How nice it is to be writing a blog at the end of August about what the Blue Jays should be doing to prepare for a World Series run in a month instead of what they did wrong and what they need to do in off-season to build a contender for the next year!
While my fingers are still crossed, it’s looking more and more likely our 21 years of frustration are coming to an end… at time of writing this, Saturday, Toronto is a game and a half in front of the Yankees for first place and have a full six-and-a-half games over the top, “non-wildcard” team. With our post-Tulowitzki record and the schedule today now offering us the same number of home games as road ones (following the great 8 game road trip that ended Thursday) it would seem the Jays really would have to have a collapse of epic, 2011 Red Sox-type to miss the playoffs.
That said, a little insurance couldn’t hurt. this late in the season, it’s unlikely “insurance” will come via trades – even though rumors are swirling about Craig Kimbrel being traded to an unknown team – so we have to look within the organization to bolster the roster for September.
Alex Anthopoulos has apparently said that additions will be few, but will be coming in September with the expanded rosters. Thankfully, a team that’s won 22 of its last 27 doesn’t need a huge overhaul but a few more options on the bench would be nice. Interestingly, Bluebird Banter suggested that only A-level Lansing is likely to make the minor league playoffs and play beyond the (unusually late Sep. 7) end of their regular season and that Marcus Stroman might end up there for a couple of rehabilitation starts.
While there’s not much wrong with the Blue Jays right now, I’d suggest the team rents a stretch limo on Sep. 7 and bring a few Bisons to the big leagues… starting with
Matt Hague – the International League’s leading hitter at .349 with 86 RBI in 125 games could provide a good power bat on the bench for pinch hitting and could give Edwin Encarnacion a day or two off to fully recover from his bumps and injuries before playoff time. Although EE’s 24 game hitting streak and headline-grabbing game today suggests maybe he’s already done that…
Dalton Pompey – the Mississauga kid didn’t really make a go of it at the major league level in April but he’s hit a decent .290 in buffalo with 15 stolen bases in 22 attempts and only 2 errors in 61 outfield games. His time isn’t now, but he could provide a speedy pinch runner if Dioner Navarro represents the winning run in the 9th inning, for instance…
Munenori Kawasaki – not having a stellar season even by AAA standards, but the popular little infielder has big league experience and provides a decent back-up middle infielder . Having only Tulo, Pennington and Goins on the roster who could really even play an inning or two at second or shortstop makes me a bit nervous (by the way, for those wondering, it seems Steve Tolleson has retired even though he’s still listed as a Bison)…
and some added arms for the bullpen. The pen has been exceptional lately, but it’s always good to have a few more people there lest an 18 or 20 inning game occur, or have starters knocked out early a couple of days in a row. My top choices for that would include…
Ryan Tepera – Ryan looked decent earlier in his 21 games with Toronto, since then he’s been pretty outstanding in 20 games with Buffalo, going 3-1 with two saves and a miniscule 1.09 ERA, 37 K in about 33 innings. Power and durability to add to the pen…
Steve Delebar – another pitcher with enough big league experience to handle the pressure of a playoff run, he’s been good this year in the minors with a 27:7 strikeout to walk ratio…
Chad Jenkins – being switched to a reliever, jays fans are well familiar with Chad and between 9 starts and 30 relief appearances, he’s 8-4 with an ERA under 3, somewhat like the numbers for …
Jeff Francis – the Canadian lefty is no stranger to big September games and is 8-3, 2.46 in 13 starts, 5 relief appearances at AAA. He’s only walking about one batter per seven innings, so he might be the perfect guy to be able to not only get tough left-handed hitters out in the 10th inning or make a spot start.
Sorry Aaron Loup and Joba Chamberlain. Despite your extensive MLB experience, recent lack of success in majors as well as in Buffalo would make me give them an early winter break and not roll the dice on having them in Blue Jays unis come playoff time.
I was lucky enough to go see our Jays on the road this past Tuesday, when they came from behind to top Texas 6-5. It was a great night and I was given no hassles by anybody for sporting my Jays cap proudly. I estimate I saw another 40 to 60 Toronto fans “supportin’” , with a number of Bautista jerseys in the crowd as well as a few EE ones, and even an old Brett Lawrie one, as well as a new Tulowitzki blue jersey.
Being a Mark Buehrle start, the game went by rather quickly and I was happy to see there’s now a countdown clock in the outfield which keeps the between inning breaks to the designated 2:30. Those extra 15 or 30 seconds every half inning do add up to a nicer, speedier pace. It’s not as obvious at home watching on TV as it is in the stands. Another thing baseball has got right in the last few years.
Mark Buehrle speeds things up when he takes the mound!
Now that the dust has settled from the storm of July deadline trades, we have a clearer idea of who are contenders vs. those who are pretenders moving towards the playoffs. Toronto fans are ever thankful that Dave Dombrowski decided his Tigers were pretenders before he got canned; the “Price” was high but worth it.
Some races seem won already, but in this year of parity not as many as you might expect. No one’s going to catch Kansas City in the AL Central, nor would they have even without the Royals acquiring Johnny Cueto. Having the best pitching in the league helps them have the only positive run differential in the division; all that’s left to do there is scout playoff opponents and wonder if any divisional rival will finish up at or above .500. Given Minny’s inevitable swoon of late, my guess is no.
Houston faltered but didn’t collapse, their good pitching and home run power should compensate for the excessively free-swinging, strikeout-laden offense and inexperience. They’ll maintain and perhaps even bolster their current 2.5 game lead in the AL West. The question there is whether the Angels can hang onto their second place, and wild card slot, and if Texas will grow or wilt in the Dallas summer heat.
Statistically, the Angels have the second-best pitching in the league, which is more than a little surprising. Somehow, even with their outfield trade deals and the ever-present looming bats of Trout and Pujols, they’ve lost 7 of the last 10 and I don’t see them rebounding in any big way. Sitting now at 57-50 they should hang onto at least a .500 finish, but even this year that’s not going to get them into the post-season.
Texas is an interesting team. As a team it’s remarkably streaky, which mirrors most of its lineup. Recently all-star Prince Fielder has cooled off some after a torrid first half, and CF Leonys Martin earned himself a trip to the minors with his stone cold bat, but Elvis Andrus has been playing like the $120M man they thought he could be and Adrian Beltre’s healing from a thumb injury and starting to look like Beltre again. With the trade for Cole Hamels, their pitching might – just might– be adequate to keep them in enough games to slide by Anaheim in the standings. More than half their remaining games are home ones, but somehow the R’s have been winning more on the road than in Arlington this year so it’s not a surefire bonus for them. If they end up with 83 wins this year, I won’t be surprised and it will be a nice couple of steps up from last year (especially given their ace Yu Darvish missing the season.)
In the National, nobody’s likely to catch St. Louis in the Central; even without Adam Wainwright the team’s keeping the opposition to under 3 runs a game; their only worry is putting on the cruise control and having a hard time gearing back up for games that matter in October. I don’t think they’ll win 100 games, but with 97 or 98 they’ll still be tops in baseball. The Pirates are in good shape to return to the playoffs nonetheless, even if they can’t make up 6 games ground on the Cards. The big question there could be AJ Burnett’s elbow. If the team is on the up-and-up (which might be a first in MLB history) and it’s not a serious injury and he can return by Labor Day, they’ll be a solid playoff team. If Burnett’s arm- and career- are toast, Pittsburgh will turn its attention to hockey very quickly in the playoffs.
In the NL West, the Dodgers were savvy at the trade deadline but I like SF’s acquisition of Mike Leake even more. LA is better on paper but five years into this decade, I’ve learned not to under-estimate the intangibles at work by the Bay. I think the Giants will win the division- but LA will easily make the wildcard game.
In the NL East, call it the Curse of the Coddling. Washington have by far the best lineup, Bryce Harper is finally starting to merit mentioning in the same sentence as Mike Trout but something is amiss as evidenced by their second place standing. If Boston were cursed for decades for selling the Babe, maybe Washington will be cursed similarly for babying Stephen Strasburg (shutting him down entirely in September after 159 innings) in 2012, when the Pennant was theirs for the taking. New York have the pitching and the momentum, let’s give them the division by three or four over the Nats.
Which brings us to the AL East— and my next column, tonight…
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.
Darn! In the previous two columns we’ve seen I expect it to be a pretty good year for “Sox”- Boston’s Red Sox and Chicago’s White Sox are my early picks to win the American League East and Central, respectively. Today we turn our attention to the left coast – the AL West.
Houston: on the one hand, the Astros’ 70-win campaign last year was reasonably bad. On the other, their 19 game improvement over 2013 was the second-best in the league and for the first time in years, there were signs of promise for beleaguered SE Texas fans. A few low-key but savvy off-season moves (such as trading for Hank Conger and repatriating Jed Lowrie) seem to suggest they’re still headed in the right direction.
A: Jose Altuve. Baseball’s smallest player (generally conceded to be only 5’5”) is one of its biggest talents and one of my favorites as well. He’ll only turn 25 mid-season and soared to great heights last year winning the AL batting title (.341), leading the league in steals (56) and setting a club record for hits in a season (225), playing great “D” at the same time. He’s the heart and soul of the team and with a better lineup surrounding him and an extra year of experience, he might not have peaked yet.
Q: Colby Rasmus. The lanky outfielder turned down a chance to wear a third bird on his cap, shunning the Orioles after wearing out his welcome with Cardinals then Blue Jays. Rather like Alex Rios (and curiously, from southern Alabama like Rios) in being a tall, speedy outfielder with some power but a seeming inability to pay attention or put together more than three or four good games at a time. ‘though he has hit .276 twice and hit 23 HR in a year twice, on career 27% of all plate appearances are strikeouts and last year he hit only .225 with 18 HR and 40 RBI in Toronto before being benched in September. However, he’s still only 28 and if he learns to take advice and concentrate, could become a major talent.
Y: George Springer. A 2013 Baseball America minor league All-star in ’13 and candidate for Rookie of the year last season before a quadriceps injury ended the year mid-summer, he could really add some power to the Astros lineup. He knocked 20 out of the park in only 78 games last year and hit 37 the previous year in minors. However, he also is prone to being a free-swinger, whiffing 114 times in only 295 AB in his rookie year. Hanging around Rasmus might not be a good thing.
Z: decent young arms in the rotation; don’t be surprised if Altuve wins a second batting title but team is still the most likely to give an opposing pitcher a 20K game. Going the right way, but still a ways away, 76 wins, fourth.
Los Angeles-Anaheim: Coming off a division title, the Angels obviously thought the 98 wins in ’14 was more representative of the team than their dismal playoff appearance, and chose to do little to upgrade.
A: Mike Trout. I’m already sick of the hype and made the point earlier that Jose Bautista had a season last year as good as Trout but with much less fanfare. That said, there’s no denying Trout is a major talent and at 24 this summer should get better. His .287 average was down and K’s were up while walks down, but Angels could tolerate another year like last. But may get better.
Q: Josh Hamilton. One big question, as we know, is if Hamilton will even be able to play, after being called on the carpet by MLB over an alledged cocaine relapse. Even if he avoids a lengthy suspension and rehabs from a shoulder injury and surgery, it seems increasingly unlikely he’ll deliver the hundred million dollar performance LAA expected. Last year’s .263 average hid a terrible 108K/32 BB ratio and career-low ten homers. Throw in his selfishness and rudeness to his fans and Angels better hope that Baseball suspends him and can call on low-paid, hard-working Daniel Robertson to play LF in his place.
Y: CJ Wilson. Another big-money import from the Rangers who’s not worked out so well. People seem obsessed with the diminishing fastball of Jered Weaver, despite his success (18 wins last year) and ignore that Wilson is older , entering his 11th season and had a 4.51 ERA last year, largely due to 85 walks in 175 innings and the worst opponents average in his career as a starter. In 2010-11 with Texas, he had a 3.12 ERA; since then with Anaheim, 3.87. A return to form seems a longshot, but would boost the team’s chances of repeating as division winner.
Z: Good team, but the rotation and aging Albert Pujols will prevent them from matching last season, not to mention that Howie Kendrick will be more missed than people realize. 88 wins, second place.
Oakland: the A’s were on a roll last season and bet the farm on a World series. As we know, the team fell apart and ended up losing the Wild Card game, and this year’s edition carries over few of the stars of ’14.
A: Billy Beane. You don’t get Brad Pitt to play you in a movie by being stupid or bad at what you do. So, even though the Athletics made moves that seem questionable last summer and in the off-season, don’t bet against the GM who seems to keep the team competitive year after year with limited budgets and few recognizable stars.
Q: Billy Butler. Big free agent acquisition of the off-season took his Royals ever-so-close to the championship last year, and will be needed to add some real power into the lineup which now lacks the big bats of Donaldson and Moss. That his .323 on base and .379 slugging were career lows and 9 homers lowest since his 2007 rookie year are disturbing, but he’s still only 29 and may benefit from a change of scenery.
Y: Brett Lawrie. Few players play harder, few players would benefit from trying a little less- but Brett might be one. After all, 147 games missed due to injuries in last 2 seasons suggest that he might have done better not jumping into photographers bays after every foul ball. Great defense but disappointing bat of late, batting avg. in his four years so far: .293/.273/.254/.247; last year no stolen bases after 13 in rookie campaign. However, not being on Toronto’s artificial turf could help him stay healthy and not having media pressure he faced in Toronto (where he was the token Canadian and TV commentator Buck Martinez was comparing him to George Brett in Lawrie’s first month of big leagues) could help him come into his own and become the star he’s long been projected to be.
Z: the A’s still have some good young arms, could have two good ones coming back mid-season (Griffin and Parker) , a decent bullpen made better with Tyler Clippard’s arrival and a smart man in charge. Still, I think their streak of flat out good luck might have run its course; 77 wins, third.
Seattle: winning 87 last year was first above par season since ’09 and optimism runs high in the NW with the addition of last year’s home run champ Nelson Cruz.
A: Felix Hernandez. From the list of “pitchers who pitched better than Cy Young winner Corey Kluber last year but didn’t win the Cy Young”,it’s hard to imagine this will be King Felix’s 11th season. But he’s still only 29, seems healthy and is coming off a year in which he had the lowest WHIP and ERA (2.14) of his already significant career. With Cruz and Co. perhaps hitting a few more out of Safeco Field for him, could easily win 20.
Q: Fernando Rodney. The bullpen isn’t as strong as the rotation, and the closer seems a little iffy even though he is coming off a decent year last year in which he set a club mark for saves with 48. Although he’s got 220 career saves, he also has 50 blown ones and a proclivity to wildness and going out of his way to ‘dis’ opponents. At age 38, can he still hit the bulls-eye regularly?
Y: Kyle Seager. The M’s like their young 3B enough to reward him with a big long-term deal after only three full seasons and there’s ample reason: he’s only missed a dozen games over those three seasons, and had his first All Star game and Gold Glove last year. ’14’s .268/25HR/96RBI were all career highs and his OPS was behind only Beltre and Donaldson among AL third baggers. He should produce nicely but if he can turn it up a notch with a bit more help around him in the lineup, the Mariners could really set sail for the playoffs.
Z: Hernandez anchors the best starting rotation in the division if not the whole AL; another 40 homers from Nelson Cruz is reasonable to expect if he’s healthy… 90 wins, first place.
Texas: after being a powerhouse for the past four seasons, the Rangers crashed in a big way in 2014. Unprecedented numbers of injuries forced not-ready-for-primetime players to show up in the Bigs too early while by mid-summer the few healthy veterans looked more interested in setting up dinner dates or tee times than winning games. R’s hope a new manager and healthier stars, as well as kids with a previous taste of majors will return the team to the top in ’15.
A: Adrian Beltre. As it stands right now, only 2 players would be sure bets to make the Hall of Fame if they quit today – Ichiro and Albert Pujols. Beltre is a close third, and with another decent season he should ensure his spot in Cooperstown. Adrian will be entering his 18th season with 2604 career hits, 395 homers and four Gold Gloves… and despite being 36, it seems his trajectory is still going up. Although his 19 homers was low since ’09 (no surprise given how lacking the rest of lineup was) his .324 average was best in ten years and he led all third baggers in OPS. To top it off, he’s taken on the role of teacher and deputy in the clubhouse.
Q: Derek Holland. It may be unfair to put the weight of a team’s whole season on one player’s shoulders (or shoulder!) but the Rangers season comes down to Holland and his sore left shoulder. With superstar ace Yu Darvish out for the season, 28 year-old Holland has to step up and take on the role as the top starter in an otherwise lacklustre starting rotation. Holland, charming and funny, is immensely popular in the Dallas area and says he’s not satisfied with what he’s done so far; “I know I can do better,” he told reporters this month. He likely could; a deceptive southpaw, he’s not overpowering nor does he have a curveball or split-finger for the ages but when he’s on,he’s close to unhittable. Returning from a leg injury late last season he was 2-0 with a microscopic 1.46 ERA in six games; in 2011 he tossed four shutouts. However, he’s not yet put it together over a long stretch; 16 wins in 2011 and a 3.42 ERA in ’13 are personal bests that could be bettered. I think Holland is ready to take the next step and become a top-flight ace… if he’s healthy. That he’s only appeared in one game this spring through the 26th and has had recurrent problems with his throwing shoulder over the winter is cause for concern to say the least.
Y: Money men need to be money. Last year the Rangers shelled out over $100M to bring in free agent OF Shin-soo Choo and trade for first baseman Prince Fielder in hopes of spurring on some run production. As we know, Fielder who’d not missed a game since 2008 had a bad neck and played only 42 games. Choo injured his ankle in April, apparently had an achy elbow all year and looked bored out of his mind by the All Star break. As a result, Fielder hit only 3 home runs and excelled only at staring down pitchers (he still managed to draw 11 intentional walks) and Choo gave up in August with his average down to .242. Both are in better health this spring but for the team to compete both have to rebound in a big way. Choo had averaged .284 with 18 homers and 92 walks a year over his previous two years and was to be the sparkplug for the Rangers offense. Fielder is needed to be a big power bat and clean-up hitter and seems a little less likely than Choo to live up to expectations; his 2012/13 numbers show a trend- batting average, .313/.279; homers 30/25; slugging pct. .528/.457. His mammoth numbers with the Brewers seem a lifetime back now. Elvis Andrus, and his $120M contract could also help out by playing like an All Star not a class clown.
Z: I’m engaged to an engaging Rangers fan so I don’t want to throw too much cold water on the team’s hope before the season kicks off. But, I also try to be objective (note my self-disappointing prediction of only 81 wins for my Jays ) and don’t note any real confidence in GM Jon Daniels among Texas fans. The one super prospect (Joey Gallo) plays the position the team’s only superstar (Adrian Beltre) is locked into through ’16. Too many old (as in over-the-hill) players, too many kids rushed to the big leagues, one solid starting pitcher with Cy Young potential but a wonky shoulder… 71 wins, fifth place.
This weekend we’ll try to put it all together and see who should still be standing in October.
And now perhaps the most evenly-balanced (or 4/5 balanced) division in the AL, the West.
Houston- Harris County fans are hoping there’s nowhere to go but up now after the Astros lost a club record 111 games last year and (given the Pirates fab 2013) are now co-holders of the longest streak of losing seasons in baseball. They and the Mets are sitting at 5 and counting, and while the Astros are nowhere near as pathetic as last year’s edition, count on their streak hitting 6. This team is young and still very much in a rebuilding phase, but there are signs of life and reasons for patient optimism …Jason Castro, one of the better all-round catchers in the game (.835 OPS last year was better than Wieters or Pierzynski for example), little Jose Altuve (listed at a mere 5’5”) has all the tools to be a star 2B and a fan fave for years to come with his enthusiasm and deceptive speed, Jarred Cosart might have been the second best rookie pitcher in all of baseball last year, despite winning only 1 of 10 starts (his ERA of 1.95 dazzled despite curiously walking more than he struck out). And while not exactly loading up, the management at least opened the purse strings a wee bit to bring in a decent veteran starter (Scott Feldman, who’ll be hard-pressed to match his dozen wins of last year here) and outfielder (Dexter Fowler,just one season removed from a .300 campaign). That said, there are still an awful lot of holes in the lineup and will doubtless be an express shuttle between Houston and Oklahoma as various kids get call-ups from the minors. Not a good team, but not as bad as last year…and as the Yankees are finding out, a team that can be pesky and problematic from time to time. Prediction – 62 wins, fifth place
Los Angeles Anaheim- only the Blue Jays rivaled the Angels level of disappointment to fans in ’13. Like Toronto, they decided that was a mere aberration and staying the course was the best plan, doing little to change the team in the off-season. And like the Jays, if the halos stay healthy and get a return to form from all their big names, they can contend. Don’t count on it however. Albert Pujols’ foot is apparently healthy and he’s looking better than he did most of last season, but at 34 don’t look for him to return to his prime. His runs, walks , homers and average have all declined four years in a row, at best look for him to come close to his average numbers for the past three years (.283, 32 doubles, 28 hr, 89 rbi) as opposed to his 2007-09 torrid stats (.337, 42 doubles, 39 hr, 118 rbi). Josh Hamilton is only a year younger, and physically probably more worn. He planned to gain weight to help his power return this year but as Sporting News put it “it might help even more if he stops indulging on a steady diet of bad pitches.” Granted he finished better than he started last year, so perhaps he’ll up his .250 average and .739 OPS but don’t look for it to be by much. Howie Kendrick gets lost in the hype of the aging and baby superstars on the team but is quietly as good a second baseman as there is , perhaps save for divisional rival Cano. Mike Trout– baseball wants ever-so-badly to make him this game’s Wayne Gretzky, but I”m not sold yet. That is NOT to say I don’t recognize his talent and ability- he is a great young player– but just that I don’t yet agree he’s the best in the game now, let alone one of the few all-time greats most critics now rank him as. If he hits .320 with 25 homers , drives in 90 and steals 25 again, I’ll be impressed and the Valley fans should be ecstatic. Pitching was a weakness last year, little has changed there. CJ Wilson is the real deal, Jered Weaver was, and the rest of the rotation is shaky at best. Prediction – 81wins, fourth
Oakland- time for “Moneyball 2” perhaps. Billy Beane’s ability to make the most of second-rate ingredients continues to work and amaze. He’ll really need to pull a rabbit out of the hat to continue their streak this year however. For the first time in 8 years they have no rookies on the roster and with their two best returning pitchers (AJ Griffin and Jarrod Parker) both on the DL, Parker out for the year, it’s doubtful they will contend again. Scott Kazmir had a good spring and took a shutout into the 8th in his first start this year, so the 30 year old restoration project may prove and adequate replacement for ageless Bartolo Colon. Craig Gentry is a nice addition to an already strong OF. Crisp, Cespedes and Reddick should provide a good number of runs again but the rest of the lineup may not be upto the task of propping up iffy pitching. Prediction – 85 wins, third.
Seattle- the Mariners made a splash in the off-season landing a big fish… but will the Nor’westers sink or swim? Ok, enough of the watery alusions but the point is obvious- will Robinson Cano be enough to turn around the fortunes of a team that’s struggled mightily in the past four seasons? Regardless of the long-term ramifications of giving a 31 year-old middle infielder a ten year megadeal, Cano will have an impact now for the team and the fans confidence in it. Yet other mega-contracts down the coast in the West haven’t panned out too well. Cano may not be the next Josh Hamilton, but neither do I expect him to be the M’s first MVP in a bakers dozen of years. He won’t have the big bats around him to protect and his sniping about not being respected in NYC and desire to hang out with celebrities more than work out make me doubt he has the maturity to single-handedly carry a club. Still, he should be an upgrade over Nick Franklin, hit at least .280 and drive in 80+ and put butts in the seats at Safeco. In the Cano-bration, the acquisition of Corey Hart was missed by many, but he should also add to the somewhat questionable Mariner’s offense. Michael Saunders is one to watch- despite his .236 average and rate of striking out almost 30% of the time last year, he always seemed to be in the middle of things when Seattle was rolling.
Mariners pitching is decent enough of course, with King Felix should be coming into his prime at age 28 (last year his K:BB ratio was best of his career) and once Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker are activated off the DL (probably at month’s end), the rotation will be formidable. Fernando Rodney was reborn in Tampa, and his addition to sidearmer Danny Farquhar gives them a decent late inning bullpen to hold the leads passed them. Not a spectacular team, but the best Washington state fans have had to cheer on for a number of years. Prediction – 87 wins, second.
Texas- no team has done more with less to show for it over the past three years than the Rangers, my step- team if you will (given my engagement to a diehard R’s fan). Many teams would have axed the manager after the soul-deadening September they had last year, but this is not the Texas way. And with an average of 92 wins a year over the past four, who’s to argue?
Jon Daniels, apparently at odds with departed legend Nolan Ryan, did decide to make some big changes nonetheless and focussing on the team’s diminishing offense over the past couple of seasons, opened the wallets up in a big way for free agent Shin-Soo Choo and got a big bat (something a bit lacking last year after Josh Hamilton moved along) in Prince Fielder . Choo is a quintessentially smart and patient hitter who should set the plate for the bigger bats regularly. Last year Choo was second in the NL in walks, runs and on base percentage and won the “Heart and Hustle Award” given out by the Reds; he’d been in the top 10 in OBP thrice with Cleveland before. His walk-off walk last night should be indicative of the type of player Texas fans will get to love this season. Fielder may not be the home run threat he once was, but will still be an upgrade at first and should hit at very least 30 and help Adrian Beltre get a few more good pitches to swing at. And while Manny Machado is the future in terms of AL third baggers, Beltre, if fully-healthy and agile again after leg problems last year, is the here and now, well deserving his four Gold Gloves. Even though it’s remarkably Adrian’s 17th big league season , don’t expect any drop -off from his Texas averages of .312, 33 homers, 100 rbis.
We Toronto fans never doubted Alex Rios’ physical capability; it was his mentality, effort and maturity that got called into quesiton. At 33 he seems to have finally grown up and the Rios of today is little like the seemingly disinterested Jay of five or six years back, so don’t be surprised to see him have a break-out year. With his speed and power he could potentially hit .300 with 30 homers and 30 steals and keep any baserunner who’s hit to right field honest.
The downsides of the everyday lineup are more a result of injury than lack of talent. Geovany Soto was deemed an adequate backstop, apparently pitchers preferred him to feisty AJ Pierzynski last season, but he wrecked his knee in spring training leaving questionable off-season signing JP Arencibia back there most of the time for the first half. I’ve outlined some of the problems with Arencibia here before, and all Toronto fans are only too aware of his defensive lackings. Still, in a new environment with new teammates and coaches, perhaps he can rebound from his truly dreadful 2013 (lowest batting average and on base percentage of any regular player in the league, most passed balls and throwing errors of any catcher and so on)and develop into something of the star Toronto had once imagined him to be. He did after all, win a batting title in AAA.
Likewise, the Rangers took a risk and a bit of a publicity hit by trading away longtime second baseman Ian Kinsler,but they figured they had second well-covered with young phenom Jurickson Profar, last year’s top prospect who spent too much time on the bench, or in spot assignments out of position last season. Unfortunately Profar also got injured in spring and is on the shelf for at least half the year, meaning second is left to the rather ordinary Donnie Murphy or Josh Wilson.
Rangers pitching was quietly effective last season,particularly the bullpen,so it was left somewhat unchanged, which may end up being a bit of a mistake given their early injuries. While Yu Darvish is due back this weekend from a sore neck that made him miss the opening series, last year’s #2 Derek Holland is out til the heat of July if not longer due to his broken leg- which might effect his effectiveness when he returns every bit as much as an arm injury would. Matt Harrison is expected to play a big role this season and having anything resembling the big lefty of 2012 (18 wins, 3.29 ERA) would be a huge boost , however, Harrison logged only 18 innings last year in total and is out with a bad back currently. Robbie Ross looks like a better bet to make the jump from the ‘pen to the starting 5 than season opener Tanner Scheppers; a good start from veteran Joe Saunders this weekend coupled with Yu’s return should place Scheppers back in the bullpen where he was very solid in ’13.
Joe Nathan will be missed in the bullpen, but Joakim Soria is now two years removed from Tommy John surgery and should do just fine in closing games. There are holes in the pitching staff, but if Yu does what most expect, and continues to mature and adapt to North American ball, he could easily win 20 and the Rangers with better hitting than last year’s version, should take back the title. Prediction –
89 wins, first.
Fell asleep after dinner watching last night’s Jays game against the Yankees. Something woke me in the 8th after a two inning nap…likely the ‘tappa-tappa-tappa’ of the final nail being hammered into the coffin of the Blue Jays 2012 season. With Jose Bautista’s wrist injured, the team’s already Calista Flockheart-thin hopes of making the post season are officially done. The lineup was already beginning to scramble for runs of late and one has to think that Bautista’s presence was the major reason once-again slumping Colby Rasmus ever got to see any decent pitches to hit. Ben Francisco starts in RF tonight in place of Joey Bats for the record. The fact that the team and it’s Sportsnet Radio are playing up the call-up of minor leaguer Anthony Gose as a silver lining and something to be excited about only shows the organizational contempt for the fans and our intelligence.
Then again, even before Jose fell to the ground like a Toronto party-goer (that is to say like someone who’d been shot), one had to feel like the Jays chances were next to none given our lack of pitching depth, and also had to feel that much of the Rogers’ owned Sportsnet crew viewed their viewers and listeners with contempt anyway. I had to give my head a shake yesterday when one of the sage TV analysts said to us, in apparent seriousness, “I think they’re (the Jays) gonna have to outscore the Yankees to beat them.” You don’t get insights like that if you actually go out to the ballpark to see the game!
Watching the Jays 11-9 win over Cleveland this past weekend reminds me that , once in a blue moon, the best trade is the trade never made. This time last season, the Jays were rumoured (probably falsely) to be in the running to acquire Colorado fireballer Ubaldo Jimenez. In the end, Cleveland gave up blue chip young prospect Drew Pomeranz and got in return a moody pitcher who this season has walked 62 in barely over 100 innings and sports a 5.09 ERA. He was the one and only Indians pitcher the Jays were able to really smack around and for once, I say good for Alex Anthopolous for notselling the farm to get a pitcher that besides one good year has always been mediocre and prone to unprecedented wildness.
We’re well past the All Star game and still, the best team in Pennsylvania is the Pittsburgh Pirates! Who saw that one coming?
Two points about that : first, right now there is no better player in baseball than the Pirates Andrew McCuthchen who is inches away from a triple crown, hitting a major league best .371 and sits second in the NL in both home runs and RBI. Second, one has to look at this season’s Phillies and be reminded of our own 1994 Blue Jays.
In ’94, the Jays were coming off their second straight World Series win and brought back largely the same roster. I, and most others in these parts thought a “threepeat” was imminent. Instead, Toronto stumbled out of the block and when that annus horribus ended with the infamous strike, they sat at a dismal 55-60, way out of any playoff hope had their been any playoffs that season.
Joe Carter played well that year, Paul Molitor in his second year with the team hit a sparkling .341 and Roberto Alomar still moved towards his eventual hall of fame standing. But injuries occurred, infighting followed , reigning batting champion John Olerud saw his average drop off almost 70 points, the once dazzling Juan Guzman lost something off his control and velocity and walked 76 in 147 innings and saw his ERA balloon to 5.68; Dave Stewart’s career was over but he refused to admit it and the once unhittable bullpen lost both Duane Ward and Tom Henke and was anchored by (bonus points if you remember this!) Darren Hall. The Jays rebounded to averageness the following year and were quickly telling us in the fanbase that the team would be contending again within five years. Here we sit, 18 years later , the Jays haven’t made the playoffs and Jays exec Paul Godfrey told media earlier this year that the jays would contend- within five years.
The Phillies this year came in after winning their division for five years in a row,heavily favoured to make it to the World Series this year. But someone forgot to tell the Nationals and other teams in the NL East, ace Roy Halladay got injured and pitched like merely a jack before going down , Cliff Lee (also known as the richest pitcher in the game) is sitting one win ahead of his catcher , Ryan Howard took 9 months to come back from a leg injury and aging Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins looked like shadows of their former All Star selves. The trade deadline looms and the Phils look to be sellers, not buyers and think about rebuilding for the future. Perhaps five years…
The message in it is clear. Dynasties, in baseball like in real life, have a lifespan. In baseball, they usually seem to be no more than five years. Therefore fans should enjoy them when they find themselves in their midst and owners should pull any strings at their disposal to make the most of it when they have a chance. Are you listening Nolan Ryan? Your Rangers should still win it all this season. But with Josh Hamilton wanting albert Pujols money and probably a ticket out of Lone Star , Michael Young starting to fade and cross country, the Angels starting to see Pujols be Pujols and Mike Trout after two months in the bigs being the best player in the league already, next year will be too late. If they don’t add a Greinke or Dempster to the rotation or an Upton or maybe Willingham to hit; they’re treating the Texas fans with the same respect that a broadcaster telling fans they have to outscore the opponent to win is.