By: Dan Grant
(Mark Shapiro steps to the podium. A hush falls over the crowded press conference.)
Hello everyone. Thanks for coming.
Let’s not sugarcoat anything. Days like this are always tough as a baseball fan.
You pour your heart and soul into supporting an organization, living and dying with every draft pick and roster move, cheering a favourite player on, often for years. You watch them blossom from a prospect into a burgeoning pro, and sometimes, just sometimes, you’re lucky enough to watch that pro realize every drop of their talent, and become an everyday player, or in those rarest of occasions, an All-Star.
That’s what makes saying goodbye to Melvin Upton Jr. so tough.
(The crowd murmurs confusedly, Shapiro forges on.)
You know, it’s kind of like that scene in Little Big League when Billy has to cut Jerry Johnson, even though he has his baseball card and wouldn’t give it up for a Wade Boggs and a Sammy Sosa. You know the scene I’m talking about? Sure, some of you do!
A true Blue Jay lifer, Upton Jr. has embodied what it means to be a Jay since he first arrived in the organization in 2008…
(A flunkie begins gesturing wildly.)
(Shapiro gestures to the crowd) Wait just a minute please folks, I’m so sorry. (He covers the microphone)
(Frantic inaudible speech)
I’m being handed a card here…and… OH! My apologies. The winner is Moonlight!
No wait, that can’t be right.
(The now manic PA whispers again fervently.)
Oh! Yes, that makes more sense. I’ve been informed that I was reading about Jose Bautista. Yes, of course. Would have been terrible to say goodbye to him.
We’re here to talk Melvin Upton Jr.? A firm handshake should do! Press conference over everyone!
The above might seem insane to you, if you missed the minor uproar after Upton’s release yesterday. It might be specific to those who were on Twitter when the news dropped, but the Jays decision to release Upton outright (and eat the 1 million in salary he’s due from them this season — the San Diego Padres are on the hook for the rest) caused head-scratching from some, and outright anger from others.
I chose these two tweets because I generally find both Sean and Joshua to be reasonable guys who know their stuff. I don’t blame them for finding the roster move to be curious at best (and possibly stupid at worst), based on the current roster construction of the Jays. And as you can see from the conveniently visible little hearts, there was a decent amount of support for their sentiments.
With that said, I don’t think cutting Upton was a bad move. I don’t think it can necessarily be painted as a good move, not yet anyway, but I think it was a fine move, a perfectly OK move, a move that makes a bit more sense when you dig a little deeper, and change the framework of the decision-making process.
Here’s are some reasons why:
He Sucked (As a Blue Jay)
This seems like a pretty obvious one, but it needs to be stated. We’re not talking about a player who gave Toronto anything resembling value during his time here, at least not at the plate. Yes Upton had a mini-career renaissance playing meaningless games in beautiful San Diego last season, and yes the Jays did well to get him for almost nothing. But since he came north of the border? Upton has been straight-up terrible.
In 165 plate appearances after being acquired by Toronto last July 26th, Upton slashed a putrid .196/.261/.318. He managed 29 hits, only 9 of which went for extra bases. He walked 14 times. He struck out 49 times.
According to Fangraphs, he posted the worst in-zone contact rate (73.7%) of any of the 146 qualified hitters in baseball last season, more than 2.5% worse than the next three guys on the list, noted whiff aficionado’s (and possible future pop trio: No Topher) Chris Carter, Khris Davis and Chris Davis.
Spring training numbers are mostly meaningless, but Upton did little to earn himself playing time this spring, slashing .194/.216/.472, and pretty much looking like the same player he was in the second half for the Blue Jays last year.
He Sort of Wasn’t Even That Good Against Lefties
A big selling point of playing Upton this season was that he’d be limited to mostly playing against left-handed pitching. He hit .275/.341/.543 against them last season, and 9 of his 20 home runs were off left-handers as well, despite his only facing them in roughly 25% of his plate appearances. His excellent 132 WRC+ versus lefties from last season was further cited to make that idea look tantalizing. It seemed like a solid idea.
(For those unfamiliar, you can read up on WRC and WRC+ here. A 100 rating is league average, meaning Upton produced 32 percentage points better than league average versus lefties last season. This number is quite good).
However, it should be noted that, while a very small sample size (43 plate appearances), Upton’s production against lefties as a Blue Jay took a nosedive. His WRC+ versus LHP in Toronto was 107, much closer to his career mark of 109, which is still good, but not as world-beating as the 132 mentioned ad nauseum.
In the interest of full disclosure, it should be pointed out that that career number is weighed down heavily by Upton’s two horrendous years in Atlanta (2013-14), when he posted godawful marks of 22 and 69. He’s generally been quite good, posting marks of 110 or higher in 7 of his 10 full professional seasons.
So maybe he was going to be fine against lefties and maybe he wasn’t. There’s more evidence to support to the former, but certainly some recent-ish evidence to support to the latter, too. Personally, I’d have been fine with them playing this out and seeing if it worked for a couple weeks or a month and then setting him adrift later on if need be.
But here’s the thing. The Jays have another guy who hits lefties, pretty much just as well.
Heaven help me for saying it, but they have Ezequiel Carrera.
If you’re someone who read me at all last season, you know that I was the first one to throw dirt on Carrera’s career as a Jay.
Here’s me, last February:
Jays fans are quite familiar with Carrera. He played 91 games for Toronto last season (2015), though often as a defensive replacement, managing 191 plate appearances. He did hit .273 with a .321 on base, but managed zero power and whiffed 48 times. Also, for a ‘defensive replacement’, he put up a -10 in Defensive Runs Saved and a -10.1 in UZR/150 while spending time in all three outfield spots. Not ideal.
Time and time again during the season, I lamented his getting playing time, even after a hot start. I always imagined he’d turn back into a pumpkin, and he kind of did during a bad July and horrendous August. But much to my chagrin, as the season slipped into the fall, Carrera again began to play very well, and carried that good play into the post-season.
When you look at his splits versus left-handers, you see that it’s possible the Jays weren’t really considering this training camp as a preview of an Upton/Carrera platoon, but rather a competition between Upton and Carrera for one half of that platoon. Or maybe they came into camp hoping the full platoon would work, but were forced to re-evaluate as things played out.
Either way, here we are.
Carrera has a far less proven track-record than Upton back up his case; his 310 plate appearances last season were by far a career high. With that said, in 73 plate appearances against left-handers in 2016, he slashed .329/.372/.452, with a WRC+ of 123, numbers that are close enough to Upton’s as to be negligible. He provides less power to be sure, but he got on base more, and struck out significantly less.
So do you want the guy with plummeting contact rates, who’s been not only bad for your team since you got him, but consistently inconsistent during his big league career, or do you want the guy who’s improved whenever given more playing time and is well-suited to a part time role? It’s not an easy choice, but it’s a pretty clear one, to me.
Upton’s defense is certainly something that the Jays will miss. Despite his struggles at the plate, he was still an excellent left-fielder who was more than able to hold his own in center; he was worth 10 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in left last year, split between San Diego and Toronto, and broke even in center.
Carrera managed a superb 10 DRS of his own, split between left and right field, a huge improvement from the previous year. He was however, a -3 in just 34 innings in centre, and Upton’s release definitely hurts the Jays depth at that position, should Kevin Pillar suffer an injury, or even just need a day off. It’s an issue that will need addressing.
‘All this talk about lefties is well and good’, you’re thinking, ‘but Daniel, don’t the majority of pitchers throw right handed?’
Of course they do, you sweet fool.
That’s the thing. The Jays need to find a long-term solution in left-field, and against right-handed pitching, neither Upton nor Carrera is it. Upton posted a 68 WRC+ versus righties last year and Carrera wasn’t much better at 71. These aren’t guys you want taking the majority of your at-bats at any position, unless a southpaw is on the mound. Most fans (myself included!) were conceding that Toronto was stupidly going to give the majority of those right-handed at-bats to either Carrera, because he hits left-handed, or in a slightly better scenario, to Steve Pearce. However, using Pearce in left would mean that the much (and rightly) maligned Justin Smoak and his exactly average career 100 WRC+ versus righties would then handle first base, in something far too close to an everyday role.
Neither solution is an ideal fit, and that’s why it makes sense that the Jays signed former Chicago Cub Chris Coghlan to a minor league deal this past weekend.
The veteran Coghlan was released by the Phillies at the end of training camp, after failing to crack their roster. He struggled mightily in Oakland last season before returning to the Cubs (where he’d spent 2014-15) mid-season and finding something resembling his form.
Over the past three seasons, the left-handed-hitting Coghlan has posted WRC+ numbers of 132, 126 and last season (after his return to Chicago) 108 versus right-handers. He was also worth 3 DRS in left field last year, after a failed experiment to use him as super-utility player in Oakland. His +3.9 UZR backs up that Coghlan, who runs well, can still cover decent ground in the outfield.
If Coghlan has anything left in the tank, and can split left field duties with Carrera, and that lets you leave Pearce at first base and only use Smoak in a part-time role, isn’t that a better long-term fit than punting at-bats versus right-handers to Upton, Carrera or Smoak?
I get that in the absolute immediate short-term it sucks, because Coghlan is in Triple A for now, and that means either Smoak or Carrera will see the field versus several right-handed pitchers in this first week. But as noted above, if you’re going to use Smoak at all (and this team is, unfortunately) that’s the spot to use him in.
But Ryan Goins?!?
I feel like in a reasonable discussion, most would be open to considering the scenarios laid out above, particularly if Coghlan works out (no sure bet). Where it really sticks in the craw for some fans, as noted in Joshua’s tweet, is that the Jays seemingly chose light-hitting utility infielder Ryan Goins over Upton.
For those unfamiliar, Goins is out of options, meaning he’d need to clear waivers to be sent to the minor leagues. The Jays either had to keep him on the 25 man roster, or risk losing him to another club for nothing. With Darwin Barney already filling the same role on the roster, and options such as Jonathan Diaz, Gregorio Petit and Jake Elmore in the organization, keeping Goins, on its face, made little sense.
There’s been a lot of bluster about Goins being a ‘good guy’ (mainly from people who still read Steve Simmons, I imagine) and Upton being ‘uncoachable’. I’m of the mind this is a steaming load.
What it really comes down to, as reported by Gideon Turk for BP Toronto, is this:
And that’s pretty much it. With Devon Travis still working his way back from injury, and the Jays, as was widely reported, unable to find a trade partner for Upton, it makes some kind of sense to keep Goins in the shortest of short terms, until either Coghlan is ready or you can find a trade for him that you like.
With that said, if Goins is still on the team at the end of April, I’d be incredibly surprised.
Hold on, Do They Still Have Other Players? These Guys All Sound Terrible
They do! Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin and Kevin Pillar are all back to make sure you don’t have to think about everything I just mentioned all that often. Devon Travis, Steve Pearce and their wonderful bats are looking to stay healthy for the first time in their careers Jarrod Saltalamacchia is your new backup catcher, and yes, is the owner of the longest last name in MLB history. Todd Stottlemyre, eat your heart out.
The starting rotation is locked in, with Marco Estrada earning the nod today, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez looking to continue their growth toward stardom, J.A. Happ continuing to Happ right along and Francisco Liriano looking to build on a tremendous spring. Despite some reasonable doubt from the analytics community (written about in excellent fashion here, by Andrew Stoeten) this Jays rotation looks healthy and strong, and there seems to be little reason why they can’t repeat their cumulative results from 2016, barring injury, of course.
The bullpen will be an immediate focus, as Roberto Osuna begins the season on the 10 Day Disabled List (retroactive to March 30th) with what amounts to neck spasms, but has been given the much grosser ‘cervical spasm’ moniker. That’s going to put a real spotlight on second year man Joe Biagini and 40 year old Jason Grilli, who will reportedly handle 9th inning duties with Bobby Bear sidelined. The Jays are hoping both J.P. Howell and Joe Smith, who I wrote about here, can return to form after down 2016’s. Aaron Loup (everybody’s favourite!) has made the club as the second left-hander after a very good spring training, and Ryan Tepera was kept over Mike Bolsinger, who was designated for assignment. 25 year old Dominic Leone was kept to fill Osuna’s roster spot for now. You can read a little bit about him here. Don’t get too attached. The loss of Osuna, however temporary it may be, robs Toronto of their only elite talent in the bullpen. It’s a situation that will have fans on pins and needles until it’s resolved.
This Jays team is an interesting one. There are legitimate health questions in the starting nine and attached to those is real potential for a balanced offensive team, or an injury-riddled team that lacks Major League ready depth in the wings.
All in all, I think the whole Upton thing is going to be a forgotten footnote to this season. Even if you viewed him strictly as a lefty-masher, the Jays are currently scheduled to face only one left handed starter (Blake Snell of Tampa Bay) in the first two weeks — if Toronto viewed him the same way, you can start to understand why they made the move now. Left field may continue to be a problem, but let’s just remember that Melvin freakin Upton was probably not the solution. Either the team will stay healthy and be relatively competitive (and thus Upton’s absence won’t be felt) or they’ll struggle with injuries and his presence wouldn’t have made much of a difference anyway. Too simplistic? Maybe. But it’s early spring and the season is a blank canvas.
Just remember: if someone offered you a Wade Boggs and a Sammy Sosa for your Melvin Upton Jr. card, you’d totally say yes.
Happy Opening Day everyone!