Sunday, October 28, 2012

Farrell And Everything After

Photo from the wonderful @james_in_to. More of his great stuff here.
I had counted myself among the horde who didn't believe for a second that if and when the Toronto Blue Jays traded their manager, John Farrell, to the Boston Red Sox, they would receive anything more than an above-average prospect in return.  Barring the inclusion of a higher-level player from Toronto's side, I was fairly certain that a major-league player would not be coming back north of the border.

Here we are more than a week later, and things obviously shook out much differently than I had expected they would.  Frankly, I'm pretty happy with how things transpired.  I didn't actively dislike John Farrell as a manager, really, but I also didn't put him on any kind of pedestal either.  For two years, he was just kinda there, inspiring mostly indifference in me, despite my protestations on Twitter against his daily inclusion of Adam Lind as his cleanup hitter or some other passing transgression.

The trade, in which Toronto acquired Mike Aviles in return for their erstwhile skipper, opens up a couple of key questions for GM Alex Anthopoulos and the rest of the organization to address (to go with a pile of others the team will need to address this off-season, but we'll get to those later in the fall and winter).  The answers to those key questions are going to have a material impact on the approaches the team might take in 2013 and beyond -- although those impacts might not be immediately evident.

The first question, obviously, is who will replace Farrell as manager.  Anthopoulos has had one crack at picking a manager and landed, after much careful consideration, on Farrell.  Along with that choice came a particular approach to in-game strategy, clubhouse management, and all the other things a manager can influence.  Now, if the Road to Contention in the AL East were a video game, this represents a chance to at least re-start the current level.  You may have to start again a little further back than you were, but at least you have a sense what's coming at you and what you did wrong last time. Picking another manager now, after an abbreviated stint like Farrell had, gives Anthopoulos an opportunity to re-assess what it is he wants from his manager.

If there really was a disconnect between Farrell and Anthopoulos (I'm not sure there was), or if Anthopoulos has a firmer idea now of what kind of manager he needs than he might have had the first time around (I have to think he does), the GM will now get to pick a manager that he expects will fit his vision, strategy and resources better.  But there's still a huge element of guesswork involved, since it's not until the manager is in the job -- and has a roster to work with -- that results will even start to be evident.

The new manager's approach will become evident not through an introductory news conference, but rather through the dribs and drabs of information that show themselves through the course of a season.  One of those bits of data will be the way the manager utilizes a player like the freshly-arrived Aviles.

Here's a reasonably versatile middle-infield type, with a little bit of pop and a little bit of speed, and a sizable platoon split in which he's a career .344 wOBA in his career against lefties, versus a .297 against righties.

Could Aviles play every day at second base or at shortstop with numbers like those?  Sure, I guess.

Would he make a better strict platoon partner for, say, a Daniel Murphy, who bats from the other side and hits righties better than lefties, and who has been reported to be on the trading block for some time, including this past summer?  Or perhaps as a utility guy, filling in where and when his particular skill set matches best -- like starting against lefties, pinch-hitting against them when they come out of the bullpen, and being an important asset in case of injury?  Absolutely yes.

I'll concede that to use Aviles in such a way would necessitate some other upgrades to the roster in the middle infield, in particular at second base, with everything else remaining equal (that is to say, with Yunel Escobar remaining a Blue Jay or a reasonable facsimile of a starting shortstop taking his place).  That's going to be on the General Manager's shoulders.

In the optimum situation, though, I hope a new manager will be the kind of guy who isn't necessarily glued to an every-day 1 through 9 in the batting order and in the field.  I'm not talking about Joe Maddon's mad scientist routine here, which despite the accolades it gets, can also get in the way of itself.  But given this team's resources, and the talent it has now and can reasonably be expected to add in areas like the middle infield, it wouldn't hurt at all to show a bit more creativity where it's warranted.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Awkward Goodbyes and Uncomfortable Questions

Sometimes, it's hard to wrap your head around the moment when you're fully immersed in it. When you're drowning in the moment, everything seems overwhelmingly historic and meaningful. It takes a certain level of detachment to look off into the horizon when your head is still under the surface, and you're breathing nothing but water. 

Having said that, there's something about this business with the Jays trading their manager to a divisional rival that seems...let's say "transformative". Like it's a big frigging deal. Like it's a moment that we'll reflect upon years from now as a moment that either changed the direction of the franchise, or made clear that there was something flawed in the way the Blue Jays were proceeding with the Eternal Building Plan.

Because really, this whole thing is a mess. This is not the way that it is supposed to play out. And I'll spare you my interpretation over who jumped and whether if they were on the cusp of being pushed, because really, who knows? There's a lot of whispers, and from a distance, whispers really just sound like noise. I won't be so bold as to interpret them quite yet.


Brought on board following one of the most exhaustive managerial searches in the history of mankind, John Farrell was supposed to be the leader who marshalled the new-look Blue Jays into their new era of contention. But after maddeningly inscrutable two seasons at helm, Farrell was unable to reasonably earn an extension to his contract. He was also not able to make himself appear indispensable. At least not to the Jays.

I held out a lot of hope for John Farrell, from the time he was hired through until the somewhat surprising news of his departure this weekend. I thought he talked a good game, and at the risk of painting myself as a bit of  a rube, I tend to think that people who talk a good game usually have the mental dexterity to actually manage the game just as well.

Certainly, there were holes in his management of the team. I didn't always care for his lineups, though I thought that by the end of last season, he had become better with that aspect of the game. I also didn't care for the 13-man pitching staff and the lame use of a thin bench, though it is an open questions as to whether if that was his call or the general manager's.

On the positive, I appreciated that his management of the bullpen seemed to progress when he had an adequate supply of arms from which to choose. I also thought that the Jays' use of extreme shifts - taking greater advantage of Brett Lawrie's tremendous athleticism - was a very nice development this year, and one which might have been underappreciated by some of the armchair nitpickers. 

I agree somewhat with notion - the new conventional wisdom, as it were - from the progressive-minded types that states that managers have a modest impact on the performance of their team. But I can't help but wonder: Would the Tampa Bay Rays have traded their manager for a 32 year-old, sub-.700 OPS utility player? For that matter, would the Rays trade their skipper for a 27 year-old with an .800 OPS? Should they?

Maybe that seems like an unfair example, but it certainly makes it hard for me to wrap my head around the notion that a player with value is worth blowing up your entire coaching staff. It's no sure thing that Brian Butterfield and Luis Rivera and Torey Lovullo follow Farrell out of town, but it seems as though that might be the de facto outcome of this transaction, which in turn means a new manager, new coaches, and a lack of continuity in the message the players are hearing from management.

This leadership transition means new processes, and new faces creating new expectations. It's going to mean a new set of coaches feeling out the limits and pressure points on the players who make up the roster. And if any coaches remain - because Dwayne Murphy and Bruce Walton will probably keep their jobs through nuclear winters and the zombie apocalypse - it will mean that they will deal with new directives and expectations as well.

So maybe a salient question leading out of this whole mess - even if it is unanswerable at this point - is whether a new message from a new regime is better at this point than preserving the existing regime to maintain continuity. A new message might not be a bad thing, considering some of the non-injury-related backsliding by some of the younger players this season.

In the end, what Farrell's departure might help to underline is the inherent fragility of the painstaking process of building the Toronto Blue Jays into a perpetual contender. Certainly, many Jays fans still hold Anthopoulos in a positive light, and believe that his approach to building the team has been prudent and wise. But I'd also hazard a guess to say that it's a shrinking number who continue to hold this view.

It probably doesn't matter if he was plucked from the Jays through something that feels like coordinated campaign through back channels that falls just short of "tampering", or if the team simply couldn't rationalize an extension beyond next year and let him go to avoid a lame duck year. That's all academic. We can stick out our pinkies and fill the air with chatter on these points at cocktail parties all winter long.

But ultimately, this feels to a fan - this one, anyway - like another low point in a year that has had far too many of them. It feels like a bit of an insult, even if it's not entirely clear why, and who's responsible. It feels like another step backwards. 

The other side of this debacle is that the Jays will fill out the coaching staff in the coming weeks, and that will provide another opportunity for some blind optimism. We'll meet a new skipper, and project some hopes and dreams on him. We'll visualize that manager having champagne poured over his head, and celebrating some sort of meaningful victory. Just as we did with John Farrell, two short years ago.

And when it comes to taking responsibility for hiring a manager that is ultimately viewed to be disposable within two seasons: That's on AA. Farrell was his call, and it will be incumbent on him to
help take this crisis and turn it into an opportunity.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Long-Delayed Exit Interview - Tao and Org Guy Nurse Their Wounds

Tao: So, Org Guy. Come in, sit down, relax. And you might want to close the door behind you. Welcome to the season exit interview. 

(Moves a box of tissues to the front of the desk.)

Shall I pour you a beer? Scotch? Skinny Girl brand Margarita Mixer Spritzer? I've got a little bourbon going myself. I've lost count of how many I've had too. So this might get ugly.

But listen, we're not here to talk about your performance this year. You were great, and carried the blog when you could find it in yourself to ignore work and family responsibilities long enough to post something. But I appreciate that you don't post more often, because some people don't realize that you're the one writing all the good stuff around here these days. I'm happy to take credit for you.

But really, man. This season...

(Takes sip of bourbon. Gazes into the distance. Eyes well up, ever-so-slighty.)

It wasn't what we were expecting, was it?

Org Guy: Um... I suppose I could have a drink. (Looks at watch. It's before 10 in the morning.) You've been watching Mad Men again, haven't you?

Look, I appreciate that you're able to look past the irregularity in my posting.  Frankly, it was sometimes hard to get the motivation up to even think about what was going on with the Jays for large chunks of the summer, let alone to write about them.  But now that the smouldering remains of the season can be safely seen through the rear view mirror, just watch me get prolific.

It's not as though there weren't SOME positives, though, right?  I mean, Edwin Encarnacion? 
 Brandon Morrow, when he wasn't hurt? (Looks around the room trying to think of another positive.)  And... uh... hey, is that a new desk lamp?  Nice.

Tao: Oh, the desk lamp...lemme tell you, the lamps took a beating this year. Every time the Jays lost a player to some goofball injury or the other, I hurled one of these babies at the wall. It got so that I just went ahead and ordered in bulk, though I'm nearly out at this point.

But that's really the thing of it, isn't it? Picking up broken pieces all year long. I mean, I can't even tell you if I like this lamp, because I won't let myself get attached to it. It's too fragile.

But after everything, can we glean much of anything from the past 162 games? With all of the gaps in the lineup and rotation through the second half of the season, is there anything of meaning that we can hang our jocks on, aside from: "You can never have too much pitching"?

Org Guy: Considering how far down the depth chart the organization had to dip in order to simply put a passable arm on the mound on some nights, "You can never have too much pitching" is a bit of an understatement.  It remains absurd to think that the team should need (or could possibly accommodate) four or five major-league quality starting pitchers at the AAA level, but that's what would have been required to get through the injury plague that beset them in 2012.  Now, that's admitting that there was a gamble made on at least two younger pitchers -- Drew Hutchison and Henderson Alvarez -- staying healthy and performing at a near average level all year.  Which, you know, they didn't.  It seems pretty clear to me that Alex Anthopoulos intends to address this in the off-season.  I read and listen to what he says pretty closely, and through his entire tenure as GM, I don't think he's ever verbally left himself less wiggle room than he has with regard to adding starting pitching before 2013.

But were other questions answered as definitively? Beyond pitching, when you look right up the middle of the diamond, does the team know what it has at catcher, middle infield, centerfield?  And if they do know, do they like it at all for the medium or longer term?

Tao: Here's the thing about some of those other questions: I think we knew from the outset of the season that they were questions that we were kicking down the road by a year. If you thought that Kelly Johnson or Rajai Davis or Omar Vizquel were much more than seat fillers, you were probably hoping for more than they could deliver.

And that's not a bad thing. It doesn't hurt to go into a season with three or four guys on your active roster who are just there to fill in for the season, but who add depth and avoid the necessity of going into your farm system too early. Sure, this blog has had its fun with the "Menchersons" of the past few years, but even good teams - playoff teams! - have their share of scrubs to fill in on the margins. 

I suppose, though, that we’re all a bit disappointed with Yunel Escobar’s performance – wardrobe malfunctions, notwithstanding – and that a lot of us held out hope that Colby Rasmus was something more than slightly above average. And if those guys remain with the team through the winter, they probably end up at the top of the heap of questions that we’ll be posing through next season.

As for the pitching, I hear all the rational arguments and the well-founded excuses. Guys being pushed into the deep end and such. But then I think of the Jays signing Dustin McGowan to a multi-year deal, and I just can't get away from the sense that they were either off course or off their rocker this spring.

You know I’m not a spend to contend guy, but there better be some sort of arm that shows up in Dunedin this February, ready to throw 200 innings while not crushing my will to live. 

Org Guy: It's hard to separate the "here and now" with the "what's to come", though, which might be one of the reasons why fans of this team find themselves in such a funk.  Our freshest memories of 2012 are two months without Jose Bautista and a mason jar full of replaced elbow ligaments.  It's easy to lose sight of the fact that the roster that exists now is not the one that's going to open the 2013 season.  Just how different it will be remains to be seen, but some things will change.

If there's something about which to be optimistic, I'd like to think it's the fact that the AL East looks a bit more beatable than it used to.  I flat-out refuse to believe Baltimore is actually any good, because it would be damaging to my soul to do otherwise.  The Yankees will win a lot of games next year because Yankees gonna Yankee.  Tampa Bay had a strong finish to the year, and should continue to make noise. Who knows what path Boston will take, as a team that actively made itself worse this year?  The point is, even this stain of a season hasn't necessarily put them so far behind the pack that they can't catch up.  Maybe I'm being unrealistic, but that's what the off-season is for.

Tao: Let's wrap it up, because we all have a bus to catch, and these banker's boxes aren't going to fill themselves. 

It would be nice to think that the AL East was softening. Maybe 2013 is a year where 92 wins gets you the pennant, although the Yankees can stink and seemingly still manage more than 90 wins each season. I think the Rays will continue to play above their heads, because I can't imagine them not doing so at this point. The Orioles will be good, but I don't see them replicating that insane run of good luck. And the Red Sox? I honestly think there's a scenario where they win the division next year. And one where they finish last as well.

All that said, let's go out on the positives: Last year was a mess, but there were moments, and they augur well for next year. There was a beautiful, sparkling year from Edwin Encarnacion. José Bautista and Brandon Morrow were great when they were healthy. Casey Janssen was twitchy and really good at the back of the bullpen. Steve Delabar and Aaron Loup were kinda cool stories. The bullpen version of Brett Cecil is an intriguing animal, and there's just enough promise in Adeiny Hechavarria to make me think that he could be a valuable number nine hitter.

I see reasons for optimism. I think there are plenty of them. But then I'm the optimistic type.

(Swivels around in chair, realizing that Org Guy left the room.)

Hello? Hellllooo?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Org Guy's Paternity Replacement Tweet Bag

It's a Tweet Diaper Bag! Get it?
Friends, our blogging pal the Tao is now a proud papa.  Now, those of us who have been through those whirlwind first few weeks of parenthood will likely sympathize with his plight.  I wasn't yet a blogger when either of the Org Kids came along, but if I were, my posts would have been few and far between (Ed: so what's changed?), lost in a fog of sleepless nights and laundry.  In a spirit of solidarity and goodwill while Tao tends to his growing brood, I volunteered to pinch hit for a Tweet Bag, answering your baseball and non-baseball related questions.  Without further ado:

@CFoster92 asks:
Sometimes it's easy to forget how young most major league baseball players are.  I know for a certifiable fact that I was nowhere close to being ready to be a dad until I was over the age of thirty.  Your decline years as a player happen to coincide with what I'd consider to be the best years to start a family.  It's a bit on the nose, I realize, but my "best dad" vote would probably have to be Darren Oliver.  Calm, serene wisdom dispensed in single-inning sized chunks.  If he were my dad, he'd probably just have to snap his fingers and I'd fix him a scotch, and be damn glad for the opportunity.

As for the worst dad, I feel like I'm being a bit unfair to some of the really young guys by throwing them into the mix.  Most of the under-30 set would probably be really cool to have as uncles.  But my "worst dad" crown goes to Mike McCoy, because that guy's on the road more than Willy Loman.  "You were NEVER there for me!"

@adamtherealtor asks:
We had plenty of Tweet Bag questions about potential 2013 acquisitions.  Me, I have an unnatural desire, growing stronger every day, for the Jays to sign Jeff Keppinger to play second base next year, or at least fill out a utility role as Tao discussed a couple weeks ago.  It doesn't pain me to say it now as much as it might have in, say, July, but Adeiny Hechavarria does still seem to have the inside track right now for second base.  The Keppinger and  Hechavarria scenarios are more a reflection of the weak free agent class at the position than anything else, which is why I think if they look outside the organization for second base, they'll go the trade route.

And if you allow yourself to dream big for just a minute, there are some intriguing possibilities out there.  Why, the Philadelphia Phillies traded almost all the rest of their big-money guys as their season circled the drain, so surely they could be coaxed into moving Chase Utley north of the border, right?  Two seasons left on the contract at $15 million per, at which point he'll be entering his age 35 season. I could get behind taking that off Ruben Amaro's hands (although Utley does have a limited no-trade clause and I think is closing in on 10 and 5 rights, thanks to the indispensable Cot's Baseball Contracts).  I'm not saying it would be easy.  But it would be fun if Alex Anthopoulos were to shoot for the stars, and hopefully hit the moon.  They certainly have the prospects in the system to make some big deals, if they decide that's the direction they want to take.

Speaking of which, @sporkless asks:
And this is where things get trickier.  Just because you CAN do something, doesn't mean you SHOULD do it.  I like the idea of trading prospects now to improve for 2013 -- I just don't think the idea of going "all in" for one season should override the need to maintain a system-wide strength for years to come (a point I've made in the past), because there are never any guarantees it will work, and the ensuing years can be pretty painful if it doesn't.  So how many prospects is too many prospects?

Or, as @JackCekovic and @scottrobinson7 ask:
I think one or two of the the "Lansing Three" -- Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Sanchez and Justin Nicolino -- will be in the mix for deals this off-season.  I wouldn't be surprised to see at least one of them traded away, in particular if packaged in return for a starting pitcher that can slot is as a #2 or #3 type.  There's been some indication already that Anthopoulos is willing to part with prospects and understands the perilous attrition rate for even the best prospect talent out there.  And as much as the Lansing Three are excellent prospects, the idea that there are three Roy Halladays lurking within the organization at low-A ball is just as absurd as it sounds.  There's a chance -- a remote one -- that those kids will all turn out as above-average starting pitchers in the major leagues, but the more likely scenario is that one or none of them does.  "They're not all going to play up here."

Now, I did indicate that I was an expert in lawn care, as well as the works of Steve Earle, when soliciting questions for this little segment.  I may have been overstating things with respect to lawn care.  Nevertheless, to answer the question above, and that of @whatadewitt:
The most useful things I've learned about actually getting your grass to look good are:  aerate (both in the spring and the fall); fertilize (both in the spring and fall); seed (both in the spring and fall -- don't bother in the middle of the summer because it's too hot for the seed to properly germinate and take root); and water the hell out of it all summer long.  Get a good fall fertilizer now, and spread it after you've given one good last raking for the fall and aerated it.  It's probably too late now to try to seed anything for fall.  But both in the spring and fall, if you have bare spots or things are just a bit thin, lay down a thin covering of topsoil and peat moss mixture, spread some quality grass seed on it and keep it nice and moist for a good couple weeks.  As long as the temperature is somewhere between about 15 and 25 Celsius, this is a good time to thicken things up.

Onward!  @_LeftField asks:
and @NicholasDeRosa asks:
These questions refer to my encyclopedic knowledge of the Steve Earle catalogue.  To the first, of those three, my pick is Guitar Town.  It's a fine album that holds up incredibly well despite being more than 25 years old, but my pick here is a little sentimental.  This was the first CD I ever purchased, and I did so before I even had a CD player.  I bought a CD player just so I could listen to Guitar Town.  Earle's music has progressed in a dozen different directions since then.  I like the question about Telephone Road because it references probably my favourite album of all his standard "Steve Earle & the Dukes" efforts -- El Corazon.  Telephone Road is a terrific, very underrated song, and it's not even close to the best one on the album.  I could listen to that album every day and not get tired of it.  Fort Worth Blues will haunt your dreams.

Alright, I know I got a lot more questions than these, and I wish I had time to get to more, but this is getting awfully long already and a lot of it isn't even about baseball.  Just trying to ease you into the off-season, I guess.  Enjoy the playoff baseball, everyone, because once it's gone, baby, it's gone.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Flexible Like Yan Gomes...Only Better

Photo courtesy @james_in_to.
One of the fun things about being a sports fan these days is that moment when you start to lose your perspective in the midst of a visceral reaction to a play on the field. John McDonald makes a stunning play in the field? MAKE HIM A JAY FOR LIFE! Jesse Carlson strikes out the side with the bases loaded? FUTURE CLOSER!

Last night, we had a similar moment soon after Yan Gomes hit a game tying homer in the ninth. Soon thereafter, my Twitter feed - spurred by Gregg Zaun's comments - looked something like: GOMES IS THE MOST VALUABLE PLAYER IN BLUE JAYS HISTORY, WITH THE POP AND THE EIGHT POSITIONS HE PLAYS! KEY TO 2013 PLAYOFFS!

In the particular case of Yan Gomes, the reaction was clearly over the top, though I applaud those who were willing to get that enthusiastic in the late innings of game 160 in this cruddy season. But taking a clear-eyed view of Gomes, you have to recognize that he is really a backup catcher, and not much more.

Sure, credit is due to the Brazilian rookie for picking up the slack at third and first on occasion, and for his 8.2 innings of work in an emergency role in left field. (Where he has yet to field a single ball, just so you know.) But it's important to remember that the catching position for 2013 is one of the few where the Jays have more options than roster spots at this point.

With J.P. Arencibia, Travis d'Arnaud and Jeff Mathis all looking for opportunities to squat behind the dish, there would seem to be plenty of catching resources. At the same time, the Jays shouldn't be hard up when it comes to backups at first and third, nor are those defensive positions that should worry you as much as the middle infield and outfield.

But this is not to wholly dismiss the notion that was being floated. There is a lot of validity to the notion that the Jays should look to develop greater flexibility on their roster for next season. Take, for example, the Tampa Bay Rays. (I'll pause now for you to roll your eyes. Yes, the Rays again.)

The thing that I've come to admire greatly about Joe Maddon's management of the team is that there are few if any sacred cows. Players - some really good players - get shifted around the diamond and up and down the lineup according to the greatest need of the day. Ben Zobrist (140 OPS+) has played right field, short stop and second base and hit everywhere from first through sixth in the batting order. Jeff Keppinger (129 OPS+) has played first, second, third and DH and hit in every spot but leadoff.

And it goes on. Matt Joyce plays both left and right. Ryan Roberts shifts between second and third. Desmond Jennings flips around the lineup. Elliot Johnson and Sean Rodriguez fill in wherever they're needed. Even Evan Longoria's spot in the lineup isn't necessarily chiselled in granite, as he's occasionally batted third instead of cleanup when the situation dictated.

Unfortunately, the Jays' on-field management tends to lean towards the ideal that predictability is better for the players' psyche, and that players need to play very poorly to remove themselves from their assigned positions.

It's true that some experimentation has been undertaken this year. The Jays experimented with Edwin Encarnacion in left, and Brett Lawrie was moved to the leadoff spot. But if the Jays are going to maximize the output that they can get from their roster, they shouldn't be afraid to move players in such a way as to get the most out of their personel.

The best place to start such an approach might be José Bautista. Sure, he's stated his preference towards playing the outfield. But if Brett Lawrie were to launch himself into another injury next year, wouldn't it make more sense to slide Bautista to third if the next best offensive option in the minors is an outfielder? Wouldn't that be a good example for the Jays' putative leader to set for his teammates?

Beyond that admittedly narrow example, there will be a number of roster spots to be filled for next season, and the Jays should balance flexibility with production when identifying bench players who might end up in the lineup for extended periods.

For instance, players like Adam Lind and David Cooper provide offense that is insufficient at first base, and they don't have the ability to fill in elsewhere around the diamond. At the same time, bench players like Gomes, Omar Vizquel and Mike McCoy fill in defensively at a number of positions, but provided offensive contributions that were worse than negligible.

On the other hand, players like Keppinger, Trevor Plouffe, Martin Prado, or Daniel Murphy might not be transcendent superstars, but their ability to adapt to different roles and positions while maintaining a reasonable level of offensive performance make them ideal additions to their teams. Their value extends beyond their numbers, because they help to keep lesser players on the bench or in the minors.

Ultimately, they take playing time away from players like Yan Gomes. Which is a direction this team needs to take in the coming years.