Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Eric the Dread

So there you have it. Two months into the season, Eric Thames has lost his hold on the starting left field job for the Blue Jays. Demoted today to Triple-A Las Vegas.

From the outset, we thought the Jays' brass was wrong on this call, and that Travis Snider should have broken camp with the team. Yes, Thames put up some decent garbage time stats late last year, but he also demonstrated for significant portions of his time in the Majors last year that he could be handled with ease by half decent pitchers. And the outfield work probably doesn't even bear mentioning.

It's in our nature to root for the underdog, so it's hard for us to get on board with the ecstatic reaction to this transaction. Maybe it's because Thames seems like a genuinely nice guy, or because he seems to be on the outside of the clubhouse cliques. He also seems like a guy who takes things to heart, so it's a little hard to be gleeful about this setback in his career.

That's not to say that we were happy with his performance (we weren't), or enthusiastic about his future prospects (we're not). Thames is a guy who can square up a mistake pitch here and there, and he'll get plenty of them in the Pacific Coast League. But without enough other skills to prop up a middling bat, there's really no long term role for him on a winning team.

For all the anticipation of this moment, Jays fans are rewarded with the reappearance of Mike McCoy. And not to be a killjoy about this, but McCoy's best OPS posted in any MLB season was a .561 last year. For those of you playing at home, that's 91 points lower than what Thames has done in this poor start to the season.

McCoy brings some roster flexibility, which the team needs at this point given the lurching wounded all around the clubhouse and the short bench necessitated by the eight-man bullpen. But ultimately, he brings a bat that will get knocked out of his hands by the vast majority of big league pitchers. So if you've convinced yourself that this is a step up, we're no so sure.

We're not sure what the next few weeks will look like for the Jays, though it would seem to us that Thames is likely to spend a while in Las Vegas. Moreover, for all of the preseason hype about the battle for left field, our guess is that Snider will be playing alongside Thames for the foreseeable future. Expect to see some additional appearances from Rajai Davis, and then a few extra at bats for Ben Francisco if and when he returns from the DL, followed by an appearance by Vladimir Guerrero within the next few weeks.

Maybe Vladdy is the carrot at the end of this stick, and that's where we're supposed to find joy. Or maybe it's the fact that the stardust has fallen from the front office's eyes when it come to Thames. Either way, the improvement to the overall roster won't be evident in the short term, and is still an open question for the next few months.

And why do we have this nagging feeling that we'll see Thames again before Snider makes it back to Toronto?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Ponderings and 100 Yard Stares

There was a time when we might have taken the first post after a cruddy weekend to scold those who were piling off the bandwagon and taunting those who remained behind them on their way off. But not this time.

If you go back through the blog, you'll probably find any number of posts in which we accentuate the positives and give thanks for small mercies, and pontificate on the the value of sticking with the team through thick and thin. And, in this bit of kabuki that we'd do, you'd fill the comments with anger and scorn and assertions on how delicious the Kool-Aid must be, and how we're some naive simpleton who doesn't know any better and is too addled in the brain to understand that the team is terrible and going to be terrible forever.

You can see why we don't want to go down that road. That way, madness lies.

But suffice to say: Last week sucked. There's really no other way that we can put. It was a terrible week, in which two really good teams beat the Jays around and sent them home as a pile of dusty, charred remains. The smackdown in Texas was especially bad, when you consider that the Rangers pounded Blue Jays pitching into such a state that they've had to run through four additional minor league arms within a week.

These are not the best of times. And we won't bother trying to convince you otherwise. If you feel the need to gnash and wail for another few hours, have at it. A little primal scream therapy never hurt anyone.

Our opinion of the Blue Jays remains pretty much the same as it was at the beginning of the season, and a week of grief doesn't really change matters that much. Yes, there are concerns in the rotation, and in the depths of the bullpen, and in certain spots of the lineup. But every team is flawed, and sometimes those flaws make themselves evident all at once. In the end, we think this is probably still a team that hangs in around the race for one of the Wild Card spots, but probably comes up short. Still, there's enough that we perceive as positive for the next few years that we'll hang in. We still think it will be rewarding.

So farewell to Texas, and bring on the Orioles. Let's push things forward.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Nobody Said It Would Be Easy

It's amazing what a short losing streak can do to a team in the American League East, isn't it?  Make no mistake, the Blue Jays are in the midst of a bit of a funk, but it's not a historically bad spell of losing, nor has it come against teams they "should" be beating with more regularity.  Yet here they are:  at the time of writing, they've been swept in Arlington, after losing two of three in Tampa, and all of a sudden, they're back to being .500 for the first time since April 19.

All of which wouldn't be so bad if the Jays were in a normal, sane, happy division where a team can coast along winning one game for every one they lose, maybe get hot at some point in the summer, and still be in the thick of a playoff race.  But that's not the AL East.  Things are still a little topsy-turvy in the division -- I maintain that there's something altogether unholy about the Baltimore Orioles even being close to first place this late in the season, and I'm stocking up on holy water just in case -- but, as Mike Axisa of Yankees site River Avenue Blues pointed out on Twitter, it's starting to look a little more familiar.

So the Jays will wake up tomorrow far closer to last place in the American League East than they've been all season.  Last place!  After being in a playoff spot just a few short days ago!  The arse is gone right out of 'er!  Would you say it's time for our viewers to crack each other's heads open and feast on the goo inside?  Yes, I would, Org Guy.

Now: let's not be too sarcastically sanguine about things.  Winning is better than losing, and I'd be a helluva lot happier if this team could find a way to win again.  It's a lot more challenging, though, when you're already dealing with health issues in the batting order that created the curious double play combination of Brett Lawrie-Omar Vizquel in the later innings today.  Kelly Johnson's cortisone shot in his leg, stacked on top of Yunel Escobar's departure with a groin issue, will likely necessitate more roster moves.  Don't look now, but the shuttle between the big club and Las Vegas is getting much more frequent, and there are no signs of it slowing down.  We might get an Adeiny Hechavarria sighting on the big league roster before the week is out.  Unfortunately, far too many of his 51s teammates, especially in the bullpen, have been summoned ahead of him, and having Texas take a... well, a Texas-sized chunk out of the pitching staff this weekend didn't help matters.

If there are tickets for flights back to Vegas in the travelling secretary's desk drawer, it feels like only a matter of time before one ends up in Eric Thames' locker.  The somewhat defensible decision to take advantage of Travis Snider's last remaining option year, keeping Thames in Toronto for the start of the season, has simply not been a success.  Unlike the clear improvement over time that we've seen from Colby Rasmus, it doesn't look like more at-bats will make it much better for Thames.  It's easy to say we all predicted this and that Snider should have been up the whole time, but it shouldn't be forgotten that Thames didn't do anything to lose the job to open the year.  Fair's fair, but by now, after -0.5 bWAR on the still-young season, I think the team knows what it has in Thames, and it isn't anything special.  I'd be a lot more optimistic about not only a switch in left field, but an overall improvement out of the position, if Snider didn't seem to have some lingering wrist issues he can't seem to shake.

A Travis Snider injection, or a Vladdy Guerrerro, Adeiny Hechavarria or Anthony Gose, aren't going to make this team an instant contender (or at least not a significantly greater threat to contend than they are currently).  But a winning streak -- a real, honest-to-goodness streak of like seven straight wins -- would sure mean a lot to this team.  The Jays have won four in a row on three separate occasions in 2012.  In the AL East, four in a row just never seems like enough, and there are so many landmines in between those strings of wins.  They need to start dodging more of them.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Friday Tweet Bag - Perfunctory Answers to Your Burning Questions

It's summer, and chances are, you're all way more interested in hitting a patio or heading out to the cottage than reading our blatherings. But since some nice folks sent in questions, we'll plow through them and give you something to read in between all the fun. We call it a Tweet Bag. Which seemed clever at the time.

Firstly, ‏@BonnieMacD asks: Should I be frightened by Ricky's recent handful of shaky starts?

You know, usually we're the dude that talks you back on this stuff. "No, he's fine...he's just scufflin'...he'll be okay." But allow is to enumerate the three things that give us reason for pause when it come to Ricky Romero.

1) We were impressed with the way that Romero battled through the closing months of the season, getting trough games without his best stuff. We figured that he was gassed from a long season, and that he'd come back fresh in the new season. Except that in his starts early on this year, he's pretty much continued to look like the pitcher who was worn out last year.

2) There's something that we've noted in Romero's delivery, where it looks like there's added effort through his shoulder and back as he plants and his arm crosses a plane from behind to in front of his shoulder. Maybe our lyin' eyes are playing tricks on us, but something looks askew there.

3)Did you see the pictures that Romero tweeted the day before his start, in which his arm and shoulder are filled with acupuncture needles? This is probably more common than we know, but when you're worried about the health of one of your front end starters, seeing the tools of their trade dressed up like something out of a Clive Barker movie is very scary indeed.

Next up, the heretic @Fox_Matthew boldly asks: End of May, should we start asking where the 3rd base production is? And not the beating of ground balls in the infield. 

So, yes, what the Fantastic Mr. Fox mentions here is quite true: The Blue Jays' everyday third baseman - this Brett Lawrie chap - has had a somewhat underwhelming first six weeks.

Sure, he's looked great shifted all over the field, tracking down balls in right field and generally looking pretty great with the glove. But...was that what you expected from Brett Lawrie coming into the season?

Did you expect that he'd trail Rajai Davis by nearly 100 points in slugging near the end of May? Or that he'd have managed just seven bases on balls so far? Or eight extra base hits through the first quarter of the season?

The point - and we're always searching for a point, even if we rarely find one - is that the hype around Brett Lawrie was so overheated that he couldn't help but disappoint. Although it's worth noting that the majority of the Lawrie fans that we run into these days are so enraptured with his fierce gamey grittiness that they can overlook the gap between the adoration and the performance.

If Lawrie can start spitting at some of those pitches off the plate or below his knees, and start holding out for something up in the zone, we're pretty sure he can turn the season around and end up with an OPS over .800. Which would be perfectly fine for a 22 year-old.

Speed round!

@stephenJdorme: Do the Jays have a chance at the AL East title, or should I not kid myself and look at the wildcard, if that?

It's a bit remote, but not out of the question. It looks like no team in the AL East is going to run away from the pack, so maybe with some luck, they stick it out. But isn't that the fun of baseball? Having your team run roughshod over your emotions for six months is its own sort of pleasure. Still, 85 wins sounds about right to us for this year, with some really great signs for the next three or four years. Hang in there kitty. The postseason is coming eventually. 

 @E_Pintar: What is your favourite bacon-related meal? and what is one (internally) move you'd like to see the Jays make?

Is there anything that tastes bad when bacon is involved? Last night, my neighbour was cooking bacon on his barbecue, and we almost passed out from the confluence of awesome smells.

As for the internal move we'd like to see, we were about to re-hash the Snider-Thames thing one more time until our lunch this afternoon with The Org Guy. We spent the better part of the time it took to down our first pint of the day pondering the idea of Moises Sierra's promotion to the big club.

Sierra has never blown the competition away through his minor league career, but he's always been pretty good. He plays well in the field from the handful of his spring games that we've seen, and could slot in as a decent option for a fourth outfielder who can play in all three outfield spots, pinch run and hold his own at the plate.

If Thames is reaching the end of his rope and Snider needs more time to get his wrist right, Sierra might be a decent option. He won't put the team over the top, but we'd like to see what he's got.

@Archizuber (Funny man!): Don't you put any stock into defensive metrics that nobody could possibly calculate or quantify at home?

We're too dumb to answer this question. 

@BackInBlue2012: Could you see former Blue Jays coming to Twitter to defend themselves if it was available in the 80's and 90's?

Dave Winfield would have been all over Twitter if it were available back then. Dave Stieb would have had emo blasts out at the non-believers. Joe Carter would have promoted Joe Carter like nobody's business, and would have filled his feed with positive affirmations. Kelly Gruber would have been the party dude, tweeting pictures of the guys out on the town. And Jim Clancy would have an account, but only one tweet over three years: "Tryin' this tweeter thing. Hello out there!"

@james_in_to: Do you expect the Blue Jays will face adversity with the umpiring for quite a while or will things blow over fairly quick?

The thing about reputational capital is that it is like other sorts of capital: Difficult to amass, easy to spend. The Jays have pretty much blown their wad this year when it comes to the umpires, and it's going to be years - yes, YEARS - before they can earn their way back to even ground. Does this mean umpires will be out to get them? No. But it means that they'll be watched with a different eye, and will not get the benefit of the doubt.

We're not saying whether if this is wrong or right or fair. It's just the way it is.

@highcheese15: What are the realistic expectations of Vladimir Guerrero once he gets to the big club?

We haven't the faintest. It strikes us that he hasn't been great over the past three years, but maybe the time off has allowed him to heal, and he'll have something left in the tank. But for more on Vladdy, check out my Sportsnet roundtable with Steph Rogers and Mike Cormack. We hash it out there.

Lighting round!!!
@chriskaratebass: First to reach 30 hr, Jose or Edwin?

You might be surprised, but I'll say José. He's got that swag back. Also, he's keeping his head down through his swing.

@CountyPride (Who thinks I'm an idiot, but I'll take the bait anyways): Are the Blue Jays where you thought they would at this point in the season? What is your forecast for the rest of 2012?

They are pretty much where we figured they'd be. They are what we thought they were. Expect pretty much the same through the rest of the schedule. 85ish wins.

@JamieWine: I'd like to know why Lind was waived and why no team was willing to take a chance on him. It would only cost $5m/yr for 2yrs.

Because other teams saw what we all saw: A guy who can only DH or play first, but who doesn't have the bat to stick at either of those spots. There are only so many teams that have enough of a gap in those spots to want to take him on, regardless of the salary. It'll be an uphill battle for Lind to get back to the Jays, let alone anywhere else.

And that's it. Let's zip up the bag for a few weeks, and come back to talk all about David Cooper and Ryota Igarashi, and which number two pitcher we can get back for them in a trade. Happy weekend, suckers! 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Backyard Baseball

I was a bit nostalgic this afternoon watching the second half of Toronto's 6-5 loss to the visiting New York Mets.  My viewing of the first half of the game was pre-empted by some much-needed yard work, which is as much a May Long Weekend tradition as sitting on my ass watching baseball.

I finished up in the backyard, craving a cold drink and a place to put my feet up, and I remembered fondly my days as a youth, when I would spend more than a few afternoons like this one on the back patio of the house where I grew up, watching Blue Jays games with my dad.  He wasn't a hardcore baseball fan, but he was certainly television-addicted, and he was good with electronics to boot.  I don't know of another house on our block that illegally split a cable TV feed into as many locations as ours, including a permanent jack on our back deck.  A little portable colour TV set would be set up in a spot shady enough to restrict the glare and create an outdoor viewing experience that, while imperfect, was still better than being inside.  I watched a lot of great sports, including some great baseball players, on that back deck.

I don't think I could convince The Org Wife to let me begin drilling holes through our walls and feeding coaxial cable through the drywall.  But as both the mercury and Henderson Alvarez's ERA steadily rise this summer, the thought has certainly crossed my mind.

About that Alvarez stuff:  it's been covered to death elsewhere, by people who have a stronger grip on the stats involved than me, but the last two starts for Alvarez, including today's, are looking very much like a manifestation of the much-dreaded regression that was just bound to happen sooner or later.  In fact, The Alvarez Regression has seemed like such an inevitability for so long that very few people seem all that surprised -- as if nobody really believed he was as good as his results were making him out to be, even if they couldn't put their finger on why.  It's a really good thing thing this team's fan base isn't prone to overreaction or anything, and they'll continue to give Alvarez the benefit of the doubt as more of those ground balls find holes.

Besides, it's not like fans don't have better things to worry about.  Like, say, the fact that the much-ballyhooed yet laconic centerfielder acquired in a big trade at last season's deadline is a bit of an offensive black hole at the moment.  With Adam Lind now optioned (outrighted? waived? It's something like that.  Anyway, we don't have him to kick around anymore) to Las Vegas, I imagine by about the second game of the upcoming series against the Rays, the calls will be loud and lusty to give Colby Rasmus the same treatment, albeit with little consideration given to whether there's a player on the roster capable of manning center in his absence.  Oh, sure, if you have to, you can run Rajai Davis out there, and he's at least getting on base at right around his career average, and hitting with a bit more pop in limited time this season, and... wait.  Scratch all that.  I don't want to give anyone any ideas.  I don't think we have to worry about Rasmus.  Yet.  But maybe soon.  (Excuse me while I anxiously look at Anthony Gose's K rate.)

A guy we don't have to worry about is Jose Bautista, not that I'm telling you something you didn't know.  He came through on my prediction of three more home runs this week, although his OPS hasn't yet cracked the .800 mark.  But it's going in the right direction, and with a thumping Bautista in the mix, this team can boast some pretty strong offensive depth.  I'll quit while I'm ahead on the prediction front, and simply take solace in the fact that the Jays have won four of their last five games, with mixed pitching (a dominant Brandon Morrow, as opposed to more ordinary outings from Alvarez and Ricky Romero) and some contributions all over the lineup.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Blue Jays and the Boys in Blue

A couple of days ago, we started writing a post about the Jays and their relationship to the umpires. It was a general observation about how the frequent interchanges between the players and umpires seems to have crossed a threshold.

You expect to see the odd head shake after a call, or a long stare from a pitcher. Maybe even a convulsive, full body interjection that indicates the player's displeasure. Those things happen in the run of a game, but even to our partial eyes, the Jays were indulging in this beyond the point of good taste. We came upon an illustration of the topic after Brandon Morrow allowed  a run to score while in the midst of a hissy fit over a close play at first on Tuesday, though the topic still seemed a little vague as we worked on it.

And then came last night's ninth inning.

There's a lot of blame to go around in the aftermath of that sequence of events. Brett Lawrie twice attempted to make up the umpire's mind for him by running up the baseline before the pitch was called either way. Umpire Bill Miller made at least one and maybe two bad calls in a row, and made them with so much gusto that it is hard to imagine that he was doing anything other than admonishing the player for showing him up. And Lawrie returned the favour with an all-out freak-out that is certainly a suspendable offense, and isn't worthy of your attempts to minimize or explain it away.

(Seriously, if you are pondering what the outcome of the evening is if Lawrie's helmet had landed in just the right way so as to not hit Miller, you're missing the fact that he threw his lid at the umpire's feet with the intent of sending a message. If you head down that road, you can't be shocked when that's where you end up.)

But let's move from micro to macro: Last night's incident was the most egregious in a season-long campaign of the Blue Jays being overly demonstrative over too many calls, and it's time for it to stop. There has to be a more significant level of maturity on this team, and the patience to accept the fact that, all things being equal, the good calls and the bad calls will likely even out over the year.

Moreover, there needs to be a recognition that the constant complaining probably does more to harm their cause in the long run, especially when they take umbrage at perfectly legitimate calls. We're looking in your direction, Jose Bautista.

There's nothing wrong with playing the game with emotion, but we're not sure what the players hope to accomplish by embarrassing the umpires on a regular basis. There are ways of dealing with them that are more mature and more convincing than the petulant, spastic displays made nearly every game. Didn't we used to respect the players who pleaded their cases with dignity? Wasn't there at one point a level of respect for the guys who weren't pleading their case in a manner that conveyed their point to those at the top of the 500 level, or maybe in the neighbouring condos?

We don't want to overstate our desire for John Farrell to become a disciplinarian, but the manager probably needs to convey to his team that the current state of affairs is not tenable, and that they need to chill out and suck it up. Regardless of when and how the league deals with Brett Lawrie, Farrell would be wise at this point to park him on the bench for a came to cast a chill on all of the hot-headedness. It was out of hand before last night, and it's become a real problem.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Life on the Road

When you scan through the lineup the Minnesota Twins are rolling out there on a day-to-day basis, you have to feel just a little bit sorry for the faithful in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.  (Also, I used to think that if there were really ten thousand lakes in Minnesota, the entire state would have to be like Waterworld.  I thought maybe they were passing off some pretty marginal bodies of water to keep that slogan, but it's more than legit according to Wikipedia.)  That's a lineup with more than its fair share of AAAA-types, and even its stars aren't quite what they've been in the not-too-distant past.  So I get why some fans are laying the criticism on pretty thick after only taking two out of four games against the Twins at Target Field -- especially after the two losses looked pretty winnable right until the end.

There's some justification to looking at a roster full of guys like Darin Mastroianni, Alexi Casilla and Erik Komatsu and wondering why a competitive AL East team like the Blue Jays could only beat them twice out of four chances.  Of course, if the Jays played these Twins fifty times in Minnesota, they'd probably take about 34 games from them, and the same criticism would probably be leveled at them after each of the 16 losses.

The fact is, it's hard to win on the road.  Treading water at a .500 pace on the road, even against so-called bad teams, is actually pretty damned good.  Right now, after 22% of the season, the Jays are 11-9 on the road.  Two games over .500 doesn't sound like much, but consider this:  last year's Wild Card winner in the American League, the Tampa Bay Rays, had 91 wins and were only 7 games over .500 for the season.  The Jays still have a better winning percentage on the road this year than they do at home.

How productive are you when you travel?  I know that when my real life job takes me on the road, my productivity, and my give-a-shit factor, tend to dip.  It's only natural.  Yeah, there's work to do, but I'm a human being.  I'm not as comfortable not sleeping in my own bed.  My routine gets all screwed up.  I eat more Tim Horton's breakfast sandwiches than any man really should, instead of having something healthy and light.  And then there's stuff to see and do.  It might not be all that exciting (I'm not sure the Minneapolis-St. Paul area offers much more than a ginormous mall), but it's still a distraction from the business at hand.  I often come home shocked I got anything done at all.

Before it started, I was pretty apprehensive about this road swing.  After it wrapped up this afternoon, I came to terms with the fact that the team actually handled it very well.  It's also fair to say we have yet to see this team at its very best, with all aspects clicking at once.  Somewhat counterintuitively, that's precisely what has me encouraged about the remainder of this season:  the Blue Jays haven't been below .500 once this season, and they aren't even showing everything they have yet, notwithstanding some ominous signs on the horizon.  I don't think a team like the Twins would want to have the Jays roll into town for four games when they do start putting it all together.

Bautista Watch (!)

The Twins did, however, get themselves a big, hot, steaming bowl full of Jose Bautista's power stroke.  Minnesota would have been a popular pick for anyone entering a pool for which stadium would allow Bautista to rediscover his MVP form from the previous two seasons.  Three homers and some loud hits and outs were nice to see.  Call it a mini-break-out, and welcome it just in time for the Rays and Yankees to pop into Skydome for two-game sets this week.  I'll call it:  Jose hits three more jacks this week, and bumps his OPS over .800 for the first time since Game Four of the season.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Opening Up the Closer Role

We won't fixate too much on last night's game because a) everything was fine when we went for our evening slumber and 2) we don't feel like poring through the ninth pitch-by-pitch to figure out what went wrong. Who has the time for that sort of misery?

So rather than discuss the flaws and failings in Coco Cordero, let's push things forward and think about what the Jays do from here to get the last outs of the game.

The temptation after another rotten end to a game is to depose one closer and anoint another. This morning, we woke up to a Twitter feed full a queries and suggestions as to who should be next in line to be marked with the Scarlet C, indicating their closerishness. And it's understandable that people would feel that way, because that conventional wisdom is deeply ingrained in the baseball fan's psyche: You need a "shut-down", "lock-down", "proven" guy taking the ball in the ninth.

But if you look at the options for the Jays over the next few weeks - as we wait for the real lock-down-proven closer to return - we wonder why you would even fill the role. You could place that title on Casey Janssen, or Luis Perez, or Darren Oliver, or call up Las Vegas closer Chad Beck. But does having someone fill that unofficial position really get you any further ahead?

Isn't the purpose of such a move to put the fanbase at ease? And doesn't that sense of confidence get shattered with the next blown save? (And make no mistake, there will be more. It happens. There's another dozen of these games waiting for us over the next five months, so gird your loins and get ready.)

Yes, we understand that John Farrell has stated that he likes for relievers to have a rough sense of when they'll be called upon to enter the game, but is it not possible to look at the lineup that they are facing, look at the past few days' usage, and figure out from day-to-day who is the most appropriate arm to get the next few outs?

"Closer-by-committee" has become a dirty word in baseball. It's a small-minded game sometimes, and many in and around the game - fans, media, punditry, front offices and field staff - are more willing to let one guy fail at his job repeatedly than to allow a different strategy to fail once. Moreover, there's a lot more blame that falls on the shoulders of the manager if a bullpen committee fails, which probably chokes off such an approach before it takes its first breath. If the by-rote following of baseball tradition ends up in a loss, the manager can shrug his shoulders and say: "That's our guy", and we all nod along like a bunch of bobblehead puppies in the back window of a Camaro.

We're not sure what John Farrell has up his sleeve at this point, but we'd appreciate seeing him actively manage the bullpen for a few weeks rather than falling into the trap of finding a "new" closer. That's the easy way out.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Looking a Little Ahead

With the first month of the season in the books, it seems as though every team is now beginning to settle into the grind just a little bit. After today’s tilt, the Jays have played 29 games – or, as some of us prefer to understand it, almost three-quarters of the way into the 40-game window that the team has said it’s allowing itself before making any significant lineup changes. Perhaps that’s unfair, given the relative success the team has enjoyed (they’re still three games over. 500 despite today’s result), but the gaps in the offensive makeup of this team are pretty glaringly obvious right now.

In this spirit of pessimistic impatience, I decided to take out my imaginary universal remote (people still have those, right?) and fast-forward things. But not just eleven more games; I wanted to talk to a bona fide expert on the team as it entered that elusive period of “meaningful baseball” in August in September. But you’d be surprised how hard it is to find an actual baseball expert with the ability to time travel. So I settled for a bit of a know-it-all who watched Back to the Future a lot as a kid – yours truly. Here’s the transcript of the conversation between present-day me and August 28th me.

Present Me: So… how’s it going?

Future Me: Meh. The usual. Lawn has weeds.

PM: But I took so much time this spring to get rid of those! Fertilizer, aeration, overseeding, the works!

FM: You’re stupid. That shit never works. Stop trying.

PM: Duly noted. I was really only interested in how the Jays are doing. Playoff spot in the offing?

FM: Looked pretty good there through the end of June. They’re sitting four back of a wild card right now, but young pitching will break your heart, and it’s starting to. Well, maybe that’s a little harsh. Drabek kept things rolling nicely for a while, but the season seems to have worn on him. Hutchison and Alvarez have pitched well enough, but they’re not even 23 yet, and they blow up occasionally in ugly ways. Those four McGowan starts weren’t particularly memorable either. Morrow will get some Cy Young votes with the season he’s having, though, and Romero has been his steady stuff.

PM: What about the bats?

FM: It’s all kind of evened out. Lawrie’s super-hot July seemed to peter out badly and he looked overmatched by some of the top AL arms into August. And our expectations of Bautista were so high, it’s hard for a lot of fans to accept that he’s *only* going to hit 30 or so home runs this year. Everyone else has been right about where you’d expect, with the exception of Encarnacion, who continues to be an offensive revelation.

PM: Right where I’d expect? That doesn’t leave me with a very warm fuzzy feeling, especially considering what my expectations for Adam Lind actually were.

FM: Well, that’s the good news. Things never picked up substantially for Lind after the dismal start to the season, but the team did begin to show some flexibility with him. It started with him moving down in the order, and drawing out of the lineup entirely about twice a week. It’s led to a few more at-bats for Ben Francisco (and you thought there was no reason to have him on the roster!). He isn’t a dominant force or anything, but he’s producing at least what Lind would have in the same spots. So score one for sanity and reason.

PM: Well, none of this sounds very inspiring, quite frankly.

FM: Dog days, I guess. But even as the season starts to really drag, there are still exciting things happening with the team. They’re better than they were last year. They’re better than some teams that were expected to be better than them.

PM: What about Snider? Did he make the jump?

FM: Thames never played badly enough to justify sending him down, and they didn’t just call him up to fill a roster spot when Rajai Davis missed 20 games. He wasn’t the only injury that required a fill-in for a while, but they seem to be committed to ensuring Snider has a full season of at-bats at one level. But he’s still raking. Twenty-two jacks and a .920 OPS. They’re going to have a hell of a time keeping him out of the majors next year, either with the Jays or someone else.

PM: Any other surprises? For the Jays or anyone else?

FM: Well, there’s that absolute runaway going on in the AL West, with Texas running 16 games ahead of the second place Angels. That’s really opened up the wild card race. And the fact that neither Prince Fielder nor Albert Pujols have put up the monster seasons everyone expected – that’s a surprise too. But the injuries may have had something to do with that too.

PM: Jeez, injuries, eh? Quite a rash of them?

FM: Well, zombie attacks will do that to teams. Rajai was lucky to only miss 20 games, and lucky they found a way to re-attach his right calf with no lasting effects. That was a tough July for everyone.

PM: I’m gonna go now. Maybe board up that busted screen door while I have it on my mind.

FM: Good idea.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Lineup Melancholy and the Infinite Lindness

Photo from the Blue Jays' official Twitter account, @BlueJays
In the five years since we picked up our quill and whinged away about the Jays, we've had the pleasure of second-guessing three managers. And in so doing, there is nothing that brings out the angst in us as much as their nightly lineup cards.

It seems funny to look back now and find that our big complaint with John Gibbons was how erratic he was with his lineups. It seemed like every day featured a new concoction in the order, and while such a thing sounds fun in retrospect, this was something that drove us crazy at the time. On May 17, 2007, we actually wrote the following sentence:

"It's this sort of willy-nilly jerking around with the lineup that makes us wish that someone would bring back Cito."

Oh my. How foolish were we? You know what they say about being careful what you wish for. By the time that The Manager returned to assume his responsibilities anew, we were stunned at the manner in which Gaston seemed to chisel his lineups into granite and steadfastly hold to them, no matter what the outcome.

And as a quick aside: We still believe that lineups matter. We realize that we probably spend entirely too much time worrying about them, but the notion floated by some that you could pick names out of a hat and that it would mean little in terms of a team's offensive outcome is overly simplistic as well. (Also, we suspect that in those studies, the statistical models that were created to prove this were tailored to reach a specific conclusion.) Ultimately, we think that there is value in hitter sequencing, which is why this sort of thing still gets our goat.

In many ways, we should be thankful that John Farrell splits the difference between the two approaches, adapting to the pitcher and his own personnel without making radical changes each day. We don't even mind Farrell's penchant for being somewhat strict about maintaining a righty-lefty balance. And we would be happy for such a set of circumstances were it not for that one glaring weakness that gives us a daily dose of misery: Adam Lind, batting fourth.

We probably should stop harping on this, because at a certain point, it starts to feel as though we're piling on. But Lind is a lefty who cannot hit lefties, managing three singles and a walk in 22 plate appearances so far this year, and posting a .604 OPS (.263 OBP/.341 SLG) over his career against southpaws. By keeping him smack in the middle of the order, the Jays continue to leave themselves vulnerable to teams with a half-good left-handed relievers. It would be somewhat akin to having John McDonald (career OPS: .605) come in and hit for your cleanup hitter late in close games.

This isn't to say that we think the Jays should send Lind packing, which is a conclusion to which we know many will jump without delay. But let's not go to that extreme quite yet. We think that Lind can be a halfway decent contributor - and far less of a pariah - in a lineup in which he slides further down. The Blue Jays might think that he still has a 30-homer bat, but we'd prefer if they let him hit those dingers out of the sixth or seventh spot in the order.