Friday, November 23, 2012

Tweet Bag - Pertinent Questions, Impertinent Answers

These are interesting times, no?

About three weeks ago, I knew that between work, family, home and all that other non-blog life that I allegedly have, I was about to head into a dark tunnel. "But thank goodness the Jays aren't really going to do much until after the Winter Meetings" I thought to myself. Hey-o!

But enough of my excuses and explanations. Your questions and queries have piled up. Let's get to it.
Oh, for sure, and if my immediate reaction to the Marlins trade was somewhat tempered, the subsequent signings and announcement of John Gibbons' hiring have certainly left me feeling light-headed with excitement. Which isn't to say that this team is guaranteed of anything next year, but it certainly piques your curiosity going into 2013.

My greatest concern heading into the free agent signing period was that the Jays would shell out and overpay on a couple of big contracts to players who might not be worthy aside from the mere fact that they were available. And so the thought of six year deals for Anibal Sanchez or Edwin Jackson had me feeling dread at the possibility of this "big splash" merely for the sake of filling the transactional void.

But what the Jays have managed to do is bring in an elite player at a premium position for the long term and a potential ace for the 2013 season, then supplemented those moves with a reasonable deal for a player who is younger than you think and could be an all-star. There's much to like about that.

I think John Gibbons was an inspired choice. I couldn't be happier to see him back. And that's coming from someone who beat up on Gibby in the early days of this blog's existence.

I took some time in recent days to look back on my gripes or complaints about Gibbons, and it seems as though my greatest hangup was his constant rejigging of the lineup. Which is odd, because my biggest complaint about the last two managers was their unwillingness to change the lineup or reconsider "roles". Towards the end of his run, though, I think I had come around to appreciate Gibbons. I liked how he handled the pitching staff, and thought that he was tactically sound.

One thing that I think was under-appreciated  in his first stint with the Jays was the fact that Gibbons didn't indulge in "small ball". He didn't send runners or bunt or make calls just for the sake of injecting his decisions into the offensive game. After two years of Farrellball, I think we'll welcome the change.

As for who I might have hired: I was beginning to lean towards Sandy Alomar Jr. as my personal preference, and the influx of Latin players certainly helped to sway that thinking. But truth be told, I think the Jays made the better choice.
Although Josh Johnson might end up being the ace of the staff, I'd give the ball to Brandon Morrow on Opening Day. The role of "Opening Day Starter" is largely ceremonial, but I think that Morrow has earned that recognition for what he's done over the past two years. Also, I'd rather not hand it to the New Guy. But that's just me.

Moreover, I think that it is the sort of recognition that he would appreciate, and that would motivate him. It's easy to slip too far into the rational analysis sometimes and neglect to recognize that these players are people.  and sometimes, they need a pat on the back. Or a hug. Or a $10 LCBO gift card. Something to warm their hearts and make them feel special.

(I'm not even joking. Not really. Maybe a bit.)
I'd tweeted at some point that I thought the Jays should consider rotating Travis d'Arnaud into the 1B/DH mix along with Lind - presuming he's still here - and Encarnacion. I know the Jays had begun to get him reps at first in Las Vegas before he hurt his knee and ended his season last year, so I don't think that I am far off.

However, it's worth remembering how valuable d'Arnaud could be as a catcher if he is able to progress and become an above average offensive player while manning that position. There are only so many really good offensive catchers - Buster Posey, Joe Mauer, maybe Yadier Molina, and it drops off quickly from there - whereas you can find first basemen or designated hitters.

I think that the best course of action for this season is to allow J.P. Arencibia to remain as the starter, with John Buck backing up and d'Arnaud getting a month or two in Buffalo to prove he's healthy. But I think they should continue to give him a start or two per week at first if his bat merits it, so that if the Jays have a DH/1B opening, he can come up and get regular at bats.

Over the last two seasons, Smoak has posted a .685 OPS (.290 OBP) in 1024 plate appearances. Adam Lind has a .732 OPS (.303 OBP) in 895 PAs. Both have a 96 OPS+ in that time.

I don't see how there's any improvement to be found, unless you really put a lot of stock into the idea that Smoak still has his best years ahead of him. I would consider him if I didn't have to give up anything in return, but nothing more than that.

What's great about that list is now much positional and lineup flexibility the Jays will have next year. There are a lot of options that get covered off even with just those four players.

If either of Izturis or Bonifacio take the everyday second base job -  and that's my suspicion - then I think that you need to find someone who can cover off the infield in a pinch. The Rockies' Jonathan Herrera might be an option if he were non-tendered, though I use him more as an example.

You probably need one more outfielder as well in that list. Moises Sierra might be an option as the 25th man, though I wouldn't want to ever put him in centerfield, and Davis can't play there for any extended period of time. I've also seen Ryan Roberts' name on lists of players who may be non-tendered, and as a player who can slip from the outfield to the infield when needed, he could be a decent option. Though clearly, I'm not overly enamoured with any of these options.

But since the Jays have brought back John Gibbons, might I suggest that the Jays repatriate John McDonald as well? Sure, they have better offensive options on the bench, but as a versatile and beloved former Jay, I wouldn't mind him as the 25th man.

I have no idea why people would get upset by AA answering a question in French. If that was a complaint, it is beyond stupid.

As to the question of broadening the fan base: I have found that the Quebecois have been very reticent to warm up to the Jays, so I don't think that you'll see much of a movement of former Expos fans embracing the Toronto team. But it is worth noting that there are a half-million people in Ontario for whom French is their first language.

I don't think that you'll see bilingual announcements at the Rogers Centre any time soon, but it certainly doesn't hurt anyone to have a GM who can field a question in French once in a blue moon.
On the one hand, I'm tempted to dismiss your question by suggesting that you're getting way too excited too early about this team. Let's see them lead their division in June before we start comparing them to the greatest teams in franchise history.

I don't think the Jays will have three players with OBPs above .400 (as they did in 1993 with Olerud, Alomar and Molitor), and I don't think that they have the depth of pitching that the 1992 Jays did. But this is a pretty good team on paper, and they might have a lineup that runs five or six deep and enough pitching to get them to 90 wins. If all goes well (and it so seldom does, right?)

"Complainy." Just a stab in the dark, there. Though with lots of precedent.
Reyes SS
Rasmus CF
Bautista RF
Encarnacion 1B
Melky LF
Lawrie 3B
Lind DH
Bonifacio 2B
Arencibia C

Morrow SP.

So there. 

Edwin Encarnacion. He's dreamy.
Might be a decent buy-low option in that role, though his strikeouts would make people wistful for Kelly Johnson. I also thought that he had hit well at Rogers Centre, but the numbers aren't that impressive. Also, I think he wants a full time gig.
Shovel. My walk is smaller than a batters box.
I take the over. Even with his injury-hampered seasons, he's averaged 136 games per year since his first full season.

And one last one before we call it a day:
This is one that's hard for me to nail down, in part because I actually enjoy myself when I am able to make it to the game. I hear a lot of belly-aching that there aren't better food choices, and that the beer is too expensive and it's not from a craft brewery nearby and the grass too fake and the scoreboard is too busy and there are too many ads and the PA is too loud and the stadium isn't pretty enough. I dunno. Like I say: I enjoy myself at the ballgame, because I'M AT THE BALLGAME. But that's me. I'm pretty easygoing that way.

I will say that I think there has been a lot done over the past five years to help enhance the fan experience, from the vast expansion of the Jays Shop to many new food options on the 100-level concourse. The new options aren't mind-blowing, but I find that most of my non-baseball friends who come to a game with me are more interested in typical ballpark fare: hot dogs and the like.

One thing that might be nice is to see some WiFi installed, at least in certain nerd sections. (Might I suggest section 231?) The wireless coverage in the stadium can be dodgy at times, oddly enough, so to have a spot for those who like to have a phone or tablet fired up through the game might make sense.

Ultimately, the team shouldn't rest on its laurels. If there are some of the "improvements" that didn't necessarily resonate with fans - the chicken wing concession comes to mind - then they should always look to improve on those.

One hopes that the spirit of adventurous improvement extends beyond the field, though to be frank, I'd be thrilled to scarf back a hot dog and fries at a playoff game this year.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Whole New World

Well, then.  We've had ourselves quite a couple weeks as Blue Jays fans, haven't we?

Between the Maicer Izturis signing, and then THE TRADE (TM) and most recently the Melky Cabrera signing, your humble correspondent has barely had time to catch his breath.  There's been lots of smart, passionate and well-written stuff put out there -- both online and in the good old MSM -- about what's been going on, and I don't want to rehash it too much here.

So without getting too philosophical about what's transpired, and what might still be coming down the pipeline, I have a few short thoughts.

I've been a fan of this team for a long time, but only for the last, say, six or seven years have I followed personnel changes closely enough to form strong opinions about them.  I was a much younger man in the early 1990s, and the significance of the Joe Carter/Roberto Alomar trade, or the Paul Molitor or David Cone or Dave Winfield acquisitions, or the others that turned a good team into a great one, were mostly lost on me.  I was happy that my team was getting better and ecstatic that they won two championships, but I didn't spend much time thinking about how all that was happening, at what cost, or about whether it would last.  I was mostly thinking about who might be able to get me booze for the weekend without getting carded.

Now, I'm an older, more dedicated, (I like to think) more informed, and more opinionated fan than I was in those days.  I've tried to recognize the team for what it was for several years:  a usually good, never great, fairly entertaining bunch that kept my attention and made me appreciate baseball a little more all the time.  At the same time, I understood and accepted that there was a difference between the way they approached the business of the game and the way teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and other big spenders did.  I could still enjoy them for what they were.

The past seven to ten days may not have completely turned that whole paradigm on its head, but it's as close as we've seen to that happening.  Whether the Toronto Blue Jays, and their corporate ownership at Rogers, now intend to remain a top-5 or top-10 payroll in baseball for perpetuity remains to be seen.  But for the time being, the franchise has cast their lot with the big boys.

The expectations are different now, and they might not live up to them.  And even if they don't, we'd all be well advised to think back to how we felt this week -- this dizzying blend of optimism, anxiousness, hope and a bit of fear -- and remember that it was still about as good as we've felt about this team for roughly a generation.

Best week ever?  Best week ever.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Splish Splash - This Is What You've Wanted All Along

Hey look, it's Emilio Bonifacio!

You wanted a splash, and you got it. In fact, it's hard to conceive of a move more splashy than this. Twelve players - Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck in one direction, and Yunel Escobar, Henderson Alvarez, Adeiny Hechavarria, Jeff Mathis, Jake Marisnick, Justin Nicolino, and Anthony Desclafani in the other - along with tens of millions of dollars in salary shifting north. Not to mention the deep impact on the psyches of the two fan bases.

Big names. A much bigger payroll. It's precisely that for which so many of you - fans and media alike - have clamoured over the past few years. It's a demonstration of might. A show of strength. And as such, I hesitate to dampen the expectations or somehow speak ill of this pending mega-deal.

And yet, here I stand with a bucket of cold water weighing heavily in my hands, the weight of which is dominating my thoughts at the moment.

Okay, let's take a step back. Let me splash a bit of that bucket's contents on my own face to snap myself out of this odd funk, and to accentuate the positives of this proposed deal.

The Blue Jays come out of this deal with a pitcher who can pitch like a legitimate staff ace, and another starter who has traditionally been reliable for more than 30 starts and 200 innings per season. plus an All-Star offensive talent at a premium position who has put up WARs around 6.0 in multiple seasons. Plus, they get a versatile switch-hitting utility player and a veteran catcher who returns to the fold, and who remains a pretty good catch and throw guy.

If that's where the Blue Jays netted out at the end of the offseason, you would have probably been pretty satisfied that they were living up to their promises of adding big league players to the 2013 roster. And maybe more importantly, you would have been happy to see the payroll's "parameters" - collect yourselves, it's gonna be okay - broadened somewhere closer to the $120 million mark.

If seeing "proven veterans" added to the 25-man roster and a substantial amount to the payroll is your thing, you're understandably over the moon today. I can't blame you, either. The notion that the club has more resources going forward expands my notion of what will be possible in the coming years, and that maybe the Blue Jays will settle into life as a top-10 payroll. This is all good, and the sort of thing you can dream on.

Now, here come the bucket.

Let's not mistake this trade for a long term solution to the Jays' woes. Because the Jays are trading for a single season of Josh Johnson (or his pursuant value) this trade is completely oriented towards success in 2013. The Blue Jays needed two starters to plug into their rotation while they wait on the development of the next generation and the convalescing masses, and in order to get that, they needed to take two bad contracts - Buehrle and Buck - and one very expensive-if-defensible contract in Reyes.

The Jays also moved five players under the age of 24 to Miami, and while upsides of Alvarez and Hechavarria seem to be as something less than All-Stars, they are still in their ascendance. The Jays' system doesn't seem to have been overly culled in sending Nicolino (perhaps the most movable of the Lansing Three) and Marisnick (who struggled in a year in which he was pushed through two levels), but there's plenty that is going in the other direction.

And all of that is wagered on Josh Johnson being healthy and having a good season next year. That's the bottom line.

Certainly, the notion of José Reyes as a fixture in Toronto is an attractive one, even at that price point, but by this time next year, people will be judging this trade on two levels: Did the Blue Jays make the playoffs? Or did they retain Johnson beyond 2013? Otherwise, you're staring down the $39 million left on Buehrle's deal and hoping that it is offset by Reyes' performance, minus the $82 million he'll be owed from 2013 through 2017.

And don't forget that the mere presence of these players by no means guarantees a good outcome. As much as the Marlins were pushed to the forefront at the beginning of last season, let's take a moment and recognize that the same players we're gleefully taking in are the ones who were heralded as missing pieces which would put them over the top in the NL East last year.

Our splash? It's last year's splash in Miami.  

There's plenty of downside to this deal, but if I'm going to be optimistic about it, I'll recognize that a bigger payroll permits the Jays to make some mistakes and sit on them if they need to. If Buehrle's contract turns into Barry Zito's in two years' time, it's possible that this newly flush front office can swallow it and go about their business. 

Again, let me be clear: It's really fun to envision all of these players wearing blue next year. Also, this move is probably a much better one than overpaying for one or two starting pitchers. Would I trade this package for Zach Greinke and Anibal Sanchez or Edwin Jackson? Probably not, especially when you consider the years and annual salary they'd have commanded if they even deigned to come to Toronto.

Ultimately, the team is better today than they were at lunchtime yesterday. If I feel somehow as though I have to begrudge the mechanism that got them to that place, then let me at least acknowledge that there's a reason to be excited about the team on the field. And that should be all that matters.

But if this goes completely pear-shaped, keep in mind that this is the game that many of you implored the Jays to play. You want this? You got it. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

"Hello, Jays Shop? I'd Like to Return This Mike Aviles Jersey."

Hey, remember last week, when I looked ahead to how a new manager might make use of a player like Mike Aviles, holding out hope for some creativity and ingenuity with respect to platoons and defense and what-not?  Yeah, never mind about all that.
Alex Anthopoulos flipped Aviles quicker than a downtown Toronto real estate speculator, albeit perhaps with less expectation of profit.  Any added middle infield flexibility Aviles' presence on the roster represented evaporated quickly in favour of yet another hard-throwing righty reliever in Esmil Rogers, who (for now) joins Steve Delabar, Brad Lincoln, and some others of that ilk in a somewhat crowded bullpen.

It's a curious deal for a bunch of reasons, the first of which is related to the deal that brought Aviles to Toronto in the first place.  I remain of the view that getting a viable, versatile middle infield piece in return for a manager with a middling track record was a bit of a coup for Anthopoulos.  In fact, the GM himself seemed to envision some kind of 2013 role for Aviles too, based on his comments to the media after the trade was finalized. Yet here we are a week later with the same questions about second base that were there at the end of the season. There's obviously a lot of off-season left, with time to answer the infield questions and others, and we can't know which players the organization might be targeting as potential fits.  But it's certainly frustrating as a fan to see a roster gap partially dealt with, and then thrown back into uncertainty within a span of days.  And as Colin Wyers of Baseball Prospectus pointed out on Twitter yesterday, while two data points don't make a trend, this practice of appearing to win a trade, only to quickly move the most useful return piece elsewhere for a relief pitcher, does look to be a bit of an Anthopoulos specialty. 

If all that wasn't troubling enough, I had an even more uncomfortable thought yesterday as I mentally digested this deal:  what does it mean for Sergio Santos?  Or more to the point, is it possible that the team remains pessimistic about Santos coming back healthy enough in 2013 to be effective in the late innings?  Santos is surely Exhibit A for why accumulating bullpen depth is a good thing, because you never know how hard-throwing, maximum effort pitchers who tend to find careers in relief will hold up.  Santos certainly has the potential, as well as a short but impressive track record, to be a shutdown reliever for the Jays.  But shoulder surgeries are a tricky business, and despite reports that he'll have no problem being ready for Spring Training, it's interesting that Anthopoulos continues to accumulate right-handed relief regardless.  I mean, maybe I'm being paranoid and Santos will show up to camp buckling knees with a slider and blowing a fastball past batters like nothing ever happened.  I'd love if that were the case.  It's just... does that really seem like the most likely scenario?  And isn't it better to prepare for the possibility that he might not be the same pitcher again?

If there's a saving grace in this whole business, it's that the Jays are rid of Yan Gomes, a player for whom my dislike grew with every appearance.  I don't have anything against the guy personally, and he seems like an earnest enough ballplayer.  But frankly, there was no reason to think Gomes had a future as even a borderline utility player for the Blue Jays, and I'm relieved that the organization will no longer have to deal with the temptation to pretend he might.  At whichever positions he might have been expected to fill in, I truly think the team can find plenty of other options who can do the job more effectively at the same price.  I wish him well, but packaging him in a deal for a living, breathing major-league baseball player of any kind was probably a best-case scenario.