Tagged: Marcus Stroman

The Rise, Fall And Phoenix-like Re-rise Of The Blue Jays

You have to feel a wee bit bad for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Baseball’s top prospect came up to intense pressure earlier this year, and for about two months posted decent, but quite ordinary numbers, to the dismay of adoring fans primed by the media to expect the second coming of Ted Williams. Now, since he got in the national spotlight in the All Star Game home run derby, he’s been red hot. He’s hit not one but two grand slams in the last couple of weeks, and over the past 10 games has driven in 18 while hitting well over .400. He was, deservedly, the American League Player of the Week last week. Yet seemingly, all we are hearing about in the Blue Jays world is Houston pitchers and Vlad’s teammates bad fielding. Ergo, bad decisions by General Manager Ross Atkins.

Many have termed it a “perfect storm” of problems for Toronto’s front office this past trade deadline. They traded away the team’s most popular pitcher for two minor leaguers few seem inspired by, then managed to give away a former star-starting pitcher (Aaron Sanchez), a reliable middle-inning reliever (Joe Biagini) and a sharp minor league outfielder Cal Stevenson, all for one middling (to be kind) 25 year old Houston minor league outfielder, Derek Fisher. Fans were livid. Of course, you know the rest of the story, one so wild even Hollywood would balk at it for being too unrealistic. Sanchez and Biagini (with a few pitches of help from another bullpen arm) combined on a no-hitter their first time to the mound for the Astros. The same night, Fisher makes the highlight reel after leaving the game injured after having a fly ball smack him in the face after bouncing off his closed glove. #shatkins and #fireatkins were two of the more printable trending topics in Toronto social media that night. The next day, Sanchez put a full page ad in the Toronto Sun daily paper thanking the fans and people of the city for the opportunity to pitch in the big leagues and making him feel at home. A class move.

All the while, Ross Atkins continued to throw gasoline on the fire smugly making references to “20 pitchers” who “check all the boxes” to be major league starters and glibly talking about Fisher’s impressive fielding skills. And ignoring Marcus Stroman’s comments upon arriving in New York that he had won a Gold Glove, been an All Star, pitched back-to-back 200 inning seasons and never once been spoken to, let alone congratulated by front office.

Atkins and his office cohorts don’t get it. The Blue Jays have at times set MLB attendance records, and as recently as 2016 led the league in people through the turnstiles. Last year, and to date this year, they lead the league in drop-off in attendance. The fans are speaking, loud and clear. They don’t like Atkins nor the direction he’s taking the team, which is currently on pace for its losingest season since 1979.

Former MLB commissioner Bud Selig talks of how baseball failed initially in Milwaukee in the ’60s, noting that the owner at the time was an out-of-towner who responded to falling attendance by trading away the team stars and raising prices, not “doing anything to market itself” and assuming you merely need to “open your doors” to win. Taking the crowds for granted. Or, as the column Tao of Stieb, (not written by Dave Stieb it should be noted) pointed out in a Sportsnet publication… owned by the same parent company as the Blue Jays themselves… “if you look at the end of any fallen franchise regime, losing the confidence of the fans was always a key part.” He also notes listening to Atkins is like hearing a “post-doctoral thesis” about contract control and so on and that fans aren’t willing to wait until 2024 for one single shot at winning before he decides to scrap the key parts of the team being developed now.

So what would I do if I was made GM? If I had to try to steer the Blue Jays forward from the mess they’re in now?

Well, since it’s August, the new trade deadline is passed so we wouldn’t need to be consumed with ideas for trades between now and the World Series. Which actually simplifies things. Although it doesn’t preclude watching the waiver wire… Toronto missed a chance at not re-claiming Javy Guerra, who started the season with us in the bullpen, and was DFA’d by Washington. He cleared waivers and is now back in the Nats organization.

For me, job one would be to formulate a plan for 2020 that includes taking a shot at winning. Hell, Vladdy’s starting to hit .400 and an RBI+ per game (even if only on a short run), Bo Bichette’s hitting up a storm, over the past two months Toronto’s averaging north of 5 runs a game… it’s not a stretch. IF there’s pitching that is. Not just Ross Atkins’ imaginary list of 20 kid pitchers, that is. Right now, according to MLB scouting, only one minor league Blue Jay (Nate Pearson) really projects to be an average or better MLB pitcher any year soon. And yes, some rookies like Sean Reid-Foley and Jacob Waguespack have been decent at times, and Ryan Borucki could be the real deal IF he doesn’t need Tommy John surgery (he’s seeing Dr Andrews this week due to ongoing elbow troubles), but at best that probably equals about one good spot in the rotation next year. Matt Shoemaker should be back healthy, so that’s two, Trent Thornton is a possibility. With injuries and unreliability of young pitcher’s trajectories, it’s safe to say we need at very least two solid, reliable new starters next year. I’d be looking at the list of free agents this winter and making a few calls to teams about pitchers they might want to part ways with after October. (Carlos Carrasco? Jacob Degrom? Sonny Gray?)

Then on to job two, which is re-connecting with fans. Although to do that, we might have to leapfrog to job three, which is connecting with the roster. No one’s refuted Stroman’s claims, and that’s just wrong. The GM doesn’t need to be out partying with his players or invited to the catcher’s kid’s birthday party, but he should know his players and let them know where they stand. What they’re doing well, what needs to change. I’d try to talk to each one of the guys on the roster ASAP, let them know where they stand, what the team plans for them in the future and listen to their thoughts and concerns. Make it clear that Toronto cares about them and wants the city and team to be a desirable spot for them to live and work. I’d probably start with Justin Smoak, the only real long-term veteran on team and the only major free agent after this season. I’d float him the idea of keeping him around for a few more years, and even if not getting a contract done, try to reach an agreement to talk about it before he leaves town in November. The time is right for both.

Smoak’s batting average is way down (.207) but he’s still getting on base reliably and hitting dingers (18, despite time on IL). And he’s a plus-fielder, something noteworthy when behind him are outfielders trying to catch fly balls with their face. A two year extension would solidify the infield and give a mature veteran presence in the clubhouse. And his wife Kristin helps too; she’s one of the team and the city’s biggest social media boosters and a big part of the Lady Jays help organization. Exactly the people the team can benefit from having represent them in the community.

Back to step 2. Time to be humble, tell the fans we probably messed up a bit in the past couple of years but we have some great young talent and a desire to compete with the big boys next year. to speed up that message, I’d get the team to mail out each season ticket holder something as a token of appreciation – maybe a Vlad jersey (yes, expensive, but with only about 10 000 of those fans left, the cost to them would be less than a million bucks… baseball chump change) and coupons off next season’s tickets. Then I’d pick by lottery about 200 or so such ticket holders, rent a nice community center, invite them for a nice free dinner and discussion. Tell them exactly how the team’s going to get better, have a few of the players up on the front table as well to sign autographs and take a few questions from the crowd.

Because as it stands, Toronto may only win about 62 games this year. It’s a long road from 62 wins to a playoff berth. It’s a longer, steeper road from a spot where attendance is crumbling and hashtags comparing the team management to excrement are popular to being the toast of the town once again.

The Stro Show, Away It Go…

Well if nothing else, these are interesting times for the Blue Jays and their fans. Whether or not you subscribe to the idea of the saying “may you live in interesting times” being a wicked curse is up to you.

Of course Toronto, on the positive side, called up their top-rated prospect, Bo Bichette today meaning that 3/4 of their infield is now made up of rookies whose dads were All Stars – Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio being the other two. Bo promptly delivered a line drive single tonight in Kansas City in his first big league at bat.

That was facilitated by the team’s trading of Eric Sogard to Tampa; the “nerd” started the game in Toronto’s clubhouse and apparently was told to walk across the field mid-game to join his new employer.He said he was a bit confused as to who to cheer on. The Jays get back two “players to be named” from the Rays, which seems odd (if they are unknown why two?) suggesting perhaps they are players on the injured list or something which would prevent them transferring right now.

Sogard’s been popular and useful this season in his Toronto debut, but it’s not a horrible trade. Eric’s traditionally been a 25th man, a utility infielder with little hitting ability. Somehow this year he’s having a career year, hitting .300 with 10 homers already compared to his 11 before over parts of 7 seasons. Sogard would be a great veteran presence and a good bench player for 2020, but as he’s a free agent he might well walk away in fall anyway and it’s quite unlikely he will be (as a few fans on Twitter suggested) the next Jose Bautista, a career journeyman who suddenly dips into the Toronto pool and becomes a flat out superstar.

Unless you’re a bigtime fan, you might not have even noticed the Sogard deal, because hours later Toronto pulled off the biggest trade in the majors so far this July, trading their staff “Ace” Marcus Stroman to the New York Mets for two pitching prospects- Anthony Kay and Simeon Woods-Richardson. Torches are lit and the noise coming from P.O.’d Jays fans rivals that heard in Edmonton decades ago when their Oilers shipped hockey legend Wayne Gretzky south to the city of Angels.

Reaction has been over-the-top for sure, but one can’t argue with the fact that it’s a deal which does little for the Jays.

Regular readers here know I’ve been of mixed emotions about Stroman through the years. He has at times been immature, and quite frankly no one seems as impressed with Marcus Stroman’s successes as Marcus Stroman and his personal Twitter account. He gets on opponents nerves by his fist-pumping and high-energy celebrations when he gets a big out.

On the other hand… he’s a pretty good starting pitcher. He made the AL All Star team this season, and with good reason. Although low run support has kept his winning percentage below .500 (6-11 right now), he’s been strong more starts than not and his 2.96 ERA is (was) 5th best in the AL among pitchers with 60 innings logged, let alone “qualified” (ie- an inning per game team has played.) He is one of the most reliable pitchers in getting grounders, a major benefit in a division where at least three ballparks are home run hitters dreams. And don’t forget the young guy already won a Gold Glove in his career. Or that he is a favorite of other pitchers in the clubhouse and by all accounts, a good mentor, as the Toronto Star detailed this week.

In return, the Jays get the Mets top two pitching prospects. Which sounds good…except that Fangraphs consider New York’s farm system to be only 23rd best in baseball (Toronto,8th… San Diego is considered to be the top minor league system) and that even Kay is only the 4th best prospect from New York. Neither pitcher made the MLB list of 100 best prospects.

On the surface, Kay seems like the “catch”, being that he’s 24 and has been pitching in AAA this summer.Woods-Richardson is barely 18 and was only drafted last summer, and is in low-A ball. However, some Toronto sources figure Simeon is the better potential star, with a 97 MPH fastball shot from a 3/4 arm angle, and a good curveball. KAy on the other hand has what scouts deem only “average” fastballs and curve, though Toronto have said it is “a plus curveball with elite spin.” Time will tell. So far though, AAA batters haven’t made him look too elite; he’s 1-3 with a 6.61 ERA and 40 hits allowed in 31 innings after a good start to the year at AA.

The argument the management has made is essentially “it’s the best offer we had” and they pointedly say the Twins and Braves made lesser offers for Stroman, while the other team in Marcus’ hometown (Yankees) seemed to lose interest when Toronto wanted their top pitching prospect. It may be so but it misses the obvious- they didn’t have to trade Stroman!

He wasn’t going to be a free agent until the end of 2020, leaving them time to re-up him, or if things go badly next season, look for a better offer next July. Hopefully, go to the 2020 post-season with Stroman on the mound. Instead they jettison the only reliable starting pitcher they have in favor of a “back-end of the rotation” guy a year or two from now and a possible – vaguley possible – star in about 5 years, by which time they’ll probably be wanting to trade the likes of Guerrero and Bichette if they develop as expected. It’s dumb, dumb dumb. And it shows a total tone-deafness as to what the fans want. Fans who pay the freight for both the pitchers, and the office staff like Ross Atkins, mastermind of this team on pace to be the worst Toronto one since the 1970s.

So it goes. Congratulations Trent Thornton. Six months ago you were an anonymous aging minor league pitcher in the Astros organization. Now, you’re the ace of the Blue Jays staff. With 3 career wins and a 5.45 ERA and a decent record of at least going to the mound when called on this year.

For the record, the outspoken Stroman eventually tweeted apparent happiness about playing in NYC… after he threw a major,loud tantrum in the clubhouse according to both Chris Cwik of Yahoo and Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun. Say one thing for Marcus- he likes to win. He was not pleased to be shipped from one losing, fourth-place team with questionable direction to another fourth-place team with questionable direction. So,we say without sarcasm, best of luck Marcus. Hope you’re more appreciated in New York City … or at least in the New York front offices.

Alek Could Be Man-O-the-Hour Sooner Than We Think

It’s been a trying enough time lately for us Jays fans, with an array of losses, Cavan Biggio struggling in his first weeks as a major leaguer yet being told already by manager Charlie Monotyo he needs to be the clubhouse leader and Teoscar Hernandez, one of the worst fielding outfielders ever to take the field in the blue-and-white now being annointed as the new Centerfielder. Not to mention aging Edwin Jackson,who gave up 10 earned runs a few days back and has an ERA of over 11 being told he’s still in the rotation because in the words of the manager, “we don’t have anyone else.”

So, as much as the desire is there to comment on those things, or on Marcus Stroman going off on another one of his “me-I-me-me” rants and dissing his teammate Randal Grichuk online, let’s try to find a bit to be happy about as Jays fans. Starting with the recent draft, in which MLB figures Toronto made out among the top six teams with their drafts.

Their first round pick is hard to dispute. For years, Toronto seems to have been obsessed with “big” hard-throwing pitchers. Yes, Justin Verlander is 6’5” and of course, going back a ways, Randy Johnson was somewhere between “too tall to go through doors” and “Jolly Green Giant” but there also have been more than enough great pitchers of more normal dimensions. Take little Stroman, mouthy and sometimes lacking a filter between his brain and texting fingers, but still a fine, hard-working pitcher at 5’8”. All that said, I think we have to expect the Blue Jays first pick, Alek Manoah is a good one.

The lad from West Virginia U. is 21, 6’6” , maybe 6’7”, weighs in about 260, which the team admits puts him in the rare category of CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda among current MLB starters size-wise. But the right-hander has a fastball coming in at 95 regularly, 98 in a pinch, and a “plus slider” according to Baseball America. With his Mountaineers college team he was a pretty solid 9-4, 2.08 ERA and 144 Ks in just 108 innings this spring… me too, I had no idea they played that many games in university ball!

Anyway, Manoah is big, strong, has three good pitches apparently and – not to be undervalued- seems excited to be a Blue Jay and is already interacting nicely with Toronto fans on social media. At 21, I would project him to throw a few innings this summer in an A-club like Vancouver and be ready for AA next season. I like the pick and can only hope it ushers in a new-’90s for Toronto. In the 1990s, the Blue Jays managed to draft in the first round Shawn Green in ’91, Chris Carpenter in ’93, Hall of Famer Roy Halladay in ’95 (nice addition to that story, they picked his son Braden this draft in the 32rd round) and Vernon Wells in ’97. By the 2000s they’d gone on to such first round trivia answers as Gabe Gross, Russ Adams and Miguel Negron who collectively would make a pretty OK beer league softball team in some small towns.

I have a few more reservations about their second round pick, yet another big pitcher, Kendal Williams. The Florida high school kid is 6’7” and strong but there’s a whole lot that can go wrong in the probably six years between him picking up his $1.4M cheque and potentially being ready to pitch in the Majors. Third round pick Dasan Brown is also a teen, but he’s a speedy outfielder and a hometown boy who played for Canada’s Junior National Team. Obviously there’s also a lot that can go wrong there also, but his signing bonus is lower and outfielders are a little less likely to have career-limiting injuries when young than pitchers, and as a (suburban) Torontonian, he’s not a bad addition and Lord knows, right now the Jays are weak in the outfield!

They are a long ways off but they could be important names for Toronto in years to come.

To try to keep a positive spin, next we’ll look at the best ever… the Blue Jays best players ever to set foot on the astroturf.

Phone Calls For Ross Atkins To Make, Part 2 – New York

Last time we looked at a call Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins should make, to the Indians to try and land a top-flight starting pitcher. Today, another call, another pitcher. Eyeball your I-phone, or activate that Android, Ross and dial

NEW YORK

to remind the Yankees of that Sheryl Crow song – “A Change Will Do You Good.” Why not flip bedeviled starters? Acquire Sonny Gray for Marcus Stroman. This would be very close to “six of one, half a dozen of the other”. Both teams shed a starter with star power who’s struggled of late and might benefit from a change of scenery. Stroman will be 27 next spring, Gray just turned 29. Both righties have had some excellent years in their young careers. Gray in 2015 (with Oakland) was 14-7 with a great 2.73 ERA over 200+ innings. Stroman, as recently as 2017 got some Cy Young votes, going 13-9, with a 3.09 ERA, 201 innings and received a Gold Glove to boot.

But things haven’t gone well of late. Gray was noted by Athlon sports pre-2016 as having an unusual (76.8%) rate of men left on base for him the year before and pondered if he could follow up that level of success. Answer: in Oakland, possibly, in the Big Apple no way. He’s been a big disappointment for the Pinstripers and from all accounts doesn’t like the pressure of the big city, big expectation fans. Since being traded there in 2017, he’s struggled. Last year, he was 11-9, but that was on a triple-digit win team. His ERA was bad – 4.90 – and his Baseball-reference WAR was 0.6 (with an ERA like that on a team of New York’s caliber, one wonders how he added any wins compared to a “replacement.”) His 2015 WAR, for comparison was 5.5. He particularly struggled in the Bronx, being 4-4 with a 6.98 ERA at home, compared to a decent enough 7-5, 3.17 on the road.

Stroman too struggled through 2018. He battled blisters on his fingers all season and was limited to 19 starts and 102 innings. His results were not wonderful, 4-9 with a 5.54 ERA and a not that good 77:36 K to BB ratio, well below his career norm of slightly better than 3:1. His WAR was a scant 0.2, compared to 5.7 the year before.

Both pitchers made around $6.5M last year and are going to arbitration this winter, in all likelihood bringing in about $7M for ’19. It won’t benefit or harm either team financially although Stroman won’t be a free agent until after 2020’s season, whereas Gray will be next winter.

WHY TORONTO LIKE THIS – It brings a new arm to the rotation, one who at worst is probably as good as any pitcher they already have in the #3 or 4 spot. At best, outside of the pressure cooker on the Hudson, he might relax and return to his better A’s form. Encouraging signs for Toronto for that to happen would include his better second half last year (he was 5-2, 3.63 after the All Star game) and his good results against Baltimore, Boston and Tampa last year. He had a collective 2.84 ERA against those 3 teams last year, and of course would see them a lot wearing the blue-and-white. As well, there’s not much difference in his fastball velocity over the past three years. What did change was he threw more “subpar” cutters in New York and he altered his stance a wee bit, holding his hands a bit higher as he went into the windup. Seemingly small things that could be easily changed by Pete Walker.

Getting rid of Stroman would irk some fans, but others would cheer. Little Marcus (one of the 6 shortest starting pitchers this century, at 5’8”) has had a big chip on his shoulder when it comes to the team. While, to his credit, he’s been a cheerleader for the city , he’s frequently publicly bashed the Jays management and fought them tooth and nail in arbitration.

WHY NEW YORK LIKE IT – they get a starting pitcher likely to be as good as, if not better than, Gray has been there and they get him for at least one extra season. As well, he’s more or less a hometown boy, being born in the suburbs. He’s a grinder, which might appeal to fans, and has a better than average ERA every year up to last. Unlike Gray, Stroman seems to like pitching in front of big,loud crowds.

The trade could backfire on either team, such being the nature of sport. But it could also rejuvenate both players’ careers and bolster both teams while being revenue neutral. It’s worth a ring-a-ding, Ross Atkins.

The Starter Toronto Needs To Ship Out…No, It’s Not J.A.

As we hit the All Star Break, the Blue Jays, 2018 edition, seem very like the Blue Jays, 2017, which is to say rather disappointing and with little very significant to play for . (Like last year, getting back to .500 might be about the most realistic goal for them to achieve.) And once more, as is usually the case with teams running well behind the last wild card team come mid-July, there are lots of trade rumors swirling around the team as it’s assumed (in most cases correctly) that the General Managers of such teams will want to jettison any high-salary player not both signed on beyond the current year but essential to the team’s future as well. In the Jays case, while Steve Pearce has already moved onto greener monsters… err , pastures, and Curtis Granderson and Tyler Clippard’s names come up not infrequently the name it all seems to revolve around is JA Happ. Little wonder, as starting pitching is always at a premium and Happ, a free agent after this season, is the team’s sole All Star representative and being his usual reliable self, with 10 wins and well past 100 innings, even if recent missteps have driven his ERA up to uncharacteristically high levels (4. 29).

I say the Jays should be shopping around a starting pitcher actively and trying to get what they can that will help the team be more competitive for 2019. Only for me, the guy they need to ship out pronto is not JA Happ but Marcus Stroman. If I was Ross Atkins, I’d be talking to JA and his agent, doing my best to re-sign him for a couple more years at least. Granted,Happ will turn 36 not long after the team clear out their lockers at year’s end, but he’s a relatively low-impact, finesse pitcher, the type who usually is slow to lose form and quality. Thinking of him pitching when 37 or 38 is far from unrealistic. And while his ERA is up some this year, his strikeouts are up, he’s holding opponents to a lower batting average than last year and his ratio of strikeouts to walks is fairly consistent with past years.  In short, there’s

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Too Soon To Plan A Parade, But Early Returns Look Good

It’s too early to be arrogant or start planning out a November parade… but this year’s Blue Jays team offers a lot more optimism than last year’s edition! Through two weeks so far, as we know, the Jays are a pretty solid 8-4, behind only the redhot Red Sox (and notably, 2.5 games ahead of the much-vaunted Yankees.

There’s a lot to like so far. Aaron Sanchez’s flirting with a no-hitter last night not the least of it. That he lost the “no-no” bid in the 8th is irrelevant. The team pulled off a squeaker in style and more importantly, the third decent start from Sanchez shows that miraculously he’s seemed to have shaken off the nefarious blister problem that scrubbed his 2017 season. In so doing, he’s also reminded us that before those finger ouchies, he was among the very best of the league’s pitchers in 2016 (leading in ERA in fact.) Justin Smoak has had good games and nothing much games, but is tied for the lead league in RBI so far, suggesting that his ’17 was no fluke. In the same game, roberto Osuna became the youngest player ever to record 100 MLB saves. Congratulations to him!

The numbers back up the team’s resurgence. Last night’s 8th win of the year came a full 20 days sooner than last year’s (when they won on the final game of the month to ‘improve’ to 8-17.) So far this season, they’ve scored more than 5 runs, five times. Last year they did that just 5 times in all of April. That translates into 61 runs so far, second best in the AL to the Angels (although to be fair, Boston have 56 in 10 games, for a better average per game.) Their 3.62 ERA is 6th best in the AL but second to only Boston in the division and as a result their run differential of +17 is fourth best in the league. Last year by comparison, they had a dismal -91 on the year, allowing 91 more runs than they scored- a difficult number to have if a team wants to have even an outside shot at playoff glory!

Their .235 batting average isn’t showy, in fact it’s only 10th best in the league (real surprise – Cleveland are last with an atrocious .158, resulting in only 31 runs.) But the numbers that really matter are better in that department. Their .437 slugging percentage is third best in the AL and best in the division, Aaron judge and his Pinstripes notwithstanding. And as we already noted, the bottom line is they’re scoring runs almost as well as any team going, which is the number that counts.

The pitching is even more reason for optimism. The 3.62 ERA , which sounds stellar, is actually 6th best in the AL . there’ve been a lot of shutouts and low-scoring games thus far! But it is second only to Boston in the AL East and the relievers have been spot-on. thus far, they have a cumulative 2.66 ERA despite being called on for better than 3 innings a game so far. If and when Marcus Stroman hits his stride, the starters’ numbers will improve, bullpen may be required to eat up a few less innings and the team could be among the elite pitching squads of 2018. Even if they just kept the current performance, they’d be looking at 594 runs given up through the year, which was topped last season by only Cleveland.

In the field, the .982 fielding percentage sounds normal, but there seems to be an influx of Gold glove caliber defenders this season, so it ranks only 13th best in the league. Noteworthy though- the two teams they are ahead of in that category are 2015 world Champs Kansas City and the all-powerful Yankees.

None of these stats really count for that much. It is, after all, early. There are a full 150 games to play still. Cleveland is bound to start getting a few hits sooner or later; Giancarlo Stanton will almost certainly eventually adjust to the new league and hit a few dingers in the Big Apple. But likewise, Randal Grichuk may not be the new 2012-vintage Bautista, but is bound to get more than 1 hit a week for Toronto and Marcus Stroman (who missed half of Spring Training) might not be as good as he thinks he is but in no way is a pitcher who’ll cough up a run per inning over the long haul. So the Jays too have areas where they can actually get better. the important thing is that right now they are putting up “W”s and have a sense of possibility that was missing in the stands and on the field by this time last year.

Maple Leafs in the playoffs, Raptors with second best record in NBA, and our Jays holding tough in second place… it’s a good time to be a sports fan in the GTA!

Who’s The Ace Of Jays And What’s That Suit, Union?

Some odds and sods for the fourth last Thursday before baseball games that count begin:

Scores are not that meaningful at this point in Spring Training but the summaries sometimes are. One item in the newspaper , here in Texas this morning, caught my eye. In summing up a Jays loss to the Phils, it notes “Toronto ace Marco Estrada made his second start and pitched three shutout innings.”

Did you see it? The thing that jumped out at me was the use of the world “Ace” to describe Estrada. I imagine #6 , The Disgruntled One, might be jumping up and down and looking for the reporter to give him a piece of his mind and set the record straight about who the “Ace” is. But the thing of it is- I tend to agree. Partly it’s a gut feeling, partly a numbers thing, but I think I have more confidence in Estrada on the mound than I do in Marcus Stroman. Not to mention JA Happ or Aaron Sanchez.

Estrada kind of flies below the radar but it’s hard to find fault with his work since arriving in Toronto three years ago. Over 2015-16, he was one of the toughest pitchers to hit in the majors, limiting opponents to a .203 average (and a rather measly .636 OPS). While his 90mph fastball is average, his curve and the similar, drooping changeup befuddle the best of them. Although he only posted a 21-17 record for those two campaigns, his ERA was stellar (3.30) over the 357 innings he logged.

Now, you’re likely thinking “Yeah- but last year. His numbers weren’t great in ’17. But he finished strong and explains his bad stretch mid-season as due to insomnia and anxiety. Throw out the sleepless, bad June and July and you get a guy who was 10-4 with an ERA of 3.85 over 22 starts, 17 of them “quality.” Not bad at all. And through the good and bad months, he ended up with 186 innings logged and 176 strikeouts- career highs.

Now Marcus Stroman was superior last year, and it’s not unreasonable to think that with him just about to turn 27 he may still improve. No complaints about his 13-9, 3.09 ERA, 201 innings last season. But over the previous two years (including a forgettable 2016 after an injury-hampered ’15) he was collectively 13-10, 4.05 with only 21 quality starts to Estrada’s 34. More eyebrow-raising was his OPS those two years was .700 (not bad)…and it rose to .715 last year. Which shows how despite all the stats, baseball is a game to be watched., not defined by spreadsheets. And it’s unpredictable. In theory, Stroman gave up more to hitters last year but he succeeded better anyway. Go figure.

So Stroman or Estrada? Even before Stroman said his shoulder was sore this spring, I might lean towards Estrada. Then again, if Aaron Sanchez has gotten past those blisters finally, his name might enter the conversation too. Then there’s JA Happ, who won 20 two years back. He’s no slouch himself. All in all, it is the reason no one’s yet ready to write the team off in 2018… not many teams have this “problem” of picking the “Ace” among four pitchers of such talent!

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The ongoing hostility between the players and club owners/management continues unabated even with the signing of a few marquee free agents like Yu Darvish and Eric Hosmer. It got ramped up last week when the Players’ Union filed a grievance against four teams – Miami, Oakland, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay- for not complying with the rules regarding spending their “luxury tax” benefits. I’ve not been overly sympathetic to the griping free agents like Hosmer and JD Martinez grumbling ,seemingly wanting the sun and the moon with no regard to history and the list of bad multi-year deals teams are saddled with. But in this case, I think the players have a legit beef.

The union’s claim is that the four teams aren’t using the money they’re getting back from the league (mainly from Luxury Taxes, as well as some redistributed from local TV deals) to improve their teams . In fact, it could be argued they are deliberately torpedoing their own teams with an eye to fattening their own bottom line. The Pirates disagree, as I bet do the other 3. But it’s hard to argue otherwise with the Marlins stating cutting salary is Job 1 and trading off a perennial MVP candidate in Giancarlo Stanton and other stars including up-and-coming superstar outfielder Marcell Ozuna (of .312/37/124 numbers last year) . The Pirates likewise got rid of the “face” of the franchise, Andrew McCutchen to save about $14 million , which is marginally-defendable as he will be a free agent after this season, and their top pitcher, Gerritt Cole, which is less defendable with him earning less than half that amount and not being a free agent until 2020. Tampa likewise have been conducting a fire sale of veteran talent, while Oakland do nothing at all, apparently content in the knowledge that they’ll always have Moneyball.

Interestingly, the two teams that were the low-spenders last year aren’t named in the suit. Milwaukee and San Diego were skinflints last year (and the Brewers surprised by winning 86 and only missing the wild card by a game.) Both those teams have been active going after, and signing or trading for, players that will help out this season, like the aforementioned Hosmer in SD and Lorenzo Cain and (ex-Marlin) Christian Yelich in the Brew Crew’s case.

While one might cite “free enterprise” and suggest the owners have the right to spend their money, be it from their own team or handouts from the league, as they like, it isn’t the case. The CBA says, among other things, teams receiving payments need to spend “in an effort to improve its performance on the field.” Hard to see how trading off the likes of a Stanton or McCutchen do that,or in the A’s case, how status quo can be a good option for a team which has finished last three years straight. If the owners don’t like that, they can bargain with the players to change the restriction next time around. In the meantime, Tampa, Oakland, Pittsburgh and Miami need to pay attention and give their fans some hope by spending that extra cash.

By the way, the LA Drunken Sailors- err, Dodgers- again paid the most “luxury tax” (for exceeding a “threshold” payroll limit, which was in the range of $182 million + minor league contracts last year) for the 2017 season- $36 million. That due to their huge payroll of approximately $244M…which astoundingly is less than it was in 2015! Milwaukee had the smallest payroll last season, about $68M.

Garcia, Stroman Keep It Lively

Two pitchers dominate the Blue Jays news this week, for two different reasons. One adds to the team’s depth and chances of contending this year; the other was already considered a vital part of any plan for respectability.

The former is Jaime Garcia, the veteran who’ll be turning 32 around the time of the Mid-summer Classic. Best known as a middle of the rotation guy for the Cards, including the 2011 World Championship team, Jaime was signed by the Blue Jays yesterday to a one year guaranteed deal with an option for 2019. Last year was his first outside of St. Louis, he bounced around between Atlanta , Minnesota (where he only pitched once but got a win out of it) and New York where he finished with the Yankees. combined, he was a lacklustre 5-10, with a 4.41 ERA. His final year with the Redbirds wasn’t mind-blowing either; 10-13 with a 4.67 ERA. However, he’s logged over 1000 innings on his career and has a 67-55 record and hihgly respectable 3.69 ERA. Twice he won 13 games, and although his innings peak was 195 in the World Series season, with 25 more in that post-season. Cumulatively, he’s got more experience in the playoffs than most Jays pitchers, posting a once again respectable 3.62 ERA in 8 games.

While Garcia may be past his prime, he seems a good addition nonetheless. He’s not old, he’s not overpowering (thus not likely to lose it all quickly if his velocity dips a bit like some power pitchers see happen) and has a very good career record of keeping the ball low and eliciting ground balls 1.9 grounders per flyball. The importance of that can’t be overestimated in this division with its small parks and sluggers like Judge, Davis and Stanton waiting to bop them out of there.And he’s a lefty to boot. I wouldn’t bet a dime on him winning a Cy Young with the team, but that’s ok- all he really needs do is be a solid #5 starter, and toss some innings., two things he seems well capable of. I like the move, it makes a reasonably good staff better (and should mean Joe Biagini will either be in the ‘pen or Buffalo, learning more, instead of in the starting rote where he looked out of place last year) and it shows Ross Atkins is somewhat aware of the team’s shortcomings and has an interest in October baseball.

The other pitcher all over the news for Toronto yesterday was the ergo “Ace”, Marcus Stroman. For the second year in a row, the team went to arbitration with him and for the second year in a row, he lost. Faster than you can say “Donald Trump”

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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.

Oh man! Stroman not the man for Tuesday night. Let it be Liriano

Phew! It was a white-knuckle kind of last week but at least the Blue Jays are in, and back-to-back wins in Fenway on this past October weekend help fade the memories of the dismal 11-16 September a little. Obviously we’d have loved to have seen a better September and a Jays division title (which would have, by the way, made this pundit 6 for 6 in picking the division winners back in spring training) but we’ll take what we get.

Looking forward to tomorrow night’s wild card game, things look favorable for Toronto. Fans will be loud and of course, both teams are better on home turf. Toronto was 46-35 at Rogers Centre; Baltimore 39-42 on the road. The only cloud on the horizon that worries me is the rumor that Toronto will go with Marcus Stroman for the winner-take-all game. This would clearly be a mistake. Francisco Liriano is the man for the job (given that JA Happ and Marco Estrada would be on short rest if called upon, therefore not ideal for the start.)

Yes, Stroman may end up being the ace of the staff down the road. yes, he’s feisty and has great promise. But he’s not shown himself capable of handling big-time pressure this year and in fact, has been rather redoubtable. To be fair, it’s not much of a stretch to say it was only Marcus’ second real year in the bigs, and at that point in their careers, Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter didn’t look like much either. But here and now, Stroman has been a completely unreliable starter in 2016. With 204 innings logged, (46 more than he’d pitched in his whole big league career prior), it’s reasonable to think he might be a bit burned out, but then Aaron Sanchez has risen to the occasion with even less MLB experience. And Stroman hasn’t had a stretch of consistent good games at all this year. 9-10, 4.37 aren’t numbers that inspire confidence for a team that has to win a game; even less so his career numbers against Baltimore (2-3, 5.27, .298 opponents average.) Let’s not forget that Baltimore saw him last week, downing the Jays 4-0 in that game with Marcus giving up 9 hits and all 4 runs over 7 innings. The only positive would be to say that after not having a win at all in his last 7 outings, he should be due. But this seems a rather poor reason to risk the team’s season on him.

Liriano on the other hand, while posting so-so numbers on the year (8-13, 4.69) has been good with the Jays and of late, great. In his last four starts, he’s logged 24 2/3 innings with 26 K’s and only 4 earned runs, for a 1.46 ERA. His final start of the season, you may recall, he kept Baltimore off the board through 6 1/3 while striking out 10 (only to have the bullpen blow it but that’s another story.) And having pitched 163 or so innings this year, there’s no risk of him wearing out; the veteran has gone 160+ four previous years. Add in the fact that his career numbers against the Orioles are a bit better than Stroman’s (4.34 ERA vs 5.27, .273 opponent’s avg. vs .298) and the Orioles comparative difficulty hitting southpaws (well, compared to hitting righties like Stroman at least — the O’s hit .254 with a .709 OPS against left-handers, .266 with .758 against right-handers. As well they clipped homers at a one per 24 AB rate compared to one in 31 facing lefties.) and it should be a no-brainer.

Liriano goes on Tuesday and , thinking positive, the Jays will be set up to have Happ and Estrada pitch in Arlington later in the week. Sanchez could be the game 3 starter; Stroman should go to the bullpen to supplement a weakness there as could RA Dickey, who would add depth there should the team get locked into a lengthy extra-innings marathon.

Speaking of Dickey and that scenario, Josh Thole seems to make more sense as the back-up catcher than Dioner Navarro this post-season . Navarro in theory offers more pop with his bat, but hasn’t shown it this year (a meagre .182 avg with no extra base hits with Toronto in 16 games, not much different than Thole’s .169/1/7 line in 50) and Thole would at least be able to come in and catch that knuckleball should Dickey be brought in to toss more than one or two outs.

We’ll look at the rest of the post-season later in the week, with Toronto hopefully looking to see what’s new in Texas since the last time they saw those Rangers. If they are on the other hand,on the outside looking in because Marcus Stroman quickly dug them a hole they couldn’t climb out of on Tuesday night, we’ll likely be looking at the massive changes needed in team management on all levels, which will be a popular topic among fans I’m sure.