Monday, January 31, 2011

Hot corner hot stove - What JoBau's 3B reticence has wrought

So somewhere along the line, José Bautista got it into his head that he would prefer to play in right field. (Don't ask us to come up with the quote. It's been out there so long that we just assume that it's true.)

We get why JoBau might want to take this approach. Ladies love baserunner kills, but throw a guy out from across the diamond, and you elicit barely a yawn. Also, there are far fewer screaming-take-your-dome-clean-off-your-shoulders line drives that come hurtling themselves hungrily at your flesh when you're in the outfield.

Unfortunately, this particular stance isn't necessarily the one that makes the most sense for the Blue Jays. There are plenty of warm bodies that you can stick out in the outfield on any given day, but only so many guys who can hold their own at third. If Bautista would accede happily to life on the infield, sharing jokes and smiles and hip bumps with Yunel, then we could wrap up this discussion and go get ourselves some aging slugging non-fielder (other than Juan Rivera) and toss them in right or left or wherever.

But seeing as how the Jays aren't likely to do anything to upset or turn off Bautista until after they sign off on their longer-term matrimony, it leaves us without an enviable option at third for now.1

Nature abhors a vacuum, though, so we've spent the past weekend observing the efforts of some to fill the third base void. Here's the options that we've seen, for better or worse.

Kevin Kouzmanoff: KK is probably off the table now that Chone Figgins has precluded any further discussion on getting traded to Oakland. And to think that we'd just started to come around on him, in spite of the fact that he hasn't posted an OPS above .732 in the past three seasons. (He's got home/road splits that look promising, and his defense seems to carry much of the weight of his 2.7/2.7/2.9 fWAR over the past three years.) A long shot to think that AA can get him, though the A's seem determined to replace him.

Eric Chavez: On a minor league deal? Why not? For some of the cushion change in Bob McCown's green room, you sign a guy who was an elite player at one point (admittedly, five years ago) and who might have something in the tank and something to prove. If he's healthy, he could be a low-risk/high-reward pick up. If not...well, what's the down side?

Aaron Hill: You create one hole by filling another, though there may be an argument that you'd be moving Hill in a year anyways to make room for Adeiny Hechavarria. (Unless it's Yunel that moves to third, in which case, you slide the tiles in your slide puzzle the other way around.)

John McDonald: In limited playing time, Johnny Mac managed a .727 OPS last season. Which, we'd point out, is better than Kouzmanoff's OPS in 2010 and 2009. Oddly, though, the PMoD has put up a negative UZR/150 at third over his career (-7.9). But if you're sliding Hill over, you get McDonald's career 18.9 UZR/150 at second over Hill's 4.8.

Edwin Encarnacion: He's still on the roster. He still has a higher career OPS than Aaron Hill. And his UZR/150 last season at 3B was -2.3, which is a vast improvement over seasons past. Playing EE in the field means that the Jays would have more flexibility with their DH spot. We could go on attempting to make the case for Edwin, though we're reasonably sure that all you'll read from this point on would look like "E5 E5 E5 E5E5 E5E5 E5E5 E5E5 E5E5 E5E5 E5E5 E5E5 E5E5 E5E5 E5E5 E5E5 E5".

1. You have no idea how many different ways we tried to work a marriage analogy into this paragraph. "Put a ring on it" was tossed around. We conjugated the verb "to betroth" for 20 minutes, until we realized that it only connotes getting engaged and not buying the whole cow. "Down the aisle" was used. Rote "no sex after marriage" jokes were tried on for size. We gave up. This is the best we could do.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

So dizzy - Making sense of a whole new game

Our head is spinning like it hasn't since that unfortunate incident with the teacups ride back when we were nine.

(And to the lady standing beside the ride who became the victim of our overexuberance, we want to let you know that all these decades later, we still feel bad.)

Overextended analogies aside: Alex Anthopoulos is playing his game at a higher level than we comprehend at the moment. His modus operandi does not seem to orient around "see player, get player" or "get budget, spend budget" in the same way as his predecessor or his contemporaries. Anthopoulos truly seems to be balancing out undervalued player assets versus contracts, potential arbitration outcomes, and future compensatory picks. It's a longer game with many more moving parts than we're used to, and it makes us a bit uncomfortable to try to assess what he's done.

To wit: We actually would prefer Mike Napoli over Frank Francisco next year. And that's mostly to do with a salary/contract agnostic point of view, where we just think in terms of a playground pick and figure: "We'll take Napoli."

Moreover, given what Napoli could contribute to the team's offense, his contract status over the next couple of years and the abundance of right-handed arms in the Jays pen, it only makes sense to us that you'd rather go into the season with him over Frankie.

But given how astute some of Anthopoulos' deals over the past year have been, and how much foresight seems to have gone into the acquisitions of Alex Gonzalez (and then Yunel Escobar), John Buck (and the pick he'll bring back) and others, we're finding it harder to pass judgment on them. And with this Frankie Francisco deal, we know that there's an aspect that we just haven't thought through yet that makes it make sense.

For someone who is opinionated and more than willing to broadcast his opinion on just about any baseball topic, it's a maddening state of affairs.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A requiem for Vernon Wells

We still remember the first time we laid eyes on Vernon Wells. It was one of those late season Sunday afternoon games, where the first round draft pick gets invited into the booth to chat and drink in what is likely his first experience in Toronto.

Wells, having been taken fifth overall in June of that year, acquitted himself well for an 18 year-old, and that appearance lit a spark within us: "Is this guy going to be part of the next World Series winning team? Is this the first piece of the puzzle?" They were unquestionably high expectations. Likely too high, but as Jays fans - indeed, any sports fans - how could you resist?

Though the circumstances that led to the Blue Jays prolonged downturn and stagnation could hardly be left at Wells doorstep, he will be seen more than any other player as emblematic of the team's most frustrating decade. Wells, like the teams he's played on over the past 12 seasons, was good, but never quite good enough. He, like the team, had flashes of brilliance. But nothing that allowed them to transcend from a middling franchise into a contender.

Vernon, perhaps more than any other Jay in the franchise's history, wears the team's failure in the minds of the fans. His contemporaries, such as Carlos Delgado and Roy Halladay, will always be regarded differently, and above the performance of the particular rosters with which they played. There is even, to a certain extent, a sense that the team failed them by not creating a winning team around (or maybe more to the point, beneath) them.

Wells, on the other hand, will wear the hairshirt for the Jays of the 2000's. His injuries (which he played through to his detriment) and his absences from the lineup will be drawn out as reasons why certain teams languished. His inconsistency will be pointed out, with his OPS yo-yoing from the low .700's one year, then bouncing back into mid-.800's the next. The rapid decline of his thrice-Gold-Glove-worthy defense will come to mind, as will his quiet obstinance over staying in the middle of the order and in the middle of the outfield.

But more than anything, he'll be remembered for his contract.

In many ways, it's unfair to hold Wells to account for the contract that he signed following the 2006 season. The market for offensive players was about to blow up, with Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee also receiving otherworldly sums for long term deals, and Vernon's deal was never quite understood in that context on this side of the border. Moreover, the Jays' sudden bounteousness following the years of frugality which saw the exit of Delgado never quite sat well with the faithful, such as they are.

(There was a whole other post from June of 2009 where we delve into the Wells/Delgado distinction, which is worth a read - if we do say so ourself - when you have a moment. We won't go much further down that road now.)

But surely, the entirety of Wells' legacy can't be understood only by his failings and his circumstances, can it?

As Wells closes the book on his time in Toronto, he leaves having compiled one of the longest and most distinguished careers in the team's history. In the counting stats, Wells sits second all-time in Jays history in plate appearances, runs, doubles, runs created, homers and RBI (all behind Delgado), and second in hits (behind Tony Fernandez). And had he the opportunity to play one last season with the Jays, he likely would have moved into first all-time in a number of those categories. If nothing else, Wells' longevity has certainly made him a memorable part of the team's history.

Some of the rate stats aren't quite as flattering, as he drops to 12th all-time in OPS and 15th in adjusted OPS, though his sample size is often two to three times larger than some of those ahead of him. There may even be an interesting debate - amongst those of us who are insane enough put thought into such things - as to Wells' worthiness of enshrinement on the team's Level of Excellence.

But as we attempt to take a step back, even this soon after his departure, we see that a day will come when many of us will again think kindly on Vernon Wells. His 2003 and 2006 campaigns will forever rate amongst the greatest seasons ever compiled by a Blue Jay, and his three Gold Gloves will remind us of his tenacious, subtle brilliance in the outfield. And he was as smart of a baserunner as we can remember, hustling to taking extra bases often while rarely getting tossed out.

The picture we'll hold of Vernon Wells is from a September 2003 series against the Cleveland Indians, as we sat at the SkyDome and watched Wells equal, then break Tony Fernandez's single-season mark for hits in a season. His 213th hit of the season was a scorching line drive back through the middle, while the 214th was a laser hit to third baseman Casey Blake which the befuddled fielder then threw away, with Wells scampering to second. As Vernon bent over to dust himself off, we held our breath for a moment, waiting for the hometown scorer's decision: Base hit, E5 on the throw.

Vernon Wells had the record. He made history. And when it comes right down to it, that's how we really want to remember him.

That Wells money shouldn't be burning a hole in your pocket

After the "hysteria and hyperbole" (TM John Lott, NatPost and J-School Jedi) subsided on Friday night, we received a number of cards and letters outlining to us that the only way to determine the efficacy of trading of Vernon Wells was to see what the Jays did with the money that they saved.

To which we say: Are you frickin' kidding us? Do you not realize and appreciate what was just accomplished here?

Before the trade, Jays were on the hook for $86 Million to a player with ongoing injury and performance issues over the past three seasons. They were going to carry on a significant percentage of their player payroll being attributed to a player who is likely (given age and past track record) to diminish in on-field value. Now, they've moved a contract that was deemed "untradeable" right up until about 5 PM Eastern Time on Friday evening.

"But wait!" you exclaim! "It shouldn't matter because Alex Anthopoulos and Paul Beeston said that money wasn't an issue, which I of course took to mean that the Blue Jays can spend all of the money that they want and sit on a huge contract if they have to because Rogers is totally the richest company ever!"

To which we respond: You've really got to learn to parse words better than that, and stop hearing what you want to hear. (Also, you should probably see a shrink, because we're assuming that this sort of behaviour doesn't limit itself to the Blue Jays. For your sake and the sake of your loved ones: Get help.)

When AA or Beeston make claims along these lines, they are intended primarily to move the conversation away from Ricciardi-style defeatism where the limitations of the budget made competing in the AL East seem to be an impossibility. Which is not to say that they are cynical, because if the Jays' front office can make a compelling business case for upping the payroll, we're sure that their comrades around the Rogers senior management table (you know, the mobile and cable guys who make all that money that you're looking to piss away on Vernon Wells' 2014 performance) might actually be able to buy in. But no one at that table is going to put their own personal performance bonus on the line so that the Jays can heave cash at this fire or that one in the hopes of putting them out.

What the Jays bought themselves this weekend was payroll flexibility. And that flexibility will allow them to look towards extending their relationship with the products of their own system over the next four season. They'll have the funds to lock up Travis Snider, should he turn into the 35 homer, 5 WAR player that we think he can be. That $21 million four years from now will also go a long way towards locking up Deck McGuire, or some June 2011 pick of whom we haven't yet even heard the first peep.

Just because the Jays have this additional money today, it doesn't mean that the trade pulled off this weekend can only be judged based upon how they spend that extra dough. Because frankly, spending the money in your pocket just because you've got it is how Tony Reagins got himself into this deal.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

It's a shame about Vern

Pt I: It didn't have to end this way (but we're all kinda' glad that it did)
At the end of the day, it was always about the money. Vernon Wells ranks at or near the top of every major offensive category on the Blue Jays career leaders list - and yeah, they're mostly counting stats based on longevity, but isn't that the point? - and yet, his relationship with the fans has always been...... strained. To say the least.

I mean, who gives themself the nickname "Boo"? A pretty good player living under the shadow of a ridiculous (as seen now) 7 yr/$126M deal handed out at the apex of MLB contract insanity, that's who.

That's megastar money for (just) a pretty good ballplayer who found himself in the right place at the right time. But with that money came expectations that could never be met and shoes ol' Boo could never fill. You always got the feeling Wells was a better fit in a supporting role, but that was never going to be an option once ink met paper. $126M players can't hide in the background, and every struggle was magnified. Every roll-over on an outside fastball or pop-up (GODDAMNIT!!) on a decent offspeed pitch brought on the chorus of hate as a result.

And now we won't have Vernon to kick around anymore. I'm not going to lie to you, I'll miss him.

Pt II: .... but it's OK to be happy about this
Am I going to miss the remaining $80+M over the next 4 seasons? Not so much. Being perfectly honest, I don't really care what Wells made. I never have. But it was/is (to the Angels, now) an albatross contract that had to affect the front-0ffice thinking with regards to roster construction, despite the constant proclaim of an open-ended budget.

And now? No more. If nothing else, it lets us dream (which is everything here). It's behind the subscriber wall, but I'll share a line from Keith Law's analysis of the deal on ESPN regarding the final outcome and ramifications from a Blue Jays perspective:

"They could become very good, very fast."

Feels good to be on the other side of one of these, doesn't it?

Pt III: And what of the new guys? Where do they fit?
Mike Napoli is an offensive-minded catcher whose best attribute is his power, and his worst? Fringey defence. Sound familiar? Somewhere, JP Arencibia nods his head silently. That said, don't be so quick to write-off the Jays' feelings about their young catcher or play up the team's apparent hesitation to let JPA play.

I'm of the opinion that Napoli will find AB's at 1B and DH in addition to his catching duties (think 3 times a week or so), with Arencibia likely seeing slightly-above platoon level at-bats. It just seems the franchise has invested too much in the young catcher in terms of coaching (Wakamatsu) and PR ("the kid has to play") to let him waste away on the bench, and there's nothing left for the AAA MVP to prove in Vegas. So play he will.

Juan Rivera? 4th outfielder..... if he makes the trip north out of Spring Training still a Blue Jay. I'm not convinced.

Pt IV: Where do we go from here?
If I have a concern for the 2011 Blue Jays (just one?), it's this: who are these guys?

Are we close to having all the pieces of the collective puzzle known as The Plan within the system? Or does this magnificent salary mulligan mean more blockbusters are on the horizon - be it this season or next winter? Something even more than a multi-year deal for Jose Bautista? Trades taking on salary? Players in free agency? Extensions for more young stars (Snider, Morrow....)?

(and by the way, if/when Bautista signs on long-term with the club - which I believe he now will - we should get everyone's opinion on record to prevent or justify the tired "I told you so" meme three years down the road. Me? I liked locking up Wells at the time. I know, I know....)

Pt V: Alex Anthopoulos terrifies me
In a good way. Silent Assassin, indeed.

Pt VI: From an LAA perspective
What. The. Fuck?

.... and in the end, it's a great deal for the Blue Jays franchise and a fresh start for Vernon. Remind me to never again bemoan the lack of "blockbuster" moves from the team during the traditional transactional periods. Goddamn, AA. Wow.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Buh-bye Wellsy

Go shrug your way through the season elsewhere.

Tweet Bag! Your tweeted questions answered here

We're not going to stop writing up tweet bags until we stop finding new pictures of tweet-themed bags in Google Images. Which is to say, we will never ever stop.

And now...cue the questions!

Our pal (and part time JoBau impersonator) @eyebleaf asks: When will you open your heart and let Shawn Camp in?

Here's the thing: We're pretty fickle on Shawn Camp, because we truly believe that he is a shitty-shoed bastard whose modest success is mostly attributable to guys hitting balls right at the fielders. But then, maybe we were just conditioned to dread seeing him in previous years because his initial usage was as a mop-up guy.

Either way, we just don't have that much room in our cold, cold heart for some jug-eared, high-socked, noodle-armed, replacement-level sorta-side-armer. So to answer your question: No time soon.


Frequent commenter (and the life of the party in Caribou, ME) asks: How would you rate the Blue Jays broadcasting crew?

True story: We recently, apropos of nothing, found ourselves missing Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler. Because whether if we always agree with them or not, we love to listen to them talking baseball.

Which brings us to a point that we've been trying to make for some time: People need to back the fuck off when tearing down broadcasters, because the whole parlour game of holding them up for ridicule has reached its saturation point.

We actually don't expect our broadcasters to be perfect or to share our worldview at all times. But sure, if you think that a broadcaster is consistently awful and off the mark, then make that comment and let it go. But don't jump on every word out of their mouth as an exemplar of their vast inferiority to you on all matters baseball. Because every other douchebag is doing the same thing, and it is more tiresome to listen to than any Jamie Campbell baseball card story.

(And since you asked: Alan Ashby is the most awesome colour man of all-time. We just want to invite him over for a cookout, and drink beer and talk about blocking the plate for a whole evening, until the sun goes down and the patio lanterns flicker.)

Bring it on! asks: Who's the 5th starter?

Before we answer that: Can we just point out that the fifth start last April was Dana Eveland? And that in 2009, it was Scott Richmond? And before that, there was Tomo Ohka and Josh Towers. So the point here is: Don't sweat the fifth starter too much. Because they might not make it into the warm weather months with the team.

But, to be a sport, we'd say that we figure that Marc Rzepczynski is a pretty good candidate. In part, we say that because of his stellar showing in the Arizona Fall League (1.16 ERA!). And in part because Drew told us he's better than Gio Gonzalez. (That's exactly what he said!)

To the barricades! Rule-breaking non-tweeting questioner sent us an undergraduate thesis by email, when he really meant to ask: Lind/EE: Can we expect a gong show defensively at 1B in 2011?

Probably, and we've started to steel ourselves to that possibility. On the other hand, Lind looked okay in his handful of appearances there last season, and EE's biggest problems at third were due to his arm as opposed to his glove. Edwin's footwork got him into troubles when he was coming up to throw, but we actually think that he could develop into a decent scoop at first.

And besides: Matt Stairs played a lot of first a couple of seasons back, and the Rogers Centre didn't implode around him.

Also: If this Eric Chavez thing ever comes to pass, don't be surprised if he gets time on the other side of the diamond.

And finally: Don't expect anyone to do what Lyle Overbay did over the past few years. Lylo was a pretty special fielder, and you don't just replace that with a couple of sessions with Brian Butterfield down in Dunedin.

Quickly! asks: brett lawrie has no chance to stick with the team out of spring training, correct?

Probably not. But stranger things have happened. Sorry, but we can't settle your bet. We're not a soothsayer. And besides: Stop betting. You degenerate gambler.

More more more! asks: Lawrie working at 3B. If that works out, what kind of lineup do you see for 2012? Change plans for FA this year?

There's many a slip betwixt a cup and a lip. (And we say that mostly to get the word "betwixt" into two consecutive posts.) But if Lawrie works out at third, we'd figure that Hill and Escobar will stay put, but with Hechavarria breathing down Hill's neck. First base might still be a problem, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that Lawrie follows the Matt LaPorta path to being a full-time first baseman after wearing out the rest of the diamond.

That's it! But a pretty bow on this one, and we'll catch you on the flip side!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Far away, so close

So there's about three million bucks difference between the Jays and José Bautista, which seems like a significant gap betwixt what the team thinks he's worth and what he thinks he's worth. Except for the fact that we suspect that neither party actually believes that's what Bautista is worth, nor would be willing to chisel those numbers into granite.

Given the process within which they find themselves, the Jays were smart not to allow themselves to go overly high in their offer to Bautista, lest he snatch it up and set his course firmly towards a mostly barren free agent class follow the 2011 season. Their offer might seem low or untenable, but they couldn't paint themselves into a corner where they had no leverage while negotiating a medium or longer term deal.

For that matter, Bautista's responding figure seems low as well, and likely below what he'll eventually ask for when a multi-year agreement is presented. (And much more palatable to an arbitrator, for that matter.) Given the Jason Werth horseshittery and Dan Uggla's deal, we're figuring that JoBau's desires will be in the five-year, $65 million range, and that the Jays' offer would be closer to three and $33 million.

(We're pulling numbers out of the air here, so don't take this as anything more than jibber jabber.)

The point here, we suppose, is not to get overly set on the actual figures that have been floated thus far. They are negotiation points, but not true statements of worth or assessments of player value. And following the logic of what we said yesterday about the meaning behind the small divide with Jason Frasor indicating a larger divide between the parties, we actually think that the largish gap between Bautista and the Jays is an indication that both sides are willing to push this process to the very end, and continue working towards a longer deal rather than a one-and-done.

Which, if you think kindly on JoBau, is good news indeed.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The last days of the Sausage King's reign

If you were following along on Twitter yesterday afternoon, you might have noticed us back-and-forthing with a few fine chaps on what the future holds for Jason Frasor in Toronto. But if you had better things to do, we'll bring you up to speed.

We think this is it for Jason Frasor in Toronto.

There. You're up to speed.

"But wait!" you say. "They offered him arbitration! Does that not mean that they had some interest in retaining Frasor's services?"

To which we respond: No. To us, it means that they wanted the draft picks that they could get for him, and that they took their chances on him accepting. Which he did, which meant that they had to go through the whole charade of negotiating with him up until the deadline.

"No! You're wrong! And you're stupid and ugly too! Jason Frasor will fosh the shit out of hitters once the Jays and Frasor bridge the tiny little gap between the $3.25 Million they offered and the $3.75 Million he requested! How can they not come together?"

We may be homely (joli-laid!), but momma didn't raise no dummies. If the Jays held firm on their offer and wouldn't split the difference on what seems to negotiable divide, then we're getting the sense that they wouldn't feel especially brokenhearted if Frasor were to take his deep, spittle-drenched late-inning exhalations somewhere else next year.

"Well, Frasor's probably going to win in the arbitration room, so we'll see him back anyways. So there!"

Sometimes, losing is winning. (Wait, did we just channel The Manager?) If the Jays lose, they can still release Frasor and owe his only a marginal severance. Or they look to trade him. Or they add him to the ever-growing list of right-handed arms populating their bullpen.

Or maybe they win, and they have a guy who they didn't especially want for $3.25 Million on their roster, which could happen. But what we have a hard time envisioning is them sticking with him through the season on the off-chance that he performs well enough to ensure them a draft pick in the 60's or 70's in 2012.

Besides: If dollar bills equate in any way to respect, it's worth noting that the Jays have given more of them to Jon Rauch and Octavio Dotel (Correction! Just Rauch...see comments) in the offseason than they were willing to offer to Frasor.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

He's big and he's got a neck tattoo

Given the speed at which the closer carousel has spun about this offseason, we're reasonably happy to see that when the music stopped, we were looking way up at the 6'11" Jon Rauch as the most likely option to close games next season.

(Oh, but don't let that stop you from speculating on who will eventually get the role, because frankly this thing is going to get drawn out and dragged through just about every story coming out of Spring Training. And given what a cagey guy Alex Anthopoulos is, we're guessing that there will be platitudes about the "open competition" coming from he and John Farrell, while Rauch and Octavio Dotel and Jason Frasor and - to a lesser extent - David Purcey and Shawn Camp all have their names tossed around as possibilities.)

Given that before the offseason started, we were leaning towards Rauch's teammate Jesse Crain as a good option, we think the Jays made out pretty well on this deal. Rauch posted an xFIP of 4.18 versus Crain's marginally better 4.10, but it took three years and $13 million for the White Sox to wrap up the pseudo-Canadian. For a very manageable $3.75 for one year (with an option), the Jays get a better deal on a guy who - INTANGIBLES ALERT! - has closed out games before.

(Also, we probably hold a special scented candle in our heart for Rauch because he was the last Expos pitcher who we saw pitch in person. On Sunday, September 26, 2004, Rauch cleaned up a mess against the heart of the Phillies lineup in the ninth inning at the Big O.)

For his career, Rauch is a bit worse against lefties (4.91 xFIP v. LH, 3.98 v. RH), which seems to be mostly attributable to a crappy walk rate (3.84 BB/9 v. LH), though it seems as though he tamed that particular flaw last season (2.28 BB/9).

The Jays didn't blow their minds out on a marginal closer, and if there is one thing that we should have all taken away from the later, unproductive years of the B.J. Ryan deal is that overcommitting a lot of money to a guy who's going to pitch 50-odd inning for you is not the best way to build a winner.

With a handful of options emerging through the Jays system and a number of options seemingly available on the free agent wire every year, it's a smart move for the Jays to shun the mythology of the big money closer and make a smart signing like this one.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Room for more

Chances are you've read articles and/or blog posts here there and everywhere concerning just who the key bounceback candidates are should the Jays expect to build - tangibly - upon the unexpected success of 2010.

Aaron Hill and Adam Lind - step right up. Or perhaps you feel it's the younger players - Travis Snider and JP Arencibia come to mind - that need to solidify their status as everyday players, or - fingers crossed - emerging stars.

We've also spilled gobs of digital ink discussing the rotation, which must "step up" now even more than before with the departure of "veteran" Shaun Marcum. Yes, Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, Kyle Drabek, and (insert #5 starter here) must indeed pitch like men for the club to emerge as legitimate contenders in the near future.

But one name is oft overlooked this offseason, and Yunel Escobar has as much potential to take his game - and the fortunes of the Blue Jays - to the next level as any player on the roster. While many fans were left wow-ed by Escobar's hot start and Fernandez-esque defensive wizardry (what?), the truth is that Escobar's overall contribution last season was.....underwhelming.

Ignoring his miserable pre-trade numbers - let's chalk it up to the Atlanta Braves culture of blatant racism (I kid! Kind of!) - Joo-nel still only managed a sub-.700 OPS with the Jays. I know, right? Take away the flair at short and the shared man-bro dugout handshakehugs with Jose Bautista, and that's what we were left with.

But there has to be more in him, doesn't there? There has to be. Twenty-eight years of age (and it seems like a legit 28, not a Cuban 28) seems far too young to be beginning the decline phase of his career. And despite notions of being a bad-body shortstop not prone to aging well, Escobar displays obvious athleticism and is no slug (yet).

In Escobar, the Jays have a shortstop who has drawn MVP votes in the very recent past. Should we expect a similar plateau going forward? No, probably not, unless we want to be completely unreasonable. But what is reasonable is a return to an .800 level OPS with Gold Glove calibre defense (if Ozzie Jeter and his magic glove will ever relinquish the crown) (that's sarcasm).

Plug that into the Jays 2011 everyday lineup and call it an "offseason" win. I'll take that every time.

(But can we please have Manny too? C'mon....)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A new approach to negotiating?

For years, the Jays took their streak of not busting their players' balls in arbitration hearings as a symbol of their enlightened virtue. And being that we're all a bunch of overly polite Canadians, we probably liked it that way. Those are our guys, so why do we want to be something less than accommodating to them?

(And pause now to link to Jeremy Sandler's NatPost piece from late last night which kicked off this whole line of thinking. Lest you think we have an idea of our own.)

With the deadline for avoiding hearings creeping up fast, and the Jays still holding the line on an MLB-high nine players, it seems to us that the front office has a different view on how to approach the process, and how nice is too nice. (Now, cue all of the signings avoiding the arb process dropping on one day. Boom!)

If the Jays front office does indeed continue to be slightly unconventional in their approach (and the Miguel Olivo deal certainly qualifies as that), then maybe there's something to taking a new path to purchasing the players' services.

Certainly, on the top end, the Jays are faced with an unprecedented issue with José Bautista's contract for next year. His otherworldly 2010 campaign may well force the Jays into a hearing, because really, how the hell do you square away the rest of his career with that one season?

The really interesting question is whether if the team will go to arbitration with some of the more marginal cases, and if so, what do they see as the advantage to such an approach? Niceness aside, is there really any advantage to the team staying away from the arbitration hearing? And what's to be gained by the team by going this route?

The past approach to arbitration seemed to have been one of ensuring that the players were appeased and that a few hundred thousand bucks here or there would suffice to ballast the boat. But a $100K here and $200K there, and pretty soon, you're talking real money. The sort of money that the Jays may be more interested in spending on the multitude of draft picks coming this June rather than their seventh bullpen arm and fourth outfielder.

Moreover, this front office seems to be the sort who wouldn't avoid the arbitrator's room if they thought that they could win. Given the amount of time and resources that have been dedicated to the knowledge and reconnaissance aspects of running the Jays over the past 16 months, we would at least imagine that they would know which cases they could go in and win, and from which awards they might need to walk away.

We're not wanting to present this like we know what the team (or the very polite and kindly Alex Anthopoulos) is thinking, but we wouldn't be opposed to the team taking an approach to this process that is something other than what the orthodoxy would suggest they adhere to, if only to see what the result looks like.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Junk from the Tickle Trunk

Because there's precious little out of which we could make a full blog post, here's a few randoms notions which have yet to be formed into an actual idea. (We might not even punctuate this stuff by the end.)

So the consensus is that everyone is just so goddamned gleeful that that Jays have pulled a few of their players into the chilly north to go talk with the fans hither and yon across the country. And ain't it just darned swell that they've gone back to the olden timey days when they did this, and everyone got to know and love Ernie Whitt, and AWWWWW SHUCKS!

Don't get us wrong here: We're not really begrudging this marketing, promotion and PR blitz in the middle of the winter. But we also don't necessarily feel like the Jays owed us this sort of interaction, nor do we think that it is going to seriously move the needle on fan support this year. It's not to say that you don't do it, but winning is the primary thing that is going to get the team to a point where they're playing to something more than a half empty (HALF FULL!) Rogers Centre this year.

Anthony Gose invades my soul
With a lot of empty space to fill up the spot in our brain that obsesses over the Jays, we've spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about Anthony Gose this month. The man who came to the Jays in the Brett Wallace trade (which we'll freely admit sent us into paroxysms of rage) seems to sit out there in the ether, like some distant treasure of unknown power and value that we'll only possess after a long an arduous journey.

(Note to self: Avert your eyes next time you see Lord of the Rings on TV. For Frodo's sake.)

The stats that Gose put up this year are pretty difficult to translate into any sort of tangible conception of his future major league performance, though we'll continue to spin the tale about how he had similar numbers to Carl Crawford at a similar age and level.

Lacking anything more concrete than that, we just go and watch this video of him on YouTube and admire the cut of his jib. (Maybe too much.) High socks! No batting gloves! Willie Mays' number!

We're reasonably certain that our Gose fixation is going to turn into a daily scramble towards the boxscores at...well wherever he ends up this year. (Dunedin? New Hampshire?)

Octavio, reconsidered
Maybe it was some Pollyanna notion that we had that, all things considered, Octavio Dotel wasn't a bad pickup and could close for the time being for this team. But the longer we think about his crappy numbers against lefties, and his propensity to give up the long ball, the more that we realize that this is an arm that was never meant to pitch high leverage innings in the American League East.

Sure, Kevin Gregg tried to throw around batters all year, with varying results. But the notion of Dotel pitching to Big Papi in Fenway or Mark Teixeira or Robinson Cano in Yankee Stadium gives us the shivers. It's made us unusually eager to see Brian Fuentes get signed, posthaste.

(Then again, we also have this notion that the Sausage King is going to end up closing this year anyways, so what's the big deal?)

Friday, January 7, 2011

RickRo's off-balance bracelets

While taking a city train between Perth and Freemantle last week, we had to do a double take when we saw an ad in the car for some mumbo-jumbo sports balance bracelet made of space-age fibres and magnets or some shit. We'd usually not pay much mind to such an ad, but this particular poster featured a photo Jays ace(?) Ricky Romero amongst the product's pro sports endorsers.

(Which, when you're halfway around the world and missing the day-to-day kvetching over the Jays and baseball in general, is enough to lift your spirits.)

Our notion is that these sorts of products are about as effective as any superstition, but if Romero wants to endorse or believe in their effectiveness (and those are two separate isses), we're not particularly fussed. Hell, Shaun Marcum wore so many Phiten titanium necklaces that he could have passed for a Mr. T groupie, and we never thought less of him for it.

But now, America's leading news source (er, TMZ) wrote yesterday that a class action lawsuit has been filed against RickRo's rubber-sports-jewelry-juju provider, with the plaintiffs seeking $5 Million in damages given that there is no scientific proof to substantiate the company's claims of energy fields and optimal energy flow.

(And frankly, while we think these "performance bracelets" are horseshittery of the highest magnitude, we don't particularly think that anyone in their right mind can claim to have been damaged in any way by these dinky little bits of crap. It's not as though anyone is going to seek out the companies that made friendship bracelets back in the 80's and complain that they in no way ensured that those was received them would remain a best friend forever. Although, yeah, we can see why someone with a lot of time, energy and a more profound sense of justice than us would see the need to have the snake oil salesmen taken to task.)

In his page on the Power Balance site, Romero gives his pitch for the product: "Any pitcher will agree that balance, core strength and endurance are keys to their success. With Power Balance I notice an immediate difference in my performance."

And for a half-second after reading what is purported to be Ricky's thoughts on the product, we got a bit concerned that there may be some chance that a) He said that and b) He truly believes. Will news that Power Balance offers no particular advantage to an athlete's balance or power adversely affect his delicate, gullible psyche?

Thankfully, a quick glance through Daylife's photo archives of the hurler shows no evidence that Romero ever wears the Power Balance bracelet in the heat of battle.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The meaning in the marginalia

We'll confess that this past year has been a challenge for us a a blogger.

(And oh, can you not feel our woe.)

Life has become busier at home and work, and we struggle to make the time to really think through the state of affairs with the Jays. And when we do manage to find the time, we invariably find that one of the other exceptional Jays bloggers or beat writers has beaten us to the punch, so the most profound thing we muster up is an echoing of their work with an in-joke tossed in, or some indefensible position taken somewhat out of sport.

Which might be why we've been festishizing the marginal moves and minor league signings lately. These minor league signings and scrap heap pillaging are probably not that interesting, nor will they necessarily determine much about the outcome of the coming season. And the chances that they result in the acquisition of a productive part of this one-day-everything-is-gonna-sound-like-a-rhapsody playoff(!!!1) contender is minute in the extreme.

And yet: Scott Downs was one of those acquisitions. And Jose Bautista was scraped from the alleged bottom of someone else's barrel. So you can never completely write these things off.

But moreover: Few care enough about these signings to pay them much mind. Which offers us a full field of new snow to march through, leaving our own footsteps.

(This whole emphasis on the obscure for the sake of differentiating one's self is sorta the equivalent of buying that Mary Lou Lord record in 1992. Well, maybe sorta.)

Take the Wilfredo Ledezma signing.

Sure, he's got an ERA in the mid-fives, and as a bullpen southpaw, you'd probably want as a bare minimum to find a guy who does better against lefties than righties (which Wil can't claim). Still, there's this drive within us to try to find the positive nugget that can make us believe that somehow, a guy in his 30th year with eight Major League seasons under his belt has something within him that has yet to be mined successfully.

Seriously, this is the conversation we're having internally at 5 AM.

Maybe there's more light to be found in the signing of Chad Cordero. He was once an Expo, an All-Star, and wore the Scarlet "C" as a team's undisputed closer. (128 saves! Saves saves saves!) That was long ago, mind you: Cordero's All-Star appearance came in a year when the Jays representatives were Shea Hillenbrand and B.J. Ryan.

Still, Cordero's two-plus year hiatus due to a labrum injury didn't seem to have bit into his velocity that much. In his best days, Cordero heaved up fastballs in the 89 MPH range, where last year in his limited return with the Mariners, he was clocking in on average at about 87.9 MPH. With a full season of reasonable health, we can envision a scenario where he gets that little bit of jump back and finds the strike zone with more regularity.

Actually, we don't really see these things happening. But we still want to put our chips down on those eventualities, if only to give us a reason to keep watching the wheel turn.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Roberto Alomar - Hall of Famer. Has a ring to it, doesn't it?

If you were to dream up a great baseball player, you'd probably stop yourself short of conjuring up Robbie Alomar, if only because such a combination of talents seems so unlikely.

Alomar was more than a gifted player. He was one who worked hard to continue to develop facets of his game throughout his career, and we were fortunate to see him become as close to a complete player as one could imagine while wearing the old double-blue of the Blue Jays.

We didn't have much doubt that this would come to pass this year, and it is gratifying to see him get 90% of the ballot. (And a little bitter part of us says "one year too late!", but we're not really going to give in to that sentiment, are we?)

This is a very fine day for Blue Jays fans. We hope you're enjoying it as much as we are right now.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Not exactly breaking news

I'm going to be completely honest with you here, friends.

I have no idea where I'm going with this post. Inspiration in these (what's the opposite of dog days?) of winter isn't exactly found with a simple Google news search of 'Toronto Blue Jays'. You'll get articles on shoo-in Hall of Famer Robbie Alomar, "news" of the Octavio Dotel signing, and articles about how these young Jays aren't ready to go all-in just yet (because constructing a contender is exactly like a poker hand).

So let's kick around the Dotel bit. What to make of it? I don't know. As I'm sure you've noticed if you've been paying attention - and I certainly won't hold it against you if you haven't been - I'm really neither here nor there with it. It seems like a carbon-copy replica transaction of the team-friendly Kevin Gregg exploit signing: reel in a middling "name" relief arm close enough to compensation status on a one-year deal, hoping for a best & likely scenario of reasonable performance resulting in a freebie Type-B sandwich pick. And if The Player sucks, decline the option and/or don't offer arb.

Worked well enough for Kevin Gregg, who has recently roped the OriLoLes - oh, those silly little Orioles - into a potential $16-$20 million dollar contract. You read that right. Lest this curious vesting option not come through for ol' Kev, it's still $10M guaranteed. You're welcome, Gregg.

And while Dotel might just come with even scarier numbers - and not the good scary - from the season prior, ask any Cubs fan how they felt about "losing" Kevin Gregg. Let me tell you - I know one or two, and they were downright giddy. It was embarrassing for me.

So it worked before. And it might just work again. But let me tell you something else - I'm starting to get juuuust a little leery of the whole "let's exploit the free agency compensation system and collect draft picks at the expense of signing premium players" strategy. Admittedly, the bullpen is as good a place as any to work the system. And perhaps signing the veteran allows the Jays to groom an in-house arm - a hard throwing youngster not seen as a future rotation piece - as the next great Jays closer. That would be, to me, the ideal.

But at some point, roster construction has to be about more than hoarding picks to strengthen the system. Those assets must be parlayed into a stronger major league roster - be it via trade or free agency. That time will come, of that I remain confident. Even if it's become apparent that it isn't going to be this year.