What a difference a year makes. Last year’s super-hero ball club, the Clark Kents turned into Supermen, the Kansas City Royals, are quickly becoming the super-villains. The Lex Luthors. One might expect the Blue Jays to have a heated rivalry with the Red Sox (with the Farrell thing on top of being division rivals) , or the Yankees but the Royals?!
After this weekend’s games and chatter, on field and online, it seems clear that last year’s AL champions are Public Enemy #1 at Rogers Centre… unless umpire Jim Wolf owns that distinction.
For those who might have been enjoying the long weekend out of town and missed Sunday’s game, tempers flared even hotter than the August sky and benches cleared after a series of hit batters and brush backs. KC starter Edison Volquez plunked Josh Donaldson in the first inning, prompting a quick warning from umpire Jim Wolf. After Donaldson was thrown at again, with no response from Wolf, Troy Tulowitzki got drilled in the 7th by Ryan Madson. Still no discipline despite the umpire’s warning. Madson throwing inside at Donaldson yet again was more or less the final straw, causing Josh to lose his temper, John Gibbons to run out and promptly get ejected, soon to be joined in the clubhouse by pitcher Aaron Sanchez who was tossed before the ball he hit Royals hothead Alcides Escobar in the bottom of the inning with touched the dirt.
Benches cleared and while no punches were thrown thankfully, a veritable, verbal series of jabs ran back-and-forth afterwards online and on air. Volquez called Donaldson a “crybaby” and criticized his “pimping” of home runs (something few KC players could be accused of, given their lack of power!); while manager Ned Yost of the Royals had the audacity to praise the “phenomenal” job of umpiring by Wolf.
In response, Jose Bautista tweeted that he “lost a lot of respect” for Yost, prompting Yordano Ventura to call Joey Bats a “nobody” in a tweet he eventually deleted.
Bautista articulately added later on that his comments said “nothing against his managerial capabilities… he’s doing pretty good at that, obviously their record reflects it” but questioned the job of umpiring. “Why put a warning on if somebody is going to get hit with a fastball…and not be taken out of the game?”
A very good question MLB should be asking.
It’s not the first time the Royals have made enemies throwing at batters this year. Benches cleared against Oakland earlier in the season after Ventura plunked an Athletic and days later both Volquez and Ventura got suspended after a brawl with the White Sox, the latter being suspended seven games as baseball deemed him the instigator. So Royals riling up opponents by being head-hunters is hardly anything new. What is is for the umpire to seemingly condone it.
No one in the Jays organization has said it but I will- having Jim Wolf umpire while his brother Randy is an active pitcher is a bad idea. Perhaps Wolf the ump simply thought there was no intent on the pitches brushing back Blue Jays and plunking Tulo. Or forgot that he had warned both benches innings earlier. But am I the only one who has considered that if Jim’s brother, Randy , was on the Blue Jays bench that he wouldn’t have had the chance to call the game. The fact that Randy is instead toiling in Buffalo (quite well, with a 7-1 record and 2.48 ERA) while Toronto has had a revolving door of pitchers up and down may have been the farthest thing from Jim’s mind. But it sure isn’t a stretch to think that at least on a subconscious level, older bro’ Jim might be a bit angry at the jays for not promoting his little brother Randy and is letting it influence his calling the game.
A wise man once said “justice must not only be done but must be seen as being done.” Jim Wolf tossing a Jays pitcher for hitting a KC player after two Toronto players got hit by pitchers with a notorious history of throwing at players doesn’t seem just.
Nevertheless, the whole incident might be “just” the great bonding event that the team needed. Thanks Kansas City, thanks Jim Wolf. You might have been what our Clark Kents of the ball diamond needed to find the nearest phone booth…
Tuesday addendum: the league announced suspensions for Aaron Sanchez and John Gibbons today yet somehow turn a blind eye to the KC head-hunters. That’s unfair on a hundred levels… but may help cement team unity and determination even better than a trade for an All Star. So, in a roundabout way, thanks MLb!
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 !
***** ***** *****
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!
Two weeks into the season is early to assess a team, so it’s difficult to know exactly what this year’s Blue Jays are going to be like or where they’ll finish up (you may recall my most recent prediction was for 84 wins and second place in the East but still shy of the playoffs). But it’s not too early to see some trends and early answers to the big pre-season questions.
I wondered if young Devon Travis and Dalton Pompey were ready to make the jump to full-time big-leaguers, and expected Pompey (whom we saw briefly last season) would be closer to ready. Perhaps I got it backwards; Travis has been the league’s best rookie so far, and among its top hitters of any experience level, hitting .336 with a dozen RBI to rank among the leaders in those categories, as well as slugging percentage (.644). Pompey has been questionable in the field, something which to his credit he’s taken responsibility for, and is hitting only .188 with 12 strikeouts to only 4 walks. It may be unreasonable to expect him to match his minor league tally of last year (.317, 51 RBI in only 440 at bats, 43 steals) but he needs to step up his game quickly if he’s to stay around at the major league level this year. Nonetheless, he shows all the signs of eventually becoming a good one, and if he needs more seasoning, could perhaps be replaced in center field by Kevin Pillar, who’s off to a hot start and made what MLB listed as the “play of the week” last year in stealing a home run away over the left field fence. Pillar could shift to center when Michael Saunders is healthy enough to play, which surprisingly could be by month’s end.
I hear (or more accurately, read online) Jays fans worrying about the slow starts by Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Russell Martin. Needless fretting. Actually their slowish starts give reason for encouragement. Yes, Martin and Bautista are hitting just .143 and EE, whose been hitless six times in the past ten games, just .200, but Bautista still has taken 11 walks, has 3 homers and 8 RBI and ranks in the top five in runs scored in the AL. There’s not as much good to say about Encarnacion or Martin’s start at the plate yet, but therein lies the silver lining. We know they’ll get better!
Sure, we can’t count on Edwin hitting 37 homers this year (his average over the past three campaigns), or Martin hitting .290 as he did last year (about 34 points higher than his career average up to then) or bank on Jose leading the league in home runs when all is said and done, but we know they’ll be hitting better than they are now. A quick calculation shows that if Jose and Russell even hit a lowly .200 for the rest of the season, and Martin catches 120 games, Bautista plays 140 games, they’d be on base a combined 50 times more this season than at the current rate. That by itself would be enough to add 25 or more runs to the total, or put the ERA of the opposition pitchers up by .2 or so. And I’d put a few quarters on the table to bet that both of those guys, and Encarnacion, will be well over .200 by September.
All of which is reason to cheer, because the Jays are doing just fine in hitting even with these guys firing blanks. As of Sunday night, the team’s .246 average sounded anemic but was fifth best in the league and, more importantly, they lead the majors with 70 runs scored. (Pity Houston, Chicago, Cleveland and Minnesota, plus several NL teams, who’ve yet to even score 40!). Scoring enough runs isn’t a problem for Toronto now and certainly won’t be once Edwin starts connecting for the long ball and Bautista and Martin top the Mendoza Line (.200 average) What is concerning is the pitching, as predicted.
Although the bullpen is only 2 for 4 in saves so far, it’s looking adequate and as long as kiddies Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro don’t clue in to the fact they shouldn’t be having such an easy time against big league hitters with their lack of experience, it will continue to be OK. The problem lies with the starting rotation.
While the Blue Jays are scoring lots, they’re also allowing a lot. The staff 4.50 ERA is 8th best in the AL , but a mile behind the leaders. Detroit, Oakland and Houston (!!) have ERAs below 3. And the 53 free passes given up by Jays pitchers is worst in the American League and only surpassed by Philadelphia in all of baseball. The 19 home runs they’ve allowed is worst in the game. The defence may be a tad better this year but there’s no defence against walks and homers (occasional spectacular Kevin Pillar catches notwithstanding.)
The situation is gloomy. Veterans Mark Buehrle and RA Dickey have both been OK in all their starts. Not great, mind you, but OK. Mark has gone 6 innings both times, won both starts and posts a 3.75 ERA. Dickey after 3 is winless but has a 3.26 ERA and has hurled a team high 19 1/3 innings.
The younger ones haven’t been pretty. Semi-veteran Drew Hutchison was very good in the opener against New York but then lasted less than 5 innings in the next two games and is allowing opponents to hit .270 against him. Last year, he averaged just under 6 innings an outing, this year he’s clocking no more than 5 … and was complaining of a “dead arm” issue already to the Star‘s Rosie Dimanno. You know, the issue of fatigue most pitchers go through in August or September.
Rookies Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez have been worse. Norris has a 6.08 ERA and lasted just 2 2/3 innings in his last game before being pulled after 6 hits and four earned runs. Sanchez has lost both his starts, has an ERA over 6 and has given up two homers in only 8 innings after allowing just one last year in 33 big league innings.
The problem is rather obvious. The two veterans are doing OK– and thus can’t be expected to get miraculously better. They’re doing about what was expected of them already. Maybe Buehrle will go a little deeper into the games when it warms up, but all in all, what you see is what you get. Which means that if the pitching is going to “click” and give the Jays a chance to get hot, the trio of young pitchers have to perform much better. And that’s a lot to expect of two rookies and a 24 year-old who’s already fatigued!
Looking south to Buffalo isn’t cause for unbridled optimism either. The Bisons have been off to a good start – but their best pitcher so far is Randy Wolf. Those of you who watched baseball last century will remember Wolf, who was at that point a young lad. Wolf is currently 2-0 with a stunning 0.90 ERA at AAA. But, apologies to Randy, who will turn 39 mid-season, even though he’s logged 133 career wins, I don’t hold out a lot of hope he’s going to be the 2015 Blue Jays savior. Last year after all, he recorded all of 1 win, with Miami and the last year he had an ERA below 5, or held opponents to a sub-.300 average, was 2011 (when he was 13-10 at Milwaukee.) Then there’s Johan Santana, of course, whom I’ve written about here previously , but as of now he’s on the DL and hasn’t thrown a pitch yet. Best case scenario is that he might be back in major league shape by the All Star break.
The team will score enough runs to compete this year. But every 12-11 game has a team that scored enough runs and still lost. The failure to sign a good free agent starter or trade for one in the off season looms larger than ever.
For those keeping track, the last piece of the Roy Halladay trade that still mattered to the Jays was Kyle Drabek. He was picked up on waivers by Chicago just before opening day, but designated for assignment by the White Sox today. (To be fair, the Jays got Travis d’Arnaud in that trade as well, and he’s a decent enough big league catcher, but he was one of four players the team shuttled to New York in 2012 for RA Dickey). Granted, “Doc” is out of baseball too now, but at least the Phils got a Cy Young and two no-hitters for their effort! Not much to show at the Toronto end of the trade.