Archive for Toronto Blue Jays
It might not feel that way, but the Yankees and Blue Jays just locked horns two weeks ago. The Yanks swept them handily as part of their six-game winning streak. Things have been a bit tumultuous lately, which leaves that memory further back in our minds.
What Have the Jays Done Lately?
Since dropping all three games to the Yanks two weeks ago, the Blue Jays have been on a mini tear. They went 6-3, including 4-2 against the Red Sox. For that Yankees fans have many thanks. But that’s about all we have. The last thing the Yankees need is to flub a series when the Nos. 2 and 3 teams in the AL East are locking horns.
Jays on Offense
The Jays are in essentially the same position offensively as they were the last time the two sides met. At that point, 12 games ago, they had a 103 wRC+, which ranked fifth in the AL. They currently have a 102 wRC+, which still ranks fifth in the AL — though they’re a bit further behind the Tigers this time, for obvious reasons. They’re also at the same place power-wise, with a .168 ISO. But the Rangers pulled further ahead of them in the past two weeks.
Yes, Jose Bautista still leads the Jays offense. That’s not changing now, or does it figure to change in the near future. Since the Yankees series, in which he went 3 for 11 with three singles, he’s gone 6 for 29 with a double and two homers. That puts him at 42 on the year, three ahead of Curtis Granderson. It does appear that Bautista will walk away with the crown for a second straight year.
Again, not much has changed since the last time the Jays played the Yanks, so it’s more of the same story. Yunel Escobar continues to hit and walk in the leadoff spot, while Brett Lawrie continues to impress. He does have a bruised knee, which he suffered during Wednesday’s game, but with a day off yesterday he could be back tonight. Edwin Encarnacion is the other guy in the lineup who can cause some damage, while Eric Thames has heated up of late.
(Also be on the lookout for Adam Loewen, whom you might remember pitching for the Orioles years ago. He’s reemerged as an outfielder for the Jays, and is 5 for his first 14 with a homer.)
One thing to consider about the Jays offense is that they’re very top heavy. Lawrie has just 149 PA, yet he has the second most runs above average on the team. That’s a counting stat, so he’s managed to outpace everyone but Bautista in what amounts to less than a quarter of a full season. That they continue to bat Adam Lind and his .295 OBP in the middle of the order further illustrates their less than impressive offensive achievements.
Blue Jays on the Mound
There will be no Ricky Romero this series, as he tossed eight innings against the Sox on Wednesday. Here’s how it’ll break down.
Friday: LHP Brett Cecil (vs. CC Sabathia). Remember the days when Cecil killed the Yankees? If not, don’t worry; it wasn’t a long stretch. In 2010 he had a few choice outings against the Yanks, holding them to four runs in 22 IP, covering three starts. In his four starts since then he’s tossed 22.2 innings and allowed 16 runs. When he faced them on September fourth he lasted six innings and threw just 84 pitches, but he allowed two homers and five runs total. The Yanks took that game easily. Last time out he was a degree better, going 7.2 and allowing just two runs, one earned, while striking out nine. But that was against the Orioles. The Yankees have a veritable gauntlet of a lineup against lefties, so tonight should not be so easy for young Cecil.
Update by Mike (3:10pm): The Blue Jays just announced that Cecil has been scratched from tonight’s start. Apparently he cut a finger while cleaning out a blender. Dustin McGowan will start instead.
Saturday: RHP Henderzon Alvarez (vs. Bartolo Colon). On Saturday Alvarez makes his eighth major league start, but his first against the Yankees. We’ve seen the Yankees falter against guys they see for the first time, but that’s just a narrative. It’s not representative of any particular deficiency. That is, it just happens sometimes. Alvarez does have some strengths, his greatest being his low walk rate. In 88 AA innings this year he walked just 1.74 per nine, and in his 43.2 MLB innings he’s walked 1.44 per nine. That, combined with a fair home run rate, has led to quality component ERAs (3.87 FIP, 3.43 xFIP) to go along with his 3.09 ERA. He doesn’t strike out man, though he has induced a good number of ground balls so far. That could play up well against the Yankees. In other words, if they do falter against him it won’t be solely because they haven’t seen him before.
Sunday: RHP Dustin McGowan (vs. Freddy Garcia). On Sunday McGowan made his first start since 2008. It was a long road back from a number of shoulder issues, but he’s finally completed the journey. Unfortunately, his return has not gone so well. The Jays threw him to the wolves in his first overall appearance, which came in relief against the Sox. He allowed three runs in four inning then. Against the Orioles he lasted just three innings while allowing four runs on five walks. The last time he faced the Yankees — June 5th, 2008 — he allowed five runs in 5.1 innings. Of course, only four of the starters from that game are still on the Yankees roster: Jeter, Posada, A-Rod, and Cano. The two players who homered off him, Jason Giambi and Wilson Betemit, are long gone.
Bullpen: The Jays do have a few weapons in their pen, but overall they’re lackluster this year, with a 3.88 ERA and 4.05 FIP. Those might not sound like bad numbers, but they both rank 10th in the American League. Casey Janssen has been the leader, with a 2.02 ERA and 2.39 FIP. Frank Francisco and his 1.32 HR/9 remain in the closer’s role.
The Yankees, specifically Joe Girardi and Russell Martin, made a little bit of a stink during the team’s four-game series in Toronto immediately after the All-Star break, suggesting that the Blue Jays were stealing signs. They weren’t the first team to make such accusations, and the ESPN duo of Amy Nelson and Peter Keating published an article today about said accusations. They’ve spoken to opposing players who’ve seen a person relay signs from the standings, and dug up some more possible evidence. It’s a pretty interesting read, so check it out.
For the last decade or so, the AL East has been a two-horse race between the Yankees and Red Sox. The Rays have gotten involved in recent years by alternating good and great seasons, and the Orioles were definitely a factor back in the late-90′s.The Blue Jays, on the other hand, have always just kind of been there. Only three times did they fail to win at least 80 games from 1998-2010, but never once did they win more than 87. They actually finished second in the AL East in 2006, but they spent the bulk of those years in third place behind the Yanks and Sox. Given the events of the last two years, their days buried behind New York and Boston may be coming to an end.
You’ve probably heard by now, but Toronto pulled off a pair of trades yesterday that might as well be considered one three-team trade. First they shipped reliever Jason Frasor and prospect Zach Stewart to the White Sox for Edwin Jackson and Mark Teahen, then they flipped Jackson to the Cardinals along with Octavio Dotel, Marc Rzepczynski, Corey Patterson, and either cash or three players to be named for Colby Rasmus, minor leaguer P.J. Walters, and relievers Trever Miller and Brian Tallet. GM Alex Anthopoulos identified two clubs with different needs and connected the dots. The White Sox needed to unload some cash, the Cardinals needed pitching depth, and the Blue Jays earned something on the side as the middle man.
The Rasmus trade is very similar to last year’s Yunel Escobar trade. Toronto had the veteran player (Alex Gonzalez) the Braves sought, set their price, and expanded the deal to include some lesser pieces to make it work. These aren’t spare parts either. Escobar and Rasmus are two legitimate up-the-middle players that were acquired before their 28th birthday and with several years of contractual control left. Escobar has been a four-win player this year, and Rasmus is a lefty power bat moving from a park with an 82 LHB HR park factor to one with a 114 LHB HR park factor. There’s a common denominator here: Anthopoulos bought low on both players because of attitude problems. Yunel had tons of trouble with Bobby Cox and the coaching staff in Atlanta while Rasmus managed to get on Tony LaRussa’s bad side. Maybe jerks are the new market inefficiency.
Anthopoulos took over for J.P. Ricciardi the day before the final game of the 2009 season, but it’s JPR that gets credit for letting Alex Rios and his contract go to the ChiSox on a waiver claim. Rios has been below replacement level this year and still has another three years and $38M left on his deal. Anthopoulos managed to unload $100M worth of Vernon Wells on the Angels last winter, a win even though the return was negligible. That’s $140M+ worth of bad players taken completely off the books within 18 months of each other. Some of that money was redistributed and used to lock up young cornerstones like Ricky Romero (five years, $30.1M) and Adam Lind (four years, $18M), not to mention the world’s greatest player, Jose Bautista (five years, $75M).
The Roy Halladay trade was one that had to be made because Toronto was going to lose him to free agency after the 2010 season. Anthopoulos acquired a prospect with frontline starter potential (Kyle Drabek) and one of the game’s top catching prospects (Travis d’Arnaud) in exchange for Halladay, turning what seemed like an unwinnable situation into one that could pay big dividends. You can’t ask for much more given that tough spot, everyone knew Halladay had to go. Brandon League for Brandon Morrow gave them another high-strikeout power arm for the AL East. Shaun Marcum turned into Brett Lawrie, one of the top offensive prospects in the game. Carlos Villanueva has a 3.25 FIP and was acquired for a relatively insignificant amount of cash. Anthopoulos’ obsession with draft picks (15 top 100 and 20 top 150 picks over the last two drafts combined) have helped create what is now considered to be one of the game’s three best farm systems.
All the young, cost-controlled players are nice, but remember that Toronto is not a small market. The team is owned by Rogers Communication, which is like Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, Time Warner, and Cablevision combined up in Canada. The city itself has about 2.5M people within the city limits plus another 5.5M or so in the surrounding areas. The ballpark holds close to 50,000 people, and as we saw in the early-90′s, the seats will be packed if the team is competitive. The Jays had a $98M payroll as recently as 2008, and everything is in place for them to support a nine-figure team. Don’t be surprised to see them dip their toe in the deep end of the free agent pool in the coming years.
The Jays aren’t going anywhere this year, they’re the fourth best team in baseball’s toughest division, and their 52-52 record and +12 run differential bears that out. But they certainly play the Yankees tough every time they meet, and that was with guys like Rajai Davis and Juan Rivera in the lineup. Replace them with Rasmus and soon enough Lawrie, and they’ll only be tougher. Anthopoulos is building his team from the middle out, focusing on up-the-middle players and pitching. He’ll have money to work with in coming years and even more young players on the way. Toronto won’t be a factor in the division race this year and probably not next year, but they’re well on their way to being a force in the AL East.
Over the past few games, the Yankees have been fairly vocal with their feelings regarding Toronto’s alleged stealing/relaying of signs. After being outscored 23-8 through the first two games of the series, Joe Girardi commented, “Sometimes we have inclinations that certain things might be happening in certain ballparks and we are aware of it and we try to protect our signs.” The skipper elaborated, “I’m not accusing anyone. I just said we need to protect our signs. You have to take pride in it, and you have to be smarter than other clubs when you do things, and you have to change things up.”
For what it’s worth, my guess is that the losses endured over the first two games of the series had more to do with the shoddy defensive play and grossly underwhelming pitching than anything else. Perhaps not so coincidentally, CC Sabathia didn’t appear overly affected by any stolen signs as he pitched eight strong innings of one run ball during the third game of the set, which ultimately resulted in a 4-1 Yankees win. The same could probably be said for Phil Hughes and his six inning, two earned run effort today.
Of course, if the Blues Jays were actually using some outside form of monitoring (binoculars, electronic equipment, etc.), than that absolutely would be a problem as that type of action blatantly contradicts the written rules of the game. In the same vein, if the Yankees seriously believed this to be the case — which would constitute a fairly substantial charge against the Jays — I’d suspect MLB would probably be asked to step in. Interestingly enough, the Yankees are not the first team to make this particular type of complaint either.
Assuming no official rules were actually violated though, this situation at the very least, qualifies as one of the many ambiguous circumstances of the game that are not necessarily illegal, but still incensing to some nevertheless. It wasn’t shocking to anyone when Martin commented, “They’re lucky that that’s my mindset, of me wanting to change [the signals] because it’s my fault. But some other teams, guys can get drilled for that. I’ve seen it happen.”
It would appear that popular consensus suggests that if a base runner is clever enough to figure out a pitch sequence, signal the dugout, and focus on base running, more power to him. To me, it speaks more towards overall poor pitch selection or general predictability on behalf of the pitcher and catcher. I completely agree with Russell Martin’s conclusion, “The reason why you put multiple signs down is so they’re not able to relay, and that type of stuff. There’s a reason why you just use one when there’s nobody on, and multiple when there’s people on.”
However, it’s certainly understandable how rationalization of this type of “gamesmanship” treads a fine line. Depending on your stance, other similar aspects of the game become a little trickier to condone or condemn. When does “crafty gamesmanship” become unsportsmanlike shenanigans? Also, do you find your feelings change when the discussion shifts to other topics such framing pitches, sliding especially hard into second, pretending to be hit with a ball during an at bat, or distracting an infielder while running the bases? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.
Fun’s over, time to get back to work. The Yankees enjoyed their three days off for the All-Star break and now head to Toronto for a four-game weekend series against a team that always seems to play them tough. Will they be fresh, energized, and ready to go after the rest? Or slow and lethargic because of the downtime? One of those two will be your narrative for the weekend.
What Have The Blue Jays Done Lately?
Toronto went into the break with a 45-47 record, good for fourth in the AL East. Their +10 run differential is sixth best in the league, behind the three division powers, the Rangers, and the Angels. The Jays won their final three games before the break, clinching a four-game series win over the Indians. They’ve been hovering right around .500 all season, which reflects their true talent level.
Blue Jays On Offense
It’s all about Jose Bautista (who’s playing third base now), the world’s best player. He’s at .334/.468/.702 with an MLB leading 31 homers and 74 walks, and in ten July games he’s hit .395/.455/1.000. If he failed to reach base in his next 48 plate appearances, Bautista would still have a higher OBP and SLG than Adrian Gonzalez does right now. Dude is on a completely different level. This is a four-game series in his home park, so he’s going to hit two or three or four homeruns. Just accept it and move on, nothing anyone can do.
Bautista’s season has overshadowed his teammates and rightfully so, but Adam Lind might be baseball’s best kept secret right now. He’s at .300/.349/.515 with 16 homers right now, but since the end of April he’s hit .331/.383/.606. He’s legit protection behind Joey Bats. Yunel Escobar has been one of the game’s best leadoff hitters at .291/.365/.438, and he’s been molten hot since early-May: .317/.397/.490 with seven homers, 26 walks, and 22 strikeouts. Rookie Eric Thames (no relation to Marcus) allowed them to cut ties with Juan Rivera thanks to his .308/.357/.519 batting line (just 28 games though), and Travis Snider has seven extra base hits (six doubles and a homer) in seven games since coming back up from Triple-A. Those last two fill in the blanks around Bautista, Lind, and Yunel.
The rest of the lineup consists of a bunch of low-OBP guys that may or may not run into a fastball. Aaron Hill (.234/.279/.328) just keeps on getting worse and worse. J.P. Arencibia (.222/.287/.427) is doing exactly what everyone expected him to do, low OBP and some pop. Edwin Encarnacion (.255/.283/.405) and Rajai Davis (.240/.264/.357) pretty much suck. Corey Patterson is somehow keeping the dream alive at .258/.292/.393. The top four guys are legit, but the rest of the lineup can definitely be pitched too.
Blue Jays On The Mound
Thursday, LHP Jo-Jo Reyes (vs. Bartolo Colon): Joey Jo-Jo has been decidedly mediocre this season, with a low strikeout rate (5.29 K/9) and a low ground ball rate (39.4%). He does limit walks (2.96 B/9), so all those homers (0.99 HR/9) don’t sting as much. Reyes lives off his low-90′s four and two-seamers, and he’ll mix in a wide array of offspeed stuff (changeup, slider, and curve). The Yankees saw him in May and hammered him (five runs in three innings), so that was one of those rare instances in which they didn’t falter against a pitcher they haven’t seen before.
Friday, RHP Brandon Morrow (vs. Freddy Garcia): My breakout pick started the season on the disabled list, but he’s been back for 15 starts and his crazy ERA-FIP split has carried over from last year. He’s got a 2.70 FIP and a 4.60 ERA this year after 3.16 and 4.49 last season, respectively. Morrow’s strikeouts are again sky high (10.64 K/9), but the walk rate is nothing special (3.58 BB/9) and the ground ball rate is kind scary (34.2%). He’s been primarily a two-pitch pitcher this year, but they’re two very good pitches: a legit mid-90′s fastball and a high-80′s slider. Last year he threw a low-80′s curveball and a high-80′s changeup regularly (combined 20.2%), but not to much this year (3.5%). The Yankees tear two-pitch, non-changeup pitchers to shreds (eventually, might not be until the third time through the order though). If Morrow comes out with just the fastball and slider, that’s good news.
Saturday, LHP Ricky Romero (vs. CC Sabathia): This will be a fun matchup, because these two pitchers are very similar aside from the obvious physical differences. Their strikeout (7.78 vs. 7.43 K/9) and ground ball (48.4% vs. 52.6%) rates are close, but Sabathia separates himself by limiting ball four (2.16 vs. 3.31 BB/9) and also with some homerun luck (3.9 vs. 11.4% HR/FB). We’ve seen Romero enough over the two-plus years to know that he’s fastball-changeup heavy with the occasional curveball, and he’s done a nice job of keeping the Yankees in check this year (three runs in 14 IP) after they roughed him up last year.
Sunday, RHP Carlos Villanueva (vs. Phil Hughes): The transition to the rotation has gone swimmingly for Villaneuva, who has a 3.67 ERA (~3.40 FIP) in nine starts (54 IP). The first of those starts came against the Yankees, when he stymied them for five innings (one run). Hopefully that won’t happen again the second time around. Villanueva is very offspeed heavy, throwing his high-80′s fastball justs 45.7% of the time. Low-80′s sliders and changeups are his go-to offspeed offerings, though he’ll also use a low-70′s curve. Dude’s very unpredictable, he’s throw anything in any count.
Bullpen: Toronto has some major problems at the end-game, because Frank Francisco (4.44 FIP) and Jon Rauch (4.67) are both pretty bad. They’ve been having a blown save contest for the last six weeks or so and are two of the three sub-replacement relievers in the Jays’ bullpen. Kinda funny, actually. No lead is safe with that tandem. The other sub-replacement level guy is Octavio Dotel (4.44 FIP), but righties Shawn Camp (3.84) and Jason Frasor (3.90) plus lefties Luis Perez (4.32) and Marc Rzepczynski (3.49) have been anywhere from good to okay. Lots of different looks, got some fastball-slider guys, some fastball-changeup guys, fastball-curveball as well.
Remember last year, when the Yankees and Blue Jays didn’t play each other until the first week of June? No such luck this season, this mid-week three-game series will already be their third meet-up of 2011. These two clubs split a two-game set north of the border in mid-April before the Yankees took two of three in New York late in the month.
What Have The Blue Jays Done Lately?
After winning six games in a row two weeks ago, the Jays have alternated wins and losses since Wednesday. The Astros (!!!) took two of three from them in Toronto over the weekend, and they come into this series right at .500 with a 23-23 record. The Jays do have a +11 run differential though, so they should probably be 24-22 or something like that.
Blue Jays On Offense
There really is nothing you can do to stop Jose Bautista, and containing him is pretty much a fruitless endeavor as well. The best player in baseball has just three hits (two of which have left the yard, of course) and two walks in his last 17 plate appearances, but he’s still hitting .353/.500/.816 on the season. Joey Bats kills the Yankees, so just accept it. He’s going to hit a homer or four during these three games, there’s nothing the Yankees can do. He’s that good. Luckily, Bautista is basically the entire Blue Jays’ offense.
Adam Lind is on the shelf with a back problem, so just one other Toronto regular has an OPS north of .800. That’s catcher J.P. Arencibia, who does it with power (.276 ISO) and not by getting on base (.309 OBP). Yunel Escobar is sporting a fine .283/.363/.410 line, but the rest of the lineup … sheesh. You’ve got the likes of Corey Patterson (.271/.307/.431), impromptu cleanup hitter Aaron Hill (.241/.283/.319), Juan Rivera (.225/.315/.331), Rajai Davis (.252/.298/.327), Edwin Encarnacion (.244/.270/.336), and so on. Bautista and Yunel are really the only two Jays’ coming into the series hot as well.
One thing Toronto will do is run. They’re third in the league in stolen bases (46) and will run at will, in any count with pretty much anyone at the plate or on the bases. Davis is by far the biggest threat with a dozen steals, but Hill, Patterson, and Bautista will go as well. The best way to shut the Jays’ down offensively is the old Michael Jordan defense; let Bautista hit his homers but stop everyone else, especially the guys hitting in front of him.
Blue Jays On The Mound
Monday, RHP Carlos Villaneuva: Starting in place of the injured Jesse Litsch (shoulder impingement), Villanueva is being pulled out of the bullpen to make his first start since 2009. He’s had long relief appearances of 42, 51, and 69 pitches already this season, so he’s probably good for 80 or so pitches tonight. Villanueva’s career numbers as a starter really don’t tell us much of anything since they came so long ago and in the other league, but out of the bullpen this year he’s struck out 7.77 men per nine while walking 3.70 per nine and getting a ground ball 39.3% of the time. Those are almost identical to his career totals (8.05 K/9, 3.22 BB/9, 40.4%), so he is who we thought he was. The former Brewer throws a lot of offspeed stuff, using his upper-80′s fastball just under 40% of the time. A low-80′s changeup is his favorite secondary pitch at a little over 25% of all pitches, though he’ll also throw a low-80′s slider more than 20% of the time as well. A low-70′s curveball fills out the rest of the pie. The Yankees have seen him twice this year, a one inning relief appearance in each of the first two series, so Villanueva shouldn’t be a total surprise.
Tuesday, LHP Ricky Romero: Romero has a case to be the best pitcher in baseball that no one talks about. He’s young (turned 26 in December), left-handed, and in possession of gaudy peripherals (8.84 K/9, 3.10 BB/9, 55.8% grounders), and yet “Ricky Romero underrated” returns far fewer Google results (52,200) than “Ivan Nova underrated” (308,000). If Ricky pitched for the Yankees, he’d be a national hero. He held the pinstripers to two runs over six innings earlier this year, just one of his seven starts of six-plus innings and two earned runs or less. Romero throws two fastballs 34.7% of the time each, a four-seamer that averages 92.3 mph and a two-seamer at 91.5 mph. A mid-80′s changeup is his go-to offspeed offering, though he’ll also break out an upper-70′s curveball on occasion. One thing he does not do is pitch backwards; four out of every five at-bats start with a fastball, and he’ll changeup hitters to death when ahead in the count. The Yankees have seen plenty of him over the last two years and two months, but Romero’s so good that it doesn’t even matter.
Wednesday, LHP Jo-Jo Reyes: Uh oh, a young lefty the Yankees haven’t seen before. Reyes, who came over in the Yunel trade, has been surprisingly effectively for the Jays even though his ERA (4.08) doesn’t really agree. His 3.36 FIP is propped up by strong walk (2.40 BB/9) and homerun rates (0.55 HR/9) and not necessary the whiff numbers (6.84 K/9), but there is still some funny business going on here. Reyes has a .354 BABIP despite a mediocre 35.8% ground ball rate, which is backwards. More fly balls should equal a lower BABIP, so that and the strand rate (64.2%) are why his ERA isn’t as good as it maybe should be. Jo-Jo is similar to Romero in that he’s heavy on the low-90′s four and two-seamers with the occasional changeup, but he’ll also throw a slider semi-regularly. He’s on a bit of a roll now, allowing just eight earned runs (but seven unearned) in his last 28.1 IP across five starts. Like I said, the Yankees have never faced him before, but he isn’t going to miss a ton of bats and will allow them to put the ball in the air. I’ll take it.
Bullpen: Toronto’s bullpen comes into the series pretty well rested. Casey Janssen is the only guy to pitch both Saturday and Sunday, and both Jon Rauch and Shawn Camp have appeared in two of the last three games. Octavio Dotel and Jason Frasor are fresh, ditto struggling closer Frank Francisco, who blew a tied game on Friday and has allowed six runs and six walks in his last six innings. Marc Rzepczynski is the lefty killer (.143/.250/.143 against) that also gets out righties (.219/.265/.344). He’s not just a specialist.
The toughest thing about the Jays’ bullpen is all the different looks they have. Camp is fastball-changeup, Janssen fastball-cutter, Dotel fastball-slider, Rauch fastball-slider-changeup, Francisco fastball-splitter, and Frasor almost all fastballs. It’s a sneaky good bullpen crew equipped to do whatever manager John Farrell needs.
We’re starting to get into repeat mode here in the end of April, as the Yankees are starting to play some clubs for the second time in 2011. They played the Orioles for the second time last weekend, and this weekend it’s the Toronto Blue Jays. The two teams split a two-game set in Toronto about a week-and-a-half ago, and surely you remember that Mariano Rivera blown save in the first game.
What Have The Blue Jays Done Lately?
Unlike the last few teams the Yankees have played, the Blue Jays are coming in hot. They just took three of four from the Rangers in Arlington, outscoring the defending AL Champs 27-16. Although they’re just 8-12 since a 4-1 start, Toronto is coming to the Bronx with some momentum and feeling pretty good about themselves.
Blue Jays on Offense
Jose Bautista! Seriously, he’s the only everyday player on the team with a wOBA better than a .334. Of course he leads all of baseball at .542, and right now he’s getting on base more than 52% of the time. His eight homers and .360 batting average are the best in the AL. However, it’s worth noting that in the seventh inning of yesterday’s game, Bautista took a 93 mph Pedro Strop fastball to his left wrist, sending him to the ground in obvious pain. He remained in the game and drew five pitch walk in the ninth, and as far as I know he’ll be in the lineup this weekend. Fastballs to the wrist are never good though.
Aside from Bautista, both Juan Rivera (ten for his last 26 with two homers, six walks, and three strikeouts) and Adam Lind (12 for his last 38 with two doubles and three homers) are coming into the series hot. Nobody else is though. That’s generally what happens the rest of the lineup is filled by guys like John McDonald (.303 wOBA), Mike McCoy (.281 wOBA), Corey Patterson (.318 wOBA), Edwin Encarnacion (.293 wOBA), Jayson Nix (two for his last 16), and Yunel Escobar (.192/.192/.269 since April 16th). Travis Snider was just sent to the minors in favor of former first rounder David Cooper, who had a .459 wOBA in Triple-A. Toronto’s 21st best prospect (according to Baseball America) will probably make his big league debut at some point this weekend.
Blue Jays on the Mound
Friday: Ricky Romero, LHP: It’s a tough assignment right off the bat, as Toronto is running their ace out there later tonight. Romero has pitched as well as pretty much anyone in the AL so far, striking out more than a batter per inning while walking fewer than three men per nine and generating a ground ball on more than half of his balls in play. He gives the Jays length, pitching into the seventh inning in four of his five starts and completing seven innings three times. Ricky does it with four pitches, but one out of every three is a low-90′s two-seamer to get those grounders. A low-90′s four-seamer and a mid-80′s changeup are his two other primary weapons, and every once in a while he’ll break out a loopy, 70-something mile-an-hour curve. Romero is quietly ascending into the category of the game’s elite starters, so this will be a tough game.
Saturday: Kyle Drabek, RHP: The Yankees faced Drabek during their series in Toronto last week, roughing him up for six hits, four walks, and four runs in 5.1 IP. He held the Rangers to three runs over six innings last time out, though the scouting report hasn’t changed since last week. The kid will work himself into trouble with walks, but he has swing-and-miss stuff with his high-octane fastball and curve. Patience.
Sunday: Jesse Litsch, RHP: This is Brett Cecil’s spot, but the certified Yankees Killer™ was demoted to Triple-A after his start against New York last week because he’s dealing with the same problems as Phil Hughes: loss of velocity, loss of control, unexplained dead arm, yadda yadda yadda. About the only interesting thing about Litsch is that he’s a ginger, but aside from that he’s a generic right-hander with 88-90 mph fastballs (two and four-seamers, cutter), a mid-80′s slider, a low-80′s changeup, and the occasional low-80′s curveball. He doesn’t miss many bats, doesn’t walk too many or too few, gets an okay amount of grounders, stuff like that. Litsch has made six career starts against the Yankees, so the They Haven’t Seen Him™ rule doesn’t apply. No offense to the guy, but Jesse Litsch is pretty boring.
Bullpen: Same story as the last time these two clubs played, so there’s not much to add. Jon Rauch is still closing, Frank Francisco is setting up, and Marc Rzepczynski is still handling the lefties.
Away from home for only their second series this season, the Yankees will play a pair of games in Toronto this week. It’s kind of an oddly timed series, just two games sandwiched between two off-days. But it’s Yankee baseball, so who are we to complain?
Last year the Yanks had trouble with the Jays, and actually finished 8-10 against them. Thankfully for the Yanks, these aren’t the 2010 Blue Jays. They lost a few key players during the winter, and while they’re stronger in the long run, they’re definitely weaker for the 2011 season. The Yanks definitely have an opportunity to jump out ahead here and steal a pair of games before heading down to Baltimore.
What Have They Done Lately?
After looking like the Blue Jays of 2010 during the first week of play, the Jays have slipped considerably in the last week and a half. That includes three straight losses to the Red Sox, in which they managed just one run per game. Before that they managed to let Seattle put up an eight spot on them. Things just aren’t looking that bright for the Jays currently.
Blue Jays On Offense
Last year the home run was the Jays’ calling card, as they led the league by a decent margin. This year they’ve hit only 13, which ranks them 19th among the 30 teams. In fact, hitting for power has been a general problem for the team this year. They’ve hit just 24 doubles, which ranks 24th in the league, after finishing second last year. That’s an enormous problem for a team built like the Jays. They’re not an on-base type of squad — last year they ranked 26th with a .312 OBP — so when they’re not hitting for power they struggle to bring around runs.
Three players, really, have carried the Jays on offense to this point. Jose Bautista has kept up his power hitting ways, smacking three homers so far. While he likely won’t hit 54 again, he remains a legitimate power threat. He’s backed up by J.P. Arencibia, who has two doubles, two triples, and two homers already. Yunel Escobar has taken to his new home north of the border, hitting .333/.414/.563 with a double, two triples, and two homers this season. Jayson Nix, too, has stepped up, hitting .256/.356/.462 through 45 PA.
The biggest disappointments this season have been Adam Lind and Aaron Hill. They were in the same position last year, meaning their performances in 2011 became all the more important. Hill is just 14 for 60 (.233) so far, with three doubles and three walks. That production, a .262 wOBA, isn’t worst among his peers, but it’s not far from it. Lind, whom the Jays are trying at first base this season, has a nearly identical wOBA, .268, and also ranks near the worst of his peers. Travis Snider, a full-time player for the first time in his career, has also disappointed, hitting .151/.250/.245 in his first 60 PA.
At some point, at least one of Lind, Hill, and Snider will turn it around. There’s just too much talent there for all three of them to tank. Yet that’s not guaranteed to happen in this series. The Jays have really struggled at the plate lately. We know that momentum can shift in any given moment, but it’s tough to count on these struggling players at the moment.
Blue Jays On The Mound
Game One: Kyle Drabek. Tonight marks Drabke’s seventh major league start, though his first against a team he has previously faced. Last year he ended his season against the Yankees, tossing six innings and allowing three runs in a losing effort. This year the 23-year-old made the team out of spring training and put on a show in his first start, striking out seven Twins in seven innings on his way to a Blue Jays victory. But things haven’t been so easy for him since then.
The Twins, remember, currently sport the league’s worst offense, which could have played into Drabek’s success. In his next start he pitched only six innings, while facing two more batters and throwing two more pitches than his previous start. He also allowed a ton more balls in the air, walked more batters, and struck out fewer. And then in his last start, against the hapless Mariners, he recorded one fewer out while throwing 11 more pitches than his previous start. He all the sudden didn’t look as dominant.
This year his weakness has been the free pass. He has issued 11 to the 77 batters he has faced. This plays into the Yankees hands, as they are one of the more patient teams in the league. They’ve already seen him, so that stigma of getting beat by guys they see for the first time is erased.
Game Two: Brett Cecil. Just hearing the name Brett Cecil makes many Yankees fans cringe. He faced the Yankees five times, and generally gave them fits. What sticks in our heads are the two eight-inning performances in which the Yankees seemingly hit everything on the ground. What gets lost is that his final two outings weren’t all that great.
On September fifth he lasted 6.1 innings, but allowed three runs in the process. He walked four and struck out only three in that time, so things could have gone far worse. The Blue Jays did win the game, though, which makes the positive aspects of the game more forgettable. Then, in his final start of the season, he gave up three runs in just 5.1 innings. This time the Yanks hit plenty in the air. Again, Cecil won. He won’t get that lucky all the time.
As with Phil Hughes, Cecil threw far more innings last year than he had in the past. Also as with Hughes, he experienced reduced velocity in spring training and into the year. He hasn’t been quite the ground balling machine he was last year, and even allowed 10 fly balls in his previous start against the Red Sox. Overall he has been generally unimpressive this season, which is good news for Yankees fans. Maybe we’ll finally see them beat Cecil this year.
Bullpen: The Jays underwent a bullpen overhaul this winter, as they lost both Kevin Gregg and Scott Downs to free agency. But they did make a few pick-ups, including Frank Francisco, who returns to action this evening. Shawn Camp, Jason Frasor, and Carlos Villanueva have performed well so far. That is, their late-inning force appears to be in full effect. The Yankees can weaken that strength, though, by forcing Drabek and Cecil from the games early.
Blue Jays Featured Blog: Drunk Jays Fans.
Last year the Blue Jays surprised us by belting homer after homer en route to an above-.500 season. It made me kind of embarrassed to have written this before the season, but then again, who could have guessed that so many Blue Jays would go on power streaks? (In my defense, I had the right idea with the pitching staff.) The Jays have made a few changes this year, and in some ways they’re a weaker team than they were in 2010. But they’re set up for an AL East run in the not so distant future.
Despite losing Vernon Wells, the Blue Jays still possess plenty of power. Clearly they think that Jose Bautista’s breakout is real, since they signed him to a five-year, $65 million extension this past off-season. He won’t smack 54 homers again, but even if he hits 35 this year it will be a huge plus for the Jays. There are other hitters around him who can also crush the ball.
This year Travis Snider figures to get his chance to break into the bigs. He’s been in the league for the last three years, but has just 675 PA to his name. This year he’s starting with the big club and figures to stick around all season. What’s crazy is that he’s just 23. If he hits his stride this season he’ll provide an excellent left-handed power complement to Bautista. There’s also Adam Lind, a former top prospect who destroyed baseballs in 2009. He had a down year in 2010, but if that’s just a fluke then the Jays have just added even more power.
Another Jay who had a down year last year was Aaron Hill, who also broke out, at least in terms of power, in 2009. his 2010 was poor, but he still hit for some power. If he brings his average up, he’ll add some more right-handed pop to the lineup. The same goes for new acquisition Juan Rivera. He seems like the perfect fit for hitting coach Dwayne Murphy’s system. The same goes for rookie catcher J.P. Arencibia, whose No. 1 tool is his power. Finally, let’s not forget Edwin Encarnacion, who hit 21 homers in just 367 PA last year.
While the Jays led the majors in SLG last year, they finished 26th in OBP. That’s why their runs total ranked ninth. The power was there, but they just didn’t produce enough base runners. If Lind recovers and Snider approaches his ceiling then they will get a boost in that department. If not, they could be in for a year where they hit for plenty of extra bases, but don’t have enough runners on base to crack the top five in runs scored.
The bullpen has to be something of a concern, since the Jays lost a few key contributors in Scott Downs and Kevin Gregg. They did add Frank Francisco, which helps shore up the unit. But they also added Octavio Dotel, who could detract from it. Jon Rauch might actually be the best addition they made. Jason Frasor stays around, too, but it’s not as though the Blue Jays had a knock-out bullpen last year. That could be one of their most glaring weaknesses in 2011.
The starting staff, too, took a hit during the off-season. The Jays traded Shaun Marcum, perhaps their most effective pitcher, and inserted Kyle Drabek, a rookie. There are also reports that Brett Cecil’s velocity is down considerably — not good, since he didn’t throw all that hard to begin with. Brandon Morrow will miss the start of the season, which further hurts the staff. It figures to be pretty good once it’s completely assembled: Ricky Romero, Cecil, Litsch, Drabek, and Morrow, with Jo-Jo Reyes filling in.
I don’t want to make the mistake of underrating the Jays again, but unless they have breakout years from just about everyone, I doubt they’ll do much but play the spoiler in the AL East. This won’t be the case for long. The Jays have a good core of players and a fine farm system. They’ll be contending before we know it. In fact, this could be the last year where I write that they don’t appear to have it all together. At this time next year we could be looking at a four-team dogfight in the AL East. Hell, maybe even five.
Time for another edition of the RAB Mailbag. I’m not keeping track, but it’s pretty safe to say that there have been more questions asked about Jesus Montero than any other single player in the history of the mailbag. And it’s not a small margin either, you should see what comes in that I don’t answer. You guys freaking love talking about the kid. Can’t say I blame you.
Anyway, if you want to submit a question, you know what to do. Use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar, and if it’s something I can answer intelligently without a week’s worth of research, I’ll answer it. On to the questions …
Josh asks: In short, what do you think the Yanks should do with Jesus? Moreover, what do you think they will do?
I chopped out a bunch of the question for the sake of space, but essentially Josh goes on to ask about his defense and his chances to improve and what not.
My thoughts about what to do with Montero are pretty simple. Let him come to Spring Training next year and compete for a job, and unless he absolutely destroys the Grapefruit League and makes strides on defense, send him back to Triple-A to start the season. When the time comes, in May or June or whatever, call him up and let him split catching and designated hitter duties with Jorge Posada. But he has to play every day, they can’t let him go stale by playing just two or three times a week. Let Tony Pena go to town with him defensively in the interim.
It doesn’t end there though. If a trade opportunity comes along this winter that could significantly improve the big league team, I’d have no hesitation about trading Montero. The Yankees have shown a willingness to deal him, but only for super-elite guys like Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. That’s what I’m talking about, a bonafide impact player in his prime.
Now, what do I think they’ll do? I think they’ll do something pretty similar, actually. I think they’ll be more open to giving him a job right out of Spring Training than I would, but otherwise it’s the same basic idea. Either use him to land a monster piece in a trade, or have him tag team with Posada when the time is right.
Update: It appears that the Yankees plan to make Montero the most-of-the-time starter in 2011.
Ellis asks: I’m not sure any of us have fully stopped to appreciate how awesome Nick Swisher was this year. .288 with 29 HRs, highest slugging pct of his career (.511). Why isn’t Swish considered one of the best outfielders in the game?
Yeah, there’s way too many people focusing on his postseason performances (.269 wOBA in 94 plate appearances, less than a month’s worth) and not his overall body of work. His wOBA increased by two points this season even though the league average dropped by eight, and his defense remained roughly average. Not great, but certainly not a liability. He traded some walks for base hits, something you take every day of the week, and all told Swish was worth 4.1 fWAR this season, seventh best among AL outfielders.
Swisher doesn’t qualify as an elite outfielder, but he’s definitely in that next tier. If he maintains his newfound ability to hit for average (.288 AVG this year was a career high by 26 points) and gets his walk rate back up previous levels (9.1 BB% in 2010 after no worse than 13.9% from 2006-2009), Swish is probably close to a five win player. If people are going to discount that because of four bad postseason series (he was awesome in this year’s ALDS), then so be it. Their loss.
Mike asks: With Marte not being able to throw til the All Star break, we need another left hander in the bullpen. Internally there are close to no options (Kei Igawa, no thanks) so this will sound crazy but how about Jamie Moyer. At 47 he still can start let alone pitch. If he takes a significant pay cut, would he be a potential left hander?
I thought about this myself before the question was sent in, but after looking into it more deeply … hell no. Moyer doesn’t have much of a platoon split (.309 wOBA against vs. RHB, .335 vs. LHB in 2010), and over the last three years lefties have gotten to him to the tune of a .319 wOBA. That’s almost league average, which simply isn’t good enough for lefty specialist work. Boone Logan, for example, held lefties to a .242 wOBA this season. As a whole, AL lefties had a .304 wOBA against southpaws this season, and I suspect it would be even higher if we looked at just the AL East.
Even beyond the splits, Moyer doesn’t have a knockout breaking ball, instead relying more on his deadfish changeup to get chases out of the zone. He just doesn’t strike out enough batters (5.4 K/9 since 200) for high or even medium leverage work. And of course there’s the age (48 next month) and injury issues (131 days on the disabled list over the last two years). Moyer’s just not dependable enough. I’d pass, though I like the creativity.
Jerome asks: How close are the Blue Jays to being really competitive in the AL East? With the Rays losing some key pieces next year, I was hoping for 2011 to be a good old two-horse race between the Yankees and the Red Sox. But then it occurred to me: The Jays obviously have a powerful lineup, and some pretty decent young arms in Marcum, Romero, Cecil and Morrow and others. It seems like only a few tweaks would make this team a force to be reckoned with. Are they a threat in 2011?
The Jays are on the right track, but there’s still a ton of work to do. Their offense was far too reliant on the homerun last season (first in HR + 26th in OBP = just 9th in runs), and they really need Adam Lind (.309 wOBA) and Aaron Hill (.291) to rebound to their 2009 levels (.394 and .357, respectively). Jose Bautista won’t hit like he did last year again (even if something did click, that was an unsustainable pace), and the team needs steps forward from Travis Snider, J.P. Arencibia, and Yunel Escobar. That’s quite a bit to ask for.
The pitching staff is good, but neither Ricky Romero or Shaun Marcum is an elite guy. Both are very good, just not fantastic. Brandon Morrow has the potential to be that guy, as does Kyle Drabek, but they’re not there yet. So yeah, Toronto’s headed in the right direction, but they’re at the very least a year away, and that’s if everything starts to go right in 2011. A 2013 breakout seems more likely.