February 6, 2015 Leave a comment
Hello, dear readers. Long time no read. I trust we’ve all been well. As the long, cold Canadian winter trudges ever onward and we, the few, the proud, the pasty Canadians watch with glee as the days grow longer and say “Oh yea, spring she’s coming soon, eh?” to our neighbours while hacking darts and sipping double doubles, rolling up our rims as we do, this means one thing.
Well, actually it means a lot of things. Valentine’s Day. Tax season is around the corner. Champions League footy. The anchor leg of the league season in the footy world. Trade Deadline day in the NHL. Besides all that, however, it also means that Pitchers and Catchers will soon be making their way down to Dunedin Florida to report for Spring Training.
That right, people. Dem Jays are going to work shortly. Let’s talk about that for a while. (Imagine that, a blog titled “Dem Jays” about well, Dem Jays. Not exactly avant-garde material here, people. We’re aiming for simple, but effective
Yesterday, on Thursday February 5th, 2015, the Toronto Blue Jays held their annual “State of the Franchise” meeting at Rogers Center with Season Ticket holders and broadcasted said meeting over their website, to the delight of Jays fans such as myself. President of the team Paul Beeston, General Manager Alex Anthopolous, coach John Gibbons and broadcaster Buck Martinez were all present to field questions about the team.
Let’s start off with 5 things we can take away from these meetings.
#1 Russell Martin will get every chance to catch R.A. Dickey
This is fairly self-evident I believe. When R.A. Dickey came to the Jays 2 off-seasons ago, Management were quickly left with a conundrum. “So who’s going to catch this guy?” The realistic answer they were left with was “No one on your current roster” so the Jays called the Mets back and grabbed Josh Thole in a second trade, who has acted as Dickey’s personal caddy ever since.
Why? Well, the knuckleball is, by it’s nature, unpredictable. Thus, catching it poses a certain challenge. That challenge, if not embraced, can be detrimental to a catcher’s confidence. This lack of confidence and frustration can creep into his hitting game and take him away from his strengths. Thus, the logic was get Thole, let him focus on catching Dickey and let the main-stay catcher be the catcher 4 games out of 5.
So, what’s the problem? Well, no disrespect to Josh Thole, but on successful franchises, the Catcher position is often a source of great leadership, strong situational hitting and a lot of “Baseball IQ”. The acquisition of Dioner Navarro last season showed us how much of a difference a solid switch-hitting catcher can make for this team.
Thole has, to this point in his Jays career, been largely uninspiring in his offensive production. He does not have an above average arm to deter runners from stealing second base. He’s a fringe player who would serve on a AAA line-up or a less ambitious team, but not the calibre of performer that the Jays require at that position to achieve their goal of returning to the playoffs this season.
If Russell Martin, a proven leader, hitter and defensive stalwart can successfully catch the knuckleball, then Dioner Navarro keeps his job as the back-up catcher and can serve as a switch-hitting DH on his days off; maybe even take a shot at first or third base on those 10 or so days off Edwin and JD will need over the course of a 162 games.
Given that Navarro has a good eye and hits from both sides while Thole is a sub .200 hitter with no real distinguishing offensive traits, this is a huge upgrade that will go a long way for the Jays over the long haul.
Even if Martin’s offensive numbers are not as gaudy as they were in seasons past, having Dio around to pitch in with the bat can help offset any deterioration in Martin’s production due to age while allowing Martin to groom the crop of young arms the Jays have in their system over the next three to four seasons.
I am sure the Jays keep Thole around, just in case of injury, but he can expect to find himself in AAA ball if Martin proves to be just as effective at catching the Knuckler as Thole is. Even if Martin ISN’T all that good at catching the knuckler, given what he is being paid and his importance to the franchise’s next few seasons, it’s his kitchen to cook in. The only way Martin won’t be catching Dickey is if he tells AA / Gibby he doesn’t want to.
#2 The Jays are banking that their young arms produce
There are some circular arguments surrounding this particular development, but clearly, as the Jays rotation looks as we sit today, the Jays are not only counting on Marcus Stroman and Drew Hutchinson to PROGRESS rather than REGRESS, but they expect the same out of Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez as well.
If any of the assumptions put forth in the SotF meeting should be worrying, this is the one I am most concerned about. Now, that’s not to say that I am not a fan of Stroman, Sanchez and Norris. Quite the contrary, I think all three have shown incredible promise and potential and, if properly groomed (as they should be with Martin behind the dish), they should blossom into all-star calibre pitchers.
That being said, these things take time. To operate under the assumption that 4 of 4 blue chip arms will all flourish in the same season is one hell of a gambit. The reality is, chances dictate that one of Sanchez, Stroman, Hutchinson and Norris will experience injury troubles and another will regress and/or not progress as expected.
That not cynicism, that’s just a sprinkle of prudence into the optimism pie that every franchise sells their fans going into Spring Training. There is a certain circular argument that the Jays keep falling back on of “Well, one guy will be a starter and the rest of the guys will help from the bullpen.” Unless they get hurt, in which case….. where are the options.
We do have Marco Estrada who came to the Jays in a trade for Adam Lind, but Estrada comes with a lot of question marks himself. What great irony it would be if Estrada turns out to be the stud of the bunch; there’s nothing saying he can’t. However, Toronto is considered “Baseball purgatory” to many players, and Estrada seems (from the outside at least) to have that attitude of not being overly thrilled to be playing North of the Border.
Now, Estrada also has some experience as a starter in the Bigs, but he struggled with the Brewers last season and landed in the pen for a reason. If Estrada buckles down and really fights to take a spot in the starting rotation, then the Jays have the type of problem every manager dreams of; 7 potential starters and a 5 man rotation to round out. If reality sets in, however, and we see 2 of the 4 young arms continue to progress while one of the other two contributes from the pen, then there is an awful lot hinging on what we can expect from Estrada next season; and that’s assuming he Big Dogs Dickey and Buerlhe don’t regress; which at their age is likely.
Lots of questions and not a lot of answers in the pitching situation, unfortunately.
#3 It will be Second Base by Committee
When Gibby was asked about Second Base, you could instantly tell that the truth behind his answer was “Your guess is as good as mine.” Let’s recap, shall we. MLB baseball has a drought of 2nd basemen. There are 3 or 4 really good performers and a lot of passable players with specific strengths after them. For the Jays, this reality is no different.
We have Maicer Izturis, who is coming off an injury and a disappointing first two seasons with the Jays. So, realistically, 40 games of solid effort, 20 of uninspiring play, and the rest injured or under-performing are a prudent estimate. Sure, Izturis might catch fire and tear it up, but the Jays might choose ME to replace Paul Beeston because I’m a straight shooter and my name is also Paul. It’s never wise to bank on “Might” levels of probability.
Then, we have Ryan Goins, who can turn a double play but sucks at the plate. He makes more sense to be a defensive sub than a starter given his skill set. Mr. Utility Steve Tolleson is back for another kick at the can. As a great situational hitter who can slot in defensively anywhere in the infield, he’ll get his fair share of starts and subs in favourable hitting circumstances.
We have the enigmatic Travis picked up in a trade with the Tigers; who know one is really sure what to make of at this point. The Jays will give him every chance to impress and steal the job, but the unspoken sentiment seems to be that he needs seasoning in the lower leagues before making the jump to the show.
If anything, the most intriguing tidbit Gibby gave us to suggest that Kawasaki might steal the 2nd base job. And why wouldn’t he? The fans love Kawasaki, myself included. He has shown a willingness to adapt to the needs of the team and short stop and second base aren’t exactly miles from one another. Given his immense popularity and the fact that he has a very calming effect on the clubhouse and keeps the guys loose, my money is on Kawasaki getting the most work at 2nd.
Ultimately, though, I think when 162 games are played, all of the above will see some time at 2nd base (except maybe Travis who will likely season in AAA ball.) I would expect Izturis to get traded for an arm if he shows ANY sign of being a passable second baseman another team could make use of (to elicit a bunch of WTF? reactions from Jays fans who can’t see the big picture and think managing a major league ball club is as easy as the video games make it seem.)
The hope of signing or trading for a second baseman are pipe dreams, people. Trades for the Robinson Cano’s of the world don’t make sense and the relative difference in production from a Tolleson / Kawasaki / whoever platoon and a marginally more established second baseman are slim. Why pay the price for Ian Kinsler, both in trade bait and in salary dollars, when the production difference is so slim?
As we will discuss in closing, the lineup doesn’t need an “impact player” at second base. It needs someone who can work a count, get on base and steal a few. Given Kawasaki has shown that he can work a count, get on base and steal a few, I think the Jays are right to be content with their situation at second. The one player who might have done the Jays favours at second was Ben Zobrist, who is the latest in a long list of under-valued players scooped up by Billy Beane in Oakland. I highly doubt Beane will cough him up any time soon, so it’s second base by committee, lads and ladies.
#4 Surprise Surprise, we need more Arms
This is news to no one; the Jays rotation looks a lot better when the top 3 reads “R.A. Dickey, Mark Buerlhe, X” where X is equal to the elusive arm we have been praying for since Josh Johnson shat the bed and turned out to be a gas can. Again, this is not a slight on Stroman, Sanchez, Norris, Hutchinson or Estrada. We would all breathe a lot easier to have an established arm in the top 3 so the younger guys could spend time in the bullpen if they struggle.
As is always the case in baseball, however, you can never have enough pitching and everyone and their dog is looking for “Another top 3 starter to round out our rotation”. The teams who DON’T have that problem (The National and the Dodgers to name a few) aren’t going to cough up their depth at the position any time soon because they recognize that people get hurt. Tommy John Surgery happens. Having a “Top 3″ guy pitching fifth in your rotation is the kind of problem you dream of having as a baseball manager.
Though, if all goes well, this is a problem the Jays will face soon enough when Stroman, Sanchez, Norris, Hutchinson and Hoffman all season and develop their potential, this problem is still three seasons away at best. While we can dream of James Shields until we are blue in the face, I think Jays Nation is dreaming in Technicolor on that front.
Any A-List pitcher willing to go to the AL for big cash will land with the Bo Sox or the Tigers long before they come to the Jays due to various reasons that all revolve around the money (Canadian taxes, lesser brand recognition and marketability relative to the big name American teams and general “Baseball culture” to name a few.) That being said, the Jays will either need to take a risk on a trade of a few bit pieces for a risky arm or sign a risky arm everyone else has written off.
Given that Kyle Kendrick signed for $5.5 Million guaranteed and $7 Mil with incentives and that Kendrick has more or less established himself as a 4+ ERA guy who won’t win you a tonne of games and will only log big innings at the cost of big runs without much more improving to do, the Jays really don’t have the pockets to go out and sign a $20 Million pitcher without taking away from what they already have; a lot of great young arms and arguably the best top two third of a batting order in the MLB on a day-to-day basis.
Therefore, if the Jays REALLY want to make an impact on their rotation, they are going to have to get creative which I why they haven’t signed or traded for anyone. Rumours of the Jays kicking tires on Jonathon Papelbon are well-founded but how much would the Jays be willing to pay for an over-priced and deteriorating asset? Couple this with the fact that Papelbon doesn’t seem to be the kind of guy who would embrace life North of the Border, and you see the Jays conundrum.
The risks are too great because the people you CAN get will likely disappoint (Papelbon, Belasario) and the people you want are too costly (James Shields). What the Jays really need in my opinion is a left handed pitcher who can log innings and get a lot of ground balls, seeing as how you still have a gaping hole at center to fill. In a perfect world, you could finagle Jon Niese out of the Mets, but the Mets aren’t buying that deal any time soon.
Niese is not exceptional, but he is young, relatively cheap and would make a serviceable addition to a rotation that could read “Dickey, Buerlhe, Stroman, Niese, X” (Sanchez, Norris, Estrada, Hutchinson….whoever) That being said, the Mets know what they have in the likes of Niese, and the price coming back would have to include one of the blue chip pitchers of tomorrow.
As it looks to me, I think the jays are going to have to roll the dice on a B list pitcher of yesteryear like Johan Santana (the lefty who wants to make a comeback after a few years out of the Major Leagues). Sure, this kind of a signing is risky, but what isn’t? You have the money and the space in your roster. Time to buy an old dog and get him to teach the young pups how to lead the pack.
If Santana came in to the Jays, started 15 games, won 5 and spent the rest of the time in the bullpen racking up holds by eating important innings in tight games, he would be $5 Million well spent in my eyes; assuming that he embraces a leadership role and is willing to act as a sort of role model and guide to the other arms on the team.
What the Jays pen and rotation really lacks is that veteran presence. Todd Redmond, Aaron Loup and Brett Cecill are a pretty solid foundation for the bullpen moving forward. Even Kyle Drabek isn’t the worst piece in the world if he is played to his strengths (IE he throws against guys who swing at everything and never has to labour through long innings or long at bats.)
Still, it is incredibly young and if the Jays wan to have a legitimate chance at making a run to the post season, they sorely need an “old dog” both in the stating rotation and in the bullpen. If they want that run to go anywhere, they probably need two of them, one lefty and one righty. They could make do with 2 vets in the bullpen, but that’s only if those vets help make the projected starters better by being lights out in their late game support.
#5 Michael Saunders is a lot more excited to be a Blue Jay than we thought
One thing that definitely stuck out to me when watching the SotF footage of the Winter Tour was the excited new face who looked genuinely enthused, looking to the camera to say “Unbelievable man.” “Who the Funk is that guy?” I asked myself. “Is that Michael Saunders?”
It was. It was Michael Saunders. Apparently, Baseball Purgatory is not baseball Purgatory to everyone, most notably, not to Michael Saunders. When you take a good long look at Saunders, it makes sense. Saunders is the type of player the Jays need to find for their bullpen. He’s a proven big leaguer with talents that others tend to take for granted.
He’s not a glamour outfielder; who won’t hit homers like Jose Bautista and he won’t steal 40 bases or bat .300 like Jose Reyes. What Saunders will give is about .250 – . 260 average, 20 stolen bases and golden glove defense over 140 games or so. Not all star numbers, but serviceable and reliable production out of a slot that the Jays don’t really need to produce.
One of the questions asked of Gibby during the SotF meeting was “How do you plan on improving a bottom half of the order that might not be as good as other bottom orders in the MLB?” Though Gibby very masterfully deflected the question by cracking wise to Buck Martinez and asking “Is that a shot? I know Buck and I were always in the bottom half of the batting order.” Gibby also very tactfully avoided giving the obvious and honest answer. “I’m not planning on improving it.”
The bottom half of the order IS the bottom half of the order for a reason. The top of the order get runs the Flashy way; home runs, doubles, triples, line drives and the like. The bottom three batters in your lineup really only have one job; see a lot of pitches and make the pitcher work. This is why the value of players like Kawasaki and Saunders is not readily apparent.
Kawasaki does not have overwhelming power nor is he exceptional at contact hitting. He does, however, see a lot of pitches and stretch out at bats. If a bottom third of Saunders, Pompey/Pillar and Kawasaki can see between five and six pitches per at bat, have ONE of the three get on base, either via walk, bunt or otherwise, and at least establish a THREAT to steal, if not steal a base outright, then they are doing their job.
They could conceivably put a man on second or third when the rotation rolls over and give the lead off man the chance to drive in a run. That’s doing your job when you’re the 7th, 8th or 9th guy in the batting order. If you look at guys like Saunders, Kawasaki, Tolleson and, presumably, Izturis, they are all players capable of doing those little “Small ball” things while providing sound defense at their positions.
That’s all you need. You don’t need Ryan Braun batting 8th in your lineup. From an economic perspective, it would be money well wasted to invest in “glamour” players where role players will do because it would be money better spent on pitching.
As for Michael Saunders, I think we can at the very least expect him to provide solid production from the bottom end of the lineup. If he really catches fire, he may be able to bat second or lead off (when/if Reyes is injured) when he is hot and seeing the ball well (maybe 30 starts hitting second if JD runs cold), steal a fistful of bases and give the pitcher something to worry about when he gets on base.
These are all the little things that the Jays have needed out of Kevin Pillar, Dalton Pompey, Anthony Gose and Ryan Goins that they just couldn’t deliver consistently and that’s what Saunders will really be able to provide the Jays that they sorely need. CONSISTENCY in defence, consistency at the dish, and a reliable presence who might not tear the cover off the ball or set his cleats on fire, but won’t suffer the prolonged slumps and inexplicable lack of production that has plagued otherwise highly-touted prospects in the past.
Saunders is stoked to come to Toronto and remind the baseball world that he has a lot to contribute to a ball club. Not only can he be a part of bringing the Jays back to the post season, but if he does, he will be earning himself a big pay day down the road for his efforts.
So, with all that being said, the question in Jays fans minds remains “Now what? What comes next?”
#1 Another OutFielder
Hey, Rajai Davis, remember us? You know we always loved you up here! The Jays aren’t dying for help at center Field, but a little veteran support on the cheap would be handy. Davis would be a perfect addition to this club to provide a bit of a “Small ball” feel to the club. Yes, I am aware that he is not getting any younger and yeah, I know this is Rajai “Down and Away”-vis we are talking about here.
The fact remains, the only thing better than having ONE Micheal Saunders would be two of them. Pompey is better kept as a situational player to be used in developmental situations, running the bases and playing center for an inning or two in a late game rather than for 9 innings at a time. He hasn’t been consistent enough in the field or at the plate to earn a permanent spot on the team and a little “Grey power” wouldn’t hurt.
Ideally, a Torii Hunter or Nick Markakis type would have been ideal, but given that a 38-year-old was worth more money to the Twins than Casey Janssen was to the Jays, the fact is the Jays just can’t pay for that kind of talent. Even though Torii could be, in my opinion, THE piece that made the Jays contenders in the AL East, he’s also 38 and a huge risk given his hefty price tag.
Ditto Nick Markakis, who isn’t exactly a standout fielder, but he’s a steady .260ish hitter who sees a lot of pitches, doesn’t strike out a tonne and can hit doubles to the gap and drive in runs. Unfortunately, there are 29 other ball clubs who know that and most of them were willing to pay more for him than the Jays were, so that leaves us with the “Down and Away”-vis’s of the world.
Expect the Jays to sign or trade for a serviceable outfielder, possibly using Izturis or Valencia as bait. (Don’t laugh. Maicer Izturis is a half decent second baseman, and second base is the shallowest talent pool in the bigs. Also, Valencia can hit against lefties and plays at the corners; a very popular platoon location.)
Whether the Jays get a left fielder and ask Saunders to move into the Center of the field or just sign some old “Oh yeah, that guy” type of Center Fielder to push Dalton Pompey, both for depth purposes and immediate need, I expect Center Field/Left field to be the position player hole the Jays address via signing / trade rather than second base.
#2 Dioner Navarro is not getting dealt any time soon
I have said this all along, Navarro was far too valuable on the Jays last season to be let go this season. He’s a great switch hitter, he’s a team player and he has a great attitude. That being said, he knows his limits and he knows that 100 games caught is about as good as he can ask for while producing at a consistent level.
Though his first reaction to Martin’s signing was “Trade me out of here because I’m not catching the knuckleball”, and understandably so when an all-star catcher shows up on the team making a boatload of money for the next five years and the love fest begins, Dio impressed a lot of Jays people last season, myself in particular.
Let’s be fair to all parties here. Dio is not Russell Martin; he doesn’t have Martin’s ability to call a game, he definitely doesn’t have his communication skills (which is pretty damn important when it comes to the pitcher/catcher relationship), and he’s not the pitch-framer that Martin is (even though I am known to de-value rather than over-value this “skill”).
Dio IS, however, a solid switch hitter who can spray the ball all over the park, has home run power, works counts effectively, sees the plate well and brings a very consistent approach to the plate that many Jays players are criticized for lacking. It is conceivable that Dio might have offensive numbers comparable to, if not superior to Russell Martin’s if his sample size is well controlled.
If Martin DOES establish himself as “The guy” to catch R.A. Dickey, then having Dio around to catch 40 or so games, DH from time to time and pinch hit in big games is a huge advantage for this ball club. I would even go so far as to say that the Martin / Navarro tandem has the potential to be the best 1-2 catching duo in baseball this season. (Sorry Josh Thole, but I hear Buffalo is nice this time of year.)
Add on to that the fact that Navarro is a good club house presence, a very likable and hard working guy who gives it all for his team and isn’t the type to complain and Alex Anthopolous is wise to play hard ball with would-be trade partners who want Dio for their broken-down Bullpen arms. Navarro can hit in the high .200s and flirt with .300 if used properly. The Martin signing put Navarro in an ideal situation; backing up a solid catcher and providing solid support from DH.
If they could find a way to miracle Navarro into a second baseman, the Jays would be laughing but given that Dio is not exactly fleet of foot, a few rounds at First base seem much more reasonable. That’s not to say that Navarro WON’T be traded, but if he is, it will be through gritted teeth for that “Top 3 rotation” guy the Jays so desperately covet. That trade is far more likely to happen near the end of the season as opposed to during spring training, so don’t throw out your Navarro jerseys yet, Jays fans. Dio’s probably not going anywhere any time soon.
#3 Got Arms?
Oh, did we mentions the Jays need bullpen help? Expect the “Shotgun” approach all through Spring Training. Ricky Romero? Sure, why not. If you have an arm, start throwing with it. The Jays need a left handed starter and at least 3 arms for their bullpen, one of them preferably a closer. The real problem for the Jays is that the field out there is pretty weak. Lots of gas can types who are prone to giving up the long ball; not a promising trend in a homer-friendly park.
Given the financial trends out there, the Jays are likely going to have to go “Feast or famine” on this on and risk some money on guys with injury history and hope that they bounce back. They seemed to be ready to do that with Belasario, but he got cold feet and signed with the Rays instead. (Given the weather in Tampa vs. Toronto, can you blame him?)
Despite all the holes in the roster on paper, though, there HAS been addition via subtraction in that Sergio Santos won’t be blowing any games for the Jays this year. With the glut of young pitchers in the system, you will get some spark out of the kids because MLB hitters don’t have a book on them yet.
That being said, there is now a book on Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and Drew Hutchinson. Expect their numbers to be a bit more humbling this season as more and more MLB hitters get to know their stuff. Again, though there is an immediate need that AA will need to make at least one signing to address, it makes more sense for the Jays to wait for 100 games to get played and scoop up a closer from a team that’s out of the running and know what they are buying rather than gamble on the unknown now.
Personally, I think it makes more sense to try to nickel and dime someone like Johan Santana and hope he becomes tight with Dio and catches fire than it does to give up a big prospect or a piece to take a chance on someone else. Even if he’s only good for 140 innings or so, if you can stretch those innings out and make them count, it will buy valuable time for your kids to season.
After all, it’s one thing to steal your buddy Sanchez’s job, but it’s another to take that job from Johan Santana. He’ll bring experience and a professionalism to the team that will show the young pups in the Jays bullpen what a REAL big dog looks like, even if he is a little long in the tooth. Let’s be real here, I don’t expect Johan Sanatana to be what he once was performance wise.
You can’t coach competitive spirit, though, and assuming Santana legitimately wants to make one last kick at the can, the Jays are as good a place as any to try the reboot. Otherwise, there aren’t any real big names out there who seem to be overly keen to sign with the Jays.
#4 Thole might be gone, but Dickey’s not
For Jays fans who have been praying for R.A. Dickey to find his ticket off the team bus, it looks like you’re stuck with him. Dickey is the guy, for better or for worse, at the top of the Jays lineup and we might as well just grin and bear it. f he does leave at this point it will be in a “Sell off” come the trade deadline, which would mean the Jays have under-achieved and aren’t even in contention for a spot in the post-season. Even at a prudent estimate, I see the Jays around 3rd in the AL East again this season.
#5 Hurry up and wait
As much as we Jays fans are, as always, waiting with baited breath for that last little tweak to this roster so we can do what we do best and sell ourselves hope of another championship season, it’s not coming any time soon. It behooves the Jays as well as their fans to be patient at this point and wait while we evaluate the team in Spring Training.
Jays have a few valuable trade chips to deal to a team that needs them (Navarro, Izturis, Dickey and Thole, Valencia and/or Smoak), and the market for those pieces will not really ripen until the severity of the deficits in other teams becomes apparent. That won’t happen until we start playing ball, folks.
So Mr. Beeston, Mr. Anthopoulos and company, keep on keeping on good sirs. You’ve done a bang up job thus far, let’s not be too hasty putting the finishing touches on this team. We’re in a better position than we have been for the past 2 years, so let’s make the most of it.
Thanks for reading folks, that’s what’s going on with Dem Jays.