Tagged: Josh Donaldson

Blue Jays Bet And Lost On JD

Gambling is the sure way of getting nothing for something,” quipped Wilson Mizner. A few lottery winners would disagree, but he’s often right. He surely was in the case of the 2018 Blue Jays. They rolled the dice about four times over the past winter when it comes to that “Bringer of Rain”, Josh Donaldson, and went a remarkably unlucky 0-for-4. A lot of snake eyes! They could have let him go in the off-season, or better yet, traded him off when teams were calling (St. Louis in particular we fans are told) and probably parlayed him into a couple of good solid prospects… and not gone to arbitration with him and ended up saddled with a $23 million debt to #20. That wasn’t in the cards however.

First off, they gambled that the ’18 Jays would be competitive. That they’d at least have a chance at hitting the Wild Card spot and if they did that, who knows where it could lead? Well, at this end back in spring, I thought that might be a bit optimistic and they needed more in the way of starting pitching, but there was at least a slim chance they could be correct. Now, almost half-way through the season, we see that’s just not going to happen. Like last year, the Blue Jays are battling for third and running below .500. Unlike last year, both the Red Sox and Yankees are on unbelievable tears, with the two best records in baseball. Throw in another good year from the Astros and a surprisingly solid campaign from Seattle and you have Toronto sitting something like 10.5 games out of the final Wild card spot. Conservatively, the blue-and-white would need to win 55 of their last 85 games to even have a chance; more likely this year 57 or 58 would be necessary to get them in. A tall order for a team which hasn’t managed to put together more than 4 wins in a row in half a year. With more games to look forward to against the Orioles than Red Sox, a .500 finish is within reach. A playoff berth- sorry, that train left the station weeks ago. Continue reading

Yawning Crowds Speed Up Vlad’s Ascent To Toronto

A couple of weeks ago I listed some of the reasons why the Blue Jays probably should resist temptation and not call young Vladimir Guerrero Jr. up to the big leagues right away, as impressive as he’s being in AA New Hampshire. And impressive he has been- so far in 46 games there, he’s swatting an incredible .433 average, with 10 homers, 50 RBI and an unwordly 1.194 OPS. And no one’s writing headlines about his defense, but he’s only commit 5 errors at third so far, not bad for about a third of the way through the year.

It would make sense to let Vlad mature a little more, send him for a couple of months to AAA Buffalo and see how he fares at the next level before calling him upto the majors. Not only would he benefit from developing more and not being thrown into the spotlight at age 19, but the club would as well by those factors as well as saving money down the road. The sooner he’s called up, the sooner he starts clicking towards big arbitration cases and free agency. Seems like there’s little upside to having him come on up to Toronto right now with the team seemingly all but done for the year anyway (in terms of making the playoffs.)

Nevertheless, I think we’ll see him at Rogers’ Centre before Canada Day, and this is why: indifference to the current team. USA Today noted pointedly today that the Jays lead the majors in an undesireable category this year- drop off in attendance. So far in 2018, the team’s drawn 320 000 fewer fans through the gates than last year at this point. At the current rate, they’ll only barely break 2.1 million, compared to 3.2 million last season. That’s a big drop, and a big dip in revenue for the team and Rogers.

It’s also a bit of a head-scratcher. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the team draw less than 2016, when they were coming off their first playoff appearance in two decades and were riding high. And indeed, it is down by a long shot. But we’re comparing it to last year’s sadsack team, which waited until the final weekend of the year to escape the AL East basement. It really makes little sense.

True, the Jays have looked weak of late. But they started strong, in stark contrast to last year. Remember last year’s 3-12 start? This year they clipped 10 wins in their first 15 contests. Indeed, by May 8 last year, they were 10 games behind, and sitting at 11-20… but they still drew over 40 000 to the Rogers’ Centre for a game against Cleveland. This year not many times have 30 000 shown up.

Perhaps the weather? Well, Toronto did have a rather nasty, cold April and as we remember, one game ended up postponed due to ice breaking through the stadium roof. So, perhaps people didn’t feel like going out in the inclement weather? Maybe, but now it’s turned to summer-like weather and the allure of an open roof and warm skies hasn’t boosted the turnstile business any.

Could it be the Raptors and Leafs great seasons digging into the fan base? After all there is only so much ticket money to spread around. This would make sense … if the attendance was rebounding now that both the hockey and basketball team are done. Or if the Maple Leafs didn’t tank entirely in the NHL playoffs.

People disgusted by Roberto Osuna’s arrest? Doubtful given that the team did nothing to protest his suspension by the league (no matter what wording MLB uses for it) and no players really jumped up to voice support for the pitcher’s actions. Besides, one again – attendance was way down when he was on the job and doing it well. It must be something else.

Which makes me think it comes down to the lack of Jose Bautista. Or, more accurately, the lack of any real iconic Jays player the crowds relate to and cheer on for better or worse. And, no, I don’t see Josh Donaldson falling into that category, which is all the more reason why almost everyone in the game asserts he will be traded before the All Star Game, even if only for a few sacks of baseballs and a dumping of his salary. One might suspect the casual fan- not you, dear reader, or anyone else who really follows the sport, but the “nothing else on TV” type fan – wouldn’t be able to name a single Jay this season. And that’s a PR problem.

Which brings us back to Vlad. More and more by the day the Toronto baseball headlines are being dominated by a teenager two levels below the majors. We’re given updates on how he’s dominating his league like no other and being assured (perhaps a wee bit worryingly) that if Shoehi Ohtani is the “next Babe Ruth”, Guerrero is the “next Ted Williams”, the Moses for the team that will lead Toronto to the promised land. A lot to put on his shoulders, as I’ve said before. But, with the buzz about him, the Jays may well see the way to save the season, monetarily at least, is dumping Donaldson and his monster contract and get the youngster the fans are clamoring for onto the artifical turf sooner than later. I figure he’ll debut around Canada Day.

While we’re at it, another famous name is making waves alongside Vlad in New Hampshire. Another Hall of Famer’s son is tearing it up- Cavan Biggio, who plays second like his dad Craig did for a number of years with Houston. Cavan is hitting .312 but leads his team with 12 homers, has 40 RBI and a lofty 1.089 OPS second only to Guerrero. If Devon Travis continues to struggle, Cavan is likely the team’s 2019 second baseman.

Alas, Time To Hit The ‘Sell’ Button, Toronto

Sigh. At the start of the season, I suggested the Jays might have a valid shot at the playoffs, perhaps even the World Series… if everything went more or less perfectly. Well, not surprisingly, things haven’t been perfect. Sure, Luke Maile has shown himself to be a better hitter than we’d imagined, we suddenly know who Yangervis Solarte is and the bullpen, for the most part has been all we could have hoped for. But of course, then there are the things which are far from as good as expected. While Maile has impressed, Russell Martin’s impressed with his versatility but led to questions as to whether he’s a legitimate big league bat anymore. Justin Smoak’s been OK, but far from last year’s All Star first half first baseman. JA Happ has been decent enough but the rest of the rotation has been, well, let’s admit it, crap… and now 40% of it is on the DL. And let’s not even get started on Roberto Osuna, who was establishing himself as one of the league’s elite closers before he ended up in jail. Clearly, things haven’t played out according to our rose-colored plans.

Which brings us to today’s topic. It’s time to say “goodbye, thanks for the memories” to Josh Donaldson, or at least put him on the baseball equivalent of e-bay. Now, not later. There are really about half a dozen reasons. And I might add, at first I was going to preface it with “after seeing if he’d sign a two or three year extension at something like $10M per…which he almost certainly wouldn’t” but now, I’d not even suggest that. If there’s a need for him next season and the market treats him like it did Mike Moustakas this year, we can make an offer. Right now is the time to cash him in for what we can.

The big reason begins and ends with the team’s play this month. With today’s come-from-behind loss, Toronto sit at 22-24. Now, I still think they can turn it around a bit and get back to .500 or so and reclaim third spot, but playoffs? Let’s get real, that ship has sailed. With Boston and New York both rolling along in overdrive, there’s little chance of winning the division and it’s unrealistic to think anything short of 90 wins will snag the second wild card spot (93 or 94 might be more the reality of it.) To get to 90, T.O. would have to go 68-48 the rest of the way, or .586. A pretty tall order for a team below .500 and dropping and which is 24th in the bigs in ERA. So even if Josh starts to bring the rain again, he’s not going to propel the team into the post-season…. and if he does, it will only make it more likely he walks away as a free agent anyhow.

But, I may not be the only one who is starting to doubt whether this is going to be Josh’s MVP- the Redux year. Currently, he’s at .229 with 5 homers and a .760 OPS- lowest since his rookie year. In his last 8 games, he’s just 5 for 30. And whatever he brings to the bench or into the clubhouse is no longer translating into a dogmatic, can-do attitude for his teammates. Toronto is in fact 5-11 since he came off the disabled list. Now, I’m going to bet that at least some other GMs would bet that Donaldson will get hot again, and we all know that if Bringer of Rain is in a groove, he can be the most dominant hitter in the AL. Some teams clinging on to playoff hope will give up a bit to get that chance for 100 or 110 games. But should Donaldson continue to slump, for say even two weeks more , there might be fewer takers to take on a guy who could be hitting below the Mendoza line for 80 or so games.

The other compelling reasons for trading him now come down to supply and demand. On the one hand, the elephant in the room is there’s a much better left-side infielder bound to be hitting the seller’s floor soon in Manny Machado. Machado is having an MVP style year (.347/14/42 in only 44 games) and is both younger and more versatile than JD as he’s now playing short and could fill that position or third well enough for a new team. It would be smart to beat Baltimore to the punch….

Given that there are not that many likely suitors anyway. Right now the list of teams potentially vying for the playoffs is getting shorter by the week. One has to be truly the eternal optimist to assume Philly or Atlanta weill still be there with the behemoths come Labor day, and surprising as it seems, another losing week or two could easily bury the Dodgers until 2019. The longer the Jays wait, the fewer teams will be around to potentially benefit from a short-term addition. As it is now, the list of potential “buyers” may be no more than four or 5 teams.

Washington seem good with Anthony Rendon, likewise the Cubs with Kris Bryant,Astros with Alex Bregman and Dodgers (if even considered a team still in the running) with Justin Turner coming off the DL this week. Teams which might be considering him would likely include St. Louis (rumored to have been very interested in him back in winter), and, wait for it, Boston and the Yankees.

The Cards have been using both Matt Carpenter and Jedd Gyorko at third so far, and neither’s been “all that”. Carp seems on pace for a career-worst season, hitting .173 with 3 homers, 15 RBI and a lowly .615 OPS in 38 games. Gyorko on the other hand is off to a solid start in 26 games (.292, .905 OPS) but is better suited to shortstop. At only two games out, the Cards could still be bigtime suitors… and as we know, there’s a hotline between Blue Jays and Cardinals front offices based in the number of trades of late.

Even more in need could be our two arch-rivals. The Red Sox lead the majors in runs scored, the Yankees right behind them. Both can pretty much assume their spot in the post-season, but both would surely enjoy having the division and not having to go through that sudden death wild card game. And for both teams, it would seem their Third Baseman might be their achilles heel.

New York are using rookie Miguel Andujar. He’s not terrible- his defence has been quite solid and he’s hitting .277 with 3 homers , 15 RBI. (he’s struck out 29 times to only 3 walks , but that seems to be less embarassing in this day and age than it was a generation back.) Still, you know the Pinstripes wouldn’t turn down a veteran all star to give them that added kick to the finish line.

The Red Sox are even more in need. We’ve talked about Rafael Devers here before, and their young third bagger is doing OK at the plate- .243/7/25 , a .704 OPS but he’s a bull in a china shop in the field , already making 10 errors in 42 games.

If all three were interested, Toronto could drive up the price and could have a say in shaping the AL East. They could trade off to St. Louis, if the offer was good, or if they just wanted to not assist a divisional rival, or they could actually work to weaken their rivals down the road by giving up Donaldson in return for a couple of very good prospects.

Bottom line, Josh Donaldson’s being wasted staying in a Jays uniform. A trade for a couple of solid high-level prospects (the types that could make their presence known in 2019,not A-level kids good to go in 2022 or thereabouts) , or even one ace prospect and a decent major league pitcher who won’t be a free agent after this season would be a smart move. Do it now, Toronto, while the window of opportunity is open.

One more word on the subject. While it may be time for JD to move along, that still doesn’t make it Vlad time. As we noted here last time, there’s no pressing need to rush Guerrero Jr. to the big show, as amazing as his feats in AA have been so far this year.

Should A ‘Moose’ Be Raining On ‘Bringer Of Rain’s’ Parade?

A few thoughts Blue Jay a week and a day before Opening Day.

*The unpredictable Off Season for free agents has continued to be just that. But the overall trend is unmistakable- owners are rethinking their former free-spending ways and looking more towards youth, less towards grizzled, star veterans. It is, as I’ve pointed out here before, rather logical – there’s no big payoff for having even great veterans like Albert Pujols hauling in league-topping types of salary when they’re approaching 40, and for every Pujols (who at least gives some good return on the money early in the multi-year contracts) there’s a Jason Heyward. Average at best and declining only 2 years into a $100 million + deal. So while Yu Darvish, Wade Davis and Eric Hosmer got old-fashioned, blockbuster deals (and Jake Arrieta finally got the $25M a year he was said to be holding out for, albeit only for 3 years rather than the 7 or 8 he hoped for), there’s also Lance Lynn, a solid, highly-reliable starter, settling for a one year deal and “Moose” Moustakas, eventually going back to his beloved Royals- but for less money than he’d turned down months earlier.

For my money, by the way, the Jays should have been in on Lance Lynn and outbid Minnesota. I wrote a couple of months back that he might be the under-the-radar bargain pitcher of the winter, and it seems he was that. His numbers aren’t quite what Arrieta’s are, but unlike Jake, Lance seems to be consistent rather than on a steady decline. Likewise, his numbers are better than Alex Cobb’s, and Cobb just signed with the Orioles for 4 years at about $14M a year. Even with Aaron Sanchez (knock on wood) not dealing with those blisters this spring, and the signing of Jaime Garcia earlier, Toronto could do with another solid starter. One wonders if they couldn’t have picked him up at JA Happ-type money for two years. Doing that would have allowed Garcia to have gone to the bullpen to supplement Aaron Loup on the left-side and, of course be available for the rotation should one of the others go down with injury. All that said, I still do like Toronto’s rotation this season…

*One wonders if the dirth of huge contracts given or even offered this Off Season won’t help the Jays re-sign Josh Donaldson to an extension. They broke off talks not long after they agreed on a walloping $23M+ for this one season. Donaldson of course will be a highly-coveted free agent next winter, and from what the insiders say, is waiting to cash in 9-digit style and would be happy if that comes from Toronto, but equally OK with moving along.

Donaldson is unquestionably a star, a 100% effort all the time guy who can, when hot, carry a team by himself. As of a few months ago, I’d have wagered as long as he stays healthy in 2018, he’d be in line for a 6 or 7 year deal worth $30M a year or more. A shipload of money likely to come from Boston or New York. Now, however… The scene is a lot more grim for players like Donaldson. Yes, he’s a former MVP, yes he’s a great hitter. But he’s also going to be 33 next winter. As well, for all his flashiness and highlight reel dives and catches, his throwing arm makes him -statistically- only a little better than average third baseman. A position that traditionally requires youth and agility. A team looking forward to say, 2021 or ’22 would be hard-pressed to see him playing anywhere but first base if not DH’ing. All things which suddenly seem to come into owners’ thinking.

Donaldson should be quite worried by Mike Moustakas. Moose was this year’s premier free agent third-bagger, and like Josh, one with a reputation for being a “guy’s guy” teammate everyone loves. A hard worker, coming off a career year in which he won the AL Comeback Player award. A season in which his numbers didn’t appear that radically different than Donaldson’s : a .272 average, 38 HR, .521 slugging to Josh’s .270, 33HR, .559 slugging. Granted Donaldson played 35 fewer games due to injury, but that might be a negative for JD. Both guys have posted quite similar fielding numbers through their career.

So it’s no surprise last fall Moustakas turned down KC’s offer of over $17M for the 2018 season. The surprise of course, is that few teams bid on his services and when all was said and done, he was back in Royal blue- for $5.5M a year – a pay cut, not to mention less than a third of KC’s original offer. Oh and did we mention – Moustakas won’t be 30 until September?

If I was Josh, I’d be looking at that and worrying, perhaps phoning up the front office to see if I could get a three or four year deal, for less than I”m making right now, while the getting is good. Even with a great ’18, he could be next year’s “Moose”. If things go wrong and he has an “off” season, he could be next year’s Jose Bautista, sitting on the outside looking in waiting for the phone to ring. Yes, that’s what I’d do if I were Donaldson. But I’m not, and it seems to me he won’t see it that way. The swagger and confidence that makes him so good at the plate will carry over into other aspects of life and he’ll be sure he will be the one exception to the new rule of free agency come spring, 2019.

*next, we’ll start looking at the real fun – not the dollars and cents, but the predictions for the 2018 season!

Stroman, Happ, Estrada…then what?

Last week we looked at some of the options the Blue Jays have to improve the lacklustre hitting we saw from them in 2017. I rather expected by this week there’d be developments to comment upon, but alas that’s not the case. While the Angels go all in on a championship run and teams like the Phillies and Braves retool looking ahead to greener pastures coming soon, Toronto twiddles its thumbs and preach “patience” on their website. Which would be well and good were there not roster holes to fill; were they not a team coming off their first losing season in 4 years. Clearly the time for action is now.

That said, it is worth noting the off-season has been pretty quiet all-around so far, Giancarlo Stanton, Shohei Ohtani and Matt Kemp notwithstanding. There are still plenty of free agents to go around and doubtless many franchises still trying to piece together trades, of which we can only hope Ross Atkins’ Jays are one.

As noted before, while the hitting really let the team down last season, the pitching needs to be better than its 2017 Run-of-the-mill state for them to really have a shot at anything in ’18. While I like that they apparently were (unsuccessful) suitors for CC Sabathia as a #5 starter, it still begs the question “Who will be the #4?”

Marcus Stroman may be a little arrogant but that might help him take the “ace” designation and run with it. He’s clearly still improving and looking like he’ll be a legitimate #1 starter soon, if not next season. Along with JA Happ and Marco Estrada, the team is well-set at the top of the rotation; capable of competing with any team in the division. where things go awry is with the #4 spot, which apparently the club is counting on Aaron Sanchez to fill. This seems precarious thinking to say the least.

Sanchez of course was limited to 8 starts, and 1 win in ’17, with his last decent game coming on July 14 at Detroit (6 innings, 7 hits, 1 unearned run.) If it was a sore shoulder or bad knee that kept him out of the lineup most of the season, at least there’d be a good indication of whether or not he’d be good to go in ’18. But as his bugaboo is recurrent blisters, there’s no real way to guage it until he’s been out on the mound several times for 4 or 5 innings at a stretch. My take on it is this: since they tried everything they could think of last year to fix the problem and the blisters kept coming back (and limited his few starts to an average of 76 pitches, down by 20 from the past year) let’s assume it’s an ongoing problem for him. Let’s assume that he’ll not be part of the 2018 equation and find a more reliable #4 starter. Then anything we get from Aaron is gravy. If he is healthy he could perhaps be back in the bullpen where he could provide a value as a setup man, really let fly with his fastball and, one might think if throwing only 15-20 pitches at a time, be less likely to have the blisters come back.

Strangely, to me the question of where to look for that starter might begin with Josh Donaldson. No, not suggesting we throw our resident “Viking” on the mound. What I am suggesting however, is that the team needs to make a quick decision with Josh as to what his future will be. JD is coming off a year in which he made $17M and will be looking for a raise in his final year of arbitration eligibility.

There’s no question “Bringer of Rain” is a tough competitor and when hot can carry the team on his shoulders. There’s also no question he’s said he’s happy in Toronto and would like to stay on. Which would be great- depending on what his view going forward is. At a rather “old” 32, he’s still the ideal third baseman for the ’18 team, perhaps the ’19 one too. But looking forward, it’s clear his days of being a star-quality third bagger are limited. In ’17 his fielding percentage (.949) was lowest in 5 years, his range factor had dropped to a career low (2.47) and his only so-so throwing arm limited him to turning 13 double plays, or about one every 8 games. In short, despite his undeniable effort out there, his fielding prowess is declining and soon he’ll be better suited to playing first or maybe being a regular DH, with only occasional games on the turf. This has to factor in to contract negotiations.

Donaldson can hit, and will likely be able to do so for some years to come- his .944 OPS last year was only 9 points below the previous year and was actually better than his MVP season. The distance on his average home run increased to 409′ and the percentage of at bats resulting in a roundtripper increased.

In short, he’s a reliable run producer the team should look to lock up. But only within reason. If he’d sign on for a 3 or 4 year contract at market value (probably about $21M a year I’d reckon) to avoid arbitration, he should be handed a gold pen to do so. If his demands go much beyond that, in years or annual stipends, it may be time to think about parting ways and get something in return. Todd Frazier is still available as a free agent, and while he’s not Josh, he’d be a great short-term solution to get the team into the Vladmir guerrero Jr, era, which might only be a year off. Frazier’s a year younger than Donaldson, and while he hit only .213 last year (a career low), his 83 walks meant a respectable .772 OPS and he delivered 27 homers. In the field, he might not be flashy but his numbers are all better than Josh’s. His 39 double plays turned (about 1 per every 3 games) really stands out in comparison.

Frazier could likely be signed for less than the $17M Donaldson made , let alone what JD might pull in through arbitration, thereby freeing up some money for pitching. What’s more though, #20 is likely one of the few players around (and the only current Blue Jay) for whom teams might trade off a solid starting pitcher. One could imagine a team poised to win now with questions at third- say Boston, or St. Louis (who’ve alledgedly been dogging the Jays in pursuit of Donaldson) might be willing to give up some good arm in return. Todd Frazier at third could look pretty good for Toronto if there was a Drew Pomeranz or Carlos Martinez on the mound (in return for the departed 2015 MVP.)

If however, Donaldson is surprisingly agreeable in signing a multi-year deal and sticks around or there’s no offer of a legit star pitcher on the table for him, Toronto should quickly look to the big-gun arms in the free agent market while they can. Although we’ve heard Toronto’s interested in Jake Arrieta, and that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, I think Lance Lynn or World series goat Yu Darvish might be better choices. Arrieta was still good last year at 14-10, 3.53 but his obvious trend is downward, with his ERA rising from 1.77 to 3.10 to 3.53 over the past 3 while his innings pitched have dropped 229 to 197 to 168. At age 32 it seems risky to give a guy like that a big-time, multi-year deal.

Lance Lynn on the other hand, at age 30, is coming off his 5th straight 30+ start, double-digit win year and was 11-8, 3.43 last year for a team inferior to Arrieta’s Cubs. His .223 opponents average was the lowest since his partial, 2011 rookie season. If any pitcher out there on the market might warrant a 5-year, $100M type megadeal, Lynn might be the one.

A Lance Lynn, or a Carlos Martinez or Drew Pomeranz, Rick Porcello or even Michael Wacha on board for the #4 role would lessen the necessity of scoring a big #5 guy like the back-in-pinstripes Sabathia, but if one could be acquired on the cheap, there’d be no downside to it. More on that, next time.

Glass is half full, .204 average and all!

 

Well it’s not the start we Jays fans had dreamed of, to say the least. Steve Buffery of the Toronto Sun pointed out this is the slowest start we’ve ever seen by the team and already there are calls for the heads of john Gibbons and pretty much everyone involved with the team from the impatient ones amongst us.

Granted this does seem to reflect 1994 a little (without the strike) when the reigning World Champs suddenly turned into last place chumps for no apparent reason but I think it’s far too early to give up hope on the ’17 squad or their chances in October. I picked them in the last blog to finish second in the division behind Boston , and make the playoffs via the Wild card and I’ll stick by that – for now.

Let’s look at the half-full glass. yes, they’re 1-5, tied with Atlanta for worst record overall. But let’s remember, that’s only 1/27th of the season accounted for and they’ve yet to play in the friendly confines of Rogers’ (although by the time I have this posted they may have taken the field there.) Their run differential is only -8. Not flashy but not atrocious either; Baltimore is sitting atop the division with a run diff of only +1 so no one is exactly setting the world on fire so far in the East. Really the jays have been in every game except the last (the 7-2 loss to Tampa); two of the losses have gone to 11 innings. A lucky bounce or two off our bats and the team would be at .500 and nobody would be squawking.

More positives: Roberto Osuna should be back on the bench tonight, solidifying the bullpen a great deal and I am making the assumption young Casey Lawrence will be shipped back across the lake to get some more seasoning in Buffalo. Lawrence has potential but so far has looked far over-matched in his 2 big league appearances. That mere roster tweak should improve the team exponentially and enable some wins in close games.

Aaron Sanchez was fantasticin his debut, picking right up where he left off last season and Marcus Stroman (he of the only “W” so far for the Jays) was very good too (6 1/3 innings, just 6 hits and one earned run) coming off his memorable World Baseball Classic performance. He’s shown he can handle the pressure of big games already, I look for him to pick up his everyday game some this year and be considerably better than his 9-10 last year. With JA Happ looking good in his first outing and not being a power pitcher prone to losing a lot all at once when he ages, the core of the rotation remains very good. True, liriano’s outing was a nightmare but every pitcher has a clunker once in awhile. If he can’t find the strike zone with binoculars again in his next outing there might be cause for concern but until then, let’s just chalk it up to his worst game of the year being his first. He looked fine in spring training by the way. By the way, AL champ Indians currently have the worst pitching in baseball by the numbers, with a 5.82 staff ERA.

The “D” has been pretty solid thus far, no surprise there nor reason to figure that’s going to change anytime soon, partiuclarly in Devon Travis can manage to stay healthy for a whole campaign…and even if he doesn’t we don’t lose much with the glove with Barney or Goins in there.

which brings us to the hitting. Two years ago, largely the same lineup was an offense for the ages, leading all the majors. Last year- not so much. This year? Well, it’s been bloody awful so far. No way around that fact. .201 average? only four homers in 6 games? League-low .297 slugging percentage? Well, even though KC and Seattle currently have even lower sub-Mendoza team averages, there’s no way to pretend those are adequate numbers. Which leads us to the bright spot. No matter how much Bautista, Tulowitzki and Martin (0 for 14 but with 6 walks) might be getting up there in years, there’s no way they’ve collectively lost 100% of their hitting acumen. The hitting will get better and even, as bad as it’s been, they’ve been in the thick of things 5 games out of 6. Just imagine when Jose Bautista starts knocking a few out or Troy T. starts hitting his weight if not his career average… so far he’s already driven in 6 on a mere 3 hits! Truth be told, I’d fire hitting coach Brook Jacoby. A good hitter in his time and from what I can tell, a decent man, but he seems incapable of inspiring his talent to come up with the big hit. Even if that doesn’t happen though, rest assured. Just as sure as Yunel Escobar over on the west coast won’t finish the year hitting above-TEd Williams numbers, Russ Martin will eventually get a base hit, Joey Bats will work towards 30 if not 40 homers and we’ll see more power out of Kendrys Morales, whose first Toronto hit was a grand slam, even if his average stays in the low-.200s (which I don’t think it will). This team will score enough to be competitive this year.

Furthermore, one has to note that Boston, the unanimous pick to click in the division in polls and publications I’ve seen are only 23rd in the bigs in runs scored and are hitting an anemic .240. David Ortiz’s heir apparent, Mitch Moreland is hitting .333 after 6 games but has driven in only 1 run. And while i don’t want to be the guy to engage in “schaudenfraude” and I do like David Price well enough, one has to realize that his current placement on the DL for the Sox with a bad elbow doesn’t look good and a Red sox with him in the #2 slot behind Chris Sale is a lot more capable of going the distance than a Red Sox with dubious Cy young winner Rick Porcello there. A great rote turns to a passably good one, and the Sox probably drop 5 to 8 games over the season if Price ends up under the knfie.

Granted, the glass half-empty has solid reason to worry about Josh Donaldson’s oft-sore calf – right now Josh has been the team’s standout at the plate with a 1.097 OPS- and it’s true that Aaron Loup doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence if he’s the only southpaw in the bullpen should JP Howell not bounce back quickly. But there’s a lot of upside folks and if the JAys can turn it around tonight back in Canada, those jeers will turn to a season of cheers.

Time for baseball to can the “bean”

 

We Jays fans know how Josh Donaldson won the Most Valuable Player award last year by driving in tons of runs for the team and making highlight reel grabs at third. But if the sport listens to him, he may be the most valuable player for other reasons- even to opponents.

Donaldson has been the highest-profile, and loudest player to speak up about the ridiculous “unwritten rules” of the game and the beanball. You might recall Donaldson’s tirade last month after the Twins Phil Hughes threw a pair of back-to-back pitches at him the at bat following a Donaldson home run. Donaldson got mad, John Gibbons came out to intervene and got ejected and afterwards the MVP noted that he wasn’t all that mad at Hughes himself, but rather the Minnesota management (who no doubt instructed the pitcher to lob one at the Blue Jay in return for being “shown up”) and at the dumb, macho culture of the game in general.

They say they’re trying to protect players… you can’t slide hard into second base. They make a rule to protect the catcher on slides at home. But when you throw a ball at somebody, nothing’s done about it.” He referenced Giancarlo Stanton who still wears a specially-adapted helmet after being smacked in the face by a pitch and added that the whole aspect could deter some kids from going into baseball, a reasonable assumption perhaps. If parents are scared to let their boys play football because of concussion risk, it’s not beyond the pail to suggest they might do the same with baseball.

The whole situation became news again this week when famously volatile KC hurler Yordano Ventura managed to drill Orioles star Manny Machado with a 98 mph fastball on his third attempt, sparking a fist to his face from the Baltimore infielder, a bench-clearing brawl and surprisingly little support from his Royals teammates who have grown tired of his distractions. While Ventura’s pitch control isn’t specatacular, it seems dubious he’d miss three in a row and drill the one player who was making him look bad that game. Particularly when we recall that it is the same Ventura who managed to provoke brawls in three successive games last year by throwing at a range of players and having personal beefs with a list including, but not limited to, Adam Eaton, Brett Lawrie, Mike Trout and, yes, our own Josh Donaldson. Baseball’s fining him after throwing at Lawrie and suspending him 7 games for starting the melee with the White Sox last year didn’t seem to do anything to suggest he needs to calm down a little on the mound, so it’s encouraging that this time around he got a 9-game suspension (compared to 4 for Machado.) Bizarrely, while playing the Orioles Ventura was shooting his mouth off in the clubhouse about planning to hit Jose Bautista with a pitch. Joey Bats didn’t respond, as far as we know, but one can imagine Kevin Pillar , ever the loyal teammate, practising up some kick boxing moves just in time for next month’s Royals-Jays series, just in case.

Since then many other players have spoken up about the need for change. As Dodgers’ Adrian Gonzalez says, “throwing a baseball at a batter on purpose is the opposite of whatever tough is.”

Of course, some of the older voices say no change is necessary, that it’s all a part of the game and “hard-nosed” baseball like it used to be played. Surprisingly, even that assumption is a bit off; the number of hit batsmen has risen considerably in the past fifty years. In the 1940s and 50s, only three years was a batter hit 20 times in a season; so far this century up to last year, only once did that not happen. Brandon Guyer of the Rays has already been plunked 15 times this year. Surprising also, National League teams (where the pitcher at times will come to the plate himself) outdo the AL ones in head-hunting. This season, NL teams average about 21 hit batsmen compared to 18 in the AL .

As for it being traditional and “hard-nosed”, so what? Rob Manfred hasn’t been afraid of other changes. He’s talking of doing away with throwing pitches for an intentional walk and , of course, he instituted the slide rule thereby stopping one of the most traditional, “hard-nosed” ways of playing the game: sliding into the second baseman to break up a double play.

Traditionalists might not like it, but change is needed. First and foremost, the “Warning” aspect has to go. There’s no way to justify the rule as it is now in which a pitcher can throw at a batter and not be disciplined but if the umpire then issues a warning, any other pitcher will be tossed for hitting any batter, intentional or not. This gives hotheads like Ventura a free pass. If we trust umpires instincts and knowledge, we allow them to throw out any pitcher, any time, if they think they are deliberately throwing at a batter. If we don’t think the umps are that savvy, we need to simply throw out any pitcher who hits a batter no matter what the circumstances. Or possibly the answer lies in making it much more pricey for a team to dare hit a batter. Making a hit-by-pitch a virtual “double” (batter gets to second base instead of first and all runners on base advance two bases) would cut down on head-hunting .

It took a leg injury to Ruben Tejada to stop aggressive slides into base. It took an injury to superstar catcher Buster Posey to make contact between a catcher and runner almost verboden. Baseball cannot wait for a career-ending or worse head injury to a batter before stopping the beanball.

So-so First Week No Reason To Panic

Let the fun begin! tonight’s much anticipated game between the Jays and Yanks, and the following pair tomorrow and Thursday could tell us a lot about how this season will play out. It’s far too early to think about calling any games “must win”, but a decisive series win sure would be nice and alleviate worries while giving hope that this year’s team will repeat as East champions. Remember that last year the Jays 13-6 record against NY was a primary reason they won the division and the Yankees went home early.

Speaking of early worries, do we Toronto fans need to be concerned by their less than spectacular opening week?

Answer- no, but it’s nothing to cheer about either. Significant concerns have been raised about Russell Martin’s batting, RA Dickey’s pitching and Jose Bautista’s fielding. Here’s my take:

Russell Martin has indeed struggled at the plate so far, hitting only .100 (2 for 20) so far with strikeouts in half his at bats. On the tail of a slow spring training, some naysayers have the sky falling already.

Obviously more offense is better and I”m sure by the All Star break, Martin will be hitting well above .100 (if not, then I’ll be concerned!) But fact is Martin is the oldest regular catcher in the AL and probably will be on a bit of a downslide, career-wise. The good news is that with the stacked lineup Toronto boasts, we don’t need Russell to hit .290 like he did 2 seasons back, or drive in 77 like he did last year to still win games and win lots of games. As long as he hits the Mendoza line and swats the odd one out of the park, we’ll be fine as long as he does his job behind the plate…which thus far he’s done well.

RA Dickey, like other knuckleballers through the ages, is a pretty unpredictable sort. He can be brilliant one night, and batting practise lousy the next time out. So it’s too early to be worked up about two “off” outings. On April 4, he gave up 6 hits including a homer, struck out 3, walked two and allowed 3 ERs, but picked up the win anyway. April 9, against Boston, he managed to whiff 9 and keep the ball in the park but the Sox scored 7, 6 of them earned against him and he got tagged with the “L”. The arguably distressing thing is that he only managed to stay in 5 innings both times. Dickey isn’t likely to win another Cy Young at 41 and in fact only needs to keep the team in the game most of the time to be an asset, now that he’s arguably the #4 starter. However, the one thing the team does need from him is innings. He’s averaged 219 per year over the last 5 and that’s about what is required again this season given the concern over how durable young Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez will be. Someone’s got to give the ‘pen a break and that needs to be Dickey. Seven or more innings from him next time out should put everyone at ease.

Jose Bautista at one point used to be a Gold Glove calibre outfielder. Those days are probably gone for good, given his age (35) and number of aches and pains he’s gone through. He let one bounce off his glove opening day, other balls have bounced over his head this season, and those watching every inning report he’s not a “plus” right-fielder anymore. His deensive “range factor” has declined from 2.1 in ’14 to 1.93 last year (while his number of assists also dropped from 12 to 4) to just 1.57 thus far. So why not worry?

Well, first let’s recall a minor ailment kept Bautista out of spring training for a couple of weeks, so he’s not yet in top form. A lesser player may have been kept back to get another 30 or so AB and some more innings in the field before being activated; the Jays understandably figured a Bautista at about 80% is better than none. he will likely get a bit more comfortable out there in coming weeks as his sort of “extended spring training” comes to an end.

More importantly though is that he’s not losing anything at the plate. His eye is still keen (9 walks already through 7 games making for a .500 on base percentage; balls he makes contact with are still flying well- an average of 242 feet for all balls put in play compared with 219 for the rest of the league. As long as Bautista can hammer 40 homers, be on base 38-40% of the time and stare down opposition pitchers, the team can put up with a few balls bouncing around the corner, much as we’d like them run down. thankfully having Kevin Pillar in center should ease the pressure on JB some.

As Bluebird Banter noted, Bautista might now be better suited to 1b or even DH’ing, but with the logjam of talent the team has there already (Encarnacion/Smoak/Colabello not to mention Jesus Montero, who’s off to a 6-for-14, 5 rbi start in Buffalo) there’d be no advantage shifting him. The opposite of Russ Martin, Bautista is paid to make the team win with the bat, not the glove.

Roster– seems to still need a bit of tweaking, in my opinion. The minor injury to Josh Donaldson last week showcases the problem with the short bench; Darwin Barney is adequate as a third baseman but it left the team with no real options at all should Tulo or Goins get injured or even develop an upset stomach mid-game. Donaldson is pegged as back at third tonight but I’d still like to see middle infielder Dave Adams or Andy Burns up here as backups, even at the expense of a pitcher in the ‘pen. Speaking of which, the sore shoulder and DL’ing of Franklin Morales puts a lot of pressure on Brett Cecil as the only lefty among the eight men in the bullpen. Ambidextrous Pat Venditte is off to a good start in Buffalo and might be of more use to Toronto right now than Arnold Leon, who could maybe benefit from pitching more frequently at AAA.

It’s too early to worry…but fans are going to be watching this week’s series with short fingernails!

The year in review

 

2015 is now mere hours away from completion and while the year has had its ups and downs, for us Blue Jays fans it has to be considered a success. A long, patiently waited for success. All we can hope for is that Rogers and Mark Shapiro will make a resolution to make 2016 even better and jump through that window of contention while it’s still open.

Granted it was disappointing that Toronto ended up bowing out in the championship series, but all-in-all, the first 90+ win year and first playoff entry since magical 1993; the league MVP and highest attendance in decades more than compensates. The 2015 season showed us several important things. Jose Bautista can compete and deliver in the big games just as well as meaningless ones. Alex Anthopoulos did have, or at least had developed, a good sense of talent. Marco Estrada and Chris Colabello are ample proof of that, not that AA’s prowess benefits the team anymore, sadly. It also showed that John Gibbons can certainly punch his weight as managers go. Perhaps no Connie Mack or Billy Martin, Gibbons kept the good ship Jay upright through difficult early months and then showed he had the know-how to take a good team and run with it. He is another illustration of a shrewd Anthopoulos move which looked a bit dubious at the time.

the year also showed that Toronto , and Canada in fact, love baseball. The 3 million fans in the stands, the high TV ratings coast-to-coast, the fact the team was more searched for domestically on Google than Trudeau, Jenner or ISIS all speak to the excitement the Jays generated when the fans were finally given a team to be excited about. This bodes well for the future if only the owners pay attention and try to build on that excitement rather than did up the skeletons of JP Ricciardi’s playbooks and “five-year plans.” What’s more, the season showed that baseball loves Toronto as well. No longer can we Canucks think about complaining that baseball and its people don’t pay attention to the blue-and-white because of their location. Having a player voted MVP- ahead of Golden Boy Mike Trout- and recipient of the Hank Aaron Award , not to mention the fact that the league-sponsored ESPN special on the best plays of the season (which ranked 3 Toronto plays among the ten best of the year in all of baseball) put that myth to rest. In the eyes of MLB, Toronto is every bit as valid a city, and organization, as New York, Chicago or St. Louis.

So now we look ahead to February and Dunedin, and that opening Sunday in Tampa a few weeks later. It goes without saying that now with David Price gone and a weaker bullpen, the Jays hopes don’t look quite so bright. The Red Sox and Yankees have gotten better- as much as I dislike Chapman from everything we hear about him, he will certainly give NY a bullpen to rival Kansas City’s- while Toronto has at best trod water. All is not lost however; remember Toronto was the best in the division; Boston particularly have a lot of catching up to do to compete. Merely standing pat is disappointing to fans but may still yield a team that can win. If Marcus Stroman develops into the pitcher they think he can be, or JA Happ continues to pitch like he did in late summer in Pittsburgh, with the bats of Bautista, Donaldson, Encarnacion and crew this team could still better their 93 wins and take their playoff experience and grow from it – as the Royals did in 2015.

As a reminder and encouragement to those who feel all is lost before the season begins, I offer a little look at early 2015 and how things were expected to play out. I picked Boston to win our division and Toronto to finish right at .500. I also thought the White Sox and Mariners could win their divisions. I might be loopy therefore, but so too are the more experienced pundits. Athlon Sports springtime annual picked Boston, Detroit and LA Angels as division champs and predicted a Washington World series as did so many others. USA Today got ten out of 30 clubs in the right position at year’s end, although they did manage to pick our team to win the AL East. Furthermore, of their panel of 7 expert writers , not one predicted KC or the Mets to win their division let alone meet in the World Series. Likewise, none of the 7 predicted Josh D for MVP or got either of the Cy Young winners. It all goes to show, predicting and speculating is fun, but there’s a reason they actually take to the diamond for 162 games.

2016 should be a good one! Enjoy the ride, and while I’m at it, let me wish you a happy new year away from the ballpark as well as when at it!

 

Blue Jays deserve some hardware- but the big prize awaits

Watching the Blue Jays play their first post-season game since 1993…what better time to look back at the regular season and make my picks for the awards before playoff heroics (or zeroics!) taint our opinions per baseball rules. I for one always rather thought the voting should take place after the playoffs since a spectacular October would certainly add to a players value. Case in point, Madison Bumgardner was not the best pitcher in the NL last season, but after seeing him go through opponents like a hot knife through butter in October makes him seem like perhaps the better pitcher than Clayton Kershaw.

That point made, without further ado, my picks for the American League Awards would be–

MVP: Josh Donaldson (Toronto) when you lead the league in runs scored, runs batted in you’re doing something right. Add in top-5 placings in hits, doubles and homers plus Gold Glove caliber defence at a tough position and it’s hard to argue against him. Most seem to concede that it’s a tossup between him and Mike Trout; though Trout did have a slightly higher OPS and matched Josh’s 41 home runs, it goes to Donaldson because 1)123 RBI runs circles around Trout’s 90. Fish fans say, “yeah, but look at Donaldson’s team” but ignore that Donaldson hit second all year, in front of Bautista and Encarnacion. Put him hitting behind them and he’d have set a Blue Jays team record. 2) finally after two decades, we can turn the old baseball adage around to our advantage- an MVP has to be from a playoff team, or so most would have us believe. We saw Carlos Delgado and Jose Bautista overlooked in the past because the team were middling; this year it’s Trout’s team that failed to live up to potential, ergo “how important can he be?”

Donaldson wins, my runners-up: #2: Mike Trout (LAA), #3: Jose Altuve (Hou), led league in hits and steals and his team to an unexpected playoff berth; #4: Wade Davis (KC), doing whatever was asked of him out of bullpen with second year in a row of ERA at 1 or less; #5: Chris Davis (Bal)- 47 HR, 117 RBI, did all he could to help his Orioles fly back up in the standings.

Cy Young: David Price (Det./Tor.) today’s game might not seem like it, but he’s been the best in the league this year, by a nose. 18-5, league best 2.45 ERA, 225K, only 42 walks. Wins it in a photo-finish by reason of his slightly better ERA than runner-up and exceptional performance down the line for Toronto (9-1, 2.30 after being traded, whereas Keuchel let up a little going 6-2, 3.34 as his Astros faded in last two months)

#2: Dallas Keuchel (Hou), only 20 game winner in AL; #3: Sonny Gray (Oak), numbers slid a bit in second half but still excellent 14-7 for a last place club with 2.73 ERA.

Rookie of Year: a tough call. The best actual position players played only double digit numbers of games, but does that still allow them to trump all-season regulars who played not quite so well? Winner-Roberto Osuna (Tor): OK, a bit of homerism here, but there’s no clear winner so why not Toronto’s closer? He came out of nowhere to win a roster spot barely turned his 20th birthday and by mid-season had taken over the closer’s role that no one else had managed to do adequately for the Jays. 68 games, 20 saves, solid 2.58 ERA helped the team have confidence with a 9th inning lead and have the best record in baseball after July.

#2: Carlos Correa (Hou), certainly the media fave, nothing wrong with his glove or his .279 avg, 22 HR, 68 RBI, 14 for 18 in stolen bases. But missed first two months of year, #3: Delino Deshields Jr. (Tex), .261, 25 stolen bases, 83 runs. Great speed won him the regular CF spot and had him hitting lead-off in a much improved Rangers lineup.

Comeback of the Year: Prince Fielder (Texas). the iron man came back from a weak and injury-shortened season last year to hit .305, 23 HR, 98 RBI and increase his slugging percentage by over a hundred points, hitting a career best 187 hits along the way. #2: Alex Rodriguez, (NY)- maybe an even more surprising comeback but, remembering why he missed all of 2014 makes me squeamish about voting for him for anything.

Manager of Year: yes, Joe Girardi, Ned Yost and Paul Molitor all got way more out of their roster than anyone expected and deserve kudos. But the award comes down to a matchup of the two skips who battled today at Rogers’. Winner- reluctantly, Jeff Banister (Texas). Journeyman Pirate employee with no big league managing experience took over the team that was league’s worst last year, lost his staff ace in first week of spring training and somehow turned them into division champs. Team showed impressive determination in contrast to last year’s. #2: John Gibbons (Tor)- Gibby showed critics wrong in their belief he didn’t deserve a return to the jays bench and had to manage with a bullpen that was terrible at start of year, cajole them into giving their best and figure out a way to use them properly.

As for other Jays and awards, Kevin Pillar should be a shoe-in for an outfield Gold Glove and Jose Bautista and Russell Martin would be decent choices for ones as well. There may not be an award for “break out player of year”, but there should be and Marco Estrada should be it! 13-8, AL fifth-best 3.13 ERA over 181 innings highlighted a year that saw him go from journeyman to star.

I’ll be happy if baseball writers agree with me … but of course, the one player award I’d really like to see go to a Blue Jay this year awaits- World Series MVP!