The Blue Jays opened up the 2015 season in fine form Monday, beating New York 6-1- on ESPN TV across the States, no less! The win and national exposure in itself is enough to make any Toronto fan cheer, but there were several other reasons to like the game. Kevin Pillar started in left, got two hits and stole a base to boot. Young Devon Travis had a day he’ll long remember, making his first big league appearance in front of 48 459 Bronx fans and greeting them with his MLB first home run. Jose Bautista looked uncharacteristically impatient at the plate but made up for it snagging at least 8 fly balls in right, including a sure home run he took away from the Pinstripers at the wall. Drew Hutchison, a surprise pick to be the season opener was lauded by ESPN staff who opined that by last September he was pitching as well as anyone in the league. He didn’t disappoint, going six innings and allowing just three hits and one run.
The things that I liked about all that, beyond the final score, was that although it was only one game, it alleviated some concerns about the ’15 squad. Devon Travis wasn’t overly challenged but was competent handling the ball at second and showed he could certainly hit at the major league level- perhaps with more power than we expected! Pillar looked very perky and energetic, something that hasn’t always been the case with him and apparently joined the rookie hitters in getting together with Russell Martin to look over Yankees pitching videos and get advice on how to hit them. Seemed to work, and showed right off the mark that Martin should make the expected valued contribution in the clubhouse. As for Hutchison, his performance was only memorable in terms of the final line. That’s a good thing. He didn’t exactly blow the doors off the Bronx Bombers, nor did he have any highlight reel “out” pitches, but he kept the Yankees off balance and confused through five innings, just like a star starter should. Perhaps 93 pitches was a little much for him on opening day, because in the 6th he gave up the solo homer to Brett Gardner and came precariously close to giving up a couple more with balls left up high in the strike zone that got hit hard, but all things considered it was a praise-worthy performance. He controlled the jitters of pitching a big game on national TV and was sparkling through maybe 80 pitches. Next game we can hope he can go those 93 pitches without faltering at the end and can be on his way to becoming the type of front-line pitcher he showed glimpses of being last year.
On the flipside, though A-Rod (I grudgingly admit) looked OK, the Yanks on the whole looked rather old and tired. Chase Headley handled a ground ball magnificently in the first but later botched an easy grounder trying to back hand it and then was charged with a throwing error. Masahiro Tanaka apparently isn’t fully recovered from his elbow ligament injury and was to quote some Jays hitters, “very hittable.” His velocity is down- which isn’t always a bad thing with pitchers- and he had little control over placing pitches in the strike zone – which is always a bad thing. An achy “ace” with control problems usually means a loooong season ahead for his team.
As a result, i actually feel more optimistic about Toronto’s chances and revise my predicted win total for them up to 84- good for second place in the division … but still likely a game or three short of the post-season alas.
Speaking of predictions, let’s take a glance at the National League and see who the Jays might end up playing in October should the Baseball Gods shine on Toronto.
NL EAST: You can take a hundred fans and baseball insiders and get 100 different guesses as to the year’s outcome. In every category but one – the NL East. I’ve yet to see anyone, online or in print publications suggest anyone other than Washington will win the division. Las VEgas has them at 4:1 to win the World Series, far and away the lowest odds for any team. Not much of a wonder; they are a good team in a bad division. And playing lots of their sched against the likes of the Phillies not to mention redoubtables like the Rays and Yankees in inter-league games, should help them pile up the wins and ensure home advantage in the NL playoffs. Hard to argue with the logic, or with a rotation featuring Max Scherzer, Steven Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. Give them 95 wins and first place. Miami are far from the disaster/ joke they seemed only a couple of years back. Giancarlo Stanton is as good as any power hitter in the game, Henderson Alvarez looks like he would have been the opening day starter for Toronto had the Jays held onto him, and all things considered they should be second, with 88 wins. It’s all downhill from there. I don’t think the Mets are all that, despite some who pick them as a “dark horse” or this year’s KC, put New York at 81 wins and third, ahead of the shell of what used to be the Atlanta Braves; with no top-flight starters there wasn’t much need to keep the National’s best closer , Craig kimbrel, around ; 73 wins, fourth. Then there’s Philadelphia, a cautionary tale if ever there was one. The one time powerhouse overspent on long contracts for their core players who are now largely over-the-hill and untradeable unless the P’s eat most of their salary. Worse, their farm system isn’t laden with great prospects to take over if they did. Cole Hamels is the one all-star veteran they still have that is of major value to other teams and expect him to be gone by mid-season. where he ends up might significantly influence the final standings. 66 wins, last place.
NL Central: Sporting News picked the Cubs to win it all this year- which is why I didn’t bother spending on their magazine! St. Louis had a terrible off season in terms of the untimely death of their #1 prospect, Oscar Taveras. But Jason Heyward, acquired days later will be a more than adequate replacement in right, Yadier Molina’s apparently looking a bit healthier than last year, Adam Wainwright is still as durable as any pitcher and nearly as good …91 wins, first place. Pittsburgh have an under-rated gem in hometown second baseman Neil Walker and a well-known one in Andrew McCutchen, decent pitching including an apparently happy AJ Burnett (an oxymoron if ever there was one to Toronto fans), 83 wins, second. Cincinnati is just a wee bit like Toronto – a lot of unknowns. Unlike the jays, many of the questions involve veterans who are coming off sub-par or injury-marred seasons. If Joey Votto can regain his 2012 form, Jay Bruce is healthy and Brandon Phillips is not sulking, the team can score a lot of runs and has a trio of good starters. But if Votto and Bruce continue to decline or hurt, expect the staff ace, Johnny Cueto to move along elsewhere. I’ll pick the middle ground and say 79 wins, third place but a good kick-off to the season might let them approach a wild-card spot, a terrible beginning or a rash of injuries and they’re in the basement. Chicago have the best young player in the game – Kris Bryant – and demoted him to the minors to save money years down the road. No wonder the Billy Goat curses them- and likely so does Bill Murray and every other fan named Bill or Tom or Dick or Harry. Yes, he’ll be up in the majors by summer, yes Jon Lester is good. But one pitcher doesn’t make a rotation, 120 games of Bryant won’t help the club as much as 162 games of him and then there’s Starlin Castro – their talented shortstop. Yes, he’s capable of being as good as anyone at the position, but as one scout told Sports Illustrated “at times he plays out of control.” The fact that he was cleared of being the shooter in two different bar shootings he was in the midst of in December raise more questions about his character than they clear up. 75 wins, fourth. Milwaukee aren’t terrible, but aren’t all that special. Post-PED Ryan Braun looks a bit better than last year but only a shadow of his former, MVP-award self; they traded away two of their top starting pitchers but failed in attempts to replace them with James Shields or any other notable free agents, they’re relying on Adam Lind to not only hold down first base but hit lefties as well as right-handed pitching. And Aramis Ramirez has said he’s counting the days to his retirement. It will be 31 days earlier than if he was on a better team, 72 wins, fifth.
NL West: The Dodgers set a new record for payroll, some $270 million this year. they’re paying almost as much to players to not play for them ($44M) as Tampa pay their whole team to play. LA have some overly-moody stars (eg, Yasiel Puig), some well-past their prime stars (eg, Carl Crawford), some not quite there yet stars (eg, rookie Joc Pederson). But stars they have, and it’s hard to go against a team with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. One little note on the latter- in one spring training game this year, Greinke got in his assigned 4 innings and was pulled – then went down to the bullpen to pitch some more and build his strength. That’s what you want in your premiere players. 93 wins, first place. No team did more to throw off their losing ways in the off-season than San Diego. Bringing in James Shields to add to a low-profile but highly-talented starting rotation; adding three all star calibre outfielders in one week , and as icing on the cake, trading for the best reliever in the league this month. A much improved team, but not quite at the top yet – 88 wins, second place. Nothing succeeds like success, so it’s hard to argue against San Francisco, the reigning World Champions. They have a lot of moxie. But they also have Hunter Pence on the shelf for a good chunk of the year, an aging Tim Lincecum they don’t know what to do with and an injured Matt Cain. MadBum can’t pitch every game- can he?? 82 wins, third place. Arizona hope the recent streak of success with imported Cuban players continues, they invested heavily on newcomer Yosmany Tomas, who if he lives upto the hype will be something of a lower-case Mike Schmidt. Paul Goldscmidt is the real star here on a team that individually isn’t terrible. Collectively though, little to be excited about. 71 wins, fourth. Which leaves us with Colorado. They have two of the game’s best, in Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. Unfortunately, they also tend to be two of the most-oft injured players. If the duo is healthy- well, it’s still a lacklustre team, but it could catch Arizona. then again, if they’re healthy the Rockies might do well to trade them off for max value and plan ahead for 2018, 2019…67 wins, last place.
Up next- a look ahead to the post-season…