I'm not saying J.P. is a good GM, but dealing Rolen is actually a great deal. Being a big tease with Roy is not.

  2. The age factor is quite true, Steve, but I still don't think this is a great deal. Trading a great-hitting, great-fielding third baseman for a useless one and a couple of pitching prospects doesn't help the team in the short run in my mind. It may help them in the long term, but Ricciardi's other moves (and his public statements) have been short-term oriented. I wouldn't object to the Rolen deal if it was part of a full-scale rebuild, but it doesn't seem to be. It hurts them in the short term, the time frame where I would have liked to see them go for it, and it won't be enough for long-term success without corresponding moves in my mind.

  3. I think it's a good deal but that doesn't mean I like it. The arms are young and cheap but Rolen was so damn fun to watch! I can't get past the void in my game enjoyment quite yet.

  4. Andrew, I guess my take on it is that relying on Rolen is similar to playing Russian roulette. It's fine for a bit, until it's not. I think this is partially supported by the fact that the only team that wanted to trade for him was the Reds, who are a horror-show organization even with Jocketty at the helm.

  5. Good points, guys. Yeah, Rolen won't be good indefinitely; my thinking was mostly that he presents a much better option next year than Encarnacion, and that's when they've always been talking about trying to compete.I think he'll be pretty good for at least a couple more years, but injuries could derail that. In a time-independent sense, this isn't that bad of a move. When you add time into the equation, it gets worse in my mind, though. The acquired pitchers are certainly promising, but they're much more helpful if the plan is to rebuild over the next few years. Not much else J.P. has done supports that, though, and that's what bugs me.

  6. Great trade. Actually, the worst trade of the deadline, and heavily in the Jays' favour:

    Ricciardi for life.

  7. Anonymous5:08 AM

    You forgot the part about Rolen asking to be moved due to personal reasons. He clearly wanted to go back to the Midwest. Who wouldn't? Baseball actually matters in those areas. Unlike Bud Selig's long term plan to ruin MLB in Canada. One team down, one to go, eh Bud?