Well, as I sit here in Texas there are icicles hanging off the eaves and back at my Dad’s place in Ontario, he tells me it’s -22. That’s Celsius, but really, when it gets to -22 in any measurement, it’s just damn cold!
Nothing, therefore, can put a cheery glow on the day better than the fact that the Blue Jays Spring Training kicked off today and now we’re less than two weeks away from baseball (albeit in exhibition games) once more. And once again in spring, hope springs eternal. Baseball fans continent-wide are excited about their teams’ prospects; from Dallas to Kansas City to Minneapolis and points beyond, last season’s injuries, underperforming players and October disappointments seem worlds away. This is going to be the year! That sentiment rings loud even in such unlikely locales as Wrigley Field, where the last time this was the year was over a hundred years back.
Toronto fans are no different really; each spring we look forward to a great season and wearing our caps proudly in October as we did a couple of decades back. Like most years, if we look hard enough, we’re bound to find some sort of respectable sports publication picking the Jays to win the division. The problem is most years, April rolls around and by May we’re reduced to “maybe next year.” Last year was a bit different; the Jays were very good and actually led the division til almost mid-season when injuries to Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Lawrie and a suddenly ineffective bullpen relegated the team to merely playing to stay at .500 and out of the basement. So we look forward to 2015.
The good news for Toronto is that the division is once again winnable. The AL East for years on end was the best in baseball and it was legitimately difficult for Toronto to compete with the free-spending Yanks and Red Sox. Those years are gone though; the fan-deficient Rays seem to have thrown in the towel officially; the Yankees are a team which look like the 2009 All-Star Team…not a winning formula in 2015; the Orioles are hoping lightning will strike twice and they can compete with what on paper looks like a paper-thin pitching staff (and without last year’s home run champion to boot); and the Red Sox look better than last year, but were in last place in 2014, so have to be a whole lot better to have a chance.
There are good signs for the Jays and us fans. They did add some good parts in the off-season. The one thing they didn’t seem to acquire was any sort of plan as to how to win. You look at most teams and you can see what their plan is. Sometimes, like in San Diego, it’s ‘damn the torpedoes- full speed ahead”. The Padres decided they’d been doormats long enough and seemingly over the course of one weekend acquired an all All-star outfield and a superb catcher; weeks later they brought in the third best pitcher on the market to supplement an already above-average starting rotation. The Padres want to win, and want to win now.
Other teams have plans less pleasing to their fanbase, but plans nonetheless. The Rays let their popular and successful manager Joe Maddon walk away then traded away the 2013 Rookie of the Year; clearly they don’t plan on winning any time soon but think they can rebuild with minor leaguers and draft picks to become competitive again somewhere down the road. Likewise, the Yankees who last year lost their title as the biggest-spending team to the Dodgers, plan to distance themselves as much as they can from the big-money, big-name era and are coming to embrace a new version of “Moneyball”. True, they’re still saddled with some huge contracts for players who seem more like anchors than athletes (e.g A-Rod, CC Sabathia) but as spots open up on the roster, the pinstripes have uncharacteristically filled them with either youngsters or run-of-the-mill journeymen players rather than highly paid aging superstars. Exhibit A: Didi Gregorious, the new Derek Jeter!
Which leads us to the Blue Jays. Early in the off-season, it looked like the team was going to be San Diego– the team that went all out to win now. They traded career Blue Jay Adam Lind away; not pleasing to the fans but a trade whose time had come given his apparent conflicts with management, bad back and inability to hit left-handed pitching (granted, against righties he was a hitting machine when healthy.) They made conscious decisions to not mortgage the future on Melky Cabrera and to hold the door open for Colby Rasmus, who would probably try to climb out the window instead unless his father directed him to do otherwise. They brought in Michael Saunders to bolster the outfield, a player who hits with above-average power, fields better than most and at age 28, could be just coming into his prime. Bonus- he’s Canadian.
That was the small potatoes. The meat of the winter was making a big splash in the Free Agent market early on signing Russell Martin to one of the biggest contracts ever given to a catcher; then trading for young phenom and 2014 All-star Josh Donaldson to take over third base. The thinking was that Russell’s hard-nosed attitude would be welcome in the clubhouse and that maybe the fact that the two years he played in Pittsburgh had also been the Pirates only two playoff appearances this century wasn’t a coincidence. (Bonus- he’s Canadian.) Donaldson seemed to match Brett Lawrie’s athleticism at third but provide more pop with the bat and a greater likelihood of staying healthy…whether you love his tats, antics and comments or hate them, Lawrie did little to help the team when on the disabled list and had missed a worrisome 147 games due to injury in the previous two years.
So December rolled around and our spirits were high. We could hardly wait for Alex Anthopoulos to finish the remake of the Blue Jays by addressing their deficiencies of 2014 and for the new season to begin! Only then something odd happened– the team did squat.
Now, the trade for Donaldson and the $82 million signing of Martin seem like good moves for the team. Only, now in context, they seem like putting pinstripes and mag wheels on a car with a leaky head gasket. One has to wonder “where are the pitchers?” and “who’s on second?”… rather like we did one year ago.
Getting an excellent young third baseman to replace a good, but injury-prone one is fine but somehow overlooks the fact that second base has been a black-hole for the team since Anthopoulos traded away Aaron Hill in 2011. Last year it was primarily manned by Ryan Goins (good with the glove but an atrocious .188 hitter with only ten extra base hits all season) and the popular, goofy Munenori Kawasaki who is a little less capable than Goins with the glove and only marginally better than him with the bat. Kawasaki is a quintessential bench player, popular with fans and teammates and capable of providing decent defense for a few innings, but nobody’s Playoff-bound everyday player. Goins is the quintessential baseball academy infield instructor for teenagers. Both are in the running for the job again this year, along with Maicer Izturis. Izturis is a career .268 hitter, but at 34 has lost some of his speed and range and in 2013 was 17th out of 18 in fielding percentage among second baseman with 50 or more games played in the AL. (The one player with a worse percentage was Emilio Bonafacio – of the Blue Jays. Need we say more?) He missed most of last year with a leg injury which can’t bode well for a position reliant on speed and agility. There’s young Devon Travis, who does project to be a good middle infielder down the road, but hasn’t ever played above AA. Pencil him in for 2016, fingers crossed. For good measure, they signed Ramon Santiago to a minor-league deal. Santiago is a year older than Izturis and last year played only 20 games at second. The last time he had 300 at-bats in a season was 2010. He probably still is the best bet for the Jays, a team who recently celebrated Roberto Alomar’s induction into the Hall of Fame, this season. Hmm- World Series years, a Hall of Famer at the peak of his career at second base. Probably a coincidence, right ?
Meanwhile, the Angels jettisoned Howie Kendrick to their cross-town rivals for a mere minor leaguer. Kendrick of course won’t win a Gold Glove nor a batting championship (Jose Altuve will probably do both)… but will be in the top three second basemen in both areas and has a good chance of being an All Star now that he’s in the NL.
As bad as the situation at second is, it seemingly pales next to the pitching staff… which we’ll look at tomorrow.