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?