Yesterday I addressed some of the moves the Blue Jays could make to keep the offense powerful and viable for 2017; today, the pitching side of the equation.
Thankfully, and yes, surprisingly, there’s not much that needs fixing with this. The 2016 Jays led the league in pitching with a 3.84 ERA, six points better than league champion Cleveland. (Those looking for clues as to why the Twins lost triple-digit numbers of games need only start with their 5.08 ERA by comparison.) Toronto’s starters were best in AL and perhaps even more surprisingly, the team’s numbers on the road were best in baseball – 3.47, about a fifth of a run better than the NL champion Cubs. Clearly the hurlers did everything in their power to pitch the team to a championship. No question that coaches Pete Walker and Dane Johnson should return therefore, and they have been told they are.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that the Jays can sit on their laurels for ’17, although I think they might be tempted to. Pitching seems even more fickle than hitting so there’s no guarantee that the crew will follow up their ’16 success, not to mention that Toronto might have been blessed with just about the best luck of any recent MLB club in recent years. Consider that they had their starting rote set in April and – except for a minor glitch mid-season with Marco Estrada’s sore back – were able to run with the set 5 all season and into the post-season. They even acquired a solid veteran 6th starter at the trade deadline just for the heck of it and he was excellent. Frankly it may be too much to hope for to think that the 2017 starting rotation will only miss one or two starts between the five of them due to injury; history suggests everyone in the Rogers Centre crowd might have a better chance of winning the 6-49 than seeing that happen again.
As well, while we try to take the “glass half full” approach, it’s wise to look at the other side of the equation. JA Happ had a “career year” in 2016- but will it be just that (a “Career” year , reminiscent of Adam Lind and Aaron Hill’s blockbuster 2009 seasons which were followed up by… well, not all that much) or just the start of a new, improved Happ?
We hope the latter and are encouraged by his consistency since he was traded to Pitttsburgh in 2015 and was coached by Ray Searage. Since then , he’s 27-6, 2.86 over 43 games. But it can’t be ignored that before this year he was a .500 pitcher who averaged 146 innings a year over the past 5. He exceeded that by nearly 50 innings, while knocking a run off his previous career ERA . I personally think the “new” Happ is real, the guy the Phillies expected when they made him a first round draft pick years back. But I’m not betting on another 20-win, Cy Young worthy campaign from him.
Marco Estrada, when healthy, is as unhittable as anyone in the AL. (That’s not just my opinion, he’s led AL starters in opponent batting average in 2016 and after the All Star break in ’15.) But his wonky back, which John Gibbons said had bothered him all year has to be a concern moving forward. Bad backs seldom get “good” all by themselves.
Francisco Liriano was a great addition and should be a decent, reliable 12-15 win, 180-210 inning sort of player. Which still leaves the youngsters in the rotation, Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman. I have no real worries about Sanchez – after all the hand-wringing and year-long story arc spun by the team and Toronto media about needing to send him out to pasture after the All Star break to prevent his arm from falling off, all he did was win the league ERA championship. Including the playoffs (a bat outing vs. Texas but a brilliant one and the team’s only win against Cleveland) he logged 203 innings and went 16-2. Even if he were to regress a little in ’17, he should be a reliable, above-average starter.
Less so Stroman though. He was by no means terrible this year; in fact at times he was outstanding. He was, however, not consistent at all and not nearly as intimidating to opponents as his younger self had been. His ERA jumped by over a run and perhaps more alarming, after giving up only 9 homers in 30 previous games, he allowed 21 this year in 32 starts. So it’s a bit of a crap-shoot as to which way he will go. A carbon copy of this year would still be enough to make him a valid #5 guy, but not an opening day pitcher by any means. A return to 14-15 form would be a huge lift for the team, but we can’t ignore entirely the possibility he might be the new Ricky Romero.
With all those factors, it’s clear the team needs another proven starter to pad the roster. They should extend an offer to return to RA Dickey (who’s turning 42 today- happy birthday to him!) but with an asterisk. His 15 losses this season were a career worst and his 4.46 ERA worst since ’09 when he was a reliever with the Twins. Nonetheless, he still gave over 160 innings and has averaged 206 per year in his time with the Jays. Knuckleballs don’t deteriorate as quickly as other pitches so it’s likely he could at least match his 2016 campaign next year.
The asterisk though, is that ideally he wouldn’t be a starter. He could follow Tim Wakefield’s arc in his late years with Boston, and be a bullpen arm that could deliver lots of innings in a blowout or extra-inning game and come through with a spot start or two should a regular wake up with a bad stomach. This would help the team, but wouldn’t warrant a $12.5M pay cheque like he’s been getting. At age 42, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dickey choose to retire rather than take a 50% pay cut. But he probably won’t have to as while he might not make the grade as a starter with the team with the league’s best pitching, he’s plenty good enough to be a #3 or 4 starter with many teams that are thin on pitching . It’d be no surprise to see the Angels or Rangers offer him a pay raise to give stability to their rotation for one year.
That’s especially true given a fairly slim selection of free agent starting pitchers coming up. No David Price or Jon Lester this winter, the feeding frenzy will have to settle for trying for the likes of an Andrew Cashner or Ivan Nova. Which is the type of pitcher Toronto should try to add. doing so without increasing the budget significantly (even if we factor in the subtraction of Dickey’s money) will be a test of the Shapiro-Atkins office!
A quick look at the arms behind the outfield fence next time here…
Let the fun begin! tonight’s much anticipated game between the Jays and Yanks, and the following pair tomorrow and Thursday could tell us a lot about how this season will play out. It’s far too early to think about calling any games “must win”, but a decisive series win sure would be nice and alleviate worries while giving hope that this year’s team will repeat as East champions. Remember that last year the Jays 13-6 record against NY was a primary reason they won the division and the Yankees went home early.
Speaking of early worries, do we Toronto fans need to be concerned by their less than spectacular opening week?
Answer- no, but it’s nothing to cheer about either. Significant concerns have been raised about Russell Martin’s batting, RA Dickey’s pitching and Jose Bautista’s fielding. Here’s my take:
Russell Martin has indeed struggled at the plate so far, hitting only .100 (2 for 20) so far with strikeouts in half his at bats. On the tail of a slow spring training, some naysayers have the sky falling already.
Obviously more offense is better and I”m sure by the All Star break, Martin will be hitting well above .100 (if not, then I’ll be concerned!) But fact is Martin is the oldest regular catcher in the AL and probably will be on a bit of a downslide, career-wise. The good news is that with the stacked lineup Toronto boasts, we don’t need Russell to hit .290 like he did 2 seasons back, or drive in 77 like he did last year to still win games and win lots of games. As long as he hits the Mendoza line and swats the odd one out of the park, we’ll be fine as long as he does his job behind the plate…which thus far he’s done well.
RA Dickey, like other knuckleballers through the ages, is a pretty unpredictable sort. He can be brilliant one night, and batting practise lousy the next time out. So it’s too early to be worked up about two “off” outings. On April 4, he gave up 6 hits including a homer, struck out 3, walked two and allowed 3 ERs, but picked up the win anyway. April 9, against Boston, he managed to whiff 9 and keep the ball in the park but the Sox scored 7, 6 of them earned against him and he got tagged with the “L”. The arguably distressing thing is that he only managed to stay in 5 innings both times. Dickey isn’t likely to win another Cy Young at 41 and in fact only needs to keep the team in the game most of the time to be an asset, now that he’s arguably the #4 starter. However, the one thing the team does need from him is innings. He’s averaged 219 per year over the last 5 and that’s about what is required again this season given the concern over how durable young Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez will be. Someone’s got to give the ‘pen a break and that needs to be Dickey. Seven or more innings from him next time out should put everyone at ease.
Jose Bautista at one point used to be a Gold Glove calibre outfielder. Those days are probably gone for good, given his age (35) and number of aches and pains he’s gone through. He let one bounce off his glove opening day, other balls have bounced over his head this season, and those watching every inning report he’s not a “plus” right-fielder anymore. His deensive “range factor” has declined from 2.1 in ’14 to 1.93 last year (while his number of assists also dropped from 12 to 4) to just 1.57 thus far. So why not worry?
Well, first let’s recall a minor ailment kept Bautista out of spring training for a couple of weeks, so he’s not yet in top form. A lesser player may have been kept back to get another 30 or so AB and some more innings in the field before being activated; the Jays understandably figured a Bautista at about 80% is better than none. he will likely get a bit more comfortable out there in coming weeks as his sort of “extended spring training” comes to an end.
More importantly though is that he’s not losing anything at the plate. His eye is still keen (9 walks already through 7 games making for a .500 on base percentage; balls he makes contact with are still flying well- an average of 242 feet for all balls put in play compared with 219 for the rest of the league. As long as Bautista can hammer 40 homers, be on base 38-40% of the time and stare down opposition pitchers, the team can put up with a few balls bouncing around the corner, much as we’d like them run down. thankfully having Kevin Pillar in center should ease the pressure on JB some.
As Bluebird Banter noted, Bautista might now be better suited to 1b or even DH’ing, but with the logjam of talent the team has there already (Encarnacion/Smoak/Colabello not to mention Jesus Montero, who’s off to a 6-for-14, 5 rbi start in Buffalo) there’d be no advantage shifting him. The opposite of Russ Martin, Bautista is paid to make the team win with the bat, not the glove.
Roster– seems to still need a bit of tweaking, in my opinion. The minor injury to Josh Donaldson last week showcases the problem with the short bench; Darwin Barney is adequate as a third baseman but it left the team with no real options at all should Tulo or Goins get injured or even develop an upset stomach mid-game. Donaldson is pegged as back at third tonight but I’d still like to see middle infielder Dave Adams or Andy Burns up here as backups, even at the expense of a pitcher in the ‘pen. Speaking of which, the sore shoulder and DL’ing of Franklin Morales puts a lot of pressure on Brett Cecil as the only lefty among the eight men in the bullpen. Ambidextrous Pat Venditte is off to a good start in Buffalo and might be of more use to Toronto right now than Arnold Leon, who could maybe benefit from pitching more frequently at AAA.
It’s too early to worry…but fans are going to be watching this week’s series with short fingernails!
Well, like most edge-of-our-seats fans, I was a little surprised to see David Price out in the bullpen already throwing in earnest by the fourth inning. Even more surprised to see him brought into the game with RA Dickey seemingly cruising along, one out from getting his first post-season win and the Jays up by 6. RA looked understandably upset in the dugout as he saw Shin Shoo Choo lob a lazy flyball off Price to end the inning. And no matter how he phrased it in post-game scrums, one has to believe he’s a little upset that anyone in years to come will look at the boxscore and see that “W” beside Price’s name when it was he who put the Jays in a spot where they could relax a bit and necessitate a Game 5.
The move made little sense to me. Now, had they gone with Price on short-rest as the starter and had Dickey ready to go in the ‘pen, I might have understood. After all, Price is the “ace” and although he’d have been on short rest, he had 11 days off prior to the Thursday game so he could have soldiered through six innings or so. That move, although I’m not sure I would have agreed, would have made some sense since statistically Price is the man, ahead of Dickey and because it seems like Dickey usually gets in trouble early. How many times have we seen him cough up two or three easy runs in the first only to settle down and put up a string of zeroes later in the game? The obvious problem there is that if that had happened yesterday, by the time Texas put three across the plate they would have had the momentum, roaring crowd and a string of zeroes through subsequent innings might not have been enough for the Jays to get back in it. But none of those scenarios had occurred; Dickey seemed strong and effective.
Of course, I was really looking at it from the wrong angle. It wasn’t a move to embarrass Dickey or based on a lack of confidence in him. Quite the opposite. The pitching change was a move from a manager who could breathe a sigh of relief in having an excuse not to let Price take the mound on Game 5 and still be able to save face. No matter what they say, the Jays didn’t pull Dickey because they were worried about him tiring (78 pitches in) or about Choo hitting a homer and narrowing the lead to 7-3. They did it because they were nervous about the prospect of having Price pitch the most important game of the year, so far; nervous he’d blow it and equally nervous of a “spitstorm” of backlash should they have decided to go with Stroman ahead of a rested Price on Wednesday and the result not be a decisive win.
Looking at it that way,it was a clever move. Make no mistake about it- Price is the best pitcher on the Jays staff right now. Also be sure that the Blue Jays wouldn’t be playing now had they not made the trade for him. If in doubt of that, look at how effective Matt Boyd (who was in the rotation before he was traded for Price) or Randy Wolf (the next logical choice for Toronto to turn to had they given up on Boyd, based on Wolf’s performance in the minors) were in the final two months for Detroit. (To refresh your memory, Boyd was 1-4 with a 6.57 ERA in ten starts for the Tigers; Wolf was 0-5, 6.23 in 8 appearances there.) Price’s dominating 9-1 record as a Blue Jay, not to mention the benefit in giving the bullpen a bit of rest and adding confidence to the clubhouse, was the reason the team bolted ahead of the Yankees in the stretch and are where they are.
But… make no mistake either that he wasn’t the man to take Toronto to the ALCS this time. First, he’s always struggled against the Rangers. In 11 career regular season games with them, he’s 3-4 with a personal worst 5.15 ERA. His weak outing in game 1 suggests they still seem to have his number. Second, he’s always struggled as a starter in the post-season. Prior to yesterday, his record as a starting pitcher in the playoffs was just 1-6 with a lofty 4.79 ERA and an opponents’ average of .260. Compare that to a 3.09 ERA and .233 average during the regular season. So combine the two and you understand why the Jays would be nervous about handing him the ball in a game against Texas that could end their dream season. This wasn’t about Toronto not trusting RA Dickey to get Choo out or give a couple more innings yesterday, it was about having enough breathing room in the game to risk putting Price in it and having a good excuse to not use him tomorrow.
Gibbons might not admit that much, but he did point out he thought it was “pretty good strategy, it wasn’t a popular one…it’s all about winning.” that it is and in this unusual case, assuring their “best” pitcher can’t pitch in the decisive game is indeed pretty good strategy!
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
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.
Last column, I gave you my picks for the Blue Jays “Franchise Four” – the four best players ever for the team. MLB is apparently going to release the winners for all the teams at the All Star Game, so we have time enough to debate.
As many of you know, besides the Jays and baseball, one of my passions is alternative rock and to me, no one did that better than REM. So it was with interest I found that Mike Mills (the bassist from that now-retired band) is a huge Atlanta Braves fan and read his preview of that club’s 2015 season. In it he mentioned his four all-time fave Braves were Hank Aaron, Phil Neikro, Rico Carty and more than all others, Dale Murphy. It got me thinking about who each team’s four would be- or even more specifically, who the ultimate one player would be for each franchise. I thus put forth for your consideration, my list of
THE FACE OF THE FRANCHISE
the ultimate player in the history of each club. Players marked with asterisks still playing for them…
BALTIMORE : Brooks Robinson
BOSTON : Ted Williams (until someone else hits .400, the argument is on ice)
NEW YORK YANKEES : Babe Ruth (perfect 5-0 record for them on the mound- oh, and he could hit a little too!)
TAMPA BAY : Evan Longoria *
TORONTO : Carlos Delgado (Jays all-time home run and RBI leader, see last week’s blog for more reasons)
CHICAGO WHITE SOX : Frank Thomas
CLEVELAND : Bob Feller
DETROIT : Al Kaline
KANSAS CITY : George Brett (most greats win a batting title in one decade. Brett – three decades.)
MINNESOTA : Harmon Killebrew
HOUSTON : Craig Biggio
LOS ANGELES ANAHEIM : Nolan Ryan
OAKLAND : Rickey Henderson
SEATTLE : Ken Griffey Jr.
TEXAS : Ivan Rodriguez
ATLANTA : Hank Aaron (with apologies to Mike Mills, but 755 homers and 20 All Star seasons trumps 371 homers and seven All Stars)
MIAMI : Giancarlo Stanton *
NEW YORK METS : Tom Seaver
PHILADELPHIA : Mike Schmidt
WASHINGTON : Andre Dawson (as I noted, interestingly none of the Franchise Four contenders for the Nats ever played for Washington. You’re welcome, Montreal!)
CHICAGO CUBS : Ernie Banks
CINCINNATI : Pete Rose (he’ll be voted in their Franchise Four- bet on it!)
MILWAUKEE : Paul Molitor
PITTSBURGH : Roberto Clemente (on merit of his play alone, but one has to wonder what would have been, how historic his numbers would have ended up, had he not been on that fateful flight )
ST. LOUIS : Bob Gibson
ARIZONA : Randy Johnson (one of a handful that could be a Franchise Four for two teams)
COLORADO : Larry Walker (another of a handful that could be Franchise Four for two teams)
L.A. DODGERS : Jackie Robinson
SAN DIEGO : Tony Gwynn
SAN FRANCISCO : Willie McCovey. (There’s no “Bonds’ Cove” at the new stadium!)
Let the debates begin !
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And for the Blue Jays, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Chris Colabello has carried his torrid minor league hitting to the majors in his first week with the big club and backup middle infielders keep being rearranged like deck chairs on the Titanic, but the results are frustratingly consistent. The Jays are a mediocre team in a tiny bit better than mediocre division; no matter how many runs they score, on the whole the pitching staff is going to ensure Toronto loses enough to be out of contention.
On this current road trip, a disappointing trip to Baltimore led to a disappointing stop in Houston, where Thursday Aaron Loup, in no more than 20 pitches, managed to throw away a good Drew Hutchison start and the game then on Friday, RA Dickey fooled no one and spotted the ‘Stros an early six-run lead.
At risk of flogging a dead horse (and man, the flies are gathering around that horse of a pitching staff!) , it is increasingly obvious that the current roster isn’t going to give Toronto enough pitching to have a chance at the post-season. And while it still remains widely believed that the Phillies Cole Hamels is both the best pitcher available right now and also prohibitively costly for the Jays to consider, here are a few thoughts and suggestions.
While Hamels is not going to be wearing a blue, bird-adorned cap anytime soon, a trade with the Phillies is still a viable option. Reliever Jonathan Papelbon is an unnecessary luxury for a last-place team, and is an expense Philadelphia would rather not pay for. He’s off to a dazzling start, being 8 for 8 in saves and limiting opponents to a sub-.200 average and is about as consistent as any reliever presently playing. He’d anchor the Toronto bullpen nicely and let Brett Cecil resume his role as a middle-inning guy or a left-handed batter specialist … things Aaron Loup is looking less capable of. I might guess Loup’s not done anything particularly wrong – other than being too successful too early. His weird sidearm delivery seemed so odd when he first arrived in the majors, it was sure to throw hitters off their timing. But with each passing month, there seems to be another lefty reliever tossing from the hip in the AL, (Alex Claudio of Texas being a new current example) and hitters are getting “hip” to seeing balls come at them from that trajectory.
Nonetheless, a better bullpen can only go so far if the starters remain so inconsistent. Suggestions to shake it up: first, why not put RA Dickey in the bullpen? Yes the philosophical knuckle-baller wouldn’t take it so philosophically, and he is staying on the mound for a decent number of innings, but he’s not winning. Won-lost isn’t always a comprehensive determinant of a pitcher’s ability, but 1-5 is seldom good , and when coupled with an ERA of 5.76 and rising, it might be just that. And while he has a good ground ball out ratio, the 9 homers he’s allowed is alarming… too many fly balls that he gives up fly too far! Much like Tim Wakefield did late in his career, Dickey could give his team a long man out of the bullpen who could easily come in and throw five or so innings if the starter gets blown out early, and with his rubber arm and low-stress pitch, do the same the next night if need be.
Dickey in the ‘pen would mean Marco Estrada could get a longer look in the rotation, since his role (long relief) would be filled, although if the team added two starters to the rotation, he could be shuttled back there.
Two starters, you say? Not as unlikely as it might seem. First off, let’s look down the QEW to Buffalo. There we have a pair of starters with Major League experience thriving for the Bisons. Andrew Albers, the Canadian, got short-changed in his one day stop with the Jays. Although he unfortunately shares Dickey’s W-L (1-5) he’s done so much more effectively, with a solid 2.29 ERA over six starts there. Even more worthy of a look is… Randy Wolf.
I know. Regulars here remember I said not long ago that Wolf hardly seemed a solution to the Blue Jays woes. However, since then the Toronto pitching has gotten worse and Wolf has continued to shine on the shores of Lake Erie. Currently he’s sitting at 3-0 in six starts with a tidy ERA of just 1.00. A crafty southpaw with over 100 MLB wins and riding high in AAA seems worth a look-see.
Add Wolf to the rotation for at least three or four starts (more of course, if he seems to still have big league stuff) is a no-brainer, given the lack of success the pitcher he’d replace is having. And there’s still the trade option to improve the team quickly.
As mentioned here previously, old Aaron Harang is another Phillie that doesn’t factor into their long-term plans. He’s pitching like he wants out of Pennsy; so far he’s logged over 53 innings in 8 starts and has a 4-3 record with 2.03 ERA and a nice 37/10 K to BB ratio. Numbers he might not keep up with a new team, but it’s worth a gamble. Even if he dropped off to his typical level of success, we’d gain a guy who over the past four years averages about 30 starts, 175 innings a year with an ERA barely over 4– an upgrade over what RA or Marco are delivering right now. One would think there’d be no need to dig too far into the vault of young talent to acquire him from Philly.
A little more expensive perhaps, but also more intriguing, Scott Kazmir. No, there’s no word that Oakland is trying to get rid of him, But, considering the A’s last place standing, their solid rotation of Sonny Gray, Drew Pomeranz, Jesse Chavez and soon to return AJ Griffin, Scott’s $11M salary coupled with Billy Beane’s bean-counting ways… I’d wager that Kazmir could easily be a Jay for the cost of perhaps Daniel Norris or Aaron Sanchez, maybe even less. Kazmir at 31 is coming into his prime and so far is off to a 2-1, 2.78 start; his ERA since the beginning of 2013 is 3.65. Give him 6 runs of support a game and he could easily be a 20 game winner here. Make the call, Alex — you must have Oakland’s front office on speed dial already!