One of the most asked questions during the Blue Jays off-season was “Who’s the closer?” With Casey Janssen essentially shown the door, for whatever reason, after holding down the job decently for the past three seasons, and last year’s bullpen being rather a weakness of the team, it was a valid question to ask. After bringing in stars Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin to seemingly make a serious run at the post-season, speculation ran high that the team would sign a high-profile, high-salary free agent to end games. David Robertson? Rafael Soriano?
As it turns out, they did nothing and conceded the job to veteran Brett Cecil, who’s done a yeoman’s job since being converted to a reliever by the team three years ago. Or we thought they did.
Turns out the organization had different plans, or at least they arrived at them after spring training. A little over a week into the season, the new closer is someone we’d not heard of last year – Miguel Castro.
No wonder we’d not heard of him. Although the lanky (6’5”, about 190 pounds) Dominican had been in the Jays system for three years, with good success (17-7, 2.47 over those three years) he’d never pitched above A-ball. It was somewhat surprising he even got invited to the Major League training camp given that, and his age. He just turned 20 on Christmas Eve. Most pundits had him playing in New Hampshire this year, and if all went well, making his way to Toronto perhaps in 2017. So much for crystal balls. After an outstanding spring, he made the club and became the second youngest player in the American League. The only younger player? That would be Roberto Osuna, who turned 20 this February. Osuna, if you didn’t know plays for – yep, the Blue Jays and is in their bullpen.
It is startling (perhaps to no one more than Brett Cecil!) The Blue Jays often seem to favor experience and maturity over youth; witness the signings of injury-addled Johan Santana and Jeff Francis in the off-season. Some would say they have good reason to, given the number of highly disappointing rookies they promoted during the JP Ricciardi era. Anyone recall Patrick Lennon? I rest my case.
It’s not only remarkable they chose to add not one, but two twenty year olds to the roster; it’s outlandish they have given over a high-profile, high-pressure role to one of them. Closers are usually manufactured over time, not born into the job. Trevor Rosenthal of the Cards is one of the youngest closers in the game; he turns 25 in a few weeks. Latroy Hawkins and Joe Nathan are both over 40 and still going strong. Strong-ish at least. The great Mariano Rivera was 26 when he got his first of 652 saves for the Yankees.
This is a different Blue Jays team. There are two rookies in the rotation, two kids in the bullpen, and a rookie second baseman backed up by a rookie center fielder. Although this might give us fans reason to cringe or think up alternate summer diversions, so far it doesn’t look so bad. Devon Travis is no Russ Adams (thankfully) and is being tutored by Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar. Dalton Pompey isn’t the next Rob Butler, despite haling from the GTA like him. And young Miguel Castro isn’t the next Ty Taubenheim. Living in the southern US, I now get a chance to view the Blue Jays from arm’s length- and I can tell you, these kids have real talent. For once experts far outside the realm of Rogers’ Communication are touting them as the next wave of stars.
Paul Beeston is cheery and upbeat about the team in his last year with the front office. Alex Anthopoulos is smart enough to know his fate is tied largely to this season. He won’t have a friendly, cheering father-figure corporate boss backing him up after another disappointing season . The safe bet would have been to sign a David Robertson, add Cole Hamels to the rotation and bring in at least a David Murphy-calibre (if not Jose Altuve or Robinson Cano-calibre) second baseman at the cost of any number of prospects and go full speed ahead for 2015. Instead he’s chosen a more nuanced and audacious route.
I”m not sure I buy into it yet, but challenging the kids while they’re too young to know they aren’t supposed to succeed just might … succeed. Having some youthful enthusiasm, in the clubhouse instead of dour, aging Colby Rasmus and Adam Lind just might change the mood on the field for the better.
The first week has been encouraging, if not outstanding. The youth seem to be playing like they belong. If they continue, it will be an exciting run for Toronto this year and Alex A. will be widely deemed the next Billy Beane. If however, they fall flat he will be a distant memory at this time next year.
A friend e-mailed me a few days back asking me to evaluate what the Blue Jays have done this off-season. With the last few free agents reluctantly signing their names on dotted lines and gates to spring training camps swinging open in less than two weeks it seems that the book is getting nearer to being closed on the off-season moves of the Blue Jays- as well as on their chances of competing in 2012.
The odd thing perhaps for the casual fan to grasp is that the reason the past 3 months or so have been so disappointing for the team and the fanbase isn’t what they’ve done. Actually most of the free agent signings they’ve inked and minor trades accomplished have been good. Very little reason to complain about them.
Rather though, the problem has been what the Blue Jays haven’t done. Namely improve the starting rotation or add to the still spotty offense.
Alex Anthopolous had mentioned at the end of last season that adding some front line starting pitching and perhaps a big bat , as well as improving the bullpen and adding a backup catcher (apparently resigned to the idea of very acceptable backup Jose Molina walking away from the team). Team President Paul Beeston had mentioned the sky was the limit when it came to adding payroll if it would help the team compete and as Yahoo blogger Tim Brown noted (http://sports.yahoo.com ) somehow they had come to be seen as the “ ‘It’ team of the 2011-2012 Off season”… the team offering up money like a politician on the campaign trail to load up on Prince Fielders and Yu Darvish’s and utilizing its abundance of young talent to bring in a few Gio Gonzalez’s or Felix Hernandez’s to boot. Instead, we have been treated to a somewhat better bullpen and Jeff Mathis , a perfectly acceptable backup catcher if the DH can hit for him instead of the pitcher!
Adding Darren Oliver , Francisco Cordero and even Sergio Santos, as well as trading to return jason Frasor back to his rightful baseball home will indeed improve the late inning pitching for Toronto. Unfortunately, by not improving the starting rotation in front of them, the bullpen may well still be over-worked and running on fumes by July which was a large part of the reason for their poor numbers last year.
It’s all galling. After so many lofty promises in the now long distant past of October and November, we have Anthopolous saying things are rosy, that there is a difference between what they “need and want” and that while they “continue to want to add front of the rotation starters, big bats if we can” that they have done what they need. Which they have if what they need is a way to ensure another fourth place finish in 2012.
More disturbing , Paul Beeston seems happy with that prospect. Earlier this week the Toronto Star reported him saying “by 5 years from now, we’d better surely be in the post season.” FIVE years. Rather like JP Ricciardi’s well-publicized five year plan , circa 2001. For those counting, eleven years later, those five years still haven’t arrived. It’s too bad Beeston didn’t wait until today to make that pronouncement because for Blue Jays fans, it is indeed ‘Groundhog Day’!