Category Archives: Upper Deck Insight

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?

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.

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

Nearly There…..

What.  A.  Turnaround.

The crazy 2017 season continued its crazy ways this afternoon as the Jays, featuring Chris Coghlan, Ryan Goins, and Luke Maile at the bottom of the lineup and Mike Bolsinger on the mound, completed a three game sweep of the Reds to creep to within a single game of .500.

That’s right.  This team that started 1-9 overall, 2-8 at home, and at one point was 6-17 – good for dead last in baseball – is now 26-27.  This team that at one stretch was missing Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, Kendrys Morales (for a few games), J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez, and Francisco Liriano, is now only 6 games behind the Yankees for top spot in the AL East.  This team that on top of all the injuries saw Devon Travis and Jose Bautista batting under .150, Roberto Osuna blowing every save chance he could find, and Grilli / Howell / Leone and co. giving away runs like candy on Halloween is now suddenly only 2.5 games back of a Wild Card slot.

It’s crazy.

On the morning of April 27th, with the Jays sitting with a record of 6-14 and looking rather hopeless, I wrote that it was important for the team to reach the .500 mark by game 62.  That would leave them with a nice round 100 games remaining to make their move towards October.  At the time of that post, Toronto needed to go 25-17 in the next 42 games to reach the .500 mark.  Did I really believe they could do it?  I’d like to say yes.  But let’s be honest.  They still had to go to New York to face the red hot Yankees.  There was still a home and home series with Tampa, a visit to Baltimore, and series against two 2016 playoff teams in Cleveland and Texas.  Then, immediately after writing that article Toronto lost three straight games (including an embarrassing doubleheader sweep in St. Louis) to fall to 6-17.

The season was horrid.  And getting worse.

But what has transpired since then has been simply magical.  Bautista and Travis have started hitting.  Players have started returning to health.  Stroman turned into a slugger and an ace.  Estrada is suddenly a strikeout artist.  Osuna regained his 2015/16 form.  And the most unlikely players have taken turns as hero’s.  Goins, Carrera, and Barney of all people took turns carrying the offense.  Joe Biagini of all people stabilized the rotation.  Joe Smith, Ryan Tepera, and Danny Barnes of all people suddenly morphed into Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, transforming Toronto’s ‘pen into a fortress.

Even better, during Toronto’s 18-10 month of May, the rest of the AL East has stayed stagnant.  Tampa, New York, and Boston are each 3 games over .500, and Baltimore has lost significant ground at 11-16.  The division is essentially up for grabs.

The Jays have now collected 20 of the 25 wins required to reach .500 by game 62.  A 5-4 record in the next 9 games is all it will take.  With a four game set at home with the Yankees, and then a west coast trip to Oakland and Seattle upcoming, it definitely won’t be easy.

But I like our chances.

Baby Steps

Finally.

For the first time in 2017 people are talking about the Jays in a good way.

All it took was Chris Coghlan to channel his inner Willie Mays Hayes, Marcus Stroman to come off the bench as a pinch hitter, and Ryan Tepera to actually hold on to a lead for Toronto’s bullpen.  Yes, Tuesday night’s game against the Cardinals seemingly had it all, and most important of all it ended with a Blue Jays win.

Through 20 games, the Jays sit dead last in the AL East with a record of 6-14, matching the worst 20-game start in franchise history originally set in 1979.  None of the numbers look good.  The club has a team OPS of .639, second worst in the AL.  They are scoring 3.50 runs per game, second worst in the AL.  They are hitting .181 with runners in scoring position, second worst in the AL.  They are hitting .172 with a runner on third and less than 2 out, worst in the AL.

It goes on and on, but that is not what this post is about.  The Jays are off to a bad start – we all know that.  But that doesn’t matter anymore.  What matters is what they do from this point on.

Open your eyes wide enough and it’s easy to see that things are slowly starting to turn around.  In the past week things are actually looking up.  Toronto has put together a 4-3 record, and some of their hitters are slowly but surely coming to life.  Russell Martin is hitting .438 with 2 HR.  Jose Bautista finally went deep, as did Devon Travis.  Justin Smoak is actually looking like a serviceable big leaguer.  On the mound, Marcus Stroman continues to impress, and it seems as if Liriano has shaken off his awful start.

What is important for fans to realize, and what is sometimes difficult to accept, is that a turnaround takes time.  The Jays aren’t going to win 10 games in one night, and aren’t going to win the next 10 games in a row.  If they are going to turn it around, it is going to be a slow and steady crawl back to respectability.  The first goal on that trek back up is the .500 mark.

Baseball is a game of seemingly arbitrary endpoints, so let’s make one up here: game 62.  That is when Toronto realistically needs reach .500.  If they can get to 31-31, that leaves 100 games left – a nice round number – to do some damage.

To see why that milestone is important, I took a look at every single playoff team in the wild card era, which began in 2012 – a total of 50 different instances.  Through 62 games, the average record of the 50 playoff teams was 35-27, with 88% being .500 or better.  That means only 6 times in the wild card era has a team with a losing record at the 62 game mark rebounded to make the playoffs.  The worst teams in that stretch?  The 2013 LA Dodgers and the 2012 Oakland A’s, both of which were 27-35.

Does that mean reaching .500 guarantees a playoff spot?  Not even close.  But what it does mean is that failing to reach .500 will make it very difficult to qualify for the postseason, especially in a division as tough as the AL East.

For the Jays to reach that magical mark, they will have to go 25-17 in the next 42 games, just under .600 baseball.  For context, the 2016 Jays went 25-17 or better in 58 different 42-game stretches.  The 2015 Jays did so 51 times.

Including today’s doubleheader in St. Louis, Toronto plays 20 of those 42 games on the road, and only 15 are against teams that are above .500 as of right now.  The team will conceivably be getting Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Josh Donaldson, and maybe Troy Tulowitzki back.  All good news.

There is still a long way to go, but there is hope it can be done.

The baby steps have started.  The just need to keep on coming.

So What Happens Now?

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: solid preseason favourite gets off to tough start, fans panic.

If it sounds familiar it’s because it should.  Every year, in every sport, at least one of the supposed contenders seems to hit the skids immediately.  Last season, preseason darlings Houston, Arizona, and the Mets combined for a 9-19 start, with each club sitting in last place in mid-April.  In 2015 the same thing happened to the Yankees, National, Pirates, and Giants, as they combined for a 12-25 record.

The only difference this season is that it’s the Blue Jays who are stinking up the league.  At 1-7 they are off to the worst start in franchise history.  But this is a team that isn’t far removed from having solid World Series odds by bookmakers, and being a trendy playoff pick by sports sites.  So what happened?

The easy answer is that the team is simply not hitting.  And that’s true.  The Jays are dead last in the AL in runs scored with only 23 in 8 games.  They sit dead last with a .190 average, second last with a .272 OBP, and dead last with a .276 slugging percentage.  A team that seemingly lives and dies with the long ball has hit only 4 HR so far, or less than the Orioles hit in the first two innings alone last night.  Toronto is averaging just over 6 hits per game, and has only tallied 15 extra base hits all season.  They also have 0 stolen bases and are hitting a dismal .143 with runners in scoring position.

In short, the bats are cold.  Ice cold.

But trust me: things aren’t as bad as they seem.  It struck me yesterday how unlucky the team has been.  We have seen Tulo hit ropes that find gloves.  We have seen Morales crush line drives that are knocked down by diving infielders.  Bautista has hit the ball very hard only to have it travel directly at an outfielder.  Meanwhile we watched Ray and Brewer hitters find holes with little dribblers, and hit flares that just drop in.  In fact, an inch or two here and there and it’s not inconceivable that the Jays could be 7-1 instead of 1-7.

The data backs this up as well.  According Fangraphs, the Jays are in the middle of the pack in both line drive percentage (9th at 19.9%) and hard hit ball percentage (8th at 30.5%).  They also rank in the middle of the pack in both strikeout and walk percentage.  This tells us that aren’t striking out a ton, still reaching base, and aren’t simply hitting weak ground balls and pop-ups.   In fact, the two teams with profiles most similar to Toronto’s are the A’s and Yankees, each of whom are .500 or better.  This simply isn’t the profile of a 1-7 squad.

There’s always the possibility that every single one of Toronto’s veterans (Bautista, Tulowitzki, Morales, Martin, Pearce) have started to suddenly and sharply decline at exactly the same time.  But more likely is that players are battling both bad luck and bad starts.  With track records like these guys have, it should only be a matter of time until balls start finding holes.

And as a Jays fan if it makes you feel any better, they are asking the same questions in Boston, Cleveland, Kansas City, Seattle, Texas, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, where those preseason contenders are a combined 21-38.

Look, with 4.9% of the schedule played, Jays have played the equivalent of 0.79 games of an NFL schedule and 4 games of an NHL schedule.  Nobody wrote off the Falcons or Cowboys when they started 0-1, or the Ducks (0-3-1) or Flames (1-2-1) for their slow starts.

If the Blue Jays are still sporting a sub-.200 winning percentage in mid-May, then we can worry.

But on April 13th?

Forget about it.

Relax Kids

 

“Relax, kid.  We got 162 of these games to go.” – Jake Taylor

It’s not often that I get to open a post with a quote from Jake Taylor.  For those who aren’t aware, those words were spoken by Taylor, a grizzled veteran on the Cleveland Indians, to rookie pitcher Rick Vaughn minutes before Opening Day in 1989.  Vaughn, sitting near his locker,  was visibly nervous before being reminded: it’s a long season.

Of course, neither of those players are real, that quote being from Major League the greatest baseball movie of all time.  But that doesn’t change the fact that the words are 100% accurate., and that today seems like a very opportune time to state them.

Social media is a great and very useful thing, but it also has the ability to rile people and start mass panic.  Case-in-point the hours immediately following Mark Trumbo’s walkoff HR that gave Baltimore an Opening Day victory over the Blue Jays.  Suddenly, any excitement that was generated from the return of the Jays and having baseball back after a long winter was gone.

Instead?  How about:

  • The Jays can’t hit with runners-in-scoring position just like last year.  This will be an issue all season long.
  • After seeing Edwin’s performance with Cleveland and Bautista’s performance it’s clear that Toronto re-signed the wrong free agent.  Bautista’s days of being an elite slugger are gone.
  • Russell Martin still strikes out way too much and looks past his prime.
  • Tulo is on the decline.
  • Grilli is too old and is not a viable late-inning relief option.  With Osuna on the DL the bullpen is screwed.
  • It’s clear that Donaldson is hurt.
  • Releasing Upton was the worst move Atkins could have made, leaving the team without an OF replacement and no speed on the bench.

Does that about cover everything?

At this point in my life, after years of running this blog and of following fans on Twitter, I shouldn’t be surprised.  Yet somehow I continue to be.  Within hours the Toronto Blue Jays went from a solid contender to winning the AL East to a team that looks finished in the eyes of many.  Not in the eyes of everybody, but in a staggeringly high number of people.

Relax.  Seriously – there are 161 more games to go.  The season is 0.62% complete.  By my best guesses, even the very best team in baseball will lose at least 55-60 games this year.  Even the very best teams in the game will lose a game they probably should have won, or lose a few games in a row.  No team is immune.  Baseball is a marathon.

Do you know who else lost on Opening Day?  The Cubs.  The Giants.  The Yankees.  The Rangers.  The Mariners.  Each of those teams is expected to challenge for a postseason spot as well.

I feel like a broken record pointing this out year after year, but it bears repeating: it’s one game.  The Jays will be fine.

And if you won’t take my word for it, at least listen to Jake.