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Photo Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Dee Gordon, Devon Travis, and the Immediate Future of Second Base

Here’s a tweet I received after some of my recent talk about Devon Travis and what I keep twisting to frame as his “mere” two injuries as a Blue Jay — the unfused bones in his shoulder from birth, and a simple knee injury that… y’know… has been ongoing for over a year.

Fair point. (The former, not the latter.)

Whether or not I would make an optimistic bet on Travis’s health history, I suppose, is one thing. Whether or not the Jays would is another, and… uh… you maybe get the sense that they are indeed a bit worried.

From Jonah Keri’s sit-down with Ross Atkins for the Athletic:

Behind Atkins, a white board displayed lists of five prospects/young major leaguers for each team, the kinds of players a rebuilding club would try to acquire if it decides to trade away its stars. To my right sat another showing a passel of veteran players who’d be well suited for the Jays’ needs — including plenty of second basemen for a team that may have lost its starter for the year and now has to get by with Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney at the deuce.

Just as an aside, it would be somewhat hilarious if the Jays’ posturing about 2018 was all a ruse — to the point that they put a bunch of win-now player names on white boards for when Jonah came to visit. I somehow doubt it, though. Especially since this sits well with the speculation about the Jays’ interest in the Marlins’ Dee Gordon, which we’d heard last week in a piece from Jon Heyman.

Heyman addressed the report in his Friday AL Notes column for Fan Rag as well:

The Jays’ real worries about second baseman Devon Travis’ injury is certainly what led them to mention Dee Gordon in talks with the Marlins, as FanRag Sports first reported. However, the likelihood of a deal remains low since the Jays would want the Marlins to pay much of the $40 million or so remaining on Gordon’s deal, something the Marlins ordinarily don’t do to facilitate trades.

I’ll admit that I didn’t really take the Gordon possibility very seriously at the time — which… I guess I made clear by not writing anything about it until now. I think that, as Heyman points out, the contract situation is probably a reason not to. But Bob Nightengale is now saying it, too. So… uh… I don’t know… let’s maybe think about this.

Thing is, though, that as excited as people got about the possibility, Dee Gordon is actually kinda bad.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I like the 1.5 WAR and the upgrade on the utter dogshit the position has been for the Jays in Travis’s absence. I like the speed and the steals. I like the .337 on-base well enough. I like the defence. I like the potential for versatility — like the fact that he could probably quite seamlessly shift to left field, if you really wanted him to (he did so in the Dominican Winter League after the 2013 season, when he was with the Dodgers — and blocked at short by Hanley Ramirez LOL — and it was said at the time that there were those in the organization who preferred him in the outfield anyway. Though, perhaps it would be Travis who would ultimately be shifted to the outfield — something he’d started to do in Detroit before he was acquired by the Jays, blocked as he was at the time by Ian Kinsler.)

But a punchless bat is… uh… perhaps not a thing that this team needs to go and lock in for another three years at least, and certainly not to the tune of $40 million. And Gordon’s bat indeed is punchless: his wRC+ this season is 85, and last year it was just 72. He recoups a bunch of value on the bases, especially in a year like this one where his OBP isn’t awful, but still, those marks are both south of Kevin Pillar.

And speaking of that contract, it was signed in January of 2016, a couple months before Gordon was hit with an 80 game suspension for using the PED Clostebol, described in a good New York Daily News piece on the matter as a “weakened version of testosterone.”

It’s dodgy to draw a line between that spring’s positive test and Gordon’s previous season’s performance — especially with in-season testing also being done — but it’s hard not to notice what an outlier 2015 is starting to look like for him. His 114 wRC+ was a career high (his next best seasons produced marks of 102 and 94). His .418 slugging percentage was his highest mark at any level since rookie ball and his only mark above .400 as a big leaguer. He won the NL batting title, which is a real feather in his cap when it comes to arbitration, and so the Marlins opted to go the extension route.

If he looked like that guy still, oh my god, he’d be worth it. But he hasn’t.

Could the gamble work for the Jays? I think at the right price, perhaps. One could argue that the suspension may have disrupted his 2016 season and caused the downturn, or that he’s had the death of his friend and teammate José Fernandez hanging over him this year, and that there are underlying trends in his 2015 that don’t add up to the far-too-easy vision of PEDs turning him into one of the league’s better hitters. For example, his hard contact rate has been much higher in the last two seasons than it was in 2015, per the less-than-authoritative interpretations on his page at FanGraphs. But if we’re going there, Statcast doesn’t paint a pretty picture of his exit velocity, nor did Tony Blengino’s 2016 hitter contact quality report on NL second basemen, which ranked Gordon last in his cohort, with a contact-quality-adjusted wRC+ of 62.

About him, Blengino wrote: “Gordon’s overall, fly-ball and liner authority levels are over two full STD below average. His 2016 decline, early-season suspension notwithstanding, was a very easy one to call. His wRC+ exceeds his projected production because of his speed; he batted .298 AVG-.351 SLG (156 Unadjusted Contact Score, adjusted down to 62 for context) on the ground. Still, with Adjusted Contact Scores of 28 in the air and 73 on a line, it’s tough to survive, let alone thrive, over the long haul. I’m not buying a big bounce back.”

If the Jays are believers in the kind of work Blengino has been doing — and over the winter, given the way guys like Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce graded out, I tended to start believing that they are — it would be hard to see them having all that much interest in Gordon, unless they really believe in his speed, or really believe that his skillset is something that would help their team.

Are they serious about Gordon? Or were they last week, at least? While the white boards in Atkins’ office may say yes, this sort of thing almost makes one wonder:

While one’s first instinct might be to think this a bit odd, given that the Jays could certainly use a guy like Lowrie — a not-great defender at second (especially in the last two seasons, per the metrics), but a guy with a 115 wRC+ this year, a 101 mark for his career, and has a $6 million club option for next season — it’s also possible that the Jays are looking elsewhere, or have Lowrie in mind but haven’t quite moved in that direction yet, or that he’s come up as part of larger conversations though not as someone they’ve specifically called on. Or, yes, it’s possible Gammons is wrong, or is being fed this information to help kickstart a market for the player.

The other thing is, the second base market isn’t exactly shallow, as Paul Swydan explains in an excellent and uplifting piece for FanGraphs about why there’s still hope for these Blue Jays in 2017:

There could be other keystone players on the market. It’s not hard to see the Padres trading Yangervis Solarte or the Phillies dealing Howie Kendrick. Perhaps if Neil Walker can get back on the field the Mets will deal him. There will be options. When your current players are literally replacement-level players, then most anyone represents an upgrade. The Blue Jays can upgrade, in other words, without breaking into the vault.

Walker is a rental, and the Jays have been fairly clear they’re not interested in adding those types. But he’s a name I’ve seen floated in their direction before, and — shit! — the Mets have a couple other rentals that could help the Jays right now, too: outfielders Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson. I don’t think a great prospect would be required for any team willing to pick up a whole bunch of what remains on Walker’s $17.2 million salary and Granderson’s $15 million. But I also don’t think the Jays would be willing to bet quite that hard on 2017 — especially not without a few more signs of life. Which… maybe is why they’re waiting to make that call on Lowrie, too.

Kendrick is also a rental, so I don’t want to get too pipe-dreamy about his 133 wRC+ this season, but I’d kinda love to see it. And Never Nervous Yangervis? He’s played a little bit of left field in the big leagues, and a little more in the minors, and makes just $4 million next year, with a couple of cheap club options after that. He’d be the option that actually costs you something from your farm system — maybe something verging on a lot — but with a 109 career wRC+, worth three wins last year, 1.1 WAR so far this year, and 1.6 in each of 2014 and 2015, he’d be a great guy to target and could still certainly fit next year, even as a moderately well-paid backup.

I’m down with that, for the right price. I’m down with just about anything that will remove the Goins-Barney black hole from my TV screen on a nightly basis!

Just… y’know… maybe not if it’s Gordon.

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