So-so First Week No Reason To Panic

Let the fun begin! tonight’s much anticipated game between the Jays and Yanks, and the following pair tomorrow and Thursday could tell us a lot about how this season will play out. It’s far too early to think about calling any games “must win”, but a decisive series win sure would be nice and alleviate worries while giving hope that this year’s team will repeat as East champions. Remember that last year the Jays 13-6 record against NY was a primary reason they won the division and the Yankees went home early.

Speaking of early worries, do we Toronto fans need to be concerned by their less than spectacular opening week?

Answer- no, but it’s nothing to cheer about either. Significant concerns have been raised about Russell Martin’s batting, RA Dickey’s pitching and Jose Bautista’s fielding. Here’s my take:

Russell Martin has indeed struggled at the plate so far, hitting only .100 (2 for 20) so far with strikeouts in half his at bats. On the tail of a slow spring training, some naysayers have the sky falling already.

Obviously more offense is better and I”m sure by the All Star break, Martin will be hitting well above .100 (if not, then I’ll be concerned!) But fact is Martin is the oldest regular catcher in the AL and probably will be on a bit of a downslide, career-wise. The good news is that with the stacked lineup Toronto boasts, we don’t need Russell to hit .290 like he did 2 seasons back, or drive in 77 like he did last year to still win games and win lots of games. As long as he hits the Mendoza line and swats the odd one out of the park, we’ll be fine as long as he does his job behind the plate…which thus far he’s done well.

RA Dickey, like other knuckleballers through the ages, is a pretty unpredictable sort. He can be brilliant one night, and batting practise lousy the next time out. So it’s too early to be worked up about two “off” outings. On April 4, he gave up 6 hits including a homer, struck out 3, walked two and allowed 3 ERs, but picked up the win anyway. April 9, against Boston, he managed to whiff 9 and keep the ball in the park but the Sox scored 7, 6 of them earned against him and he got tagged with the “L”. The arguably distressing thing is that he only managed to stay in 5 innings both times. Dickey isn’t likely to win another Cy Young at 41 and in fact only needs to keep the team in the game most of the time to be an asset, now that he’s arguably the #4 starter. However, the one thing the team does need from him is innings. He’s averaged 219 per year over the last 5 and that’s about what is required again this season given the concern over how durable young Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez will be. Someone’s got to give the ‘pen a break and that needs to be Dickey. Seven or more innings from him next time out should put everyone at ease.

Jose Bautista at one point used to be a Gold Glove calibre outfielder. Those days are probably gone for good, given his age (35) and number of aches and pains he’s gone through. He let one bounce off his glove opening day, other balls have bounced over his head this season, and those watching every inning report he’s not a “plus” right-fielder anymore. His deensive “range factor” has declined from 2.1 in ’14 to 1.93 last year (while his number of assists also dropped from 12 to 4) to just 1.57 thus far. So why not worry?

Well, first let’s recall a minor ailment kept Bautista out of spring training for a couple of weeks, so he’s not yet in top form. A lesser player may have been kept back to get another 30 or so AB and some more innings in the field before being activated; the Jays understandably figured a Bautista at about 80% is better than none. he will likely get a bit more comfortable out there in coming weeks as his sort of “extended spring training” comes to an end.

More importantly though is that he’s not losing anything at the plate. His eye is still keen (9 walks already through 7 games making for a .500 on base percentage; balls he makes contact with are still flying well- an average of 242 feet for all balls put in play compared with 219 for the rest of the league. As long as Bautista can hammer 40 homers, be on base 38-40% of the time and stare down opposition pitchers, the team can put up with a few balls bouncing around the corner, much as we’d like them run down. thankfully having Kevin Pillar in center should ease the pressure on JB some.

As Bluebird Banter noted, Bautista might now be better suited to 1b or even DH’ing, but with the logjam of talent the team has there already (Encarnacion/Smoak/Colabello not to mention Jesus Montero, who’s off to a 6-for-14, 5 rbi start in Buffalo) there’d be no advantage shifting him. The opposite of Russ Martin, Bautista is paid to make the team win with the bat, not the glove.

Roster– seems to still need a bit of tweaking, in my opinion. The minor injury to Josh Donaldson last week showcases the problem with the short bench; Darwin Barney is adequate as a third baseman but it left the team with no real options at all should Tulo or Goins get injured or even develop an upset stomach mid-game. Donaldson is pegged as back at third tonight but I’d still like to see middle infielder Dave Adams or Andy Burns up here as backups, even at the expense of a pitcher in the ‘pen. Speaking of which, the sore shoulder and DL’ing of Franklin Morales puts a lot of pressure on Brett Cecil as the only lefty among the eight men in the bullpen. Ambidextrous Pat Venditte is off to a good start in Buffalo and might be of more use to Toronto right now than Arnold Leon, who could maybe benefit from pitching more frequently at AAA.

It’s too early to worry…but fans are going to be watching this week’s series with short fingernails!

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