Thursday, September 27, 2012

Now There's a Tragic Waste of Brutal Youth - A Reaction to the Snider Saga

Photo courtesy @james_in_to.

It's rare that we get a thoughtfully candid retelling of how a player's relationship to a franchise soured, and rarer still that we get one so soon after the player left. Which is why many of us have spent recent days pouring over minute details in Shi Davidi's three-part story on Travis Snider's departure, and the events that led to it.

I can understand why many fans want to move on, and don't care to rehash the Travis Snider saga any further. For some, Snider's performance here in Toronto doesn't nearly warrant all of the angst that has been displayed by his fans. For others, retracing the steps that led to his exit seems to be more misery than a stressed-out, heartbroken Jays fan can take at this point.

And yet, the curiosity around what really happened to the Jays' former number one prospect is almost impossible to resist. For those of us who have spent the last five years agonizing over Snider,  his progress - or lack thereof - has been a source of frustration and bewilderment. Getting a bit more "dirt" on what many of us have suspected was a strained relationship at the best of times is irresistible.

But we shouldn't mistake the story as just a salacious rehash. What happened with Travis Snider matters going forward, because many of the key figures in this from the Blue Jays' side of the story - Alex Anthopoulos, John Farrell, Paul Beeston - are still actively setting the course for the future of the franchise. Their approach to Snider's development should be scrutinized, as should their self-evaluation for how they believe they did. The story paints a picture of a development plan that was improvised at best, and careless at worst. But for the most part, the Jays brain trust remains mostly unapologetic about their handling of Snider.

This is obviously subjective, but to my reading, no one comes off less sympathetic in the story than Cito Gaston. And while it might seem as though that shouldn't matter, it bothers me that he will continue to have a voice in the Blue Jays' front office so long as Beeston remains ensconced as the team's president. This is the man who ran John Olerud out of town for not being more of a pull hitter; who benched Shawn Green in favour of Ruben Sierra; and ultimately, who helped to diminish the value of Travis Snider.

But he's got his World Series rings, so I guess I should just shut my mouth and smile and love him. I'm sure that's what he'd say.

As a side note, both Cito Gaston and Gene Tenace were 25 years old by the time they reached 500 at bats in the big leagues. Maybe they looked upon Snider as a kid who needed to toughen up and listen up, but they can't even remotely relate to what he was going through in his initial stint with the team. When they were 20 years old, they were farting around the Carolinas or the Florida State League, playing low-A ball and failing miserably. Maybe they could have cut the kid some slack rather than looking upon him as an incomplete player absent their personal imprint.

In a way, it seems as though all involved started to forget soon after his initial call-up that Snider should have been regarded as a valued asset. Back in 2008, you could have made Snider the key piece in a major trade for a star veteran player, but by the time 2012 rolled around, he could only fetch a bullpen arm.

For all of the talk around asset management around the Blue Jays in recent years, they certainly seemed careless with this one. Repeatedly, the Jays took steps to diminish his value with other teams in the league. Whether if it was the ham-handed lefty-lefty platoon in which they placed him with Fred Lewis, or choosing Eric Thames over him this year, the team took decisions that continually eroded his reputation, and lowered him to the level of a replacement-level player.

It doesn't seem as though the coaching staff or front office ever got a decent read of his mental makeup. It could be that they figured it wasn't a concern because he was regarded as "mature" and a "good make up" player from his draft year forward. Or maybe they just didn't care, and figured that he was a man and needed to toughen up. Whatever the case, few responsible for overseeing his development with the team seem prepared to take responsibility for what might have gone wrong.

(And the nagging voice at the back of my head wonders: Are they making the same mistakes with Anthony Gose? Or even Brett Lawrie?)

If there is anyone assuming blame throughout the three-part series, it is Snider. He recognizes that he was perhaps overly-sensitive and too easily affected by outside voices. Moreover, he criticizes his own contributions to the long series of crossed wires between himself and the team. He calls himself "proud" and "hard-headed", and fesses up to the anger and disillusionment that he allowed to overtake his moods and affect his play.

And before you scoff or offer up tough love remedies: He's a kid. Remember that, above all. Snider's a smart kid in his early twenties, and he worries way too much about himself. He's struggling to figure out who the hell he is. He's immature, but he's aware of it. He has trouble with authority and hasn't quite figured out how to master his emotions. Sometimes, he beats himself up because he wishes he could be better, and sometimes, he looks to rationalize his behaviour.

Can any of us say that we were much different at his age?

I've believed for several years that the worst thing the Blue Jays did to Travis Snider was to not allow him the latitude to fail. For a young player who had dominated virtually every level of amateur and affiliated ball in which he played, the shock of finding yourself unable to keep up with the best players in the world can be disconcerting. There were hints throughout the past four seasons that Snider might be struggling with his emotions, and letting the negative thoughts get the better of him, though it is surprising to see the extent to which Snider is willing to reveal his neuroses in this piece.

The question I think a lot of us our left with after reading the piece is: "Why would he come out now and say this?" It seems as though there's not a lot of good that can come from publicly airing out your grievances with a former employer.

I suspect that there's something therapeutic for Snider in unloading the past like this. He seems like a thoughtful player, and someone who spends a lot of time - probably too much time - in his own head. On subsequent readings of the full three-part saga, I felt as though Snider was taking on much more blame for his situation than he was doling out towards others. The process of talking through the past few years wasn't an angry one focused on slamming those who had done him wrong. It's a level of self-analysis that isn't often shared by athletes.

It strikes me that the best thing that Travis Snider could have done for himself was to forego pro ball in favour of college. There are aspects of his personal growth he could have dealt with and worked out while on campus, and it strikes me that spending some contemplative time in a classroom here or there would have helped him tremendously, and prepared him mentally to move into what passes for the "grown up world" of Major League Baseball.

Ultimately, Travis Snider is going to be judged by his output on the field, and as of yet, he hasn't nearly reached his promise. Watching him over the years, it always seemed to me that he had the physical skills to play the game at the top level. If he can stay healthy and keep his head together for an extended period of time, he might just be a really good ballplayer yet.

Whenever, wherever or if ever that happens, I'll continue to root for his success.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Angst Now, or Angst Later?

The last time I blogged hereabouts, I was railing against the dying of the light, refusing to go gentle into that good night, swearing I would enjoy the last few weeks of the Blue Jays' disastrous 2012 season.  It's been a challenge, friends.

Since then, out of thirteen games, they've won... [counts]... TWO?  Two goddamn wins?  Yes, that's apparently accurate.  I've tried to focus on the positive -- the settling in of Adeiny Hechavarria, the emerging adequacy of Aaron Loup, I'm sure there are one or two others -- but losing sucks.  The fight to finish fourth in the division ahead of the equally discombobulated Boston Red Sox has been as dreary an endeavour as you might expect.

I think it's jealousy that I'm feeling, actually.  I've taken to cursing the improbable Orioles every time they pull another extra-inning win out of their hindquarters, because I refuse to believe the talent they've assembled there is better than what Toronto has on a position by position basis, yet there they are, challenging for the division lead in late September.  We haven't seen that for two decades as Jays fans, and to see another long-suffering AL East franchise enjoy such a stretch now makes me envious.

On the plus side, though, this ugliness has probably provided me with a certain amount of objectivity I didn't have before about some players on whom decisions will need to be made in the off-season.  As a fan, I want them all to succeed, and even when they don't, I often look past their flaws or assume they can be easily rectified with some off-season coaching, adjustments, and presumably pixie dust.  But this season's struggles have led me to question whether I'd be prepared to see even some of my favourite players be moved in off-season deals if it meant an upgrade.

I think it's healthy to begin to re-evaluate which players are untouchable when it comes time to address the needs that Alex Anthopoulos has candidly identified.  Last off-season, I was singing Yunel Escobar's praises as a long-term solution at shortstop.  Now, given his dismal offensive season, to say nothing of his other issues, I wouldn't hesitate to include him in a trade (even if that's admittedly selling low on an asset).  But the Escobar situation is pretty much self-evident by now.  Who else on the roster is untouchable now -- or more to the point, who would you have considered a longshot to be traded six months ago that now might be more realistically on the block?  Does Colby Rasmus still get the benefit of the doubt after what we've seen apart from one strong month?  Is next year's 23-year-old version of Brett Lawrie more valuable as a trade chip than he will be over the long term as the Blue Jays' every day third baseman?

I expect the Jays' marketing department and/or the Mounties to show up at my door at any moment for daring to suggest that the Blue Jays could trade Brett Lawrie.  And I'm not even saying they should.  Maybe it's just this bleak, brutal September that has me thinking things are worse than they are, and players that were once seen as cornerstones could now be trade bait.  Thankfully there are people who actually get paid to think about baseball making these decisions on a more informed basis than me.

But I do believe there are some surprises in store this off-season with respect to what the team will have to give up to get those much-needed upgrades.  Some prospect-porn types on whom we've been dreaming might end up on some other team's Eastern League affiliate.  And yes, even some big-league players to whom we've become attached will change uniforms too.  The last couple of off-seasons have been filled with one kind of angst:  the kind that comes from the team perceived to be doing little or nothing to improve.  If Anthopoulos starts dealing, we might be faced with a whole different kind of angst this time around.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Yunel Escobar Eye Black Thing...and Why It Matters

As has been well-documented, this photo was taken by @james_in_to.
This is some next-level numbskullery.

Yunel Escobar spent nine innings in the playing area of the Rogers Centre on Saturday with something stupidly offensive written on his face. In an area where literally thousands of cameras would be pointed in his direction to document the words scrawled on his eye black patches.

What "Tu ere maricon" actually means is a subject of some hair-splitting at this point, but most translations point to it being a slur against gay men. At best, it might mean "you are a sissy" or "you are an effeminate coward".

It's entirely possible that this would have slipped by with little notice, except that a dedicated fan of the Blue Jays who often takes pictures from his vantage point behind the dugout noticed those callous words. When he realized what the words meant  - and he went to pains to find out - he was rightfully upset by them. But he was conflicted as to whether if he should even publish the picture, in spite of the fact that he found it offensive and unacceptable. He felt some loyalty towards the team, and also some loyalty towards the player. As a season ticket holder, he sees them at most games, and some of them smile and nod and wave in his direction, recognizing him as a die-hard fan.

But ultimately, he couldn't let it lie. Nor should he have.

There are those who want to slough off this story as much ado about nothing. They say that Anglophones, as outsiders to the culture and language, can't accurately understand the context, meaning or nuance of the term, or how commonly it is used within certain Spanish-speaking cultures. As someone who is bilingual, I find that argument a tad convenient and unconvincing.

Still others might see it as a "boys will be boys" indiscretion. These are the sort of epithets that are still common within the realm of locker room chatter, and Escobar was likely just horsing around. It's entirely likely that the message had less to do with hate than with lunkheaded nitwittery.

There's also still some elements of this story that need to be sorted out, including who actually wrote those words and how they ended up on Escobar's face. Moreover, who else - teammates, coaches, management - noticed this and when did they know?

Absent that information, I'll pass over what I think should be done to remedy the situation. But let me say why I think this matters.

Don't mistake me for Helen Lovejoy, the preacher's wife from the Simpsons when I ask that you think of the children. I feel embarrassed even going there. But as young boys begin the transition towards being young men, they pick up on cues for what is appropriate from a lot of really dumb places. From TV, from the movies, and when it comes to notions of "manhood", especially from sports.

When I think about where my attitudes about homosexuality were first formed, I immediately flash back to Eddie Murphy's wildy over-the-top interpretations of gay men in his stand up act or in Beverly Hills Cop. Or the Jack Tripper character in Three's Company. It's ridiculous, I know. But for most of my adolescence, an affected lisp and an exaggerated hand on the hip constituted high comedy. And it reinforced the "differentness" of homosexuals to a point which almost completely obscured their humanity.

Even within the past year, I tweeted out something in which the punchline was, more or less, "like a girl." I'm lucky to have a multitude of smart female followers who were quick to point out that while I might have found the quip to be funny, they found it hurtful.

And when it comes to Yunel Escobar, how many Blue Jays fans took the consternation shown towards him in Atlanta as some symbol of what a bunch of backwoods, uncivilized yahoos the fans, broadcasters and members of the Braves were? I'll cop to having made that sort comment. Sometimes, you forget how deeply rooted some of this stuff becomes.

And maybe that's the point. Sports at all levels have allowed this casual homophobia to take root and and become the norm. How many times have you heard hockey fans refer to the Canucks' Swedish twins as the "Sedin Sisters"? How many times have you heard an athlete taunt someone with such a slur, or heard something just as offensive from a fellow patron in the stands? Questioning an opponent's manhood, insinuating that his level of courage is not up to snuff because he's either female or gay are de rigeur.

What shouldn't be lost in this is the amount of character demonstrated by the photographer. He saw something. He saw it was wrong and he said something. It might not have been what was most advantageous to the team or the player for which he roots with a passion that few can match. But for James, there was something bigger at stake. There aren't many of us who would have seen that bigger picture. There aren't many of us who would have spoken up. And this is how these things perpetuate themselves.

Now, as we wait for the official response, one can only hope that the Blue Jays take the opportunity to demonstrate their character in the face of these events and show their willingness to help contribute to the change that can make for a more compassionate and tolerant world. They owe their fans that much.

They certainly owe James that much.

The Mondays: Various and Sundry Items from the Weekend

Photo courtesy @james_in_to. You should follow that dude.
At this point in the year, it's hard to look at a series between a couple of also-rans to pick out the marginally interesting bits of something-or-other that stand out as being meaningful. Give me a second, and let me squint real hard...

Good Morrow: I spoiled myself (and my brother and his lovely companion) and got nice seats behind the plate for Brandon Morrow's start yesterday, in part because I wanted to get a good look at his location and movement. (Also, I thought I was joining a friend in that section, but it turns out he has trouble discerning the difference between 128 and 120. Bully for me, though. It worked out well.)

Morrow ended up with an overstuffed pitch count early on in the game, in part thanks to a few singles and the heart-stopping adventure that is Moises Sierra's defense in right. But I also found that he was spending too much time down and away from Red Sox hitters, trying to coax swings from them on breaking pitches. But as the game wore on and Morrow needed to get more economical in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings, it seemed to me that Morrow was working inside with his fastball more often, eliciting weak swings on hard stuff. It was pretty to watch.

To say that a player has "ace stuff" is a bit of an empty statement at this point, because so many pitchers do. What distinguishes players who assume that role is how they use what they've got. Beyond the quality and velocity of Morrow's pitches, he shows an ability to bear down in tight situations, select the right pitch and to hit his spots when he needs to.

My biggest concern with Morrow going forward - and what prevents me from calling him a bona fide "ace" - is his ability to stay healthy throughout the entire season. I certainly recognize that this year's injury wasn't an elbow or shoulder issue, so maybe there is solace to be taken from that fact. But Morrow's health is not a concern that I consider separately from the economy of his outings, because he needs to have some easier innings if he's going to make it through more than 200 of them in the coming seasons.

Hech Variations:  It was a treat on Sunday afternoon to get a good look at Adeiny Hechavarria, both at the plate and in the field at his natural position. Seeing him smack a tater late in a tight game was just the gravy on top of the sundae.

After his early big league struggles, Hechavarria has posted a .725 OPS (.294 OBP, .431 SLG) in his last 22 games, and he looks increasingly comfortable at the plate. His swings are more aggressive and less defensive lately, making the notion of him as an everyday player next season seem less remote.

(If the low-.700's OPS scares you, it's worth noting that in 2011, the average output for an MLB shortstop was a .317 OBP and a .380 SLG, while second base was .320/.389. There's a lot of failure that you have to bear at those premium up-the-middle positions.)

There's a pretty interesting argument that we could have as to whether if Hechavarria needs to play shortstop for the Jays to get full value from him next year. It looks as though his glove will be among the elite at the position, and shifting that over to second base might squander some of his best attributes.

This isn't an attempt to rush Yunel Escobar out the door, as I don't think that he's as bad as he's looked at times this year. But the Yunel-or-Adeiny discussion has gone from vague chatter over the past few years to a fairly substantial question for 2013 and beyond.

All This and More...: If you missed the Blue Jays Talk post-game show yesterday, I snuck into the radio broadcast booth and chatted with Mike Wilner yesterday afternoon. If you want to hear us talk about Adeiny/Yunel, ponder minor league affiliates, swoon over Shin-Soo Choo, or other sundry items that came up, check out the audio at the bottom of Mike's post-game blogpost yesterday.

Monday, September 10, 2012

There Will Be Hard Times: Vague Thoughts on 2012, 1995, Gose and Batting Coaches

Photo courtesy @james_in_to. He's swell, and has lots of awesome Jays pics here.
I won't bore you with a rehashing the past two months of Blue Jays baseball, which has rushed past us in a furious blur of crazy injuries and depleted lineups were there. You get it. And if you were here right now, we'd hug it out, with a couple of additional back slaps and an extra squeeze, just to let you know we're there with you.

Then again, we haven't really had much to offer lately on the blog, which is attributable in part to real life getting a lot more hectic than I'd anticipated. With limited stores of strength and intestinal fortitude remaining, the prospect of tossing out a blog post that would certainly result in my being smeared as a puppet, Kool-Aid drinker, apologist or stooge seemed like a waste of my time and energy.

I try to take all of this with a sense of humour, but I don't always succeed. I've found my own mood about the Jays to be somewhat less than generous lately, which leads to some bile spillage on occasion. But I'm always a bit sad when I tweet out something sardonic on the state of the team, and see that my comment gets gleefully magnified by others. I guess some people can take it in good fun, and others just want to smear their anger over the state of the team across everything. Maybe we all just need to chill a bit.

Before getting on with the business of talking baseball, let me add one thing that I intend as a positive, but will likely sound negative on its surface: Things can always get worse. At some point, the Jays' fortunes will undoubtedly be worse than this. One thing you can rely on in life is that if you get through the bad times, there will be more on the way. You suffer, and you persevere. You take care of the things that are under your control and you don't get upset over the things that are beyond you. That's life.

What's Worse Than This?
If you were to construct a full roster of the greatest Blue Jays of all time, you'd likely find Devon White, Robbie Alomar, Paul Molitor, Joe Carter, John Olerud, Shawn Green, Carlos Delgado, Juan Guzman and Pat Hentgen all in the mix for that team. You might even be able to squeeze David Cone or Al Leiter into the mix, based on the high points of their tenure with the Jays.

And yet, a team with ALL of those aforementioned players went 56-88 in 1995, finishing dead last in the AL East and looking miserable doing it.

The majority of those players had just contributed to championship teams, and most of them would go on to be productive members of either the Blue Jays or other teams in the ensuing decade. So the point here, as much as there is one, is to point out that sometimes good teams have terrible seasons. Sometimes, teams play far above the level of their talent - Hello Baltymore! - and some teams play so far below it that it's hard to imagine how things got so bad.

The 1996 Blue Jays had a lesser roster than the year before, with Alomar, White, Molitor, Cone and Leiter out, replaced by Tomas Perez, Otis Nixon, Jacob Brumfield, Erik Hanson and Marty Janzen. And yet, the latter and lesser squad won 18 more games. They say you can't predict baseball, and you certainly can't expect to track progress in straight lines.

In the coming months, there are going to be many in the "spend to contend" camp who assure you that if ownership just got off its wallet and spent on acquiring free agents or expensive veterans to fill in the roster voids, this team would certainly contend. It sounds so easy, really. You plug in the numbers of "known quantities", and bingo-bango: There's your contender. But the truth is that 29 teams every year fail to win the World Series. Two-thirds of teams will fail to make the post-season, for a multitude of reasons. Some of this is foreseeable, but there's a big chunk of it that is dumb luck. And if someone props themselves up beside the flaming pile of a wrecked season and says "I told you so", just remind them that predicting failure in baseball is pretty much the easiest bet there is.

The Jays might "fix" everything this offseason. They might spend vast sums on all of the proven veterans, build a super-Strat-o-Rific monster team, have the benefit of great health and tremendous contributions from their emerging players, and they could still end up on the outside looking in.

If that's a problem for you, you might want to find another pursuit. There is no "Rookie" setting on the real game.

Anything Gose
I don't want to get too far out in front of the "Anthony Gose is back on track" story, but seeing him finally put a few good swings on balls reminded me of another Jays outfielder after his initial call-up.

In his first two seasons with the Jays, Alex Rios posted a .321 on base and a .390 slugging percentage, managing just 11 homers in 979 plate appearances. At the time, it seemed to me as though Rios was focused on just getting his bat on the ball, and not getting embarrassed at the plate. For a player who was 6'5", it seemed as though he was satisfied to just poke at the ball and manage to put it in play.

Gose's approach in the early days has included him trying to drop lots of bunts, a skill at which he is oddly deficient in spite of his apparent affection for it. He's also taken lots of weak and late swings, hacking down on the ball and rarely lifting it with any authority.

Rios was three years older than Gose before he started to really settle in and start swinging with some vigour, swatting 41 homers and posting a .352 OBP/.505 SLG in the 1209 plate appearances that made up his third and fourth seasons. With another year of seasoning at Triple-A next year, Gose might prove yet that he's more than a slash and burn, fourth outfielder.

Two Batting Coaches?
Chad Mottola's reputation continues to grow, as Gose's improvement coincided with some additional time spent with his batting coach in both Las Vegas and after they both received the September callup.

It's always difficult to know how much impact coaches have on players, but if there's something positive that Mottola can contribute at the big league level, I see no reason why the Jays wouldn't add him as an additional hitting coach for next year. So long as there is some agreement between Mottola and hitting coach Dwayne Murphy on the approach they want to take to addressing specific players, an additional set of eyes on the coaching staff is a pretty minor financial investment that could pay dividends at the plate.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

What Remains

Hey, a sweep's a sweep, right?

In the flickering, dying light of a season that has gone all kinds of wrong in all kinds of ways, it still puts a smile on my face when the Blue Jays can head into a division rival's stadium and take three out of three games over a weekend.  Yes, I know it's a sweep of the smouldering crater that remains of the 2012 Boston Red Sox we're talking about. But anything the Jays can do to contribute to the ridiculous soap opera that organization has become should be something we welcome unconditionally.  So give me my moment, would you?

There are some good things happening again, at least.  Brett Lawrie is back in the leadoff spot, and J.P. Arencibia is back behind the plate.  Adeiny Hechavarria and Anthony Gose look like they may have a little more to offer than they showed when they first arrived in the big leagues.  Edwin Encarnacion continues to shine.

Rather than spend the rest of September obsessing over how the team is going to fill second base and left field next year, or which starting pitchers might be available on the trade market, I'm going to try to enjoy what little baseball we have left -- Blue Jays games or otherwise.  I"m going to ENJOY watching Gose and Hechavarria trying to prove they deserve spots on the 2013 team.  I'm going to ENJOY watching Encarnacion try to finish as the home run leader.  I'm going to ENJOY watching Brandon Morrow mow down opposing lineups, and Steve Delabar striking out hapless batters with nasty splitters, and Rajai Davis wreaking havoc on the basepaths.

No, this isn't what we wanted.  Nothing can replace the excitement of a pennant or wild card race, and I don't have to remind fans how long it's been since the Jays have been a part of either of one of those.  I'm not saying it's good enough.  There's work to do on this team to get it healthy and to add the necessary pieces for it to be the playoff contender we want.  It's going to be a fun, long, interesting, infuriating, disappointing and/or redeeming off-season, depending on your perspective.

But I got leaves falling off the tree out front of my house, here, people.  Let's not forget just how close we are to not having ANY BASEBALL TO WATCH AT ALL.  They started freakin' FOOTBALL today (in case you were living under a rock or aren't on Twitter).  If it weren't for a labour dispute, the first twenty minutes of your sportscast would be dedicated to showing a couple AHL hooligans duke it out in an intra-squad Maple Leafs scrimmage.  I know that we've all clamoured for "meaningful games in September" for as long as we can remember, but try to bear in mind that meaningless games are still games, goddammit.

Monday, September 3, 2012

No Sense Putting it Off

I'm a terrible procrastinator.  If there's something that needs doing today, I'm absolutely world-class at finding reasons why it can wait until tomorrow, or next week, or once the snow melts (see: lights, Christmas, taking down of).  It's admittedly a less-than-ideal way to run one's life, but I've never been fired from a job and The Org Wife hasn't divorced me yet, so I can't imagine I'll be changing anytime soon.

Thankfully, the people in charge of the Toronto Blue Jays don't share my approach to putting things off until the last possible second. Or at least, that's one charitable explanation for their decision to rebuild the relief pitching corps during the later stages of the 2012 regular season, as opposed to the off-season.

I'll count myself among those who weren't exactly beaming about the decision to trade the talented yet enigmatic Travis Snider for Brad Lincoln, a young-ish bullpen arm who had struggled as a starter in his early career.  But as time has worn on, I've begun to look at that deal as part of a package -- one that began with the J.A. Happ trade and that culminated with the Lincoln and Steve Delabar trades.

Taken as one, these trades have put the bullpen in a far different (and far stronger) position than it was in the early part of the season, and in a way that sets up some continuity for 2013 as well.  Delabar and Lincoln, along with Casey Janssen and a hopefully-healthy Sergio Santos, can already be pencilled in as half of what should be a pretty effective, reasonably young, hard-throwing bullpen (or more than half, if the eight-man pen rightfully fades from the plans next year).

The emergence of Aaron Loup is also promising, and if he can continue performing at even a remotely comparable level to what he's delivered thus far, he would make a fine left-handed complement to that core relief group.

As for the aforementioned Happ, the seeming indecision about his role after his acquisition -- starter or reliever -- puts him in a group of three pitchers fighting for what looks like two spots.  One of Happ, Brett Cecil or Aaron Laffey seems likely to open next season as a starter with another filling a long-relief role (noting that Cecil is set to work out of the bullpen as a September call-up and Laffey is already plying his trade there, while Happ is currently pitching quite effectively in the rotation even as I type).

*EDIT after the fact: Laffey, of course, is not actually signed as of now for 2013, making this less of a competition than it seemed.  These are the sorts of things I should check before I write, I suppose.

The point is, barring injury or significant trades, there are a great many relatively solidified spots already in the bullpen for 2013, and this puts next year's team miles ahead of where it has been entering the last couple of seasons.  Rather than filling out the bullpen with available arms on one-year free agent contracts just prior to spring training -- basically the modus operandi for much of the Anthopoulos tenure -- he tended to it when the opportunity presented itself in another way.

I have to wonder whether Alex Anthopoulos began looking ahead to this off-season several weeks ago, and determined that if he had the chance now to add the bullpen personnel he wanted, he was going to do it so that he could focus on the more glaring weaknesses that need to be addressed over the winter.  In other words, unlike your humble correspondent, there was no procrastination.

Anthopoulos has largely acknowledged the areas of need: the starting rotation, left field, second base (probably) and first base/DH.  There was plenty of scoffing about Anthopoulos' comments in which he lauded the bullpen (and the offense) as "championship-calibre", but even if you take the boasting with a grain of salt, the arms he's added to the bullpen mix have at least added a small measure of certainty to the off-season.

I'll be the first to acknowledge the volatility of relief pitching (remember May when we all felt like the bullpen would be a 2012 strength?), so all of this might be moot if the performances out there all go pear-shaped.  But Anthopoulos has clearly changed his approach to building a bullpen, focusing on controllable pitchers now rather than scrambling for springtime leftovers, and if those pitchers can continue their current level of play, it'll be one fewer box to have to try to check off for 2013.