Loss of a Legend

Where do I even start?

Back in October of ’85, when he was the first to meet a kneeling George Bell in left field, Toronto’s first AL East title finally secured?

Maybe October of ’89, his 2-run double in the fourth inning giving the Blue Jays the lead in the first playoff game ever hosted at SkyDome, a game doubling as my first ever in-person playoff game.

Or there was the devastating moment, that feeling of anger, frustration, and sadness in December of 1990 when he was packaged with Fred McGriff and sent to San Diego for Alomar and Carter. Or the feeling of pure elation when Mike Timlin fielded that bunt to finally crown the Jays World Series Champions, yet elation mixed with a tinge of regret knowing that he wasn’t a part of the celebration.

How about June 1993 and his triumphant return to Toronto, reclaiming his natural spot at short in the Dome’s infield? Or his sensational 5-RBI night in Game 4 of the World Series that put the Jays on the precipice of a repeat? Or the sight of him helping Joe Carter to his feet after the home run hero emerged from a dog pile at home plate?

All are worthy memories. All hold a special plate in my heart.

But when Octavio Antonio Fernandez, better known as Tony to a legion of Jays fans in the 1980’s, sadly passed away last weekend at the age of 57, none of those came to mind first.

I have spent countless hours these past few days reading tribute after tribute to Tony, and all share one common thread: his inspiration of an entire generation of Canadian baseball youth. Indeed, that is exactly where my mind went when I heard the sad news: my 8-year old self, feet firmly planted at shortstop on my house league team. Fielding grounders (mostly clean!) and trying with all my might to fire the ball underhand to first, that famous Tony-esque delivery that looked so easy but was anything but.

I was by no means a natural athlete as a kid. I was skinny, had zero power, couldn’t run fast, had very little arm strength. But I was a massive Jays fan, and seeing Tony play the game inspired me that maybe, just maybe, I could play it as well. He was skinny; he looked nothing like those behemoth sluggers who ruled the late ’80’s (the McGwire’s and Canseco’s). But man could he glide in the field. He was easily the most gifted, most natural, most awe-inspiring defender I had (or have) ever seen.

That 1989 Blue Jays team went on a crazy run in the second half of the season to catch and then surpass the Orioles and win the division. That winter, a commemorative video titled “Sky High: The Story of the 1989 Toronto Blue Jays” was released on VHS, and to say I wore that tape out would be an understatement. There is a clip in the video that focuses on Tony and his fielding ability, one that produces one of my most memorable baseball quotes of all time: “I like to field ground balls.”

It’s a simple six-word sentence, but one that always perfectly captured Tony Fernandez. He exuded nothing but pure joy when he played the game of baseball.

His tenure with the Blue Jays almost perfectly aligned with my devotion to the team when I was younger. I was a massive fan from my first baseball memories in ’85 through the 1993 World Series triumph. My interest started to wane a bit in 1994 and 1995 but it wasn’t the players strike or the Blue Jays struggles that were to blame. No, it was the fact that Tony was no longer there, no longer patrolling the infield and delivering timely hits. Instead he was wandering the baseball wilderness, and although he did have some success in Cincinnati, New York, and Cleveland, it wasn’t until his return in 1998 that my attention was captured once again. I’ll never forget a 37-year old Fernandez in 1999 making one of the most unlikely assaults on .400 in baseball history, still sitting with an average above that magical mark near the end of June. It was the perfect culmination of his career, one last out-of-nowhere All-Star appearance.

As corny as it sounds, I feel like I owe my love for the game to Tony. He has always been and (will always be) my favourite player. I own several Jays jerseys, but only one has a name and number: a powder blue #1 Fernandez shirt. I have only one sports autograph – a photo signed by Tony himself. His smiling, celebrating face has been my Twitter avatar for a decade.

At 57 he’s gone way too soon. But in the short time he was here he left an indelible mark on so many, myself included.

And though I never made the majors (missed out by just a little bit – my .240 average in Whitby house league didn’t quite make the cut), every game of catch I play to this day still starts and ends with a few Tony flips.

Always has.

And always will.

The past has never felt so far

On Monday July 27, 2015, the Toronto Blue Jays were a middling baseball team in the midst of a 22-year postseason drought. They had just suffered a gut wrenching 6-5 walk-off loss in Seattle to drop to 50-50 on the season, 6.5 games back of first place and seemingly destined towards another dark October.

But then came crazy news, news that blew up Twitter and made Jays fans giddy. In four wild, spectacular, and mind-blowing days, GM Alex Anthopoulos swung for the fences and made four separate trades. Ben Revere and solid reliever Mark Lowe were great pick-ups, but the acquisition of two legitimate superstars had fans across the nation pinching themselves. Troy Tulowitzki and David Price! David Price and Troy Tulowitzki! What was happening??!?!?!?

Of course, Jays fans know the rest of the story. The team went on a 43-19 tear, won the AL East for the first time since 1993, and rolled all the way to Game 6 of the ALCS. It was the rebirth of baseball in Toronto. The Blue Jays were back on the MLB map, and seemed set to contend for years to come.

My-oh-my do those days seem very, very long ago. Price left that offseason, and after a return to the ALCS in 2016, the bottom fell out. Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, R.A. Dickey, Josh Donaldson – gone, gone, gone. With Sunday’s trade of Marcus Stroman to the New York Mets, all that remains of those teams that promised so, so much are Justin Smoak, Aaron Sanchez, and Ryan Tepera (and who knows if Smoak and Sanchy will still be Blue Jays by the end of the week).

As a fanbase, Toronto loves to live in the past. Perhaps it’s in our nature to remember things fondly and not want to let go. Perhaps years of perpetual losing has conditioned us that good times are never ahead, only behind. For years, we all ignored what was happening in front us, instead letting our minds drift to the days of Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh, and Robbie Alomar and Joe Carter. Slowly, however, this has been changing. The Raptors are NBA Champions (!!!), the Leafs have a young core of Matthews and Marner, and the Jays…..well, then there’s the Jays.

Marcus Stroman was a rare player, one who was both a dominant force in today’s MLB, but also a bridge to the not-so-distant past. Who can forget when he tore his ACL in Spring Training but vowed to return during the year? Then he actually did come back, went 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA, and was on the mound for Game 5 in the ALDS, not to mention 2016’s AL Wild Card game. He might not have been a superstar, but he was to us. He pitched with emotion and he pitched with fire, and we loved it. It didn’t hurt that he loved us too – the fans, the city, the country.

While the major core of those playoff teams were already long gone, the trade of Stroman officially severs the ropes that bound us to the past. This team is now officially in the hands of the next generation. Vlad, Cavan, Lourdes, Danny, and Bo will have to step up and become the next Josh, Jose, Edwin, Russ, and Troy. Somebody, several bodies, will have to step up and become the next R.A., Mark, Marco, David, and, sadly, Marcus. One would have thought keeping Marcus would have already filled one of those empty slots.

But there’s no sense looking back, and no sense bemoaning management’s decisions.  We all ripped Masai when he dealt DeMar for Kawhi, but now we can call ourselves champions because of it.  Who knows if the two arms the Jays got back for Stroman will help propel Toronto back into October, but the cards have been played.

All that’s left to do is tip your cap to the man we all loved seeing on the mound and move forward.  2015 has never felt further away but better days are (hopefully) ahead.

Optimism Crushed: Looking Back at my 2018 Blue Jay Predictions

It has been a while.

The 2018 Blue Jays campaign was demoralizing, so demoralizing that it caused me to step away from this blog  for several months to stay sane.  There are myriad reasons why the season was so awful, and there is no sense reopening old wounds, but here are just a few reasons why Jays fans were driven mad last season:

What’s the deal with that last bullet?

Well, every season I post a column with 25 Blue Jay specific predictions for the upcoming season.  In re-reading this year’s post, it was clear that I was a HEAVY optimist for 2018.  It was also clear by late-May that none of my predictions were going to come true.  Therefore by late-July depression kicked in.

So now it’s time to wash my hands of 2018 and move forward.  But before I can do that it’s important that everybody sees just how badly last season went compared to what I hoped would happen.  Read on, and please keep your sanity.

1. Josh Donaldson rakes in his walk-year, hitting 40 HR with a .980 OPS.

Result: Oh boy, not even close.  Donaldson spent two separate stints on the DL, underperformed when he actually did play, and was shipped out of town before September.  In 36 games for Toronto he only hit 5 HR with a .757 OPS.

2. Despite incessant rumours all season long, Donaldson lasts the entire season in Toronto and is not traded before the deadline.

Result: Nope.

3. Aaron Sanchez bounces back to make 30 starts and finishes in the top-10 in Cy Young voting.

Result: More optimism gone awry.  Sanchez was hurt again and only made 20 starts with a 4.89 ERA and unsightly 1.56 WHIP.  He won’t finish anywhere the top-10 in balloting.

4. Marcus Stroman pitches over 200 innings and joins Sanchez in the top-10 in Cy balloting.

Result: Stroman was bad, then hurt, then bad, then hurt again.  He barely got halfway to the 200 IP mark (102.1), and with a 5.54 ERA and 1.48 WHIP put up worse numbers than Sanchez.

5. Jaime Garcia and Joe Biagini put up better combined numbers than Marco Estrada.

Result: Close but no cigar

Garcia/Biagini: 146.1 IP, 5.97 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 1.97 K/BB

Estrada: 143.2 IP, 5.64 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 2.06 K/BB

6.  Sadly we don’t see Troy Tulowitzki until June, and then only for a few weeks before he misses the rest of the season with yet another injury.

Result: Almost got this one right.  We didn’t see Tulo at all in 2018 and the jury is out as to whether or not we’ll see him ever again.

7. Happily, we do see Devon Travis stay healthy, and play over 140 games at 2B.

Result: Travis did stay healthy, but he was so bad in April that he was demoted to AAA Buffalo for a month and lost playing time to call-ups in September.  He finished with 103 games.

8. Kendrys Morales narrows his huge OPS splits by posting an OPS less than 100 points greater vs. LHP than vs. RHP.

Result:  Morales vs. LHP – .582 OPS, vs. RHP – .860 OPS.  So…..no.

9. Justin Smoak fails to replicate his huge 2017, but still eclipses the 25 HR mark.

Result: Hey!  Winner!  Smoak’s numbers were down across the board in 2018 but he still finished with 25 HR.

10. Roberto Osuna leads the AL in saves.

Result: Let’s not even touch this one.

11. The Jays never post a streak (either winning or losing) of over 4.

Result: Wrong.  Toronto lost 5-straight from May 28 – June 2 and won 5-straight from August 20 – 25.

12. Randal Grichuk makes the American League All-Star team.

Result: Not.  Even.  Close.

13. Toronto holds their own against the AL East, finishing over .500 against Tampa, Baltimore, New York, and Boston.

Result:  We beat Baltimore!  The Jays finished 14 – 5 against the O’s, but went 4 – 15 vs. Boston, 6 – 13 vs. New York, and 6 – 13 vs. Tampa Bay.

14. Danny Jansen becomes the backup catcher before the season’s half way point.

Result: He took over the primary catcher’s role in September.

15. With expectations lower than in years past the Jays fail to reach the 3-million mark in attendance for the first time since 2015.

Result: Got this one.  With a total attendance of 2.325 million the Jays had their lowest number of fans since 2012.

16. Toronto and Baltimore engage in not one, but two bench clearing incidents.

Result: I honestly don’t know.  I think both teams were so bad that they didn’t care enough to fight.

17. After finishing dead last in the AL and 27th overall in MLB in runs scored in 2017, the Jays offense rebounds to finish in the top half.

Result: They did improve on 2017 but Toronto’s 709 runs were only good enough for 17th out of 30 teams.

18. Travis posts a 25-game hitting streak.

Result: He maxed out at 7-games.

19. Despite pleas from fans, Vladdy Jr. and Bo Bichette do not make a major league appearance in 2018.

Result: Got this one exactly right.

20. However, both Anthony Alford and Dalton Pompey play a dozen games each.

Result: Alford appeared in 13 games, so I got that right, but Pompey fell out of favour with management and was the only member of the 40-man roster to not earn a September call-up.

20. Jose Bautista signs with Tampa Bay and returns to Toronto as a visiting player on August 10th.  He is greeted by a massive ovation.

Result:  Bautista did return to Toronto and was greeted with a massive ovation, but it was as a member of the New York Mets.

21. Rougned Odor hits less than .100 against Toronto pitching.

Result: Our favourite worst enemy actually hit .300 (3-for-10) this year against the Jays.

22. John Axford reprises the Jason Grilli role from 2016 and gives the Jays an impact late-inning reliever in front of Osuna.

Result: While his numbers weren’t as good as 2016 Grilli, Axford pitched reasonably well (4.41 ERA in 51 IP) before being traded to the Dodgers.

23. Axford, Danny Barnes, and Ryan Tepera all post ERA’s below 3.25.

Result: Nope, nope, and nope.  Axford – 4.41 ERA; Barnes – 5.71 ERA; Tepera – 3.62 ERA.

24. Curtis Granderson has a nice first half but is traded in advance of the July deadline.

Result: Granderson did have a nice first half but was traded in advance of the August deadline, not July.

25. The Jays stay competitive all season long and sneak into the playoffs as the second Wild Card team by outlasting Minnesota on the season’s final day.


Week 15 In Review: The Legend Returns

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Every Monday during the 2018 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 15.

  1. The Legend Returns

For 10 seasons, for over 1,200 games, and for over 5,200 plate appearances, Jose Bautista was a member of the Toronto Blue Jays.  He was one of Toronto’s most loved athletes, and was responsible for some of the club’s most iconic moments.  When the Blue Jays said goodbye to Jose at the end of the 2017 season most of us thought we’d seen the last of him.  But this past week the legend returned to Toronto as a visiting player for the New York Mets.  He was greeted with an emotional tribute video and a raucous ovation from the crowd.  While Bautista will never regain his position as one of the most feared sluggers in the game, his performance with the Mets proves that he still has some gas left in the tank.  He went 2-for-7 with 3 walks in his two games back in his old stomping grounds and has posted an above-average .880 OPS in New York.  Long live the King.

  1. Borucki Dominates

Ranked by MLB.com as Toronto’s 8th best prospect, LHP Ryan Borucki made his major league debut on June 26 in Houston before  coming home for two starts in the Rogers Centre last week.  With the Blue Jays in the midst of a lost season and with a huge selloff on the horizon, Borucki’s performance is offering Jays fans something we sorely need: hope for the future.  On Monday against the Tigers Borucki was terrific, allowing only 2 ER on 6 hits over 7 innings.  He struck out 8 and didn’t walk a single hitter.  He then one-upped himself yesterday by taking on – and shutting down – the powerful New York Yankees: 5 strikeouts, 7 innings, 1 run allowed.  He now boasts a 2.25 ERA in his brief career and is making a case to be a front of the rotation starter for the rest of 2018 and beyond.

  1. Struggling All-Star

After beating the Astros on June 25th, J.A. Happ was 10-3 with a 3.62 ERA and was considered the most attractive available option on the trade market.  His name was being thrown around in rumours on a daily basis – Yankees!  Cubs! – with fans dreaming of a return of a few decent prospects.  Perhaps the pressure of pitching among trade rumours is getting to him, because Happ has struggled mightily recently.  On Saturday against the Yankees he lasted only 2.2 innings while allowing 6 runs on 4 hits and a staggering 6 walks.  He has allowed 13 runs in only 8.1 innings over his past two starts (14.04 ERA), increasing his season ERA almost a full run to 4.44.  Despite his recent struggles he was named to the American League All-Star team on Sunday night marking the first time he has earned the honour.

Player of the Week

Ryan Borucki, SP

2 Starts, 14 IP, 3 ER, 13 K, 2 BB. 1.93 ERA, 1.07 WHIP

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

Reminder: Better Days Are Ahead

Your weekly reminder that both Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette are Jays

Stats as at July 9 (AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats)

The Look Ahead

July 10 – 11 at Atlanta Braves

July 12 – 15 at Boston Red Sox

Week 13 In Review: Kendrys Comes Through

Embed from Getty Images
Every Monday during the 2018 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 13.

  1. Kendrys Comes Through

Through the middle of May Kendrys Morales was having a nightmarish season.  Already unfairly vilified by Jays fans for not being Edwin Encarnacion, Morales wasn’t doing himself any favours by carrying a .146 average and .499 OPS.  But Toronto’s DH kept plugging away and was finally rewarded with a signature moment yesterday.  Summoned off the bench in the top of the 10th, Morales hit Toronto’s first pinch-hit home run of the season, propelling the Jays to a 7-6 win and a series split in Anaheim.  The HR wrapped up a great week for Morales, and keeps him on what has been a fairly sustained hot streak.  Since that low point on May 17, Morales is hitting .347 with a .978 OPS, 5 HR, and 14 RBI in 29 games, and his season average is now up to .246 with a .735 OPS.  Better late than never….

  1. The Stro Show Returns

Morales wasn’t the only member of the Jays who got off to a horrific start.  Marcus Stroman came into the 2018 season with high expectations only to scuffle badly in the early going.  At the end of April Stro’s ERA was 8.88, easily the worst in baseball among starting pitchers, before he was shuffled to the DL in mid-May with shoulder irritation.  Well, Stroman made his anticipated return on Saturday and the results were very encouraging: 5 shutout innings with only 1 walk and 5 strikeouts.  He kept the Angels off balance all night long with electric stuff, finally resembling the pitcher we all expected.  At a time when the Jays rotation is seemingly changing by the day (Sanchez to the DL!  Garcia to the DL!) a healthy and effective Stroman is a very welcome sight.

  1. 75 Games

While no official legal punishment has been handed out, Major League Baseball finally commented on the Roberto Osuna situation last week, handing the Jays closer a whopping 75-game suspension for violating the league’s Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Child Abuse Policy.  Osuna is ineligible to return until August 4th, but it remains to be seen whether he will ever return to the Toronto lineup.  Speculation exists (from Jeff Blair among others) that the Jays will be actively looking to trade Osuna before the July 31 deadline, with the hopes that a contending team may be willing to accept the public repercussions in order to acquire a solid relief option.  Hopefully the price tag will be decently high to accelerate the rebuild.

Player of the Week

Kendrys Morales, DH

7-for-14, 4 BB, 1 2B, 3 HR, 5 R, 4 RBI, .500 / .611 /  1.214 / 1.825

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

Reminder: Better Days Are Ahead

Your weekly reminder that both Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette are Jays

Stats as at June 24 (AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats)

The Look Ahead

June 25 – 27 at Houston Astros

June 29 – July 2 vs. Detroit Tigers

Week 12 In Review: Sweep!

Embed from Getty Images
Every Monday during the 2018 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 12.

  1. Sweep!

What a weekend in Toronto!  The Jays celebrated Father’s Day in style with a riveting 8-6 victory over Washington to cap off a series sweep of the Nationals.  The Nats came to Toronto just a half game back of first in the NL East, with Bryce Harper sitting in the top-5 of baseball in HR, and with dominant ace Max Scherzer scheduled to pitch the Saturday game, so anybody who predicted a Blue Jay sweep is most definitely a liar.  But behind great pitching and timely hitting, sweep is what they did, easily one of the most unexpected results of the season.  Toronto has now won seven straight games at home, and while they’re still miles behind a playoff spot, at least they are sending fans home happy.

  1. Sweep 🙁

It’s only worth talking about because of how ridiculous it is.  Once again the Toronto Blue Jays paid a visit to Tampa Bay to face the Rays, and once again they were thoroughly pounded.  The Jays scored a mere 5 runs and were swept in three straight games.  Worse was the fact that the Rays shut the Jays down without using a true starting pitcher, instead using a parade of relievers in all three games.  Just in case you needed a reminder: the Jays can’t win in Tampa Bay.  The sweep dropped their record in TB to 1-5 in 2018 and a woeful 73-109 in franchise history.

  1. June Resurgence

After an absolutely miserable 9-19 month of May, the Blue Jays have actually been playing fairly well in June, with a record of 8-7.  The driving force behind the strong month can be traced back to three players who were putting up some of the worst numbers in baseball early in the season but who have turned things around in a big way.  Randal Grichuk entered June with a .106 / .208 / .227 / .435 slash line, and Devon Travis‘ .188 / .242 / .329 / .571 wasn’t much better.  But both are resembling the players that Toronto thought they were this month.  Grichuk had another big week last week and his now hitting .326 with a 1.097 OPS , 5 HR, and 13 RBI in June.  Travis, who hit a huge HR off Scherzer on Saturday, is up to .351 for the month with a .941 OPS.  Not to be forgotten is Marco Estrada, who finished May with a 5.98 ERA, but has allowed only 3 ER in 18.2 June innings while striking out 19 hitters and allowing only 3 walks.  Now if only these guys could rub off on Russell Martin.

Player of the Week

Devon Travis, 2B

8-for-16, 1 BB, 1 2B. 2 HR, 4 R, 5 RBI, .500 / .500 /  .938 / 1.438

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

Reminder: Better Days Are Ahead

Your weekly reminder that both Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette are Jays

Stats as at June 17 (AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats)

The Look Ahead

June 19 – 20 vs. Atlanta Braves

June 21 – 24 at Los Angeles Angels

The Day Tony Came Home

Note: this story was inspired by the 1993 Jays In Real Time twitter feed.  If you’re not following that, you’re missing out.

Let’s start with a proclamation: my earliest baseball memory is from 1985.  Somewhere in the deep, dark, and dusty recesses of my brain I can still pull up the clip of the Blue Jays winning the AL East for the first time, George Bell sinking to his knees after securing the final out in shallow left field.  The first person to greet Bell and start the celebration?  Tony Fernandez.

From that day forward Tony has had a special place in my heart.  He was long and lean, I was long and lean.  He played shortstop, I played shortstop.  I remember trying to emulate (quite poorly) his underhanded flip throw across the diamond.  I remember trying to emulate (even more poorly) his batting stance, the way the bat seemingly just floated in his limp wrists before exploding through the zone.

So you can imagine my horror on December 5, 1990 when Toronto packaged Tony along with Fred McGriff – who just so happened to be my second favourite player – to San Diego for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar.  The franchise-altering trade obviously worked out incredibly well for the Blue Jays and I quickly forgave Pat Gillick for sending my hero out of town, but I never forgot the way Fernandez looked with the Blue Jay on his chest.

Luckily I wouldn’t have to.

This past Monday – June 11 – marked the 25th anniversary of one of the happiest days of my life as a Blue Jays fan.  On that day in 1993, chasing their second straight World Series title but with a group of shortstops decimated by injury, Pat Gillick re-acquired Tony Fernandez from the New York Mets for Darrin Jackson.  In hindsight I remember this being a great and highly celebrated deal for the Jays, but my hindsight has clearly been compromised.  In reality the homecoming was viewed by many (or most) as a negative.

Darrin Jackson was acquired on the eve of the ’93 season and came with high expectations.  Sick of Derek Bell’s perceived lack of effort the Jays shipped him to San Diego, hoping that Jackson, coming off consecutive 4.4 WAR seasons, could take over the left field role left open after the departure of Candy Maldonado.  But in 46 games he only hit .216 with a .597 OPS for the Blue Jays (-0.9 WAR), so fans weren’t surprised when he was jettisoned.  What was surprising was who came back in return.

While Toronto’s left fielders and shortstops struggled that season, the starting pitching gave cause for the greatest concern, with fans clamoring for an upgrade in the rotation.  So when news broke that it was Fernandez, and not a starter, that was coming back, except for one single 14-year old kid who cheered, there was a collective “huh?” from the faithful.

And why not?  Fernandez was terrible, a shell of his former self.  He was 30-years old, batting a measly .225, and had become a liability in the field.  Even more, he was seemingly always hurt, struggling through thumb problems and then kidney stones.  Dave Perkins of the Toronto Star ridiculed the move, calling Fernandez “Mr. Migraine”.

As we know now, he was proven to be incredibly wrong.

I remember watching Tony’s first game back.  I don’t have any recollection of the game itself (a good thing, as the Jays lost 12-1 in Detroit), but I remember Tony stepping into the lineup with a single and a triple.  I remember seeing his smile as he stood on third base, happy to be back in familiar surroundings.

Fernandez took off in Toronto.  In his first three games he went 7-for-14 with a home run, three doubles, a triple, a steal, and 7 RBI.  After his first 25 games, he had raised his season average 45 points to .270 and his season OPS a whopping 128 points to .746.  He cemented his return by hitting .326 in the playoffs and setting a record for World Series RBI by a shortstop with 9.

Tony, of course, would leave Toronto after the season and bounce around the league before returning on two more occasions.  He has been retired since 2001 yet still holds Toronto’s franchise records for WAR, Defensive WAR, Games Played, Hits, and Triples.  His name hangs on the Rogers Centre Level of Excellence, and more importantly on the back of my powder blue Jays jersey.

Everybody has their major sporting moments that they remember forever.  For my dad it was Canada winning the 1972 Summit Series.  I have lived through the ’92 and ’93 World Series, the Bat Flip, the Donaldson Dash, and Olympic hockey golds in ’02, ’10, and ’14.  While those moments will remain the gold standard (until the Blue Jays win it all again), sometimes it’s the smaller stuff that matters more, those moments that mean more to you than to anybody else.

For me, that remains a Friday in 1993 when my favourite player of all time came home.

Week 11 in Review: Winning is Fun!

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Every Monday during the 2018 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 11.

  1. Winning is Fun!

So that’s what winning feels like!  After losing twice to the Yankees early in the week – losses that dropped them to 1-7 in the last 8 and 9-23 since May 2 – the Jays rebounded in a big way by sweeping four straight from the woeful Baltimore Orioles.   The sweep included a bit of everything: two walkoffs (including one on a walkoff walk), ninth inning dramatics, solid pitching, and an offensive eruption.  Yesterday’s 13-3 blowout was the first time Toronto had reached double digits in runs since May 16th in New York against the Mets, and was only the second time since May 26th they managed to score more than 5.  The Jays are now 6-1 against Baltimore this year, and it’s a shame they couldn’t face the O’s instead of the Yankees and Red Sox.  Toronto is a pitiful 5-14 against the AL East leaders and a solid 25-21 against the rest of baseball.

  1. Is This the Real Grichuk?

When Toronto acquired Randal Grichuk in the offseason it generated some genuine excitement in the fan base.  The consensus was that although Grichuk would never have a great OBP, he might be able to put up 30 HR playing at the Rogers Centre.  But after the first month of the season those predictions were wildly inaccurate.  In the 25 games he played before being placed on the DL he was hitting .106 with a .435 OPS, 2 HR, and 24 strikeouts – nearly a third of his plate appearances.  He was activated on June 1 and after going 0-for-5 in his first two games Grichuk finally resembles the player the Blue Jays thought they were getting.  In his last 6 games he has posted a .435 average and 1.437 OPS while slugging 3 HR, driving in 8 runs and scoring 7 times.  So which is the real Grichuk?  Hopefully the answer is somewhere closer to his recent performance.

  1. Quality Starters

After two months of poor performance, the Blue Jays rotation has finally awoken.  Marco Estrada pitched six strong innings yesterday to extend the rotation’s streak of consecutive quality starts to seven.  Estrada in particular has looked terrific his last two outings, allowing only 3 runs and 1 walk while striking out 15 batters in 12 total innings.  J.A. Happ continued his strong season with a great start on Friday, Sam Gaviglio has come out of nowhere, Aaron Sanchez is slowly turning his season around, and Jaime Garcia chipped in with a gem of his own.  In the past seven starts Toronto’s rotation has posted a 1.42 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, and a 2.5 K/BB ratio.  The turnaround has proven that winning is much, much easier with good starting pitching.

Player of the Week

Randal Grichuk, OF

8-for-19, 1 BB, 2 2B, 2 HR, 5 R, 5 RBI, .421 / .476 /  .842 / 1.318

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

Reminder: Better Days Are Ahead

Your weekly reminder that both Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette are Jays

Stats as at June 10 (AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats)

The Look Ahead

June 11 – 13 at Tampa Bay Rays

June 15 – 17 vs. Washington Nationals

Hindsight: Reliving Past MLB Drafts

The early stages of the 2018 MLB draft are in the books.  The Blue Jays used their first pick (12th overall) on highschool SS Jordan Groshans  and their second pick (52nd overall) on Griffin Conine, son of former major leaguer Jeff Conine.  Toronto’s recent early round history has been spotty at best: in the past five drafts only one player selected in the first two rounds has reached the big leagues and he did so as a member of the Rockies (Jeff Hoffman).  Hopes are high for guys like Bo Bichette, Sean Reid-Foley, and Nate Pearson but only time will tell if those players along with this year’s selections will fit into the Success or Bust category.

As we all know by now the MLB draft is the ultimate crapshoot with many early round picks flaming out and many late round picks turning into bargains.  But with the benefit of hindsight we can easily go back and re-grade past drafts.  So to continue a 500 Level Fan tradition, let’s do just that.  To keep it simple I am using Baseball Reference’s WAR stat to rank all players.  It’s not perfect but it’s a nice, convenient stat.  So let’s take a look back at the 2013, 2008, and 2003 MLB drafts (5, 10, and 15 years ago). Armed with hindsight, which is always 20/20, we can see how the draft order might have changed knowing how careers played out.

Note – My re-ranked top-10 list doesn’t take into account things like signability issues, team needs, or draft strategy (i.e. high school vs. college). I simply re-ranked the drafted players based on career WAR (Note: Career WAR totals are as of May 31.

2013 Draft

It often takes several years for drafted players to reach the major leagues. Five years have passed since the ’13 draft, and while many of the drafted players are still young, one would expect the top talents to have found their way to the big leagues by now.

Here are the top-10 picks of the 2013 draft:

Throwing around terms like “bust” are very subjective, but I think virtually everybody can agree that Mark Appel is quite possibly the biggest draft bust in baseball history.  Drafted first overall to great acclaim by the Astros, Appel is only the third #1 pick to never reach the major leagues.  After scuffling in the minors he was dealt to the Phillies for closer Ken Giles, DFA’d in 2017 and then retired from baseball earlier this year.  Kris Bryant was hands down the best player in the draft and Jon Gray has had a nice start to his career, but other than that the rest of the top-10 leave  a lot to be desired.  Clint Frazier and Austin Meadows are just starting their careers, a few others have had cups of coffee, and the rest have yet to experience life in the majors:

Kohl Stewart – Currently in AA after being sent back from AAA and struggling with a 5.90 ERA and 1.44 WHIP.

Trey Ball – Currently struggling in AA with a 6.66 ERA and 1.68 WHIP.

Phil Bickford – Did not sign with the Jays, was re-drafted by San Francisco, traded to Milwaukee, and is currently languishing in single-A.

This is what the the top-10 looks like with the magic of hindsight, based on career WAR:

Overall, the first round wasn’t too bad with Bryant and Judge reaching superstar status, and Manaea, Gray, Anderson, and Knebel all performing well the last year or two.  Graveman, Bellinger, and Green all have been nice later round finds.  Of note, Benintendi was drafted 945th overall by Cincinnati but did not sign and re-entered the draft.

Blue Jay Focus

The 2013 draft was Toronto’s fourth under Alex Anthopoulos, and has become notable less for who was drafted than for who those players became.  The draft didn’t start well as AA’s first and second round selections were miserable.  As previously mentioned, Bickford failed to sign meaning he re-entered the draft and second round selection Clinton Hollon was twice suspended for PEDs before being released by the team in 2017.  However, Matthew Boyd (175th overall) and Kendall Graveman (235th) were part of packages that became David Price and Josh Donaldson.  Not too shabby.

Total Number of Picks: 40

Number of Players to Reach the Majors: 6

2008 Draft

The 2008 draft turned out to be a real mixed bag.  The top-10 produced All Stars, World Series Champions, and several unquestionable busts.  The good news for those GM’s is that each one of the top-10 made the majors.

Here are the top-10 picks of the 2008 draft:

Buster Posey was the real gem.  2018 marks his 10th major league season and the Giants catcher is a 5-time All-Star, has won a Rookie of the Year award, an MVP, four Silver Sluggers, a Gold Glove, and three World Series titles.  Eric Hosmer is having a nice career as well, but nobody else in the top-10 really made the leap to stardom.  Three players are no longer active:

Brian Matusz – Released by Arizona in 2017

Kyle Skipworth – Only recorded four career plate appearances

Aaron Crow – Did not sign with Washington, was re-drafted by Kansas City and is currently in the Mexican League.

With the magic of hindsight, here is a re-ranked version of the 2008 draft, based on career WAR:

What a great draft for the San Francisco Giants who added SS Brandon Crawford in the 4th round to go along with Posey.  Tanner Roark was the late-round gem, putting up a 15.5 WAR from the 753rd overall drat slot.  Jason Kipnis (San Diego), George Springer (Minnesota), and Anthony Rendon (Atlanta) did not sign with their respective teams and re-entered the 2009 draft.

Blue Jay Focus

The 2008 draft was completed under the guidance of J.P. Ricciardi, and looks pretty bad in hindsight.  In fact, it is downright ugly.

The Jays used their first round pick (17th overall) on 1B David Cooper, who played 72 games over two seasons in Toronto, putting up a career .750 OPS.  With the 63rd pick the Jays selected Kenny Wilson an OF who has yet to appear in the major leagues and is currently in Detroit’s system (his fifth organization).  The only name of note was Eric Thames, picked 219th overall, who is now hitting home runs for the Brewers.

Total Number of Picks: 44

Number of Players to Reach the Majors: 8

2003 Draft

To those who say that drafting players should be easy, may I present the 2003 top-10.  Yikes.
Without question the real success of the top-10 was Nick Markakis, taken 7th overall, and still active (and producing) with the Braves.  John Danks, Paul Maholm, and Rickie Weeks all had moderate levels of success and Delmon Young actually had a 2nd place ROY finish and a 10th place MVP finish in his career (but will forever be remembered as the guy who threw a bat at an umpire).  There were some real busts in the top-10 including:

Kyle Sleeth – Never rose above AA where he posted a 10.66 ERA in 12.2 IP before retiring in 2008.

Chris Lubanski – Reached as high as AAA (including a short stint in the Blue Jays system), but last played in 2011.

Ryan Harvey – Never rose above AA, last played in 2013.

Here is a re-ranked version of the 2003 draft, based on career WAR:

Ian Kinsler is a real success story, emerging from the 17th round to become a 4-time All-Star.  Adam Jones and Nick Markakis were both taken by the Orioles in a rare bit of excellent drafting in Baltimore.  The Blue Jays pick of Aaron Hill was also a success.  Of note, Max Scherzer was selected by St. Louis but did not sign.

Blue Jay Focus

2003 was the second draft of the  Ricciardi era and was relatively productive.  As noted above, Aaron Hill was taken with Toronto’s first pick (13th overall) and had a nice career, including a huge 2009 season in Toronto (36 HR, 108 RBI, .829 OPS, Silver Slugger Award).  With his second selection, Ricciardi picked RHP Josh Banks 50th overall.  Banks only appeared in three games with the Jays (7.36 ERA, 1.77 WHIP) before moving on to San Diego and Houston, but at least he reached the majors.  The other notable pick by the Jays was Shaun Marcum 80th overall.  He had a few nice years in Toronto and his legacy lives on as he was dealt to Milwaukee for Brett Lawrie who was in turn traded for Josh Donaldson.

Total Number of Picks: 50

Number of Players to Reach the Majors: 7

Week 10 In Review: From Bad to Worse

Embed from Getty Images
Every Monday during the 2018 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 10.

  1. From Bad to Worse

The 2018 Blue Jays season has not been pretty, but it reached a whole new level of bad last week.  Toronto went into Fenway and were ripped apart by the Red Sox in a humiliating three-game sweep.  The Jays were outscored 22-10, and honestly that differential was a lot closer than the games actually were.  The starting pitching was abysmal (again) with Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada, and Sam Gaviglio lasting a combined 14.2 innings and putting up a 9.20 ERA and 1.64 WHIP.  The club then marched into Detroit to face the rebuilding Tigers and were thoroughly spanked in the first two games, looking further away from contention than Detroit.  Instead of looking up in the standings fans should now look down and hope that we can continue to stay ahead of the O’s.

  1. Smoak Slugging

While the rest of the team is seemingly self-imploding, Justin Smoak continues to produce in the middle of the order.  After his breakout 2017 campaign the jury was still out as to whether his success was sustainable, but he has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is the real deal.  Smoak slugged two home runs last week en route to posting a 1.230 OPS, and almost single-handedly willed the Jays to their lone win yesterday in Detroit.  For the season Smoak has 9 HR and 33 RBI and leads the team with an .855 OPS.  His .386 OBP is 8th best in the American League, only a few percentage points behind All-Stars Jose Ramirez and Manny Machado.  At 31 years of age and set to hit free agency after the season does the front office try to extend him as one of the leaders of future Jays teams, or deal him for anything they can get in July?

  1. Guerrero Hurt

Blue Jays fans everywhere uttered a collective groan of horror when the news dropped on Saturday that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. left New Hampshire’s game after stepping awkwardly on first base.  With the big league club enduring a terrible season to date, one of the only things keeping fans going is looking at Vladdy’s minor league numbers and dreaming about him heading north, so you can imagine the concern.  The good news, at least according to Shi Davidi, is that the injury is not considered to be serious, but just how much it will impact any potential call-up is yet to be seen.  Guerrero is destroying AA right now, and bringing him up might be the only thing to save the rest of the year in Toronto.

Player of the Week

Justin Smoak, 1B

7-for-20, 5 BB, 2 2B, 2 HR, 2 R, 5 RBI, .350 / .480 /  .750 / 1.230

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

Reminder: Better Days Are Ahead

Your weekly reminder that both Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette are Jays

Stats as at June 3 (AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats)

The Look Ahead

June 5 – 6 vs. New York Yankees

June 7 – 10 vs. Baltimore Orioles

A View From the Cheap Seats