Blue Jays 2015 .. long winter into drought that may be ending very soon!

Apr 11th, 2015 | By Rob Sparrow | Category: Sporting Life

Toronto Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos watches his team play in Dunedin. DAVID COOPER / TORONTO STAR.

As the Blue Jays head north after one of the longest winters in recent memory, they come loaded with baggage and a lot of questions.  Baggage in the sense that they now carry the longest playoff drought (21 yrs.) of any of the 124 teams in the four North American major sports.  Compounded by questions that have never been as plentiful at this stage of a season.

We are looking at a year that will be, in one way or another, one of transition.  Just how they got there has been well documented on this site in past postings, and it is the weight of those years of futility and mediocrity that makes the pending questions all that much tougher to bear.

Before jumping headlong into the questions that will define this year, it would be prudent to step back and look at the off-season’s goings on.  Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos had another one of those industrious winters he’s so famous for.  Anthopoulos rid himself of 40% of last year’s Blue Jays roster with six trades, eight waiver claims and one blockbuster signing of a fabled Canada native in shin guards.

“We’ve been (together) two years now and there needed to be somewhat of a shakeup,” said defacto team leader Jose Bautista.   “Nothing against any of the guys that left, just sometimes you need a change of scenery and credit to Alex that he was able to pull off the Donaldson deal – for where we are and what we need, it’s fantastic that we got a player like him”.  Some of the other moves had a distinctly Canadian feel this winter.  A trade with Seattle landed Victoria born Michael Saunders while the biggest splash was for East York born and Montreal raised free-agent catcher Russell Martin.

Toronto Blues Jays newly-signed catcher Russell Martin — born in East York, raised in Montreal — speaks to the media during a press conference in Toronto. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Martin brings to Toronto a playoff pedigree in which he has been to the post season in seven of his nine major league seasons.  The move also united him with his Chipola College teammate and friend Jose Bautista who remarked, “Everyone knows what Russell can do as an offensive player, but to me the biggest impact he’s going to have is with our pitching staff, aiding in making them better, it’s going to be a huge addition for us”.

Bringing in proven winners such as Donaldson and Martin has already had an impact this spring around a team whose sum has always fallen short of its parts.  While “clubhouse chemistry” is difficult thing to put your finger on and is part of an enigmatic sports mythos, there is little doubt that the cumulative baseball IQ of the team has gone up with their additions.

Canadian Blue Jays…Roger’s Follies & the impact of the fallen loonie

With the Blue Jays set for opening pitch at the Rogers Centre this coming Monday, the team’s Canadian content, from the front office to the playing field, has never been as prominent.  This season the Jays will have 14 players within their organization from Canada, including three that project to play key roles with the major league club this year.

Mississauga native Dalton Pompey, 2014.

The aforementioned Russell Martin leads a contingent that includes rookie center-fielder and Mississauga native Dalton Pompey while injured left-fielder Michael Saunders is on track to join his countrymen later in April. With three homegrown players in the starting nine, GM Anthopolus a Montreal native will watch with Canuck pride, hoping that, after a long stretch of disappointment, Canada’s team can return to the post season.

Yet this offseason was not all back bacon, Tim Hortons and Nanaimo bars.  Team owners Rogers Communications stubbed their toes in a very public way in their mistreatment of original employee and current Blue Jay CEO, Welland Ontario native Paul Beeston.  For three months this past winter, Paul Beeston read almost-daily media accounts describing his employers’ crusade to get rid of him.

Their unsavory corporate machinations took the form of a not-so-stealthy search committee behind Beeston’s back in an effort to replace the soon to be retiring CEO.  Toronto had wanted Baltimore Orioles GM Dan Duquette for his position, but the Jays backed away because Baltimore’s asking price of multiple top prospects as compensation to let Duquette out of his contract was too rich for their taste. They also wanted White Sox vice president of baseball operations Kenny Williams, but their request to interview Williams was rejected by White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.

“Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos (l) and president and CEO Paul Beeston (r) are hoping to end a post-season drought that dates back to 1993.” (Nathan Denette/CP).

Unfortunately for henchman Edward Rogers, Beeston and Reinsdorf are best friends. And after taking the call from Toronto, Reinsdorf placed his own call to Beeston. According to Reinsdorf, Beeston was shocked to hear that Rogers was seeking to replace him. Talk about total mismanagement and lack of respect for a Blue Jay original who said at the time that Rogers’ hunt for his replacement was a “rocky” period for him, “I don’t think anyone wants to see their career play out in the newspapers”.

This bungling and disconnect raises the ante on 2015, as major strategic decisions on the future of the team may be needed as soon as this summer if the club falters badly.  Having a president & CEO on a farewell tour, plus a General Manager in the final year of his contract is in no way ideal for that.

Compounding all this internal dissention was the very real external impact of a Canadian loonie in freefall over the past six months.  The Blue Jays are projected to have a payroll of $122.5M US (ranked 10th overall in major league baseball) in 2015 down from last years $137.2M US (ranked 9th).  Although they have publically stated that they would spend to add quality players, their inactivity in the spring to shore up huge gaps in the roster has in many ways been impacted by the crashing loonie.  Fact is, the added cost of the exchange rate on the Blue Jay payroll works out to be about $22M – equivalent to one quality starter and one bonafide reliever.

Jose Bautista : a lot to think about ...

This new financial constraint was apparent to all this spring when top starter Marcus Stroman was lost for the season with a torn anterior-cruciate ligament in his left knee.  The Blue Jays decided to not spend on a proven pitcher, but instead when the cheaper route filling his roll with rookies that will make the league minimum salary.  Quite simply, there is little financial wiggle room to repair gaps in the roster, shedding a glowing light on questions that abound on this ballclub as we enter the season.

Questions Abound…six rookies…unproven pitching…and a manager on the hot seat

Whether it is the increased imperative of the season with a top management in flux, or the new found financial constraints brought on by the Canadian loonie, situations have conspired that have changed a Blue Jay long held belief.  The clubs long standing policy of pragmatic player development has been scrapped for a more baptism by fire approach.  To wit, six untested rookies will be on the Blue Jays major league roster as the season starts.

Devon Travis at spring training.

Just whether a club serious in its claim that is can be a contender with that many unproven commodities is hard to fathom.  Here then is a primer on these new fledgling Blue Jays broken down by position; regulars, starting pitchers and relievers.

(a) Regulars – Due to the spring training injuries of left fielder Michael Saunders and veteran second baseman Maicer Izturis the starting lineup will be made up of two rookies:

Dalton Pompey, MLB Games: 17, Hits: 9, MLB Experience: 29 days : The 22-year-old Dalton Pompey is slated to be the Blue Jays’ starting centre fielder this season, an accession that caps a remarkable rise through the minor leagues that began last April in single-A Dunedin and ended all the way to Toronto in September.  Pompey impressed at the plate, batting .319 with 10 home runs and 44 stolen bases across four levels and enters 2015 ranked by MLB.com as the game’s No. 43 prospect overall.

Growing up, Dalton Pompey wanted to be the centre fielder for the Toronto Blue Jays. Now, the Mississauga, Ont. native’s dream has become reality for the team he grew up rooting for.  The question is, with just three major-league starts at the position, and just seven more in left, will the 22-year-old be able to handle the heavy lifting on a regular basis?

Devon Travis, MLB Games: O, Hits: O, MLB Experience: 0 days : The Jays acquired Devon Travis from the Tigers back in November in exchange for outfielder Anthony Gose. In 276 minor league games, the 5-foot-9 second baseman has hit an impressive .318, although he is making the jump to the big leagues straight from double-A.  Travis’s biggest asset is his batting eye and above-average contact ability; he struck out in just 14% of his plate appearances last year.

The plan for 2015 had been for Travis to open the season at triple-A Buffalo and work his way up, but with a solid spring training, both at the plate and in the field, he forced his way on to the team.  Moreover, the 24-year-old celebrated his debut in the majors earlier this week with a home run (his first-ever big-league hit) in the season opener against the Yankees.

(b) Starting Pitchers – With the injury to projected opening day starting pitcher Marcus Stroman, the Blue Jays felt compelled to promote last years’ reliever Aaron Sanchez to the starting staff and to accelerate prospect Daniel Norris to the big league team.

Aaron Sanchez, Starts in majors: 0, Career MLB numbers: 24 games, 2-2, 1.09 ERA, 3 saves, Experience: 69 days. The Blue Jays’ 22-year-old Aaron Sanchez offered a glimpse of his potential in a 10-week bullpen cameo last season and will be stretched out as a starter to begin 2015.  He was quite impressive last year as a reliever; his 1.09 ERA (albeit in just 33 innings) was the second-lowest in the majors, behind only Kansas City setup man Wade Davis. He also had the highest average fastball velocity, at 96.9 mph, of any American League pitcher.

Daniel Norris, living in his van. Gets fans talking.

The debate on whether to start or close was heavily influenced by the injury to Marcus Stroman.  In a vacuum, Sanchez is more valuable in the starting rotation, where he would likely throw 160 to 180 innings, compared to the 60 to 70 he’d toss out of the bullpen.  That said, to be effective as a starter he will have to use all his pitches and in seven of his last nine outings as a reliever he didn’t throw any off-speed pitches. Control of his off-speed pitches is a concern, he walked 4.8 batters per 9 innings in his minor league career, and is one of the reasons he is a big X-factor for the Jays to contend.

Daniel Norris, Starts in majors: 1, Career MLB numbers: 5 games, 0-0, 5.40 ERA. Experience: 29 days. Daniel Norris is regarded as a better prospect than Sanchez; he is ranked No. 1 among Blue Jays prospects by MLB.com following the 2014 season.  A year where he managed to strike out 167 batters in 131 2/3 innings between the minors and his September major league debut.

The 21-year-old left-hander was also the talk of spring as he spends most of the off-season driving on the open road, camping in the mountains, and surfing on the ocean waves, all while living out of a 1978 Volkswagen Westfalia microbus.  Norris the person is compelling, and the contrast between that public persona and Norris the pitcher makes him one of the more intriguing stories to follow this year.

(c) Relievers – Perhaps most surprising has been the meteoric ascension of two 20-year-olds that were not even born when the Blue Jays were last in the playoffs. They have rocketed through the minor leagues, and after impressive springs find themselves on the major league roster.

New Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Roberto Osuna — Our Man from Mexico. (Kathy Willens/AP.)

Robert Osuna, Born:  February 7, 1995, Minor League Games: 43.  Robert Osuna is slated to become the youngest Blue Jay to ever pitch in a game. The 20-year old native of Mexico is in his fourth pro season and will start the season in the major leagues, just over a year removed from Tommy John arm surgery.

Osuna 6-2, 200 lbs, has not pitched above single-A-Dunedin and has primarily been used as a starter in recent seasons.  His fastball touches 95-96mph and could succeed as a reliever where power matters more and secondary pitches are used less. That said, it’s a whole lot to ask of a pitcher who just turned 20 last month, but his potential is tempting for a manager looking for relievers with upside.

Miguel Castro, Born: December 24, 1994. Minor League Games: 39.  Miguel Castro is a 20-year-old right-hander from the Dominican Republic who spent most of 2014 with Vancouver in the Northwest League, posting a 2.69 ERA in 80.1 innings, striking out 78 while allowing just 50 hits. Listed at 6-5 and 190 pounds, he has an extremely tall and slender frame that allows him to generate 97-98 mph heat.

It wouldn’t surprise if Castro wound up the Blue Jays’ closer sooner than later, although with his background as a starter, one could see him playing the same role Sanchez did as a reliever late last season, coming in to pitch the eighth and ninth and keep the door slammed shut.  This though would be uncharted waters, as in the history of Major League baseball there has never been a 20-year-old closer.

R.A. Dickey.

All this youth and unproven talent create a lot of uncertainty in a game that rewards consistency.  And at the outset of the season, there is no doubt that the Blue Jays greatest team weakness lies in their pitching.  Fact is, the Jays don’t have a starting pitcher between the prime ages of 25 and 35, and their opening day designated closer Brett Cecil has just six career saves.  Losing Marcus Stroman, who was projected to have the highest WAR (Wins Above Replacement) among Toronto pitchers in 2015, was a big blow for the rotation. The truth is the Blue Jays are perilously thin here. They were last year also, but with R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Drew Hutchison, J.A. Happ and Marcus Stroman making 144 of the team’s 162 starts (a stunning 89%) things turned out fine.  Certainly there’s enough potential there for things to work out as well, but a sore elbow or two could quickly rattle the stability of an already thin staff.

But it is the bullpen, projected for the second lowest WAR in baseball this year that is the biggest unknown. Do the Blue Jays have enough quality relievers to build a strong bullpen and survive the inevitable attrition?  The focus has understandably been on who’s going to close games and who’s going to bridge the gap from the starter to the ninth inning. Yet, the Blue Jays are asking a lot of their young pitchers to log a significant number of innings that none of those listed above have done in the past at any level.  Clearly, the Blue Jays have a lot riding on their young arms.

Blue Jays Manager John Gibbons.

This will put enormous pressure on manager John Gibbons to connect the dots of his roster and pull the right strings on a nightly basis.  Yet if history is any indicator, Gibbons has been shown to be deficient in times of uncertainty and adversity. He is more of a “sign and recline” manager who prefers plug & play set line-ups and tends to rely more on his baseball gut instincts and guessing, “Oh yeah, especially with the young guys who don’t have much of a track record, you’re doing a lot of guessing,” said Gibbons. “You have to do that sometimes. Baseball’s a crapshoot. It’s a big guess. You hope you’re right half the time”.

Being a great guy and straight shooter hasn’t necessarily added up for the Blue Jays manager who comes into the year with a meddling career record of 463-472.  Fact is, when Buck Showalter went to Baltimore, the Orioles instantly changed.  Joe Maddon had a similar impact in changing the culture in Tampa Bay. With Gibbons, we still don’t know. He remains somewhat undefined as a big league skipper.

When Anthopoulos hired Gibbons for the second time it was Beeston who laughed and then backed the unusual move with Rogers. The feeling after the Marlins deal in 2012 was that anyone could manage that team. But two years of disappointment added to the same mediocrity from his previous unsuccessful tenure (2004-2008) with the Jays.

This years’ team has all kinds of possibilities and hope but it’s unlikely all the kids will work out right in Year 1, because when does that ever happen?  Yet with this years’ imperative, Gibbons may not have a Year 2 to be with them.  He’s already run out of next years before.  Added to that that, both the CEO and GM are in the last year of their contract, and Alex Anthopolus with he will not wait long if the team scuffles out of the gate and he needs to play one of few remaining cards, and shuffle it up with another manager and a different voice.

One day to keep marked on your calendar is June 15. It will be Gibbons’ 1000th  game as a Blue Jay manager and if the Jays are hovering around the .500 mark they could well be looking for a new manager.

Summary & Outlook for 15:

Edwin Encarnacion.

The Jays have fooled us before. In 2013, they were a popular World Series pick but went 74-88. Last season, they went 21-9 in May and led the division by six games in early June before stumbling down the stretch to finish 83-79.

Still, there is a lot to like about a lineup that begins with Jose Reyes, Russell Martin, Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion. Those are five steady on-base presences and a middle of the order that can straight-up mash. Yes, there are big questions to be answered in Toronto, but you’d be hard-pressed to find (on paper, at least) a lineup with a better top five.

The Jays then will go into the season with a roster of halves; untested kids and veterans at or near the crest of their peak.  There is this unprecedented divide on this Blue Jays roster, both fascinating and hopeful, between established stars and kids on the rise.  It may also be that this injection of fresh blood is just what the Blue Jays need to finally get back to the playoffs.

This could be and should be a fine season for the Blue Jays. An opportunity in the wide open American League East where there is no dominant rival.

But there is baggage and an inherent pressure here, different from other years, that they want this year to be special. They want original employee and current CEO Beeston to walk away from his last year in baseball with something more to remember than a parting gift from those who tried to metaphorically stab him in the back.

The Jays will be fun to watch and look for them to score plenty of runs, maybe the most in the league. Also look for the young arms to mesh well with Martin and for good things to keep happening in Toronto.  The longest playoff drought in sport may be ending very soon.

Robert Sparrow is a Toronto marketing analyst and noted local authority on the sporting life.

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  1. I agree that the boys will be fun to watch – especially Encarnacion who is a veteran player you can count on. Maybe he can inspire the young players, and they get the chance they deserve to prosper in this franchise.

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