Friday, August 24, 2012

Tao's Mammoth Tweet Bag: Your Tweeted Questions, My Blogged Answers

Hello, friends. These have been trying times, haven't they. If this season has taught us anything, it is that the best laid plans of young, ninja-like general managers can be torn asunder even faster than they can be constructed. Castles made of sand, and all that sort of thing.

Which isn't to say that this season was all for naught. (And there I go, speaking in the past tense again.) At some point, I'm certain that I'll be able to whip up my enthusiasm into a frenzy, and show the world I'll never give up that ship.1 And if you needed something to raise your spirits, seeing José Bautista drop two bombs in a rehab outing certainly doesn't hurt, does it? We'll get through this friends. I swear, we'll live to see the sun shine on this franchise once more. And now, on to your cards and letters. First up:
Well, Matt. I feel you, buddy. It's been grim, and the madness just never seems to stop, does it? When David Cooper goes down with a shoulder ouchy, and he was your cleanup hitter and one of the few barely-blinking lights on the roster, you know the season has gone to a darker place than those spelunking gals in the movie The Descent. Watch your head for stalagmites. (Or are those stalactites?)

As for why you should keep watching, I'll just remind you that there's a chill in the air. Soon it will be fall, and then it will be winter, and then you'll be staring out your window at snow banks, pining for the start of Spring Training. We only get six months of baseball in the run of a year, so tune in and enjoy, because watching a bad baseball team is still preferable to watching whatever it is that they'll be playing this winter.


There are few notions that I despise more than the argument that a team should tank the season. This isn't basketball, where teams essentially battle for the one meaningful player to enter the league through the draft each year. If the Jays are as astute in their amateur scouting as we're led to believe, then the difference between a third pick or a ninth pick in the draft shouldn't be that significant in the long run. And besides: Mike Trout might end up being the transcendent star of the next 20 years, and he was drafted 25th overall.

Now, let's weasel our way back down from the moral high ground for a moment.

In the new collective bargaining agreement, the top 10 picks in the draft are protected, meaning that they would not be surrendered to a team should the Jays meander into the free agent market. (More on that in a moment.) So, I suppose that it would be best for the team if they weren't, say, the 19th best franchise in baseball and were forced to give up the 11th pick in the draft should they sign a free agent.

Does this mean the team should tank? No, but it also probably means that they shouldn't go to heroic lengths in the final six weeks of the season in some valiant run at a .500 record. No need to rush players like J.P. Arencibia back into action if they're not ready, just to take one potential roster move.  
Speaking of free agents...
The time is probably right for the Jays to supplement their Major League roster with some established and experienced players, especially pitchers. Given the regression of the Jays' pitching corps from the big leagues down through the higher levels of the system, there's a yawning gap that has opened in a pretty critical area. Unfortunately, the pool of available arms is less than impressive.

There's Zack Greinke at the top of the heap, and I would very much hope that the Jays at least toss their hat into his ring. I'd think it unlikely that he'd come to Toronto for a number of reasons - some guys just don't seem to embrace the idea of living in a foreign land - but the Jays should certainly see how many sacks of loonies it would take to convince him otherwise. But make no mistake: Greinke is going to get a contract that is the other side of reasonable. The Cole Hamels contract (six years, $144 million) should be the starting point of the deal.

There are some other names that interest me on a certain level, and I think I've mentioned them before. Brandon McCarthy and Edwin Jackson in particular strike me as pitchers who could be solid number threes in the rotation, with some potential as a two. Jake Peavy might be worth a look, especially if you can get him for three years or less at a decent number. And lets not forget our own free-agent-to-be, Carlos Villanueva, who is 29 and looking like he could be a decent back of the rotation option.

More about pitchers...
Unfortunately, I'd have to say no. There are potential top of the rotation guys further down the line, and the pitching staff at the lower Single-A Lansing Lugnuts is certainly one you can dream on. But Justin Nicolino (20 years old, 2.52 ERA, 112 Ks/18 BBs in 114.1 innings), Noah Syndergaard (19, 2.88, 109/30, 93.2), and Aaron Sanchez (20, 2.27, 89/49, 83.1) are still at least a year away, and possibly three years away from truly being relevant to the Jays' big league club. Elsewhere in the minors, Sean Nolin has had a nice season at High-A Dunedin (2.19 ERA, 90 Ks/20 BBs in 86.1 innings), and recently got the call to Double-A New Hampshire. At 22, he could be in line to make an appearance in Toronto as soon as next year.

But as we've seen this year, there's a lot that can happen - trades and injuries, in particular - to young pitchers between the time that they sparkle in the Midwest League and reaching the Majors.

More pitching talk...

Delabar's had a really nice run in the 11 games since he was acquired by the Jays. I like the fact that he throws in the mid-to-upper 90's with a delivery that doesn't look overly strenuous. "Easy cheese", as Uncle Tabby would call it.

The output that you get from bullpen arms varies wildly from year to year, so I'm not about to get out the anointing oils and declare Delabar a back-of-the-pen fixture quite yet. But there's something interesting there, and I don't mind having the extra arms around. In case, you know, 20 guys go down with injuries next year as well.

You wanna talk bullpen?

To start the season, assuming good health for both, I'd think it's almost certain that this team comes north with Janssen as the closer, and Santos as one of the late-inning bullpen arms. Which isn't to say that they end the season with those roles. Heck, I wouldn't even put much of a bet on them keeping those respective roles through the end of April.

This is the nature of bullpens. There's only one Mariano Rivera.

And on the perpetual topic of healthy pitchers...
Well, first off, I'd hope that these Quantum Leap abilities would be accompanied by Scott Bakula's strong jaw line. That man is handsome, right?

I'm sure that people have their own list of bad trades that they'd undo - feel free to leave them in the comments! - but there's no trade that I can think of that damaged the team in the long term more than the David Wells - Mike Sirotka deal. Wells was coming off what was thought to be a pretty good season back then (20 wins, though with a 4.11 ERA), and it seems as though the Jays could have turned him into something more than nothing.

Sirotka never threw a single pitch for the Blue Jays, and the hole in the rotation created by this something-for-nothing deal led the Jays to rely on a rogues gallery of middling starters in the ensuing years. Remember Steve Parris? Or Chris Michalak? Fun times.

Since we're in the wayback machine...
 Oh, it's so hard to pick a favourite, isn't it? There are a number of games from the more recent editions of the Jays that have been pretty great, but three games from the past actually stand out in my memory.

August 8, 1998 -  Jays defeat A's 6-5: Believe it or not, this was the first game I attended in person, and I still remember the experience vividly. It was Ed Sprague's return to the Jays after being traded to Oakland, and one play in particular always stood out for me: A plastic bag blew onto the field, and before time was called, Sprague took several steps away from his position to grab it. Seeing this, José Canseco - who had just reclaimed his number 33 jersey after Sprague's departure - bolted for third. Though he was thrown out in the process, I always appreciated Canseco's awareness in trying to take advantage of the situation.

Canseco made up for the out by hitting a long bomb later that afternoon, and scoring the winning run in the 10th - we didn't call them walk-offs then, did we - on a Mark Dalesandro single. Shawn Green also homered, on one of the prettiest swings I've ever seen. A lovely, arcing shot that landed just over the maple leaf that adorned the wall in the outfield corners.

Notably, this was the first and last time that I'd see Dave Stieb pitch. In the midst of his comeback season, Stieb threw 1.1 innings of relief that afternoon, taking the ball from starter Pat Hentgen.

April 22, 2000 - Jays defeat Yankees 8-2 - A complete game thrown by Kelvim Escobar against the Yankees and David Cone in an 8-2 victory on.  I had great seats behind the Jays' dugout, and Tony Batista homered.

June 29, 2001 - Jays defeat Red Sox 8-4 - Another game with a great vantage point, just behind the In the Action seats behind home plate. I yelled "Vamenos El Toro!" to Raul Mondesi, who winked at me, then hit a grand slam off Bryce Florie. The Jays wore the T-Bird. Tim Wakefield started for the Red Sox, and this was probably the best view of a knuckleballer I'll ever have.

And with that fit of nostalgia behind us, let's look ahead...

I really like Moises Sierra. He doesn't always look pretty - he moves like an old pickup bouncing dangerously on a bumpy road - but he looks as though he has the skills to stick as a bench player next year. He hasn't been overwhelmed by the pitching (.817 OPS in 55 PAs), though you'd like to see him take a few more walks.

From the pitching side, Aaron Loup's really been something else, hasn't he? For a guy who Jays fans barely knew a few months ago, he's now one of the most appreciated arms in the bullpen. I can discern this from the fact that when he gets the call, my Twitter feed doesn't blow up with exasperation. I've already pencilled him in as a LOOGY for 2013.

One final bit of crystal ballin'...
 Nope. If he were, it would be either Rajai Davis or Moises Sierra, as I'm pretty confident that Anthony Gose is going to get another year of seasoning in Triple-A. But both of those players seem more suited to a bench role, and if there is a decent bat on either the trade or free agent market, you'd have to presume that would be a spot to put them. Maybe Melky Cabrera could start his image rehabilitation in Toronto?

Okay, you've all had enough. I hope this Twitter Mail Baggy thing leaves you in a better mood than when you arrive. Now go have fun, and enjoy the waning days of the season.


 1. Somewhat rambling and non-sensical, you say? Actually, just a reference to one of my all-time favourite comedy records, Eddie Lawrence's "The Old Philosopher". I suggest you take a listen. It might just lift your spirits.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Picking From The Scrap Heap

I'll be honest:  it's been exceedingly difficult to scare up the necessary motivation to write much about the Blue Jays lately, what with the team languishing in the basement of the AL East and its most exciting talent in various stages of recovery from injury.  Earlier in the season, when the team was healthy, even if they weren't consistently winning games, I could content myself with watching Brandon Morrow and Jose Bautista, because you never knew when they were going to do something special.  Nothing against the Mike McCoys of the world, but it's not like his at-bats get me tingling with anticipation.

Maybe that's giving short shrift to the fill-ins who've had to make the best of it as the every-day lineup gets better.  The effort has been there, but it's abundantly clear that the talent gap between the "championship calibre offense" they are capable of fielding and the second or third string is fairly daunting.

For the sake of comparison, we need only look -- as is so often the case -- at the top of the AL East standings, where an injury-riddled New York Yankees team continues to succeed.  When offensive starters have gone down, the Yankees have had the capacity to replace them with talent that seems to fit the role almost perfectly.  Some of that might seem lucky; I don't think they were counting on a career renaissance from Eric Chavez or for Ichiro Suzuki to land in their laps.  Regardless, they've smartly -- and perhaps more surprisingly, cheaply -- assembled real depth on their roster.

Meanwhile, a quick glance down the Toronto bench, such as it is, has been discouraging all year.  I'm not going to dwell on the offensive ineptitude of Omar Vizquel and Jeff Mathis, because that ground has been well covered.  Yes, the injury epidemic has forced them and others into far more plate appearances than anyone would have liked.  And you can't fill an entire 40-man roster with above-average major leaguers to prepare for the worst.  But no matter who is filling the backup roles, they're going to end up with playing time in 2013.

So what's the solution?  Especially with a few remaining starting spots to fill this offseason?  I could do a little furious rosterbation here and start plugging holes with David Ortiz, Brandon Phillips or Shin-Soo Choo, but given the state of the pitching staff, I have a feeling Alex Anthopoulos is going to have a little less in terms of resources to commit to not only those starting offensive spots, but the bench as well.  If his focus, as he has said, will be on the rotation, he might have to be a little creative on the side of the ledger that includes extra position players.

I'm open to suggestions as to what that creativity should look like.  It's still just August, and it's a bit depressing to be looking ahead to 2013 already anyway.  But I do hope that some serious effort is made to find the kind of depth that always seems to show up on winning teams, if only to relieve me of the sense of impending doom I get whenever the bench is called upon.  It might mean moving up a level from picking through the scrap heap that produced the likes of our beloved Omar -- the non-roster invitees and minor league free agent deals.  Maybe it's time to move on to a better class of scrap heap.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Visions of Farmland

And since we're already all talking about 2013...

(Actually, I started to think about 2014 last night. Stop me. It's a cry for help.)

Another offseason consideration that's already snuck its way onto the radar is the matter of Toronto's Triple-A affiliation for the coming years. Having spent four years in Las Vegas, it would seem as though another venue might be desirable for everyone involved.

This isn't to bag on Vegas, because it seems as though the team and the city has done right by the Jays for the most part, in spite of the fact that they were joined in organizational matrimony mostly because they were the only two wallflowers left without partners when the slow dance started.

(New ear worm: Chris De Burgh's "The Lady in Red". You're welcome.)

The frustration with Vegas as a fan - and I presume for the front office, though perhaps that's a stretch, and they'd never tell either way - is that the results that are generated there can only be viewed through the funhouse glass of the Pacific Coast League. The numbers in the boxscores and in the accumulated tables of stats are not trustworthy, and essentially meaningless if you're attempting to discern the difference between potential prospects and organizational players. Maybe that isn't a bad thing, as smarter people than I continue to point out that you can't scout a boxscore. Still, the results seem so skewed that it's almost impossible to tell what a player is actually doing in the PCL.

Moreover, the Jays really aren't able to give their young pitchers a full season at Triple-A, because who would want to subject their emerging arms to those conditions? So pitchers are asked to repeat a level and get extra seasoning at Double-A, when it might be beneficial for them to have a three-month stint at Triple-A before coming up.

These gripes are obvious at this point, but the question now is: What's the alternative?

According to Mike McCann's, there are currently 11 Triple-A franchises that have yet to come to a agreement for the next two years on their Player Development Contracts. They are as follows, with current affiliation in brackets:

International League

  • Buffalo Bisons (New York NL)
  • Pawtucket Red Sox (Boston)
  • Rochester Red Wings (Minnesota) 
Pacific Coast League

  • Albuquerque Isotopes (Los Angeles NL)
  • Fresno Grizzlies (San Francisco)
  • Iowa Cubs (Chicago NL)
  • Las Vegas 51s (Toronto) 
  • Memphis Redbirds (St. Louis)
  • Nashville Sounds (Milwaukee)
  • New Orleans Zephyrs (Miami)
  • Oklahoma RedHawks (Houston)
Looking at that list, I'd scratch Pawtucket given their long affiliation with the Boston. (And who would want ANOTHER farm team in the Red Sox nation?) It's also a pretty reasonable guess to say that Fresno, Memphis, and Iowa. Albuquerque is a bit of a wild card, though by most accounts, the Dodgers' return to the city in 2008 has been successful at the gate in a new-ish facility. The Astros were forced into Oklahoma City when the Nolan Ryan-owned Round Rock Express switched over to the Rangers, but from a disctance, it seems as though 

All of which leaves three PCL cities with a historical perception of being somewhat undesirable for a variety of reasons (Las Vegas, Nashville and New Orleans) and two IL teams, in Buffalo and Rochester.

Baseball America's Josh Leventhal reported back in May that while there shouldn't be much movement in affilations this offseason, Toronto's desire to move closer to home was clear. Beyond geography, the Jays should be amply motivated to pursue both of those IL alternatives, if only to return to some semblance of normalcy when it comes to the development path they set out for their prospects. As a team that is placing a greater emphasis on the minor league system, you have to imagine that they'd much rather see the Lansing Three pitching primarily in the Northeast as opposed to the high deserts of the Southwest.

I know fans are going to stampede towards the choice of Buffalo as the most natural fit, but given that we've already been down that road once and come away empty, it's worth taking a glance at what the other possibilities are. If the Bisons re-up with the Mets, Rochester is hardly a consolation prize. While not quite as close to the GTA, Rochester has multiple flights to Toronto daily, and sits just across Lake Ontario. If anyone ever had the notion to begin running that ferry service across the lake again, you could say that minor leaguers getting the call were "riding the ferry" to the big club.

Okay, maybe I'm a little to attached to a nice turn of phrase. Still, a large portion of the Jays' fanbase from Oshawa through Kingston to Ottawa would only be a few hours away from the top affiliate.

The forthcoming offseason will be fascinating for a number of reasons, but in an amongst the multitude of free agent and trade rumours that are certain to occupy the time of Jays fans, this affiliation agreement may be the most important deal that the team signs over the winter.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Where Do We Go Now?

Sad Bautista is sad. We miss you too, buddy.
Ear worms are fun, right? Those niggling little tunes that roll around in your head endlessly, drowning out all rational thought and subverting any attempts you might make at quiet contemplation. So fun. And really, they're more fun if you share them, so that others suffer the same way you do. Wanna suffer alongside your favourite online scribe? Read on, my friends.

For about three weeks now, I've had Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine" stuck in my head. Not so bad, you say? It's a pretty great tune, and stands up pretty well 25 years later. (Did you just feel as old as I did just then?) But the problem is that there is only one portion of the song that is stuck in my head, and it lights up every time I think of the Blue Jays in the run of a day. So my eyes land on the mini Scott Rolen bobblehead on my desk, and suddenly, W. Axl Rose starts asking the question:

"Where do we go? Where do we go now? Where do we go?"

That goes on in an endless cycle, with Axl's vocals getting increasingly desperate and whiny and screechy. And so while the song's lyrics seem to be pointing me towards a salient question, the off-key caterwauling drowns out any thought before it even has the chance to be formed. This is annoying.

The truth is that I've pushed back on pondering the future of the franchise because I just want this season to play out. That's not to say that I'm holding out hope for the rag-tag band of survivors to pull together and miraculously make a run at the coin-flip game. But considering that I hear from the wiseacres and cynics every year starting in the winter that the Blue Jays are already out of contention, I just don't feel the need to place the wreath upon the stone until I absolutely have to. Once you give up on the season, you might as well put on your parka and start raking the lawn. I'm not ready for that quite yet.

As a general impression, though, let me say this: I don't think that this team is that far off, but at the same time, I think that 2013 is going to present some real challenges.

It would have been overly simplistic to assume that the path towards this high plain in the sun where the Jays contend every year was going to be direct and without obstacles. Injuries happen - do they ever - and can determine the fate of a franchise for several years. With a significant portion of the Jays' pitching talent in various stages of injury and recovery, next year's staff will likely need to be supplemented by some short term help from veteran free agents.

And I hear some of you screaming: "YAHOO, WE'RE GETTING ZACH GREI-NER-KEY!" Slow up and climb down off that horse, hoss. That's pretty much the most unlikeliest of scenarios. And save your tantrums or your airing of frustration about the ownership. It's beneath you.

If we're lucky, the veteran free agent talent that the Blue Jays bring in will be something along the lines of a number three starter. Someone who can pick up the slack should Ricky Romero repeat this year's underwhelming performance, and should they be faced with the prospect of yet another partial season from Brandon Morrow. In that context, pitchers like Edwin Jackson, Brandon McCarthy, Joe Saunders, or Anibal Sanchez might be considered a "good get", but all will likely command big salaries and multi-year deals.

The next level down is a whole heap of wishes and prayers, and if you want to parse through the list and find hope, MLB Trade Rumo(u)rs has the full list of 2013 free agents right here. Have at 'er.

The question, I suppose, will be if the Jays think that the acquisitions for 2013 will become superfluous in 2014 once the cavalcade of wounded arms comes marching back into action. I won't pretend to have an answer to that question, nor will I hazard a guess at what Alex Anthopoulos will do with it. Do we even know what Kyle Drabek or Drew Hutchison will have in the tank in 2014? And who will be part of the next shift of injured troops to be convalescing in that season?

I'm told repeatedly that if the Blue Jays just got off their wallets and threw some money around, all of the question marks would become exclamation points. I really wish it were that easy.

So where, in fact, do we go now? For now, let's just get through the rest of the season. It's going to be tough, I know, because this team that we're rooting for is nothing like the one we'd envisioned coming into the season. But let's not get bogged down there. Let's not suppose that the team we're seeing is much of a reflection of what we're supposed to be seeing, or what we might see next year. 

And let's not forget: Winter is coming. So let's smile while the sun still shines warmly on the last weeks of the season.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Long Weekend Observations, Opinions, and Sentiments

It’s a good thing, I suppose, that I waited until after the Blue Jays’ recent four-game series in Oakland was over and the team was safely on their way to Tampa, as opposed to blogging on, say, Friday.  My spirits are decidedly better after a couple of back-to-back victories to salvage a series split than they were at the tail end of a season-high six game losing streak – even if that losing streak seems to be a more accurate indication of the talent level of the team right now than the consecutive wins would trick us into believing.

If these are the dog days of summer, in keeping with the theme, the Jays are passing off some mongrel mutts as lineups.  For instance, it was one thing to carry the rather anemic bats of your Omar Vizquels and Jeff Mathises (Mathii?) in the early part of the season when they were mostly glued to the bench and maybe seeing one to two starts per week.  But it’s a different matter altogether to have those kinds of subpar offensive performers dotting a lineup that, on at least one occasion this weekend, was more than half made up of players who started and have spent most of the year in Las Vegas.

And yet.  Against a “playoff contender” by many accounts in the Oakland A’s – a team with very good pitching that’s bumping along at eight games over .500 – they split four games on the road, and might have made it three of four given a little more extra inning luck on Friday.  I realize this probably sounds a little Pollyannaish, since they also came off three straight stinkers in Seattle, but my point (I think) is that even among those teams considered to be just a cut above the likes of the middling Jays, the gap isn’t that big, and when the Jays are healthy, they’re probably on the positive side of it.

Ricky Romero

While I’ve got my rose-coloured glasses on, can we put our hands together for Ricky Romero*?  With just three hits conceded over an effective seven innings on Saturday (albeit with four walks sprinkled in alongside five strikeouts), our enigmatic ace-cum-whipping-boy had one of his best outings in recent memory.  He was TERRIBLE at pitching to the score like Jack Morris would have, as the single earned run he gave up was enough to preclude him from chalking up a much-coveted win.  That honour went to Jesse Chavez for his work in extra innings, the reward for which was a convoluted designation-for-assignment.  ANYWAY, Ricky pitched well, and he just mostly looked like he was in control out there.  He had a glimmer of confidence – dare I say swagger – that had been missing in action for far too long.  It was nice to see, and I was probably happier for him on Saturday than any other player on the team.

* NOTE: putting hands together can be repeated in a clapping motion, or hands may be clasped for a longer period of time in prayer for continued improvement.  Your choice. 

Youth Will Be Served

That’s not to say I’m not also happy for some of the erstwhile 51s who have found their way into the Jays lineup, out of either aggressive escalation of their competition level or sheer necessity due to injury.  It’s easy to get discouraged about the recent trajectory of the season and argue over the organizational response, but the upside is that we’re getting a look at some intriguing players.  I’m not just referring to Anthony Gose and Adeiny Hechavarria here, who are obviously fascinating if possibly in a bit over their heads in their first tastes of MLB action.  I’ve also been interested in Moises Sierra as a potential fourth-outfielder type for a while, and if you can get past a couple of herp-derp plays in the early going for him, he does look the part of a big leaguer just lacking some polish to his game.  It may not be the case that the team will have to hang with these kids for too long, provided injuries to Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus are as mild as has been reported and Jose Bautista progresses a little better in his recovery.  There remains merit, though, in giving these prospects a taste of the big-leagues to see how they respond.  With the Rays, Yankees, White Sox, Rangers and Tigers in the immediate offing, if they’re still here, they’ll definitely get a test.