Monday, March 2, 2015

Have the Blue Jays Actually Fixed Their Clubhouse Chemistry?


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If there's one phrase that's been uttered this offseason more than any other surrounding the Toronto Blue Jays, it's been "clubhouse culture".

It's a fairly common narrative that's been written about ad nauseam this winter, and continues to be written about in relation to Spring Training camp. I'll fully admit, I'm guilty of writing about it as well (especially the stories surrounding trouble in the Blue Jays' clubhouse.)

In addition to improving the roster, the Blue Jays gave the impression like they were out to improve the team chemistry by bringing in notarized leaders with playoff experience like Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson.

The two are revered for their leadership qualities, as well as their on-field abilities. And if the Blue Jays were certainly on a mission to improve the overall morale of this team, Martin and Donaldson were certainly two great guys to bring in.

But even after the Blue Jays' widely praised offseason acquisitions, will that really change the clubhouse culture? If you ask Adam Lind, he says no.

Bob Elliott spoke with Adam Lind in the Toronto Sun, and among many other things, Lind was rather frank with the assessment of his former team and specifically whether he thought the Blue Jays had improved their clubhouse chemistry.
“They haven’t changed the culture of the clubhouse. They’re my friends, but the guys who still run it are still there. Jose Bautista is the voice among position players and Mark Buehrle runs the starting pitchers."
Lind provided some candid insight as to who are the top dogs in the Blue Jays clubhouse, and the key thing he said was "the guys who still run it (the clubhouse) are still there".

This winter, the Toronto Blue Jays went to work on removing the so-called "bad apples" off the roster. No one really knows to which degree these guys were supposed bad influences, but the fact remains none of them are on the roster any more.

Colby Rasmus, Anthony Gose, Brett Lawrie, Melky Cabrera, Juan Francisco, Casey Janssen and Adam Lind. These are all players which were either reported to be malcontents, came with baggage, were part of rumoured cliques in the clubhouse, or openly criticized the organization the past season ... and coincidentally they're all gone.

I think it's convenient to label them all as the trouble-makers on the team. But isn't it a little presumptuous to assume that all the Blue Jays' clubhouse issues walked out the door when those guys did as well?

It's easy to throw them all under the bus and blame that nucleus of players the bad vibe that may have affected others on the team. Add Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson to the mix and it's easy to think the Jays have exorcised whatever negative demons plagued the team in the past.

But Adam Lind himself even alluded to the fact that the guys who run the clubhouse are still there. We can only theorize as to who that might be, but it's a pretty safe bet to say that Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes and Edwin Encarnacion could be at the centre of it.

If as Adam Lind suggested, the same culprits remain in control of the clubhouse dynamic, how are things supposed to be any different this year? If there's still turmoil behind the scenes even with the addition of Martin and Donaldson, then what happens?

Speaking of Jose Bautista, he had some rather interesting comments to say last week about some of his former teammates. Most notably, this was completely unsolicited and unprompted, as if Bautista was just waiting for an opportunity to speak his mind.
"You walk around after a loss in a crucial game or a bad beating that you took, and sometimes you see people and you don’t know what they’re thinking. I’d rather at least know.

I can’t say that I can read minds and I can’t say that I thought that guy didn’t care. But if I don’t know, it makes me think.
There's no question that Jose Bautista is a competitive and emotional player. Whether he's upset or elated, he isn't one to hide his emotions; perhaps Bautista may have resented some of his former teammates for not being the same way.

And if that was the case, it's easy to see why there may have been a clear divide in the Blue Jays clubhouse. If Bautista didn't think his teammates were giving their all, that's one way to very quickly alienate other guys in the locker room.

As the reports began to pile up this offseason, it seemed like there were more negative influences in the Jays clubhouse than positive ones.Of course, these are the sorts of things that only become amplified once a team starts losing.

So long as the team is performing well, anyone outside the locker room could probably care less about what morale is like inside the clubhouse.

But any underlying issues tend to be put under the microscope once a team like the Toronto Blue Jays fails to deliver and it begins to apparently affect their on-field product.

Challenging the "improved clubhouse chemistry" narrative might not be a popular stance, but at the very least it's something to consider given how outspoken Adam Lind was about the entire situation.

Although Adam Lind was one of those aforementioned players that was rumoured to fall out of favour with the club, he usually isn't one to mince words in interviews and is usually very forthcoming with answers. In the Blue Jays' case, sometimes a little too forthcoming.

Lind also spent portions of nine seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays, so he's seen many players come and go, many cliques form in the locker room, and many variations of clubhouse dynamics. So he's surely experienced a lot during his time in Major League Baseball.

Right now, it's still the honeymoon phase for the Blue Jays. Barring something like a clubhouse mutiny a la the 2009 Blue Jays, the two times you'll likely only hear things and see articles about clubhouse culture is at the beginning of the season, and the end of the season.

In due time, the focus will shift to the quantifiable results rather than the intangibles that guys like Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson bring to the Blue Jays.

Eventually, we may discover whether Adam Lind was right about the Blue Jays not really changing the clubhouse culture this offseason.

If the team just wins, that will certainly be enough to mask any underlying issues the Blue Jays might have. And if they lose, we'll surely hear about them again.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Highlights from Blue Jays Photo Day at Spring Training


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Comb your hair, brush your teeth, wear your best outfit. That was the advice bestowed by our mothers on school photo day. Admittedly, it's an awkward ritual ... and I'm sure that baseball players feel the same way about photo day.

Earlier today, the Toronto Blue Jays took part in their annual individual photo day at their training facility in Dunedin, and here are some of the highlights from the shoot courtesy of Getty Images.




That hair, Mr. Stroman.




Russell Martin looks pretty happy to be a Toronto Blue Jay.


Friday, February 27, 2015

Life Without Michael Saunders Begins for the Jays


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"Here we go again. This must be some kind of cruel joke."

Those are the very reactions many had early yesterday morning when they woke up to learn that Michael Saunders would be out until the All-Star break. I barely even had time to finish my Frosted Flakes before hearing the news about the Jays' new starting left fielder.

Yes, Michael Saunders somehow managed to tear his meniscus stepping on a piece of soft grass which covered a sprinkler head. Of all the places he could've stepped, that was is. It truly was a freak injury, something which has plagued the Blue Jays over the years.

I suddenly experienced a flashback to the second week of the 2013 season; the image of Jose Reyes with tears running down his face remains etched into my brain, as it more or less defined the first few months of that 2013 Blue Jays campaign.

While losing Michael Saunders might not be the same magnitude as losing Jose Reyes, it still hurts to lose a starting position player for such an extended period of time.

Before the 2015 season even had a chance to begin, the Blue Jays received the equivalent of a punch to the stomach. The club's entire hopes for the 2015 season didn't necessarily hinge in the presence of Michael Saunders, but that's an unexpected void to suddenly fill.

And who exactly will step in for him? Immediately, it seems like either one of Dalton Pompey or Kevin Pillar might just be the answer as the Blue Jays' everyday left fielder.

On average, Michael Saunders has been around a 1.75 WAR left fielder the past three seasons. Is it all that unreasonable to expect an internal candidate like Pompey or Pillar to produce similar results?

Injuries have been a concern with Saunders the past few years, and simply staying on the field everyday has been a challenge for him. This injury (while freak in nature) is just another to add to the laundry list of the wide variety of injuries Saunders has sustained over his career.

Akin to what happened with Jose Reyes in 2013, all the Blue Jays really need is a placeholder in left field until Michael Saunders can come back. Munenori Kawasaki certainly did an admirable job filling in for Jose Reyes, and one hopes there's someone on the Blue Jays roster than can do the same for Michael Saunders.

I really can't imagine it will be any of the periphery outfielders like Andy Dirks, Chris Dickerson or Ezequiel Carrera. My belief is that the club is really hoping one of Dalton Pompey or Kevin Pillar will command the left field position outright.

At the very least, the combination of Pillar and Pompey in left field would provide at the very least league average defense, if anything perhaps a little bit better. Michael Saunders was an average left fielder, and both of those guys have a chance to be much better than average.

Pillar and Pompey also provide a little more speed than Saunders would; it's just their at-the-plate approach which has many concerned. At times, Dalton Pompey looked completely overmatched by left-handed pitching, and Kevin Pillar struggled to get on base.

Now with Michael Saunders gone until the All-Star break, the focus will not only be on guys like Dalton Pompey and Kevin Pillar, but also the rest of the starting lineup to pick up the slack created by Saunders' absense in the lineup.

When the Blue Jays initially acquired Michael Saunders, by comparison he was a step backwards offensively compared to Melky Cabrera. But with the loss of Saunders out of the lineup, that position suddenly takes yet another step backwards.

The one area which the Blue Jays will really miss Michael Saunders is as yet another left-handed bat in the lineup. With Saunders on the DL, that might only give the Blue Jays one lefty in their bottom third of the order.

If there's one thing Blue Jays fans can seek solace in, it's that the Blue Jays aren't losing a middle of the order bat; essentially they've lost their number seven hitter in the lineup. The top two thirds of the order remains intact and is still poised to be one of the deadliest in all of baseball.

In the meantime ... get well soon, Mr. Saunders.

*Update*: In an interesting twist of fate, Saunders will now be back in only 4-6 weeks. He had to have his meniscus completely removed, and thus will allow him to return much sooner than anticipated.

Image courtesy of AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette

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