More and more baseball’s “age of parity” seems to be over. It already seems hard to believe not long ago we talked about that and how some found it boring that almost every team was in contention well into the season and there were no runaway trains on the track to Ocotber. No more. Witness the AL East, where the Yankees are on pace to win 103… and potentially finish a double digit number of games behind Boston if they do. And at the other end of the spectrum, mere miles down the highway but light years away in talent, the Orioles are within days of being mathematically eliminated and have nothing more to play for it would seem than to avoid the worst numbers in that club’s history. Baseball is now becoming divided as the Congress, and the halves are Winners and Losers. Right now it’s not that encouraging for Toronto fans to think which side of the divide the Blue Jays are going to. ((Although we will temper that with the realization that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is on the cover of the latest Baseball America as the best prospect in the game.))
The trade this week of JA Happ does nothing to reverse that trend. I’ve said here that I thought Toronto should hang onto him , if possible, and try to sign a contract extension, but that clearly wasn’t in the cards. In fact, Happ was the most talked about pitcher in the game coming up to next week’s trade deadline, and Toronto were anxious to cash in. There are obviously better pitchers in the game- MAx Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale are among the ones who quickly come to mind – but none of them are on the verge of free agency… or on teams who acknowledge they are losing. (Aka, teams going to play in October like Houston, LA and boston, or teams who have no hope but haven’t given up pretending, like Washington.) Happ was the most coveted arm out there for a contender to potentially add and he was rumored to be wanted by Philadelphia, the Cubs and New York if not more teams. Of course, the Yankees prevailed and Toronto shipped him off , with a nice little “Thank you JA” tweet to go.
It’s not the fact that they traded him – the most reliable pitcher on our staff- that irks me. It is, for better or worse, the nature of the business. What burns me, as a fan, is the trade they made. Yahoo Sports writer Nick Asbourne is probably being generous when he calls the trade “uninspiring” from a Jays perspective. New York send Toronto two players in return – minor league outfielder Billy McKinney and young infielder Brandon Drury. Which leaves me wondering “what was Ross Atkins thinking?” In short, this doesn’t seem to do anything to improve the Blue Jays, now or down the road.
First we have McKinney. Yes, he was a former first round draft pick. But he’s now in his second year of AAA – akin to a student repeating a year in school – and is ranked as the Yankees 20th best prospect. He has a bit of power but hasn’t shone in the minors and has only a .294 on base percentage this year , which Asbourne notes is “worrisome.” If the kid can’t find his way on base against minor league pitchers in his second go round, what chance will he have against the Sales, Verlanders and Severinos of the world?
Not to mention, Toronto’s not hurting for outfielders. Besides the big league contingent there is the hyped (over-hyped perhaps?) Anthony Alford, hometown boy Dalton Pompey and up-again-down-again Dwight Smith Jr. toiling away just below the major league level. McKinney seems to have little they don’t.
Which leads us to the player with MLB credentials- Brandon Drury. Most Toronto fans are likely only vaguely familiar with his name as he’s now in his third full big league campaign, but his first two were with Arizona, in the NL West we see little of. Drury is not the worst player in the world. He might be the most redundant for this organization.
I don’t mean to make this a diatribe against Drury. He’s not a bad player, he’s quite likely a decent enough man and he is, to quote again from Yahoo’s Asbourne “versatile.” But he offers nothing at all that is of use to the Toronto club unless they have some sort of secret agenda to completely monopolize the world supply of ordinary middle-infielders.
Drury is listed by MLB as a Third Baseman, but he only played one game there last year. He’s played the bulk of his games at second, but can fill in at first or in the outfield if needed. I’d even wager to say he could be thrown into the lineup at Shortstop in an emergency without embarassing himself too badly.
He’s of adequate, but far from golden, defensive skills. Last year, in 114 games at second, he committed only 10 errors, for a solid .977 fielding percentage and had a hand in 61 double plays. Decent, but well behind the league leaders such as colorado’s DJ Lemahieu, who turned 106 DPs and boasted a .989 fielding pct. At the plate, Drury hit quite well in his 2016 rookie campaign, with a .282 average and .786 OPS to go with 16 homers. Since then his numbers have slid, this year hitting below .200 with just 1 HR in pinstripes, albeit in 18 games. That in itself is a bit worrisome- he was on the disabled list for 6 weeks due to severe migraine headaches. chronic headaches seem like the type of problem which could be more difficult to get rid of and overcome than, say, a pulled hamstring and makes you wonder if he’ll be physically able to play for Toronto much. If he does, as Yahoo point out, he will still be a young man in his latter-20s with “subpar walk rate” and “no speed to talk of.”- he has two career stolen bases, for example.
All of which doesn’t mean he couldn’t help a team out. His versatility, modest batting skills and we hope, good attitude are the type of thing that can make a wonderful utility player, the sort of 25th man that can be a useful addition to a championship team. Just not to the Toronto Blue Jays. Toronto already suffers from a huge surplus of – yep, middle infielders. They already have veteran Yangervis Solarte (doing a solid job this year and fluent in all positions infield), Aledemys Diaz, who boasts a career WAR almost identical to Drury’s in the same length of time, Devon Travis (healthier this year but not playing as well as in the past two injury-ridden seasons) and , if he can ever run again, former All star Troy Tulowitzki there with rookie Lourdes Gurriel (who’s looking better by the week), and Richard Urena (who isn’t .) And of course, there’s third baseman of the future Vladimir Guerrero Jr. seemingly ready to make the jump, followed along by Bo Bichette and short and Cavan Biggio (who Baseball America note is Toronto’s most improved young player) at second. All competing for at most three everyday jobs. Solarte could maybe be traded, but what’s the point. Likewise Diaz, but as noted, he’s about the same as Drury, and hasn’t had debilitating headaches to deal with. tulowitzki is under contract through 2020 and owed $34M by the Jays over the next two years, which would be a sure red flag for any team that might have the slightest interest in him should he ever be able to get back to the diamond. In short, there seems to be no room at all for Brandon Drury in this organization.
Which again makes you wonder- what are they thinking?
As we hit the All Star Break, the Blue Jays, 2018 edition, seem very like the Blue Jays, 2017, which is to say rather disappointing and with little very significant to play for . (Like last year, getting back to .500 might be about the most realistic goal for them to achieve.) And once more, as is usually the case with teams running well behind the last wild card team come mid-July, there are lots of trade rumors swirling around the team as it’s assumed (in most cases correctly) that the General Managers of such teams will want to jettison any high-salary player not both signed on beyond the current year but essential to the team’s future as well. In the Jays case, while Steve Pearce has already moved onto greener monsters… err , pastures, and Curtis Granderson and Tyler Clippard’s names come up not infrequently the name it all seems to revolve around is JA Happ. Little wonder, as starting pitching is always at a premium and Happ, a free agent after this season, is the team’s sole All Star representative and being his usual reliable self, with 10 wins and well past 100 innings, even if recent missteps have driven his ERA up to uncharacteristically high levels (4. 29).
I say the Jays should be shopping around a starting pitcher actively and trying to get what they can that will help the team be more competitive for 2019. Only for me, the guy they need to ship out pronto is not JA Happ but Marcus Stroman. If I was Ross Atkins, I’d be talking to JA and his agent, doing my best to re-sign him for a couple more years at least. Granted,Happ will turn 36 not long after the team clear out their lockers at year’s end, but he’s a relatively low-impact, finesse pitcher, the type who usually is slow to lose form and quality. Thinking of him pitching when 37 or 38 is far from unrealistic. And while his ERA is up some this year, his strikeouts are up, he’s holding opponents to a lower batting average than last year and his ratio of strikeouts to walks is fairly consistent with past years. In short, there’s
Tomorrow’s the Big Day. Well, probably not the big day, but it is the day we find the All Star Game roster… unlike past years, the entire rosters, save for the final spot (to be voted on by fans as has been the practise for the past few years) are announced all at once rather than having the starting lineup , as chosen by fans, were announced days in advance of the subs.
Anyway, this year the announcement holds a little less interest than usual for the Jays and fans. Justin Smoak isn’t repeating his 2017 boffo first half, Josh Donaldson has been injured more than active and we’re now in the post-Bautista era (as an aside, check out Joey Bats’ New York numbers… after a slow, brief start with the Braves, he’s been heating up with the Mets, with an on base percentage of over .400 ) . In short, there are no obvious Jays’ candidates to be on the squad.
It seems almost inevitable that the rep for Toronto will be a pitcher. Kevin Pillar’s outfield “D” is brilliant as ever, but a gold glove won’t get you in when you’re hitting below .250 and are on pace for 50 RBI. Teoscar Hernandez has the best OPS for the Jays so far, .823, but as such he’s still only 24th among regular position players, hardly making a claim to be among the AL’s elite outfielders.
Most assume the All Star Blue Jay for ’18 will be JA Happ, and they may be right. Happ has been rock solid once again for Toronto, going 10-4 with a decent ERA of just over 4. Happ tries for #11 later today, against a team most seem to assume he’ll be with in August – the Yankees. I for one, hope they make a diligent effort to re-sign JA, and hold onto him. The organization has plenty of talent coming through the ranks at positions (Guerrero, Bichette, Biggio etc.) but is thin on new blood on the mound beyond Ryan Borucki who’s already here. Happ could be a good veteran anchor to build the rotation around for the next couple of years. Nevertheless, it is quite possible that he might be in a different uniform by the mid-season Classic.
While Happ has been good, it’s not without merit to suggest he’s not an All star. Granted, there’s something to be said about the “right stuff”- like Jack Morris and others before him, Happ seems to know how to pitch just well enough to get the “W” for his team… if you go 10-4 on a team with a losing record, you’re doing something right! But, Happ is just 20th in the league in innings pitched (102 2/3) and his ERA is highest among pitchers with double-digit wins. Since we, as well as every team, get at least one rep (have fun finding a Royals All Star) I would suggest that the proper choice would be Tyler Clippard.
Clippard has done an admirable job of anchoring an overall strong bullpen.The bullpen which has been a highlight of an otherwise rather forgettable season. With 44 appearances, he’s pitched in over half their games and is tied for second in the AL. He’s got a 4-2 record (not that the win-loss counts for much among relief pitchers) and a very decent 3.02 ERA. Not to mention his 6 saves after being thrown into the fire as ergo “closer” upon the suspension of Roberto Osuna. The last time Tyler held that role was in 2015, in the part of the season he spent with the A’s.
Will he be? Probably not. Should he be? I think so. If this past winter, I’d have advocated Clippard for the All Star team, it wouldn’t have surprised me much. I’ve long thought he was one of the better, more under-rated relievers around. What I wouldn’t have expected was for him to be the only suitable choice for the Blue Jays. And that, in a capsule, summarized the disappointment of the 2018 season.
Yesterday I addressed some of the moves the Blue Jays could make to keep the offense powerful and viable for 2017; today, the pitching side of the equation.
Thankfully, and yes, surprisingly, there’s not much that needs fixing with this. The 2016 Jays led the league in pitching with a 3.84 ERA, six points better than league champion Cleveland. (Those looking for clues as to why the Twins lost triple-digit numbers of games need only start with their 5.08 ERA by comparison.) Toronto’s starters were best in AL and perhaps even more surprisingly, the team’s numbers on the road were best in baseball – 3.47, about a fifth of a run better than the NL champion Cubs. Clearly the hurlers did everything in their power to pitch the team to a championship. No question that coaches Pete Walker and Dane Johnson should return therefore, and they have been told they are.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that the Jays can sit on their laurels for ’17, although I think they might be tempted to. Pitching seems even more fickle than hitting so there’s no guarantee that the crew will follow up their ’16 success, not to mention that Toronto might have been blessed with just about the best luck of any recent MLB club in recent years. Consider that they had their starting rote set in April and – except for a minor glitch mid-season with Marco Estrada’s sore back – were able to run with the set 5 all season and into the post-season. They even acquired a solid veteran 6th starter at the trade deadline just for the heck of it and he was excellent. Frankly it may be too much to hope for to think that the 2017 starting rotation will only miss one or two starts between the five of them due to injury; history suggests everyone in the Rogers Centre crowd might have a better chance of winning the 6-49 than seeing that happen again.
As well, while we try to take the “glass half full” approach, it’s wise to look at the other side of the equation. JA Happ had a “career year” in 2016- but will it be just that (a “Career” year , reminiscent of Adam Lind and Aaron Hill’s blockbuster 2009 seasons which were followed up by… well, not all that much) or just the start of a new, improved Happ?
We hope the latter and are encouraged by his consistency since he was traded to Pitttsburgh in 2015 and was coached by Ray Searage. Since then , he’s 27-6, 2.86 over 43 games. But it can’t be ignored that before this year he was a .500 pitcher who averaged 146 innings a year over the past 5. He exceeded that by nearly 50 innings, while knocking a run off his previous career ERA . I personally think the “new” Happ is real, the guy the Phillies expected when they made him a first round draft pick years back. But I’m not betting on another 20-win, Cy Young worthy campaign from him.
Marco Estrada, when healthy, is as unhittable as anyone in the AL. (That’s not just my opinion, he’s led AL starters in opponent batting average in 2016 and after the All Star break in ’15.) But his wonky back, which John Gibbons said had bothered him all year has to be a concern moving forward. Bad backs seldom get “good” all by themselves.
Francisco Liriano was a great addition and should be a decent, reliable 12-15 win, 180-210 inning sort of player. Which still leaves the youngsters in the rotation, Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman. I have no real worries about Sanchez – after all the hand-wringing and year-long story arc spun by the team and Toronto media about needing to send him out to pasture after the All Star break to prevent his arm from falling off, all he did was win the league ERA championship. Including the playoffs (a bat outing vs. Texas but a brilliant one and the team’s only win against Cleveland) he logged 203 innings and went 16-2. Even if he were to regress a little in ’17, he should be a reliable, above-average starter.
Less so Stroman though. He was by no means terrible this year; in fact at times he was outstanding. He was, however, not consistent at all and not nearly as intimidating to opponents as his younger self had been. His ERA jumped by over a run and perhaps more alarming, after giving up only 9 homers in 30 previous games, he allowed 21 this year in 32 starts. So it’s a bit of a crap-shoot as to which way he will go. A carbon copy of this year would still be enough to make him a valid #5 guy, but not an opening day pitcher by any means. A return to 14-15 form would be a huge lift for the team, but we can’t ignore entirely the possibility he might be the new Ricky Romero.
With all those factors, it’s clear the team needs another proven starter to pad the roster. They should extend an offer to return to RA Dickey (who’s turning 42 today- happy birthday to him!) but with an asterisk. His 15 losses this season were a career worst and his 4.46 ERA worst since ’09 when he was a reliever with the Twins. Nonetheless, he still gave over 160 innings and has averaged 206 per year in his time with the Jays. Knuckleballs don’t deteriorate as quickly as other pitches so it’s likely he could at least match his 2016 campaign next year.
The asterisk though, is that ideally he wouldn’t be a starter. He could follow Tim Wakefield’s arc in his late years with Boston, and be a bullpen arm that could deliver lots of innings in a blowout or extra-inning game and come through with a spot start or two should a regular wake up with a bad stomach. This would help the team, but wouldn’t warrant a $12.5M pay cheque like he’s been getting. At age 42, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dickey choose to retire rather than take a 50% pay cut. But he probably won’t have to as while he might not make the grade as a starter with the team with the league’s best pitching, he’s plenty good enough to be a #3 or 4 starter with many teams that are thin on pitching . It’d be no surprise to see the Angels or Rangers offer him a pay raise to give stability to their rotation for one year.
That’s especially true given a fairly slim selection of free agent starting pitchers coming up. No David Price or Jon Lester this winter, the feeding frenzy will have to settle for trying for the likes of an Andrew Cashner or Ivan Nova. Which is the type of pitcher Toronto should try to add. doing so without increasing the budget significantly (even if we factor in the subtraction of Dickey’s money) will be a test of the Shapiro-Atkins office!
A quick look at the arms behind the outfield fence next time here…
It seems appropriate on a day when the Jays have finally emerged in first place all themselves to look at some of the things we have to like about the season so far. Some are rather obvious- Edwin Encarnacion for example. Worries of his mental state, given his impending free agency, or health after missing all of Spring Training have proven unwarranted, based on his leading the world in RBI and having a shot at his first home run crown. Or the repeat performance of MVP Josh Donaldson,whose offense numbers are on par with last season’s, except for a bump in walks (74 already compared to 73 all last year) meaning a career best .970 OPS. Not to mention a more steady throwing arm reducing his errors and improving his fielding percentage to a personal best .977. But there are some that have perhaps not been quite as widely noticed or noted .
Take Devon Travis. Off-season worries about his recovery from surgery proved as off-base as the concerns about EE. Overall, his hitting is right where he left off last year (.305, 10 HR, .849 OPS) and compare decently to those of Ian Kinsler (.837 OPS) and Dustin Pedroia (12 HR, 50 RBI in 51 more games than Devon) if not to Jose Altuve. then again, no AL middle-infielder is posting numbers anything like Altuve. His fielding is improving statistically and contributes to Toronto’s better-than-solid defense. And with a 15 for 31 run over the past 7 games, it looks like he might just be getting going. I’m thinking more than ever that in Travis the Jays have their best second baseman since Roberto Alomar and the takeaway of maybe Alex Anthopoulos’ best-ever trade.
Low-key Roberto Osuna, still just 21, showed he was indeed worthy of the trust the team put in him, keeping him as the closer when more-experienced Drew Storen was acquired. Osuna ranks with the best of the AL closers, with 25 saves in 27 tries and a great 1.93 ERA. Possibly even better, or at least more unexpected , has been the idea that lightning might have struck twice for Toronto. Osuna was last year’s team rookie of the year; this year it looks like that distinction will be another bullpen arm that came out of nowhere – Joe Biagini. The rule V selection was a long-shot to make the team out of Dunedin, let alone stick around but here we are, with him second to only Osuna on the team in appearances (42), and excellent numbers (2.09 ERA, 42k:13 BB) that statistically point out the obvious – that he’s been the only solid, reliable middle-reliever on staff.
And while the ‘pen has been iffy, arguably the best thing about the Jays thus far this season is the starting rotation. With JA Happ – major league wins leaader JA Happ- and Aaron Sanchez being legit Cy Young contenders and Marco Estrada picking up right where he left off last year, they should be well-set for October series. For those keeping count, Happ has been 23-5, 2.62 in 34 starts since being traded from Seattle last season and meeting up with wunderkoach Ray Searage. Even the lesser lights of the rote, Marcus Stroman and RA Dickey (I’m not including Francisco Liriano since he’s thus far only had one start in the revised lineup) have delivered solid numbers of innings (147 in Stroman’s case) and the five have managed to combine for 112 starts out of 115 games played, and a stellar 3.36 ERA. Been awhile since we heard laments about the non-signing of David Price, isn’t it?
Counter-intuitively, even the “disappointing” season of Jose Bautista may be a positive for fans. True enough, his batting average is the lowest of his career in years he’s been a regular and his slugging pct. at .444 is lowest since 2009. Now he’s on the disabled list for the second time this season with a twisted knee (you’ll recall a broken toe made him miss time mid-season) . The good of this? Well, for starters he still has 15 homers in 80 games, meaning even in a “down” year he’s good for 30 HR if healthy. And his 58 walks signifies his eye is still as good as anyone’s in the league. What makes this good news is that, coupled with the advertising campaigns he’s been doing with CANADIAN Tire and CANADA Goose lately, it seems much more likely he’s going to retire a Blue jay when that time comes. We know about the rumors and his line in the sand and reports of his expected salary in free agency– but a season where he’s been on the DL twice, is going to be lucky to scrape together 20 homers and 70 RBI and may hit below .225 , along with reduced range in the field is going to cut down the number of, and passion of, off-season suitors. I can’t imagine any team offering him $150M or so; likewise, I can’t imagine right now that corporations in Chicago or Dallas might be lining up to have him as a spokesman. But he’s still loved in Toronto and the less-than-expected season makes us think he’ll settle for a reasonable offer from the team and play out his time in the blue-and-white. And i still wouldn’t be surprised by another game-winning, game 7 type home run from his in two months….
A final thing fans should like about this season so far- themselves! Even when the team was in the East basement back in early May, fans were flocking to the Rogers Centre and the team never gave up hope. Leading the league in attendance and watching them on TV in record numbers should make the team, the fans proud- and reiterate to Russ Atkins and Mark Shapiro, as well as Rogers, that Toronto IS a baseball city and it pays to invest in the team. 2017 doesn’t look so bad from that standpoint- but there’s a whole lot of (October) baseball to be played before then!
The one thing that has already played out according to plan in baseball this year is how unpredictable things have been. White Sox ruling the world, the old Yankees losing the fountain of youth they seemed to have dipped into last season, the 80 game suspension of the reigning NL batting champ– who saw those things coming? Closer to home here, Toronto’s start has been under-whelming. More surprising, it’s the bats to blame.
Before the season began the common refrain from pundits (including myself) far and wide was that the Jays would hit up a storm again this year but might kick themselves for not retaining David Price and significantly upgrading the starting rote. Many experts thought they’d need to match last years 891 runs and then some to compete given the state of the starting pitching (and they were divided on whether or not they just might do that with Donaldson feeling more at home and a full season of Tulowitzki to look forward to.) USA Today was rather typical of many spring training previews, stating the Blue Jays “have a huge hole in their rotation”, casting doubts on whether Marcus Stroman was ready to take the front-of-rotation and knocking Marco Estrada who “doesn’t elicit fear in opposition batters.”
Well, one-fifth of the way through the schedule, Toronto sits at a run of the mill 16-17. Not out of contention by any stretch of the imagination but disappointing to fans and players alike. The surprise though, is how good the starting rotation has been. In fact, it is the strength that has kept Toronto out of the basement and in the thick of things so far. A starter these days gets 32 or 33 starts a season if healthy. The Jays have played 33 and in those 33 starts, the starters have combined for 211 1/3 innings, allowing just 184 hits, 78 earned runs, walking 67 while whiffing 154. Their collective ERA is 3.32, with a 13-7 won-lost record. JA Happ and Marcus Stroman (plus Drew Hutchison in his one game) have yet to lose and all in all, the starters have pitched well enough to have easily won 23 or 24 of the 33 given a reliable bullpen and average hitting. All of Happ’s starts have been “Quality” and 24 of the 33 games in total have fit that description; 22 of their games have featured fewer hits allowed than innings pitched and only twice have they walked more than they struck out. All things considered, any team would be pretty happy to have a starter have a 13-7, 211 inning, 3.32 ERA year. Not too shabby for a rotation that was supposed to have a huge hole in it. Meanwhile, David Price is off to a remarkably poor start with Boston, giving New Englanders 217 million reason to curse in their chowdah.
Of course, the team hasn’t won 24 or so games yet because (despite a good sophomore effort from Robert Osuna as closer) the bullpen has been iffy and most of all, the fabled bats have been rather noodly. The team’s .234 average is only 12th best in the league (although notably, two of the three teams they are ahead of are division rivals – NY and Tampa) and their slugging percentage is only 9th best. Their 37 homers isn’t terrible and is fourth best in the AL and surprisingly their 134 runs is in the top 5. But at 4.1 runs per game, they’re scoring a run and a half less than last year and there’s no way to avoid that effecting the bottom line.
What’s in store for the remaining 4/5 of the season? Who’s to say. There’s no way Russell Martin will keep hitting .171 and not knock a few dingers; Ryan Goins might keep striking out a quarter of all times to the plate and hitting below .150 but won’t stay in the lineup much longer if so (with Darwin Barney swinging a good bat and Devon Travis potentially only a couple of weeks away from returning). Kevin Pillar has gone 14 for 34 with 7 RBI in his past 9 games and Edwin Encarnacion seemed to find his sweet spot against Texas. Runs will come with greater ease in coming weeks. On the other hand, JA Happ and Marcus Stroman aren’t likely to hit October undefeated and I can’t see the organization, with its concerns about young arms, allow Aaron Sanchez to hit 190 innings he’s on pace for so far.
Then again, if everything went like we expected, there’d be no reason to play 162. Maybe Russell Martin will hit .171 over 125 games and JA Happ will finish at 28-0!
Well, the winter of our discontent is almost over with the gates to Dunedin swinging open officially later this week. It can’t come soon enough given the cold water new President Mark Shapiro has thrown on buoyant expectations the fan base had during the playoffs last October. Not that trading for Drew Storen, or taking low-price chances on the likes of pitchers Gavin Floyd and David Aardsma and returning infielder Maicer “Oft-injured” Izturis are bad things, but they hardly make up for letting David Price walk away uncontested and the departures of Marks Buehrle and Lowe, LaTroy Hawkins and Dioner Navarro. Then there’s the little matter that two of the Big Three bats that propelled the team to the best offense of any team in the last decade are entering free agent seasons and the management are from all accounts dragging their feet in inking them to extensions.
This close to the start of spring training, there’s not a lot of room or opportunity to fix what’s broken, but I have a few suggestions. Starting with …
Lock up Jose Bautista. This is more than just throwing us fans a bone, though after the “bat flip” it’s hard to imagine Joey Bats in anything other than a Jays cap … or the fallout Rogers Communications would face should he flip his bat and walk away from the team next year. He may have lost a step or two but is still above average in the field and where else are they going to get another sure-fire 35 homer, 100 ribbie, .400 on base type guy? Who else can back the MVP and keep him getting good pitches to hit? The Jays have to keep JB, and they may have to pay the price for it after getting him at a bargain rate on this contract. Justin Upton and Jason Hayward’s contracts this winter set the pay-bar higher than ever, so now is the time (before next winter when as the Associated Press noted in an article about Yoenis Cespedes “the free agent class for outfielders next fall is far weaker … with a steep drop-off after Jose Bautista”. When Bleacher Report is ranking Colby Rasmus as the next best potential free agent OF next year, the lineup of Brinks trucks bidding for Bautista will be long. Start with a bid of three years, $70M to lock him up through 2019 and take it from there.
Then let’s look at the likely weakness of the ’16 Jays… starting pitching.
While we can all cross our fingers and hope that JA Happ remembers the lessons he learned in Pittsburgh and his final ten starts there are the new norm not a happ-y blip on the radar; that Marco Estrada will pick up where he left off and that Marcus Stroman (he of less than 30 career starts) is the Ace the team expect him to be right now; the realities of it are that the Blue Jays starting rotation is mediocre at best. RA Dickey’s innings have dropped annually since his Cy Young 2012 campaign, but he’s still logged the most innings (654.1) and wins (39) in the three years since. JA Happ is 27-26, 4.24 in that span; Marco Estrada 27-18 with a 3.74 ERA but only 460 innings. Then there’s young Stroman, 15-6, 3.31 for his career, excluding last October’s run. Adding in a jesse Chavez seems unlikely to add much to this collection; it seems hard to believe that Drew Hutchision was last year’s season opener and a gamble to believe that his 2.91 ERA, .238 Opponents average at home was more representative of the real Drew than the astonishingly bad 9.83 ERA and .380 average on the road. Then there’s newly-signed Gavin Floyd, a decent veteran, but only a year removed from elbow surgery and four years past his last hundred-inning campaign. It looks like Aaron Sanchez will be recast as a starter and that may turn out alright, but any way you slice it, the roatation is thin at best and probably one big injury away from pitching the team out of October, no matter how many runs are put up for them.
Alas, there aren’t many good starters still pacing about looking for work, so the free agent route is a long shot to yield dividends now. Yovanni Gallardo is the best one still available, and though rumored to be close to a deal with the Jays around Christmas, the Baltimore Sun now have him dotting the i’s and crossing t’s on a deal with the Orioles. So unless that falls through and Toronto come up with, say three years and $40M for Gallardo- another Estrada-type pitcher, the only way to improve quickly is via the trade market.
That too is problematic, as hope springs eternal in, well, spring, and not many teams want to trade a top-flight pitcher at any time. Which leads me to my radical suggestion…
Trade Edwin Encarnacion for pitching. I know, I know, I can feel the virtual bananas and tomatoes being thrown at the screen right now. I like EE as much as the rest of you, and know that replacing a solid 35 HR/100 RBI guy would be difficult. But trades require a bit of pain, and fact is, Toronto could stand to lose a few runs and still contend. Edwin’s days of playing in the field are numbered if not over, and that makes him expendable for Toronto – if the right deal comes along. Even the optimistic among us feel it unlikely the owners are going to pay both him and Bautista the market value to keep them around after ’16 (on top of the rising salary of Donaldson and the big money Troy Tulowitzki gets), so why not get something in return now?
EE would be a welcome addition to an AL team without Toronto’s power. There are few teams around that wouldn’t benefit by adding him as their DH. Meanwhile at our end, while improbable that we’d match his 39 HR,111 RBI and .557 slugging percentage of last year, the fact is that the average for everyday DHs last year was around 22 HR, 83 RBI and a median .422 slugging. Those are numbers Justin Smoak could deliver. Or Justin Morneau, if the team takes Bluebird banter’s advice and sign the Canuck first baseman on the cheap (which would be an option with the savings from Encarnacion.)
The problem is, finding a suitor for Edwin with expendable pitching. To me, that’s not going to happen directly. However, a bit of creativity should allow a three-way deal. A team like the White Sox or Astros would benefit greatly from Encarnacion and have some good youth. Send them Edwin for a bundle of prospects, then in turn deal some of the kids to an NL team looking to shed a pitcher. San Diego comes to mind. With all the stars they dropped within the last year, it’s hard to imagine them keeping James Shields around, particularly when he can opt out of his contract after this season. Shields would give Toronto the type of experienced, 200-inning, 15-win type pitcher they need to anchor the rotation. Or, thinking even bigger, the Nats might be willing to part ways with Stephen Strasburg, the cream of next year’s pitching free agent crop.
We’d miss Edwin Encarnacion, no doubt. But if it means having Shields or Strasburg in the rotation instead of Hutchison or Chavez, I think we’d get over it!
What a difference a week or so makes. A little over a week back I wrote here about why Blue Jays fans should be excited over the team’s signing of pitcher JA Happ despite prevalent nay-sayers. This was of course, based on my rose-colored glasses view of the situation as Happ being a message to the league and a building block in developing a solid pitching staff for ’16- not the end all and be all. By the day it seems I was wrong and the nay-sayers were right for letting all the air out of the lofty post-season spirit balloon. For while teams all around (and generally behind by ’15 standings) Toronto have been active as a meerkat on espresso beans in upgrading this month, the Jays have merely sat on their hands. It’s as if the team went out to lunch (few would disagree when Alex Anthopoulos left at the apparent behoof of the new Pres Shapiro who quickly praised John Ferrell!), ordered a nice little appetizer – Happ- and then sat back watching all the teams at other tables load up on Price steaks and Frazier au gratin. And the fans, who are hungry for a title, are told to enjoy that appetizer and not forget how good past meals were.
As we know, since I last posted here, David Price signed on with the Red sox, and managed to annoy fans both here and there by stating he’d have preferred to stay on in Toronto had they only made him an offer. Other high-profile starters have jumped on their own personal Brinks trucks driven up to them by teams like San Francisco and Arizona. Arguably- and I do mean it’s open for debate- the Jays might not have been able to afford or justify matching the deal Boston gave Price to keep him around. But there’s no way to suggest they couldn’t have at least outbid the Mets on the services of ageless Bartolo Colon, who signed back there today for a comparitive bargain basement $7.25 million. Forget Bartolo’s age and rotund physique, he still is better than any pitcher Toronto has to bring up the rear of the rotation, averaging 15 wins, 195 innings and a sub-4 ERA over the past three campaigns. I’d take him on the mound in a Game 7 any day over jesse Chavez.
As much as the departure of Price stings, the worse failure of the Blue Jays this off-season has been the utter disinterest in improving on the bullpen. No mere coincidence that the team with the best bullpen has been the AL champion the past two years; no secret the Jays ‘pen last season was OK but not Kansas City good and is only going to get worse if left as is. LaTroy Hawkins has retired, Mark Lowe has taken off and the best reliever in the league after the All star break, Brett Cecil has a chewed up leg so is no sure bet to be pitching at all, let alone at full strength, come April. It’s such a concern that the team’s own website stated earlier this week “Blue jays keep focus on bullpen in Nashville.” They needed to pay attention as while they did nothing, the A’s picked up two star relievers (John Axford, Ryan Madson) in a matter of hours, the Astros picked up one of the best young pitchers in the game – Ken Giles- from the Phils, Seattle got a closer (Steve Cishek)and those other birds, the Orioles picked up the very respectable Darren O’Day. The lack of improvement of the bullpen doesn’t only concern me- today the Blue Jays website declared it their biggest need.
Two things come to mind. First, we fans need to resist pulling Chicken Littles. While it’s annoying that the team has done so little this fall, it also pays to remember that this is a team that came so close to making it to the World Series only weeks back and the bulk of that winning roster will be back. A lineup with Bautista, MVP Donaldson, Encarnacion (assuming his fussing over lack of long-term contract doesn’t lead him out of town, although as a last ditch measure, trading him for solid pitching might be an option), Tulo, Martin and the arms of Stroman, Estrada and Osuna should fare decently in ’16.
Second, there still are players out there who can fill the holes the team has. Just not so many as there were a few days ago, so Toronto can’t let the Astroturf grow under their feet to make things happen. Scott Kazmir and Yovanni Gallardo are two decent starters still un-signed, either of whom might make the rotation more playoff-ready. On the bullpen end of things, Tom Gorzelanny (mentioned here last month as a good choice for Toronto), tyler Clippard, and former Jays Casey Janssen and Carlos Villanueva are still available, no doubt for sums which wouldn’t break Rogers’ bank. the addition of any two of those would seemingly be enough to make Las Vegas like the Blue Jays again for the ’16 campaign.
In case I don’t have much else to write here in the next 9 days, I wish all my readers a happy Christmas and all the best in the new year! And let’s all look for a sparkly new pitcher in a blue cap under the tree, eh Ross Atkins?! There’s still time to order up dessert after the “Happ-etizer”
The 2015 season gave Blue Jays fans reasons to give thanks, and a day after (American) Thanksgiving, the team has given us an early Christmas. Perhaps. To this observer, the signing of JA Happ to a three-year deal by Toronto is reason to rejoice, despite naysayers like the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons. Here’s why.
Happ, as we know, is a veteran starter who never quite fulfilled the potential of his youth when he was the Phillies wunderkind. As a Jay, he was a decent but totally unspectacular pitcher from 2012- 14; after being traded he was more lacklustre with the all-around disappointing Mariners last season. Then suddenly, he was a trade deadline toss to the Pirates, where under the tutoring of Ray Searage (who’s also helped AJ Burnett and Francisco Liriano go on to career bests) he suddenly became the second coming of Steve Carlton . Down the stretch, helping the Pirates make the playoffs he was 7-2 with a stellar 1.85 ERA and better than a K per inning. In five of his Pittsburgh starts he managed to go over 6 innings without allowing an earned run. While pitching in the NL offers an obvious advantage over the DH-using AL, much of the sudden improvement has been attributed to minor adjustments to his arm angle, a slight increase in his fastball velocity (to 92.1 mph) and Happ’s increased trust in said fastball. Seems to me when Happ was rolling in Toronto, he was doing just that; when he wobbled he was nibbling at the corners with a smorgasbord of off-speed pitches. One can hope he remembers the Pittsburgh lessons come spring 2016.
On the Yahoo free agent tracker, and many other similar sites, Happ is listed between Yovanni Gallardo and (once again Blue Jay) Marco Estrada. No David Price or Zack Greinke, but a fully-serviceable, reliable mid-range starter. Happ we would hope will use his maturity and new arm angle learned in Pittsburgh to be better than he was before with Toronto, but he needn’t be David Price. All he really needs to do is match, or one hopes better, last year’s triad of #5’s who preceded the Detroit trade – Aaron Sanchez, Matt Boyd and Felix Doubront. That trio combined for 17 starts, 92 innings with 67 strikeouts, a 5-7 record with 4.76 ERA. Boyd, we’ll recall , though having potential set records for ineptitude in his two Jays games. Happ should easily match and better that- last year, between Seattle and the Pirates, he tossed a career high 172 innings, with an 11-8 record and highly respectable 3.61 ERA. Likewise, by not nibbling so much he reduced his walk rate to a career best 2.3 per 9innings. Also encouraging, in 2013, he managed to pitch better at home in the Rogers Centre than on the road, and on turf limited opponents to a .239 average compared to .265 on grass, despite giving up more flyball outs on the artificial surface. If that trend continued, one might expect better results in ’16 due to the outfield presence of Kevin Pillar. All in all, Happ for his career is 62-61 with a 4.13 ERA and approximately equal effectiveness against left-handers and righties.
Happ doesn’t have to be David Price to help the Jays. He just needs to be reliable and match, or better his career averages to boost the team over the 2015 version. My bet is he can be a good replacement for Mark Buehrle. Still, why am I chuffed about it?
Three reasons really. First, obviously, Happ is a decent pitcher and pitching is going to be the aspect the team needs to improve on in order to win a World Series next year. Happ could be a decent #3 or 4 starter on a championship team.
the other reasons are less blatant. First off, Toronto seems to be issuing a statement to the league. By inking the first significant free agent signing of 2015 (outside of players re-upping with their previous teams), they have shown they have money, they are wanting to improve and they mean business for 2016. This has to be an early present for fans and a challenge for divisonal rivals who may be tempted now to over-spend on even less-spectacular pitching, or max out their credit cards on the upper-tier starters. Jordan Zimmermann to Baltimore for 8 years anybody?
Reason three- Happ could be the forefront of a trend that ushers the early-90s back to Toronto. Once there was a time when Toronto was the place to be in baseball. Fans filled the stadium in record numbers; free agents like Dave Winfield, Jack Morris and Paul Molitor had no hesitation in signing on. Things have changed in the twenty years or so since; crowds have thinned, the Jays had settled into perpetual mediocrity and Ontario looked less appealing to players with choice. No wonder. Even though most Torontonians place the CN Tower as the center of the universe, many Americans have little knowledge of the city. If you’re an American star, going to a foreign country with high tax rates may not look that good, especially if you (incorrectly) imagine the city speaks a foreign language or is a city of igloos.
Happ has played in Philly, Pittsburgh, Houston and Seattle as well as T.O. and chose to go back to Canada.For an Illinois native to choose to go north of the border rather than go to a number of cities closer to home that must have expressed interest in his services, says a lot and should influence other players. That, combined with the glowing testimonies of Josh Donaldson about the enthusiasm of Canadian fans, should encourage other free agents to look more kindly upon the city on Lake Ontario when thrown in the mix against the likes of Chicago or Minneapolis.
JA Happ will help the team and in today’s market, isn’t going to break Rogers Communications bank with his $12M a year stipend. For new GM Tony LaCava, it greatly mitigates the negative start to his tenure that was the senseless Oakland trade that brought back Jesse Chavez.
the opportunity is there for this signing to begin the ascent to the top in 2016. But, as the detractors have pointed out, there is more to be done. Fans won’t be cheering in spring if the Jays roll out a rotation of Happ/Stroman/Estrada/Dickey and Chavez. Happ replaces Buehrle– but they still need a replacement for Price. And I say, why not David Price?
With St Louis and the Cubs (alledgedly DP’s favored destinations) balking at his price and only Boston willing to toss Brinks trucks at him right now, I reiterate my previous column’s idea of offering him a big, one year deal to seal the deal . The difference between 2 millions seats sold for a third place team and 3 and a half million sold plus playoff games would more than make up for the extra $25 or 30M Price would earn. (And if that tag seems too high, there’s still the viable option of trading Troy Tulowitzki and his big contract for prospects, and assuming the team would still have enough offense to win and win often… although that now seems less of a glowing choice with Devon Travis’ shoulder and him being out optimistically til mid-May. that in turn means Ryan Goins might need to be the everyday 2B, leaving Troy more essential for short, but that’s a topic for another day.)