Thursday, March 28, 2013

What Does the J.A. Happ Extension Mean?


By
Courtesy of Zimbio
Alex Anthopoulos is a tough nut to crack. After three years as the Blue Jays GM, trying to figure out AA is still a constant learning process. To this day, although we can speculate about his motives, I still don't know why he does the things he does.

Chalk the J.A. Happ contract extension up as another one of those puzzling moves (not necessarily in a bad way). On the surface, it looks like the Blue Jays are simply buying up Happ's first free agent year and adding an option. But as usual with AA, things may not be as simple as they appear.

The first thing I thought when I heard about the J.A. Happ contract extension was "does that mean a Josh Johnson contract extension is less likely?" Not because of the money committed to Happ, but because there are already 5 starters locked up through 2015 ... and Josh Johnson would make six.

There's no question Josh Johnson would place ahead of Ricky Romero and J.A. Happ on the Blue Jays depth chart, and in no way should the presence of those two guys bar the Blue Jays from at least giving Johnson a qualifying offer.

The issue at hand is there are six guys and only five spots in the starting rotation. It's a good problem for the Blue Jays to have, and as evidenced by all the injuries last season, you can never have too many starting pitchers.

The J.A. Happ contract extension doesn't necessarily stipulate that he needs to be in the starting rotation, either. Happ could just evolve into the Blue Jays long relief man, a la Carlos Villanueva and fill in with the odd spot start.

Stoeten raised a good point over on DJF; guaranteeing Happ to a two-year deal could simply be just about guaranteed money. Rather than J.A. spending some time in the minors this season and it affecting his arbitration case, this way he makes $5.2 million next season regardless of what happens.

The whole press conference seems a little curious to me, though. I mean, it's not every day the fifth starter gets his own press conference. Unless this was just some way to smooth things over with J.A. Happ, the Blue Jays must view him as much more than a back-end starter.

It's true that this team-friendly contract now makes J.A. Happ an attractive arm on the trade market, but I can't see Alex Anthopoulos turning around and trading a player he seemingly moved the sun and earth to acquire in the first place, and then signed him to a contract extension the following year.

Sign a player one year and then trade them the next? That's the MO of the Miami Marlins, not the Toronto Blue Jays. 

One other possibility is the J.A. Happ contract extension could mean that Ricky Romero is a lot further behind than we think. The whole timing of the 5th starter thing is a little too convenient; Romero gets sent to the minors, J.A. Happ gets signed to a contract extension the very next day.

The fate of Happ's spot in the rotation must've hinged on what happened with Ricky Romero. So when Romero floundered, the Blue Jays opted to go with a contingency plan and lock up J.A. Happ for a couple of years.

It may have happened a little earlier than they anticipated, but the Blue Jays activated their "Plan B". They got out the tiny hammer, broke the glass, and deployed their "break in case of emergency" starter, J.A. Happ.

Perhaps Happ's contract extension is actually an insurance policy in case the Blue Jays can't ink Josh Johnson long term. Earlier this year, I wrote about how there are a lot more working pieces and scenarios to a JJ extension.

Crossing of J.A. Happ from the Blue Jays "next to sign" list was simply much easier to do right now, and didn't depend on factors like injury questions and the possibility of free agency like pertains to Josh Johnson.

If the Blue Jays do in fact end up signing Josh Johnson to a contract extension as well, I think that actually makes Mark Buehrle as the prime target to put on the trading block, not J.A. Happ. That is ... if Toronto can find a suitor to unload Buehrle's contract on.

For me, what it comes back to is my fear that this J.A. Happ contract extension somehow impedes the ability to lock up Josh Johnson long term. That is ... unless the Blue Jays are doing as they have done this offseason and are simply spreading out their press conferences?

Or, maybe the J.A. Happ contract extension is just a contract extension; it has nothing to with a potential Josh Johnson contract extension or the state of Ricky Romero. Or maybe it isn't.

I blame Alex Anthopoulos for conditioning me to overthink things like this.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

How Will Mark Buehrle Transition to the AL East?


By
Courtesy of Yahoo/AP/Canadian Press
In a sport with an inordinate amount of variables, there are very few constants in baseball. There are very few players that can be depended on game after game, year after year. That's what makes Mark Buehrle one of a kind.

Where else in baseball will you find a player who has logged 200 plus innings for 12 consecutive seasons? Where else will you find a player who has remained healthy and avoided the disabled list for 12 years running?

Buerhle is the consummate innings eater, which is precisely what the Blue Jays starting rotation needed. Logging innings likely won't be a problem from Mark Buehrle, but it's all the outside factors that they should be concerned about.

I spoke with Ben Lindbergh from Baseball Prospectus last week, and he reiterated that BP is projecting Mark Buehrle to have a down year in 2013. The funny thing, it really doesn't have to do much with Buehrle himself, instead it's mainly attributed to two outside things; defense and park factors.

For one, let's address the defense. Baseball Prospectus projects the 2013 Blue Jays to have the worst defense in the AL East. That is crucial for a pitcher like Mark Buehrle who doesn't miss a lot of bats and relies heavily on his defense.

Realistically, Brett Lawrie looks to be the only plus defender on the starting roster according to ZIPS projections. So the way the Blue Jays infield is currently constructed, it really isn't doing Buehrle any favours.

Secondly, there is of course the park factors. While Marlins Park may have been gaudy, at least it was much more friendly to Mark Buehrle compared to U.S. Cellular field where he spent the first 11 seasons of his career.

YearHR/9FB%HR/FB
20100.7338.46
20110.9235.48.6
20121.1636.311.4

Despite a higher HR/9 (1.16) and higher fly ball rate last season (36.3%), most of Mark Buehrle's peripheral stats were actually down in 2012 compared to 2011. That is no doubt in part to making half his starts within the confines of Marlins Park.

Buehrle's gradual increase in his home run to fly ball ratio might be a little concerning already, but put him in the Rogers Centre and surely that number is likely to rise even further inside a ballpark where there were 2.52 home runs hit per game on average.

The other thing that Ben mentioned to me which really stood out was Buehrle will have an uphill battle pitching in the other home run-friendly ballparks within the division.

The AL East houses 4 of the top 6 home run parks in the American League, which seems like a disaster waiting to happen for fly ball pitchers like Buehrle.

In addition to pitching in a hitter-friendly park and pitching on the road in other homer-friendly parks, there's another reason to be concerned about Mark Buehrle; the velocity on his four seam, two seam and cut fastball have all seen a steady decline since 2010:

YearFour SeamTwo SeamCutter
201086.185.581.9
20118585.381.8
201284.984.579.9

That's not to say  Mark Buehrle won't be hold his own with the Blue Jays in the American League East. He did after all spend 11 seasons in Chicago at U.S. Cellular Field; the second highest run-producing park in all of baseball.

Buehrle still faced the likes of the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays upwards of two times a season. The issue now is those inter-divisional starts versus New York, Boston, Tampa and Baltimore could increase up to four or five times a season per team.

That's upwards of 16 starts a season inside 4 of the top 6 home run parks in baseball; a daunting task for even the most seasoned veteran pitcher like Mark Buehrle.

Mark Buehrle's stats may take a bit of hit this season with the Blue Jays, but that's to be expected. I don't think they should expect him to win a Cy Young Award by any means, but merely put forth a solid six or seven  innings on any given start.

There are a few things Mark Buehrle does have in his favour, however. Like always, Buehrle is a Gold Glove calibre defender, making the plays and fielding baseballs that most starters otherwise would not.

Also, since Buehrle works so quick to the plate, the running game is virtually non-existent when he's on the mound. He hasn't given up more than five stolen bases in any given season the past five years running.

No matter which ballpark you put Mark Buehrle in, those things will never change.

So with Buehrle saving some runs with his glove and shutting down the running game, perhaps these park factors even themselves out and he doesn't regress quite as much as your typical pitch-to-contact  pitcher moving to a hitter-friendly park.

Will Mark Buehrle's ERA take a hit this season? Probably. Will he win 15 games with the Blue Jays? Not likely. But so long as he continues to limit his walks to fewer than 50 a season and he makes 30 starts, then Toronto will get exactly what they expect from Mark Buehrle.

Albeit, they'll be paying him $48 million dollars over the next three seasons, but that was the Miami Marlins decision to sign him to that large of a contract, not the Blue Jays.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Unfortunate Ricky Romero Predicament


By
Courtesy of Yahoo/The Canadian Press
Wins and losses aren't supposed to carry any weight whatsoever in February and March. Spring training statistics aren't supposed to mean anything either. But this means something.

Predicament, quandary, plight, crisis; call it what you will, but there's something going on with Ricky Romero.

As much as we're trained to not get too excited about results from Spring Training, just as much as we're not supposed to be too concerned about slow starts in camp, there is a growing concern about the state of Ricky Romero.

Ordinarily, a slow start like Ricky's might not be all that worrisome. Even veteran starters like Mark Buehrle have admitted it takes them a while to find their groove in exhibition games like these. But Ricky Romero's issues are a completely different story.

The whole whirlwind started when the Blue Jays announced they would be tinkering with Romero's mechanics and moving him over on the pitching rubber (perhaps at the suggestion of Mr. Fairservice).

Ordinarily, Spring Training is the opportune time and place for pitchers to experiment. Coaches often suggest varying with pitches and deliveries, as tinkering is the name of the game. The difference with Romero is they weren't just tweaking his delivery.

The Blue Jays brass were selling this as a minor tweak, but this is no minor tweak. It's almost like they were overhauling his mechanics altogether. This isn't merely changing a grip or simply moving Ricky over a few inches.

Not only that, but this is all happening less than two weeks before Opening Day. Not in the infancy of Spring Training in late February ... this is mid-March and games are for real starting April 2nd.

What has me really concerned about this whole Ricky Romero thing is why now? Why did the Blue Jays decide this late in the game to start altering Ricky's mechanics? To me, it sounds like a move of desperation; that they've tried everything they possibly could and this is the last resort.

The final resort of course being Triple A Buffalo, where Ricky Romero could very well find himself starting the season if he doesn't turn things around very soon.

The problem now is time is not on Ricky Romero's side. All eyes will be on him in his final start of Spring Training, which is likely slated to go on Wednesday against the Rays. Even then, we don't know for sure if he'll face the Rays, or make another minor league start.

Sending Ricky to pitch in a minor league game against the Pirates High A affiliate yesterday should've been a red flag from the get-go. But then his line of 64 pitches in 2.1 innings, 5 walks and zero strikeouts were even more cause for concern.

It's not so much the statistics is it is the walks. Ricky Romero only retired seven batters yesterday while walking five. He may be altering his mechanics and be that as he may, but if he can't find the strike zone, that's extremely problematic for the Blue Jays.

It's like Stoeten mentioned on the DJF Podcast yesterday, this whole situation hearkens back to what happened in the past with Brett Cecil. The Blue Jays were kind of coddling Cecil last year also, shifting his starts to minor league games and so forth.

And there were signs of that last year when the Blue Jays bumped one of Ricky Romero's late season starts against the Red Sox, instead opting to give him 11 days rest and start him against the Mariners. It didn't help much.

Last year, Ricky Romero may have convinced himself that he was 100%, but clearly something was wrong. And whatever was wrong just compounded itself over months and months, and here we are now at a boiling point.

I don't want to say the Blue Jays have an epidemic here with Ricky Romero, but it's getting pretty close. As a guy with four seasons of big league experience under his belt, Romero should still have the benefit of the doubt, though.

There's no doubt Ricky's leash is progressively getting shorter and shorter with each progressively shaky start in Spring Training. If that carries over into the regular season, the Blue Jays likely won't hesitate to make the call to Buffalo.

All of this is further complicated by the fact that J.A. Happ is essentially breathing down Ricky Romero's neck, salivating at the opportunity to break camp with the club in the starting rotation. Subtract Happ from this whole scenario and it's not nearly the pandemic it is.

The Blue Jays are obviously trying to be as diplomatic as possible with Ricky Romero, but at what point do they take off the kid gloves and make the choice to send him down to the minors?

Assuming that Ricky continues to struggle, you can look at it one of two ways; either hold Ricky back in Buffalo to start the season, or parade him out there every fifth day and he continues to get lit up. Which of those scenarios would be worse for Ricky Romero's psyche?

As a franchise that prides themselves on doing things the "right way", one can see why the Blue Jays are trying to do everything possible to right the ship with Ricky Romero. They are not about to give up on the man who was this team's Opening Day starter the past two seasons.

But the longer he continues to struggle, the easier the decision the Blue Jays will have to make on when to pull the parachute on Romero's free-fall.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Book Review: 100 Things Blue Jays Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die


By
Courtesy of IPG Book
Many people today have their very own bucket list; things they want to accomplish before they bid adieu to planet earth. But have you ever thought about what your bucket list would be?

If you're a Blue Jays fan, undoubtedly one thing you want to cross off your list is to see the Blue Jays win another World Series. My own greatest fear is that I'll have to tell my future grandchildren about the distant memories of 92-93, rather than experiencing the glory of a Blue Jays World Series themselves.

It poses a great question, though; have you ever wondered what would be on your Blue Jays bucket list? If you haven't ... fear not, because someone has done the legwork for you in "100 Things Blue Jays Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die".

Author Steve Clarke (who's on Twitter, @SteveClarkeMLB) has assembled 100 pieces from Blue Jays history, places to visit, and things every Blue Jays fan should do before they kick the bucket.

What I really enjoyed about this book (and the "100 Things" series in general) is it allows you to read the book in bite-sized pieces. You can read the book cover-to-cover like you would a regular book, or you can just fast forward to specific chapters and read a few items here or there.

I did exactly that when I flipped to Chapter 44: "Visit the Tao of Stieb and Drunk Jays Fans". It was very cool to see the Blue Jays blogosphere brethren in print, as well as many other Jays blogs and writers included as sites every fan should check out.

As you can probably tell by "Flashback Fridays" here at BJH, delving into the Blue Jays vault is in my wheelhouse of interest. 100 Things has plenty of interesting items from Blue Jays yesteryear, including the infamous trade involving Alomar & Carter, and Dave Winfield's infamous seagull incident.

100 Things Blue Jays Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die is also very up to date, with excerpts about the blockbuster trade with the Miami Marlins last November, as well as the acquisition of Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey.

If you've ever checked out the baseball section of your local book store, you know first hand that there is a severe lack of Blue Jays material out there. So it's quite refreshing to not just have a book with Blue Jays content in it, but one that's devoted entirely to the Blue Jays.

Although there are 100 items here, most die hard Blue Jays fans will be pretty familiar with most of them. But even I found myself discovering things I never knew about the Blue Jays.

For example, how the San Francisco Giants nearly moved to Toronto, or that there was a game where Cecil Fielder and Kelly Gruber swapped spots at second and third base ...  19 times in one game.

Or who knew that Ernie Whitt was a big investor and spokesperson for Mother's Pizza? (which is apparently returning on April 1st in Hamilton, by the way). Or that former Blue Jays skipper Bobby Mattick was the one who discovered Dave Stieb?

Since there are so many items packed into about 250 pages, unfortunately there isn't much real estate to flesh out some of the more significant items much more than two or three pages. That's my only real criticism of the book ... but I guess that was by design to keep the book a manageable size.

Christmas may be over nine months away, but this book would be an excellent gift for any Blue Jays fan that you know. In fact, for those declaring the Home Opener a baseball holiday, it makes a great gift to open on April 2nd.

"100 Things Blue Jays Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die" is on sale now at your local Indigo/Chapters store and  at Amazon.ca.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

2013 Blue Jays Preview with Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus


By
Out of all 30 teams in baseball, the Toronto Blue Jays are perhaps in the most perplexing position of all of them. While their offseason acquisitions have significantly improved their squad, there still remains many question marks on the Blue Jays roster.

There are experts out there that make a living dissecting all those question marks, and do a very good job at it. Of course when it comes to projections, the annual Baseball Prospectus book immediately comes to mind.

Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus was kind enough to answer some questions about key members of the Blue Jays roster this upcoming season, and how he sees them finishing in the division.

Which Blue Jay do you think will take the biggest leap forward this season?
Brett Lawrie should be better. Expectations were fairly high last season, probably a little too high based on how good he was the previous season, but I think he will improve and step forward.

On the pitching side, I like Brandon Morrow. I’ve liked Brandon Morrow a few seasons now, as a lot of sabermetric-leaning people have. If he can stay healthy, then I would peg him as a person to take a big step.
And on the opposite side of the coin, which Blue Jay do you think will take the biggest step backward in 2013?
The obvious choice would be Melky; not so much because of whatever he was taking last year, but I just felt like he was a guy who was in for line for some decline even if he hadn’t tested positive.

It just seemed like he hadn’t made a lot of fundamental improvements in his game. Even if he hadn’t tested positive, I still feel like he was a guy who would outperform his recent history, if you look at his peripherals and his rates, they were almost identical as they were the season they were before.

He wasn’t walking a lot more, he wasn’t striking out a lot less, he wasn’t hitting for much more power, he was just hitting a lot more singles than he ever had before. So he was getting fortunate and hitting the ball in the right place.

I guess 2011 would be a realistic baseline, and I’m sure the Blue Jays would be happy if he was as good as he was that season when he was an above average hitter.
The big key to the success of the Blue Jays this year is invariably going to rest on the shoulders of R.A. Dickey. How do you see him adjusting to the AL East?
Our projections for R.A. Dickey are pessimistic, but he really breaks projection systems because our projection system is based in part on comparable players ... and there really aren’t any comparable players to Dickey.

He did things last year that nobody has done. I think the strikeout rate from last year was kind of an anomaly. Normally you’d look at a pitcher his age and you’d say that he probably won’t be as good again. But if he continues to throw the knuckleball as well as he did last year, then the AL East won't be a problem.
In the absence of Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion stepped up and had a career year, putting up the best offensive numbers on the team (4.1 BWARP). Aside from 2012, Edwin has been a notoriously streaky hitter, though.

Is the real Edwin Encarnacion closer to his 2012 season or closer to his 2011 season?
I think he will be closer to his 2012 self. Normally we’re conservative about guys who have a breakout season. When Jose Bautista went crazy all of a sudden, our projections for him were that he would come back to earth a bit.

You’re inclined to believe in a breakout like that more when there’s a mechanical change associated with it. It seemed to me like that was the case with Edwin Encarnacion. He revamped his approach at the plate and concentrated more on going the other way, he hit to the opposite field with a lot of power, so I’m optimistic about him.

Just the fact that there really seemed to be real changes and he seemed to be a difference player in a meaningful way. And it wasn’t a case like Melky where he had a high BABIP thing with a lot of balls falling in.
Mark Buehrle has been the consummate innings-eater over his career, but I noticed he's one of the Blue Jays that's projected to take a bit of a step back this year. How do you think he'll fare in the AL East facing the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays and Orioles this season?
I think there is some concern about the AL East compared to the AL Central , and the fact that he’s a fly ball pitcher and he’s pitching in a park where a lot of home runs are hit and a division where a lot of home runs are hit.

In our Blue Jays essay, the AL East had 4 of the top 6 home run parks. As a fly ball pitcher and a guy who doesn’t miss a lot of bats, it’s something I would worry about. Our projections for the Blue Jays defensively are not strong, as we have them projected to have the worst defense in the division.

If that’s not the case, then without the greatest defensive outfield coupled with a park that’s not all that great for flyballers, then I expect him to decline. He’s never been on the disabled list in 12 seasons of 200 innings in a row. It’s an incredible thing you don’t see anymore; Buehrle’s about a sure a thing as you can get.

Strikeout pitchers are usually good pitchers and it’s a good thing not to rely on your defenders to get outs, but at the same time, health is also a skill. Buehrle clearly has it and the control to survive without a lot of velocity or a lot of strikeouts, and you can pretty much pencil him in for 30 starts.
Ultimately, where do you expect the Blue Jays to finish this season ... and the million dollar question, will they make the playoffs this year?
Purely looking at the stats, we have the Yankees in first and the Orioles in last and then the other three teams are just bunched together in the middle of the division. But I think the Blue Jays as strong as any other team in the division.

Maybe they’re a higher risk team because of the injury concerns, but I would see them probably winning close to 90 games and I’ll pick them as the Wild Card team.
Thanks again to Ben for answering my questions. Of course, you can check out the full preview of every Blue Jays player in the 2013 Baseball Prospectus, out in book stores now. And follow Ben on Twitter, @ben_lindbergh.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Should Brett Lawrie Dial It Back?


By
Courtesy of Yahoo
Full tilt. Amped up. Maximum effort. All out. That's how Brett Lawrie plays the game.

Whether he's diving into camera wells for foul balls, running the base paths as if there are a swarm of bees chasing him, or even tossing a helmet at an umpire, Brett Lawrie is an extremely exciting player to watch.

Some have praised the young Canadian for his intensity, while others have criticized him for what can be described as a reckless abandonment for safety. However, there's no question Brett Lawrie plays baseball with an incredibly unique style.

For a man who's just 23 years old and entering his third big league season, is that level of intensity sustainable? Can he continue playing the way he does and not get hurt?

It's the narrative that will more than likely surround Brett Lawrie the first part of the season; will his style of play be a liability for the Blue Jays, or Lawrie's unique brand of baseball be an asset to the team?

Stephen Brunt asked Brett Lawrie the question we've all been wondering on Prime Time Sports on past Wednesday.
"You play the game high speed, high intensity all the time, and you're going to beat yourself up a bit doing that. Is that the only way you can play the game? Could you dial it back a little bit?"
This was Brett Lawrie's response:
"Me going hard is how I go hard, and I've done it my whole life. To stop now doesn't really make sense."
To ask Brett Lawrie to dial it back would in essence be asking Brett Lawrie not to be himself. Lawrie at 75% percent would simply not be the true Brett Lawrie Blue Jays fans know and love. Who knows if it's even possible for Brett to let off the gas.

In all of Major League baseball, there are very few guys that play the game as hard as Brett Lawrie does. However, the key for Brett Lawrie moving forward will be about playing smarter ... not harder.

Is attempting to steal home with two out and Jose Bautista at the plate really the best idea? These are all things that come with experience. Hopefully last season, Brett Lawrie learned what did work and what didn't work and will take that reconnaissance and make better judgements moving forward.

The thing is, I can't really fault Brett Lawrie for doing some of the questionable things he did last year. Yes, he may have displayed some over aggression and at times, but Lawrie didn't display a complete lack of judgement.

He didn't forget how many outs there were, he didn't run through any red lights from the base coaches, and he didn't lose a ball in the sun with sunglasses perched on his cap. The only thing I can fault Brett Lawrie for is doing exactly what he does; playing the game hard.

The whole Brett Lawrie situation really emphasizes the divide in baseball between players who don't seem to care enough, and others who care too much.

Every year, players are grilled for "dogging it" and not running out ground balls. And yet  Brett Lawrie is chastised for playing the game too hard. He's grilled for caring too much when there are other players out there who could seemingly care less.

Brett Lawrie plays the game without fear; not many baseball players today play the game with the same boldness as he does. Lawrie is unique in that it seems like he does play every game like it's Game 7 of the World Series, as Alex Anthopoulos noted.

He  may be a little frightening to watch at times, but personally ... I like how Brett Lawrie's intensity dial is permanently set at 11. He plays every game like he has something to prove, whether it be Opening Day or the 162nd game of the season.

That style of play may lend itself to Brett Lawrie being a little more injury-prone than your average player, but that also means he's prone to pulling off memorable plays like this or this and even the one below.



What I really appreciate is Brett isn't afraid to take risks; which is extremely rare in a sport where athletes are coddled and viewed as precious commodities from the time they're teenagers. To risk life and limb to catch a foul ball isn't something you'll see too often in MLB these days.

I think over time with more big league experience and a little elder guidance, as Alex Anthopoulos said, Brett will learn to pick his spots a little bit better.

Again, it's not about playing harder ... it's about playing smarter.

In the meantime, if every stadium could just install a ball pit in their camera well, then we could avoid situations like what happened in Yankee Stadium in the future.


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Life in Limbo for J.A. Happ


By
Courtesy of Yahoo/AP
James Anthony Happ; on any other Major League baseball team, he would easily crack the starting rotation. On the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays? Not so much.

J.A. Happ has done everything the Blue Jays have asked of him in Spring Training. And yet he's still destined for life in limbo in Triple A Buffalo. Frankly, I can't blame him for being upset about being on the outside looking in.

The proverbial question this entire J.A. Happ situation raises is "would you rather be a small part of something big, or a big part of something small?" 

If given the choice, would you rather be Turner Ward or Derek Bell on the 1992 World Champion Blue Jays Roster, or would you rather be Ken Griffey Jr. on the  Seattle Mariners in the 90's? If given the choice, I think most would opt for the former.

While he may be a fairly good starting pitcher, J.A. Happ was the victim of circumstance. He was the centrepiece of a 10-player deal prior to the trade deadline, and at the time projected to be the Blue Jays number three starter.

Then when the city of Toronto and Blue Jays fans everywhere were sent into a frenzy after the acquisition of R.A. Dickey, Happ was likely the only man who was less than thrilled with the Blue Jays bringing in a Cy Young Award winner.

That's because in one fell swoop, J.A. Happ went from an all-but-guaranteed spot in the starting rotation to being tagged for Triple A Buffalo. So one can understand why James Anthony would be a little perturbed about missing out on the Opening Day roster.

Right now though, Happ is an afterthought. With the acquisition of three shiny and new stating pitchers, J.A. has been pushed out of the starting rotation. It's unfortunate, but I guess that's one of the pitfalls of baseball as business.

That's not to say J.A. Happ won't get a chance to pitch with the Blue Jays this season. As we know all too well, pitchers frequently get hurt ... so whether it's the starting rotation or the bullpen, J.A. Happ will see time in Toronto in 2013.

There have been some rumblings in the Twitterverse that J.A. Happ should take over Ricky Romero's spot and break camp in the starting rotation. I have to say ... it isn't the craziest idea that's ever been floated across the internet.

Heck, even Jerry Howarth thinks the Blue Jays should break camp on Opening Day with J.A. Happ on the 25-man roster. I say if he makes this team better and he's the best viable option out there, then by all means they should go for it.

The Blue Jays at least have to give Romero the benefit of the doubt and allow him somewhat of a leash to begin the season. However, if he continues to falter as the calendar turns to May, then Alex Anthopoulos should not hesitate to call up J.A. Happ and get him on the zipline from Buffalo to Toronto.

Most teams would be more than happy to have Happ as a mid-rotation starter, but the Blue Jays are fortunate that they have a backup plan ... something Toronto severely lacked last year, as they had to reach back into the minors for several starting pitchers.

Ricky Romero had a disastrous season and yet still paraded himself out there every five days, even thought he was hurt. Ricky was out there on an island all by himself ... the Blue Jays simply had no other options left. Now they do.

This time around though, the Blue Jays learned an invaluable lesson ... that you can never have too much depth. It really does pay to have a "Plan B" in place, and J.A. Happ is the Blue Jays official "break in case of emergency" starting pitcher.

And I guess that's a luxury the Blue Jays have which many other teams don't; they can call up an experienced Major League starting pitcher at a moment's notice. What other club's sixth starter has 96 career starts and over four years big league experience under their belt?

I suppose that's the one thing J.A. Happ can seek solace in as he prepares to begin his season in Triple A with the Buffalo Bisons. It's not "if" the Blue Jays will call this season ... but "when".

Friday, March 8, 2013

Santos or Janssen: Who Has the Leg Up as Closer?


By
Courtesy of Yahoo/AP
Going into Spring Training, it appeared as though Casey Janssen had the leg up on Sergio Santos for the Blue Jays closer role. As far as most were concerned, the job was Janssen's to lose. Now the tables have turned and it's essentially Santos' job to win.

What was once a clear picture going into Spring Training has now become a very murky one. Both Blue Jays closer candidates are on the mend; with the recent triceps injury to Sergio Santos and Casey Janssen yet to face a live batter in 2013, the battle for Blue Jays closer is much closer than it appears.

Before I delve into who has a leg up on the closer's role, let me first give you a brief history of the position from the past few seasons.

The closer role is one that was constantly in turmoil for the Blue Jays. All you need to do is rattle off the names from recent years to understand why there were so many problems: Kevin Gregg, Jon Rauch, Frank Francisco, Francisco Cordero ... need I say more?

With the acquisition of Sergio Santos in December 2011, that all seemed to change. Santos had the potential to be a bona fide closer, boasting incredible swing-and-miss stuff and the best out pitch in the majors.

Unfortunately, sometimes the best laid plans go awry. Santos only pitched in six games before being sidelined for the rest of the season with a right shoulder injury. Luckily, Casey Janssen provided some stability to the back end of the bullpen in the absence of Sergio Santos.

Janssen converted 15 straight saves and was one of the few bright spots for the Blue Jays in what was otherwise forgettable season. Now here we are one year later, the role of closer is still one that's in flux for Toronto.

Sergio Santos looked impressive in his first few outings, but his durability has already come into question. And the fact remains that Sergio Santos hasn't worked in back-to-back games since the first two games of the 2012 season. In fact, he also hasn't pitched on zero days rest since September 5th and 6th of 2011.

So it will be paramount for the Blue Jays to build up Santos' strength so that he can appear in consecutive games before Spring Training comes to a close. I believe John Gibbons told reporters something similar, that the end game was to get Santos working in consecutive games before the team heads north.

As if the situation with Sergio Santos wasn't foggy enough, there are many questions surrounding Casey Janssen as well. After undergoing shoulder surgery in the offseason, Janssen still has yet to face a live batter in 2013.

Casey may have thrown off a mound twice since Sunday, but as we know from the ongoing Dustin McGowan saga ... pitching to in-game batters is an entirely different animal altogether.


I subscribe to Clint's theory that Casey Janssen is not progressing as well as the Blue Jays had hoped he would. Hence the curious announcement by John Gibbons that Brad Lincoln will now be a candidate for the bullpen rather than stretched out as a starter.

Casey Janssen made some encouraging comments on Tim & Sid earlier in the week, something to the effect of "if Sergio closes out games, I want to be the best setup guy in the league ... If Sergio's setting up, I want to be the best closer in the league."

Janssen also noted in that interview he was hopeful for Opening Day on April 2nd, but did not really indicate how things were progressing in his recovery. I'll be honest, the anonymity from that statement scares me a little bit.

In a scenario where both Santos and Janssen were both at 100%, the edge would likely go to Sergio Santos. That's not to discount what Casey Janssen did in 2012, but I think ideally Janssen fits in better as the setup man or seventh inning guy in the Blue Jays bullpen .

Although his swing and miss stuff projects extremely well for high leverage situations late and close, I actually prefer Santos in the closer role. One big reason is because Sergio Santos is susceptible to wild pitches ... his devastating slider is a pitch that lends itself to ending up in the dirt.

So if I'm John Gibbons, I'd rather give the ball to Santos with the bases clear in the ninth in a save situation, and let Casey Janssen pitch to contact in the 8th and let the defense do the work.

Some might be worried that the Blue Jays are down a "closer" per sae, but that isn't the greatest concern. What is alarming is the Blue Jays could be missing a stable back-end arm, a mainstay of the Blue Jays relief corps.

One thing that's very apparent is losing either Janssen or Santos would be a big blow to the Blue Jays bullpen. Luckily, there is enough depth with Brad Lincoln, Aaron Loup, Jeremy Jeffress and even J.A. Happ that at least one of them could occupy the spot.

Steve Delabar could likely step in and fill the shoes of Santos or Janssen, but the greater concern is who would then fill Delabar's spot? It's a true domino effect once you subtract either Sergio Santos or Casey Janssen from the bullpen picture ... let alone both of them.

Ultimately, it really doesn't matter whether it's Sergio Santos or Casey Janssen closing for the Toronto Blue Jays. There may be cache that comes with being the team's "closer", but on a successful team, the role is irrelevant so long as everyone is performing to the best of their ability.

What it all boils down to is whoever is healthier come Opening Day will get the ball as the Blue Jays closer. And at this point with just over three weeks left in Spring Training, it's either man's game.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Heroes of Spring Training Past


By
There are no two words that melt the icy grip of winter faster than "Spring Training". Every February and March, players and fans seemingly emerge from their hibernation and fall back in love with the sport they adore.

This time of the year is also when Spring Training heroes are born. For most however, that's where they remain heroes: Spring Training.

It's already begun for the Toronto Blue Jays as relative unknown Lance Zawadski has made a name for himself just over one week into Spring Training. It wasn't even the end of the first game before people were scouring Lance Zawadski's Baseball Reference page in record numbers.

Unfortunately, Zawadski's time in the spotlight is likely to be short-lived, as Spring Training is the birthplace of many players that fail to see the Major Leagues ever again. For every Jose Bautista, there's a Jason Lane. For every Ricky Romero, there's a Victor Zambrano.

That's why it's so difficult to take Spring Training statistics seriously, because after all ... it's just exhibition. The win/loss records and even the score are almost completely irrelevant. Things don't really start to count until Opening Day on April 2nd.

So as not to get all wrapped up in Spring Training statistics, here are some of the ghosts of Blue Jays Spring Training past.

Their time with the Blue Jays organization may be far from over, but for some odd reason, the impression they made in Spring Training will last forever.

Gabe Gross (2005)

ST Stats: hit .392, 8 HR, 19 RBI

Where is he now? Gabe Gross is the quintessential Spring Training Cinderella story; he looked like Albert Pujols in February and March, only to return back to the regularly scheduled pumpkin when the proverbial clock struck midnight.

Gross tied the Blue Jays Spring Training record by swatting eight home runs the entire Grapefruit League schedule. He then hit just four home runs the next two seasons with the Blue Jays.


Eric Thames (2012)

ST Stats: .359/.408/.578, 2 HR, 13 RBI

Where is he now? The man known as "Chocolate Thunder" who once captured the hearts of many Blue Jays fans is now with the Seattle Mariners.

Thames was swapped for Steve Delabar last July, and Thames is currently fighting for one of the fourth outfield spots on the Mariners. Due to his interesting facial hair choices, I'll always have a soft spot for Eric Thames in the depth chart of my heart.


Jason Lane (2009)

ST Stats: .358/.375/.736, 5 HR, 12 RBI in 53 AB

Where is he now? Although he was the darling of Blue Jays Spring Training in 2009, Lane failed to crack to crack the roster and spent the season in Las Vegas.

Most recently, Lane signed a contract with the Sugar Land Skeeters ... the very same team which Roger Clemens made his short stint for last season.

Jason Lane converted himself back to a pitcher in 2012 and actually ended up the Skeeters team MVP going 9-5 with a 3.17 ERA in 17 starts. Lane signed a minor league deal with the Minnesota Twins in December, but will have to fight it out in the minors as he didn't receive an invite to Twins training camp.


Brad Emaus (2009)

ST Stats: .306/.370/.694, 4 HR, 13 RBI in 49 AB

Where is he now? I remember a time when some pundits thought Emaus might one day be the Blue Jays everyday starting second baseman. Obviously, that never come to fruition.

Brad Emaus spent last year in Triple A Buffalo for the New York Mets affiliate, and now will likely be banished to the desert as the Mets take over the Blue Jays old affiliate in Las Vegas, the 51's.


Via Flickr
Buck Coats (2008)

ST Stats: .343/.395/.543, 2 HR, 5 RBI in 35 AB

Where is he now? While he has a name that lends itself to delivering pizzas or helping estranged women with their pool, he last played in 2011 with the Washington Nationals Double A squad.

Coats tallied just 8 big league games under his belt with the Blue Jays in 2008 and has yet to see any further action in the big leagues since then.


Russ Adams (2006)

ST Stats: .328/.359/.525, 2 HR, 10 RBI in 61 AB

Where is he now? It still amazes me how far Russ Adams' stock fell so quickly. One minute, he was a first round draft pick and the apparent shortstop of the future for the Blue Jays. The next minute he was designated for assignment.

Adams bounced around through the Padres and Mets organization, and retired from baseball as of May 5th 2011. The man who drafted Adams in the first place, J.P. Ricciardi decided to give him a second go in New York, but with lackluster results.


Victor Zambrano (2007)

ST Stats: 1-1, 2.91 ERA in 19.2 IP

Where is he now? Along with Tomo Ohka and John Thompson, Victor Zambrano was brought in as a stopgap in the Blue Jays rotation to start off the 2007 season. The experiment didn't fare very well as Victor only made two big league starts in a Blue Jays uniform before being released.

Victor Zambrano retired briefly in 2009, but then returned to the Mexican League for the Sultanes de Monterrey and Dordados de Chihuahua. Zambrano has not pitched at any level since 2010.


Tomo Ohka (2007)

ST Stats: 1-1, 2.84 ERA in 18 IP

Where is he now? As the second head in the Blue Jays three-headed starting rotation monster, Tomo Ohka not surprisingly floundered in a Blue Jays uniform.

After being released in June, Ohka was then signed by the Cardinals and then the Mariners. In total, Tomo Ohka played for three organizations in 2007.


David Purcey (2009)

ST Stats: 0-0, 1.54 ERA in 23.1 IP

Where is he now? Like many promising young left-handers, David Purcey's fall from grace came pretty quickly. Once the third starter in the starting rotation, the Blue Jays then converted Purcey into a reliever.

Shortly thereafter in 2011, the Blue Jays DFA'd David Purcey and then traded him to the Oakland Athletics. Purcey is currently in the Chicago White Sox camp and has made two appearances in Spring Training.


Dana Eveland (2010)

ST Stats: 0-1, 1.80 ERA in 25 IP

Where is he now? Since being traded by the Blue Jays in 2010, Dana Eveland has amassed 22 starts over the past 2.5 seasons. Most notably, Eveland filled in as a spot starter for the Orioles in the first half of 2012.

Dana Eveland is now playing in Korea for the Kanwah Eagles for the Korea Baseball Organization, where former Blue Jay Scott Richmond is also playing with the Lotte Giants.


Jo-Jo Reyes (2011)

ST Stats: 1-1, 3.52 ERA in 23 IP

Where is he now? We all remember Jo-Jo Reyes 28 game winless streak ... and it must have been an enormous weight lifted off his shoulders when he finally picked up his first win in nearly three years after tossing a complete game victory.

Reyes signed with the LA Angels in late 2012, but they granted him his release so he could play with the SK Wyverns with Korea Professional Baseball.

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