Steve McEwan writing for our friends Blue Jays Plus wrote a piece yesterday looking at the potential bargain that the Blue Jays could pick up with Jeff Niemann. He’s starting a series about “bargain buy free agents” that are still on the market.
In my opinion, this is the wrong way to go for the Blue Jays starting rotation. The first thing we have to do is ask ourselves the question: Who are these “bargain basement” free agents and why are they so cheap? (Okay, that’s two questions.)
The answer is simple. There’s something wrong with them. Sometimes, it’s an injury. Sometimes it’s multiple injuries. Sometimes a player has just lost it (see Romero, Ricky). But there’s always something wrong with them which makes them an affordable risk for teams to take. If the player didn’t have faults, he wouldn’t be a bargain; teams would be paying full price for his services.
Sometimes the risk works out. Look at what Scott Kazmir did for the Cleveland Indians last year. More often than not, however, the gamble does not work out. Especially for the Blue Jays. Remember Jo-Jo Reyes? Aaron Laffey? Tomo Ohka (the first time)?
In 2013 the Blue Jays went the bargain basement route primarily to build depth in Buffalo rather than to have a guy with a spot in the rotation but that didn’t exactly pay off. Mining the waiver wire and minor league free agents, the Blue Jays got a lot more fool’s gold than diamonds in the rough (yes, I know I’m mixing metaphors).
The Jays lucked out with Todd Redmond but didn’t get much with Edgar Gonzalez or any of the other minor league free agents that they signed and had to use in the majors. Guys who started games for the 2013 Blue Jays included Aaron Laffey (again), Chien-Ming Wang and Ramon Ortiz while several pitchers were starters in Buffalo but only worked out of the pen in Toronto like Dave Bush, Justin Germano and Thad Weber. It wasn’t pretty. Miguel Batista never did get a shot in Toronto. And remember many of these pitchers had had major league success in the past including Bush, Wang and Batista. There’s a reason that these guys were minor league free agents and not commanding major league salaries.
Why weren’t the Blue Jays signing any “Bargain Basement” guys in the offseason to compete for a rotation spot? Well, the Jays thought that they had six (presumably) solid starting pitchers already. If you recall, the Jays’ starting rotation going into 2013 was Dickey, Johnson, Morrow, Buehrle and Romero/Happ. Why would they take a chance on a guy who might be good but has some warts? The Blue Jays didn’t need a Jeff Niemann or a Scott Kazmir. They signed pitchers to minor league deals because the Blue Jays anticipated that those pitchers would be pitching for Buffalo. They were already planning to eat some salary with Happ expected to start the season (unhappily) in Triple-A and ended up eating even more when Romero couldn’t break camp with the club and was eventually sent to the minors outright to clear him off the 40-man roster.
Someone like Niemann this year will command a major league salary and a major league roster spot. It’s not a good idea to sign a pitcher at a discount rate because whomever the Blue Jays signs needs to be a #3 starter or better.
For Niemann specifically, one could argue that he’s never been a real #3 starter. His 2009 season was very good, registering a 2.4 WAR on Baseball Reference and 2.9 WAR on Fangraphs. This is a solid season but not outstanding. He outperformed his Defense Independent Pitching Stats (DIPS) and it was the only (full) season in which he was actually better than league average. He had a great start to his 2012 season but then he got hurt and hasn’t pitched since.
The big wart on Niemann is that he was, cumulatively, an average pitcher (slightly better or slightly worse depending on the metric you use) before his injury and he can’t be relied upon to be better in 2014. I completely understand that you need a lottery ticket type of guy to be better than expected but with a team that is still looking to compete in 2014, why would Anthopoulos go out and get a lottery-ticket pitcher when the club already has eight of them under control.
For me, this is the biggest reason to look in house if you’re looking for someone to step up and surprise you. Anyone that you find in the bargain bin of the free agent market needs to be better than any and/or all of Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, Sean Nolin, Dustin McGowan and Chad Jenkins. Is Niemann better than all of them? Todd Redmond in 2013 and Jeff Niemann circa 2010/2011 aren’t all that different in terms of their DIPS stats. Esmil Rogers in 2013 and Jeff Niemann circa 2010/2011 aren’t all that different in terms of their batted ball data.
All of the guys that I’ve listed have some kind of upside. They’re all under team control and come to the Blue Jays at $1.5 million or less (notice that I didn’t list Ricky Romero; is a $7.5 million pitcher a bargain buy?). Does Dustin McGowan have less of an upside than Jeff Niemann? Does Drew Hutchison? While Niemann has more big league experience than any of the above pitchers (and all of it in the AL East), McGowan still has 400 major league innings under his belt to Niemann’s 544. And McGowan’s innings were all the AL East too. I’m not forgetting McGowan’s injury history but he threw more innings in 2013 than Niemann did. Just saying.
In my mind, the Blue Jays would be wasting money and time on another pitcher who is just as much of a lottery ticket as any of the guys that the Blue Jays already have. It’ll cost more money but the Blue Jays need to improve their starting rotation and not just simply sign a guy on the off chance that he might be better than what they have. Sometimes the clear upgrade backfires (see Johnson, Josh) but I’d rather go with someone that doesn’t have all kinds of asterisks next to his name and who hasn’t missed a year and a half than giving big league money and a big league roster spot to someone who only has a small chance of being that clear improvement rather than just another 1 WAR guy.