Friday, October 17, 2014

What the Toronto Blue Jays Can Learn from the Kansas City Royals


The Kansas City Royals are without question the Cinderella story of Major League Baseball in 2014. Regardless of how they perform in the Fall Classic, a team mired in mediocrity for decades is now heading to the World Series.

The Toronto Blue Jays can definitely sympathize with an organization that hadn't made the playoffs for the past 29 years. Many Blue Jays fans likely share the same sentiment as they watch as the Royals play for a World Series title ... "that should've been us".

The Royals could've have picked a better time to play their best ball of the season, and yes ... lady luck may have a little to do with Kansas City's impromptu postseason run. Despite those lucky bounces, the Royals are a fundamentally sound team that's thriving in the playoffs.

Not that the Toronto Blue Jays should attempt to completely emulate the Royals, but there are a key few lessons they can learn from the 2014 American League Champions.

Don't Be Afraid to Sign Free Agents

Aside from Dioner Navarro's deal last offseason and Melky Cabrera's two years ago, Alex Anthopoulos has been seemingly adverse to signing free agents to multi-year contracts.

This past offseason, the Royals made a few key acquisitions in Omar Infante and Jason Vargas. They had to overpay in the way of four-year deals, but ultimately they both panned out in year one of their respective contracts.

And it seemed like an odd move at the time for a team that didn't appear to be on the cusp of contention, but the Royals inked Jeremy Guthrie to a three-year/$25 million dollar contract back in 2013.

The past two offseasons, the Royals didn't kid themselves; they felt like they needed help in the starting pitching department, and they filled those voids via trade and free agency. And these contracts were fairly modest enough so that they didn't handcuff the Royals down the road with payroll.

Conversely, you could argue the Blue Jays have taken the "wait and see" approach when it comes to addressing needs on the roster the past few years. And often times those needs are hastily filled by guys off the waiver wire or minor league players.

There's an inherent risk with signing any free agent, even when it comes to the most consistent and proven talent (Albert Pujols, anyone?); but the hope is that they peak at the right time during their contract.

Infante, Vargas and Guthrie didn't carry the Royals to the postseason by any means, but they did supplement and complement the strong young talent that was already on their roster.

Ever since the introduction of the "five year policy", Alex Anthopoulos and Paul Beeston have displayed a tendency to use that as an excuse for not targeting free agent. As arbitrary as the five year policy is, there are a slew of free agents to Blue Jays could sign without going beyond five years.

The Blue Jays could very easily fill some holes on their roster this winter by simply signing free agents, rather than giving up talent in a trade or sifting through the waiver wire or minor league free agents.

With money coming off the books, the team can very easily afford it; but whether the Blue Jays will actually dust off the pocketbook and sign a mid-level free agent this offseason remains to be seen.

Put a Premium on Defense

The Royals are known for three key aspects; their speed, their bullpen, and their defense. Of the three, defense is the one that seems like the most sustainable over the course of a 162 game schedule.

It didn't help that for much of 2014, the Toronto Blue Jays were a team with in identity crisis.

To begin the season, the Blue Jays initially began as a defensive-minded team, but as the injuries began to mount, that philosophy quickly flew right out the window. And with Kevin Seitzer at the helm as the new hitting coach, it seemed like he was going to instill a more well-rounded offensive approach to the team.

Instead, the Blue Jays just reverted back to their old ways and for the most part relied on their "all or nothing" offense. And defense quickly took a backseat to simply finding bodies to fill the voids left by injuries.

Although defense may not be as sexy as the long ball, it can be just as crucial to success. According to FanGraphs, the Royals amassed 40 defensive runs saved (good for second in the American League) while the Blue Jays had -31 defensive runs saved this season.

Speaking of FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan wrote a great piece on the Royals and the importance of defense, with this money quote: "The Royals have made me sense defense. The feeling I get is that every ball in play is doomed."

The Royals have cornered the market in run prevention, and defense is an area which the Blue Jays could greatly improve upon next season.

The problem is many mainstays on the Toronto Blue Jays roster aren't exactly the most stellar defenders. Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Reyes; they all know how to hit, but aren't quite the best fielders at their respective positions.

So save for suddenly instilling a "defense-first" philosophy, the Blue Jays' front office should place a little more stock in acquiring or signing defensive-minded players this offseason.

The outfield and the middle of the diamond are two key areas which the Blue Jays should address this offseason. One of the decisions is a simple one and yet not so simple; moving Jose Reyes off shortstop and potentially moving him to second or the outfield.

Give the Kids a Chance

It's incredible to think the Royals are heading to the World Series on the backs of contributions from young players like Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Yordano Ventura and Mike Moustakas.

These are all guys who have virtually no playoff experience and yet are thriving in the high pressure environment known as the playoffs.

For the most part the Royals have played these guys out of necessity; because they have no other choice. However, it's also allowed Kansas City to discover whether their high draft picks would develop into franchise players.

When it comes to position players, the Toronto Blue Jays don't really have that liberty. Dalton Pompey is really only the highly-touted position player prospect which could make an impact on the big league roster in 2015.

The Blue Jays kind of already employed this strategy late in the season by patrolling Dalton Pompey, Kevin Pillar and Anthony Gose in the outfield. But in order to see if these guys really have what it takes, the Blue Jays need to give them ample playing time.

Of the three aforementioned outfielders, Dalton Pompey seems to have the most upside. Anthony Gose has had umpteen chances to win a starting spot and Kevin Pillar still needs some work at the plate.

There's at least one outfield spot for grabs, and if he has a decent stint in the Arizona Fall League and does well in Spring Training, I'd be inclined to give one of the spots to Pompey.

Again, the emphasis in young talent carries over into the starting rotation as well. The Blue Jays relied upon contributions from Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison and Aaron Sanchez this past season, and hopefully that continues in 2015.

In doing that, there will surely be growing pains with these young players; but the potential upside of having them occupy everyday spots on the roster could pay dividends down the road, just like it has with the Kansas City Royals.

Images courtesy of Getty Images/Toronto Sun

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Will Melky Cabrera Re-Sign with the Blue Jays?


The Toronto Blue Jays have many questions to answer this offseason, but one which will likely go a long way to predicating their success in 2015 is whether they can re-sign Melky Cabrera.

Before he can officially claim free agency in earlier November, the burning question in Blue Jays Land will be if Alex Anthopoulos can get Cabrera to sign on the dotted line. The Blue Jays will at the very least extend a qualifying offer, but anything beyond that is debatable.

Last week, Alex Anthopoulos confirmed that Melky's camp and the Blue Jays had begun preliminary talks and exchanged a few figures, but it sounded like no real progress had been made in the way of a new deal.

As any top-tier free agent would, Melky is surely weighing his options and waiting to see which suitors will line up for his services beginning next season. And considering the free agent outfielder market looks fairly thin, Cabrera is in line for a big payday.

MLB Trade Rumors predicts that Melky Cabrera will fetch a five-year/$66.25 million dollar contact, and while that projection may be on the high side, it's not overly ridiculous for a guy coming off a stellar .301/.351/.458 season with 16 home runs.

Melky has stated that he enjoys playing in Toronto, and while that might seem like a bargaining chip for the Blue Jays, it really isn't. Judging by the most recent contracts signed by outfielders, there's a very slim chance Cabrera signs a "hometown discount" with the Blue Jays.

Jacoby Ellsbury7 years $153 million$21.857 million
Shin-Soo Choo7 years/$130 million$18.57 million
Carlos Beltran3 years/$45 million$15 million
Curtis Granderson4 years/$60 million$15 million
Marlon Byrd2 years/$16 million$8 million
David Murphy2 years/$12 million$6 million

I'll fully admit, attracting free agents to come play north of the border in Toronto is a challenge in itself. So the fact that Melky likes playing for the Blue Jays is a win for the organization, but that's about the only advantage they have in negotiations.

Melky Cabrera may also enjoy the atmosphere, namely playing with his countrymates Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, but would he really turn down millions of dollars to play with his buddies?

Another stumbling block for the Blue Jays is the dreaded "five year policy"; the front office has remained adamant about their limit on five year contracts, and while they're attempting to be fiscally responsible, it immediately prices them out.

What's preventing the Yankees or Red Sox from coming in and offering Melky Cabrera a six-year contact? That would immediately take the Blue Jays out of the running simply because of their arbitrary five-year policy.

If money were not an issue or if this were perhaps the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers organizations, Melky would've been re-signed by now. But alas, this is the Toronto Blue Jays; the team that seemingly has put a halt on any further spending.

With many contracts coming off the book this year, a few options likely to be declined, and the possibility of some big salaries being traded away, surely you'd think Alex Anthopoulos could muster up $13-14 million per annum to keep Melky Cabrera around.

Just my guess here, but I don't think it's so much about the dollars as it is the duration of the contract for Melky Cabrera.

After being suspended for PED's and then suffering from a spinal tumour last year, Melky put forth a great effort this year and rebuilt a tremendous amount of value entering free agency. So for a player who's only 30 and has yet to sign his first big contract extension, one can't imagine Melky signing a short term deal.

What it all comes down to is the Blue Jays need Melky more than Melky needs the Blue Jays. And there is virtually no one on the team or in the farm system who could replace his production.

Which emphasizes just how crucial it is for Alex Anthopoulos to ink Melky Cabrera to a contract extension this offseason. The Blue Jays are worse without him, and the odds of finding a replacement to match that kind of production at a lower price point is next to impossible.

The Toronto Blue Jays are not an organization right now that can let free agents walk and plug in a bright young star from the farm system, a la the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Blue Jays were privy to what happened after Melky was knocked out for the season in early September. Without his consistency in the lineup, the Blue Jays were forced to move everyone up in the lineup, which emphasized the black hole at the bottom of the order.

Not that one player on a Major League roster determines whether or not a team will success, but in many ways the Blue Jays success next season hinges on bringing back Melky for the foreseeable future.

Yes, Alex Anthopoulos somewhat did Melky a favour by signing him to two-year contract back in 2012 when most teams only wanted to sign a one-year deal, but Alex hardly did it out of the good of his heart. It was to get value; it was a business move.

Will the Blue Jays re-sign Melky Cabrera? They'll at least try to, but ultimately the allure of playing for a contending team or the security of a fat contract from another club will likely sway him to sign elsewhere.

Image courtesy of Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Friday, October 10, 2014

Is There Distrust Between the Blue Jays Front Office and the Players?


Well, it wouldn't be an offseason around these parts if there wasn't some sort of controversy, right? Although their season is long since over, the Toronto Blue Jays are still finding a way to grab the headlines during the postseason.

It all stemmed for an article from earlier this week penned by Sportsnet's Shi Davidi, which is an amalgamation of the series of events which may have led to a breakdown between the Blue Jays front office (namely Alex Anthopoulos and Paul Beeston) and the players.

Shi chronicled the series of unfortunate events which all added up to a very compelling dynamic between the guys on the field and the guys in the front office.

Anthopoulos Fails to Address the Team

To me, the standout quote from the piece came from an anonymous player in regards to the apparent absenteeism of the Blue Jays General Manager:
Compounding matters was that Anthopoulos wasn’t with the team in Houston on deadline day, and didn’t address the non-activity with his players.

When the team returned to Toronto on August 5th, a member of the team approached me, nodded his head in the direction of Anthopoulos and said, “Who’s that?” “You mean the GM?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Haven’t seen him for a while.”
Prior to the trade deadline, Alex Anthopoulos had originally planned to travel to Houston; however, following the July 31st deadline, for whatever reason, he suddenly cancelled his flight to Texas. 

In retrospect, the fact that AA cancelled his commitment is quite curious; was he afraid he might potentially be entering a hostile environment with his players, or was there something else happen entirely?

The fact that Anthopoulous addressed the media and yet didn't explain the team's inactivity to the players themselves is quite troubling. Although the asking prices may have been astronomical at the trade deadline, at the very least, the players deserved an explanation.

No Go on Prado

Davidi points to a missed deal for Martin Prado which could have been easily executed had the front office been willing to take on the remaining $22 million dollars on Prado's pre-existing contract.

From an outside's perspective, it was quite evident the Blue Jays weren't going to make any significant moves at the trade deadline. Fans were only hopeful the Jays would be in on someone like David Price, Jon Lester, or even Asdrubal Cabrera or Martin Prado.

However, as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays player who was reassured that reinforcements would be brought in if the team were still in the thick of things, one can certainly see why the players would be quite perturbed.

More than anything, I think the players were just looking for a sign from ownership that they were going to honour their part of the deal. After all, the players were reassured that if the team were in contention, the money would become available.

Even if Prado was only a slight upgrade at the time, that move would have been quite symbolic as a sign of faith from the organization. Instead, all they got was Danny Valencia; hardly a "sexy trade" for a team in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Obviously, the best players don't whine and pout or let a lack of moves by the front office impede their play, but it all comes back to the underlying theme of Davidi's article; and that's trust. In the Toronto Blue Jays' case, it points towards a lack thereof.

Bautista and Janssen Speak Out

I don't think it's any coincidence that two of the most tenured players on the team were the ones who were the most vocal about the entire situation.

But these were not simply off-the-cuff remarks; this was a calculated move seemingly on behalf of the entire team to send a message.

Jose Bautista and Casey Janssen wouldn't have done that had they received at least some form of communication from upper management. The players came out and essentially called out the front office, and Alex Anthopoulos' subsequent silence was deafening.

Jose Bautista has been with the club since 2008 and he's essentially been the face of the franchise since 2010. Casey Janssen was drafted in 2004 and developed by the Jays and has spent his entire eight year career in Toronto.

These are two guys who have been through two different team Presidents, two different General Managers, three different managers, and have likely been fed a lot of promises over the years.

I got the sense that Bautista and Janssen were finally fed up with all the inactivity from this team over the years and decided to take matters into their own hands.

Voicing their displeasure publicly may not have been the best strategy, but its apparent Bautista and Janssen spoke out the media because they felt they weren't being heard by the front office.

To me, all of these signs are indicative of a disconnect or a lack of trust between the front office and the clubhouse. Or at the very least, there was a lack of communication between the two parties following the July 31st trade deadline.

An Apparent Lack of Trust

Even if a shred of this distrust is true, then it really could be detrimental to the team. Things like that don't exactly foster a great relationship between the front office and the players.

If the players don't feel like Alex Anthopoulos and Paul Beeston have their backs, what incentive do they have? If the players felt like they were slighted by management by failing to bring in reinforcements (as it was implied), that had to create some resentment.

I mean, with the artificial turf alone, the Blue Jays have enough trouble as is attracting free agents, and if the players give management less than a glowing review, that's just another reason for a potential free agent to sign somewhere else than Toronto.

A few years ago, the Blue Jays were forced to go into damage control with the fans after the entire John Farrell debacle. And after what transpired this season, the front office will need to do some damage control with their very own players.

And repairing those relationships this offseason may prove to be quite a challenge.

Images courtesy of Zimbio & The Grid TO

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The BBA Ballot: Awarding the Year's Best in Baseball in 2014


It will likely be a very long time before the BBWAA lets a blogger into their inner circle for post-season voting. So in the meantime, the Baseball Bloggers Alliance has designed their own awards to celebrate the accomplishments of the best players in the league.

Here is my BBA Ballot for the 2014 season; with picks for the Top Manager, Rookie, Reliever, Starting Pitcher, and Position Player.

Connie Mack Award (Top Manager)

1.) Buck Showalter
2.) Mike Scioscia
3.) Brad Ausmus

The Baltimore Orioles enjoyed a renaissance this season; their first AL East division title since 1997 and a trip to the ALCS. The effect a manager has on a game may be debatable, but the Orioles are where they are (at least in some small part) thanks to Buck Showalter.

Considering that the Kansas City Royals have made it to the ALCS, the inclination might be to give ol' Ned Yost a vote for Top Manager. But I honestly can't write his name on the ballot when he refuses to budge on bullpen roles for the 7th/8th/9th.

Willie Mayes Award (Top Rookie)

1.) Jose Abreu
2.) Masahiro Tanaka
3.) Colin McHugh

Across the board, it really was a phenomenal year in the American League for first-year players. The Houston Astros showcased a number of talented rookies, and Jose Abreu and Masahiro Tanaka especially made strides in their first season in MLB.

Goose Gossage Award (Top Reliever)

1.) Wade Davis
2.) Dellin Betances
3.) Greg Holland

If 2014 proved anything in the American League, it's that late relief pitchers that aren't closers are the new hot commodity. Proven here by having two setup men on the list, and some of these guys might even garner Cy Young Award votes.

The Royals bullpen was unparalleled in 2014 as the deadly trio of Herrera/Davis/Holland. Dellin Betances came out of virtually nowhere to set Yankee records as a reliever, and he's almost just as deserving for the title here, but I gave the edge to Wade Davis.

Walter Johnson Award (Top Pitcher)

1.) Corey Kluber
2.) Felix Hernandez
3.) Jon Lester
4.) Chris Sale
5.) David Price

This may in fact be the tightest awards race in all of baseball; will King Felix or Corey Kluber be crowned as the best starting pitcher in the AL this season? The race is honestly a dead heat and both pitchers are equally deserving of the award.

Looking at the statistics, both guys match up nearly category for category. So when peripheral statistics are so close, you have to go to the secondary factors. Hernandez pitches in a pitcher-friendly park and aided by one of the best defenses in all of baseball.

Kluber on the other hand was backed by one of the worst defenses in all of baseball, and his .316 BABIP against indicates his stellar numbers perhaps could've been even better. 

I'll admit that the better story is to have Corey Kluber seemingly come out of nowhere with the Tribe (much like Cliff Lee did in 2008) and snag the AL Cy Young Award this season, but I'm not sure the BBWAA will concur.

Stan Musial Award (Top Position Player)

1.) Mike Trout
2.) Michael Brantley
3.) Josh Donaldson
4.) Alex Gordon
5.) Jose Bautista
6.) Victor Martinez
7.) Jose Altuve
8.) Jose Abreu
9.) Adrian Beltre
10.) Robinson Cano

The funny thing is 2014 was actually not technically Mike Trout's strongest season, but because he's not battling Miguel Cabrera this time around, Trout actually has a legitimate shot at winning the American League MVP in 2014.

Trout is the clear-cut favourite as there really aren't any other players in the discussion. It's still incredible to thing Mike Trout has posted MVP-calibre numbers in his first three full seasons in the league, and has already amassed 28.4 WAR.

The rest of the top five is honestly interchangeable; Brantley/Donaldson/Gordon could all make a case to be 2-4, but nobody even comes close to Mike Trout.
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