Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Goodbye, Carnivore...

When the Blue Jays called Travis Snider up in 2008 at the age of 20, it seems as though the future had arrived. At least, that's what we all thought. Or hoped.
Throughout the six seasons that I've toiled - yes, toiled - over this blog, there is no player who has occupied its focus of more than Snider. And maybe that was the problem. It was easy to spend too much time heaping our hopes and aspirations for the future of the ballclub onto his broad shoulders, because it just seemed like he should be the next great star, and he would be with the Jays when they finally made their way back to the promised land of pennant races and playoffs. Jays fans were never going to accept less than superstardom from him because he came from what was then a barren minor league system into a big league team that floundered somewhere around the level of "vaguely respectable" for way too long.

Travis Snider might never have been that good, and by virtue of that fact, he'd have a hard time ever being good enough.

Prospect analysis is a relatively new phenomenon among the broader swath of baseball fans, and an increasing number approach these young players with a balanced mix of optimism and skepticism. But Snider's ascent predated this world view, and so you see volumes of tweets and comments that label him as a bust and a washout before he's really ever had the opportunity to prove himself everyday in the majors.

And that's always been my personal bone of contention with how he was treated by the Blue Jays, and by successive managers. In a game that is full of failure, Travis Snider was by alternate turns punished for small failures (by Cito) or protected from failure by John Farrell. Snider would go through a rough stretch in the big leagues as a 22 or 23 year-old, and would be rapidly dispatched to some level of baseball that he'd already conquered.

So in 2010, Aaron Hill would be granted 580 plate appearances as a 28 year-old to post a .665 OPS,  but 22 year-old Snider would be dispatched at the first sign of trouble, and permitted to stick for just half of the season despite putting up a .767 OPS.

It just doesn't add up to me. It feels weird. Having spent countless hours and having typed my fingers to the bone to defend the actions of the organization, their treatment of this one player remains such a profound mystery to me that I'm not sure that I'll ever look upon Alex Anthopoulos or John Farrell quite the same way. I mean, come on...Eric Thames is your starting left fielder? Really?

Maybe they'll be eventually be proven right, and the new reliever they've brought in might turn his decent fastball/curveball mix into a back of the bullpen arm. Maybe Snider is just a 15 homer, 15 steal outfielder who'll be marginal throughout the rest of his career. But it is profoundly disappointing to see the way that our favourite team dealt with this player who was a delight to watch.

So it's with profoundly mixed emotions that we see him off to greener pastures. I'm looking forward to watching Snider in the midst of a pennant chase, and rooting doubly hard for the Pirates to pull out a National League Central pennant. I'm also optimistic that he can grow and become the Major League star that many of us thought he would.

And as I hold that thought for a moment, I also think of this: A week before Snider's first game, another player made his Blue Jays debut. Through the rest of the season, Snider posted an .803 OPS in 24 games, while his new teammate put up a .648 OPS in 21 games to close out the season. That teammate was José Bautista.

Whatever the case, and however things play out from here...it was fun. The highs and lows, and all the anticipation and frustration. It was all good. I'll always be a Travis Snider fan. He'll always be the Great Big Giant Pasty White Hope to me. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Tweet Bag - Your Tweeted Questions, My Blogged Answers

It's been a while since I opened up the old satchel of tweeted questions, and for those of you new to these parts, this is what we call a Tweet Bag. It's like a mail bag, only with far less room for people to pontificate and contextualize before getting to their questions. I'm a fan of brevity.

Let's roll the drum of your cards and letters, reach in and see what we find.

First up, the question that so many are thinking, but @J_Smitty90 had the temerity to ask: Realistically, would a trip to the minors help Ricky? Or are his days as an "ace" over? 

Oh, Ricky. Not so fine. Not so fine you blow my mind. Hey Ricky!

It's been a pretty hard slog watching Romero's outings for most of this year, as he's struggled with his command from Opening Day and generally looked a lot more hittable. But would sending him on a vision quest to Las Vegas do him much good at this point? I'd tend to concur with Sportsnet's Jays analyst and dapper dresser Gregg Zaun, who noted yesterday that a trip to Triple-A probably wouldn't give Romero much insight. Pitching to weaker hitters who might be deceived by stuff that isn't getting past big leaguers probably doesn't advance the cause at all.

Without the infinite resources of time and patience, it's hard to figure precisely what's gone wrong with Ricky, but here's something I gleaned while traipsing through his numbers on Brooks Baseball: The big difference that I see between this year and last is the effectiveness of his sinker. (Fangraphs calls this pitch a cutter...I think. But I'll let those nerds slap-fight it out between them.) Last year, Romero's sinker was called a ball 40.57% of the time, while this year, that rate has spiked to 51.87%. It was called a strike 15.9% of the time last year, but slipped to 10.28% this year. Those aren't minor deviations, and none of his other pitches have seen such a significant change in outcomes. 

As for the question about RickRo's status as an "ace", that's a bit more complicated. I think there are probably only about 15-20 "aces" in all of baseball, and although Romero was the number one pitcher in the Jays' rotation in recent years, he's probably a good number three pitcher who would peak as a number two on occasion. That's not to dump on him at all, as you need pitchers of that ilk when you're building a team. But this year is a pretty stark reminder Ricky's probably not a part of that upper echelon of pitchers.

And on that bummer of a note, let's move on to @captainlatte, who asks: Trying to figure out when AA's contract ends (2014?), do u know? If AA was freed, who'd snap him up?

I've scoured the interwebs for literally minutes trying to find the answer to this, and the impression that I have is that the term of AA's contract was never released, and that we'll probably not know when it is coming up for renegotiation. Moreover, we might not even find out if and when he gets it extended.

If Anthopoulos was set free for some reason, it seems likely to me that he'd be snapped up as quickly as he wanted to be. The question would probably come down to where he wanted to go, and it what role. But all this seems rather academic, as I'd expect that he has a lot of latitude in Toronto. He'd really have to mess up the team over successive years to reach a point where they were attempting to can him, and even if you don't like all his moves, it seems unlikely that he'll do significant harm to the franchise necessitating a change. At least, not for the time being.

Next, @RynoMcFluff asks: Who do you want to see called up for a look when the rosters expand? 

At this point, is there anyone left for us to see? If he were healthy, Travis d'Arnaud would obviously be at the head of this list, but with his knee injury, it seems fairly unlikely that he'll be in Toronto this September. He might have a brief cameo appearance, or get invited to come work out and spit seeds in the dugout, but anything more than that would surprise me.

Beyond that, I'd hope that Chad Jenkins and Deck McGuire have a finish to the season that is strong enough to merit a look this September. Their poor seasons at Double-A New Hampshire are perhaps the most concerning developments of 2012, because the diminished expectations now create holes in the big league pitching staff over the next few years. 

I wouldn't mind getting a look at Moises Sierra in the big leagues. The 23 year-old Dominican has done okay in his first taste of Triple-A (.361 OBP, .482 SLG, 17 homers), with the standard caveat about those numbers coming in the PCL, and his numbers have been much better at home in Vegas. Sierra may profile as a good option to take over the fourth outfield spot in 2013, so it might make sense to give him at bats this year to see if he can hit the ball out of the infield on occasion.

Unfortunately, I think that Sierra will be blocked by Eric Thames and Anthony Gose, and might not get much time in the last month of the season.

Next question! @sboulton asks: Why the persistent "Yunel is bad in the clubhouse" meme, when there's been no whisper of that in Toronto? 

I don't want to act as though I've been anywhere within a country mile of the Jays' clubhouse. I've never seen how Yunel acts around his teammates, and how he gets along. But what if we're just gaming out the logic of the question you're asking, let me make the following inference: It's possible that the local guys wouldn't make as big a deal about Yunel's attitude on a day-to-day basis because they need to maintain a certain level of détente with their subjects, whereas the national writers coming in and out would have a bit more latitude to make these observations.

It could also be that some sources around the team feel more comfortable in letting their frustrations slip to the writers from away, because they won't have to deal with daily follow ups from the local beats. Or, it could just be that the occasional drop ins are misreading the dynamics in the room. Your guess is as good as mine.  

Onward! @GrubersMullet asks: You currently have one of the best arms out of the pen in Darren Oliver. Do you trade him or keep him & hope he doesn't retire?

Oliver's really been something else this year, hasn't he? The ideal scenario from the point of view of a fan is that Oliver sticks with the Jays and comes back to be a key part of the bullpen next year as well. (And I don't just say that because I like having someone on the team who is older than I am.)

At this point, I have to imagine that the Jays have had a number of discussions with Oliver to suss out his position on playing next year, and his willingness to take his game elsewhere down the stretch this season. If there is any notion that Oliver might not come back next year, the Jays really need to move him and get something back for him while they still can. He'd be a valuable commodity for a contending team that needed the bullpen help.

Let's wrap it up with some rapid fire answers, shall we?

@mlse (those Pension Plan Puppets scoundrels) asks: If AA were made of spare ribs would you eat him? What, are you suddenly Ryan Dempster? Ripping off Will Ferrell's Harry Caray impression and passing it off as your own joke?

@archizuber asks: What's the deal with airplane food? I don't know, but is there anything cooler than getting a little tin of Pringles on a plane, and it's all pressurized, and it feels like the can is going to explode if you open it? That's pretty cool.

Finally, @wconnaught asks: Any potential Jays trades at the deadline? Yes. I'm sure there are. Josh Johnson would be nice, but his acquisition seems remote for some reason. And don't forget that there are still moves that can and will be made after this initial deadline. I'd expect the Jays to be active in August as well.

That's it for this time. For now, this is your best friend Tao signing off. Until next time, keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Stepping Up

Image via Daylife

This 2012 edition of the Toronto Blue Jays has a way of keeping you on your toes, doesn't it?

There's been plenty of virtual ink spilled over the past several days about the return of  a certain rosy-cheeked carnivore from the deserts of Nevada, and the underwhelming-yet-still-fascinating trade the club made on Friday to dovetail with the prodigal son's return.  Especially this time of year, it's easy to spend so much time picking through the entrails of roster moves and transactions, or speculating about the next deal we'd like to see, that we forget to sit back and just enjoy baseball too.

The game is easier to enjoy, of course, when your favourite team is hanging 28 runs on the Red Sox in their own ridiculous ballpark over a three game sweep.  But it's also particularly fulfilling when the players we so desperately want to see fulfill their enormous potential begin to do so before our very eyes -- when the call-ups for which we have pined show signs of that elusive breakthrough, or the acquisitions we believed would pay dividends begin to do so.  Such is the case with what now constitutes two-thirds of the team's starting outfield:  Travis Snider and Colby Rasmus.

As the Jays put the finishing touches on a comprehensive beatdown of the Beantowners this afternoon, I remarked on Twitter that the travails of this season, from the rash of injuries to the Ricky Romero regression, will have been worth it to me if we could look back in the offseason and say that this was the year that Snider and Rasmus cemented their places as outfield stalwarts for years to come.  There was no shortage of question marks about the roster entering the regular season, but the performance of those two players were top-of-mind for me and I'm sure for many others.

But with Snider opening the year in the minors again, and Rasmus struggling in the early going, the bandwagon was emptying quickly.  Now, before everyone hauls out the small-sample-size-stick and begins beating me about the head with it, I know that Snider's 1.112 OPS comes from only the three games in Boston.  But my heavens, it's hard not to like what I see already.  A spectacular diving catch in the ninth inning to help preserve Saturday's victory. A rocket to the deepest part of Fenway Park today, off a left-hander against whom he'd had zero previous career success.  A ringing double off the Green Monster as a further display of the power to all fields that had scouts, fans and front offices drooling for years.  Snider's a little older now, and how I hope he's found whatever it is that great ballplayers have that allows them to maintain their elite form for years.

Because there's little I'd like more than to see a healthy, productive Blue Jays outfield of Snider, Jose Bautista and Colby Rasmus for the next three or four years at least, the way it's supposed to be.  Rasmus, as we've seen, has turned things around dramatically from the lost and laconic castoff from St. Louis from the late part of 2011 and the early part of this season.  While his production has tailed off in the past month -- his OPS has dropped from a season high of .828 on June 25 to .781 entering today's game -- he continues to hit the ball extremely hard, and his .213 BABIP over the same period would seem to indicate there are better results to come.

More revealing, though, is just how big the gap appears to be between Rasmus as a major leaguer and the recently recalled Anthony Gose.  It may have been presumptuous to think that Gose would immediatly rake in the bigs given his somewhat mixed minor league track record.  Again, the small sample size police are free to start their sirens here regarding not only Gose's time in the majors but the Rasmus resurgence as well.  Regardless, it's hard not to compare how the two at least look at the plate and see that one belongs and one -- well, let's just say not yet.  Gose may yet force the issue in centerfield, but I'm very happy to see that Snider is being given a greater opportunity.  If he needs an example of a couple players who've taken advantage of such opportunities, he only has to look to the outfielders to his left.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Happ-y Jays Are Here Again

When my head finally hit the pillow last night, this clearly wasn't the news that I expected to drop today. One comes to assume the most boring news is the most likely to occur, so if Travis Snider was on his way to join the Jays, there was probably a minor DL roster move coming, right?

But a ten-player trade? Ten players?! That, my friends, is a BIG trade. Also: It's b-a-n-a-n-a-s. It's a whole bundle of them. And probably more than can be reasonably digested in the small amount of time afforded. Nevertheless, here's a few thoughts and notions on the broad strokes of the roster moves in the past 24 hours.

Lunchbox Returns: As much as I'd like to take credit for the Jays decision to finally give Travis Snider his due, one would have to truly be an egomaniac bereft of good sense or any attachment to reality to think that a caterwauling temper tantrum of a blog post had any effect on the mindset of the Jays brass.

Having said that, if you all could just go on pretending that it is so, it would make your blogging pal feel much better about himself.

From Alex Anthopoulos' radio interviews this morning, it appears as though Snider will be given the opportunity to start every day with the Jays, at least until José Bautista returns. That might sound as though it is a thin opportunity for Snider to prove himself and retain the job. But a clear-eyed look at the competition for the job should tell you that Snider is the most likely to perform, and the most likely to regain his place as an everyday player. In a small sample, anything is possible, but a few homers or steals or web gems from Anthony Gose are unlikely to outshine the totality of Snider's game, even in limited time.

Who's In: It's an interesting collection of marginal arms, but when you've seen your pitching staff depleted as profoundly as the Jays' has been, you'll take what you can get.

Former Ottawa Lynx J.A. Happ - pronounced "Jay Happ", so there's that - was long rumoured to be one of the pieces that would be sent to Toronto in a trade for Roy Halladay. He's a serviceable if unspectacular starter, though he has a few years of control remaining, and could be a decent piece to have around through the next few years. The pitching staff is going to be thinner in the short term than many of us would have imagined coming out of the spring, so having extra manpower for 2013 is definitely a plus.

Brandon Lyon is a peculiar case in that he was a young pitcher who had been rushed to the Majors by the Jays in 2002, and now he returns a full decade later as a 32 year-old. It seems like so long ago that it's stunning to hear how relatively young he is. Lyon will provide some depth in the bullpen, and spare us some of the minor league outings that we were seeing at the major league level in recent weeks.

The most interesting piece might be David Carpenter, a 26 year old whose fastball averages in the mid-90's (94.5 MPH) and who had posted some decent strikeout rates through his minor league career. Good bullpens are made up of guys who throw hard and have a few good years, so Carpenter might be worth tracking as we look ahead to the next few years.

Who's Out: After spending much of the season pushing back on the criticism of Francisco Cordero, his welcome finally wore out at the beginning of this month. So again: Fell free to lay the credit for his expulsion from Toronto right here.

Cordero had become toxic beyond all recognition, and John Farrell had clearly - some might say "finally - lost faith in him given his light workload this month. He was essentially taking up a roster spot, so moving him was a plus regardless of the return.

Ben Francisco's performance wasn't nearly as bad as Coco's, but he was in much the same situation: He was not terrible, but ultimately superfluous, and his presence on the roster did little other than block Travis Snider from getting big league reps.

Diving deeper into the trade, the prospect angle is one that others can speak to much better than I, but I'll allow this: It's possible that a couple of these guys end up being big league contributors. They might even end up being really good. But they were several years away from contributing to the major league roster, and that's a lot of distance between a cup and a lip. Maybe there will be regret over Carlos Perez or Joe Musgrove in 2014, but if the question that is nagging right now is "was this worth it?", that's a tough one to even presume to answer this quickly.

The more salient question might be: "What are we fighting for at this point?" This blog tends to be a den of starry-eyed optimism, but even with a fairly positive outlook, it would appear that the Jays will be hard-pressed to maintain a level of respectability given the injuries and unexpected dips in performance. So as these transactions net out, is the upside that the Jays are now better able to make a run at a .500 season? Do these reinforcements help keep them out of the AL East basement? And ultimately, is there merit in treading water in what could have turned into a profoundly awful season?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

They Don't Really Love Travis, They Just Keep Him Hangin' On

The Toronto Blue Jays have royally messed it up beyond all salvation with Travis Snider, and it's time to stop the charade. They should really just let him go.

That isn't to say: "The Jays should use him as an asset and attempt to make a deal to get something reasonable in return." No. They shouldn't even feel as though they have that opportunity.  They've morally lost all purchase over the right to determine the future of his career.

Yes, your blogging pal is arguing out of spite to make the team weaker. He's probably lost his mind.

But seriously, just let him go. Let him walk away, and go find another organization, and get the hell away from this one. Because the relationship that the Blue Jays' front office has with this particular player is a step short of abusive and a step beyond insulting.

At every opportunity throughout his professional career, the Blue Jays have made the wrong choices when dealing with the 14th pick in the 2006 draft. Move him through several levels in one year? Sure. You know they did that.

Call him up to the majors at the age of 20 because of a lack of depth in even marginally passable talent? Oh yeah, for sure.  They were all over that gambit

Park him on the end of the bench to let him rot and mess up his head when he should have either been playing every day or developing his game in the minors? Thank you very much, Saint Cito.

Give him a few hundred at bats here or there, then send him back for more Pacific Coast League batting practice? They liked this joke so much, they kept repeating it.

Send him back for another cleansing season in the desert while choosing a lesser player ahead of him in a fictional left field battle? A player who could barely hang for a month and change in his "starting left field" role? Why, of course they did.

And now, when the Blue Jays are about to go into several weeks (and who knows how much longer) without the centrepiece of their offense, the brain trust chooses to promote a 21 year-old kid ahead of him. A kid who is probably getting his first shot at The Bigs at least a season too soon, but hey...what could go wrong?

Is the Anthony Gose promotion analogous to Snider's back in 2008? If you're suggesting that the general manager of the day might have demonstrated a level of overanxious zeal in moving the prospect that he acquired to the front of the line when there was an opening for an extra outfielder in a lost season so as to demonstrate that he knows what he's doing and his selection of players is better than the collection of duds left around by his predecessor, then...sorry, what was the question again?

Over the past two years, either Alex Anthopoulos or John Farrell or some combination thereof have decided that Rajai Davis, Eric Thames, Ben Francisco, Corey Patterson, Juan Rivera, Dewayne Wise, Adam Loewen and Mike McCoy were all better options than Travis Snider. And now, they've moved Anthony Gose ahead of him, presumably because Morgan Ensberg isn't picking up his picking up his phone today.

Oh, sure, they'll say how much they like Snider. They'll roll out hoary Hallmark Card platitudes about what a great player and great person he is. But when it comes right down to it, this team can always find a reason or rationale for keeping Travis Snider away, and out of their sight.

What has he done to deserve this? He allegedly failed as a major leaguer, posting a .730 OPS in 232 games, despite the fact that he was probably too young to be playing at the level. He posts a .767 OPS as a 22 year-old in 82 games in 2010, but that wasn't good enough to save his roster spot. If you tally up his last two seasons, he trudged along for a .709 OPS in 521 plate appearances. You know what Rajai Davis has posted since he's been in Toronto? A .647 OPS. In 550 plate appearances.

Does that make any sense at all to you?

Even if Snider occasionally shows signs of success in Las Vegas - .959 OPS in 787 plate appearances - it's dismissed by virtue of the fact that it's Vegas. Effectively, the Blue Jays have set up a scenario where Snider can't possibly succeed. All he can do is toil and wait. And wait. And wait.

Maybe people will be too thrilled by the appearance of the new guy to cast a thought towards Travis Snider in the next few days. Maybe this is Gose's time, and Jays fans should feel some excitement at seeing the future of the franchise today. That's one way of looking at it.

There's also a pretty bright future that's worth considering for the player this blog once named the Great Big Giant Pasty White Hope. It's clear that it won't be as a Blue Jay.

So let him go.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


In entirely unsurprising yet still disappointing news this morning, the Blue Jays announced that would-be closer Sergio Santos would miss the remainder of the season, after experiencing more shoulder discomfort following a rehab throwing session.

Jays fans got to see all of five regular-season innings from Santos, and in total, the converted infielder has still only pitched 120 innings in his big-league career.  Santos is still largely unknown to a great many fans, but his absence this season still hurts – his eye-popping numbers with the White Sox last season and the electric stuff he displayed when healthy are the sorts of things you can dream on.

A few thoughts on Santos, scrawled out as I watch the Jays take on the team against whom he made his final 2012 appearance, the Cleveland Indians:

Mike Sirotka 2.0?

Well, no.  Not really.  This comparison has come up over and over again, and it’s been troublesome to me.  The idea that the Jays bought “damaged goods” when they shipped prospect porn star Nestor Molina to Chicago to get Santos doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny or basic logic.

The reason we all remember the Mike Sirotka deal was precisely because it was so out of the ordinary, requiring the Commissioner of Major League Baseball to weigh in as the final arbiter.  Bud Selig pointed out at the time of ruling on the Sirotka deal that it’s up to teams to get the information they need on players before acquiring them:  “I hope that all club executives will take from this dispute a renewed awareness of their obligations under the caveat emptor rule.”  One of the things that fans have come to appreciate about Alex Anthopoulos in his term as Blue Jays General Manager is that he does his homework.  He doesn’t strike me as the type who would fail to do all the necessary checking to ensure the player he was acquiring was healthy.

John Farrell told the media today that it was in Santos’ season debut, against Kansas City, in which he first felt the shoulder pain that would eventually sideline him.  Yes, managers have been known to lie to the media before, and the way Santos was hidden from view during Spring Training may give the more suspicious among us reason to wonder whether the pain might have been present a little earlier.  But if Santos was in fact injured prior to the season, what benefit has there been, or is there now, in saying otherwise?  Saving face is about the only reason I can muster, but all things considered, I prefer to take Farrell and the organization at their word.

(Addendum to this after originally posting:  Santos signed a contract extension with the White Sox after the 2011 season as well, discussed below. Hard to imagine they'd commit guaranteed money to a pitcher if they knew he had a shoulder problem.  Hat tip to Mike Wilner and John Lott on Twitter for reminding me and everyone else about that.)

Dolla dolla bills y’all

Besides, Santos is far from a lost cause for the Blue Jays.  We’ve already seen how critical it is to have a stable of capable bullpen arms, and Santos should still be one when he’s healthy again, for a very reasonable price.  Even if his arm falls off in surgery, the Jays would only be on the hook for the price they paid to get him (Molina) plus $7.25 million – $6.75 million over the next two seasons, and $750K to buy out one of the three club options for 2015, 2016 and 2017 (as always, via the invaluable Cot's Baseball Contracts powered by Baseball Prospectus).

That 2013-2014 salary is less than the Jays will be paying Casey Janssen, who picked up ninth-inning duties (eventually) in Santos’ place and has been nothing short of outstanding.  Yet Janssen got that money when he was signed as a set-up guy, not a CAPITAL C CLOSER.  In a chat with the Tao during lunch last week, we agreed that a contract like that of Santos fits in almost anywhere in the back end of a bullpen.

All this considered, there’s still reason to be optimistic about seeing Sergio Santos striking batters out in the late innings in a Blue Jays uniform in April 2013.  Put a candle in your window.

Friday, July 13, 2012

On Buying and Selling, and Salient Questions

As we proceed into the second half of the MLB season tonight, with the non-waiver trade deadline looming at month's end, you’ll increasingly hear these customary questions from every corner of the sports media infospace.

“Will they be buyers? Or will they be sellers?”

This binary concept is beyond prevalent throughout the discourse around sports. It’s the dominant worldview that drives so much of the narrative construction throughout the world of sports.

You’re either going for it, or you’re rebuilding. You’re selling success, or you’re selling hope. You’re showing the fans, or you’re bailing out. You’re proving to your players that you’re serious, or you’re moving them out of town. Win now, or tear down.

It’s little wonder, since this simplified approach allows for the creation of dichotomies, in which the two opposing views are given the illusion of “equal time” by reporters, while commentators are allowed to stake out a position and defend it vehemently. 

So on that level, it’s great. It’s just too bad that in reality, it’s a load of hooey.

For Blue Jays fans, we’re already seeing these false dichotomies manifest themselves. Stephen Brunt indulged in the “either/or” discussion – yet again – on the back page of the July 2nd edition of Sportsnet Magazine. José Bautista’s remarks about wanting the team to “go for it” to ESPN have led to people analyzing every emergency injury substitution on the roster through the lens of “What Will José Think of This”. The Jays sign Edwin Encarnacion to an extension, and the analysis leans into the questions of whether this means the Jays are not sellers after all, and whether if it might mean they are buyers.

This is the sort of discussion that is fine for idle chat over cold brews on a patio or at the end of the dock. But while you’re assuming those stances and taking those positions in your arguments, recognize that the last person that you would want to be engaged in such a thought process is Alex Anthopoulos.

More than any other sport, baseball is a sport which is labour intensive. Teams don’t just load up or tear down all at once, or turn over half their roster on an annual basis. Each franchise likely has 70 to 80 players in their system that they seriously consider as a potential major leaguer. Filling those spots is an arduous task, and assessing a team’s level of talent and how that will play out over the course of the next thousand days is a process that should probably be isolated from the vagaries of the annual championship season.

If you read that last statement to mean that this season doesn’t matter…well, you’re not far off.
This is especially the case when a team’s roster is plundered by the misfortune of multiple injuries to key contributors, and yet the team remains tantalizingly close to contention. The second Wild Card berth is just 2.5 games away, after all. Wouldn’t a Matt Garza help keep them in the mix? Wouldn’t a Ryan Dempster help them compete for a shot at the playoffs?

Ultimately, though, shouldn’t the question be: Is it worth it to deviate from the roster development plan in order to salvage something out of this one season? Especially if it creates roster holes in the future?

It’s been a long time since the Blue Jays were this close to a post-season spot this late in the season, and Toronto sports fans are beside themselves with a strange mix of desperation, anger and exasperation that comes from rooting for a collection of hometown teams that have underwhelmed for much of the past decade. But the upside of the 2012 season seems like such a rusty prize that it hardly seems worth it to move valuable human resources for the shot at a shot at shot at a remote spot at the October tournament.

This might look to you like an argument for the Jays to sell. Which brings us back to how indelible the false dichotomy is. But that’s not the argument at all. Ultimately, a smart franchise – and we’d all like to see the Blue Jays qualify as that, wouldn’t we? – should not be defining themselves as either buyers or sellers, but should be at all times view themselves as both.

In recent years, the Jays have shown this propensity for going against the grain, adding key major league pieces like Yunel Escobar and Colby Rasmus while better fitting the description of “sellers”.  These were young, long-term and controllable solutions at areas of need that might help in the short term, but would also play important roles for the coming three or four seasons. If the Jays are hanging in the race in spite of the long list of faulty arms, it’s because of those sorts of moves.

The question that ultimately keeps emerging when it comes to the Jays is “when?” Are they ready now? Or do we have to wait even longer? Why not this season? The nature of the game awarding championships on an annual basis creates this urgency, which is completely understandable.
On the other hand, “when?” is not a question that we should hope is rattling around the cranium of Alex Anthopoulos. That question creates the imperative of wanting to answer “now!” And “now” makes people do crazy things for immediate gratification.

The wiser questions for the man with his hands of the levers of the good ship Blue Jays are both “how?” and “who?”

How do we build this team into one which doesn’t merely battle for an outside shot at a one-game play-in to the playoffs? Who on our roster now is really going to be a contributor with that next-level team? How do we develop our guys so that they reach that level? Who can we find to fill the holes left by those who won’t achieve what we expect of them? It’s a much more complex set of questions, with answers that are in constant flux. But these are the salient questions.

This team might well becomes what we all hope it will: A perpetual contender. But if that is truly the goal, we’d all do well to take our eyes off our watches and fix our gaze on the horizon. Let’s focus on the destination, not the time of arrival.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Why the All-Star Game Is Good, and Three Simple Fixes to Make It Better

When it comes to loving MLB's All-Star Game, I'm a true believer. No matter how much it seems as though the the game underwhelms, and no matter how many dunderheaded decisions are made with the rosters in the lead-up to the game or during the action, it's still hard to suppress the the excitement for the night itself.

We're now a decade past the night where Joe Torre, Bob Brenly and Bud Selig seemingly conspired to ruin the mid-season classic for everyone and for all of eternity, ending the 2002 game in a tie after shoehorning all of their pitchers into action in the game's early innings. It's almost started to feel as though the anger from that night is beginning to dissipate. Finally.

Much of the consternation in the ensuing decade over the quality and meaning of the All-Star Game can be attributed to that night, and understandably so. What followed were questionable decisions that attempted to fix what would not have been broken if that one game had rested in more astute hands. The rosters eventually expanded to 34 players. The game would "count" and decide home-field advantage in the World Series. And at some point, a premium was placed on "utility" all-stars - hello Omar Infante - who could play a number of positions if managers had already torn through their vast list of reserves.

Even with all of those missteps, I can't stop coming back to the game with an eager spirit and an open mind. Maybe it's because it's almost impossible to fake your way through the game baseball, so even as an exhibition, it can be pretty compelling to watch. Pitchers don't throw at half speed, batters take full cuts, and fielders lay out to get balls. The game is still a game, and it's the game that fans love.

That's not to say it's perfect, though. As someone who is a friend of the All-Star Game, indulge me for a moment as I make a few humble suggestions for improving the for fans of the game.

Reduce the Roster Size: If you look at the rosters from the All-Star Games in the Eighties and Nineties, you'll find some surprising selections, but not nearly as many undeserving half-season flukes as have been seen in since the latest wave of expansion.

Unfortunately, graceful alternatives to the current roster structure would mostly result in creating artificial rules to control the dumber urges of the yearly managers. If you ordained that starting pitchers needed to be used for at least three innings, what happens if that pitcher gets shelled in the first or second inning? Would you end up with players feigning mid-game injuries to remove themselves? Layering on rules that are not germane to the game would only lead to weird non-baseball decisions and new manners of circumvention. Or worse, players avoiding the All-Star Game altogether.

But if you were to reduce the size of the roster back to 30 or even 28 players, you would take away the impulse of the managers to go to their pen or their bench too early.  The starters who were voted in by the fans would get more time, and there would be fewer questionable selections tacked on to the butt end of the roster to fill out the card. Because very few of us are holding our breath in anticipation of Chris Perez's appearance in the game tonight.

The problem with reducing the roster is that it will make it harder to ensure full representation from all of the 30 teams, and this is still a noble and desirable outcome. Regardless of what the punditry say, fans still get excited to see their guys in the game. To address this, two additional stipulations would be put in place.

First, you limit the number of representatives from any given team to five players. Yes, the 2012 Texas Rangers are a sight to behold, but would anybody mourn the absence or Matt Harrison or Joe Nathan if they hadn't made the team this year?

Second, you allow for non-player personnel to be a team's representative. If the best the Oakland A's could muster this year was Ryan Cook, why not allow Chili Davis to represent the team as the hitting coach, or Nick Paparesta as the athletic trainer? Maybe those aren't the best examples, but you get my drift.
Make Way for the Kids: In most years, rookies or up-and-coming stars are often left off the rosters. That's why it is a delightful turn of events this year that Mike Trout and Bryce Harper will make appearances in the All-Star Game.

Ballot-box stuffing aside, the fans generally do a pretty good job of picking the right players to appear in the All-Star Game. Whether through the standard vote for the starters or the votes for the final slots on the roster, the fans generally pick someone deserving. So why not extend to the fans the opportunity to vote in a young, compelling player from each league who has less than 1.5 years of MLB service time to participate in the game?

Ensuring that there is a mechanism for reliably adding these young players to the roster would provide an interesting storyline in the lead up to the game, and would help to highlight the new and emerging talent that will eventually become the stars of the game. Plus, it would allow the fans to get to know a number of new faces as they weight their options on the ballot.

Put the Game on Cable: When Fox digs deep to find outlandish sums of money to throw at baseball, the All Star Game is one of the key properties for their over-the-air broadcast rights. And yet, the need to turn the game into a broader entertainment program that captures non-fans results in some of the most garish and unnecessary moments.

When fans have been waiting all day to watch the game, seeing some crappy country-pop-faux-rock ensemble mugging into the camera while singing a completely unnecessary song is an insult. It's completely superfluous, and takes time away from the actual baseball portion of the broadcast. In fact, it seems as though the player introductions - one of the best parts of the All-Star pageantry - are now rushed because of the non-game related promos and stunts that lard up the first 45 minutes of the broadcast. Moreover, you can be reasonably certain that the camera will cut away to prominently feature People Who Think They Can Dance, the hosts of whichever music competition is on these days, and long, ponderous voiceovers by the star of whichever Fox drama no one is watching these days. 

Not that you can blame them for taking advantage of the event to pimp their own product. That's always been a good part of the equation for any rights holder. And while it would be hard to argue that ESPN is the model of restraint when it comes to self-promotion during broadcasts, cable sports networks are much more focused on appealing to the fan of the game rather than concerning themselves with drawing in eyeballs that happened to stumble upon the screen.

Ultimately, the game belongs in a place where the focus will be on promoting the sport and creating a greater appreciation of baseball. Eliminating the need to maximize every ratings point and wring out every promotional opportunity would go a long ways towards making the experience more satisfying for fans. It might even help baseball entice a few more fans to become engaged in the game every day.

And really, shouldn't that ultimately be the point of this showcase?


Let's Chat, Shall We?: If you're planning on having a multi-screen experience with tonight's Home Run Derby, I'd be happy to have you as my guest as I host a chat on Sportsnet.ca to coincide with the tater slammin' contest.

Agree or disagree with any of the All-Star Game suggestions above? Want to talk about the Jays' first half, or commiserate on the state of the pitching staff? Or do you need support to guide you through the Homerthon itself? Want to bounce outlandish trade scenarios past me? I'm all ears. Stop by, and join in the fun tonight at 8 pm.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Playing Catch

I don't have a very big backyard at my place.  The Org Wife and I do our best to take care of it over the spring, summer and early fall, with a nice selection of plant life keeping things colourful.  But the little patch of grass I try to maintain is probably small enough for Derek Jeter to be able to field softly hit ground balls across its entire range.

When you're five years old, though, your backyard, no matter how big or small, can feel like a massive universe of possibility.  For the oldest Org Kid, our backyard is on occasion a construction site; a farm; the surface of the moon or even a baseball diamond.  When he was about two, we got him a little plastic T-ball set -- the kind with the big oversize hollow plastic bat and balls.  It took him a year or so to be able to consistently belt those balls over the fence, and into or through the cluster of small trees at the back of the yard.  Home runs.

We graduated to me flipping light underhand tosses to him with the same toy bat and balls.  We weren't practising plate discipline by any stretch of the imagination.  Every pitch resulted in a swing, and after a while, some of them resulted in some pretty solid contact too.

Last year, the Org Kid played his first year of organized ball, or at least as organized as you can hope for from ten 4-to-5-year-olds loosely defined as a T-ball team.  We'd pack up our equipment and drive to hot, dusty diamonds for an hour of kids wildly chasing, throwing and swinging at rubberized softballs, followed by a treat for everyone.  His first year, the Org Kid wasn't very interested in anything but the treat.  This summer, he was far more energetic.

But T-ball season is short, wrapping up before vacations start, so now, to keep the baseball juices flowing, we're back to that undersized backyard.  We can't lay out bases to run or set up the tee, but we can do lots of other stuff.  Almost every night this past week, we've played catch.  The Org Kid seems to have finally settled on which hand he'd like to throw with -- his left. (And no, I didn't try to persuade him either way, even if I am mentally picking up my tickets to his MLB debut as a flamethrowing lefty.)  The fact that his glove is supposed to go on his left hand doesn't seem to bother him much.  He just flips it over and wears it on his right hand, catching balls I toss to him basket-style, with me urging him to always secure it with the other hand.

Tonight, after dinner on the patio, the Org Kid wanted to practice hitting.  We grabbed a bat and a practice ball and set up down the length of the yard.  "Bat up over your shoulder.  Eye on the ball."  I'd flip some underhand tosses, and the timing would slowly come along.

But I know that backyard isn't going to be able to hold him for long.  Certainly not forever.  He's already putting the tomato plants and herbs at risk.  Eventually, he'll figure out the swing that will let him hit it farther than the yard can hold.  I'd like to keep playing catch and hitting balls in the backyard with him for years and years, but one day it'll all just be too small.

For now, I'll enjoy playing on our little patch of grass out back, and maybe start getting his little brother involved too.  Oh, and I'll go find him a right-handed glove.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Wading Back Into the Fray

Oh hey there. Remember me...er, us? (Sorry, need to flip that switch back on. Unless I can the whole "we" thing once and for all from here on out. Which, to be frank, I'd probably prefer. Are you okay with a bunch of "I/me" in your posts? Let's try it on for size, shall we?)

Yes, your somewhat devoted blogging scribe (scribing blogger?) is back from a few weeks of much deserved rest and relaxation. But fear not! By virtue of all the technology and the digital video and the Twitter, I already know what's on your mind, and how gosh-darned fed up with all of it that you are. Which is why I'll spare you any long-winded defense of Francisco Cordero. You all seem to viscerally hate him, and hate John Farrell for not hating him as-much-if-not-more than you, so...go ahead. Have at it. I'm not talking you off that ledge.

Later this week, I'll delve into a midway report card for the team, talk a little All-Star mumbo jumbo, and maybe even finish off the ponderous piece on why we shouldn't be so focused on the acquisition of major league talent. (It's a bit heavy-handed at this point, so I have to dial down the sanctimony a tad.)

In the interim, a few thoughts and observations on the state of the Jays.

What's the Deal with Ricky Romero: Last year, Ricky Romero struggled with his location down the stretch, but there was something to admire in his ability to tough it out and manage to get outs and ground balls when necessary. This was part of that mystical je ne sais quoi that big time, front of the rotation hurlers have, and it was great to think that Romero had evolved into something beyond a thrower. He was a Pitcher. Genuflect in respect.

This was a happy thought at the time, especially since the notion was that Romero's lack of command was somehow just a side effect of a long season, and it would return to its full glory after he had a full offseason to rest and refuel. But from the very first game of the season, Romero has struggled to locate, and seems to have had more trouble locating his fastball than his breaking pitches. Which seems strange, though the best explanation for this seemingly backwards state of affairs might be that he's overthrowing the fastball when he gets behind. What ensues is missing by the "one lousy inch" that Romero mentioned in the offseason promo campaign...except that it's not one inch, and it's not isolated to a handful of occasions. Add it all up, and Romero has missed expectations by a mile this year.

There are volumes of dime store psychology pushed out on Twitter about Romero's state of mind, and while it's probably unwise to wander into that sphere, there's something to be said for containing one's emotions on the mound. Roy Halladay famously referred to his "next pitch" mantra, in which he'd allegedly block out the situation or result of the last pitch, and focus all his energy into selecting and executing the next one. If Halladay happened to leave a spare copy of Harvey Dorfman's "The ABC's of Pitching" hanging around the clubhouse, Romero might do well to leaf through it.

Last Month's Whipping Boy: Remember when people thought that Colby Rasmus was all messed up, and that Tony LaRussa was right, and that the Jays should demote him to send a message, and that Travis Snider should be playing centre field instead, and that Alex Anthopoulos isn't really as smart as all us Kool-Aid drinkers think because he took on this underachiever?

Yeah, me neither.

Oh, Wandy: Not that this fire needs any more gas tossed upon it, but if the Jays are looking to find a solution to their pitching woes - and oh, what woe! - then the most desirable option out there might be Wandy Rodriguez.

Or maybe it just seems that way because your favourite blogger just has a bit of a Wandy fixation. And maybe he occasionally comes up with alternate lyrics to Barry Manilow's "Mandy" to express his adoration for the Astros' diminutive lefty. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

One note of caution on this, though: In 25 interleague starts, Wandy has a 5.09 ERA, and has allowed 22 homers. He probably walks a few too many batters (3.12 per nine for his career) and gives up a few too many homers (1.02 per nine).

But given the state of the Jays' pitching staff and the dearth of available starters, it might not be the worst move to take a shot on a guy who has been mostly effective and quite healthy, averaging 30 starts per year since 2007. Plus, he's still under control for another year with an option for 2014. 

Arbitrary Endpoints and Such...: In 26 games as the Jays leadoff batter, Brett Lawrie has posted a .372 OBP and .527 SLG, for an .899 OPS. Also 10 of his 16 doubles have come since the change in the order, as have four of his eight homers.

Maybe the point is that a player who gets jacked up on caffeine and sugar and overly-articulate handshakes and raw maple-flavoured scrappitude should be let out of the gates as soon as possible. Because that buzz might dissipate by the third inning.

Finally: Sorry about not being around more. I'll be right here for you, through the rest of the season. You have my full attention, or at least as much of it as I can spare.