Solving the Blue Jays' black hole at second base

Tom Szczerbowski

With Alex Anthopolous as GM, the Toronto Blue Jays have always had little production at second base. Given the team's position on the cusp of playoff contention, upgrading the team's options at second base should be one of Anthopolous' top priorities.

This offseason has been considerably quieter for the Toronto Blue Jays than last year. Around this time last January the Jays had already been heralded as the winners of the offseason. The additions of R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera and Emilio Bonifacio seemed to have the team poised for their first playoff birth in 20 years.

Unfortunately the hype did not translate into wins, and the Jays finished last in the AL East with a record of 74-88. While 2013 was certainly a disappointment, the Jays have committed all their resources to winning now. The majority of last season's roster remains under contract. This team should still be considered a contender for the coming season.

For that reason, GM Alex Anthopolous and the Jays' front office should be concentrating their efforts around improving the club in a few critical areas: catcher, starting pitching, and second base. The catching situation has been addressed. The release of the on-base-allergic J.P. Arencibia, and the addition of Dioner Navarro should provide an upgrade.

Conversely, the starting pitching market has yet to entirely unfold. Recently, the Jays have been rumored as the frontrunners to sign Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez. Adding either should upgrade the team's rotation, although Santana's elevated HR/FB rate in recent seasons could be a concern in the home run-friendly confines of Rogers Centre.

This leaves second base, from which the Jays received a combined .216/.258/.297 line in 2013, a ghastly bit of production by any measure. Unfortunately, this type of fuitility from second base is not really aberrant for the Jays during Anthopolous' tenure. Here are the numbers for Toronto second baseman since Anthopolous took over in 2010:

Year PA AVG OBP SLG OPS OPS+ DRS UZR
2010 674 0.211 0.271 0.383 0.654 81 3 10.8
2011 672 0.235 0.290 0.344 0.634 79 2 -0.8
2012 677 0.225 0.303 0.351 0.653 87 5 -8.6
2013 626 0.216 0.258 0.297 0.556 57 10 -2.9

Note: OPS+ is relative to other second basemen.

Toronto's offensive production at the keystone has been below league average for second baseman each season. One might suggest that this is because the Jays have elected for a defense-first strategy at the position.

Not so.

While there are discrepancies between the DRS and UZR metrics, neither suggests the Jays have been playing a top-level defender at second in recent years. Their DRS values have ranked between 4th and 8th in the American League over these seasons—not bad, but nowhere near enough to make up for the offensive deficiencies of Toronto's second baseman. Taken together the Jays have had replacement-level production from second base over the last four seasons.

Given the Jays' current roster, that trend seems likely to continue. The plan appears to be to use Ryan Goins and Maicer Izturis (and maybe Munenori Kawasaki) in 2014. FanGraphs depth chart projections have Goins getting the majority of the plate appearances (and do not include Kawasaki), with production not expected to be much above replacement level.

The table for Blue Jays' second basemen is partially re-produced below:

Player PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA WAR
Ryan Goins 420 0.241 0.284 0.335 0.274 0.1
Maicer Izturis 280 0.257 0.316 0.356 0.299 0.2
Total 700 0.247 0.297 0.343 0.284 0.3

It's surprising that a team possibly on the edge of playoff contention would stick with such mediocre production at second base. The Jays are projected as an 83-win team for 2014 by FanGraphs. At this position on the win curve, a few additional wins could significantly improve the team's odds of making the playoffs. Investing in a 2- or 3-win player, then, would be well worth the cost. At the very least, the Jays need to break their recent trend of employing replacement-level performers at second base.

With most of the top free agents already signed with other teams, the Jays are likely best suited to attempt a trade. In fact, the top free agents at the position signing elsewhere may help facilitate a trade. With Robinson Cano set in Seattle and Omar Infante set in Kansas City as the primary second basemen for the foreseeable future, trades for players like Dustin Ackley and Nick Franklin of the Mariners and the Royals' Johnny Giavotella should be explored.

In 694 PAs at Triple-A, Ackley hit .303/.401/.472, but has struggled with plate discipline in the majors and has only contributed a .245/.315/.354 line in 1471 careers PAs. There has been much speculation about the way the Mariner's have handled Ackley's development and how that may have contributed to his struggles in the majors. Regardless, he is still just 25 years old, had a solid track record in the upper minors and is a reasonable defender (24 DRS in 2441 innings at 2B). More importantly, his projected offensive line would be an upgrade over Toronto's current plan at the keystone:

PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA WAR
Dustin Ackley 455 0.250 0.328 0.368 0.309 1.1

Ackley's younger teammate, Nick Franklin (23 years old) has followed a similar path. In 473 PAs at Triple-A, Franklin hit .271/.358/.435 but experienced a decline in performance upon arrival in the majors (.225/.303/.382 in 412 PAs). Yet he is projected to provide similar production to Ryan Goins in 378 fewer PAs:

PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA WAR
Nick Franklin 42 0.240 0.313 0.380 0.307 0.1

Scouting reports on the Royals' Johnny Giavotella (26 years old) suggest that he does not have the defensive abilities of Ackley or Franklin, but his offensive production at Triple-A (.317/.388/.456 in 1347 PA) makes him a valuable trade target. He too struggled with plate discipline in the major leagues (4.5 BB%, 16.7 K% in 424 PAs) and saw his numbers decline (.240/.278/.335) to the point where it seems as though the Royals have given up on him.

Nevertheless, the recent decline in performance these players have shown during their opportunities in the majors should present an opportunity for the Jays to buy low on one of them. They have stronger records of performance than a player like Ryan Goins, whose Triple-A track record (.257/.311/.369 in 418 PAs) leaves much to be desired.

As with any trade, the merit depends on what the Jays would have to give up. But if the price is right (e.g., bullpen arm, Ricky Romero) taking the (reasonable) risk that these guys can re-establish their Triple-A production at the major league level should be considered.

Regardless of who it is, acquiring a higher level of production from second base should be a focus for the Blue Jays front office over the next few months. It has been a problem for a few years now, and with the team in win-now mode, such a black hole of production on Toronto's roster needs to be addressed. Doing so, perhaps in conjunction with signing a new starting pitcher, may provide the all-important boost the Jays need to break into October baseball.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.

Chris Teeter is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_mcgeets.

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