To Start Or Not To Start….

Upper Deck Insight 3 February 2016 | 0 Comments

sanchez

Just as baseball players have taken a winter vacation, so, it seems, has 500 Level Fan.  Posts on this site have been few and far between since the Jays were knocked out of the ALCS by the pesky KC Royals, but have no fear my fans – things are going to start picking up around here.

Because, and this may seem hard to believe, it’s nearly time to get the 2016 season started.

Pitchers and catchers will begin reporting to Spring Training in only two weeks, which means it’s time to stop looking back at what happened in 2015 and start looking ahead at what is in store for 2016.

For the first time since 1994, the Blue Jays enter a baseball season as defending division champions, and despite a fairly tumultuous winter off-the-field, they seem well positioned for a chance to challenge again.

But there are still a few question marks, including who will play left field, who will lead-off, who will act as the closer, and most importantly who will earn the fifth spot in the rotation?

Without a doubt Toronto’s rotation took a hit this winter, with the departure of Mark Buehrle and David Price.  But the situation isn’t as dire as many would have you believe, not with a full season expected out of Marcus Stroman, the re-signing of Marco Estrada, and the acquisitions of J.A. Happ and Jesse Chavez.  The top-4 looks set with R.A. Dickey joining Stroman, Estrada, and Happ, leaving the fifth spot open for a battle seemingly between Chavez and Drew Hutchison.  Based on recent performance history, Chavez would seem to have the edge; based on potential, Hutchison gets the nod.

But there is one other man who could, and should, beat those guys out: Aaron Sanchez.

Sanchez has been a bit of an enigma since being called up in 2014.  He went from outstanding reliever (1.09 ERA and 0.70 WHIP in 33 IP in 2014), to inconsistent starter (3.55 ERA and 1.44 WHIP in 11 starts at the beginning of 2015), to the disabled list, and then back to outstanding reliever (2.39 ERA and 0.87 WHIP in 26.1 IP).

The 23-year old Sanchez inspires two schools of thought – those who believe he should be a reliever, and those who are adamant that he move to the rotation.  To be honest, it’s hard to argue with either side.

Those who think he should stay in the bullpen can state the following:

1. He has proven, at least statistically, to be a much better reliever than starter.

2. Once he returned from injury and joined the bullpen last season, Toronto’s relief corps improved drastically.  His presence cemented set roles for the 7th (Cecil), 8th (Sanchez), and 9th (Osuna) innings, that brought stability and overwhelmed opposing hitters.  From July onward, the Jays bullpen was one of the best in baseball.  Why mess with a good thing?

3. Look at the Kansas City Royals.  They won the World Series with a rather pedestrian starting rotation, but a lights-out bullpen.  They needed a starter to get through 5 or 6 innings, and then the game was essentially over.  Ryan Madson, Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland, and Wade Davis shut the door almost every time.

But I tend to side with the other camp, that Sanchez should be a starter, and there are two key reasons why: innings and development.

First let’s discuss innings.  Here are two numbers: 227 and 72.  The first represents the average number of innings pitched for five of baseball’s top starters last season (Zack Greinke, Jake Arrieta, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, and Dallas Keuchel).  The second represents the average number of innings pitched for five of baseball’s best relievers last season (Dellin Betances, Wade Davis, Darren O’Day, Aroldis Chapman, and Jeurys Familia).  Obviously each of those 10 pitchers are outstanding and any major league team would want them.  But the difference between the number of innings that a guy from the first group can provide over a guy from the second is staggering.  On average, a top starter threw 155 more innings than a top reliever!  That is the equivalent of over 17 full games!

Now obviously there are many assumptions baked into those numbers.  Top relievers pitch in high leverage situations so their innings might be considered more important.  Starting pitchers can hit rough patches and the accumulation of innings can’t be expected to be equivalent on a per-start basis.  But the premise still sticks: over the course of a full season a starter can contribute more than three times what a reliever can contribute.

But to have a pitcher contribute 200+ innings instead of 60 innings is only worthwhile if those innings are high quality, which brings us to the second point – development.

It’s very true that Sanchez was inconsistent last year as a starter.  He walked a lot of hitters, had difficulty finishing batters off, and generally didn’t pitch long into games.  But there were many explanations, not the least of which was that 2015 marked the first time that Aaron Sanchez had ever started a game in the major leagues.  Rough patches are to be expected for any young arm, but if given a chance a good pitcher can overcome his struggles.  It can easily be argued that Sanchez was on the road to doing just that.  In his first 8 starts, Aaron average only 5.2 IP per start, with a 4.17 ERA and more walks than strikeouts.  In his last 3 before he was injured, he averaged just under 7 IP per start, with a 2.18 ERA and over twice the amount of strikeouts than walks.  In short, just like so many other great pitchers who initially struggled as starters – including guys like Roy Halladay and, yes, David Price – Sanchez was figuring it out.

But there is more than just “figuring it out” to a pitchers development.  There is also the influence of team decision making.  There are enormous physical and mental differences between being a starter and a reliever.  A relief pitcher, especially a specialist like Sanchez last year, is typically brought in for one inning.  They throw every pitch as hard as they can, generally only throw two types of pitches, and have a mindset that they only need to get three batters out.  A starter needs to know how to pitch, how to change speeds, and how to mix in three or four different pitches.  They must also be prepared to face hitters multiple times in a game, sometimes as many as four plate appearances.

For those reasons it is very difficult for a pitcher to successfully convert from a reliever to a starter.  The act of stretching a player out in order to have him last eight innings instead of one takes time, and having a player go through the process more than once has the ability to ruin his arm.  Baseball is littered with successful relievers who used to be starters (Dennis Eckersley, John Smoltz, Jonathan Papelbon, Wade Davis, Andrew Miller, Zach Britton to name a few), but very few who have gone the other way.  Bouncing a player back and forth often has disastrous results – just ask former Jay Brandon Morrow, who was ruined by Seattle’s insistence that he was a starter, then a reliever, then a starter, then a reliever….

Of course, it all boils down to performance.  If Sanchez starts the year in the rotation and fails, a move back to the bullpen might be career-saving.  But starting him in the ‘pen might mean we never get a chance to find out if he has what it takes to throw 227 innings instead of 72.

I, for one, prefer the former.

It Was A Very Good Year

Upper Deck Insight 6 January 2016 | 1 Comment

2015

2015 was one of the greatest and most exciting seasons in the history of the Toronto Blue Jays.  From the insane displays of power and run production to the transformation of the team at the deadline; from the thrills of winning the AL East for the first time in 22 years to the emotional rollercoaster that was Game 5, 2015 had it all.

Now that we are a few days into 2016, there’s no better time to take a look back at the year that was.  Here is a month-by-month look at everything Blue Jays from 2015.

Happy New Year!

January

Highlight

Jan. 15: Jays avoid arbitration with Brett Cecil, signing him to a 1-year $2.475 million deal.  After struggling early in the season as closer, Cecil rebounds with an absolutely dominating second half stretch, surrendering only 2 unearned runs in 37 appearances from June 21 onward, for an ERA of 0.00 and a WHIP of 0.66.

Lowlight

Jan. 14: Reports surface that the Jays are pursuing Baltimore Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette to replace the retiring Paul Beeston as their President and CEO.  The news is the first in a series of bad faith tactics by Rogers – negotiating behind Beeston’s back – that will eventually lead to the hiring of Mark Shapiro and the exit of beloved GM Alex Anthopoulos.

February

Highlight

Feb. 13: The Jays win their arbitration case against Josh Donaldson, setting his 2015 salary at $4.3 million.  This is a highlight for two reasons: 1) it very well may have lit a fire under Josh to go out and dominate 2015, and 2) the Blue Jays end up paying the 2015 AL MVP $4.3 million, the 220th ranked salary in all of baseball.  Talk about a bargain.

Lowlight

Feb. 26: Newly acquired LF Michael Saunders tears the meniscus in his left knee after stepping on a sprinkler head in Spring Training.  Saunders, the projected Opening Day LF, is expected to miss half the season, but ends up appearing in only nine games.

March

Highlight

Mar. 31: Toronto confirms that 20-year old reliever Roberto Osuna makes the team out of Spring Training.  Osuna becomes one of the youngest players in the big leagues, and morphs into one of the Blue Jays’ most important pitchers by season’s end.

Lowlight

Mar. 10: Marcus Stroman, Toronto’s projected Opening Day starter and staff ace, tears his ACL in his left knee during pitchers fielding practice and is expected to miss the entire season.  Luckily for the Jays he makes an incredible comeback to return in September, but his presence is badly missed during the early portion of the schedule.

April

Highlights

Apr. 6: Drew Hutchison pitches 6 strong innings and both Edwin Encarnacion and Devon Travis homer as the Jays beat New York in Yankee Stadium to open the 2015 season.

Apr. 15: Kevin Pillar makes an absolutely ridiculous catch against the Rays, scaling the LF well in the Rogers Centre to rob Tim Beckham of a sure home run.  It is the 5th or 6th highlight reel play of the first few weeks for Pillar, who continues to shine all season long.

Lowlight

Apr. 27: The Jays blow a 5-4 lead in the 8th and lose 6-5 to Boston, the teams fourth straight loss.  It is the fifth time in 20 games that Toronto’s bullpen gives up multiple runs in the 8th and 9th to lose a game.

May

Highlight

May 26: The Jays beat the White Sox 10-9 on a three-run walkoff bomb by Josh Donaldson in the bottom of the ninth.  It is a huge day for Josh, who goes 4-for-4 with a walk, a double, 2 home runs, 4 RBI, and 5 runs scored, becoming the first player in franchise history with 4 hits, 4 RBI, and 5 R in a single game.

Lowlights

May 1-4: The Jays, who started the season with six rookies, lose four of them in four days.  Dalton Pompey, Daniel Norris, and Miguel Castro are all sent to the minors after terrible starts to the season, and Devon Travis is hurt when a ground ball smashes into his collarbone.

May 17: Toronto loses for the fifth day in a row to fall five games under .500 and into last place in the AL East.

June

Highlights

Jun. 2: Sitting at 23-30, riding a three-game losing streak, and facing ace Max Scherzer in the second game of a day/night doubleheader in Washington, Kevin Pillar hits two home runs in a 7-3 victory, kicking off an 11-game winning streak.

Jun. 12: Drew Hutchison is absolutely shelled in Fenway Park, surrendering 8 runs in 2.1 innings.  However, the Jays rally from an 8-1 deficit to win their 9th straight game.  The highlight of the game is a 9-run 7th inning that sees the Jays score all 9 runs before a single out is recorded.

Jun. 24: Marco Estrada throws an absolute gem in Tampa Bay.  He takes a perfect game into the 8th inning, and finishes with a line of 8.2 IP, 0 ER, 2 H, 0 BB, and 10 K in a 1-0 Toronto win. The perfect game was preserved in the 8th by an insane catch by Josh Donaldson.

Lowlight

Jun. 21: Brett Cecil allows 4 runs in the 9th as the Jays fall to Baltimore 13-9.  Cecil’s ERA soars to a season worst 5.96 and the lefty is removed from the closer role after the game.

July

Highlights

Jul. 28 – Jul. 31: In a frenzied few days, Alex Anthopoulos overhauls 20% of the Blue Jays roster with four stunning trades.  The acquisitions of Troy Tulowitzki, David Price, LaTroy Hawkins, Ben Revere, and Mark Lowe stun both the baseball world and the Blue Jays fanbase, and transform Toronto from fringe contenders to runaway juggernaut.

Lowlight

Jul. 12: In the final game before the All-Star break, the Jays rally back from an early 7-0 deficit in Kansas City, but watch as the bullpen blows yet another late lead in an 11-10 loss to the Royals.  The loss drops the team back under the .500 mark.

August

Highlights

Aug 3: David Price makes his Blue Jays debut at home and tosses 8 dominant innings against the Twins in a 5-1 win.  He finishes with 3 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, and 11 K.

Aug. 7-9: Riding a 5-game winning streak, the Jays face the Yankees in New York in the first of four huge series.  Behind three lights-out starts from Dickey, Price, and Estrada, the Jays sweep the series to climb to within 1.5 games of first.

Aug. 29: Edwin Encarnacion has a game for the ages in a 15-1 victory over Detroit.  EE smashes three home runs – a 2-run shot, 3-run shot, and a grand slam – and finishes with 9 RBI.  Fans shower the field with hats to salute his hat trick.

Lowlight

Aug. 14: In the opening game of the second huge series against New York, the Jays take a 3-0 lead to the 8th only to see Price falter and Aaron Sanchez give up a 3-run HR to Carlos Beltran in relief.  The 4-run eighth inning gives the Yankees a 4-3 win and puts them back into first place in the division.

September

Highlights

Sep. 1: Ryan Goins provides one of the highlights of the season with a 2-run 10th inning walkoff home run against the Indians.  The look of pure joy on his face is priceless.

Sep. 12: Marcus Stroman completes his miraculous recovery from a torn ACL by starting the second game of a doubleheader in Yankee Stadium.  He beats New York 10-7 to extend the division lead to 4.5 games over the Yanks.

Sep. 27: Josh Donaldson hits his third walkoff HR of the season in the home finale, as Toronto beats Tampa Bay 5-4.

Sep. 30: The Jays destroy the Orioles 15-2 in Baltimore to officially clinch the American League East Division for the first time since 1993.  Bedlam ensues.

Lowlight

Sep. 19: Roberto Osuna and Aaron Sanchez implode at home in the 9th inning against the Red Sox, combining to surrender 5 runs and turn a 4-2 lead into a 7-4 deficit.  The Jays eventually lose 7-6, and questions about the strength of the bullpen come back to the surface.

October

Highlights

Oct. 11: Tulo – Part I.

Oct. 14: The Bat Flip.  Boom.

Oct. 19: Tulo – Part II.

Oct. 21: Tulo – Part III.

Lowlight

Oct. 23: Down by one in the ninth inning in Game 6 of the ALCS, the Jays rally and place Pompey on third with nobody out.  But baseball’s most prolific fails to score him, and the Jays fall to the Royals in 6 games, ending the magical season a few games too early.

Oct. 29: In an announcement that shocks everybody, Alex Anthopoulos steps down as Toronto’s GM, citing that the Blue Jays were no longer the best fit.  Virtually all fans of the Jays blame new president Mark Shapiro for AA’s departure.

November

Highlight

Nov. 19: Josh Donaldson is named the Most Valuable Player of the American League, finishing with 23 of 30 first place votes for a total of 385 points, comfortably ahead of LA’s Mike Trout.  Donaldson becomes the second Blue Jay player to win the MVP award, after George Bell in 1987.

Lowlight

Nov. 18: Devon Travis undergoes surgery to repair a preexisting condition in his shoulder and will miss the next 4-5 months.  The surgery ends a frustrating year for Travis, who got off to a great start but then battled injuries the rest of the season.  He is likely to miss at least the first month of the 2016 season (or more) leaving the door open for Ryan Goins to claim the second base job.

December

Highlight

Dec. 3: Ross Atkins is named the 6th full-time General Manager in the history of the Blue Jays. The longtime Cleveland Indians executive who worked with Shapiro for years was anointed ahead of longtime Blue Jays executive Tony LaCava, who was serving as interim GM.  It is Atkins’ first GM job, and he has very, very big shoes to fill.

Lowlight

Dec. 4: David Price signs a mammoth 7-year $217 million contract with the Boston Red Sox.  The odds of Price returning to Toronto were always slim, but his departure stings extra hard by the fact that 1) he joins a division rival and 2) news leaks that Toronto never even offered him a contract.  Fan anger towards Shapiro increases exponentially.

Disaster 101

Upper Deck Insight 17 December 2015 | 0 Comments

Explosion

Well…..this has been a disaster.

In my years of being a fan not only of the Blue Jays, but of sports in general, I can only remember one other time when a team has destroyed so much fan goodwill in one offseason: the 1998 Florida “Fire Sale” Marlins.  That team won the 1997 World Series, then promptly slashed payroll by getting rid of virtually all of their best players, en route to becoming the first defending champions to finish last in their division the following year.

Is that an apt or fair comparison for the Toronto Blue Jays and what they have done thus far?  Absolutely not.  After all, they are the defending AL East champions, a team that came within two wins of the World Series, and they are bringing back virtually all of their team.  The fearsome offense is back, anchored by Bautista, EE, Donaldson, Tulo, and Martin.  The lights out back-end of the bullpen (Cecil, Sanchez, Osuna), is returning, as is most of the starting rotation, led by a fully healthy and much stronger Marcus Stroman.  The team also has confidence and a newly energized rabid fan base.

Or so they should, though one would never think so after reading fan reaction on social media.  After finally breaking baseball’s longest playoff drought, then taking us on an epic October ride, the Toronto front office has since unleashed a series of extremely unpopular and polarizing moves.  Ownership brought in the buttoned-up Mark Shapiro as president, allowed wildly popular GM Alex Anthopoulos to walk away, lost ace pitcher David Price without even trying to re-sign him (to the Red Sox no less), hired Ross Atkins (instead of long-time AA assistant Tony LaCava) as the next GM, hiked up ticket prices, eliminated fan perks such as the Ballpark Pass, made flex-packs less attractive by removing Opening Day as an option, then sat back and watched as the rest of baseball snapped up marquee free agents that could have helped the Jays retain their perch on top.  Fans everywhere became irate.

Of course, it’s still far too early to debate the merits of any of these moves (or non-moves).  Maybe Shapiro and Atkins will make a formidable team.  Maybe the outrageous sums paid to Price, Greinke, Cueto, and Zimmermann will come back to haunt their new teams.  Maybe, just maybe, spending a fraction of the cost on guys like Chavez, Estrada, and Happ will prove to be the better move.  Who knows.  All I can say for certain is that what the Jays have done reeks of failure, and sends a message that ownership would prefer to ride out the wave rather than stay on top of it.

And why is that?  Why are the Toronto Blue Jays suddenly acting like a small market team with cash-strapped ownership?  Because they certainly are neither of the above.

In case you have forgotten, Toronto-proper has a population of about 2.5 million people, making it the fourth largest market in MLB, just behind New York (8.3 million), Los Angeles (3.8 million), and Chicago (2.7 million).  However, if we expand Toronto to include the GTA (which includes Durham, Halton, Peel, and York Regions, and Dufferin and Simcoe Counties), the population swells to over 6 million.  Throw in Hamilton and we are suddenly approaching 7 million, making Toronto the second largest market in baseball, almost double the size of LA.

In terms of ownership, a CNBC post from 2012 identified the 10 richest owners in MLB, a list topped by Charles Johnson, the owner of the San Francisco Giants.  Johnson has an estimated net worth of $4.9 billion USD, followed by Ted Lerner (Washington Nationals, $2,9 billion) and Mike Ilitch (Detroit Tigers, $2.4 billion).  In case you have somehow forgotten, the Blue Jays are owned by Rogers Communications, a corporation with a market cap of over $18 billion USD, annual revenues of over $10 billion USD, and annual profits of about $1 billion USD.  In short, the owners of the Blue Jays are worth four times as much as the next wealthiest owners.

But the ownership structure is the biggest – or only – reason why fans of the Blue Jays have started revolting.  There are two reasons why.

The first, and biggest, is that the Jays are owned by Rogers Communications, the corporation.  Not Ted Rogers, not Edward Rogers, but Rogers.  That is a mammoth distinction.  Mike Ilitch owns Little Caesars Pizza (where the bulk of his wealth was originally generated), but Little Caesars does not own the Detroit Tigers – Mike Ilitch does.  Separately.  If the Tigers want to sign a player, Mike Ilitch says yes or no.  If the Blue Jays want to sign a player, Rogers Communications has to ultimately say yes or no, meaning approvals are likely needed from Finance, Accounting, Risk Management, the Executive Steering Committee, and the Board of Directors.  And while Mike Ilitch’s ultimate goal is to win the World Series, Rogers Communications’ ultimate goal is to increase revenue and appease shareholders.  If that means slashing payroll and trading away Jose Bautista, so be it.  The Blue Jays aren’t a passion for Rogers – they are a small division of a global corporate conglomerate.

The second problem with ownership is the kind of company that Rogers is.  You see, the new trend in MLB is for teams to sign massive TV deals with cable providers, guaranteeing millions upon millions of dollars that the team can invest in itself.  The Arizona Diamondbacks signed a 20-year deal with Fox Sports Arizona in February for over $1.5-billion, a deal which guarantees that the DBacks will receive over $80-million per year for the rights to their games.  Not surprisingly, Arizona suddenly found itself flush with cash and were able to sign Zack Greinke to a huge contract.  Texas and the Angels both recently inked $3-billion TV deals, not to mention the Cardinals, Dodgers, and others.  Unfortunately for Toronto fans, the Blue Jays are owned by their cable provider!  So the odds of the Jays selling TV rights for over a billion?  You got it – zero.

It’s no surprise that teams owned by individuals willing to spend (especially teams rolling in TV money) were the ones to sign Greinke, Cueto, Heyward, Zimmermann, Price, and others.

So combine 1) no potential for a future influx in cash, with 2) the richest owners in baseball operating in the second largest market in baseball suddenly deciding that they need to replicate the way that the Cleveland Indians operate, and you get 3) anger and public backlash.

Look, there is no telling how this season will turn out.  The Jays are still the best team in the division, and I still believe they will repeat.  But my biggest fear is a slow start, and the inevitable tear down of a veteran roster to restock the farm – exactly what Cleveland would do.

And if you think fans are angry now, just wait to see what happens if Tulo, Edwin, and Bautista are the next to leave.

Looking Back At My 2015 MLB Predictions

500 Level Fun 27 November 2015 | 0 Comments

Crystal Ball

If you thought my 2015 Blue Jays predictions were bad…..

Wow.

2015 American League

Look away.  I had faith in the Jays, but apparently way too much trust in Seattle and Detroit.  In hindsight those are really, really, really bad picks.

2015 National League

A little bit better, but not much.  I picked LA and St. Louis to make the playoffs, but whiffed pretty badly on the Cubs.

2015 AL Stat Leaders

All in all, not too bad.  Aside from nailing Altuve, Bautista (RBI), Price (W and K), and Holland (Saves) all finished in the Top-10.  Robinson Cano was not good….

2015 NL Stat Leaders

I consider this a success.  The only prediction that was accurate was strikeouts, but every single player finished in the top-10, with 6 of the 8 in the top-4.

2015 Playoffs

At least my predicted World Series teams made the playoffs! Also, I picked both the Cardinals and Dodgers to lose in the NLDS, so there’s that.

2015 Awards

Officially I got zero, and some picks were really bad (Cano, Norris, Polanco).  But Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw finished 7th and 3rd (respectively) in Cy Young voting, McCutchen finished 5th in NL MVP voting, and Gibbons and Hurdle both finished 4th in MOY voting.  And even though Kipnis and Votto didn’t win the official Comeback Player of the Year awards handed out by MLB, both turned in fantastic campaigns.

Looking Back At My 2015 Blue Jays Predictions

500 Level Fun 27 November 2015 | 0 Comments

logo

2015 was a wildly successful year for the Toronto Blue Jays.  They made huge acquisitions, broke a 22 year playoff drought, came within two wins of the World Series, won an MVP award, and saw attendance explode.

2015, however, was not a wildly successful year for 500 Level Fan.  Check out my Blue Jays predictions, made before the season started, to see just how bad of a year it was.

Enjoy!

  1. Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Josh Donaldson combine to hit over 100 HR.

Result: Nailed it!  The Big 3 combined for a whopping 120.

  1. Both Bautista and Donaldson finish in the top-7 of AL MVP voting.

Result: So, so , so close.  Donaldson, of course, won the award, while  Bautista finished 8th in the AL voting with 82 points, 1 point behind Adrian Beltre for 7th.

  1. Four Toronto rookies finish in the top-10 of AL Rookie of the Year voting.

Result:  With six rookies breaking camp with starting roles for the Jays, I clearly had high hopes.  However, Travis and Sanchez both missed significant time with injury, Pompey spent most of the year in the minors, and both Norris and Castro were traded by July.  Only Osuna lasted the whole year, and not surprisingly earned a 4th place finish in ROY voting.

  1. Devon Travis never loses the second base job, fending off challenges from Izturis and Goins, and finishes with very nice rookie numbers.

Result: Looked good, and likely would have been the case until his second half injury ended his season.

  1. The Blue Jays miss the bat of Melky Cabrera in LF, as Michael Saunders struggles to stay healthy and Kevin Pillar struggles to stay productive.

Result: Half right.  Saunders definitely struggled to stay healthy and appeared in only 9 games.  Pillar was very productive…but in CF.  LF was a bit of a black hole until Ben Revere was acquired at the deadline.

  1. Despite losing Marcus Stroman and being labeled as a weak spot by pundits, Blue Jay starting pitchers finish in the top half of all of baseball in ERA….

Result: Yes sir!  Toronto starters finished the year with a 3.96 ERA, good enough for 12th overall in MLB.

  1. …Mainly because Drew Hutchison has a breakout season, with a sub-3.00 ERA and a 9+ K/9 ratio.

Result:  Oh.  Oh no.  Hutchison was incredibly awful this year, especially on the road.  His ERA finished up at 5.57 and his K/9 was a disappointing 7.7.  A terrible year, one that leaves his future with the club in doubt.

  1. After using 23 different relief pitchers in both 2013 and 2014, the Jays continue to cycle through arms in 2015.  Looking for the best possible bullpen, Toronto once again uses 23 relievers this season.

Result: Very, very close.  The Jays actually used 22 different relievers.

  1. One of those relievers is Steve Delabar, who makes a surprise return to the big leagues in June.

Result: He did make a return to the big leagues, but earlier than expected – in May.  Unfortunately, he didn’t do very well once he was here: 5.22 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in 29.1 IP.

  1. Dioner Navarro is traded before the deadline.

Result: Nope, he lasted the whole year and was a huge contributor, especially his partnership with Marco Estrada.

  1. Russell Martin proves more than adequate at handling Dickey’s knuckleball, meaning that after Navarro is dealt the Jays call up A.J. Jimenez to serve as Martin’s backup, as opposed to Josh Thole.

Result: Every year I fall in love with the idea that Jimenez will make the big league roster, and every year I’m disappointed.  In fact, Jimenez had one of the worst years of his career in 2015, hitting .194 with a .538 OPS for New Hampshire and Buffalo before wrist surgery ended his season.

  1. Jose Reyes plays over 145 games.

Result: Nope.  Reyes only appeared in 116 games – 69 with the Jays and 47 with the Rockies.

  1. After struggling against them for years and years, the Jays finally win the season series against the Yankees.

Result: Absolutely nailed this one.  Toronto went 13-6 against New York, including four very memorable series down the stretch.

  1. Dalton Pompey provides one of the highlights of the season with a 5-hit game.

Result: He did finish the season with a 5-hit game….only it happened with AAA Buffalo.  Kind of got it right???

  1. A year after completely falling apart in August with a 9-17 record, Toronto erases those memories by going 19-8 in the month this year.

Result: They were even better than expected, going 21-6 to fly up the standings and take over first place in the division.

  1. This year’s winner of the “no-name reliever who comes out of nowhere to have a very nice season” award is Colt Hynes.

Result: Oh my.  Hynes only lasted 3 innings in the big leagues, registering an ERA of 6.00.  The winner of this award would have to be Liam Hendricks.

  1. Devon Travis puts up better number across the board than Brett Lawrie does in Oakland.

Result:

Travis – .304 / .361 / .498 / .859, 8 HR, 35 RBI, 3 SB, 2.4 WAR

Lawrie – .260 / .299 / .407 / .786, 16 HR, 60 RBI, 5 SB, 1.9 WAR

Despite playing in 87 fewer games, I think Travis gets the nod.

  1. Toronto scores over 20 runs in a game, twice.

Result: Despite having the best offense in the game, they never did reach that lofty plateau.  They did reach 15 runs on 3 separate occasions.

  1. On Tuesday April 21, the Jays host the Orioles, and Baltimore’s Travis Snider is given a nice ovation by the home crowd, before striking out 3 times against Blue Jay pitching.

Result: Toronto fans being who they are actually booed Snider, and he responded with a 2-for-4 game and only one strikeout.  So…no.

  1. In his comeback season from his steroid suspension, A-Rod does absolutely nothing against the Jays, finishing with 1 HR and a sub .200 average.

Result: A-Rod vs. Toronto = .175 average and 2 HR.  Half right.

  1. The Jays rip off a 10-game winning streak and two separate 6-game winning streaks.

Result:  Again, even better.  The club ripped off two 11-game streaks and one 6-gamer.

  1. A Blue Jay finishes in the top-5 in the AL in stolen bases

Result: Yes!  With 25 steals, Kevin Pillar tied for 5th, 13 behind leader Jose Altuve.

  1.  Mark Buehrle exceeds 200 IP yet again.

Result: So very, very , very close.  198.2.  He had a chance in the finale but couldn’t get it done.

  1. Toronto enters September within 3 games of the AL East lead.

Result: They actually entered the month with a 1.5 game lead in the division.

  1. The Blue Jays clinch a playoff spot during the season’s final series in Tampa Bay, ending a 22 year drought.

Result: Again, even better than expected.  They actually clinched a playoff spot against Tampa Bay but in Toronto the weekend before, before clinching the division in Baltimore.

 

The Offseason…Thus Far

Upper Deck Insight 25 November 2015 | 0 Comments

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It’s been a while since my last post, so let’s jump right in and take a look at a few things that have transpired so far in the offseason.

1. Marco Estrada Signing

It’s always a huge risk to sign a player coming off a career year.  Do you reward him with a market value (or above) contract based on one year?  Is his performance sustainable, or is regression to his normal output expected?  With so much uncertainty, how do you put a monetary value on a new deal?  The Blue Jays have had success with these transactions in the past, locking up Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion after huge years, and those deals look like steals today.  I think the same thing can be said about this signing.  For me, $26-million over two years is a great deal, for both the player and the team.  For Estrada, he potentially could have received a third year in free agency, but more than likely at a lower average annual value.  For the Blue Jays, the term is short, and at $13-million per year (on average), the salary is below market level for an elite pitcher.  And let’s be honest – Estrada was elite last year, finishing in the top-10 in the AL in ERA, WHIP, and Hits/9, and flat out dominating in the playoffs.  Yes he set a career high in innings and could be a regression risk, but he still has an airtight defense behind him so there is reason to expect that he can provide close to the same production.  If he does, it’s a steal.

2. Jesse Chavez Trade

On the surface this is a terrible deal.  Chavez is older (5 1/2 years), more expensive (by at least $3-million), comes with less years of team control (three fewer), and put up worse numbers last year (4.18 ERA, 1.35 WHIP vs. 2.92 ERA, 1.08 WHIP) than Liam Hendriks.  Chavez was also a Blue Jay once before in 2012 and, quite frankly, sucked: 8.44 ERA in 21.1 IP.  But while Hendriks really came into his own last year as a 6th / 7th inning reliever, here is the key difference between the two: 41.  That is the additional number of starts that Chavez has made over Hendriks in the last two seasons, including 26 to 0 last year.  Yes Hendriks pitched well, but finding a starter for the back end of the rotation is much more difficult than a mid-inning reliever (just ask Drew Hutchison).  Going by WAR, Chavez was worth 2.8 WAR in 2014 and 2015 combined, while Hendriks was worth 0.7.  If Chavez can post the same numbers he did in each of the past two years, he is an immediate upgrade over Hutchison and will go a long way to stabilizing the rotation.  It might not be a popular move, but I think it’s a smart one.

3. Awards

Josh Donaldson won the MVP last week, becoming just the second Blue Jay to ever win the award, behind George Bell in 1987.  But to me, what is even more impressive than that was the fact that the Blue Jays were represented on the ballots for every award.  Roberto Osuna finished 4th in Rookie of the Year voting, earning two second and two third place votes.  John Gibbons finished 4th in Manager of the Year voting, including a first place vote.  The Jays placed two pitchers in Cy Young voting, as David Price came 2nd and Estrada finished 10th.  Finally, five Jays earned MVP votes, with Bautista (8th), Price (9th), Encarnacion (12th), and Russell Martin (24th) joining Donaldson.  It marked the fourth time in team history that the Jays have received votes for all four major awards, joining 1985, 1990, and 1991, and it also broke some long gaps.  The Cy Young votes for Price and Estrada were the first for a Blue Jay pitcher since 2011 when Ricky Romero finished 10th.  It was the first time since Gustavo Chacin (!!) way back in 2005 that a Jay has received any ROY votes, and the first time since Cito earned a 5th place finish in 2010 that a manager has appeared on the ballot.  Very impressive.

4. What’s next

Estrada is back and a starter has been added, but there is a lot of work remaining for Tony LaCava and Mark Shapiro.  As it stands now, the starting rotation consists of Stroman, Estrada, Dickey, and Chavez, with Hutchison or potentially Sanchez or Osuna.  Clearly one more starter (or two) would be ideal.  Whether that be from the A flight of starters (Price, Greinke), B flight (Zimmermann, Cueto, Lackey), or the rest, the rotation needs to be addressed.

There have been some interesting rumours floating around that Toronto has been in contact with Cleveland, with names like Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar floating around.  With the Indians in need of an outfielder, names like Pillar, Pompey, and Revere have been talked about as going the other way.  Such a deal would be massive.

Then there is the whole notion of planning for life after 2016.  Key players like Bautista and EE see their contracts end after next year.  Donaldson is arbitration eligible and there has been some talk of getting him signed to a long term extension.  Obviously those are the three most important Blue Jays, so determining their future is crucial.

Baseball’s winter meetings are less than two weeks away.  You get the sense that something big is on the verge of happening.

Free Agency Primer – Part 2

Upper Deck Insight 11 November 2015 | 0 Comments

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Yesterday in part 1 of 500 Level Fan’s 2015 Free Agency Primer we looked at Infielders, Outfielders, and Relievers, and made a guess as to who the Jays might be interested in.  More importantly, we made a guess as to the realistic chances that Toronto could actually sign any of the players.  The result was that even though a guy like Chris Davis, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, or Alex Gordon would look great in a Jays uniform, there is little to no chance that management opens the vault for a non-pitcher.

Especially a non-starting pitcher.

Which brings us to today – a look at the free agent starting pitchers.

As it stands right now, with David Price and Marco Estrada becoming free agents and Mark Buehrle set to possibly retire, the Blue Jays 2016 rotation looks to be Marcus Stroman, R.A. Dickey, and whatever is left of Drew Hutchison’s confidence.  There has been discussion about moving Aaron Sanchez back to the rotation, and potentially moving Roberto Osuna as well.  Any help from the minor leagues is still years away, meaning there are several question marks.  As we saw last year, when the team broke camp with Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez in the rotation, question marks aren’t a good thing.

So who can plug the holes?  There are a ton of starting pitchers available, ranging from the truly elite to the avoidable.  The elite are more than likely out of Toronto’s budget (sorry Zack Greinke), and the avoidable should be…well…avoided (we don’t want a repeat of the Josh Towers or Tomo Ohka debacles).  So who does that leave?

Here are 10 possibilities:

David Price (yes he is a member of the elite, but we will include him anyway)

Pros – elite pitcher; possible 2015 Cy Young winner; by all accounts loved his time in Toronto; great teammate

Cons – price and term will likely be over and above what Shapiro and team will be willing to offer; by all accounts seems to be locked into the Cubs

Interest Level – 10/10.  After the end of 2015, of course the Jays want him back.

Realistic Chance – 1/10.  The only reason it’s not a 0 is because he was already here and there’s a small, tiny, minuscule chance that his time in TO, and guys like Stroman can convince him to return.

Jordan Zimmermann

Pros – 195+ IP in four straight seasons; above average ERA+ in five straight seasons; won’t turn 30 until May; not in the elite tier, so price and term will be more manageable

Cons – numbers generally down across the board last year; never pitched in the AL; still likely to command > $100 million

Interest Level – 9/10.  Not quite an ace like Price/Greinke, but would still slot in at 1 or 2 on the SP depth chart

Realistic Chance – 3/10.  MLB Trade Rumors predicts he will land with the Jays, so there’s that.  It would be nice, but I’m not holding my breath.

Johnny Cueto

Pros – had a great 2015 season and even better 2011-2014 stretch; World Series experience

Cons – fancies himself to be a top-3 arm in all of baseball, which he isn’t; absolutely imploded in the playoffs at Rogers Centre, and in Pittsburgh a few years ago; concern of an elbow injury

Interest Level – 5/10.  While he would upgrade the rotation, I have a hard time seeing the Jays showing a ton of interest after seeing his performance against them at the end of the season.

Realistic Chance – 0/10.  Not after he was destroyed by the Toronto fans in October.

Doug Fister

Pros – was outstanding from 2011-2014; off year in 2015 likely lowers his asking price

Cons – he was pretty awful last year and dealt with injuries; not overpowering

Interest Level – 5/10.  A similar style to Marco Estrada – but if they want somebody like Estrada, why not just bring back Estrada?

Realistic Chance – 3/10.  I would think the Jays make an offer only if they whiff on everybody else.

Marco Estrada

Pros – fantastic 2015 with the Jays; dominated down the stretch and in the playoffs

Cons – career high in innings by far; best year of his career, so regression is a concern; looking for a huge salary increase

Interest Level – 9/10.  Judging by how successful he was last year, there has to be interest in bringing him back (at the right price)

Realistic Chance – 7/10.  He might test the open waters, but there’s a good chance he stays home and sacrifices a bit of money for extra term.

Wei-Yin Chen

Pros – solid and dependable, if not spectacular; consistent ; left-handed; AL East experience

Cons – not overpowering; struggled badly against right-handed batters; Scott Boras client; prone to home runs; comes with a qualifying offer attached

Interest Level – 6/10.  If only because he’s a lefty.

Realistic Chance – 1/10.  Boras will insist on either a high dollar value or a 5-6 year deal (or both).  Thanks but no thanks.

Jeff Samardzija

Pros – strikeout pitcher who showed flashes of brilliance last year and in prior years; dependable – 30+ starts for 4 straight seasons

Cons – let’s be honest – he stunk last year, leading baseball in ER, HR, and Hits

Interest Level – 7/10.  Was last year a fluke?  I’m willing to believe the Blue Jays think so and would be interested in the righty to slot in behind Stroman.

Realistic Chance – 3/10.  It all depends on the market, but the guess is that somebody throws a ton of money at him convinced that 2015 was an outlier.  I don’t think it will be the Jays.

Mike Leake

Pros – young (turns 28 on Thursday); fairly consistent – 190+ IP, sub 4.00 ERA each of the last three seasons

Cons – contact pitcher who is HR prone; low strikeout rates; will likely demand a fifth year

Interest Level – 4/10.  With his age he can demand a bit more than some of the older pitchers, but doesn’t have the track record that screams $80-$100 million

Realistic Chance – 2/10.  Risk outweighs potential reward.

Chris Young

Pros – coming off back-to-back solid seasons in ’14 and ’15; generally keeps the ball in the ballpark; doesn’t walk many; due to his age can potentially be signed to a one-year deal; relatively inexpensive

Cons – age (will turn 37 in May); soft thrower with low strikeout rate; depends heavily on defense (FIP over 1.50 higher than ERA in past two years); hasn’t reached 30 starts in a season since 2007

Interest Level – 6/10.  Mainly depends on the market.  If Estrada leaves and the Jays haven’t added anybody, I can see interest in Young increasing towards late winter.

Realistic Chance – 4/10.  Again, it all depends how the early part of winter plays out, but I can see Young coming on a one-year deal with an option as the #4 or 5 man in the rotation.

Dillon Gee

Pros – he was kind of decent in 2013?; should be fairly cheap after being dumped by the Mets

Cons – has not been very good for two years; only made 7 starts last season before being demoted;

Interest Level – 3/10.  This screams reclamation project, which is not really a thing the Jays should be interested in.

Realistic Chance – 7/10.  For some reason I can’t get the thought out of my head that Gee becomes the fifth starter after the Jays take a gamble on him.  He should be relatively inexpensive with something to prove, and at the very least be better than the 2015 version of Hutchison.

Free Agency Primer – Part 1

Upper Deck Insight 9 November 2015 | 1 Comment

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The business of baseball never stops.

Though most Blue Jay fans wouldn’t mind a month or two to catch our breaths – after the unbelievable high of the second half and the epic Game 5 win over Texas, and the unbelievable low of the ALCS loss and the departure of Alex Anthopoulos – it’s not going to happen.

It’s time to move on.

A total of 139 players officially became free agents after the World Series ended, and 132 of them are available for any team to sign (seven players officially retired).  Nine members of the Jays are in that group (Buehrle, Estrada, Francis, Hawkins, Kawasaki, Lowe, Navarro, Pennington, Price), and while it would be great to bring them all back, it’s obvious that most (if not all) will be gone for the 2016 season.

So what should interim GM Tony LaCava and new president Mark Shapiro do to replace those who are departing?  With the majority of the offense returning next year, the obvious need is pitching – both starting and relief.  But there are other questions as well: do the Jays need another strong left-handed bat?  What will happen with LF? Is there enough depth in the infield?

Jon Heyman from CBS Sports recently posted a top-50 free agent power rankings, listing the most desirable players available.  I thought I’d take a look through the list and see what players the Blue Jays might be interested in as free agents, and what the realistic chance is that they come to Toronto.

Infield

Elite Free Agents: Chris Davis

Next Tier: Ian Desmond, Ben Zobrist, Matt Wieters, Daniel Murphy

With the infield core of Donaldson, Tulowitzki, Travis, Goins, Smoak, Colabello, and Encarnacion returning it doesn’t seem like there is much room for additions.  But questions remain: will Tulo and Travis stay healthy?  Was 2015 a realistic water mark (especially offensively) for Goins and Colabello? Is Smoak’s bat reliable enough to be the only lefty?

13 of the 50 players listed by Heyman can be classified as IF/C.  Several can immediately be scratched off the list, guys such as Jimmy Rollins, Asdrubal Cabrera, Ian Desmond, and Matt Wieters.  But there are a few options that are intriguing, especially these two:

Chris Davis

Pros – premier power hitter (126 HR since 2013); left-handed bat; massive 1.129 career OPS at the Rogers Centre; can play 1B and DH; will only be 30 as of Opening Day

Cons – will be very expensive; would give the Jays a glut of 1B/DH type players (with EE, Smoak, and Colabello)

Interest Level – 9/10.  Toronto should have huge interest in Davis, even at the expense of Smoak or Colabello, as he gives them the left-handed power they sorely lack.

Realistic Chance – 1/10.  Heyman predicts $182-million over 7-years, and other sites have Davis hitting the $200-million range.  If the Jays are going to spend that much, it’s going to be on pitching.

Ben Zobrist

Pros – he can play pretty much anywhere, meaning he could provide coverage at 3B and 2B and even replace Revere in LF; crushes the ball in the Rogers Centre (.915 career OPS, 1.375 OPS in 2015); can likely be signed for a shorter term; switch hitter

Cons – age (turns 35 in May); strong postseason likely increased his demand

Interest Level – 7/10.  The thought of having a guy who can play multiple positions and actually hit is appetizing.

Realistic Chance – 2/10.  Heyman predicts $60-million over 4-years, and I can’t see Toronto spending that much.

Outfield

Elite Free Agents: Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon

Next Tier: Colby Rasmus, Dexter Fowler, Denard  Span, Austin Jackson, Gerardo Parra

Bautista will be back, Pillar seems locked into CF, and with Revere heading into his second year of arbitration, he will most likely return (barring a non-tender).  Plus Dalton Pompey is waiting in the wings.  Seems like a strong group.  But Bautista showed signs of breaking down with injury last year, Pillar came out of nowhere and carries serious regression risk, and the jury is still out on whether Pompey can hit in the majors.

So who’s out there?  14 of the top-50 are outfielders, but none of them seem like good fits.  There are ex-Jays who are definitely not coming back (Rios, Rajai Davis, Colby), older or injury-prone players (Span, Chris Young, Nori Aoki), or superstars who will attract huge money (Jason Heyward, Alex Gordon, Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton).  A guy like Gerardo Parra might be worth a look, but doesn’t offer a huge improvement over Revere and would likely be more expensive.  In a perfect world the Jays would take a run at Heyward or Gordon (interest level 10/10), but the former will possibly exceed $200-million, and I can’t see the latter leaving his hometown Royals (realistic chance 0/10).

Relief Pitching

Elite Free Agents: None

This is where things get interesting.  At the end of the year the Jays bullpen put up pretty solid numbers, but it sure seemed like a wild rollercoaster ride for much of the season.  The ‘pen seemed to settle down after the trade deadline after five guys cemented themselves into key roles: Osuna as closer, Sanchez and Cecil as set-up men, and Lowe and Hawkins as shutdown guys.  In 2016, Cecil might be the only one left, with Sanchez and Osuna possibly moved to the rotation, Lowe a free agent, and Hawkins retired.  On top of that mess, the Jays are short on lefties, something that was exposed in the playoffs when only Aaron Loup was available.  So unless a host of internal guys really turn things around (Loup, Delabar, Schultz, Tepera, etc.), external help is needed.

And therein lies the problem.  Take a look at Heyman’s top-50 and you will only see four relievers.  All four are right-handed and on the wrong side of 30, and all four have had a wide array of success and failure in recent years.  Worse, because they are deemed the four best, each of Darren O’Day, Tyler Clippard, Joakim Soria, and Ryan Madson are going to be overpaid.  Would any help the Jays?  Potentially, but not for a 3+ year deal.

The Jays might be best to look at the next tier of guys, but to be honest none of those names are too sexy either.  The list includes Tony Sipp, Shawn Kelley, Antonio Bastardo, Trevor Cahill, and Blaine Boyer.

Best bet?  Who knows!

Tomorrow we tackle the granddaddy of free agency – the starting pitchers.

 

So Long AA

Upper Deck Insight 30 October 2015 | 0 Comments

so long AA

It seemed like a no-brainer.

It was such a slam dunk that the conversation about what would happen if Alex Anthopoulos didn’t return was never even considered.

After all, this was a guy who created the team that ended the longest playoff drought in North American pro sports.  This was a guy who constructed the roster that made the Blue Jays not only relevant again in Toronto, but across Canada and in Major League Baseball.  This was a guy who almost single-handedly drove revenue through the roof and directly benefited the bottom line of Rogers Communications.

Even more: he is young, he is charismatic, he is energetic, he is Canadian, he is bilingual, and he is devoted.  What more could you ask for?

Yet here we are, only one week removed from a bitter ALCS loss to the Royals, and before we can even catch our collective breath and fondly look back on an amazing season, it’s all gone to hell again.

Classic Toronto sports – one step forward, ten steps back.

The news is still too fresh to fully digest, and the full story has yet to emerge.  It’s easy to take a brush and paint either side with a negative spin.

Living in a city he loves and a place where his kids were born, working his dream job and just being offered a brand new five-year deal, how could Anthopoulos turn it down?  Is he selfish?  Greedy?  So egotistical that he couldn’t bear the thought of sharing even a small amount of power with Mark Shapiro?

From the other angle, how could Shapiro, and especially Rogers, allow this to happen?  The freshly minted MLB Executive of the Year who just led your team to the postseason wants to leave…and you let him?  How do you not do everything in your power to keep him?

Depending on your prerogative it’s fairly simple to be pulled in by one side or the other.  But with everything that has surfaced so far, I don’t know how anybody can take the side of Rogers.  First there was the mess from last year when they tried to replace Paul Beeston behind his back.  Then there was the hiring of Shapiro, a baseball guy, to oversee Anthopoulos, a baseball guy – an obvious slight and a hint that AA requires at least a little bit of hand holding.  Then comes this tidbit from this morning: Ed Rogers, the Chairman of the Toronto Blue Jays and the son of the late Ted Rogers, did not even meet Alex Anthopoulos, the General Manager of the Toronto Blue Jays for the past six years, until this week.  That’s right – THIS WEEK!

It sounds absurd, and the only thing that makes it more absurd is that it’s true.

Alas, what’s done is done.  Alex is not coming back.  Shapiro is not going anywhere.  Neither, sadly, is Rogers.

For better or worse, and perhaps unfairly, Mark Shapiro is now the most hated man in Toronto.  He hasn’t even started his contract and people want him gone.  It is very presumptuous and incredibly unfair, but it’s true.  From all accounts, Shapiro is an intelligent man and a great baseball mind.  He was GM of the Cleveland Indians from 2001-2010, and during that time led the small market and perennially attendance starved Indians to a 795-825 record and two playoff appearances, which in all honesty isn’t too bad for that market and in a division that featured first the Mauer and Morneau Twins, then the Cabrera and Verlander Tigers.

But here’s the thing.  He also led the Indians to three 90+ loss seasons and seemed to be continually attempting to perfect the art of building for the future.  Several times he was forced to sell off assets before they became too expensive to re-sign, and while the return was often good, it took years and years of waiting for it to pay off.  Example 1: in 2002 he engineered the famous Bartolo Colon trade, acquiring Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, and Brandon Phillips.  But neither Lee nor Sizemore made an impact in Cleveland until 05/06 and Phillips never did, shipped to the Reds for a PTBNL.  Example 2: in 2008 he dumped upcoming free agent-to-be CC Sabathia for a package that included Michael Brantley.  Brantley has become an All-Star, but didn’t really come into his own until 2014, six years after being acquired.  Example 3: in 2009 he sent Lee to the Phillies for a package led by Carlos Carrasco, who didn’t become an elite pitcher until 2014.

And that, friends, is my biggest fear about what has transpired these past few days.  Alex Anthopoulos took over the Toronto Blue Jays at a time when they were behaving like a small market team with no resources.  It took him six years to finally convince fans and executives that Toronto is not a small market team, but is in fact the fourth largest market in baseball.  It took him six years to finally convince fans and executives that Rogers Communications is one of the, if not the, richest ownership groups in baseball.  It took him six years to finally convince everybody that the Toronto Blue Jays can afford to sign superstar baseball players, that the Toronto Blue Jays can afford to gamble on transactions the same way that the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers gamble on transactions.  And after six years, the philosophy paid off with an AL East title and a mere two wins from a World Series appearance.

Now he’s gone, and in his place running the show is a guy renowned for making decisions in a small market, a guy renowned for getting by with limited resources and always keeping the farm stocked for next year.  The only problem, of course, is that next year very rarely arrived for the Indians.  By the time the prospects he stockpiled were ready to make an impact, they had one year to do so before being traded away (usually in their primes) to a team with bigger pockets.  It’s no fault of Shapiro – he was simply handcuffed by his market and his ownership.

With over $12.5 billion in annual revenues, Rogers definitely does not have small pockets, but being corporate owners (don’t even get me started on that – that’s an entirely different post), they would love nothing more than to act like small market owners.  A dollar saved on the Jays is a dollar earned for shareholders.  Who better to bring in and run such an operation?  Mark Shapiro.

So what now?  What happens in the offseason?  My guess is definitely no David Price, likely no Marco Estrada, and certainly no big left-handed bat that we desperately need (i.e. Chris Davis or Jason Heyward).  What happens if the team is scuffling along in May or June?  Does Shapiro look to the future and deal Bautista or Encarnacion or Tulowitzki or Donaldson (or all of them) for a return of blue chip prospects that may become elite players in 2021?  Does he make it his #1 priority to rebuild the farm system, even at a time when five of the best players in all of baseball currently reside on the major league roster?

In a perfect world, these fears will be unfounded and Shapiro will continue to lead the team with a goal of winning the 2016 World Series.

But a perfect world doesn’t exit.

Because in a perfect world, Alex Anthopoulos would still be a Toronto Blue Jay.

A Season of Success

Upper Deck Insight 27 October 2015 | 0 Comments

epic bau

It all started last November, and eleven months later – almost to the day – it ended in a sudden, crashing, painful instant.

Though pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in February and Opening Day was on April 6th, the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays season officially started on November 28, 2014.  It was on that date that Alex Anthopoulos shocked the baseball world by acquiring potential-MVP candidate Josh Donaldson from the Oakland A’s for a package of players led by Brett Lawrie.

329 days later that same player (though now the probable MVP) grounded to third base to end the season that he kicked off, one of the wildest, craziest, and most entertaining seasons in the history of the franchise.

In between, the Blue Jays experienced some of the lowest lows and highest highs in their history, re-energized both a city and a country, and re-acquainted themselves with both the Major League Baseball spotlight and with postseason baseball for the first time in 22 years.  The team transformed itself into a juggernaut and tore its way through the second half, something that would have been a dream in March, and seemed unimaginable in the depths of despair that was May.

There were so many things that stuck out about the 2015 Blue Jays.  There was the offense that blew away opposing teams and led baseball in runs scored by a country mile.  There was the emergence of rookies in the bullpen who pitched well beyond their years.  There was the thunder in the middle of the lineup, the renaissance of R.A. Dickey, the trades, the second half, and on and on.  But the most telling stat of the season has to be this: 0.

That is the number of times the Blue Jays were able to field their full starting lineup this season.

Remember back in March, when Toronto’s anticipated lineup consisted of Bautista, Pompey, and Saunders in the outfield, and Donaldson, Reyes, Travis, Encarnacion, Martin, and Smoak in the infield and DH?  They never played together – not even once.  Saunders was hurt to start the season, and when he came back Bautista was hurt, and when he came back Reyes went down.  Then Saunders went down again, and so did Travis.

So AA went out in July and brought in Revere and Tulo, who along with Pillar, replaced Reyes, Saunders, and Pompey.  But still, even after the reinforcements arrived, not even that lineup could make the field as a unit.  Devon Travis was injured the day before Tulowitzki arrived, forcing even more changes.

All of which meant that John Gibbons was forced to juggle his lineup before a single pitch was even thrown, before a single inning was even played, and he continued to do so flawlessly all year.  Every team experiences injuries, but this is a team that at various points of the season lost Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki, Devon Travis, and Michael Saunders – yet still dominated offensively.  And think about what else the Jays had to overcome:

This is a team that lost its best starting pitcher in spring training to a torn ACL, effectively ending his season (or so we thought) before it even began.

This is a team that broke camp with six rookies in important roles on the roster, yet saw three of them flame out spectacularly, and two more deal with significant injuries.  Two of the six wouldn’t even be with the organization by August.

This is a team whose Opening Day starter turned in one of the worst seasons in all of baseball, including historically awful numbers on the road.

This is a team that was forced to turn to a guy in LF (and then CF) with terrible career numbers and who was banished to the minors last year for attitude issues, and hope that he developed into a serviceable big leaguer (hint: he did).

This is a team who burned through two closers before the season was even a few weeks old, and who used 28 pitchers in total, a number so high not due to injury but due to general ineffectiveness.

Yet somehow, this is also a team that surprised baseball and captured the hearts of fans all across Canada by winning the American League East in dominating fashion.  This is a team that inspired Canadians from coast-to-coast in September – a time when most are eagerly anticipating the start of hockey season – to cast aside their thoughts of the Canucks and Senators and instead focus on the boys in blue.  It didn’t matter the market, be it Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Ottawa, and, yes, even Montreal – this is a team that reignited baseball passion in this country.

There are many amazing stories that took place this past season, and many were about redemption.

There was Marcus Stroman making a miraculous comeback from that torn ACL to go 4-0 down the stretch, and then pitch incredibly in the playoffs.

There was Kevin Pillar (the guy who was banished and had bad numbers) developing into one of the premier CF in all of baseball.  He should win a Gold Glove for his defense, and he proved he could also hit by finishing the season with a .278 average, 12 HR, 25 SB, and 76 R.

There was R.A. Dickey – already vilified in this city for having the nerve to be acquired for d’Arnaud and Syndergaard – going 8-1 with a 2.80 ERA in his last 15 starts to stabilize an often erratic rotation.

And most of all there was John Gibbons, the skipper, the man whose head was being demanded by fans and media on a weekly – no, daily – basis, sticking to his plan and leading the team to glory.

The season didn’t end the way everybody wanted.  There will be no World Series banner hanging above the Jumbotron.  There will be no parade downtown Toronto.

But even though the final goal proved unattainable, the season was a smashing success.  When the smoke clears and the cold, dark winter arrives, it won’t be the near misses or what-ifs that fans look back on.  We won’t wonder if things would have been different if Goins caught that pop up, if the Amish Royals fan didn’t reach over the fence, or if the pitch to Revere was called a ball.

No.

What will be remembered is the ear-crushing volume of a sold-out Rogers Centre.

What will be remembered is a huge smile on the face of Ben Revere, or a diving catch by Kevin Pillar, or the look of awe on the face of David Price as Ryan Goins makes an incredible play at short.

What will be remembered is the Bautista bat flip.

What will be remembered is the on-field embrace between Gibbons and Anthopoulos minutes after the AL East was clinched, and minutes before chaos erupted in the locker room.

This will be remembered as a season for the ages.

I can’t wait for 2016.

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