photo credit: Canadian Press
Good morning sports media observers. With the start of the baseball season I thought I would devote this week’s column to a bunch of big and small baseball stories, rather than the usual hard hitting amateur media criticism that fills this space. We will get back to that next week. Of course, if there’s something you want to talk about, feel free to bring it up in the comments. OK, let’s play ball!
The 2014 Jays season started off strong before eventually going up in flames after the all-star break, with the team sputtering to a mediocre 83 wins. This was 5 games off the pace needed for a wildcard spot and 13 games behind the division winning Orioles. Over the last 10 years, 95 wins was the lowest win total needed to win the AL East. Since the 2 team wildcard format came on board in 2012, 91 is the average number of wins needed to get in to the playoffs that way. So the Jays need to get to 90 wins to have a good shot at making the playoffs, and at least 87 to have a chance at playing Meaningful Games in September (TM, Bob McCown).
The question with which Jays observers are left is whether the roster changes made this off-season are likely to yield a 90 win season. As the 2015 season gets set to unfold, I reached out to some Jays experts to play a round of Better, Same, or Worse with this year’s roster. This is a game I play whenever someone tries to convince me that this Jays team has a shot at the playoffs. I’m open to being convinced, but you have to be able to make the case on more than just hope and hype.
Joining me this week are Ben Ennis of Sportsnet TV and radio, Scott MacArthur from TSN radio and web, and Gregor Chisholm of MLB Advanced Media/MLB.com. If you’re not already following these fine baseball folks on Twitter, you’re missing out. Here are their answers to my questions about the 2015 Jays.
The rotation will be better if …
BE: Drew Hutchison, Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris stay healthy. For a team that ranked 22nd in starter’s ERA a year ago there are plenty of reasons to believe that Hutchison can take a step forward, but there will be growing pains for Norris and Sanchez.
GC: Aaron Sanchez is able to command his secondary pitches for strikes and fill the void left behind by Marcus Stroman. Last year’s success came primarily with one pitch and he’s going to need more than that in the rotation. Whether he can throw the curveball and his new slider for strikes will determine how his year goes.
SM: Daniel Norris (more likely) and/or Aaron Sanchez emerge as an AL Rookie of the Year candidate; Drew Hutchison builds off his strikeout per inning, 184IP season of 2014.
The rotation will be the same if …
BE: Norris and Sanchez are bouncing back and forth between AAA and Toronto. Which isn’t out of the realm of possibility by any means.
GC: Sanchez and Norris battle consistency problems all year.
SM: R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle achieve their career norms but the rest of the rotation suffers some minor attrition, forcing spot starts from some of Marco Estrada, Felix Doubront or Liam Hendriks.
The rotation will be worse if …
BE: They have to rely on the Pu pu platter of Randy Wolf, Johan Santana, Todd Redmond and Marco Estrada to make more than 20 starts.
GC: Anybody gets hurt for a significant period of time. There is almost no depth after the starting five and this team will be in trouble if Marco Estrada or the slew of marginal veterans in Triple-A have to eat up significant innings as starters.
SM: The kids struggle with command on more nights than they’re good, age catches up to Dickey and Buehrle.
Most likely outcome?
BE: Sanchez and Norris are good, but not great, but the Jays live and die with their offence
GC: Better than last year, but not great. I think Hutchison will take a big step forward and Norris is a dark horse candidate to receive at least some hype for rookie of the year. I have less faith that Sanchez will find similar success as a starter but the Blue Jays will ride it out through the highs and lows because there aren’t any viable replacements.
SM: I think Norris could be an AL ROY candidate but other than that, likely more of the same.
The bullpen will be better if …
BE: Miguel Castro and Roberto Osuna continue to throw strikes, look like Major Leaguers and stay healthy.
GC: As Ben mentioned above, the bullpen really comes down to how Osuna and Castro perform. If they are ready to take this big step then this group of relievers should be pretty good. There was a glaring need for reliable set-up men from the right side, in theory that’s what these two are.
SM: Brett Cecil or, if he struggles early, someone else emerges as the trusted closer. Osuna and Castro thrive as two 20-year-olds and Osuna, along with Estrada and Loup, provide the bridge work from the starting staff to the late-game relievers.
The bullpen will be the same if …
BE: Castro and Osuna can’t throw strikes, Steve Delabar is back in the Majors before May and the mop up men need mop up men.
GC: The rookies struggle and eventually get replaced by Delabar and Chad Jenkins. Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup will be reliable and that should help this group avoid being a total disaster no matter what happens with Castro/Osuna.
SM: Cecil struggles like Janssen did in the second half of last year and Castro plays the role of Sanchez.
The bullpen will be worse if …
BE: Nearly impossible. The Jays’ bullpen was 25th in ERA last year, issuing the 8th most walks in MLB, while only having to pitch the 17th most innings.
GC: It would be hard to struggle more than this group did last year but one way it happens is if a couple of guys in the rotation go down. That would press some of the fringe starters in the rotation and creates the need for even more innings from the bullpen.
SM: Cecil implodes, Castro and Osuna aren’t ready and the depth (Delabar, Jenkins) comes up and doesn’t stem the tide.
Most likely outcome?
BE: Alex Anthopoulos rues not addressing his leaky bullpen in the off-season, Brett Cecil loses the closer’s job before May and they have to make a desperation move in-season.
GC: Cecil and Loup will do fine but at least one of the rookies will struggle and get sent down before too long. Similarly to what Ben said, the lack of additions to the bullpen won’t go over well and adding someone else to the bullpen will become a talking point well into the middle of the season. For what it’s worth, I think Castro will be solid, I have less faith Osuna is ready.
SM: This one’s up to Cecil. If he can close, the rest of the ‘pen will organize itself.
The line-up will be better if …
BE: Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion stay healthy all year. It’s been said before, but this team has the potential to be the most potent lineup 1 through 5 in the Majors. If Dalton Pompey picks up where he left off last September and Devon Travis fulfills his offensive potential, this lineup is deeper than people expect.
GC: The Blue Jays stay healthy. This will sound repetitive after Ben’s answer but it’s the truth. Donaldson over Lawrie/Martin over Navarro are two major upgrades and Saunders over Melky Cabrera won’t be nearly as much of a downgrade as a lot of people think. This team would have to fall apart at the seams for the lineup not to be a major asset in 2015.
SM: Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson all play full seasons and combine to hit 110 home runs. Justin Smoak hits right-handers enough to justify keeping his bat in the lineup; the bottom of the order gets on base enough to turn over the lineup with runners on base for the boppers to cash in.
The line-up will be the same if …
BE: Pompey and Travis are meh, but everybody else hits. Let’s not forget, this team was 5th in MLB in runs scored a year ago, and they missed Adam Lind and Encarnacion for long swaths of time.
GC: Smoak, Travis and Pompey all struggle. Even if this happens I think there’s a chance the lineup could be better — if the core stays healthy — but there are still reasons for concern with the bottom three. I actually think Pompey will be fine but I have doubts about Smoak. He does have 20 home run power but he typically doesn’t offer much else and that’s a concern.
SM: Parts of the middle of the order experience injury and miss some time but are otherwise productive.
The line-up will be worse if …
BE: The 6 through 9 spots are a train wreck. There are plenty of question marks about the bottom of the lineup against righties. Does Justin Smoak just need a change of scenery? Are youngsters Kevin Pillar, Pompey and Travis ready for full-time work in the Majors?
GC: Everything completely falls apart. Reyes’ hamstring continues to be an issue and at least one of Bautista, Encarnacion and Donaldson miss a significant period of time.
SM: The middle of the order can’t stay on the field; Pompey and Travis aren’t ready to contribute on a daily basis; Smoak and Saunders show that who they were in Seattle is who they will be in Toronto.
Most likely outcome?
BE: They’re just as good as their impressive offence in 2014, and they need to be, because there are enough question marks with the relievers.
GC: The final numbers last year were strong but I think they’ll be better in 2015 and more importantly the club will be more consistent with the bat. So much of last year’s production came during May and everyone knew it wasn’t sustainable. I think Saunders will be a very underrated piece when he returns, Pompey will be solid in center but the Blue Jays will need to address 1B/DH at the deadline and possibly second base as well.
SM: Smoak’s key because if he can hit, he’ll play first base and that should be good for Encarnacion’s longevity. Even if the answer is “the same” the Jays should be fine offensively. They’ll be better, though, because they have Donaldson.
The defence will be better if …
BE: Justin Smoak hits enough to warrant playing first base against righties. Jose Reyes had a brutal year defensively in 2014 and as much as Josh Donaldson can pick it, his arm is erratic at times. Smoak’s long reach should save plenty of throwing errors from the left side of the infield. The outfield defence should be great with Kevin Pillar / Michael Saunders, Dalton Pompey and Jose Bautista, while Russell Martin’s glove is elite behind the plate.
GC: On paper, this team should be much better defensively. This kind of goes without saying but Martin is one of the best in the business and he’ll go a long way in cutting down the running game and also getting the most out of the pitching staff. The outfield defense is also significantly better by eliminating Cabrera’s lack of range and the subtraction of Rasmus, whose head clearly wasn’t in it last year.
SM:The outfield will be better. Reyes finds the tonic for his ailing legs and rediscovers even a little bit of range; Smoak hits enough that he’s regularly at first base and is able to pick throws in the dirt.
The defence will be the same if …
BE: Edwin Encarnacion has to carry the load at first base. His defence isn’t Juan Francisco bad, but he isn’t Mark Teixeira either. Devon Travis isn’t supposed to be much of a defender, but I’ve been impressed by the little I’ve seen of him in Spring.
GC: The infield defense offsets the gains made behind the plate and in the outfield. Travis looked okay at second base this spring but we don’t know how he’s going to react on the turf. Even if the claims about this surface being slower than ones used in the past are true, it still won’t be as slow as natural grass and that exposes a player’s lack of range even more.
SM: Reyes’ legs are barking all year, Travis plays a middling second base and the Jays struggle up the middle.
The defence will be worse if …
BE: Danny Valencia, Steve Tolleson and Ryan Goins see time in the outfield. The Jays have experimented with different looks in left field, but it shouldn’t matter if superior defenders Kevin Pillar and Michael Saunders do their job.
GC: I don’t think there’s any way it can be worse. Even if Martin goes down, Navarro will be there so essentially that becomes 2014 all over again. Reyes can’t be any worse than he was last year. Kawasaki got a lot of time at 2B last year and we all know he’s not known for the glove.
SM: Reyes can hardly move, Travis’ reputation in the Detroit system comes true on the speedier turf in Toronto, Smoak can’t hit which necessitates playing Encarnacion at first base, Russell Martin gets hurt and Dioner Navarro is forced to assume regular catching duties.
Most likely outcome?
BE: This team’s defence is vastly improved by the addition of Smoak and the outfield is regarded as one of the best in the Majors. When Bautista take at bats at DH, you could see three legit centrefielders across the outfield in Saunders, Pompey and Pillar.
GC: Overall it will be significantly better because of the OF and C but the infield defense is a concern and it’s going to cost them some games this year.
SM: The defence will be better.
The bench will be better if …
BE: Josh Thole spends the entire season in AAA and they go with a seven man bullpen. Danny Valencia and Steve Tolleson are legit lefty-mashers and Dioner Navarro is a nice option to pinch hit against all comers in the late innings.
GC: The Blue Jays actually move quickly and put together the proper 25-man roster. Goins should be on the team as a back-up IF to spell Reyes once a week at SS. I understand the premise of starting the year with an eight-man bullpen but it can only last for a series or two before changes have to be made … A full year of Danny Valencia starting against lefties should help, Navarro as a back-up C and possible pinch hitter is another useful weapon.
SM: There are four people regularly available to manager John Gibbons. If Michael Saunders and Kevin Pillar, one of whom will be sitting when the other starts in left field, are productive; if Dioner Navarro is on the bench as a backup catcher, not a regular DH; if Ryan Goins is on the team almost right away and his bat comes up with the odd crucial hit to supplement his strong glove play; if Danny Valencia gets ABs as a pinch-hitter against tough lefty relievers and does damage.
The bench will be the same if …
BE: They trade Dioner Navarro and Thole becomes the backup catcher. Thole has some decent on-base skills, but generally swings a wet newspaper. He plays every R.A. Dickey start and that’s it, essentially eliminating a pinch-hitting option.
GC: The Blue Jays dump Navarro for nothing. I know a lot of people don’t agree with me but this team is better with Navarro on the bench. Yes Thole works well with Dickey but he doesn’t offer anything with the bat. If the Jays are going to be contenders, Martin will have to catch Dickey in meaningful September games anyways so that’s a partnership the club should stick with.
SM: Nobody stands out and bench players are used in the options game, moving between Toronto and Buffalo to facilitate the needs of the pitching staff (seven or eight-man bullpen)
The bench will be worse if …
BE: The Jays go with an eight man bullpen. I get the desire to have an extra long man when you’re dealing with young starters, but a 3 man bench extremely handcuffs John Gibbons’ late-game strategy.
GC: Maicer Izturis is healthy but not starting. If Travis remains the starting second baseman, there is simply no place for Izturis on this team. He made sense when the Blue Jays planned to platoon him with Ramon Santiago but with Travis around it’s no longer feasible. Tolleson is a similarly redundant piece.
SM: Danny Valencia starts hitting left-handers like he does right-handers; Ryan Goins comes up, enters games late for defensive purposes but can’t hit in limited at-bats; Dioner Navarro and Josh Thole somehow become the catching duo
Most likely outcome?
BE: Dioner Navarro is traded and Josh Thole is the backup catcher. A few short starts for the young pitchers requires an extra mop up man in the bullpen, but the Jays have some nice late game speed on the bench with either Pillar or Saunders.
GC: Navarro will stay put and on the whole the Blue Jays bench will be better. I have no idea what’s going to happen with Izturis though because there simply isn’t any trade value there
SM: The bench, as currently constituted, is encouraging. If Ryan Goins doesn’t start the year with the team, expect him to join it sooner rather than later.
Win total with this roster?
Ennis: 88. This team self-immolated in the final months of last season, but proved that the offence can compete with anybody in baseball. There are arguments to be made that it’s even better this season, but the pitching is the great unknown. Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris have the pedigree to be successful, but there’s usually in-season adjustments to be made for young starters, let’s see if they can make them. The nightmare scenario sees the starting pitching cancelled out by a horrific relief corps, which can break a team’s spirit. I wouldn’t say it’s likely, but certainly possible considering the lack of personnel additions to a horrific bullpen in 2014. Ultimately, I see the Jays as a fringe playoff team in a down year for the American League East.
Chisholm: 85. The Blue Jays will remain in contention for most of the year but it’s unrealistic to think the five starters can remain healthy all season and ultimately I think that will lead to the club’s downfall. At the very least, though, it should be an interesting season because as much as I can pick apart various aspects of the Jays roster, the same could be done to every team in the east.
MacArthur: 88, which may be enough to win the division.
A million thanks to all three for chatting with me. Here’s hoping for a fun season. What do you think Jays fans? Has AA done enough to get you to come down to the Dome this year?
The Associated Press recently published a handy primer on the stats that form the core of modern baseball analysis. If you’ve been hanging on to RBIs and pitcher wins, now just might be the right time to step into the 21st century. You can still use your eyes for intangibles like hustle and grit, but use these for the rest.
Sportsnet deserves a lot of credit for investing in even more baseball coverage. For this season they have added a weekly podcast called At the Letters, hosted by underused Sportsnet writers Arden Zwelling and Ben Nicholson-Smith, and produced by Sam McKee. Great to see some fresh voices getting a chance. Their new podcast joins the only slightly more recently established TSN offering The Blue Jays Report featuring Scott MacArthur and a rotation of co-hosts.
If you’re not already following John Lott, do it now. In addition to his great and always professional reporting, he posts a lot of his own photos from the games. He’s not a regular on the radio, but I’m hoping that this season brings us more of his analysis.
The Jays blogosphere is pretty big and there are lots of good options. The National Post hosted a pre-season roundtable featuring a bunch of good bloggers you should also follow. (Side-note: when I host a roundtable with bloggers who don’t publish their real names, I get yelled at. When the National Post does it …)
Derek Jeter’s Payers Tribune website has been making news lately, due to David Ortiz’s charged missive at Dan Shaughnessy, and the latter’s response. Jose Bautista, or someone close to him, penned a long piece on the Dominican youth development system and the lack of resources available to the 97% of players who never take a swing in the big leagues. It’s a fantastic piece. I’m glad to see Jose take an active role in making the working conditions better for those less fortunate than him. More on this in the next item. As we head into a season filled with uncertainty, let’s all remember to enjoy the time we have with Joey Bats.
With the start of the baseball season some groups are actively working to keep the spotlight on the arguably exploitative compensation minor league baseball players receive. Like other sports, baseball relies on the minors to develop major league talent. Unlike other sports, baseball’s development cycle is very long with many levels, and so MLB teams employ thousands of players whose main function is to serve as fodder for the guys with real talent. An increasing amount of attention is now being paid to who feeds the fodder. Michael McCann at SI.com lays out the issue.
Lastly, the Oakland A’s are hosting a Pride Night this season. This has prompted some people to protest and demand refunds. Eireann Dolan, girlfriend of A’s pitcher Sean Doolittle, has stepped up and offered to buy those tickets and give them away to LGTB organizations. This is a fantastic response to an increasingly shrinking segment of society. Warning: if you read the linked Yahoo article, DON”T READ THE COMMENTS.
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)