It’s hard to believe but we’re heading into the homestretch of the very shortened 2020 season. The Jays host the Mets this weekend (in Buffalo of course) and after that series is done, there are a mere two weeks left before it’s a wrap and the hefty post-season sched begins. The good news is that Las Vegas oddsmakers now have Toronto at 90% likely to be a part of those festivities. So will that come true? Can the Blue Jays surprise and make it into the playoffs, perhaps even hold off the mighty Yankees for second place in the AL East? Chances are decent but which half of the glass you look at will make your choice.
There’s lots for the Glass Half Full crowd to like right now. Start with the standings. Sure they change from day to day but the fact is, here we are on Sep. 11 and the Jays are in second place in the division, fifth overall in the AL, trailing the ever-surprising Rays by 4 but two games ahead of the quick-falling Yankees who only three weeks back seemed a lock for one of the top two posts.
Toronto is 24-19 and the story gets better. Because of the problems with immigration due to Covid preventing the team from playing in Toronto, a plan to play in Pittsburgh which fell through and a few issues at Sahlen Field in Buffalo, the Jays have played only 16 home games compared to 27 road ones. While it’s not fair, those issues will result in the team playing an unbalanced schedule with more road games than home ones this season, but still, 11 of their remaining 17 games are home ones, and yes, they’re playing better in Buffalo than on the road, having a .625 winning percentage there.
That’s a plus, so too is the schedule. They won’t face an opponent with a better record than them (currently) for the rest of the year. No more games against Tampa, or Atlanta. The statistically toughest opponent coming up is Philadelphia, currently at 21-18. As expected, Toronto do better against teams at or below .500 (13-8, .618) than teams above .500. One could speculate using purely mathematical terms, that given the opponents and home games left, Toronto could realistically win 36 this year , which would give them a shot at catching Tampa and certainly a strong berth in the playoffs.
Adding to that optimism is the fact that the hitting (which, yes we raked over the coals earlier this year) is starting to come around and what’s more, that seems to be translating to a renewed sense of determination on the field not seen since 2015. In their first ten games this year, the Jays scored a mere 31 runs. In the last ten, they’ve scored 57 (including an awesome 10 in one inning against a stunned New York crew) By now their 212 runs scored is only one behind Tampa for tops in the division and their run differential is a nice +20, due to pretty good pitching. The staff ERA of 3.90 is eighth best in the majors and behind only those pesky Rays among the ten “eastern” squads.
Other pluses are expected returns. Bo Bichette’s shaping up to be possibly the best of the crop of young players to have premiered in the last couple of seasons and Bo could be back in the lineup tonight after missing about a month – which is a huge chunk when dealing with a 60-game sched. In the last four games before he injured his knee, he was 9 for 16 with 7 RBI, and one of those games was a five-hit one. On the season he’s knocking out a .361 average with a .672 slugging percentage and 13 RBI in 14 games. Needless to say, his return would be huge both with the bat and (if his knee allows) in the field where trade deadline acquisition Jonathan Villar has struggled, to put it kindly, unexpectedly.
Likewise, last year’s closer Ken Giles is pitching in simulated games in Rochester and should be back to bolster the bullpen within days.
So that part of the equation is rosy. But let’s not get too arrogant. The Glass Half Empty crowd see other shadows lurking. To begin with, injuries. Granted New York’s season has been nearly derailed by injuries (big boppers Stantion and Judge both out right now, last year’s unexpected hero Gio Urshela having a bad elbow; stud pitchers Luis Severino and now James Paxton out for the year) but again… they’ve been falling hard because of all that. Toronto’s hold on health – and a good playoff spot – seems to be precarious due to that.
Remember just in the last week Teoscar Hernandez went out with a ribcage injury (hopefully back in time for the post-season but not likely before) when he was tied for the league lead in homers at 14. Now lefty Rowdy Tellez, getting hot for the first time in his career really, has hurt his knee and could be done for 2020. Ouch. In 35 games so far, Tellez is hitting .283 with 8 HR and 23 RBI . His average in up nearly 60 points from last year and his slugging percentage, up 100. Two of his past four games were three-hit affairs. It will be hard to replace those two, even if Bo is back and picks up where he left off.
And one of the elephants in the room decided to bellow on Wednesday night. A few think manager Charlie Montoyo a baseball-Einstein baptised by the holy waters of Tampa Bay, where he got his coaching skills. More feel Toronto is winning in spite of him, not because of him or his whimsical pitching choices.
When it comes to pitchers, Montoyo seems to manage like a grade two teacher would kids at recess: “let everyone have a turn.” Toronto at times have carried 14 pitchers this year and Charlie seems determined to let every one get a few batters in every night. No starting pitcher has pitched in the seventh yet this year, nor come close to let alone exceeded 100 pitches. The team, good ERA and all, have had 211 appearances to the mound over 43 games, or 5 pitchers a game on average. Cleveland pitchers have delivered 30 “quality starts” this year. Toronto’s, seven. Are the Indians that much better? Perhaps, but more likely, that disparity comes from Montoyo getting bored seeing the same arm on the mound after three innings. Poor Roy Halladay is turning in his grave.
The situation came to a head in the team’s last game, a 7-2 loss to the Yanks. Starter Tanner Roark wasn’t allowed back out to start the fifth inning, after going 4 innings, and 68 pitches. He’d given up just two hits, but as they were both solo homers, hence two runs.
By all reports, he was steaming after the bullpen (and shoddy “D”) cost the team the game after he was pulled. He led off an online press scrum after the game saying “I was taken out too soon” and calling Montoyo’s managing something akin to “cow crap”… several different translations were printed in various sources to fit differing sensibilities, i presume.
“I’m what you would call a diesel… I start off slow, then get better as you go on throughout the game.” He added, “now I’ve got six days to sit on that, which doesn’t sit well with me. I’m old school. They signed me here for a reason, not to go three or four innings.” That part is clearly true. when he was signed as a free agent, GM Ross Atkins clearly said one of his main appeals was his ability to pitch deep into the game and give innings that spared an overworked bullpen.
Is he right though? We looked at the numbers and found… they were inconclusive. By today’s standards, he does pitch a good number of innings, or has. Last year, he hurled 165 1/3 in 31 starts; the year before 180 1/3 in 30. In his banner year of 2016, he logged 210 innings. So clearly he can go beyond four innings easily. But should he?
Here’s where it gets a little gray. Roark’s not been getting better with age. Opponents slugging percentage against him have risen – .422 in ’18, .467 last year, .593 this year. and his ERA reflects that, entering this year with a career number of 3.71 but being over 4.3 the past two seasons and an inflated 5.60 this year. Perhaps Charlie was right in not wanting batters to see him too many times in a night.
As to his claim of building up as the game goes on… well, again, the numbers are inconclusive. Last year in the third inning, he limits opponents to a 2.90 ERA. Int he fourth, 3.10. By the fifth, that skyrocketed to 6.00 and wasn’t much better in the sixth at 5.68. However, 2018 Tanner showed he was good early, had trouble in the fifth (6.58) but could usually steady the ship afterwards if he was still there, posting 2.95 and 2.25 ERA in the sixth and seventh.
Bottom line – it might have gone either way. No guarantees Roark would have shut them down had he gone back out for the fifth, but his arm was up to it and the bullpen didn’t do a bonzo job of keeping the team in the game as it happened. However, the overall issue is real . Montoyo’s lack of confidence in his starters is annoying them and putting a lot of pressure on those bullpen arms, including some very good ones and some entirely redoubtable ones like Wilmer Font and the just-released Sam Gaviglio. If it doesn’t bite him in the butt this season, it could this winter when Toronto will have a harder time luring in a free agent pitcher or two if the reputation for dissing them gets much more play.
So bring on the final 17 games, look through that liquid and while you’re at it, why not top it up? Cheers, Blue Jays.
I’m not a fan of many things this season, including the Rob Manfred super-sized playoffs which manages to give the owners and TV more playoff games despite playing fewer regular games than ever before. That said, it is what it is and as a Toronto fan, it seems to be working out to our benefit (and, logic would dictate five other teams as well given that six more teams will be in the post-season than years past.) As it stands now, Toronto are sitting at 15-14, in third place in the AL East but most importantly, hanging on to the final AL playoff spot. Detroit trail us by four games for that with a month left on the schedule (illness and player strikes allowing. Someone correctly noted that the tired old sports cliche “if the season ended today” is not meaningless rhetoric this year).
Toronto has some reason for at least restrained optimism. They’re slowly moving up in the standings despite missing some key players. Closer Ken Giles is pitching again in practices, perhaps to return for the first time since the opening series, and Bo Bichette, hitting .361 with an OPS over 1.0 when he hurt his knee two weeks ago, is expected back any day now. That should give the offense a huge boost, for while the team’s hitting has been getting better, it’s not been because of Bo’s absence. Santiago Espinal and Joe Panik, the two backups who’ve been filling in for him, while OK with the glove are hitting a measly collective .229 with all of 1 RBI in 83 at bats. Panik hasn’t yet got an extra base hit in 17 games.
That considered, it’s very encouraging that the team acquired pitcher Taijuan Walker yesterday from Seattle for cash and a “player to be named later.” The media were told the reason the player will be named later is that he’s not one of the current members of the “60 man roster” with Toronto or the alternate training site. Ergo, we’re getting a certified major league starter for a low-level minor leaguer , although of course there are no “minor leagues” this weird year. Even though Walker will be a free agent after the season, that seems like a steal.
Perhaps Seattle (languishing at 13-20) just wanted to dump salary, although that would only amount to about $1M left on his contract, or maybe they have some young arms they want to give a shot while there’s no pressure on them. Either way, it’s a shot in the sore arm for Toronto who lost Trent Thornton for the remainder of the season to an elbow injury, have Matt Shoemaker nursing a bad shoulder and phenom Nate Pearson out with a mystery injury they’ve not quite specified yet.
To be sure,Walker’s name arguably carries more weight than performance merits. When he came up in 2013, with the Mariners, he was one of the game’s top “can’t miss” prospects. He didn’t exactly miss but didn’t exactly become a “hit” either. He has a career 33-33 record with 3.95 ERA through 102 games, sporting a good 3:1 strikeout : walk ratio. His best season was spent with Arizona in 2017, when he was 9-9 but had a good 3.49 ERA (35% better than league average) through 28 starts and 157 innings. He logged only 14 innings in the two intermediate years due to elbow injuries, but he’s back this year and looking OK with a 2-2 record. Encouragingly, his last outing was a 7 inning start against the Dodgers, striking out 8 and allowing 4 hits, 3 runs. That followed six innings without any earned runs against Texas a week before. That’s noteworthy given that the one universal complaint so far about Blue Jays starting is a lack of innings given by the starters so far, meaning quite a burden on the bullpen. Toronto would happily take some 7 inning, 3 run, 8K outings against good teams from him.
GM Ross Atkins says Walker is looking smarter this year, relying less on his fastball (a good but not stellar 93 mph one) and using his cutter more, and also possessing “Average to a bit above” curve ball and sliders. In a year when there are relatively few “stud” starters coming up for free agency, you can bet Walker will be going all out to impress prospective employers for 2021 – which might include Toronto.
Walker’s not going to be 2009-era Halladay or mid-’80s Stieb,nor the second coming of Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander. But he does have the potential to be a solid #3 type starter who can give the Jays a few wins and also prevent us from seeing debacles like Wilmer Font coming in in the fourth inning to blow a four-run lead and having six or seven more pitchers follow him out to the mound.
More importantly, it shows that the team is actually interested in taking the steps needed to try to win. It’s the first time they’ve done so since 2016, when they picked up Francisco Liriano (who pitched well) and BJ Melvin Upton (who hit like garbage, but c’est le vie) at the trade deadline. A crazy year like this is when anything can happen, and if the Jays are in the post-season, it will only take a couple of hitters getting hot in October and a standout start or two from an unexpected pitcher to put that coveted World Series within reach. The next seven or so weeks should be fun.
It’s strange to realize it but yesterday the Blue Jays hit the one-quarter mark of this very strange baseball season. And unless they get a lot better quickly, it will be that, one-quarter of the entire amount of games to be played in 2020 because as it stands now, any post-season berth – even in this year of vastly expanded playoffs set against dramatically shortened regular season – seems out of the question.
A weird thing about writing about baseball or any other sport is that things can change quickly… I had this column mostly done yesterday but waited to finish it up and edit and in the meantime, they played a game for the record books last night. They hit seven homers, got 18 hits,overcame an 8-run deficit… but still lost anyway, 14-11 to the Marlins. That game gave us a taste of the Jays 1-through-9 lineup we perhaps expected and hoped for this year, but not the pitching.
Even considering last night, the overall takeaway for this season’s Blue Jays squad is one of unfulfilled potential and, yes, I’ll say it, a need for changes in the coaching staff. Although they were pretty awful last night, in general the team’s pitching has been good. Starting has generally been reliable (if not eating up too many innings yet), Hyun-Jin Ryu’s been very good back to back after a couple of shaky starts to begin his Toronto career and for the most part, the bullpen’s been solid even without closer Ken Giles (on the IL.)
The rest of the game is something else though. Fielding has been shoddy at best. Although the official scorers have only charged them with 8 errors so far, leading to a .985 fielding percentage (pretty much spot on the norm for the MLB), their 13 double plays turned is barely half the number pulled off by “bad” teams such as Kansas City and Boston and the “Rdrs” number is -3. Yeah, I have very little idea what that is or how it’s calculated, but it stands for “defensive runs saved” and when it’s in the negatives, you know your defense is costing you runs and costing you games compared to an ordinary average crew. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. seems to be having a tough time adjusting to his supposedly easier new position of first base, making errors on throws and not being able to track down routine pop-ups, but the whole young infield seems shaky and the last time we saw a Blue Jays outfielder make a highlight reel catch was whenever we last saw Kevin Pillar in a Toronto uniform.
What’s killing the team’s chances though, last night’s home run derby notwithstanding, is not popups in foul territory falling out of range of our gloves. It’s hitting. Or a lack thereof. Going into last night’s game, the team’s offensive numbers were shockingly bad. A .218 batting average. Even though pitcher’s are having a good run of it so far this season (with the MLB average being a mere .235, about 25 points off the average over recent years and more surprising given that the NL is now using full-time DHs) , a .218 average is worst of any of the 10 teams in East divisions… which is to say the ones Toronto plays this year. Likewise, a dreadful .279 OBS. Their cumulative 20 doubles is half of what Atlanta’s hitters have produced. Although they clipped 16 HR before last night (now 23) only two of those weren’t solo dingers. Which leads to another issue- their .172 average with runners in scoring position. No wonder they are leaving an average of 7 men on base per game, despite their low averages yielding not many base runners. No wonder they are swinging at more first pitches than any other team in baseball, leading to fewer good pitches to hit. Bottom line – before last night’s game, they were scoring fewer runs per game than any other team. When you only average 3.14 runs a game, you’re demanding your pitchers have their absolute A-game every night to give you an outside chance of winning.
It’s much a continuation of the disappointment we felt last year when Toronto was dead last in the majors in batting average (.236) and 12th best in the AL in runs, at just under 4.5 per game. Only they’ve gotten worse in fact.
“Youth is what we’re seeing,” says GM Ross Atkins. “Hitters need to make adjustments.” They do, and they aren’t. For example, it’s quickly becoming cliched to point out that the difference between minor league Guerrero Jr – the prodigy – and major league Guerrero Jr. – the average, so-so hitter – is that in the minors he was hitting the ball hard and in the air. Now he’s hitting softer groundballs. I’m not a big fan of all the Sabermatics type stats now in vogue, but his “launch angle” is telling. Most power hitters launch the ball upwards by about 20-25 degrees. Last year Vlad upped it by 6.7 degrees. Hitting it nearly flat, parallel to the turf. This year, he’s launching it at… 6.7 degrees. Hard to hit home runs or even drill doubles into the corners when it’s a ground ball and the player is a slow runner to boot. 6.7 last year, 6.7 this year. Textbook example of not making adjustments.
And while Bo Bichette was hot last year in a limited showing and clipped 5 hits last night, staying hot this year, it’s difficult to find examples of any of the team’s young staff making adjustments and progressing forward in their hitting. Sorry to say it, but it’s time to change hitting coaches.
Guillermo Martinez might be a wonderful guy. I don’t know him. He’s only 35 so he can probably relate to some of the young players on the roster. But as a player, he was a decent glove who couldn’t hit, even in the minors where his career stalled. In fact he hit all of .201 in three years in the minor leagues, with a slugging percentage of .269. In 65 games at AA or AAA, he hit all of five extra base hits – all doubles.
Granted, there’s the old adage about “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” You don’t need to be Elton John to teach piano or Ansel Adams to instruct others on how to use a camera. But it doesn’t hurt. And as another adage says, “the proof is in the pudding.” Martinez couldn’t hit well as a player, but others who couldn’t turned into fine coaches. Guillermo though has had a year and change to get some results from the team’s hitters and hasn’t succeeded in any measurable way.
It’s time to try someone new on for size. It might be too late to salvage a real shot at the World Series this year but with 45 games left, it’s not too late to get a feel for if a new coach had the ability to coach and get results. If he can,look out AL East in 2021. If he can’t, at least they have a long winter to find someone who could.
“On the road again, just can’t wait to get on the road again..” Ol’ Willie might be offering up the theme for this year’s (Toronto) Blue Jays. Since the last post, the Jays were offered shared facilities at Pittsburgh’s PNC park by the Pirates, reached some sort of agreement despite having a few conflicting dates scheduled for home games… and had that quashed by the state of Pennsylvania. The state doesn’t want more risk of Covid for their residents, which having Toronto and nine other clubs beyond the Pirates and their opponents visiting the park could represent.
I commend the Pirates club for making the offer. Even though I’m sure there would have been a financial incentive for them, it was a decent offer that really showed the meaning of sportsmanship. A rival – even if not a direct divisional one – was lacking a home park through no fault of their own, so they opened up their doors. It’s what good sports is about.
But, that said, it’s back to the drawing board for the Jays company, with three or four fewer days left to doodle out a plan. My bet is still on Buffalo being home this season.
All that covered, it’s time to give a little preview of the season ahead as I see it. It’s an abbreviated season & I’ll be giving an abbreviated forecast. Back in February, I was preparing in depth looks at every team and the season, but in 2020, turns out everything is out the window and besides… it’s hard to even remember all the roster changes that occurred last winter. But here are my predictions for 2020:
Yankees are the cream of the crop but pitching beyond newcomer Gerritt Cole might be spotty, given Luis Severino being out for year and JA Happ looking every bit his advanced age last year. Plus Stanton is good, yes, but is he really the nearly half-billion dollar man they thought they were getting from Miami ? Methinks not. And which is the real Gio Urshela- the expendable bench player Cleveland and Toronto knew or the seemingly Cooperstown-bound one NYC saw last year?
Toronto’s season would be more promising if they had a real “home” to work from. For about the last five years, I’ve always figured Tampa looks crappy on paper but seem to excel anyway. They still look crappy on paper but most pundits have them as a World Series contender this year. I think this year they’ll live up to my paper assessment of them. Baltimore might be a tad better than last year. But their schedule got infinitely harder, so they’re still going to stink.
New York 35-25
Tampa Bay 30-30
Minnesota’s hitting will win them quite a few, especially with Josh Donaldson in the mix. Indians are aging and shedding star power but still have pitching enough to contend. White Sox are improving but still a year or two away. Dallas Keuchel’s years of being in the Cy Young mix are as far gone as politicians speaking to each other civilly.
Kansas C. 22-38
Astros are still the Evil Empire to many thanks to their ’17 cheating scandal, and after Justin Verlander, their starting pitching might be a tad thin, especially if Zach Greinke ages a little more. Roberto Osuna is a no-show apparently for unknown reasons. But they still have the talent to win the division. Ask Alanis if it’s ironic the Rangers would tear down a very nice, fairly modern stadium to replace it with a billion dollar baby just in time for… no fans to see it. Jose Bautista’s laughing somewhere!
LA Anaheim 29-31
Marcus Stroman and Aubrey Huff will win as many games as each other and hit as many home runs. (That’s right, Huff retired about eight years ago). But will keep very active til the end of September throwing bombs at each other on Twitter. Bryce Harper will be OK. But when you’re a $300 million dollar man in a tough sports city, OK doesn’t cut it. No one’s built a statue for a .250 hitting, 14 homer (in 60 games) man in cheesesteak city. Ronald Acuna will post numbers that would make him the best player in the game, but scribes will still insist Mike Trout is the best of all-time.
NY Mets 27-33
Pirates have my respect and a nice view, but not the pitching they need. St. Louis isn’t the big red machine, western edition, it was a few years ago, but there’s not a lot to separate the other three. Reds will do very well with the introduction of the DH into the NL…no longer worries about Nick Castellanos lead glove negating his hitting prowess.
St. Louis 30-30
Dodgers fans (looking at you, Badfinger!) must be breathing a sigh of relief knowing they’ll have more than 60 games to appreciate Mookie Betts now. Not many holes on their roster, even without Cy Young contender Ryu (in Toronto), or Price (sitting out) around . San Diego will vie for most improved team, but not the big trophy. Anyone remember what seems like a lifetime ago when colorado wanted to trade Nolan Arrenado before spring? It’ll give people in Denver something to talk about in August when he dons a red hat on the banks of the Ohio or Big Apple pinstripes.
LA Dodgers 38-22
San Diego 32-28
San Francisco 28-32
We’ll look at playoff possibilities in a few days. But before that, a few more random predictions for the 2020 season:
1) thankfully Covid won’t run wild. I expect we’ll see a few more positive tests and some players, perhaps even a star or two shut down for a big chunk of the season due to the pandemic, but I think – and pray – there won’t be a huge epidemic in the clubhouses interfering with the season’s completion
2) there will be at least one breakout team and one unexpected bomb. I know, my predictions above seem like it should be pretty conventional and predictable, but I predict we’ll see some elements of the unpredictable. Some team will get unexpectedly hot for a few weeks and win 40 or more, some team will fall apart and struggle to win 20 out of 60 (not including Baltimore which would take that as a gift). The big question is which ones?
3) No .400 hitter. Not that it matters much anyway; no sports historian is going to put a player who ends up 70 for 170 next to Ted Williams. But many think there’ll be a .400 hitter for the first time in over seven decades. Not me. I figure the over/under for the best in the game will be around .355 this season. Forbes – Forbes of all people – looked at it and put Jose Altuve as the best bet of hitting .400. I agree with that and agree with their assessment his chance is 1 in 130. Cody Bellinger of L.A. hit .376 over a 60 game stretch last year, the best any player has in ten years. No player with over 100 at bats will hit the magic number this year.
4) Houston aren’t forgiven yet in the eyes of their competitors. At least they won’t hear the boos of the crowds, but an exhbition this week in which KC managed to plunk three straight Astros batters shows their opponents haven’t forgotten. Theyll be hit by pitches routinely for the first two weeks of the year and end up in at least one bench clearing brawl, Rob Manfred’s rules be damned. How he’ll respond, nobody knows.
5) Mike Trout will be good – that’s a given – and his team won’t be. He’ll get MVP votes because, not that he’s supposed to be the “face” of the game but because voters feel sorry for him wasting his talent in a second-rate environment. Someone will make a 2009 Roy Halladay comparison.
6) For our Blue Jays...Hyun Jin Ryu won’t match his 2.32 ERA from last year, but will be good enough to win fans aplenty in the Great White North and perhaps a Cy Young vote or two. But Matt Shomaker will be the staff ace. Nate Pearson will make his debut in August and.. be Vladimir 2.0. Oh, he’ll pitch well and post impressive numbers for a rookie but, given fans expectations, will disappoint many. 5-3, 3.60, 55 strikeouts in 50 innings would be a nice entry to the big leagues… unless you were supposed to be Nolan Ryan crossed with 1972 Steve Carlton. VG2 and Bo Bichette will impress but Danny Jansen sill be the sophomore to get people talking. He was hitting up not just a storm, but a tornado,in spring, and look at his record. He came up with the rep of being a hot hitting, but defensively-challenged catcher. He decided to work hard on his catching… and got a Gold Glove nomination. This year he’s decided to work on his hitting. If he gets into a hot streak, he will be hands down the best hitting catcher in the league and arguably in the team’s history.
7) Things will be tight in several divisions and 60 games won’t finish it. It will be a year of tie-breakers and extra games to determine wild cards and division champs. Four NL Central teams winning 33 each, tying second-place teams in East and West doing the same anyone? Probably not, but the mind reels thinking about the “what if?”
Then again, the mind reels with the “what ifs” about almost everything in 2020. It’s a year we’re not soon going to forget. Let’s hope come November, we’ll say that about the baseball season too… and for only the best of reasons.
Well, how excited are we Blue Jays fans? The weird MLB season is poised to start later this week and our Jays are set to have their home opener next Wednesday, facing the reigning World Champions, Washington. Only thing is, no one knows where the game will be played! We do know that it won’t be where it was scheduled, Rogers Centre in downtown Toronto.
That because the Canadian government has denied the team the right to play there this summer due to the pandemic. Although the team was given an exemption to allow a training camp take place there (by way of the entire team and staff being quarantined in the hotel attached to the ballpark) they deem it too unsafe to allow teams to come in from the U.S. and potentially bring in a fresh batch of Covid to Ontario, where the illness has been contained reasonably well.
Which leads to two quick reactions. First, “that sucks!”. As do many things about 2020 as it turns out. Second though, the Canadian government is correct. There are things much more important than sports, and public health is one of those things. To whit, most people in and out of the club seem to be in agreement.
“The safety of the broader community, our fans and the team remained the priorities,” Jays president Mark Shapiro said. “The club completely respects the federal government’s decision,” adding “we cannot wait until the day comes we can play in front of our fans again on Canadian soil.”
Team manager Charlie Montoyo added “”the Canadian government and Canadian people have done a great job with the virus. I understand and I’m grateful they gave us a chance to work out here because we’re healthy now because we trained here.” Pitcher Anthony Bass understands and is a bit bummed out by it too, noting “we don’t want to be in a place that’s a hot spot. We want to be where it’s safe.” Even the usually quick-to-take-offense Twitterverse has seemed to recognize it was the right decision for the government to make and hasn’t shown much anger about it.
The numbers speak for themselves. They don’t paint a pretty picture for the U.S. To begin with, remember the U.S. has about 8 times as many people as Canada. Close to nine times even perhaps . Yet to date, the U.S. has had 143 300 deaths due to Covid. Canada, 8800 according to the same source, Worldometer, using WHO numbers. That’s a lot more than 8 or 9 times more! Worse, there have been 3, 900, 000 cases in the States compared to 110 340 in Canada. That’s about 36X more. And it’s getting worse. Of late, the U.S. is averaging 65 000 or more new cases a day. Canada hasn’t had 1000 in a day since early-June. Toronto has recorded a total of 15 037 cases through Thursday. Houston, a city smaller than Toronto, had 14 900 new cases on Friday alone. And we could go on and on. Clearly, the Canadian public had a few skeptics and a fair bit of grumbling about masks, about social distancing, about parks being closed on long weekends, about walking the same direction through stores which had limits on capacity…but they complied and brought the disease under control. Who can blame them for not risking a bunch of young dudes from another country coming back with it?
So now the search is on for a new home. Buffalo Blue Bisons anyone? Right now, Buffalo, NY seems the most likely destination for the ’20 Blue Jays, since it’s the home of the team’s AAA club and not too far away. And as a bonus, New York State, once a disaster zone for Covid, has been healthier than most states of late. However, the stadium, while good by minor league standards, apparently is lacking when it comes to lighting and clubhouse facilities and might have to have some very fast renovations to bring it to code. There are probably also some concerns about finding enough adequate hotel space on quick notice for the whole team and incoming visiting squads to stay quarantined in. Mind you, with travel almost a thing of the past now, they probably should be able to accommodate that within the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area.
Another suggestion has been Dunedin, a suburb of Tampa. It’s where the Jays have their spring training and they just upgraded the whole facility last year. It would work but… Florida’s one of the worst places for the illness right now. And, while Florida gulf weather is wonderful for spring baseball or a winter visit, summer games outside there would mean a lot of 92 degree and humid games and a lot of rain delays. As anyone who’s spent time in the Sunshine State knows, late afternoon or evening thunderstorms are as representative of the Gulf coast as pelicans and palm trees. It would make road trips to Tampa literally a short road trip not even requiring crossing the bay, and Miami close by. But would make the trips to New York, Boston and Philadelphia – yes, we have games against the Phillies – much longer.
Either way, it’s going to put the team at a disadvantage. As Montoyo says, “guys like a routine.” They like going home after the home games and hanging out with their family or going out to their favorite spots. That’s going to be difficult to accommodate anywhere this season for any team, but will be doubly difficult if the “home” is a hotel room in a city they don’t know. At least with a young staff, many of the projected stars – Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Nate Pearson, etc – have played games on the Buffalo turf as recently as last year, and they all worked out a little in Dunedin, months back. But after playing mock games on Toronto’s artificial turf, any stadium will be an adjustment to get used to and effectively make their home games “road” ones. It’s a disadvantage. but it reminds us, there are things more important than sports. Even baseball.
The feds in Ottawa do say they will revisit the issue should Toronto make the post-season and they might be allowed back home in October… if they play October games. And if the situation changes south of the border.
This is not a failure for the Blue Jays. It is not a failure for MLB or even Rob Manfred, as much as he does many things which need calling out. This is a failure of the governments of Florida, Texas, Georgia, Arizona and most of all the U.S. federal government. It’s hard to imagine people might still think America’s been made “great again” when their pro athletes – once the shining international ambassadors for the nation – aren’t allowed across the border because they’re considered too great a risk for others to accept.
With MLB determined to try to put together a 2020 season and training camps – aka, “Spring training, the sequel” now beginning in most team’s home cities, it’s time to dust the old cap off and look at this truly bizarre season ahead, complete with 60-game schedule and cardboard cutout fans promised to fill the Oakland stadium.
Considering that normally, we’d be readying for the All Star Break right around now and would be half way through the season, there must be some winners and losers from this condensed, Readers Digest-version of a season. Some come to my mind:
Minnesota – most had them picked as the AL Central favorites when we first began talking 2020 baseball, back around Valentine’s Day. The Twins were the reigning division winners and had added Josh Donaldson to an already powerful hitting lineup. No one benefits more than Minny with the reduced sched that features only games again divisional rivals and the corresponding division in the other league. That is to say, they are slated to play 40 games against the AL Central and 20 against the NL’s, with no games against eastern or western teams. I grudgingly admit the Twins were good last year, I just don’t think they were that good. 101 wins? Come on! Well, Minnesota got fat last year playing their division with weaklings Detroit and KC, and a mediocre at very best Chicago. They went 50-26 against them in ’19. They went just 8-12 in interleague play, mostly against NL East teams. They were 1-2 against each of Philly, Atlanta and Washington. All things combined they went 52-28 against teams they will play this year – a .650 winning percentage – but 49-33 against teams they won’t see. A .597 percentage… good, but not nearly as good obviously. The White Sox are a bit better in the AL Central this year but the Tigers and Royals are not, and the Indians are looking more like ‘last year’s team’ by the year. And the NL Central opponents they’ll face this year aren’t terrible… but aren’t as good as the Braves and Nats they faced last year. Minnesota could win 40 games against this weak lineup of opponents and ensure a nice home advantage throughout the playoffs in so doing.
Houston – remember last winter? Seems a lifetime ago, I know, but back then the Astros were the super-villains, the Jokers in a game of Batmen, thanks to their cheating scandal. Well, about six months has passed, the Yankees now have a shadow of guilt hanging over them too and frankly, most people seem to have forgotten about the Houston hijinks of 2017. You can bet if it had been a normal year they would have faced a wall of jeers and boos every time they took an opponents field in April or May, and would have probably needed to duck out of the way of many a bean ball. By now, other teams are cooled off and there will be no fans in the stands to jeer anyway. Bonus for them, Justin Verlander was going to miss a month or so to open the year, but is now in mid-season form.
Toronto – in most respects, the Jays chances seem far grimmer than they did in March. After all, the Yankees seem unstoppable in the East, and have the healthiest roster they’ve seen in a couple of years. Toronto had to hope for a stellar year from some of the sophomores propelling them into the Wild Card race. The way to do that would be to fatten up on wins against easy opponents like Detroit, KC and Seattle… all teams we no longer will see this year. Instead we get a heavier diet of games against the Yanks, Sox and Rays and more games against solid NL teams like Washington than ever before. Seems like a big loss. One silver lining though… the team’s best pitching prospect in several years, Nate Pearson seems ready to hit the big league lineup with his 102 MPH fastball. He dominated in a brief showing in spring but the team had serious reason to wonder where and how to use him this year, given that he’d never pitched more than 105 innings in a season and missed almost all of ’18 with injuries. He looked likely to begin in the minors and then maybe move to Toronto’s bullpen mid-season to limit his workload. Now, the potential is there for him to join an already much-improved starting rotation (with NL Cy Young runner-up Hyun Jin Ryu and a healthy Matt Shoemaker featured) and even if he’s used as a starter all year, probably end up with an arm-saving inning tally of under 100. He could shift the momentum in Toronto’s favor in a short run.
Philadelphia, New York Mets – much like the Blue Jays in that they’re decent teams in a strong division, but no match for Washington or Atlanta. They no doubt hoped for a solid year that could scratch out a Wild Card, but now their schedule too is much tougher against their divisional rivals and missing easy bets like Pittsburgh and Colorado.
Fans – yeah, there’s not much to like about all this. Some of it is absolutely unavoidable given that we’re living through a serious crisis the likes of which most of us have never experienced. I think one would have to be a bit daft to want to go out to sit in a crowd watching a game this year, even if we were allowed. so we can’t fault MLB on that, but a season that’s less than half the normal length, has no All Star Game, no fans in the stands to add excitement and no minor league games for the small city fans to go out and enjoy seems lacking at best. And with the spectre of doom hanging over the nation, we’ve already seen stars like Ian Desmond and Mike Leake announce they’re sitting out the year due to health concerns and Mike Trout is expressing doubts as to whether or not he’ll bother. The rosters will be bigger than before, but perhaps full of fewer stars.
Worse yet, it could get worse.Rob Manfred admitted this week he never intended to allow a season of more than 60 games take place, adding to the idea the owners were bargaining in bad faith, and as the Marlins’ Derek Jeter says, there’s no trust on either side in the game right now. We’re bound to see a hostile off-season this winter, with free agents largely being ignored and the union getting hot under the collar, which seems more than likely to result in a massive Players vs Owners war breaking out when it’s time for them to come to a new agreement in 2022. Turns out the virus isn’t the only thing making the game sick this year.
Well, the Blue Jays may have won one in this year that may not even have any games to win. They actually did very well in the (abbreviated) draft that ran earlier this week. Despite picking fifth, by most accounts they got the second-best player available then followed up in the second round with another player whom everyone expected would go sooner.
The first round surprise was Vanderbilt U.’s Austin Martin. You can call him a shortstop, or you can call him an outfielder or you can call him a third baseman or a second. Just be sure to call him a “budding future star.” Martin had the sixth best average in college ball last year, .392 and according to the Jays’ Ross Atkins, the “consistency of his at bats, the discipline within those at bats, the contact rates with power” have the team excited. Makes sense since many in MLB had him ranked as the second-best college player around.
Street and Smith concurred with their 2020 outlook (which now seems half a lifetime back although it was in fact only the start of spring training). they picked him as the #2 talent available overall and the best position player. They figure he can “play all over the field…most likely second base or center field though” and describe him as an “offensive force, with a high level combination of power, speed, and plate discipline.” Athlon Sports ranked him third overall saying it wasn’t clear where he’d play but his “hitting ability is clear.” One can only wonder why Baltimore, KC or Miami didn’t grab him when they had the chance (not to mention first picking Detroit) but perhaps the fact that Scott Boras is already Austin’s agent explains that. Already rumors are he’s holding out for $6M to sign.
With his athleticism and work ethic (said to be very strong), it’s possible he could be seeing the Rogers’ Centre by some point in 2022… playing alongside Bo Bichette, with whom he played ball as a kid in Florida. While he made the All-American first team of college stars as the third baseman, there’s already a buzz around the possibility of him taking on the CF role, rather a “black hole” for the team currently since they traded Kevin Pillar.
For their second pick, and 34th overall (thank you Houston for cheating and thus giving up your selection as a penalty) they went with right-handed pitcher CJ Van Eyk. Van Eyk is already 6’1” and has accumulated 225 strikeouts over 176 college innings. Last year he was third among all collegians with 129 in just under 100 innings and he went 10-4 but with a slightly elevated 3.81 ERA. While he has a solid 93-95 mph fastball, the thing scouts seem to be excited about is his “12-6” curveball, one Street and Smith call the best in college baseball. He made the All-American second team pitching staff and was ranked #21 overall by Athlon (10th best as a pitcher) and 24th by Street and Smith, so it’s a small wonder the team was able to pick him in the second round. The Jays call him “impressive.”
With last year’s Alex Manoah and the previous year’s Nate Pearson, it’s possible – not a done deal but possible – that Toronto might have a trio of homegrown star starters to anchor the rotation by 2023 or so, which would bode well for post-season appearances in the middle of this decade.
All that’s missing now is baseball to be played. Unfortunately, even if the majors somehow manage to salvage a 2020 season, it seems like minor leaguers will be “SOL” if you will.There are no plans for a minor league season so they can advance their skills by playing video games in their basement this year it would seem. Trevor Bauer making sense, Toronto getting the second-best unsigned talent around and telling him basically “stay home and do nothing to next year”… strange days indeed.
Well its been about two weeks since the last post and so, no surprise to regular readers, Leadglove Rob’s been at it again since then. Yes, never ones to let a chance to shoot themselves in the foot go by without bloodying a toe or two at least, MLB is back at it with more ways to make the sport and league just a bit less interesting and appealing to the fans.
First we have the availability of games online. For years now, the league has been promoting MLB.TV as a way to watch any game you want. No worries about what channel your cable provider might have or if you’re out of the house… pay MLB and you can watch any game, every game online on your PC or phone, or any number of other new device. The service has been a little expensive, but for many, it’s a great way to be able to see all your team’s games anywhere you go.
A good system, so whaddya know – they’ve changed it up in a number of markets for the 2020 season. Some (if not all) the teams are going to have blackouts for their local areas, meaning you’ll be able to watch every game … except your hometown faves. For them you’ll be able to go out to the park to “root, root, root for the home team”… or possibly buy another expensive local service. For Jays fans in their main market of Canada, all 3500 miles from sea to shining sea, it would mean buying a new service from the team’s owner’s Rogers’ Communications. Which some fans might do, but would certainly cut down on their desire to renew their MLB.TV account, as not many Toronto fans will be wanting to plonk down something like $150 (in Canuck bucks) to watch those late-night San Diego/ Arizona battles. Yahoo didn’t think much ofYahoo didn’t think much of the plan, but then again, who does?
Next up, another new Rob Manfred rule announced last year that makes little sense to quite a few fans and is perturbing Cincinnati fans … and possibly Toronto ones too! Enter the “Two way player”. Of course, baseball rode a wave of excitement and international interest a couple of years ago when Shohei Ohtani came over from Japan and signed with the Angels. Another good Japanese pitcher, but with a twist … he is a hitter too. Fans were abuzz, even outside of Anaheim, and while so far, Ohtani’s trips to the mound have been limited due to injuries, he’s been a fan favorite and seen by some as a role model for a brand new kind of player. Brand new old school type of player, some would say. Remember that Babe Ruth, the game’s greatest hitter not only had the home run record for about five decades but also managed to pitch 300 innings twice in a season and finish his career with 94 wins and an ERA barely above 2.
Well MLB apparently thinks we don’t want too much fan excitement or too many star players becoming household names, so they’ve installed rules essentially designed to prevent this from becoming more common. As of this year, teams will have to designate a player as a “two-way” if they want to use him as a pitcher as well as position player. Otherwise, non-pitchers can only appear in extra innings or in blow-out games where the lead is over 7 runs. And, to add a snag to having an influx of players designated as such, they decree that player must have not only pitched 20 innings in the current season or the year before, but also have started 20 games as a position player and had 3 or more plate appearances in each of those games. Since Ohtani didn’t actually live upto those numbers they put in a one-time grandfather clause that will let the Angels call him a two-way this season.
Not so lucky, the Cincinnati Reds, who have a similar, if perhaps less-stellar, type player in Michael Laurenzen. they’ve used him both as an outfielder and a regular arm in the bullpen, but even though he logged over 80 innings last season, and playing 100 games in the field, he didn’t qualify because he was often used as a defensive replacement and didn’t always notch 3 times to the plate. The Reds can still use him this year but would have to call him a “pitcher” (which, it’s not clear, may impede his ability to play regularly in the outfield) or an outfielder who can only be called upon infrequently in extra inning games or blow-outs to pitch.
Another player who will suffer from this new rule is… wait for it… Jose Bautista! Wait, you say. The Jose Bautista of “bat flip” fame? The 50-homer hitting Joey Bats of the Blue Jays of yesteryear? The Bautista who’s apparently retired?
Yes, that Jose Bautista. He never officially retired and has been working out all winter, apparently trying to not only play in this year’s Olympics (glad that baseball is apparently reinstated as an Olympic sport!) but wants to get back to the majors as a two-way player. In his prime, he did have a laser of an arm in the outfield, and doubters who’ve watched him come away less dubious. He apparently has a 94 mph fastball, and a good slider with “legitimate tilt”. Former teammate Marcus Stroman has worked out with him and declares Bautista good enough to make many MLB bullpens right now. And while maybe not fast enough with the bat to lead the league in dingers anymore, have no doubt he could still swat a few out of the park and run down a ball or two in the outfield.
The prospect has excited many, especially Toronto fans. Bautista was always well-loved among the Jays faithful and seemed to reciprocate their warmth. With the Jays bullpen so-so and full of possibilites but short of sure-things beyond closer Ken Giles and with the likes of Derek Fisher seeming like contenders for a backup OF spot, many think Jose could actually fit into the 2020 roster. And well, who wouldn’t be a little curious to see the announcer declaring “batting for Texas, second baseman Roughned Odor. And now pitching for the Blue Jays, Jose Bautista…”?
Perhaps unrealistic, perhaps a pipe dream.But what is real is the fact that once again, Rob Manfred and his minions are needlessly draining the game of a little bit more excitement and fun.
You can almost smell the cut grass… spring training is now a mere two weeks away, and Blue Jays fans have at least a modicum of hope for the 2020 season. Even though most pundits have them firmly lodged in a holding pattern -4th in the AL East- they have improved their rotation considerably from last season and have a quartet of players going into their sophomore campaigns with the potential to be stars. It appears to be, at very least, a team moving in the right direction. To whit, MLB itself puts them on the (lengthy) list of nine teams that have improved in the off-season.
That point made, there’s still considerable room for improvement. And it wouldn’t require a headline-grabbing trade for a Mookie Betts or Nolan Arenado to improve their chances of playing in October. Instead, it could just be a small payout to bolster the depth of the roster with some of the intriguing remaining free agents. So, I suggest the Blue Jays fill out that roster with:
seems a no-brainer by now. We’ve discussed it here before, so we won’t beat that dead horse too much, but it seems obvious that A) the existing Toronto OF is weak defensively, B) Pillar is acknowledged to have been the best defensive OF the team had through the last decade and is still above average, C) he’s popular in Toronto where he’s spent most of his career, and D) teams aren’t batting down the door to get to him, given his so-so hitting capabilities, one assumes. He’s still without a job and the similarly-talented Alex Gordon just signed a one year, $4M deal with his old team, Kansas City. Seems like there’s no reason Toronto and Pillar couldn’t have a similar, affordable reunion.
the team let a couple of veteran backups walk away from the infield (the popular but injury-prone Devon Travis and the perennial AAA/major league shuttling Richard Urena) but have signed a couple of decent veterans to minor league deals with hopes of filling in the bench – Joe Panik and Ruben Tejada. Decent enough gambles but there’s still a sense that the IF lacks depth. Vladimir is being touted or taunted widely as the worst defensive 3B in the game last year, and while Biggio and Bichette are good at their middle-infield posts (and travis Shaw should be able to handle First), there’s not much of a backup should one get injured. So enter Mr. Holt, arguably the most valuable remaining free agent.
Holt has been a regular with Boston for some years, and what he lacks in “wow factor” he makes up in versatility. The 31 year-old bench player has played a minimum of 64 games a year since 2014, and as many as 129, and has played every infield and outfield position. Last year he put in time in all four IF positions as well as the two corner OF ones. And he does so reasonably well- he’s average or a bit above at all the infield spots. Last year, he made only 3 errors while playing 2B and SS, a total of well over 500 innings. All the while, he hits adequately, or very well for a bench-warmer. He bested his career .271 average last year, hitting .297 with 31 RBI and a .771 OPS.
With a rep as a “utility player” and a lack of bigtime home run power in this “all or nothing” league, Holt’s not going to be getting a convoy of Brinks trucks driving up to his house. It seems like Toronto should be able to sign him for no more than about $3M – possibly less based on other signings this winter – and be a lot more confident should they see Cavan Biggio wince in pain running the bases or Bo Bichette twist an ankle turning a double play.
Bullpen, bullpen, bullpen
It’s ironic that in this age when starting pitchers do less and less- some teams see a guy going 6 innings as herculean now – and closers are being paid king’s ransoms, that no one seems to care about the middle relievers. Yet those guys are carrying more and more of the weight, frequently being asked to hold their team in the game for 4 innings, day in, day out. The Blue Jays are no better,nor worse than most other teams in regards to that.
While the Jays should have a vastly improved starting rote than they did last year, and hence one hopes won’t overtax the middle relief quite as much, the ‘pen still looks flimsy. Sure, they have a grade-A closer in Ken Giles, and a very solid, durable long relief guy in Sam Gaviglio whose 95 innings was most for any AL reliever last year, and a couple more decent enough probables like Wilmar Font, but getting from, say starter in the 7th to closer could be precarious.
Happily, there are still a lot of middle relievers unsigned and those signing on the dotted line are typically doing so for low prices. So time for Toronto to pony up $3 or $4 and sign two or three proven arms to supplement the bullpen. First one I’d look to would be tony Sipp, one of the few southpaws left. Yes he’s 36 and yes, he’s looked at as a lefty “specialist” (probably why he’s not signed yet – the new rule about the three batter minimum may discourage teams for signing that kind of pitcher) … last year, his ERA against left-handed batters was under 1.00, against righties was over 10. That perhaps because he got a decent number of ground balls from lefty hitters, and twice as many flyballs, going , going, gone off the bats of right-handed hitters.
Still, with him only a year removed from a 2018 campaign where he pitched in 54 games for Houston with an ERA of 1.86, and the current bullpen devoid of sure-thing lefthanded pitchers (the best bet right now would be Thomas Pannone, who’s been a starter in the minors but has been used out of the pen in the majors) it seems he’s worth a gamble. Robbie Ross and former-Jay Aaron Loup (injured much of 2019) would also be decent guys to look at. the market of right-handed relievers is more saturated, and it would do the team well to look at the likes of Pat Neshek, Sam Dyson or Javy Guerra (who started 2019 as a Blue Jay before going on to help Washington win the World Series) and sign at least one of them.
So there you have it – three easy moves that would likely cost the team far less than ten million that would elevate the Blue Jays from “better than last year but still way behind Tampa and Boston, let alone New York” to “deep enough to perhaps contend.”
It’s not been a bad off-season for the Blue Jays so far. I always try to give credit where it’s due, and Ross Atkins deserves some credit for going out and improving the team’s rather anemic starting rotation, adding a legit Cy Young candidate in Hyun-jin Ryu as well as a couple of solid, inning-eating righties (Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson) and an under-the-radar Japanese pitcher, Shun Yamaguchi. No question that the team will hit the turf in March with a stronger rotation than they ended 2019 with.
However, there’s still work to be done. The front office took care of the question at first base by in a roundabout way trading with the Brewers. Toronto signed ex-Brewer Travis Shaw while in turn, Milwaukee nabbed Toronto’s first baseman for the past five years, Justin Smoak. But the elephant in the room remains the Blue Jays outfield. Everyone agrees it isn’t the OF of a competitive team, but thus far nothing’s been done to remedy the situation.
First let’s recap last year. Lourdes Gurriel, up until then a middle-infielder, was shifted into left field and played acceptably (though far from very well) in his new position, and hit quite well .277 with 20 homers and a .869 OPS in the just over half a season (84 games) he was on the active roster. No big problems there.
Center and right field weren’t so great though. Randal Grichuk, signed to a long-term deal before the season, was probably the best defender but still was hit-or-miss in the field and so-so at the plate. While he did lead the team with 31 HR and 80 RBI, his average was low (.232), his OPS very ordinary at .732 and he struck out nearly five times for every walk he took. Grichuk himself admitted that wasn’t good enough.
This left a whole range of Not Ready For Primetime Players filling in the outfield. Most notable of those was Teoscar Hernandez, who inexplicably was dropped into CF much of the time, despite being an obvious “full time DH” if ever there was one. He hit .230 with 26 homers and a .778 OPS. Add in much-vaunted (by management) Derek Fisher, who hit all of .161 in his 40 games, Anthony Alford – a former can’t miss prospect whose time appears to be running out to make a career out of baseball – who was .179 with one homer in 18 games, and Billy McKinney, a .215 hitter with a .696 OPS in 84 games. And suffice to say, none of those names was going to be mentioned in a conversation about Gold Gloves.
Using the new but currently in vogue “Outs above average” stat, which looks at every play and tries to rank its ease based on how far the runner has to run, how hard the ball is hit and so on, and gauge how hard it is to make the play, only Grichuk comes out with a positive rating. He was seen as adding 6 outs, and being 21st best among full-time OF in the majors. Not too bad, although viewers were sure to notice the day-to-day fluctuations of his fielding. Still that was much better than McKinney (-5 outs), Gurriel (-4) and Fisher who cost the team 3 outs in his limited use and caught the flyballs 4% less than an average fielder. In case you were wondering, the Twins slugger Eduardo Roasario was seen as the absolute worst outfielder by these definitions, with -17 outs.
So we have Gurriel, a decent young hitter who looks mediocre in left; Grichuk, a power hitter with a lack of plate discipline but fair fielding skills… and a bunch of guys who can’t hit, catch or throw. Not a good way to compete with the Yankees or Red Sox, even if the team does now have fairly decent pitching and a promising youthful infield. There’s a clear need for outside help in the outfield.
While there are any number of potential trade candidates, four pretty good OF remain on the free agent market. One hopes Toronto is talking to at least a couple of them. There’s highly-touted Nicholas Castellanos, Marcell Ozuna, former-Jay Kevin Pillar, and the “wild card” in the mix, controversial Yasiel Puig.
Of the four, Puig probably has the highest ceiling, but also the most uncertainties with his health and demeanor. Pillar is likely the best defensive OF of the four, but the weakest hitter. Ozuna and Castellanos are Plan 1A and Plan 1B for a whole range of teams including the Cardinals , White Sox, Cubs and maybe Twins (although they may be spent out now after surprising the sports world by getting 3B Josh Donaldson on board.)
I ran a poll on Twitter and found that an overwhelming majority preferred Castallanos out of the four, by about 4:1 to the both Ozuna and Pillar. Not scientific but a good insight into fan perception of the quartet.
Do I agree? Well, I think any of the four could be beneficial. Let’s look at the four quickly.
Pillar is a known commodity who dominated the team’s “Best Defensive Plays of the Decade” tape. He’s still seen as an above-average defensive OF based on that “outs above average” and is reliable. He’s got 7 seasons under his belt, 6 with Toronto, and has logged 500+ at bats for the past five years. He averages 37 doubles a year over the past four seasons, has good speed and hit a career high 21 homers last year. However, his OPS has never been above the league average, something you’d rather hope an outfielder could do at least once or twice in a career!
Ozuna also has been around for 7 seasons, and has played 123 or more games for the past six. His on base percentage has been .320+ for the last four years and he’s generally around 2 on the WAR scale, although his monster 2017 (37 homers, .924 OPS) with Miami gave him a 6.1, seemingly an outlier of a year.
Castellanos suffered perhaps by playing most of his recent years in the terrible Tigers organization. He also has 7 years experience. He hit career highs last season with 27 HR and an .863 OPS but it’s widely noted that it was the tale of two seasons in one for Nick. With Detroit for much of the season, he had a .462 slugging percentage and one homer per 37 at bats . After being traded to the Cubs at the deadline, he skyrocketed to one homer per 13 at bats and a .646 slugging. If he’s really the Tiger Castallanos, he’s a decent, workaday, nothing unusual outfielder. If he’s the Cubby Castallanos, he’s a budding superstar, a possible 45 HR/125 RBI guy. So discerning which player he is will be of importance to any club wanting to sign him!
Puig too, has 7 years of service and is still only 29 which surprises some. He’s had health issues along the way (missing a cumulative 140 games between 2015-16) but has played 140+ games each of the past three. He’s got some speed, averaging 16 steals a year over the past three, and has posted decent OPS of .833, .820 and .785 over the past three years. He has some home run power and a strong arm. The problem with Yasiel seems to be primarily that he came up as an expected superstar but has developed only into a slightly above-average player, disappointing some therefore, and that he’s perceived as being something of a slacker. Determining whether that last part is true would be of vital import to any team looking at him.
Overall last season, Castellanos had the best WAR with 2.7, followed by Ozuna at 2.2, Pillar at 1.0 then Puig at 0.5. Strangely though, all four posted negative defensive WARS , which seems counter-intuitive given Pillar’s reputation and +outs above average. However, of the 4, only Castellanos had a truly bad defensive rating, of -1.5.
In short, any of the four could potentially be an upgrade for Toronto over Teoscar Hernandez, Billy McKinney or Derek Fisher . Which one would I prefer? Whichever one is willing to sign in Toronto on a one or two year deal that won’t break the bank, given that none of them are likely to be “drive-the-team-to-the-World-series-by-themselves” guys. My best bet is that Pillar would return to the team he knows well at a reasonable rate, or that as spring training draws nearer Puig could still find himself on the outside looking in and go for a one year deal with a low base rate and lots of incentives designed to show he is still a viable star and could really hammer the ball in the hitter-friendly AL East.
Get to those phones, Mr. Atkins!