Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro spoke to the media yesterday about the Blue Jays season and their outlook for the off-season. Both made veiled references to it being a disappointing season, but tried to frame it in a positive light by noting their 95 losses meant a #5 draft pick which could result in a major young talent if the scouts do their job right. Atkins admitted “candidly, at the start of 2019, I was not hoping to be picking fifth” – ie., have a team that approached respectability and finished higher in the standings – while Shapiro added he didn’t want to do that more than once. They admitted that the 21 starting pitchers used, with a collective ERA of well over 5 wasn’t good enough and that they needed to use any option available to improve there. All good signs if they do anything to follow through on the talk.
Anyhow, as is my custom at season’s end, I will give my picks for the “Blue Jays Awards”. And this year, alas, it was a bit difficult since… well, let’s call a spade a spade… there weren’t too many truly, obviously merit-worthy seasons. That said, my picks:
Player of the Year –Cavan Biggio yep, honestly that surprised me too. There were no totally obvious choices for this, and at first glance perhaps outfielder Randal Grichuk or MLB top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. would have been the names to come to mind. Grichuk had career highs in a lot of categories including games, runs and homers and led the team in a number of significant categories including home runs (31), triples (5- more than the entire team managed last year) and RBI (80.) But his low batting average (.232), huge number of strikeouts balanced out with few walks and a low .280 on base, and so-so OF defense (even his biggest booster, Atkins, only called him “an average defender” yesterday) meant a low WAR of 0.3, lowest since his rookie year and the player himself calling it an “off year.”
Guerrero came up to more fanfare than any Jay in memory, and had the pressure of being the league’s top-rated prospect weighing on him. He smiled, he tried, he impressed at the Home run Derby and all-in-all was good. Excellent, for a 20 year old. But even his biggest fans have to grudgingly admit that his .272 avg., 15 homers, 26 doubles, and .772 OPS (not to mention a team high number of errors) were both A) decent for a rookie, but B) disappointing given the hype and what we’ve seen rookies like Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna do of late.
This leads us to Craig’s little boy. Cavan somehow, despite a great minor league record, wasn’t highly-rated by scouts but came up in early summer and played well, played smart. It wasn’t always obvious to me, as a fan over 1000 miles from Rogers Centre who more often looks at boxscores than the actual game in play, but Biggio may have been the most impressive player and posted the most impressive numbers of anyone on the team. Yes, the batting average was low (what do you bet his Dad reminded him of THAT!) at .234, but he has a Jose Bautista-like eye already and with 71 walks he posted a .364 on base and 16 HR, 48 RBI in 100 games. Baseball-reference somehow graded him a negative DWar (defense) though at second base, his usual spot, his fielding percentage of .989 bested the league average and he turned 44 double plays in 80ish games. His offense was solid though, meaning a 2.8 WAR. Add in a club high 14 stolen bases without being caught and little wee highlights like laying down a perfect bunt, the other way,when Tampa was playing the shift on him during the final week of the year, and running it into a bunt double and you have a lot of promise for 2020… and 2019’s Jay of the Year.
Pitcher of the Year – Trent Thornton Remarkably, the team’s pitching statistically was closer to the league norm than their hitting. Nonetheless, even the architects couldn’t suggest that pitching was adequate this year. Making picking a best pitcher problematic. Some would argue for New York Met Marcus Stroman (deja vu– serious consideration was given last year to JA Happ, who like Stroman was traded to a Big Apple team at the trade deadline) . But while he was pretty reliable this season, he still posted a losing record and his attitude didn’t help out a lot . Reliever Ken Giles was great in his role as closer, but under-utilized and it’s hard to really justify giving a “Best pitcher” to a guy with 53 innings under the belt.
Which leads us to the bespectacled Thornton. At least he rose above expectations. A more or less throwaway from the Astros organization acquiired for infielder Aldemys Diaz, no one expected him to make the opening day roster let alone star on it. But he ended up being the only constant in the Jays starting rotation all year and got better as the year dragged on. A 6-9 record and 4.84 ERA aren’t real good, but might be best in show for the ’19 Jays. And he did lead in starts (29) and innings (154… . Roy Halladay is rolling in his grave). His strikeout to walk ratio was good, and he led the team in K’s too, with 149. Most impressively, he never gave in to tough opponents at the plate Kudos too for asking veteran Clay Bucholz to help him learn the curve ball and he actually was very good after doing so, having a 3.04 ERA from August 11 on. As a postscript,he went 2 for 3 at the plate too! One Jay who exceeded expectations.
Rookie of the Year – Cavan Biggio. Just stands to reason if he’s the Player of the Year and a rookie, he must be Rookie of the Year too. Kudos though to Guerrero, Bo Bichette, Thornton and even Danny Jansen for their years and making it the best single year rookie crop the team has ever posted.
Most Improved Player – Eric Sogard of Tampa. Yes, even though he was traded to the Rays late July, “The Nerd” stands out for his performance in the first 4 months of the season. After being a borderline backup infielder with few discernible major league talents, he came in and hit up a storm, motivated his teammates and quickly became one of the more popular members of the team for fans. In 73 games he was hitting .300 (the only regular to do so at that time), hit 10 homers – his past best was 3 in a year- and was slugging .457. His WAR in his Toronto time alone, 1.7 ,matched his one year career high. He ended up hitting .290 with 13 homers at season’s end and will have a chance to play post-season ball starting tonight with Tampa Bay.
A couple of random Blue Jays items for today. First, let me just say I’m glad they’re back in Toronto and wearing normal uniforms, apparently having given Flo from Progressive her clothes back from this past weekend. Did anyone at all think those “players weekend” jerseys and hats were a winner? Anyone at all?
Badfinger20 made a very valid but sometimes forgotten point in a recent comment here. He suggested Toronto needn’t be penny-pinchers since they’re Toronto after all, not Tampa. It’s very true. I majored in geography, so I have a sense of these things, but I realize not everyone did. So let’s explain it. Toronto is a big city, and a big baseball market.
Bud Selig pointed it out in his book I reviewed week. He mentioned how in the late-’80s he was jealous of the (then) Skydome and Toronto, and wanted something like it for his Milwaukee but knew they couldn’t afford that. He details how then Jays boss Paul Beeston linked up with the owners of other “large market” teams (who he described as the two New York teams, San Francisco, the Dodgers, Philly, Boston and curiously, the rather small city of St. Louis; with Atlanta, Texas and the two Chicago teams joining them later in what Bud saw as a selfish attempt to keep small teams like his own down.)
Toronto is a huge city. I know, I’ve grown up and spent most of my life in its environs. I’ve driven in from Buffalo (like so many prospects do now from the Bisons farm club) and seen it across the lake, and before you know it, you’re in its exurbs while still seeing the skyline glimmer across the lake. But don’t let me persuade you… let the numbers.
As of 2017, the population of the city of Toronto was 2, 930, 000. Granted that’s smaller than L.A. (3, 970 ,000) and downright wee next to New York City at 8, 625, 000. But on the other hand, it’s more than Chicago (2, 715 ,000 and dropping) let alone cities like Pittsburgh (302 000) and St. Petersburg, home of the Rays at just 263, 000. Now of course, city populations can be misleading since some cities cover lots of terrain and others are small and subdivided, and fans will travel across townlines to attend a game. So metro populations are a better measure of a city size. But again, Toronto looks big.
Canada’s census bureau puts “greater Toronto” at 6.42 million now. But that doesn’t include the Hamilton or Oshawa areas, at the western and eastern ends of the ‘burbs. The Go Trains run straight to the stadium from those cites and we know many, many fans trek in from them every game. That puts the population of the Toronto area at about 7.2 million. Small next to the Big Apple, which is now a “huge apple” at 20.3 million and extends into western Connecticut and northeastern-most Pennsylvania; or LA/Orange County with 13.1 million. But of course, both those areas have to split the market between two teams, Not so Blue Jays land.
Metro Toronto compares similarly to Atlanta and Boston, is a wee bit smaller than Chicago (which again divides its loyalties between two teams) but is a bit bigger than the San Francisco Bay area (about 4.7 million.) Pity poor St. Louis at 2.8 million or Pittsburgh at 2.3 mil. Not so many fans to show up or watch local broadcasts there.
And then, looking at the big picture, one can try to judge a team’s market. For example, the Red Sox are the team of choice for pretty much all of New England, save for perhaps the western half of Connecticut. That gives them about 11 million people prone to being their fans and buy their hats and jerseys, even if they all don’t go out to Fenway. Atlanta has a fanbase ranging across the South from NC to Mississippi . A lot of acres and about 30 million potential fans.
Toronto though- well, Toronto is Canada’s Team. They have fans from sea to shining sea, 36 million strong. Granted people in say, Saskatchewan aren’t likely to show up at the Rogers Centre to watch many games 2000 miles from home, but they are likely to watch the games on TV. And look at Seattle when Toronto plays. Numerous Jays players have pointed out it feels like a home crowd, so heavily draped in blue are the stands with all the Toronto fans out of nearby Vancouver.
So what do all those numbers mean? Simply this – Toronto is big enough, and has a big enough market to be able to play with the “big boys.” Yet according to Sportrac, at latest tally, the Jays are just 22nd in payroll (between Arizona and San Diego) at about $110 million this year. The league average – $136.2 million, while the Boston Red Sox are doing the best drunken sailor impersonation, leading the way with a $227M bill. The Yanks, Cubs and Dodgers also top $200 million.
Now, we are seeing that freewheeling spending doesn’t guarantee championships. More and more, young players at low salaries (think Bo Bichette, Vladimir Jr., Juan Soto…) provide a whole lot of bang for the buck. And the “moneyball” theory still has merit – look at Oakland charging for the playoffs yet again with a “no name” roster and what Gio Urshela has done in obscurity for the Yanks. So I’m not arguing that Toronto should go out and double their spending just to show off. That would accomplish nothing.
What I am saying though is this. Toronto needs to add pitching next year to compete, and perhaps could benefit from a steady reliable, 100 RBI veteran less prone to streakiness than 20 or 21 year olds. Don’t believe Ross Atkins if this winter comes and he tells you Toronto can’t afford a Gerritt Cole or a Marcell Ozuna. Let alone ink Justin Smoak to a contract extension or go after pitchers like Alex Wood. They can, and if they value their huge market, they will.
First note for today. Congrats to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Number 27 played game #100 of his career Tuesday, and had his 30th multi-hit game to celebrate. As of 100 games, Vlad has 104 hits, including 23 doubles, 15 HR and has driven in 58. Add 40 walks to his .280 average and you find a .353 on base percentage, and a .469 slugging percentage. All told, OPS of .822 and a WAR of 2.2 (actually a 2.5 offensively but a slight negative defensively.) Numbers a veteran would be proud of, let alone a rookie!
As a point of reference, another player who hit the 100 game mark seven years back. Mike Trout. Trout played his 100th game, appropriately enough on July 4, 2012. He had two hits against Cleveland that day, bringing his season average to .343. However, his first 40 games, in 2011, weren’t very remarkable, so all together after 100 games, Trout had 109 hits, with 20 doubles, 3 triples, 15 HR and 52 RBI. He was hitting an even .300, with fewer walks than Vlad, and a .355 on base, .494 slugging and .849 OPS.
A .300 average and .849 OPS top a .280 one with .822 OPS… but not by that much. Point is, Guerrero’s off to a remarkable start not that different than Mike Trout was a few years ago. And now I seem to be in the minority when I argue that Trout isn’t the best player ever.
So, if Vlad can continue to be just a little bit lesser than Trout throughout his career… I think we Jays fans have reason to rejoice! And that’s without even guessing at where Bo Bichette’s numbers will be by his 100th game, probably around May of next year.
Yesterday was something of a microcosm of the recent past for the Blue Jays. Last night’s game gave fans plenty to cheer about as they routed Texas 19 – 4, a season high for runs and hits (21). Oft-forgotten Brandon Drury hit a grand slam, everyone in the lineup had at least one hit and as usual (of late) the kids were alright…to say the least. Rookie catcher Danny Jansen hit a homer and had three hits, Cavan Biggio and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. each had two hits, with Vlad scoring three runs and Dante’s little boy, Bo Bichette, once again led the way. Hitting lead off he notched two singles, two doubles and scored three. For those keeping count, Bichette, in his third week in the “bigs” has 11 doubles already and is clipping along with a .394 average.
It was fun for fans, a middling crowd of about 16 000 at Rogers Centre plus the TV viewers, and was although extreme, indicative of recent weeks for Toronto. After an atrocious start at the plate, the Jays have begun hitting pretty well and much of that has been ignited by the youngsters – rookies Bichette, Guerrero, Biggio and Jansen as well as sophomore Lourdes Gurriel. The result is a team that on some nights looks like world beaters, other nights can be rather ordinary. Since the end of June, the Blue Jays have been an even 19 -19, largely because they’ve had 6 games of double-digit runs in that stretch and scored 206 runs – about 5.5 per game. While the team still only tops Detroit in the AL in terms of batting average (.238) and on base pct. (305), their recent run and power hitting has them 5th in the league in homers (186) and 10th, but climbing in the important category, runs scored (561.)
Yes, the blowout game was fun and good news, particularly because very few fans or players in Toronto have forgotten Roughned Odor’s cheap shot sucker punch of Jose Bautista three years back. But as usual, it would seem, the joy was tempered by another dark cloud floated over the stadium by GM Ross Atkins. Only hours before the team took the field they announced they’d given shortstop Freddy Galvis to Cincinnati on a waiver claim. The twitterverse was once again aghast and annoyed. One could almost imagine Atkins in Batman villain gear chortling “So they didn’t like getting back one second-string outfielder for two pitchers, eh? Wait til they get a load of this…”
The supposed reasoning that the team took the uncommon stance of announcing on Twitter was that they had a shortstop now in Bo Bichette and he’s playing well, so let him play. Who needs two? So they threw Galvis out on waivers and let Cinci come on by and drive him off for absolutely nothing in return. Nada.
This seems dubious wisdom to say the very least. Galvis is immensely popular in Toronto and in fact just won the team’s Heart and Hustle Award for the player “who best personifies the values” of baseball and sports, both on and off the field. It’s Galvis’ second one of those, having won Philadelphia’s two years ago as well. Galvis leads the Jays in games played this season (115 out of their 122) which is no surprise since he played every game last year and the season before and ran a league-leading 349 straight games until Charlie Montoyo sat him one day in April. Freddy had earned his time on field too; he also led the team in hits and RBI at the time (Randal Grichuk overtook him in that category in last night’s game.) All in all he was hitting .267 with 18 HR, 54 RBI and a WAR of 1.6 so far. He was also a reliable glove in the infield, leading the team with a part in 64 double plays and a high .986 fielding percentage at short.
Now, there’s no denying young Bo has been impressive since being called up from the minors. Nor that he is one of the game’s best prospects. His 11-game hitting streak upon being called up is the longest to begin a career in Jays history. He’s fast, exciting and a friend of his other young counterparts in the infield. If he keeps it up, he will be the “Bo” people think of when someone says “Bo knows baseball.”
All that doesn’t make giving away a star infielder for nothing at all sensible. Galvis is a very durable veteran – at least veteran compared to the bulk of his teammates – with a great work ethic as well as the steady hand in the field that to this point, Bo is a bit lacking in. Just as with Vladimir Guerrero, Bo is already a hitting star but at times looks a little bit overmatched in the field. That’s not meant as a knock; few 20 or 21 year-olds look like latter day Brooks Robinsons or Roberto Alomars defensively and fans should be overwhelmingly pleased with their composure and effectiveness at the plate. But it also doesn’t mean that Bichette might not learn a bit from an above-average defensive SS who is also a popular guy in the clubhouse. Nor that Galvis couldn’t continue to get some regular ABs even with Bichette playing. Consider that manager Montoyo tries to insist young players have at least one game off per week to not overwork them, that the team lacks a full-time DH and that Galvis can also play 2B or 3B.
Galvis wasn’t eligible for free agency until after next season and the team had an option for a reasonable $5.5 M for 2020. Toronto could have kept Freddy at least until the end of this season, played him probably 4 games a week without sitting Bo Bichette more than the manager already does and had important backup protection in case of injury. That would have been smart. Or they could have decided three weeks ago he was expendable and put him on the trading block. While pitchers were the preferred pick-up this past July 31, if Tampa would pledge two “players to be named later” for the Jays journeyman IF Eric Sogard and LA would give up an A-ball pitcher and a veteran reliever currently injured, in Tony Cingrani, for St. Louis journeyman Jedd Gyorko who was hitting just .196 trying to recover from a back injury, one has to imagine that some team would have made some reasonable offer for a good-hitting, hard-working veteran like Galvis.
Instead Atkins chose to do neither and Toronto gets nothing but fond memories and the insecurity of having no real viable backup for a rookie shortstop with only 15 games under his belt.
In short, the Blue Jays have been fairly good of late. But one has to suspect that’s despite the front office not because of it.
You have to feel a wee bit bad for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Baseball’s top prospect came up to intense pressure earlier this year, and for about two months posted decent, but quite ordinary numbers, to the dismay of adoring fans primed by the media to expect the second coming of Ted Williams. Now, since he got in the national spotlight in the All Star Game home run derby, he’s been red hot. He’s hit not one but two grand slams in the last couple of weeks, and over the past 10 games has driven in 18 while hitting well over .400. He was, deservedly, the American League Player of the Week last week. Yet seemingly, all we are hearing about in the Blue Jays world is Houston pitchers and Vlad’s teammates bad fielding. Ergo, bad decisions by General Manager Ross Atkins.
Many have termed it a “perfect storm” of problems for Toronto’s front office this past trade deadline. They traded away the team’s most popular pitcher for two minor leaguers few seem inspired by, then managed to give away a former star-starting pitcher (Aaron Sanchez), a reliable middle-inning reliever (Joe Biagini) and a sharp minor league outfielder Cal Stevenson, all for one middling (to be kind) 25 year old Houston minor league outfielder, Derek Fisher. Fans were livid. Of course, you know the rest of the story, one so wild even Hollywood would balk at it for being too unrealistic. Sanchez and Biagini (with a few pitches of help from another bullpen arm) combined on a no-hitter their first time to the mound for the Astros. The same night, Fisher makes the highlight reel after leaving the game injured after having a fly ball smack him in the face after bouncing off his closed glove. #shatkins and #fireatkins were two of the more printable trending topics in Toronto social media that night. The next day, Sanchez put a full page ad in the Toronto Sun daily paper thanking the fans and people of the city for the opportunity to pitch in the big leagues and making him feel at home. A class move.
All the while, Ross Atkins continued to throw gasoline on the fire smugly making references to “20 pitchers” who “check all the boxes” to be major league starters and glibly talking about Fisher’s impressive fielding skills. And ignoring Marcus Stroman’s comments upon arriving in New York that he had won a Gold Glove, been an All Star, pitched back-to-back 200 inning seasons and never once been spoken to, let alone congratulated by front office.
Atkins and his office cohorts don’t get it. The Blue Jays have at times set MLB attendance records, and as recently as 2016 led the league in people through the turnstiles. Last year, and to date this year, they lead the league in drop-off in attendance. The fans are speaking, loud and clear. They don’t like Atkins nor the direction he’s taking the team, which is currently on pace for its losingest season since 1979.
Former MLB commissioner Bud Selig talks of how baseball failed initially in Milwaukee in the ’60s, noting that the owner at the time was an out-of-towner who responded to falling attendance by trading away the team stars and raising prices, not “doing anything to market itself” and assuming you merely need to “open your doors” to win. Taking the crowds for granted. Or, as the column Tao of Stieb, (not written by Dave Stieb it should be noted) pointed out in a Sportsnet publication… owned by the same parent company as the Blue Jays themselves… “if you look at the end of any fallen franchise regime, losing the confidence of the fans was always a key part.” He also notes listening to Atkins is like hearing a “post-doctoral thesis” about contract control and so on and that fans aren’t willing to wait until 2024 for one single shot at winning before he decides to scrap the key parts of the team being developed now.
So what would I do if I was made GM? If I had to try to steer the Blue Jays forward from the mess they’re in now?
Well, since it’s August, the new trade deadline is passed so we wouldn’t need to be consumed with ideas for trades between now and the World Series. Which actually simplifies things. Although it doesn’t preclude watching the waiver wire… Toronto missed a chance at not re-claiming Javy Guerra, who started the season with us in the bullpen, and was DFA’d by Washington. He cleared waivers and is now back in the Nats organization.
For me, job one would be to formulate a plan for 2020 that includes taking a shot at winning. Hell, Vladdy’s starting to hit .400 and an RBI+ per game (even if only on a short run), Bo Bichette’s hitting up a storm, over the past two months Toronto’s averaging north of 5 runs a game… it’s not a stretch. IF there’s pitching that is. Not just Ross Atkins’ imaginary list of 20 kid pitchers, that is. Right now, according to MLB scouting, only one minor league Blue Jay (Nate Pearson) really projects to be an average or better MLB pitcher any year soon. And yes, some rookies like Sean Reid-Foley and Jacob Waguespack have been decent at times, and Ryan Borucki could be the real deal IF he doesn’t need Tommy John surgery (he’s seeing Dr Andrews this week due to ongoing elbow troubles), but at best that probably equals about one good spot in the rotation next year. Matt Shoemaker should be back healthy, so that’s two, Trent Thornton is a possibility. With injuries and unreliability of young pitcher’s trajectories, it’s safe to say we need at very least two solid, reliable new starters next year. I’d be looking at the list of free agents this winter and making a few calls to teams about pitchers they might want to part ways with after October. (Carlos Carrasco? Jacob Degrom? Sonny Gray?)
Then on to job two, which is re-connecting with fans. Although to do that, we might have to leapfrog to job three, which is connecting with the roster. No one’s refuted Stroman’s claims, and that’s just wrong. The GM doesn’t need to be out partying with his players or invited to the catcher’s kid’s birthday party, but he should know his players and let them know where they stand. What they’re doing well, what needs to change. I’d try to talk to each one of the guys on the roster ASAP, let them know where they stand, what the team plans for them in the future and listen to their thoughts and concerns. Make it clear that Toronto cares about them and wants the city and team to be a desirable spot for them to live and work. I’d probably start with Justin Smoak, the only real long-term veteran on team and the only major free agent after this season. I’d float him the idea of keeping him around for a few more years, and even if not getting a contract done, try to reach an agreement to talk about it before he leaves town in November. The time is right for both.
Smoak’s batting average is way down (.207) but he’s still getting on base reliably and hitting dingers (18, despite time on IL). And he’s a plus-fielder, something noteworthy when behind him are outfielders trying to catch fly balls with their face. A two year extension would solidify the infield and give a mature veteran presence in the clubhouse. And his wife Kristin helps too; she’s one of the team and the city’s biggest social media boosters and a big part of the Lady Jays help organization. Exactly the people the team can benefit from having represent them in the community.
Back to step 2. Time to be humble, tell the fans we probably messed up a bit in the past couple of years but we have some great young talent and a desire to compete with the big boys next year. to speed up that message, I’d get the team to mail out each season ticket holder something as a token of appreciation – maybe a Vlad jersey (yes, expensive, but with only about 10 000 of those fans left, the cost to them would be less than a million bucks… baseball chump change) and coupons off next season’s tickets. Then I’d pick by lottery about 200 or so such ticket holders, rent a nice community center, invite them for a nice free dinner and discussion. Tell them exactly how the team’s going to get better, have a few of the players up on the front table as well to sign autographs and take a few questions from the crowd.
Because as it stands, Toronto may only win about 62 games this year. It’s a long road from 62 wins to a playoff berth. It’s a longer, steeper road from a spot where attendance is crumbling and hashtags comparing the team management to excrement are popular to being the toast of the town once again.
It’s been a trying enough time lately for us Jays fans, with an array of losses, Cavan Biggio struggling in his first weeks as a major leaguer yet being told already by manager Charlie Monotyo he needs to be the clubhouse leader and Teoscar Hernandez, one of the worst fielding outfielders ever to take the field in the blue-and-white now being annointed as the new Centerfielder. Not to mention aging Edwin Jackson,who gave up 10 earned runs a few days back and has an ERA of over 11 being told he’s still in the rotation because in the words of the manager, “we don’t have anyone else.”
So, as much as the desire is there to comment on those things, or on Marcus Stroman going off on another one of his “me-I-me-me” rants and dissing his teammate Randal Grichuk online, let’s try to find a bit to be happy about as Jays fans. Starting with the recent draft, in which MLB figures Toronto made out among the top six teams with their drafts.
Their first round pick is hard to dispute. For years, Toronto seems to have been obsessed with “big” hard-throwing pitchers. Yes, Justin Verlander is 6’5” and of course, going back a ways, Randy Johnson was somewhere between “too tall to go through doors” and “Jolly Green Giant” but there also have been more than enough great pitchers of more normal dimensions. Take little Stroman, mouthy and sometimes lacking a filter between his brain and texting fingers, but still a fine, hard-working pitcher at 5’8”. All that said, I think we have to expect the Blue Jays first pick, Alek Manoah is a good one.
The lad from West Virginia U. is 21, 6’6” , maybe 6’7”, weighs in about 260, which the team admits puts him in the rare category of CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda among current MLB starters size-wise. But the right-hander has a fastball coming in at 95 regularly, 98 in a pinch, and a “plus slider” according to Baseball America. With his Mountaineers college team he was a pretty solid 9-4, 2.08 ERA and 144 Ks in just 108 innings this spring… me too, I had no idea they played that many games in university ball!
Anyway, Manoah is big, strong, has three good pitches apparently and – not to be undervalued- seems excited to be a Blue Jay and is already interacting nicely with Toronto fans on social media. At 21, I would project him to throw a few innings this summer in an A-club like Vancouver and be ready for AA next season. I like the pick and can only hope it ushers in a new-’90s for Toronto. In the 1990s, the Blue Jays managed to draft in the first round Shawn Green in ’91, Chris Carpenter in ’93, Hall of Famer Roy Halladay in ’95 (nice addition to that story, they picked his son Braden this draft in the 32rd round) and Vernon Wells in ’97. By the 2000s they’d gone on to such first round trivia answers as Gabe Gross, Russ Adams and Miguel Negron who collectively would make a pretty OK beer league softball team in some small towns.
I have a few more reservations about their second round pick, yet another big pitcher, Kendal Williams. The Florida high school kid is 6’7” and strong but there’s a whole lot that can go wrong in the probably six years between him picking up his $1.4M cheque and potentially being ready to pitch in the Majors. Third round pick Dasan Brown is also a teen, but he’s a speedy outfielder and a hometown boy who played for Canada’s Junior National Team. Obviously there’s also a lot that can go wrong there also, but his signing bonus is lower and outfielders are a little less likely to have career-limiting injuries when young than pitchers, and as a (suburban) Torontonian, he’s not a bad addition and Lord knows, right now the Jays are weak in the outfield!
They are a long ways off but they could be important names for Toronto in years to come.
To try to keep a positive spin, next we’ll look at the best ever… the Blue Jays best players ever to set foot on the astroturf.
Well here we are, rapidly approaching the one-third mark of the season already! We’ve noted here there’s been a bit of a sense of …ennui, perhaps is the word about our Blue Jays. The fact that they’re still ahead of Baltimore in the standings isn’t quite reason enough for fan exuberance, or trips through the Rogers’ Centre turnstiles. However, since the Blue Jays are still our team (and quite likely yours if you’re reading this) and May’s a beautiful month where the landscape changes by the day, let’s look at five things to be happy about in the changing landscape of the Blue Jays, this fifth month of 2019. Starting with…
Nerd power. Very few took notice when the Blue Jays signed veteran infielder Eric Sogard to a minor league deal last winter. Why should they? The small 32 year-old has been around in the majors since 2010, but hasn’t really made much of an impression other than to earn the nickname “nerd”, largely on account of his thick glasses. Last year he was a part of the almost World Series-bound Brewers, but he hit an anemic .134 in 55 games with them. Indeed, his career average as of this year’s opener was .239 with 11 homers in 1576 at bats. Few expected him to even crack the Toronto lineup, with Lourdes Gurriel and Devon Travis ahead of him for the second base job. However, Devon’s ongoing knee issues and Gurriel’s bad fielding backed with a surprising lack of hitting soon got Eric up and playing second. Lo and behold, the good-natured little grinder is clipping along hitting .295 with 4 homers and a .511 slugging percentage in 24 games. Certainly a small sample, but that’s way ahead of his previous best, a .429 slugging, way back in ’10. Jays fans have begun to get behind the nerd, who just might remind some a little of another hard-working middle infielder we all loved, John MacDonald.
The Knuckleballer Even a serious fan looking in on Saturday’s game might have been taken aback, with a mystery southpaw with a hard to spell name on the mound for the Jays. A few might vaguely remember the name – Ryan Feierabend. The 33 year old was picked up almost unnoticed in the off-season, after pitching in a low-level Korean league last year! He first pitched in the Majors in 2006, he last pitched (a mere 7 innings) out of the Texas bullpen five years back. Ryan’s last major league start was late in 2008, for Seattle. He now features a 85 mph sinker and most noteworthy, a knuckleball, making him the fourth knuckleballer ever to toss for T.O. (behind Phil Neikro- briefly – , Tom Candiotti and recently, RA Dickey). A fellow lefty knuckleballer, Wilbur Wood who pitched from ’61 to ’78 called in to the broadcast to say “hi” and tell people that knuckleballs are like any other pitch- “it has to have movement to have success.” On Saturday, Ryan had some movement but it wasn’t fooling too many White Sox. He went 4 innings, gave up 7 hits including a home run but did manage a pick-off at first base and some 70% of his pitches were strikes. He also managed another rarity. The game was called mid-way through the fifth, due to rain, making him the first pitcher since Steve Trachsel in 2006 to hurl a 4-inning complete game! “For me, a veteran player, I think it’s all about keeping after it… hoping there are more opportunities ahead.” With a guy who’s been willing to wait 11 years for his shot at starting a game again, fans can hope along with him!
Number Six At times we’ve criticized Marcus Stroman (and his attitude) here before, but so far this season, he’s been someone to cheer. By far the most consistent member of the starting rote he’s been pitching close to as well as he ever has (rather curiously since he’s throwing fewer ground balls than ever before – 1.4 per flyball, about half the rate he had last year). He’s gone 10 starts, 7 of them “quality”, and lasted 58 innings, 11th best in the league. Not Doc Halladay let alone Dave Stieb-type innings loads, but at a little better than 5 2/3 innings per start, pretty good by today’s standards and about a half inning more per game than last year. Despite giving up more flyballs this year,only 3 have left the yard, and his K:BB rate is good (2.7 strikeouts per walk) which all leads to a very solid 2.95 ERA. Unfortunately, a league-low 1.5 run support (1.5 runs scored by team per 9 innings pitched) has meant his record is an unsightly 1-6. But to his credit, the oft-short tempered and loud-mouthed pitcher has taken it in stride, not calling out or insulting his teammates and says “it’s a long season and my guys are going to be there for me.” No criticism for that attitude, and we sure hope he’s right and the team start to put a few runs on the board for him soon.
Bubbling Under In Buffalo – we have one hot young player with a Hall of Fame father in the lineup now, soon we might have two. Cavan Biggio, son of Astros’ great Craig Biggio, has been promoted to AAA Buffalo and his estimation in the eyes of the organization keeps rising. In 2018 at AA, he hit a solid .252 with 26 homers and 20 steals. This year, at the higher level, he’s at .310 with 28 bases on balls resulting in a .436 on base percentage, plus 6 homers and 26 RBI. What’s more, he’s showing a bit of his dad’s versatility. Originally billed as a second baseman, he’s still done that job half the time this season… but he’s also played first, third, left and right field and has only commit 2 errors, both at second base. While his path to second base may not be direct this year (if “Nerd power” keeps producing or Gurriel shows the promise he had last year in Toronto while in Buffalo, there’d be little reason to promote him quickly) his versatility could mean he might show up right behind the other Hall of Famer’s kid, in left field, soon.
The Face …of the organization, even before he made the big league roster.Vladimir Guerrero Jr. He’s here at last, and that alone is reason to cheer. Vlad is shining the spotlight on Toronto baseball again like no one has since Jose Bautista was chasing 50 home runs. That is good, and he’s holding up well, smiling for the press. But hey, here’s something more. In case you haven’t noticed, VG2 is starting to quickly make adjustments to tough big league pitching. As of a few days back, he was facing fewer pitches in the strike zone than any other regular in the AL, Mike Trout included, and he did swing wildly at ones down low too often in the first few games. But hey… check out his last 8 games (6 of which have been against the Chisox through a weird scheduling twist). In those games, he’s been 10 for 27 with his first 4 home runs and 9 RBI to boot. Two of his longballs have been to straight away center, showing he can bash with the best of them when he sees something in his wheelhouse. Overall, his average is .235 and he is still hitting more groundballs than he did in the minors but the numbers are on their way up. With some six weeks to go before All Star time, all bets are off as to who Toronto’s representative will be…but if Vlad keeps hitting like he has been in the last eight games, don’t bet against it being young #27!
Five things to feel good about even if the score doesn’t turn our way against Boston this holiday Monday.