It’s not been a bad off-season for the Blue Jays so far. I always try to give credit where it’s due, and Ross Atkins deserves some credit for going out and improving the team’s rather anemic starting rotation, adding a legit Cy Young candidate in Hyun-jin Ryu as well as a couple of solid, inning-eating righties (Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson) and an under-the-radar Japanese pitcher, Shun Yamaguchi. No question that the team will hit the turf in March with a stronger rotation than they ended 2019 with.
However, there’s still work to be done. The front office took care of the question at first base by in a roundabout way trading with the Brewers. Toronto signed ex-Brewer Travis Shaw while in turn, Milwaukee nabbed Toronto’s first baseman for the past five years, Justin Smoak. But the elephant in the room remains the Blue Jays outfield. Everyone agrees it isn’t the OF of a competitive team, but thus far nothing’s been done to remedy the situation.
First let’s recap last year. Lourdes Gurriel, up until then a middle-infielder, was shifted into left field and played acceptably (though far from very well) in his new position, and hit quite well .277 with 20 homers and a .869 OPS in the just over half a season (84 games) he was on the active roster. No big problems there.
Center and right field weren’t so great though. Randal Grichuk, signed to a long-term deal before the season, was probably the best defender but still was hit-or-miss in the field and so-so at the plate. While he did lead the team with 31 HR and 80 RBI, his average was low (.232), his OPS very ordinary at .732 and he struck out nearly five times for every walk he took. Grichuk himself admitted that wasn’t good enough.
This left a whole range of Not Ready For Primetime Players filling in the outfield. Most notable of those was Teoscar Hernandez, who inexplicably was dropped into CF much of the time, despite being an obvious “full time DH” if ever there was one. He hit .230 with 26 homers and a .778 OPS. Add in much-vaunted (by management) Derek Fisher, who hit all of .161 in his 40 games, Anthony Alford – a former can’t miss prospect whose time appears to be running out to make a career out of baseball – who was .179 with one homer in 18 games, and Billy McKinney, a .215 hitter with a .696 OPS in 84 games. And suffice to say, none of those names was going to be mentioned in a conversation about Gold Gloves.
Using the new but currently in vogue “Outs above average” stat, which looks at every play and tries to rank its ease based on how far the runner has to run, how hard the ball is hit and so on, and gauge how hard it is to make the play, only Grichuk comes out with a positive rating. He was seen as adding 6 outs, and being 21st best among full-time OF in the majors. Not too bad, although viewers were sure to notice the day-to-day fluctuations of his fielding. Still that was much better than McKinney (-5 outs), Gurriel (-4) and Fisher who cost the team 3 outs in his limited use and caught the flyballs 4% less than an average fielder. In case you were wondering, the Twins slugger Eduardo Roasario was seen as the absolute worst outfielder by these definitions, with -17 outs.
So we have Gurriel, a decent young hitter who looks mediocre in left; Grichuk, a power hitter with a lack of plate discipline but fair fielding skills… and a bunch of guys who can’t hit, catch or throw. Not a good way to compete with the Yankees or Red Sox, even if the team does now have fairly decent pitching and a promising youthful infield. There’s a clear need for outside help in the outfield.
While there are any number of potential trade candidates, four pretty good OF remain on the free agent market. One hopes Toronto is talking to at least a couple of them. There’s highly-touted Nicholas Castellanos, Marcell Ozuna, former-Jay Kevin Pillar, and the “wild card” in the mix, controversial Yasiel Puig.
Of the four, Puig probably has the highest ceiling, but also the most uncertainties with his health and demeanor. Pillar is likely the best defensive OF of the four, but the weakest hitter. Ozuna and Castellanos are Plan 1A and Plan 1B for a whole range of teams including the Cardinals , White Sox, Cubs and maybe Twins (although they may be spent out now after surprising the sports world by getting 3B Josh Donaldson on board.)
I ran a poll on Twitter and found that an overwhelming majority preferred Castallanos out of the four, by about 4:1 to the both Ozuna and Pillar. Not scientific but a good insight into fan perception of the quartet.
Do I agree? Well, I think any of the four could be beneficial. Let’s look at the four quickly.
Pillar is a known commodity who dominated the team’s “Best Defensive Plays of the Decade” tape. He’s still seen as an above-average defensive OF based on that “outs above average” and is reliable. He’s got 7 seasons under his belt, 6 with Toronto, and has logged 500+ at bats for the past five years. He averages 37 doubles a year over the past four seasons, has good speed and hit a career high 21 homers last year. However, his OPS has never been above the league average, something you’d rather hope an outfielder could do at least once or twice in a career!
Ozuna also has been around for 7 seasons, and has played 123 or more games for the past six. His on base percentage has been .320+ for the last four years and he’s generally around 2 on the WAR scale, although his monster 2017 (37 homers, .924 OPS) with Miami gave him a 6.1, seemingly an outlier of a year.
Castellanos suffered perhaps by playing most of his recent years in the terrible Tigers organization. He also has 7 years experience. He hit career highs last season with 27 HR and an .863 OPS but it’s widely noted that it was the tale of two seasons in one for Nick. With Detroit for much of the season, he had a .462 slugging percentage and one homer per 37 at bats . After being traded to the Cubs at the deadline, he skyrocketed to one homer per 13 at bats and a .646 slugging. If he’s really the Tiger Castallanos, he’s a decent, workaday, nothing unusual outfielder. If he’s the Cubby Castallanos, he’s a budding superstar, a possible 45 HR/125 RBI guy. So discerning which player he is will be of importance to any club wanting to sign him!
Puig too, has 7 years of service and is still only 29 which surprises some. He’s had health issues along the way (missing a cumulative 140 games between 2015-16) but has played 140+ games each of the past three. He’s got some speed, averaging 16 steals a year over the past three, and has posted decent OPS of .833, .820 and .785 over the past three years. He has some home run power and a strong arm. The problem with Yasiel seems to be primarily that he came up as an expected superstar but has developed only into a slightly above-average player, disappointing some therefore, and that he’s perceived as being something of a slacker. Determining whether that last part is true would be of vital import to any team looking at him.
Overall last season, Castellanos had the best WAR with 2.7, followed by Ozuna at 2.2, Pillar at 1.0 then Puig at 0.5. Strangely though, all four posted negative defensive WARS , which seems counter-intuitive given Pillar’s reputation and +outs above average. However, of the 4, only Castellanos had a truly bad defensive rating, of -1.5.
In short, any of the four could potentially be an upgrade for Toronto over Teoscar Hernandez, Billy McKinney or Derek Fisher . Which one would I prefer? Whichever one is willing to sign in Toronto on a one or two year deal that won’t break the bank, given that none of them are likely to be “drive-the-team-to-the-World-series-by-themselves” guys. My best bet is that Pillar would return to the team he knows well at a reasonable rate, or that as spring training draws nearer Puig could still find himself on the outside looking in and go for a one year deal with a low base rate and lots of incentives designed to show he is still a viable star and could really hammer the ball in the hitter-friendly AL East.
Get to those phones, Mr. Atkins!
Team Record: 12 – 16 (.429)
4th place all month
Player Of The Month – Randal Grichuk
The bar wasn’t set all that high but Grichuk delivered, as he did in June. Randal’s batting average didn’t budge during the final months but his 8 double, 6 homer performance meant a .553 slugging percentage. Coupled with ongoing solid OF defense, that merits a tip of the cap. Grichuk is showing himself to be a tremendously streaky player. If Toronto can find a way to keep him hot longer, he might become the star they had hoped he would be.
Pitcher Of The Month – Ken Giles
Second month in a row for the newcomer who says he’s enjoying his time here more than he did last year when he won a World Series in Houston. Giles was close to perfect in his 9 appearances this past month, going 7 for 7 in save opportunities and not allowing an earned run. An honorable mention to rookie Thomas Pannone who was 3-0 with a 3.43 ERA through 6 games (4 of them starts.)
Story Of The Month – Win One For The Gibby
No one was surprised but it was made official during the last week of the season that manager John Gibbons was departing the team after the season wrapped up. Gibbons earned the respect of his players, and the fans by being a “player’s manager” and being a far more approachable, chatty manager than the theoretically-more-talented John Farrell whom he replaced. Gibbons leaves as the second winningest Jays manager ever, behind only Cito Gaston (with whom the team won 2 World Series, of course.) Gibby and the organization found a classy way to end his tenure, with a joint news conference before the final home game, allowing Toronto fans to show their appreciation.
Next up, later this week we look at the whole year in summary and perhaps the playoff outlook. In the meantime, a few quickie predictions for the post-season:
NL— wild card Colorado
NLDS – LA over Atlanta, Milwaukee over Colorado
NLCS – Milwaukee … who woulda thunk it?
AL– wild card Oakland … yes, NY should win easily. But those A’s are just surprising
ALDS – Boston over Oakland, Houston over Cleveland
ALCS — Boston
World series… to be continued!
Team Record – 14 – 12 (.538)
A decent enough month, highlighted by a sweep of the critically-lauded Nationals. Despite having a winning record, two disquieting things marked June. First, they actually posted a negative run differential, giving up 115 runs while scoring only 109. this could be seen as a “glass half full” situation, because obviously Toronto is winning their share of close games this year (and if losing are often blown out). Secondly, despite posting a winning record, they actually fell in standings to fourth due to a surprisingly hot Tampa squad.
Player of the Month – Randal Grichuk
Teoscar Hernandez had a good month as well and Kendrys Morales showed himself worthy of the DH role (.277 average, 4 homers, .482 slugging) to my surprise, Grichuk showed why the Jays were so hot for him in the off-season. After two disasterously bad months, he showed off Gold Glove-caliber “D” similar to his next-door neighbor on the field, Kevin Pillar and he’s started to hit. After an incredibly bad .106 average at the start of June, he put up a better-than-respectable .294 with 8 homers, 20 RBI and a slugging percentage well north of .600! If he can keep this up, he might change my thinking – and perhaps the team’s- and make the likes of Anthony Alford at AAA expendable.
Pitcher of the Month – Marco Estrada
Returning to the form that made him so popular and important in 2015-16, Mr. Changeup was solid in all 5 starts, going just 2-1 but having a great 2.34 ERA through the 30 2/3 innings , with a 4:! strikeout to walk ratio. Unfortunately for us fans, his finally showing the “real” Marco again might speed up his departure as allegedly several teams are calling about his availibility. The past 2 month’s winner, JA Happ, was a worthy runner-up, being 3-0 through his 5 starts, with a 3.16 ERA… although that streak of star tossing came to an end today, on Canada Day with him being hammered by the Tigers.
Story of the Month – Pearce Trade
One of those “context” stories. Outfielder Steve Pearce was traded to Boston at month’s end for a seemingly decent Dominican infielder (hitting well but perhaps disturbingly only in A-ball at age 23). Pearce had a good month once he got back off the DL, but was fully expendable to the Jays given that Grichuk (see above) was playing great, Pillar’s Pillar in the outfield and Curtis Granderson is rejuvenated of late (a .288 average and 5 HR in the month) meaning Steve might get little playing time before the trade deadline anyway, and is a free agent at year’s end. However, out of context, it is seen as indicating the Jays are willing to throw in the towel and get rid of almost anyone on the roster in the name of “rebuild”… not an encouraging thought for fans, even if we are all ready for a look at Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Cavan Biggio in the “bigs”.
What will July bring? All we can say for certain is no Toronto player starting the All Star game in Washington! Here’s hoping for a return to .500 overall and a return to the middle of the AL East.
Well, it’s been a good, if frustrating week for the Blue Jays, even though we are lagging 3.5 games behind the red-hot Red Sox. So far the Jays have shown a lot more resilience and “character” than they did last season. One gets the sense this year that if they’re trailing after 6 innings, they still have a good shot of putting a “W” on the board. That is the feeling we had back in 1992-93… and totally missed last year!
Luke Maile certainly is trying his darndest to prove nay-sayers (like me, and many many others) wrong. We all knew he was adequate behind the plate, but nothing he’s done in the past suggest he could hit at a major league level. That’s changed so far this year. Let’s hope he keeps it up!
Also trying to prove nay-sayers (of which I wasn’t one) wrong and earn his permanent place at the MLB level is outfielder Teoscar Hernandez. Thus far he’s 9 for 24 in 5 games, a .375 average, and has driven in 6 very timely runs. I said here he should have made the team coming out of Florida, but where I was wrong was thinking Steve Pearce should be made redundant by him. Pearce is off to a good start, and it’s noted, a good platoon hitter against southpaws. In reality, the odd man out is Randal Grichuk.
That’s not just because he’s been awful so far – appearing in all 18 games so far, he’s hitting all of .088 . That’s 5 for 57, with 22K’s. His .413 OPS is lower than some hitters’ batting averages at this time of year. His strikeout rate is now at about 40%, up from the 31% of the time he whiffed last year. One thing I notice in the advanced stats for him is that his “exit angle” this year is 23 degrees- double his career norm. I don’t usually pay much attention to that number, but here it might be meaningful. He’s lifting his hits way higher this year, presumably in an effort to hit home runs at an Aaron Judge pace,doubtless trying to impress the fans and accomplishing the opposite.
Now, I’m sure he will lift his average to well over .100 soon, and if he plays all year will post reasonable, if not good, numbers. Maybe hit 30 homers, which is just as possible if he goes back to hitting line drives like he seemed to do in the past. But the problem is- he’s just not needed around here.
The Blue Jays have a potential Gold Glove CF in Kevin Pillar, who also adds speed to the lineup. He’s a given. Teoscar seems the real deal, or at least worth a tryout of say 75 or so games to see if he is. Curtis Granderson is a (relatively) high-priced free agent who’s off to a decent start and is my all accounts, as good a mature teammate as you’ll find. We want him to stay. Then there’s the aforementioned Pearce, who works well in tandem and is probably un-tradeable in today’s baseball economy anyway. That leaves one Randal Grichuk taking up space on the roster unnecessarily. It’s time to try to trade him off. Not every team is as loaded in the outfield as Toronto, and he’s a Colby Rasmus like “multi-tool” outfielder who could bloom into a star. There are bound to be teams who’d jump at the chance to have him around and take the chance he’ll be more Justin than Melvin Upton down the road. Toronto could perhaps add a reliever, as decent as the bullpen already is, or a solid prospect in return.
But wait, you might be saying. What if injuries occur? And Granderson, even Pillar could be gone next year (though I’d think re-signing Pillar would be a high priority for the team this fall if not sooner.) Well, the good news is that Toronto has a trio or quartet of good young outfielders waiting to come on up. Anthony Alford is listed right behind Vlad Jr. and Bo Bichette among the team’s top prospects and might have made the team if not for a spring injury. He was just activated off the DL and is in Buffalo, as is hometown boy Dalton Pompey who has great speed and some promise. Even Dwight Smith Jr. might be an upgrade over Grichuk. In a very limited sample of 12 games last year, he was 10 for 27 with Toronto, and he had a better than .350 on base percentage, while driving in 46 in fewer than 400 AB with the Bisons. And, let’s not forget that while Vladimir Guerrero Jr. seems a sure-fire star of the near future, his position isn’t. Although he’s played third so far, scouts suggest he might be a bit big and sluggish to stay there and should Josh Donaldson actually re-up here, well don’t be surprised to see Guerrero patroling left field.
I said it’s been a frustrating week for Toronto. It has for many teams. The JAys got rained out both days last weekend in Cleveland and then, making headlines around the world, got iced from a home game on Monday when ice fell through the Rogers’ Centre roof. Who saw that one coming? Toronto’s not unique of course; as of yesterday some 25 games had been postponed around the league, largely because of snow. Minnesota’s missed 4, games have been missed because of cold in KC, there’s been snow on the field in Cincinnati, and games that have been played have included the coldest temperatures on record (for a ballgame) in Baltimore and Cleveland. All the while, attendance is down in most cities. MLB is concerned but not sure if the two are connected.
Well of course they are, but of course there are other factors too. Weather’s been fine in Miami, for example, but what incentive is there for their fans to really flock to the park to see a team Derek Jeter has made a public point of stripping the talent from? Likewise, Pittsburgh fans are doubtless disgruntled by the trading of their franchise player and their best pitcher. Certainly that gives them good reason to stay home when it’s snowy outside. And in Toronto, the dome is closed (except for when ice says otherwise!) but the weather’s been miserable, making it less attractive to go out for a night on the town, and the beloved Maple Leafs are in the hockey playoffs for just the third time in 13 years. As much as Toronto does love its Blue Jays, the Leafs are still king in the city if they’re hot. Look for attendance and TV ratings to rise if Toronto ML lose another game to the Bruins and are golfing soon.
Baseball needs to do something about it. This should be a priority for Rob Manfred. I don’t want to launch a big poltical debate here but it seems that A) the climate is changing even if only on the short-term, and B) not as Al Gore had predicted in his big movie. Maybe summers are getting hotter, but this decade, winters have been getting harsher and longer across our continent. We’re seeing more and more snowstorms in April – just when MLB pushes back the opening day into March!
I don’t have all the solutions to it. I don’t like the idea of making a shorter season; the 162 game sched is as much a part of the game as cleats or pinstripes on Bronx unis. You can bet neither owners nor players would go for it either, if it meant (as it would) reduced box office and TV revenue (duh! 70 or so home games = less money than 81) and in turn, smaller contracts.
A few ideas might help a bit. I think Spring Training is too lengthy right now. If it was trimmed by a week even, perhaps players might look more kindly at giving up two or three of the extra days off they won recently. The season could open in early April again, and they’d still get a few more days off , albeit at the end of their winter. No one’s too anxious to bring back lots of double headers, but with the bad weather, many are having to take place anyway. My idea- why not have two big double-header days during the season. Maybe Mother’s Day and Father’s day. Every team would play a DH, and it could be a big splash. Big giveaways, maybe special uniforms if the clubs insist (to add to merchandise sales) … and event. Each team would host one, and be on the road for one. Yes, the owner’s lose one home game therefore (80 vs 81 because of the double header) but the crowds for those DH’s , if marketed right, might be so big as to make up for the lost game. That saves another couple of days on the sched, so maybe now we could look at about April 6 or 7 for opening day. And if the year still seems too long, maybe the playoff Championship series could be made best of 5 as the Division series are too. That’ll knock about four days off the end of the year and make November games improbable.
Finally, baseball could put in a rule of “52”. Going forward any new franchise, should they expand, any city a team moves to (aka where the A’s and Rays end up) and any new stadium replacing an existing one would have to have a roof – retractable is fine- if the city has an April average temperature of 52F or lower (11C.) That would cover existing cities like Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, Denver (colorado) and Minnesota, as well as such rumored destinations as Portland, Oregon, Montreal and Columbus, Ohio. It wouldn’t effect Baltimore or Cinci, but at least we’d see less Target Fields begging for snow cancelations in years to come.
No, I don’t have all the answers, but if the big minds at MLB put their heads together and make it Job 1 instead of knocking two seconds off a pitchers’ delivery, we might have a lot fewer missed games in the future.
A little over a month back, I pondered what Toronto would need to field a reasonably competitive team this spring. I concluded the top need would be a good starting pitcher to supplement the core trio of Stroman, Happ and Estrada and for the team to not assume Aaron Sanchez would be good to go after a disasterously bad, blister-ridden 2017. As well, the left side of the bullpen could be improved and there was a need for a bat to replace, or actually upgrade upon, that of the apparently departed Jose Bautista.
The Blue Jays have made a few moves to improve the terribly lacklustre ’17 offense but have been quiet on the pitching front, veteran rightie reliever Al Albuquerque notwithstanding.
The Jays continued their apparent mission to corner the market on backup middle-infielders by acquiring Yangervis Solarte from San Diego. While he’s hardly a household name here (more a function of how little we see or hear about the Padres), neither was Roberto Alomar when Toronto picked him up from the same NL West team. However, I don’t see Solarte becoming the next Alomar. Nevertheless, he didn’t cost the team a whole lot and should be a good addition. After arriving in the bigs with the Yankees in 2014, he was soon traded over to San Diego and over his 4 years thus far, he’s posted a career .267 avg with .327 on base and averages about 14 homers, 61 RBI per year in 130 games. His .255 and .314 last year, were career lows but there’s reason to think the switch-hitter can hold his own at the plate. He’s played all infield positions and left field to boot, but while the need for him may be greatest at short, he’s played the bulk of his games at third. He’d be no real replacement for the “Bringer of rain” should the team choose to trade off their $23M man third baseman, but he could do OK as a new shortstop should the team be able to find a taker for Troy Tulowitzki. His limited time at SS suggests Solarte might not be equal to Tulo defensively, but perhaps if it was his primary position he might be. What he could do though is boost the productivity at the plate from that position. Last year TT hit only .249 with a .678 OPS and 7 round-trippers in 66 games; Solarte’s numbers in the less hitter friendly NL West suggest he’d easily do better than that with regular playing time. But of course, finding a taker for Troy, with his huge contract (over $50M still due) and his ability to veto a trade is the monkey wrench in the concept. Since the team has made changes to the outfield this month, the concept of Devon Travis the new left fielder seems less sensible so in reality what we probably look at for 2018 is Aldemys Diaz and Solarte being the New Goins and Barney, or perhaps Solarte being the new SS with Tulowitzki the league’s most expensive bench-warmer. Both could be improvements over 2017 but neither is really an ideal scenario.
Which leads us to the OF. First the team signed Curtis Granderson to a one year deal for a reasonable $5M. Presumably he is designed to replace Jose Bautista, and given that, the team couldn’t have done anything better. Granderson is as close to a statistical clone of Joey Bats as you can find. He’s a year younger than Jose but became a regular player a year sooner (2005 vs. 2006) but through their careers, they match up closely. Granderson has played 1796 games, Bautista 1676. Both had career best averages of .302. While Bautista’s 54 HR ’10 stands out, both have had 40+ homer seasons- but not lately. Bautista has a bit more power – 331 HR to 319; 927 RBI to Grandy’s 865 but last year CG had the slight advantage, going .212/26/64 with a .775 OPS (thanks to 71 BB; both batters also take lots of walks) to Jose’s .203/23/65, .674 OPS. However, what is obvious is both are on a steady run downwards…Granderson’s average has fallen from .259 to .237 to .212 since 2015 and his homers have also gone south; Bautista .250,.234,.203 in the same period. Bautista brought a determination and swagger to the table and was a clubhouse leader. I don’t know if Granderson will do that, but he’s an undeniably good character who is eager to help out in the community, so Toronto, the city, will take to him. The point here is that, yes, Granderson is a good replacement for Bautista but…. but…isn’t the reason the team waved goodbye to #19 that he’s not considered good enough to play regularly anymore? If so, why bring in a guy who matches his talent level to a tee?
Last but not least, the Jays made one of the bigger trades of the slow off-season picking up Randal Grichuk from St. Louis. Here they did have to pay a bit, with highly-touted prospect Connor Greene and reliever Dominic Leone going to the Show Me State in return. Therefore, the fans have reason to expect Grichuk to “show me” why he was worth getting.
He may be up to the task. Grichuk is seen as having above-average skill in the field and at the plate, and at age 26 is still a work in progress. He’s got good speed, was considered adequate at center for the Cards but improved when moved to left and over the past two years posted consistent, decent but not great hitting numbers: .240/24/68 in ’16 with a .769 OPS; .238/22/59 , .758 OPS last year. Both times he struck out about 30% of the time. There’s little question he has power and is likely to be at or above 30 HR in the AL East with our hitter-friendly parks. If he can be more selective at the plate, his average will rise and he could become quite a force in the middle of the lineup. He says he wants to do just that and is undergoing “eye strengthening” exercises this winter to try and be a better judge of pitches at the plate. Encouraging news.
I am hopeful Grichuk will work hard and become an asset. There’s a nagging doubt in me, which isn’t really his fault, that he might just be the latest in a string of dud outfielders the team seems to have a knack for finding – ultra-talented but bad-tempered and lazy Alex Rios, talented but apparently lazy young Upton (you can call him BJ, you can call him Melvin but you’ll probably just call him out on strikes) and of course, another promising young outfielder they got from the Cards. Grichuk even looks a little like Colby Rasmus and is coming off a year in St. Louis almost identical to Rasmus’ part-season in ’11 before being traded. And like Rasmus, he was quick to lob a few jabs at the Cards’ organization once he arrived here, which doesn’t bode too well. Nonetheless, he also says he wants to play everyday and appears willing to work to improve (which Rasmus plain-spokenly wasn’t) so we give him the benefit of the doubt for now and hope he develops into the player he has the talent to be.
All of that means that, if healthy, the Jays could be somewhat better at the plate and in the field this year. But there’s still the starting rotation and the southpaws in the ‘pen to consider… I’ll look at that next time.