In 2013 no team entered the season having done more to upgrade over the winter than the Blue Jays. In the 2013 regular season however, no team under-achieved more than the same Blue Jays. Despite landing three All-stars in one trade, a reigning Cy Young in another and upping the team payroll by something in the magnitude of $50 mil, the sadsack Jays managed to only upgrade their win total by one measly game- and actually sank in the standings due to the re-emergence of a powerful Red Sox team (much to the chagrin of Toronto fans who were more galled than most realize by the sights of a cheery, friendly John Farrell at the helm, something of the antonym of his demeanour in his Canadian tenure.) That is all ancient history now, as is GM Alex Anthopolous’ oft-repeated commentary last fall that all that was wrong with the team was lousy starting pitching (starting pitching he assembled one might note, although he seemed not to make the connection) . All that was needed to right the ship, he said time and time again, was to add one or better yet, two, quality starting pitchers over the off-season.
Now there’s no denying how bad the starting staff was last year- 29th out of 30 in fact. Even the horrendous Astros put together a more competent rotation than the Jays. After Buehrle and Dickey (who were both consistent innings-eater and acceptable although nowhere near having career years) it was something of a black hole. Highly touted Josh Johnson arrived from Miami and missed half the season with elbow ailments and when he did pitch, merely made Jays fan wish he would ache more often. Brandon Morrow was horrible and missed months with random arm pains. And so on. The assumption of the starters being bad was accurate but also missed the other shortcomings of the ’13 staff- too frequent injuries (by mid-August the entire ‘regular’ outfield was on the DL and would remain so more or less for the remainder of the year), a year of epic failure by one-time “superstar in waiting” JP Arencibia – his .227 on base percentage was lowest of any regular on any team in over 20 years, he led the league in passed balls and throwing errors and managed to start a war of words with the local sports media,- second basemen through most of the year had difficulty (to be kind) playing the position, let alone hitting, and a bullpen which, on the whole was good but which (probably due to over-use) slumped after the All Star break.
Clearly more than a few licks of paint were needed to make the House of the Jay presentable for 2014. This was more of a total overhaul fixer-upper, but the ever-upbeat Anthopolous insisted just one or two more starting pitchers would be just fine and dandy and give Ontario fans a shot at seeing October baseball at home for the first time in two decades.
Now opening day is only a week off and AA has managed to add, well not two,nor one but zero significant pitchers to the roster but remains positively upbeat. He’s consistently told the Canadian press and fanbase this spring that he considers the rotation to be much stronger than last year, despite the absence of new names and the departure of the under-achieving but high-ceilinged Johnson . (Who it might be added is already injured in his new home of San Diego).
Hope springs eternal, it is said, but one must wonder if for Blue Jays fans if the hope isn’t slowly going from one of a distant chance to return to the post-season to one of a hope of an even worse foul-up than last season which it is commonly assumed would bring to a close the Anthopolous chapter (and by extension all traces of the JP Ricciardi era) of baseball history here. For, it’s getting tougher and tougher to ignore that for all his charm and good press conferences, all Anthopolous has managed to do in his time at the helm is to drive them deeper into the depths of the American League basement.
…to be continued
Well, if you’re a “glass is half-full” type person, and a Blue Jays fan, you can at least be pleased that as the days dwindle to a dozen or so in this season, our boys of summer are at least ahead of Boston in the standings. And, if we went back to Spring Training, we’d have been happy enough to think about being one up on the Red Sox. Of course, the “glass is half-empty” type would add that no one anticpated the Sox of ’12 playing like the Sox of Sep. ’11- all year!- and that being on pace for a 90 loss season is no reason to feel good about anything. Either way the stein that is Team Blue Jay needs a lot added to it to come close to being full enough to enjoy or quench fans thirsting for success for 19 years and counting.
This week Alex Anthopolous addressed the loyal and stated his now predictable comments about the team having lots of potential, needing just some fine tuning in the starting pitching yada yada yada.
Well,I’d like to think that Anthopolous was being honest and informed, but after 19 years of “wait until next year’s” I’d be hard-pressed to believe either to be the case. Since this year is a write-off , a few suggestions for the 2013 Jays and making their glasses full of champagne come next October. I’d like to rip Gregg Zaun’s “three ways to win” that he does so cheekily every game, but let’s face it – a team sitting at 65-77 needs way more than 3 things to win.
First and foremost, of course, is one thing everyone is in agreement upon. The Jays need to beef up the starting pitching. Second base has been handled smoothly in the field but has been a black hole for hitting since 2009; clearly that needs to change. Toronto has too many players who’ve peaked or stagnated in their careers; it’s time to clear the pond. Quality, not quantity. And Russ Adams, John Ford Griffin,Kevin ahrens, Guillermo Quiroz, Gustavo Chacin , etc ad nauseum tell you all you need to know about the reliability of Toronto’s ability to discern real talent at a young age. The time to protect prospects at all costs is when they are no longer prospects. Finally, Toronto needs a manager who’s only goal is to win a world Series. For Toronto. Maybe John Farrell is that man. Maybe he’s not. They need to know which now.
In short, the future looks bright for next year’s Jays… if next year’s Jays get , oh about three new quality starting pitchers, a new second baseman , an outfielder who can actually hit to go with Jose Bautista , maybe change managers and tweak a little of the roster here and there. A rather tall order, but one that is doable. Let’s not forget that Toronto is a large market, not small; attendance this year has been up despite our wins being down and that Rogers is one of the most lucrative Canadian companies. There is money to be spent to help field a competitive team, if need be. The good news is perhaps not much more needs to be dolled out anyway; while it’s true Toronto spends barely a third of what the Yankees do and not much more than half of the Angels, they already spend way more than Tampa Bay and Oakland. For those needing a refresher course on how those teams are doing, just look at the AL wild card standings, starting with Toronto and then looking up. Way up. Not to mention, for better or worse, this coming winter’s free agent crop is likely to be one of the less spectacular in recent memory. While it’s not to say that Toronto couldn’t add a piece or two to help via free agency (Nick Swisher anyone? Edwin Jackson perhaps as a number five starter, if they could get him to forgive them for trading him minutes, not months after acquiring him the first time?) by and large the improvements the team needs will have to come from trades. Thankfully, the majors are full of teams rebuilding, retooling, or refooling, just like toronto has been for nearly two decades now. Plenty of teams would be willing, eager even, to take some of our excess talent and young maybes off our hands.
That in mind, Toronto needs to be willing to trade JP Arencibia, Yunel Escobar, Henderson Alvarez and others. In Arencibia’s case, he’s grown in stature behind the plate and is adequate if not better at calling games and blocking balls in the dirt. His average is low but he’s consistently hit for power and driven in runs. 128 RBI in 728 at bats last year and this put him in league with Nelson Cruz and Kevin Youkilis and would make him a low salary, highly desireable commodity for any number of teams. The Jays of course, could do worse than keeping him, but with solid backup Jeff Mathis locked up through 2014, under-rated Yorvit Torrealba newly acquired and their best overall prospect, Travis Darnaud bubbling under at AAA, he isn’t essential to the future anymore. Much the same is true of Escobar, temperamental but certainly above-average with the glove and capable of hitting solidly, but expendable now that Adeiny Hechevarria is on the scene. A month of Adeiny has shown he can indeed play defensive very slickly, which was never in question, but just as he did in AAA, game by game he looks more polished at the plate. Even if his average were to stagnate where it is now, at .228, his glove would make him a worthwhile player and no worse than two of our everyday players this season. But watching Adeiny learn and grow, plus the idea of having him tutored by fellow latinos like Bautista and Encarnacion makes one think his .310 average in Las Vegas was no fluke and he would be capable of duplicating Escobar’s numbers– at a fraction of the price. The five mil or so saved could be plugged straight into the pitching staff.
If Escobar and Arencibia are expendable but worth holding onto if possible; Brett Cecil and Colby Rasmus must go for everyone’s good. Maybe they can blossom into stars. I doubt it, but stranger things have happened. What’s clear is that it isn’t going to happen here. Sometimes players can stagnate in situations and only develop their talents in new situations with new coaches. Alex Rios seems to finally be maturing in Chicago and becoming the player the jays always hoped he would be. But there’s no guaranteeing he wouldn’t still be a .210 hitting , lazy-looking outfielder swearing at young fans were he still payrolled at Rogers Centre. And he wouldn’t have created a window of opportunity for Joey bats to shine with his departure. Likewise, it’s entirely possible that if he hadn’t come to Toronto, talked to Vernon Wells and been managed by Cito gaston, Bautista might be out of baseball, or still warming the bench in Pittsburgh when not assigned to Altoona. This is the reason there a bevy of teams who’d still offer reliable players who’d be an upgrade for Toronto for packages involving either of these two perennial “could be greats”. Cecil is a 26 year old southpaw who had a 15 win season. This is what the Jays need to stress when trading him, not that he’s also a lad who’s velocity has dropped, who disliked Roy Halladay because he felt Doc’s work ethic showed him up and who has trouble keeping the ball down.Only 22% of balls hit off him this year have been grounders, making him highly succeptible to homers. He does manage lefty hitters quite well, limiting them to an .189 batting average (vs a .311 average by right-handed hitters), but there’s no way of knowing if he’ll work as a specialized reliever and even if he could, Toronto already has two good ones in the ‘pen in savvy veteran Darren Oliver and promising sidearmer Aaron Loup. Let some other team experiment with him.
As for Rasmus, he can run. He can catch. He can hit. He just seldom does even two out of three on a given day. And he doesn’t like taking advice on how to do so. Yes, he hasnt’ had the same level of conflict here he did with Tony LaRussa in St Louis, but he clearly doesn’t like being told how to play his game. Which is fine if you happen to be Babe Ruth circa 1925, Albert Pujols circa 2006, or even Jose Bautista circa May 2011. But not if you’re a .227 hitter prone to striking out several times a game. Fact is, Rasmus has now been with the Jays for well over a season. In the 7 and a half months since brought on from the Cards, he’s had one good month- this June. Besides June 2012, as of this past weekend, Rasmus had managed to hit an even .200 in 497 at bats, strike out some 134 times while walking only 38 times and knocked 17 out of the yard. Numbers you might put up with if you’re an also ran and the player is a gold glove middle infielder or rock-solid catcher. But not if you’re a team pretending to compete and the player is an outfielder. Maybe he’ll find the inspiration or spark to be the star he was presumed to be by both St Louis and Toronto, but with a busload of other outfielders around the organization, I’d rather not take the chance that he won’t. Get rid of him while some other teams look at him with stars in their eyes and a calendar of June, his 8 home run, 25 RBI month in front of them.
Speaking of outfielders, even if Rasmus is traded, the team still has major-league ready Anthony Gose and Moises Sierra to go along with speedy veteran Rajai Davis. Given that there’s a need for one more power hitting outfielder, there would be one outfield spot plus perhaps a backup role available. Three is more than two, so let’s decide on which two we want around and make the other available for their career’s sake and for garnering players who do have a chance of playing time.
All that is fine and good but the one thing that the Jays most need to shift their mindset on with regards to trades is Michigan’s Big Three. No not GM, Ford and Chrysler, but Syndergaard, Sanchez and Nicolino, three 20 year old pitchers down at A-ball Lansing. Yes, all three have talent. Yes, all three have pitched well (well- not fantastically) this year with the Lugnuts. Cumulatively theyre 25-13 with an ERA under 3.00 and 317K over only299 innings. Yes the Blue Jays are selling them as Cy Young One Two and three for 2014 and on, and even some neutral observers like Baseball America’s Jim Callis have compared them to Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine (although he does admit Syndergaard doesn’t quite ‘match up’ to Maddux). One unnamed scout told the sun’s Bob Elliott that lefty Justin Nicolino is the “best of the three– reminds me of Jimmy Key, but more velocity.” He has a 7:1 strikeout to walk ratio this season.
All fine, all good, all promising. But it pays to remember that if things go according to normal plan and timing , they wouldn’t be ready for the bigs until 2015 and in all likelihood would only come into their own two or three years after that. Granted, when it comes to young pitchers, Toronto’s theme song has become Husker Du’s “Land speed record” rather than the Eagles “Take It Easy”; the remarkable thing about Marcus Strohman isn’t that he was suspended recently for violating the game’s substance rules but that the team said this derailed plans to have him pitch in the majors this year! Only three months ago he was an amateur. Had Tampa signed him, they’d plan for him to be with the club in september– 2016. Not all of thirty innings after being drafted and turning pro. But given that the last pitcher to come to the majors with Toronto and make any impact was Ricky Romero (2009) whose career had stalled for about 4 years before finally reaching MLB, whereas Tampa keeps winning on their renewable army of arms, the Toronto model is to be polite “redoubtable.” One look at the transactions sheet in baseball any day shows that the only thing rarer than a winning knuckleballer these days is a pitcher who’s arm stays healthy. The chances of all three of the kids staying fresh, strong and not needing to go to Dr Andrews for a visit from “Tommy John” before ’15 or ’16 is slim. They might blow their arms out. They might get fat midsections or fat egos. Their velocity might drop inexplicably ala Brett cecil. Very few stars at A-ball end up being stars in the majors. I for one am not willing to bet the farm and three or four more losing seasons on this trio being the rare exceptions. That isn’t to say it’s imperative to trade them, merely to say that it is imperative to be open to that idea if it will help the Jays of here and now .
Well, that’s enough about what the Jays can part with over the winter. Next time, we’ll examine who they could use to bolster the boat which right now appears to be sinking.
Jose Bautista is too polite and too much the ‘company man’ to say it, so I will: It is time for Alex Anthopolous to be replaced as the GM of the Blue Jays.
If there was ever any doubt that the Jays will spin their wheels endlessly while young Alex talks smiles bemusedly and talks of timing, it has been removed this month with his (non)actions at the trade deadline.
To the amazement of many, probably including the team’s front office, Toronto stays within three games of second place in the East and four games of a playoff spot as August looms ahead. Despite losing three starting pitchers in barely a week in June, despite having Bautista himself injure his wrist just as he really got hot and despite having everyday catcher JP Arencibia break his hand. The Blue Jays offense has pounded and grounded its way to leading the majors in runs scored despite lacking a .300 hitter. The pitching, of course, has been another story. The 4.54 ERA ranks in the dark depths of the bottom of the American League and most of the summer , manager John Farrell has been strategically hampered by having a short bench, at times only two backup position players, by the bloated bullpen of eight and even at times, nine men. Not to blame the bullpen entirely though, the weak performance of several starting pitchers (most noticeably ‘ace’ Ricky Romero) has meant they have had to carry a disproportionate share of the workload a disproportionate amount of the time.
Three weeks back, Bautista said what fans knew. The team needed new arms and if they needed to trade a young prospect or two to do so, that’s what needed doing. Fans cheered and waited for Front Office to pay atttention to their marquee player. What we got was not only not a full out response, but not even a passing nod at the legitimacy of the concern.
Granted, soon after the team pulled off a heavyweight (heavy because ten men weigh a lot!) trade of inconsequence with Houston. Picking up JA Happ can’t hurt; he did enter the league a few years ago with skyhigh expectations placed upon him and besides, having a Blue Jay who pronounces his first name “Jay” can’t help but be cute. The same trade also returned veteran reliever Brandon Lyon to Toronto but as it sent Francisco Cordero to the ‘stros, that was a wash.
With former Cy Young winners Zack Greinke and Cliff lee on the trading block this past week, not to mention Ryan Dempster , Paul Maholm and possibly James shields, there was reason to hope- nay, expect the Blue Jays would make a move and bolster their staff to make a run for the playoffs, and for 2.5 M fans in the stands for the first time this century.
Expectations and excitement built to a crescendo when mid-game last night Travis Snider was called in from the outfield, hugged his manager and left the dugout. A trade was afoot! I was aching to know who else might have left the bullpen at the same time or been told to shelve their alien-headed Las Vegas caps and get to the airport. Could canuck Dempster be headed our way? Unlucky but effective superstar Cliff Lee?
Of course, hopes were dashed minutes later when it turned out to be a mere one for one trade, bringing Brad Lincoln over from Pittsburgh. It’s never a great sign when a second place team (err, yes, that would be Pittsburgh and no, this isn’t April Fool’s day) trade off a former first round draft pick pitcher, but then again for all the promise, all Lincoln’s done is win 7 games,post a very pedestrian 4.67 career ERA and rack up frequent flyer miles between PA and Indiana ferrying back and forth between the bigs and the minors. In such, his career has almost paralleled Snider’s.
With a full 18 hours left to pull off the trade, Anthopolous announced an encore: outfielder Eric Thames to Seattle for reliever Steve delabar. It’s never a good thing when even sports announcers have to race to the computer or baseball prospectus’ to even find out who a guy is. Turns out delabar has actually made 34 relief appearances with Seattle this year, holding righties to an impressive .089 batting average but being hit hard by lefties. He’s blown a couple of saves but is looking forward to actually not blowing one some year soon. Best of all, I’m sure in the jays’ management minds, he’s 6’5”. Like a superficial office cougar or Kardashian woman, Toronto has made its preference for tall pitchers well known lately. They had the tallest of all last year, 6’11” Jon Rauch and we remember how well that turned out.
Thames, while nobody’s All star, has at least put together a decent .257 average , 15 homers and 48 RBI in 151 games with the Jays and was hitting a lofty .330 in AAA this year. Advantage: Seattle.
Now there’s no denying that we had a surplus of outfielders. Trading two isn’t a problem; Bautista is signed through 2014 and will be back in the lineup within days, Colby rasmus has intermittently played well and is the apple of Anthopolous’ eye, part timer Rajai Davis is second in the AL in stolen bases, and youngsters Anthony Gose and Moises Sierra are still winning thumbs ups with their minor league play (and both will start the big league game tonight, apparently.) What is a problem is that we got so little in return .
True, many teams want and needed pitching. But the ones who were serious got pitching. The already strong-armed Angels picked up Grienke, who even in a ‘sub par” season is 9-4 with a 130:29 K to BB ratio. They gave up shortstop jean Segura, and minor league pitchers Ariel Pena and Johnny Hellweg. At least they were minor leaguers who could be found in prospects reports but with Pena being the best of the bunch and a so -so 10-6, 4.45 in A level last year, it’s hard to imagine they really are projected to be front line stars anytime soon.
In response, smarting from recent terrible outings by Roy oswalt and the season-ending injury to Colby Lewis, the rangers responded by acquiring Ryan Dempster from the Cubs. Dempster had managed to somehow have a .500 record pitching for the lacklustre Wrigley Field crew. A 2.25 ERA probably explains that. He’s on track for his fifth straight 200 inning year and should help Texas make their third straight trek to the world series, just as cliff Lee did two seasons back.
Atlanta, scuffling for a playoff spot, picked up another sharp Chicago pitcher , Paul maholm, plus a decent backup outfielder (former Jay, Reed Johnson) for two minor league pitchers. Maholm for the record, has allowed one or less run in seven of his past ten starts.
The point is obvious. Teams needing pitchers who actually aspire to win this year got pitching. The Blue Jays decided to tread water and pontificate about ‘when the timing is right’. The timing hasn’t been right, according to them since 1993 and won’t anytime soon .
It’s impossible to think that if the Blue jays had been even a bit bold and offered two or three of young prospects like Noah Syndergaard, Sierra, Gose or Travis Darnaud, or if they had offered up expendable sure-handed shortstop Yunel Escobar (with heir apparent adeiny Hechevarria waiting in the wings), that Greinke , maholm or even Lee mightn’t be wearing blue caps starting for us tonight. Were that to happen, even today’s rainstorm wouldn’t have kept fans from the stadium ticket offices gobbling up tickets for the remaining 30 home games. Instead, we start looking towards 2013 and picking teams to cheer for this October since Alex Anthopolous has delivered his verdict to both us, and Jose Bautista: not this year folks! Not gonna be Toronto!
It’s time for the blue Jays to find a GM who wants what the fans want: a team with a shot at winning.