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Riding with the Wind, ’14: An Apology

Usually we use the word “apology” to say “I’m sorry”. That’s not what I’m doing here. I’m using the word apology as the transliterated form of the Greek word ‘apologia’, meaning ‘defense’. In other words I’m going to defend something or someone. In this case I’m going to defend something AND someone, because the something can’t be separated from the someone. They are linked inextricably.

On Friday April 11, 2014 Dustin McGowan was credited with his first win as a starting pitcher since 2008. It was one of those feel-good moments that have been too few and too far between for the Jays over the last several seasons. Not only did he get the win, but he threw 6.1 IP of shutout ball against the Orioles at Camden Yards. It was heady stuff.

Perhaps you recall the immediate variables that helped to make this a story:

  • a good fielding team had to make 2 errors to help a scuffling offense;
  • hard-hit balls had to be caught by the Jays’ defense, an Achilles heel in 2013;
  • Dusty had to shut down a potent offense that typically feasts on Jays’ pitching;
  • good coaching decisions and timing needed to play a role, since Dusty’s still just getting his feet wet in MLB again.

I suppose a host of other unseen and unthought-of factors played roles, too, but this is good enough for a good story.  These don’t even scratch the surface of all the years of agony and disappointment for McGowan, the Jays, and their fans.

The Something

The bullpen for the Toronto Blue Jays is the Something. A lot of effort and energy has gone into this facet of the team. It has been somewhat frustrating and more than a little bewildering to watch the Jays focus so intently on this as the something. Why not the rotation? Why not the defense? Why not the offense? Why spend so much time on the bullpen, for crying out loud?

Since 2010, its several incarnations have appeared as follows. The players listed are the most oft-used bullpen pitchers:

  • 2010: Gregg, Camp, Janssen, Frasor, Downs;
  • 2011: Francisco, Janssen, Camp, Rauch, Frasor, Rzepczynski;
  • 2012: Janssen, Villanueva, Oliver, Frasor, Cordero, Perez;
  • 2013: Janssen, Loup, Cecil, Delabar, Oliver.

The first couple of seasons, 2010-2011, were years of ‘try, try again.’ Not many cried when Gregg wasn’t re-signed; I almost did when Downs wasn’t. Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch still give some Jays’ fans recurring nightmares, partly because Frankie F cost the Jays Mike Napoli. That’s another story for another time, though. Rzep was a quality LOOGY+ and young, too, but he was part of the price for a young CF.

It began to come together in 2012, experimenting with Janssen as the Closer and bringing quality LHP Darren Oliver on board. Cordero was a bust. Frasor was reliable and had a rubber arm. The starting rotation fell apart in mid-June, though. JA Happ and others were acquired near the deadline to shore up the ‘pen and the rotation, but the season was lost anyways. Shipping Travis Snider to PIT for Brad Lincoln was a little painful, too.

It was supposed to gel in 2013. Big off season trades, combined with a stronger ‘pen, were key parts of a seemingly well-rounded team. Steve Delabar showed he was for real, Brett Cecil was looking sharp early and if they could ever get Sergio Santos to stay healthy, his fastball and slider were deadly. But nothing gelled, nothing at all. It all fizzled amid great-but-frustratingly-unmet expectations. Well, check that: the bullpen gelled. They were solid all season.

Fast forward to 2014 after an off season of virtual non-activity, and the Jays’ ‘pen is even more of a shut down ‘pen than they were previously. The offense has sputtered, but the defense, starting pitching, and bullpen have been good.

At present, the ‘pen consists of:

  • Casey Janssen (CL; DL); Sergio Santos (CL); Steve Delabar; Brett Cecil; Aaron Loup; Neil Wagner; Todd Redmond; and Esmil Rogers.

They have two closers, and two other guys (Delabar; Cecil) capable of closing. They have two high quality LHP capable of going 1+ IP, striking out plenty, inducing ground balls, but also can be used as LOOGYs. Career minor leaguer Neil Wagner throws hard (95+ mph), has good control, and he’s their sixth/seventh inning guy. Rogers and Redmond are both long men who can start in a pinch and give them quality innings. Then there’s JA Happ, the LHP on the DL, who’s at least the equal, talent-wise, to Rogers and Redmond.

The Someone

This of course is Alex Anthopoulos, the much-maligned GM of the Toronto Blue Jays. A quick perusal of the transactions page at baseball-reference.com (here) will show that the majority of deals made by Anthopoulos have involved at least one reliever going in one direction. Several deals have been larger, involving a number of relievers. This focus on the bullpen was frustrating, since the on-field product was poor and getting worse. After all, why waste time on something that exerts so little influence on the game’s outcome? Because it’s the AL East, that’s why.

There are currently two bullpens dominating the American League. They have everything they need to succeed. They stand head and shoulders above the rest of the AL, and actually could get (much) better as the season wears on. Rather than reproducing the table, I’ll just include the link so you can see for yourselves. (We don’t want to use up virtual paper unnecessarily here at AL Eastbound.) Keep in mind that the sample sizes are miniscule (9-12 games; fewer than 50 IP; etc.). Also bear in mind that Toronto’s ‘pen did this last year, too, for the most part.

Against Baltimore, Dustin McGowan gave up some rockets. It’s not surprising: he’s still just getting his feet wet again, and those Orioles have some rocket launchers. His 6.1 IP of shutout ball was pretty impressive, as was the 2.2 IP by Brett Cecil and Sergio Santos. Cecil and Santos struck out 5 of the 8 batters they faced. No hits, no walks, no blips or glitches, just shut down ball. It was a nice period at the end of that particular sentence. Dustin McGowan, good start, blah, blah, blah, bullpen. Lights out. Well done, Alex Anthopoulos, well done.

Wes Kepstro

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Riding with the Wind, ’14: Week One

Well, the first week of the 2014 season hasn’t exactly been exemplary for the Toronto Blue Jays. They played the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees in their first seven games of the season and are 3-4 at the end of a week.  A split in Tampa was somewhat encouraging; a series loss to the apparently over-the-hill-and-lost-their-skills Yankees wasn’t.  The Jays also lost Jose Reyes and Casey Janssen to the DL, forcing them to scramble a little.

RA Dickey has been (very) bad once and (very) good once, as has Drew Hutchison, though they did it in opposite fashion.  Mark Buehrle was staggeringly dominant.  Brandon Morrow and Dustin McGowan, the feel good story of Spring Training, were eminently hittable.  What we saw from two of the starters–Dickey; Morrow–was within expectations.  What we saw from another two–McGowan; Hutchison–was a learning experience.  What we saw from one of them–Buehrle–will probably never happen again.  Interestingly, however, the Jays were #1 in MLB in rotation WAR before the rubber match against the Yankees.  Improvement over last season is essential, but do they have the horses?

The bullpen, sans Casey Janssen who is also on the DL, has been its usual self: solid and over-worked.  A few blips are expected, as their #13 rank in MLB in ‘pen WAR attests, but overall they’ve acquitted themselves well.  In the series finale against NY, for instance, Todd Redmond, Steve Delabar, and Esmil Rogers combined to throw 5.2 IP of 3-hit, no-run ball with 1 BB and 6 Ks against the NYY, allowing the Jays at least the opportunity to get back into the game.  This is a good ‘pen that will get better when Janssen returns.  In a surprising early move Jeremy Jeffress, who struggled to find the strike zone, was DFA’ed and replaced by Marcus Walden.

Offensively, the Jays have either been brutal or very good.  Edwin Encarnacion, Colby Rasmus, Ryan Goins, Moises Sierra, and Brett Lawrie are struggling mightily and fit the fomer designation.  Edwin struggled out of the gate last season, then really hit his stride.  Expect that to happen again.  Colby’s off to a cold start and Goins/Sierra have little-to-no experience but Lawrie’s struggles are troubling.  He came up with a good reputation, but has yet to adjust well to the big leagues.  It’s difficult to know what to expect from Brett Lawrie.  Sierra’s still looking for his first hit of the season.  Goins wasn’t expected to hit.

Jose Bautista, Melky Cabrera, and Adam Lind are hitting well.  Jose looks like 2010-2011 Jose in the early going.  A tumour-less Melky is a sight to behold, running hard and pounding balls all over the yard.  His 3 HR already equal his total of 2013.  Expect a 3.0-3.5 fWAR season from him.  Adam Lind and Maicer Izturis are both off to very good starts offensively.  Jonathan Diaz, Reyes’ replacement, has contributed positive WAR so far, and reminds some of former super-sub John MacDonald.

The catching trio of Navarro, Thole, and Kratz isn’t a black hole in any way, which is refreshing.  Kratz was re-called when Janssen was put on the DL, Thole has caught Dickey twice and Navarro is receiving rave reviews from teammates.  He’s contributed offensively, as well, but not enough to be a positive contributor.  It’s his defense and game management that’s in focus.  Defensively, the trio really needs to work on throwing out base stealers.  The trio ranks 10th in MLB defensively, which is a serious upgrade.  Interestingly, the teams that rank #1 and #2 in catcher defense this season are the Mets and Texas.

Defensively this team is light years ahead of last year’s squad.  Diaz and Goins have been solid up the middle, as has Colby Rasmus.  Melky’s covering ground very well for him.  We don’t expect a Gold Glove, but we’re being treated to a vast improvement.  Melky and Rasmus both have OF assists already.  Lawrie’s hitting struggles aren’t affecting his play in the field adversely, while Lind and Encarnacion are passable at 1B.  Jose is Jose in RF.

The Blue Jays are 3-4, all against AL East opponents.  They have only one off day in April (tomorrow, April 7), and no off days in May.  It’s not going to be easy for them but, frustratingly, it’s crucial to get off to a good start in the AL East.  Last season the Jays were 2-5 after 7 games, on their way to a 10-17 April record.

This team needs to hold their own for the first couple of months.  A .500 record after a month or so is perfectly acceptable, because runs can be made.  Digging themselves too deep a hole, as they did in 2013, will result in another sub-par season and, undoubtedly, some significant changes.  What I’d like to see is consistency, whether consistently bad or consistently good is irrelevant to me.  Either way, they know what they have and corresponding moves can be made.

Wes Kepstro

Riding with the Wind, ’14: A Good Read

I just read a community research article at http://www.fangraphs.com written by Foster Honeck a few days ago, entitled “Baseball’s Biggest Market Inefficiency”.  It is worth your time, whether you agree or disagree with him.

I won’t play the role of spoiler, but I will make one comment about the Toronto Blue Jays: you will be interested or outraged or intrigued or surprised or something else to see the Jays’ rank.  It is unlikely that you will be indifferent.

Read it, enjoy it, respond to it thoughtfully, or react to it viscerally.  It was not what I expected nor did it tell me what I wanted to hear, both of which contributed to my enjoyment.

Wes Kepstro

Padres SP Josh Johnson To Miss Four Weeks

As per MLBTR:

The Padres will shut starting pitcher Josh Johnson down for 10 days to two weeks with a strained flexor, Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune tweets. Johnson will be out for at least four weeks. It must be a frustrating injury for Johnson, who only started 16 games last season. While the injury doesn’t appear to threaten a huge portion of the season, the Padres can feel grateful for an option they built into Johnson’s contract — if Johnson starts fewer than seven games this season, the Padres get a $4MM option on his services for 2015.

QUICK REACTION: I was one of a few that thought it best to just roll the dice and bring JJ back for another go around in the Blue Jays rotation.  This is already a tough start for the oft-injured right handed starting pitcher.

Riding with the Wind, ’14: Spring Training News

There’s nothing major to report, just a few tidbits here and there as the Blue Jays continue to prepare for the season opener in a few weeks.  RA Dickey will pitch the opener, as the Jays open the season with a 4-game set against the Rays in Tampa.  The Yankees will then come to Toronto for a 3-game set for the Jays home opener.  In an interesting turn of events, Brandon Morrow, who has a $13MM club option for 2015, has been slated as the #5 starter for the Jays this season.  It’s conceivable that the Jays merely want him to pitch in Toronto against the NYY but, given his past success against the Rays, it’s not a pareticularly compelling argument.  So launches what http://www.fangraphs.com has determined is the 3rd most difficult schedule in all of MLB…against the 2 inter-divisional rivals that give them the greatest trouble historically.

According to Bluebird Banter (from a tweet by Gregor Chisolm), the Jays have optioned pitchers Kyle Drabek, Sean Nolin, and Chad Jenkins to AAA Buffalo.  None of the three had been terribly impressive in Spring Training, though that’s not Jenkins’ modus operandi anyways.  Jenkins is the one pitcher who makes me furrow my eyebrows.  There’s very little notable, or even noticeable, about him but he continues to get hitters out somehow.  That said, the well-documented logjam that the Jays have in terms of MLB-calibre pitching forces their hand somewhat.  These guys all had options left–though Drabek is out of options after 2014–so they were sent to Buffalo.  Because they had options remaining, they would had to have had a brilliant camp to stick with the Jays.

Gregor Chisholm reports that RA Dickey pitched in the Jays’ minor league camp to take the next step of preparation.  He pitched well, but that’s hardly important.  What is important is that RA pitched 7.2 innings and threw 100 pitches.  He continues to feel good as he stretches himself out during Spring Training.  Blue Jays’ fans recall the neck/upper back muscle pain he experienced last season, contributing to a slow start for RA and, consequently, a slow start by the Jays.

One of the players in the spotlight this ST has been Ryan Goins.  I think I speak for most fans when I say we don’t expect him to play like Roberto Alomar, however the starting job is his to lose.  The question is, ‘how has been performing?’  Defensively he’s been solid although there have been a few errors sprinkled here and there.  His range is good, turning the DP is good, etc.  He’s no 2B version of Ozzie Smith but he’s more than merely passable.  Offensively, however, is the major question mark.  Presently he’s put up a .171/.237/.171 slash line in ST, making his detractors say, ‘see, see–he can’t hit!’  Maybe their right, and maybe he won’t.  A couple of caveats apply, though: he’s pressing, adjusting to a new hitting coach, it’s ST, and the SS is small.  How much rope do I give him?  Well, enough to either hog-tie the position or fashion his own noose, I suppose.

So the Jays continue their inexorable march toward the 2014 regular season, with the opener a mere 15 days away from today.  I confess to being somewhat ambivalent about this season after their performance in 2013 and their inactivity in the off season.  There has been a lot of promise and expectations that have gone unfulfilled, and the so-called 3-year window hasn’t been extended.  Mixed messages have been sent ot the fans, notably: (1) we need starting pitching, only to fail in that goal (to this point); and (2) the players attempting to lure Ervin Santana to Toronto, only to fail in their attempt and then turn around and say it wasn’t that important anyways.  I’m in “wait-and-see” mode.

Wes Kepstro

Riding with the Wind, ’14: Losing the Santana Sweepstakes…

According to multiple sources (www.mlbtraderumors.com, etc.), the Atlanta Braves have signed Ervin Santana to a one year deal to shore up their rotation after Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy were hurt.  Gavin Floyd isn’t due to return from surgery until about the middle of the season so the Braves swooped in and snapped up the best remaining free agent starter.

The Toronto Blue Jays, after declaring early in the off season that improving the rotation was a priority, are left out in the cold.  Honestly, there are three observations that I would like to make.  First, Santana made a deal that is MUCH more likely to help his career by signing with Atlanta rather than the Jays or Orioles.  He’s mainly a fly ball pitcher.  The heavy offenses and the band boxes in the AL East would more likely hurt his value.  This seems like a very good move on his part, and I can’t fault him for it.

Second, Alex Anthopoulos and the Blue Jays’ front office (i.e. Paul Beeston) deserve all the criticism thrown at them.  They had multiple opportunities to improve their chances to take advantage of the so-called “three-year window” by using the resources that “will be there if we need them”, and did very little.  I like the acquisitions of Navarro and Kratz but more needed to be done, namely 2B and the rotation.  This latest turn of events even has more of the serious supporters–not just the casual fans–outraged.  Their complacency is bewildering.  Many have picked the Toronto Blue Jays to finish 5th in the AL East this season, based on their inactivity and the glaring holes in their line up.

Third, there’s the message that’s been sent to the players.  After the debacle of 2013, changes needed to be made.  It wasn’t a strong free agent crop outside of Robinson Cano, but there was plenty of value to be had.  The strange thing is that no trades were made either.  All the while, AA was decrying the market: prices were too high for the potential value received in return.  To wit: the Cubs wanted Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman in exchange for Jeff Samardzija.

But even the players believed that signing Ervin Santana would be a positive move–several of Santana’s friends on the Jays lobbied for him to sign with the Jays.  The players have reportedly been watching the various situations very closely to see what management would do.  Since they’ve done nothing substantial, the message to the players is __________.  If the players are jaded by the Jays inactivity and if the Jays acquire a reputation, what effect will this have on future deals?  Sure it’s speculative, but…

Yes, of course, there are still 162 games to play, and everyone (except projected 4th starter JA Happ) seems healthy.  And yes, this is much the same unit that had so many fans and pundits drooling last off season.  But things have changed, and they’ve changed pretty dramatically.  A 74-88 season after such high expectations will do that.  Just like the 2013 season, more was expected of the 2013-2014 off season but very little was delivered.

Wes Kepstro

Riding with the Wind, ’14: Signing Santana Opens Doors

Of course it does, Kepstro…haven’t you kept tabs on the situation since last Saturday?  Well, there’s a new wrinkle, potentially, that could emerge, and it might benefit the Jays significantly.

Over at mlbtraderumors.com, someone asked Steve Adams in the Weekly Chat about the Atlanta Braves’ new situation.  Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen might be out for a long stretch and that team is built to win now.  The problem is that they’re at or near their payroll limit.  Ervin Santana might be no more than a pipe dream for Braves’ fans (the same can be said to/about Jays’ fans), or they might just plain lose out on him.  What can they do if Santana signs elsewhere?

Well, think along with me for a moment.  If the Jays win the Santana sweepstakes, one of their pitchers gets bumped down the depth ladder.  They already have several guys who are out of options who are candidates to be part of the rotation, including Dustin McGowan, Todd Redmond, and Esmil Rogers.  The Jays will need to move one or more of them.

The Bravos will still need an arm or two, and may need to bring a prospect up before he’s ready.  Steve Adams speculated that perhaps Atlanta would look to add an out-of-options arm (he mentioned Kevin Correia), or another inexpensive choice.  The Jays not only have out-of-options arms, they also have JA Happ, all of whom would be well within the Braves budget.

I don’t know if this will happen—there are a lot of contingencies and things that need to fall into place—but it’s one of the scenarios that the Jays face.  Let’s hope it comes to fruition: the Jays are the winning bidder for Santana AND THEN someone comes looking for their surplus arms.  It could happen, right?

Wes Kepstro


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