All posts by 500LevelFan

Legend

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Baseball is a game of moments.  That is one of the main reasons I love it and have been addicted to it since childhood.

Unlike hockey or football or soccer or basketball – sports with more flow, traffic, and general chaos – baseball can be divided into short segments, each of which can be analyzed in a myriad of ways.  These smaller fragments allow for fans of the game to more easily compare players, teams, or, more importantly, moments.

The history of the Toronto Blue Jays franchise can be divided into four eras: the early years, the glory years, the dark years, and the resurgent years.  Each era indelibly has moments that stand out.  Think of George Bell sinking to his knees in 1985 in celebration of the first AL East title.  Think of the huge playoff home runs by Roberto Alomar, Ed Sprague, and Joe Carter.  Or consider huge individual games for Carlos Delgado, or award winning seasons by Pat Hentgen, Roger Clemens, or Roy Halladay.  All have a fond place in our memories.

But the history of a baseball team is linear: so much of how each moment is interpreted depends on what came before it.

Think: would Alomar’s iconic home run off Dennis Eckersley in the 1992 ALCS have meant so much had the 1985 team finished what they started?  I don’t think so.  That group of players was supposed to kick off a baseball dynasty in Toronto, but kept faltering at the worst possible moments.  The Alomar homer needed the blown 3-1 lead to Kansas City in ’85, the slow starts that doomed the ’86 and ’88 teams, the late season collapses in ’87 and ’90, and the playoff failures of ’89 and ’91 in order to feel so special.  That darkness led to the greatness.

All of which leads me to Jose Bautista.

There is a lot being written about Joey Bats right now as he plays what is more than likely his final homestand as a Toronto Blue Jay.  I have seen tribute videos.  I have seen countdown lists.  I have read articles praising him for his decade of service north of the border.  But I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody say what I’m about to say here: Jose Bautista very well might be the most important player in franchise history.

Importance is a very subjective term that doesn’t lend itself to measurement.  Each and every person can interpret it differently, create their own criteria, and draw their own conclusions.

By all objective accounts, Bautista is not the greatest player the Jays have ever seen.  He will not be joining Alomar in the Hall of Fame.  In terms of WAR, he ranks third behind Tony Fernandez and Carlos Delgado.  His .881 OPS ( as of today) trails Delgado, Donaldson, and McGriff.  He ranks third in runs scored, sixth in hits, second in home runs, third in RBI, and second in walks.  He wasn’t here the longest (6th in games played), didn’t make the most All-Star teams (6 to Dave Stieb‘s 7), and never won an individual award (despite four top-10 MVP finishes).   So you can’t call him the best.

But it is the moments he created – more importantly, the meaning behind those moments – that make him the most important.

Bautista was responsible for many classic moments over the years.  There were his epic one-on-one battles with Ivan Nova and Darren O’Day, his 50th home run in 2010 off King Felix, his many huge outfield assists where he gunned runners down, or his legendary 9th inning home run in Seattle last year in front of thousands of traveling Canadian fans.

But the bat flip….the bat flip was something else entirely.

Let’s be honest: between May of 1994 (where it became pretty clear that there would be no three-peat) and July of 2015, Toronto was baseball’s no-man’s land.  It was a team – and to some extent, a city – without an identity.  The Jays sometimes made big splashes (Roger Clemens, A.J. Burnett, B.J. Ryan, the Jose Reyes trade), and sometimes had some great individual accomplishments (Rookie of the Year and Cy Young seasons, All-Star campaigns), but more often than not appeared lost in the wilderness.  They were a team in a big market that operated with a small market mentality.  They had no swagger, no confidence.  They were always an afterthought.

Bautista’s emergence in 2010 started to change all of that, but it was the bat flip that once and for all demolished it.

With one swing of the bat both the Toronto Blue Jays and the city of Toronto were back on the landscape.  The blast, the sneer, and the accompanying  emotional reaction announced to the world that this team and this market would no longer be pushed around or bullied.  Not by the Red Sox, not by the Yankees, not by anybody.  The home run let baseball know that the Blue Jays were confident and cocky, and showed just how loved and embraced they were by not only the city but the entire country.  It was the singular most important moment in decades and it was all because of one man.

People started following the Blue Jays again because of Bautista.  MLB.com began featuring stories on the Blue Jays again because of Bautista.  Blue Jay caps, shirts, and jerseys began popping up all over Canada again because of Bautista.  Pop culture and other sporting celebrities began flocking to the Rogers Centre because of Bautista.

It’s no secret that Jose is struggling this year, and if this is indeed his final few days as a Jay, going out with sub-par numbers on a last place team is far from how we’d like to see him go.

But even if this is the end, his legacy will endure.  His attitude, his preparation, the ferocity with which he played the game will live on within guys like Marcus Stroman, Roberto Osuna, Josh Donaldson, and Devon Travis, and from them to players like Guerrero, Bichette, and Alford.  In a few years from now his name will be enshrined on the Level of Excellence, and (hopefully) a statue of the bat flip will be erected outside the stadium.

But until then there are still four games left, four opportunities for fans to serenade him with all the love and pomp and adulation he deserves.

Though the concept of importance might indeed be subjective, and thought there still may be doubt in the minds of many where Jose fits in, consider one final argument.  The Blue Jays have eclipsed the 3-million mark in attendance for the second straight year.  Attendance has more than doubled since the year Bautista became a star.  There is no denying those numbers and there is no denying that most of those people came to see Jose Bautista.

And at least in my mind there is no denying Jose Bautista’s place as the most important player in Blue Jays history.

Godspeed Jose.  You will be missed.

Changes Are A-Comin’

 

2017 has been a lost season.  Things started badly for the Blue Jays, and despite a nice stretch that brought a little bit of hope to the fan base, nothing has really improved.

No doubt injuries have played a huge part of Toronto’s downfall.  The team has yet to field their intended 25-man roster this season, with somebody (or many bodies) always hurt.  Consider who the Jays have lost for extended stretches: Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Devon Travis, Russell Martin, Aaron Sanchez, Roberto Osuna, JA Happ, and many others.

But one glance at the standings makes it impossible to blame Toronto’s season solely on injuries.

The Washington Nationals have lost Trea Turner, Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, Jayson Werth, Joe Ross, Koda Glover, Adam Eaton, and Ryan Madson (among others) at various points this year yet still have a 79-51 record and a 13 game lead in the NL East.

The Houston Astros have been without Carlos Correa, George Springer, Brian McCann, Lance McCullers, Dallas Keuchel, Evan Gattis, and Colin McHugh at various points, yet have still managed to go 79-51 and hold a 13 game lead of their own.

More astonishingly, the Dodgers have put up an unbelievable 91-38 campaign, despite spending parts of 2017 without Cody Bellinger, Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Clayton Kershaw, Brandon McCarthy, Alex Wood, Justin Turner, Andrew Toles, Julio Urias, Kenta Maeda, and Rich Hill.

No – injuries alone aren’t to blame.  The one thing those teams have that the Jays don’t is depth.  Major league quality depth, both on the bench and on the mound.  Contending teams can plug in solid players to replace injured starters.  The 2017 Jays have been forced to use Nick Tepesch, Cesar Valdez, and Raffy Lopez.

All of which suggests that changes are coming.  They have to be coming.  The front office can’t expect fans to pile back into the dome to watch this exact team in 2018.  While it’s easy to point fingers at what went wrong, there are a few glaring areas of need that Atkins must focus on.

Firstly, while he will go down as a franchise icon, earn a spot on the Level of Excellence, and a rightful place as one of the top-5 players in club history, Jose Bautista has seemingly reached the end of his useful baseball life.  I love the guy, and it pains me to see him performing this way, but the head needs to trump the heart in this case.  It’s not only the .209 average, sub-.400 SLG, sub-.700 OPS, and -1.3 WAR that says it’s time.  It’s images like this:

That is Bautista’s 5th inning at bat against Drew Pomeranz last night.  He stepped to the plate with runners on first and second, nobody out, and the Jays clinging to a 3-2 lead, and was promptly thrown two fastballs right down the middle.  2010 Bau would have launched the first pitch into the 5th deck.  Unfortunately, 2017 Bau watched the first pitch for strike one, then flew out.

Backup catcher is also a mandatory area of focus for the front office.  For four years fans went ballistic about the Jays carrying Josh Thole on the roster, calling him a waste of a roster spot and a useless player.  In those four seasons Thole hit .200 with a .522 OPS and a -2.4 WAR.  This season, Miguel Montero, Mike Ohlman, Luke Maile, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Raffy Lopez have hit .132 with a .408 OPS, and 70 strikeouts to 17 walks as a collective group, and posted a combined WAR of -1.5.  It makes us long for the days of Josh Thole.

Finally, the bullpen needs an overhaul, specifically Aaron Loup.  By all accounts Loup works hard.  He comes in when called upon and tries his best.  But his primary responsibility as a left-handed pitcher is to retire left-handed batters. Simple as that.  Thus far in 2017 LHB are hitting .296 against him, with an OPS of .762.  Overall, Loup’s 4.22 ERA and 1.59 WHIP are not good, especially considering he is Toronto’s primary LH reliever.

September is only a few days away, meaning rosters are expanding.  The Jays need to eschew all belief that they are still in the race and start auditioning for 2018.  Bringing up a catcher that might have a shot at sticking  next year and at least two lefty relievers should be a no-brainer.

The next wave of great Jays prospects is still a few years away.  As-is, this team can’t contend next year without significant change.

Eight Reasons to Keep Watching

The calendar has turned to August, and sadly for Blue Jays fans it is August of 2017 and not 2015 or 2016.  In those years, of course, the Jays were captivating the city as they charged (2015) or scraped (2016) their way towards playoff spots and eventual births in the ALCS.  This year the team is limping to the finish line, dead last and left for dead.

Yes, you can look at the standings and find a glimmer of hope.  They’re only five games back of a Wild Card spot with 54 to play!  Even better, they are still only 8 games back in the AL East, and trail four flawed teams that can all self-destruct at any moment.  All this team needs is one hot streak and contention is possible!

But take off the dreamer’s glasses for a second and a much murkier picture emerges.  Toronto would need to leapfrog seven teams to capture a Wild Card birth and four to win the East.  Their middle infield will not consist of Travis and Tulo, but rather Barney, Goins, and Refsnyder moving forward.  The rotation has been weakened by the loss of Sanchez and the inconsistency of Estrada, with still nobody penciled in to replace the departed Francisco Liriano, and journeyman Cesar Valdez still tossing for Sanchez.  They just traded their second most dependable reliever.   Do you see a sustained hot streak coming?

In short – it’s done.  Even the most hardcore and optimistic fan has to admit that.

So the question now, especially for the casual fan, is why bother tuning in to the rest of the year?  Why spend dwindling summer evenings watching a losing team flail their way towards an empty October?  Well, here are 8 reasons why:

  1. The Bautista Farewell Tour

Nothing official has been said, and it is all speculation, but it certainly appears that the Jose Bautista era is coming to an end in Toronto.  Mired in a dismal season (.706 OPS, -1.1 WAR) there is virtually no chance that his option for 2018 is picked up by the club.  There is a slight chance that he would agree to be dealt to a contender before the August 31 deadline, but in all reality Jays fans have another two months to watch, recognize, and appreciate one of the franchises greatest players and biggest icons.  Get out and cheer for him before he’s gone.

  1. The End of Donaldson?

Toronto management has made it clear that they are all-in on 2018, suggesting that additions will be made to the core during the offseason rather than subtractions.  But, as has been made obvious in years past, you never know what will happen.  With another year of team control, Josh Donaldson remains Toronto’s most significant, appealing, and tradeable asset, and he has also finally gotten hot.  If he ends the season on a huge hot streak, and with his value at an all-time high, what’s to suggest that Atkins won’t move him for a prospect haul and fill the gap with a free agent signing (Moustakas anyone)?

  1. The Stro Show

Marcus Stroman is putting together an outstanding season and has become must-watch TV.  You simply never know what you’re going to get.  Two starts ago he was ejected; last start he was in the middle of a bench clearing altercation.  Through all his antics he continues to dominate.  He ranks 5th in the AL in wins, 5th in ERA, and 2nd in WAR, just a tick behind Chris Sale.

  1. The Future

There is no indication as to what is in the mindset of Toronto’s front office, but September is just around the corner, which means roster expansion, which in turn usually means an influx of young prospects to the big leagues – especially for teams out of contention.  Does this mean we will see the return of Pompey, Smith, and Alford?  Maybe the debut of Teoscar Hernandez?  Or maybe, just maybe, the ultimate treat: Bichette and Vladdy Jr.?

  1. Smoak Bombs

For all the talk of Aaron Judge taking the baseball world by storm it would be easy to assume that he had already locked up the HR crown.  Think again.  With 31, Justin Smoak is only three bombs behind Judge for the AL and MLB lead.  A Blue Jay has won the home run crown four times in club history (Barfield in 1986, McGriff in 1989, and Bautista in 2010 and 2011).  Smoak has a chance to make it five.

  1. Osuna the Save King

Similar to Smoak, Roberto Osuna also has a chance to make some history.  Only twice in franchise history has a member of the Jays finished with the most saves in the league: Tom Henke in 1987 and Duane Ward in 1993.  With 27 saves, Osuna trails Alex Colome by 5 and is closing in fast.

  1. Pressure Free Viewing

Let’s be honest: nothing can ever replicate the feeling of being in a pennant race.  But raise your hand if you experienced any of the following symptoms during the stretch run of 2015/2016: anxiety, stress, heartburn, fear, nausea, anger, depression, exhilaration, sweat pouring from every pore, jitters, and intense uncertainty.  Sometimes it’s fun to watch the games in peace…

  1. Because….baseball

Yes it’s been a bad year.  The Jays have run us all through the gamut, from the high hopes of Opening Day, to the crushing disappointment of a 6-17 start.  There have been losing streaks (too many), winning streaks (too few), injuries, errors, awful pitching, terrible hitting, and too many moments of anguish to count.  But think ahead to November. Think ahead to December, January and February.  Picture the freezing temperatures, the blowing snow, the howling wind, and the eternal darkness. Now realize how thankful you should be that you can flip on the ballgame each night.  Even though it’s been a rotten season, it’s still better than what’s coming.  Enjoy it.

So….What Now?

This season has been an unmitigated disaster for the Toronto Blue Jays.  Coming off back-to-back trips to the ALCS, the club entered 2017 as a favourite to at least get back to the postseason, but instead find themselves in dead last in the ultra competitive AL East.

At this juncture, even the most optimistic of Jays fans has to admit that the season is virtually over.  Toronto is 8.5 games back of the Red Sox in the East, and 5 games back of the Rays for the second Wild Card.  More daunting is that there are six teams between Tampa and Toronto, including the suddenly hot again Royals, the overachieving Twins, the underachieving Rangers and Mariners, and the about-to-get-Trout back Angels.

Barring a stunning second half turnaround – something that is certainly possible (see: 2014 Kansas City Royals) – the Jays are playing out the string.  Sadly, nothing this team has accomplished thus far makes a stunning second half turnaround seem even remotely possible.  After seemingly overcoming the dismal 6-17 start, the Jays faltered badly in recent weeks.  There were two key stretches leading into the All Star break that would serve as a make-or-break gauge.

First, an 18-game set against teams either equal or below them in the standings: Oakland, Seattle, Tampa, the White Sox, Texas, and KC.  The expectations were that 10-8 should be the lowest acceptable mark, with hopes for a 13-5 or better record.  They went 8-10.

Second, a huge 13-game stretch against bitter rivals Baltimore, Boston, and New York, and then a finale against Houston, the top team in the AL.  Seven wins was crucial, with fans hoping for eight or nine.  They won five.

It wasn’t just that they only won five.  It was how they lost games that really dashed all hopes.  They were fully shut down by Kevin Gausman (one of the worst pitchers in 2017) and Ubaldo Jimenez (one of the worst pitchers since 2015).  They were absolutely humiliated in a 3-game sweep by Boston.  And they were tarred and feathered by the Astros, including a dig-a-hole-and-bury-’em 19-1 drubbing on Sunday.

So the question is….what now?

Buy?  Sell?  Status quo?

The only case to make for buying is if Toronto storms out of the gate with a 9-1 start to the second half.  However a 10-game road trip to Detroit, Boston, and Cleveland makes that unlikely.

So sell then?  Jose Bautista and Marco Estrada can become free agents after the year and might add some depth and experience to a contender.  Same with Steve Pearce.  J.A. Happ is signed for a relatively cheap $13-million next year has the potential to bring in a decent haul.

Then there’s the big one: Josh Donaldson.  Not FA eligible until 2019 he would immediately be the best player available at the deadline and could potentially bring in a massive prospect bounty.  One can argue that despite a down year his value will never be higher than it is right now, especially with teams routinely overpaying in midseason deals.

With the team not going anywhere, the obvious answer is yes, sell everybody.  But it’s not that simple.  Trade everybody, and your 2018 Blue Jays will be an absolute disaster.  There are many intriguing pieces in the system (Guerrero, Bichette, Tellez, Alford, etc.) but none close enough to make a difference for at least a few years.  That means that if everybody pans out, the 2020/21 team will be stacked.  But that is a long time to wait.

Instead, may I present the status quo option.  Since that 6-17 start, this team is 35-30, tied for the 4th best record in the AL.  In other words, they are a playoff team.  And that is without ever fielding their full team.  Osuna started the season on the DL and when he came back Donaldson was gone.  Then Tulo went down, and by the time they came back, Sanchez and Happ were out.  Now that they are both back, Travis is down.  Despite that, and despite Estrada turning into  a shell of himself, Bautista struggling immensely, and Donaldson having a poor year to date, this team is still putting up nearly playoff worthy numbers.

I realize that next year means the aging core is one year older.  I realize that by not trading Donaldson and Happ now you sacrifice a massive portion of their trade value.  I realize that Estrada, Bau, Liriano, and a few relievers might not return.  But with virtually no prospects knocking on the door, a full tear down leaves too big of a hole.

Instead,let Atkins and Shapiro tinker at the deadline, add a few pieces over the winter, and take one more kick at the can with this core in 2018.

Which Side Are You On?

There are two kinds of people in the world: pessimists and optimists.

Glass half full kind of people vs. glass half empty kind of people.

Those who see the positive and those who see the negative.

Nothing has fully accentuated the differences between those sides like the 2017 Toronto Blue Jays.

Personally this has been the most confusing, frustrating, hair pulling season in memory.  2013 was up there, after the hectic offseason brought fresh hope and high expectations.  But the team still had not accomplished anything heading into the season.  This squad is coming off back-to-back ALCS appearances, and by all appearances were poised to contend again.  Many even picked them to win the division.

But it has been a disaster of a year highlighted (or lowlighted) by injury, woeful situational hitting, and an avalanche of bad luck.

Yet, there are still so many reasons for optimism.

Consider:

Russell Martin, Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Ezequiel Carrera, Devon Travis, Francisco Liriano, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Roberto Osuna, J.P. Howell, and Joe Smith have all spent time on the disabled list.  The pessimist would say that this team simply can’t say healthy.  But the optimist would tell you that getting these guys back would be akin to a trade deadline acquisition, only one where the team doesn’t have to trade an asset away.  Reinforcements are coming.

Or consider:

This team just can’t hit with runners in scoring position.  Time and again they come up with a runner on third and nobody out, or the bases loaded and one out, or runners on second and third with two out and don’t score.  It’s awful.

But then you see this stat provided by @james_in_to

That is nuts.  Since stats like these have a tendency to regress to the mean (which this year in MLB is a .302 batting average on balls in play with RISP) one would expect some positive regression.  Better times have to be ahead.

Or consider this, the big one:

The Blue Jays started 1-9.  At one point they were 6-17.  They are a woeful 2-8 against the Orioles, and a miserable 12-20 against the AL East.  They just finished a stretch against weaker opponents, a stretch where they had a chance to make some noise, and went 8-10.  They are now 0-9 when trying to reach .500.

That is enough to make even the most passionate fan question the ability and potential of the team.  It is enough to make many less committed fans give up on the season entirely.

Yet someway, somehow, on June 29th the Jays are only 5.5 games back of first place in the division.  They have actually gained 5 games in the standings in the past month and a half.  They are the same distance from first as they were last season at this time.

So despite all the injuries, despite the horrid luck with runners in scoring position, despite the bad offensive production from guys like Tulo and Bautista, despite the awful start, and despite the dreadful performance against the division, the Toronto Blue Jays are still in the race.

This team that has played nowhere near its best baseball yet, is only one big run away from possibly reclaiming first in the division.

I fully admit that I have doubted this team many times this year.  But they are much better than they have played and hopefully it’s only a matter of time until things turn around for the better.

So – pessimist or optimist?  Doubter or believer?

Which side are you on?

The Week That Was: Week 12

Every Monday during the 2017 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.

Week 12: June 19 – June 25

Record: 3 – 4

Season-to-date: 36 – 39

AL East: 5th,  5 games behind New York/Boston

Wild Card: 3.5 games behind Cleveland

  1. Osuna

Some things are bigger than wins and losses.  Roberto Osuna has been one of the best pitchers in baseball this season, seemingly single-handedly rescuing Toronto’s bullpen from early season ruin.  But his off-field actions last week might just be the most important thing he has done in his career.  By publicly speaking up about his anxiety issues he has helped open the door for other professional athletes to come clean about any potential issues they might be dealing with.  He looked great in his return to game action on Sunday, and here’s hoping he can make a full and healthy return, not only to the team, but to his life as well.

  1. Nightmare in KC

The 2015 version of the Kansas City Royals won the World Series using smoke and mirrors, and remain one of the worst championship teams ever.  Jays fans will remember the Royals beating Toronto in the ALCS with a combination of lazy pop-ups that found holes, and broken bat opposite field singles.  Well this weekend the Royals were back to their old tricks.  They won on Saturday thanks to some shaky Toronto defense, but Friday was the real kicker.  The Jays entered the bottom of the 9th with a 4-1 lead, and proceeded to retire two of the first three batters.   With a runner on 2nd, 2 out, and three straight sub-.200 batters due up, the Jays win expectancy was 98%.  Then the Royals started doing Royal things: a 9-pitch walk, a bleeder that dropped in, and two solidly struck hits later, KC walked off with a 5-4 win.  In a season in which Toronto is unable to reach .500, giving away games to middling opponents is tough pill to swallow.

  1. RISP Woes

Of course, one of the main reasons why the Royals won that game on Friday night was their ability to hit with runners in scoring position.  Sadly, this is something that has eluded the Blue Jays this season.  They were up 4-1 heading into the 9th on Friday, but could easily have had more after putting runners on 2nd and 3rd with 1 out in the 8th.  The result?  Back-to-back weak groundouts by Pillar and Barney.  For the week, Toronto went 16 for 74 (.216) with RISP, lowering their season mark to .226, second worst in the American League.  In a season where runs are seemingly harder to come by than ever, the Blue Jays are going to need to improve on that number to have any chance at making it back to the playoffs.

Player of the Week

Justin Smoak, 1B

Now a 10-game hitting streak for Toronto’s potential All-Star:  10 for 24, 4 BB, 2 2B, 5 R, 1 HR, 3 RBI, .417 / .500 / .625 / 1.125

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 35 – 40, 5th place, 13.5 GB

AA – New Hampshire: 31 – 43, 6th place, 17 GB

A+ – Dunedin: First Half: 34 – 35, 4th place, 4.5 GB; Second Half: 1 – 3, T-5th, 2 GB

A – Lansing: First Half: 37 -29, 4th place, 7.5 GB; Second Half: 0 – 4, 8th place, 4 GB

A (Short Season) – Vancouver: 8 – 3, T-1st place

The Look Ahead

Back home to kick off a hellish 13-game stretch.

June 27 – 29 vs. Baltimore

June 30 – July 2 vs. Boston

The Week That Was: Week 11

Every Monday during the 2017 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.

Week 11: June 12 – June 18

Record: 2 – 3

Season-to-date: 33 – 35

AL East: 5th,  5.5 games behind New York

Wild Card: 2 games behind Tampa Bay

  1. 0-7

Try as they might, the 2017 edition of the Toronto Blue Jays just can’t reach the .500 mark.  On Tuesday they tried for the sixth time to break even at home against Tampa Bay, but dropped the game 8-1 to the Rays.  Then on Friday night the Jays welcomed the White Sox to town with opportunity number seven to reach .500.  But they dropped their seventh straight contest in .500 games, this one an 11-4 thumping.  It remains a huge hurdle that this squad has yet to overcome.  One gets a feeling that all they need to do is break through that barrier, and once through a huge run awaits.  But getting there has proven to be the toughest part.  At 33-35, the Jays will hopefully have an eighth crack it early next week.

  1. Lefties Starting to Shine

Entering the season, Toronto’s rotation was expected to be a major strength.  Unfortunately, that has yet to be the case.  As of this morning, Toronto’s starting pitchers have posted a 4.48 ERA, 7th best in the American League.  Obviously injuries have played a major part, with Sanchez, Happ, and Liriano all missing time.  So it was with great relief when both LHP were activated from the DL in recent weeks, and with greater joy when Happ and Liriano were effective in their most recent starts.  Liriano pitched 7 innings allowing only 2 ER, 5 H, and 2 BB while striking out 9 on Wednesday, and has posted a 3.71 ERA in his three starts since returning.  Happ pitched into the seventh inning yesterday, allowed 3 ER, struck out 9 and didn’t walk a batter.  He has now won two straight starts.  With Estrada and Biagini scuffling in recent weeks, the Jays are going to need Liriano and Happ to continue to pitch well in order to reach .500 and beyond.

  1. 2017 Draft

The MLB draft was held last week and by all accounts the Blue Jays did very well.  With their first pick Toronto took SS Logan Warmoth from the University of North Carolina, and added RHP Nate Pearson from Central Florida Community College with their supplemental first round pick.  Although it will take years for either player to make an impact, both selections received an “A” grade from Bleacher Report, for what that’s worth.  The most interesting selection Toronto made was picking Kacy Clemens in the eighth round.  Kacy is the son of Roger Clemens who obviously spent two very good (and likely chemically enhanced) years as a Blue Jay.

Player of the Week

Kendrys Morales, DH

Another big week for Morales, which included an absolutely mammoth HR yesterday:  6 for 21,  1 2B, 4 R, 3 HR, 7 RBI, .286 / .286 / .762 / 1.048

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 34 – 34, 4th place, 10.5 GB

AA – New Hampshire: 28 – 39, 6th place, 17 GB

A+ – Dunedin: First Half: 33 – 33, 4th place, 2.5 GB

A – Lansing: First Half: 37 -29, 4th place, 7.5 GB

A (Short Season) – Vancouver: 2 – 2, T-2nd place, 1 GB

The Look Ahead

A seven game road trip against recent playoff foes.  Watch for fireworks.

June 19 – 22 at Texas

June 23 – 25 at Kansas City

Seventh Time’s A Charm?

An eighth inning HR by Russell Martin rescued Joe Smith and the Blue Jays last night, once again raising their record to one game below the magical .500 mark.

That record – .500 – has been very elusive for the 2017 Jays.  In fact, they have yet to reach it!  Tomorrow night’s game against the Chicago White Sox will be the seventh attempt to climb to ground zero, a quest that began way back on April 5.  On that night Toronto was 0-1 with a chance to get to 1-1.  They lost that game 3-1 and have lost five additional “reach .500” games since.

There is something mystical about .500.  The figure represents an invisible line separating pretenders from contenders.  Rise above it and you have won more games than you have lost, and therefore have a chance for greater glory.  Fall below it and all hopes for winning championships are gone.

It is the reaching of that magical mark, however, that is the most important, especially for a team that has struggled for a large part of the season.  Reaching .500 can almost be seen as hitting the reset button – anything that came before it is in the past and can be forgotten.  The Jays have been scratching and clawing and lunging and reaching and struggling to get to that line, that milestone, since day one.

Somewhat shockingly, in the 40 year history of the franchise, the Toronto Blue Jays have only had one season where they failed to ever reach the .500 mark.  No, it wasn’t 1977, 1978, or 1979, the inaugural years in which the team lost over 100 games per season.  In 1977 they won the first game in club history, and sat 5-2 through seven.  In ’78 they split the first two games of the campaign to begin the season 1-1 before fading away.  In the dreadful 1979 season in which they lost 109 times, the Jays were actually above .500 in mid-April.

No, it was the godawful 2004 season where the .500 mark proved to be unreachable.  That was a J.P. Ricciardi season; the year when John Gibbons was first hired to replace a fired Carlos Tosca; when Roy Halladay only made 21 starts; when Josh Towers, Miguel Batista, and Dave Bush were in the rotation and Jason Frasor was the closer; when Chris Gomez, Chris Woodward, and Russ Adams split time at SS.  It was an awful year, but one that actually started better than this one.  Toronto was 1-5 and then 8-17 (compared to 1-9 and 6-17 in 2017), before a 9-20 August doomed them to a last place finish, 33.5 GB.

With Bautista, Donaldson, Tulo, Martin, Morales, Stroman, Osuna, and company, the 2017 squad is surely better than the 2004 team.  Yet here we are, about to play game #66 and they still haven’t been able to win the same number as they’ve lost.  They had a chance at 0-1, at 1-2, at 26-27, 27-28, 28-29, and 31-32 and failed each time.

One gets the feeling that hitting .500 will be like a collective weight coming off the player’s shoulders; that breaking through that glass ceiling is all the club needs to go on a long and sustained run to the playoffs.

We shall find out if they can get there tomorrow night.  Again.

Maybe, hopefully, the seventh time will be the charm.

The Week That Was: Week 10

Every Monday during the 2017 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.

Week 10: June 5 – June 11

Record: 3 – 3

Season-to-date: 31 – 32

AL East: 5th,  7.5 games behind New York

Wild Card: 1.5 games behind Cleveland/Tampa Bay

  1. Surviving Out West

Last week brought with it a six game road trip to Oakland and Seattle.  Despite the A’s generally underachieving in recent years and games in Seattle resembling home games due to the tens of thousands of Canadians that flock there, trips to these stadiums typically bring bad news to the Jays.  Since 2010 Toronto’s record in Oakland is a dismal 11-15 and in Seattle a worse 9-14.  So expectations were muted.  But a 3-3 week has to be considered a win, more-so when you factor in the lacklustre first two games against Oakland.  Outstanding pitching by Happ, Stroman, Smith, and Osuna combined with some clutch hitting by Donaldson and Smoak enabled the club to take 2 of 3 vs. Seattle, a venue in which they had dropped 5 of 6.  Also, this happened, one of the best things I have seen in years:

  1. Smoak is Firing

What else can we say about Justin Smoak?  The much maligned 1B was left for dead by fans in the offseason, with many begging and pleading with Ross Atkins to simply release him before Opening Day.  (Yes, including me).  But he has done nothing but rake all season long.  He kept his hot streak going last week with another huge week, hitting 4 more HR and posting an OPS of 1.353.  Smoak is now in the top-10 in the American League in Slugging (.599), OPS (.956), Total Bases (124), HR (18), and RBI (43).  He is one of the main reasons why the Jays are within a game of the .500 mark.

  1. Osuna Matata

If Smoak is red hot, Osuna should be classified as scalding.  He has now registered a save in 11 consecutive appearances, including 3 last week alone.  In those 3 saves, Osuna struck out 4 and needed only 27 pitches to record 7 outs.  Of all AL relievers with at least 20 IP, Osuna ranks T-4th with 16 saves, 6th with a 0.84 WHIP, and 13th with 11.88 K/9.  And all this from a guy who blew 3 of his first 4 save opportunities and had an ERA of 7.50 in late April.  His turnaround, coinciding with the emergence of Joe Smith, Ryan Tepera, and Danny Barnes, gives Toronto one of the AL’s better bullpens.

Player of the Week

Justin Smoak, 1B

His incredible run just keeps going:  9 for 23,  2 BB, 4 R, 4 HR, 4 RBI, .391 / .440 / .913 / 1.353

Down on the Farm

A look at how the minor league affiliates are doing

AAA – Buffalo: 32 – 29, 3rd place, 9 GB

AA – New Hampshire: 24 – 37, 6th place, 16 GB

A+ – Dunedin: First Half: 30 – 32, 4th place, 3.5 GB

A – Lansing: First Half: 34 -26, 4th place, 6 GB

A (Short Season) – Vancouver: season not started

The Look Ahead

The team returns to Toronto for a short 5-game homestand.

June 13 – 14 vs. Tampa Bay

June 16 – 18 vs. Chicago White Sox

Hindsight: Looking Back at Past MLB Drafts

The 2017 MLB draft is less than two weeks away.  The Blue Jays hold the 22nd overall pick as well as the 28th overall pick as compensation for the loss of Edwin Encarnacion to Cleveland.  Toronto’s recent first round performance has been hit and miss.  In the past six drafts (2011 to 2016) the club has made 15 first round selections including all compensatory picks.  Other than Dwight Smith’s cup of coffee this year, only Marcus Stroman has reached the big leagues as a Blue Jay.  (Though to be fair, Joe Musgrove and Jeff Hoffman were used to acquire J.A. Happ and Troy Tulowitzki).

As we all know by now the MLB draft is the ultimate crapshoot with so many early round picks flaming out and many late round picks turning into bargains.  The real verdict on many of Toronto’s recent picks (T.J. Zeuch, Jon Harris, Max Pentecost, etc.) won’t be in for several years.  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 2012, 2007, and 2002 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.

2012 Draft

It often takes several years for drafted players to reach the major leagues. Five years have passed since the ’12 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 2012 draft:

Carlos Correa and Byron Buxton were each thought to be sure-fire studs, but to date only one has panned out.  Correa won the Rooke of the Year award in 2015 and is raking again this year for the first place Astros.  Buxton, like the rest of the first round selections, has had a slow start to his career.  Kevin Gausman has showed flashes for the Orioles, but the jury is still out on the rest of the top-10.   Zunino, and Almora have each had a bit of major league success, and both Heaney, and Dahl are currently injured.  Kyle Zimmer is currently toiling in AA and Max Fried has yet to step out of AA.  Mark Appel refused to sign with PIttsburgh, went back in the draft and was chosen #1 overall in 2013 by Houston and has since been traded to the Phillies. They are getting perilously close to being considered busts.

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

What really stands out about that chart is how solid the first round was outside of the top-10.  Seager, Russell, Stroman, McCullers, and Wacha, have all had great starts to their big league careers, including post season appearances and World Series titles.  Of note, Graveman was drafted 1097th by the Marlins but didn’t sign and was picked up the following year by the Jays, who then packaged him for Josh Donaldson.  Although he is currently the 10th best player out of that draft I think Jays fans everywhere would make that trade again.  And again.

Blue Jay Focus

The 2012 draft was Toronto’s third under Alex Anthopoulos, and has the potential to be outstanding.  Although top pick D.J. Davis (17th overall) looks bad (in his 6th year Davis is still in high A ball in Dunedin), AA used a compensatory pick for failing to sign Tyler Beede in 2011 to draft Marcus Stroman who is a mainstay in the rotation.  Then with pick 112 he gambled on a two sport athlete out of Mississippi who was said to be leanings towards football.  Instead, Anthony Alford stuck with baseball, put up an .867 OPS in New Hampshire this year before being called up to the bigs a few weeks ago.

First Round Picks: D.J. Davis (17th overall), Marcus Stroman (22nd overall)

Total Number of Picks: 44

Number of Players to Reach the Majors: 3

– Marcus Stroman (22nd overall), WAR of 6.9

– Chase De Jong – traded to LA Dodgers for international bonus slots in 2015, then to Seattle in 2017 (81st), WAR of -0.7

– Anthony Alford (112th) – WAR of 0.0

Total WAR = 6.2

2007 Draft

The 2007 draft turned out to be a real mixed bag.  The top-10 produced All Stars, World Series Champions, and several unquestionable busts.

Here are the top-10 picks of the 2007 draft:
Just like in 2012, this was a rare draft where the first overall pick really panned out.  Price was phenomenal in Tampa Bay, Detroit, and Toronto, and is currently a big ticket item for the Red Sox.  Likewise, Madison Bumgarner has been a dominant force in San Francisco, helping the Giants to three World Series titles, including almost single-handedly winning the ’14 edition.   Both Moustakas and Wieters have appeared in the postseason and an All Star game, lending credibility to their selections.  The rest of the top-10 was a bust however.  Josh Vitters hit .121 in 36 games with the 2012 Cubs and is now out of baseball.  Mat LaPorta was a key piece in a CC Sabathia trade, but hasn’t played a big league game since 2012.  That’s more than can be said for Casey Weathers, who never made it above AA.

With the magic of hindsight, here is a re-ranked version of the 2007 draft, based on career WAR:
Chris Sale ranks as the second best player in the draft, but he did not sign with the Rockies and was re-drafted in the first round in 2010.  There were a lot of sluggers selected, including Heyward, Stanton, Freeman, Rizzo, and Lucroy.  And then there was the Bringer of Rain Josh Donaldson drafted with a compensatory pick by the Cubs as a catcher.   He never quite panned out in Chicago, but has done pretty well elsewhere.

Blue Jay Focus

The 2007 draft was completed under the guidance of J.P. Ricciardi, and looks pretty bad in hindsight.  When your top pick doesn’t make the big leagues, you get a big red X.

First Round Picks: Kevin Ahrens (16th overall as compensation for the loss of Frank Catalanotto), J.P. Arencibia (21st overall), Brett Cecil (38th overall, supplemental pick for the loss of Justin Speier), Justin Jackson (45th overall, supplemental pick for the loss of Frank Catalanotto), Trystan Magnuson (56th overall, supplemental pick for the loss of Ted Lilly)

Total Number of Picks: 35

Number of Players to Reach the Majors: 7

– J.P. Arencibia – now retired, (21st), WAR of 2.7

– Brett Cecil – now with St. Louis (38th), WAR of 6.5

– Trystan Magnuson – out of baseball, (56th) WAR of -0.2

– Brad Mills – out of baseball (145th), WAR of -1.5

– Marc Rzepczynski – now with Seattle (175th), WAR of 3.7

– Brad Emaus – out of baseball (355th), WAR of -0.7

– Darin Mastroianni  (505th), WAR of -0.5

Total WAR = 10.0

2002 Draft

To those who say that drafting players should be easy, may I present the 2002 top-10.  Yikes.

Where do we even begin?  Greinke was obviously a great selection by KC, even if he didn’t really come into his own until after he left the Royals.  There are a few classic cases of what could have been with Upton, Francis, and Fielder each seeing their promising careers derailed by injury and/or inconsistency.  But the rest of the lot?  Let’s take a closer look:

Bullington pitched a total of 18.1 innings for the Pirates before bouncing around to a few other clubs including a 6-inning, 6-walk stint for Toronto in 2009.  Beginning in 2011 he spent five relatively successful years in Japan.

Neither Gruler nor Everts ever reached the majors.  Loewen had a few solid months as a pitcher for the Orioles before reinventing himself as an outfielder.  He appeared in 14 games for the Jays in 2011.  Finally, Moore and Meyer made short stops in the major leagues and did nothing that would confuse them for a top-10 pick.

Here is a re-ranked version of the 2002 draft, based on career WAR:

A pretty solid list of players.  The real standout has to be Martin, drafted 511th overall by the Dodgers, and still enjoying a productive career in Toronto.

Blue Jay Focus

2002 was the first draft of the  Ricciardi era and to say it wasn’t great would be an understatement.  The Jays drafted yet another shortstop of the future in the first round, picking Russ Adams with the 14th pick.  Adams went off the board ahead of Nick Swisher, Cole Hamels, and Matt Cain in the first round.  He actually enjoyed a fairly productive 2005 season (63 RBI, 11 SB, .707 OPS), but quickly fizzled and did not appear in the majors after 2009.

First Round Pick: Russ Adams (14th overall) – Career WAR: 0.0

Total Number of Picks: 50

Number of Players to Reach the Majors: 8

– Russ Adams (14th), WAR of 0.0

– Dave Bush (55th), WAR of 3.5

– Adam Peterson (116th), WAR of -0.2

– Jason Perry (176th), WAR of -0.5

– Jordan De Jong (536th), WAR of -0.2

– Dewon Day (776th) – WAR of -0.5

– Erik Kratz (866th) – WAR of 0.1

– Drew Butera (1419th) – WAR of -1.3

Total WAR = 0.9