Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Hello? Is it me you're looking for?

Hello friends.

Occasionally, I am shocked by the number of pageviews that this rather drab and static site receives. And not just those from myself trying to remember what it was like when I wrote stuff that was full of passion and vigour and punk rock mic stand kicks. When I read it, I think: That kid had potential.

Anyways, if you're looking for me, you'll find all of my recent scribblings over at the Sportsnet site. Here's the link:

(I included the full link because I like the way that I'm referred to as an "author".)

Also, I'll probably post a short thing or two here on occasion. Just to burn the gunk out of the engine. Maybe to indulge in my introspection into the process of being an anonymous blogger/content creator/author/guru/Solid Gold dancer.

I continue to appreciate your patronage, and please do give the Sportsnet site your clicks. They've been very good to me, and it's always nice to hear when a post goes over well on their site.

Besides: I really did prefer R.E.M. in the Warner Bros. days over their IRS records. I know you think you love Life's Rich Pageant, but let's be honest here. New Adventures in Hi-Fi blows all that jangly college rock shit out of the water. 

(Ok, Document's great. But they were already checked out and on their way to the major label at that point anyhow.)

Friday, November 15, 2013

I Read This Book - "Great Expectations: The Lost Toronto Blue Jays Season"

When I learned that the Toronto Blue Jays' 2013 season had been documented in book form, I'll confess that my first reaction was somewhere between nausea and dread. In that moment, I couldn't imagine reliving the season that had just passed, nor did I care to dissect it any further.

At some point, you have to move on.

It didn't help matters that at the time the book's imminent release was announced, John Farrell and the Boston Red Sox were barreling their way through the playoffs towards what seemed to be an increasingly likely and awful capper to what was the franchise's most miserable season of the past three decades.

With a day or so of respite after the end of the World Series, and with a gaping hole in terms of baseball content in my life, my morbid sense of curiosity got the better of me and I relented. Fine. I'll read the book. I'll go through the entire ugly mess again.

If I was to subject myself to such a trial, it certainly helps to know that Great Expectations: The Lost Toronto Blue Jays Season was penned by Sportsnet's Shi Davidi and the National Post's John Lott, the two beat writers whose work I most consistently read on a daily basis.

So I read it. And I lived to tell the tale. I think I might have even learned a thing or two. Here are my thoughts.


In a time when the notion of "narrative" is so roundly disdained among the more censorious and persnickety of baseball analysts, it's to the credit of the authors that they've mostly steered clear of a straight chronological retelling of the season. I'm sure that there's a temptation to build sequentially through the schedule, creating a story with a central explanation for the downfall of the 2013 Blue Jays, but such an exercise likely serves to obscure the truth rather than uncovering it.

Lott and Davidi smartly employ a style of the writing leads readers back and forth in time, through a circuitous path of personalities and events that ultimately influence the season. They highlight a few of the more notable Blue Jays - or at least the most talkative ones - digging back into their origin stories, how they made their way to Toronto and eventually through to what their impact on the ill-fated 2013 season was.

Between those stories, they patch in aspects of the manner in which the season rolled out, mostly focusing on the events that you would expect: The Kawasaki walkoff, José Reyes' ill-fated slide in Kansas City, Bret Lawrie's freakout after Adam Lind didn't score on his shallow fly ball. There's some nice contextualization that happens around these events, both in terms of how they happened, as well as some hints as to the blow back behind closed doors.

But beyond those moments, it's clear from the recounting that the season was very much a leviathan, much larger than the sum of the actions of the mangers or players. In the retelling, it almost seems as though the 2013 season was something that happened to the team, as though they were at times looking at their season from a distance even as they were in the middle of it.

To that point, the book is at its best when it examines the way in which the team was assembled in the offseason, and how what might have looked somewhat like a "plan" was actually more a series of happy accidents and missed connections. It drives home the point that the Blue Jays certainly sussed out other possibilities, including moves that might have been more advisable, given the benefit of hindsight. But as those parts of the book demonstrate, the Jays are but one player among many, and at times faced with different timelines and levels of urgency than their trading partners or free agent targets.

Call me an apologist - again - but the book leaves the impression that the most astute, deliberate and strategic foresight in building a team is ultimately as vulnerable to be undermined by dumb luck and injuries as any random collection of players. Which is oddly reassuring, but also disquieting if you have any notion that you're going to plunge your soul optimistically back into another few decades of fate's indifferent spirit grinder.


Two final thoughts on the book...

Firstly, I found a lot of my anger and antipathy - remember this post, written in a fit of pique? - melting away as I worked my way through the book. In particular, I felt myself gaining a greater appreciation for R.A. Dickey, who I had grown to resent during the season for the verbose strings of excuses that followed each start. In the book, there's a greater sense of humility from Dickey in particular, and there's a more philosophical bent to some of the comments from some other key players.

In a sense, it made me feel eager to see them back in action.

Second, and relatedly, I found that there were a few gaps in terms of the players who were covered. There is ample time given to most of the key players, and one can certainly see which players are the most available and talkative of the bunch. (Miss you already, Mark DeRosa.)

There is something of a gap, though, in terms of insight on the seasons of Adam Lind and J.P. Arencibia. I can certainly understand the rationale for why the gaps may exist, given that the former seems not to be a very good interview, and the latter cut himself off from the media for a significant portion of the season. Still, theirs were two of the more interesting stories to emerge from the 2013 season, and the book would have been a richer experience if there were some greater understanding of how one found a semblance of respectability while the other fell just about as far as is conceivable.

But those are minor quibbles. Given its speedy turnaround time and narrow focus, Great Expectations is an ample and observant recap of the past season, with enough insight to sustain your baseball love through the offseason, and enough wisdom to temper your outlook through the roster refresh that is sure to come this winter.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A season of expectations, a season of disappointment

Kawasaki opens his arms in triumph after delivering the walk off hit.
There were happy times. Really. Photo courtesy the Flickr stream of @james_in_to.
Nobody knows nothing.

Maybe that doesn't seem like the most profound sentiment, and it probably sounded better when Socrates said something like it in his day. I am paraphrasing, mind you, and my version is certainly  lacking grammatically.

Still, it's the first thing that pops into my head when I look back on the 2013 season of the Toronto Blue Jays. Over the years, it's been something of a mantra that echoes through my mind almost constantly when I hear people talking in bold absolutes about baseball. But never more than this season.

This was supposed to be a new, refreshed and revitalized Blue Jays team. This was a team that would play in the now rather than dreaming on a future. A team that spent money and traded their top prospects on proven veterans with pedigrees who were expected to help the team win now.

The urgency to win was fueled in part by a one of the most calamitous seasons in Jays history, with a parade of injuries pile on top of homophobic eyeblack and finished off with a manager who bolted from the organization to a loathed rival. The Jays were left to pick up the pieces and restore faith in a hurry. And that's when it seemed as though the measured strategy of building from within was abandoned in favour of tactics echoing from the cheap seats.

"Spend to contend!" they said. With the Red Sox emerging from shambles and the Yankees looking old and broken down, the Jays were presented with window. This was their time. This was not a year to dwell on "five-year plans" or meaningless games in the second half of the season. It was time to go big, and put an end to two decades of futility.

And if you bought into that entire crock, it's hard to conceive of how this season could have been much more disappointing.

Even if you approached the season with some hesitancy, the acquisition of an exciting player like Jose Reyes or a reigning Cy Young winner in R.A. Dickey was enough to make the lead up to the season a dizzying delight of anticipation and hope.

But from the very opening of the season, this newly contrived squad was never seriously in the mix, nor did it ever really look quite right.

Without wanting to build narratives in hindsight, there was something unnerving on Opening Day about Dickey's reaction to a fifth-inning Asdrubal Cabrera fly ball that carried over the fence, giving Cleveland a 4-1 lead in a game that would end at that score. Dickey's immediate reaction was to throw his hands in the air, as if to suggest that he found it beyond belief that a ball like that would leave the park.

I make every effort not to give voice to my emotional reactions to those sorts of moment, if only so that I don't try to legitimize them. Those emotions are reactionary and amorphous vibes that haven't been treated with logic or contained and defined by reason. But in that moment, my raw feeling was one of dread. The Blue Jays had mortgaged two of their top three prospects to lock up a putative ace to win right away, but it turned out he was a flyball pitcher who was diminished when removed from the generous confines of Citi Field. And it wasn't going to work. Sorry about your luck.

Not that you abandon all hope after one pitch in the first game game, mind you. That anecdote likely would have faded into memory if the Blue Jays had bounced back with any degree of success early on. But those initial weeks with the newly devised roster were an ugly and awful slog. The Jays looked awful in the field, with newcomers Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis both looking ill at ease in the infield.

Josh Johnson looked lousy, picking and nibbling with offspeed and breaking pitches early in counts and getting hit hard when he came into the zone. Melky Cabrera moved like a man twice his age, stumbling in the field and pulling up lame on the basepaths.

It was hardly an auspicious start for any of the newcomers, save for Reyes, who tore into his role at the top of the Jays' lineup over his first ten games with the club, posting a .991 OPS. But in that tenth game, Reyes executed an awkward, half-aborted slide that saw him immediately drop to the ground, in pain and in tears with a severe ankle sprain.

I remember staring numbly at the television that night, caught under a wave of despair. Not even two weeks into the season, and it seemed as though 2013 was already a lost cause. It only twisted the knife deeper to know that this happened to a guy should be well-versed in the skill of sliding to steal a base.

The season wasn't over, obviously. There were still 152 games to play over the next 25 weeks. But with so little margin for error in a tough American League, it was hard to conceive of how a team that looked so lousy could turn things around.

There were high points to the season, of course. The unexpected emergence of Munenori Kawasaki - as much as an entertainer as a ballplayer - helped to fill in the gap as Reyes was convalescing. Kawasaki was the highlight of the most memorable positive moment of the season when his two-run walkoff double off Orioles closer Jim Johnson capped off a four-run ninth. Kawasaki would also play a key role in the Jays' 11-game win streak, posting a 1.018 OPS (.393 OBP, 625 SLG) at the top of the lineup over those games.

And for a brief moment in June, it seemed as though the Jays might be back on track. By the end of their winning streak, they were two games over .500 (38-36), and out of the AL East cellar by percentage points over the Tampa Bay Rays. But from there through to today, the Jays posted a 34-51 record, stumbling along with a makeshift rotation that could never quite do enough to support the mostly-okayish offense.

Last year at this time, I shrugged off the season almost entirely. There was nothing of value to be gleaned from it. It was a series of calamities and injuries and mishaps, the likes of which would be unlikely to be visited upon any one team again. There's no lesson to be learned there, aside from the fact that there are thousands of ways for plans to go astray.

Today, after a whole new set of tribulations and disappointments, I'm probably ready to say that I don't know if you can ever really learn anything monumentally insightful from how one season plays out. Sometimes, things play out the way you hope, and sometimes they don't. The difference between being a laughing stock and being in the Wild Card mix for the Jays was one lousy loss every two weeks.

I'm left after these past two seasons to think that there's no single path that teams should walk towards success. Rather, I think there are as many paths to success as there are success stories. Sometimes, that means loading up on veterans, and sometimes, it means holding onto your prospects until they blossom and provide you with depth.

The Jays were a flawed team, but every team has flaws. Next week, when we're all hunkering down to watch playoff baseball, those teams that were talented and fortunate enough to play those elusive "meaningful games" will have more flaws than you would imagine.

As Jays fans, we'll be fixated on the flaws as we attempt to understand what went wrong, and where to find those extra wins next season. But at this point, I could see the Jays adding the Matt Garza and Howie Kendrick and Brian McCann and still coming up short next season.

I don't know what the answer is. But I know that I don't know. And knowing that means I'll temper my expectations for 2014, regardless of what happens this winter.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Tao's Tweet Bag - Sporadically Answering Your Correspondence in Due Time

Letters...we get letters.

I'll confess that part of the reason that I started doing these mailbag-style posts - which I confess can be a touch hacky - is that it gave me a chance to take the pulse of the fans, and see what preoccupies them. And if you'll indulge a bit of flattery towards my Twitter followers, I find that the preponderance of notes I receive are thoughtful, considered and maybe even a bit optimistic, in spite of several disappointing seasons in succession. It actually raises my spirits. 

In this round of solicited questions, what seems to be primarily gnawing away at the soul of Blue Jays fans is the fate of one Mr. Jonathan Paul Arencibia. I doubt that these questions would raise his spirits.

Let's dig in.
No, I don't think that's the case at all. Arencibia was a first-round draft pick, a top-50 prospect according to Baseball America, and a Pacific Coast League MVP. The dude had credentials coming into his major league career.

It's also easy to forget after this awful season for the Jays' catcher - both on and off the field - that there was a time when fans were left calling on the team to shove veteran John Buck out of the way to make room for the "catcher of the future", even after his remarkable debut. If the Jays parked JPA for weeks after his debut, there's little to suggest that one game would have had any impact on the decision to keep him in the starting role through two less than stellar seasons.  
It's hard to imagine that things could go much worse for Arencibia. Hard, but not impossible.

Still, there's evidence from his first two seasons that he's not nearly this bad as an offensive player. In his first two full seasons as the starter, JPA posted a .716 OPS (.279 OBP, .437 SLG). Those figures aren't extraordinary, but the average across the league for catchers this season is a .706 OPS (.313/.393), which would place Arencibia as slightly below average for the position.

If you suppose that a full season might not even be a sample size that is sufficient to make a decision on a player's worth, then the performance in the previous season should give some pause. It could be that there is something that is ailing Arencibia this season - physically, mentally, spiritually - leading to the past year being a weird and wonky fluke. Maybe he'll return to being a sorta-average player for his position in the coming years.

But roll all of his performance to date together, and he starts to look like a fringey MLB backup, with some pop in his bat.
Some guys see taking a pitch as a passive approach. If you're asking me to play amateur psychologist, I think that Arencibia is the sort of person who wants to make things happen, not wait for things to play themselves into a situation that might be more beneficial to him.

When Arencibia defiantly defended his reputation against the slings and arrows of baseball analysts, he pointed to the work that he had done for the team, such as the charity events and the winter tour. It was, in essence: "Look at what I do for you!"

It's about action. Making stuff happen. Maybe that sort of mindset doesn't lend itself to watching a borderline pitch go by early in the count to elicit a more predictable and hittable pitch later.
Not really. With the starting pitching woes that the Jays have faced this season, it's hard to imagine them handing the full-time starting job over to a rookie next year.

Moreover, I think that the Jays have started to show themselves to be more deliberate in how they promote players through the system, allowing them to master one level before ascending to the next. I think Jimenez still has a year of work to do in Buffalo before he gets promoted, though I could see him being mixed into the catching rotation towards the end of next season.

He's here. He's controllable. He might not be this bad. He might be a deal if his numbers return to 2011-2012 levels, and he gets less than $2 Million through arbitration or pre-arb negotiation.
I think Chooch might be expensive, and while he's just 34 years old, a multi-year deal at more than $6 Million per season might end up being a poor investment.

Still, there's Ruiz's decent reputation for handling pitchers - though who wouldn't look good with that pitching staff? - and a very solid OBP. He's posting a .342 this season, .361 for his career, and a peak of .400 in 2010 followed by a .394 mark last season.

If you're talking about a two-year deal, sure. Sign him up. If he's looking for more than $7 million and four years or more, I think you have to consider other options.

McCann might be one of the more sought-after pieces in this year's free agent market, as scant as the pickings are. He is younger than Ruiz, but has a long injury history with nary a body part left unscathed. He had shoulder surgery last offseason, suffered through hamstring tightness, knee contusions, intercostal and oblique strains, not to mention laser eye surgery that didn't quite take for the first few months afterwards.

McCann's .824 OPS (.350 OBP/.473 SLG) plays very well as a catcher, though his defense isn't exactly revered. The big question you're left with if you're investing a significant portion of your payroll over the next six or seven seasons in a player like that is how much surplus value does he bring if you need to shift him to first base or DH. Could he play left field if required?

Beyond all that, I still envision McCann in a Yankee uniform. I'm not sure I'd want to see the Jays attempting to outbid them for his services.   

One of the aspects of the Jays' roster that I was dead wrong about this year was the flexibility, and to a slightly lesser extent, the depth.

With multi-positional switch-hitters throughout the roster on Opening Day, I figured that the Jays would rarely find themselves in a pinch when it came to filling the lineup card. And for all of the misery this year, I think that the number of awful and inexplicable lineups were far less than the past two seasons.

Still, the Jays probably came into the season with too many bench players on the active roster and not enough legitimate starters, especially at second base. Moreover, the depth just beneath the Major League level was pretty suspect and comprised of veteran castoffs -Andy LaRoche, Mauro Gomez, Ryan Langerhans - who might have given you a good week or two when filling in for a DL'ed starter, but weren't really an option that anyone would want to rely on.

I suppose the emergence of Munenori Kawasaki was a fun spectacle to observe, but you certainly wouldn't want the Jays to look towards 2014 with off-field entertainment value as a priority for the club.

Ultimately, I think that organizational depth is something that you develop from within, and unfortunately, the Jays had - and will continue to have - a gap year or two between their available bench spots and their better positional prospects.
No, they don't. Dickey might have a Cy Young Award glistening on his mantle, but he probably profiles as a number three. A decent, innings-eating starter who takes the ball and gives you something between a 3.70 and 4.20 ERA.

If he has a good, healthy season as a 39 year-old, Dickey might emerge as a decent number two pitcher, but as a suffering Blue Jays fan, would you want to bank on the likelihood of that eventuality?

And would you also want to bank on the health of Brandon Morrow? I love watching Morrow pitch, and when he's healthy and available to take the ball, he has the ability to be a number two starter, and maybe something more. But players don't tend to get more healthy and less fragile as years go by, so again, I wouldn't want to plan on Morrow being more than 150 innings of number three starter quality.
I'd make a terrible clairvoyant. I can barely guess what I'm going to have for lunch, and I have infinitely more data points at my disposal to make such a postulation.

But if I just balance this out to guess at what is more likely, I would be left to wonder how much payroll the Jays' front office will be playing with this offseason. With big money commitments and raises being added onto next year's books - including Mark Buehrle's $7 million bump to become the Jays' highest paid player at $19 million next year - there's a lot of 2014 fiscal capacity that's already been eaten away.

And make no mistake, number threes are still valuable commodities around baseball. Ricky Nolasco is probably a number three, and  he'll be looking to improve on the $11.5 million he made this season when he enters the free agent market.

On the other hand, who do the Jays have to dangle in order to bring a number three pitcher into the fold? Do they send one of their offensive core - Reyes, Bautista, Encarnacion, Rasmus or Lawrie - out the door to bring back an Edwin Jackson-type? Do they again attempt to speed up their contention clock by moving Aaron Sanchez or D.J. Davis or Marcus Stroman out the door?

What do I think is the most likely of those scenarios? Ugh. I'd rather not think of it.

José Bautista has two years at $14 million per season left on his current deal, with a $16 million option for 2016. That might make him a fairly attractive commodity, either in this offseason or next.

The existential question for the Jays at this point is: Do you move Bautista now, and possibly take yet another step back away from contention in 2014? And towards what end?

And while I'm not typically one to place emphasis on the intanglibles, I think that Bautista plays an important clubhouse role for the Jays that they might not be eager to part with in the short term. But if the Jays get off to a bad start in 2014 and are in the bottom half of the American League in July, I think he'd be a prime candidate to move out in order to begin the rebuild.
No, I can't. I suppose someone smarter than me or with more immediate access to advanced data sets could look at defensive metrics and the use of shifts in both the oufield and the infield and figure out how many runs the Jays are giving back by not adapting their positions before pitches are thrown.

I really don't have an answer for this, but I include it here because it's a question that bothers me occasionally as well. While I like John Gibbons' lineup construction and bullpen management - the two most evident aspects of what a manager does - I have an odd feeling that there's a level of preparation for the season and for games that isn't in place this year.

I could be dead wrong on that, but it seemed to me that they Jays came out of the gate flat, after a Spring Training that was acknowledged by those who observed these things annually as "relaxed". For years, Brian Butterfield was the field marshal in Dunedin, running camp and prepping the team for the forthcoming season. And his work with infielders was held in significant regard.

Torey Lovullo was omnipresent on the top of the dugout steps in his tenure with the Jays, directing the outfielders on where they should play batters and often being the first face that a fielder saw on his down the dugout steps after an inning, presumably looking for a clarification on why a player made the choice he did, and suggesting the correction.

I'm not close enough to the team to see what's happening this year with the coaching staff. But I think its a question worth raising.

I really like Goins. I think he's a ballplayer. But I also don't see him evolving into much more than a decent bench player or a marginal starter. He might surprise beyond that, and I love the level of athleticism that he demonstrates, but again, I wouldn't want to bet part of my 2014 success on his ability to post a .700 OPS in the Majors.

My preferred course for him would be on the bench to spell José Reyes in the field on occasion, and to get some starts at second or third if needed. I might even want to see if he could handle some games in the outfield. Maybe I'm wrong about this, but I could see his best role in the big leagues as a Hairston Brothers' style supersub.
I agree that the Jays became a big deal (BIG DEAL!) this offseason, crossing over into the mainstream culture and news, and expanded their reach into some audiences that had been away for years or that hadn't yet engaged in the sport.

Attendance figures for 2013 are promising, with the Jays showing the most year-over-year growth at the turnstiles this season. I haven't seen the ratings in a while, but I don't think they'd be terribly disappointing, given the circumstances.

Of course, Toronto being Toronto, you can almost write the stories and talking points now that will come out next season, when Blue Jays attendance goes down by 1%, or 2% or even 5%. There's a smug cynicism about the sports scene in the Centre of the Universe, and it feasts of this sort of failure.

But those sorts of declines shouldn't be surprising, nor should they be alarming. Moreover, I have a hunch that the younger cohort of new fans will appreciate the experience of diving into baseball, and won't necessarily run away at the first sign of failure.

I'm sure that Blue Jays Talk host Mike Wilner will hear many declarations from fans who will state that they're finished with this team, but I get a sense that there has been enough goodwill engendered with a new generation of baseball fans.

It might be shocking to hear an old fart say this about kids in their twenties, but I don't get the sense that those new fans feel as entitled to a winning team every year. I think they might have enough patience to stick around for a few seasons and see how it all plays out.

Here's hoping they are rewarded.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Baseball Needs a New Record Book

Darin Erstad - Short-lived record holder?
Late in the 2000 season, Darin Erstad made a valiant run at the all-time single season hits record in Major League Baseball. Every night, fans hoped that their local broadcast would break into the Anaheim Angels' game with news of Erstad's pursuit of Wade Boggs' 15 year-old record of 240 hits.

In his first at bat on the final day of the 2000 season, Erstad ripped a double to left field, tying Boggs. He ended up going 1-for-5 on the day, leaving him in that tie, and he would only share the record with Boggs for a year until Ichiro Suziki reached 242 base hits one season later.

Are you scratching your head, wondering why it is that you don't remember those momentous nights 13 seasons ago? You shouldn't, because they didn't actually play out that way. Unfortunately, baseball's record book is larded up with irrelevant and inflated stats and numbers from bygone eras where the game was profoundly different, and certainly of far inferior quality.

To be a baseball fan, is to be indoctrinated with a reverence for the most cherished numbers from the history of the game. Part of the romance of those statistics is to imagine that the game was so perfect and the rules so similar across the decades that you could place Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth on a field with Ken Griffey and Cal Ripken Jr., and their skills would play right alongside one another. That they could walk shoulder to shoulder as the very greatest of the game.

It's this affection for the misty memories of a past that came well before most of our time that leads to people defending the sanctity of the record book, and creating some of the more poisonous instincts in baseball's traditionalists.     

People long for the days of Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, and his 56-game hit streak. Or Ted Williams' .406 batting average. Or Babe Ruth's 60-homer season.

At the same time, the more recent single-season achievements - especially when it comes to home runs - are discounted or dismissed entirely because the entire "steroid era" is under suspicion by self-appointed arbiters of history.

As those types increasingly use - or withhold - their Hall of Fame votes to make the case that baseball has lost something of its purity and sportsmanship, it increasingly bothers me that baseball's record book and highest honours are being overrepresented by those who played in the most shameful era in the game's history, the Segregated Era.

(And let's not forget that there are many executives who were either actively or tacitly involved in keeping baseball segregated who have plaques in Cooperstown.)

Major League Baseball goes to some lengths to celebrate Jackie Robinson, and the eventual integration of the game. But it also glosses over the fact that some of the bygone greats piled up their achievements in leagues that were systematically racist, creating less competition for the players in that era. Does DiMaggio's hitting streak reach 56 games if the American League was integrated at the time? We'll never know, but we should never forget that pre-1947 numbers should always be regarded with a healthy dose of suspicion.

You can have as many Jackie Robinson nights as you want, and you can retire his jersey number across the game, but all of that comes off as empty sentiment when you allow the records set in a game that was unbalanced and unfair because of systematic and deliberate racism to stand.

I suppose it's possible to defend the individual players from that era, and say that they weren't actively racist and that their records still deserve recognition. But in doing that, it actively obscures the historical nature of the achievements of players from the more modern era.

When Ichiro eventually broke the single season hits record in 2004, it would have been nice to recognize the players he passed on the list who had posted incredible seasons in their own right. Boggs and Erstad and Carew, as well as Don Mattingly's 238 hits in 1986, or Kirby Puckett's 234 in 1988, or even Stan Musial's 230 in 1948, a year after the start of baseball integration.

Instead, those achievements took a backseat to totals from George Sisler or Lefty O'Doul. And while I'm sure that there are some who would step forth to defend their legacies, the preservation of the records from that era creates a record book which is less meaningful to current fans.

And it's not as though this is without precedent. The pitching stats and records from the "dead-ball" era are still preserved in so much as we can still locate them if we need to, but they are generally set aside from those in the "live-ball" era, which began in 1920. And one could argue that the distinction between those two eras is not as notable as the one between segregated baseball and integrated baseball.

Currently, the single season records for runs, doubles, runs batted in, and total bases all rest in the hands of segregated era players. But wouldn't it be more meaningful for current day fans to recognize Jeff Bagwell's integrated era record of 152 runs scored? Or Manny Ramirez's RBI record of 165?

As Blue Jays fans, we would remember Carlos Delgado's 2000 season especially fondly if we were to recall the summer in which he and Todd Helton made their run at the MLB record for doubles, with Helton's 59 still topping Delgado's 57 as the two top marks in that offensive category.

It's nice to think of baseball's vast history, and to acknowledge how the game has changed or evolved over the years. But some of the truly great performances of the past 30 years are not given their proper due when they are buried among the numbers of the segregated era.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

What Comes Next(?) - The Starting Rotation

Last year around this time, there was a notion that no matter what happened in 2013, it couldn't possibly be worse than what transpired in 2012. Which just goes to show you that there are a thousand shades of misery.

As the season concluded last year, there was significant discussion about the "crisis of consumer confidence", and the impending doom for the franchise unless something dramatic occurred to provide the fans with something resembling hope for the future. And then it all happened within the space of a few weeks, and there was tangible excitement and newfound aspirations. And ticket sales. And press conferences.

Proven players and veteran presence and spending to be contending. Everything you could want and more.

But as we'd soon find out, it doesn't take much time for plans to go wrong. And we're chasing another ghost of a chance.*

The dilemma we as fans now face is understanding how you take a dramatically remodeled franchise with designs on perpetual contention that has been an abject failure, and tweak around the edges to regain that footing.

Without question, the biggest disappointment this year has been the starting pitching. Injuries and ineffectiveness have essentially led to two of the top three starters - Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow - being below replacement level and required much support from understudies who were on no one's radar before the season.

(If you figured that Todd Redmond would provide significantly more value than Morrow, then I'd like to borrow your crystal ball.)

Moreover, R.A. Dickey has looked like a back of the rotation starter for much of the season, and given his age and nagging injuries that have seeming affected his ability to throw the knuckleball as he did in his 2012 career year, one can hardly pencil him in as a number one or two starter for 2014.

The Jays' 2014 rotation will likely include Dickey, Morrow and Mark Buerhle, who has had a season which was as good as you could expect. But to seriously contend in 2014 or 2015, one would imagine that you'd be looking for at least one if not two pitchers who would slot ahead of them in the pecking order.

There's precious little frontline help for hire among free agent starting pitching. The top options among pitchers under the age of 32 would be Matt Garza, Tim Lincecum, Ricky Nolasco, or Edinson Volquez, and while none of them scream out "staff ace", it is likely they'll look to be paid as such. Which means that the Jays would likely have to overpay wildly in order to land a pitcher who might be a number two starter if all goes well, or possibly a three or four in most scenarios. Which doesn't really address the crux of the problem.

We can cast our nets out into an ocean of dreams filled with unlikely trade scenarios, but considering the number of prospects that were sent out the door in order to land the mid-to-back-of-rotation starters that we now have, it's hard to imagine the package that could be constructed to tempt a team into trading Cliff Lee, or someone like him. (Note to file: There's no one "like" Cliff Lee.)

We can also hope that Marcus Stroman and Sean Nolin are ready to step into a prime time role next season, but that's a lot to ask of any rookie pitcher. While both of them have shown promise in the minors this season, we're not exactly talking about the next Dwight Gooden or Steve Carlton stepping into the big leagues.

Beyond them, Aaron Sanchez is probably still a year away, and Roberto Osuna might be two years away, given his recent injuries.

There are two starters returning from a year of injuries in Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison, but if you presume a certain level of ineffectiveness coming off a UCL replacement surgery and rehab, they might slot in at the back of the rotation if not the bullpen or in Buffalo.

And what about one-time staff ace Ricky Romero? I'd be surprised to see him in a Jays uniform next year.

So what does that leave in terms of options? There are some older free agents who will be on the market, including former Jays Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter and A.J. Burnett. (And how odd is it that the last guy on that list would seem to be the more desirable option?) Maybe it's overly cynical or self-critical to say this, but I would imagine that none of those three would be clamouring to return to Toronto.

Another intriguing option would be Johan Santana, who hasn't pitched since August 17th of 2012, but who is still just 34 years old and has the pitching smarts to be a top starter if his body can keep up its side of the bargain.

I'm also a bit intrigued by the impressive performances of the Rockies' Jorge De La Rosa and Jhoulys Chacin in what are typically inhospitable conditions for pitchers, but again, we're talking about players who would need to be acquired and who might not be much better than a number three.

Beyond the personnel on the mound next year, there are two other essential pieces worth considering: The pitching coach and the starting catcher.

It's hard to know how much of this season's poor outcomes can be pinned on Pete Walker, especially when it would seem that none of the issues with Dickey or Morrow could be coached away. While I'm not advocating it, firing the pitching coach might not be out of the question after this season, especially after this week's announcement that manager John Gibbons will be back for 2014. It seems unlikely that the entirety of the coaching staff would return intact after a season like this.

And while I'll admit to be a bit dim and unclear on where Walker's responsibilities end and where those of Pat Hentgen begin, the success of some unheralded bullpen arms at least raises the notion that maybe there's a qualified and popular successor on the staff now.

It's also unfair and a bit presumptuous to say that the starting catcher had a negative impact on the rotation this year, even as unpopular as the incumbent in that position has become. But J.P. Arencibia's bat might not be good enough to keep him in that role going forward.

We could dream on bringing José Molina back to Toronto to frame pitches and steal strikes like a masked bandit, though at 38 years of age with that body, it seems hard to imagine getting 100 starts from him in 2014.

On the younger side of the equation, we're all anxious to see what A.J. Jimenez can bring to the table, and seeing him up close might be a highlight of the final weeks of the season. But can we presume that he can be an above-average game-caller in his first year in the bigs, supposing he even makes the team out of spring training? Seems like a tall order.

There are no simple answers when it comes to improving the Jays' rotation for 2014. But it's hard to conceive of a 90-win team in Toronto unless something notable happens to change the makeup of those five roster spots.

*That's a paraphrased lyric from Calexico's "Service and Repair". I've listened to that song a lot lately.   

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Don't Like This Team

Fellow Jays fans, I feel your pain.

If I have spent much of the last seven seasons looking on the sunny side of things, and finding the lightness where most saw dark, and providing my optimistic sense of the rationale behind the Blue Jays' long term plans, then maybe my current state of mind will catch you off guard.

But man...I really don't like this team.

I don't like the starting pitching. I don't like the defense. I don't like the approach to at bats. I don't like the lack of progress shown by some, and the regression from all-star calibre to replacement level by others.

I don't like that many of the most flawed elements of the current roster are not the result of a long term erosion in talent, but rather the result of bringing in players with skills that are either in decline or were never that great from the outset.

I don't like J.P. Arencibia's oblivious griping about the media, and his wish that there would be more cheerleaders helping to "teach fans" about the game, which I suppose means enthusiastically telling the unwashed masses across Canada who have never been exposed to baseball that they don't understand how valuable a sub-.260 on-base percentage can be.

I don't like Brett Lawrie's hands at the plate. I don't like that as the ball is being released, Lawrie gives a final energetic jerk of the bat, which he then has to pull back towards himself in order to begin moving the bat through the hitting zone, zapping all the strength out of his swing. I don't like that a player who was positioned as a face of the franchise has the same flaws in his swing as a dude on my softball team from ten years ago.

I don't like that Brandon Morrow has never been healthy for a full season since he came to the Jays, and that I don't ever believe that he will be.

I don't like that the team traded too many top prospects for a starting pitcher who was a good story, and had a very fine year in 2012, but who realistically wouldn't be one of the top 20 pitchers in the game in spite of his Cy Young Award. 

I don't like listening to R.A. Dickey talk.

I don't like how Josh Johnson picks and nibbles around the zone, trying to elicit swings at junk that Frank Tanana would be ashamed to serve to hitters.

I don't like José Reyes' defense, or the fact that it makes me nostalgic for Yunel Escobar.

Moreover, I don't like that the cost of acquiring Reyes included sending more prospects and big leaguers plus taking on Mark Buehrle's stupid contract.

I don't like that the starters have pitched poorly enough that the relievers have faced work loads that are too taxing, and that the result of this might be that the lone bright spot in the first half of the season might erode quickly from here.

I don't like Melky Cabrera's approach at the plate, which is essentially to swing at everything, and hope that he can foul off enough pitches to stay in the at bat until the pitcher makes a mistake. And I really don't like that this approach has been plunked into the number two spot in the lineup, because of the need to "shake things up".

Mostly, I don't like that nearly everything that Alex Anthopoulos has touched in the last three years seemingly has turned to dust. And I don't like that I don't feel as though I can trust his judgment.

Mostly, though, I don't like what I see when I look ahead to 2014, or beyond. I don't like that the team will likely have to ride it out with Dickey, Morrow, Ricky Romero, and perhaps Johnson slated to be part of the rotation picture next year, accompanied by players like Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison who have yet to establish themselves as big leaguers.

Every team has flaws, so it probably doesn't do a whole lot of good to enumerate every last one that our side has. In the process of building a winner, there are always bumps in the road, and the hope is that the good elements of the team are enough to navigate past them. But as good as a few players have been, they certainly haven't been enough to help get past this year's obstacles.

What I like the least about the past few months is this nagging suspicion that the bumps in the road are actually sinkholes, and that the Jays are on the precipice of falling into oblivion.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

"Does This Team Suck?", and Other Unanswerable Ponderances on the Eve of the Second Half

Photo courtesy the revelatory Flickr stream of @james_in_to.

Maybe it's a touch harsh to say that the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays "suck". The team itself is not so awful as to be unwatchable, and has actually been rather entertaining at various points of the season.

(I'll pause here while you instinctively summon up an argument about the team's "consistency". And I'll silently judge you for doing so, though I am sympathetic and realize that it is not your fault seeing as though you've spent your whole life being fed the load of hooey about "consistency" by people in the business of creating noise about sports. But really, you should stop complaining about foolish consistency. It's the hobgoblin of small minds.)

The 2013 Blue Jays are not nearly the omnishambolic catastrophe that we saw unfold painfully before us in 2012, befallen by injury miseries compounding underwhelming performance miseries compounding bullpen implosions compounding behavioural miseries compounding the general misery of Farrellball.

This year's edition of the team has hit better, fielded well enough and features one of the most reliable bullpens in recent memory. So it's not all drudgery and burden to watch them play.

It's just...they were supposed to be so much better than this, weren't they?

After a winter in which they emptied out the system to go "all in", acquiring veterans with track records and trophies on their mantles, even my relatively tempered expectations for the team weren't this tepid. And to torture the poker analogy: How exactly do you go all in, bust out and then attempt to all in again the next year?

Next year? Are we already talking about next year? Yes...yes, we are.

It's not an absolute impossibility that the Jays get some decent starting pitching and go on some sort of run that propels them into the crowded mix for an outside chance at a spot at a one-game playoff run. But the smart money is against it, so the question that you're left asking is: What the hell? What's the plan now?

The Blue Jays had a perfectly defensible plan up until this past season. Build through the draft and international signings, and develop the eventual contender through the Eternal Rebuilding Process. But the urgency of winning in the short term led them to empty out the system to bring in the likes of R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle to support Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero in the rotation.

Needless to say, it hasn't exactly worked out as planned.

The flummoxing question as a fan is not so much one of whether the Jays should be buying or selling - they should always be both, really - but rather, what's the new timetable for contention? Are the Jays ready to start dealing from the shallow depths of their system in order to bring in more major league talent? Does it make sense to take a shot at even more short-term veteran players like Jake Peavy with a view towards contending in 2014?

On one level, it certainly makes sense to attempt to ride out this season with as much of the Major League roster intact as possible. The lineup has been fine, and could be much better if good health and reasonable expectations of progression come to pass. The bullpen is deep, promising and somewhat cost-controllable through the next several seasons, though one can rarely predict reliever performance from one year to the next, and the team will eventually have to make decisions between a few of the bullpen arms.

All of that ponderous re-tweaking amounts to deck chair feng shui on the Titanic if the team can't figure out their rotation, which for 2014 looks to be cluttered with pitchers who might have profiled at some point as aces or number twos or threes, but have recent performance that makes them look more like fours or fives or minor league roster depth.

Do Drew Hutchison or Kyle Drabek factor in as positives for the rotation next season? What - if anything - can we expect out of Brandon Morrow at this point? Is R.A. Dickey's surreal, magical moment over? Does Josh Johnson return on a qualifying offer, and if so, do the Jays get enough out of him in another "contract season" to make him worth their while?

Even if a shard of positive light ekes in through the bottom of the door, what's to say that the bullpen doesn't implode or the lineup doesn't take a step backward?

The step forward into contention this season has been a bit of a bust. Those underwhelming results also augur poorly for next season. Which leaves me as a Jays fan asking this fundamental question: If not this year, and not next year...then when? And for all the hoopla and fireworks of the offseason, are the Jays really any better off than they would have been by staying the course?

Are we getting closer yet?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Some Candid and Free PR Advice for J.P. Arencibia

Photo courtesy the outstanding Flickr stream of @james_in_to.
First off, let me cop to this: I never played the game.

So yeah, I have a hard time telling a player what he should do when he steps into the batter's box, and when a screaming line drive ticks off of a player's glove, I have to admit that the whistling sound that a baseball makes as it approaches you scares me silly.

But while I don't know that game, I can say that I've been a communications professional for more than 15 years. I've dealt with media and public relations and all manner of dark arts associated with influencing opinion. And over that time, I've learned a thing or two about how the whole machinery of influence works, and how a single negative press cycle can resonate for years, whether if it is deserved or not.

I'm sure that J.P. Arencibia has had lots of rudimentary media training over the years. But seeing his rapid decline from telegenic media darling to multimedia whipping boy, I thought I'd offer up my expertise and give the Jays' catcher some media relations advice.

I offer this up in a spirit of helpfulness. (And also, to fill some empty space on my blog...symbiosis!) I doubt that JPA will ever see it, but if he does, I hope that he takes this as genuine.

-Nobody wins in a knife fight: It was clear from your tweet last night that this was not spontaneous reaction. This is something that you'd been thinking about and plotting out, and you were given your opportunity to get back at the media hecklers for the many injuries that you'd borne over this season.

So you got your licks in. It probably felt good, too. For a moment, at least.

But when you take an angry or confrontational tone in the media - regardless of who your intended target is - it usually only serves to make you look as bad as they do.

In fact, I read a lot of tweets this morning from people who were not inclined to side with Gregg Zaun or Dirk Hayhurst and somehow found themselves incredulous at the fact that they were taking the side of your tormentors over yours. The fact that you took some unwarranted and mean-spirited shots at their baseball careers probably didn't help your case. Remember, this isn't the Jerry Springer show: The loudest insult or most bruising chair shot doesn't win the argument.

Frankly, everybody comes away from this incident looking bad. You smear Zaun with tenuous allegations about his use of PEDs, and undermine Hayhurst's credibility, but you also make yourself look like a petty bully with thin skin who would use the opportunity of a promotional interview for a charity event(!) to show settle scores.

It really wasn't pretty. And it definitely will change how people look at you. And not for the better.

-Respect the media, even when you don't respect the media: There are moments when you'll have to deal with members of the media that you don't care for. Maybe they don't ask pertinent questions, or maybe they torque stories up to make minor things seem worse than they are.

But ultimately, that's what the media does. Their job is to make noise. Maybe there are times where they are not particularly sympathetic or appreciative of the nuance of the story. But that's because part of the function they serve is to deliver messages to an audience in a fast and efficient manner, which means that they don't always have time to fluff up your side of the story to the masses.

When it comes to analysts like Hayhurst and Zaun, you have to understand that they are carnival barkers. They are there to promote the product, and bring people from their living rooms and into the baseball game. Sometimes that means speaking loudly without subtlety or shades of grey.

But whatever the shortcomings are of the media, you have to understand how awesomely powerful they still are in creating your story. Even in this age of disintermediation, where you can work around the media to talk directly to the people, you'll find that the average person is still heavily influenced by what they read or hear or see in the mainstream media.

If you're a public figure, and you're concerned about how you come off, you have to at least respect the media's ability to significantly affect that image.

Even if you think you're being treated unfairly, lobbing insults at the media will probably only serve to confirm to most people that they probably had you pegged right all along.  

-Only talk when it improves on the silence: One of the first things that people learn when they start to deal with the media is that they rarely come off as well as they think they should.

An aspect of this comes from the fact that we as people don't know when to cut ourselves off. We offer too much information that is extraneous to the core of what we really care about, and media can end up focussing on the trivial rather than the pertinent. 

This is why awful PR people like me will tell you not to deviate from your message, or to offer no comment at all. You really don't have a lot of control over the finished product of a media story about you, so your goal is to control the outcome of the story as much as you possibly can.

This can frustrate reporters, and can even even give them a bad impression of you. But ultimately, they can't print what you don't say on the record.

(And if you want a master class in how to do this without looking like a jerk, you should watch John Gibbons' interactions with the media. That dude is like Yoda when it comes to giving them nothing sharp with which they could later impale him.)

On the other hand, when you use the media as a way of venting your frustrations, you open yourself up to all sorts of subsequent questions and follow up and probing.

Trust me on this, J.P.: By the time the cock crows tomorrow morning, you'll have said that you just want to put this incident behind you and move on. But this story is going to keep following you. You'll be asked about it for as long as you're a Jay. And beyond.

-You are not your brand. Your brand is what you do: I would bet that there are 50 social media experts within a five minute walk of the Rogers Centre who would have highlighted you as a person who has developed a tremendous personal brand through social media.

People know that J.P. Arencibia brand. You're young and fun-loving. A bit of a joker. A dude from the south who loves hockey. Scruffily handsome. You've got a dog named Yogi. You're a sensitive guy, and you give your time an energy to noble charitable efforts. (Ahem.)

You've opened yourself up, and let people share parts of what makes you who you are. But all the personal stuff that you share is just scenery. It's background, and maybe it gives us some sense of depth so that we don't look at you like you're a circus animal.

From a consumer point of view, though, you can't forget that the vast majority of your value to us as baseball fans is your output as a baseball player. It's cruel, and unfair. It's dehumanizing, even.

But it's also why you have to separate yourself from the baseball player. You can have pride in your work, but as someone who is a sort of mass market product, you can't chase down every negative review that someone clumsily hurls in your direction.

So what I'm saying is the best way to enhance your image is to just be excellent. And if you can't be excellent, at least be positive.

-A final thought: Most everything that I write is supposed to be from the viewpoint of a fan, so let me close this off with some of that perspective.

As a fan, I always dislike having players emphasize their "otherness" from me. The "you never played the game" line probably works well with your teammates in the clubhouse, because you're all wrapped up within this extraordinary experience of being professional athletes together.

I will probably never understand how hard it is to play the game of baseball at the level you do. But you telling me that I don't understand such things just creates more distance between me as a fan and the players on the field.

In spite of the fact that I am completely and irrationally immersed in this sport, it's moments like this that remind me that I'm a grown man, and should probably be spending my time and money in more productive ways.

And if that's the feeling that a true believer and devoted follower of the Jays is taking away from this whole public relations fiasco, I can't imagine that was your intention when you cleared your throat and rubbed the sleep out of your eyes at 8:40 am this morning.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A two-sentence post on... Munenori Kawasaki (who else?)

Munenori Kawasaki has been optioned to the AAA Buffalo Bisons.  And you can take your "cheering for laundry" nonsense and stick it in your ear.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Reflections on a Winning Streak

Photo courtesy the outstanding @james_in_to's Flickr stream.
It would be redundant to re-hash all the super duper great things that have been happening during the Toronto Blue Jays' current 11-game (!) winning streak.  They've hit the ball well, they've fielded it well, and they've pitched well.  They haven't necessarily done all of those things at the same time in eleven straight games, mind you, but in instances where one of the legs of that precarious three-legged stool has wobbled a bit, the other two legs have been more than sturdy enough to keep things upright.

Good lord, it's been a blast, hasn't it?  I like to think I'm generally a pleasant person regardless, and I've learned over the years that loyal support of a baseball team that usually loses more than it wins is not a good reason to allow a sunny disposition to be disturbed.  Still, over the last couple of weeks, even knowing a streak like this won't last, I've gone from cheerful to being about two steps removed from skipping down the street like a giddy schoolgirl.  

If you wear your fandom on your sleeve, on your head, on your desk, on the bumper of your car and everywhere else, you've probably suffered through much of the same mix of mockery and sympathy that I have since the beginning of April.  "What's wrong with your boys?" they asked.  "Worried yet?" they asked.  You try to keep a brave face, you try to convince yourself it's early and they'd at least make things interesting at some point.  But when you were honest with yourself, you accepted what seemed to be staring you in the face -- the disappointment of a likely third or fourth place finish in the monstrous American League East, by virtue of a brutal start to the season from which the team was unable to recover.

And now it's all changed.  On June 21, as the season turned officially to summer, the Jays won the first game of an eventual sweep of the division-rival Baltimore Orioles, their third consecutive such sweep to open what was anticipated to be an angst-ridden ten straight within the division.  They've crept to within five games of the division lead  (not just the Wild Card, mind you).

There are nearly three full months ahead of us before the calendar tells us it will be fall, and the nip in the evening air reminds us playoff baseball is on its way.  Three full months of streaks to begin and end, for the ebbs and flows of a long Major League Baseball season to separate the real talent from the pretenders of April and May.  Injuries, substitutions, stars emerging, veterans fading away, brilliant plays and boneheaded mistakes -- all of the things that make every baseball season intriguingly unique.

It's been a helluva long time since the Jays have well and truly been in the mix to emerge at the end of a long, hot summer with a chance to experience what the fall has to offer.  Yet here we are, fans riding the euphoria of the the longest winning streak in franchise history (tied, yes, I know... come talk to me tomorrow night).  The caps and jerseys are worn a little more proudly; the water-cooler chatter is a little more confident.  It's true that the Jays haven't won anything yet, but it sure feels better to know they haven't lost it all yet either.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Weekend Whatnot - The Crowded 25-Man Roster

The team heads onto the field after their seventh straight win.
Photo courtesy @james_in_to's peerless Flickr stream.
Burning questions, idle thoughts and silly preoccupations as we ease into the first official weekend of summer.

The Crowded Roster, Part 1: As I waited for a ride yesterday afternoon, I offered up my downtime to answer whatever was on the minds of my Twitter followers. In a fairly predictable turn of events, the most commonly offered query had to do with the roster machinations that will be required once José Reyes returns from injury next week.

(Sportsnet's Ben Nicholson-Smith has a nice rundown of the possibilities here, if you hadn't already read it.)

There really shouldn't be any angst or downside to the return of Reyes, who was by far the Jays best player in his 10 games at the start of the season. But given the unusual attachment that people have developed towards Munenori Kawasaki, the prospect of losing him from the 25-man roster seems to have created some distress.

It also offers fans an opportunity to take a running start at booting Maicer Izturis, Emilio Bonifacio or even Mark DeRosa in the ribs.

There's certainly some argument for keeping Kawasaki around, mostly fueled by his team-best 13.4 per cent walk rate. He might not hit the ball hard or often, but a .337 OBP will certainly do for a player in a bench role or a part-time second baseman. His weighted on-base average (wOBA) has been slightly above league average for shortstops (.294 versus .289), so there is certainly some value to keeping him on the roster.

While, both Izturis and Bonifacio have looked much better in the field over the past month, both continue to languish offensively, sitting at the bottom of the heap in wOBA over the past 30 days (.255 for Izturis, .242 for Bonifacio versus .289 for Kawasaki.)

What keeps this from being an easy call is the three-year deal that the Jays signed with Izturis in the offseason. The Jays obviously can't demote Izturis without designating him for assignment. The most likely situation if that were to happen - and I still think it is highly unlikely - is that no other club would step up to acquire him, and Izturis would reject a minor league assignment. At that point, any other team could step in and sign Izturis for the MLB minimum without giving up so much as a bag of balls to the Jays in return.

Meanwhile, the Jays would be stuck with paying out the remaining two-and-half years and $10 million to Izturis in the hopes that the two-month samples of both Kawasaki and Izturis portend their future value. That's something of a gamble.

If the Jays were to go the unpopular route of sending Kawasaki back to Buffalo, it would mean keeping all of their assets, and not having to worry about who the next infielder in their depth chart might be if they run into injury trouble again.

The Crowded Roster, Part 2: There's another simple solution to the conundrum above, and that's to finally - FINALLY! - do away with the 13-man pitching staff and send a reliever packing.

After all, a week or two of decent starting pitching performances has meant that some of the relievers are having to shake of dust and cobwebs from under their arms when they go to warm up.  And while lefty Juan Perez would seem to be the most likely candidate to be cast off, his performance has been good enough that you almost hate to lose him.

Meanwhile, the Jays will soon find themselves in a position of finding roster spots - and rotation slots - for J.A. Happ and Brandon Morrow, should an extended period of good health ever find them. Moreover, the Jays will have to decide whether if Drew Hutchison or Kyle Drabek will get Major League innings as part of their recovery from their respective Tommy John surgeries in the later stages of the season. There is also Luis Perez, who suffered a set back last week but is likely to be the first of the TJ'ed pitchers back on the big league roster.

Having too many arms is a nice problem to have, and good lord, haven't the Jays needed the extra help over the past two years. The simple solution with controllable players like Hutchison and Drabek would be to leave them in the minors until September 1st, then shut them down for the year.

Perez - that's Luis, you understand - might pose a more difficult problem, as they may be put into a situation where his rehab time comes to an end and they need to find a way to wedge him back onto the roster.

A week ago, I might have suggested that sending Darren Oliver to a contender might be a smart way to uncloud the picture...but who really wants to give him up now, with the Jays back in a place that sort of resembles contention?

A Big Week: I don't want to put too much stock in the results over the next week, with the Jays finally squaring off against AL East counterparts. But a good result - let's say 6-4, depending on how you slice up the wins and losses - could go a long way towards mixing up the playoff picture in the division.

After years of hearing people moan longingly for "meaningful games", I hope that fans realize that the incredibly tight state of this year's AL East - coupled with the Jays' lousy start - means that almost any divisional series becomes something akin to a three or four game playoff.

If you only care about meaningful games in September, then fine...enjoy your summer off. But for those who are geared up, this could be as much fun as a Jays fan has seen in years.

Just try to contain yourself.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Blue Monday - Scattered thoughts to kick off your week

Photo courtesy @james_in_to's incomparable Flickr stream.
More Lindsanity: Last week, it was supposed in this space that Adam Lind's torrid hitting pace was nice, though not sustainable at this level. And then over the weekend, he went 7-for-13 with two homers in three games, bumping his season-long OBP/SLG slashline to .417/.561.

What's more is that Lind has posted better numbers against the same lefties who once owned him. He still only has 25 plate appearances against southpaws, but he has managed a remarkable 13 hits in those matchups, including a homer and three doubles. Obviously, small sample size disclaimers apply, but it would be hard to think of a 25 plate appearance stretch against lefties in any of the last three seasons where Lind had anywhere near this kind of success.

Perhaps the most impressive indicator in all of Adam Lind's stat lines is the sharp decline in the percentage of infield fly balls he has surrendered. In the last two seasons, Lind has posted IFFB% of 10.5% and 9.9%. But this year, with a stronger swing and fewer painful flailings, Lind has dropped that number to 1.9%, which will place him in the top 20 in baseball once he qualifies.

Moreover, Lind has raised his line drive percentage by 6.7% over last year while dropping his ground ball rate 7.6%. All of which points to the fact that he is hitting the ball harder and squaring it up more often. And you can have a lot of success that way.

WAR! Huh! Good Lord!: I'm not particularly clever - nor wise - but as I understand it, Wins Above Replacement are probably best considered at the end of a season, when looking backwards to assess what happened in a year, or over the span of several seasons.

But since they publish the running tab on these things, let's say we indulge in a bit of imprudent number regurgitation.

Most winningly-winning Blue Jay thus far? José Bautista, who has been such a bad example to the rest of the team through his unleaderly ways* that he's posted 2.5 wins above scrub level, according to the Fangraphs tabulation.

Second on the list? Colby Rasmus, who crushed three home runs over the weekend in the Texas heat, and now sits at 1.9, just ahead of Adam Lind (1.8) and Edwin Encarnacion (1.7).

In an odd and eminently notable coincidence, we find ten games of José Reyes from back in April and Muenenori Kawasaki's 53 games of emergency replacement duty tied for fifth on that list with 0.6 wins.

On the pitching side of the ledger, Brett Cecil leads all with a 0.9 mark, while Casey Janssen follows with a 0.8.

Mark Buehrle has been the most valuable starting pitcher, tied for third Steve Delabar 0.6 wins. Meanwhile, putative staff ace R.A. Dickey is tied with Juan Perez at 0.5 wins. I'm sure Dickey's philosophical about it...or at least has a good explanation. 

Unexpected roster flexibility: Edwin Encarnacion has looked kinda good at third base, hasn't he?

While past experience might lead one to have apprehensions about putting EE there on a regular basis, Jays' manager John Gibbons has seemed to pick his spots well over the past few weeks, since a short bench in NL parks during interleague play pushed him to make the move.

In 61.2 innings at the hot corner, Encarnacion has fielded well enough to make you think that he might be up to the task here and there while awaiting Brett Lawrie's return. It certainly enhances the strength of the offensive lineup should the Jays need to cycle some other bats through the DH slot through the summer months.

Remember the 2013 pitching staff: It was hard to imagine the 2013 season being any worse that last year, when the Jays would require 34 pitchers to get through the schedule. Well, here we are: Not even half-way through the 2013 season and the Blue Jays have thus far employed 29 pitchers.

It's probably fair at this point to say that this emanates in part from an organizational philosophy: The end of the rotation or bullpen slots are not so much jobs that are won as much as they are temp positions that are filled on an as-needed basis. Still, it adds up to a remarkably odd and eclectic list of names that you find filling out the season's roster.

David Bush, Aaron Laffey, Justin Germano, Todd Redmond, Edgar Gonzalez, Thad Weber, Mickey Storey...heck, Ramon Ortiz seems like an organizational mainstay compared to some on that list.

It's almost enough to make you want to run a graceful, slow-motion, black-and-white "In memoriam" tribute over the strains of Sarah McLachlan's "I Will Remember You" to some of these now-departed hurlers.

Except that, you know...for the most part, we won't remember them. Only those among us who take unusual delight in the obscure would want to.


*I'm being facetious about this. Sometimes, I assume that this is obvious. But some of you might be reading my scribblings for the first time. In which case: Welcome.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Various and Sundry Thursday Thoughts: Lind's resurgence and catchers controversies

Lind connects for a three run home run.
Photo courtesy @james_in_to's stupendous Flickr stream.
A few whims, notions, impressions and sentiments on the state of the Jays, such as it is...

Lindsanity: The funny thing about the great start to the 2013 that Adam Lind has had is the way that so few are prepared to believe it.

I suppose it makes sense, given the long, slow turgid road that we followed in watching his decline three year death march through the wilderness following his Silver Slugger season of 2009. In the ensuing three years, Lind posted an OPS of .724, saw his effectiveness limited by back problems, and managed to find himself demoted and exposed to waivers. An ignominious fate, to be sure.

Lind might not keep up his current pace - .418 OBP, .540 SLG - as his .391 BABIP seems unsustainably high. But his walk rate is up impressively to 12.2%, over rates of 6.2%, 5.9% and 8.2% over the past three seasons. He's also dropped his strikeout rate down to 16.9%, which is not bad for a power hitting

And to the eye - well, my eye, anyways - Lind's swing looks vastly improved over recent years, as he is back to uncoiling his body through the swing and getting torque from a decent rotation of his hips, rather than the vacant, all-arms swipes of recent memory.

If nothing else, this seasons has certainly complicated the question of what the Jays do with Lind and his three club options for 2014 through 2016.

Catcher Controversy?: The two-guys-one-job discussion is ubiquitous among the sports-talk chattering class, and in large part, these so-called controversies make for easily digestible stories. There are winners and losers. It's binary, and you get to play both sides while urging fans to choose one or the other.

So forgive me if I indulge for a moment in that which I hold in disdain.

The Jays decision last week to bring Josh Thole to the Majors was swiftly followed by speculation as to when he might supplant the struggling J.P. Arencibia as the everyday catcher. And the contrast between the two couldn't be more stark.

In his better moments, Thole is a patient hitter who will get on base (.330 career OBP), take walks (9.1% BB rate) and not strike out too much (12.3% K rate). He'll also not hit the ball very hard (.071 isolated power). Arencibia makes a lot of outs (.267 OBP), strikes out a ton (29% K rate) and walks only on special occasions (5.5% career walk rate, which has steadily declined from his 7.4% rate from his first full season.) Still, Arencibia can smack a tater. A .211 isolated power and .431 SLG are not to be dismissed out of hand.

Toss all those numbers into a big pile, and you can understand how people would divide themselves into two camps. Fewer outs! More dingers! Less slap hitters! More dingers!

Oddly, for the catching position, there isn't a lot of discussion around the relative levels of defensive acumen among these two. Maybe it's because neither are particularly exceptional behind the plate, nor are they wholly awful.

Up until the last game played in Chicago, I might have suggested that Arencibia is unlikely to lose much playing time to Thole given what I perceive to be an undying mancrush that John Gibbons seemed to have on J.P.. All of those at bats in hitting third, fourth or fifth in the order must have come from some level of irrational affection, right?

But seeing JPA plugged into the seven-hole in the lineup - against a lefty, no less - makes me wonder if his last 20 games and 99 plate appearances have been bad enough to take the bloom off the rose. A .202 OBP with 29 strikeouts versus four walks will do that.

Arencibia is likely to remain the incumbent in the coming months, but don't be surprised to see Thole get starters against right-handers with decent breaking balls. And if he succeeds? Well, then we might have a real discussion on our hands for 2014.

And one last note to ponder: Thole is signed to a two-year deal that pays him $1.25 million per year, while Arencibia makes $505,000 and hits arbitration after this season. Which might make this somewhat contrived controversy a little more real by the time we get to the trade deadline.

Programming note: If you want to take me to task on either of today's whims, or just want to discuss the state of the Blue Jays, I'll be chatting on tomorrow at 12:00 noon Eastern Time. Come on by and let me know about the bee in your ballcap.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Young Man Blues - Where Does Brett Lawrie Go From Here?

Photo courtesy the outstanding @james_in_to's Flickr stream.
If there's one aspect of being a baseball fan that has transformed most dramatically since this blog was launched seven seasons ago, it's the way that young players are taken into consideration.

I remember at various times in the not-so-distant past keeping a watchful eye on the stat lines of players such as John-Ford Griffin, or Robinson Diaz, or Brian Dopirak, or even Chad Mottola, with the full expectation that at some point they would translate their minor league excellence into a career as everyday players with the Jays.

In more recent years, the mark of the more sophisticated baseball connoisseur was the ability to scoff at such middling organizational filler and rattle off the long list of more pertinent and exciting prospects within a system and throughout the game. A new surfeit of readily available resources that rate and rank and analyze ballplayers and teams allowed us to form opinions from our couches on athletes that we might not see at the top level for years...if at all.

Actually, that last part is the one that increasingly preoccupies me. Having indulged in so-called "prospect porn" for the last few years, the one thing that increasingly impresses itself upon me is the high failure rate of prospects. And this isn't limited to your garden variety organizational filler. I'm talking about the number of "blue chip", "can't miss" prospects. The top five percentile that fill the top ends of those perpetual speculative top 100 lists based on the gaudy numbers they post against their peers in the lower, developmental levels. The players who make their way onto a Major League Baseball roster to all matter of hoopla and frantic fantasy baseball waiver wire activity.

All this new information gives us some alleged sense of knowledge on players about whom we know very little beyond the blurbs. But what has been striking over the past couple of seasons are the number of top-flight young players who simply cannot make a go of it once they face real live big leaguers.

Previously, there were players like Jeremy Hermida or Brandon Wood, who stood out because they seemed to be the exceptions as top 10 prospects who never were able to convert that promise into something more tangible. Lately, though, it seems like this list is getting longer in a hurry. This includes premier minor league players like Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, Gordon Beckham, and yes, Travis Snider.

This failure rate for young players is quite unlike anything you see in the other major professional sports. Basketball, hockey, and football all draft impact players from the amateur ranks and have them producing at the highest level within a year or two. They slide into the professional game seemingly by sheer virtue of their athletic prowess.

Which brings us to this month's whipping boy, Brett Lawrie.

There's little question that Brett Lawrie is an exceptional athletic specimen, and that certainly helped him push his way into the major league lineup ahead of schedule, at 21 years of age. He made the leap into MLB after just 326 minor league games. That's fewer games than it took for Roberto Alomar to make it to the big leagues. It's almost a full season less than it took for Tony Fernandez to make it and it is about half as many games as it took for Carlos Delgado to crack the premier lineup.

It probably helped that the Jays needed to show some return from their trade of opening day starter Shaun Marcum while a mixed bag of third baseman barely held the spot warm for him. Meanwhile, Lawrie posted numbers in Las Vegas that were otherworldly, and beyond what he'd ever posted before in his minor league career.

Lawrie's debut with the team in the latter stages of 2011 was something of an astrological event. New-found plate discipline and a hell-for-leather approach to all other aspects of the game made him appear to be something more than an all-star. Lawrie appeared destined to become a transcendent sports figure in Toronto, and one who brought non-baseball fans into the fold. One needed only look at the names and numbers on the backs in the crowds at the Rogers Centre to see whose stardom shone above all others.

But like those many other phenoms before him, Lawrie began to struggle as the league became more acquainted with him. In 162 games in the two seasons following his sparkling debut, Lawrie has posted a .710 OPS (.311 OBP) and an OPS+ of 91. While his defense has been sterling and continues to improve, the more difficult to master tool of hitting seemingly continues to slip away from him.

Which brings me to my point, as much as I'm talking concentric circles around it: Baseball is hard. Really hard. It's harder than we as fans realize. Even more so, harder than some players realize.

And if there is an existential quandary that is leading Brett Lawrie to mow further down into his nail beds, throw equipment hither and yon, pout intensely and point fingers at his teammates, it's might just fact that this game which he had mastered (well, somewhat) at most every level is suddenly beyond him at this point.

Okay, let's slow down for a moment. We're moving into an area of speculative, long-distance psychology, and I'll cop to being on the shakiest of ground in proceeding down this train of thought. But given that Brett Lawrie's name has been often accompanied with a question mark in recent days, indulge me for a moment as I hypothesize on what's going on in his head, and where he needs to go to get through the other side.

Here's the short form of how I think Brett Lawrie's mind works: "I want something, and if I want it bad enough, I've gotta go get it. Take it. It's mine if I want it." I base this on the "Never Surrender" tattoos, the times when he's been thrown out on the bases like a nincompoop, and often, the defiance in the post-game interviews when it all goes wrong.

All of this adds up - in my mind, anyways - to a player who attacks the game. Takes no prisoners. Lays the smack down.

But baseball is a game that doesn’t cotton to being attacked.

It requires a quiet, steady approach. A marksman’s still hand and slow heart beat, not the furious anger of a shootist. It requires patience, not haste. An ability to let the game unfold as it will. A sense of perspective, and an ability to fail with grace.

You gotta be chill, bro.

The problem with this is that Brett Lawrie has been consistently rewarded for his unbridled enthusiasm. From the fans to the front office to his own father, Lawrie's single-minded competitiveness seems to be the attribute for which he is admired and rewarded.

He became something close to a folk hero for throwing his body over barriers, regardless of the damage he caused to himself. People laugh at the notion that he pumps himself up with unhealthy amounts of caffeine in anticipation of a game, figuring that his jacked-up athlete's body will insulate him mood-altering doses of substance that affect the neurological and nervous systems.

And then we wonder he's jumping at pitches.

It could be that the most recent onslaught of negativity could provide the impetus for Lawrie to reevaluate his approach. Maybe this is a learning experience, and somehow, he can learn from the bad times and adapt his game appropriately.

It wouldn't surprise me if he does. In spite of his dude-bro exterior, I've always suspected that there is a very clever and quick mind underneath it all. I think he can adapt, and I think he can transcend from the player that he has become to the player that he could very well be.

But to get there, Lawrie has to want it. And you can't find stillness of mind with the body's hustle.