As we noted here a few days ago, even before the Giancarlo Stanton trade, the Jays need to get better- more disciplined at the plate, faster, better starting pitching- if they hope to even contend for a Wild Card spot next year. this in itself isn’t news; John Gibbons this week said the team needs to add offence and a reliable 5th starter and Ross Atkins has spoken of the need for speed and athleticism since before Game 162 of this season. The question therefore is how to do so. A few suggestions, or a veritable Santa letter in fact here.
Adding Almedys Diaz in quickly was a smart move, even if I question the non-tendering of a contract to Ryan Goins. I think they should have kept goins- he’s been a reliable, non-problematic infielder for years and really came through in the clutch last season with 62 RBI. However, Diaz may be an upgrade for about the same money; he’s only a year removed from an All Star, .300 avg season and seems versatile in his ability to play around the infield. Which should allow the Jays even more latitude in exploring the chances of trading Troy tulowitzki. Granted, given his salary (3 years remaining at an average of $18M per season), and injury woes , it will be hard to get rid of the 33 year-old. However, should he seem healthy at the start of spring training, perhaps a team looking for a SS or even 3B would bite, if the Jays eat some of the stipend. Trading him for a bit player and paying the other team, say $30M over the next three seems like it might be palatable to free up salary space and open the position for Richard Urena (who seemed capable, if not star-like, in his debut last year) with Diaz around as a backup if and when Devon Travis returns to the lineup. Mind you, given the latter’s knees, getting Ryan Goins back or a similar type of bench player (Adam Rosales anyone?) for a million or thereabouts would be wise. In that respect, Howie kendrick also comes to mind. I used to think Kendrick got the short end of the stick with the Angels, he seemed to go unnoticed in the shadow of Mike trout despite being one of the game’s best second basemen. At an old 34, he’s no longer that, but could still be a solid contributor as a backup infielder and outfielder (last year he played most of his games in left). Although his 305AB were the lowest for him since his ’06 rookie year, he still hit a solid .315 with an .844 OPS, both above his career norms while his range factor at second, 4.4, in limited use there, was on par. No longer a star but if he falls through the cracks in the free agent frenzy, he’d be a solid addition at say $3M or so for a year.
There was a time last season when the team’s top 3 catchers were all on the DL simultaneously. While Russell Martin brings a great attitude and tradition of winning to the clubhouse and is still decent enough behind the plate, it’s no longer reasonable to consider him an All Star nor a guy built to catch 130+ games a year. The Canadian who’ll be 35 in spring needs a better backup who can take on more of the catching duties. Welington Castillo was an obvous candidate, but was quickly snatched up by the White Sox. That leaves perhaps Jonathan Lucroy as the best fit. Lucroy is about 4 years younger and has played 265 games over the past two seasons (which he’s split between Milwaukee, Texas and Colorado.) He’s a career .281 hitter who’s only a year removed from a .292 campaign with 24 homers and 81 RBI. However, his frequent moves and his somewhat down ’17 (.265/6/40) might lower the going rate for him to something no more than, maybe a little under, Castillo’s $15M over 2 years. At that rate, the Jays would be smart to pick him and his 63 assists last year (compared to 41 for Martin in a similar number of games) up and hope he rebounds a little and that a better-rested Russell Martin is a better player.
Teoscar Hernandez looked ready to play in the bigs regularlry in his late-season callup; we might hope he’ll be an everyday corner OF in 2018. But with so-so hitting, golden-gloved (but irritatingly, not “Gold Glove”) Kevin Pillar in center, there’s still a need for another everyday outfielder. Atkins and company have stated that won’t be Joey Bats – probably a smart call, as much as I like Bautista- they need someone who can deliver like Bautista used to to drive some runs and move Toronto up in the standings. It’s said they’re looking again at Jay Bruce, who might be a decent pick-up if his contract goes in the range of the 3 years, $36M predicted by pundits.
I however, think Carlos Gonzalez might be a better free agent option. CarGo’s only 32, was an All star in 2016 when he hit .298 and drove in 100. That dropped off last year to .262 with only 14 homers; the average was the lowest he’s posted since his injury-riddled 2014. He did notch 56 walks though, matching his career best leading to a highly respectable .339 on base. I think the left-handed power hitter might rebound well at Rogers Centre- and should the Jays make the playoffs, he brings along a 12 for 22 career average post-season.
The other option being bandied about in hot stove leagues also bears looking at. The Pirates have long been rumoured to want to part ways with Andrew McCutchen. The 31 year old will be a free agent after next year, which could be just fine as the team has some decent prospects who could be in line to play MLB by ’19. In the meantime, McCutchen will only earn $14.5M next year, not bad for a guy with 8 straight years of 540 or more AB and started 2017 with a .293 lifetime average and .869 OPS. He hit a bit below that last season but still did better than 2016, and offers a strong outfield arm that could match a younger Jose Bautista’s . The catch of course, is that all these factors make him appealing to more teams than just Toronto. If Toronto could pry him away from the cost-conscious Pennsy team for say, Anthony Alford (who in 2 or 3 years could be the “next” McCutchen) and a reliever or mid-range pitching prospect, it would be a great move. If the Pirates want substantially more for him, it’s best to turn the attention back to Jay Bruce or Car Go.
All this makes the obvious assumption that Jose Bautista is gone. While the Jays correctly didn’t pick up his option for ’18 (at something close to $20M), I’d like to see him return. I envision Jose at this point in his career to be a new Steve Pearce. A backup outfielder, first-baseman and part-time DH. If all went well, he might start 70 games in those roles and i think put up better numbers than he did last year, with the benefit of rest. And should things go awry, he’s still in good enough shape to be an everyday OF should someone break down for an extended period. Bautista could also allow the Jays to peddle Pearce, or put him as part of a package for a much-needed pitcher or catcher (should they not come in via free agency.) That said, I’d also envision a realistic paycheque for Joey Bats in ’18 to be in the Pearce-range- maybe $6M a year. This might be a blow to his ego, but i find it unlikely he’ll get a large, multi-year deal anywhere given his reputation and his difficulty staying above the Mendoza line in ’17. He brings a self-assured confidence to the team that could still be beneficial and really, who doesn’t want to see him retire in Toronto blue?
Well we’ll leave it at that today… up next, what to do with that pitching staff.
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!
The Blue Jays opened up the 2015 season in fine form Monday, beating New York 6-1- on ESPN TV across the States, no less! The win and national exposure in itself is enough to make any Toronto fan cheer, but there were several other reasons to like the game. Kevin Pillar started in left, got two hits and stole a base to boot. Young Devon Travis had a day he’ll long remember, making his first big league appearance in front of 48 459 Bronx fans and greeting them with his MLB first home run. Jose Bautista looked uncharacteristically impatient at the plate but made up for it snagging at least 8 fly balls in right, including a sure home run he took away from the Pinstripers at the wall. Drew Hutchison, a surprise pick to be the season opener was lauded by ESPN staff who opined that by last September he was pitching as well as anyone in the league. He didn’t disappoint, going six innings and allowing just three hits and one run.
The things that I liked about all that, beyond the final score, was that although it was only one game, it alleviated some concerns about the ’15 squad. Devon Travis wasn’t overly challenged but was competent handling the ball at second and showed he could certainly hit at the major league level- perhaps with more power than we expected! Pillar looked very perky and energetic, something that hasn’t always been the case with him and apparently joined the rookie hitters in getting together with Russell Martin to look over Yankees pitching videos and get advice on how to hit them. Seemed to work, and showed right off the mark that Martin should make the expected valued contribution in the clubhouse. As for Hutchison, his performance was only memorable in terms of the final line. That’s a good thing. He didn’t exactly blow the doors off the Bronx Bombers, nor did he have any highlight reel “out” pitches, but he kept the Yankees off balance and confused through five innings, just like a star starter should. Perhaps 93 pitches was a little much for him on opening day, because in the 6th he gave up the solo homer to Brett Gardner and came precariously close to giving up a couple more with balls left up high in the strike zone that got hit hard, but all things considered it was a praise-worthy performance. He controlled the jitters of pitching a big game on national TV and was sparkling through maybe 80 pitches. Next game we can hope he can go those 93 pitches without faltering at the end and can be on his way to becoming the type of front-line pitcher he showed glimpses of being last year.
On the flipside, though A-Rod (I grudgingly admit) looked OK, the Yanks on the whole looked rather old and tired. Chase Headley handled a ground ball magnificently in the first but later botched an easy grounder trying to back hand it and then was charged with a throwing error. Masahiro Tanaka apparently isn’t fully recovered from his elbow ligament injury and was to quote some Jays hitters, “very hittable.” His velocity is down- which isn’t always a bad thing with pitchers- and he had little control over placing pitches in the strike zone – which is always a bad thing. An achy “ace” with control problems usually means a loooong season ahead for his team.
As a result, i actually feel more optimistic about Toronto’s chances and revise my predicted win total for them up to 84- good for second place in the division … but still likely a game or three short of the post-season alas.
Speaking of predictions, let’s take a glance at the National League and see who the Jays might end up playing in October should the Baseball Gods shine on Toronto.
NL EAST: You can take a hundred fans and baseball insiders and get 100 different guesses as to the year’s outcome. In every category but one – the NL East. I’ve yet to see anyone, online or in print publications suggest anyone other than Washington will win the division. Las VEgas has them at 4:1 to win the World Series, far and away the lowest odds for any team. Not much of a wonder; they are a good team in a bad division. And playing lots of their sched against the likes of the Phillies not to mention redoubtables like the Rays and Yankees in inter-league games, should help them pile up the wins and ensure home advantage in the NL playoffs. Hard to argue with the logic, or with a rotation featuring Max Scherzer, Steven Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. Give them 95 wins and first place. Miami are far from the disaster/ joke they seemed only a couple of years back. Giancarlo Stanton is as good as any power hitter in the game, Henderson Alvarez looks like he would have been the opening day starter for Toronto had the Jays held onto him, and all things considered they should be second, with 88 wins. It’s all downhill from there. I don’t think the Mets are all that, despite some who pick them as a “dark horse” or this year’s KC, put New York at 81 wins and third, ahead of the shell of what used to be the Atlanta Braves; with no top-flight starters there wasn’t much need to keep the National’s best closer , Craig kimbrel, around ; 73 wins, fourth. Then there’s Philadelphia, a cautionary tale if ever there was one. The one time powerhouse overspent on long contracts for their core players who are now largely over-the-hill and untradeable unless the P’s eat most of their salary. Worse, their farm system isn’t laden with great prospects to take over if they did. Cole Hamels is the one all-star veteran they still have that is of major value to other teams and expect him to be gone by mid-season. where he ends up might significantly influence the final standings. 66 wins, last place.
NL Central: Sporting News picked the Cubs to win it all this year- which is why I didn’t bother spending on their magazine! St. Louis had a terrible off season in terms of the untimely death of their #1 prospect, Oscar Taveras. But Jason Heyward, acquired days later will be a more than adequate replacement in right, Yadier Molina’s apparently looking a bit healthier than last year, Adam Wainwright is still as durable as any pitcher and nearly as good …91 wins, first place. Pittsburgh have an under-rated gem in hometown second baseman Neil Walker and a well-known one in Andrew McCutchen, decent pitching including an apparently happy AJ Burnett (an oxymoron if ever there was one to Toronto fans), 83 wins, second. Cincinnati is just a wee bit like Toronto – a lot of unknowns. Unlike the jays, many of the questions involve veterans who are coming off sub-par or injury-marred seasons. If Joey Votto can regain his 2012 form, Jay Bruce is healthy and Brandon Phillips is not sulking, the team can score a lot of runs and has a trio of good starters. But if Votto and Bruce continue to decline or hurt, expect the staff ace, Johnny Cueto to move along elsewhere. I’ll pick the middle ground and say 79 wins, third place but a good kick-off to the season might let them approach a wild-card spot, a terrible beginning or a rash of injuries and they’re in the basement. Chicago have the best young player in the game – Kris Bryant – and demoted him to the minors to save money years down the road. No wonder the Billy Goat curses them- and likely so does Bill Murray and every other fan named Bill or Tom or Dick or Harry. Yes, he’ll be up in the majors by summer, yes Jon Lester is good. But one pitcher doesn’t make a rotation, 120 games of Bryant won’t help the club as much as 162 games of him and then there’s Starlin Castro – their talented shortstop. Yes, he’s capable of being as good as anyone at the position, but as one scout told Sports Illustrated “at times he plays out of control.” The fact that he was cleared of being the shooter in two different bar shootings he was in the midst of in December raise more questions about his character than they clear up. 75 wins, fourth. Milwaukee aren’t terrible, but aren’t all that special. Post-PED Ryan Braun looks a bit better than last year but only a shadow of his former, MVP-award self; they traded away two of their top starting pitchers but failed in attempts to replace them with James Shields or any other notable free agents, they’re relying on Adam Lind to not only hold down first base but hit lefties as well as right-handed pitching. And Aramis Ramirez has said he’s counting the days to his retirement. It will be 31 days earlier than if he was on a better team, 72 wins, fifth.
NL West: The Dodgers set a new record for payroll, some $270 million this year. they’re paying almost as much to players to not play for them ($44M) as Tampa pay their whole team to play. LA have some overly-moody stars (eg, Yasiel Puig), some well-past their prime stars (eg, Carl Crawford), some not quite there yet stars (eg, rookie Joc Pederson). But stars they have, and it’s hard to go against a team with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. One little note on the latter- in one spring training game this year, Greinke got in his assigned 4 innings and was pulled – then went down to the bullpen to pitch some more and build his strength. That’s what you want in your premiere players. 93 wins, first place. No team did more to throw off their losing ways in the off-season than San Diego. Bringing in James Shields to add to a low-profile but highly-talented starting rotation; adding three all star calibre outfielders in one week , and as icing on the cake, trading for the best reliever in the league this month. A much improved team, but not quite at the top yet – 88 wins, second place. Nothing succeeds like success, so it’s hard to argue against San Francisco, the reigning World Champions. They have a lot of moxie. But they also have Hunter Pence on the shelf for a good chunk of the year, an aging Tim Lincecum they don’t know what to do with and an injured Matt Cain. MadBum can’t pitch every game- can he?? 82 wins, third place. Arizona hope the recent streak of success with imported Cuban players continues, they invested heavily on newcomer Yosmany Tomas, who if he lives upto the hype will be something of a lower-case Mike Schmidt. Paul Goldscmidt is the real star here on a team that individually isn’t terrible. Collectively though, little to be excited about. 71 wins, fourth. Which leaves us with Colorado. They have two of the game’s best, in Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. Unfortunately, they also tend to be two of the most-oft injured players. If the duo is healthy- well, it’s still a lacklustre team, but it could catch Arizona. then again, if they’re healthy the Rockies might do well to trade them off for max value and plan ahead for 2018, 2019…67 wins, last place.
Up next- a look ahead to the post-season…