Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Was Shaun Marcum the Smoking Gun?

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What happened in the clubhouse used to stay in the clubhouse. If baseball players ever displayed bad habits, people very rarely heard about it. Problems were typically swept under the rug and very little bad press usually saw the light of day.

Occasionally, things leak to the press and it couldn't be the furthest thing from the truth. Other times, information leaks and it's traced back to a smoking gun. Thus was the case with the Toronto Blue Jays and a mysterious former player who may have worn out his welcome.

I realize I'm a little late to the party here, but there was a very curious article the CBC posted a few weeks ago about an exchange between recently departed Leafs GM Brian Burke and current Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos.

In this article, we learned of an exchange in which Brian Burke offered these words of encouragement to Alex Anthopoulos in regards to dealing with some "off-field matters with one if his talented players":
“My advice to him (Alex) was if a guy is a headache for your manager and a bad guy, his talent shouldn’t save him in the dressing room … get rid of him.”
To me, all signs point to the player in question being none other than Shaun Marcum.

For a long time there were rumours about Marcum's off-field activities, and perhaps his sudden demotion to minors in 2008 is evidence of that alleged unruly behaviour. According to reports, Shaun was notified of his demotion just an hour prior to game time on August 23rd, 2008 ... an unusual practice.

It was a very perplexing demotion because Shaun was called back up just nine days later following a single start in Triple A. J.P. Ricciardi tried to bill it as sending Marcum down to "work on his mechanics", but it signaled towards the motivation being an "attitude adjustment".

Shaun Marcum was also reportedly part of the Blue Jays clubhouse revolt against Cito Gaston in late 2009. All this information lines up with Jeff Blair remaining adamant the Blue Jays would definitely not sign Marcum this offseason.

The Blue Jays could certainly afford the $4 million base salary the Mets just shelled out for Shaun, so there had to be a good reason why they didn't choose to sign Marcum to a contract. It sounded like Shaun Marcum was open to coming back, so the biggest hurdle of convincing a player to come to Toronto was already out of the way. 

If we are to believe this transaction happened approximately 18 months ago, it lines up with the Aaron Hill/John McDonald trade for Kelly Johnson in August 2011. However, I'm very suspicious of this 18 month timeline as it just seems like a red herring to me.

Not to mention, Aaron Hill doesn't fit the typical "troublemaker" profile. Not once during his seven years with the Blue Jays was there ever a report of Hill being anything but the consummate teammate.

Also, I wouldn't exactly call one month of Kelly Johnson a "pretty good transaction". The Aaron Hill for Kelly Johnson trade essentially cancelled itself out as both players weren't under contract for the following season anyway.

Some may be fixated on that "18 months ago" timeline, but keep in mind the phone call was made that long ago according to Brian Burke, not Alex Anthopoulos. That 18 month timeline might just be an arbitrary number Burke threw out there.

The other line that jumped out to me was this one:
Concerned with some off-field matters with one of his talented players, Anthopoulos picked Burke’s brain. Satisfied with his friend’s advice, Anthopoulos soon made what he still calls a “pretty good transaction.”
Once again, this information lines up with the Shaun Marcum for Brett Lawrie trade in December 2010. A starting pitcher with one year of control for a highly-touted prospect who turns out to be your everyday third baseman ... sounds like a "pretty good transaction" in my books.

Is that just Alex Anthopoulos being modest about the deal, or was he being facetious? It's difficult to tell without hearing the tone of his voice in the context of the entire conversation, but from what I can tell, it just sounds like Alex is being humble.

We'll never know for sure whether it was in fact Shaun Marcum, but what it does indicate on a grander scale is a shift in philosophy in the Blue Jays front office in regards to player personnel. It looks like Alex Anthopoulos will not hesitate to sacrifice quantity for quality.

Meaning, he'd rather have someone with good character and average stats on the roster than someone with bad character and good stats. If that's the case, frankly I can't blame Alex Anthopoulos for taking Brian Burke's advice.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Brewing Battle for Centre Field

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Images courtesy of The Star
One year ago, there was just one sole starting position up for grabs on the Blue Jays roster going into Spring Training; the battle for left field between Travis Snider and Eric Thames. This year, it's a different story; every starting position is all but accounted for.

Keep in mind, this is all before pitchers and catchers are even set to report on February 13th. So as far as position players are concerned, all their jobs are safe. None of these guys will be battling for a starting spot.

Or so it would seem.

There may in fact be one underlying battle brewing beneath the surface that has yet to come to a head, and that's the battle for centre field between Colby Rasmus and Anthony Gose.

The past season and a half, Colby Rasmus has fully been entrenched as the everyday centre fielder. He looked like he would be a mainstay in the Blue Jays outfield for the foreseeable future. However, now Colby Rasmus' status as the everyday starting centre fielder isn't quite as safe as it would appear to be.

At the time of the Rasmus trade in July 2011, it was widely viewed as a coup for the Blue Jays because they received the best player in the deal; a potential five-tool centre fielder in Colby Rasmus. Ever since then, he's struggled to put together any sort of semblance of consistency with the Blue Jays.

It's frustrating because Colby Rasmus certainly has all the tools to be an elite player. And yet for one reason or another, Rasmus has only looked good at the plate in short stints. One can imagine the coaching staff and front office must be frustrated with him as well.

Maybe Colby Rasmus isn't the five-tool centre fielder the Blue Jays were hoping he would be. If that's the case, Anthony Gose is looking more and more like the right choice moving forward.

For the moment, Colby Rasmus can bide his time. Anthony Gose is not breathing down his neck and forcing the Blue Jays to make a decision on one player or the other. However, depending on the circumstances, that can all change very quickly.

The Blue Jays have already started Anthony Gose's service time clock with 56 games played last season, so they won't be in a hurry to rush Gose back to the big leagues anyway. Barring an injury to Rasmus, Gose will remain in Buffalo for the time being.

One thing's for sure, Anthony Gose isn't going anywhere any time soon. Miami wanted him as a part of the blockbuster trade with the Marlins and Alex Anthopoulos said no. That speaks volumes; if Gose wasn't included in that deal, then Gose won't be included in any future deal, either.

Anthony Gose is one of AA's "guys", so one can't imagine Alex would part with Gose under his watch. Considering the amount of time and energy the front office put into acquiring Anthony Gose in the first place, they would definitely not let Gose slip through their fingers without a fight.

2013 will be the true litmus test for Colby Rasmus. If he has a solid season, the Blue Jays will have a difficult decision to make. But if he falters once again in 2013, the obvious choice is to run with Anthony Gose and hope to find a suitable trade partner for Colby Rasmus.

Having two quality centre fielders is certainly a great problem for the Blue Jays to have, but eventually they'll have to make a decision. They'll either have to shift Gose over to left field and keep Rasmus in centre, or trade Rasmus and give Gose the reins in centre field.

Luckily, 2013 is not the year where the Blue Jays need to make a definitive decision one way or the other. Colby Rasmus isn't a free agent until 2015, and Anthony Gose is under team control through 2017.

Time is definitely on their side, but which player is going to benefit them the most in the next three years? This is now a very short window of contention for the Blue Jays, and many of the star players that are on the roster right now might not still be around come 2015 or 2016.

The next two or three years are crucial for the Blue Jays, and Either Colby Rasmus or Anthony Gose could play a large part in the success of this team during that window of contention. Which is why it's imperative the Blue Jays get Rasmus/Gose decision right.

More and more, it looks like Anthony Gose is the viable option for the Toronto Blue Jays in centre field. Unless Colby Rasmus starts playing like his pre All-Star break self on a consistent basis, the decision in centre field could very well be an easy one for the Blue Jays to make.

Whether Alex Anthopoulos wants to admit it or not, the battle for centre field is officially on.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Jose Reyes Brings Back the Blue Jays Swagger

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Courtesy of Getty Images/Yahoo
We all have that one player in our fantasy baseball league; the kind of player who we would do anything to get them on our team. That kind of player to that we're devoted to through thick and thin, almost to a fault.

If Alex Anthopoulos played fantasy baseball, Jose Reyes would be that player. We actually know for a fact AA thinks Jose Reyes is one of his favourite baseball players to watch, as he said it so himself at last week's press conference.

So there may indeed have been some truth to the reports that the Blue Jays were interested in signing Reyes last winter. The funny thing is the odds of the Blue Jays landing Jose Reyes as a free agent last offseason were likely next to nil. And yet low and behold, here he is a member of the Toronto Blue Jays.

In fact, the Blue Jays would undoubtedly have to overpay Jose Reyes to come to Toronto; and even then, that might not have been enough to lure him north of the 49th parallel instead of warm, sunny Miami.

However, things can change in the blink of an eye. One year ago, the Miami Marlins and the Toronto Blue Jays were two franchises one completely opposite ends of the spectrum. And now one year later, they have swapped places.

It actually works out well for Jose Reyes, who was told by his owner Jeffrey Loria that he would not be traded. And then four days later, Loria did exactly that. If that's how Miami ownership treats their players, perhaps Jose Reyes playing for the Marlins wasn't meant to be after all.

As he exits one toxic environment, Reyes is coming into a good situation; one which would not have presented itself otherwise one year ago. Suddenly, the Blue Jays aren't looking that bad after all. One could argue the Blue Jays chances going into 2013 are even better than the Marlins in 2012.

The one thing that really came off during the Jose Reyes press conference last week was how he exuded personality. I'm beginning to see why Alex Anthopoulos is so enamoured with Reyes ... and this is all before we've even seen Jose take the field.

Jose Reyes is a very unique player in that he fills a lot of holes for the Blue Jays in one fell swoop. He becomes that prototypical leadoff hitter they have been in desperate need of for a long time. Reyes is also a bona fide All-Star at a premium position, also something the Blue Jays have lacked since the days of Tony Fernandez at shortstop.

Not to mention, Jose Reyes gives the Blue Jays yet another legitimate threat on the basepaths and he doesn't strike out all that often. Jose Reyes ranked 1st and 2nd in the NL these past two seasons when it came lowest amount of strikeouts per at bat.

Add all those things up and it's easy to see why Reyes received such a ringing endorsement from his new General Manager, Alex Anthopoulos.

And not only does Jose Reyes bring a great deal of skill to the top of the lineup and up the middle of the diamond, but he also brings something you won't see on the box score; swagger. It's one of those unquantifiable statistics, but it's something that's been severely lacking in Blue Jays Land these past few year.

All you have to do is check out Reyes' Instagram feed to find evidence of his "swagger". Maybe it's his lifestyle, maybe it's just his personality, but there's no denying that he comes off as very dynamic and incredibly charismatic.

When I try to think of another player in Blue Jays history to compare Jose Reyes to, the only person who comes to mind is George Bell. Sure, Bell had his less than glamorous moments (the karate kick of Bruce Kison, the "kiss by purple butt" incident), but overall he was an incredibly memorable player.

For better or worse, George Bell was the face of the Toronto Blue Jays franchise through the 80's. Nearly 30 years later, Jose Reyes has that very same opportunity here for a revitalized fanbase. Reyes could very well become the new ambassador for the Toronto Blue Jays.

One thing's for sure; Jose Reyes is a larger than life personality. Suddenly, this Toronto Blue Jays roster is a larger than life team, as well. Seems like a match made in heaven, doesn't it?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Odds of a Josh Johnson Contract Extension

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He's just a good old boy from Minnesota ... youngest of five boys, and he grew up a fan of the Minnesota Twins. And incidentally, he's also in need of a contract extension.

I didn't know very much about Josh Johnson before his sit-down interview with Barry Davis, but he came across very likable and honest in his interview last month. JJ was very candid and extremely self-aware of baseball not only as a game, but as a business.

If you haven't already, I highly recommend watching Sportsnet's full 18 minute interview with Josh Johnson as it touched on a lot of issues; from Johnson's initial reaction to the trade, to acclimatizing to living in Canada, to falling in love with baseball during the 1987 World Series parade in his hometown of Minnesota.

There was one thing I picked up on during the interview that was alluded to time and time again, and that was Johnson's desire to win. He mentioned it on multiple occasions and didn't really mince words when it came to expressing his ambition to play for a contender.

While JJ did discuss he would be open to a contract extension with the Blue Jays, I got the sense that he wasn't planning on signing long term any time in the near future; which almost eliminates any chance he would ink an extension with the Blue Jays prior to the start of the season.

The initial question of "will Josh Johnson sign an extension?" will inevitably lead to "for how much?" and "how long?" As a comparison, here's a list of the most recent and biggest contracts delved out to starting pitchers.



Rest assured that if Josh Johnson has a solid 2013 season, he will be asking for top dollar on the open market. JJ will be among the upper echelon of starting pitchers and would be justified to command Zach Greinke and Cole Hamels kind of money.

While most baseball players opt to go where the money is, Josh Johnson strikes me as a very competitive player who wants to win above all else. I mean, he grew up as the youngest of five brothers ... of course he's competitive.

The Blue Jays could very well offer him a very attractive extension, but if it doesn't provide JJ the best potential to win, he may just walk next season. That's why the future of Josh Johnson's career really depends on what happens on the field with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2013.

If the team has a great first half, then perhaps Josh Johnson takes a leap of faith and negotiates a deal midseason. However, the much more likely scenario is Johnson waits until the conclusion of the 2013 season to decide whether the Toronto Blue Jays provide him the best chance to win a World Series ring.

The allure of the almighty dollar is one that must be extremely attractive to prospective free agents, but ultimately I think many players would prefer the opportunity to win a championship ... especially for long-tenured players like Josh Johnson who haven't had a chance to experience October baseball.

One really can't blame Josh Johnson for wanting to go to a contender, though. After all, he spent ten years within the Miami Marlins organization and not once did he get a shot at the playoffs. At this point in his career, JJ has more than earned his right to play where he wants for whichever reason he desires.

Of all the players that came over from Miami in the trade, the contract situation with Josh Johnson is definitely the most complicated. With the bright lights of free agency just one year away, Johnson could test the open market next offseason for a very large payday.

Alex Anthopoulos confirmed the blockbuster trade with the Marlins initially began with discussions surrounding just Josh Johnson. In retrospect, it's a tad bit curious as to why the Blue Jays would go after a starting pitcher who is only under team control for one more season.

AA certainly must be confident about getting JJ extended before his contract runs out, otherwise why would Alex target a pitcher who might walk a free agent just one year later?

Make no mistake; this is all before Josh Johnson has thrown a single pitch for the Toronto Blue Jays. It would be a little presumptuous to not only expect Johnson to sign a contract extension sight unseen, but for the Blue Jays to even extend him a contract extension one before Opening Day.

With a slew of injuries in his past, there are some questions as to the durability of Josh Johnson. While it might be cheaper to sign him to an extension now, the safer bet for both parties would be to wait until season's end to reassess the situation.

With the exception of Josh Johnson, Toronto's entire starting rotation is locked up through the 2015 season. So it's not imperative the Blue Jays lock up Josh Johnson as well, but it wouldn't hurt to have another ace in the hole.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The R.A. Dickey Era Begins

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Courtesy of Yahoo/AP
For some reason, I still have great difficulty processing the fact that R.A. Dickey is now a member of Toronto Blue Jays. In some ways, it seemed like a pipe dream somebody cooked up, but something that never in reality come to fruition in this era.

But it did.

It no longer was an apparition after officially witnessing R.A. Dickey in a Blue Jays uniform for the first time yesterday. Once receiving visual confirmation, it finally sunk in ... and yet I still can't believe it.

The trade with the Marlins was definitely a blockbuster; one that undoubtedly could shift the entire dynamic of the Toronto Blue Jays. But the R.A. Dickey trade was something completely different altogether. It was the signal of a new era.

I think the main reason why I have such difficulty wrapping my head around the reality of the R.A. Dickey trade is it's the beginning of a culture change. The Dickey deal is a changing of the guard with the Toronto Blue Jays.

It hearkens back to the deals made by the Blue Jays teams of the early nineties that helped solidify their bid for contention. The signing of Jack Morris and Dave Winfield prior to the 1992 season, and the signing of Paul Molitor and Dave Stewart prior to the 1993 season. The Dickey trade has the very same air as those transactions that helped set up the Blue Jays for consecutive World Series titles.

Alex Anthopoulos is no stranger whatsoever to making trades. It has essentially become his calling card over the course of the past three years. But the Dickey deal was unlike any other trade he ever made before. It truly was the atypical acquisition for the Blue Jays; the "anti-Anthopoulos trade".

While Anthopoulos has had experience in dealing away a cornerstone player like Roy Halladay, never before has he dealt for one. At the age of 38, R.A. Dickey is arguably in the prime of his career and has the potential to be the next cornerstone for the Blue Jays.

Most trades made by AA have been in the hopes the player they target might eventually reach their prime down the road. However, the Marlins blockbuster and the Dickey deal clearly demonstrated that the window of opportunity is now for the Blue Jays.

It's funny how Dickey mentioned Joe Carter during his press conference because it really is like a bridging of the gap between two eras. Many people feel like this coming season could potentially be the beginning of the second Blue Jays dynasty; the first of course being the one of the late eighties and early nineties.

If the presser was any indication, R.A. Dickey is going to quickly skyrocket as one of the fan favourites on the Blue Jays roster. Dickey came off as a very genuine person, extremely charismatic and astute.

The unique thing about R.A. Dickey is he's not just interesting as a baseball player, but as a person as well. I don't mean to sound like I'm gushing about him, but it was fascinating to hear those anecdotes about Dickey's career ... so I can only imagine what a great read his book must be.

R.A. Dickey may be able to tell a great story, but what it will all ultimately boil down to is whether he can better the Blue Jays. He will likely become one of the new faces of this franchise, and the overall success of the Blue Jays hinges on the success of R.A. Dickey.

To use the old, tired poker analogy, the Toronto Blue Jays are truly going all-in with the acquisition of R.A. Dickey. If the blockbuster deal with the Marlins was the equivalent of making a huge bet on the turn, the Dickey deal is same as the Blue Jays throwing in the remainder of their chips and hoping for the best on the river.

Going out and getting R.A. Dickey wasn't necessarily a Hail Mary play, but I can't foresee the Blue Jays having any other big moves beyond this in the foreseeable future. The collection of players they have on the roster right now will either lead them to the promised land or they will just repeat the same fate as the teams from the past 20 years.

With that, the R.A. Dickey era has officially begun in Toronto. If anything, at least it's going to be an exciting one.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Darren Oliver Dilemma

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Courtesy of Zimbio
In a three short years, Alex Anthopoulos has inked numerous players to team-friendly contracts. More often than not, those deals have worked in favour of the Blue Jays (think Bautista, Janssen, Encarnacion), but who ever thought the day would come when signing someone to a team-friendly contract would actually work against them?

Such is the case with Darren Oliver.

After toying with the notion of heading off into the sunset of retirement, apparently Oliver is willing to come back to the Blue Jays for the 2013 season, but only if they give him a raise from his $3 million dollar option.

I mean, I can't really blame the guy for wanting to get paid. After all, Darren Oliver had a career best season in 2012 and was a steal at a mere $4 million dollar salary, and would be an even bigger bargain at his $3 million dollar option for 2013.

Oliver was initially brought in as a lefty specialist, but handled both left and right-handed batters equally well in 2012. Darren very quickly became a mainstay in the Blue Jays bullpen, shedding himself of the LOOGY title and reinvented himself as an all-around solid reliever.

However, the million dollar question is ... does Darren Oliver deserve more money to stay in Toronto? The simple answer: no.

It's not fair for Darren Oliver to make a ultimatum towards the Blue Jays like that. He can't use retirement as leverage to get the money he wants from the Blue Jays, and he can't use it end up with his swan song team, the Texas Rangers either.

Darren Oliver signed a one-year contract with a team option last year, and he should fulfill that commitment. Say Darren Oliver signed a two-year contract instead and completely faltered, could the Blue Jays renegotiate the remained of the contract to pay Oliver less money?

Of course not. Contracts just do not work that way in baseball.

At the time when he signed the contract, perhaps Darren Oliver never thought he'd have the season he did in 2012 and fully expected to retire at season's end. But if he wanted to guarantee himself an exit strategy, he should have only signed a one-year deal or at least make the option a player option.

When players sign contracts with options near the end of their career, they have to at least entertain the possibility that option will be picked up; no matter how well or how poorly the previous season goes.

If the Blue Jays do in fact agree to pay Darren Oliver the additional money he's looking for, think of the dangerous precedent that sets for the rest of the team. Suddenly, maybe Jose Bautista feels his $14 million per season isn't enough money. Renegotiating with Oliver just opens the door to all kinds of problems down the road.

The other issue here is Darren Oliver has now given all the leverage to the Texas Rangers in a potential trade. In any other instance, a team would likely get a decent package in return for one year of a reliever the calibre of Darren Oliver. But now, the Blue Jays hands are tied and will basically have to take whatever they can get in return.

You can now see why Alex Anthopoulos prefers to deal within his coveted cone of silence. If all this remains behind closed doors, maybe a deal gets done more amicably and Darren Oliver gets what he ultimately wants and goes to the Rangers, while the Blue Jays receive fair compensation for his services.

Now that the Darren Oliver dilemma has hit the media, it's changed the entire dynamic of the situation and gives Oliver and the Texas Rangers all the power.

In reality, another 1 or 2 million for Darren Oliver isn't all that much on top of what will like be around a $120 million dollar payroll for the Blue Jays. And that's not to say Oliver isn't worth it; if anything, I'd say he's actually worth more than the additional one million or so he's asking for.

If it truly is a money issue, the Blue Jays could certainly find some extra cash under the mattress, despite how cash-strapped they are letting on to be. I think it's about much more than that though, and it's really about a promise Darren Oliver made to the Blue Jays, so to speak.

There's no question it would be great for the Blue Jays to have Darren Oliver back to shore up the back end of the bullpen for 2013. The issue here is Oliver signed a contract and he should intend on keeping that promise.

As a 19 year veteran, Darren Oliver has certainly earned the right to call the shots close to the finish line of his career. But is this really how Oliver wants to end his career? By giving the Blue Jays an ultimatum to either pay him more or to trade him to his hometown Texas Rangers?

I'm all for players having a storybook ending to their career, but there's something about this that just doesn't seem right.
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