And now perhaps the most evenly-balanced (or 4/5 balanced) division in the AL, the West.
Houston- Harris County fans are hoping there’s nowhere to go but up now after the Astros lost a club record 111 games last year and (given the Pirates fab 2013) are now co-holders of the longest streak of losing seasons in baseball. They and the Mets are sitting at 5 and counting, and while the Astros are nowhere near as pathetic as last year’s edition, count on their streak hitting 6. This team is young and still very much in a rebuilding phase, but there are signs of life and reasons for patient optimism …Jason Castro, one of the better all-round catchers in the game (.835 OPS last year was better than Wieters or Pierzynski for example), little Jose Altuve (listed at a mere 5’5”) has all the tools to be a star 2B and a fan fave for years to come with his enthusiasm and deceptive speed, Jarred Cosart might have been the second best rookie pitcher in all of baseball last year, despite winning only 1 of 10 starts (his ERA of 1.95 dazzled despite curiously walking more than he struck out). And while not exactly loading up, the management at least opened the purse strings a wee bit to bring in a decent veteran starter (Scott Feldman, who’ll be hard-pressed to match his dozen wins of last year here) and outfielder (Dexter Fowler,just one season removed from a .300 campaign). That said, there are still an awful lot of holes in the lineup and will doubtless be an express shuttle between Houston and Oklahoma as various kids get call-ups from the minors. Not a good team, but not as bad as last year…and as the Yankees are finding out, a team that can be pesky and problematic from time to time. Prediction – 62 wins, fifth place
Los Angeles Anaheim- only the Blue Jays rivaled the Angels level of disappointment to fans in ’13. Like Toronto, they decided that was a mere aberration and staying the course was the best plan, doing little to change the team in the off-season. And like the Jays, if the halos stay healthy and get a return to form from all their big names, they can contend. Don’t count on it however. Albert Pujols’ foot is apparently healthy and he’s looking better than he did most of last season, but at 34 don’t look for him to return to his prime. His runs, walks , homers and average have all declined four years in a row, at best look for him to come close to his average numbers for the past three years (.283, 32 doubles, 28 hr, 89 rbi) as opposed to his 2007-09 torrid stats (.337, 42 doubles, 39 hr, 118 rbi). Josh Hamilton is only a year younger, and physically probably more worn. He planned to gain weight to help his power return this year but as Sporting News put it “it might help even more if he stops indulging on a steady diet of bad pitches.” Granted he finished better than he started last year, so perhaps he’ll up his .250 average and .739 OPS but don’t look for it to be by much. Howie Kendrick gets lost in the hype of the aging and baby superstars on the team but is quietly as good a second baseman as there is , perhaps save for divisional rival Cano. Mike Trout– baseball wants ever-so-badly to make him this game’s Wayne Gretzky, but I”m not sold yet. That is NOT to say I don’t recognize his talent and ability- he is a great young player– but just that I don’t yet agree he’s the best in the game now, let alone one of the few all-time greats most critics now rank him as. If he hits .320 with 25 homers , drives in 90 and steals 25 again, I’ll be impressed and the Valley fans should be ecstatic. Pitching was a weakness last year, little has changed there. CJ Wilson is the real deal, Jered Weaver was, and the rest of the rotation is shaky at best. Prediction – 81wins, fourth
Oakland- time for “Moneyball 2” perhaps. Billy Beane’s ability to make the most of second-rate ingredients continues to work and amaze. He’ll really need to pull a rabbit out of the hat to continue their streak this year however. For the first time in 8 years they have no rookies on the roster and with their two best returning pitchers (AJ Griffin and Jarrod Parker) both on the DL, Parker out for the year, it’s doubtful they will contend again. Scott Kazmir had a good spring and took a shutout into the 8th in his first start this year, so the 30 year old restoration project may prove and adequate replacement for ageless Bartolo Colon. Craig Gentry is a nice addition to an already strong OF. Crisp, Cespedes and Reddick should provide a good number of runs again but the rest of the lineup may not be upto the task of propping up iffy pitching. Prediction – 85 wins, third.
Seattle- the Mariners made a splash in the off-season landing a big fish… but will the Nor’westers sink or swim? Ok, enough of the watery alusions but the point is obvious- will Robinson Cano be enough to turn around the fortunes of a team that’s struggled mightily in the past four seasons? Regardless of the long-term ramifications of giving a 31 year-old middle infielder a ten year megadeal, Cano will have an impact now for the team and the fans confidence in it. Yet other mega-contracts down the coast in the West haven’t panned out too well. Cano may not be the next Josh Hamilton, but neither do I expect him to be the M’s first MVP in a bakers dozen of years. He won’t have the big bats around him to protect and his sniping about not being respected in NYC and desire to hang out with celebrities more than work out make me doubt he has the maturity to single-handedly carry a club. Still, he should be an upgrade over Nick Franklin, hit at least .280 and drive in 80+ and put butts in the seats at Safeco. In the Cano-bration, the acquisition of Corey Hart was missed by many, but he should also add to the somewhat questionable Mariner’s offense. Michael Saunders is one to watch- despite his .236 average and rate of striking out almost 30% of the time last year, he always seemed to be in the middle of things when Seattle was rolling.
Mariners pitching is decent enough of course, with King Felix should be coming into his prime at age 28 (last year his K:BB ratio was best of his career) and once Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker are activated off the DL (probably at month’s end), the rotation will be formidable. Fernando Rodney was reborn in Tampa, and his addition to sidearmer Danny Farquhar gives them a decent late inning bullpen to hold the leads passed them. Not a spectacular team, but the best Washington state fans have had to cheer on for a number of years. Prediction – 87 wins, second.
Texas- no team has done more with less to show for it over the past three years than the Rangers, my step- team if you will (given my engagement to a diehard R’s fan). Many teams would have axed the manager after the soul-deadening September they had last year, but this is not the Texas way. And with an average of 92 wins a year over the past four, who’s to argue?
Jon Daniels, apparently at odds with departed legend Nolan Ryan, did decide to make some big changes nonetheless and focussing on the team’s diminishing offense over the past couple of seasons, opened the wallets up in a big way for free agent Shin-Soo Choo and got a big bat (something a bit lacking last year after Josh Hamilton moved along) in Prince Fielder . Choo is a quintessentially smart and patient hitter who should set the plate for the bigger bats regularly. Last year Choo was second in the NL in walks, runs and on base percentage and won the “Heart and Hustle Award” given out by the Reds; he’d been in the top 10 in OBP thrice with Cleveland before. His walk-off walk last night should be indicative of the type of player Texas fans will get to love this season. Fielder may not be the home run threat he once was, but will still be an upgrade at first and should hit at very least 30 and help Adrian Beltre get a few more good pitches to swing at. And while Manny Machado is the future in terms of AL third baggers, Beltre, if fully-healthy and agile again after leg problems last year, is the here and now, well deserving his four Gold Gloves. Even though it’s remarkably Adrian’s 17th big league season , don’t expect any drop -off from his Texas averages of .312, 33 homers, 100 rbis.
We Toronto fans never doubted Alex Rios’ physical capability; it was his mentality, effort and maturity that got called into quesiton. At 33 he seems to have finally grown up and the Rios of today is little like the seemingly disinterested Jay of five or six years back, so don’t be surprised to see him have a break-out year. With his speed and power he could potentially hit .300 with 30 homers and 30 steals and keep any baserunner who’s hit to right field honest.
The downsides of the everyday lineup are more a result of injury than lack of talent. Geovany Soto was deemed an adequate backstop, apparently pitchers preferred him to feisty AJ Pierzynski last season, but he wrecked his knee in spring training leaving questionable off-season signing JP Arencibia back there most of the time for the first half. I’ve outlined some of the problems with Arencibia here before, and all Toronto fans are only too aware of his defensive lackings. Still, in a new environment with new teammates and coaches, perhaps he can rebound from his truly dreadful 2013 (lowest batting average and on base percentage of any regular player in the league, most passed balls and throwing errors of any catcher and so on)and develop into something of the star Toronto had once imagined him to be. He did after all, win a batting title in AAA.
Likewise, the Rangers took a risk and a bit of a publicity hit by trading away longtime second baseman Ian Kinsler,but they figured they had second well-covered with young phenom Jurickson Profar, last year’s top prospect who spent too much time on the bench, or in spot assignments out of position last season. Unfortunately Profar also got injured in spring and is on the shelf for at least half the year, meaning second is left to the rather ordinary Donnie Murphy or Josh Wilson.
Rangers pitching was quietly effective last season,particularly the bullpen,so it was left somewhat unchanged, which may end up being a bit of a mistake given their early injuries. While Yu Darvish is due back this weekend from a sore neck that made him miss the opening series, last year’s #2 Derek Holland is out til the heat of July if not longer due to his broken leg- which might effect his effectiveness when he returns every bit as much as an arm injury would. Matt Harrison is expected to play a big role this season and having anything resembling the big lefty of 2012 (18 wins, 3.29 ERA) would be a huge boost , however, Harrison logged only 18 innings last year in total and is out with a bad back currently. Robbie Ross looks like a better bet to make the jump from the ‘pen to the starting 5 than season opener Tanner Scheppers; a good start from veteran Joe Saunders this weekend coupled with Yu’s return should place Scheppers back in the bullpen where he was very solid in ’13.
Joe Nathan will be missed in the bullpen, but Joakim Soria is now two years removed from Tommy John surgery and should do just fine in closing games. There are holes in the pitching staff, but if Yu does what most expect, and continues to mature and adapt to North American ball, he could easily win 20 and the Rangers with better hitting than last year’s version, should take back the title. Prediction –
89 wins, first.
Well, if you’re a “glass is half-full” type person, and a Blue Jays fan, you can at least be pleased that as the days dwindle to a dozen or so in this season, our boys of summer are at least ahead of Boston in the standings. And, if we went back to Spring Training, we’d have been happy enough to think about being one up on the Red Sox. Of course, the “glass is half-empty” type would add that no one anticpated the Sox of ’12 playing like the Sox of Sep. ’11- all year!- and that being on pace for a 90 loss season is no reason to feel good about anything. Either way the stein that is Team Blue Jay needs a lot added to it to come close to being full enough to enjoy or quench fans thirsting for success for 19 years and counting.
This week Alex Anthopolous addressed the loyal and stated his now predictable comments about the team having lots of potential, needing just some fine tuning in the starting pitching yada yada yada.
Well,I’d like to think that Anthopolous was being honest and informed, but after 19 years of “wait until next year’s” I’d be hard-pressed to believe either to be the case. Since this year is a write-off , a few suggestions for the 2013 Jays and making their glasses full of champagne come next October. I’d like to rip Gregg Zaun’s “three ways to win” that he does so cheekily every game, but let’s face it – a team sitting at 65-77 needs way more than 3 things to win.
First and foremost, of course, is one thing everyone is in agreement upon. The Jays need to beef up the starting pitching. Second base has been handled smoothly in the field but has been a black hole for hitting since 2009; clearly that needs to change. Toronto has too many players who’ve peaked or stagnated in their careers; it’s time to clear the pond. Quality, not quantity. And Russ Adams, John Ford Griffin,Kevin ahrens, Guillermo Quiroz, Gustavo Chacin , etc ad nauseum tell you all you need to know about the reliability of Toronto’s ability to discern real talent at a young age. The time to protect prospects at all costs is when they are no longer prospects. Finally, Toronto needs a manager who’s only goal is to win a world Series. For Toronto. Maybe John Farrell is that man. Maybe he’s not. They need to know which now.
In short, the future looks bright for next year’s Jays… if next year’s Jays get , oh about three new quality starting pitchers, a new second baseman , an outfielder who can actually hit to go with Jose Bautista , maybe change managers and tweak a little of the roster here and there. A rather tall order, but one that is doable. Let’s not forget that Toronto is a large market, not small; attendance this year has been up despite our wins being down and that Rogers is one of the most lucrative Canadian companies. There is money to be spent to help field a competitive team, if need be. The good news is perhaps not much more needs to be dolled out anyway; while it’s true Toronto spends barely a third of what the Yankees do and not much more than half of the Angels, they already spend way more than Tampa Bay and Oakland. For those needing a refresher course on how those teams are doing, just look at the AL wild card standings, starting with Toronto and then looking up. Way up. Not to mention, for better or worse, this coming winter’s free agent crop is likely to be one of the less spectacular in recent memory. While it’s not to say that Toronto couldn’t add a piece or two to help via free agency (Nick Swisher anyone? Edwin Jackson perhaps as a number five starter, if they could get him to forgive them for trading him minutes, not months after acquiring him the first time?) by and large the improvements the team needs will have to come from trades. Thankfully, the majors are full of teams rebuilding, retooling, or refooling, just like toronto has been for nearly two decades now. Plenty of teams would be willing, eager even, to take some of our excess talent and young maybes off our hands.
That in mind, Toronto needs to be willing to trade JP Arencibia, Yunel Escobar, Henderson Alvarez and others. In Arencibia’s case, he’s grown in stature behind the plate and is adequate if not better at calling games and blocking balls in the dirt. His average is low but he’s consistently hit for power and driven in runs. 128 RBI in 728 at bats last year and this put him in league with Nelson Cruz and Kevin Youkilis and would make him a low salary, highly desireable commodity for any number of teams. The Jays of course, could do worse than keeping him, but with solid backup Jeff Mathis locked up through 2014, under-rated Yorvit Torrealba newly acquired and their best overall prospect, Travis Darnaud bubbling under at AAA, he isn’t essential to the future anymore. Much the same is true of Escobar, temperamental but certainly above-average with the glove and capable of hitting solidly, but expendable now that Adeiny Hechevarria is on the scene. A month of Adeiny has shown he can indeed play defensive very slickly, which was never in question, but just as he did in AAA, game by game he looks more polished at the plate. Even if his average were to stagnate where it is now, at .228, his glove would make him a worthwhile player and no worse than two of our everyday players this season. But watching Adeiny learn and grow, plus the idea of having him tutored by fellow latinos like Bautista and Encarnacion makes one think his .310 average in Las Vegas was no fluke and he would be capable of duplicating Escobar’s numbers– at a fraction of the price. The five mil or so saved could be plugged straight into the pitching staff.
If Escobar and Arencibia are expendable but worth holding onto if possible; Brett Cecil and Colby Rasmus must go for everyone’s good. Maybe they can blossom into stars. I doubt it, but stranger things have happened. What’s clear is that it isn’t going to happen here. Sometimes players can stagnate in situations and only develop their talents in new situations with new coaches. Alex Rios seems to finally be maturing in Chicago and becoming the player the jays always hoped he would be. But there’s no guaranteeing he wouldn’t still be a .210 hitting , lazy-looking outfielder swearing at young fans were he still payrolled at Rogers Centre. And he wouldn’t have created a window of opportunity for Joey bats to shine with his departure. Likewise, it’s entirely possible that if he hadn’t come to Toronto, talked to Vernon Wells and been managed by Cito gaston, Bautista might be out of baseball, or still warming the bench in Pittsburgh when not assigned to Altoona. This is the reason there a bevy of teams who’d still offer reliable players who’d be an upgrade for Toronto for packages involving either of these two perennial “could be greats”. Cecil is a 26 year old southpaw who had a 15 win season. This is what the Jays need to stress when trading him, not that he’s also a lad who’s velocity has dropped, who disliked Roy Halladay because he felt Doc’s work ethic showed him up and who has trouble keeping the ball down.Only 22% of balls hit off him this year have been grounders, making him highly succeptible to homers. He does manage lefty hitters quite well, limiting them to an .189 batting average (vs a .311 average by right-handed hitters), but there’s no way of knowing if he’ll work as a specialized reliever and even if he could, Toronto already has two good ones in the ‘pen in savvy veteran Darren Oliver and promising sidearmer Aaron Loup. Let some other team experiment with him.
As for Rasmus, he can run. He can catch. He can hit. He just seldom does even two out of three on a given day. And he doesn’t like taking advice on how to do so. Yes, he hasnt’ had the same level of conflict here he did with Tony LaRussa in St Louis, but he clearly doesn’t like being told how to play his game. Which is fine if you happen to be Babe Ruth circa 1925, Albert Pujols circa 2006, or even Jose Bautista circa May 2011. But not if you’re a .227 hitter prone to striking out several times a game. Fact is, Rasmus has now been with the Jays for well over a season. In the 7 and a half months since brought on from the Cards, he’s had one good month- this June. Besides June 2012, as of this past weekend, Rasmus had managed to hit an even .200 in 497 at bats, strike out some 134 times while walking only 38 times and knocked 17 out of the yard. Numbers you might put up with if you’re an also ran and the player is a gold glove middle infielder or rock-solid catcher. But not if you’re a team pretending to compete and the player is an outfielder. Maybe he’ll find the inspiration or spark to be the star he was presumed to be by both St Louis and Toronto, but with a busload of other outfielders around the organization, I’d rather not take the chance that he won’t. Get rid of him while some other teams look at him with stars in their eyes and a calendar of June, his 8 home run, 25 RBI month in front of them.
Speaking of outfielders, even if Rasmus is traded, the team still has major-league ready Anthony Gose and Moises Sierra to go along with speedy veteran Rajai Davis. Given that there’s a need for one more power hitting outfielder, there would be one outfield spot plus perhaps a backup role available. Three is more than two, so let’s decide on which two we want around and make the other available for their career’s sake and for garnering players who do have a chance of playing time.
All that is fine and good but the one thing that the Jays most need to shift their mindset on with regards to trades is Michigan’s Big Three. No not GM, Ford and Chrysler, but Syndergaard, Sanchez and Nicolino, three 20 year old pitchers down at A-ball Lansing. Yes, all three have talent. Yes, all three have pitched well (well- not fantastically) this year with the Lugnuts. Cumulatively theyre 25-13 with an ERA under 3.00 and 317K over only299 innings. Yes the Blue Jays are selling them as Cy Young One Two and three for 2014 and on, and even some neutral observers like Baseball America’s Jim Callis have compared them to Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine (although he does admit Syndergaard doesn’t quite ‘match up’ to Maddux). One unnamed scout told the sun’s Bob Elliott that lefty Justin Nicolino is the “best of the three– reminds me of Jimmy Key, but more velocity.” He has a 7:1 strikeout to walk ratio this season.
All fine, all good, all promising. But it pays to remember that if things go according to normal plan and timing , they wouldn’t be ready for the bigs until 2015 and in all likelihood would only come into their own two or three years after that. Granted, when it comes to young pitchers, Toronto’s theme song has become Husker Du’s “Land speed record” rather than the Eagles “Take It Easy”; the remarkable thing about Marcus Strohman isn’t that he was suspended recently for violating the game’s substance rules but that the team said this derailed plans to have him pitch in the majors this year! Only three months ago he was an amateur. Had Tampa signed him, they’d plan for him to be with the club in september– 2016. Not all of thirty innings after being drafted and turning pro. But given that the last pitcher to come to the majors with Toronto and make any impact was Ricky Romero (2009) whose career had stalled for about 4 years before finally reaching MLB, whereas Tampa keeps winning on their renewable army of arms, the Toronto model is to be polite “redoubtable.” One look at the transactions sheet in baseball any day shows that the only thing rarer than a winning knuckleballer these days is a pitcher who’s arm stays healthy. The chances of all three of the kids staying fresh, strong and not needing to go to Dr Andrews for a visit from “Tommy John” before ’15 or ’16 is slim. They might blow their arms out. They might get fat midsections or fat egos. Their velocity might drop inexplicably ala Brett cecil. Very few stars at A-ball end up being stars in the majors. I for one am not willing to bet the farm and three or four more losing seasons on this trio being the rare exceptions. That isn’t to say it’s imperative to trade them, merely to say that it is imperative to be open to that idea if it will help the Jays of here and now .
Well, that’s enough about what the Jays can part with over the winter. Next time, we’ll examine who they could use to bolster the boat which right now appears to be sinking.
Gee, I could almost delude myself into thinking someone at the Rogers Centre was paying attention to me here! Or else that I simply speak for the rank and file Blue Jays fans. Either way, a great big thumbs up to the Blue Jays for rectifying the annoying long standing wrong with the team’s image this week by introducing a ‘new” logo and uniform.
Yay! The blue is back in the Blue Jays, the black and silver is gone and not missed and the loved birdie of the original logo has flown back– well, almost. Sure, the logo is ever so slightly modified from the 1977 one, all the better to sell a few more new caps, and the font now is a serif font rather than non-serif, but essentially the look is right back to the one we fell in love with from the team we fell in love with . The one that was great and eventually brought us a World Series championship. Then another. Looking at Jose Bautista in the publicity photos yesterday, if I’d taken off my glasses, could have made me think I was looking at a photo of one of the Crew of 92. Or I could think I was looking at the very designs I posted here mid-summer sewn to life and on an All-star. Fan response seems to be positive across the board.
Now, of course the job for Alex anthopolous and his staff is to bring back the other part of that era we feel nostalgic for as well– the victories , the playoff games. And with an extra wild card slot in the mix for next year, the number of excuses for not bothering just shrank some more.
If, and that is always a big caveat, newspaper reports can be believed, the jays may be close to doing so. Rumours abound this week of Mark Buerhle or James shields, Joe Nathan and second baseman Brandon Phillips being close to on their way to a Skydome near you soon.
Let’s bring back the glory all the way, boys!
In general , the awards this week aren’t too controversial or fodder for argument (although I’d still take Roy Halladay’s 19 wins and 2.34 ERA with two games washed out after minutes over Clayton Kershaw’s 21 W and 2.28 ERA in his pitcher-friendly , devoid-of-bats, wave Hi to Seattle and Oakland in interleague games division , but that’s just me) and I do think Jeremy Hellickson is the correct pick for AL Rookie of the Year. That said– c’mon! How is it nobody- not even a Toronto scribe – managed to find a place for JP Arencibia on their ballot?
Arencibia plays the most difficult position in the game and managed to do so remarkably well in his first complete year, silencing naysayers– including yours truly. His .993 fielding pct was only a mere one point off the numbers set by john Buck last year in his “breakout” season. Coupled with his durability behind the plate – 129 games- and .438 slugging percentage, 23 homers and 78 Rbi that surely should have merited some notice somewhere!
I’d take those numbers over Mark Trumbo’s .254 average and 29 home runs playing the easiest position.
Shame on Toronto sportswriters for snubbing JP.