Would Blue Jays Signing Zack Greinke Guarantee 2013 AL East Title?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 16, 2012

Even the Los Angeles Dodgers think the Toronto Blue Jays need to slow the heck down.

Earlier this week, the Blue Jays pulled off a humdinger of a trade—first reported by FoxSports.com—with the Miami Marlins that netted them Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, John Buck and, presumably, a couple fungo bats as well.

The trade isn't technically official yet, as MLB commissioner Bud Selig is reviewing it. But while the word from Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com is that Selig isn't happy about the deal, he's not expected to pull a David Stern and disallow it.

Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos didn't stop there. As first reported by Enrique Rojas of ESPNDeportes.com, the Jays have agreed to sign Melky Cabrera to a two-year contract to fill their need in left field. Per Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, Cabrera's deal is for $16 million. Not a bad haul for a guy who was just suspended for 50 games in August for a positive testosterone test.

Make no mistake about it, the Blue Jays are now major players in the AL East. They were a halfway decent team to begin with, as they went 43-43 in the first half of the 2012 season when everyone was healthy. With the series of moves they've made this week, the Jays have added crucial upgrades to both their starting rotation and their lineup. 'Nuff said.

But have they guaranteed themselves an AL East title with all these moves?

Not quite. There are three other teams in the division that won 90 games in 2012, and all three of them are looking at contending in 2013. Winning such a deep division won't be so easy.

Then again, the Jays may not be done yet.

On Thursday, Rosenthal tweeted this:

On #BlueJays: Anything is possible, but team did not get J. Johnson to flip him. Reality is, Jays still need - and want - one more starter.

— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 16, 2012

If they are indeed still looking for one more starting pitcher, might Anthopoulos decide to make one last big splash by signing the top free-agent starter on the market?

Seriously, is it possible that Anthopoulos will complete his masterpiece by signing Zack Greinke?

We know that the Blue Jays have some level of interest in Greinke, as Jon Morosi of FoxSports.com reported two weeks ago that he was among the free agents they were showing interest in.

Whether or not the Jays really want him probably isn't much of a debate. Every team would love to have a pitcher of Greinke's caliber, as he's an ace-level pitcher who is coming off a year that saw him post a solid 3.48 ERA over 212.1 innings with the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Angels.

Whether or not the Jays can acquire Greinke is another matter entirely.

According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Blue Jays already have $98 million in salaries committed for the 2013 season. That's including all the contracts they're taking on from the Marlins and not including Melky's new deal. Assuming he'll make $8 million in 2013, that means the Jays now have over $100 million committed for 2013.

To put this in perspective, Toronto's Opening Day payroll in 2012 was just over $83 million. The year before that, it was barely over $70 million. Dating back to 2000, the Jays haven't seen their payroll climb over $98 million.

So the Jays are already in unfamiliar territory regarding their payroll. It doesn't strike me as the best time for them to sign Greinke to the six-year, $150 million deal that John Perrotto of Baseball Prospectus says he's seeking.

However, it is possible that the Jays could get away with such a deal. As Mike Ozanian of Forbes was quick to note, the Jays are owned by a company in Rogers Communications that boosts profits with a variety of sports channels and through its ownership of the Toronto Raptors and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Its strategies are working very well these days, and the Blue Jays stand to benefit.

Plus, the Blue Jays will also soon get a little extra cash in their pockets thanks to the new national TV deals that MLB recently signed with ESPN and with FOX and Turner Sports. A ton of extra TV money is about to be pumped not just into Toronto, but into every baseball city.

So let's go ahead and imagine that the Blue Jays have another $25 million per year tucked away just in case they want to spend it on an elite player. Somebody like Greinke would certainly suffice, and now seems like as good a time as ever for the Jays to go for him.

What would adding Greinke mean for them?

Well, first of all, there is no doubt that the Jays would be getting an ace starting pitcher. Greinke is as good as his billing.

Over the last four seasons, Greinke is 57-33 with a 3.37 ERA and a 4.02 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Per FanGraphs, only nine pitchers have won more games over the last four seasons. Only five pitchers have a better K/BB ratio. Greinke has a better ERA over the last four seasons than the likes of Tim Lincecum, Mat Latos and Gio Gonzalez. 

The advanced stats speak even more highly of Greinke. While his ERA has seen some fluctuation over the last four seasons, his FIP and xFIP have remained in the 2.00-3.00 range. He actually has the same FIP over the last four seasons as Justin Verlander and Roy Halladay, and only Halladay and Cliff Lee have him beat in terms of xFIP.

If you're worried that these stats may be skewed by Greinke's brilliant 2009 season, in which he won the Cy Young after going 16-8 with a 2.16 ERA, fear not. Over the last two seasons, Greinke ranks sixth among all pitchers in FIP and second behind Lee in xFIP.

So even on a staff that now features Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow and the once-great Ricky Romero, Greinke would be the ace of Toronto's rotation. He's that good.

As for how the rest of the rotation would line up, my guess is that Buehrle would be slotted behind Greinke due to his experience and his left-handedness. There are better pitchers than Buehrle, but you have to respect any man who can pitch over 200 innings in 12 straight seasons all while maintaining an ERA in the 3.00s. This past season, he posted a 3.74 ERA and a 3.13 K/BB (his highest since 2004).

Johnson would come next, and he's a lot like Greinke in that his traditional stats don't really do him justice. Though his ERA was over a full run higher, Johnson had the exact same FIP as Matt Cain in 2012, and his 2.94 FIP over the last four seasons is virtually equal to Greinke's 2.93 FIP over the last four seasons.

Morrow would be fourth in this rotation, which strikes me as a ridiculous concept because of how good his stuff is. Though he was injured much of the year, he showed Cy Young potential in 2012 with a 2.96 ERA and a much-improved 2.96 BB/9. Three of his first 12 starts were complete-game shutouts, and we're of course talking about the same guy who struck out 17 in a one-hitter a couple years ago.

Then there's Romero. He was one of the worst pitchers in baseball in 2012, going 9-14 with a 5.77 ERA and a league-high 105 walks. Opponents had an .820 OPS against him.

But there's reason to hope where Romero is concerned. It could be that the elbow procedure he had in late October had been needed for a long time, and the fact is that he's too young to be over the hill just yet. If he bounces back in 2013, he could be much more like the pitcher he was in the first three years of his career, in which he went 42-29 with a 3.60 ERA.

Even if he were to give the Jays a mediocre ERA in the 4.00s, they'd have little reason to complain seeing as how Romero would be their No. 5 starter.

Greinke. Buehrle. Johnson. Morrow. Romero.

That's a very, very good starting rotation. It would surely be one of the best in baseball, not to mention among the very best in the AL East.

No, it wouldn't be the best in the AL East. That honor will belong to the Tampa Bay Rays by default if they retain the key members of their rotation. David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and others combined to post a league-best 3.34 ERA and a 3.66 FIP (per FanGraphs) that ranked fifth, and they're controlled by a pitching coach in Jim Hickey who doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves. 

But if we're talking about a competition between the Jays and the Rays, we obviously can't overlook the one huge advantage the Jays would have: offense.

As Jays fans will recall, Toronto's offense was a scary unit when everyone was healthy in 2012. Before the All-Star break, the Jays ranked third in the American League in runs scored and second in home runs. They were right there with the New York Yankees and the Texas Rangers in terms of offensive production.

Key members who will be returning in 2013 include all the power guys, namely Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie (though he has some power to rediscover in 2013). Joining this offense will be two speedsters in Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio, a catcher with 20-homer power in John Buck and a solid switch-hitter in Melky Cabrera.

On paper, that's an elite offense that has a little bit for everyone. The Jays would have more than enough thump to play the long-ball game, and having Reyes and Bonifacio to put in motion is a wrinkle that the Jays didn't really have in 2013. Cabrera won't hit .346 again so long as he's clean, but it wouldn't be much of a shock if he came close to his 2011 production (.809 OPS with the Kansas City Royals).

As things stand right now, the Jays have far more talent on offense than the Rays do. They also have an edge over the Yankees, whose offense currently features one too many aging superstars and holes in right field and at catcher. The Baltimore Orioles have some good hitters, but their lineup lacks the depth that Toronto's has. The Boston Red Sox are in pieces and not a threat to the Jays for the moment.

As far as how the Yankees, Orioles and Red Sox would stack up against the Jays in terms of pitching, there's no doubt that the Jays would blow all three of them out of the water if they do end up signing Greinke. Even at the moment, the Jays' collection of Buehrle, Johnson, Morrow and Romero is better than what the Yankees, Orioles and Red Sox are working with.

So basically, if the Jays do sign Greinke, the only real match for them within the division would be the Rays. And that would only be half of a good match, as the Rays would be able to combat the Jays on the mound, but not so much at the plate.

Thus, let's return to that big question: The AL East may not be Toronto's to lose now, but would if be if it signed Greinke?

Absolutely. No doubt about it. The Jays already look like the strongest team in the division on paper. If they add Greinke, they'll look that much stronger.

This is where you point out that the Blue Jays don't even have a manager yet, and that the most talented teams on paper don't always end up being the best teams on the field.

Maybe so, but I think you can look to the Washington Nationals as an example for what an abundance of talent can do for you. They weren't brilliantly managed in 2012, either by Davey Johnson or by GM Mike Rizzo, but they had more than enough talent to make up for it. Their pitching could hang with anybody, and their lineup became very formidable once everyone finally got healthy in the second half of the season.

I'll always feel comfortable betting on talented teams to come out in the end, even if the indication is that the established order of things will be upset. 

And if the Jays do find a way to squeeze Greinke onto their payroll, I'd feel very comfortable betting/counting/whatever on them to win the AL East in 2013.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Salary figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.


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