Short Bench Blues

Upper Deck Insight 24 April 2014 | 0 Comments

Short Bench

Tough night at the dome last night as the Jays lost a very winnable game to an Orioles that has been scuffling so far this season.

There were many frustrating aspects of last night’s game, including the Jays inability to deliver the knockout blow to Chris Tillman after battering him around in the second, but by far the most frustrating was watching a ninth inning rally fizzle out with one of the team’s worst hitters at the plate in a clutch situation.

Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against Jonathan Diaz.  He has been a great add to the team, and was an enormous boost with Reyes out of the lineup.  But he is a glove-first player, not the guy you want at the dish down by two with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth.

So why was he in that situation in the first place?  For two reasons: 1) Alex Anthopoulos’s insistence on having an 8-man bullpen, and 2) some over management (or mis-management) by John Gibbons in the seventh inning.

First let’s talk about the bullpen.  There are practical reasons for having an extra body in the ‘pen, and sometimes it does make sense.  For instance, if a team is involved in an extended stretch with limited off-days it helps to have an extra arm available to burn some innings.  However, the Jays have had every Monday off in April, so with a built-in day of rest each week, the extra arm is unnecessary at this time.  In May, when the team plays 30 of 31 days, maybe.  But in April?  No.

The direct result of an 8-man bullpen, obviously, is a reduced, 3-man bench.  A 3-man bench handcuffs a manager by limiting the number of personnel moves he can make in any given game situation.  A manager is forced to use any substitutions (pinch hitter, pinch runner, defensive replacement) very wisely.  John Gibbons did not act wisely last night, instead hastily burning his entire bench on a single sequence in the 7th inning.  With the Jays down 10-7, runners on first and second, and two out, Ryan Goins stepped to the plate to face Brian Matusz, Balitmore’s lefty specialist.  Gibbons brought in Moises Sierra to pinch hit, playing the righty-lefty percentages.  But that move was immediately countered by Buck Showalter, who lifted Matusz for righty Darren O’Day.  In a game of managerial chess, Gibbons countered again by replacing Sierra with Josh Thole, who promptly provided an RBI single.  However, Gibbons’ hands were now tied, as Thole would have to take over second base for Goins.  Obviously he was replaced by Diaz, and that was that.  There went the Jays bench.

A manager has to manage in the moment, and Gibbons was clearly playing for the tie in the 7th.  He couldn’t have envisioned that Diaz would be thrust into the most pivotal moment in the game in the 9th.  But the reality is that burning three bench players on one play clearly backfired.

I’m not blaming Gibbons for the loss.  We can peg last night on some terrible pitching, and a few untimely double plays.

But it’s a managers job to put his team in the best position to win each and every game.  I don’t think Gibbons did that last night.

But there’s no sense dwelling on the past – it’s time to win the series tonight.

Brett Lawrie – Toronto’s Enigma

Upper Deck Insight 23 April 2014 | 1 Comment

Brett Lawrie

Enigma: a person, thing, or situation that is mysterious, puzzling, or ambiguous

Every so often in Major League Baseball, a homegrown player emerges that causes fans, analysts, and experts to shower them with superlatives such as “once in a generation talent”, “perennial All-Star”, or “superstar”.  Such names include Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, Bryce Harper, and Mike Trout.  The Toronto Blue Jays have been lucky enough to produce two of those players: Carlos Delgado and Roy Halladay.

More common is the scenario where a player is prematurely labelled as a future superstar while still in the minor leagues, and they promptly fizzle upon reaching the majors.  Toronto’s history is littered with players of this mould, players such as Josh Phelps, Kevin Cash, and Kyle Drabek.

But once in a while, a player comes along that may possibly meet both categories above.  This player is a top prospect who arrives in the big leagues and plays well enough to avoid the “bust” label, but not well enough to truly deserve the “superstar” label.  These players are truly the definition of an enigma: mysterious and puzzling, contradictory in nature and character.  Quite often baseball fans and analysts don’t know exactly what to make of these players, whether to celebrate their muted accomplishments or be disappointed in their untapped potential.

The Blue Jays have one of these players starting for them everyday – Brett Lawrie.

The former first round draft pick was acquired by the Jays in 2010 in the Shaun Marcum trade, and made his major league debut in August 2011.  His 43 game cameo at the end of that season was a great success and only served to inflate the ever-growing hype machine more and more.  Lawrie was young, good-looking, energetic, and – best of all – Canadian.  For Canada’s only MLB team, he was a marketing dream.

But since his debut he has been a player surrounded by more questions than answers.  A walking contradiction. 

Consider the following:

Example: A natural second baseman, Lawrie transitioned to third base for the first time in his career and was expected to have a below-average glove in the majors.  However, he has developed into one of baseball’s elite defensive 3B, with a 4.7 career dWAR and +38 defensive runs saved.

Example: He is a power hitting corner infielder who can’t hit home runs.  Every year baseball experts speak of Lawrie’s power and his potential to hit 30+ HR, yet his career high remains 11.

Example: He has blazing speed yet can’t steal bases.  His career totals speak for themselves: 29 steals, 14 times caught.

Example: He is in incredible physical shape yet he can’t stay physically healthy.  Due to a variety of injuries, Lawrie missed 92 games in 2012 and 2013.

Example: He has a fiery personality and plays with a lot of emotion, which is seen as a good thing because it keeps his teammates motivated, but also a bad thing as it can lead to frustrations boiling over (AKA the Helmet Throwing Incident).

Even his 2014 season thus far has been a massive contradiction.  Of the 102 players in the American League to qualify for the batting title, Lawrie ranks dead last with a .135 average, second last with a .198 OBP, and second last with a .495 OPS.  Yet there he is tied for 9th with 4 HR, and T-7th with a team leading 15 RBI, leading to the question:  How can a player be so bad yet so good?

There is, of course, one major caveat when analyzing Brett Lawrie – his age.  At just 24 years of age, Brett is still maturing both mentally and physically, so there is room for him to grow into a better player.

But therein also lies one final question:

Is Lawrie still young enough to become a superstar? Or does the fact that he already has nearly 300 games of experience over four separate seasons tell us all we need to know: mainly that he is who he is, an average major league hitter with limited power and an above average glove?

That’s the thing with an enigma – we may never know the answer.

Three Things From Week Three

Weekly Things 21 April 2014 | 0 Comments

Buehrle

photo from mlb.com

Last week was a Dickensian week for the Blue Jays.  Just as A Tale Of Two Cities begins with a list of contradictions – “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” - the third week of the schedule was stocked full of opposites for the Jays.

It was a very good week, yet a very bad week; very rewarding yet very frustrating; a week full of good news yet a week full of bad news.

Toronto finished 3-3, and while going 3-3 on the road in some very inclement weather is great, they easily could have gone 5-1.  While the team received some great injury news with Reyes, Happ, and Rasmus all returning, they also received some bad injury news with Lind hitting the DL and Janssen being shut down.  And while the week saw some outstanding pitching performances, it all saw one of the worst pitched innings in franchise history.

But still – the Jays are right in the race, which is much better than last year.

Here are three things from week 3:

Week 3: April 14 – April 20

Record: 3 – 3

1. A Welcome Sight

You can forgive Blue Jays fans for feeling a bit antsy heading into this past weekend.  The team was fresh off a double header sweep at the hands of Minnesota.  Adam Lind was ailing and about to be placed on the DL.  Casey Janssen had just suffered a setback in his rehab assignment.  Maicer Izturis, who was off to a great start, hurt his knee and was likely lost for the rest of the season.

But then on Saturday afternoon, came a welcome sight: Jose Reyes back in the lineup at the top of the order.  In two games over the weekend Reyes went 3-for-10 with a double, a run scored, and two RBI, while playing solid D at short and providing an offensive spark.  Melky Cabrera did an admirable job filling-in in Reyes’ absence, but shifting him down to the two-hole gives the Jays a much more potent offense.

Seeing Reyes on Saturday was a great sight for sore eyes.  Now he has to stay in the lineup…

2. BBullpen ProBBlems

If you’re seeing a double B above, you’re not alone  - all Blue Jays fans were seeing far too many BBs over the past week. 

In truly frustrating fashion, the Blue Jays bullpen took what should have been two extra wins and simply gave them to the opposition.  Yesterday afternoon, Aaron Loup took over with a 4-2 lead in the 6th and promptly walked the bases loaded before allowing a game-changing three run double to David Murphy.  The inning spoiled a decent outing by Brandon Morrow and ruined Toronto’s chance for a sweep of the Indians.

But the most egregious performance, by far, was Thursday night in Minnesota, in what can only be described as The Meltdown.  Asked to a protect a 5-3 lead, Delabar, Santos, and Happ combined to toss what was likely the worst inning in the history of the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen.  The trio simply couldn’t throw strikes, with Minnesota batters doing the following: walk, walk, sac bunt, walk, wild pitch, walk, wild pitch, walk, wild pitch, walk, walk, single, walk, stike out, ground out.  In total: 8 walks, 3 wild pitches, 1 hit, 6 runs, 1 loss.

For the week, the Jays bullpen walked 19 batters in 21.2 innings, and have now handed out 39 free passes this season – second most in the AL.  It’s not all the bullpen’s fault, however, as some of the blame must be placed on Toronto’s starters.  The Jays ‘pen has thrown 64.2 IP thus far, as the Blue Jay starters have routinely failed to pitch past the 5th inning.  Only the Astros bullpen has thrown more.  The workload has to be cut down, or else the walk total never will.

3. Who’s the Ace?

When R.A. Dickey was tabbed to be Toronto’s Opening Day starter, he was also asked to be the team’s ace.  That meant pitching like a #1 starter each and every game, carrying a heavy workload, and being the most dependable arm in the rotation.  Through the season’s first three weeks, that job descrption perfectly fits another one of Toronto’s arms: Mark Buehrle.

Thought to be an innings-eating starter who would provide 10 wins and a 4.00 ERA, Buehrle has been outstanding early on, turning in one of the greatest pitching starts in franchise history.  His numbers are ace-like, and couldn’t be further from those belonging to Dickey:

Buehrle: 4-0, 0.64 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 7 IP/Start, 19 K: 5 BB, 2 ER, 0 HR

Dickey: 1-3, 6.26 ERA, 1.65 WHIP, 5.75 IP/Start, 18 K: 15 BB, 16 ER, 2 HR

Earlier this season John Gibbons juggled the rotation to give Dickey the chance to start the maximum number of games.  It might only be a matter of time before he does the same for Buehrle.

Fun With Early Season WAR

Around the Majors 17 April 2014 | 0 Comments

It’s hard to believe, but the 2014 regular season is already almost 10% finished.  Crazy! 

Early on in this young season some teams are surging (hello Milwaukee!), and others are scuffling (here’s looking at you Arizona!).  But the one thing we keep hearing, the one universal caution about assessing performance at this time of year is this: it’s still early.

But it’s never too early to have some fun with stats.  Just this past week, Baseball Reference began publishing WAR for the 2014 season.  Let’s take a look at some early season WAR stats.

Player WAR

Player WAR - BEST

 

The above tables show the best players in baseball in terms of WAR.  For total WAR (which combines offense and defense to provide a full view of a player), there are some standard names.  Mike Trout, Carlos Gomez, Troy Tulowitzki, and Joey Votto are names that you’d expect to see there.  But Juan Uribe?  Chase Utley?  If it was 2008 maybe, but not now.  It will be interesting to see if they have discovered the fountain of youth, or if it is just a hot start.  For Jays fans, Melky Cabrera and Jose Bautista have both parlayed their fast starts into top-20 player status. And how much does it hurt to see Yan Gomes’ name in the top-10?

Offensively, there are no real surprises.  Alexei Ramirez has shown pop earlier in his career, and Dee Gordon can fly on the basepaths.  On the defensive side, it’s nice to see two Jays in the top-10, with Diaz and Goins doing what was expected of them early – contributing with the glove, if not the bat.

Player WAR - WORST

 

The first thing any Blue Jays fan will notice when looking at the list of worst players in terms of WAR is our old friend J.P. Arencibia.  There were fears around Toronto that when Arencibia was let go, that he might blossom in Texas with a coming out season to make every Jays fan wince (see Yan Gomes, Chris Carpenter, etc.).  But fear not!  Wtih a -0.5 WAR, and -0.4 oWAR, Arencibia is picking up right where he left off in 2013.

The biggest shock of the above tables has to be Prince Fielder.  Acquired by the Rangers to beef up their lineup, many predicted Fielder to be a potential MVP candidate this season.  But early on he is actually the worst player in all of baseball.  I have to think that that won’t last for much longer.  Expect to see Fielder, Allen Craig, and maybe Billy Hamilton move up the list in the future.

In terms of Blue Jays, there are really no surprises.  Sierra has struggled in his very limited playing time, and while Lawrie is showing signs of turning things around, he has a long way to go to make up for his rough start.  Bautista has never been, and will never be, an outstanding fielder, but the Blue Jays will accept below average defense for 40 HR any day.

Pitcher WAR

Pitcher WAR

 

Johnny Cueto is tied as the best pitcher in baseball – it’s plausible.  He’s had past success.  But he’s tied with Scott Feldman?  Feldman currently has a 0.44 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, and a staggering 908 ERA+, all amazing numbers.  However, he also has 8 walks to 7 strikeouts, he’s hit 5 batters, and his FIP (a stat to measure fielding independent pitching) is 4.27, meaning he has performed closer to a below average pitcher, and has been very lucky to get where he his.  I will make a 500 Level Fan guarantee that Feldman will be nowhere near the top of the list in September. 

The other biggest surprise comes from the worst WAR list, where potential Cy Young candidate Stephen Strasburg is sitting with a WAR of -0.5.  He is tied with Bronson Arroyo, a pitcher that many Jays fans were practically begging Alex Anthopoulos to sign in the winter.  Good thing he went to Arizona!  Unfortunately, it’s never a good sign when your team’s ace is sporting a -0.3 WAR himself.

 

Three Things From Week Two

Weekly Things 14 April 2014 | 0 Comments

McGowan

photo from espn.com

The 2014 Toronto Blue Jays season thus far can be described with two words: cautious optimism.

Through two weeks the Jays are 7-6, tied for first in the AL East, and looking like a competitive baseball team.  The team has played four series, three of which have come against AL East rivals, including two on the road in Tampa Bay and Baltimore.  That’s a tough start, and the team has handled it very, very well.

Toronto’s series win in Baltimore was particularly impressive.  The team did virtually nothing offensively on Friday or Saturday, and still nearly took both games, before – finally – erupting on Sunday afternoon.  Taking two of three against a team thought by many to be a legitimate World Series contender is huge for early season confidence – both for players and for fans.

Here are three things from week 2:

Week 2: April 7 – April 13

Record: 4 – 2

1. Rasmus is Waking Up

Last week I wrote an early season “Good, Bad, and Ugly” post about the Jays start, and placed Colby Rasmus in the ugly category.  And why not?  Through the first 8 games of the season, Rasmus was hitting .074 with a .315 OPS.  He has struck out 12 times in 30 plate appearances, an alarmingly high rate.  More troubling, he was playing a below average CF, often playing far too shallow and allowing balls to go over his head.

Fast forward a few days, and Rasmus looks much, much better (except for the fielding part, where he was victimized for an extra innings triple on Saturday).  He had three hits against the Astros on Thursday, and followed that up with a 4-for-12 series against the Orioles.  He has homered in three of his past four games and his average and OPS have improved to .217 and .780 respectively.

Colby left yesterday’s game with hamstring tightness, but all indications are that the injury is not serious, which is very important because the Jays need his bat in the lineup.  Now if he can only rub off on Lawrie…

2. A Long (Long, Long, Long….) Time Coming

It didn’t take long for the Dustin McGowan bandwagon to empty.  Toronto’s oft-injured starter was rocked by the Yankees in his season debut on April 4th and immediately had people ranting for his removal from the rotation.  With J.A. Happ ready to come off the DL the McGowan experiment looked like it might be on the verge of ending.

Then he went out on Friday night and dominated the Baltimore Orioles.  McGowan tossed 6.1 IP and allowed 5 hits, 1 walk, and 0 ER, while striking out 2 in a 2-0 victory.  The win was his first since 2008, helping to erase at least a little bit of six years of frustration.

What happens next is still up in the air.  J.A. Happ was recalled from Buffalo, meaning Toronto now has six starters for five slots.  Happ will likely start in the bullpen for now, meaning McGowan is still in the starting rotation, a spot which after Friday’s performance, he fully deserves.

3. No Room for Error

There are those who say that the AL East is no longer the division it once was, that it is no longer the best division in baseball.  The jury is still out out about the latter part of that statement, but about the former there is no doubt – the division is definitely no longer what it used to be – a two team division.   For close to a decade it was Boston and New York and Everybody Else, but now it might be the most competitive division in the game. 

Through two weeks, only two games separate first from last.  It is the only division where the leader is playing worse than .600 baseball, and where the difference between the best and worst run differential is less than 16.  In other words, it is extremely tight right now, and is proving to be a complete division with five good teams.

Of course, the main problem with such a division is one slip and you can drop from first to worst in a hurry.  With a slate of games upcoming against the AL Central, the Jays finally have a chance to play an extended amount of games against teams outside the division, and it is important – no, mandatory – that they take advantage.

Eight Games In…The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Upper Deck Insight 9 April 2014 | 1 Comment

GBU

Eight games into the 2014 season and the Jays are sitting at .500.  There has been plenty to get excited about, plenty to think about, and plenty to be downright worried about.

Without further ado, here is an early look at The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly through 8 games….

The Good

Melky Cabrera

Four straight games with a homer, and his four bombs in the season’s first 8 days have already surpassed his total from the entire 2013 season.  Melky also has 11 hits for a .314 average, and his .971 OPS ranks 18th in the AL.  More important than numbers is the fact that Melky looks happy.  He is energized, he is motivated, he is smiling – all a far cry from 2013 when he was a slow, limping, mopey mess.  He might not be an ideal leadoff hitter, but there’s no denying that Cabrera is raking right now.  Think of how much more dangerous the lineup will be if he sustains this pace when (if?) Reyes comes back.

Honourable Mention: Jose Bautista; John Gibbons managerial moves

The Bad

Team OBP

I thought J.P. Arencibia was gone?  Even without the former catcher’s dead weight, Toronto’s OBP is an awful .286 through 8 games, well below the league average of .324 and good for second last in the AL and fifth worst in all of baseball.  The main problem is that they have only drawn 25 walks, middle of the pack in the AL but with one extra game that many other teams.   That total is a bit misleading, however, as Jose Bautista is responsible for 9 (!!) of those walks, meaning the other 13 players who have registered an AB have only drawn 16 walks…in 8 games.  That is one of the main reasons why 6 of Toronto’s 10 HR have been solo shots.

Honourable Mention: Back end of the rotation; Run support

The Ugly

Colby Rasmus

Many expected big things from Colby this year, but this is definitely not the start he envisioned: 2 for 27, 12 strikeouts, .074 average, .315 OPS.  Gibbons has tried bumping him to second in the lineup to no avail.  He tried sitting him against a lefty to no avail.  He tried dropping him back to 7th in the order to no avail.  Colby has looked lost at the plate, and even looked a bit lost in the field in Tampa before having a nice defensive series against the Yankees.  It is very early, and he has traditionally been a slow starter so there is no need to panic yet.  But things might get very ugly, very quickly.

Honourable Mention: Brett Lawrie; Reyes Injury

Three Things From Week One

Weekly Things 7 April 2014 | 0 Comments

 

Melky

One week of the 2014 MLB season is in the books, and the Jays are off to a middling start.  They have looked at turns fantastic and at turns terrible, but in reality a 3-4 record is pretty good, when the you consider the schedule.

The week started with a four game set in Tampa Bay at Tropicana Field AKA Toronto’s House of Horrors.  Considering that the Jays hadn’t won a series there since 2007 and then lost Jose Reyes one at-bat into the season, a split has to be considered a job-well-done. 

Then to return home and play the revamped Yankees, facing Tanaka and Sabathia?  Losing two of three is nothing to be disappointed about. 

Could they have been better?  Sure.  But things also could have been much, much worse.

Here are three things from week 1:

Week 1: March 31 – April 6

Record: 3 – 4

1. The Melk Man Returns

2013 was a miserable season for Melky Cabrera, so bad that there was some question as to whether he would still be a Blue Jay.  But 2014 is a brand new year, and offseason surgery to remove a tumor from his back seems to have done a world of wonders for the left fielder.

Through seven games, Cabrera has already matched his 2013 HR output with three, after homering in each game against the Yankees.  He has recorded a hit in all seven games, and has a slash line of .323 / .323 / .613 / .935.  His 19 total bases lead the American League.  Even better, he actually looks capable in the OF, after barely being able to move last season.

It’s very early, but Melky’s comeback is already one of the best stories of the season.

2. Up and Down Rotation

It’s no secret – the Blue Jays will only go as far as their pitching will take them.  Through seven games, it looks like it might take them on a rollercoaster ride this season. 

Toronto is 3-4 so far, both in wins / losses and in gems / clunkers.  Hutchison and Buehrle (against the Rays) and Dickey (against the Yankees) all threw absolute gems last week, but sadly Dickey and Morrow (against the Rays) and McGowan and Hutchison (against the Yankees) were responsible for real clunkers.  The numbers speak for themselves.  In Toronto’s three wins, the starters have averaged just under 7 IP per start, and posted an ERA of 0.00, a WHIP of 0.82, and a K/BB ratio of 4.20 (21 strikeouts to 5 walks).  However, in the four losses they have been awful: 4 IP / Start, 11.25 ERA, 2.31 WHIP, 1.55 K/BB (17 strikeouts to 11 walks).

No team’s bullpen can afford to have that many bad starts in such a short period of time, for risk of wearing them out very early.  The starters have to be better.

3. Where Are The Runs?

Starting pitching was considered a weakness heading into 2014, and the ups-and-downs of the rotation can’t be seen as a surprise.  The offence, however, is another story. 

Even without Jose Reyes, one would expect a lineup with Jose Bautista, Melky Cabrera, Edwin Encarnacion, Colby Rasmus, Dioner Navarro, Brett Lawrie, and Adam Lind to score some runs.  But the Jays have only managed to score 22 times thus far.  Their 3.14 runs/game makes them the lowest scoring team in the entire American League.  They only have 50 hits, a .216 average, and a paltry .277 OBP – second lowest in the AL.

With 8 HR, Toronto trails only the Astros in team power, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing, as already the team is starting to resemble last season’s squad who was ripping for the fences each and every AB.  The Blue Jays need to start getting on base, or the runs per game total will be staying low for a while.

Welcome Back Dusty

Upper Deck Insight 4 April 2014 | 0 Comments

Dustin

Judging by the weather  – currently cold, windy, and rainy - you’d never know it, but today is a beautiful day for baseball.

After a long, cold winter, and a (relatively) successful opening road trip, the Blue Jays return to Toronto tonight for the much anticipated Home Opener.  The Home Opener is always an exciting time of year - the dome is packed and rocking, and there just seems to be an extra bit of excitement in the air.  It doesn’t matter that the team is not considered a contender by baseball experts.  All that matters is that baseball is back.

As a bonus, there are three added incentives to watch tonight’s game.  First is that recently retired Blue Jays legend Roy Halladay will be throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, and will likely receive an enormous and lengthy ovation.  Second, is that for the first time since 2003 the Toronto Blue Jays home opener will be against the hated New York Yankees.  Any game against the Yankees always bring extra emotion, but combine that with the added intensity of the Home Opener and you have a potentially explosive atmosphere.  Armed with an expensive roster after a massive offseason shopping spree, the Yankees are actually favoured to win tonight’s game based on odds compiled by Sports Betting Dime.

But the third incentive about tonight’s clash is the most interesting – the pitching matchup.  For the first time, baseball fans will see Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka pitch in a major league regular season game.  Tanaka went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in Japan last year and followed that up with a spectacular spring (2-0, 2.14 ERA, 26 K in 21 IP).  You can bet that hundreds of thousands (or more) will be tuned in from Japan to see their hero in pinstripes.  But for Jays fans, Toronto’s starter brings just as much intrigue, as the Blue Jays welcome back Dustin McGowan. 

McGowan was drafted in the first round of the 2000 draft, made his debut in 2005 as a 23-year old with huge potential, then promptly saw his career derailed by injuries.  In the nine  years since his debut, McGowan has only thrown a total of 400.1 innings.  That’s about two seasons worth of work for a regular MLB pitcher.  But shoulder surgeries, knee problems, long rehabs, and just about the worst luck you can imagine have robbed Dustin of five of his prime years.  In fact, it’s probably not a stretch to say that most (if not all) Jays fans figured he would never set foot on a major league mound again.

But credit McGowan.  His hard work and perseverence shone through last year, as he finally returned to the Blue Jays.  He threw 25.2 innings of relief in 2013, finishing the season with a 2.45 ERA, and over a strikeout per inning.  That late season audition, combined with an injury to J.A. Happ opened the door for him this spring, and he walked right through it.  For a more detailed look at his comeback, check out this excellent piece by National Post writer John Lott.

So tonight when you feast your eyes on the Yankees with their $175-million starter, take a minute to appreciate Toronto’s starting pitcher.  After a long road back, McGowan deserves it.

Welcome back Dusty!

Third Annual 500 Level Fan Reader Poll

500 Level Fun 3 April 2014 | 0 Comments

readers

For the third consecutive year, 500 Level Fan has decided to let the readers – the fine, educated, and outstanding readers – take over.

Over the past two seasons I have polled the readers on anything and everything Jays related, from team and player performance, to potential trades and rookie call-ups.  This year, after the pain of 2013, the predictions are much, much more conservative.

So without further ado, here are the results of the 2014 500 Level Fan Reader Poll.

1. After two straight injury shortened seasons, Jose Bautista looks healthy.  How many home runs will he hit this season, and will it be enough to regain the AL HR crown?

There was a wide range of opinion here.  Some bought into Bautista’s red hot spring, and pegged him for over 40 dingers, while others were more skeptical and predicted in the low 20′s.  Except for one brave soul, nobody thinks he will end the season at the top of the home run charts.

Lowest prediction: 23 HR

Highest prediction: 47 HR

Average prediction: 35 HR

2. Aside from Bautista and Encarnacion, predict Toronto’s top-3 HR hitters.

Far and away, the most popular answer was Adam Lind followed by Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie.  But there were seven other combinations predicted by the group, including some with some faces that I never expected to see, such as Melky Cabrera, Jose Reyes, Dioner Navarro, and Moises Sierra.

Other combinations:

- Cabrera, Reyes, Rasmus

- Lind, Cabrera, Navarro

- Lind, Rasmus, Cabrera

- Rasmus, Lawrie, Lind

- Rasmus, Lind, Lawrie

- Reyes, Lind, Cabrera

- Sierra, Rasmus, Lawrie

3. R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, and Brandon Morrow seem entrenched in the rotation.  Outside of those three, what two pitchers will start the most games?

Seven different pitchers were named by the group, with Drew Hutchison getting by far and away the most support.  Other names mentioned were J.A. Happ, Esmil Rogers, Dustin McGowan, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, and the return of Ricky Romero.  There was also one response that predicted Hutchison and a player acquired via trade would start the most.  

4. It appears that Ryan Goins will enter the year as the second baseman, but there are concerns about his bat.  Who finishes the year at 2B?

About half of the readers believe that Goins has what it takes to last the entire season.  But there were plenty of other responses.  Maicer Izturis was mentioned a few times, along with three players currently in the minor league system: Munenori Kawasaki and Chris Getz (in AAA Buffalo) and Andy Burns (in AA New Hampshire).  There were also two readers who predicted a player from outside the organization would take over at second: one predicted a superstar, while the other predicted Seattle’s Nick Franklin.  

5. 2013 was a nightmare for Melky Cabrera.  Predict his 2014 stats.

Quite the range of predictions for Melky.  In terms of batting average, the group was all over the place, with guesses as low as .212 and as high as .332.  For OPS, there was also a huge range, from .600 up to .815.  Finally, in terms of home run power, there was a massive range.  A few think Melky’s power will return and see him eclipsing 30 HR, while a few aren’t buying it and predict single digits.

6. Will any rooke call-ups make an appearance this year?

The obvious candidates here are Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, and they were named on almost every ballot.  Other names brought up include Andy Burns, Jonathan Diaz (which, of course, has already come to fruition), A.J. Jimenez, Sean Nolin, and Kenny Wilson. 

7. Who will be the first major player traded, if any?

I asked this last season and the nearly unanimous response was Colby Rasmus.  Rasmus, of course, finished the season with the Jays and returns as the starting CF.  This year there was no overwhelming favourite.  Rasmus was once again mentioned a few times, but so were Aaron Loup, Adam Lind, Brett Lawrie, Ryan Goins, R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, and somewhat surprisingly Jose Bautista.  

8. How many wins do you expect from the 2014 Blue Jays?

The average response to this question in 2013 was 92.  Jays fans are more pessimistic this year, but the predicted totals were not as low as I was expecting.

Low: 71 wins

High: 98 wins

Average: 82 wins

Thanks to everybody for fiilling out the ballot.  Good luck with your picks!

Check back for a mid-season update and an end-of-season results column.

Nightmare Start

Upper Deck Insight 1 April 2014 | 0 Comments

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photo from mlb.com

 

Trust me – I don’t want to be negative about the Blue Jays this year.  Last season was hard enough on everybody, and the team enters 2014 with limited expectations but absolutely no pressure to win.

But after watching what transpired on Opening Day, it’s tough to not feel at least a litle bit negative. 

Or a lot.

Everybody and anybody who watches the game of baseball knew that Toronto had the chance to contend in 2014 only if two things were remarkably better: health and pitching.

Well, it didn’t take long for both of those to show serious cracks.

In what sounds like a joke, Jose Reyes lasted three pitches into the first game of the season before being removed with hamstring tightness and placed on the 15-day DL.  You read that right – three pitches.  The early word is that the injury doesn’t appear to be serious and the DL stint is more precautionary, but the Blue Jays are notorious for making things sound better than they are.  Would anybody be surprised if “not serious” equated to a 3-month injury leave?

Then there was the pitching.  Ugh.  R.A. Dickey, who has a dominant career record in Tampa Bay and who was supposed to be fully healthy this season, was terrible.  He lasted 5 IP, giving up 6 ER on 5 H and 6 BB.  Six walks!!  In total, Dickey, Rogers, and Jeffress issued 8 free passes to the Rays, basically giving them the game.

About the only thing that went right for Toronto were the other two positions they needed to improve in the offseason, 2B and C.  Maicer Izturis went 2-for-3 with a run, and Eric Kraatz supplied all of the offense with a 2-run HR in the 8th.  In fact, all three of Toronto’s catchers registered a hit in the game.

The beautiful thing about baseball is that there is a game the next day, so the Jays have a chance to erase Opening Day from their minds (and from the fans minds) and get into the win column today.

But for a team that absolutely needed a fast start this year, Opening Day couldn’t have gone much worse.