Well again this December, we Jays fans find ourselves in a spot watching the opposition (in Boston and New York at least) improve while there’s been little to get much-excited about on the homefront. It’s safe to say few toronto fans are asking for autographed pictures of president Mark Shapiro or his right-hand man Ross Atkins.
That’s not to say that Steve Pearce or Kendrys Morales are bad players. Pearce is a decent enough hitter and with his ability to play first base, as well as (not as effectively) third and outfield, could turn into a sort of “super-sub” utility player, rather like Chris Collabelo two years back. OF course, CC is still kicking around in the system but after last year’s drug susension, his star has fallen and Pearce looks a better bet . Morales should surely hit some homers at Rogers Centre, and other East parks, but is no Edwin Encarnacion. Then again, he comes in at $9 million a year less than EE was offered. given that Encarnacion seems to be drawing little interest from rich teams like the red Sox, he might end up being the fool in that story ultimately, not the Blue Jays. So those two signings are not bad deals for the team, but there’s no getting around the fact that the lineup right now is inferior to the one that bowed out in october to Chief Wahoo’s crew. The team still needs an outfielder or two (I reiterate I personally do not view Melvin Upton as a valid everyday OF for a team which doesn’t covet last place) , a backup catcher – they had two to end the season!- and some bullpen arms.
It’s discouraging to read Gregor Chisholm write on the official team website that there’s not a lot of interest to bring back Jose Bautista; not only is he the face of the franchise, as noted here many times, even on a bad year (like 2016) he motivates the teammates and can drive in 65 , injuries and all, batting lead-off much of the time. And for all the complaints about his ALCS, he has combined to hit 6 HR and drive in 16 in 20 playoff games over the past two falls. A healthy Jose hitting third or fourth in ’17 is likely to be a good bet for 35 homers and 100 RBI, something Pearce or the underwhelming ben Revere (mentioned as a possible replacement) won’t. Rajai Davis , a speedster we know well, has also been mentioned and would add something new to the team, in base running and decent enough defence but , looking at Dexter Fowler’s contract with St. Louis, one might suspect he will pull in close to the same amount the Jays offered Bautista. And a 36 year old who relies on speedy legs is more of a gamble than a 36 year old power hitter. Andrew McCutchen might be a nice fit, but unrealistic given what the Pirates want in return and what limited resources the team has in prospects to give up.
One thing I won’t criticize Toronto for is failing to re-sign Brett Cecil or Joaquin Benoit. Even in today’s inflated salaries, the contracts that pair seem out of the ballpark. To review, Cecil, coming off a mediocre year when he went 1-7 and blew all four save opportunities in just 36+ innings receives over $30 mil over 4 years from St. Louis. the aging Benoit, pushing 40, was excellent in his 25 games here, but was horrible early in the year with Seattle. HE’s getting $7.5M from the Phils for ’17.
Both pitchers would be fine to have in Toronto’s pen, but neither is worth what they got on the market. I’d wager combined, they’re not worth $7.5 M to a team, let alone individually! No questioning that Toronto’s bullpen looks a bit weak right now, particularly in lefties, but one has to wonder how Cecil , who threw a career low 566 pitches last season and buckled under pressure (except , I admit in the Wild Card game) could justify that kind of money . If you like numbers and bow to the “WAR” (a number I find a bit too subjective to take as an exact science) , consider his WAR in 2016 was just 0.3 – meaning that he added one-third of one win to the team compared to using a typical AAA pitcher in his place! Benoit’s WAR was 1.4 in Toronto, but 1.0 overall (taking into account his first half ). Mike trout, for comparison, had a 10.5 WAR – he added ten or more wins to the Angels lowly total. Justin verlander was rated as the most valuable pitcher, surprisingly, with a WAR of 6.6. Now, if we take the current market and think that a top-flight hitter or starting pitcher might be worth $20-25 M per season and lift your team from , say a .500 (81-81) to a wildcard-challenger (around 88 or 90 wins) single handedly, one would surmise that a reliever who will only appear for 50 short outings, maybe 12 or so of which are important, and will only add at most one win to the W column…well, I think we can see their value is quite a bit below what the former Jays pair got.
Perhaps the market will cool down and a few run-of-the-mill veterans like Neftali Feliz or even failed starters like Scott Feldman and Dan Hudson will be around and willing to add their arms to the ‘pen on the cheap come March. In the meantime, while I’d like to have had Cecil and Benoit come on back, given a realistic outlook of the GM having maybe $25 to perhaps $30M left to work with to fill out the 2017 team, I’d much rather have the money go towards a 30+ homer outfielder and a good backup catcher (who can work with our pitchers and hit over the Mendoza Line should he need to play regularly) and take our chances with more guys like Ryan Tepera or Chad Jenkins to fill in the inconsequential middle innings than have Cecil, Benoit and go with Ben Revere in right and a rookie catcher.
Last time we looked at the starting pitching, which was a considerable strength for the Jays in 2016 and could be the same next year – if they stay healthy and JA Happ and Aaron Sanchez’s years weren’t total flukes. I still would like another starter signed on as an insurance policy, so to speak, and suggest trying to bring back RA Dickey, although i rather doubt he’d be wanting such a reduced role.
The bullpen was a little bit of a nail-biting, roller coaster ride this past year, but still on the whole came through well. This was especially true after the trade deadline with the addition of Joaquin Benoit and Jason Grilli. Roberto Osuna has at 21 established himself as one of the most poised and polished closers in the game (and I might add drawn considerable attention from the crew at TBS-TV who were all but in awe of him in nationally-broadcast playoff games) and got only better under the pressure of October. Throw in suprise Rule 5 rookie Joe Biagini, and Grilli, who’s contract option is apparently being picked up and if they just re-sign Benoit ( who was lights out with Toronto, allowing just one earned run in 23+ innings) they should be in great shape for right-handers in the ’17 bullpen. Toss in someone like Ryan Tepera or Bo Schulz , or perhaps Gavin Floyd if he’s healthy in spring and it should be a strength to work with.
The left side is cause for more concern. For the past couple of years, southpaw bullpen has equated to Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup for Toronto. This off-season though, Cecil is a free agent and neither was all that reliable or stellar in ’16 anyway. Loup will be back, presumably, but the 5.02 ERA and .288 opponents average this year were career worsts for the low-throwing Louisianan. Mind you, that was in a small sample (21 games) but even that has to be tempered by the realization that the sample was small because he was relegated to the minors most of the summer due to poor performance. Perhaps an off-season adjustment to his delivery might help.
Cecil is more of an enigma. Intellectually I know not to make too much of the W-L of a reliever, but still his 2016 1-7 looked ugly. Maybe that idea was heightened by his 3.93 ERA and .269 opponent’s average, both worst for him since 2012. On the other hand, his August-September performance was quite good (4 earned runs in 17 2/3 innings) and his K:BB ratio was great as usual – 45:8. As much as during the season it seemed he’d buckle under pressure, in the post-season, under real pressure, he shone, keeping the opponents hitless and off the board in 6 appearances. The Jays should make an effort to keep him around, but it’s questionable whether he’s still worth the $3.8M he got this year, let alone a raise. Also questionable, in this season’s market, is whether other teams with a barer cupboard of pitching wouldn’t jack his value up into the stratosphere. There is likely to be an unfortunate lack of left-handed pitching in the sub-Chapman price range on the market this winter.
If Cecil did fly the coop, a pitcher worth investigating would be Travis Wood of the NL champs. As the Jays did with Cecil, the Cubs have transitioned Wood from a middling starter to a star specialty reliever. this regular season he appeared in 77 contests for Chicago, going 4-0 with a 2.95 ERA and holding left-handed hitters to a meagre .128 average and .217 slugging percentage. He’d be a great asset for Toronto in the late innings- but would also in all likelihood cost more than his current $6M. A cheaper but slightly less-effective option would be to go after “Scrabble”, Mark Rzepcynski, well-liked still in Toronto and coming off a reasonable year in Oakland. He did, however, pitch better against righties than lefties, curiously enough. Once again, it all comes down to dollars and cents, and that in turn likely is dependent upon knowing where Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are come April.
I’ll be back in a few days with a few final thoughts on the 2016 campaign and ideas for the winter ahead, as well as (hopefully) some kudos to the Indians. Take me out to the ballgame…
Yesterday I was making the point that some things that seem like negatives for baseball – the excess voting of Kansas City fans for the All Star game, apparent computer hacking by someone within the Cardinals organization – might be good for it in the long run. Today, we apply the same principle to our Toronto Blue Jays.
This weekend has been disappointing, to say the least, to us fans, seeing the team lose two of three at home to divisional rivals Baltimore. Even the one win was turned into a nail-biter after Marco Estrada carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning. All in all, there would seem to be little to cheer about, Jose Bautista’s four RBI game today and Kevin Pillar’s rising batting average notwithstanding. True, Toronto remain in third place and within three games of the lead, but one has to realize how tantalizingly close they were to being only one game out and rolling out a new winning streak.
Dig deeper though and there’s reason for hope. And the hope is, that the team’s bullpen has hit rock bottom and even the contented front office is by now aware of the reality of the 2015 Jays. they can score runs alright; 393 is fully 67 more than the next best in the AL (the rejuvenated Yankees) . Unfortunately, the pitching is as predicted by everyone except Alex Anthopoulos, atrocious. While it might not be the worst in baseball, it’s assuredly not good enough to put the team into the post-season, let alone a championship.
Estrada and Buehrle’s starts were good enough this weekend, minor league call-up Scott Copeland’s was not. And in all three games, the bullpen did its best to make winners out of the Orioles; twice they succeeded. Despite having eight relievers in the ‘pen, it seems no one can get the job done. Worse yet, the worst culprits are the apparent stars- closer Brett Cecil, for example. Cecil has technically only blown two saves this season, then again he’s only converted five. Add in four losses including today’s embarrassing snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory and the fact that he’s allowed earned runs in five of his last six outings and you have more than enough evidence that he is not a closer for a team that wants to go anywhere. Although his 5.96 ERA might have told you that already.
Miguel Castro, the closer at season’s opening, is injured but was demoted back to the minors because of his greenness anyhow, so he’s hardly a potential replacement. Neither is workhorse Aaron Loup, through his 31 appearances some of his numbers are decent – 25K and only 3 walks for example- but his ERA is 4.78 and rising and it’s increasingly evident more and more hitters are catching up to his odd delivery.
Losing two out of three games that should have been walks in the park hurts, but it may be just what the Blue Jays needed. For over a month rumors have abounded that Anthopoulos is talking to various teams about trading for pitching help and that Jays scouts are busy watching Cincinnati and Philadelphia games, this weekend should convince him to stop talking and make the move. a recent article in Bluebird Banter suggested that the team has been involved in discussions with the Phils to acquire Aaron Harang and Jon Papelbon; the Reds to bring in Johnny Cueto and Aroldis Chapman and the A’s for Scott Kazmir and Tyler Clippard.
Any or all of these pitchers could make the Jays better. Of the three though, the Phillies trade seems both the most “doable” and the least desireable. The rumor is that all they want is highly-rated minor league catcher Max Pentecost in return, and with all star Russell Martin locked in for five years, that would seem a small price to pay. However, Harang, touted here weeks ago, is coming down to earth…after 15 starts, the 37 year old is sitting at 4-9 with a 3.41 ERA. The W-L isn’t a big deal, given the limited run support he’s had, but six straight losses is a bit worrying; more so is that in his last four outings he’s given up 20 earned runs in 23 innings! His ERA still looks OK, but has soared from 1.82 a month ago. Best prognosis, he’d be an OK #4 or 5 starter, but wouldn’t be an upgrade over RA Dickey, Marco Estrada or (a healthy) Aaron Sanchez, so what’s the point? As for Papelbon, he can shut the door still, but questions of his personality and ability to “fit in” still abound… and would crimp the team’s ability to add more salary in the next year or two given his $13M a year.
Johnny Cueto is the best pitcher linked to the Jays in any of the trade rumors, and Chapman is the hardest throwing reliever out there but there are some caution signs to pay attention to. Cueto is a free agent after this season, Chapman would be up for arbitration. Neither is a deal-breaker but of the two, one would have to think Johnny C is the one who’d be more interesting to have back next year. I’d rather have Chapman jog out of the ‘pen than Cecil next time the Jays had a one run lead, or a seven run lead, in the ninth but something about him doesn’t instill me with confidence. I can’t help but think that a thin pitcher who throws super-hard and harder isn’t a good bet to stay healthy for too much longer. The sore spot for the Jays though might be that , if the stories are correct, the Reds are adamant about Daniel Norris being part of a 4-player package sent their way.
I wouldn’t mind that trade, but everything points to the best fit being another trade to add to the long list of deals between Oakland and Toronto. I’ve sung the praises of Kazmir here recently and saw him stymie the Rangers on one weak hit over 8 innings since. He might not be quite as good as Cueto, but he’d instantly be the front-of-the-line starter in Toronto. Better still would be for Tyler Clippard to be part of the deal as well. Clippard is as steady and durable a reliever as you will find in the 21st Century, appearing in 70+ games for each of the last five completed seasons and limiting opponents to an average under .213 every year since 2009. He has experience dealing with the pressure of a closer’s role, saving 32 for Washington in ’12 and ten already for Oakland this year. He’d instantly provide the Jays with not only a decent closer, but one who could have been out on the mound all three games this weekend without breaking a sweat. The story is Oakland are asking for Castro and three less-noteworthy minor leaguers in return.
Kazmir could join the rotation right away taking over from the demoted (as of this evening) Copeland . Having to deal with sending Estrada back to the bullpen or keep Sanchez in Buffalo when he’s healthy enough to pitch is the kind of dilemma general managers dream about having. My guess is over the remaining half-season plus, Kazmir could add three wins to the team and Clippard would probably add at least six by not blowing slam-dunk saves. Nine wins more in this division equate to home advantage in the playoffs as opposed to watching the playoffs at home on TV.
The Sun‘s Steve Simmons wrote the praises of Alex Anthopoulos this weekend, noting how positive the impact of newcomers like Donaldson and Colabello have been this season. No argument from me on that; I’ve said it before, the moves the team did make in the off-season were positive. But if Anthopoulos wants my thumb to be up, he should be hitting Billy Beane on speed-dial tonight. Kazmir dazzled the Rangers a couple of weeks ago. He should do the same this coming weekend- this time wearing Jays blue!
As temperatures and races for the final roster spots heat up in Florida and Arizona, we may finally be far enough into Spring Training to look ahead at the real season with some degree of reason. So here we have my look at the American League, from A to Z.
I’ll look at each team and assess their strengths and weaknesses, beginning with “A”. The “A” is the A-list Talent, one player who really is or could be, the face of the franchise and the one the team needs to produce on a high-level.
Skipping ahead to “Q”, we have the Question Mark. One player (or in a few examples, situations) who could be great or could be terrible. Obviously, the former bodes better for the team’s outlook than the latter.
“Y”… well, I”m channeling Prince here a little (the singer, not the hefty Rangers first baseman) and using that for an abbreviation for why. Why the team could compete or why they could fall on their faces. In this age of relative parity, the difference is often deceptively small.
And at last we look at “Z”. Any of my readers who’ve “enjoyed” years of working in retail, like I have, probably know that the bottom line is the Z-reading… the end of the day tally when all the sales on a till are added up and printed out. In this case, the Z-reading is my best guess as to where the team will finish off at season’s end.
Baltimore – the Orioles surprised last year winning an uncharacteristically weak division last year and seem so confident that it was no fluke they let two major stars migrate away without any viable replacements.
A: Adam Jones . One of the games best and most reliable outfielders will be called upon more than ever this year without Nelson Cruz and defacto team captain Nick Markakis in the dugout. Last year he hit 29 homers, hit .281 and had a .780 OPS– respectable. But disturbing, third straight year of declining numbers.
Q: Matt Wieters. Not long ago widely considered best young catcher in the game, coming back from surgery that made him miss most of last season. Is playing already in spring, but questions as to how ready he will be; as of 12th he’s 0 for 20 at plate and even before injuries, his slugging pct. had dropped off from 2011-13. If his arm can’t handle strain of catching 100+ games, O’s look to JP Arencibia or Caleb Joseph, neither a happy thought for fans. Need a strong comeback in order to contend seriously in ’15.
Y: Rotation.No-name group were surprisingly good last year. O’s have to hope that Bud Norris (15-8, 3.65) and Wei-Yin Chen (16-6, 3.54) seasons weren’t the career years they looked like and young Kevin Gausman continues to work his way towards the A-list. And maybe Ubaldo Jimenez will have one of his tremendous ten or twelve game stretches he has every four or five years. Otherwise, they’ll be on bad end of a lot of 10-7 and 9-8 games.
Z: Have to catch too much lightning in a bottle for second year in a row to win. On the other hand, an adequate team still in the weakest East divsion in over a decade. Prediction: 81 wins, second place tie.
Boston – the Red Sox last three seasons- last place, first place with World Series win, last place. They hope the trend will continue this year and they spent big to improve their chances with Hanley Ramirez, “Panda”, and a host of new starters brought in.
A: David Ortiz. Hard to imagine that about 4 years back, many thought Big Papi was done; last year’s 35 HR/103 RBI show (his best since 2007) he’s got some pop left in his bat. However, his .263 average is second lowest in his career in years with over 300 at bats. Sox need him to have another big year if he wants to celebrate his 40th birthday (in November) with yet another ring. Needs 34 homers to make 500 Club, by the way.
Q: Hanley Ramirez. Back to where he started (for all of two games back in ’05), last few seasons have been a bit up and down, but should deliver at least decent numbers at plate. Big question though is how he handles a new position (LF) in strange Fenway Park. Could become a defensive black hole for them.
Y: Discord. No team is going to have 25 guys who are all best friends, but Boston seems prone to extremes. In good years, a merry bunch of “idiots” growing beards and hanging out together; in bad years 25 men, 26 taxis. Bad years seem to coincide with losing records. A lot of new faces to mix in , including Hanley R. who has a bit of a reputation, and Pablo Sandoval who celebrated his World Series win by blasting almost his entire former locker,saying he only liked one (!) of his teammates in SF. Seems like it could be a powderkeg in the locker room.
Z: Rotation rebuilt lacks real ‘ace’ but looks decent; World Series looks a longshot but division title realistic. 87 wins, first.
New York – this ain’t your Daddy’s Yankees. Coming off their worst season since 1995, they surprised the sports world by adhering more to a “Moneyball” off-season, staying away from the high-priced talent on the free agent market. Nothing symbolizes the new Pinstripes more than the fact that Didi Gregorious takes over from the Captain at Shortstop.
A: Masahiro Tanaka. Before an injury shut him down last year, Tanaka was rolling towards Rookie of the Year. Although not on par with his 2013 season-for-the-ages in Japan, his numbers (13-5, 2.77 ERA, 141K/21BB) hint at him becoming the best Asian import pitcher to the MLB so far.
Q: Alex Rodriguez. Forgetting the arrogance and the PEDs, A-Rod was once a truly elite player. However,he turns 40 mid-season and his last 30 homer season was 2010, his last .800 OPS season the year after. Did his year off let him relax and practise? Even if he isn’t tired out by fielding (and is just a DH), it’s difficult to imagine him hitting better than .250 or 18, 20 home runs. But he just might surprise- I wouldn’t quite write him off yet, especially if he thinks he has something to prove.
Y: Gray Beards. There’s A-Rod, and more. Mark Teixeira is an old 35, coming off his worst year in a 12 year career; Carlos Beltran hit a career low .233 with the lowest OPS since 2000; CC Sabathia, even if healthy (a big if) enters his 15th season coming off an injury-shortened season and numbers in every category that have dropped precipitously since ’11. There’s a huge bundle of money tied up in aging players who need to turn back the clock if the Yanks hope to compete.
Z: There are Grade 2 students in the Big Apple who don’t remember what it’s like to see a World Series parade! They still won’t by Grade 3. 78 wins, fourth place.
Tampa Bay- Baseball’s Cinderella team had its ride turn into a pumpkin last year, finishing below .500 after a surprising run of six good years. The pitching was still there, but hitting was worst in AL, with dreadful .367 slugging pct. and league low 612 runs. Their response was trading away ’13 Rookie of Year Wil Myers and allowing Ben Zobrist and temperemental Yunel Escobar to get away.
A: Evan Longoria. Seems surprising he’s entering his 8th season already. the only real hitter for opponents to fear in their lineup, but last year his .404 slugging was a career low, and his home runs came one per 29 AB- previously he’d averaged one per 18. His last Silver Slugger Award was in 2009, Gold Glove was in 2010.
Q: Kevin Cash.Rookie manager to deal with a roster chock-full of rookies. Cash is intelligent and has good baseball credentials but will have his hands, or feet, full trying to fill the shoes of Joe Maddon, arguably the game’s most popular manager both with his players and fans.
Y: Rotation. Tampa has built its club on a constant stream of good new pitchers working up through the organization, allowing them to stay competitive and not miss the likes of James Shields and David Price much as they move along. This year’s lineup with the likes of Jake Odorizzi, Alex Cobb , Matt Moore, supplemented by Drew Smyly (their one big acquisition of the off-season) looks promising. They’ll need to be way more than just promising for the Rays to come close to contending.
Z: Its hard to know the difference between ‘best case’ and ‘worst case’ scenarios for the Rays: eg. what if Evan Longoria demands a trade? What if attendance drops even more in the ever-echoing Trop? Their best future might lie in starting from scratch in a new city. This year though, the few Floridian fans will have little to cheer. 69 wins, fifth place.
Toronto- the Jays started the Off Season like gangbusters, but then hibernated through the rest of the winter and ended up with a still shaky pitching staff and looking weak “down the middle.”
A: Jose Bautista.three Silver Slugger Awards, three 100 run seasons, three 100 RBI years. Last year comparison between him and MVP Mike Trout: Trout – .287 avg, 36 HR, .377 On-base, 184 strikouts. Bautista -.286 avg, 35 HR, .403 On-base, 96 strikeouts. If he and his mid-lineup companions stay healthy, another 50 homer season isn’t out of the question. His hamstring is a concern though, last season’s 155 games played was most since ’10.
Q: Johan Santana. With Mark Buehrle and RA Dickey the only real veterans in the starting rotation, and young Drew Hutchison added in, there are still two spots to fill. It would be much better for Jays to have to rely on only one untested rookie rather than two. Santana is only 36, but days of him being a dominating pitcher seem a lifetime back. Still, if can deliver 21 starts, of varying quality (as he did with the Mets in ’12) it will be a big lift for the team.
Y: Brett Cecil. Seemed the favourite to take over as closer when Casey Janssen left town, though young Aaron Sanchez got a taste of the job last season. Now with Marcus Stroman out for the year, Sanchez is being shuffled quickly back to becoming a starter, leaving the 9th inning all upto Cecil. As written here previously, he may be upto the job- if his shoulder lets him. That he hasn’t thrown yet in spring is disconcerting to say the least. The 2015 ‘pen looks shallow at best, if Cecil misses a significant stretch, Toronto fans may suffer through a staggering number of opponent come-from-behind wins.
Z: Before Stroman tore up his knee, I had the Jays optimistically penciled in to tie the Red Sox and end their 21-year playoff drought. Now even with surprisingly lacklustre divisional competition and potentially the best 3-4-5 hitting combo in the game, hard to imagine them winning more than 81, tied for second.
We look west, to the Central and West divisions next week.
Since we last checked in, two significant things have happened in Blue Jay land. On the plus side, they did pick up a former Cy Young-winning pitcher. That’s good news, although the sobering part is that Johan Santana won his last Cy in 2006 and last pitched an entire season in 2010. Still, it can’t hurt to take a chance on the once-dominant lefty who only three years back became the first Met ever to toss a no-hitter; especially when it comes at the cost of only a minor league contract with a shot at making the big team.
On the negative side, newly acquired outfielder Michael Saunders tore up his knee while exercising and will be out, optimistically, until the All-star break. Although in a new report yesterday the team suggested he might be able to return sooner, knowing how often “best case scenarios” come true in baseball, a more realistic outlook is that he won’t be seen in 2015. Kevin Pillar’s chance of making the team just got that much better and the chances of Toronto winning the division that much worse. Still, it could be worse– at least the world’s most notorious terrorist wasn’t shown wearing a Blue Jays cap. Bet Russ Martin is even happier to have left Pittsburgh now!
The only other notable news since they through open the gates at Dunedin is that Dioner Navarro reiterated his desire to be traded, which with the injury to Saunders will perhaps motivate the front office to turn him over to a team in need of a good everyday catcher in return for a decent outfielder. Tampa and David Dejesus have come up several times in trade rumors, and that might be a decent fit.
Even if that does occur, it still fails to address the bullpen situation, the one Alex Anthopoulos “identified as an area of concern” in a National Post interview last September and told fans to “expect significant turnover” in. In subsequent talks he laid more blame for the team’s failed year at their doorstep , an opinion not necessarily agreed with here but one that had the ear of more accomplished scribe Richard Griffin. The Toronto Star baseball writer in his year-end column stated that the team could add all the Russell Martins or Josh Donaldsons in the world but it still was “all about upgrading the bullpen.” Yet, as we know opening day is only a few short weeks away and all they’ve done in that area is add middling Milwaukee pitcher Marco Estrada (a man who’s primarily been a starter not a reliever thus far in his career) while watching Casey Janssen and Dustin McGowan, not to mention Brandon Morrow walk away.
I certainly don’t lament Morrow and McGowan’s relocation in SoCal (Morrow with SD , McGowan with the Dodgers) and given the contract options the Jays would have had to post to keep them around in ’15, it makes sense. The problem is letting them go without any real replacements coming in, let alone upgrades. Janssen is a different story, but the bottom line is that rather than improving the apparent weakness they’ve opened training camp with an even worse one. That doesn’t bode well for the season or make a great statement about the young GM who now claims to be happy with all the “flexibility” he has with the relief corps.
For the record, it’s a debatable point about how terrible the ’14 bullpen was. Granted the ERA , variously listed at 4.09 or 4.11 in different sources, was near the bottom of Major League Baseball. There is undeniably room for improvement, but all things considered, there weren’t all that many games that they threw away. The team had 64 games with saves possible; 45 times they completed the save successfully. Not a great ratio, but 13 teams in baseball blew more saves and in the AL East, only Boston did any better- and even they missed 18 games that could have been “saved.” Room for improvement, no question, but also a category where “it could be worse.” Which really is rather like every aspect of the Jays team last year.
Anyhow, ordinary or terrible, you can decide but as it stands, the bullpen stands to be worse this season unless the team pulls some rabbits from a hat. While they were out signing a dominant catcher, dominant relievers like David Robertson and Andrew Miller were relocating to Toronto’s competitors. By January, the best remaining relief pitcher on the free agent market was– umm, well, Casey Janssen. When it became obvious that the world wasn’t beating a path to his door to offer a multi-year deal and also that the Jays needed bullpen help, one might have expected the two to talk and Casey to return. Instead he signed a bargain-basement deal with Washington, something his friend and former teammate Adam Lind told the Toronto Sun recently that he didn’t want to do. Janssen had a bit of a blip mid-season last year, but finished strong and still posted respectable numbers in ’14: 25 saves, 3.94 ERA, only 7 walks in about 45 innings. Over the past three seasons, he’s saved 81 games for the Jays while posting an earned run under 3… a little off the numbers of Fernando Rodney or Greg Holland, but comparable if not better than Joe Nathan who makes approximately triple the money. One has to think that the team could have made an offer for $4 million or so, to match or slightly up the Nats, and had him return for ’15 given the lack of other options for closer. But they didn’t.
Instead, the general line of thought is that Brett Cecil can take over the role. And he likes that idea. “Absolutely, I want it “ he recently told reporters about the closer spot. He might be able to handle it, too. At 29, he’s more mature than the young firebrand who came up five or six years back and seems more focused pitching for short stretches out of the ‘pen than he was going long as a starting pitcher. He made the AL All-star team in ’13 and last year went out for a career high 66 games and a career low 2.70 ERA. The problem isn’t Cecil, it’s more one of a domino effect. If Cecil is closer now, who replaces Cecil as the go-to guy against left-handed hitters? Aaron Loup?
Again, young Loup might be able to handle more pressure. The side-winding southpaw’s been very durable and quite effective since he came out of nowhere in 2012. Over the last two years, he’s tossed 137 innings out of the bullpen, largely effectively. However, there the dominos fall off the table. If Cecil is the new Janssen and Loup the new Cecil, just who is the new Loup? The Jays have no other noteworthy left-handed relievers in the system that could handle the jobs Aaron has recently. And the right-handed side of the ‘pen is less stable: Steve Delabar was an All-star in ’13, languishing in Buffalo most of last year. Todd Redmond’s been good as the “long man”, last year giving 75 innings of long relief, but there are no real standout righties other than maybe Aaron Sanchez. Sanchez is widely rated as one of the AL’s best pitching prospects and was lights out in his late season appearance, holding opponents to a .128 average and posting three saves and a stunning 1.09 ERA. However, in his brief minor league career, Sanchez has been a starter and that’s where the Jays project him to end up, even if not this April. They should have time to work that out since he will only turn 23 on this coming Canada Day.
All the while a stockyard of middle relievers have signed elsewhere. Most notable is John Axford, who was at least contacted by the Jays. The Ontario native expressed a desire to play in Toronto, has family nearby and seems like a healthy, reliable reliever even if one who has a tendency to be a bit wild and have difficulty locating his pitches. One might think that would be correctible with the right coach, and he did work exceptionally well with the Brewers in ’11-12, collecting 81 saves between those two years. He split last year between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, appearing in 66 games, saving ten games and posting an ERA of 4.00, which while not stellar, is right on par with the Jays average anyway. One could understand the team not offering him a gigantic contract, but giving him a decent offer with the prospect of him being a valuable middle reliever seems a no-brainer. Instead, he recently settled for signing a minor league deal with Colorado. Explain how Axford wasn’t worth risking $30 000 or so, Alex?!
As I said, Anthopoulos again lacks a game plan for the season and that’s likely going to bite the fans, if not him, on the butt. If the idea was to win now, while Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are still in their prime and the Red Sox and Yankees are rebuilding, getting Donaldson and Martin are good moves but doing nothing of note to improve the pitching looks ridiculous. If the plan is to concentrate on young talent, aka the likes of Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez, why did they give up their third and fourth best pitching prospects in the Oakland deal to upgrade at third base? Kendall Graveman was one of the few players Anthopoulos mentioned by name as a happy surprise last year. His future is now with the Athletics,not the Jays. If the idea was for some reason not to improve the existing starting rotation, why did they trade away budget-priced JA Happ? Michael Saunders, Russell Martin, annointing Dalton Pompey who grew up within sight of the Rogers’ Centre as the new center fielder, signing Jeff Francis to a minor league deal… maybe the plan would be to showcase as many Canadian players as possible and really show themselves as the Canadian team. Not a sound way of winning, but it would be at least a way to market them. But, if that was the thinking, again, why in the world isn’t John Axford a part of the equation when he wanted to be and was available to help the team’s weakest link?
The 2015 Blue Jays, when all is said and done, are still a pretty decent squad in a rather lacklustre division. They still have a shot at making the playoffs and exciting the fans. If they do however, it will be despite their General Manager, not because of him. A new GM should top their list of “musts” for 2016.
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.