Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Blue Jays Holiday Wish List

I want you to do something for me.

I want you to think back to the Christmases of your childhood.

Think back to that one year when there was something you wanted more than anything in the world, some toy that you coveted so badly that the days leading up to Christmas seemed as though they were spent on the cross.

Do you remember that Christmas morning? Running down the stairs with unbridled enthusiasm as your sleepy-eyed parents struggled to match your excitement. Remember how ferociously you tore at the wrapping paper and the futility with which you tried to resist the premature smile that crept over your face?

Now for the purpose of this exercise, I want you to imagine that beneath the wrapping paper, inside the box, there was nothing. Not so much as a lump of coal.

Fortunately, I have no such memory because, well, I'm Jewish.

But I can imagine that is exactly how the vast majority of Blue Jays fans felt last night when it was revealed that Texas had won the rights to negotiate with Yu Darvish.

However, today marks the first day of Chanukkah. For those unfamiliar with this holiday, it's the Jewish equivalent of Christmas except we boast the luxury of an additional seven days of presents. Oh, and instead of celebrating the birth of our saviour we rejoice over the fact that we were able to fend off another attempt at our annihilation.

So, given the festivity in the air, I think it's only appropriate that I devise a Blue Jays Chanukkah list. In this case, Alex Anthopoulos will serve as Santa (for lack of a Jewish equivalent).

1. Prince Fielder -- Hey, if there's one thing that Chanukkah proves it's that bigger miracles have happened. The wiley Scott Boras has ever so patiently let a market develop for his client's services, and with the Jays losing on Darvish, it stands to reason that they will at least throw their hat into the ring. Ultimately, this decision will come down to years. Boras likely recognizes that this offseason represents Prince's best opportunity to maximize his profits, rather than signing a shorter deal (five or six years) and heading back onto the market again at age 32 or 33. Having said that, Darvishgate did demonstrate that the Jays have money to spend, and having Prince hitting behind Jose Bautista would instantly give the Jays the best 3-4 punch in the game. Also, Texas' acquisition of Darvish probably removes them from the equation, eliminating one of the supposed favourites for Prince.

2. Matt Garza -- The Cubs are shopping their ace aggressively, and the Jays are in desperate need of starting pitching help. Garza enjoyed three strong years with the Tampa Bay Rays, over which he fashioned an ERA of 3.86 in 94 starts and one relief appearance, while averaging 7.1 Ks/9. The former first-round pick would likely fill the No. 2 spot in the rotation behind Ricky Romero, and the Jays have the organization depth to pull off a move like this.

3. Gio Gonzalez -- While Gio would ostensibly serve the same purpose as Garza, this present comes with more strings attached, namely an astronomical walk rate. While Gonzalez has pitched quite well over the past two years, his numbers have been inflated by the pitcher-friendly confines of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Though he posted an impressive 3.12 ERA over 32 starts last year, Gonzalez averaged almost a full run more per start on the road. He also led the league in walks, a factor that will not play well in the much more hitter-friendly Rogers Centre.

4. Carlos Beltran -- The holidays are the season of renewed hope. In this case, Carlos Beltran could serve as the poster boy. The aging outfielder continues his quest to reemergence in 2012 after a solid bounceback 2011 campaign split between the Mets and the Giants. Though he's only averaged 96 games played over the past three seasons, Beltran posted a .300 average with 22 homers and 84 RBIs in 142 games last year, and signing with an American League team could alleviate some of the physical strain of playing the outfield every day. At a reasonable cost with a team-friendly deal, I'd take Beltran in a heartbeat.

5. Andrew Bailey -- The Blue Jays bullpen is in a state of disarray. Sure, we have Sergio Santos now, but aside from him and Casey Janssen, the rest of our relief corps remains highly suspect. In fact, aside from those two and Luis Perez, there doesn't appear to be anyone who's guaranteed a spot. Trading for Bailey would also allow AA to utilize his players as he intended, reserving Janssen for the 7th inning rather than using him as a set-up man. Bailey does have a history of arm trouble, but he's only 27, and has averaged a strikeout per inning for his career. You can always use talent like that.

6. Edwin Jackson -- Jackson enjoyed an abbreviated stint with the Blue Jays in 2011. Really abbreviated. In fact, I'm not even sure he made it to Pearson Airport before he had been flipped for Colby Rasmus. But nonetheless, Jackson would be a decent fit for the Blue Jays. His command issues are well documented, and he is seldom economical with his pitches, but he would be a decent No. 3 starter down the road, and has averaged a sub-4.00 ERA over his past three seasons.

7. Hiroki Kuroda -- I know he's not Yu Darvish. But he might be better. Kuroda has been a rock in the Dodgers rotation for the past four seasons, over which he has fashioned an impressive 3.45 ERA. He's not the flashiest of pitchers, but he's good at keeping hitters off-balance, and his BB/9 ratio is consistently well above the league average. The only drawback is his age; he will be 37 in February.

8. Brandon Phillips -- I don't know how viable this trade route still is, but I would love to see @DatDudeBP turning double-plays with Yunel Escobar in 2012. He's a dynamic talent who ranks among the elite offensive second-basemen in the game. He would also bring some much needed swagger to a rather insipid Toronto squad.

So there you have it, folks. There might not be a Darvish under your tree (or Menorah, as it were), but there's still reason to hope.

Monday, December 19, 2011

What Yu Talking About?

Alas, the Yu Darvish sweepstakes have come and gone, and much to the chagrin of the rather vociferous Blue Jays fan base, the Texas Rangers have emerged as the winners of the exclusive negotiating rights with Nippon Ham's prized Fighter.

While the Blue Jays fell short, the saga managed to invigorate Jays fans to a level that I can't recall in recent memory, and demonstrated that a profound passion for baseball in Toronto is not a thing of the past. It's simply dormant.

And despite the initial shock and disappointment -- and contrary to the premature and ubiquitous reports suggesting the Jays' bid had blown all others out of the water -- the fact that the Jays didn't obtain the rights to negotiate with Darvish is actually quite consistent with Alex Anthopoulos' modus operandi.

In fact, the two moves AA has made this offseason -- trading for Jeff Mathis and Sergio Santos -- are a microcosm of his philosophy, which espouses the acquisition of cost-controllable assets. It was a tad optimistic (and somewhat delusional) to expect him to venture into a pursuit that would've ended costing upwards of $100M.

Do I think the Jays bid on Darvish? Yes. Do I believe it was a competitive bid? I do. But AA, above all else, thinks economically. No algorithm exists for calculating how performance in Japan translates to performance in the MLB (see: Dasiuke Matsuzaka), and frankly, dishing out nine figures on a man who has never thrown a pitch in a big league uniform is not the kind of calculated, economically-astute move that has come to define AA.

Since taking over for JP Ricciardi in October of 2009, Anthopoulos has quickly established himself as one of the most savvy executives in the game with shrewd moves that A) give the organization leverage rather than the player; and/or B) bring in high-risk/reward players at a relatively low cost. Signing Darvish would've been a pretty dangerous first deviation from this model.

Of course, seeing Darvish in a Jays uniform would've been really cool. And yes, Darvish's presence would've ushered in a new contingent of fans to the Rogers Centre -- at least once every five days. But the fact that the Jays didn't land him doesn't necessarily mean that 2012 is simply another building block year.

In fact, in regards to reinforcing the rotation, there are likely better alternatives to Darvish (and his price-tag) anyway. Various reports suggest that the Cubs are interested in trading right-hander Matt Garza, who has plenty of experience and success pitching in the AL East; southpaw Gio Gonzalez of the Oakland A's is also being shopped.

And of course, the incumbent prize of the free-agent market, Prince Fielder, has yet to sign, and Toronto has been linked to the slugger in numerous reports.

If Anthopoulos has proven anything, it's that he is liable to strike at any moment, and without warning. So go ahead and waste your tears over Darvish, if you must, but bear in mind that the guy who posted an inferior bid for negotiation rights with the Japanese/Iranian phenom is the same guy who acquired Brett Lawrie and managed to foist Vernon Wells' monstrosity of a contract on some other poor bloke in the same offseason.

I think it's a little premature to fret.

Don't Yu?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

2012 Schedule Released

The Toronto Blue Jays have officially released their 2012 schedule, and will kick off their season Thursday, April 5 at Progressive Field with a three-game set against the Cleveland Indians.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Jose, Jose, Jose Again

It was precisely four weeks ago to this day that I last posted.

For this, I apologize. In my defense, let me say that I'm a victim of circumstance. The combination of finishing school, undergoing two dental procedures and beginning summer employment temporarily incapacitated me from writing.

But today's absolutely ridiculous performance from Jose Bautista was more than enough to get the fingers typing, effectively ending my month-long sabbatical.

In case you were unaware, Jose Bautista blasted three homeruns today at Target Field -- a pitcher's park that has become, rather inexplicably, Bautista's new unofficial home away from home -- to lift the Blue Jays to an 11-3 victory over the scuffling Minnesota Twins to complete the sweep of the weekend's three-game series, and extend Toronto's winning streak to five games.

The right-fielder continues to push the boundaries of what human baseball players are capable of, and with today's performance increases his Major League-leading homerun total to 16 on the year. And that's with missing eight of the team's first 40 games.

At this rate, Bautista is on pace to belt 77 homeruns this year.

Pause for reaction.

While it's highly improbable that Bautista sustains this absolutely torrid pace, the man continues to defy even the most delusional expectations, and has now homered in five of his last 14 at-bats and has reached base in all but one of the 32 games he's played in this year, while posting a batting average of .368. It's safe to say that although we're only a quarter of the way into the 2011 campaign, Bautista has already succeeded at making general manager Alex Anthoupoulos look like the smartest executive in baseball.

With today's victory, the Jays stabilize their record at .500 (20-20) for the first time since April 29.

A spectacularly unspectacular Brandon Morrow got the victory today, improving his record on the year to 2-2. Morrow hurled five innings -- working with a comfortable lead from the outset -- surrendering three runs, all earned, off five hits and two walks while striking out eight.

While the strikeout numbers have been everything that Jays fans had anticipated, Morrow's performance in 2011 thus far hasn't really substantiated all the off-season hype that was generated after the right-hander's impressive second-half in 2010 when he posted a 3.69 ERA to go along with a 5-1 record.

Through five starts this year, Morrow has fashioned a 4.85 ERA and has continually struggled to pitch deep into ballgames, failing to last more than 6.1 innings in any outing.

But in the midst of the first substantial winning streak of the year, it's foolish to dwell on the negative.

The Jays now look to continue their winning ways in the Motor City with an abbreviated two-game set with the surging Tigers (22-18) who also come into the series with a winning streak -- seven games -- to maintain. Fortunately, the Jays will miss facing ace Justin Verlander, who hucked a no-hitter against them May 7 at Rogers Centre.

(Author's note: The aforementioned no-no was the first I had ever witnessed live, and despite all the nonsense being spewed about how the recent surge of no-hitters has caused the feat to lose some of its lustre, it was truly a sight to behold. By the seventh inning I had conceded the game and was pulling for Verlander.)

Fortunately, the Jays should have Adam Lind back in the lineup on Monday after missing the past week due to soreness in his lower back. Lind's presence in the lineup will offer some protection for Bautista.

Not that he needs it.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Why, Pesky? Why?

Fenway Park is arguably the most storied baseball sanctuary in the history of the game, and without question, the nuance of that diamond is an indispensable part of the Red Sox's identity.


With Clay Buchholz in dire need of a good outing after fashioning a 7.20 ERA through his first two starts of the season, the Jays had him on the ropes in the first inning on Friday night after a four-pitch walk to Yunel Escobar to start the game and another free pass to Bautista two batters later.

But then, with cleanup hitter Adam Lind at the dish, the Red Sox were benefactors of some serious home-field advantage -- completely inadvertently, mind you -- when an Adam Lind "homer" to right field that bounced between the foul line and Pesky's Pole and ultimately landed in the bleachers was deemed a foul ball upon review.

If the Jays go on to lose this one, I'm putting it squarely on Pesky's shoulders.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Jays Fall to Mariners, Extend Losing Streak to Four

I realize its difficult for me to be objective here, but I can't shake the feeling that Jays fans are simply the ants beneath the proverbial magnifying glass of the baseball gods.

Coming off a devastating loss which saw the bullpen miraculously squander a seven-run lead that the offense had built off 2010 AL Cy Young award winner Felix Hernandez, no less, the Jays came within ninety feet of an eighth-inning comeback on Tuesday night, only to come up empty once again, falling 3-2 to the Mariners to extend their losing streak to four games.

I wouldn't have minded if Seattle rookie Michael Pineda -- making just his second career big league start -- had just done in the eighth exactly what he had for the previous seven innings: dominated. The 21-year-old Dominican kept the Blue Jays' offense in check for the majority of the game, hurling seven sparkling innings of shutout ball while yielding just three hits. But no, the baseball deities, in characteristically cruel fashion, had to plant a seed of hope in the eighth only to pull the rug out from underneath me.

Edwin Encarnacion, who smacked two of the Jays' five hits on the day, led off the eighth with a single to left. After a Jayson Nix strikeout, followed by a Yunel Escobar and subsequent wild pitch from Pineda, Corey Patterson ripped a two-run single to the right field corner to reduce the deficit the one.

With Chris Ray on in relief of Pineda, Patterson -- who continues to impress in the absence of centre-fielder Rajai Davis -- promptly stole second and took third as a bonus on catcher Miguel Olivo's errant throw with Jose Bautista at the dish. But with the tying run standing ninety feet away, the baseball gods administered their decisive blow, as Patterson was gunned down at the plate trying to score on Bautista's pop-up into foul territory down the right field line, thanks to a brilliant catch and throw by first-baseman Justin Smoak.

And just to salt the wound, Toronto was retired in order by Brandon League, a former Jay, to end the game.

But, the fruitless comeback attempt notwithstanding, the most devastating aspect of tonight's bout was the fact that the Jays squandered a brilliant start from Ricky Romero (1-1, 1.66), who made only one mistake the whole game in the form of a two-run bomb to the No. 9 hitter Ryan Langerhans. Otherwise, the Jays ace was typically impressive, striking out eight while surrendering three runs -- two earned -- off five hits and two walks in his first complete game of the season.

After starting the season 4-2, the Jays have trailed off of late, and with tonight's loss, see their record (5-6) dip below .500 for the first time this year.

But I tell you, with tonight's loss, last night's defeat, and Bob Davidson's phantom obstruction call that cost the Jays the game on Saturday night, it's enough to make any fan an atheist.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Jays Win, Escobar Leaves Early

It's never a good thing losing your starting shortstop to injury -- especially not a head injury. But it's particularly devastating to lose your shortstop to injury when he's started the season hitting at a .474 clip, and has already delivered a walkoff homerun for good measure.

The joy of tonight's 4-3 win over the Oakland Athletics -- which secured consecutive series victories for the Jays to open the 2011 season -- was somewhat diminished by the early exit of shortstop Yunel Escobar, who was removed from the game in the seventh inning due to dizziness sustained after sliding head-first into Oakland's Andy Laroche while trying to leg out a triple the inning before.

Who said the stigma of head injuries is confined exclusively to hockey?

After the game, Shi Davidi of the Canadian Press tweeted that Jays' manager John Farrell is "hopeful and at least cautiously optimistic at this point that we’re not entertaining something like (a concussion)."

Escobar, who was 3/3 with a run before being replaced by John McDonald, had been compensating offensively for the absence of Jose Bautista for the past two games, and the Jays can only hope that the Cuban is able to avoid any comparisons to Sidney Crosby.

However, should the injury prove to be serious, Escobar would be in a position to receive designation to the newly-instituted seven-day disabled list, designed specifically for players with head injuries in the wake of the recent uproar regarding concussions in the sports community.

But aside from the blight of the Escobar casualty, the Jays' victory tonight had a lot of positives, notably, the performance of Jesse Litsch. In his inaugural 2011 start, Litsch hurled 6.1 solid innings, surrendering three runs, all earned, over six hits and two walks while striking out seven. With his performance tonight, the 26-year-old certainly improved his chances to retain his spot in the rotation upon the return of Brandon Morrow from the disabled list.

Jo-Jo Reyes, who was mercifully relieved after just 3.1 innings last night, now emerges as the favourite to be the odd-man-out in the rotation, and tonight's performance from "the best fifth starter in baseball," according to Mike Wilner of the Fan590, certainly didn't help his chances.

Litsch eventually turned the ball over to lefty Mark Rzepczynski who threw a masterful two innings in relief before making way for interim closer Jon Rauch who finished the job. In an unconventional yet remarkably acute move, John Farrell elected to keep Rzepczynski in to face the left-handed hitting Hideki Matsui leading off the ninth, rather than go automatically to his closer. Farrell's ingenuity paid off, as Rzepczynski got Matsui swinging. Rauch then came in and quickly disposed of righties Kurt Suzuki and Mark Ellis.

The offense in tonight's game was provided largely by one swing from Travis Snider, who blasted a hanging breaking ball from Oakland starter Dallas Braden over the wall in right for a three-run shot in the fourth to give the Jays a two-run lead. After the A's managed to reduce the deficit to one in the fifth, the Jays tagged on an insurance run via an RBI single from Aaron Hill in the eighth.

With tonight's victory, the Jays improve to 4-1 on the season and will look for the series sweep tomorrow afternoon. The Blue Jays will send lefty Ricky Romero (1-0, 1.42) to the hill against Trevor Cahill (0-0, 1.93).

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Reyes Falters, Escobar Saves the Day

Despite all the excitement of tonight's 7-6 extra-inning, walkoff victory over the Oakland Athletics, the one nagging thought that continued to linger long after the jubilation of Yunel Escobar's decisive two-run bomb faded was: poor Jo-Jo Reyes.

In his first meaningful audition to secure a job in the Blue Jays' rotation, Reyes imploded, surrendering five runs, all of them earned, on nine hits and a walk before getting pulled with one away in the fourth.

Not exactly the kind of performance that instills faith in your manager.

Despite the sizable hole that Reyes dug, the Blue Jays' offense -- despite missing its centrepiece in Jose Bautista, who's on leave for an undisclosed personal matter -- refused to pack it in, and managed to claw their way back to tie the game in the sixth, despite trailing by as much as five at one point.

The four-run frame was sparked by centre-fielder Rajai Davis, who, facing his former team for the first time, led the inning off with a double down the left-field line. Davis, renowned for his baserunning prowess, then managed to disrupt third-basemen Kevin Kouzmanoff on the subsequent Escobar grounder in the hole, putting runners at the corners. Davis then proceeded to score, thanks to the acuity of third-base coach Brian Butterfield, on the following Adam Lind sacrifice fly in foul territory that sent Kouzmanoff sprawling to the turf.

An RBI single from Aaron Hill, another Kouzmanoff error and an RBI double from Edwin Encarnacion put Juan Rivera -- representing the tying run -- on third. A well-placed groundout from Travis Snider brought Rivera home and knotted the game at 5-5.

Both teams' bats then went dormant for the rest of regulation, and so the fans were treated to, as Mike Wilner would say, some "free baseball."

Jason Frasor came on in the top of tenth, replacing Jon Rauch who hurled a scoreless ninth. Frasor promptly surrendered a leadoff homerun to pinch-hitter Josh Willingham to give the A's the lead before ultimately striking out the side.

Davis then started the reprise comeback effort in the home half, leading off the frame with a single up the middle off Grant Balfour. Escobar then strode to the plate a walloped Balfour's first offering into the Athletics' bullpen in right field to lift the Jays to a 7-6 victory.

But while the Jays celebrate their hard-fought, dramatic victory, Reyes' employment status teeters that much more precariously than it did yesterday.

The 26-year-old is out of options -- he would have to clear waivers if designated to AAA, meaning the Jays would risk losing him -- which could spell consignment to the bullpen upon Brandon Morrow's return, but another outing like this could yield an even less favourable outcome for Reyes, especially if the bullpen's resident southpaws David Purcey and Mark Rzepczynski prove to be effective. And with a body of work that's as uninspiring as it is brief, Reyes doesn't have many references to vouch for him, either.

Another outing like tonight's might augur the fate that the prophetic Lennon and McCartney sang about: Jo-Jo might have to get back to where he once belonged.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Blue Jays Kick Off 2011 Season

Alas, the dust has settled, the pageantry and hoopla of Opening Weekend but a fond memory for both the 100,000-and-change that crammed themselves into an electric Rogers Centre, as well as those of us watching from the comfort of our living rooms.

With a day off tomorrow before hosting Oakland for a three-game series, let's look back and recap the weekend's events: the auspicious ups, the discouraging downs, and Juan Rivera/Adam Lind's mutual failure to execute on Sunday. But we'll get to that latter issue in due time.

Hosting the Minnesota Twins, the Blue Jays started their season in ceremonious fashion, with newly-appointed ace Ricky Romero leading the troops to an emphatic 13-3 victory in front of a sellout crowd on Friday night.

After Romero breezed through the top half of the first, the offense wasted no time getting to work. Consecutive singles by Rajai Davis and Yunel Escobar precipitated a double steal -- punctuating the beginning of the John Farrell era -- followed by a walk to Jose Bautista loaded the bases for Adam Lind, who brought home the Jays' first run of the year when he was promptly plunked in the shoulder by a Carl Pavano fastball.

A pair of sac flies from Aaron Hill and Edwin Encarnacion, followed by an error by Twins' second-baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka on a Travis Snider grounder gave the Jays a comfortable 4-0 lead heading into the second.

Needless to say, the home-town boys never looked back.

Romero gave an inspiring performance, issuing only one earned run over 6.1 innings of work while striking out seven.

On the other side of the ball, Lind and reigning homerun king Bautista each contributed solo shots, but the star of the night was rookie catcher J.P. Arencibia who, emulating his MLB debut last August, belted two homeruns and a triple to finish the night 3/4 with 5 RBIs.

Relievers Casey Janssen, Jason Frasor, and Carlos Villanueva -- making his Blue Jays' debut -- combined for 2.2 scoreless innings to end the game.

The following day, with substantially fewer butts in the seats, the Blue Jays sent out rookie Kyle Drabek to toe the slab in search of his first major league victory.

From the first pitch, Drabek set the tone for entire afternoon, hurling a game that was reminiscent, dare I say it, of the man he was traded for.

Drabek emphatically struck out the side in the first, and carried a no-hitter into the sixth until Denard Span spoiled the youngster's bid with a solid single over the head of Yunel Escobar. His electric fastball, complimented by a bewildering bender kept the Twins off-balance all afternoon, and the only run they were able to muster was came by way of a walk, stolen base, and some effectively placed ground ball outs. The rookie finished the day with seven strikeouts over his seven innings of work while walking three and surrendering only the lone run and Span single.

His batterymate, Jose Molina, who got the nod over Arencibia, much to the chagrin of the Toronto faithful, vindicated his manager's choice with a third-inning solo shot that got the offense in motion.

After the Twins' tied the game at 1-1 in the fourth, Jayson Nix -- acquired last week from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for cash considerations -- wasted no time endearing himself to his new teammates (and fans) with a solo shot off Twins' starter Francisco Liriano in the home half of the inning to give the Jays the lead.

The Jays put the game away in the bottom of the fifth; after an Edwin Encarnacion infield single scored Bautista and advanced Lind to second, Travis Snider -- pinch-hitting for Juan Rivera in another savvy strategical move by Farrell -- doubled to the right-field corner to plate a pair and extend the lead to 5-1.

The Jays would tag on another run in the eighth on an Aaron Hill sac fly to effectively seal the Twins' fate.

In the weekend's finale, the Jays sent Brett Cecil -- who struggled with diminished velocity for much of Spring Training -- to the mound, facing the Twins' sinkerballer extraordinaire, Nick Blackburn.

After striking out the side in the first and breezing through the next inning, Cecil surrendered a bomb to Danny Valencia in the third to give the Twins their first lead of the weekend.

The Jays tied it up in the bottom of the fourth on an error by Nishioka on an Encarnacion chopper, but the Twins got to Cecil in the fifth. After a single and a walk, Cecil hesitated on his throw to Lind on a Drew Butera sacrifice bunt, loading the bases. Matt Tolbert promptly singled to left, scoring Jason Kubel, but a perfect throw from Snider nailed a trailing Valencia trying to extend the lead. Nishioka would end up singling home another run before Cecil got Delmon Young to pop out to shallow right and induced a fly-out from Justin Morneau.

The Jays would reduce the deficit to one thanks to a Bautista blast in the sixth.

But with a chance to tie the game and possibly take the lead the following inning, the Jays couldn't execute. With runners on second and third with only one out, Juan Rivera grounded out meekly to pitcher Matt Capps. Bautista then lined out hard to centre-field to end the threat.

Jon Rauch, the Blue Jays' interim closer with Frank Francisco on the disabled list, saw his first action of the season in the ninth. But the gargantuan righty yielded a towering solo shot to Denard Span in his one inning of work, extending the Jays' deficit to two heading into their last at-bat.

The bottom of the ninth made for some serious drama.

Snider led off the inning with an infield single, just beating the throw from Nishioka who made a great diving stab on a ball in the hole. After Arencibia flied out to the warning track -- a recurring theme for the catcher on the afternoon -- Mike McCoy blooped a clutch double to shallow right, barely avoiding the tag at second. Yunel Escobar then ripped a sacrifice fly to centre, scoring Snider on a ball that almost escaped the reach of Span. But after consecutive (and heart-stopping) walks to Rivera and Bautista, Lind uncharacteristically offered at a first-pitch breaking ball from Nathan, and grounded out to Cuddyer at first to end the game.

Overall, the weekend was a huge success. The games were exciting, entertaining, and there was no denying the unmistakable presence of collective hope in the Rogers Centre (and, of course, in Ottawa living rooms). While a sweep would've been nice, extrapolating this success rate to 162 games produces a record of 108-54, which ain't too shabby. Either way, it's going to be one hell of a ride.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Morrow to Start Season on DL; Lawrie to Vegas

Our worst fears have been confirmed. And no, it's not that global warning isn't a hoax.

This morning, the Toronto Blue Jays announced that Brandon Morrow will begin the season on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to March 23, due to inflammation in his right elbow, according to Gregor Chisolm.

Darn! Just when the competition for the final two rotation spots was getting compelling.

Oh yeah, and I guess losing Morrow, who has a history of arm trouble, is a little disconcerting as well.

This means that Kyle Drabek, Jesse Litsch, and Jo-Jo Reyes will get an extended audition for a spot in the rotation that will likely translate to one regular season start each.

While this shouldn't be cause for concern at the moment -- operative term: at the moment -- it is disappointing to see your projected #2 starter go down this late in Spring Training. And it just so happened to be on the same day that Brett Lawrie is officially handed his walking papers. That being said, the 21-year-old third-basemen posted solid numbers this spring, and really opened some eyes during his time in camp.

Over 39 Grapefruit League at-bats, Lawrie posted an average of .282 with two homeruns and six RBIs while adding three stolen bases. While his chances of making the big-league club were admittedly slim, it's not unreasonable to speculate that had he not suffered a 1/12 mini-slump over his last seven games in Dunedin, his case would have been decisively stronger.

For now, Lawrie will continue to refine his defensive skills at the hot corner under the desert sun with the 51s. Their season is set to begin April 7 in Fresno against the Grizzlies.

Your mother told you there'd be days like these, Jays fans.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Reyes Getting Shafted?

Yesterday morning, Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star ever so subtly intimated that despite the seemingly honest competition going on between Jesse Litsch, Kyle Drabek, and Jo-Jo Reyes for the final two spots in the Blue Jays' rotation, the contest, in reality, is as rigged as an Iranian election.

"Drabek is battling lefthander Jo-Jo Reyes and righthander Jesse Litsch for the last two spots in the starting rotation behind the trio of Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil. It’s difficult to judge the contenders. Litsch faced a Tier 2 team of Twins on the weekend, Drabek pitched in a minor-league contest, while Reyes faces the starting lineup of the Yankees in Tampa on Wednesday night."

Griff raises a valid point. It seems as though Jays' management is putting the youngster Drabek and resurging Litsch in positions to succeed while Reyes is getting handed the more challenging assignments. Personally, I tip my hat to Anthoupoulos and Farrell. They're establishing plausible deniability in the most devious of ways.

In the event Reyes gets roughed up by the Yanks on Wednesday night and he's consequently consigned to 'pen or shipped to Las Vegas, it'll be only too easy for the Jays' brass to say they gave Reyes a legitimate opportunity to prove his worth as a starter and earn a spot in the rotation. They can put the onus entirely on his left arm, citing lousy performance as the reason for his potential demotion, when the truth is, the hurdles he had to jump were higher than his fellow rotation candidates.
Of course, I'm just making assumptions based on an observation that could be coincidence and could be cynicism, but it does make you think a little bit nonetheless.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Let It Snow, Baseball's Coming

When I got to my car this morning, the snow that enveloped it didn't exactly portend the momentous occasion that is just over a week away.

The event I'm referring to, of course, is Major League Baseball's Opening Day.

Far away from the Ottawa cold and subsequent rage that inevitably follows when you're forced to scrape snow off you're car in March, the Toronto Blue Jays' brass are beginning to finalize the roster that they'll be sporting come April 1st when the Twins head north to kick off the campaign.

However, there are still a number of issues that remain unresolved. Arguably the most pressing of which is who will take the fourth and fifth starter jobs in the Jays' rotation, alongside Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, and Brett Cecil.

Coming off a solid performance against the Twins in which he hurled 5.1 scoreless innings, surrendering only three hits while striking out seven, Jesse Litsch has certainly emerged as a favourite to win one of those jobs. While his career suffered a serious setback when he was forced to shut himself down for Tommy John surgery in 2009, Litsch's arm appears to have fully recovered, as has his hip, which was operated on last August. With a clean bill of health and solid numbers this spring -- 17.1 IP, 2-0, 3.12 ERA, 17 Ks -- Litsch will likely start the season in the rotation, looking to return to his 2007-2008 form where he posted an impressive 3.79 ERA over 48 starts and one relief appearance.

With the recent announcement that Mark Rzepczynski is no longer being considered for a starter's job, the two remaining candidates to round out the rotation are 26-year-old southpaw Jo-Jo Reyes and uber-prospect Kyle Drabek, 23.

While Drabek was generally considered to be a lock for a spot in the rotation coming into camp, Reyes has posted solid numbers this spring, and seeing as he's out of options -- meaning the Jays would be forced to put him on waivers and risk losing him to another team should he not make the 25-man roster -- the decision is anything but simple.

However, with a serious scarcity of southpaws in the bullpen, there is the possibility that Reyes is consigned to a relief role, joining David Purcey as the only lefties in the 'pen. This would allow Drabek, who's 2-0 with a 3.27 ERA and 9 Ks through 11 innings this spring, to slide into the rotation, as many believed he would, and begin developing into the future front-line starter many believe he can be.

The bullpen is another area that remains unsettled with just over a week remaining in Spring Training. With the putative closer Frank Francisco scheduled for a meeting with Dr. James Andrews later this week, it does not seem likely that he will break camp with the big-league squad. Even if he's still allowed to throw after his consultation with Andrews, which too often augurs an 18-month leave of absence, his arm will still need some stretching out before he's ready for regular season action. This along with Octavio Dotel's nagging hamstring injury means that Jon Rauch becomes the new favourite to assume closing duties, at least to start, leaving Jason Frasor, Shawn Camp, Carlos Villanueva, Casey Jansenn, Purcey, and Reyes to round out the rest of the relief corps.

As for the guys who swing the bat, there are still a few more decisions to be made, the most intriguing of which is whether or not Brett Lawrie, acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for Shaun Marcum this December, will start the season with the big boys after an impressive spring.

Lawrie, who's as notorious for his mouth as he is for his bat, has done everything in his power this spring to avoid getting sent to Las Vegas for some more fine-tuning. The Burnaby, B.C. native has posted an average of .289 with 2 homeruns, 6 RBIs, and 3 stolen bases through 38 at-bats this spring, and has wowed even the biggest skeptics with his hasty and largely seamless transition to third base. That being said, his most recent performance -- an 0/4 day, including 3 strikeouts -- and Juan Rivera's unwavering presence in right field this Spring likely spells AAA for the hard-nosed prospect.

With Lawrie likely getting shipped to the desert, and Scott Podsednik's lingering plantar fasciitis, the Jays' bench will probably feature Corey Patterson as the fourth outfielder, with Mike McCoy and fan-favourite John "Prime Minister of Defence" MacDonald serving as reserve infielders.

Though there's still nine games left on the Jays' Grapefruit League schedule, the speculation is already in mid-season form.

So get out your boots and break out the ice-scrapers. Baseball's nearly here.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Another Leaf Bites the Dust

As quickly and unexpectedly as it began, the Kris Versteeg era in Toronto has officially come to end.

Okay, fine, maybe 53 games doesn't exactly constitute an era, but the bottom line is, the 24-year-old's tenure in the hallowed blue and white is done.

But wait a second. Isn't this a guy, highly coveted by Brian Burke and boasting a championship pedigree, who was supposed to be an integral part of a team looking towards the future without compromising the present?

Wasn't he -- along with Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, and Luke Schenn -- supposed to be part of the intimate nucleus of a team flirting with the prospect of sustainable success somewhere in the near future? In fact, I'm pretty sure he was supposed to be one of the leaders of that group, what with his name already engraved in Lord Stanley's Cup, and all. Isn't he that guy?

I thought so. Obviously, Brian Burke didn't.

That's why Burkey -- likely compelled at least a little by the contingent of fans still disgruntled over the two tasty draft picks sent to Boston in the Kessel deal -- didn't even wait to the Feb. 28 trade deadline to ship the Versteegian One to Philadelphia for their 1st and 3rd-round picks in the 2011 NHL draft.

But considering Versteeg was under contract until the end of the 2011-2012 season, he was performing as well as one could've reasonably expected, and he was one of the scant few on the Leafs' roster with post-season experience, this trade is a bit of a head-scratcher.

Sure, draft picks are important, especially those coming in the first round, but with Philadelphia looking downwards at 28 other teams in the NHL standings, their 1st-round pick likely won't be any higher than 25th overall. And Burke has made clear his intentions to flip the 3rd-rounder for a flesh-and-blood asset that can contribute now. So, for all intents and purposes, Burke swapped Versteeg for a low first-round draft pick and, provided the Leafs' GM delivers on his promise, a player likely of lesser value.

Though Burke may protest to the contrary, the subtext to this deal is as glaring as the waffles on the ice: the Leafs have conceded the 2011 season.

Why else would the Leafs ship out one of their few players with the ability to put the puck in the net? While Versteeg, in reality, is only a borderline top-six forward, he was still a prominent part of the Leafs' offense, notching 14 goals and 21 helpers through 53 contests this year.

Maybe the recent acquisition of Joffrey Lupul from Anaheim made the winger expendable, but even so, its not like the Leafs enjoy a wealth of offensive ability.

Quite simply, it appears as though this move was a byproduct of Saturday night's sobering realization at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, that the playoffs, for the Leafs, are but a pipe dream this year. Again. For the sixth consecutive year.

In Burke's mind, this was a prudent move for an organization still mired amongst the myriad of mediocre teams in the East. He likely realized that, at this juncture, accumulating draft picks is more important than holding on to the players that could potentially contribute to a presumably fruitless run at the playoffs. And although he may not explicitly say it with the colourful diction we've all come to know and love, the optimism Brian Burke once had about this team might be fading.

So if you get a whiff of something foul wafting around the Air Canada Centre, it's not the week-old waffles smuggled into the arena, it's the putrid stench of a rebuild.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

My Close-r, My Close-r, My Kingdom for a Close-r

Let's face it, the back end of the Blue Jays' bullpen is more crowded than a Tokyo subway during rush hour.

It's actually pretty impressive that there's such a wealth of seasoned arms to choose from considering this offseason saw both setup guy Scott Downs and closer Kevin Gregg depart for greener, and more lucrative pastures.

Losing Scott Downs will hurt: our lefty-specialist heir apparent is David Purcey, who's amassed a whopping 147 innings on a Major League mound. However, Purcey put up respectable numbers last year -- his first stint as a reliever -- fashioning an ERA of 3.71 through 34 innings while striking out 32. But the 28-year-old, in anomalistic fashion, struggled against lefties, yielding an opposition batting average of .309. Nonetheless, save for Jesse Carlson, the Jays are bereft of any other viable options against lefties. Purcey it is. For now.

Losing Gregg, on the other hand, won't be nearly as painful. Don't get me wrong, I was a staunch supporter of Kevin Gregg last year. Sure, he never made it look easy, but the guy still converted 37 of his 43 save opportunities. And while the ERA and BB/9 rate were less than ideal, he got the job done. 86% of the time. Having said that, he's not the shut-down closer you build a bullpen around.

So who assumes the highly coveted role of getting (or trying to get) the final 3 outs? Anthopoulous must be a proponent of the 'competition breeds excellence' theory, because he dedicated a substantial amount of time and money this offseason soliciting tenured arms to the Toronto bullpen. Over the past three months, AA acquired the services of 37-year-old journeyman Octavio Dotel, 32-year-old behemoth Jon Rauch, and, through a swap with the Rangers for Mike Napoli just four days after the catcher got sent to Toronto in the Vernon Wells deal, 31-year-old Frank Francisco.

Throw those guys into the mix with long-time bullpen fixture Jason Frasor and Spring Training invitee Chad Cordero, who notched a Major League-best 47 saves for the Nationals in 2005, and you've got a lot of options to choose from.

So which hurler is the most qualified to, at least initially, handle closing duties?

Francisco's Case: The burly right-hander has emerged as the favourite to win the job this Spring, according to Blue Jays' beat writer Gregor Chisolm. Last year, the former Ranger had his position usurped by Neftali Feliz, the fireballing 22-year-old who now owns the single-season rookie record for saves with 40, after two blown saves to start the season. However, in 2009, Francisco performed well in the closer's role, nailing down 25 saves in 29 opportunities with an impressive 10.4 K/9 rate. Though 2009 constitutes the bulk of his closing experience, Francisco has fared very well against lefties throughout his career and should give the other closing candidates a serious run for their money.

Dotel's Case: Since 2005, Dotel has played for eight different clubs. I guess the Jays are lucky number nine. The Dominican has never really had an extended stint as a closer, and has spent much of his career teetering on the fence between setup man and closer. Over his 11-year career, Dotel's notched 105 saves in 150 opportunities, good for a paltry 70% conversion rate. Though his stuff may be nasty -- he boasts an impressive 10.95 K/9 rate for his career -- Dotel's probably not the guy you want to entrust with the ball with a one-run lead against the Sox or Yanks, especially with such a young and inexperienced starting rotation.

Rauch's Case: Let me say one thing first: if Jon Rauch's career as a baseball player comes to an abrupt halt for some reason, he'll never have any trouble finding employment as a bouncer. The 6,11", 290-pound Rauch has spent most of his career as a middle-relief/setup man, but the 32-year-old performed admirably in the closer role for Minnesota last year when Joe Nathan was shut down for, say it with me now, Tommy John surgery. Rauch fashioned a tidy 3.12 ERA while saving 21 games in 25 opportunities. He also notched 18 saves in 24 opportunities in a year split between Washington and Arizona. Though he may not have the same calibre stuff that Francisco and Dotel do, Rauch is a solid ninth-inning option that shouldn't be hastily overlooked.

As for Frasor and Cordero, provided the aforementioned triumvirate don't all succumb to a Rick Ankiel-esque collapse, I don't see them getting much consideration for the closer's job.

Either way, Spring Training will make for some spicy competition.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Vlad Conundrum

Ahh, reclamation projects.

Doesn't the prospect of a golden-aged slugger revitalizing his career in your team's colours make you feel all tingly aside?

Good, so I'm not the only one.

Let me start off by saying that Vladimir Guerrero, contrary to how the market for his services has emerged, is in no way a conventional reclamation project. The 2004 AL MVP and nine-time All-Star is coming off a characteristically fantastic year in which he posted a line of .300/29/115. His numbers we're inflated a tad, hitting in the offensive haven that is the Ballpark in Arlington, but it was a phenomenal campaign for the 36-year-old nonetheless.

Yet somehow, with Spring Training not a fortnight away, Vlad the Impaler finds himself unemployed.

Only in the crazy universe of Major League Baseball is a future Hall-of-Famer who can still play -- and at a reasonable price -- unable to find gainful employment while Jayson Werth makes $126 million over the next seven years. For the record, in his age-36 season, Werth will be making just under three times what Vlad's reported initial asking price was for the upcoming year.

I don't understand it. How can there not be one single, solitary suitor for Bad Vlad? MLB execs are trading for Vernon Wells -- under no threat of physical harm, to the best of my knowledge -- and his travesty of a contract, but Vlad's reported $8-million price tag is too much?

Yes, he's become a defensive liability; we established that in the playoffs. But the guy can swing it. And he will. In fact, I defy you to throw something Vlad won't swing at -- and drive to he gap.

So, defensive deficiencies aside, why have American League execs not come knocking on his door? According to MLB Trade Rumors, the only seriously interested team is the Orioles, who reportedly balked at his asking price of $8 million. They have since countered with an offer of $4.5 million.

That's it? No other teams could stand to benefit from a dangerous and totally capable DH?

The Blue Jays could.

As the lineup currently stands, Adam Lind is poised to assume 1B duties, with Edwin Encarnacion at DH. Should Lind falter at 1B, he would swap roles with EE. This is why Alex Anthopoulous -- baseball's preeminent wunderkind -- has decided to pass on Vlad. Lind getting at-bats is of paramount importance, and if he's unable to handle the job at first, he needs the DH spot in the lineup.

Essentially what's happening here is Anthopoulous is preemptively assuming that Lind and 1B won't jive. Fine, but what do you have to lose by signing Vlad?

Worst case scenario, 1B proves too much for Lind and he's back to the DH role with Edwin taking over at first, relegating Vlad to a lefties-only role. But doesn't it make sense, and I'm just spitballing here, to put Lind in left if he can't handle first, move Snider to right, and let Vlad take his hacks as an everyday DH? I can live with taking at-bats away from Juan Rivera.

From a fiscal perspective, the Blue Jays are working with found money. Signing Vlad will cost a fraction of what Wells was set to make this year, so why not go for it? Hell, even pay him his full quote, and tag on a club option for 2012 while you're at it. The potential upside is huge while the risk is negligible.

Don't get me wrong, I couldn't be happier with what Alex Anthopoulous has accomplished this offseason.

But what do you have to lose?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

So Long, Vernon

Vernon Wells has been traded.

Those are five words I never expected to see in that particular sequence. Ever.

Perhaps that's because I have drastically underestimated Alex Anthopoulous. But not likely. No, it's reasonable to presume those words would never be placed in that order because of Wells' monstrosity of a contract which sees him making $86 million over the next four years.

Although Wells' tenure in Toronto will forever be regarded as the paragon of egregious excess that defined the J.P Ricciardi era, contract aside, Wells was one of the few bright spots on a mediocre team for more than a decade.

For all the criticism Wells received -- and there was certainly no shortage -- the 32-year-old was, at his best, an All-Star calibre hitter who played Gold Glove defense, and at his worst, an average major-league player whose hustle seemed, at times, questionable. He also has longevity on his side. Wells is the franchise leader in at-bats (5470), and sits second in long-balls (223) and RBI (813).

Additionally, offensive schizophrenia notwithstanding, Wells was durable. From 2002 to 2010, Wells averaged 148 games player per season, which for a centre-fielder whose knees were victimized on a daily basis by the artificial turf of Skydome/Rogers Centre is nothing short of remarkable. For the record, that's more than fellow contemporaries Torii Hunter and Carlos Beltran over that span. While his offensive production was certainly volatile, and at times horribly frustrating, he could alway be counted on to patrol centre-field dutifully.

Was the contract justifiable? Certainly not. But I'm not the one who has to write him a cheque every other week, and neither are you.

Nonetheless, Wells will likely be remembered for how his price tag tied the organization's hands financially, preventing Toronto from fielding a contender sooner, rather than the three-time All-Star and Gold-Glover that he was.

Don't get me wrong, that will certainly factor into how I remember V-Dub, too, but I also have many fond memories of the guy hitting in front of Carlos Delgado -- forming one of the more formidable 3-4 tandems in the bigs for a brief time -- who led the majors in hits in 2003 and regularly awed fans with acrobatic defensive gems.

However you choose to remember him, the Vernon Wells era in Toronto has, rather unceremoniously, concluded. In addition to the huge financial burden that's been lifted through this deal, the Jays also netted catcher Mike "Power Nap"oli and outfielder Juan Rivera from the Angels.

Rivera will likely take the vacant outfield spot Wells' departure created, alongside Travis Snider in right and newly-acquired speedster Rajai Davis taking Wells' old role in centre. The 32-year-old is only one year removed from an impressive .287/25/88 line through 138 games, and the Blue Jays are hoping he can compensate for the offensive production the team will lose through dealing Wells.

Napoli's presence, on the other hand, is a tad more complex, as he will surely muddle the catching situation in Toronto this summer. With rookie J.P. Arencibia tentatively slated to handle full-time catching duties, Napoli's role remains quite ambiguous, although he is likely to see time at 1B and DH in addition to his currently undefined role behind the dish. The 29-year-old is coming off a career year in which he set highs in games played (140), hits(108), homeruns (26), RBI (68), and extra-base hits (51).

But those guys are, for all intents and purposes, consolation prizes. The real return in this deal is financial flexibility this team hasn't had in years. It frees AA to pursue top-tier free agents after the 2011 season, and signifies that the rebuilding process is well underway.

This is a significant day, Blue Jays fans. It is the first day in more than a decade that Vernon Wells is not on the Blue Jays' payroll. The future that the front-office keeps talking about is quickly approaching.

Adios Vernon. Whenever someone takes a violent swing on the first pitch of an at-bat, it'll be you that I'm reminded of.