When the 2012 season opened for the Blue Jays in Dunedin, Florida; the only true “position battle” was for left field – waged between high-ceiling prospect Travis Snider and the incumbent Eric Thames. Thames was favoured in the role because he had played ~50 games there to end the season and been serviceable offensively, while showing poor defensive skills. As a result, it was made known that Travis Snider would have to essentially blow Thames out of the water to win the job. In the end, they had similar decent springs (spring stats are meaningless for a number of reasons, the investigation of which is worthy of a post in and of itself) and as a result, Thames won the job while Snider was shipped out to AAA Las Vegas.
In the month of April, Thames hit a strong .308/.361/.446 with a .345 wOBA and 118 wRC+, he had a passable 16.1 K% although his defense left much to be desired. Meanwhile, Snider hit .400/.477/.693 in 19 April games with essentially no home/road split. Unfortunately, Snider injured his wrist on April 26, ending his month.
This could not have come at a worse time for the Blue Jays as Eric Thames began to struggle in May. Badly. In May, Thames hit .193/.227/.301, with a .231 wOBA and 39 wRC+. Thames suffered a 73-point BABIP regression, but the major cause of Thames downfall was a sharp increase in strikeouts. In the month of May, Thames struck out in 31.6% of his plate appearances, the fourth-most in baseball for a qualified hitter over that span. As the month progressed, it became increasingly clear that Thames was simply over-matched in the Major Leagues. However, there was an apparent problem – Snider played seven games in the middle of May, looked awful (.095/.192/.286) then was shut down again with more wrist trouble on May 17, yet to play as of this writing.
After losing 14-3 to the Texas Rangers on Friday May 25 in a game where Brandon Morrow pitched merely two-thirds of an inning and losing 8-7 to Texas in 13 innings the following day, the bullpen was extremely taxed and roster moves were made, as detailed in prior posts, to construct an eight-man bullpen. Further complications arose when Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar suffered hamstring and groin injuries, respectively, in the Texas series that necessitated the recall of an extra infielder. At this point, the Blue Jays made an odd response to their situation – Thames was demoted to AAA and utility player Mike McCoy was recalled.
The oddity of the response stems from the upcoming schedule. The Blue Jays have today off after completing a three-game home sweep against Baltimore, play the Red Sox over the weekend and have Monday off before travelling to Chicago. Despite the lull in the schedule, manager John Farrell has indicated that the rotation will continue on full turns. This means that Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow will make their next starts on six days rest, while the back of the rotation will make each of their next two starts on five days rest. This is hardly a situation that necessitates carrying an eight-man bullpen and a three-man bench of a catcher, an infielder and an infielder who is hurting. There is no outfield help on the bench at this point and McCoy is the only true viable option, period. The other downside to the current roster is that the team’s best pinch-runner (who doesn’t hit RHP very well at 78 wRC+ career), Rajai Davis, is now in the everyday lineup with Snider hurt. It would have made much more sense to demote one of Jesse Chavez or Aaron Laffey, neither of whom are likely to pitch; and either stick with Thames until Snider is ready or bench him in favour of Davis, leaving a left-handed bat and OF available.
Recalling an infielder was a necessity but the manner in which it was done, not only seems illogical, but hurts the team in its’ current state.
UPDATE: Aaron Laffey was sent back to Las Vegas after tonight’s game. Prior to Friday’s game the Blue Jays will make a corresponding roster move, they announced. Adam Lind, who has hit .343/.442/.657/.467/183 in 43 plate appearances in Triple-A is a possible recall candidate, as is Vladimir Guerrero; although Alex Anthopoulos indicated he would see time in both AA and AAA to adjust to velocity and off-speed pitches, respectively.
UPDATE: A third candidate for recall is SS Adeiny Hechavarria. It has been thought that he is not ready offensively (.316/.358/.458/.367/118, but inflated by the league and park) and that he would not be brought up only on a long-term basis. However recent comments by Alex Anthopoulos that a visa issue had been resolved, thereby allowing Hechavarria to travel to Canada, coupled with the fact that he did not play tonight for Las Vegas are potential indicators that it could indeed by Hechavarria on his way to Toronto.
This Christmas has become something of a disappointment for Jays fans. For several days and especially for a few agonizing hours, there was hope that we would receive a great gift, the talents of Japanese ace Yu Darvish. Unfortunately, the Texas Rangers won the bidding for Darvish’s rights with a record bid of $51.7 million. We also hoped that a Prince would come to save us, but according to Alex Anthopoulos and Paul Beeston, fans can forget about that too. Something about not giving contracts in excess of five years to hitters and three years to pitchers. However, the team has several good pieces in, or not far from The Show and could surprise many people in the next two years. That said; here is my Christmas list of the top ten Blue Jays desires in 2012:
10: Production from Kelly Johnson
When Aaron Hill put forth another putrid season with the Jays for four-and-a-half months in 2011, it was clear that the Jays needed to make a change. Since hitting 36 homers in 2009, Hill has never been the same. Keep in mind, the 36-homer,, if extrapolated over a full season would have put him 4.1 fWAR season came AFTER his concussion, indicating that the concussion seems to have little impact on his performance drop, contrary to what some have suggested. Hill was packaged with John McDonald to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Kelly Johnson, who enjoyed a 128 wRC+, 5.9 WAR 2010, but was struggling in 2011 with an 87 wRC+ at the time of the swap. He went on to post a 114 wRC+ in 33 games with the Jays and 0.8 WAR after playing 113 games with Arizona for 1.1 WAR. Hill posted 104, 61, -0.8 with Toronto and 33, 134, 1.6 in the desert. All the best to him. Johnson ‘s 114 wRC+, if extrapolated over a whole season would have had him seventh in the Majors at his position, right between Dan Uggla and Brandon Phillips – decent company. Johnson is somewhat cost-controlled through his acceptance of arbitration and his solidification of a perennial weak point for the Jays could be a key factor in 2012 success.
9: Emergence of Colby Rasmus
Colby Rasmus came to the Jays at the trading deadline as part of a three-team deal with the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago White Sox. While the Jays did give up pitching prospect Zach Stewart and lefty killer Marc Rzepczynski, who each proved their worth at times with their new clubs (The Cardinals won the World Series thanks in no small part to the duo of Octavio Dotel and Rzepczynski who proved to be stellar antidotes for the Milwaukee Brewers duo of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, respectively, along with neutralizing Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers in the World Series) , if Rasmus blossoms into the star he was projected to be when he was drafted, the trade will end up going down as a heist. Rasmus struggled mightily in Toronto with a .517 OPS, .225 wOBA, 34 wRC+ and -0.5 WAR over 34 games, although he did have a hot streak in August that was interrupted by a wrist injury. He posted a .859 OPS, .366 wOBA, 129 wRC+ at age 23-24, so there is a lot to like, especially at a premium defensive position. A return to those numbers or beyond isn’t out of the question and could allow Anthony Gose to marinate properly in the minor leagues into a true five-tool player.
8: Stability in the ninth inning
The Jays bullpen blew 26 saves last year (part of that was due to the gutting in the Rasmus deal) and the duo of Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco struggled with save opportunities at times. Both left as free agents and AA wanted to find a dominating closer for the ninth inning. The price of free agent closers has been ridiculous (Jonathan Papelbon signed for 4 years/$58 million with Philadelphia) so he decided it would be best to go the trade route. He acquired right-hander Sergio Santos from the Chicago White Sox for pitching prospect Nestor Molina who put up a 2.45 FIP in 108.1 IP and a 0.47 FIP in 22 innings at Single- and Double-A respectively as a 22-year-old. Steep price it would seem, but as Kevin Goldstein put it: the numbers don’t match the stuff and the numbers tell a rosier story.
Santos, a converted shortstop and former Jay, recorded over 13 K/9 last year, closing some for Chicago. His number one pitch is a wipeout slider, generating memories of B.J. Ryan, although Santos will throw from the right side. If he can have a season somewhat close to Ryan’s 2006 in Toronto, Jays fans will be very happy and his club-friendly deal negotiated by Chicago could easily set him up for six years of reasonably priced service north of the border.
7: A full-time left fielder
When the Jays drafted Travis Snider in 2006 out of high school and brought him to the big leagues as a 20-year-old, the idea is that he would stick and go on to become one of the best young hitters in the league. However, things have gone according to plan. Snider has played parts of four seasons at the big league level, struggling in all of them to a degree. During this time, Eric Thames (drafted in 2007 (39, 1191)) shot to the majors, taking over when Snider struggled in left this year, posting 12 HR, .313 OBP and a .333 wOBA in 95 games. Now with two left fielders both performing poorly, although Snider is 23 and could be age-appropriately at Double-A, it is up to one of them to seize the job. Snider is younger and has much greater potential, while Thames has the greater recent results. This spring training will be a key time for the Blue Jays organization as they choose which player they want to travel forward with as their left fielder, while potentially trading the other.
6: Prospect Development
With the hiring of Alex Anthopoulos and trade of Roy Halladay in the winter of 2009, the Jays entered a temporary rebuild. However, this was different. AA did not want to just build a one year winner, but a team that could perennially contend. He started on his vision by almost doubling the size of the scouting department and acquiring Kyle Drabek, catcher Travis D’Arnaud from the Philadelphia Phillies and through a series of trades ultimately outfielder Anthony Gose by way of the Houston Astros. Drabek saw time in the Majors this season, struggled with his control and spent most of the year in Las Vegas, battling what seemed to be emotional problems with a newfound lack of success. D’Arnaud and Gose were part of the Eastern League Champion New Hampshire Fisher Cats at the Double-A level. Gose hit more home runs in 2011 (16) than in his three previous minor league seasons combined (9) thanks to some swing tweaks, but still stole 69/85 bases (81.2%) on the year. He also flashed a plus, plus arm in centre field and decent range. If Gose keeps on his upward development path, a Gose/Rasmus confrontation could be inevitable and interesting in a few years. D’Arnaud was named Eastern League MVP and Keith Law called him, “the real deal”. He tore some ligaments in his thumb playing in the World Cup of Baseball, but should be ready to go for Spring Training. Of course, the focus is on a speedy recovery.
5: Brett Lawrie Avoiding the Sophomore Slump
Brett Lawrie arrived in the Majors on August 5, as the most hyped Jays prospect in recent memory by a long shot. He had an RBI single in his first at-bat, homered the next day and hit a grand slam at home on August 10. He also had a walk-off homerun for the first 1-0 extra inning walk-off win in the bottom of the 11th inning against the Red Sox on September 5. Although he did not win Rookie of the Year, he led all American League rookies with 2.7 WAR (4th in MLB) despite only playing in 43 games totalling 171 plate appearances. As with any data sample, one must be cautious of the small sample size here. Expecting Lawrie to duplicate these numbers over a full season is clearly unrealistic, but if he can put together a 5.0 WAR season, he could become the Jays long awaited answer to a #5 hitter.
4: Brandon Morrow Gaining Efficiency
Brandon Morrow showed his electric potential this past year by leading the AL (2nd in MLB) in K/9 for qualified pitchers at 10.19. Unfortunately, this also came with a 3.46 BB/9, which capped his average outing length to just less than six innings per start. He allowed two earned runs or less in 14 starts, allowing one or zero in nine of them. However, in eight of them he allowed five or more earned runs, capping out at nine in a game against Boston. Eight of his starts lasted 5.0 IP or fewer, while he completed seven innings ten times. By cutting his walks, he can maximize efficiency and hopefully gain some consistency, as he has the stuff to challenge Romero for the role of team ace.
3: Ricky Romero Becoming Elite
Ricky Romero won a career-high 15 games, while finishing sixth in the AL with a 2.92 ERA, a number that has improved for him every season in the Majors. Unfortunately, this masks a less attractive 4.20 FIP and 3.80 xFIP. He needs to cut his walks (3.20 BB/9), increase his strikeouts (7.12 K/9) and elevate his strikeout to walk ratio to at least 3.00 as opposed to the 2.23 where it sits now. He seems to have figured out a solid gameplan against the Rays, but needs to find ways to be more efficient against the highly patient Red Sox and Yankees, who seem content to allow Romero to work himself into jams. Due to his best weapon being a changeup, left-handed hitters gave him much trouble to a FIP/xFIP line of 5.47/4.87 compared to 3.7/3.42 line against righties. Improvement of command, especially of his curveball and slider would help to straighten out his split. Beating the Red Sox and Yankees more frequently will be key for the Jays to climb in the East and Romero will have to be a big part of that, an answer to the big lefties: CC Sabathia and Jon Lester.
Jays used the DL 21 times for 19 players and lost 706 man-games. Jesse Carlson missed the entire season after a labrum tear, so discounting that, the Jays deal usage was 18 for 20 and 544 man-games. Still staggering. Bautista struggled with injuries in the second half and Adam Lind’s back broke a six-week hot streak and he wasn’t the same after that. Keeping the middle of our lineup healthy and our pitchers on the mound (Romero and Morrow each 30+ starts) will be key to our success in 2012, especially against aging New York and Boston rosters.
1: Fan Support
Paul Beeston made it simple: when more fans come, more money will be spent. If the fans are truly serious about wanting a winner, they need to come out support the good, exciting young team we have now and allow Alex Anthopoulos to gain permission to chase the final pieces.
Christmas Dream: Prince Fielder
We all saw Prince work in Milwaukee and putting him behind Bautista would make the best 3-4 combo in all of baseball.
Merry Christmas Blue Jays fans! See you in April!