Tagged: 2016 Blue Jays

Bullpen looks all “Right”– and that’s a bit of a problem!

Last time we looked at the starting pitching, which was a considerable strength for the Jays in 2016 and could be the same next year – if they stay healthy and JA Happ and Aaron Sanchez’s years weren’t total flukes. I still would like another starter signed on as an insurance policy, so to speak, and suggest trying to bring back RA Dickey, although i rather doubt he’d be wanting such a reduced role.

The bullpen was a little bit of a nail-biting, roller coaster ride this past year, but still on the whole came through well. This was especially true after the trade deadline with the addition of Joaquin Benoit and Jason Grilli. Roberto Osuna has at 21 established himself as one of the most poised and polished closers in the game (and I might add drawn considerable attention from the crew at TBS-TV who were all but in awe of him in nationally-broadcast playoff games) and got only better under the pressure of October. Throw in suprise Rule 5 rookie Joe Biagini, and Grilli, who’s contract option is apparently being picked up and if they just re-sign Benoit ( who was lights out with Toronto, allowing just one earned run in 23+ innings) they should be in great shape for right-handers in the ’17 bullpen. Toss in someone like Ryan Tepera or Bo Schulz , or perhaps Gavin Floyd if he’s healthy in spring and it should be a strength to work with.

The left side is cause for more concern. For the past couple of years, southpaw bullpen has equated to Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup for Toronto. This off-season though, Cecil is a free agent and neither was all that reliable or stellar in ’16 anyway. Loup will be back, presumably, but the 5.02 ERA and .288 opponents average this year were career worsts for the low-throwing Louisianan. Mind you, that was in a small sample (21 games) but even that has to be tempered by the realization that the sample was small because he was relegated to the minors most of the summer due to poor performance. Perhaps an off-season adjustment to his delivery might help.

Cecil is more of an enigma. Intellectually I know not to make too much of the W-L of a reliever, but still his 2016 1-7 looked ugly. Maybe that idea was heightened by his 3.93 ERA and .269 opponent’s average, both worst for him since 2012. On the other hand, his August-September performance was quite good (4 earned runs in 17 2/3 innings) and his K:BB ratio was great as usual – 45:8. As much as during the season it seemed he’d buckle under pressure, in the post-season, under real pressure, he shone, keeping the opponents hitless and off the board in 6 appearances. The Jays should make an effort to keep him around, but it’s questionable whether he’s still worth the $3.8M he got this year, let alone a raise. Also questionable, in this season’s market, is whether other teams with a barer cupboard of pitching wouldn’t jack his value up into the stratosphere. There is likely to be an unfortunate lack of left-handed pitching in the sub-Chapman price range on the market this winter.

If Cecil did fly the coop, a pitcher worth investigating would be Travis Wood of the NL champs. As the Jays did with Cecil, the Cubs have transitioned Wood from a middling starter to a star specialty reliever. this regular season he appeared in 77 contests for Chicago, going 4-0 with a 2.95 ERA and holding left-handed hitters to a meagre .128 average and .217 slugging percentage. He’d be a great asset for Toronto in the late innings- but would also in all likelihood cost more than his current $6M. A cheaper but slightly less-effective option would be to go after “Scrabble”, Mark Rzepcynski, well-liked still in Toronto and coming off a reasonable year in Oakland. He did, however, pitch better against righties than lefties, curiously enough. Once again, it all comes down to dollars and cents, and that in turn likely is dependent upon knowing where Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are come April.

I’ll be back in a few days with a few final thoughts on the 2016 campaign and ideas for the winter ahead, as well as (hopefully) some kudos to the Indians. Take me out to the ballgame…

Pitching – why being #1 is worrisome

Yesterday I addressed some of the moves the Blue Jays could make to keep the offense powerful and viable for 2017; today, the pitching side of the equation.

Thankfully, and yes, surprisingly, there’s not much that needs fixing with this. The 2016 Jays led the league in pitching with a 3.84 ERA, six points better than league champion Cleveland. (Those looking for clues as to why the Twins lost triple-digit numbers of games need only start with their 5.08 ERA by comparison.) Toronto’s starters were best in AL and perhaps even more surprisingly, the team’s numbers on the road were best in baseball – 3.47, about a fifth of a run better than the NL champion Cubs. Clearly the hurlers did everything in their power to pitch the team to a championship. No question that coaches Pete Walker and Dane Johnson should return therefore, and they have been told they are.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that the Jays can sit on their laurels for ’17, although I think they might be tempted to. Pitching seems even more fickle than hitting so there’s no guarantee that the crew will follow up their ’16 success, not to mention that Toronto might have been blessed with just about the best luck of any recent MLB club in recent years. Consider that they had their starting rote set in April and – except for a minor glitch mid-season with Marco Estrada’s sore back – were able to run with the set 5 all season and into the post-season. They even acquired a solid veteran 6th starter at the trade deadline just for the heck of it and he was excellent. Frankly it may be too much to hope for to think that the 2017 starting rotation will only miss one or two starts between the five of them due to injury; history suggests everyone in the Rogers Centre crowd might have a better chance of winning the 6-49 than seeing that happen again.

As well, while we try to take the “glass half full” approach, it’s wise to look at the other side of the equation. JA Happ had a “career year” in 2016- but will it be just that (a “Career” year , reminiscent of Adam Lind and Aaron Hill’s blockbuster 2009 seasons which were followed up by… well, not all that much) or just the start of a new, improved Happ?

We hope the latter and are encouraged by his consistency since he was traded to Pitttsburgh in 2015 and was coached by Ray Searage. Since then , he’s 27-6, 2.86 over 43 games. But it can’t be ignored that before this year he was a .500 pitcher who averaged 146 innings a year over the past 5. He exceeded that by nearly 50 innings, while knocking a run off his previous career ERA . I personally think the “new” Happ is real, the guy the Phillies expected when they made him a first round draft pick years back. But I’m not betting on another 20-win, Cy Young worthy campaign from him.

Marco Estrada, when healthy, is as unhittable as anyone in the AL. (That’s not just my opinion, he’s led AL starters in opponent batting average in 2016 and after the All Star break in ’15.) But his wonky back, which John Gibbons said had bothered him all year has to be a concern moving forward. Bad backs seldom get “good” all by themselves.

Francisco Liriano was a great addition and should be a decent, reliable 12-15 win, 180-210 inning sort of player. Which still leaves the youngsters in the rotation, Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman. I have no real worries about Sanchez – after all the hand-wringing and year-long story arc spun by the team and Toronto media about needing to send him out to pasture after the All Star break to prevent his arm from falling off, all he did was win the league ERA championship. Including the playoffs (a bat outing vs. Texas but a brilliant one and the team’s only win against Cleveland) he logged 203 innings and went 16-2. Even if he were to regress a little in ’17, he should be a reliable, above-average starter.

Less so Stroman though. He was by no means terrible this year; in fact at times he was outstanding. He was, however, not consistent at all and not nearly as intimidating to opponents as his younger self had been. His ERA jumped by over a run and perhaps more alarming, after giving up only 9 homers in 30 previous games, he allowed 21 this year in 32 starts. So it’s a bit of a crap-shoot as to which way he will go. A carbon copy of this year would still be enough to make him a valid #5 guy, but not an opening day pitcher by any means. A return to 14-15 form would be a huge lift for the team, but we can’t ignore entirely the possibility he might be the new Ricky Romero.

With all those factors, it’s clear the team needs another proven starter to pad the roster. They should extend an offer to return to RA Dickey (who’s turning 42 today- happy birthday to him!) but with an asterisk. His 15 losses this season were a career worst and his 4.46 ERA worst since ’09 when he was a reliever with the Twins. Nonetheless, he still gave over 160 innings and has averaged 206 per year in his time with the Jays. Knuckleballs don’t deteriorate as quickly as other pitches so it’s likely he could at least match his 2016 campaign next year.

The asterisk though, is that ideally he wouldn’t be a starter. He could follow Tim Wakefield’s arc in his late years with Boston, and be a bullpen arm that could deliver lots of innings in a blowout or extra-inning game and come through with a spot start or two should a regular wake up with a bad stomach. This would help the team, but wouldn’t warrant a $12.5M pay cheque like he’s been getting. At age 42, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dickey choose to retire rather than take a 50% pay cut. But he probably won’t have to as while he might not make the grade as a starter with the team with the league’s best pitching, he’s plenty good enough to be a #3 or 4 starter with many teams that are thin on pitching . It’d be no surprise to see the Angels or Rangers offer him a pay raise to give stability to their rotation for one year.

That’s especially true given a fairly slim selection of free agent starting pitchers coming up. No David Price or Jon Lester this winter, the feeding frenzy will have to settle for trying for the likes of an Andrew Cashner or Ivan Nova. Which is the type of pitcher Toronto should try to add. doing so without increasing the budget significantly (even if we factor in the subtraction of Dickey’s money) will be a test of the Shapiro-Atkins office!

A quick look at the arms behind the outfield fence next time here…

Looking ahead to ’17

Well enough time has passed to be over the disappointment of this year’s ALCS and sit back, give props to the 2016 Blue Jays and look forward to what should be another exciting season a few months from now!

First off, should anyone from the Blue Jays team or office even chance to look at this, I want to say “thanks”. The 2016 season didn’t end like we hoped , but it was a hell of a run. The team was one of the best we’ve seen and the fans certainly responded in numbers rarely seen before in the Great White North. Kudos to you all, and yes, good luck to the Cleveland Indians. They simply outplayed Toronto even with all their cuts, scrapes and DL’d pitchers. This Jays fan is now pulling for that city by the lake in Ohio to have its second big sports championship of the year.

Onto 2017. While it seems, barring some totally unexpected blockbuster trade, that most of the core of the Jays team will be back , there are questions to be answered and holes to be filled. A few suggestions from this seat as to what the team should – and shouldn’t – do between now and April.

First, the obvious big question is Edwin and Jose. Encarnacion and Bautista are not only T.O.’s biggest pending free agents but (unfortunately for fans and for Rogers’) the biggest names in a rather thin crowd of free agents this winter. It’s going to cost a pretty penny to keep them both but Toronto should. Of course, there’s no guarantee that either or both of them even want to stay in Toronto, but I think they will if the money is there. Boston needs a new David Ortiz and he himself already speculated EE would be the perfect fit and it’s no stretch to imagine them offering Edwin a 5 year, $125M sort of deal . That’s about how high the Jays should go to keep him around.

Yes, he’s not much of a defensive strength for the team, but given his bat, that can be overlooked. In 2016, working DH quite often, he hit career highs in games (160), at bats (601) and runs (99). Surprisingly, his average (.263) was lowest since 2010 and his OPS lowest since ’11. So, even at 34 (by spring training) there’s still room to go back up and have a monster season or two. But we’d take his 39 HR, 110RBI that he’s averaged over the past 5 years. One thing the team should work on in ’17 if he returns is getting him to be a bit more selective again; his 138 whiffs last year was about 23% of at bats, almost double his rate back in 2012. (more on that later). Cutting down his strikeouts to 2012 rates should bounce his average back towards .290 and increase his already league-leading ribbie tally.

Which leads us to #19. We can rely on Jose Bautista for some wild stories and quotes every year. And to be the driving force behind a powerful offense. Certainly his ’16 was a little disappointing ; his .234 average for instance was lowest of his career in years he racked up more than 100 trips to the plate, for instance. But to these eyes, that’s more a factor or knee and foot injuries that had him on disabled list for nearly two months and being slotted into the leadoff spot (noted here before, not a spot he excelled at) than his 36 years. His 87 walks and .366 OBP show he still has a good eye at the plate and his admittedly fiery disposition seems to get the rest of the team going. Ironically, his “off” season may lower his market value enough to make him affordable for the team, even with Encarnacion. On his side, it’s tough to envision another city, or country, taking to him like Toronto has. Even if NY or Detroit were to offer him an extra million or so, he might lose a lot more in cereal box covers and winter-wear endorsements. Bautista should be back in ’17, although perhaps as the first baseman, leaving EE to be full-time DH and right field for a speedier,younger player.

One place the team might save a few dollars, as much as I hate to say it, is letting homegrown Michael Saunders walk away (unless he is without work come March and will take a major pay cut.) Saunders was an All Star this season, but it’s rather obvious he really tailed off in the second half to the point where he was routinely benched by John Gibbons in favor of the redoubtable Melvin Upton (whom, if lucky, the Jays will be able to trade.) Saunders played a career high 140 games and his 24 homers were welcomed, but his 157K’s in 490 at bats was rather troubling and he did manage only a .204 average with runners in scoring position. Not to mention his .187 average with only 5 HR after July. His position could be filled adequately for a lot less by Ezequiel Carrera, who had career highs in games (110) and at bats (270). His .248 average and 6 HR/23 RBI weren’t too inspiring but he did hit .333 with runners in scoring position and in the playoffs showed he can deliver under pressure. Given the luxury of being an everyday player, I think he might surprise a lot of people and post better numbers. It’s a gamble worth saving $5-8 million a year on, which is what I think the team would do by not going with Saunders.

Finally, on the topic of hitting, the Jays should rethink their re-upping of Brook Jacoby as hitting coach. Mark Shapiro has already announced his return as well as most of the other coaches, and this seems a bit questionable. Jacoby may be a good man and a hard worker but his results aren’t there. A team that was supposed to be a juggernaut this year took several steps backward at the plate. Only Houston, Oakland and Tampa in the AL hit below Toronto’s .248 and while they could still power the ball out (221 HR was third in league) their run total dropped off by 132, or almost a run per game. No doubt fueling that was the increase of strikeouts, to 1362 or about 90 more than the league average. That was 211 more whiffs than the ’15 team . More distressing, the team scored 3 or fewer in 70 games. Not surprisingly, they won only 15 of those contests; whereas they were a brilliant 74-18 when they scored 4 or more. A hitting coach who can teach batters to be more selective with their swings and play a bit of small ball when the long ball isn’t flying could help the team more than a new RF or better backup catcher ever will. A name that comes to my mind, prematurely I admit, is Paul Molitor. Yes, as of now he’s the manager in Minnesota but with a front office shakeup already underway there, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Molitor’s head offered up as an excuse for the poor player development and 103 losses in the Twin Cities. A return to Toronto could be a fresh start for him and a new way of approaching the batters.

Well, enough thoughts for one day. Next, we’ll look to the mound and see what to expect from the pitchers in ’17.

Toronto’s New Mantra : “We Like Cleveland!”

A solid return to form by sore-backed Marco Estrada last night ensured the team their third straight winning season and gave fans some much-needed reason for optimism. So far those have been in short supply this month.

While September hasn’t been an unmitigated disaster for the Jays, sitting tied for second, 4 games back of Boston is hardly where they’d hoped to be, or envisioned themselves going into this month. Sporadic hitting, sloppy fielding and so-so starting have undermined a good deal of the momentum they had going for them and that was giving the fans a sense of buoyant optimism. However, a look at the standings does give some reason for continued hope of a run well into the post-season. The key, not surprisingly, is not only making the playoffs but somehow re-taking the division and ideally, catching Cleveland in the standings. These two objectives make it vital that they now play every game like it was a Game Seven. Silly losses are a luxury they can no longer afford.

The reason for the emphasis on the win column is a look at their opponents. At this point there’s no point even giving a polite “what if” to the idea that the Central and West aren’t already won; no one’s going to catch the Indians or Rangers. Likewise, barring some kind of epic collapse, (I suppose not impossible), Texas will end up with the highest number of wins in the league and ensure themselves home advantage throughout the playoffs and an opening series against the Wild Card winner. This leaves a matchup of Cleveland vs. the AL East champion for the ALDS. This is the sweet spot for Toronto.

No one wants the added pressure of a one game, winner take all, wildcard game added in, which is reason enough for Toronto to concentrate on a division title. Avoiding that and taking on Cleveland is clearly optimal, particularly with the Indians pitching aches and pains. (Carlos Carrasco has a broken hand and will miss the rest of the year; Danny Salazar having forearm problems and having not pitched in eleven days, leaving Corey Kluber, who’s in a good groove, Trevor Bauer {11-8 , 4.24} and Josh Tomlin {12-8, 4.75 with 35 HR allowed in 153 innings} to carry the rotation. This is a club Toronto could beat, especially in Toronto. The Tribe do great at Progressive Field (49-26, tied with Texas for most home wins) but are only a .500 team on the road. The Jays, if you’d forgotten, are 42-32 at Rogers’ Centre. Another stat the Jays have to like about Cleveland: the Indians are decent in interleague play, are cleaning up against their divisional rivals (41-21 through the weekend including an incredible 13 out of 14 against Detroit) but are a losing 32-34 against the AL East and West. Toronto is 48-36 against teams outside of our AL East.

The road to the World Series may ultimately run through Arlington but the Jays would do best to get warmed up for that by ensuring an ALCS matchup with the Indians- ideally, one that opens up in Toronto.

Bautista on DL, Happ for Cy Young…it’s all good!

It seems appropriate on a day when the Jays have finally emerged in first place all themselves to look at some of the things we have to like about the season so far. Some are rather obvious- Edwin Encarnacion for example. Worries of his mental state, given his impending free agency, or health after missing all of Spring Training have proven unwarranted, based on his leading the world in RBI and having a shot at his first home run crown. Or the repeat performance of MVP Josh Donaldson,whose offense numbers are on par with last season’s, except for a bump in walks (74 already compared to 73 all last year) meaning a career best .970 OPS. Not to mention a more steady throwing arm reducing his errors and improving his fielding percentage to a personal best .977. But there are some that have perhaps not been quite as widely noticed or noted .

Take Devon Travis. Off-season worries about his recovery from surgery proved as off-base as the concerns about EE. Overall, his hitting is right where he left off last year (.305, 10 HR, .849 OPS) and compare decently to those of Ian Kinsler (.837 OPS) and Dustin Pedroia (12 HR, 50 RBI in 51 more games than Devon) if not to Jose Altuve. then again, no AL middle-infielder is posting numbers anything like Altuve. His fielding is improving statistically and contributes to Toronto’s better-than-solid defense. And with a 15 for 31 run over the past 7 games, it looks like he might just be getting going. I’m thinking more than ever that in Travis the Jays have their best second baseman since Roberto Alomar and the takeaway of maybe Alex Anthopoulos’ best-ever trade.

Low-key Roberto Osuna, still just 21, showed he was indeed worthy of the trust the team put in him, keeping him as the closer when more-experienced Drew Storen was acquired. Osuna ranks with the best of the AL closers, with 25 saves in 27 tries and a great 1.93 ERA. Possibly even better, or at least more unexpected , has been the idea that lightning might have struck twice for Toronto. Osuna was last year’s team rookie of the year; this year it looks like that distinction will be another bullpen arm that came out of nowhere – Joe Biagini. The rule V selection was a long-shot to make the team out of Dunedin, let alone stick around but here we are, with him second to only Osuna on the team in appearances (42), and excellent numbers (2.09 ERA, 42k:13 BB) that statistically point out the obvious – that he’s been the only solid, reliable middle-reliever on staff.

And while the ‘pen has been iffy, arguably the best thing about the Jays thus far this season is the starting rotation. With JA Happ – major league wins leaader JA Happ- and Aaron Sanchez being legit Cy Young contenders and Marco Estrada picking up right where he left off last year, they should be well-set for October series. For those keeping count, Happ has been 23-5, 2.62 in 34 starts since being traded from Seattle last season and meeting up with wunderkoach Ray Searage. Even the lesser lights of the rote, Marcus Stroman and RA Dickey (I’m not including Francisco Liriano since he’s thus far only had one start in the revised lineup) have delivered solid numbers of innings (147 in Stroman’s case) and the five have managed to combine for 112 starts out of 115 games played, and a stellar 3.36 ERA. Been awhile since we heard laments about the non-signing of David Price, isn’t it?

Counter-intuitively, even the “disappointing” season of Jose Bautista may be a positive for fans. True enough, his batting average is the lowest of his career in years he’s been a regular and his slugging pct. at .444 is lowest since 2009. Now he’s on the disabled list for the second time this season with a twisted knee (you’ll recall a broken toe made him miss time mid-season) . The good of this? Well, for starters he still has 15 homers in 80 games, meaning even in a “down” year he’s good for 30 HR if healthy. And his 58 walks signifies his eye is still as good as anyone’s in the league. What makes this good news is that, coupled with the advertising campaigns he’s been doing with CANADIAN Tire and CANADA Goose lately, it seems much more likely he’s going to retire a Blue jay when that time comes. We know about the rumors and his line in the sand and reports of his expected salary in free agency– but a season where he’s been on the DL twice, is going to be lucky to scrape together 20 homers and 70 RBI and may hit below .225 , along with reduced range in the field is going to cut down the number of, and passion of, off-season suitors. I can’t imagine any team offering him $150M or so; likewise, I can’t imagine right now that corporations in Chicago or Dallas might be lining up to have him as a spokesman. But he’s still loved in Toronto and the less-than-expected season makes us think he’ll settle for a reasonable offer from the team and play out his time in the blue-and-white. And i still wouldn’t be surprised by another game-winning, game 7 type home run from his in two months….

A final thing fans should like about this season so far- themselves! Even when the team was in the East basement back in early May, fans were flocking to the Rogers Centre and the team never gave up hope. Leading the league in attendance and watching them on TV in record numbers should make the team, the fans proud- and reiterate to Russ Atkins and Mark Shapiro, as well as Rogers, that Toronto IS a baseball city and it pays to invest in the team. 2017 doesn’t look so bad from that standpoint- but there’s a whole lot of (October) baseball to be played before then!

As Problems Go, Sanchez Is A Good One

Last column I said Aaron Sanchez had gone from being a question mark to a name in the discussion for a Cy Young Award. True, but really Sanchez has gone from being a question mark to… another question mark.

It’s a problem most teams would love to have. With pitching at such a premium in today’s game, most teams would kill to have a pitcher who’s just too good. Not a terrible problem to have, but make no mistake, Aaron Sanchez has become a problem for the Blue Jays by being precisely that.

His run of ten-straight winning decisions is best for a Blue Jays pitcher since Roy Halladay back in 2003- his Cy Young winning campaign. He’s currently second in the AL among officially-qualified starters in ERA , at 2.72, in the top 10 among pitchers on pace for even 100 innings and his 11-1 record equates to the league’s best winning percentage among regular starters. So what’s the problem again?

The problem is, at least to the minds of the management, a worry about how much more he can deliver this year. At 132 1/3 innings, he’s sixth in the AL (ahead of regular innings-eaters like Cole Hamels and jered Weaver) and only a few pitches away from his career high of 133 1/3 innings, split between the minors and bigs back in 2014. In days of yore, back when Pete Rose would say “men were men” and Nolan Ryan pitched about 300 innings a year at full tilt, this wouldn’t be seen as a predicament . But times have changed obviously, and we live in a world of pitch counts and teams wanting to nurture their investment in ace pitchers. A common rule of thumb these days is to limit a young pitcher to about 20% more innings than in the past year, which even if the Jays forgot about 2015 and went by his ’14 season, would see him top out around 160 innings. As it stands now, he is on pace to hurl some 210 innings before, (we hope), heading into the post-season.

Midway through June, coincidentally or not after a bit of a rough outing against Baltimore, John Gibbons told the media that Sanchez would soon trudge back to the bullpen to save his arm and be replaced with Drew Hutchison in the rotation. That’s where the problem arises. Since that time, Sanchez has been brilliant, going 5-0 in seven starts, allowing only 8 earned runs in over 47 innings, for a 1.53 ERA. Oh, and of course he also put in an inning for the American League in the All Star game. Hutchison, meanwhile , has been mediocre enough as to not dispel any memories of his disappointing fall from grace last year. Not to mention that the other youngster in the rotation, Marcus Stroman, has been less than expected so far and is also getting up there in innings (129 or so , with a career high of 166 in 2014.)

So what to do? The Jays have been playing well enough of late, but still languish in third place. Dropping the best pitcher from the rotation would surely alienate fans and result in a booming business in burnable effigies of John Gibbons and Mark Shapiro should the team miss the playoffs by a game or two (particularly if it was indeed Hutchison replacing Sanchez.)

On the other hand, a torn rotator cuff or similar arm injury would keep Sanchez out for at least a year and be sure to be blamed on over-use. Never mind that the science is dubious about the relationship between innings and injuries and is slow to explain why there are more injuries requiring Tommy John surgery now than there were before the surgery was available, (when pitchers often started 40 games a year and hit the 300 innning mark), the current sport concensus is in. Too many innings, not an over fascination with the radar and throwing all out, all the time, caused young arms to break. An injury to Sanchez late season would harm the Jays post-season chances and have the front office labeled as idiots by many of their peers. It is a problem indeed.

The Washington Nationals had a somewhat similar problem 4 years back, when they shut down their young ace, Stephen Strasburg, in September after he hit 159 innings. The team then went on to lose the NLDS in five games causing fans to wonder “what if”, and some might suggest have been battling that karma since. The Nats, despite being the best team in the NL East have but one playoff win since then.

Their situation was a bit different than ours. Strasburg was coming back from Tommy John surgery, which would suggest some caution might be prudent. Sanchez has, knock on wood been healthy for a young pitcher who throws at 95. My suggestion is to learn from Washington’s blunder. You get only so many kicks at the can and Toronto has one this year. They need to make a run for it, especially when pondering the unhappy fact that either Jose Bautista and/or Edwin Encarnacion might be elsewhere next year. The Jays need to put their best foot, or arm, forward and go all in for october. Anything less would be a betrayal of a reliably loyal fan base.

That said, it makes no sense to tempt fate and burn out Sanchez. As much as I like starting pitchers who can go deep into the game, it might be a smart move for Gibby to call for the bullpen after 6 innings in any game where Sanchez has a lead. As well, the team has 7 off days left , July 28th and then three each in August and September. It would be feasible to keep the 5-day rotation largely in effect and skip over Sanchez a couple of times with the off days, thereby limiting him to 8 more starts. Granted, it’s a compromise but like all good ones, it’s better than the alternative for both sides. Eight starts and about 6 innings each delivers him to the post-season with 180 innings. Hopefully he could tough out three or four starts in October in return for a ring! And while people like myself would love to see him out there every fifth day trying for a shutout, it’s obvious that a Sanchez who pitches six innings, eight more times this year is better than seeing him resting in the bullpen when a much lesser pitcher throws away games and our hopes of a championship.

A final thought- in 1992, the Jays went into the post-season with a dominant young, 25 year old pitcher who had only 139 innings of experience prior to that year. Juan Guzman dominated in three October starts, and we know the rest of that year’s story!

Trade deadline clouds Jays blue sky

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There’s a lot to like at this point for us Jays fans. The team, while in third place, is only a game out of top spot, has the best run differential in the division (and at +85 runs, are second in the league to Cleveland), have a couple more home games than road ones left on the schedule and starting with the unofficial kick-off to Canada’s summer (Victoria Day) have been humming along at a remarkable .654 pace. In addition, Josh Donaldson is starting to look like a repeat MVP winner, Edwin Encarnacion leads the world in RBIs and the starting rotation has been astonishingly solid for the most part. As of the All Star Break, they led the AL by averaging 6.4 innings a start and are a big part of the reason only Houston and Cleveland have allowed fewer runs.

Add in Troy Tulowitzki’s slow return to Colorado-like form at the plate (.162 average with 5 HR in first 31 games this year, .301 with 10 HR in next 35) and the expected return of Jose Bautista, looking to impress in time for the free agent jamboree in winter, from the disabled list within days. Aaron Sanchez has gone from a question mark to a name in any conversation about Cy Young winners this season. With the team ahead of where they were last year at this time, the Jays look to be in great shape to return to the post-season.

But the skies aren’t all jay-blue. A few menacing clouds mar the horizon. For instance, as the Toronto Sun‘s Ken Fidlin points out, the 2014 Jays were in first place in July and ended up playing out the string watching the action from the sidelines come October. And while they are ahead of last year’s pace, they are also in a division with a resilient Baltimore team this year and a Red Sox squad that is a night-and-day turnaround from last year’s mediocre one. While the starting rote has been very solid as an entity, Marcus Stroman has taken a step or two back from the last couple of seasons and there are concerns over just how many more innings both he and All Star Sanchez can tack on with both at or near career highs already. Then there’s that bullpen, which outside of sophomore closer Roberto Osuna, has been more of an open window than a slammed door on leads.

One more thing that’s not to like this year is the trade deadline. Fans already know not to expect another blockbuster trade – let alone two- to revitalize the team like we saw last year. First off, new boss Mark Shapiro is loathe to trade prospects for short-term gains. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, there would appear to be no David Price-calibre superstars available this season. At least 18, possibly as many as 21 teams think they are still in the running for the post-season meaning the buyers are going to outnumber the sellers. The teams that have thrown in the towel have largely done so for a good reason- lack of significant talent! The few big names who seem to be up for grabs are stars, but not ones likely to be significant upgrades for Toronto. The likes of Carlos Gonzalez, Jay Bruce, Ryan Howard and Josh Reddick are all players who could add a significant piece of the puzzle to some teams, but would add little to Toronto’s lineup. (Worth noting though that some scribes still report that the Jays are talking to Cinci about Bruce who very nearly landed with us in the off-season, but there seems to be little apparent sense to such a move.) Pitchers , let alone high-quality ones, are much scarcer this July than the previous couple of trade deadlines. Ergo, the trade of a Scott Carroll or Mike Montgomery being treated as a big deal in the last couple of days.

Another starter would be a boon to Toronto, to allow for Sanchez to have a few missed starts or even be bumped to the bullpen to minimize wear and tear, or to give insurance against Marco Estrada’s back acting up more this fall. But that’s easier said than done. Julio Teheran of Atlanta is probably the biggest, and best, name available.

Teheran would be a great addition to the Jays. In his fourth year as a regular with the Braves, he is a textbook example of why a won-lost record isn’t that ideal a way of measuring a pitcher’s worth. Though just 3-8 this year, in 19 starts he’s got a stellar 2.79 ERA, has limited the opposition to a .203 average and has a 112 K’s to just 26 BBs. His lifetime ERA is 3.33. Problem is of course, with that kind of upside other teams will pay attention too and this year almost every team still in contention (even the Dodgers one would expect now that Clayton Kershaw is likely done for the year) wanting to upgrade their starters, it’s unlikely Toronto will win a bidding war. Other teams have more, and better, prospects to offer and a front office more willing to bet big on trades.

More reasonable options might be the likes of lefty Tommy Milone of Minnesota or Andrew Cashner of San Diego. Neither offers anything like the upside of Teheran, but neither is going to cost a busload of prospects either. Milone was not bad last year (9-5 , 3.92) but this year has 10 starts, of which he’s gone beyond 6 innings only once. He’s given up 7 HR in 49 innings which wouldn’t project well to being in Rogers Centre, and sits at 3-2 with a 4.71 ERA. Cashner is expected to be traded to Texas anytime now, according to Fox Sports, but even if he isn’t his 4-7, 5.05 record in pitcher-friendly SD doesn’t sound promising. His 1.48 Whip this year is very similar to last year’s 1.44, when he fiished at 6-16. Hard to see that type of record being an upgrade over Drew Hutchison for the Jays.

The field of available bullpen arms, where the need is greatest for Toronto, is also limited. The Yankees have alledgedly decided to OK a trade of either Aroldis Chapman, who we know really ‘brings the heat’ to a battle or Andrew Miller. Chapman, with his record of domestic abuse, would be a poor addition PR-wise and would also be the typical type of “rent a pitcher” Shapiro hates. Miller might deserve more consideration. The lefty had 36 saves last season but has been demoted this year with New York, but has still been outstanding. He has 70 Ks in about 41 innings and a 1.31 ERA, and would be a huge upgrade over struggling Brett Cecil in middle-relief for the Jays. However, one wonders if the pinstripes would want to trade a star to their divisional rival, especially when their own team is still over .500.

One reasonable suggestion to bolster the team pitching comes from looking west- and backwards. San Diego’s Carlos Villaneuva , whom we remember well from his years with Toronto, has to be available and has been typically decent this year. He’s appeared 37 times, has a good 44:8 strikeout to walk ratio and has pitched 52 innings – a lot for a reliever, but consistent with his role here when he was a “long man” in the ‘pen or occasional starter, Troubling though is his 5.19 ERA, which has skyrocketed lately. He’s allowed earned runs in 5 of his last 6 games, in which time his ERA has jumped by nearly 2. My take on him is that he would be a worthwhile addition, if he passes a physical that ensures his recent slump isn’t injury-related. The Padres could probably let him go for the likes of a Matt Dominguez or Dalton Pompey, both slogging along well in Buffalo , boasting big league experience but lacking an obvious opening in Toronto’s lineup.

So, even if we do manage to add someone like Carlos Villaneuva to boost the pitching , it would seem that if roster improvements are needed, most will have to happen from within. The outlook there isn’t spectacular, but isn’t bad either. Southpaw Scott Diamond has been good in Buffalo this year, leading the team with 112 innings and has posted a 3.62 ERA despite a losing 6-9 record. he’s only walked 19 and has MLB experience, so he could be a good safety net for the rotation. However, he’s not currently on the Jays 40-man roster so calling him up would necessitate dropping someone off. Meanwhile there’s also the versatile, ambidextrous Pat Venditte as well as left-handed Chad Girodo (1.86 ERA in 16 games) to call on down at AAA to add to the bullpen.

The outlook is good- but August and September aren’t likely to be a Blue Jays cakewalk like last year. Mark Shapiro and his lackey Ross Atkins have a lot on the line and how they handle the next ten days or so will go a long ways towards how the public will perceive them in years to come.

“Start” to take notice of the Rotation

The one thing that has already played out according to plan in baseball this year is how unpredictable things have been. White Sox ruling the world, the old Yankees losing the fountain of youth they seemed to have dipped into last season, the 80 game suspension of the reigning NL batting champ– who saw those things coming? Closer to home here, Toronto’s start has been under-whelming. More surprising, it’s the bats to blame.

Before the season began the common refrain from pundits (including myself) far and wide was that the Jays would hit up a storm again this year but might kick themselves for not retaining David Price and significantly upgrading the starting rote. Many experts thought they’d need to match last years 891 runs and then some to compete given the state of the starting pitching (and they were divided on whether or not they just might do that with Donaldson feeling more at home and a full season of Tulowitzki to look forward to.) USA Today was rather typical of many spring training previews, stating the Blue Jays “have a huge hole in their rotation”, casting doubts on whether Marcus Stroman was ready to take the front-of-rotation and knocking Marco Estrada who “doesn’t elicit fear in opposition batters.”

Well, one-fifth of the way through the schedule, Toronto sits at a run of the mill 16-17. Not out of contention by any stretch of the imagination but disappointing to fans and players alike. The surprise though, is how good the starting rotation has been. In fact, it is the strength that has kept Toronto out of the basement and in the thick of things so far. A starter these days gets 32 or 33 starts a season if healthy. The Jays have played 33 and in those 33 starts, the starters have combined for 211 1/3 innings, allowing just 184 hits, 78 earned runs, walking 67 while whiffing 154. Their collective ERA is 3.32, with a 13-7 won-lost record. JA Happ and Marcus Stroman (plus Drew Hutchison in his one game) have yet to lose and all in all, the starters have pitched well enough to have easily won 23 or 24 of the 33 given a reliable bullpen and average hitting. All of Happ’s starts have been “Quality” and 24 of the 33 games in total have fit that description; 22 of their games have featured fewer hits allowed than innings pitched and only twice have they walked more than they struck out. All things considered, any team would be pretty happy to have a starter have a 13-7, 211 inning, 3.32 ERA year. Not too shabby for a rotation that was supposed to have a huge hole in it. Meanwhile, David Price is off to a remarkably poor start with Boston, giving New Englanders 217 million reason to curse in their chowdah.

Of course, the team hasn’t won 24 or so games yet because (despite a good sophomore effort from Robert Osuna as closer) the bullpen has been iffy and most of all, the fabled bats have been rather noodly. The team’s .234 average is only 12th best in the league (although notably, two of the three teams they are ahead of are division rivals – NY and Tampa) and their slugging percentage is only 9th best. Their 37 homers isn’t terrible and is fourth best in the AL and surprisingly their 134 runs is in the top 5. But at 4.1 runs per game, they’re scoring a run and a half less than last year and there’s no way to avoid that effecting the bottom line.

What’s in store for the remaining 4/5 of the season? Who’s to say. There’s no way Russell Martin will keep hitting .171 and not knock a few dingers; Ryan Goins might keep striking out a quarter of all times to the plate and hitting below .150 but won’t stay in the lineup much longer if so (with Darwin Barney swinging a good bat and Devon Travis potentially only a couple of weeks away from returning). Kevin Pillar has gone 14 for 34 with 7 RBI in his past 9 games and Edwin Encarnacion seemed to find his sweet spot against Texas. Runs will come with greater ease in coming weeks. On the other hand, JA Happ and Marcus Stroman aren’t likely to hit October undefeated and I can’t see the organization, with its concerns about young arms, allow Aaron Sanchez to hit 190 innings he’s on pace for so far.

Then again, if everything went like we expected, there’d be no reason to play 162. Maybe Russell Martin will hit .171 over 125 games and JA Happ will finish at 28-0!

So-so First Week No Reason To Panic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, the AL outlook in brief

OK, I’m feeling a little tardy here; the Jays have already wrapped up their opening series and I’ve not yet posted my AL predictions. So rather than continue to labor away at my rather lengthy and in depth analyses of each team which I’d started on, I’ll give you hear a capsule summary of my outlook for the 2016 American League tallies.

If you wonder about any particular team or my reasoning, drop a line or add a comment and I’ll expand upon it. but for now, let’s agree that the Houston Astros are the top pick of most experts including Sports Illustrated which pick them to win it all (but admit to only having one right pick in the past 20 years.) Do I agree? See for yourself.

West:

Texas 87 wins

Houston 86

Seattle 83

LA Anaheim76

Oakland 72

Central:

Cleveland 88 wins

Detroit 87

Kansas City83

Chicago 78

Minnesota 75

East:

Toronto 91

New York 86

Baltimore 80

Boston 78

Tampa Bay 69

So we happily project the Jays repeating as division champs, joining the also-repeating Rangers, as well as the Indians and the Tigers hosting either the Yanks or the Tigers in the Wild Card.

We’ll look at how that might play out, as well as the picks for individual bests, next time out!