Blanche Showalter Strikes Again!

Upper Deck Insight 21 April 2016 | 0 Comments

blanche showalter

Incredible.  Absolutely incredible.

No, I’m not talking about Josh Thole’s passed ball and Toronto’s brutal loss to Baltimore.

I’m not talking about any moves John Gibbons did or didn’t make.

I’m talking about the brilliant, top-shelf, gold medal performance by Baltimore manager Buck “Blanche” Showalter.

During the 5th inning of last night’s game, Blanche actually fell asleep in the dugout.

Asleep!

This is not Tom Hanks from “A League of Their Own”.  This is not a man who is 85 years old (though he looks like he is).

This is a major league manager.

Incredible.

Stay classy Blanche.

 

The Week That Was: Week 2

Weekly Things 18 April 2016 | 0 Comments

sanchez

Every Monday during the 2016 season, 500 Level Fan will take a look back at the week that was, giving readers a snapshot of all things Blue Jays, including three top stories and the Blue Jay player of the week.

This is what happened in week 2.

Week 2: April 11 – 17

Record: 3 – 3

Season-to-date: 6 – 7

AL East: 4th, 3 games behind Baltimore

Wild Card: 2 games behind Detroit

  1. Aaron “Ace” Sanchez

Remember in Spring Training when many were calling for Sanchez to pitch in relief because he would be more effective?  Yeah, about that….  While Marcus Stroman is the unquestioned ace of the staff (and he proved it further by dominating the Yankees last week), there is very strong evidence that Sanchez is making a push to be considered a co-ace.  Yes it is very early in the season and things can change in a hurry, but the numbers don’t lie.  In three starts Sanchez has thrown 20 IP, allowed only 3 ER, struck out 20 while only allowing 7 walks (and some of those walks can be considered “smart” walks, such as walking David Ortiz twice).  For comparison, through three starts last year he walked 12.  This past week, facing two of the top teams in the AL East, Sanchez was electric.  He surrendered a mere 5 hits and 2 ER against New York and Boston, keeping hitters off balance with a 98-MPH fastball and a devastating curve.  The key concern the Jays have is whether he can hold up over a full season.  If the answer is yes, the rest of the AL East should feel very, very afraid.

  1. Uneven Offense

Through two weeks of the 2016 season, one portion of the Jays lineup is hitting like the offensive juggernaut we expected.  Donaldson, Bautista, and Encarnacion have combined for a .315 / .392 / .616 / 1.008 slash line, 10 HR, 32 RBI, and 28 R.  All three are hitting for power, getting on base (Bautista’s .473 OBP leads the AL), and driving in runs, exactly like they did in 2015.  Unfortunately, the rest of the lineup is not performing.  Actually, not performing is probably an understatement.  Everybody else has combined for a .181 / .247 / .263 / .510 slash line, 4 HR, and 91 strikeouts.  Martin, Colabello, Tulowitzki, and Smoak have been particularly bad, with Tulo’s .128 average leading the pack.  As a result of this, Toronto is only averaging 4 runs per game, a mark that is actually below league average.  If there is any comfort it’s that most of these guys have a long track record of success, so they should (hopefully) be breaking out soon.  After all, it’s not all that early anymore…

  1. Strikeouts Galore

The Blue Jays set a record yesterday, and it’s not one they wanted.  Blue Jay hitters struck out 136 times through the first 13 games of the season, a major league record.  For a team that struck out the fifth fewest amount of times in the AL in 2015 this understandably a concern.  And it’s not just one or two guys – it’s a concern up and down the lineup.  The big 3 (Josh, Jose, Edwin) have struck out 45 times.  Martin and Tulo have combined for 35 K’s in only 84 official at-bats, a whopping 42% K rate.  Justin Smoak struck out four times on Saturday alone.  Logic suggests that as the bats heat up (and they will) that the strikeouts will go down.  Hopefully that happens sooner rather than later.

Player of the Week

Aaron Sanchez, SP

Just a dominating week: 1-0, 13 IP, 12 K, 1.38 ERA, 0.92 WHIP

Kevin Pillar Walk Counter

A new feature that will track how many times new leadoff hitter Kevin Pillar walks in 2016

He is no longer hitting leadoff, but we’ll still track it anyways.

Last week: 0

Year to Date: 0

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 4 – 7, 6th place, 3.5 GB

AA – New Hampshire: 4 – 5, 5th place, 3 GB

A+ – Dunedin: 6 – 5, T-2nd place, 1 GB

A – Lansing: 5 – 3, 3rd place, 1.5 GB

A (Short Season) – Vancouver: season not started

The Look Ahead

Finally a non-AL East team!

April 18 at Boston

April 19-21 at Baltimore

April 22-24 vs. Oakland

Baseball Is Fun Again

Upper Deck Insight 15 April 2016 | 0 Comments

stromanstart

Fact: I love baseball.

I love to play baseball, whether it’s on my weekly beer league team, a simple game of catch, or through my fantasy leagues.

I love to watch baseball.  I watch virtually every regular season Blue Jays game.  I watch a healthy amount of other teams.  I watch the playoffs and World Series, regardless if the Jays are involved.  I even watch classic games.

In short, I am a baseball junkie.

But here is a second fact: for 20 years, Toronto Blue Jays baseball has not been a whole lot of fun – even for a junkie like myself.

Don’t get me wrong: we have had great moments and great players.  Roger Clemens won back-to-back Cy Young awards here, Roy Halladay was sensational, we got to see Carlos Delgado and Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion destroy baseballs.  But every year ended the same way, with me watching the Tigers in the playoffs, or the Yankees, or the Cardinals.  It ended with the Jays either being long out of contention by August (most of the time), or hanging around the fringes of the Wild Card race in early September.

Sure April brought hope, but nobody really, truly believed that Toronto was a contender.

Until now.

Last season’s playoff run was the most excited I have been about baseball in years, and was only surpassed by Opening Day of this year.  This Jays team as currently constructed is very, very, very good, and watching games has become fun again.  There is no longer the feeling of dread hanging in the back of our minds when the Yankees come to town, or when the Jays take a 2-0 lead into the 8th, or when they fall behind early.  Because unlike in years past, we can now beat the Yankees, our bullpen holds that 2-0 lead, and early deficits mean nothing.

Take this season so far.

Toronto’s vaunted offense, expected by many to once again lead all of baseball in runs scored by a healthy margin is scuffling:

– 4.2 runs per game (7th in the AL)

– .224 average (11th)

– .383 slugging (8th)

– .684 OPS (8th)

– 100 strikeouts (2nd most)

– Pillar, Tulowitzki, and Encarnacion each have an OPS of under .600

– Martin and Colabello each have an OPS of under .200

But that’s not all that’s wrong:

– R.A. Dickey is sporting an 8.10 ERA

– Cecil and Storen (two thirds of the back-end shutdown bullpen) have allowed 6 runs in 7 IP

– With Loup and Morales injured, the Jays might be forced to give switch pitcher Pat Venditte high leverage innings

Yet despite all of the above, the Toronto Blue Jays are 5-5, and have actually had a lead in all 10 games thus far.

Think about that.

The team is firing at maybe 50% of it’s full strength, and there is a very reasonable chance that they could be 10-0.

And after the last two games, there are signs that the bullpen (non-Osuna division) is shaking the rust off, and that Martin and Tulowitzki and Pillar are waking up.

So if you think that baseball is fun now, just wait.

Things might be about to get crazy.

The Week That Was: Week 1

Weekly Things 13 April 2016 | 0 Comments

Dickey April

photo from mlb.com

 

Every Monday during the 2016 season, 500 Level Fan will take a look back at the week that was, giving readers a snapshot of all things Blue Jays, including three top stories and the Blue Jay player of the week.

This is what happened in week 1.

Week 1: April 3 – 10

Record: 3 – 4

Season-to-date: 3 – 4

AL East: 4th, 3 games behind Baltimore

Wild Card: 1.5 games behind Chicago

  1. Firing On Less Than All Cylinders

The 2016 season is underway and things didn’t quite get off to the start that the Blue Jays were hoping for.  And for a team that was supposed to slug its way back to the playoffs, it was the offense that was mostly to blame for the rough start.  The Jays managed to score 29 runs in 7 games, but the underlying numbers do not look good.  Toronto left 44 runners on base, went a meager 12-for-54 with runners in scoring position (.222 average), struck out 71 times (10.1 per game), and scored 62% of their runs via the long ball.   For context, last season the Blue Jays hit .286 with runners in scoring position and struck out only 7.1 times per game.  Individually, Tulowitzki, Colabello, and Martin are all off to ice cold starts.  Obviously it is an incredibly small sample size and there is nothing to worry about.  In fact, fans should be encouraged.  The team still managed to win three games with numbers that poor.  Imagine what will happen when the bats wake up!

  1. Rotation Thriving

While the offense is off to a tough start, the same can’t be said for the starting rotation.  Stroman, Dickey, Sanchez, Happ, and Estrada had a very positive first week, pitching deep into games and giving the team a chance to win.  On the surface the numbers might not look great (4.15 ERA, 1.25 WHIP) but they are inflated by one rough start each for Stroman and Dickey.  But even in those games, there were encouraging signs.  At Friday’s home opener, Stroman was electric in the first few innings but was undone by a bad fifth.  On Saturday, Dickey probably had the best knuckleball of his Blue Jays tenure, evidenced both by the 9 K’s he recorded, and the fact that Josh Thole missed several pitches badly.  Even more encouraging for the team was the incredible starts turned in by Sanchez and Estrada, arguably the two biggest questions marks heading into the season.  We all know Stroman will be great and Dickey and Happ will be serviceable.  If Sanchez and Estrada can replicate their first week success all year, things will turn out very well for the Jays.

  1. Bullpen Woes

Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the bullpen.  Roberto Osuna was tremendous in three appearances, but everybody else?  Yikes.  Drew Storen looked erratic, Brett Cecil brought back memories of April 2015 with his struggles, and Arnold Leon was downright ugly.  All-in the ‘pen combined for a 5.92 ERA in 13.2 IP, and was tagged for three losses.  More troubling is the fact that they coughed up a lead in the 8th inning in back-to-back games, especially since the back-end of the bullpen was supposed to be a strength.  But it’s not all doom and gloom.  Toronto’s non-Osuna relievers struck out 17 batters and walked only 4, showing their ability to miss bats.  Once the offseason rust is shaken off, expect a recovery and a return to form (well, maybe not for Leon….).

Player of the Week

Josh Donaldson, 3B

Despite a calf strain Donaldson picked up right where he left off last season: 9-for-29, 2 BB, 8 R, 9 RBI, 1 2B, 4 HR, .310 / .355 / .759 / 1.113

Kevin Pillar Walk Counter

A new feature that will track how many times new leadoff hitter Kevin Pillar walks in 2016

Last week: 0

Year to Date: 0

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 3 – 3, 3rd place, 1 GB

AA – New Hampshire: 2 – 2, 5th place, 1 GB

A+ – Dunedin: 3 – 3, T-2nd place, 2 GB

A – Lansing: 2 – 1, T-2nd place, 0.5 GB

A (Short Season) – Vancouver: season not started

The Look Ahead

Nothing but the AL East again…

April 12-14 vs. New York

April 15-18 at Boston

Not A Bad Start!

Upper Deck Insight 5 April 2016 | 0 Comments

Pillar Catch

photo Chris O’Meara / AP

 

The 2016 season is underway, and the Blue Jays are off to a great start.  Two games, two wins – you can’t ask for much better than that.

I know that two games in a 162-game season is peanuts, but keep in mind that the last time Toronto started a season 2-0 was 2012, meaning it’s not something that happens very often around here.

It’s OK to be excited.  After all, this is a team that faced a difficult offseason, was given a bit of a bad shake in terms of travel (they spent Thursday in Florida, Friday and Saturday in Montreal, then back to Florida for a Sunday afternoon opener), and had to kick off the season in Tampa Bay, their personal house of horrors.

2-0 should be seen as an accomplishment, and here are two things that really impressed me about the opening games.

1.  The Jays won both games by a score of 5 – 3 punctuated by a strong 9th inning from Osuna, but that is where the similarities end.  The wins were two completely different ball games.  On Sunday afternoon the Blue Jays jumped out to an early lead and were never really challenged.  Yes Chris Archer kept them off balance with 12 strikeouts, and yes it was only a 3 – 1 game into the eighth inning, but you never got the indication that Tampa Bay was close.  That’s how good Marcus Stroman was.

Last night, however, was a different story.  The Rays threatened early, took a lead, and even after falling behind 5 – 1 kept chipping away.  They left nine runners on base, finished 1 for 12 with runners in scoring position, and wasted some golden chances in the 6th and 8th.  It looked like a game the Jays really had no business winning.

Last season Toronto finished 30-42 in 2-run games.  They are already 2-0 in 2016.

2.  The Jays won both games despite arguably not playing very well.  Stroman looked incredible, Osuna is dealing, and Saunders is off to a terrific start.  But look at everybody else:

– Martin, Colabello, Goins, and Tulo are a combined 2 for 25

– Donaldson, Bautista, and Encarnacion have one extra base hit

– As a team the Blue Jays have struck out 25 times and only drawn five walks

– They are batting .176 (3 for 17) with runners in scoring position

– Defensively they have already committed three errors

– On the pitching side, Dickey looked wobbly, both Storen and Chavez looked a bit shaky, and Cecil was saved from trouble by another Superman style catch by Pillar.

To see all of the above, and then realize that Toronto actually won both games?  All you can do is laugh.

Because here we are, 2-0.

Just wait until they really get going.

25 Blue Jay Predictions for 2016

500 Level Fun 1 April 2016 | 0 Comments

logo

With Opening Day a mere two days away (!!!) it’s time to post the final prediction column of the year.  In past  Blue Jays prediction columns, I have gone all in on guys like Eric Thames, Colby Rasmus, and Colt Hynes.  Oops, oops, and oops!

So who will be my darling this year?

Here are 25 predictions about Toronto’s upcoming season.  Enjoy!

1. Jose Bautista leads the American League in HR.

2. Troy Tulowitzki stays healthy, has a huge year, and finishes in the top-5 of AL MVP voting.

3. Josh Donaldson continues where he left off in 2015, and joins Tulo in the top-5.

4. Marcus Stroman thrives as the “ace”, reaching the 20-win plateau.

5. Both J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada regress from last year, but while the stats are down across the board they still turn in solid seasons.

6. For the first time in years, Toronto’s bullpen stays relatively stable.  The club uses fewer than 15 relievers (after using 23 in 2013, 23 in 2014, and 22 in 2015)

7. Jesse Chavez is called on to make 10 starts.

8. Drew Hutchison is called up to make 3 starts.

9. Kevin Pillar struggles in the leadoff spot and is moved down to the 8/9 slot by the end of April.  He is replaced by Michael Saunders.

10. Saunders has a very nice bounceback season, finishing with an .800 OPS and 20 HR.

11. After being moved down, Pillar thrives on the basepaths, stealing over 20 bases after the All-Star break.

12. R.A. Dickey throws more than 200 innings for the 6th straight season.

13. The Blue Jays crush the Orioles, winning 14 of the 19 regular season meetings.

14. Edwin Encarnacion hits a home run into the 500 level….twice.

15. The Jays rip off four winning streaks of at least 6 games each.

16. GM Ross Atkins swings a deal for a backup catcher sometime in May.

17. Toronto absolutely humiliates the Red Sox by scoring over 20 runs in a June game in Fenway.

18. Aaron Sanchez struggles in April, but the Jays stick with him and he rebounds with a huge May and June….

19. …including throwing the second no-hitter in Blue Jays history.

20. The Blue Jays offense does not get shutout once, all season long.

21. Roberto Osuna starts the season as the closer, but Drew Storen finishes the season as the closer.

22. One of Bautista and Encarnacion signs an extension during the season.

23.  Ryan Goins starts over 75 games split between 2B and SS.

24. One member of the team posts a 30-game hitting streak.

25. The Jays use a 20-9 September to rally past the Red Sox and successfully defend their AL East title.

2016 MLB Predictions

Around the Majors 1 April 2016 | 0 Comments

Crystal Ball

Over the past week and a half, 500 Level Fan has posted a preview of each of MLB’s six divisions.  Now it’s time to up the ante.  No more “previewing”.  It’s now time to “predict”.

As always, my predictions should not be wagered upon by anybody, because they will likely all be wrong.

The 500 Level Fan predictions will be split over two columns.  The first covers MLB predictions, including final standings, playoff results, award winners, and some miscellaneous categories.  The second will focus on the Blue Jays, with some individual and team predictions.

So sit back, read on, try not to laugh, and get ready to comment.

American League Predictions

East

1. Toronto

2. Boston

3. Tampa Bay

4. New York

5. Baltimore

Thoughts: Defending champs come back with the offense intact, a stronger bullpen, and a deeper rotation – what’s not to like?…..If David Price could make 60 starts I might go with Boston, but he only makes 30.  Not enough to overcome still employing Pablo and Hanley…..The big question in Tampa is can the Rays score enough?  With their rotation, they might not need many runs.…..The bullpen is great and there are intriguing arms in the rotation.  But how much longer can A-Rod, Beltran, Teixeira, Gardner and co. keep going?…..The best part about Baltimore will be seeing how many times Buck “Blanche” Showalter complains about the new dirt infield in Toronto.

Central

1. Cleveland

2. Kansas City

3. Detroit

4. Chicago

5. Minnesota

Thoughts: Cleveland could legitimately have four starters exceed 200 strikeouts, and with Kipnis, Lindor, and Gomes, the offense is underrated…..Kansas City can’t do it again can they?  With reclamation project Ian Kennedy in the rotation, and a bullpen that will be asked to throw a lot of innings again, it’s safer to say no.…..I think Detroit can still win the division, but they need a return to full health from a lot of key players, which might be too much to ask…..I was tempted to pick Chicago to finish first, but then I remembered what happened the last time Melky, Lawrie, and Navarro were teammates in Toronto…..Minnesota surprised last year, and will likely take a step back this year.  But the team is very good, and only a year away.

West

1. Texas

2. Houston

3. Seattle

4. Los Angeles

5. Oakland

Thoughts: If Darvish can come back and be a force, pairing him with Cole Hamels will be the difference maker.  Rougned Odor is the real deal at 2B.…..I don’t foresee much of a regression in Houston, especially with Carlos Correa poised to become one of baseball’s best, but the rotation behind Keuchel might be shaky…..Seattle can contend for a Wild Card, but they need a lot of the black holes in the lineup to go away.  Above average years for Iannetta and Lind are crucial……They have the best player in the world now (Trout) and the best player in the world from 10-years ago (Pujols) but unfortunately not enough of a supporting cast.…..Oakland, as always, is a mystery.  Would anybody be surprised if they lost 100 or won 100?

Wildcards

Royals and Astros

Stat Leaders

HR – Jose Bautista, TOR

RBI – Chris Davis, BAL

Average – Jose Altuve, HOU

SB – Billy Burns, OAK

Wins – Marcus Stroman, TOR

ERA – Chris Sale, CHW

K – Chris Sale, CHW

Sv – Craig Kimbrel, BOS

Awards & Miscellany

MVP – Mike Trout, LAA

Cy Young – Chris Sale, CHW

Rookie – Byron Buxton, MIN

Manager – John Gibbons, TOR

Bounceback Player – Matt Wieters, BAL

Most Disappointing Player – Justin Upton, DET

First Major Player Traded – Sonny Gray, OAK

National League Predictions

East

1. Washington

2. NY Mets

3. Miami

4. Atlanta

5. Philadelphia

Thoughts: It’s a rebound year for the Nats.  Expect another huge year from Bryce Harper, and with Strasburg in a walk year, I think he dominates with Scherzer to form a potent 1-2 tandem…..Expect the Mets to battle for first right down to the wire.  With Cespedes back and a magical rotation, they are poised to do some October magic again……The Marlins aren’t as good as the top-2 and not as bad as the bottom-2.  There also might be a player revolt due to their asinine no facial hair policy…..They got a huge haul for Shelby Miller, but the Braves are still several years away……Philly has some nice pieces, but they haven’t quite finished tearing everything down.  The rebuild is still in progress.

Central

1. Chicago

2. Pittsburgh

3. St. Louis

4. Cincinnati

5. Milwaukee

Thoughts: The Cubs are the best team in baseball on paper, which is often hard to replicate on the field.  But they have a great mix of youth and veteran talent, and the right manager to guide them.  Cubs win!…..I fully believe in Gerrit Cole, and the Pirate outfield is arguably the best in baseball.  They are desperate to avoid another Wild Card appearance…..St. Louis is still good and will have Wainwright back for a full season.  But Molina is wearing down and the losses of Heyward and Lackey will hurt……Joey Votto is still Joey Votto, and the rotation has a lot of good looking young arms.  Sadly there isn’t a whole lot else…..The Brewers still have the best mascot in the game, so there’s that!

West

1. Los Angeles

2. San Francisco

3. Arizona

4. San Diego

5. Colorado

Thoughts: The Dodgers rotation is already decimated.  But they still have Clayton Kershaw, the lineup is solid, and they have a potential rookie of the year in Corey Seager.  They have enough for one more run……It’s an even numbered year, so the Giants will be good, but I’m not sold on either Cueto or Samardzija……Arizona was a busy team and will be much improved.  It will be a real battle between the top three teams…..The Padres are a mess….The Rockies are a bigger mess.

Wildcards

Mets and Pirates

Stat Leaders

HR – Bryce Harper, WAS

RBI – Paul Goldschmidt, ARI

Average – Paul Goldschmidt, ARI

SB – Dee Gordon, MIA

Wins – Stephen Starsburg, WAS

ERA – Clayton Kershaw, LAD

K – Clayton Kershaw, LAD

Sv – Jeurys Familia, NYM

Awards

MVP - Bryce Harper, WAS

Cy Young – Clayton Kershaw, LAD

Rookie – Corey Seager, LAD

Manager – Dusty Baker, WAS

Bounceback Player – Giancarlo Stanton, MIA

Most Disappointing Player – Johnny Cueto, SF

First Major Player Traded – Carlos Gonzalez, COL

Playoffs

American League

Wildcard Round – Royals over Astros

ALDS – Rangers over Royals, Jays over Indians

ALCS – Jays over Rangers

National League

Wild Card Round – Pirates over Mets

NLDS – Cubs over Pirates, Nationals over Dodgers

NLCS – Cubs over Nationals

World Series

In what might be the final year for both Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion they leave the fans of Toronto with the best possible parting gift: a World Series title.

2016 Division Preview – American League East

Upper Deck Insight 31 March 2016 | 0 Comments

AL East Logos

Welcome to the final edition of 500 Level Fan’s divisional preview series.  As usual, we saved the best for last – the AL East.

Defending Champion

Toronto Blue Jays

Past Five Champions

2015 - Toronto

2014 – Baltimore

2013 – Boston

2012 – New York

2011 – New York

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 95.6

Best Player

Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays

It was Donaldson’s first season as a member of the AL East, and I think you can say that he nailed it.  He finished in the top-5 in the American League in WAR (8.8), SLG (.568), OPS (.939), Runs (122), Doubles (41), HR (41), and RBI (123), en route to winning the AL MVP award and a Silver Slugger.  Donaldson also played exceptional defense at 3B, and teamed up with Jose Bautista and the rest of the Blue Jays lineup to form one of baseball’s most intimidating forces.  With the bulk of the Blue Jays returning for 2016, more of the same is expected from Mr. Donaldson in the year ahead.

Honourable Mention: Jose Bautista, Blue Jays; Manny Machado, Orioles

Best Pitcher

David Price, Red Sox

Price was the biggest free agent available on the market and Boston wasted little time in snapping him up.  2015 was another dominant year in his career, especially so in the second half when he arrived in Toronto and helped the Blue Jays end their 22-year playoff drought.  All-in he finished the year with an 18-5 record, a league leading 2.45 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 9.2 K/9 ratio, and a 161 ERA+.  He was named to his fifth AL All-Star team, finished second in Cy Young voting, and 9th in MVP voting.  However, he once again struggled in the playoffs, something that Red Sox fans hope he has a chance to rectify in 2016.

Honourable Mention: Chris Archer, Rays; Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees

Three Storylines For 2016

1. The David Price Factor

On July 30th last year, the Blue Jays were 52-51, 6 games back of New York.  Then they acquired David Price, and finished the season on a 41-18 tear to win the division.  Boston, mired in a miserable season that saw them finish dead last, watched with envy as Price went 9-1 with a 2.30 ERA and 87 K in 74.1 IP as a Blue Jay.  Then they made a bet – a very, very large bet – that Price can replicate that success in a Red Sox uniform.  Boston will essentially be paying Price $1-million per start for the next seven years as they attempt to reclaim a spot on top of the baseball world.  On the surface it seems like a good bet.  The Red Sox had the third worst starting rotation in the AL in 2015 (4.39 ERA) and Price has been consistently dominant for six straight years.  Plus they weakened a division rival in the process.  But a turnaround will be easier said than done.  This is a team that finished in last place in 2012, 2014, and 2015, doesn’t have much behind Price in the rotation, and still has some very toxic players in the lineup (hello Hanley and Pablo).  Can 32 starts from Price really be enough?

2. The Stro Show

There’s no denying that losing Price is a key below to Toronto’s rotation.  But the loss is mitigated by the return of Marcus Stroman for a full season.  Stroman was pegged as Toronto’s Opening Day starter and staff ace for the 2015 season, with expectations of 180-200 innings.  He only threw 27, which in itself was a minor miracle considering the major knee injury he suffered in March.  But this year he is fully healthy, and he is also stronger from his revamped offseason conditioning, and wiser – both from the experience gained pitching in the playoffs, and from the time he spent learning from Price.  Spring stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but Stroman’s 1.98 ERA and 0.73 WHIP in 13.2 IP are highly encouraging.  Would Toronto be better off with Price in the rotation?  Absolutely.  But gaining a full year of Stroman means the drop won’t be as far as many think.

3. Arms Race

This seems funny to say when the AL East features the best offense on Earth in Toronto, and a host of huge sluggers young and old (Chris Davis, Adam Jones, David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, A-Rod, Mark Teixeira, Evan Longoria), but the division is suddenly turning into an arms race.  Take a look around and some of the game’s top pitchers – both starters and relievers – reside in the East:

Baltimore – Darren O’Day, Zach Britton

Boston – David Price, Carson Smith, Craig Kimbrel

New York – Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino, Delin Betances, Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman

Tampa Bay – Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi

Toronto – Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Drew Storen, Roberto Osuna

Don’t get me wrong – it will likely come down to the bats to decide a winner, but it’s interesting how the dynamics are starting to evolve.

Interesting Stat

Aside from the Price signing, the Yankees made the biggest winter splash by acquiring lights-out closer Aroldis Chapman from Cincinnati.  That gives New York one of baseball’s best end-game bullpens with Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Delin Betances – maybe even surpassing KC.  As amazing and fearful as that makes New York from the 7th inning on, the real question is this: does it actually make them better?  The surprising answer might be no.  With Chapman pitching the 9th, that moves Miller to the 8th and Betances to the 7th (replacing the departed Justin Wilson), with a mix of other players in line for the 6th.  But New York was already amazing when leading after six innings last season, posting a record of 66-3 (.957 winning percentage), meaning that the addition of Chapman might only reasonably be expected to add 3 wins.  Further, if they are going to rely on the starters to only pitch five innings, that means the ‘pen will be asked to throw about 650 innings, 70 more than the most worked bullpen tossed in 2015.  Yes the bullpen is now off-the-charts, but it didn’t really need fixing in the first place.

Who Should Win

Toronto

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column in early April.

2016 Division Preview – American League Central

Upper Deck Insight 29 March 2016 | 0 Comments

alcentral

Welcome to part five of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series. Today’s focus is on the AL Central.

Defending Champion

Kansas City Royals

Past Five Champions

2015 - Kansas City

2014 - Detroit

2013 – Detroit

2012 - Detroit

2011 - Detroit

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 92.2

Best Player

Miguel Cabrera, Tigers

Lorenzo Cain has turned into an all around dynamo for KC.  Jason Kipnis is a perennial All-Star in Cleveland.  But ask anybody in baseball, and the answer would be unanimous: Miguel Cabrera is still the cream of the crop in the Central.  Cabrera suffered the worst year of his major league career last year.  He failed to reach 20 HR and 100 RBI for the first time since his rookie year.  He was placed on the DL for the first time in his career.  And his team suffered through an awful year and finished in last place.  But despite having the worst year of his career, Cabrera still topped the AL in batting average (.338) and OBP (.440), posted a .974 OPS, 170 OPS+, and 5.2 WAR.  He also made the All-Star team, won a Silver Slugger, and finished 11th in MVP voting.  Not bad for a down year.

Honourable Mention: Lorenzo Cain, Royals; Jason Kipnis, Indians

Best Pitcher

Chris Sale, White Sox

Sale took a bit of a step back in 2015 after a lights out 2014.  His ERA soared from 2.17 to 3.41, and WHIP went up from 0.97 to 1.09.  But take away an awful April (ERA of 5.32) and he was still the same dominant lefty.  He led the AL in strikeouts with 274, K/9 (11.8) and K/BB (6.52), and finished fourth in Cy Young voting, his fourth straight top-6 finish.  Chicago should be an improved team in 2016, and Sale hopes to lead them back to the playoffs.

Honourable Mention: Corey Kluber, Indians; Carlos Carrasco, Indians

Three Storylines For 2016

1. Can Kansas City Do It Again?

They came out of nowhere and went all the way to Game 7 of the World Series in 2014, but got no love heading into last season, as projection systems pegged them for last in the division.  Then they went out and somehow won the World Series.  The Royals didn’t have a prolific offense (6th in the AL in runs, 7th in OPS, 14th in HR, 7th in OBP), and they sported a weak rotation (12th in the AL in ERA, 12th in Strikeouts, 15th in IP, 14th in WHIP).  What they did have was a dominant bullpen (1st in ERA, WHIP, BAA) and a lineup full of pesky hitters who didn’t strikeout and had a knack for hitting consecutive singles.  Aside from losing trade deadline acquisition Ben Zobrist, they bring back the exact same offense after re-signing Alex Gordon.  But key questions surround KC’s pitching.  Can Ian Kennedy replace Johnny Cueto?  Can Joakim Soria replace the departed Ryan Madson?  And will the bullpen, depended on so severely in each of the past two seasons, finally collapse under the strain of so many innings?

2. Last Chance in Detroit

To say 2015 was a disaster for the Tigers would be an understatement.  They entered the season as the four time reigning division champs, but were plagued by injury and under-performance and finished in dead last with their lowest win total since 2008.  To get back into the playoffs, Detroit went aggressive in the offseason, bringing in Justin Upton to add offense, Jordan Zimmermann to bolster the rotation, and Francisco Rodriguez and Mark Lowe to shore up the bullpen.  Despite the big winter and the fact that many of the players are signed for multiple years, there are many wondering if this is the last chance for a winner in Detroit.  Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Justin Verlander, and Anibal Sanchez are all on the wrong side of 30, and all but Kinsler spent time on the DL last year.  Yes Upton, JD Martinez, Zimmermann, and company are good, but this team isn’t winning without excellent production from that core of aging stars.

3. The Kids are Alright 

While Detroit may have concern over many of their veteran players, there is excitement elsewhere in the division with dynamic young players set to make big impacts.  In Minnesota, the Twins will be looking to build on a surprising 83-win season and have several stellar young players set to make an impact.  Byron Buxton had a rough stretch in 2015 and hasn’t looked great in the spring, but remains one of baseball’s best prospects and is only 22.  Miguel Sano hit 18 HR in half a season and is also only 22, and top pitching prospect Jose Berrios (21) isn’t far off.  In Cleveland, the Indians are stacked in the rotation with Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer both 26 or younger, and they have 22-year old wunderkind Francisco Lindor at SS.  In Chicago, the retooled White Sox (with newly acquired Todd Frazier), have a huge power arm in Carlos Rodon (23) to line up behind Chris Sale.  It’s a good time to be young.

Interesting Stat

Francisco Lindor made his major league debut for Cleveland on June 14, and immediately inserted himself into the conversation of baseball’s best defensive player.  He fell just short of the innings minimum for the Gold Glove award, but one look at advanced fielding statistics tells the story of just how good he was.  According to Fangraphs, Lindor had an Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) of 10.5 and a DEF rating of 15.0 in only 865.1 innings, the best in the AL.  For context, Didi Gregorius was second best in both UZR (7.4) and DEF (14.2) in 464.2 more innings, and Andrelton Simmons was the best in baseball (UZR of 17.3 and DEF of 23.9) in 414 more innings.  Not surprisingly, Cleveland’s rotation ERA dropped from a poor 4.40 from April-June to a very good 3.56 from July-October, coinciding with Lindor’s arrival.  Having him in the field for an entire season will not only help the Indians challenge for a division crown, but will also see him battle Simmons for baseball’s best defensive SS.

Who Should Win

Kansas City

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column in early April.

2016 Division Preview – American League West

Upper Deck Insight 29 March 2016 | 0 Comments

AL-West

Welcome to part four of 500 Level Fan’s season preview series.  Today’s focus is on the AL West.

Defending Champion

Texas Rangers

Past Five Champions

2015 – Texas

2014 – Los Angeles

2013 – Oakland

2012 – Oakland

2011 – Texas

Average Wins of Past Five Champions: 94.4

Best Player

Mike Trout, Angels

No explanation needed, although I will throw out one stat.  Last season Trout led the AL with a 9.4 WAR, the fourth year in a row he has topped the league.  The last American League player to do that?  Mickey Mantle from 1955-1958.  Yeah, Trout is good.

Honourable Mention: Jose Altuve, Astros; Adrian Beltre, Rangers

Best Pitcher

Dallas Keuchel, Astros

Keuchel was a very good pitcher in 2014 (2.93 ERA in 29 starts) so he didn’t exactly come out of nowhere last year.  But to say that he would win the Cy Young award?  Nobody saw that coming.  Keuchel was the rock of an Astros team that stunned baseball by making the playoffs last year, arriving several years ahead of schedule.  He led the league with 20 wins, 2 shutouts, 232 IP, a 162 ERA+, and a 1.017 WHIP, and he finished second in ERA (2.48), and Hits per 9 (7.17).  He was named the starting pitcher for the AL in the All-Star game, and to top it all off he tossed 6 shutout innings of 3-hit ball on short rest against the Yankees in the AL Wild Card game.  It’s safe to say, he will not be catching anybody by surprise in 2016.

Honourable Mention: Felix Hernandez, Mariners; Sonny Gray, Athletics

Three Storylines For 2016

1. Astro Revolution

They were a team that set out on a radical experiment, one that began in 2009 and really took flight in 2011: to win in the long-term by losing in the short-term.  Losing meant high draft picks, which in turn meant a fully rebuilt farm system richly stocked with high-ceiling prospects.  The future looked so bright that Sports Illustrated crowned them the 2017 World Series champions.  But after losing 416 games in the four seasons from 2011-14, the Astros bulldozed their way to 86 wins and a Wild Card birth last season, at least two years ahead of schedule.  They enter 2016 with an amazing core of players both on the offensive side (Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Carlos Gomez, Jon Singleton) and the pitching side (Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Lance McCullers), and brought in reinforcements in Doug Fister and new closer Ken Giles.  The biggest question they face now is how they fare as the favourite.  Will they continue to build on their fantastic 2016, or will regression rear its ugly head?

2. Wasting Trout?

Mike Trout is a generational talent, his early career results leading to comparisons with Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, and Barry Bonds.  Unfortunately for him, the Angels are slowly crumbling from a contender into a pretender.  In Trout’s four seasons he has only been to the playoffs once (2014), and last season LA’s win total plummeted from 98 to 85, leaving them in third place in the AL West and on the outside of the Wild Card game.  In order to get back to the playoffs, the team brought in the declining Yunel Escobar to play third and the all-D no-O SS Andrelton Simmons.  They are hoping that the aging Albert Pujols can stay healthy and still has some magic in his bat, and that Daniel Nava, Kole Calhoun, and CJ Cron can consistently hit big league pitching.  With a “meh” rotation – a clearly declining Jered Weaver, the inconsistent Richards, Shoemaker, and Santiago, and the raw Andrew Heaney – and a very tough division, the Angels are in real danger of wasting another year of Trout’s prime.

3. Is Texas For Real?

The Rangers finished dead last in 2014 and then came seemingly out of nowhere to win the division last year.  Heading into 2016, the roster looks pretty much the same as the one that lost to the Blue Jays in the ALDS – which might be a good thing or a bad thing.  On the offensive side, Beltre, Fielder, Choo, Andrus, and Odor look legit, but the lineup is not without question marks.  The health of Josh Hamilton is a major question, so much so that Texas brought in Ian Desmond, a man with 7.1 innings of outfield experience in his career, to be the starting left fielder.  Cole Hamels is on board for a full season (good) and Yu Darvish will come back mid-year (good), but how will Lewis, Holland, and the rest of the rotation hold up (questionable)? Finally, closer Shawn Tolleson faded heavily down the stretch last year, and Sam Dyson is probably still in shock from Bautista’s bat flip.  This team could be a 100-win juggernaut, or an under .500 basement dweller.

Interesting Stat

After watching the Blue Jays make the playoffs in 2015, the dubious distinction of longest playoff drought is now held by the Seattle Mariners.  For a team that is loaded with guys like Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, Felix Hernandez, and Hisashi Iwakuma, that is hard to believe.  But it is easy to see Seattle’s flaws.  Their team defense was awful (AL worst -7.6 dWAR) and their 1B couldn’t hit (2nd worst .702 OPS).  Acquiring Leonys Martin, Nori Aoki, and Adam Lind will go a long way towards rectifying those areas.  But one black hole still exists: catcher.  Mike Zunino, Jesus Sucre, Welington Castillo, John Hick, and Steven Baron combined for a .159 AVG, .205 OBP, and .464 OPS (!!!) last season.  That is atrocious.  Seattle signed Chris Iannetta, a guy who hit .188 with a .628 OPS of his own last year, to improve the position.  From 2011 – 2014 Iannetta posted an OPS+ of 109, meaning he was an above average hitter.  The Mariners need him to rediscover that form or else another year of Cano and King Felix will go to waste.

Who Should Win

Houston

Who Will Win

Find out in my season prediction column in early April.

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