As we wait with bated breath for what we hope will be Toronto’s second-ever MVP Award (Go Josh Donaldson!) it’s a good time to look back on what was ultimately a pretty good season… and look ahead to April 3 when the Jays and Rays kick off the 2016 AL season. The Jays came close this year – how do they kick it up that final notch to make it to the World Series?
The good news, of course, is that most of the position players, the main core of the ’15 squad, are coming back (or at least under Toronto control). Bautista, Encarnacion, the ‘Bringer of rain’, Martin, Pillar, Tulowitzki… going nowhere. So too returning is a good portion of the pitching staff, including Dickey, Estrada, Stroman, Cecil and Osuna. The equally obvious bad news is that the free agency of David Price and Mark Buehrle will require Rogers to invest in a huge way to retain them, or leave a big hole that will be difficult to fill.
A few proposals here.
A Missed Proposal– perhaps it was the confusion surrounding Alex Anthopoulos’ leaving; perhaps it was the assumption the old lefty was retiring but the Blue Jays should have put in a qualifying offer on Mark Buehrle. There would have been no downside. If Buehrle retired, as he has suggested likely, it would have been a moot point. If he decided to pitch on, but for his hometown Cardinals, the Jays would have a sweet draft pick rather than nothing to show for it. And were he to decide to take them up on the offer and have one more go at a ring wearing the blue-and-white, we’d have retained a reliable 200-inning (or at least 199!) starter with 15-straight double-digit win years and a strong clubhouse presence. With inflation of pitching prices, $15M wouldn’t have been a high price to pay for that stability of the rotation. But that window is closed, so…
A Modest Proposal- the Jays bullpen not only was improved over the previous season, but got better as the year went along. All in all, the ‘pen was decent . Its 3.50 ERA and .231 opponents average were better than the league average (3.76, .245 respectively) and the 130 walks they issued was lowest in baseball. However, it still was only the fifth best in the AL by ERA and cost too many games in the springtime. A number of relievers are flooding the free agent market this winter and spending some of the money that could have been thrown at Buehrle to strengthen the back-end of the pitching staff makes sense. In particular, another strong southpaw to go with Cecil (and possibly the redoubtable Loup) would be a major plus. Tom Gorzelanny seems like a good choice; his surprisingly high 5.95 ERA in ’15 was an outlier but one which might drive his price down. Even with his inflated ERA over 48 games, he kept lefties to just a .222 average, so coupled with Cecil and the unusual Ryan Tepera (right-handed but more effective against LH hitters last season), it could make the Jays more than capable of dealing with lefty-heavy teams in the late innings next year.
Add in another good right-handed reliever for good measure and the bullpen could be a significant strength in ’16. Tyler Clippard anybody? Over the past three years he’s averaged 72 games a season, better than a K per inning and a 2.39 ERA. Last year he kept lefties to a ridiculous .137 batting average. Clippard may be the best reliever on the free agent market not typically considered a “closer”. As a plus, the signing of him or a similar right arm could make it much easier for Toronto to consider putting Aaron Sanchez back into the rotation. Best of all, the combo of Gorz and Clippard could probably be brought in for about $8M next year- far less than even an average starter to replace Buehrle.
A Price-y Proposal- this writer still thinks David Price is a tad over-rated. BUT, that said I also acknowledge he’s a pretty damn good pitcher and he was simply lights-out helping the Jays secure the playoff spot. All reports suggest he was a better-than-ordinary guy in the clubhouse as well, so there’s no reason not to want him back opening up the season for us next April. It is however, unlikely given the type of contract being bandied about as his due (e.g starting at 7 years, $210 M) . The Jays have good reason to be wary of offering up that type of deal, let alone getting caught in an outright bidding war for his services. The Phillies are a cautionary tale about locking in too many aging stars for too long and with Bautista and Encarnacion potentially gone after next season (and almost bound to be in the age of declining results soon) the window of opportunity for Toronto is short. But before throwing in the towel on Price, there might be two options to consider.
First, a short-term gamble. Everyone assumes Price wants a long, long, big contract but how wrong could it be to offer him an above-market value short contract? Be blunt with him, tell him he’s our guy for ’16 but might not fit in by 2020 or so and offer him a one-year deal at $33 Million. High? Yes! But having a Cy Young-candidate at the front end of a decent rotation with the offense the ’16 Jays will have might make it worthwhile. And at his end, if he’s confident enough, another top-flight season coupled with a perhaps better Post-season could jack his worth up for 2017… and he’d not be competing with Zack Greinke for top billing next winter.
If that ploy failed, Toronto could still offer a competitive long-term deal. But make it front-ended (which a player might like, having access to more cash sooner) so if he did end up pitching for a second-rate Toronto team at age 36 or 37, he wouldn’t be breaking the bank so much. AND – here’s the key- make the contract one that would give the team the opportunity to trade him after two or three years, and to balance it out, give him an opt-out clause similar to the one Greinke just exercised with LA.
If this kept the bird-of-blue on Price’s head next season, we’re pretty much set… if not, another tactic would be needed. More thoughts on alternative routes for upping the pitching ante in the next post here…
As I sat and watched, fairly disinterestedly, the Royals prevail against the Mets in last night’s marathon Game 1 of the World Series, I couldn’t help but think “Toronto could have won this game, and probably in 9 innings!”. Ahh, what might have been!
There’s no shame in being the bronze medal and that’s essentially what the Blue Jays were this year- baseball’s bronze medal winners. That’s a lot better than we’d really hoped for six months back. Yet it still smarts a little, knowing how close they came to having a shot to go for the gold. A sting made worse by the way KC won the final game of the ALCS, what with a very questionable ninth inning strike call against Ben Revere topping off a fan-assisted Royals homer. Nevertheless, lose they did and there were ample chances for them to have turned around at least a couple of the KC wins. Ultimately we might have to just tip our caps and acknowledge Kansas City have it all together and might be the best team in baseball.
When looking back to what the Blue Jays could have done differently, all I can come up with was that they seemingly took their foot off the gas a little bit in the final week. That’s pretty understandable, given human nature but might have cost them the World Series they, and we fans, craved. In particular i think 2 miscues cost them badly.
First, the October 1 game against Baltimore. Having clinched the division the day before in Maryland in Game 1 of a double-header, they fielded a team of subs for the second game and lost. Understandable, even acceptable. The regulars were not only high on winning the division but tired. No harm in putting in the likes of Carrera and Pompey for the nightcap. The problem came the next day when they again sent out a team of minor-leaguers and fill-ins. Cliff Pennington hitting second and Jonathan Diaz in the starting lineup hardly inspires confidence. Not to mention the starting pitcher, Drew Hutchison, well-rested to the point of being rusty and (as well-noted) having an awful season pitching on the road. Not surprisingly, Hutch gave up four hits (one a home run) and three runs in the first and was chased from the game, requiring six relievers patched together to get through the game. Baltimore won 6-4.
To make matters worse, David Price had last pitched on the 26th, making the day his normal day to pitch. As we recall, he didn’t pitch again until the playoffs and seemed out of sorts doubtless due to having an unusual amount of time off. It’s quite conceivable that Price would have easily gone six or more innings, shut down the Orioles early and won the game.
Of course, that is 20/20 hindsight. John Gibbons addressed the issue and told ESPN “we want to win home field … we’ve been going at it hard all year. Going back and playing an early game (for the regulars) today would be like no day off. I’ve got to do what’s best for these guys.” He has a point. It was a cool rainy day, the game’s start was delayed for three hours and most of the regulars had been playing hard day in, day out for weeks. Some, like Edwin Encarnacion playing through injuries. So giving them an extra day off to rest and chill out has its merits. Besides which, Diaz and Kawasaki, two of the more questionable players in the lineup both responded with RBI singles. Had Encarnacion made his hernia worse, or David Price slipped off the muddy mound and torn a ligament, there would have been no end to the second guessing and criticizing of Gibby.
Perhaps even more questionable was the last day of the regular season. Readers here know I am a fan of Mark Buehrle but giving him the start on one day’s rest simply to allow him to try to hit a personal milestone (200 innings pitched for the 15th time in a row) was bizarre to say the least. Of course it backfired with the Rays jumping out to an early 8 run lead and as it turned out, chasing Buehrle from the game in the first, without even hitting his 200 innings. It would have been far better to send RA Dickey out to the mound to start and then, if the game seemed under control by the 6th or 7th inning, let Buehrle come in to finish it off if he felt up to it. Dickey would have been on short rest, but 3 days rest is better than one and he wasn’t slated to pitch until well into the ALDS, so he’d have plenty of time to recuperate. It was a regrettable game to give away. Granted, as it turned out KC would win that day and pick up the AL-best 95 wins but the Jays didn’t know that taking the field and still had a shot to win home field advantage throughout the playoffs. We saw how huge that would be this month.
The Royals lost their opening playoff game at home to Houston on Oct. 8 and haven’t lost in Missouri again since. The Jays won 2 of 3 against them in Toronto but were swept in KC. Had the fields been reversed, one has to feel that the Jays might have at least gotten to game 7…and could be the ones putting those Mets in their place right now.
The things that might have been. We could dwell on it, but instead, let’s look back and enjoy the memories of the most exciting and successful Jays team in a generation and look forward to another run for the gold next year!
I’ll look at some areas the team needs to address for the 2016 season next time here, but the first need is obvious- the General Manager. Rogers need to get someone in place and soon, with free agency only a week or so away and players having options that need picking up or declining. I’m as surprised as anyone to say it, but after the 2015 season, I now am fully behind the idea of bringing Alex Anthopoulos back to finish what he started. That should be Mark Shapiro’s Job 1.
UPDATE OCT.29: Well Mark Shapiro DID make it his Job 1, but in a rather unexpected way. The Blue jays now are looking for a new General Manager.
Yesterday I gave you my thoughts on Toronto’s post-season roster, or the position players at least. As explained, given Troy Tulowitzki’s precarious health status (last night’s return in Tampa was encouraging but it’s notable he’s not listed in the expected lineup today) that it would make sense to have an extra bench player, specifically an extra infielder in case he wasn’t upto speed and couldn’t return in a significant or regular basis. Which left us with a roster of 14 position players and therefore, 11 pitchers. This could be a problem for John Gibbons and Alex Anthopoulos who’ve been working a squad of 15 or so pitchers very effectively since Sep.1. Without further ado, here’s who I think deserve to be there…
Starters: with the more leisurely pace of the playoffs, there’ll be enough off days to allow the Jays (and, of course, other teams except for perhaps the Wild Cards burdened with another game this coming week) to manage quite alright with just 4. Which in the Blue Jays case should be-
David Price – obviously the Game 1 starter. Dallas Keuchel’s 20 wins will probably earn him the Cy Young but a valid argument could be made for David, given his slightly better ERA than Keuchel and clutch performance down the line.
Marco Estrada – last month I made the point Marco was one of the 4 key players that have made it possible for the team to be in the post-season with their unexpected over-achievement. Going into this evening’s game, Estrada is officially listed as 5th in the American League ERA leader board. Even if you loosen up the criteria for qualifying a little, he’s still a rather stellar 6th among AL pitchers with over 100 innings. What’s more he’s getting better as we go along being 7-3 with a 2.78 ERA (and sub-.200 opponents average) since the All Star Game. Who saw that coming in March?
Marcus Stroman – perhaps his knee injury was a blessing in disguise; while other pitchers in his locker room and around the league show signs of fatigue, Stroman is basically in start-of-season shape and showing last year was no fluke. With him getting better every start and sitting at 4-0, 1.67, his 92mph fastball gaining velocity by the week, he deserves to be pitching big games. Sort of the 21st Century version of Juan Guzman.
there’s the easy part. The more challenging part is determining the final starter, and I must admit I’ve rethought my position and flip-flopped … maybe.
RA Dickey* – I had tended to favor putting RA into the bullpen, and have Mark Buehrle be the fourth man. Something about Buehrle fills me with more confidence than Dickey not to mention that it might seem that the soft-tosser could probably pitch out of the bullpen on successive days with little problem if needed. That said, the stats all align to make Dickey the better bet to start. After a rocky start, he’s settled down into one of the league’s more consistent starters (8-1, 2.80 , averaging almost 7 innings an outing since the All Star game) whereas Buehrle’s numbers have gone the opposite way. Not to mention that Dickey hasn’t shown an aversion to pitching against New York, unlike Mark, which would be a factor should the Yankees be our opponent. The one exception here- if Houston ended up getting in and being our ALDS opponent, I’d stick with the original plan. The ‘stros have teed off on Dickey’s knuckleball this year, keeping him winless and hitting at a .318 clip in two games this year, whereas Buehrle , although he lost his one start in Houston, pitched 8 pretty strong innings, allowing only 6 hits.
So if Price, Estrada, Stroman and Dickey are the four starters, we have room to take along 7 relievers. Here’s where the hurt feelings mentioned yesterday come into play, since there’ve been 9 or 10 bullpenners used regularly and reasonably effectively of late. Nonetheless, the seven to go are
Mark Buehrle– granted, not a reliever by trade but you don’t leave a 15 game winner, 200-career game winner behind. If Houston end up facing us, he’s a starter, otherwise, he can sit in the ‘pen and be ready in the early innings should the starter get knocked out before the fifth.
Roberto Osuna – obviously, despite a few hiccups in September, has been a remarkable closer for the team, showing no fear even though he’s still only 20 years old. Or perhaps because he’s only 20. Regardless, 69 games, a 74:14 K to BB ratio, 2.35 ERA , 20 for 22 in saves are numbers of a serious closer, not just a good rookie.
Brett Cecil – maybe it was altering his leg kick a little, as Pete Walker suggests. Maybe it was reliever relief at not being put into 9th innings. Maybe it was voodoo. Whatever the reason, Cecil’s gone from regrettable to remarkable in the bullpen. He’s not allowed an earned run in 29 games since the All Star- that’s consistent!
Liam Hendriks– at times the forgotten man in the bullpen but he’s been reliable all year long and as a former starter, can log more pitches if need be than most of his contemporaries. A good go-to guy should help be needed in the 5th or 6th, or in extra innings.
Aaron Sanchez – fallen a little bit out of favor with John Gibbons lately, but that might not be all his fault since his role has been changed frequently during the year…starter, middle relief, 8th inning “set up”. Sanchez has real problems against lefties – a .282 average and 9 homers allowed this year – but can command right-handers with his 95 mph fastball. He should be there and used in late innings, but only against right-handers. Should a southpaw hitter come up, if Brett Cecil isn’t around, bring on
Ryan Tepera – another one of the nice surprises for Toronto this season, he’s been solid all year long. Up until Friday he’d allowed only one hit in his previous 6 outings and limited opponents to a .178 average on the year. What puts him head-and-shoulders above some other righties like Steve Delebar is his ability to control left-handed hitting- just a .122 average. This allows the Jays to go with only one “conventional” lefty in the pen , seeing as how Tepera has out-performed Aaron Loup even against LH hitting.
Mark Lowe- has been rather “lowe key” since his arrival but has quietly got the job done, with a stellar 13:1 K:BB ratio in his first 21 games wearing the blue and white. Has limited righties to a .506 OPS. And a veteran with over 300 career games and playoff experience (mind you, for him that’s not been so good- he was blown out of games for the ’10 and ’11 Rangers) is always a good bet.
So there we have the 11 pitchers to get the Blue Jays to the promised land- or at least the ALDS. A healthy Troy Tulowitzki in the first round might been one less backup player was justified and allow for a 12th pitcher later in the playoffs. But for now, apologies to Drew Hutchison, Steve Delebar, Bo Schulz, even the classy, aging LaTroy Hawkins- you’re just not quite upto the task this time.
UPDATE: as of tonight NBC is suggesting that Mark Buehrle will simply retire after tomorrow’s game and not be in the playoff mix. this seems a shame as he’s such a classy veteran and has been a significant part of the Jays success this year. Nonetheless, if correct obviously that changes my above. If Buehrle is out, I’d include Aaron Loup to give another lefty in bullpen
It’s been awhile! For the first time I can remember (although it was probably around this time 1993) not only are our Blue Jays in first place but the standings now list a magic number for them. For the record, the number is 17- meaning that any combination of 17 Toronto wins or New York losses clinches the division title. With 19 games left over the next 20 days, it is doable and certainly the Jays’ title to lose.
With Marcus Stroman making a return this past weekend, something almost unthinkable a couple of months ago (and a testimony to a solid work ethic in the young right-hander)and Mark Buehrle slated to start today’s game against Atlanta after missing a week or so due to a sore shoulder, it leaves the team with six valid starting pitchers. Although I’ve never been a fan of a six-man rotation, (hell, I look back at some of the great teams – not Toronto – of my childhood and wonder if a 4-man crew wouldn’t be better most of the time) it could be a blessing at this point. With Buehrle aching, Estrada already at a new career high in innings and David Price topping 200 innings already, an extra arm may be a plus down the line. Given the schedule and pitchers records, I came up with a rotation for the rest of the year that would give the Jays the best chance to win and carry on after October 4. Game by game…
Tuesday Sep. 15 – at Atlanta. Mark Buehrle, as scheduled. Mark says he is capable of pitching again after a cortisone shot , and is most rested of the starting 6.
Wed. Sep. 16 – at Atlanta. David Price – on his normal rest
Thu. Sep. 17 – at Atlanta. Marco Estrada– on normal rest, has same 6-4 record at home and on road with little difference in ERA , so a better bet than Friday’s starter
Fri. Sep. 18 – (home) Boston – Marcus Stroman – on an extra day’s rest (5), thus far in his young career he’s much better at home than on road and has done well (3-0, 1.25) against Red Sox
Sat. Sep. 19- Boston – RA Dickey– on an extra day’s rest, which can’t hurt a guy who’s already at 196 innings.RA hasn’t fared well against Boston in past, but is much better at Rogers’ Centre as we know (8-3, 3.16 vs 2-8, 5.09 this year)
Sun. Sep. 20- Boston – Mark Buehrle– fingers crossed, if his shoulder is Ok after today’s game, he’d be on regular rest for this one … letting him miss the Yankees, whom he’s famously troubled by (2-14 career)
Mon. Sep. 21– (home) New York – David Price – on regular rest, although his career ERA against NY is second-worst against AL teams (only Texas hits him harder), since Aug. 8 he’s beat the Pinstripes twice.
Tue. Sep. 22– New York – Drew Hutchison– by this point, Hutch would be on 12 days rest. Hopefully he won’t overthrow, and the time would be right for him to shine, given that he’s good against NY (2-0, 1.42 this year) and infinitely better at home than on road. Career ERA over 6 for his career, so the more the team can avoid throwing him out on any non-rogers Centre mound, the better.
Wed. Sep. 23- New York – Marcus Stroman– on regular rest. Has started more games against them than any other team, and is decent under the pressure (3-1, 3.18)
Thu. Sep. 24- last off day to enjoy
Fri. Sep. 25- (home) Tampa Bay – Marco Estrada– on a full week’s rest, which could help since he’ll be around 10 innings over his past high by this point. Definitely need to get him in this series, given that he’s shut out the Rays through 21 innings so far this year.
Sat. Sep. 26- Tampa Bay – David Price– on regular rest. Surprisingly has never beat his former team,but has seldom faced them and is very familiar with most of their lineup
Sun. Sep. 27 – Tampa Bay, final regular season home game – Drew Hutchison- on regular rest, lets him pitch once more in Toronto and against a team he’s 4-2 against in his career
Mon. Sep. 28 – at Baltimore – RA Dickey– on 8 days rest, not an ideal mix since he is better at home and has trouble traditionally not done well against O’s (2-6, 4.20 career). However, hasn’t played them this year
Tue. Sep. 29 – at Baltimore – Marcus Stroman- on an extra day’s rest
Wed. Sep. 30- at Baltimore- Marco Estrada- on regular rest, has been good against them this year (2-1, 3.32 in five games)
Thu. Oct. 1 – at Baltimore – Mark Buehrle – will be on 10 days rest, doing all they can to keep his shoulder ready for the post-season. Has pitched better against them than the other East teams (3-0 this year, 11-10, 3.52 career)
Fri. Oct. 2- at Tampa Bay- David Price– on an extra day’s rest, and have him ready also on extra day for first game of ALDS if things go according to plan
Sat. Oct. 3- at Tampa Bay- RA Dickey- on regular rest; a little problematic since he’s not beaten TB this year and has ERA of over 5 on road this year but there’s always a first time and hoping the game won’t be vital at this point. Alternate plan- if the Jays have clinched and playoff slots are set by this day, run out someone like Chad Jenkins and keep Dickey fresher for the ALDS.
Sun. Oct. 4 –at Tampa Bay, final regular season game – Marcus Stroman- if he’s good in the previous three, he should make post-season roster and would be ready by Game 2 of divisional series. If he’s disappointing, it still gives him one more chance to end season on a high note and saves an arm like Drew Hutchison’s for the playoffs.
So, in a somewhat perfect world, staff ace David Price and young, fresh Marcus Stroman each have 4 starts left before post-season; Mark Buehrle, Marco Estrada and RA Dickey three each and Drew Hutchison only two, both at home. And we get to avoid bugaboos like Hutch pitching on the road and Buehrle going up against the Yankees (although there would be worse fates than seeing that matchup in mid-October!)
And if things work out even remotely perfectly with that, soon I’ll be looking at how to plan out the playoff starts!
How nice it is to be writing a blog at the end of August about what the Blue Jays should be doing to prepare for a World Series run in a month instead of what they did wrong and what they need to do in off-season to build a contender for the next year!
While my fingers are still crossed, it’s looking more and more likely our 21 years of frustration are coming to an end… at time of writing this, Saturday, Toronto is a game and a half in front of the Yankees for first place and have a full six-and-a-half games over the top, “non-wildcard” team. With our post-Tulowitzki record and the schedule today now offering us the same number of home games as road ones (following the great 8 game road trip that ended Thursday) it would seem the Jays really would have to have a collapse of epic, 2011 Red Sox-type to miss the playoffs.
That said, a little insurance couldn’t hurt. this late in the season, it’s unlikely “insurance” will come via trades – even though rumors are swirling about Craig Kimbrel being traded to an unknown team – so we have to look within the organization to bolster the roster for September.
Alex Anthopoulos has apparently said that additions will be few, but will be coming in September with the expanded rosters. Thankfully, a team that’s won 22 of its last 27 doesn’t need a huge overhaul but a few more options on the bench would be nice. Interestingly, Bluebird Banter suggested that only A-level Lansing is likely to make the minor league playoffs and play beyond the (unusually late Sep. 7) end of their regular season and that Marcus Stroman might end up there for a couple of rehabilitation starts.
While there’s not much wrong with the Blue Jays right now, I’d suggest the team rents a stretch limo on Sep. 7 and bring a few Bisons to the big leagues… starting with
Matt Hague – the International League’s leading hitter at .349 with 86 RBI in 125 games could provide a good power bat on the bench for pinch hitting and could give Edwin Encarnacion a day or two off to fully recover from his bumps and injuries before playoff time. Although EE’s 24 game hitting streak and headline-grabbing game today suggests maybe he’s already done that…
Dalton Pompey – the Mississauga kid didn’t really make a go of it at the major league level in April but he’s hit a decent .290 in buffalo with 15 stolen bases in 22 attempts and only 2 errors in 61 outfield games. His time isn’t now, but he could provide a speedy pinch runner if Dioner Navarro represents the winning run in the 9th inning, for instance…
Munenori Kawasaki – not having a stellar season even by AAA standards, but the popular little infielder has big league experience and provides a decent back-up middle infielder . Having only Tulo, Pennington and Goins on the roster who could really even play an inning or two at second or shortstop makes me a bit nervous (by the way, for those wondering, it seems Steve Tolleson has retired even though he’s still listed as a Bison)…
and some added arms for the bullpen. The pen has been exceptional lately, but it’s always good to have a few more people there lest an 18 or 20 inning game occur, or have starters knocked out early a couple of days in a row. My top choices for that would include…
Ryan Tepera – Ryan looked decent earlier in his 21 games with Toronto, since then he’s been pretty outstanding in 20 games with Buffalo, going 3-1 with two saves and a miniscule 1.09 ERA, 37 K in about 33 innings. Power and durability to add to the pen…
Steve Delebar – another pitcher with enough big league experience to handle the pressure of a playoff run, he’s been good this year in the minors with a 27:7 strikeout to walk ratio…
Chad Jenkins – being switched to a reliever, jays fans are well familiar with Chad and between 9 starts and 30 relief appearances, he’s 8-4 with an ERA under 3, somewhat like the numbers for …
Jeff Francis – the Canadian lefty is no stranger to big September games and is 8-3, 2.46 in 13 starts, 5 relief appearances at AAA. He’s only walking about one batter per seven innings, so he might be the perfect guy to be able to not only get tough left-handed hitters out in the 10th inning or make a spot start.
Sorry Aaron Loup and Joba Chamberlain. Despite your extensive MLB experience, recent lack of success in majors as well as in Buffalo would make me give them an early winter break and not roll the dice on having them in Blue Jays unis come playoff time.
I was lucky enough to go see our Jays on the road this past Tuesday, when they came from behind to top Texas 6-5. It was a great night and I was given no hassles by anybody for sporting my Jays cap proudly. I estimate I saw another 40 to 60 Toronto fans “supportin’” , with a number of Bautista jerseys in the crowd as well as a few EE ones, and even an old Brett Lawrie one, as well as a new Tulowitzki blue jersey.
Being a Mark Buehrle start, the game went by rather quickly and I was happy to see there’s now a countdown clock in the outfield which keeps the between inning breaks to the designated 2:30. Those extra 15 or 30 seconds every half inning do add up to a nicer, speedier pace. It’s not as obvious at home watching on TV as it is in the stands. Another thing baseball has got right in the last few years.
Mark Buehrle speeds things up when he takes the mound!
Conventional wisdom, baseball style, wouldn’t bring in your best, tired starting pitcher mid-game in a playoffs Game 7 instead of going to your traditional middle-relievers. San Francisco ignored that “unwritten rule” last October of course, bringing in weary Madison Bumgarner against KC in the final game of the World Series and the results are written in history and the third set of rings this decade for the Giants. One more reason it’s time to throw the book at managers who decide to “play by the book.”
Take the Jays 3-2 loss to Tampa last Saturday. RA Dickey was sailing along with one of his best games of the season, holding the Rays to one measly run when John Gibbons decided it was time to summon the notoriously shaky bullpen. After all, Dickey had just passed the 100-pitch mark and ‘the book” says you don’t keep a starting pitcher out there more than a hundred pitches. It was a decision that caused a remarkable amount of internet second guessing and sarcasm, and ultimately it could be argued, cost the team the game. Granted, there’s no guarantee RA might not have coughed up a run or two himself if he’d stayed out there, and granted, Jays don’t win many games if they only score two runs but still, it left many shaking their heads.
Even if you buy the questionable rationale that most starting pitchers tire out and could put themselves at risk of arm injury if going much beyond 100 pitches (something most veteran pitchers of yore, from Steve Busby to Steve Carlton to Nolan Ryan disagree with) , Dickey is of course a knuckle-baller, exactly the type of pitcher least prone to wear and tear. Dickey with his unusual anatomy (through some freak of nature, Dickey was born without the ulnar collateral ligament that so many pitchers tear up) and soft-tossing is uniquely capable of pitching almost endlessly without pain or risk. A simple look at the stats showed why this was a dumb decision. Mid-game, between pitches 16 and 60, Dickey struggles this year, giving up an opponents average of .289, with 9 home runs to 222 batters (one per 24 AB.) By the time he’s settled in and is over 90 pitches, he’s cut the opponents to a skimpy .179 average and has allowed only two homers (one per 39 AB). Add in the fact that his ERA at home, like Saturday’s game, is over a run and a half better than it is on the road and you can see why critics critiqued!
Not that John Gibbons is unusual in making iffy calls based on conventioal wisdom. Living where I am, I get to view a lot more Texas Rangers games than Jays ones. Texas skipper Jeff Banister at times looks genius and then somehow reverts to “the book” , typically with less than genius results. Take last Monday’s game at Colorado. After spotting the Rockies a 7-run lead early, the Rangers had scratched back by the 9th. With runners at first and second, two out, trailing by one run, Adrian Beltre smashed a line drive double deep into the corner in left. The lead runner scored easily to tie the game, but Prince Fielder was held up at third. The next batter, Josh Hamilton, popped up and that was that.
Now granted, big Prince is not a fast runner. Faster than he looks perhaps, but that’s not saying too much. So that might have factored into the thinking to hold him up, as well as the stupid adage about “play for a tie on the road, win at home.” Well, playing for a tie might be smart enough in soccer, or in 1960s hockey (when there were ties), but is meaningless in baseball. Fielder, while not the quickest man on the field, has momentum. The Rockies had been playing a shabby game defensively; the smart move would have been to let him try to score. Put the pressure on Clint Barnes. If he pulls off a perfect throw, Fielder is out at the plate and Texas still are set to lead off the 10th with Hamilton. But anything less than a perfect throw from CF and the Rangers would have had the lead and Beltre could have moved up to third. The meakness eventually cost them the game.
It might not have cost them the game had Banister not gone to another “unwritten rule” – only use your closer if he can record a save. So, with the score tied going to the bottom of the 9th, rather than go with the best man available in the ‘pen – closer Shawn Tolleson – Banister trotted out redoubtable Tanner Scheppers, because there was no save for Tolleson to collect. Scheppers was at one time the reliable 8th inning guy for Texas. But that was then, before last year when he had an ERA of 9, and before this season when he’s allowed 19 walks in 32 innings and sports an ERA of 5.63. A few pitches later, the Rockies walked off with a rare win. Ironically, the following day, Tolleson was put out on the mound with a nine run lead just to get work because the coaching staff was worried about him getting rusty doing nothing for so long. Ninth inning, tie game, what more important spot could there be for your bullpen ace to shine?
I’m a writer, and one who’s sometimes considered a little too, well, verbiose. But my book on baseball isn’t long : Play to Win.
Jays nest congratulations to two of my favorite Jays this week. Mark Buehrle, having a great season as we know, is having a greater season than we might have realized. He became the first Jay ever to toss 9-straight games of six-plus innings without allowing more than two runs in any. When you can set any record for starting pitching on a club that’s boasted Roy Halladay, Roger Clemens, Jack Morris and Dave Stieb, you’re doing something right!
And to Jose Bautista, one of my “Franchise Four”, who just tied Vernon Wells for second on the Jays all-time home run board with 223. And he did so in about 500 fewer games than Vernon. Still a ways to go to catch up to the all-time #1, Carlos Delgado though. CD swatted 336.
The Jays hit the one-third mark of the year a rather dismal 25-30 (well, to be precise they hit the one-third at 24-30 with a win since), but remarkably enough only 4.5 games out of first. With the expected mediocrity of the AL East this season, the upcoming homestand against the remarkable Houston Astros and the surprisingly poor Miami Marlins takes on added import. A strong six-games and the Jays could easily be in second place and within a game or two of a playoff berth; while equally true, a lousy set of games and the year could be all but done for. I quite like the team’s chances, with the home advantage (mind you, Houston has the best road record- 15-8 – in the league) and the recent improvement of the starting rotation.
Although the Blue Jays are still neck and neck with the Bosox for the worst pitching in the AL (currently Toronto is 28th in baseball and worst in the American based on ERA but Boston has allowed a handful more total runs), the overall ERA of 4.41 is half a run better than it was a mere three weeks back and, lo and behold, the questionable starting staff now leads all of baseball in complete games! Which is a good thing given the redoubtable bullpen which has a major league low 6 saves in 15 chances. One still has to think the team was negligent in not improving the rotation in the off-season, but if the arms hold up there might be just enough in the pool to give the Jays a shot. Marco Estrada is looking OK as a starter, averaging six innings a start with a 4.20 ERA in the past five outings. Mark Buehrle, he of back-to-back complete game wins has looked rejuvenated, Drew Hutchison has been up and down while Aaron Sanchez continues to improve in the role. Over the past month, they have sported ERAs of 2.84, 3.09 and 3.31 respectively; Buehrle’s logged over 44 innings in that time vaulting him into familiar territory in the Top 10 in innings. Which leaves RA Dickey as the odd man out, although he’s still eating innings, his results are going the opposite direction from his counterparts. Dickey’s ERA in the past 30 days is only a click or two under 7. This fan would still like to see Dickey shuffled off to the ‘pen and replaced in the rotation by a new arm.
Marco Estrada is looking OK, which brings me back to last week’s topic, the rating of the off-season moves. Fitting in nicely in the bottom of the rotation, he may not be the fireballer he was when young but he’s cutting back on home runs allowed and at 2-3, 3.77 overall he’s been a good acquisition. But was he worth Adam Lind ? And more directly, how’s Toronto with him compared to if they had hung onto JA Happ.
It seems likely Happ wouldn’t have been offed to Starbucks City had the Jays not previously gotten Estrada. Happ is doing fine in Seattle, after ten starts posting a 3-1 record, 3.70 ERA and a 43:13 K to BB ratio, the best of his career. He’s only allowed four or more runs twice, but on the downside is logging an average of only about 5 2/3 innings a game. Bottom line, Happ and Estrada are basically interchangeable.
Which means the question is was Michael Saunders (the payoff for Happ) worth trading Adam Lind for? Unfortunately, as we know, Saunders has been hobbled with his knee, wrecked in spring training, and has been a non-factor for Toronto.
Lind, on the other hand, has been doing fine for the lousy Brewers. He’s been healthy, something you couldn’t count on in Toronto, and after 51 games played is hitting a healthy .281 with 8 HR, 25 RBI and an .849 OPS (below the last two years but considerably improved from the sub-.800 Lind of ’10-12). The grass must be helping his back since he’s not only healthy but has played all his games at first, with almost identical results to the stats he posted last year, which is to say respectable but no Gold Glover. His difficulties against lefties continue, with him hitting .208 with no power facing southpaws.
The bottom line is that if one expected Saunders to be healthy ( a big “IF”) the trades made sense given the abundance of first base-DH type players the Jays had and with the outfield looking iffy with the departing Colby Rasmus and Melky C. And one has to like the cheap pick-up of Chris Colabello although no one was expecting him to slide past 100 at bats with a .352 average and 16 RBI. Nor should we expect that to hold up forever; despite a dozen game hitting streak, in his last six games his average has dropped 34 points and only one of his six hits has been for extra bases.
So as we hit the middle third of the 2015 season, a few spring questions are being answered. The team, despite added “leader” players still seems incapable of putting together a good run or building real momentum; individual numbers are good enough but somehow the product is less than the sum of the parts. And it’s difficult to truly berate Alex Anthopoulos for the moves he made in the off-season. It’s easy though, to berate him for the moves he didn’t make.
With the season now only a few hours away, here are ten fearless predictions for the Blue Jays 2015 year…
1) Daniel Norris may not continue undefeated and with a sub-3 ERA, as he’s been in Spring Training, but will look comfortable in the Big Leagues …and be better than Aaron Sanchez who will quickly look out of place as a starter.
2) Second base may not be as bad as it’s been the past three seasons, but Left field will be the team’s offensive and defensive black hole. Kevin Pillar is a serviceable back-up and a healthy Michael Saunders might – might- excel at Rogers’ Centre, but Pillar is not an everyday player on a team with playoff aspirations and a wonky-kneed Saunders isn’t going to be “healthy” for some time to come.
3) Either Buck or Pat will mention that Russell Martin is from Toronto every time he hits a home runs and that Dalton Pompey is from Mississauga every time he makes a dazzling catch. They probably won’t add that trivia to the discussion when either player strikes out on a pitch in the dirt.
4) Jose Bautista will have a very MVP-worthy season (being among lead leaders in homers, RBI, on base pct., outfield assists) but won’t win it because that award is Mike Trout‘s to lose. Unless Trout does something remarkably stupid and unexpected and is suspended, or sees his strikeout rate double while his average drops, he’ll win that award.
5) Edwin Encarnacion won’t have an MVP-calibre season. Don’t get mad at me here- I like EE too. I just think his bad back is going to act up too much for him to play every day, especially if pushed into service at first too often. A smart but hurting power hitter who plays 120 games can help a team, but not put up award-winning numbers.
6) Josh Donaldson, who today hit his 6th homer of spring, is going to make people forget about Brett Lawrie pretty quickly. Mind you, Lawrie just might have a bit of a renewal in Oakland and look better than he did in Toronto.
7) The Blue Jays will win a big award – Rookie Of The Year. Or at least I give them a better than 50-50 chance of doing so, which is pretty darn good in a pool of 15 teams. Many experts, including Sportsonearth.com are picking Dalton Pompey to win that, which isn’t unreasonable, but I also think Daniel Norris will have a shot if he stays in the rotation til season’s end, and even young Devon Travis, playing a high-profile position could do it. The bad news though is that it’s not guarantee of a big season for the team. 2010 was the last time the AL team with the Rookie of the Year made it into the World Series. (Neftali Feliz of Texas that year)
8) Mark Buerhle will roll along as always and record his 15th straight year of 200 innings and double-digit wins. Critics will continue to mock him for his 83 mph fastball and laud instead young pitchers who throw 99 – and win seven or eight games less than Buehrle!
9) IF the team appears to be in a playoff spot at the All-star break – leading the divsion or at least within a game or two of the wildcard, we’ll see the rotation supplemented with a major acquisition (somewhat like what the A’s did with Lester last season, or the Jays did back when with David Cone) by the end of July. If however the team is way back in the standings by All-star time, the opposite will happen…either Buehrle or RA Dickey will be shuffled off to a winning team.
10) By the time we flip the calendar over to June, Josh Thole will once again be back catching Dickey. One or two bad outings by the knuckleballer with Russ Martin behind the plate will get him griping and the team revisit their decision to keep Dioner Navarro and his five-million dollar salary to warm the bench. Navarro will likely end up somewhere like Seattle or Pittsburgh.
Well, we’ll check back in fall and see how clear my crystal ball was , and in the coming week I’ll give you my quick prognosis on the National League season ahead as well as who’ll be playing in October…