Tagged: 2015 Blue Jays

The year in review

 

2015 is now mere hours away from completion and while the year has had its ups and downs, for us Blue Jays fans it has to be considered a success. A long, patiently waited for success. All we can hope for is that Rogers and Mark Shapiro will make a resolution to make 2016 even better and jump through that window of contention while it’s still open.

Granted it was disappointing that Toronto ended up bowing out in the championship series, but all-in-all, the first 90+ win year and first playoff entry since magical 1993; the league MVP and highest attendance in decades more than compensates. The 2015 season showed us several important things. Jose Bautista can compete and deliver in the big games just as well as meaningless ones. Alex Anthopoulos did have, or at least had developed, a good sense of talent. Marco Estrada and Chris Colabello are ample proof of that, not that AA’s prowess benefits the team anymore, sadly. It also showed that John Gibbons can certainly punch his weight as managers go. Perhaps no Connie Mack or Billy Martin, Gibbons kept the good ship Jay upright through difficult early months and then showed he had the know-how to take a good team and run with it. He is another illustration of a shrewd Anthopoulos move which looked a bit dubious at the time.

the year also showed that Toronto , and Canada in fact, love baseball. The 3 million fans in the stands, the high TV ratings coast-to-coast, the fact the team was more searched for domestically on Google than Trudeau, Jenner or ISIS all speak to the excitement the Jays generated when the fans were finally given a team to be excited about. This bodes well for the future if only the owners pay attention and try to build on that excitement rather than did up the skeletons of JP Ricciardi’s playbooks and “five-year plans.” What’s more, the season showed that baseball loves Toronto as well. No longer can we Canucks think about complaining that baseball and its people don’t pay attention to the blue-and-white because of their location. Having a player voted MVP- ahead of Golden Boy Mike Trout- and recipient of the Hank Aaron Award , not to mention the fact that the league-sponsored ESPN special on the best plays of the season (which ranked 3 Toronto plays among the ten best of the year in all of baseball) put that myth to rest. In the eyes of MLB, Toronto is every bit as valid a city, and organization, as New York, Chicago or St. Louis.

So now we look ahead to February and Dunedin, and that opening Sunday in Tampa a few weeks later. It goes without saying that now with David Price gone and a weaker bullpen, the Jays hopes don’t look quite so bright. The Red Sox and Yankees have gotten better- as much as I dislike Chapman from everything we hear about him, he will certainly give NY a bullpen to rival Kansas City’s- while Toronto has at best trod water. All is not lost however; remember Toronto was the best in the division; Boston particularly have a lot of catching up to do to compete. Merely standing pat is disappointing to fans but may still yield a team that can win. If Marcus Stroman develops into the pitcher they think he can be, or JA Happ continues to pitch like he did in late summer in Pittsburgh, with the bats of Bautista, Donaldson, Encarnacion and crew this team could still better their 93 wins and take their playoff experience and grow from it – as the Royals did in 2015.

As a reminder and encouragement to those who feel all is lost before the season begins, I offer a little look at early 2015 and how things were expected to play out. I picked Boston to win our division and Toronto to finish right at .500. I also thought the White Sox and Mariners could win their divisions. I might be loopy therefore, but so too are the more experienced pundits. Athlon Sports springtime annual picked Boston, Detroit and LA Angels as division champs and predicted a Washington World series as did so many others. USA Today got ten out of 30 clubs in the right position at year’s end, although they did manage to pick our team to win the AL East. Furthermore, of their panel of 7 expert writers , not one predicted KC or the Mets to win their division let alone meet in the World Series. Likewise, none of the 7 predicted Josh D for MVP or got either of the Cy Young winners. It all goes to show, predicting and speculating is fun, but there’s a reason they actually take to the diamond for 162 games.

2016 should be a good one! Enjoy the ride, and while I’m at it, let me wish you a happy new year away from the ballpark as well as when at it!

 

Royals Crown Paves the Way for ’16 Jays to Reign

It’s been said Kansas City was the model for the early Blue Jays franchise to model themselves after. No wonder, the Royals had jumped into competitiveness quickly after their 1969 birth. By the time the Jays came about, KC was an increasingly respectible team with the likes of Steve Busby, Paul Splittorff, Al Hrabrosky and a young buck called George Brett. The early Jays tried to emulate the KC formula of smart draft picks, quality starting pitchers supplemented with a few “character” player free agents to add a bit of bop and leadership in the clubhouse- and of course, powder blue jerseys!

A lot has changed in the 35+ seasons that have passed and both teams have a couple of World Series banners to fly proudly. But the Royals can still be a bit of a role model for the Blue Jays, which is why we Toronto fans can join KC in celebrating this year’s World Series.

Not only did the Royals quick disposal of the Mets in the World Series allow for us to make a reasonable claim to be the second-best club in all of baseball this season (after all , we put up more of a fight against the best team than the NL Champs did) but it also showed a clear path for Toronto to follow for 2016. With a little guidance from that roadmap and a bit of luck it can be the Jays enjoying the champagne and a parade downtown this time next year.

Significantly, Toronto is in good shape to follow the Royals’ lead by adhering to the old Dear Abby-ism “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” KC realized they came within a few pitches of winning it all last year and did their best to return largely the same team to the field this year. Manager Ned Yost and most of the coaching staff were renewed. While they did lose their top starting pitcher (James Shields) to free agency and aging de-facto captain Billy Butler, the primary core of the team returned en masse- Guthrie, Ventura as starters, Moustakas, Cain, Hosmer, all-star catcher Perez, as well as the bullpen trio of Davis, Holland and Herrera. While they perhaps had to sacrifice a little leadership with the departure of Shields and Butler, they made up for it with Edison Volquez (who’d been close to Shields in ’14 numbers: 13-7, 3.04 with Pittsburgh in 192 innings compared to 14-8, 3.21 in 227 innings) and upgraded at DH by bringing in Kendrys Morales who seemed to have a chip on his shoulder because of nay-sayers who wrote him off after a lack-lustre season (.218, 8 HR in 98 games). Morales responded with the second-best season of his career, hitting .290 with 106 RBI.

Like last year’s Kansas City, Toronto is poised to bring back most of this year’s squad, from manager John Gibbons through the coaches to all the significant position players (Bautista and Encarnacion had their contract options picked up today and Martin, Pillar, Donaldson are already signed or arbitration-eligible) and a good chunk of the pitching. Granted, right now the Jays may lose more than one of their starting rotation but will still have the likes of Dickey, Stroman, Hutchison, Cecil, Osuna and Loup returning. If Estrada re-signs, Toronto could be just a decent free agent starter and reliever or two away from another division title with or without David Price.

Kansas City also showed that playoff experience matters. Although last year’s team were solid and gave San Fran a good battle, there’s no mistaking the added confidence and swagger of the 2015 edition. Jose Bautista showed he can step up to the plate in pressure games, one can only hope that this fall’s run will likewise boost the Jays confidence in close games next year.

The Royals have built a club well-suited to their spacious ballpark, with an emphasis on speed and outfield. Toronto is totally different but have also built a club designed to maximize performance at Rogers Centre and other East division parks, with the home run power and solid infield defense to work on the artificial turf.

2016 will be a long grind as all seasons are, but this October suggests Toronto could be having a lot more to celebrate next fall than this. But “interim” General Manager Tony LaCava had better get to work, add the piece or two of the puzzle needed because not only the Royals give an example to pay attention to. So too do the last-place Phillies who show all too well what happens when a club stagnates and fails to take advantage of success when the window for it opens!

Did Final Week of Schedule End Jays Playoff Run Too?

As I sat and watched, fairly disinterestedly, the Royals prevail against the Mets in last night’s marathon Game 1 of the World Series, I couldn’t help but think “Toronto could have won this game, and probably in 9 innings!”. Ahh, what might have been!

There’s no shame in being the bronze medal and that’s essentially what the Blue Jays were this year- baseball’s bronze medal winners. That’s a lot better than we’d really hoped for six months back. Yet it still smarts a little, knowing how close they came to having a shot to go for the gold. A sting made worse by the way KC won the final game of the ALCS, what with a very questionable ninth inning strike call against Ben Revere topping off a fan-assisted Royals homer. Nevertheless, lose they did and there were ample chances for them to have turned around at least a couple of the KC wins. Ultimately we might have to just tip our caps and acknowledge Kansas City have it all together and might be the best team in baseball.

When looking back to what the Blue Jays could have done differently, all I can come up with was that they seemingly took their foot off the gas a little bit in the final week. That’s pretty understandable, given human nature but might have cost them the World Series they, and we fans, craved. In particular i think 2 miscues cost them badly.

First, the October 1 game against Baltimore. Having clinched the division the day before in Maryland in Game 1 of a double-header, they fielded a team of subs for the second game and lost. Understandable, even acceptable. The regulars were not only high on winning the division but tired. No harm in putting in the likes of Carrera and Pompey for the nightcap. The problem came the next day when they again sent out a team of minor-leaguers and fill-ins. Cliff Pennington hitting second and Jonathan Diaz in the starting lineup hardly inspires confidence. Not to mention the starting pitcher, Drew Hutchison, well-rested to the point of being rusty and (as well-noted) having an awful season pitching on the road. Not surprisingly, Hutch gave up four hits (one a home run) and three runs in the first and was chased from the game, requiring six relievers patched together to get through the game. Baltimore won 6-4.

To make matters worse, David Price had last pitched on the 26th, making the day his normal day to pitch. As we recall, he didn’t pitch again until the playoffs and seemed out of sorts doubtless due to having an unusual amount of time off. It’s quite conceivable that Price would have easily gone six or more innings, shut down the Orioles early and won the game.

Of course, that is 20/20 hindsight. John Gibbons addressed the issue and told ESPN “we want to win home field … we’ve been going at it hard all year. Going back and playing an early game (for the regulars) today would be like no day off. I’ve got to do what’s best for these guys.” He has a point. It was a cool rainy day, the game’s start was delayed for three hours and most of the regulars had been playing hard day in, day out for weeks. Some, like Edwin Encarnacion playing through injuries. So giving them an extra day off to rest and chill out has its merits. Besides which, Diaz and Kawasaki, two of the more questionable players in the lineup both responded with RBI singles. Had Encarnacion made his hernia worse, or David Price slipped off the muddy mound and torn a ligament, there would have been no end to the second guessing and criticizing of Gibby.

Perhaps even more questionable was the last day of the regular season. Readers here know I am a fan of Mark Buehrle but giving him the start on one day’s rest simply to allow him to try to hit a personal milestone (200 innings pitched for the 15th time in a row) was bizarre to say the least. Of course it backfired with the Rays jumping out to an early 8 run lead and as it turned out, chasing Buehrle from the game in the first, without even hitting his 200 innings. It would have been far better to send RA Dickey out to the mound to start and then, if the game seemed under control by the 6th or 7th inning, let Buehrle come in to finish it off if he felt up to it. Dickey would have been on short rest, but 3 days rest is better than one and he wasn’t slated to pitch until well into the ALDS, so he’d have plenty of time to recuperate. It was a regrettable game to give away. Granted, as it turned out KC would win that day and pick up the AL-best 95 wins but the Jays didn’t know that taking the field and still had a shot to win home field advantage throughout the playoffs. We saw how huge that would be this month.

The Royals lost their opening playoff game at home to Houston on Oct. 8 and haven’t lost in Missouri again since. The Jays won 2 of 3 against them in Toronto but were swept in KC. Had the fields been reversed, one has to feel that the Jays might have at least gotten to game 7…and could be the ones putting those Mets in their place right now.

The things that might have been. We could dwell on it, but instead, let’s look back and enjoy the memories of the most exciting and successful Jays team in a generation and look forward to another run for the gold next year!

I’ll look at some areas the team needs to address for the 2016 season next time here, but the first need is obvious- the General Manager. Rogers need to get someone in place and soon, with free agency only a week or so away and players having options that need picking up or declining. I’m as surprised as anyone to say it, but after the 2015 season, I now am fully behind the idea of bringing Alex Anthopoulos back to finish what he started. That should be Mark Shapiro’s Job 1.

UPDATE OCT.29: Well Mark Shapiro DID make it his Job 1, but in a rather unexpected way. The Blue jays now are looking for a new General Manager.

Woo-hoo!! 21 years later… Success!

The drought is over!! After 21 years of futility, we know the Blue Jays have a shot at winning it all this season!! Today’s win over Tampa not only gives them the biggest win total since 1993 but also guarantees them their first post-season berth since that year!

In coming days there’ll be time to break down the possible match-ups, evaluate Toronto’s October roster. But today is all about saying “YES!” and congrats to the team, to John Gibbons, to Alex Anthopoulos who’s shown a newfound determination to winning this year, and to all the fans back up north who’ve supported through thick and thin… but cheered harder the last couple of months!

Bring on October!!

Wow- a Late Season One That Isn’t an Autopsy!! Jays prime for the Playoffs…

How nice it is to be writing a blog at the end of August about what the Blue Jays should be doing to prepare for a World Series run in a month instead of what they did wrong and what they need to do in off-season to build a contender for the next year!

While my fingers are still crossed, it’s looking more and more likely our 21 years of frustration are coming to an end… at time of writing this, Saturday, Toronto is a game and a half in front of the Yankees for first place and have a full six-and-a-half games over the top, “non-wildcard” team. With our post-Tulowitzki record and the schedule today now offering us the same number of home games as road ones (following the great 8 game road trip that ended Thursday) it would seem the Jays really would have to have a collapse of epic, 2011 Red Sox-type to miss the playoffs.

That said, a little insurance couldn’t hurt. this late in the season, it’s unlikely “insurance” will come via trades – even though rumors are swirling about Craig Kimbrel being traded to an unknown team – so we have to look within the organization to bolster the roster for September.

Alex Anthopoulos has apparently said that additions will be few, but will be coming in September with the expanded rosters. Thankfully, a team that’s won 22 of its last 27 doesn’t need a huge overhaul but a few more options on the bench would be nice. Interestingly, Bluebird Banter suggested that only A-level Lansing is likely to make the minor league playoffs and play beyond the (unusually late Sep. 7) end of their regular season and that Marcus Stroman might end up there for a couple of rehabilitation starts.

While there’s not much wrong with the Blue Jays right now, I’d suggest the team rents a stretch limo on Sep. 7 and bring a few Bisons to the big leagues… starting with

Matt Hague – the International League’s leading hitter at .349 with 86 RBI in 125 games could provide a good power bat on the bench for pinch hitting and could give Edwin Encarnacion a day or two off to fully recover from his bumps and injuries before playoff time. Although EE’s 24 game hitting streak and headline-grabbing game today suggests maybe he’s already done that…

Dalton Pompey – the Mississauga kid didn’t really make a go of it at the major league level in April but he’s hit a decent .290 in buffalo with 15 stolen bases in 22 attempts and only 2 errors in 61 outfield games. His time isn’t now, but he could provide a speedy pinch runner if Dioner Navarro represents the winning run in the 9th inning, for instance…

Munenori Kawasaki – not having a stellar season even by AAA standards, but the popular little infielder has big league experience and provides a decent back-up middle infielder . Having only Tulo, Pennington and Goins on the roster who could really even play an inning or two at second or shortstop makes me a bit nervous (by the way, for those wondering, it seems Steve Tolleson has retired even though he’s still listed as a Bison)…

and some added arms for the bullpen. The pen has been exceptional lately, but it’s always good to have a few more people there lest an 18 or 20 inning game occur, or have starters knocked out early a couple of days in a row. My top choices for that would include…

Ryan Tepera – Ryan looked decent earlier in his 21 games with Toronto, since then he’s been pretty outstanding in 20 games with Buffalo, going 3-1 with two saves and a miniscule 1.09 ERA, 37 K in about 33 innings. Power and durability to add to the pen…

Steve Delebar – another pitcher with enough big league experience to handle the pressure of a playoff run, he’s been good this year in the minors with a 27:7 strikeout to walk ratio…

Chad Jenkins – being switched to a reliever, jays fans are well familiar with Chad and between 9 starts and 30 relief appearances, he’s 8-4 with an ERA under 3, somewhat like the numbers for …

Jeff Francis – the Canadian lefty is no stranger to big September games and is 8-3, 2.46 in 13 starts, 5 relief appearances at AAA. He’s only walking about one batter per seven innings, so he might be the perfect guy to be able to not only get tough left-handed hitters out in the 10th inning or make a spot start.

Sorry Aaron Loup and Joba Chamberlain. Despite your extensive MLB experience, recent lack of success in majors as well as in Buffalo would make me give them an early winter break and not roll the dice on having them in Blue Jays unis come playoff time.

****** ******

I was lucky enough to go see our Jays on the road this past Tuesday, when they came from behind to top Texas 6-5. It was a great night and I was given no hassles by anybody for sporting my Jays cap proudly. I estimate I saw another 40 to 60 Toronto fans “supportin’” , with a number of Bautista jerseys in the crowd as well as a few EE ones, and even an old Brett Lawrie one, as well as a new Tulowitzki blue jersey.

Being a Mark Buehrle start, the game went by rather quickly and I was happy to see there’s now a countdown clock in the outfield which keeps the between inning breaks to the designated 2:30. Those extra 15 or 30 seconds every half inning do add up to a nicer, speedier pace. It’s not as obvious at home watching on TV as it is in the stands. Another thing baseball has got right in the last few years.

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Mark Buehrle speeds things up when he takes the mound!

Hoping Dismal Years Are Toast, the Jays Are the Toast of the Town

It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas… for Blue Jay fans, that is. Of course, the best Christmas gift for a ball fan would be a World Series to savor and while there’s still a long ways to go, there’s reason for optimism. With today’s win, Toronto become the first team in over 60 years to have two 11-game winning streaks in a single season. The last one to do so, the 1954 Indians, won the AL before losing the World Series. The Blue Jays will hold on to first place no matter what the Yankees do tonight against Cleveland and it’s the latest date on the calendar the Jays have been atop the division since 1993. Get the wrapping paper ready.

One might think this season is a lot like 1992, the first year Toronto won a World Championship. There are similarities. The crew of ’92 was coming off a decent season and went into spring with two big new acquisitions, the previous year’s World Series hero, Jack Morris and the big bat of Dave Winfield. Both were brought in as free agents with hopes that they’d not only produce but instill a winning attitude among the younger players.

This year’s Jays, coming off a decent but disappointing year, were also supplemented by two big acquisitions, Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin. Again, both were brought in in hopes of seeing them not only produce on field but inspire with their attitudes and track record of winning.

As we know, Morris went on to be Toronto’s first-ever 20-game winner in ’92 and Winfield fired up the crowd and drove in over 100 runs, upping the game of the team’s noteworthy power hitter (Joe Carter) as well. Carter’s 34 HR, 119 RBI that season were the catalyst for the team’s offense and were also the second-best in each category for his career. Compare that to this year and how Donaldson is having an MVP-type campaign and is helping Jose Bautista remain among the league’s best in HR and RBI despite the frequent absence of Edwin Encarnacion in the lineup.

Significantly as well, the same as this year, Jays didn’t stand pat mid-season in 1992. At the trade deadline, they reacquired durable reliever Mark Eichorn to boost the mediocre middle-relief. More importantly, Aug. 27 they looked ahead to the playoffs and boosted their rotation by getting an established front-line starter, David Cone. It’s worth noting that after that trade, they sailed along at a 24-11 pace.

This year of course, they were much more active at the July trade deadline but also supplemented their dismal middle-relief with LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe. But they also added a star infielder and got their front-line starter a month earlier. Since the two big trades, they’ve been cruising along, losing only once and gaining some 7 games on New York in the standings.

There are of course, significant differences between the two years. The ’92 team had lacklustre middle-relievers (Bob MacDonald for instance, and future Cy Young winner Pat Hentgen who sported a 5.36 ERA out of the ‘pen) much like this year’s edition. However, the ’92 bullpen was anchored by the best 1-2 tandem in the league in Henke and Ward. The latter was the “Set-up” guy and still saved 12 with a sub-2 ERA in 79 games. That’s a little more than we’re getting out of Roberto Osuna and Brett Cecil this year.

No worries though, this season’s regular lineup is better though. The Jays , 1992-style, were good hitting but hardly world-beaters. it was a team, after all, with Manny Lee and a slumping Kelly Gruber (.229, 11 homers) playing everyday and a centerfielder kept more for his outstanding D than his hitting (and as much as I didn’t think I’d ever be saying this, in that Kevin Pillar is much like Devon White.) They didn’t have the horsepower to rack up double-digit tallies almost any night at will.

While this year’s team has had the two 11-game win streaks, the ’92s “only” managed a streak of 8 wins in a row. Both teams dominated at home; this year’s .650 winning pct at Rogers’ Centre is almost identical to the 53-28 final record of the 1992. The difference though is on the road, where the championship team managed to be just over .500; this year’s version currently sits at 25-31 on the road. More than anything else, if the 2015 Jays are to compete, they’ll have to be significantly better on their final 25 away games than they were up to now.

Not to be negative though; the ’92s topped second-place Milwaukee (there’s a trip for younger readers- yep, the Brewers were AL East rivals at one time) by 4 games. They’d have had an easier time of it had they played better against Milwaukee, but they actually went just 5-8 head-to-head. Contrast that to this year’s games against second-place New York in which Toronto is 7-2 including five wins in six games in the Bronx. Taking 7 of the remaining 10 games against the Pinstripes should all but guarantee the division win.

In retrospect, the 1992 Blue Jays weren’t all that much like this year’s. But they were the same in the things that mattered: a winning attitude, management that filled holes mid-season and a couple of hundred RBI men in the middle of the lineup. most of all, an ability to electrify and excite the whole city. Most of all, just like the 1992 Blue Jays, this year’s are turning Toronto into a baseball city again. From the covers of the Toronto Star to excited tweets from TV talking head George Stroumbolulous to crowds of 46 000 turning out on a Thursday afternoon to watch them take on Oakland, the team is the toast of the town. If this year’s can duplicate the ’92 season 19-9 rrecord after August, they will be playing post-season ball and David Price, Josh Donaldson and “Joey Bats” are going to own the city in a way no athletes have since Alomar, Carter and Winfield.

Jays would win division… if all things were equal.

The playoffs might be two months away still, but tonight’s game at Yankee Stadium should have the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Game 1 of a championship series as our Blue Jays take on the Pinstripes. The three game series won’t decide the season one way or another, nor even topple New York from the divisional lead but it will go a long ways to figuring out how the AL East will play out. The series is of paramount importance for Toronto, as will be all of the incredible 13 games they have remaining against the Bronx. However, the real pressure may just be on the home team, seeing as how the Jays are the hottest team in baseball over the past ten days and trounced the Yankees in upgrading their team at the trade deadline.

I expect the Jays to have the best record in the division from here on in, but the question is whether that will be enough to catch, let alone overtake the suprising ol’ Yanks.

We know about what Toronto bats are doing this year, how Josh Donaldson leads the majors in RBI and has already set a career high for homers; how Jose Bautista is having a “down year” but still is on pace for 110 RBI ; the hot streak Edwin Encarnacion is on and so on. Likewise, we know about the Yankees who’ve found the Fountain of Youth apparently; A-Rod’s .281 average, 24 homers and .924 OPS; how Mark Teixeira’s 29 dingers are the most he’s hit in a season since ’11 and if he holds onto his .944 OPS, that will be his best in six years. We know about their acquisition of Dustin Ackley and the respectable year Brian McCann is having.

Likiewise, we know if the Yankees are going to be beaten, a team needs to get to them early on. The bullpen duo of Bettances and Miller are close to Davis and Holland in Kansas City and they, my blue-feathered friends, are every bit the equal of Henke and Ward back in the day. Collectively, the pair have allowed only 15 ER in 93 innings and are 31 for 34 in save opportunities. LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe make the Jays ‘pen better but still not in the same category as New York’s…

Which isn’t that bad, considering that there are usually seven innings before Bettances is trotted out for the Bombers. And Toronto’s starting rotation, dare I say it, blows the Yanks away. It was better even before the Detroit deal, now it’s night and day.

I’m amazed that in a year when Cueto, Price and Kazmir changed hands and all evidence suggested that Shields and Samardzjia were there for the taking that the Yankees decided to stand pat and look towards October with a rotation anchored by Nathan Eovaldi.

Eovaldi is the Big Apple’s Drew Hutchison- his 11-2 record looks dazzling, but dig deeper and his 4.30 ERA is only middling and deeper still, note that opponents are teeing off on his pitching with a .300 average and he doesn’t look too ace-like. Neither does big CC; Sabathia apparently didn’t dip his toe in A-Rod and Tex’s Time-reversing waters. The large lefty does lead the team in innings with 123, but too many of those have been rough ones, as shown by his 4-8 record, his 5.34 ERA and the two dozen homers he’s allowed. Tanaka and Pineda are better but marginally so; Ivan Nova could end up being their best but seven games is a pretty small sample to base it on.

Contrast that with the Jays. As surprises go, Toronto’s starting pitching of late is up there with Donald Trump saying something good about Mexicans. It’s unexpected!! But it has been very solid this summer. Mark Buehrle, Mr. Reliable is destined to increase his streak of double-digit win / 200-inning seasons. With 12 W, he’s already half way there, and he only needs 52 innings more over the remaining two months. In his last 6 outings, he’s 3-1 with a tidy 2.53 ERA…which is bested by RA Dickey!

The knuckleballer’s had to deal with his share of detractors this year, and a strange lack of run support from a team leading the world in runs. His 6-10, 4.06 ERA isn’t putting him in the discussion for another Cy Young but it’s decent. More importantly, of late he’s been in top form, lowering his ERA by almost a full run in his last five games. In that span he’s been 3-1 with only 5 earned runs given up in over 36 innings. Tonight he looks to make it three starts in a row without a run allowed.

Marco Estrada has rounded into form very nicely with a couple of near no-nos and more than two ER allowed in only one of his past 9 games; a 3.40 ERA and measly .216 opponents average are the results.

If the team lacked a true #1 Starter before, they have it now in David Price. What more can you say about him that his 10-4 record, 2.45 ERA and 149K to 31 BB, his 154 innings pitched already (third best in the league) don’t? Well, there’s always that throwing out a clunker of an outing on July 28, when he was doubtless packing up his locker and wondering which direction he’d be driving, and he’s had a 1.18 ERA since the beginning of July and is averaging almost 8 innings a start.

Which leaves Drew Hutchison. Preferably in Buffalo, if i had my way. After opening day, Drew’s never really had it together but of late he’s worse. In his last 6 starts, he hasn’t pitched past 6 innings at all, and has surrendered 43 hits in just under 30 innings. His ERA of 6.67 in that period would be even worse if some of the questionable errors called against the Jays didn’t mean 6 runs he’s given up in that period have been unearned. The good news for Toronto is that with seven off days left in the sched, they may be able to skip Hutch’s spot in the rotation several times.

What’s it all mean? Well, it means that all other things been equal, Toronto should be significantly better than NY down the stretch.

Unfortunately, all things are not equal. Both teams are much better at home than on the road; New York have 31 of their final 55 games in the Bronx. The Jays have only 24 of 52 games left in the Rogers Centre. Toronto have five interleague games left on the road, New York three. Five games with EE either out of the lineup, or playing first base, is significant. Both teams have a number of games left to play against lacklustre teams, but the Jays face the other pesky birds, the Orioles, 7 times compared to New York’s three. Bottom line- the schedule favors New York.

Schedule notwithstanding, the Jays can still win it all. They have the momentum, they have the post-trade euphoric confidence, they have better hitting and starting pitching than New York. But for that to happen, they will need to deliver a decisive message in the remaining bakers’ dozen games against NY.

If the Blue Jays “time is now”, the time to start proving it is now. The post season starts in two months. The real fun begins tonight.

Jays deliver a nice appetizer- now we’re ready for the main course!

Have you ever been really, really hungry and had a friend give you a martini with an olive while everyone else in the room sat eating super-sized burgers? Secretly you think, the martini is only to make you tipsy enough to forget you’re hungry and not getting what you need. If not, you’re obviously not a Blue Jays fan. Because, don’t get me wrong- Troy Tulowitzki is a huge addition to the team and instantly improves it. Likewise, LaTroy Hawkins won’t hurt at all. But are they not the martini and olive?

I was amazed yesterday morning, not to find that Troy Tulowitzki had been traded from the wheel-spinning Colorado Rockies that he’d made it clear he was unhappy to be, but to find that Toronto was the recipient. Equally surprising, that the Jays had managed to find someone to take Jose Reyes and his big salary off their hands. It’s exciting. But unless Alex Anthopoulos has some more tricks up his sleeve- as in ones which will bring in more pitching – it seems less than game-changing. All the while, the Royals improved their chances of going back to the World Series by acquiring Johnny Cueto, and Jon Papelbon’s wishes to get out of the hellhole that is Phillies baseball, 2015 edition, just ran him 75 miles down the road rather than north across the border.

That said, I will give credit where it is due and give kudos to the Jays and Alex A. Tulowitzki is, when healthy, the best shortstop in baseball, at the plate and damn near the best with the glove. Jose Reyes is on the sunset slope of his career path.

While Tulo is surprisingly only a year and change younger chronologically than Reyes, he plays much younger, perhaps a function of this being his tenth year in the bigs while Reyes is in his 13th. While some point out that the pair have had similar career batting averages (.299 for TT vs. .291 for Reyes), except for speed-related categories like stolen bases , Reyes has been good but Tulowitzki has been extraordinary. Despite three fewer seasons, TT out homers Reyes 188- 115 and has driven in 55 runs more; his career slugging percentage is a lofty .513 to Reyes ordinary .433.

This year too, Troy has the advantage. He’s been clipping along with a .300 avg, .818 OPS and 12 HR/53 RBI. Reyes is hitting .285 but has only 4 HR, 34 RBI and a .708 OPS. Even throwing in the fact that Reyes has 16 steals and Troy seems done with that part of the game (the last time he stole 16 in a season was 2009 ) one has to concede that the ex-Rocky is much more of a threat at the plate.

Perhaps even more importantly, he’s a better fielder at this point in his career. Anyone who’s seen a few Colorado and Toronto games this year can see that qualitatively but the numbers back it too. Reyes has commit 13 errors in just 69 games at SS this year for a lacklustre .953 fielding percentage; Tulo has only 8 errors in 82 games and a .978 fielding pct. Baseball-reference.com scores Troy as a 4.24 “range factor” at short, compared to 3.78 for Reyes. It’s not a stat that’s an everyday number to me, but know that the higher the number, the better the player is at getting to balls. The all-time record for shortstops is 6.7.

Add in that Tulowitzki is considered 11% above average for OPS , when adjusted to the ballparks he plays in whereas Reyes is a -3% and you can see that the Jays offense should benefit as well as the “D”.

The big question though is ‘is it enough’? Scoring runs hasn’t been that big a problem for Toronto this year. Pitching has been. I did some quick calculations, assuming that both TT and Reyes could stay healthy for remainder of the season (which is a big “if” for both– Troy hasn’t played 140 games in a year since ’11, and Reyes who’s already missed some 30 games with injuries this year has hit that mark only twice in the last 7 seasons) I’m projecting Troy to hit about .305 with 15 more homers (he hits more fly balls than grounders, which is sure to work to his advantage at the Rogers Centre) and around a .575 slugging percentage. Reyes, optimistically, had he stayed, might have hit .280 with 3 HR and a .425 slugging. Even factoring in Reyes advantage on the basepaths and I see the newcomer adding some 20 runs between his greater power and higher average. More importantly, in the field, Troy should get to more balls than Reyes would have, make more outs. He could start 45 DPs, reyes might not exceed 30. Based on this year’s numbers, even factoring in Tulo’s unfamiliarity with artificial turf and even if his fielding percentage drops, he should provide 50 more defensive outs than Reyes would have. Given that the Jays have an appallingly bad record of letting opposing base-runners score (one of only 4 teams who have had over half of the opposing runners come in to score, with a league-worst 58% ) that translates to 29 defensive runs scored.

So the question is: how many extra wins are added in if Tulowitzki can indeed save 29 runs in the field and account for 20 or so more Jays runs? That is indeed a million dollar question, but my guess is this- some , but not enough. Six maybe.

The unspoken wildcard in the whole deal might be ancient LaTroy Hawkins, 42 years young and in his 21st baseball season. he plans to retire after 2015, and likely open up a baseball cap shop since Toronto will be the eleventh hat he’s worn. The smart right-hander has been good this year with Colorado , with a 2-1 record, 2 saves and a 3.63 ERA , plus a solid 5:1 K to BB ratio. From all accounts he’s a good mature presence in the clubhouse and he’ll solidify the middle of the bullpen for the Jays. However, he’s not worked as a closer regularly since 2004 and isn’t expected to do so here. If he replaces Bo Schultz, which seems likely, numerically he won’t add anything but he might function much better in pressure situations.

I like the trade. It makes Toronto better, it makes the Jays chances of making the playoffs better than it was. It makes the Jays better looking ahead to next year. But if they want my applause, there’d better be more moves coming up before Friday’s trade deadline. I think this trade moves Toronto to about 87 wins and a solid second place in the East. A reliable starter would put them over the top, and James Shields (who is under contract for three more years, something Alex A. has said is important to the team), David Price and Mike Leake are among the options open. (By the way, while Joe Blanton and Wandy Rodriguez were designated for assignment by KC and Texas, respectively, I would by no means consider them game changers, let alone season-savers.) Meanwhile, even after giving up some youth to Colorado, the Jays could still stand to offer prospects like Daniel Norris (who’s terrible season in Buffalo might suggest the sooner they get rid of him, the better), Jonathan Harris, 905-born Dalton Pompey (hitting .310 back in the minors this year), highly-touted catcher Max Pentecost and leftie Matt Boyd (remarkable at 9-2, 1.68 between AA and AAA this season despite looking historically-bad in two appearances at Toronto) to offer up. Even Drew Hutchison should be looked at as a token to offer if the chance of getting a “non-rental” pitcher, ie Shields, Leake or Tyson Ross, is on the table.

We were expecting a nice meal, a starting pitcher, and got a good drink – an all-star shortstop- instead. Time for the main course, Mr. Anthopoulos. The fans are hungry.

Thursday Addendum:  And so he did!! The trade today delivers the front-line starting pitcher the Jays so badly needed in David Price. While giving up Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd and Jairo Laibourt is a hefty “price” to pay for a pitcher who may only be around for two or three months, it is a solid deal which instantly transforms Toronto into as good a choice to go to the World Series as any AL team. Numerically, Price has a good shot of winning five more starts before end of season compared to Felix Doubront  (who was designated for assignment yesterday), but the effect goes well beyond that. Price should assist the other starters by keeping the bullpen a little fresher and certainly delivers the “shot in the arm” as John Gibbons terms it, to the other players in the clubhouse.   What’s more, it delivers a pitcher with a decent amount of post-season experience looking to prove himself on a big stage going into free agency.

Toronto is all in this year.  Congratulations, Mr. Anthopoulos, you served up a fine dish!

Parity– Toronto’s strength is also its weakness.

Congratulations to Josh Donaldson, not only voted into the All Star Game in his first year as a Blue Jay, but doing so with panache- leading all players in votes, setting an all-time record along the way. Take that, Kansas City! If there was ever any doubt there’s an ocean of fans waiting to let loose, fill the Rogers Centre and cheer on a winning Toronto team, the 14 million votes for Josh should clear it up. Despite a now league-high 21-year playoff drought , there’s still a huge, avid Blue Jays fanbase north of the border.

Congrats too, of course, to Jose Bautista, going to his sixth straight ASG as a Jay, and Torontonian Russell Martin named as well. Well-deserved honors and something for us to look forward to seeing next Tuesday. However, as big as that is, the one baseball date in July that looms larger yet for the team is the “trade deadline” at month-end, and the thing that would make us cheer louder than a Donaldson home run at the mid-summer classic in Cinci would be the Jays landing a star pitcher. Maybe from Cincinnati. The one arm who’d lift the team above their water-treading, perennially-middling doldrums.

Unfortunately, the thing working in Toronto’s advantage this year is exactly what will work against them at the trade deadline- Parity. The very fact that Toronto can be (as of Tuesday night) just two games over .500 yet within two games of the division lead is indicative of MLB, 2015 style. Take away, as one columnist put it this week, the “two outliers” – the one very good team (St. Louis) and one very bad team (Philadelphia)- and you’re left with a batch of 28 teams which really aren’t that different than one another. There are no great teams, save for perhaps the Cards, and no atrocious teams, except for the Phillies, (assuming they can’t find a time machine and dial it back to 2010). As of this morning, 12 of 15 American League teams and 9 of the National League ones are within six games of a playoff spot, through either the Wild card or a division lead. With nearly three months left, it’s hard to believe that a team couldn’t make up six games. And there’s the rub.

Years when players were flying between clubhouses in July faster than balls out of Coors Stadium in the 90s were years when there were clear cut winners and losers; years when no more than half the teams even could entertain dreams of playing in October. Seasons like that might be bad for fans in general, but are great for the few teams hanging on the edge of a playoff spot. It’s a buyer’s market with ten or more teams trying desperately to dump salary and get at least some return for players soon to depart to free agency.

This year though, many teams, like Toronto are scrambling to get that boost to put them over the top and few teams are ready to throw in the towel. If you’re a GM and you’re team is sitting five and a half games out of a playoff spot in late July, it’s going to be hard to explain trading away your staff ace to the fans. Or the resultant empty stands for the final two months to the corporate bosses.

Even last year, a relatively “flat” year in terms of extremes between the good and bad teams, Boston was sitting 8 games out of a wild card spot at the ASG, just before they jettisoned Jon Lester and the Cubs were running a full eleven out before giving up on keeping “The Shark” around for the remainder. The Rangers, who traded a pair of potential closers (Jason Frasor and Joakim Soria) in the month sat at 38-57, 13 games out of the final playoff position at the unofficial half-way mark.

Compare that to this year, when the Red Sox are still locked in the AL East basement, but only 5 games from the lead.

So with so many teams still in the running, it’s going to be a seller’s market. This isn’t good, as obviously this drives up the price for the few talented players who will be put up for trade. However, that shouldn’t deter Toronto. As the Phillies are finding out, the window of opportunity for a championship is finite. With the Jays leading the world in offense this year, the Yankees probably a year away from a total makeover and the Rays nurturing a boatload of up-and-coming young pitchers the window isn’t going to open any wider than it is this summer. The time to make the deal is now. There will be a few worthy arms on the market.

The Phils from all accounts are still very interested in ditching their aging, high-paid arms such as Hamels and Papelbon, but there seems little interest in them due to their personalities, large salaries left and larger demands from the Phillies.

A few teams are still likely to be able to be willing however. Milwaukee, sitting at 36-50 have little realistic chance to turn it up enough in the second half to make the post-season, but also have little to offer in way of bolstering a starting rotation. Veteran closer Francisco Rodriguez, however, would be a nice upgrade over rookie Roberto Osuna or unpredictable Brett Cecil to shut down opponents in the 9th. F-Rod is 19 for 19 in saves thus far, with a highly commendable 1.45 ERA over 31 games.

Oakland, although on a bit of a run the last couple of weeks, and despite having a solid +50 run differential, are still 7 games shy of a wild card spot and given the way last year went, unlikely to try to trade up. Tyler Clippard would still be a good fit for the Toronto ‘pen, although Scott Kazmir is suddenly a big question mark after leaving today’s game against NY after 3 innings with “triceps soreness.” Expect to hear his name bandied around a lot less in coming weeks.

Cincinnati is still apparently shopping Johnny Cueto and maybe Mike Leake as well; Leake would be a good #5 starter but of course Cueto is the prize. His shutout yesterday against Max Scherzer’s Nationals boosted his value too, but he is the type of ace who could take Toronto to a Yonge Street parade in November.

San Diego has been a surprise under-achiever this season, and one wonders if at 39-47 and falling, they’d not sell off some pitching. James Shields’ and Craig Kimbrel will no doubt still be the cornerstones of the franchise for years to come, but Tyson Ross might be expendable. At 5-7 with a 3.63 ERA (in an admittedly pitcher-friendly division), coming off a 195 inning, sub-3 ERA season, he could fit nicely between Buehrle and Estrada in the rotation. Similarly, the White Sox have a lot of ground to cover if they entertain any thoughts of October and are said to be ready to ditch their prize off-season acquisition, Jeff Samardzija. Could Toronto be his fourth ball cap in thirteen months? He might not be the superstar Oakland thought he would be last year, but is a solid pitcher aiming for a huge winter contract. The Jays could do worse than adding him to the roster for three months, and will have a chance to see him up close on thursday when they take on the Sox.

One other name jumps out at me this week. Jason Frasor. While KC is certainly in the playoff hunt again and are arguably competing with the Jays to add pitching depth, they inexplicably designated Frasor for assignment two days ago. Presumably the Royals have just too much strength in the bullpen to keep the aging rightie around. The Blue Jays all-time games pitched leader might not be the total answer,or the closer the team needs so badly, but they could do worse than run him out to the mound in the 7th now and again. The ageless one (well, actually he’s 37) is having a decent year again, with a 1-0 record in 26 appearances and a solid 1.54 ERA, as well as 18K to just 2 BB. Frasor has always expressed his love for the city and one seemingly saved his best work for it, so, he’d be a welcome sight in our blue and white once more.

We’ll be waiting with bated breath… for the fireworks of next week’s home run derby and then for the real fireworks- the arrival of arms who’ll give this team some pitching to match the offense in the second half.

Off season Report Card, Part 1

Fishermen, “old maids” have a lot in common with baseball general managers. No matter what else is going on around them, they are always preoccupied with the “one that got away.” The fisherman had the muskie pulling on his line, the Pirates had an inconsequential infielder called Jose Bautista they felt they could toss back in the pond for Toronto to scoop up. Which is a way of bringing us to today’s topic: how are the ex-Blue Jays doing this year and how have their departures affected this year’s club.

One of the most straight forward moves Alex Anthopoulos made in the off-season is the easiest to assess. And most positive. The trade with Oakland got rid of popular Canuck Brett Lawrie as well as promising pitcher Kendall Graveman and brought in all-star third baseman Josh Doanldson.

Lawrie has done at least one thing better on the left coast than he did in Canada- stay healthy. As of Friday afternoon (time of writing this) he’d not missed any time and had time at third as well as second base for the A’s. His .266 average is OK, and his 3 homers, 18 RBI aren’t embarassing but with few walks or extra base hits, his OPS of .657 is pretty low for a 3B and the lowest of his career. Perhaps more disturbingly for Oakland, he’s committed 7 errors already, resulting in a low .946 fielding percentage and he’s only been in on 6 double plays. Based on bench-clearing brawls provoked, he’s brought his feistiness along with him but based on the team’s last place standing, it’s not done much to motivate his colleagues. Graveman is a work in progress, but currently at 2-2 with a lofty 6.04 ERA and .297 opponents average, it would suggest there’s still lots of work to be done and, as bad as Toronto’s pitching has been on the whole , he’d likely not be playing in Toronto if he’d not been traded.

Donaldson of course, has been the best Jay so far and a strong contender for MVP. To start with the negative, his reputation for gold glove defense seems a bit of hyperbole thus far, with his numbers being similar to Lawrie’s so far: 7 errors, .949, only 8 double plays turned (last year he’d had 43). Perhaps the artificial turf is more of a challenge than anyone had imagined. But if the “D” is questionable, it would seem Toronto didn’t lose anything by replacing Lawrie and obviously, Josh’s hitting has been a driving force for what success the team has had. As it stands now, his .315 average, .582 slugging and .960 OPS are all the best of his career so far and he’s high on the AL leaderboard in most categories: leading in runs (41), third in homers, tied for 4th in ribbies, top 15 in batting average among everyday players. What’s more, like the weather, he seems to be heating up. Score one for Alex and company; the trade meant a major upgrade for the ’15 Blue Jays.

As we’ve much discussed here, it’s hard to support the decision to let Casey Janssen walk away. As luck would have it though, Janssen’s been battling shoulder woes all year and was only activated from the DL this week. In three appearances for Washington so far, he’s been great working as an 8th inning setup man, but with concerns about his throwing health, it may be the Jays didn’t lose out by not re-signing him. What that doesn’t change however, is the fact that Toronto erred by not bringing in anyone (John Axford, Andrew Miller, or any of a long list of other free agent relievers).

The outfield got a fair shakeup, so now that the dust has settled, did letting Melky Cabrera, Colby Rasmus sign elsewhere and trading Anthony Gose make sense?

The first two answers are pretty clear . Showing Toronto fans are always willing to grant second chances, a surprising number thought the Jays should have embarked on a bidding war to keep Cabrera and would have matched, if not bested the White Sox, 3 year, $42M contract. That after Melky had come to Rogers Centre straight from a PED suspension and spent two years here, one of which was forgettable at best and one which was good. It’s not quite a third way through the season yet, but the jury’s already gone out and come back with the decision on Cabrera and the verdict is the Sox got robbed. While he has played 46 games injury-free, he’s hitting a so-so .250, with just one homer and 17 RBI. Worse yet, his slugging pct. is a dismal .283 (down 173 points from last year) and if it holds up, his .574 OPS will be the lowest of his career (not counting a six game call-up in ’05), rather pathetic for an outfielder and proving one should call up his agent when buying a lottery ticket. Last year he was a contender for the All Star team, this year he’s a contender for most overpaid player in the sport. I’m glad I advocated against giving him a large, long-term contract and even happier the Blue Jays agreed.

Rasmus is not quite as black-and-white, seeing as how he only signed a mid-range one year deal with Houston. I was plenty happy to see him move along, as were (by all reports ) a number of his former teammates. Nonetheless, for all the reports of a bad attitude and laziness, something is working in Houston as the Astros have first place and don’t seem to want to wait til 2017 (Sports Illustrated‘s prediction last year) to win it all. Not to say Colby has inspired the winning ways, but at least he’s not dragged the team down. And while his .239 average is low, his other numbers- 8 HR, 10 doubles, .500 slugging (second best in his career) are pretty decent. On the negative end of the equation, despite his great arm, he’s yet to pick up an OF assist and he’s whiffed 55 times already in only 138 plate appearances, a rate even worse than last year’s. All of which suggests that he’s the same old Colby, one with a sky-high ceiling but a lack of patience at the plate that will keep holding him back.

Anthony Gose seemed the most inconsequential of the departed outfielders but has arguably been the best of the trio. In 38 games to date, he’s hitting a lofty .329 with the Tigers, and has 8 steals plus a .459 slugging percentage (over a hundred points higher than his Toronto career number.) With his speed adding to the Tigers defense, he’s been a big plus for the Motown crew. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see those numbers drop off closer to his career norms (about a .234 average with one extra base for every 18 at bats), but even if he keeps up what he’s doing now the trade looks good , as I expected since it brought in a big return…

Devon Travis.Rehabbing now in Buffalo after a shoulder problem, Travis shows every sign of giving Toronto something they’ve sorely needed for four years- a good, multi-tool second baseman. A .271 average, 7 HR, 26 RBI, .839 OPS are good numbers for any 2B- let alone for a rookie! And his mere one error so far and 20 DPs turned mean the Jays aren’t giving up much fielding by replacing Ryan Goins or Munenori Kawasaki there. Even if Gose keeps developing for Detroit, this trade earns a “thumbs up.”

Next time, we’ll look at what Adam Lind and JA Happ are upto and rate the other new Jays brought in to replace them and the outfielders.