Friday, December 25, 2015

John Jaso: Catching On At First Base

John Jaso, a 32 year old California native, was drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays out of Southwestern College in the 12th round (338th overall) of the 2003 draft.

His bat played well in the minors, and his .263/.361/.406 farm slash earned him spots on various MiLB all-star teams from 2004-07. After the 2007 season, Tampa Bay added him to the 40 man roster, called him up for a September audition the following campaign and by 2010, he was pretty much a regular for the Rays. The catcher was beginning to build his resume and some travel miles.

John Jaso (photo Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Times)
In 2011, he was traded to the Seattle Mariners during the winter and got a little payback when he caught Félix Hernández's perfect game against Tampa Bay. Just before 2013 camp, Jaso was shipped to the Oakland Athletics in a three-team swap that among other flips sent his current Bucco teammate and apparent platoon partner Michael Morse to the Mariners.

Two years later, Jaso was traded back to his first club, the Tampa Bay Rays, with Daniel Robertson and Boog Powell in exchange for Yunel Escobar and Ben Zobrist. He was a different player; a series of foul tips in 2013 sent him to UPMC to be treated for a serious concussion. He came back the following year, and 56 games later, another foul tip triggered the syndrome all over again. Jaso became a DH with a little outfield work tossed in for the Rays. In 2015, he landed on the 60 day DL again, this time due to a left wrist contusion after an awkward slide into second base. Still, he put up a line of .286/.380/.459 in 216 PAs.

It was also his walk year, and Jaso strolled north to Pittsburgh to sign a two-year/$8M contract with the Pirates as the LH half of their first base platoon. It's a leap of faith for the Bucs; Jaso has five MLB innings at the position, with a whopping 15 more frames in the minors. It is, tho, a position that many catchers have adopted. Some notables include Joe Torre and Joe Mauer; heck, Craig Biggio and Neil Walker even transitioned to second base. At any rate, it's not as if Pedro left him a very high defensive bar to vault.

But Jaso wasn’t brought aboard for his glove. He brings a disciplined and productive (tho not very powerful) platoon bat to the lineup. Platoon is the key word; 197 of his 216 appearances last year were against righties, with little wonder. He slashes .274/.368/.429 against RHP in his career (Pedro's line was .246/.320/.473), opposed to just .178/.309/.232 versus southpaws, even more dreadful than El Toro's efforts.

JJ doesn't run poorly for a big galoot (tho with 15 career steals, he's not a go-go guy), will work the count and has a nice OBP. He should slot into the two hole, allowing Gregory Polanco a couple of extra pitches to eyeball with when he's aboard and Starling Marte to bat somewhere in the middle of the order.

That addresses an imbalance in the lineup, too -  Jaso will be the only lefty beside Gregory Polanco in the order against righties, and the Bucs faced RH starters in 126 games last year (78%); rotations in the NL Central are loaded with portsiders. That's what made Jason Rogers' reverse split so attractive and why lefty OF'er Danny Ortiz will get a longish look at camp despite all the young, but RH'ed, Bucco MiLB outfielders.

Jaso can also be spotted in the corner outfield, a position that he was beginning to transition to last year. JJ added that he'd be glad to don the gear as a third catcher, but given his concussion history, we can only hope that situation never rears its head.

So if he can play passable defense, Jaso looks like a nice signing. It's just a two year commitment with a friendly payroll hit and without the added ouch of losing a young 'un via trade. It gives the Bucs their 2016 platoon at first without any major blocks in place for Josh Bell and provides a late inning bench bat when he doesn't start with a little bit of flexibility for mad scientist Clint.

The final benefit of the signing is that it puts the current Pirate 25 man payroll at a guesstimated $94M, counting the usual fuzzy estimates for the arb and pre-arb salaries ($63M committed, $25M arb per Mark Schwartz's MLBTradeRumor projections, $6M pre-arb/bonus). That allows the Pirate to keep Mark the Shark unless there's a blow-me-away baseball deal to be made. His $10M projection fits the budget with enough in the kitty for a LH reliever and another reclamation/depth piece or two of the puzzle.

The Pirate FO was in a box this year as the team is in the midst of a transition, trying to stay competitive without blocking Bell, Alen Hanson, Tyler Glasnow, Jamison Taillon, and their posse of young outfielders. Come April 3rd, we'll find out if Jon Neise, John Jaso, Mike Morse and company are enough to weather the transformation without The Kid, Pedro, AJ, JA, Charlie & the gang in 2016. 

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