Blue Jays finally performing up to expectations
We rolled our eyes at the lack of moves made by the Blue Jays this offseason after their blockbuster with the Marlins didn’t work out in 2013.
Free agent after free agent would come and go, and either the Jays couldn’t land them or the players didn’t want to come. What we heard, we didn’t really believe, that all the Jays had to do was get better performances from their own players.
It sounded oversimplified or an excuse for standing pat. Well, guess what, they have backed it up.
“It’s so early, just into June,” manager John Gibbons warned after Thursday’s win over the Tigers. “I thought it was important coming in that we get off to a good start to quiet some of the pessimism and for our own confidence.
“And for my own sake. And that was reality,” Gibbons added, referring to his job security.
Mark Buehrle, who struggled at the start of last season, has 10 wins. The Jays have introduced righthander Drew Hutchison as a force in their rotation.
They made a major change as Kevin Seitzer became the hitting coach. And the Jays’ offense has not looked back. They used to be a swing-for-the-fences team, not patient at the plate. Toronto hitters are now drinking the Seitzer Kool-Aid.
Seitzer had Melky Cabrera in Kansas City, and that’s where Cabrera began to shape his hitting style. Even Jose Bautista, the slugger among sluggers, and his partner in crime, Edwin Encarnacion, are now hitting to all fields.
The numbers have been staggering. The Blue Jays lead the American League in runs, homers, RBIs, and extra-base hits.
Seitzer isn’t reinventing the wheel, but it’s not often that a hitting coach preaches, and his students not only follow the plan but execute it. That’s what made the Red Sox good last season.
Since May 4 when the Jays had a 15-17 record, they’ve outscored opponents, 174-116, and have outhomered them, 53-27. Since May 15, Encarnacion is 25 for 73 with 13 homers and 23 RBIs. He ranks first in the majors in extra-base hits and second in homers and total bases.
“We’re just having fun,” Encarnacion said. “This year we have pitching, defense, and hitting all coming together at once. That’s how you win. We didn’t have those things coming together last year. Every day we try to find a way to win. It doesn’t have to be home runs.”
Bautista leads the majors in walks, is second in on-base percentage, and fourth in runs, while hitting .318.
“The main guy who bought into Seitzer was Bautista,” Gibbons said. “It had nothing to do with being a complete hitter and slap hitter or anything like that. It’s the ability to use the whole field. We had trouble beating the good pitchers, who make less mistakes. If you’re up there hooking and swinging, they’ll exploit you. So, we had to do something about that. We had to be able to take our hits the other way to beat the good ones. Bautista got it. Other guys see that. It hasn’t hurt anyone’s home run production and we’re much tougher outs.”
Adam Lind is having a career season. Jose Reyes has just started to hit after a slow start, hitting nearly .300 in his last 26 games.
The team that was supposed to win it all last season and finish last this season has flipped the tables. It’s not what everyone thought would happen, but a year after the hype, the Jays are living up to it. Maybe they needed lower expectations in order to relax and let the fruits of last season’s deal flourish. The Jays gave the Marlins some top talent and the survivors from the deal are Buehrle and Reyes, after Josh Johnson flamed out.
“We brought in so many new guys last season that sometimes it takes awhile to come together,” said Gibbons. “And sometimes it doesn’t happen. I started noticing at the end of last year that we started to feel more like a team. In spring training there was something different. The hype and expectations were gone. Last year, we had six or seven guys who played in the WBC. We didn’t have the focus. Maybe it takes a little longer.”
The defense improved with a healthy Brett Lawrie, who has been good at second and third. Lawrie’s ability to play second allowed lefthanded power bat Juan Francisco to have a more defined role in the lineup.
They cut ties with J.P. Arencibia and went with Dioner Navarro, who improved the defense behind the plate.
Cabrera got healthy after a tumor was removed from his spine, and he’s been among the league leaders in hitting.
Gibbons wanted more accountability from the players, more leadership from Bautista. He wanted better defense after watching the Jays throw game after game away last season.
He needed a better starting rotation, and without adding anyone, the Jays entered the weekend with the third-best rotation in the AL in terms of ERA.
Will it last?
“Where we go from here, who knows?” said Gibbons. “But we’re in a much better place and it creates more optimism.”
Some may believe the Jays need a top starter to go with Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, and Hutchison, even though they have a respectable J.A. Happ, Dustin McGowan, and a comebacking Brandon Morrow. And youngster Marcus Stroman could fill a void at some juncture or be used in a trade to acquire a pitcher such as Jeff Samardzija.
With draft complete, teams’ focus shifts
Now that the amateur draft is over, teams can begin concentrating on needs and trades.
With 23 teams four games under .500 or better, it makes for a crowded pool of teams who think they have a shot at making the playoffs.
It is only early June, but this is where teams have to begin thinking of ways to get themselves within striking distance or build on their leads.
What’s interesting is there are teams who would normally not be thinking playoffs, but now must decide whether to buy rather than sell.
The Marlins, White Sox, and Twins haven’t been in this position often in the recent past. The Marlins are thinking about buying because they know the Braves are full of holes.
The White Sox have a pretty good offense, and with the Tigers vulnerable, why shouldn’t they think they can catch them?
The Marlins, even with the loss of Jose Fernandez, have all sorts of chips to offer in a deal. They could stockpile their bullpen or add a veteran starter.
A Marlins official told me there’s no reason they won’t add a player through a trade. The National League East seems wide open, and they feel even without Fernandez they can snatch a playoff spot, which would be a coup for the franchise.
The White Sox’ offense is certainly exciting, but they know they need their pitching to come through. Chris Sale may be the best pitcher in the AL, but they know they need more.
The Royals aren’t ready to give up, especially with Detroit struggling, but as one AL official said, how do they repair their offense? Which is why Kendrys Morales was often linked to them, before agreeing to a deal with the Twins.
The Nationals remain a national enigma. The Orioles are in the market for a starting pitcher to augment their lineup. Ditto the Yankees.
The draft is over. Now the trading season begins.
Apropos of nothing
1. The Phillies have made it known that anyone on their roster is for sale.
2. My favorite baseball writer is Jayson Stark, so anything he writes or comments on I’m all in, including his new book, “Wild Pitches,” published by Triumph.
3. ESPN analyst Eric Wedge suffered a stroke while managing the Mariners last season, so he’s aware of the impact of such an event on a family. And so he empathizes with Red Sox hitting coach Greg Colbrunn, who suffered a brain hemorrhage before Wednesday’s game in Cleveland. “A scary time for him and his family. I hope and pray for a full recovery for Greg,” Wedge said.
4. Don Mattingly should have kept it to himself, but he’s right, the Dodgers don’t have the right chemistry to get it done. Hanley Ramirez, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Josh Beckett just isn’t the right mix. We saw the Red Sox have a chemistry issue with similar players.
5. Love Larry Bowa. The Phillies’ bench coach tells it like it is. Right in Domonic Brown’s face.
6. The Braves may win the NL East, but I don’t know how they do it with that lineup and the underperforming Uptons.
7. Montreal is trying to get the Red Sox to play an exhibition game there next March.
8. Still wonder whether George Brett will wind up managing the Royals.
9. All former (and still active) Red Sox team: 1B Gonzalez; 2B Jed Lowrie (actually the Athletics’ shortstop); SS Ramirez; 3B Adrian Beltre; C Jarrod Saltalamacchia; LF Crawford; CF Jacoby Ellsbury; RF Josh Reddick; DH Victor Martinez. Bench — Brandon Moss, Coco Crisp, Nick Punto, James Loney, Anthony Rizzo, Mike Aviles, Marlon Byrd, Cody Ross, David Murphy. Pitchers — Justin Masterson, Bronson Arroyo, Bartolo Colon, Anibal Sanchez, Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Franklin Morales. Relievers — Andrew Bailey (injured), Joel Hanrahan (injured), Nick Hagadone, Alfredo Aceves, Matt Thornton, Matt Albers, Scott Atchison.
10. With all the concern about pitchers and their elbows, I wonder if high school kids were taken earlier in this draft because of less wear and tear.
11. Because there are so many inductees, the suggested time for Hall of Fame speeches is about eight minutes.
12. Ran into Phillies scout Dave Hollins, a former Red Sox third baseman. He was once traded for David Arias. Yes, Big Papi’s original name.
Updates on nine
1. B.J. Upton, CF, Braves — We write a lot about Upton in this space because he’s one of the most frustrating players in baseball. He has five-tool talent, but they’re never working together at the same time. One thing you hear about Upton is he tinkers way too much with his hitting mechanics. People around him are trying to get him to stick to something and see over time if it works. Right now this looks like a horrible signing by the Braves, who are really hurt by having this type of payroll tied up in an unproductive player.
2. A.J. Burnett, RHP, Phillies — This is a veteran contending teams are looking at as a possible add-on, but the common complaint, said one AL scout, is “if he doesn’t pitch better he’ll be another guy the Phillies are stuck with. When he’s the A.J. we saw earlier in the year or last year, he’s a guy you want out there in a tough situation. Right now, you wouldn’t touch him.” In his last six starts he has a 7.25 ERA, after being 2.06 in his first seven starts.
3. David Price, LHP, Rays — You won’t get anyone in the Tampa Bay organization to say it’s time to trade Price, but you can bet they will be good listeners now that the draft has concluded. With their farm system floundering, Price is their one avenue to build it back up. They have to get at least three top players for him, and if they don’t they will likely pull back and listen again in the offseason. Price still has great stuff, but his velocity is down, which is always a red flag. The other issue is that Price won’t necessarily re-sign with the team that trades for him, which could hamper the Rays from getting the complete package they are seeking.
4. Joel Hanrahan, RHP, Tigers — With the way Joe Nathan has been going (not well as the closer), the Tigers are probably hoping Hanrahan gets ready sooner rather than later. But the timetable for Hanrahan, who has recovered from Tommy John surgery, is around the All-Star break.
5. Michael Cuddyer, OF, Rockies — Last week we mentioned a bunch of outfielders who could become available in deals and purposely left Cuddyer and Drew Stubbs off because the Rockies got off to such a great start. Now they have come back to earth and may be sellers if the trend continues. Cuddyer, 35, a great clubhouse presence, and Stubbs could certainly become trade bait with teams such as the Red Sox looking for outfielders with power.
6. Daniel Bard, RHP, Rangers — Bard’s comeback continues to hit roadblocks. He walked one and hit three batters in allowing three runs for the Single A Hickory Crawdads. Bard had been OK until then in side sessions in Arizona at the Rangers’ complex. He had trouble with too much adrenaline and slowing down his delivery. The Rangers are hoping it’s just a first-time anxiety thing and he’ll be OK.
7. Xander Bogaerts, 3B, Red Sox — If the Red Sox should approach him with one of those long-term deals that would buy up arbitration years (started by John Hart and Dan O’Dowd when they were in Cleveland), what would he do? Players such as Pittsburgh’s Gregory Polanco and Houston’s George Springer have recently turned down such offers, Houston’s Jon Singleton accepted a five-year, $10 million deal and was ridiculed by some players for it. “That’s a great question,” Bogaerts said when asked whether he would do something like that. “Everyone is different based on what’s best for them. If they take a deal for $10 million, where are you going to get $10 million? Some say good deal or bad deal. If you’re literally from nothing, you jump on it like that. I don’t know his background. Time will tell what I would do. That hasn’t been presented to me. You always try to make the best decision for you and your family.” Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. are represented by Scott Boras, who generally doesn’t advise players to sign this type of deal (although he did with Carlos Gonzalez).
8. Jon Lester, LHP, Red Sox — The Yankees, Rangers, Angels, Mariners, and Tigers (if they lose Max Scherzer) are among the teams who will line up if Lester becomes a free agent. The Red Sox must decide whether they’ll go beyond a fifth year because the other teams will.
9. Jim Johnson, RHP, Athletics — The San Francisco Chronicle reported the A’s nearly traded Johnson to the Marlins last week. So, they’re willing to dump the former Orioles closer, who had 50-plus saves in back-to back seasons. Could the Orioles, Yankees, and Tigers be interested suitors, as well? All three are looking for bullpen help, but Johnson’s rough start and his salary would surely make it a major gamble.
From the Bill Chuck files: “Since the start of the 2012 season, Justin Smoak has a line of .224/.306/.383, which is not as bad as B.J. Upton’s .220/.287/.380, but pretty bad.” . . . Also, “In 2000, Derek Jeter played 148 games and went at least 0 for 5 three times. In his first 50 games this season, he had gone at least 0 for 5 three times.” . . . And, “During Don Zimmer’s tenure as manager from 1976-80, Jim Rice led the Red Sox with 932 hits. Rick Burleson was next with 859, followed by Fred Lynn with 751.” . . . Happy birthday, Pete Magrini (72).