Well the calendar says the number of days is getting shorter… til Spring Training! And the Blue Jays still have some gaping holes in the lineup if they want to compete next year or give the fans a reason to fill the Rogers’ Centre better than any other AL park yet again. In the past couple of weeks I”ve discussed some of the obvious needs- someone to replace Bautista’s bat (atlhough still noting that Jose himself would be , or should be, welcomed back but at a reduced rate and with a lesser role than he’s played for the past 7 years) , the middle infield, a real major league calibre catcher to back-up Russell Martin, the need to add to the starting rotation. Today we wrap it up like a gift with a few more holes to plug.
Starting with the #5 starter. Thankfully even the team itself seems to acknowledge they need to add in another starting pitcher (see the team website) although, as we heard here, to me they need two. Heck, given the propensity of pitchers to get injured, they would do well to add 3, but two might be adequate. I said here that they should not plan on Aaron Sanchez being in that rote in ’18- perhaps he will, but given the inexact nature of medical know-how on his blister problem, it’s unwise to assume it will solve itself- and should add a primo #4 guy, either by free agency (Lance Lynn or yu Darvish perhaps) or by trade for Josh Donaldson should he want too much in ways of a long-term deal beyond ’18 (which perhaps could leverage Carlos Martinez from the Cards or Drew Pomeranz or Rick Porcello from the Red Sox.) We’ll assume that gets done and still say, who is #5?
Joe Biagini was a puzzle in 2017. At times he looked comfortable and competent on the mound, then the next outing would look like a beer-league castoff. I wouldn’t write him off, especially for the future, but think he and the team would benefit from him having another year at buffalo to refine his skills.
Most of the Jays pitching prospects are either mediocre, or good but at a lower level in the minors, so it’s improbable a solid prospect will come up and dazzle at the Big League level in ’18. The team lists TJ Zeuch as their top pitching prospect, and the 6’7” rightie has a wicked 96mph fastball but not much else yet, and was 3-6 at A level in ’17. Pencil him in as “possible” for 2019. Ryan Borucki is an intriguing prospect, being a southpaw who’ll be 23 by Dunedin time. Tommy John surgery in ’13 put him a bit behind on the curve, but also should suggest he should be in prime health. Last year, between all 3 levels of minors, he started 27 games , went 8-8 with a 2.93 ERA and had a better than 4:1 K:BB ratio. He just might be the spring surprise for the team in a few months, but I’d prefer not to bet the farm on it.
So, the team needs a #5 starter. If the #4 spot is solid (See above), they could do worse than looking for a cheap starter looking to show that he still belongs, such as Yovanni Gallardo and/or Jake Peavy. Offering either a minor league deal with lots of incentives should they rebound to major league level, would be a good gamble.
Which leaves the left side of the bullpen. the right side looks solid, with Roberto Osuna, Ryan Tepera, Carlos Ramirez being promising, team rookie-of-the-year Danny Barnes and perhaps Joe Biagini among others, but the southpaw end is a bit weak. Aaron Loup’s sidearm worked a bit better last year, and Matt Dermody showed promise but there’s no denying (once again, see official Jays website) they could do with a more reliable arm there. To me, Zach Duke is the obvious candidate. The former star was coming back from Tommy John surgery last year, and did so quicker than most. And effectively. He held rightie hitters to a .148 avg last year, curiously enough, and from 2014-2016 averaged better than 70 games a year with a 2.75 ERA. At age 35, he won’t be getting a blockbuster deal, and all indications thus far seem to suggest the price of relievers may be dropping (unlike many other places on the diamond.) It’s not unrealistic to think he might sign a one year, maybe $2M deal to prove he’s in good form still and look for one last, 3 or 4 year deal in 2019 to retire on.
Go to it, Ross Atkins! May Santa be good to him, and to all of you too! And, as we look back on the season gone down, may Santa bring the team the spirit and work ethic of the dear departed Roy Halladay. A handful of players in the locker room with Doc’s ethics would go a long ways to assuring a happy October 2018.
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!
Last time out, we looked at the position players likely to start the season with the Blue Jays, since then little has changed – there’s still a battle for the backup outfield spot and for at least one of two backup infield slots. The surprise acquisition of Jesus Montero a few days back likely changes nothing; there’s a reason Seattle placed him on waivers after all. I’m not all that pumped about his acquisition, but it’s not a terribly risky maneuver. Montero, of course, was the one-time “can’t miss” catching prospect for the Yankees, traded for “can’t miss” pitcher Michael Pineda. After a decent 2012 campaign with the Mariners (.260, 15 HR, 62 RBI) it’s been all downhill, not only with diminishing results at the plate (.225, 6/21 in 44 big league games over past couple of years) but with all sorts of negative reports about his work ethic and conditioning. He’s currently listed at 6’3”, 235 lb, not exactly obese but not exactly in game shape either. He has, however, potential and power, and there’s always a hope he can work a bit harder and eventually translate some of his minor league prowess to the bigs. Last year in 98 games at AAA Tacoma, he smashed a .355 average, .569 slugging and 85 RBI. Look for him to be Buffalo’s starting DH.
The pitching lineup is all but set by now. Aaron Sanchez has earned his spot in the rotation after a great spring and apparently highly-effective curveball added into his repetoire; only 3 walks in 20 innings is an encouraging development in his talent. RA Dickey, JA Happ and opening day starter Marcus Stroman were never in doubt, likewise Marco Estrada. However, Estrada’s sore back and limited spring use mean he will be on the DL for a week or two and, presumably Gavin Floyd (very decent 3-0, 2.19, 11K, 3BB upto yesterday) will be the spot starter and then return to the bullpen which the team has told him will be his usual spot.
I’m a bit surprised at the release of Randy Choate yesterday, I figured he was a shoe-in to be a second lefty in the ‘pen behind Brett Cecil. Instead he’s mulling over an offer to pitch in Buffalo. Since Roberto Osuna, Drew Storen, Jesse Chavez, and Cecil are already on the staff as is Floyd (who, again, we assume will be a starter initially at least), three spots remain open in the bullpen. My best guess would be that Ryan Tepera will be in, given his good performance so far this spring (4 hits allowed in 6 appearances, 1.69 ERA before today’s bizarre starting assignment) and his talent at handling left-handed batters last season. In effect, it gives the Jays two “southpaws”. Ditto, Pat Venditte, who is more than just a carnival trick with his ambidexterity. Venditte has been good thus far, not allowing a run and just 3 hits through his first 8 innings this spring and with a talent for getting out lefties he should make the team.
Which leaves just one spot. Here’s the challenge for John Gibbons and the front office. Arnold Leon, like so many other Toronto players through the past decade, picked up on the cheap from Oakland, has been excellent – 7 innings, only 2 hits, no earned runs and comes with great potential. Last season between 6 starts and 14 relief appearances at AAA, he posted a 2.95 ERA and limited hitters in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League to a .236 average. He’d be a good guy to have in the middle innings. The hitch is so too, possibly, might be Joe Biagini.
The big (6’5”, 240 lb)righty is a year younger and a bit behind Leon in development, but has had a decent spring (5 hits, 7K, 3.38 through first six games) and is apparently a Rule 5 pickup from San Francisco. Last year he was impressive to say the least as a starter for AA Richmond, going 10-7 with a 2.42 ERA- fourth best in all of AA- and a solid 1.46 ratio of ground outs to flyball outs, which would be most useful at Rogers Centre. He’d be an ideal candidate to get more starting experience at Buffalo, but given his status its keep him with the big team in the ‘pen or (in all likelihood) send him back to the Giants. A tough call, but I’d give him the final slot and have Leon a Bison, awaiting the call up.
So, that would leave us playing Tampa in a few days with a pitching staff of Stroman, Happ, Sanchez, Dickey, Floyd and Cecil, Venditte, Osuna, Storen, Chavez, Tepera and Biagini; Estrada soon to return. It’s a staff that lacks a typical “Ace” , but then again the same would be said of last year’s World Series champions. There are a few worries about innings and durablility of the young starters but with Gavin Floyd and Drew Hutchison available to take over if need be, the starting rotation should be strong enough to work into October. All things considered, it’s not the pitching staff we’d dreamed of last November, but it compares decently to any of the others in the AL East and with the hitting expected, it just might be enough.