Tuesday, January 31, 2012

State of the State of the Franchise

(Photo courtesy of @rallycap_andy...artsy!)

We weren't able to make it to the Rogers Centre in person for Monday night's State of the Franchise meeting between the team's brain trust, the season ticket holders and other superfans and hangers on.

We were able to check in via the live stream and follow along with the snarktacular tomfoolery of our Twitter pals who were in attendance, gazing up the pantlegs of President Paul Beeston, GM Alex Anthopoulos and Manager John Farrell. (Oh, and moderated Buck "Albert" Martinez, just for good measure.) From the tales of morning after woe from those who we know were in attendance last night, it sounds like a good time was had by some.

A few observations, if you'll indulge us.

Beestmode: They say: "Only speak when it improves on the silence."

At last year's State of the Franchise, Beeston let slip that the team could, in some conceivable universe, spend $120 million or more in player salaries. No sooner had that vague speculation slipped out than the cries of "when can the payroll get to $120 million?" began. Give people a fencepost off in the distance, and they'll train their eyes on it to the exclusion of all else.

This year, Beeston fed the future fixation by intimating that the team has been examining ways of playing baseball on grass in the Rogers Centre. It was a bit of a dumbfounding statement, especially since we were prepared to scoff at the notion when it was raised by a fan.

In spite of Beeston's subsequent assurances to the subsequent media scrum that the installation of natural turf is feasible, we're left feeling more than a bit skeptical. To install a grass field would require some sort of drainage system being installed into a 23 year-old stadium, which is no small feat. Subsequently, a grass field would require plenty of sunlight, which would mean keeping the roof open on cold days an in all sorts of other weather. And while Beeston floated the notion that a multi-use stadium could indeed accommodate multiple tenants and still preserve the precious new sod, we also remember hearing how well the current carpet was supposed to stand up in spite of all the non-baseball events.

Not to dismiss the notion outright, because the ideal situation for the Blue Jays is that the park is exclusively theirs and that they can find a way to spread out a luscious lawn with impunity. But by giving the idea just enough oxygen last night, Beeston has helped to make the rolls of turf look that much uglier for a large swath of the fans.

Compressed Timelines: Remember the "Five Year Plan"? Oh, how we wish we could forget that monolithic bit of rhetoric which overshadowed so much of the last regime. And yet, there was Beeston, assuring those in attendance that he expects the Jays to be in the playoffs "two-to-three times" in the next five years.

More tellingly, Beeston mentioned that while a postseason berth doesn't guarantee a World Series, that getting there gives you as much of an opportunity as "the other nine teams." We're not sure if that was a slip of the tongue, or if Beeston views the expanded post-season as a fait accompli.

Maybe we're just reading a lot into nothing, but it may be revealing that the team's president has oriented his impressions of future success around a ten-team playoff.

Succession Plans: Someone (whose identity I can't confirm, but you know who you are) posed a question with regards to the future planning in the Jays' executive offices, hinting at something that we've been carrying in our back pocket for a while: The notion that Alex Anthopoulos will eventually - maybe soon - take over the Jays' presidency from Paul Beeston.

Given Beeston's reticence to assume the position in the first place, we would assume that he's not looking to spend that many more years at the helm of the franchise. Moreover, the role of the president may well suit Anthopoulos as it provides for some greater personal security and an ability to set the long-term vision for the club.

How would AA do sitting around the table with his fellow senior executives at Rogers? We actually think this might be a perfect role for him. Eventually.

In Search of Authority: We've seen a lot of this in our years as a blogger and a longtime listener to the JaysTalk post-game shows, but it was great fun to hear the competition among the questioners when it came to the legitimacy of their fandom.

"I've been a fan since 1977!"

"I've been a season ticket holder for 32 years!"

Of course, most people who feel the need to air these bona fides do so immediately in advance of some angry screed with regards the direction of the franchise. As though watching Danny Ainge flail at the ball for a year or so in the early 1980's somehow equips the mind with a greater insight for the game than is possessed by those employed by the team.

Look, we get that people are going to be fans on their own terms, and we're going to do a better job at not telling you how to cheer for the Jays. If you feel as though the 30 years or however long you've been a fan gives you a license to be angry and impatient, have at it. Be that thing.

Just don't expect your presence at the home opener against the White Sox in 1977 to legitimize your views on Colby Rasmus' contract.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Omar's Coming, and That Other Signing

The more rational side of our brain is chastising the goofball side for giving any consideration to the Blue Jays' signing of Omar Vizquel to a minor league deal. (Especially given the news much more significant deal that dropped at almost the same time.) And yet, we just can't help ourselves.

The truth is that we'll be somewhat surprised if Vizquel actually makes the team out of Spring Training. On the other hand, the Jays have a dearth of depth in the middle infield, and we wouldn't mind if they need to keep Vizquel on the bench for the occasional pinch-running/bunting/late defensive replacement role. In other words: The Johnny Mac Role.

Moreover, Vizquel's OPS in over the past two seasons as a bench player is .647, which is better than that of whippersnappers Mike McCoy (.546), Luis Valbuena (.528) and even John McDonald (.637).

Speaking of Johnny Mac: If you tilt your head and look at this the right way, it's like the Jays have let Luke Skywalker go but managed to pick up Obi-Wan Kenobi. Vizquel was John McDonald's mentor when he was scuffling early in his career, barely keeping himself above another assignment to the Buffalo Bisons, and McDonald always spoke well of him whenever they met again on the field.

Funny, but in spite of his 23 years in the Majors and 11 Gold Gloves, we figure that every second question that Vizquel will field when and if he comes to Toronto will be: "So what's Johnny Mac really like?"

What's In a Number?: For the most part over his career, Vizquel sported number 13 in honour of Venezuelan shortstop hero Dave Concepcion. That's with the exception of last season, when manager Ozzie Guillen - another Venezuelan shortstop - had beaten him to the punch. As a result, Vizquel requested and received a special dispensation from Chicago White Sox legend Luis Aparicio - another Venezuelan shortstop - to wear his retired number 11 last season.

It seems unlikely that the Jays would have Brett Lawrie give up his uniform number for the sake of a bench player, especially after having printed up and shipped thousands of "Lawrie 13" jerseys and t-shirts this offseason. We half-joked on Twitter that maybe Vizquel could make a request to wear Robbie Alomar's number 12 next season, just to keep that particular streak of un-retiring numbers alive.

Perhaps the most fitting tribute that Vizquel could pay in these parts would be to wear John McDonald's number 6 next season. We can hardly think of a way that he'd endear himself more to the fans.

How Old Is He?: Not to bag on Vizquel too much for his age, but we'll confess to have completely forgotten about his five year stint in Seattle at the start of his career. But can you blame us? It happened 23 years ago!

A quick bit of perspective: Vizquel's rookie season took place five years before 41 year-old Darren Oliver's rookie campaign. As he headed north for the first time as a big leaguer, the number one song in America was Mike + The Mechanics' "The Living Years", and the number one movie at the Box Office was "Fletch Lives".

In his first game against the Blue Jays on April 26, 1989, he faced Dave Stieb and a lineup as follows: Lloyd Moseby, Rance Mulliniks, Ernie Whitt, George Bell, Fred McGriff, Pat Borders, Nelson Liriano, Rob Ducey, Jesse Barfield and Manuel Lee. Vizquel struck out twice, once at the hands of Stieb and again at the hands of reliever David Wells.

When Vizquel played his first game in Toronto on May 8th of 1989, the Jays' home park was still Exhibition Stadium.

And his first big league homer? July 23rd, 1989 against the Blue Jays, off of Jimmy Key.

That Other Signing: There are few Jays who we root for more than Brandon Morrow. Before last season, we sincerely thought that 2011 would be a revelatory year, and that he'd bust out into a full blown ace by the season's end.

Of course, it didn't play out that way, though we continue to take solace in the nerd stats (of which we possess the most tenuous understanding), which seem to indicate that Morrow's been incredibly unlucky in recent years. With the backing of a better outfield defense, especially with Colby Rasmus in centrefield, we're optimistic that there are better years ahead for Morrow.

Moreover, with the signifcant packages of propects that teams are giving up for Mat Latos or Gio Gonzalez, we're happy to have Morrow in the fold for the next three or four seasons. A quick scan of the ratio numbers posted by the three pitchers might lead a homer like us to believe that the Jays didn't need to empty out their farm system to get an emerging top-of-the-rotation starter.

Morrow - 10.2 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 2.94 SO/BB

Gonzalez - 8.8 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, 2.16 SO/BB

Latos - 8.6 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 2.98 SO/BB

If the Jays didn't already have Morrow in their system, there's a lot of us who'd be salivating at the prospect of acquiring him right about now.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Little Things We Love About Baseball

It's been a long winter already, with still two more months to go until the real games get started. And boy howdy, we're bummed out about it.

The notion that we'll spend another month talking in negative terms - what the Jays haven't done, who they haven't signed and what they won't achieve next year - is enough to make us barricade ourselves in the basement under a pile a pillows and stuffed animals, waiting for warmth of the spring to come rouse us back to a happy place.

In the midst of this pity party, we noticed a handful of fine baseball-loving folks feeding their sunnier thoughts about the game into Twitter yesterday, under the #WhyILoveBaseball hashtag. Those cheerful notions made us reflect on the little things that we love about the game, and what we look forward to seeing soon. We've collected a few off the top of our head to share with you.

Gappers: This isn't to diminish how awesome it is to see players smack-a-tater, but there's something sublime about the mounting excitement that builds when a well-hit ball gets into the outfield gap. It takes an extra second or two to figure out if any of the outfielders have any sort of play on the ball ("That ball's gonna get down!") and then the fun starts ("And it's gonna get to the wall!") If there are runners on, you've got motion around the diamond and players scoring and guys taking extra bags and cut-off throws and sliding plays at the bases. How much fun is that?

Lefty Pick Off Moves: We grew up watching Jimmy Key confound runners who attempted to distinguish between his move to first base and his move home, and there are few plays that we enjoy more than a well-executed pick off. (Skip to 1:26 of this video, from Key's induction into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, to see Otis Nixon get got by a quick and deceiving move to first.) Conversely, nothing is quite so infuriating as to watch your own runner be picked off or lean back to the base unnecessarily. It's always a little disappointing these days to see the number of lefties who don't tend this skill, and who do little more than monitor the runner and chase him back with a soft toss.

The Number 42: We always find it a little weird when watching another sport and seeing someone wearing Jackie Robinson's number. But during the baseball season, we always like whenever a camera shot wanders over towards the retired numbers in the ballpark and finds number 42 among the local squad's honourees. It's seems to us to be a good and fitting tribute to the man, and a reminder of what to us is baseball's greatest shame.

Players Acting as Impromptu Base Coaches: Occasionally, you'll catch either the runner coming around third waving the runner behind him in to score. More often, a runner who's already crossed the plate looks back and signals to the runners behind him when and where to slide. Sometimes, a committee comprised of runners and on-deck batters gather to provide voluminous feedback to the baserunners. And sometimes the "hands-up, stand-up" signal morphs perfectly into a congratulatory high five.

Uniforms and Flair: If you've read our blog for any amount of time, you've probably picked up on how much we love baseball uniforms. The different permutations and the peculiar, one-day one-offs that pop up throughout the season are fun to see. But we also love seeing the multitude of ways that players make the uniforms their own: Wristbands, armbands, high socks, baggy pants, long sleeves, eye black, shades on, shades off, flip-downs, flat brim, taped wrists, shin guard, pine tar stains, double ear-flaps, mutli-coloured cleats and Franklin batting gloves. Just to name a few. They might not always be what we'd wear on the field of play, but the way a player dresses up his uniform always helps to differentiate him from every other player. It's always nice to see some personality out there.

Inning Ending Strikeouts: Especially as games reach their later stages, and the outs become more important (meaningful?), having your pitcher get the better of the batter is great fun. Whether if it comes from extracting a swing at something nasty or freezing the batter with an unexpected breaking ball in the zone, nothing elicits a fist pump quite like a K to end a frame. (Bonus points for the strikeouts that come accompanied by the pitcher hopping off the mound.)

That's our list, and we feel a little bit better just having shared it. How about you? What warms your baseball heart on these cold winter nights?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Significance of Yunel Escobar

The Boston Red Sox traded ex-Blue Jay Marco Scutaro to the Colorado Rockies the other day. You may be asking yourself, “Why? Who’s gonna play shortstop for them in 2012?” and you wouldn’t be alone. Unless you believe that the team is making a won’t-take-no-for-an-answer push to re-acquire Hanley Ramirez, the move doesn’t seem to make a great deal of sense for the Sox for 2012.

The players equipped to defensively handle the shortstop position are quite often poorly equipped to hit at the major-league level. Those whose bats stand out at the position often get moved elsewhere on the diamond (see Rodriguez, Alex and Cabrera, Miguel). Scutaro adequately did the job in the field and at the plate – and even though he’s clearly on the back end of his career and coming off some injuries, he’s still better than most. It’s a tough position to fill, so trading a capable shortstop and not getting one in return has the potential to be a blow to a major league roster.

Mike Aviles and Nick Punto are useful-enough big leaguers, but there’s a reason Boston is looking ahead to a platoon arrangement for the two of them: because neither of them are good enough to do the job for 140+ games on their own. Frankly, it’s a situation Jays fans know pretty well.

There was a bona fide decade of darkness in Toronto at the shortstop position until Alex Anthopoulos swung the deal sending Tim Collins, Tyler Pastornicky and, most significantly, Alex Gonzalez to the Braves for Yunel Escobar (oh, and Jo Jo Reyes too, but never mind that).

Gonzalez was really just the latest in a revolving door of marginal big league talent that had cycled through the position since the turn of the century. Setting aside our beloved John McDonald (and forgetting, as so many do, about how dismal with the bat he really is, as his career .275 OBP illustrates), the rogues’ gallery included:

    Scrappygritty David Eckstein;
    Prospect bust Russ Adams;
    Chris “Hey, Remember Chris Gomez?” Gomez;
    Chris Woodward;
    A 37-year-old Mike Bordick; and
    A couple partial seasons from Felipe Lopez before he was shipped out of town.

(Funny thing: Felipe Lopez was traded in part because there was a perception of middle infield depth in the system at the time. Worked out real nice in the subsequent years, dontcha think?)

Before all that, we were treated to the Other, More Handsome Alex Gonzalez, and a season of really fun craziness from Tony Batista.

In 2009 and 2010, the team basically fell ass-backwards into some above-average contributions from Scutaro and Gonzalez, but neither was a long-term fix at the position.

That never came until Gonzalez was flipped for Yunel Escobar. And since there’s Sweet Fuck All else going on in the baseball world in the depths of January, I’m going to sing his praises a little bit.

I think we take for granted just how important an addition to this team Escobar has been. In the mighty American League East, you can make a compelling case that he’s the best every-day shortstop in the division (matched up against weaker platoons in Boston and Tampa, a declining Derek Jeter, and a more one-dimensional J.J. Hardy, on whom Escobar has 40 points of career OBP at the same age).

Escobar can be penciled in at the top of the lineup card for the foreseeable future, getting on base at a respectable clip, and playing solid defensive at a premium defensive position. That, as a lot of other teams know and the Jays experienced for far too long, is worth a whole lot in the major leagues.

When the Jays do take that next step into the post-season and greater glories (as I think they will), I’m convinced we’ll look back at the Escobar acquisition as a turning point. For those of us who believe that the team is making clear, significant strides to building an organization that can reach the Holy Grail of “sustained success”, Yunel Escobar is Exhibit A.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Instant Upgrades

There’s a very specific feeling I get whenever the Red Sox or the Yankees make major player acquisitions to improve their respective teams. It’s something close to pure viciousness in its ugliest form. I have friends who are Red Sox and/or Yankee fans, and in these instances my feelings toward them move beyond mere annoyance, into the realm of wanting to swing heavy blunt objects into the hoods of their cars.

Eventually I calm down, of course. Even though I’ve learned that life is one crushing defeat after another until you just wish Flanders was dead, it’s hardly worth losing sleep over something as inconsequential as baseball.

I was at a function on Friday night (ed: Oh, la-dee-da, a “function”? Hope you didn’t spill any wine spritzer on your good Metallica t-shirt), so my Twitter obsession had to take a back seat to making small talk and eating while standing for a couple hours. When I got a chance to catch up, that old familiar feeling was there waiting for me. The New York Yankees had acquired potential perennial star pitcher Michael Pineda from the Seattle Mariners, and then they went out and signed another more than serviceable arm in free agent starter Hiroki Kuroda.

Instantly, the already-toughest team in the AL East got even tougher, going from a rotation that was going to consist of CC Sabathia and no small amount of hope to one that is likely to make life pretty difficult for opponents at least 80% of the time.

Once I worked through my usual stages of rage, frustration, and resignation, I got to thinking less about how brutal it might be in 2012 for the Blue Jays to face the Yankees, and more about how the Blue Jays themselves could make a similar instant upgrade to the rotation.

If we’re to believe the scuttlebutt, Alex Anthopoulos has been burning up the phone lines in search of another reliable starting pitcher to slot in among Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow for 2012, and perhaps beyond. And we all know what 2011’s rotation looked like apart from those two. Yes, we saw the emergence of a potential contributor in Henderson Alvarez and the feel-good story of Dustin McGowan’s return near the end of the year, but we also saw backward steps from Brett Cecil and Kyle Drabek; 110 forgettable, negative WAR innings from Jo Jo Reyes; and a selection of bullpen fill-ins and minor league call-ups rounding things out.

One can easily understand AA’s apparent eagerness to acquire an arm with more staying power, like a Mat Latos or Matt Garza. I have a certain amount of support for the idea myself, but I don’t think it will be catastrophic if it doesn’t happen before the start of the season – precisely because those remaining in-house options represent a certain amount of opportunity.

I’m not betting on all of Brett Cecil, Kyle Drabek and Dustin McGowan to step into 2012 and make big impacts. But a really oversimplified (and probably incorrect) way of looking at it is that there’s a 33.3333% chance that one of them will. A resurgent McGowan/Drabek/Cecil would mean a great deal to this team. If one out of the three were to somehow become a consistent, 2-3 WAR pitcher in 2012 (coupled with a decent full season from Alvarez and no unpleasant surprises from Romero and Morrow), the team would suddenly have four pretty nice options out of five in the rotation.

It might sound like a stretch, but Cecil put up 2.6 fWAR in 172.2 innings in 2010 before last year’s regression. McGowan, in his last mostly-healthy season in 2007, put up 3.9 fWAR in 169.2 innings, which was right there with Felix Hernandez (4.1 fWAR in 2007), Justin Verlander (also 4.1), and Cole Hamels (3.8) – all of whom pitched more innings than him. Even in 2008, he put up 2.3 fWAR in 111.1 innings. And that’s not to discount Drabek, who was one of baseball’s most highly regarded prospects for a very good reason.

If two of them were to ascend (or re-ascend) to such levels, well, in the words of the immortal Carl Weathers, baby, you got a stew goin’.
It would create the type of major-league rotation depth that most teams simply don’t have, and if they do, it’s not matched by the kind of pitching prospect depth that the Jays have also built – the kind that AA has been hesitant to part with in rumoured trades this offseason.

With this in mind, missing out on the acquisition of a starter in the off-season begins to concern me less, because it’s become apparent that AA sees mid-season and specifically the trade deadline as the time when the true impact deals can be made in his situation. He’s consistently thrown aside the notion that only “contenders” can improve when the market heats up mid-summer.

With hoarded pitching depth from which to deal at the deadline, AA’s hand would be even stronger, his flexibility and leverage greater, and the available arms to acquire possibly even more plentiful.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday Buffet - A Little of This, A Little of That

We could have offered up another long, ponderous discussion of the relative merits of prudence versus boldness, but it's Friday, and you deserve better. Follow along as we dip our tongs into some tasty morsels.

All the Young Jays: We're not sure where in recesses of our memory last year's rookie familiarization tour has gone to hide, but we were pleasantly impressed to be reintroduced to the concept once again for the first time yesterday. (For more of the particulars on who came and what they had to say, see Mike Cormack's piece on Sportsnet.ca, and hear some of the audio gleaned from the players by Mike Wilner and Kayla Harris on Fan590.com.)

There's a reality to being the lone MLB team outside of the U.S., which is that few young players have a clear sense of what sort of city Toronto is, and what it truly means to play in Canada. For many young men who have never left their home country before their first trip across the border, demystifying the process and letting them get a taste of what awaits them when they make it to this side of the great frontier might be just enough motivation to focus their minds in the final year or so of minor league ball.

It's one thing to have a great system, but we're impressed by the forethought the Jays' management is showing in preparing the next crop of players before they get their call to The show. If nothing else, it seemed to work well for Brett Lawrie and Eric Thames last year, neither of whom would have been counted on to contribute double-digits in homers last January.

The Next Johnny Mac?: Stemming from his invitation to the Rookie Orientation, there's been a bit of chatter about Jonathan Diaz, who garnered comparisons to John McDonald for his defensive prowess.

(Which, if you think about it, is just about the highest praise that can be doled out in this part of the baseball world.)

It seemed to us as though Diaz has been scuffling around the Jays' system since our blog was in short pants, and though we remember Diaz looking good in the field in a few Spring Training contests last season, it wasn't enough to make his name pop into our head at any point in the interim. Upon a glance at his Baseball-Reference.com page, and we've come to find a different comp for Diaz: He might just be the next Mike McCoy.

Diaz is already 26 (turning 27 by the opening week of the season), which puts him into the same category of "late bloomer" as McCoy. Moreover, Diaz has shown a significant skill in getting on base (.363 OBP in six minor league seasons, .357 at Double-A and .343 at Triple-A), but he seemingly gets the bat knocked out of his hands when bringing it through the zone, slugging at a .296 clip over his minor league career.

He's managed eight homers in those six seasons and 78 doubles over those six seasons, and his base-stealing tool doesn't seem refined enough to compensate for the lack of pop in his bat (31 career steals versus 25 times caught). For comparison's sake, Mikey Mick put up a .375 OBP and .369 slugging in ten minor league seasons, getting his first taste of MLB action at the age of 28.

The Jays aren't especially deep up the middle, and one collision in shallow centrefield could see them starting McCoy and Luis Valbuena for an extended period of time next season. In that context, we could see dropping Diaz into the number nine slot and letting him bunt people over for a few weeks. Just like Johnny Mac did.

Wow...did our generalize anxiety just crank up a notch or what?

The Yoenis Cespedes Myth Machine: We have a theory about Cuban cigars, and it goes like this: Dominicans are often better, but the mythology that's built around Cubans because of how unattainable they are to Americans makes many over value them.

(Which reminds us: We really shouldn't compare human beings to tobacco products, should we?)

We'll confess to having been sucked into the hype around Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes in recent months. His bizarre showcase videos (replete with Christopher Cross musical interludes, leg pressing a full stack plus two grown men, shout outs to Ahman Green and his mom and the roasting of beasts) were amusingly amateurish, and yet, they sold us.

As Cespedes saw his first action in the Dominican Winter League yesterday (three strikeouts in three at bats), Clay Davenport worked through a rough estimate on his blog of how Cespedes' Cuban league stats would translate into the Major Leagues. The article is interesting for those of you who statistically inclined, but for those who'd prefer to cut to the chase, Davenport figures Cespedes' Equivalent Average (EqA) would be around .267. (This would be an OPS around .774
with somewhere between 25 and 30 homers.)

What's intriguing to us about this is that even if the Jays were to throw themselves into the Yoenis Sweepstakes, he's likely find himself in the crowded competition for the starting left field spot, up against Eric Thames, who is two years younger (so far as we know) and posted a .263 EqA last season. Cespedes would seem from some descriptions to be a much better fielder than what we've observed from Thames, but considering the hefty price tag that the Cuban is looking to have met, this is just another expensive free agent deal that the Jays would be wise to pass up.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Catching Up - Is This It?...And Other Imponderables

Having cut ourselves off from the trickle of news for the past few days, it's time to examine the droplets that have just managed to cover the bottom of our cup whilst we were out of data range.

The End of the Winter: It's difficult for us to get a decent read on yesterday's conference call with the GM, given that we picked up on it via a handful of tweets that came blasting into our mobile device once we re-entered cell range. There was a tone of resignation that came across in some the subsequent reports, with Alex Anthopoulos seemingly admitting that there wasn't much left that the Jays could reasonably accomplish, while at the same hinting that there's more that he'd like to do.

To us, the most salient quote that we read from yesterday's chinwag (as conveyed by Sportsnet.ca's Mike Cormack) was this:

"There are a lot of things we could have done this past off-season to say that we did it, but I don’t think they would have been good timing or good trades for us…I think they would have been bad."

While there are still some fans who have visions of "proven" "big bats" dancing in their heads, we appreciate the discipline that the front office is demonstrating at this point. They seem to know that there are improvements that could be made in a few areas, but they're not going to allow themselves to operate "on tilt", making dumb moves for the sake of "showing something to the fans". That's how teams end up trading for Vernon Wells. Or how someone is going to find the rationale to acquire Alfonso Soriano.

We realize prudence and forbearance aren't the things that are going to get those who are exclusively focused on a playoff berth revved up for the new season, but we've started to realize that those kids are never going to be happy, so trying to satiate their unending desire to spend someone else's money is a losing battle.

Sneaky Bullpen Signings: Even with their impressive numbers, Sergio Santos' and Darren Oliver's names were nowhere to be seen on the wish lists of fans at the conclusion of the season. And yet, those additions, along with the repatriation of Jason Frasor, will give the Blue Jays a much stronger and deeper bullpen.

Santos, Oliver and Frasor will be joined by a number of intriguing bullpen options, including Casey Janssen, Carlos Villaneuva, Joel Carreno, Jesse Litsch and Luis Perez. Moreover, there are a number of fringe arms that have the potential to contribute next season, including Trystan Magnuson (quietly reacquired in November from Oakland), Danny Farquhar and Alan Farina may fill in where injuries or performance necessitate changes.

The bullpen was probably the most glaring area in need of a fix coming into the offseason, and it appears as though the Jays have managed to find solutions for 2012. And as someone who was not always a fan of John Farrell's bullpen management last year, we'll be interested to see how he acquits himself with a stronger collection of arms at his disposal.

As for the line that was tossed about concerning Darren Oliver's league-leading intangible awesomeness in the clubhouse and his recording-setting camaraderie, the line that kept running through our head as we read those remarks were: "He has a great personality." Which is not the sort of praise about which we get excited.

Jays in Ottawa: It's somewhat well know that we make our home in the national capital, and while we weren't around for the arrival of the Winter Caravan this weekend, we were impressed with the turnout of Blue Jays fans who flocked to a local mall and lined up for hours to meet their heroes.

There's a nice video summation of the trip on the Blue Jays' website, though those who are fans of Toronto pro hockey franchise might want to avert their eyes about midway through, when the boys sport the Ottawa Senators' nifty retro jerseys. (And even if our loyalties lean towards our hometown team, we'll give J.P. Arencibia credit for demonstrating a certain amount of discomfort at wearing the uniform of his beloved #TeamUnit's rivals.)

We'd probably be getting way ahead of ourselves to hope that this augurs well for the return of an affiliated minor league team to the Capital, since support on a single winter's day doesn't mean that you'll be able to sell 250,000 tickets per year. Still, an Ottawa baseball fan can dream.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

They're Doing Something Right

I don’t know what the baseball offseason is like in, say, Arizona, where it stays warm all year round and a person could conceivably step out to the backyard and have a game of catch in early January without thinking twice about it.

I do, however, know what the offseason is like in Canada. In case you hadn’t noticed, it gets really freakin’ cold here. And there’s snow. And it lasts forever, or at least that’s what it feels like.

Let there be no doubt that those who settled this country a few hundred years ago were crazy people, which would be forgivable if they had foreseen that something as glorious as baseball might come along later. But they missed that too.

So today, there’s no skipping out to the neighbourhood park in January to chuck the ball around. Your ball glove is more likely packed away in the garage behind bags of salt to de-ice your driveway, a few snow shovels, and that huge box for your artificial Christmas tree.

It would be awfully easy for Canada’s only major league baseball team to just disappear from our frozen wasteland, both physically and mentally, until the spikes can at least penetrate the soil under the outfield grass again.

In fact, that’s exactly what they had been doing for several years. The season would wrap up in September; the casual fans would turn their attention to hockey or football or curling or whatever; and come April they’d need reminding that the Toronto Blue Jays still exist and play 162 baseball games every year.

The more obsessed fans, like yours truly, don’t go through this cycle, but make no mistake that a huge number of fans – and potential fans – still do. Simply allowing it to continue would represent a big missed opportunity for a team that has free rein to market itself coast-to-coast-to-coast to more than 30 million people.

The Jays used to run their “Winter Caravan” in years past as a way to try to connect with some of us, drawing us out of our igloos and ice fishing huts and what-not. For some reason, they stopped for a long time. Maybe it wasn't as successful as they'd have liked for the money they spent; I don't know. But it was an effort. Even if it was just the most dedicated fans that turned up to see a couple major-leaguers up close, at least they got the chance.

So when I took the eldest of the Org Kids with me to St. Laurent Centre (a run-of-the-mill Ottawa mall) this afternoon, I similarly expected to see maybe a few hundred hardcore fans on hand to have a brief interaction with Casey Janssen, Ricky Romero, Brett Lawrie, and J.P. Arencibia.

We got there at 12:20 for an autograph session that began at 1:30, and we were lucky to get in line in time. The lineup snaked down the mall and kept building for at least two more hours. Blue Jays caps, jerseys, t-shirts and other paraphernalia, old and new, were abundant. One guy wore a batting helmet with two Jays flags taped to it. I had no idea this kind of excitement about the Jays simmered under the surface in my city, and here it was on display.

It’s really easy to gripe about the state of the Toronto Blue Jays, the lean years since the glories of 1992 and 1993, those cheap fucks at Rogers, or the price of beer at Skydome. We generate, and are exposed to, more negativity about the game and team we love than ever before.

But today, a huge number of fans stood in line for hours to get a chance to meet four Toronto Blue Jays and maybe have them sign an autograph. I’d wager most of them didn’t get a chance, but lined up anyway. But standing there in line, I didn’t hear grumbling or moaning about Prince Fielder, Yu Darvish, or some other outrage of the week. People were just excited about the Blue Jays in Ottawa. IN JANUARY.

My five-year-old got a hug and a high-five from Ace, did the fist-bump-blow-it-up thing with Arencibia and Lawrie, got an autographed ball, and I don’t think I’ve seen him happier since he opened his presents on Christmas morning. He can’t wait for baseball season to start so he can see those guys play.

Oh, and we both got a free toque.

Sometimes we ought to recognize when this team is doing something right.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Year, New Tweet Bag

Is it back-to-work already? Oy. Upon returning to the cold climes of our home and native land last week, we were fully prepared to burrow into a hole and let our body sustain itself on its holiday meals for the next two months. Alas, duty calls.

We spent a good amount of time monastically pondering the Blue Jays over the past week or so, but before we share what we think passes for insight, we figured we'd take the pulse of the merry masses and answer some tweeted questions that have built up over the break.

First up, a two-parter from : A. Bailey went for very little. Jays could have offered more. But so could 20 other teams. Why did he fetch so little? Same could be said for Carlos Quentin. Is there something wrong with those 2 players.

The Red Sox got Bailey for Josh Reddick, a young left-handed hitting outfielder who is about on par with Eric Thames offensively and much better defensively. For a one-inning relief pitcher with a history of elbow trouble, that sounds about right to us. Hindsight is 20/20, and we're sure that some would now be willing to offer up Travis Snider in exchange, but we're frankly not sure that the A's would have been willing to do that deal.

We like Bailey, but there is something that has bothered us about the discrepancy between his strikeout-to-walk ratio at home versus on the road. For his career, he has a 5.58 K/BB ratio in Oakland, and a 2.27 K/BB ratio everywhere else, and there's something about that discrepancy that would have scared us away from offering something better than Thames or Snider in return for a guy who might throw 60 high-leverage innings.

As for Quentin, we'll confess to not knowing much about the package that is going to Chicago in return for him, but we'd offer this as an explanation as to why it might seem underwhelming: Jays fans aren't as plugged into the prospect speculation in the Padres system as they are to their own, and it could be that those a halfway decent pieces.

The question unasked but implied here is: "Should the Jays have made a move to acquire these players?" Given the moves to bring in Jason Frasor and the previous move to acquire Sergio Santos (who we like a lot more than Bailey), and given the logjam of bats that need to get playing time at DH and LF, we'd say no.

Next up, two related questions. asks: Which of Drabek, Cecil or McGowan would be best suited as a reliever? Also, asks: Where do you see McGowan next year? Also, if Drabek doesn't have a great spring, we he be at AA or AAA?

Before we answer the questions, indulge us as we point out the depth of the Jays' pitching corps. No, the Jays did not acquire Gio or Yu or whoever else became and overnight must-have. But there's tremendous depth to the Jays' pen, with some decent options at the back of the rotation.

As to which of the three starters would be best suited as a reliever, we'd lean towards McGowan. We still think that Cecil could be a good starter if he comes into the season in shape and with his head screwed on right, and given his success last July (2.19 ERA in 37 innings), there's still reason to be optimistic.

Drabek had too much trouble throwing strikes last season for us to even ponder having him come out of the pen, and his delivery seems to take a lot of effort and is rarely repeated from what we've seen. He could very well come back this season with a clearer mind and a quieter body, but our guess is that he's sent to Las Vegas for a month (while it is still something less than scorching hot) until the Jays need an additional arm.

As for McGowan, his inspirational story overshadowed the fact that he had lots of trouble finding the strike zone in his return, though his pitches still had some heat (93.0 MPH average on his fastball) and nice tailing movement. McGowan still seems like he'll be a bit of a long shot to make the rotation, and the Jays may prefer to just establish him as a reliever and let him spend the year in the pen, crowded though it has become.

You can never have too many pitching questions, so asks: Do you see the jays signing a SP for a one year plus option(Francis, Oswalt etc) till the younglings are ready?

Yes, we can absolutely see the Jays taking a run at a starter who would be a third or fourth in the rotation for a year or so. Roy Oswalt will have a lot of other options, and given what's become of the starting pitching market, we'd assume that a deal with a second year or options won't be out of the question for him. Would that be something that would interest you?

Oswalt's lost something on his fastball (1.2 MPH, on average versus 2010 according to Fangraphs), but wouldn't be the worst option for the back of the Jays' rotation. Jeff Francis, on the other hand, may well be the worst option for anyone's rotation at this point. Francis strikes out fewer than five batters per nine innings (4.48/9, if exactitude is your thing), and lobs in his fastball at 84.7 MPH. You remember the Jays' former lob-ballin' lefty Brad Mills? His fastball averaged 85.6 MPH, and he got his weak stuff crushed all over the yard. Francis is not an option.

More pitching questions? But of course! asks: Joel Carreno - SP? RP? Swing man? I feel like he has the k numbers to be a closer but will he get the opportunity?

Oh, my. How we love Joel Carreno. Could he start? Absolutely. Swing man? Yes, please. Close? Sure! Why not? Ultimately, a good pitcher serves the team best by pitching as many innings as possible for them, so the preferred landing spot for Carreno if he pitches next season the way he's been hurling in our head all offseason is in the rotation.

On the other hand, we fully buy into the Earl Weaver edict that the best training ground for a young pitcher is in the bullpen, and if Carreno were to be used as a swing man or long reliever to start the season, it would give the Jays a better opportunity to assess his ability to get out big league hitters.

Those 15 innings of work for Carreno last season were pretty sterling, but the likelihood that he'll post an ERA in the low-1.00's going forward is more than a bit far fetched. He'll need to face a lot more tough hitters over a lot more innings before we can truly assess what we have in him.

And have we mentioned how much we love the idea of 100-inning relievers lately?

Apparently, the only one who cares about the offense is , who asks: Assuming no more roster moves, is Lind is a lock to start all year? Can he lose his job by not hitting first couple months?

Yes, sort of, but yes. In spite of the fact that every jokester and pundit has already cleared out first base for any number of other options (but mostly, Prince Fielder), it seems to us that the Jays are at least committed to starting the season with Lind as the everyday first baseman.

We're still convinced that Lind's back hurt him for a significant part of last season, and that he never fully recovered from the work that he did in Spring Training to prepare for his new role at first. (Paging Dr. Tao!) Moreover, we think that in a better lineup where he can slide down to the four, five or six hole, Lind may well be headed for a better season in 2012.

It's still hard for us to understand how a player can go from a full season of a .370 OBP to two straight seasons of sub-.300, though we understand why fans have a hard time getting enthused over the idea of Adam Lind in the middle of the lineup. But we're fully willing to give Lind another shot to get back to being what we think he can be. The upside is worth it.

And that's your first tweet bag of 2012! Thanks for the questions, and feel free to give us your rational, constructive feedback in the comments.