jays so far– an ace but still a work in progress

 

Two weeks in, baseball’s being what it always is for us fans- quixotic. On the one hand, we had Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee churn out back to back complete game wins for the Phils this week, Texas are leading a weak AL West division, Miguel Cabrera and Alex Rodriguez are coming through with big hits for their teams. In other words, predictable.

But then, there is Boston off to a league worst 2-10 start, thanks in no small part to the apparent strange sense of amnesia suffered by Carl Crawford and Kevin Youkilis,which has effected the part of the brain dealing with how to hit and the determined efforts by Clay Bucholz and jon Lester to prove me right when I said they aren’t Cy Young caliber pitchers. You have Cleveland off to a flying start and Bartolo Colon looking like he actually belongs on a pitcher’s mound, even after you rub your eyes and check the newspaper to assure yourself it isn’t 2003 again. The sort of unexpected quirks that make the game ever-interesting and always a threat to the livelihood of Vegas bookies.

Here in Canada, the book on this year’s edition of the Blue Jays is being written… but the mystery  is chapters away from being solved. At 7-6, all in all we have to be reasonably happy and confident… at 4 and a half games up on the Bosox we should be delirious. Good signs abound. Yet, there remain nagging doubts about this team which won’t go away.

One of my main concerns about the jays going into this season was whether JP Arencibia was anything close to being a major-league ready catcher. My worries have been assuaged. Despite having a lousy spring training, he’s holding his own at the plate (.286, .988 OPS) and more importantly, hasn’t looked out of place behind the plate. He’s no johnny Bench, but he’s been calling decent games, blocking balls in the dirt fairly reliably and made a nice block of the plate to cut down a run in Seattle. He’s still a work in progress, but he looks capable of becoming the player the Jays thought he’d be.

Likewise, Adam Lind looks comfortable at first base. He might not have quite the range or reflexes of departed Lyle Overbay, but he’s not embarassed himself out there at all and can probably more than over-compensate for the slight defensive loss with the improved hitting that the Jays should get from him over Lyle. So far, the jury’s out on that one – Lind seems to be a bit more confident than last year but still is hitting for a bit of a low average and striking out a bit too much. The other guy who almost always gets mentioned in the same breath as Lind, Aaron Hill has been spectacular with the glove and has helped save a good few runs already by turning impossible double plays (no surprise to me– through 2009 he looked to me to be the most consistent fielding second baseman in the league), and he’s had some good swings at the plate but somehow is still lugging a measly .216 average with him and so far hasn’t even negated that with some long bombs. He’s got to get a few line drive doubles in soon to keep his confidence and his place on the field.

Yunel Escobar has been a revelation at short, not only matching the (rightly) sainted John McDonald for “d” but leading the AL in hitting so far, with a .417 avg. and his one home run being a walk off winner. To his left, Edwin Encarnacion is nobody’s third baseman… so it’s a good thing the Jays managed to pick up little-known Jayson Nix on opening day eve . Nix has shown a strong, accurate throwing arm, decent range and a surprising ability to hit that no one in cleveland would have ever guessed existed.

In the outfield, Rajai Davis seems an adequate, but different replacement for Vernon wells, and since he’s now on the DL, seems like he might have to battle Corey Patterson for the fulltime job when he comes back. Patterson has been tremendous in the field and hitting in the five games since coming off the disabled list. To make things more interesting, Scott Posednik is now playing in the minors after a foot injury kept him out of most of spring training. All of which should make Travis Snider very very nervous. Snider, the Canadian media’s golden boy, has never fully won me over, his decent home run to games played ratio last year notwithstanding. So far this season, he’s given us fewer hits than Travis from WKRP in Cincinnati , and has been a Jeckyl and Hyde outfielder. Some days he’s getting to balls quickly and throwing cleanly to cut off men or gun down runners; other nights he’s looking dazed and confused and throwing like a girl. A girl who doesn’t play softball too, so as not to insult females in general. Or else is just barreling into his shortstop and messing up an easy play on a pop up. Even the Toronto Sun’s Mike Rutsey was questioning “how long can they stick with young left fielder Travis snider, who continues to struggle to find his footing?” and warned Alex Anthopolous, who remains publically bullish about him, that “falling in love ” with the team’s young players is the worst mistake a GM might make. My hope is that they can package Snider , together with recently designated for assignment David Purcey to some struggling team building for the future and pick up either a hard-working veteran OF, or a solid AAA prospect and promote Posednik (if healthy enough) or young Eric Thames who looked better than Snider in spring.

The one surprisingly encouraging factor in the jays offense has been that, true to their pre-season promise, they’re running the bases like roadrunners. Sixteen stolen bases used to be a good half season’s total for a typical Toronto squad, not a baker’s dozen games. The change in attitude has made the team more enjoyable to watch, more distracting to opposition pitchers and most importantly, more capable of scoring runs.

Pitching was supposed to be a strength for the jays this season and while they certainly exhibit depth, they have yet to really show that translating into a major positive. Ricky Romero (1-1, 1.66, 21+ innings over 3 starts) has pitched like a real number one guy, Kyle Drabek shows great poise and some real talent to blow away the opposition which leads one to hope that we didn’t get fleeced that badly by the Phils in the Halladay trade, but neither he nor any of the other starters used (besides RR) have been able to follow Bruce Walton’s advice, and throw strikes, keeping the ball down in the zone. (The others have in their collective first ten starts managed 56 innings with 26 walks.) Result: too many inflated pitch counts, too many trips to the showers by the fifth inning, even if there’s a “0” on the scoreboard for whomever they’re facing. Any team carrying more pitchers than position players, any team needing eight guys in the bullpen, is doing something wrong. Is it Bruce Walton not being able to get his message across to young pitchers? Is it John Farrell being too trigger-happy and unwilling to let relievers go more than a batter or two at a time? Is it simply expectations for the talent level of Mr’s Litsch, Reyes, Cecil, plus Dotel, Frasor and most of their busload of pen buddies wildly exceed their real talent levels? Questions the Jays need answering, and sooner than later. My guess is its a little of all three. Last night’s save by Jon Rauch was amazing to watch though, and hopefully a clinic for other Toronto relievers– he went at the batters, worked quickly and got the jays to the clubhouse in efficient and winning manner. It was one of the most pleasing things we’ve had to watch thus far in ’11, after so many nail-biting, clock-dragging innings of full counts and walking the bases loaded we’ve come to expect from this over-manned and underconfidant bullpen.

Quick assessment: so far so good. Yes, Toronto doesn’t look poised to be in the World Series. But few people expected that of them anyway. What they do seem poised to do is stay competitive, not fall to the bottom like so many pundits imagined they’d do and give the fanbase some reason for optimism for once.

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