Jays mailbag: Why Lawrie needs some seasoning
In 15 months of the tenure of GM Alex Anthopoulos the Jays' farm system has rocketed through the ranks of major league teams according to Baseball America. That bodes well for the future, even if 2011 is likely to be another building year on the Jays' major-league diamond.
According to MLB.com and its own rating of 2011 prospects, among the game's catching futures, J.P. Arencibia ranks sixth; among righthand pitchers, Kyle Drabek ranks third; among second basemen (even though he's likely slated for third), Brett Lawrie ranks second and, finally, among shortstops, Adeiny Hechavarria ranks seventh.
Interesting to note that of those four ranked prospects, three were acquired by Anthopoulos.
In Baseball America's Prospects Handbook, which is an essential purchase for me as soon as it comes out every spring, the Jays' farm system for the five years from 2005-09 out of 30 MLB organizations, ranked 15-25-26-25-19. This year, they have moved into the Top 10, ranked fourth.
On to the mailbag.
Q. Much has been made of the budgetary implications of the Vernon Wells deal for the Jays. However, the Jays have a lot of draft picks this year, and signing them appears to be a priority for A.A. What is the team's budget for signing its draft picks, and is the team going to use the Wells savings to partially offset the cost of signing its picks? If they plow a ton of money into signing all their picks, then I can tolerate their spending less on the major league club.
A. At some point the Jays have to stop pleasing fans at AAA-Las Vegas, AA-Manchester, New Hampshire and A-Dunedin and start providing major-league entertainment for fans at the Rogers Centre. According to Anthopoulos, the budget for signing draft picks is always completely separate from the budget for the major-league payroll and the payroll budget is not a number, it's a concept. If that sounds like so much mumbo-jumbo don't blame the mailbag. Sure the Jays have a lot of draft picks and sure they want to sign them all and sure the Wells deal does free up some organization money, so sure it helps the Jays' big picture at all levels, but at some point they have to start doing things to help the big-league club, putting people in the R.C. seats. The thing about the June draft as an annual exercise is that with MLB's recommended slotting of bonuses, even if teams often have to go over slot, the Jays have a pretty good idea of how much the entire draft will cost them even without putting actual names to the drafting numbers. That's money already budgeted for. They must not forget the major league team is what drives the franchise; winning in Toronto is the goal for organizational success. Having a top minor-league system is great. Having a World Series winner is greater.
Q. Hi Richard. What do you think John Farrell is thinking? The team has traded its opening day pitcher and all star centre fielder from last year.
A. Hopefully Farrell is thinking “It's not how you start, it's how you finish.” The Jays never announced it, but it's the common belief that Farrell has a three-year contract with the Jays. Farrell's previous expertise is in pitching and in that regard he has a talented young rotation and a deep veteran bullpen. That helps. It's the rest of it that will test his mettle. It will be an interesting spring with players learning different positions and guys trying to bounce back from off years, but the rookie manager does have an outstanding coaching staff that will help and by the end of the spring training, as the Jays see what they've got, you can ask that question again and it might be a different answer.
An interesting Jays' managerial note is that in 13 seasons since 1998, only Buck Martinez in 2001 and Farrell in 2011 have debuted as Jays managers on their first day of spring training. Jim Fregosi took over from Tim Johnson on St. Patrick's Day 1999. Carlos Tosca took over from Martinez in May of '02. John Gibbons took over from Tosca in July of '04 and Cito Gaston took over from Gibbons in May of 2009. The one common thread from Tosca to Farrell has been coach Brian Butterfield.
Q. Hey Richard. Does Brett Lawrie actually have a shot of making the team this year? I would imagine a lineup with Lawrie at 2B, Hill at 3B and Bautista in right is better than the alternative which would include Juan Rivera in the OF as an everyday player. Has A.A. hinted at anything?
A. Lawrie, the Langley, B.C., native, just turned 21 on Jan. 18 and has played just two pro seasons, making the AA Southern League all-star team as a second baseman. He has played his two professional seasons at that 2B position since being drafted 16th overall by the Brewers in 2009. Now the Jays, starting at the recent mini-camp at the Rogers Centre earlier in January, have begun Lawrie's conversion to third base. As a Team Canada amateur player and high school guy, Lawrie was mostly a catcher, but when he was drafted by the Brewers he was listed as 3B/C. They knew something. Ideally the Jays will not need to have Lawrie on the Opening Day roster, although that is his personal goal. At a completely new position and just turned 21, Lawrie needs at least a half-season of third base in the minors. But the bottom line is that the Jays are indeed better off with Bautista in right field. So they need a third baseman. As for the acquired outfielder Rivera, he is not the type of player that fits into the Jays' plans moving forward, 32 years old and under control for just one more year. Therefore, don't dismiss the probability that he and his $5.25 million contact for 2011 will be moved before the season starts. Anthopoulos would not be asking for much in return.
Q. In light of the recent Frank Francisco deal, can you shed some light on who goes where in the Jays bullpen. This acquisition coupled with the signings of Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch really look like A.A. has no confidence in some of the cheaper, younger Jays (Casey Janssen, David Purcey, Zach Stewart, Shawn Camp, and even Jason Frasor) stepping up and grabbing the ninth inning role.
A. Last season, in theory, it was Kevin Gregg closing, with Scott Downs and Frasor in the eighth, Camp and Purcey in the seventh and Brian Tallet, Janssen and the rest in the earlier roles. Those were simpler times. This year, if I was running the Jays' bullpen, heading to camp, I would have Francisco closing, with Rauch and Purcey in the eighth, Dotel, Camp and Frasor in the seventh and Janssen as my 3 to 6-outs middle-man. The biggest question mark in that group is Frasor, whose role has been diminished at a high price with all of the other bullpen acquisitions. I might look to replace him and his $3-plus million salary with a second lefthander behind Purcey. Zach Stewart will be given another season to develop in the minors and may be the homegrown closer of the future. They have short-term closer options in the meantime, even through 2012.
Q. Hi Richard. I'm sure you'll have lots of questions or comments about Vernon Wells this week, but I'll add one more, just for fun. I have a sneaking suspicion that Vernon will have an enormous year for the Angels, and that may reflect playing the season on grass rather than turf. My question: How do you think the artificial turf at SkyDome (ok, Rogers Centre) has affected Vernon over the past couple of years, and will it make a difference?
A. I agree that Vernon might have a monster year for the Angels in 2011, but it may have less to do with what's under his feet than what's at his side. Yes the turf at SkyDome (ok, Rogers Centre) was not advantageous to playing a spectacular centre field, but the new artificial surface of the last few years played more like real grass than its predecessor, although it still rewarded caution over all-out outfield effort. But I look at the differences for Vernon on the field and in the stands as what may spur Wells to a big year. There is no need for him to be a leader in this clubhouse, with Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu, Mike Scioscia and others. And, like veteran actor John Turturro, Wells has always done his best work in a supporting role. Plus, in all the times that I have been at Anaheim Stadium, I have never heard the laid-back So-Cal crowd boo a home team player. That will help Wells. I hope he does have a great year, but that should not determine the perceived wisdom of the Jays' trade. The unexpected opening presented itself for the Jays to save $81 million in present and future payroll and they had to take it.
Q. Two Questions:
1. With the Napoli trade how would you handle the catching position for 2011?
2. I thought Chad Jenkins was being groomed for the closer position, am I wrong or have they changed their minds?
A. I originally believed last fall that when the Jays traded for Miguel Olivo as a Type B free agent from the Rox and then immediately bought out his option, dangling him to the baseball world for a potential draft choice, the same situation as John Buck, I thought they would wait and see which one signed first and then they would re-sign the other guy to catch alongside J.P. Arencibia, giving them a veteran starter in case the kid fell on his face. But instead they let both men go and are going with Arencibia and the veteran 40-game starter Jose Molina.
That's great for Arencibia -- even better when they got rid of the temptation of using Mike Napoli behind the plate if the rookie struggled. But face it, they have to see what they've got in Arencibia. This guy has played two full seasons at Triple-A and, sure his first year in Vegas was hurt by a stomach disorder and night-vision problems since corrected, but he bounced back to become the PCL Most Valuabe Player. How could you send him back for a third season? Why should Arencibia's opportunity be any less than Matt Wieters in Baltimore, Buster Posey with the Giants, Geovany Soto with the Cubs, Carlos Santana with the Indians, Hank Conger with the Angels, Alex Avila with the Tigers, Jesus Montero with the Yankees and Jonathan Lucroy of the Brewers who are all celebrated more than they have ever been doubted by their organization and fans. The Jays have to give Arencibia more than the month of April to prove himself before they panic. He needs a full shot.
As for Chad Jenkins, I still think the Jays see him as a potential mid-rotation starter or trade bait. I think you may have confused him with Zach Stewart, acquired in the Scott Rolen deal from the Reds and more suited by repertoire for a closing role. That happens to me all the time.
Q. Griff - what a trade!!
AA is the toast of the town and must be building quite the reputation. While I applaud the move, what is concerning is the potential for a porous defense this year. Is Rajai the answer in CF or is AA going to tinker some more?
A. I myself was looking to join the AA fan club but when I went online and applied they invited me to a meeting with a bunch of drunks trying to kick the habit. Confusion. So I've pulled back and just become an AA admirer for the moment. As you point out this season has a chance to be a disaster led by the D. Consider: if Arencibia can't do the job and his lack of hitting drags his pitch-calling into the gutter and the young starters take a step backwards; if Adam Lind can't handle the intricacies and footwork at first base and they put Edwin there as the answer; if Lind and Aaron Hill repeat their down seasons; if Yunel Escobar, after his hugely encouraging half-season in Toronto, shows why the Braves got rid of him and sort of stiffs; if Bautista hates third base and his HR total drops into the 20s; if Travis Snider, Rajai Davis and Juan Rivera form the starting outfield and the power alleys become cul-de-sacs; if the sum of the bullpen parts is less than the whole; if John Farrell is only a pitching coach in manager's clothing. Then yikes. AA needs to tinker some more. It could drive me to drink.
Q. Hey Richard,
Is there a lesson to be learned regarding Lawrie's introduction to the Blue Jays from the time past Expos' decision on then prospect Michael Barrett? The Expos had a decision to make with Jose Vidro, keep him at second or move him to third. Barrett would assume the open spot. The Expos kept Vidro at second and sent Barrett to third, where Barrett failed defensively. Would it be safer to play Lawrie at second instead of third?
A. There are plenty of parallels in the example that you offer. With the Expos, Vidro was just 24 in 1999 when the Barrett experiment started and had a couple of really good offensive seasons in a row. Barrett went from backup third baseman to Expos' starting third baseman to starting catcher all in three seasons but then his following career stuttered all the way through the next decade, punctuated by a fight with Carlos Zambrano in Chicago and finally being released by the Jays in 2009.
For the Jays, if it was me, I think I would try to keep Lawrie at second base where he has played for two pro seasons and move Hill to third base where he played when he first reached the majors. However, what I believe may be prompting the decision to move Lawrie is that it's not all about Hill. It's about the long-term of the middle infield and about Adeiny Hechavarria and where he fits in if Yunel Escobar proves at all to be the real deal at shortstop. Hill has either one year, three years or four years left depending on what the Jays want to do with his three option seasons. That will be an interesting and very telling decision that has to be made by opening day.
Q. Is there any truth to the Jays seeking Vlad Guerrero for DH this year? Or even Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder for next season? It is sounding like a Paul Molitor type of signing when the Jays were going for it in the early '90s. Thanks for all your insight.
A. According to Anthopoulos, the Jays prefer to fill the DH role with a player that can also play a position – like Edwin and first base. If they didn't need another first baseman given the tenuous nature of the Adam Lind experiment, I believe they would have gone after Manny Ramirez, considering that he can still play a little left field. But Edwin, Manny and Andruw Jones all signed one-year $2 million, so the industry is saying there's not much difference among the three. As for the Jays, Vlad is out, Pujols will have the baseball world at his feet and why would he choose Toronto, while Prince, with Scott Boras as his agent, will be looking for A-Rod years and dollars. Jays are out.