Posts Tagged 'toronto blue jays 2014'

Do Blue Jays Have What it Takes to Keep Winning?

The Toronto Blue Jays just completed a very impressive three game sweep of the AL Central division leading Detroit Tigers with a 7-3 victory Thursday afternoon at Comerica Park.  The Jays flexed their offensive muscles and really roughed up the suddenly terrible Justin Verlander – 7 innings, 5 earned, 4 walks and 4 strikeouts.

The Jays walked into Detroit and pretty much laid the smack down on a perennial powerhouse.  They earned the sweep with three straight victories against Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello and Justin Verlander.  The Jays got solid starting pitching, stellar bullpen work and their deep offensive attack continued its league leading performance.

With the sweep on the road in Detroit (did I mention they swept Detroit in Detroit?) and last night’s series opening victory over the St. Louis Cardinals the Blue Jays now sport a 38-24 record and lead the AL East by six full games.  The baseball season is brutally long and it is wise not to get too high or too low with any one series victory, or loss.

I was pretty excited when we took the first game and I texted my buddy who responded the same way he has all season “Good win.  Now let’s keep it up”.  In other words, relax, there is a long way to go.  Is the Blue Jays success sustainable with the currently assembled roster?

Let’s have a look at the offense and pitching staff to see if there are any major red flags in terms of impending regression.

OFFENSE:

The Blue Jays lineup has been an absolute beast to opposing pitchers all season.  They are tearing the cover off the ball and wearing out opponents pitching staffs.  When I looked at the Blue Jays in the preseason I thought the team had serious downside risk and also to the upside.  I think that most pundits while mostly concerned with starting pitching actually underrated the lineup a tad.

The Blue Jays have depth up and down the lineup and at first glance nothing really stands out and screams regression.  Let’s take a look at the starting lineup:

Catcher – Believe it or not but Erik Kratz leads the Blue Jays in WAR (0.2 fWAR) despite playing only about half the games of Dioner Navarro (0.0 fWAR).  The Blue Jays are not getting much production out of the catching position so the threat of regression at this time is low.

First base – Edwin Encarnacion (2.4 fWAR) and Adam Lind (1.1 fWAR) have both hit very well thus far.  Edwin Encarnacion responded to a sub-par April with a monstrous May but his overall stat line (273/361/606) is right around his career levels.  Adam Lind is only playing against righties for the most part (383/458/628) and has been aided slightly by an elevated BABIP so he could see a dip in overall production.

Second base – Brett Lawrie and Steve Tolleson have provided solid value.  Lawrie will shift to third base against righties and has given team solid pop and great defense.  Tolleson has hit lefties well in the past and can play an adequate second base.

Third base – Juan Francisco has actually been worth more (1.4 fWAR – 39 games) than Brett Lawrie (1.3 fWAR – 55 games) thanks to a stellar offensive start.  Francisco has slashed 262/343/579 and has been ever deadlier against right handed pitchers (298/381/654).  I wouldn’t expect Francisco to continue at such a torrid pace the rest of the season but I don’t think the power will suddenly disappear.

Short stop – Jose Reyes has actually underperformed his preseason ZIPS projections and has only slashed 259/330/400 thus far.  ZIPS projects 283/338/424 for the rest of the season and Blue Jays fans would be happy with that type of production.

Outfield – Jose Bautista has been his usual awesome self but probably even awesome-er to start this season.  He is currently slashing 318/444/565 and has absolutely destroyed lefties (434/531/849) so any regression there could be slightly offset against right handers.  ZIPS projects a solid 281/400/536 the rest of the way.

Melky Cabrera has bounced back very nicely and has added a new element of depth to the Blue Jays lineup.  He welcome prized rookie Mashiro Tanaka with a leadoff homerun early in April and has continued hitting all season.  He has slashed 305/345/490 and ZIPS projects 294/334/448 the rest of the way.

Anthony Gose has done a great job filling in for Colby Rasmus.  He has shown great speed, defense and an improved patience.  Kevin Pillar has done a great job in late game pinch running and defensive replacement situations.

Colby Rasmus has begun a rehab assignment and could return in the next few weeks from his hamstring injury.

PITCHING:

This is where things get a little dicier.  Let’s have a look at our rotation pitcher-by-pitcher.

RA Dickey – He has been about as expected – mid 4.00 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP.  He has had his share of troubles when he hits the sixth inning but with a team with so many question marks in the back end of the rotation he will be a key component of any division title run.  Given the strength of the lineup the Blue Jays do not require Roy Halladay like precision on the mound.

ZIPS projects 122 IPs, 4.25 ERA, 7.47 K/9, 1.28 WHIP.

Mark Buerhle – I really expected to see career numbers across the board but I was actually relieved when I saw that his K/9, K/BB, WHIP and batting average against are not really that far from his career averages.  Yes his 2.10 ERA has been heavily aided by an 80% strand rate and 2.4 HR/FB% and it would be foolish to not expect regression.  However he will still eat innings and give our stellar lineup a chance to win ballgames.

ZIPS projects 109 IPs, 4.07 ERA, 5.71 K/9, 1.31 WHIP.

Drew Hutchison – In the preseason quiz I picked Hutch to ‘out-WAR’ Ervin Santana (for those curious Hutch leads 1.2 to 1.0).  He has been very consistent this season and looks like he could join the conversation of one of the division’s better young pitchers.

This is where I have serious concerns – innings pitched.  One year removed from Tommy John surgery will he have the stamina and team blessing to pitch the required 175-200 innings to actually finish the season?  The most innings he has thrown in his professional career was in 2011 when he tossed 149.1 IPs.

In 2012, one year after his surgery the Washington Nationals (also in pennant chase) limited their ace Stephen Strasburg to 159 innings and shut him down.  Will the Blue Jays risk injury to Hutch?  What if they actually make the playoffs?  It is hard to envision Hutchison finishing the year without being shut down.

JA Happ – I almost hate to mention him fearing I will jinx him but Happ has been pretty solid.  His value gets a slight bump as he is really a guy the Blue Jays will have no problem using and abusing if need be.  They have replacements in the system and free agency can always fill his spot for the next few years but milking his value this year will be crucial down the stretch.

Marcus Stroman – Watching him start got me pretty excited about his potential.  He has a very live arm, athletic build and delivery and I think size concerns are overblown.  But like Hutchison how many innings will the Blue Jays allow him to make in what is his first major league season?  He threw a total of 111.2 IPs in the minor leagues last season.

I didn’t include the ZIPS projections for 3 out 5 of the Jays rotation because the projections are either awful or don’t include much in the way of expected innings.  Which is sort of the point.  Alex Anthopoulos is no fool.  He knows the Toronto Blue Jays will require at least one or two veteran starting pitchers to complete this roster.  There are too many question marks surrounding age, experience and past performance.  The baseball world will be watching and Blue Jays fans will be hoping.

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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

2014 State of the Union – Toronto Blue Jays

It was a roller coaster ride in 2013 for long suffering fans of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Everything seemingly was quiet until Alex Anthopoulos pulled off his first blockbuster trade since taking the reigns.  Early in the winter the Blue Jays added Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Emilio Bonifacio.  After two separate transactions saw the team add veterans Melky Cabrera and the reigning Cy Young award winner RA Dickey expectations went through the roof.  

I had not witnessed as much unbridled enthusiasm and hope since the World Series years.  

In short the fans were back.

Even after the team got off to a slow start the fans continued to show loyalty and a renewed passion for the Blue Jays.  Passion is definitely something that hadn’t been seen in over a decade and it shows that there is sort of pent up “demand” for winning baseball in Toronto.

The TV ratings were out of this world, attendance was way up year over year and the launch of the new (old) logo and merchandise was a monster success.  Blue Jays fans that had seemingly been hibernating for the last decade were coming out of their shells in droves.  Blue Jays gear was everywhere and even my Grandma was talking excitedly about the team she hadn’t much cared for since Roberto Alomar left town.

There was an unmistakable buzz.  Then the season from hell happened.

A terrible start followed by a devastating injury to our new leader Jose Reyes and the season was pretty much over in May.  An ineffective and injury riddled campaign from both newcomers Josh Johnson and Melky Cabrera and incumbent third basemen Brett Lawrie didn’t help.  RA Dickey was nowhere near as sharp as expected and Brandon Morrow had a negative fWAR.

There wasn’t much to be excited about and very few bright spots to focus on.  Even the once touted farm system had been decimated with trades that haven’t had their desired effect on the current major league roster.  Most prospect pundits agree there is still some exciting talent but most of it is currently in the low minors with players nowhere near the big leagues.

When you are dealing with players just beginning their professional careers the development is choppy at best and who knows what the system will look like in one calendar year.  There could be renewed optimism with help on the horizon or there could be regression, injury and failure.  The development of a baseball prospect is never linear and the violent rise and fall of such players is renowned.

Heading into the offseason I think the tone of the Blue Jays fan base was a kind of cautious optimism.  If the team could remain healthy and management plugged the required holes in the ship this was a team that could definitely be in the hunt for a wild-card spot.

It appears the Jays brass is banking heavily on a full season of Melky Cabrera, Jose Reyes, Brett Lawrie, Jose Bautista and Brandon Morrow to right the ship.  In other words, the cavalry will not be coming.  Like Xzibit said – what you see is what you get.

Josh Johnson signed an extremely team friendly deal with the San Diego Padres.  Similar to Ervin Santana I don’t begrudge him as it is a prudent move if either player hopes to secure one more decent sized contract.  I know I’m in the minority on this one but I would’ve just begrudgingly qualified Josh Johnson with the expectation he accepts.

One year at about $14-million for a pitcher who prior to last season has been amazingly consistent when healthy doesn’t seem that outlandish when you considered the free agent market.  I am not saying big Josh would have competed for the Cy Young but when you have a rotation as awful as the Blue Jays was in 2013 how do you not bring in as many arms you can afford with any sort of past big league success?  He was an integral part of the trade that jettisoned several promising prospects and we just let him walk for nothing?

I was happy to see the team jettison one of the least productive catchers in baseball and bring in a competent stop-gap Dionar Navarro.  Not to sound like Buck Martinez but a catcher who cut his stripes in the Tampa Bay organization should be a sound game caller and receiver at worst.  Addition by subtraction (JP Arencibia) and changing the daily battery should help.

While adding a better defensive catcher is definitely a plus the reality is our offense will be fine with or without him and he will likely bat eighth in a lineup but not adding any significant pieces to the starting rotation is career suicide.

This was actually an offseason that proved to be a relative buyer’s market I terms of starting pitchers.  Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Ervin Santana all signed for deals at less than market value.  This isn’t an indictment based on not getting those specific pitchers but as a former unapologetic Alex Anthopoulos backer the only thing “ninja-like” about this offseason has been his disappearing act.

The Blue Jays have been linked to nearly every arm but in the end it doesn’t appear we had bid on any of the top available arms.  There is a shifting paradigm in baseball as it is a sport flush with cash.  Television deals and contracts have infused an unprecedented amount of spending money into the sport and this new reality has in turn hurt the Toronto Blue Jays in my opinion.

After the major markets New York, Boston and Los Angeles the Blue Jays had recently risen to a sort of “mid-major”.  We wouldn’t necessarily outbid any of the top dogs for free agent talent but if the major markets either passed on or didn’t need certain targets the Blue Jays stood out as the next in line for securing a decent contract.

We would have to pay up but over the years we still managed to bring in the likes of Troy Glaus, AJ Burnett, BJ Ryan, Roger Clemens, RA Dickey and Melky Cabrera.  However as we have seen in this past offseason with all the money floating around even teams like the Minnesota Twins have become players in free agency.

The Twins signed Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and were linked with Tanaka, Garza, Santana and Jimenez.  This is bad news for Toronto.  We are no longer only competing with the New York’s and Boston’s but also smaller US markets that might have a leg up in terms of a desirable American location for free agents.

Rogers Corp. recently announced fourth quarter earnings and managed to make a $367MM profit for the three month period.  The Blue Jays have some of the deepest pockets in baseball but the changing league economics has made it harder than ever to actually land talent.

More available money league wide combined with teams becoming insanely efficient in locking up their stars to team friendly contracts has made competing in major league baseball tougher than ever.  You simply cannot afford any missteps in this ultra-competitive environment.  The front offices of baseball teams are not only filled with experienced baseball men but also some of the brightest and best mathematic and economics students who are packing Ph.Ds.  This is now an industry where Harvard graduates are willing to serve as interns to land their dream job in baseball.

Baseball is filled with sharks searching for market inefficiencies in hopes of taking advantage of even the smallest of edges.  Think top high-stakes poker players trying to grind out a measly hourly profit against other like-minded players.

In short, it is sink or swim.

I don’t think Alex Anthopoulos has shown he cannot compete but I also don’t think he is a proven winner.   The best way to compete is to draft well, develop talent at a consistent pace and either hope the talent contributes in a meaningful way (making league minimum salaries) or you cash in this prospect currency via smart trades that pay immediate dividends to your current major league roster (i.e. Miguel Cabrera).

Part of this equation is simply money.  You can use it to lock up your top young talent or to splash around in the less efficient free agent market to improve your roster – or preferably both.  Anthopoulos is calculating and perhaps even frugal and this has not worked to his advantage when it comes to helping field a competitive starting rotation.

The Blue Jays have not developed a competitive major league starting pitcher since Roy Halladay.  Ricky Romero appeared to have found his groove but it is not certain if he will ever contribute in a meaningful way again.  They also haven’t landed a top free agent starting pitcher since AJ Burnett was signed.  This is not to say the Blue Jays do not possess some legitimate major league talent across the diamond.

Edwin Encarnacion has blossomed into one of the game’s best all-around hitters.  Jose Reyes is worth the price of admission on an almost daily basis.  Brett Lawrie still has a tantalizing glove and untapped potential with the bat.  Jose Bautista and Melky Cabrera are still very solid professional hitters and combined with Colby Rasmus form a strong outfield nucleus.

Starting pitching should be better this season with a rebound from R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow and perhaps Ricky Romero.  Mark Buehrle will give us more of the same (4.50 ERA and 200 IPs) and the team hopes one or two of Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison, JA Happ, Todd Redmond, Sean Nolin and Dustin McGowan take a step forward.

In the minors the team is still counting on top prospect Aaron Sanchez to develop into a front line starter and help them forget about Noah Syndergaard, Justin Nicolino and Aaron Wojchieski.  Marcus Stroman appears major league ready and will be given every opportunity to contribute as a major league starting pitcher.  Roberto Osuna teased all of us with an amazing beginning to his professional career only to fall prey to the unavoidable Tommy John.

Beneath them is an intriguing group of talent including DJ Davis, Mitch Nay, Daniel Norris, Sean Nolin, Franklin Barreto, Alberto Tirado, Dawel Lugo and AJ Jimenez.

In closing the current “State of the Union” isn’t completely bleak but we appear to be a bit of a rudderless ship in one of the most cutthroat & competitive industries in all of sports – major league baseball.

Riding with the Wind, ’14: Knuckling Under

Their names were Roger Wolff (34), Mickey Haefner (32), Dutch Leonard (36), and Johnny Niggeling (41), and they were a unique group.  Early on, Rick Ferrell (39) must have thought they were the four horsemen of the apocalypse, bringing all sorts of bad things with them.  Later they probably struck fear into their opponents, whose timing was probably messed up for days afterwards.

It was 1945 and the Second World War was in its death throes.  The war in Europe would end, followed, mercifully, by the war in the Pacific.  Those who survived to see the end of the war would return to a different world.  Until then, a different work force would continue to hold positions previously unavailable.  Women, young adults, older adults all found a place to contribute.

Baseball was little different from the rest of North American culture, as young, marginally-talented players mixed with older players hanging on for one last gasp at extending their careers.  They mixed with other players who were exempt from military service for one reason or another, allowing Major League Baseball to continue throughout the War.

Wolff, Haefner, Leonard, and Niggeling constituted four-fifths of the Washington Senators’ rotation.  They were all knuckleball pitchers.  Ferrell was their catcher.  They were unique—no team had ever tried it before, and none have dared to attempt it since.  They were also extremely effective, as the Senators went 87-67 that season.  Leonard (4.7), Wolff (4.5), Haefner (1.9), and Niggeling (1.8) combined for 12.9 fWAR, with Leonard and Wolff finishing 2nd and 4th in fWAR among AL pitchers that season.

Digging into the 6 Degrees of Separation files helps us to fast forward to 2014.  The Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins 15 years after this remarkable season.  As the Twins, they shocked the baseball world by beating the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1987 World Series.  The Series MVP was Frank Viola.  Frank Viola pitched for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1996, going 1-3 before retiring.  Frank Viola’s son, Frank Viola III, was signed by the Blue Jays to a minor league deal recently.  Frank Viola III joins RA Dickey, Tomo Ohka, and Josh Banks as the 4th knuckle ball pitcher in the organization.

I doubt very much that the Jays are going to run V III, Ohka, and Banks out there with Dickey to duplicate the Senators’ feat of 70 seasons ago.  No, the Jays’ strategy is different.  Since RA Dickey is signed for the next couple of seasons and they have several catchers on the verge of contributing in the high minors and at the major league level, it’s just good organizational management to have those catchers exposed to knuckle balls somewhat regularly in preparation for a call-up.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if the Jays did it, though?  If the season goes south, then just one week, one turn through the rotation and they could accomplish something that would be truly amazing from an historical perspective.

Wes Kepstro

Props to Scott Ferguson for prompting the brain cramps that led to this piece (http://www.tsn.ca/mlb/story/?id=445797)


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