If ever there was a team in need of a breakout first inning with balls flying out of the stadium like jets from O’Hare, it would be the Blue Jays tonight as they take on the White Sox at the Rogers’ Centre. One might hazard a guess the adjectives in play could be “largely empty” Rogers Centre. Because even in a season when hopes for anything much were dashed by management before the team set foot on Canadian soil this spring, the patience (and worse for management, interest) of fans is quickly dissipating. Not so surprising after their team got swept, at home, by Minnesota, making it 7 losses in the last 8 games for Toronto. Worse, in the three-game series against the surprising Twins, Toronto managed to eke out all of one run. Texas fans must’ve been surprised to see their cast-off Martin Perez pitching like Steve Carlton, circa-1977 vintage against Toronto.
Thus far, Toronto has led the league in only one real significant stat… drop off in attendance. Only two years ago they outpaced all the competition in getting fans into the stands. That dropped off by about a third last year. So far this season, it’s down by another third. Announced attendance against Minny was around 14 000 per game, but cameras panning the big dome suggested far fewer actually bothered to show up, even with the allure of cheap hot dogs and discounted beer. If things don’t turn around, and quickly, this is going to get ugly. And if people go back and start to look at where the team went from going slowly to running straight off the highway, chances are they’ll look to the third inning of Tuesday’s game…one which Minnesota would win 3-0.
Brandon Drury had lined a solid single out to left field, bringing up Teoscar Hernandez, the iron-gloved but hard-hitting right fielder. Nobody out, one on, Twins up by one at the point. At which point the free-swinging outfielder, who hit a respectable 22 homers and had a .468 slugging percentage last year as a platoon player… tried to bunt and failed, popping out weakly to second base. Fans were not amused. As a Brian Nicholson said within minutes on Twitter “I get that there’s a place for small ball but it makes more sense to let your 26 year-old corner outfielder try to hit a two run homer” in a situation like that. To say the least. Or at least line another ringing ball into the corner to keep the train-a-movin’.
If you doubt that, consider the fact that Baseball-Reference website details how before that game Teoscar had laid down precisely, umm –zero sacrifice bunts in his career, which began back in 2016 with Houston. After the game Tuesday, he had – yep -zero career bunts.
Like Nicholson said, there can be a place for “small ball”. Ninth inning, noboby out, playing a team with bad infielders, weak-hitting middle infielder with good bat control at the plate, runner on second… good bunt situation. Team that’s struggling to get anyone on base, playing a solid defensive team, power hitting outfielder who simply can’t bunt at plate…not good time for him to try and learn!
Now one can argue that Hernandez, as a 26 year-old major leaguer should be able to put down a clean bunt if asked, but that’s beside the point. Obviously he can’t, and he’s not alone in that these days. In the past, there were complaints former Jays manager John gibbons was complacent and liked to just sit around and wait for his guys to hit a home run, which worked well when the lineup had a still-productive Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, healthy Josh Donaldson and Justin Smoak in it, not so well last year with only Smoak from that list. Fair, perhaps, but at least he played to his team’s strengths. Something new guy Charlie Montoyo has yet to demonstrate he can do. To be fair, he’s handled the bullpen quite well and Jays’ pitching has been decent despite having a number of injuries and redoubtable arms. But when your team scores one run over three games, following 8 runs in the previous 3 gamer against a “bad” pitching team, even Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer aren’t going to get you a lot of wins. At this point, Toronto is 14th in AL batting average (.221), 13th in homers, tied for last in stolen bases (with Minnesota, surprisingly) with 8 – so much for the make things happen, small ball theory – and where it counts, runs scored, 13th and falling. they somehow are ahead of Cleveland and Detroit but those central teams are warming up a little with their weather.
I don’t worry much about Vladimir Guerrero Jr’s struggles at the plate through his first 10 games. As I pointed out before, even the greats seldom come out of the gate looking like Babe Ruth. I still expect that come October, he’ll have had a decent season and posted numbers better than Mike Trout did in his first year in the big leagues. I do worry that he’ll spend the year in an environment where swinging endlessly at bad pitches is seen as the norm, where managers ask players to do things they haven’t been trained to do and, perhaps worst, where near-empty stadiums represent the fan base.
Bring on that first inning…. and let’s wait on a good Covey pitch and launch it into the fifth deck.
Baseball players aren’t always the smartest individuals on the block. We’ve seen any number of examples of that, especially in this day and age of social media. But this week two players, two Justins, have shown they’re brighter than the average bear. Or the average MLB owner at least.
At a time when the league is coming off its lowest attendance in 15 years and when over 100 of 164 free agents remain unsigned to contracts with the gates to Spring Training camps creaking open in less than three weeks, the league management continues to stick its head in the sand.
2018’s total attendance dropped to below 70 million for the first time since 2003. It was the second year in a row the number of people saying “take me out to the ballgame” dipped noticeably. Granted, the situation isn’t yet dire. The 69.6 million attendance is still miles above the barely 60 million that passed through the gates as recently as 1996. But no way should the business minds that run the sport be ignoring the fact that the average game’s crowd in 2018 was 1200 people shy of what is was in 2017. Nor that 17 of 30 teams saw their totals drop last season.
Yet, that’s more or less what they are doing. MLB officials told Forbes magazine that the drop in ’18 was “primarily connected to the historically bad weather we faced in spring” and added that 102 games took place in a temperature below 50 F (10 Celcius.) Rob Manfred continues to fret about the length of time between pitches and defensive shifts. Oooh,he hates “the shift”… if only he could ban that, fans would flood back in record numbers, he’s sure.
Now, I will say that the weather early last year was terrible in many cities. It was a cold spring through much of North America, and even in cities with climate-controlled stadiums (aka Toronto, Milwaukee) , there might be an incentive to stay home if getting to the stadium means heading out in -10 weather or traversing icy roads. But the problem with that is that so far, this winter is as cold as last so there’s a good chance April might be just as cold again in Minneapolis, Chicago, even Dallas and Atlanta, so that part of the problem may not self-correct. And the league is exacerbating the problem by scheduling games earlier than ever in March. The average overnight temperature in Minneapolis, for instance, is 25F in March. Chances of pre-Easter night games at Target Field being played in comfortable conditions are next to nil.
But for all that, MLB is missing the obvious. Let’s turn it over to the two Justins.
“There is a lot of the league that rather makes money than win,” new New York Mets reliever Justin Wilson noted, adding “if you’re a player (that) isn’t very fun because we play this game to win.” Grammar aside, he makes a great point, and could add that it’s not “very fun” for fans either! Over to superstar Justin Verlander, earlier this week in a Houston newspaper:
“The biggest detriment to our game right now is the non-competitiveness of two-thirds of the league,” according to the Astro. “That’s why you’re seeing free agents not get signed.”
Bingo! MLB quickly fails to mention that for the first time ever last year, 8 teams lost 95 or more games. With ticket prices rising constantly, there’s not a lot of incentive to go out and cheer on your home team when it’s a nice Sunday in May and they’re already 20 games out. Let alone on a chilly, rainy night. Nor when teams are only trying to win enough to be able to dump the talent. Take the Blue Jays for example, whom the league itself mention on their website assessment of bullpens, that if Ken Giles repeats his good pitching (after being traded to Toronto) of last summer, he can be traded before July 31. What a glowing endorsement for Canuck fans to flock to Rogers’ Centre!
Verlander’s dead on accurate. About one third of the whole league is interested in trying to win in 2019. Even that might be a wee bit optimistic, as teams like the White Sox have some talent but seem a ways away but despite making loud proclamations of having money to spend and a will to go all the way, have done very little to add to the roster this off-season. As it stands now, unless your hands are regrettably damaged you can count the realistic threats to win the World Series on your fingers.
The obvious answer is for the other two-thirds of the teams to try and be competitive and have stars not just for the purpose of jettisoning them for minor league talent. Of course that’s easier said than done. I have however, one suggestion that might help that happen.
Change the draft. Right now, the MLB draft for young talent follows the time-honored tradition in most sports. Let the worst teams pick first. The teams pick in reverse to their records, thereby letting the worst team have the first shot at the best college-aged player around. In theory, it should help the bad teams get good fairly fast. It’s an especially good incentive as we keep seeing better prepared young kids thanks to baseball academies, better understanding of workout techniques and diet and so on. Phenoms like Ronald Acuna (20 last year with Atlanta) and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (20 this year and already on many experts lists of ten best hitters in the game despite not being in one big league game yet) seem to be coming around more frequently and increasing the hunger for that first, second or third (at worst) draft picks. Pity the Red Sox and Yanks, who try to win annually and end up picking 29th or 30th!
The answer, and yes, people in places like Miami and San Diego won’t like it, is to eliminate the structure of the draft being tied to win-loss records. Pick the teams randomly, through a bingo ball drop or computer algorhythm or whatever, so that the Red Sox would have an equal chance to the Orioles or Royals at going first.
Although it might seem unfair at first, it’s really the only way to prevent teams from deliberately “tanking” – being as bad as they can be in order to hopefully get better players in the draft and “someday” being ready to make a run for the roses. Because that seems to be the current philosophy in most team offices. The reasoning seems to be “well, if we spend a little and try, we’re maybe going to be able to win 82, 83 and finish third. So why not put out a trashy team, try to go 60-102 and get some good players for our minor league teams and maybe 5 years from now, we may be good and then we can bring in a $30M a year stud to help us win it all before tearing down again.” A philosophy which sucks if you’re a fan … and ultimately harms the bottom line of the team, salary dumps notwithstanding, as fans stay away and resist buying those flashy new caps or jersey the team tries to entice them with. Which results in less money for those teams and less chance of them getting in free agents who can help or even keeping around 4th or 5th year players they’ve developed.
Failing that, maybe the only thing that will work is taking the talented Mr. Verlander off the mound and dumping him in the Commissioner’s chair.
“Perplexing.” That’s one of the words Dan O’Dowd used to describe the Blue Jays decision to buy Troy Tulowitzki out of his contract yesterday. Two interesting things about that observation : one, O’Dowd had some insight into “Tulo” and what he can do. He was the General Manager of Colorado through 2014, seeing him play in his prime. Two, that observation was made in a video on the Blue Jays official website! And good reader, when the baseball team’s official promotional site can’t figure out what the heck the GM (Ross Atkins) is doing, it’s time for a clean sweep at front office. Atkins and his boss, Mark Shapiro, who came in at the same time as Atkins, from the same Cleveland organization need to go, faster than a wonky-ankled infielder.
For those not following the news, the team decided to release outright one-time superstar shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Given his injury problems of late (surgery on both feet last year kept him out of the lineup for the whole season) that might at first glance make sense. What doesn’t make sense is that he was still under contract for a whopping $38 million through 2020 (with a buyout included in there) and as the team admits they “are on the hook for that full amount.” Thus they have paid Troy $38 million to go and twiddle his thumbs for the next two years. Should another team decide to pick him up and put him on their roster (as O’Dowd predicts ten teams will attempt to do), they will only have to pick up about $500 thousand of the total… toronto would then be paying him in the range of $37M or more to play… for a rival! Great.
Atkins refers to the 5-time All Star Tulo as “professional and respectful.” Teammate Marcus Stroman, never one to mince words, declared Troy an “unreal clubhouse presence…one of the best baseball minds I’ve ever encountered” and stated his career would be far from over. O’Dowd, who still keeps in contact with his former star, says TT appears to be in great health and is working out to be in game shape by spring. Yet Atkins still declares paying him to go away “the best interest of the organization.” Perplexing to say the least. Downright dumb to say the most.
Now, there are a couple of caveats Atkins has seemed quick to point out this fall. The Jays, coming out of the 2018 season, had a logjam of middle infielders, too many to have them all on the team. Since then he “non-tendered” Yangervis Solarte, making him a free agent, and traded Aldemys Diaz for a non-descript minor leaguer. With Tulo now gone, the Jays could actually be in the position to be shorthanded in April if even one remaining infielder (either major league or budding-superstar, aka Vladimir Guerrero Jr,or Bo Bichette) should get injured. As well, Tulowitzki, just turned 34, is not all that likely to return to his peak, MVP-caliber play. A career .290 hitter with an .856 OPS and Gold Glove-winning defence, has been on the downslope since his mammoth 2014 year with the Rockies. that year he hit .340, had an OPSof a head-turning 1.035 and managing to hit into only 4 double plays all year. His WAR that year was 5.5 according to Baseball-reference. In 2017, in the half season he played with Toronto, he hit just .249, ground into 10 DPs and had a microscopic WAR of 0.1. Anybody who sees him contending for a batting title or driving in over 100 runs, like he did in 2011, is delusional.
That said, if healthy, he can still play baseball. There’s little doubt to that. As Stroman says, he’s a great mature clubhouse presence that would be invaluable on a roster of young kids. He doesn’t buckle under pressure either. After a so-so initiation to Toronto in the latter months of the ’15 season, he came through in the playoffs with a pivotal homer in game 3 of the ALDS and ended up with 11 RBI in 11 games. Ousted manager John Gibbons, in his going-away comments suggested the Jays would have not only not beaten Texas in the 2015 ALDS, but wouldn’t have even made the playoffs without the trade for Troy. Not hard to argue with, since Gibby was right there and Tulowitzki replaced Jose Reyes, who by that point was a huge negative on the field, with a virtual “iron glove” and an attitude. Reyes last year, by the way, hit .189 for the Mets and had a negative WAR, for the third time in the last four years. Probably makes him mad enough to go and beat his wife… which leads to his domestic violence suspension, but that’s a tangent for another day. Point is, Tulo’s Toronto days haven’t been all for naught.
As it stands, the Jays are projecting to begin the year with Lourdes Gurriel as the shortstop and Richard Urena, rapidly becoming a “veteran utility man” as the backup there and at second. Kendrys Morales will be the DH for the third year. Gurriel was promising last year , so no problem with that. But if healthy- and all indications suggest he will be – Tulowitzki is a better hitter than Urena or Morales. If you’re going to pay him anyway, why not have him as the backup infielder/DH , ready to go in case of injury? He’d add some value to the team, to the clubhouse and while it might be annoying to pay around $18M to have a player do that (and about the same in 2020), it’s not as annoying as paying him $18M to do nothing at all. Something is better than nothing. Perplexing indeed.
With the added announcement of a tentative deal for JA Happ and the Yankees, despite Toronto attempting to re-sign him and despite Atkins’ admission that starting pitching is weak to bad right now with the Jays, with their seeming indifference to star Canadian pitcher James Paxton being traded by Seattle when he would have liked to pitch in Canada, the one thing not perplexing is whether or not Toronto’s current administration is up to the task of making a winning, or at least contending team. They’re not. Toronto fans deserve better.
The Jays apparent concept that they shouldn’t even try to win in 2019, despite having two of the best prospects in the game readying to appear, is all too symptomatic of the malaise of MLB these days. We’ve seen too many teams in the last two years either deliberately “tank”- lose to save money or else get good draft picks – or at least make a conscious decision to not try to contend. It all ties into the reason attendance last year was down by over a million in Toronto and was under 70 million overall in MLB for the first time since 2003. The 69.6M fans through the gate was well below the 73.8M in 2015. But with ticket prices that continue to rise, making a night out for a family, once hotdogs and a beer for Dad, colas for the kids are worked in, equivalent to a second hand car loan, and teams which flat out refuse to try to provide a winner for the fans, where is the incentive to go out to the old ballgame in many cities? Fix those things, Rob Manfred, before throwing a pitch clock on the dugout wall or trying to ban “the shift.”
A couple of weeks ago I listed some of the reasons why the Blue Jays probably should resist temptation and not call young Vladimir Guerrero Jr. up to the big leagues right away, as impressive as he’s being in AA New Hampshire. And impressive he has been- so far in 46 games there, he’s swatting an incredible .433 average, with 10 homers, 50 RBI and an unwordly 1.194 OPS. And no one’s writing headlines about his defense, but he’s only commit 5 errors at third so far, not bad for about a third of the way through the year.
It would make sense to let Vlad mature a little more, send him for a couple of months to AAA Buffalo and see how he fares at the next level before calling him upto the majors. Not only would he benefit from developing more and not being thrown into the spotlight at age 19, but the club would as well by those factors as well as saving money down the road. The sooner he’s called up, the sooner he starts clicking towards big arbitration cases and free agency. Seems like there’s little upside to having him come on up to Toronto right now with the team seemingly all but done for the year anyway (in terms of making the playoffs.)
Nevertheless, I think we’ll see him at Rogers’ Centre before Canada Day, and this is why: indifference to the current team. USA Today noted pointedly today that the Jays lead the majors in an undesireable category this year- drop off in attendance. So far in 2018, the team’s drawn 320 000 fewer fans through the gates than last year at this point. At the current rate, they’ll only barely break 2.1 million, compared to 3.2 million last season. That’s a big drop, and a big dip in revenue for the team and Rogers.
It’s also a bit of a head-scratcher. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the team draw less than 2016, when they were coming off their first playoff appearance in two decades and were riding high. And indeed, it is down by a long shot. But we’re comparing it to last year’s sadsack team, which waited until the final weekend of the year to escape the AL East basement. It really makes little sense.
True, the Jays have looked weak of late. But they started strong, in stark contrast to last year. Remember last year’s 3-12 start? This year they clipped 10 wins in their first 15 contests. Indeed, by May 8 last year, they were 10 games behind, and sitting at 11-20… but they still drew over 40 000 to the Rogers’ Centre for a game against Cleveland. This year not many times have 30 000 shown up.
Perhaps the weather? Well, Toronto did have a rather nasty, cold April and as we remember, one game ended up postponed due to ice breaking through the stadium roof. So, perhaps people didn’t feel like going out in the inclement weather? Maybe, but now it’s turned to summer-like weather and the allure of an open roof and warm skies hasn’t boosted the turnstile business any.
Could it be the Raptors and Leafs great seasons digging into the fan base? After all there is only so much ticket money to spread around. This would make sense … if the attendance was rebounding now that both the hockey and basketball team are done. Or if the Maple Leafs didn’t tank entirely in the NHL playoffs.
People disgusted by Roberto Osuna’s arrest? Doubtful given that the team did nothing to protest his suspension by the league (no matter what wording MLB uses for it) and no players really jumped up to voice support for the pitcher’s actions. Besides, one again – attendance was way down when he was on the job and doing it well. It must be something else.
Which makes me think it comes down to the lack of Jose Bautista. Or, more accurately, the lack of any real iconic Jays player the crowds relate to and cheer on for better or worse. And, no, I don’t see Josh Donaldson falling into that category, which is all the more reason why almost everyone in the game asserts he will be traded before the All Star Game, even if only for a few sacks of baseballs and a dumping of his salary. One might suspect the casual fan- not you, dear reader, or anyone else who really follows the sport, but the “nothing else on TV” type fan – wouldn’t be able to name a single Jay this season. And that’s a PR problem.
Which brings us back to Vlad. More and more by the day the Toronto baseball headlines are being dominated by a teenager two levels below the majors. We’re given updates on how he’s dominating his league like no other and being assured (perhaps a wee bit worryingly) that if Shoehi Ohtani is the “next Babe Ruth”, Guerrero is the “next Ted Williams”, the Moses for the team that will lead Toronto to the promised land. A lot to put on his shoulders, as I’ve said before. But, with the buzz about him, the Jays may well see the way to save the season, monetarily at least, is dumping Donaldson and his monster contract and get the youngster the fans are clamoring for onto the artifical turf sooner than later. I figure he’ll debut around Canada Day.
While we’re at it, another famous name is making waves alongside Vlad in New Hampshire. Another Hall of Famer’s son is tearing it up- Cavan Biggio, who plays second like his dad Craig did for a number of years with Houston. Cavan is hitting .312 but leads his team with 12 homers, has 40 RBI and a lofty 1.089 OPS second only to Guerrero. If Devon Travis continues to struggle, Cavan is likely the team’s 2019 second baseman.
Congratulations to Matt Cain, tossing a masterful perfect game last night, and to me , for saying in this place as early as March 2011, he was clearly the best pitcher on the Giants staff. Finally today even conservative sources like Yahoo Sports are calling him the “dominant ace” of that team. Does make one wonder though- what exactly went wrong -horribly wrong- with Tim Lincecum?
A few more questions for the second half (and a bit) of the season:
Is Adam Dunn or Andy Pettitte the AL Comeback of the Year?: both have staged impressive returns to form this year. But for my money, Dunn is the winner. Like our own joey Bats, Dunn’s batting average is a bit low this season, but at .226 it still towers over his pathetic .159 of 2011. But Chicago isn’t complaining anyway, as his 21 homers ranks him second in the league and almost twice of what he cranked all of last year. His .226/21/47 RBI with a .562 slugging is a night and day improvement over last year’s inexplicable .159/11/42, .277 slugging and extended out over the whole season would best his career averages of a .505 slugging percentage and 38 HR per 162 games.
Pettite, at 3-2 with a highly respectable 2.81 ERA after six starts is a good addition to his Yankees and has improved upon his career ERA , largely by cutting down his walks from one every 3 1/3 innings to one every 4 2/3. But he is returning from a self-imposed exile and had all of last year off to rest, and build up his conditioning. Very respectable but not award-winning.
Will the Blue jays win any major player awards in 2012?: Right now, not likely. No player has dominated in our lineup this season, so there’s not likely to be a buzz about MVP, particularly if its another playoff-free season. We know voters usually opt for picking MVPs from playoff teams, so given the current standings , one would look to it as being a Josh Hamilton/Paul Konerko duel for that award.
There’s no clear-cut obvious Cy Young winner as of yet in the league, and upto last weekend, one could make the argument that Brandon Morrow, with his three shutouts and sub 3.00 ERA deserved consideration. He still might compete if he gets back into the lineup soon, but with his stint on the DL for an indeterminate time, even if he tosses three more shutouts upon return, he won’t get the votes if limited to say 25 or so starts. Plus, anything short of atrocious and Justin Verlander will be the only name most voters will even remember…and verlander, while not the 2011 ace, has been far from atrocious.
Which leaves Rookie of the Year, and some might hope that over-achieving young Drew Hutchison might have a shot at that. He might, if he continues to improve and stays in the rotation all year. But at present time, he’d clearly trail higher-profile yu Darvish among pitchers and possibly Yoenis Cespedes among all players. Hutch after ten starts has logged 58 innings, struck out 48 while walking only 19 and is 5-3 with a pedestrian 4.66 ERA (which is lowering after three rough starts to begin his career.) Darvish has made a dozen starts, lasted 72 innings, with 77K (but an ugly 44 walks) and is sitting at 7-4 with a better than average 3.72 ERA. Cespedes, despite a stint on the disabled list, is hitting .273 with 6 homers and 26 RBI on a very run-challenged Oakland team.
Will fans keep flocking to the Jays “nest”? Toronto seems to have a renewed interest in the Blue Jays this year and that has been reflected in the Rogers’ Centre attendance. Yesterday’s 43000+ for an afternoon game pushed attendance past 800 000 for the year, an average of 26 067 per game. This marks a nice increase over last season and puts Toronto square in the middle of the league for fan support: they rank 7th in the AL right now, well behind Texas (who draw 43 400 per game) but a country mile ahead of under-appreciated Cleveland (17 000 per game), Tampa (19 405 to see the Rays have another playoff-bound year) and the perhaps fairly dismissed A’s.
The unfortunate thing is that of course, our patience has worn thin with the team and with Alex Anthopolous. If the jays keep sinking towards the bottom of the division, and Anthopolous doesn’t pull a rabbit or two out of his hat (or more aptly, a Garza or Willingham or two via trade route) by July to make the team have a sporting shot at making a wild card spot at least, fans interest will wane , eyes will roll as Anthopolous gives his usual speech about ‘being close’ and ‘maybe next year’ and the turnstiles will start to gather dust.
I wish I could be optimistic but I don’t see the Jays hitting two million this year , when all is said and done. I could say to all of you, prove me wrong fans, prove me wrong but instead I’ll say prove me wrong, Alex, prove me wrong. If the corporate brass decide to take a run at it this year , the fans will respond.