Tagged: Drew Hutchison

Did Final Week of Schedule End Jays Playoff Run Too?

As I sat and watched, fairly disinterestedly, the Royals prevail against the Mets in last night’s marathon Game 1 of the World Series, I couldn’t help but think “Toronto could have won this game, and probably in 9 innings!”. Ahh, what might have been!

There’s no shame in being the bronze medal and that’s essentially what the Blue Jays were this year- baseball’s bronze medal winners. That’s a lot better than we’d really hoped for six months back. Yet it still smarts a little, knowing how close they came to having a shot to go for the gold. A sting made worse by the way KC won the final game of the ALCS, what with a very questionable ninth inning strike call against Ben Revere topping off a fan-assisted Royals homer. Nevertheless, lose they did and there were ample chances for them to have turned around at least a couple of the KC wins. Ultimately we might have to just tip our caps and acknowledge Kansas City have it all together and might be the best team in baseball.

When looking back to what the Blue Jays could have done differently, all I can come up with was that they seemingly took their foot off the gas a little bit in the final week. That’s pretty understandable, given human nature but might have cost them the World Series they, and we fans, craved. In particular i think 2 miscues cost them badly.

First, the October 1 game against Baltimore. Having clinched the division the day before in Maryland in Game 1 of a double-header, they fielded a team of subs for the second game and lost. Understandable, even acceptable. The regulars were not only high on winning the division but tired. No harm in putting in the likes of Carrera and Pompey for the nightcap. The problem came the next day when they again sent out a team of minor-leaguers and fill-ins. Cliff Pennington hitting second and Jonathan Diaz in the starting lineup hardly inspires confidence. Not to mention the starting pitcher, Drew Hutchison, well-rested to the point of being rusty and (as well-noted) having an awful season pitching on the road. Not surprisingly, Hutch gave up four hits (one a home run) and three runs in the first and was chased from the game, requiring six relievers patched together to get through the game. Baltimore won 6-4.

To make matters worse, David Price had last pitched on the 26th, making the day his normal day to pitch. As we recall, he didn’t pitch again until the playoffs and seemed out of sorts doubtless due to having an unusual amount of time off. It’s quite conceivable that Price would have easily gone six or more innings, shut down the Orioles early and won the game.

Of course, that is 20/20 hindsight. John Gibbons addressed the issue and told ESPN “we want to win home field … we’ve been going at it hard all year. Going back and playing an early game (for the regulars) today would be like no day off. I’ve got to do what’s best for these guys.” He has a point. It was a cool rainy day, the game’s start was delayed for three hours and most of the regulars had been playing hard day in, day out for weeks. Some, like Edwin Encarnacion playing through injuries. So giving them an extra day off to rest and chill out has its merits. Besides which, Diaz and Kawasaki, two of the more questionable players in the lineup both responded with RBI singles. Had Encarnacion made his hernia worse, or David Price slipped off the muddy mound and torn a ligament, there would have been no end to the second guessing and criticizing of Gibby.

Perhaps even more questionable was the last day of the regular season. Readers here know I am a fan of Mark Buehrle but giving him the start on one day’s rest simply to allow him to try to hit a personal milestone (200 innings pitched for the 15th time in a row) was bizarre to say the least. Of course it backfired with the Rays jumping out to an early 8 run lead and as it turned out, chasing Buehrle from the game in the first, without even hitting his 200 innings. It would have been far better to send RA Dickey out to the mound to start and then, if the game seemed under control by the 6th or 7th inning, let Buehrle come in to finish it off if he felt up to it. Dickey would have been on short rest, but 3 days rest is better than one and he wasn’t slated to pitch until well into the ALDS, so he’d have plenty of time to recuperate. It was a regrettable game to give away. Granted, as it turned out KC would win that day and pick up the AL-best 95 wins but the Jays didn’t know that taking the field and still had a shot to win home field advantage throughout the playoffs. We saw how huge that would be this month.

The Royals lost their opening playoff game at home to Houston on Oct. 8 and haven’t lost in Missouri again since. The Jays won 2 of 3 against them in Toronto but were swept in KC. Had the fields been reversed, one has to feel that the Jays might have at least gotten to game 7…and could be the ones putting those Mets in their place right now.

The things that might have been. We could dwell on it, but instead, let’s look back and enjoy the memories of the most exciting and successful Jays team in a generation and look forward to another run for the gold next year!

I’ll look at some areas the team needs to address for the 2016 season next time here, but the first need is obvious- the General Manager. Rogers need to get someone in place and soon, with free agency only a week or so away and players having options that need picking up or declining. I’m as surprised as anyone to say it, but after the 2015 season, I now am fully behind the idea of bringing Alex Anthopoulos back to finish what he started. That should be Mark Shapiro’s Job 1.

UPDATE OCT.29: Well Mark Shapiro DID make it his Job 1, but in a rather unexpected way. The Blue jays now are looking for a new General Manager.

Jays Managing Like Every Game Counts At Last

For too long, it seemed when the Blue Jays made moves that caused people to shake their heads, the reason was mysterious to all. Often “senseless” would have been a better word. To show that this year is different, a couple of recent transactions by the team have surprised, and possibly upset some casual fans. However, they are far from senseless. They are an indication that this time the team is indeed, “all in” and realize every game is important. Alex Anthopoulos is displaying a newfound attention to strategy in order to win them.

Since yesterday’s win over the Yankees we’ve seen well-established and liked pitchers Aaron Loup and Drew Hutchison demoted to the minors, with Buffalo first baseman Matt Hague called up to the big show. Another roster move, to replace Loup on the roster is expected before tomorrow’s game in Philadelphia.

Loup has been ineffective most of the year, so it shouldn’t be difficult to upgrade the late-inning pitching by replacing him. Best bets would probably be either long-time QEW commuter (back and forth between Toronto and Buffalo) Chad Jenkins, or much-traveled reliever Ben Rowen. Jenkins is transitioning to a reliever and has been good this year at AAA; 8-3 with a 2.32 ERA over 37 games (29 relief appearances.) Rowen, who spent part of last season with Texas, has spent time with a total of four teams at different levels this year but has a 1.66 ERA over a collective 40 games. He’s not allowed an earned run in his last ten games.

Both of them are right-handed; if the Jays decided to stick with two lefties in the bullpen, they could call upon Colt Hynes, a southpaw who began the year at AA and has a 3.38 ERA at both that level and AAA. He’s hot lately, having nine straight scoreless appearances. Any of the trio would likely be more reliable for Toronto right now than Loup has been.

Hutchison’s demotion actually made headline news on Yahoo. After all, he is co-leader in winning percentage among AL pitchers (12-2 for a .857 pct.) and just pitched a solid game yesterday for the only win of the weekend series against New York. Furthermore, at first glance, adding another first baseman to the mix when the big league team already has Edwin Encarnacion, Chris Colabello and Justin Smoak battling for time there is odd.

The moves make perfect sense however. The team has a surprisingly light schedule this week with today and Thursday off. They don’t really need five starting pitchers for a little while and are embarking on an 8-game road trip. Hutchison is the obvious odd man out, given the extreme split between his home and road performance commented on here before . (Currently he’s sitting at 10-1 , with a 2.57 ERA , averaging about 6 1/3 innings an outing at Rogers Centre; and while only 2-1 on the road he sports a dreadful 9.00 ERA , lets opponents tee off with a .372 average and logs well under 5 innings a game there.) By sending him to Buffalo,he can make starts on his regular days on the 21st and 26th, pick up a pointer or two from a new pitching coach and return to Toronto to start on the 31st- at home!

Calling up Hague too, is wise. Matt made a splash at spring training and hasn’t missed a beat at AAA since. He currently leads the International League with a .348 average and has a robust 83 RBI, .482 slugging percentage. With a couple of games in an NL park coming up, the chances are the team will utilize more pinch hitters and Hague will wield a hefty bat off the bench, or else provide a new decent-fielding 1B while Encarnacion recuperates his injured finger and have Colabello provide a big bat on the bench to unnerve opposition pitchers in the late innings. I’d personally opt for the latter, and if Hague excels , keep him up while sending hot-and-cold Smoak down to the minors for the rest of the month. (In September, of course, rosters expand and all of the above mentioned could be on the Toronto bench.)

Demoting a pitcher with a winning record. Calling up a big-hitting infielder possibly just to be available as a pinch hitter for two days. The 2015 Blue Jays are indeed looking to win this time!

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Interesting fine print notes today in the player transactions . Former Blue Jay Travis Snider was released outright by Baltimore while over in Chicago, Emilio Bonifacio seems destined for the same fate , being designated for assignment. This should put to rest any whining about them being let go by Toronto . Not that I’ve heard a lot of that lately. Snider, for the record, since being shuttled off to Pittsburgh in 2012, has played in 370 games, hitting a feeble .220 with 22 HR and 92 RBI in that time. His OPS with the Orioles this year had been a dismal .659; not quite the replacement for Nelson Cruz they were hoping for.

Bonifacio, one of the biggest disappointments in recent Blue Jays history, after a brief flourish with KC in 2013, has slid into total baseball irrelevance. In 47 games with the Sox this season, he’d hit .167 with a measly 4 RBI and his once impressive base-stealing had yielded only one base in five tries.

Jays would win division… if all things were equal.

The playoffs might be two months away still, but tonight’s game at Yankee Stadium should have the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Game 1 of a championship series as our Blue Jays take on the Pinstripes. The three game series won’t decide the season one way or another, nor even topple New York from the divisional lead but it will go a long ways to figuring out how the AL East will play out. The series is of paramount importance for Toronto, as will be all of the incredible 13 games they have remaining against the Bronx. However, the real pressure may just be on the home team, seeing as how the Jays are the hottest team in baseball over the past ten days and trounced the Yankees in upgrading their team at the trade deadline.

I expect the Jays to have the best record in the division from here on in, but the question is whether that will be enough to catch, let alone overtake the suprising ol’ Yanks.

We know about what Toronto bats are doing this year, how Josh Donaldson leads the majors in RBI and has already set a career high for homers; how Jose Bautista is having a “down year” but still is on pace for 110 RBI ; the hot streak Edwin Encarnacion is on and so on. Likewise, we know about the Yankees who’ve found the Fountain of Youth apparently; A-Rod’s .281 average, 24 homers and .924 OPS; how Mark Teixeira’s 29 dingers are the most he’s hit in a season since ’11 and if he holds onto his .944 OPS, that will be his best in six years. We know about their acquisition of Dustin Ackley and the respectable year Brian McCann is having.

Likiewise, we know if the Yankees are going to be beaten, a team needs to get to them early on. The bullpen duo of Bettances and Miller are close to Davis and Holland in Kansas City and they, my blue-feathered friends, are every bit the equal of Henke and Ward back in the day. Collectively, the pair have allowed only 15 ER in 93 innings and are 31 for 34 in save opportunities. LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe make the Jays ‘pen better but still not in the same category as New York’s…

Which isn’t that bad, considering that there are usually seven innings before Bettances is trotted out for the Bombers. And Toronto’s starting rotation, dare I say it, blows the Yanks away. It was better even before the Detroit deal, now it’s night and day.

I’m amazed that in a year when Cueto, Price and Kazmir changed hands and all evidence suggested that Shields and Samardzjia were there for the taking that the Yankees decided to stand pat and look towards October with a rotation anchored by Nathan Eovaldi.

Eovaldi is the Big Apple’s Drew Hutchison- his 11-2 record looks dazzling, but dig deeper and his 4.30 ERA is only middling and deeper still, note that opponents are teeing off on his pitching with a .300 average and he doesn’t look too ace-like. Neither does big CC; Sabathia apparently didn’t dip his toe in A-Rod and Tex’s Time-reversing waters. The large lefty does lead the team in innings with 123, but too many of those have been rough ones, as shown by his 4-8 record, his 5.34 ERA and the two dozen homers he’s allowed. Tanaka and Pineda are better but marginally so; Ivan Nova could end up being their best but seven games is a pretty small sample to base it on.

Contrast that with the Jays. As surprises go, Toronto’s starting pitching of late is up there with Donald Trump saying something good about Mexicans. It’s unexpected!! But it has been very solid this summer. Mark Buehrle, Mr. Reliable is destined to increase his streak of double-digit win / 200-inning seasons. With 12 W, he’s already half way there, and he only needs 52 innings more over the remaining two months. In his last 6 outings, he’s 3-1 with a tidy 2.53 ERA…which is bested by RA Dickey!

The knuckleballer’s had to deal with his share of detractors this year, and a strange lack of run support from a team leading the world in runs. His 6-10, 4.06 ERA isn’t putting him in the discussion for another Cy Young but it’s decent. More importantly, of late he’s been in top form, lowering his ERA by almost a full run in his last five games. In that span he’s been 3-1 with only 5 earned runs given up in over 36 innings. Tonight he looks to make it three starts in a row without a run allowed.

Marco Estrada has rounded into form very nicely with a couple of near no-nos and more than two ER allowed in only one of his past 9 games; a 3.40 ERA and measly .216 opponents average are the results.

If the team lacked a true #1 Starter before, they have it now in David Price. What more can you say about him that his 10-4 record, 2.45 ERA and 149K to 31 BB, his 154 innings pitched already (third best in the league) don’t? Well, there’s always that throwing out a clunker of an outing on July 28, when he was doubtless packing up his locker and wondering which direction he’d be driving, and he’s had a 1.18 ERA since the beginning of July and is averaging almost 8 innings a start.

Which leaves Drew Hutchison. Preferably in Buffalo, if i had my way. After opening day, Drew’s never really had it together but of late he’s worse. In his last 6 starts, he hasn’t pitched past 6 innings at all, and has surrendered 43 hits in just under 30 innings. His ERA of 6.67 in that period would be even worse if some of the questionable errors called against the Jays didn’t mean 6 runs he’s given up in that period have been unearned. The good news for Toronto is that with seven off days left in the sched, they may be able to skip Hutch’s spot in the rotation several times.

What’s it all mean? Well, it means that all other things been equal, Toronto should be significantly better than NY down the stretch.

Unfortunately, all things are not equal. Both teams are much better at home than on the road; New York have 31 of their final 55 games in the Bronx. The Jays have only 24 of 52 games left in the Rogers Centre. Toronto have five interleague games left on the road, New York three. Five games with EE either out of the lineup, or playing first base, is significant. Both teams have a number of games left to play against lacklustre teams, but the Jays face the other pesky birds, the Orioles, 7 times compared to New York’s three. Bottom line- the schedule favors New York.

Schedule notwithstanding, the Jays can still win it all. They have the momentum, they have the post-trade euphoric confidence, they have better hitting and starting pitching than New York. But for that to happen, they will need to deliver a decisive message in the remaining bakers’ dozen games against NY.

If the Blue Jays “time is now”, the time to start proving it is now. The post season starts in two months. The real fun begins tonight.

If you like your baseball scores to look like basketball scores, Toronto’s your team!

Any other Jays fans getting both a sense of deja vu as well as a sense of ‘what might have been’ about the team this year?

Seems like we’ve danced to this tune before: the team adds one or two key players in the off-season, proclaim a new attitude and then the front office goes about sitting on their duffs while other teams around them get to work on becoming competitive. The end result is a Blue Jays team that’s by no means terrible- but always a building block or two away from ending baseball’s longest post-season drought.

The Toronto Star‘s Richard Griffin (who’s upped his game lately and has a very worthwhile column on all things Blue Jay-ish) seems to think a deficient bullpen is what will keep the Jays outside looking in on the playoffs this year , something I’d quarrel with, but what’s not in debate is whose doorstep the blame should be put on. Alex Anthopoulos railed against what he considered a crappy bullpen last season and then proceeded to watch it get significantly worse in the off-season. He let better-than-average but less-than-all-star Casey Janssen walk away, insulted. He didn’t put in a bid on a veteran with strong ties to Toronto and an AL championship last year, Jason Frasor. He talked to John Axford, a pitcher from Ontario, but let him end up signing with a minor league contract in Colorado. He didn’t seem interested in Pat Neshek, who was brilliant last year with the Cardinals. Neshek is now anchoring the bullpen of the surprise best team in the AL, the Astros. The Jays did apparently make an offer to Andrew Miller, who keeps getting better, but not enough to lure him away from the Big Apple. With no new key additions, the team ventured to try two unproven 20 year olds with no serious minor league experience to hold down the ‘pen behind new closer Brett Cecil. The result hasn’t been much of a success; Cecil has two saves in 11 appearances so far and an ERA of 4.50 (granted, ERA is an unreliable measure of quality with a sample of innings so small); he’s now firmly entrenched in the closer’s role after Miguel Castro got demoted back to the minors . Castro started off great but had given up 8 hits and 4 earned runs in his last 3 innings, so perhaps there’s a reason why most players go through AA and AAA baseball before being promoted to the big club!

As much as the bullpen has been iffy so far, it’s not the cause of the Blue Jays being below .500. Nor is the hitting. Before last night’s game, the Jays .432 slugging percentage was fourth best in the AL, their 32 homers third best, and most importantly, the 144 runs scored, tops in all of baseball. We knew eventually the Detroit trade, getting Devon Travis for Anthony Gose would look good, we just had no idea it would be so soon- Travis so far is second in the AL in RBI. The team is scoring runs in bushel baskets, unfortunately it’s also allowing runs by the boxcar. Their 5.13 ERA is by far the worst in baseball (next worst, Boston at 5.04, something New England scribes are none too happy about ) as is the 138 total runs allowed. St. Louis, for comparison’s sake, even without ace Adam Wainwright, have given up a skimpy 59. One would suspect that if Toronto’s pitching had limited the opposition to a number even close to that, we’d be in awe of an undefeated team.

As predicted, the Jays starting rotation has been the achilles heal. It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could have thought it would be otherwise. RA Dickey pitched his best game of the year so far last night, and has been best of a bad lot, at 1-3, with a 4.38ERA and team high 39 innings. Mark Buehrle’s started off hot but has been terrible in his last couple of outings, adding up to an ugly 6.75 ERA and what is currently the worst WHIP of his lengthy career. He has a winning record, but one has been aided by 37 runs in his three wins.

Nevertheless, I stand by my spring analysis. Those two veterans are what they are, and what they are is decent middle-of-rotation guys who will give you 200 innings a piece and a win or three above par. There’s nothing inherently wrong about having that pair, in fact they would be an asset – if they weren’t the only two viable starters on the roster!

Drew Hutchison has already complained of being fatigued and looks it. After a good game against Baltimore, he’s given up 17 hits and 12 earned runs in only 8 1/3 innings in two subsequent starts. Overall, he sports an ERA of 7.47, appropriate because it’s up there in the stratosphere. We all too quickly forget this lad is still under 25 and had only 43 big league appearances before being somehow knighted as Staff Ace this spring.

Internet sensation Daniel Norris was told to get in his VW van and drive to Buffalo after his most recent outing where he lasted 78 pitches and was complaining of a “dead arm” as well. Although he’s 1-1 and has an acceptable ERA so far, the fact that he’s tired after averaging less than five innings a game suggests that while he may still be a good one, that time is a ways off.

Which leaves Aaron Sanchez, who commendably has managed to lower his ERA a little in each start since his first, but still sits at 4.62, and has given up a distressing 20 walks in 25 innings. There’s no problem with his “stuff” but obviously is one with his command of where that ‘stuff’ goes.

The team’s answer to all this has been to shunt Marco Estrada to the rotation, starting tonight. He probably can’t do much worse than Daniel Norris has so far, but he leaves a hole in the bullpen making that weaker and making it clear that Alex Anthopoulos is out of ideas. He did call up outfielder Chris Colabello from the minors, and Chris has been hitting up a storm in Buffalo. I guess the thinking is if your team needs 8 runs a game to have a shot at winning, it’s easier to add another bat to club some balls instead of improving the pitching.

Needless to say, it’s not quite as simple as all that. There aren’t any solid free agent starting pitchers looking for work in May and most teams aren’t willing to trade anyone worthwhile this early. The Phillies are still apparently trying to rid themselves of Cole Hamels contract, but the price tag seems too high in both dollars and players they want. There may be a few options which could be open to help the Blue Jays though.

While Hamels apparently merits a king’s ransom, there are lesser pitchers in Philadelphia they might part with for a more reasonable dowry. The Phils are going nowhere quickly and from all reports would love to rebuild sooner than later. Chad Billingsley is set to make his season debut tonight. Billingsley is a little risky having missed almost all of the past two seasons with Tommy John surgery, but was an under-rated player when he was with the Dodgers. In 2012 he was a decent 10-9 with a 3.55 ERA and 150 innings pitched there. Granted, his best season was way back in ’08, but if he could regain his pre-surgery form, he’d likely instantly become the best starter on the Jays roster.

Likewise, the Phillies have 37 year-old Aaron Harang, who seems to have dipped into the fountain of youth. This year he’s sporting a nice 2.35 ERA, has pitched 38 innings and only allowed 29 hits and 8 walks in them. He may not be a long-term solution but would fit in nicely with the current Jays.

Perhaps the most intriguing idea is to turn to Cincinnati. The Reds have been under-achievers of late and now with Homer Bailey gone for the year, look like they have an even steeper hill to climb this year. Their ace, Johnny Cueto is a free agent after this season, and is not far off Kershaw and Bumgardner when it comes time to discuss best NL pitchers. Last year he won 20, the last year he had an ERA above 3 was 2010 (quick question – when was the last time a Jays starter had an ERA below 3? One might think Roy Halladay last decade, but it was actually Ricky Romero in ’11) and is off to a flying start again in ’15, although likely frustrated by his 2-3 record despite averaging over 7 innings a start and limiting the opposition to a .203 avg. Imagine how well he’d do in a lineup where the team actually scored runs once in a while… like Toronto!

The Reds trading Cueto, would face the same kind of fan revolt the Jays did after trading Halladay. But he’s not likely to stick around there after this year and likely would welcome pitching in a place where he would get run support to boost his win total heading into free agency. He’d not come cheap – but would he be worth mortgaging the future? Would it be worth giving up say Norris and Sanchez to get him, potentially for only 25 or so starts?

It’s a question that keeps GMs up at night. I don’t know if I know the answer but I think it’s one worth considering. We fans are tired of the tune that’s playing now, “Good but not good enough.”

Maybe “Doc” can throw an inning or two… assessing the ’15 Blue Jays so far

Two weeks into the season is early to assess a team, so it’s difficult to know exactly what this year’s Blue Jays are going to be like or where they’ll finish up (you may recall my most recent prediction was for 84 wins and second place in the East but still shy of the playoffs). But it’s not too early to see some trends and early answers to the big pre-season questions.

I wondered if young Devon Travis and Dalton Pompey were ready to make the jump to full-time big-leaguers, and expected Pompey (whom we saw briefly last season) would be closer to ready. Perhaps I got it backwards; Travis has been the league’s best rookie so far, and among its top hitters of any experience level, hitting .336 with a dozen RBI to rank among the leaders in those categories, as well as slugging percentage (.644). Pompey has been questionable in the field, something which to his credit he’s taken responsibility for, and is hitting only .188 with 12 strikeouts to only 4 walks. It may be unreasonable to expect him to match his minor league tally of last year (.317, 51 RBI in only 440 at bats, 43 steals) but he needs to step up his game quickly if he’s to stay around at the major league level this year. Nonetheless, he shows all the signs of eventually becoming a good one, and if he needs more seasoning, could perhaps be replaced in center field by Kevin Pillar, who’s off to a hot start and made what MLB listed as the “play of the week” last year in stealing a home run away over the left field fence. Pillar could shift to center when Michael Saunders is healthy enough to play, which surprisingly could be by month’s end.

I hear (or more accurately, read online) Jays fans worrying about the slow starts by Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Russell Martin. Needless fretting. Actually their slowish starts give reason for encouragement. Yes, Martin and Bautista are hitting just .143 and EE, whose been hitless six times in the past ten games, just .200, but Bautista still has taken 11 walks, has 3 homers and 8 RBI and ranks in the top five in runs scored in the AL. There’s not as much good to say about Encarnacion or Martin’s start at the plate yet, but therein lies the silver lining. We know they’ll get better!

Sure, we can’t count on Edwin hitting 37 homers this year (his average over the past three campaigns), or Martin hitting .290 as he did last year (about 34 points higher than his career average up to then) or bank on Jose leading the league in home runs when all is said and done, but we know they’ll be hitting better than they are now. A quick calculation shows that if Jose and Russell even hit a lowly .200 for the rest of the season, and Martin catches 120 games, Bautista plays 140 games, they’d be on base a combined 50 times more this season than at the current rate. That by itself would be enough to add 25 or more runs to the total, or put the ERA of the opposition pitchers up by .2 or so. And I’d put a few quarters on the table to bet that both of those guys, and Encarnacion, will be well over .200 by September.

All of which is reason to cheer, because the Jays are doing just fine in hitting even with these guys firing blanks. As of Sunday night, the team’s .246 average sounded anemic but was fifth best in the league and, more importantly, they lead the majors with 70 runs scored. (Pity Houston, Chicago, Cleveland and Minnesota, plus several NL teams, who’ve yet to even score 40!). Scoring enough runs isn’t a problem for Toronto now and certainly won’t be once Edwin starts connecting for the long ball and Bautista and Martin top the Mendoza Line (.200 average) What is concerning is the pitching, as predicted.

Although the bullpen is only 2 for 4 in saves so far, it’s looking adequate and as long as kiddies Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro don’t clue in to the fact they shouldn’t be having such an easy time against big league hitters with their lack of experience, it will continue to be OK. The problem lies with the starting rotation.

While the Blue Jays are scoring lots, they’re also allowing a lot. The staff 4.50 ERA is 8th best in the AL , but a mile behind the leaders. Detroit, Oakland and Houston (!!) have ERAs below 3. And the 53 free passes given up by Jays pitchers is worst in the American League and only surpassed by Philadelphia in all of baseball. The 19 home runs they’ve allowed is worst in the game. The defence may be a tad better this year but there’s no defence against walks and homers (occasional spectacular Kevin Pillar catches notwithstanding.)

The situation is gloomy. Veterans Mark Buehrle and RA Dickey have both been OK in all their starts. Not great, mind you, but OK. Mark has gone 6 innings both times, won both starts and posts a 3.75 ERA. Dickey after 3 is winless but has a 3.26 ERA and has hurled a team high 19 1/3 innings.

The younger ones haven’t been pretty. Semi-veteran Drew Hutchison was very good in the opener against New York but then lasted less than 5 innings in the next two games and is allowing opponents to hit .270 against him. Last year, he averaged just under 6 innings an outing, this year he’s clocking no more than 5 … and was complaining of a “dead arm” issue already to the Star‘s Rosie Dimanno. You know, the issue of fatigue most pitchers go through in August or September.

Rookies Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez have been worse. Norris has a 6.08 ERA and lasted just 2 2/3 innings in his last game before being pulled after 6 hits and four earned runs. Sanchez has lost both his starts, has an ERA over 6 and has given up two homers in only 8 innings after allowing just one last year in 33 big league innings.

The problem is rather obvious. The two veterans are doing OK– and thus can’t be expected to get miraculously better. They’re doing about what was expected of them already. Maybe Buehrle will go a little deeper into the games when it warms up, but all in all, what you see is what you get. Which means that if the pitching is going to “click” and give the Jays a chance to get hot, the trio of young pitchers have to perform much better. And that’s a lot to expect of two rookies and a 24 year-old who’s already fatigued!

Looking south to Buffalo isn’t cause for unbridled optimism either. The Bisons have been off to a good start – but their best pitcher so far is Randy Wolf. Those of you who watched baseball last century will remember Wolf, who was at that point a young lad. Wolf is currently 2-0 with a stunning 0.90 ERA at AAA. But, apologies to Randy, who will turn 39 mid-season, even though he’s logged 133 career wins, I don’t hold out a lot of hope he’s going to be the 2015 Blue Jays savior. Last year after all, he recorded all of 1 win, with Miami and the last year he had an ERA below 5, or held opponents to a sub-.300 average, was 2011 (when he was 13-10 at Milwaukee.) Then there’s Johan Santana, of course, whom I’ve written about here previously , but as of now he’s on the DL and hasn’t thrown a pitch yet. Best case scenario is that he might be back in major league shape by the All Star break.

The team will score enough runs to compete this year. But every 12-11 game has a team that scored enough runs and still lost. The failure to sign a good free agent starter or trade for one in the off season looms larger than ever.

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For those keeping track, the last piece of the Roy Halladay trade that still mattered to the Jays was Kyle Drabek. He was picked up on waivers by Chicago just before opening day, but designated for assignment by the White Sox today. (To be fair, the Jays got Travis d’Arnaud in that trade as well, and he’s a decent enough big league catcher, but he was one of four players the team shuttled to New York in 2012 for RA Dickey). Granted, “Doc” is out of baseball too now, but at least the Phils got a Cy Young and two no-hitters for their effort! Not much to show at the Toronto end of the trade.

A look at Jays, game 1, and the National League, game 162

The Blue Jays opened up the 2015 season in fine form Monday, beating New York 6-1- on ESPN TV across the States, no less! The win and national exposure in itself is enough to make any Toronto fan cheer, but there were several other reasons to like the game. Kevin Pillar started in left, got two hits and stole a base to boot. Young Devon Travis had a day he’ll long remember, making his first big league appearance in front of 48 459 Bronx fans and greeting them with his MLB first home run. Jose Bautista looked uncharacteristically impatient at the plate but made up for it snagging at least 8 fly balls in right, including a sure home run he took away from the Pinstripers at the wall. Drew Hutchison, a surprise pick to be the season opener was lauded by ESPN staff who opined that by last September he was pitching as well as anyone in the league. He didn’t disappoint, going six innings and allowing just three hits and one run.

The things that I liked about all that, beyond the final score, was that although it was only one game, it alleviated some concerns about the ’15 squad. Devon Travis wasn’t overly challenged but was competent handling the ball at second and showed he could certainly hit at the major league level- perhaps with more power than we expected! Pillar looked very perky and energetic, something that hasn’t always been the case with him and apparently joined the rookie hitters in getting together with Russell Martin to look over Yankees pitching videos and get advice on how to hit them. Seemed to work, and showed right off the mark that Martin should make the expected valued contribution in the clubhouse. As for Hutchison, his performance was only memorable in terms of the final line. That’s a good thing. He didn’t exactly blow the doors off the Bronx Bombers, nor did he have any highlight reel “out” pitches, but he kept the Yankees off balance and confused through five innings, just like a star starter should. Perhaps 93 pitches was a little much for him on opening day, because in the 6th he gave up the solo homer to Brett Gardner and came precariously close to giving up a couple more with balls left up high in the strike zone that got hit hard, but all things considered it was a praise-worthy performance. He controlled the jitters of pitching a big game on national TV and was sparkling through maybe 80 pitches. Next game we can hope he can go those 93 pitches without faltering at the end and can be on his way to becoming the type of front-line pitcher he showed glimpses of being last year.

On the flipside, though A-Rod (I grudgingly admit) looked OK, the Yanks on the whole looked rather old and tired. Chase Headley handled a ground ball magnificently in the first but later botched an easy grounder trying to back hand it and then was charged with a throwing error. Masahiro Tanaka apparently isn’t fully recovered from his elbow ligament injury and was to quote some Jays hitters, “very hittable.” His velocity is down- which isn’t always a bad thing with pitchers- and he had little control over placing pitches in the strike zone – which is always a bad thing. An achy “ace” with control problems usually means a loooong season ahead for his team.

As a result, i actually feel more optimistic about Toronto’s chances and revise my predicted win total for them up to 84- good for second place in the division … but still likely a game or three short of the post-season alas.

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Speaking of predictions, let’s take a glance at the National League and see who the Jays might end up playing in October should the Baseball Gods shine on Toronto.

NL EAST: You can take a hundred fans and baseball insiders and get 100 different guesses as to the year’s outcome. In every category but one – the NL East. I’ve yet to see anyone, online or in print publications suggest anyone other than Washington will win the division. Las VEgas has them at 4:1 to win the World Series, far and away the lowest odds for any team. Not much of a wonder; they are a good team in a bad division. And playing lots of their sched against the likes of the Phillies not to mention redoubtables like the Rays and Yankees in inter-league games, should help them pile up the wins and ensure home advantage in the NL playoffs. Hard to argue with the logic, or with a rotation featuring Max Scherzer, Steven Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. Give them 95 wins and first place. Miami are far from the disaster/ joke they seemed only a couple of years back. Giancarlo Stanton is as good as any power hitter in the game, Henderson Alvarez looks like he would have been the opening day starter for Toronto had the Jays held onto him, and all things considered they should be second, with 88 wins. It’s all downhill from there. I don’t think the Mets are all that, despite some who pick them as a “dark horse” or this year’s KC, put New York at 81 wins and third, ahead of the shell of what used to be the Atlanta Braves; with no top-flight starters there wasn’t much need to keep the National’s best closer , Craig kimbrel, around ; 73 wins, fourth. Then there’s Philadelphia, a cautionary tale if ever there was one. The one time powerhouse overspent on long contracts for their core players who are now largely over-the-hill and untradeable unless the P’s eat most of their salary. Worse, their farm system isn’t laden with great prospects to take over if they did. Cole Hamels is the one all-star veteran they still have that is of major value to other teams and expect him to be gone by mid-season. where he ends up might significantly influence the final standings. 66 wins, last place.

NL Central: Sporting News picked the Cubs to win it all this year- which is why I didn’t bother spending on their magazine! St. Louis had a terrible off season in terms of the untimely death of their #1 prospect, Oscar Taveras. But Jason Heyward, acquired days later will be a more than adequate replacement in right, Yadier Molina’s apparently looking a bit healthier than last year, Adam Wainwright is still as durable as any pitcher and nearly as good …91 wins, first place. Pittsburgh have an under-rated gem in hometown second baseman Neil Walker and a well-known one in Andrew McCutchen, decent pitching including an apparently happy AJ Burnett (an oxymoron if ever there was one to Toronto fans), 83 wins, second. Cincinnati is just a wee bit like Toronto – a lot of unknowns. Unlike the jays, many of the questions involve veterans who are coming off sub-par or injury-marred seasons. If Joey Votto can regain his 2012 form, Jay Bruce is healthy and Brandon Phillips is not sulking, the team can score a lot of runs and has a trio of good starters. But if Votto and Bruce continue to decline or hurt, expect the staff ace, Johnny Cueto to move along elsewhere. I’ll pick the middle ground and say 79 wins, third place but a good kick-off to the season might let them approach a wild-card spot, a terrible beginning or a rash of injuries and they’re in the basement. Chicago have the best young player in the game – Kris Bryant – and demoted him to the minors to save money years down the road. No wonder the Billy Goat curses them- and likely so does Bill Murray and every other fan named Bill or Tom or Dick or Harry. Yes, he’ll be up in the majors by summer, yes Jon Lester is good. But one pitcher doesn’t make a rotation, 120 games of Bryant won’t help the club as much as 162 games of him and then there’s Starlin Castro – their talented shortstop. Yes, he’s capable of being as good as anyone at the position, but as one scout told Sports Illustrated “at times he plays out of control.” The fact that he was cleared of being the shooter in two different bar shootings he was in the midst of in December raise more questions about his character than they clear up. 75 wins, fourth. Milwaukee aren’t terrible, but aren’t all that special. Post-PED Ryan Braun looks a bit better than last year but only a shadow of his former, MVP-award self; they traded away two of their top starting pitchers but failed in attempts to replace them with James Shields or any other notable free agents, they’re relying on Adam Lind to not only hold down first base but hit lefties as well as right-handed pitching. And Aramis Ramirez has said he’s counting the days to his retirement. It will be 31 days earlier than if he was on a better team, 72 wins, fifth.

NL West: The Dodgers set a new record for payroll, some $270 million this year. they’re paying almost as much to players to not play for them ($44M) as Tampa pay their whole team to play. LA have some overly-moody stars (eg, Yasiel Puig), some well-past their prime stars (eg, Carl Crawford), some not quite there yet stars (eg, rookie Joc Pederson). But stars they have, and it’s hard to go against a team with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. One little note on the latter- in one spring training game this year, Greinke got in his assigned 4 innings and was pulled – then went down to the bullpen to pitch some more and build his strength. That’s what you want in your premiere players. 93 wins, first place. No team did more to throw off their losing ways in the off-season than San Diego. Bringing in James Shields to add to a low-profile but highly-talented starting rotation; adding three all star calibre outfielders in one week , and as icing on the cake, trading for the best reliever in the league this month. A much improved team, but not quite at the top yet – 88 wins, second place. Nothing succeeds like success, so it’s hard to argue against San Francisco, the reigning World Champions. They have a lot of moxie. But they also have Hunter Pence on the shelf for a good chunk of the year, an aging Tim Lincecum they don’t know what to do with and an injured Matt Cain. MadBum can’t pitch every game- can he?? 82 wins, third place. Arizona hope the recent streak of success with imported Cuban players continues, they invested heavily on newcomer Yosmany Tomas, who if he lives upto the hype will be something of a lower-case Mike Schmidt. Paul Goldscmidt is the real star here on a team that individually isn’t terrible. Collectively though, little to be excited about. 71 wins, fourth. Which leaves us with Colorado. They have two of the game’s best, in Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. Unfortunately, they also tend to be two of the most-oft injured players. If the duo is healthy- well, it’s still a lacklustre team, but it could catch Arizona. then again, if they’re healthy the Rockies might do well to trade them off for max value and plan ahead for 2018, 2019…67 wins, last place.

Up next- a look ahead to the post-season…

Jays roster moves place a heavy load on young shoulders

With opening day less than a week away, chips are falling all around as teams whittle down the masses of players at their training camps and carve out a workable 25-man roster. Tuesday the Blue Jays announced several moves, making the final roster all but known.

Among the announcements, Josh Thole is sent back to the minors, leaving veterans Russell Martin and Dioner Navarro to split the catching duties. Martin will apparently catch RA Dickey. Both Danny Valencia and Justin Smoak make the team and will apparently split first base duties while Edwin Encarnacion , initially at least, will primarily DH (EE is of course only just getting back to regular action after missing much of spring with a bad back). Rookie Devon Travis will skip AAA altogether and be the regular second baseman while Steve Tolleson also makes the cut. Kevin Pillar is the left fielder – until Michael Saunders can play, whenever that is.

Drew Hutchison, of all people, is the 2015 Opening Day pitcher and both Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez will make the starting rotation. Twenty year-old sensations Miguel Castro and Rob Osuna will be going north with the team to join the bullpen which may have seven, or Lord help us, eight people. If it is 7 relievers, apparently Ryan Goins (who’s hit respectably this spring) will be the extra player.

So- thoughts on it all? It didn’t make much sense to have Josh Thole around just to catch one pitcher, and Navarro is a better hitter than him, so the move perhaps makes sense. But, Thole wasn’t bad as back-up catchers go so one has to think the Jays would have been better off trading Navarro, making him happy, to a team lacking in catching depth and obtaining a usable spare part and saving a good part of Navarro’s $5M salary. They’d still keep Thole around to catch Dickey and other pitchers once in awhile and could put the saved salary towards … oh, let’s say Jonathan Papelbon’s salary, with the rumour mill buzzing about the Jays doggedly scouting Papelbon and the Phillies all but listing Papelbon on e-bay to get rid of his contract.

Travis has apparently played good “D” at second this spring and has looked at home at the plate, hitting .351 with a .456 slugging percentage. I’d prefer to see a player who’d at least had a look-see at AAA play the position for Toronto, but on the upside, he is 24 and after last season, with Ryan Goins and Munenori Kawasaki being the main men at the position, he’s not likely to diminish the results the Jays have had there. One wonders what happens to Maicer Izturis, once again the forgotten man.

I like the idea of having both Valencia and Smoak around and thus having Encarnacion be able to spare his back by just hitting. Valencia seemingly is a better hitter than Smoak, but Smoak is a first baseman by trade and theoretically at least a better defensive player there. Smoak also is a switch-hitter and thus might hit right-handers better than rightie Valencia, but looking at last year’s numbers makes one question that . Smoak hit lefty and righty pitchers about the same (.276 On base against lefties, .275 against right-handers; .618 and .611 OPS respectively) which is to say not very well. Smoak did turn it up a notch or two in the last couple of weeks and when all is said and done, one has to imagine the Jays problems won’t revolve around difficulty scoring . Jose Bautista, after having a sore hamstring early in spring, is hitting up a storm with a very impressive .325 average and AL-high six home runs. Josh Donaldson is living up to the hype surrounding his arrival, hitting .326 with 5 home runs and an OPS topping 1.000. When Encarnacion is fully healthy again and has perhaps 30 more at bats under his belt, the team should have the most intimidating middle of the lineup in the AL. Which leaves us wondering about – the pitching.

Two things are certain. One, the Jays do have some real promise in the young arms coming through the system. Two, the 2015 team is going to have to rely heavily on them in order to have a shot this year, and few teams have made the playoffs, let alone won there, with three youngsters in the rotation and a bevy more in the bullpen. Drew Hutchison has been named the Opening Day starter, ahead of veterans RA Dickey (who won a cy Young three years ago) and Mark Buehrle (one win shy of joining Tim Hudson and CC Sabathia in the exclusive list of active pitchers with 200 wins), all the more indicative of the new direction Alex Anthopoulos has suddenly turned the team in. In the past, Toronto have usually looked for veteran, award-winners to have the honor of pitching the first game: Dave Stieb, Jack Morris, Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay. This year they put that pressure on a 24 year-old with 43 career games played. Hutch showed flashes of brilliance in his two big league seasons, but isn’t in the same category as the likes of David Price, Jered Weaver or King Felix that he’ll be matched up against .

Buehrle (who’s been brilliant this spring) and Dickey are still there in the rotation of course, along with surfer-dude rookie Daniel Norris, who’s looked good against major leaguers in March (six games, 3-0, 29 K with only 5 walks) and Aaron Sanchez, who still qualifies as a rookie despite a few relief appearances last summer. Sanchez, despite having a few innings under his belt, hasn’t fared as well as Norris this spring having a rough 5.16 ERA and only one more K than walk allowed in his six outings. Thankfully the team paid a few more dollars and filed the paperwork to keep Johan Santana an employee, one of the better off-season moves (as mentioned here last month), but he’s yet to pitch in a spring game , and I remind you, last pitched a full year back in 2010.

The bullpen is equally reliant on unknowns. Miguel Castro and Rob Osuna are both 20, have not pitched in AAA minor league competition, have shown themselves well this spring and made the team ahead of more experienced arms like Steve Delebar. Marco Estrada, mainly a starter in Milwaukee, gets put there to help Todd Redmond eat innings if the young kids get blown out of games early. Then there’s the closer, which the Jays have made Brett Cecil. Cecil has pitched twice in March but isn’t at full health yet and has no track record of being in that role.

One can hope the Jays pick up Jon Papelbon via trade, or perhaps sign Rafael Soriano who inexpiicably still is a free agent looking for a team, but more realistically if anyone is added it will probably be injury-prone Dustin McGowan, who’s never pitched in a regular game for anyone besides Toronto and was just released by LA.

Mark Fidrych. Doc Gooden. Sometimes kids seem to come out of nowhere and blow everyone away from the mound. Perhaps the Jays will have that type of luck this season, and if they do, they’ll win the division. Even if so, one has to wonder how the Jays can hope to succeed in October with so many kids who’ve never played beyond Labor Day before. Norris, for example, has never pitched more than 130 innings in one year. World Series ’14 hero Madison Bumgarner hurled some 270 last season (including the playoffs.)

We can hope for the best- the kids, especially the young pitchers, continue to impress and not become overwhelmed by facing big league hitters and perhaps , if the team is in good shape by mid-season, they add in a “rent a pitcher” (Johnny Cueto, is one of several who might be shuffled off his present roster before impending free agency) to get them to the promised land. But, alas, I still stand by my guess of a few weeks back. 81 wins, 81 losses.

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the experts at Yahoo sports are a wee bit more optimistic about our team’s chances. A panel of five of their staffers posted their predictions and one of the five picked Toronto to win the AL East, and on average they picked T.O. to win 86.

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While Toronto fans have to cringe at the prospect of seeing a team laden with young kids seemingly rushed to the majors , up the lakes a bit, Cubs fans suffer the opposite. Their team has demoted Kris Bryant, seemingly not only the franchise’s future but it’s here and now. They may have to defend their decision in court.

Bryant is 23, and widely named as the Best Prospect in all of baseball. He’s even appeared on the covers of national magazines naming the best players in the game already. Unlike some of the Toronto players I’ve mentioned, Bryant has worked his way through the minors in the usual way, smashing 43 homers with a .325 average in AAA last year. This spring, he’s been not only the best Chicago Cub, but the best player in spring training. All he did in 14 games was hit .425, lead the universe with 9 home runs and an absurd 1.652 OPS, while turning highlight reels in the field almost every game. his reward was being told to report to the Minors again by Chicago who claimed to be going all out to win this year, with superstar manager Joe Maddon and big money ace Jon Lester signed to a franchise record contract. They seem to think Mike Olt, once a Rangers prospect many moons ago, is a better bet to handle the hot corner. Olt has a JP Arencibianesque .159 career batting average.

This has, to be polite, annoyed a number of people, not the least of which is the Players Union which has threatened to sue the Cubs over the decision.

Bryant will be seen in Wrigley Field this season (barring some unexpected injury) of course. The Cubs are merely stalling his arrival in the majors to save money down the road– if they can keep him down in the minors for a month or six weeks, they’ll effectively delay his ability to file for arbitration and then free agency for a year. And doubtless piss him off so much he might well jump ship the day he’s able to.

I”m no lawyer, but I don’t think the Players Association have a real leg to stand on, even though Bryant clearly deserves to be on the team. However, Americans are a litigious lot and it seems to me that the fans might have a better case. It would be interesting seeing how the team would defend itself against a class action suit filed by season ticket holders who would claim they bought tickets hoping to see a winning team and believing the Cubs’ winter hype about going all out to win in 2015. To me, the Chicago Cubs are the sports’ epitome of the old adage “penny wise, pound foolish”… but can they win nonetheless?

I’ll give you some quick picks for the National League , and more, this weekend.