Sunday, December 16, 2012

On Risks and Rewards

The rewards are simple: A World Series championship.

The risks, however, need much more discussion before we can truly understand what is at play in the reported trade with the Mets for R.A. Dickey.

In the best case scenario, General Manager's job is basically about balancing risks against this one reward.  While some GMs may be going after a different reward (turning a profit, keeping his job), I'm working under the assumption that Alex Anthopoulos isn't one of those GMs who is under pressure from management to keep his job, or hamstring his attempts to put together a winning team by imposing a restrictive budget.

Risks are inherent in all aspects of baseball (general) managing.  There used to be 50 rounds in the major league draft.  Why? Because baseball has the largest gap between the level of skill required to succeed at the top professional level than college or high school levels of any sport.  Along the journey from draftee to major leaguer, almost ALL draftees fail.  Drafting any player is a risk.

Signing players to any contract is another risk.  They can be injured at any point along the way, or they can just fail to perform as expected.  This risk is magnified with long term contracts although GMs gamble that the player will stay healthy and contribute enough to mitigate those risks.

Anthopoulos has shown the ability, in his tenure as GM of the Toronto Blue Jays, to both minimize and maximize risk.  To minimize risk, he has greatly increased the size of the scouting staff from that of his predecessor, thus increasing the amount of information coming in to inform his decisions.  He has taken more risks by drafting more high school players and more "high upside" players, as one baseball writer (can't remember which one) has remarked in compiling his top 10 Blue Jays prospects list that the Jays have not been successful drafting high-upside batters over the past few seasons. They have also been drafting players with loads of potential that other teams are staying away from due to other concerns like signability, injury, or character (Anthony Alford, Matt Smoral, and many others).

This pattern of high-risk acquisitions has been repeated  at the major league level, by following AA's pattern of "buying low" on guys like Yunel Escobar, Colby Rasmus, Brandon Morrow, and Brett Lawrie.  He has also taken risks in signing a player like Jose Bautista to a five-year contract after his breakout season, gambling that he was really the player of 2010, not the player of the years before.

Clearly, Anthopoulos is not afraid of taking a risk.  Many people are saying that (if the rumours are true) if the Jays give up both Travis d'Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard for R.A. Dickey, then they are overpaying.  However, this is clearly a calculated risk by AA.  Here's why.

1. The "Bautista Window."  Apparently, Anthopoulos promised Jose Bautista that he would do his best to make the Blue Jays competitive in the playoffs in the window provided by Bautista's 5 year contract (signed before the 2011 season).  Additionally, the Bautista Window includes the years that the Jays will have players like Jose Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion, Mark Buehrle, Melky Cabrera, and Brandon Morrow under contract.  After the MegaTrade with Miami, Anthopoulos was already going for more than just a steadily improving young ball club that could eventually win.  Now, with the acquisition of Dickey, he's solidifying holes and trading away prospects whose impact on the major league team will be nil in 2013.

2. Prospects rarely exceed expectations at the major league level.  We saw one of these last season in Mike Trout, but it's really rare for a rookie (and a 20-year-old for that matter) to give you jaw dropping production. This is why AA is spending prospects like currency going back to the J.A. Happ trade last season.  As many other writers have said, prospects have two purposes - developing into Major Leaguers to help your team, and being traded to get Major Leaguers to help your team.

3. The nature of the Jays team and farm system.  As I've written about previously, the Blue Jays already have a pretty good offense that has gotten better over the off-season.  Combined with the return of Jose Bautista, the Jays have added Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera who will be significant improvements over the 2012 players who played SS and LF.  Additionally, the Jays will hopefully get better production out of the 2B spot.  Even without improvements by J.P. Arencibia, Brett Lawrie, Adam Lind, and Colby Rasmus, this is a good offensive team.  The Jays also had a potential contributor in 2013 in Travis d'Arnaud, and still have Anthony Gose who could contribute next season as well (assuming that d'Arnaud and not Gose is included in the Dickey deal).

On the other hand, the pitching in 2012 was atrocious.  And the Jays did not have a lot of help coming through the system.  Injuries to Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, Luis Perez, and others mean that they are not available until after the all-star break at the earliest.  The minor league system was stocked (and still isn't bare) with pitching prospects -- for the most part -- from the A-ball level down.  If Anthopoulos wants to take advantage of his good offense, he needed to get quality pitching NOW, and by trading for it, he avoids paying mediocre pitchers $18 million and locking himself in to 5 year contracts.

The way the farm system is set up, there are no pitchers coming to help the already good hitting that is present on the major league team.  Not in 2013 (ok, maybe Marcus Stroman), and the elite prospects are still 2-3 years away.  This off-season has been about taking the big risk to achieve the big reward - a World Series, and the way that Anthopoulos has had to do it was to sacrifice players who can not make an impact in 2013 to acquire the pitching that will now catch up to the hitting.

Do I like the deal?  It doesn't matter.  What matters is that Alex Anthopoulos feels that the reward -- the ability to compete for a World Series title -- will justify the risk.

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