Monday, April 30, 2012

Thoughts from the Weekend, and for the Week Ahead

So if you were following along in the social media spheres, you may have noticed that we made a somewhat impromptu expedition down to Toronto to catch our first live games of the year.

(And yes, we're sorry for not giving you all more advance notice, but it was a bit of a last-minute thing, and we were not expecting to come over for tea and inconvenience you. We really didn't want to put you out.)

Gleaned below are a few thoughts and whims from this weekend past, and for the week ahead.

Flipping for Edwin: We're not trying to be that guy who says he told you so. So we won't. But suffice to say, there is a reason why we're happy he's stuck around. Can you imagine if he were a member of the Oakland A's right now?

Encarnacion's first month (.361 OBP, .644 SLG, seven homers, four-should-be-five steals) builds on at least three strong months in 2011, and gives the indication that maybe he's found a spot where he belongs. Letting him serve as a full-time DH and occasional first baseman and putting him in the middle of the lineup looks good on him.

And if you want a measure of how well Encarnacion is doing, how about the pitch thrown into his ribs with plenty of intent on Sunday afternoon? Maybe he was plunked because the Mariners found his bat flips a bit too pimped out over the weekend, but we'd imagine that the frequency with which he was making the ball leave the park likely enhanced the case for a painful free pass. 

Different Paths to Success: We were pleased to see two outings by the starting rotation that were quite good, even if there is some qualification that prevents them from being regarded as great.

We were especially pleased to see Brandon Morrow "announce his presence with authority" on Saturday, striking out nine again five hits and no walks. We understand the concept of pitching to contact and getting an arm like Morrow's deeper into games, and it would have been nice to see him get through the seventh. But when he's eliciting weak check swings or powering his fastball through swings all day long, we realize just how much we enjoy the version of Morrow that strikes guys out.

(It also makes us wonder if it's possible for Morrow to go 120 pitches on a regular basis, and whether if the pitches beyond his 100th would be of sufficient quality to merit his staying in the game.)

In some ways, Henderson Alvarez seems like Morrow's polar opposite, in that he seems not to have a put away pitch that can get him strikeouts in a tight spot, but the approach seems to work for him. More or less.

For a pitcher who gave up just one run in six innings on six hits, Alvarez seemed to be on the cusp of losing control of his start throughout Sunday afternoon. Four of the six hits were for extra bases, but somehow, the only run that scored was on Chone Figgins' lead-off homer. A homer that he hit, we would add, after Alvarez had his way with him to get the first two strikes of the at bat.

It's possible that Alvarez could be an effective pitcher with a K/9 under 6.00, but we would still like to see him find an approach that allows him to get swings with the stuff he already has in his repertoire.

Adam Lind Hits Fourth: No real item here. Just a reminder, so that you're not caught off guard when the lineups get posted.

As for the rationale, we'll say this: We don't necessarily agree with the notion that lineups need to alternate righty-lefty-righty all the way through. We wouldn't mind see right-handed batters hitting back-to-back (Bautista and Edwin!), but it's probably a good principle to keep your left-handed bats separated, especially if they are vulnerable to being isolated and choked off by a decent left-handed reliever. Though this also raises the question of why a player with such profound platoon splits would be found in the middle of your lineup.

D'oh! Just when we'd reached the "acceptance" stage in the Kübler-Ross model, we skip back all the way to "denial". Expect to see "anger" and "bargaining" at some point in the series versus the Rangers.

Timing is Everything: The 4 pm start on Saturday afternoon was an interesting and pleasant change for us. We're reasonably certain that the last time we attended a late afternoon weekend start, José Canseco was the starting DH for the Jays. On a completely selfish level, the later start allows for some of us from outside the GTA to make our way into town in the early afternoon. But it also lets the game lead into a Saturday evening out, which makes for great atmosphere and good business for the restaurants and bars across the entire downtown.

We heard from some on Twitter who found the timing inconvenient for a whole host of reasons, but considering the crowd of more 30,765 that tuned out, we wonder if the later start on Saturday isn't a better fit for the market.

Infinite Puns for Yu: Of course, Yu Darvish's arrival in Toronto will spur all sorts of discussion about the Jays' rationale for not laying out more and more and more money in order to secure his services. This is why we're relieved that the Jays enter the game on a winning note, and hopeful that they can smack him around for a few innings.

Considering how much swing and miss the Jays have in their bats lately, that might seem like a stretch. But the bats have to bust out at some point, and a dominating start by Darvish will only breathe more life into what we think should be a non-story at this point.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Stringing Something Together

The last time we had occasion to chat in this space, I arbitrarily pulled a ten-game segment of the Blue Jays schedule out of thin air, and decreed that an 8 win, 2 loss record through that stretch would put the team in good stead as they prepared to host the consensus powerhouse Texas Rangers. I realize it's not really a piece of bold sports insight to say that winning 80% of your games is a good thing, but I thought it would be instructive, as a team with some potential to contend for a playoff spot this year, to see whether the Jays could begin to establish some dominance over the lesser lights of the American League – in this case, the Royals, Orioles and Mariners.

Alas, we didn’t see an .800 winning percentage materialize over this stretch – despite getting off to a good start when they beat the tar out of a beleaguered Kansas City team, taking four straight at their ballpark. But then they gave most of it back in Baltimore, and the rest of it back when they dropped the first of three to Seattle. A couple wins on Saturday and Sunday to get back on track, and you end up with six wins and four losses against some of the weaker opposition out there.

It doesn’t seem like much. Plucked out of the context of the entire season, these ten games often left the impression of a streaky and inconsistent team. Something very identifiable went wrong in the losses, like the offence going into witness protection or the defence getting a little panicky and throwing the ball everywhere but the first baseman’s glove in a ninth inning. As always, it’s easy to overreact to missteps like these, because they looked a lot like things a not-very-good baseball team would do. But a not-very-good team might do all of those wince-worthy things and turn it into three wins over the same span; the Jays won six. (And let’s remember that winning six out of every ten games in a season gets you to about 96 wins and, if there’s an ounce of justice in the world, a playoff berth.) At the very least, between these two arbitrary endpoints, the Blue Jays toughed out a winning record despite some significant shortcomings.

At the same time, there are some very good things happening with this team right now. Edwin Encarnacion is stepping into the spotlight with a grin. Jeff Mathis is showing signs of adequacy that were heretofore deemed not to exist. Three pitchers under the age of 25, two of whom were widely thought to be headed to the minor leagues as late as mid-March, are putting together strong major-league starts and going deep into games. Eric Thames is doing his level best to shut up the #TeamSnider apologists like me. While we wait (more nervously by the day) for Jose Bautista to heat up, the rest of the team is, for the most part, picking up the slack. That’s a novel concept for this team.

There’s another tough stretch coming up. Not only do the aforementioned Rangers come to town for three games, but the team then heads to the West Coast for four games against in Anaheim and two in Oakland. Those A’s and Angels teams aren’t exactly setting the world on fire in the early going, but I’m always irrationally nervous about those west coast trips, and usually end up happy if the team gets out of them in marginally better shape than the Donner Party did on its journey to California. But the Jays have at least shown that they can find ways to win even when not everything is clicking. They’ve begun to demonstrate that different parts of the lineup can hurt you – even when the usually fearsome parts aren’t living up to their reputations or hype.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

This Tricky Thing with Thames and Travis

Just a few hours after purposefully burying Eric Thames at the bottom of our completely meaningless Power Rankings, we felt a twinge of something.

Maybe it was guilt over having gleefully dumped over a player who still pulls on the uniform of our favourite team, and whose success and failure still impacts on the Blue Jays' ability to win games so long as he's here. (Setting aside the question as to whether he should be here, at least for a few paragraphs.)

Maybe it was sheepishness, after he crushed a pitch far into the nether regions of Oriole Park to square up the score at one apiece. Or maybe it was sympathy, after seeing the mountainous dogpile of Jays fans who leaped onto social media to heap scorn on Thames after a ball went off his outstretched glove and into the stands for what turned out to be the winning run.

Before the season began, we felt as though the Jays' brain trust was leaning in the wrong direction when it came to the choice of which young outfielder they would carry on the active roster this year, and by all appearances, most of you fall into the same camp that we do. The prevailing winds fill the sails of #TeamSnider, and for good reason. From what we've observed, he's a better all-around player than Thames, and he's never really been given the opportunity to start a season without the spectre of a demotion hanging over his head.

It could be that the Jays were attempting to avoid making the same mistake with Thames, and decided that they would give him the opportunity to prove himself without a fear of failure. And let's face it: Baseball is a game of failure, and part of the development of that tool between a player's ears is shedding the fear that a bad at bat or a dropped ball will result in the end of their baseball dream. So if Travis never got that chance, maybe we should be on board with Thames getting the benefit of some patience.

The problem for us is that Thames doesn't seem to be suited to the role in which he's been placed. Even with the work he put in over the offseason, it looks as though the process of fielding a fly ball is a bit like speaking a foreign language: He'll always be tentative, and he'll never convince you that it comes to him easily.

The hitting is another thing altogether. If you look at some of his plate discipline numbers, it seems as though he's made a correction for the better, with his swing percentage falling from 51.3% to 44.2% so far this season, and his percentage of swings at pitches out of the strike zone falling from 37.9% to  30.3%. But in the ongoing story of "adjusting to the adjustments", opponents are pounding the zone on Thames, getting first-pitch strikes on him 69.4% of the time.

Parsing through those numbers, we get the impression that Thames has taken direction and understood the strategy and done his best to apply it, but it is not one that suits his skill set. This is a guy who was meant to grip and rip and swing at the first good fastball/meatball he sees, usually posting a low on-base percentage but a high batting average. That's who we think he is, and that's not the profile of a player that we'd want to pursue, but maybe -hopefully - he'll prove us wrong.

There's no question in our mind that Thames is working hard, and wants to succeed with every fibre of his being. He also seems to be a pretty likeable guy, and in a different set of circumstances, we'd be pulling for him. If we scan the roster, he's probably the guy to whom we'd relate best on a personal level. Which is why we feel a certain pang of apprehension when it comes to running him out of town and back to Vegas this early in the season. Yes, we understand that this is the lamest rationale for rooting for a player, and it's beneath us to give a fadoo about how nice a guy he is. But when you're tearing down a man's work - his livelihood, for goodness sake - it starts to feel like you're questioning his worth. And there's nothing fun about that.

Travis Snider is an Outfielder. End of Discussion.

Maybe you wouldn't be surprised to hear this, but over the past few months, we've received dozens of inquiries about the possibility of the Jays moving Travis Snider to first base. Maybe it's a whim, or an idle suggestion, and maybe it isn't unprecedented for a stocky outfielder to move to the position. But to put this notion to rest, let's go through the reasons why this is a bad idea.

1) You don't just stick someone at 1B: This isn't your softball team. It might not be the most demanding defensive position, but remember that Adam Lind - who had played the position in college - ground his back into a lumpy pulp taking thousands of ground balls and short hops at first base. And he still struggles with the footwork.

Travis Snider has never played first base professionally, and we've never heard anyone mention that he played it at any point in his life. Would he know his way around the bag? Has he even seen a hard hit grounder that didn't take ten bounces on the outfield grass to reach him? And why would you want to attempt such a stunt at this point in his career? And what would such a move communicate to 29 other organizations?

2) Travis Snider is a good outfielder: Pretty self-explanatory, but worth reiterating. He's a good outfielder. He moves well, reads the ball well of the bat, and charges balls well. Let him stay where he's needed.

3) We have enough problems as it is: If you move Snider to first, what do you do with Adam Lind? And don't say "Just release him", because that's only a solution in your fantasy leagues. He's and asset, and the Jays would do well to help burnish his value and maybe protect him versus some lefties to bump up his numbers. Also, what would such a move mean for Edwin Encarnacion's playing time? Are you squeezing him into a 1B-DH rotation at this point? And who goes down to make room for him anyway?

We get that many of you are as eager as we are to see Travis Snider back in a Blue Jays uniform. But we haven't even made it through a month of games yet, and we should accept the fact that he won't make his return until a regular spot in the lineup opens for him. But that will happen when it happens.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Player Power Rankings - Who's Up, Who's Down and What's What.

What's This? It's a ranking of the Blue Jays' players, which includes those who have suited up for the team so far. And maybe a minor-leaguer, if the mood strikes us. We have no rules, only whims to guide us.

Why? Because everybody loves power rankings. Also, people love to tell us that we're wrong, so there's nothing quite like some improvised rankings to provide you with the fuel you need.

How Do You Rank Them? However we please, though we'll look at the Fangraphs version of WAR, weighted runs created plus (wRC+), Win Probability Added. Since it is early in the season, we'll grab whatever seems to make sense at this point. We'll jumble it up, get an impression and lay it out there to see if it hangs together.

Are You a Big Dummy? Don't You Know That (Fill In Stat Here) Means Nothing With This Small Sample Size? Hey, we're just trying to have some fun. If you'd like, we can wait until the season is over before we blog again, so as to ensure that there is a sufficient sample on which to comment. But failing that, these are the Player Power Rankings. Proceed at your own risk.

And here we go!

1. Edwin Encarnacion - Leads team with wRC+ of 150, slugging .565, Four HRs. Doesn't contribute a ton with the glove, though he has looked good at 1B so far. Hits everything hard.

2. Kelly Johnson -Leads team in fWAR (0.7). Impressive 18.1% walk rate. Has looked surprisingly good in the field.

3. Luis Perez - Has yet to allow a run in seven games and 11.1 innings of work. 9.53 K/9. Might have been lucky with .167 BABIP so far.

4. Ricky Romero - Leads pitchers in fWAR (0.5). Has bounced back nicely since his first inning against Cleveland. Low K/9 (5.93) is a concern.

5. José Bautista - You worried? Don't lose too much sleep. Yes, he's been chasing some bad pitches and swinging through some good pitches, but still rocks a .378 OBP, best among regulars. Expect that to go up, too.

6. Kyle Drabek - Advanced stats don't like his performance as much as the standard metrics (2.00 ERA versus 4.37 FIP), but he's still posted the best strikeout rate among the starters.

7. Darren Oliver - Only five innings so far, and got lost in the bullpen shuffle for the better part of a week, but has struck out a batter per inning and given up just one run.

8. Colby Rasmus - Isn't walking enough, but is hitting the ball hard. Isolated power of .224 so far is equal to Johnson's.

9. Brett Lawrie - Low slugging percentage is a concern, and baserunning blunders add up, but still has a knack for coming around to score. 0.6 fWAR is tied for second on the team. Has looked good with the glove.

10.  Jeff Mathis - wRC+ of 264! Slugging .900! Oh come on. Just let him have this moment. When's the next time he's in the top 10? 

11. Henderson Alvarez - His last outing was lousy, and he (like all the starters) isn't striking enough batters out. But two of three starts were pretty good.

12. Casey Janssen - Victimized by the home run so far, but a K/BB rate of 7.00 augurs well for future success.

13. Yunel Escobar - Isn't quite on track yet, and is as streaky a hitter as the Jays have. His win probability added still sits in the negative side of the ledger.

14. Brandon Morrow - Where have the strikeouts gone? 4.05 K/9 rate is troubling.

15.  J.P. Arencibia - Far fewer donuts in his stat lines lately. Still carries highest strikeout rate and lowest walk rate among regulars.

16. Rajai Davis - Has been less than awful in spot duty. Tied for team lead in steals with three in limited duty.

17. Francisco Cordero - Has been neither great nor awful to this point. Hard to read too much into his .360 BABIP this early in the season.

18. Ben Francisco - For a guy who rarely steps out of the dugout's shadow, has had some decent at bats.

19.  Jason Frasor- Still infuriatingly slow on the mound. Has the highest K/9 rate among Jays pitchers (12.79), but that's offset by a 7.11 BB/9.

20. Travis Snider - Sure, it's the Pacific Coast League. But he's still killing it, with a 1.200 OPS. If nothing else, he's jacking up his own trade value.

21. The entire Lansing Lugnuts roster - 14-4 in the Midwest League, with some great individual performances.

22.  The entire Dunedin Blue Jays roster - If we're going down that road, might as well point out that the high-A team is 14-3 in the Florida State League.

23. Sergio Santos - Got off to a terrible start and is now hurt, but last few outings were better, and his slider is getting swings and misses.

24. Drew Hutchinson - His first four innings of work were pretty stellar, and he made some nice pitches on the Royals' better hitters.

25. Joel Carreno - His one start wasn't as bad as Carlos Santana made it look. Probably got lost in some bad timing, or else he would have been recalled to make Hutch's start.

26. Adam Lind - Still sporting a sub-.700 OPS. Why he gets at bats in the cleanup spot is a mystery to us. 

27. Evan Crawford - Still has yet to give up an earned run, but his line of three walks versus one strikeout in two innings isn't great.

28. Carlos Villanueva - Sat on the shelf for too long and has walked everyone and your grandma so far this year (8.53 BB/9).

29. Omar Vizquel -Still looks thrilled to be there. His bunting skills are probably lost on us.

30. Eric Thames - Yes, we're probably stretching this to make a point. Lowest WPA (-0.33) on the team. In spite of Spring Training stories about his work in the field, has been as bad as last year. Slugging .300. His facial hair is annoying.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Friday Look-Ahead and Look-Behind

I’m feeling a bit guilty after having missed my bloggerly duties on the weekend. Life gets in the way sometimes. As penance, though, I’m back with a Friday post, in which I celebrate, lament, and generally overreact to a Blue Jays series loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, and look ahead to the next 3-game set in Kansas City.

Beating the Best

It’s disappointing to drop two of three to a division rival. The unbalanced schedule makes damn certain that division records matter when it comes to contending for the post season. In the AL East, the expectation should always be that over the course of a season, the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox are mostly going to kick the holy hell out of non-division teams, eliminating a potential opening for a team like Toronto to rack up non-division wins themselves, in a bid to make up for a weaker record against division rivals. But it is just April, and the Jays will have plenty of opportunities to prove their mettle against the Beasts of the East.

Late Meltdowns

Giving less cause for optimism, though, is the way the late innings in the two losses to Tampa Bay descended into something halfway between comic farce and violent chaos. (Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration.) I do believe that the bullpen is improved from last year, and will be seen as a team strength by the time 162 games are in the books. But if you’re the kind who doubts the relief corps can effectively hold down the fort when leading games, watching them inflate Luke Scott’s RBI totals in back to back games where the team is trailing late is probably not helping much with your faith and rationality. Games that were at least within reach were quickly and emphatically turned into routs. I’m not saying the Jays would have come back in the ninth innings from 4 and 3 runs behind, respectively, but you’d still like to see your mop-up guys actually mop up, not spill another bucket of spoiled mayonnaise onto the kitchen floor on top of the existing mess.

Coming Up

Note - I had erroneously posted that the KC series was three games instead of four, hence the strikethroughs and corrections below. Thanks to the anonymous commenter who pointed out how badly I read my pocket schedule.

Four Five things apparently coming up this weekend: three (3) four (4) away games against the Kansas City Royals, and one (1) 21-year-old starter who has pitched 31.2 innings above A ball. Word is that despite the Tao’s metaphysical assurance that Jesse Chavez would get the call from Vegas to fill in the fifth starter spot tomorrow, it’s current New Hampshire Fisher Cat Drew Hutchison who will toe the rubber at Kauffman Stadium. Hutchison has picked up about where he left off last year at AA, although in his three starts, his strikeout numbers are down from the gaudy 12.5 K/9 he put up in an equally small sample last year. Over his minor league career, he’s been more than a strikeout-per-inning guy, and there is understandable excitement about seeing him make his big league debut.

The Alex Anthopoulos era in Toronto has been characterized by enthusiasm for the young, high-ceiling arms in the system. The Lansing Lugnuts at low-A have an embarrassment of riches right now, and if you’ve checked in on the reports about Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino, and Aaron Sanchez, you may need to stay sitting down for a little while if you know what I mean. With the arrival of Henderson Alvarez last season, the apparent settling-in of Kyle Drabek this year, and now Hutchison’s call-up, we’re starting to see some “green shoots” at the major league level too.

The Jays have nine ten games coming up against Kansas City, Baltimore, and Seattle – before they have to face Texas and the Los Angeles of Anaheim Angels of California. One game at a time and all that, but damn, I’d like to see them at 13-8 14-8 when Rangers roll into Skydome. Here we go now *clap clap*.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

It's Best to Look Away

We're torn between the temptation to walk away from last night's ugly 12-2 loss and call it "just one of those games", or conversely, to pick through the wreckage and make a big deal out of everything. Being the notorious fence-sitting people-pleaser that we are, we'll probably do a bit of both.

Come along as we tread lightly.

OMG! What's Wrong With Morrow?: Slow your roll, there, Hoss. It was one bad outing against a team that's got a pretty decent lineup. And shall we remind you that Morrow had two starts to begin the season that were really quite good? Morrow looked as though he was having trouble getting the ball to do what he wanted, and his delivery was askew. Tack on a strikezone that was erratic at best and it adds up to a lousy outing that isn't necessarily indicative of anything. At least, not yet.

The Dubious Benefits of an Eight-Man Pen: We're still trying to figure out why the Jays need as many pitchers on their active roster as they carry, especially given the fact that such a scenario results in Carlos Villanueva playing the role of Jamie Vermilyea, rotting away for 10 days between appearances. Los Del V looked as though he was only vaguely familiar with the concept of pitching last night, and had no feel for getting his breaking ball over the plate and out of the dirt. But what could you expect?

And now we're seriously supposed to be intrigued by the notion that the Jays are going to bring another arm up any day now to pitch on Saturday? What happens to Jesse Chavez - and make no mistake, it will be Chavez - after he's done the one start? Does he park his butt in the bullpen and stare off into the stars, waiting weeks for his next opportunity to get the ball? Maybe he and Villanueva can play catch and reminisce about the good old days when they were big league ball players.

And in case you're interested, Darren Oliver is currently on five days of rest, Casey Janssen has had four days and Evan Crawford has had three days to ponder his 13-pitch outing.

It's probably true that the Jays don't have a whole slew of hitters who are banging down the door to come and get at bats in the big leagues. What are they going to do with a useful roster spot: Plug Mike McCoy into it? Bring up Travis Snider to let him sit on the bench and clean up around JPA and Lawrie's bachelor pad?

Let's Change the Subject: Last week's Tweet Bag brought us a number of great questions that were good enough to merit a more thoughtful answer, but that we didn't have the time to ponder in the moment. One of those @danemcburnie, who asked: If you had to pick someone to have a repeat of their best year, who would be the best choice: Rasmus, Johnson or Lind?

We were going to toss this off quickly and likely make some allusion to our Colby fixation, but the more that we considered this question, the more that we became entangled in it.

If you choose Johnson to repeat his 5.9 WAR season of 2010 (26 homers, .865 OPS), do you not also have to admit that such a season inevitably ends up with him playing elsewhere? Either by the trade deadline or in free agency? And is that such a bad thing? It could be that he'd become a very tempting asset this season, and might bring back several decent prospects in return if this is his level of competence.

Or would you choose Lind to repeat his Silver Slugger season of 2009 (.932 OPS, 35 homers, 35.7 weighted runs above average)? That sort of production in the middle of the Jays order might be the biggest contributor to the team's offensive success this season. Wouldn't this be the best bang for our buck? Aren't those the sort of numbers that you'd expect from your first baseman?

Or would we want to see the all-around performance of Colby Rasmus at his 2010 levels, when he posted a 4.3 WAR (.361 OBP, .498 SLG, 23 homers and 12 steals)? For a player at a premium position who is young and still has some projectibility, this would be a great output for this season, and would augur well for the future, wouldn't it? Also, wouldn't it just be nice to see Colby have that sort of year to hush some of his critics?

We could make the argument for any of the three. We think that the most beneficial to the Jays' chances of winning now would be Lind, while the most beneficial for the long term might be Johnson, and the season we'd most enjoy watching would be a great year for Rasmus.

If we remove our own fandom out of the equation, the answer probably comes down to Johnson versus Lind. We'd lean towards Lind, if only because the notion that Johnson might be racking up some of those numbers in another team's uniform seems a bit less appetizing to us.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

All is Right in the World

After an evening where José Bautista, Adam Lind and Brett Lawrie all homered, Ricky Romero had a strong-ish outing and Sergio Santos dusted off the Rays in just three batters, we reasonably certain that there's nothing left to complain about.

Go ahead...try. We dare you.

We're not going to spend the rest of this post castigating you like your scolding aunt for having freaked out in the first two weeks of the season over players' tepid performances. It's irrational to do so, but it's probably doubly irrational to expect fans to sit through 500 hours of baseball before they begin jumping to conclusions.

Part of the fun of the early part of the schedule is that you can't help but read too much into every at bat, relief outing or whatever. We waited all winter for this, and it was as painful an offseason as we can remember, so forgive us if we occasionally lose perspective, and we'll do the same. There's some sort of balance to be struck between making bold and angry proclamations after an ultimately insignificant event, and having the disdainful detachment that assumes that nothing matters until some undefined day far down the road.

(Does this sound like a post that's about 68% more crabby than it should be after a win over a divisional rival? We're not sure what got into us. Those off days really mess with our chemistry.)

Ultimately, we're still trying to wrap our head around this team without getting lost in hyperbole. We don't think that we've seen them at their best yet - especially offensively - but they've shown that they have enough depth in the lineup and rotation that they can pull out wins even on days where much doesn't go right. Plus, we still have a sense that the offense has another gear, and that when it starts to roll, it's going to be something to behold.

Then again, don't they say that in baseball, momentum is defined by the next day's pitcher? David Price has held the Jays to a 2.06 ERA over 12 career starts. Yikes.

Happy Anniversary to "We": Leave it to a dude to forget his anniversary. For some reason, we thought that April 18th marked the five-year anniversary of the old blogeroo, but apparently, it was the 16th. Oops.

We won't bore you to death with our self-congratulations or any sort of awards ceremony speech to recognize everyone who had a hand in keeping the blog going. We generally bore our friends' eyelids shut with our ponderous discourses on the blogging process and the meaning of it all, but we'll try not embarrass ourselves today. We would just like to say a quick word of thanks to you all.

To all of you who have read the blog, shared it, linked to it, contributed to it, commented on it, and generally indulged us over these past five years: Thank you. We hope you've enjoyed it, and we'll try to be better.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Blue Monday - Five Things We Vaguely Recall from the Weekend

Blue Monday, oh, it's Blue Monday. Got to work, would rather sleep all day...But since that's not an option, here's a few top-line impressions from the weekend.

Who You Laughing At?: Being the perpetual fourth-place finisher, it's hard to resist the urge to give noogies to the perpetual fifth-place finisher. You've got to find someone to pick on, don't you?

This weekend's series against the Orioles should be a bit of a wake-up call to those who figured that the 18 games against the Baltimore boys would be an easy walk-over all year long. The Orioles might have their flaws, and those organizational flaws might be ongoing and systemic. But when you see them on the field, they have the tools to knock the ball around and put runs on the board in a hurry. There are weaknesses in their rotation, bullpen and on defense, but we won't be quick to underestimate Nolan Reimold or Chris Davis again.

Full Tilt Lunacy
: Somewhere among all the splendid attributes displayed by Brett Lawrie is a profound confidence in his abilities that is etched into his psyche like the ink is etched into every available spot on his epidermis. So it shouldn't have surprised us to see him take off for home with the bases loaded and José Bautista at the plate on Saturday afternoon. You halfway expected him to pull off his jersey as he took off to display a giant "YOLO" scrawled across his chest. It's hard to imagine Lawrie feeling as though he couldn't make it.

Lawrie then went on to compound the issue by making another out on the bases, getting gunned down by the strong arm or Matt Wieters. In the moment, we wondered if what sort of reception would be given to Colby Rasmus or Edwin Encarnacion or Eric Thames if they were to make two spectacular, inning-ending outs on the basepaths. We highly doubt it would be generous, but when it comes to our demonstrative countryman, there are many who we heard making the case for how those plays were positives. Can't knock the hustle? We beg to differ.

It's fair to remember that for all of the things that Lawrie does very well, he's still young and we're going to be witness to his maturation process over the next few years. Rookie mistakes? He'll make a few, for sure. We just hope that he learns from them.

Edwin Smiles Are the Best: There were weeks on end last season when Edwin Encarnacion would seemingly always wear a sad face with far-away eyes. Like he was miserable, lost, and waiting to be booed or scolded for whatever he'd just done. As someone who has been a fan of EE since he arrived, it was tough to watch, and even worse to hear some fans identify this as a sign of his lack of heart. If anything, we thought he took too much to heart.

So there are few things that are as heart-warming to us as to see the broad smiles and gregarious demeanour that EE has had on display thus far this year. Early in the season, he leads or is tied for the lead on the team in hits, doubles, homers, RBI, stolen bases, slugging, OPS and total bases. For a guy who fans were chasing out of town until well into July last season, Edwin has the chance to be a big part of this year and the future of the team.

Introducing Evan: It was nice to see the Jays give Evan Crawford his shot at an inning of work on Sunday afternoon. For a player who was far back on prospect lists up until this spring, the 25 year-old Crawford has made a quick move up the board with some tremendous strikeout numbers over the past two seasons.

Crawford looked amped up for his ninth inning appearance, but threw strikes down in the zone and touched 93 MPH a couple of times on his way to a one-hit, scoreless inning. Also, on the scouts' 20-to-80 scale, his high socks were a 65. We wouldn't be surprised to see him back before the year is out.


-Another strong outing for Kyle Drabek, who has surrendered just two earned runs in his first two starts of the season. His 10/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio is also promising, and he may be pitching his way into a permanent position in the fourth slot of the rotation.

-Colby Rasmus continues to impress, and finally had a game where his hard-hit balls weren't directly at a fielder. If you can't see that he's playing well, we can't do much for you.

-Henderson Alvarez pitched well for the most part, but he seriously short-armed his pitch to Chris Davis on Saturday, which was turned around quickly for a tape-measure shot. We're not sure if he was overly concerned with the runner, or just wanted to quick-pitch Davis, but the result was a slow fastball well up in the zone. Let's hope it was a glitch.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Inaugural 2012 Tweet Bag - Burning Questions, Smouldering Answers

It seemed to be just about the right time to open up the Tweet Bag. It's already six games into the season, so of course we've got everything figured out, and can make 100% accurate projections from here. Plus, we have a whole new collection of followers on Twitter, so it only seemed right to open up the old sack of tweeted questions and blog back some answers. Here we go.

Let's start with @donmcdougald, who asks: Would the Jays be better if Tony Fernandez was hitting coach? He understood how to keep ab's alive and get the ball in play.

Fernandez is unquestionably one of the great Jays, but you're assuming that his skill can simply be transferred. Legendary hitting coaches like Rudy Jaramillo or Charley Lau were never especially great hitters (or even all that good), while a great player like Ted Williams wasn't much of a manager, posting a .429 winning percentage. The point is that instruction is a skill in and of itself.

The example that you raise of Fernandez and his ability to foul off pitches also doesn't strike us as a transferable skill. It wasn't a strategy that Tony brought into each at bat - "I'm just gonna keep fouling off pitches this entire at bat!" - so much as it was a tactic that was facilitated by great hand-eye coordination - "I've got two strikes, so I'm gonna put my bat on anything close to the zone!"

Don't fret for Tony, though. He's gainfully employed as a special assistant to Texas Rangers GM Jon Daniels.

Next, @BlakeGShaw asks: What are the chances the team gets a new stadium in the next 5 years?? Beeston KIND OF hinted at it in reference to grass turf.

In the next five years? No chance. We think you're really reading into those comments from the State of the Franchise, and Beeston has backed away from them subsequently.

Rogers has plowed a bunch of money into the stadium over the last few years, and you should probably figure that this will be the Jays' home park for the next decade or two at the very least. What might be a big help to the Jays in the interim would be settling on them as the exclusive tenant of the stadium, and making adjustments to the field of play that would include having standard infield cut outs, as is done in Tampa.

Next batter! @Mike_Fahmy asks: Ok do you expect the @BlueJays to trade Snider before the deadline?

We doubt it. There's little urgency to do anything with Snider until after this season. If he gets it together and emerges this year as an Alex Gordon type of eventually-blooming prospect, then the Jays have him under control for four more years.

There could be an argument that he has to make the team out of Spring Training next year, so maybe you trade backwards and take a prospect who is further away if there's already enough big league talent in the system to fill that role. But that's a long way off, and Eric Thames has yet to establish himself as the long-term solution in an outfield corner.

And another one! @karmaloop__rep asks: When the time comes to make a D'Arnaud-JPA decision, should JPAs apparent closeness with Lawrie/Romero/rest of core be a factor?

Not really. Having a catcher who has a good relationship with his pitching staff and teammates is a nice plus, but a pleasant demeanour isn't exactly a difficult skill to master.

We watched d'Arnaud catch a couple of innings at the Jays' minor league facility this spring, and while we're literally talking about minutes of exposure to his game, the first thing that struck us was the way that he took command on the field. He was always communicating with his fielders, his pitcher, and generally looked at ease behind the plate. Which is to say nothing of his bat, which will slide nicely into the middle of a big league order eventually. J.P.'s got a nice upper-cut power swing, but average and on-base look as though they will always be challenges for him. Both players can probably co-exist for a season or two together, though, so there's no big rush to move Arencibia in the near term.

The bottom line is that these guys are all professionals. They can maintain friendships after players leave, and make new friendships when new guys arrive. There's a reason why they call it clubhouse chemistry, which is that it is fluid and always changing. Otherwise, they'd call it clubhouse masonry.

From @BitterRaptorFan: "Could you see a downside if Farrell announced that Jays will "close-by-committee" for the rest of eternity?"

That term really comes off as a pejorative, doesn't it? Who could love a committee? Can a committee inspire confidence? Does a committee start its business with pyrotechnics and heavy metal entrances?

We tend to agree with John Farrell's recently stated philosophy that he wants pitchers in the bullpen to have roles, so that they can mentally prepare themselves for the situations in which they'll be used. It will still be somewhat dynamic, but Casey Janssen and Darren Oliver know they'll come in for an inning in the seventh or eighth, Coco Cordero knows that he'll get the eighth and the occasional ninth inning work, and Santos knows he'll take the ninth or the end of the game. It certainly helps to have bullpen depth if this is the approach you want to take.

Having said that, we hate the save stat, and think that a saves should be merged into the "holds" stat so that managers no longer have the rationale that allows them to hold onto their best bullpen arms in high-leverage situations because they want to make sure that the "closer" gets the "save".

Next up, @RickVaughn_99 asks: Can you see the Blue Jays moving Lind in the offseason move Bautista to 1st and Rasmus to RF if Gose impresses that much?

There are a few questions here that aren't necessarily interdependent, but here's the quick answers:

-Yes, we can see the Jays moving Lind, though we don't think he'll have much of a market.

-Yes, we can see the Jays moving Bautista to first, provided he thinks he belongs there. Which might be a challenge.

-Yes, we can see the Jays moving Rasmus to an outfield corner to accommodate Anthony Gose, provided his bat is productive enough to hold down the spot and Gose shows that he's ready for the big leagues.

But ultimately, you tally up all of those conditional positive responses, and it seems as though the full scenario you've painted is unlikely. It also happens to be one of the more ideal scenarios that we've seen for the 2013 Jays. (Are we talking about 2013 already?)

Talking about the farm, @seanvail asks: What do you expect the Jays to do with their AAA franchise? Seems like Vegas is a pretty poor fit in almost every way.

The problem is that there are only so many franchises that are looking to shift their affiliations each year, and the Jays got stuck with Vegas last time around. As much as the Jays might want to get out, there may be limited options for them when their affiliation agreement expires this offseason. The ideal would be a team in Buffalo, but there's nothing that indicates to us that the Mets and Bisons won't renew that agreement.

A decent fallback scenario might involve New Orleans, which seems to be the second-least desirable Triple-A franchise for MLB teams. At least it's not in the Pacific Coast League. (UPDATE: Yes it is. D'oh. Never mind us. We're just too dumb to live.)

And don't even talk to us about baseball in Ottawa. Don't pick that scab.


Let's move into the rapid fire questions, shall we?

@james_in_to: What possible situations do you foresee Encarnacion patrolling left field?

Interleague games versus lefties. Extended injury to Rajai Davis. Extended suckage by Eric Thames.

@dee_tam asks: Why are there day games?

Isn't the greater question, why are there night games? Baseball was meant to be played during the day. Giant light towers are not a naturally occurring phenomenon.

@ScottReaume: Who will be the first AA pitcher called up to start? Not Brett Cecil I think.

Actually, we'd say that from the Double-A team, he's the most likely to get the call first. The Jays won't just let him rot down there. If he can't get his starter's stuff together, he'll be back as a bullpen arm before the next generation of prospects come up. (UPDATE: And then they go and call up Evan Crawford to replace Sergio Santos while he's on papa duty. Wrong again Tao!)

@SloaneScholar1: If Brett Lawrie were a type of cheese, what would he be?

Probably some sort of havarti cheese, with lots of hot chilis and maybe some Red Bull infused into it.

@charuk92: How many marriage proposals from female fans will Lawrie receive this season?

We figure at least three per home game, and figure in one per road start. Maybe 10-15 per game in Seattle. Tally it up, and we'd guess about 4860.


That's it for this edition of the Tweet Bag, though there are four more salient questions that we'll answer throughout the next week. And don't be a stranger: Send us your queries and tomfoolery any time. We're happy to oblige with the best answers we can.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Video Daily Double - Strombo and AA on Rasmus, Snider, and the Old Unis

It's Strombo and Antho, together again for the first time.

For those of you who didn't see the Jays' GM on George Strombolopoulos Tonight last night, the video above is a web-exclusive outtake, in which he talks about Colby Rasmus, Trvis Snider, Brett Lawrie and the out-sized expectations that get placed on them.

Also, check out this bit below, in which the sometimes cagey Anthopoulos lets loose his true feelings on the old uniforms. As if our mancrush couldn't be bigger.

The full interview, for those who missed it, is now up on the site at

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Let's Write the Whole Year Off

There's no question that the promotions and game operations side of the organization brought their "A game" yesterday for the Blue Jays' home opener. There was so much new video content with such a fierce tone that it seemed as though the team were ready to skip past the regular season and take on all comers in the playoffs starting last night.

But the other side of building that much anticipation all at once is that when you don't come through immediately, it can have the opposite effect on the fans.

After last night's disappointing 4-2 loss to the Red Sox, our Twitter feed was unsurprisingly blown up with those expressing their "major concern" over the feasibility of Sergio Santos, immediately writing him off as just another example of the poor excuses for closers that the Jays have had since Tom Henke left town. Others spoke ominously of how this one game may well have cost the Jays their shot at the playoffs, and that we shouldn't forget how last year's Red Sox and Atlanta Braves missed the post-season by just one game.

And what about all that talk about a new era of Jays fans and a new feeling of optimism? The Jays built the expectations, and suddenly, just four measly games into the season, the queue to exit the bandwagon is backed up. Which is patently ridiculous.

There are 158 games left in the season. Even if the Blue Jays do manage to defy expectations and take a big step towards the next level, there will be 60 to 70 more losses to come, and some of them will be even more disappointing and uglier than last night's.

The Blame Game: There's no question that Sergio Santos had a terrible outing last night, and that he began overthrowing his pitches to try to blow the Red Sox out of the batters box. Which is probably not the best approach to dealing with that lineup. It was also his second straight blown save, so there's some understandable uneasiness with his performance.

In our preview piece about Santos, we wondered whether if Jays fans were ready for a pitcher who is still somewhat raw, and has some control issues. The piece was written after watching him send two pitches past Jeff Mathis to the backstop in a spring training game, which is no small feat. Santos is a power arm, and one that is not yet refined, so there will be walks and there will be pitches in the dirt and beyond. But there will also be plenty of strikeouts and baffled batters along the way. The question is whether if the positives will outweigh the negatives over the long run of a season, as they have in the past for Santos.

Santos might have had a little more room for error had the Jays' offense put up any sort of showing last night. When Scott Atchinson holds you to a single hit over three relief innings, you really haven't done yourself any favours. Among those feeble Jays bats, no one looked worse than José Bautista, who went 0-for-4, leaving four runners on base and hitting into a double play. We doubt, though, that anyone is looking at yesterday's game and pondering a move down the lineup for the team's most valuable player.

Accentuating the Positive: Henderson Alvarez had a tremendous outing, giving up just four hits and one walk in six innings against the solid Red Sox lineup...We won't pester you with our Colby Rasmus love. But offensively and defensively, he was the highlight of last night's game. Take that as you will...Both Kelly Johnson and Edwin Encarnacion continue to have good at bats. Johnson is making pitchers work as hard as anyone in the lineup, and EE is squaring it up and hitting the ball hard on a regular basis...Darren Oliver's two-strikeout inning of work was quick and effective, and Coco Cordero also had a nice inning in the eighth.

Today's a New Day: Kyle Drabek gets his first start of the season against Daniel Bard. It's a whole new ballgame!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Weekend in an Nutshell (Eggshell?)

Despite the multiple “Opening Day” options on the menu, the season never really feels like it’s in full swing until that first weekend, when all of the teams are in action. By Easter Monday, every team will have a full series under their belts, including the Jays, who dropped a 4-3 decision to Cleveland on Sunday afternoon. With a couple of extra-inning wins and a regular old loss under their belts, we can start jumping straight to premature and unjustified conclusions about the state of the team. So let’s get to it, shall we?

Kelly Johnson

There was some speculation as spring training drew to a close that second baseman Kelly Johnson might find himself as the leadoff hitter, after seeing some success out of the spot in exhibition games. I dare say that Johnson, at least for this three game series, was the team’s best hitter, and put in a performance nearly ideally suited to the two-hole. It would have been all the more productive had Yunel Escobar displayed even the slightest bit of effectiveness at the plate, but even batting with few on base ahead of him, Johnson put together a string of three strong days with the bat, including his ninth-inning homer on Saturday that briefly pulled the Jays ahead. It’s been said before, but replacing the massive black hole that was Aaron Hill’s second base production with even a reasonable facsimile of what Johnson has produced in the past is sure to make a big difference this season.

The Bullpen

I don’t think anyone would have expected that Ricky Romero would have been outshone on the hill by both Brandon Morrow and Joel Carreno in this series, but that’s what happened. Even with Morrow pitching pretty well and getting a bit unlucky (sound familiar?) and Carreno holding his own in his major league debut as a starter, the team relied heavily on some strong innings from the relief corps, and they largely pulled through. It wasn’t without its hiccups – Sergio Santos, in his first “real” save opportunity on Saturday after Luis Perez cock-blocked his chance on Thursday, got tagged with the dreaded “BS”; Francisco Cordero didn’t look especially sharp finishing things a few innings later. For the most part, though, the bullpen worked pretty well around the baserunners they allowed, and managed to record some big outs at key times, especially in the marathon opener.

It’s important to pull out wins like this in the early season. The offense didn’t do much against the starters, but the bullpen kept things close until the bats could get a crack at the opposing relievers. We might not have seen that in 2011. They might find themselves in the same situation more than a few times this year, and I like their chances of repeating that kind of result.

Coming Up

The hype of the home opener awaits on Monday, and the Red Sox will come to town having dropped three straight at the hands of the Tigers. I think that probably says more about how good the Tigers are likely to be this year than it says about some perceived weakness in Boston, though I do get quite a kick out of Red Sox Nation on the verge of seppuku after this start. There are still some bats in Beantown, and it could still be a long series for the Jays’ pitching staff if they keep hitting like they did against Detroit.

Joel Carreno was shipped back to Vegas after today’s start, which I suppose wasn’t wholly unexpected given the lack of need for a fifth starter again until April 21. Perhaps in anticipation of a tough series against Boston, Carreno was replaced on the roster by Aaron Laffey, headed to the ‘pen as a lefty eighth man. Laffey ain’t no great shakes, but I don’t mind having another stretched-out arm available out of the pen in case the potent Sox lineup sends a starter to the showers early. He’s a “just-in-case” call-up, I reckon. We can probably measure the success of the first home series of the season against the number of innings Laffey gets to pitch, with one being inversely proportional to the other.

Far be it from me to take the Lord’s name in vain on this holiest of weekends, but goddammit is it nice to have baseball back again.

Friday, April 6, 2012

It Was a Big, Long Game for J.P.

For a guy who was that close to posting an 0-for-7 last night, it sure ended up being a heck of a game for J.P. Arencibia. Crushing a game-winning homer over the tall wall at Progressive Field was unquestionably the highlight, but even if JPA hadn't done so, you'd still have to tip your cap to him on an impressive game. Aside from the big fly, we give Arencibia a lot of credit for his work behind the plate last night.

You could ask Shin Soo Choo about it, given the diving tag that J.P. made on his spikes to end the third, followed by the low throw on the first base side of second that caught Choo stealing to end the sixth.

And when a Luis Perez pitch buzzed Choo in the 15th, Arencibia got between the disgruntled hitter and the pitcher quickly enough to help defuse the situation. It looked to us as though Perez was ready to throw down, too. But the Jays needed his arm on the mound, because who the heck knows how long that game was going to go.

Finally, it bears noting that after a four-run outburst in the second, Arencibia spent a lot of time talking Ricky Romero through his last three innings of work, and helped guide him and seven more pitchers -- yes, the entirety of the Blue Jays bullpen -- through a total of 14 straight scoreless innings. All in a long day's work.

A few other impressions: It was a long day at the plate for Colby Rasmus, though he did hit the ball hard a few times for outs. Hopefully, that diving catch (which might have been a game changer in retrospect) is what sticks in the minds of most fans...Edwin Encarnacion crushed that ball in what turned out to be a game-tying double. We can't really hate on him for admiring his shot and his bat flip, nor getting caught off base on a sharp grounder in that same inning...Speaking of admiration of one's work, what was Rajai Davis doing watching that ugly bunt? We shouldn't need to reiterate our feelings on small ball to you all, but suffice to say, it sucks...It also looks like it might be a long few months in the field for Eric Thames. For all of the talk about his improvement in the field, he did not look sharp at all yesterday...José Bautista at first base? The late inning shift foreshadows a move that we suspect he'll make in the next few years.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

How About Another Year?

It really is a pretty amazing time of year for a baseball fan. For those of us who live and breathe the game, what sits before us is six densely-packed months. And then some.

For the other major North American professional sports, so much of the story is woven off the field of play, where the subtext is simultaneously created and dissected through any number of media scrums at practices and ex-jock analyst roundtables. But with baseball, there's so much that happens every day that it provides an almost constant flow of, well, the text.

This is what makes baseball such a fun game to follow. There's hardly the time to fixate over a bad at bat or a pitch that got away, because there's another game tomorrow, and the day after that, and after that.

Which has us thinking: In Toronto (and across Canada), there's been a persistent refrain about the lack of "meaningful games" in recent years for the Blue Jays. But for those of us who love the game, and absorb as many chapters and verses as time and good sense will permit, it feels as though there's too much meaning to take in over the run of a season.

Which isn't to say that a game or a play or a pitch means everything over the course of a season. But they all mean something, and over the long term, they all add up. Or where, ultimately, this collection of players is heading. It takes patience not to skip ahead in your mind to attempt to foretell how the season will end up, and where it fits into the bigger, broader context. But if you can catch your breath and appreciate the moment you're in, it can be incredibly rewarding to be a baseball fan.

That's why this moment, with past as prologue and a full season yet to be played, provides such an incomparable feeling. We know that we'll forget this feeling as the season wears on. There will be hard times, and there will be high times, and trying to keep them in perspective is always tough when you're in the moment.

There's 162 games ahead, and they'll be filled with walkoffs and blown saves, unexpected performances and unfortunate injuries. There will be games that should have been won, and games that the team manages to pull out. There will be winning streaks and losing streaks. Balls will get popped up on the infield, and balls will be sent sailing beyond the outfield wall. Runners will be stranded, and runners will be cashed in, eliciting a comforting "the Blue Jays are in flight!" from Jerry Howarth.

There's so much to take in, it's almost overwhelming. But we couldn't be happier. Let's play ball.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Brett Cecil and Other Season's Eve Busy Business

A few quick thoughts and whims on what has been a busy final day of the rehearsal schedule.

As recently this morning, we settled on the notion that we'd blown up yesterday's bad start by Brett Cecil into something way larger than it actually was. Shows what we know.

Though we spouted off yesterday on Twitter about his impending demotion, a more moderate and rational quadrant of our brain assured us he would start the year in the rotation with the Jays. Those nefarious, prevaricating synapses told us: "Sure, he's messed up and throwing slop, but the Jays' brass will do their best with him in the early weeks, and be quick to pull him if necessary, but he'll stick." Stupid brain.

Cecil's demotion speaks to the importance of a deep pitching staff. Through the winter, he was pegged to settle in as the number three pitcher behind Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow, but it doesn't take a huge drop off for a mid-rotation starter to turn into a below-replacement arm. Thankfully, the Jays have a system full of emergency options that they'll be able to untilize should the need arise.

A question that popped up on Twitter in the midst of this news -- and much credit is due to John Lott of the National Post and Shi Davidi of Sportsnet for getting the news out quickly -- is whether the Jays should have looked at an "innings-eater" like Gavin Floyd or Joe Blanton to pick up the slack. It wouldn't surprise us if Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos has something brewing in the background, in case something else falls off. But given their limited need for a fifth starter to begin the season, plugging the hole with Joel Carreno and giving a big league roster spot to Kyle Drabek seems like the smartest solution.

And in passing: How many of us would have picked Drabek and Carreno over Cecil and McGowan just two weeks ago?

A larger question going forward will be: What does this mean for Cecil down the line? Given that this is the third season in a row in which he's needed to reset himself and find confidence by pitching in the minors, the dreams of him being a front end start are probably beginning to fade. The argument for keeping him out of the bullpen -- anyone remember the "Cecil for closer" movement from three years ago? -- was that he had too many pitches and too much value as a starter. But with the number of starters who will push their way into the picture this year and next, it wouldn't hurt the Jays to consider limiting Cecil's repertoire and reworking his role into a bullpen lefty. Because Darren Oliver can't pitch forever.

Welcome Back Joel: As for Carreno, we couldn't be happier with the Jays' decision to make him the early season starter. His minor league strikeout and walk rates (9.7 and 2.9 respectively) have intrigued us for a couple of years, and his 15 inning audition last season (14 Ks, four BBs, two earned runs in 15.1 innings) only further whetted our appetite. His fastball (90-92 MPH) has nice life to it, and he keeps the ball down in the zone, just where we like it. We were hopeful that he could make his way back to the Majors sooner rather than later, so his re-promotion was in some ways the bigger story for us.

One Last Piece: It seems that the Jays will have to find something to do with Luis Valbuena by tonight, as he is out of options, but not likely to make the team barring an injury today. Valbuena didn't manage any better than a .544 OPS in the spring, and wouldn't seem to be enough of an asset to garner anything in return.

Our best guess is that he either slips through waivers, or gets picked up by someone needing a biped with a pulse, and we never think of him again.

One Last Promo: It's almost time for it to disappear from the shelves, so if you haven't read our piece on Kyle Drabek in the Sportsnet Magazine season preview, do us a solid and go pick yourself up a copy. There's 15 pages of Blue Jays preview mumbo-jumbo, including stories from Arden Zwelling, Shi Davidi, Mike Wilner, and some up-and-comer named Brunt. It's worthy of your perusal.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Better Back End

We’re greeted this April Fool’s Day by the entirely unsurprising news that Dustin McGowan, sidelined with plantar fasciitis, isn’t expected to be back in action until late April at the earliest, and that his recovery might stretch into May. Everyone put down those ballots for Comeback Player of the Year, and put the caps back on your Sharpie markers, please. This race is still wide open.

I feel awful for Dustin McGowan. The good news, of course, is that this isn’t an arm, shoulder or knee problem, but any setback at this point for the oft-injured pitcher inevitably raises questions about his ability to ever stay healthy for an extended period, and about the contract extension the team agreed to give him during the latter part of Spring Training.

There are still 29 players on the 25-man roster at the time of writing, including McGowan and Jesse Litsch, both of whom will be starting the season on the Disabled List. This is where things get interesting on the back end of the rotation. Kyle Drabek and Aaron Laffey have been, we’re told, in a battle for the final spot that would have been McGowan’s. Drabek would be my pick simply based on upside – an upside that, if even close to realized in the early part of the season, would make for some tough roster decisions when a healthy McGowan is available.

Imagine for a moment a world in which Kyle Drabek, even in limited action in April (since the need for a fifth starter appears scarce), pitches excellent big-league innings. Maybe seven strikeouts per nine, some semblance of control, some knee-buckling curveballs – the sort of performance that makes you want to see more. Can you give him more, if you’re John Farrell and Alex Anthopoulos? Can you, with a newly-extended, now-healthy McGowan coming back on the roster, let Drabek stay with the big club? And if the answer is yes, how do you go about it?

This gets even more complicated if Drabek were to out-pitch Brett Cecil, currently penciled into the rotation alongside Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, and Henderson Alvarez. In that scenario, the options issue enters the equation: both Cecil and Drabek have options remaining, McGowan does not.

Gaming this hypothetical scenario out even further, a resurgent Drabek would force a decision on either a healthy McGowan or a less effective Cecil. This, given the ability to burn an option on Cecil and an already crowded bullpen, becomes not a terribly difficult decision at all. It would surprise me very little to see Brett Cecil in a Las Vegas 51s uniform before the end of May. (Well, I wouldn’t see it for myself, unless someone wants to take me a sweet road trip and pay for it.)

Even highly hypothetical scenarios like this turn Cecil into Exhibit A of the wisdom of accumulating high-ceiling young arms in a team’s system. Cecil was formerly ranked among the top prospects for the organization, back at a time when the organization as a whole was not thought to be all that strong. The Brett Cecil of three years ago probably doesn’t crack the top five pitching prospects at various levels of the Blue Jays’ minor league system that exist today. Sure, Cecil has put in reasonably effective big-league time, which you can’t say about Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino, Daniel Norris or Drew Hutchison. But he’d be behind those guys now.

Now, it probably sounds to you like I’m terribly down on Cecil, but I’m not. I also don’t think Brett Cecil is by any means on the outs with the Blue Jays. He’s just become a different kind of asset for the club than he was when he was first coming up, because the other assets now in place are so much better. In a nutshell, this is exactly what I think Alex Anthopoulos set out to achieve when he took over the organization and set to re-stock it: healthy competition from high-ceiling athletes at all positions, pushing hard against a much stronger core at the major league level for playing time.

If Brett Cecil makes 30 starts for the Jays this year, it will likely either be because of trades and/or health issues with other pitchers, or because the arms pushing against him for a spot didn’t quite reach that ceiling the organization expects – yet. But they’ll still be there, creating tougher, more intense competition, next spring and the ones after that.