Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Blue Jays Super Blog: Ranting on a disastrous season in Toronto

Edwin Encarnacion (left) and Jose Bautista in the most beautiful pic I've ever seen
Photo Credit: Mark Blinch (@MBlinch)
I was in Cornwall, Ontario spending the week with family and relatives when the Major League Baseball season began. The majority of said week was me waiting for what seemed to be the most promising year of Toronto Blue Jays baseball since I was born -- 1993. Sportsnet was going overkill on commercials and specials, hyping everyone up and standing first in the lineup of Blue Jay supporters. "Stadium Love" became a popular song, which is sad because Metric sucks, but that's beside the point. Fans had looked at the off-season that had just transpired, and predicted that Toronto had a legitimate shot at winning the division. Vegas oddsmakers picked the birds to be the World Series favourites. It was the first moment in my lifetime that the Jays were as loved and popular as their fellow Toronto professional sports team, the Maple Leafs. Not only that, but the Leafs were in the midst of their first playoff appearance in nine years; the city was buzzing, and craving the success that had long been alluded in town lore. 

The day of the opener, I was driving home from Cornwall, hoping to dodge traffic and get back in time to see R.A. Dickey pitch for the first time in a blue and white uniform. Once I arrived, it was the top of the fifth with the score 2-1 for the visiting Cleveland Indians. Then, seconds after I sat down and watched my first at-bat, Asdrubal Cabrera crushed a two-run home run into a sea of Jays shirts and jerseys. The Skydome was silent. Dickey's face was stone. "It's only one game, it's only one game, it's only one game" was on permanent loop in every fan's head. Starting 0-1 means you can be .500 in less than 24 hours. 

Little did I know that beginning the season 0-0 would be the closest the team would get to .500 until June 21st.

If you were to tell the guy who drove home from Cornwall on opening day that, on July 30th, the Jays were going to be last place in the AL East with a 48-57 record, well...

Dickey doesn't look like the ace and Cy Young winner that he was while with the New York Mets. Josh Johnson is having a dreadful year, and is following the career path of Ricky Romero, who's baseball livelihood fell apart before our very eyes earlier this season. Mark Buehrle, aside from a recent two-hit, nine-strikeout complete game against the Houston Astros -- who are 34 games below .500 in July -- hasn't been more than *shrugs shoulders* "meh" all year, and has been in multiple trade rumours as of late. Brandon Morrow is likely done for the year with a nerve injury in his throwing arm, pilling on to a history of him being unable to stay healthy that has followed the 29-year-old throughout his career. And J.A. Happ, who was expected to take over for the struggling Romero and be the team's "sixth rotation man", made it to seven half-decent starts before falling victim to the injury bug. To say that the starting rotation has been a major league disappointment, which so many people (myself included) thought would be able to match those of the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays, would be an understatement. Who would of thought that Esmil Rogers, who most pegged to be a relief pitcher, would be the most consistent player to start for the Blue Jays, with a 3-4 record and a .364 ERA, the lowest amongst starters. In fact, the only bright spot for a pitchers group that hasn't had a starter reach 10 wins yet, are their relievers. 

Check out this informative column by Kieran Roy (@KieranRoy) on the Blue Jays pitchers and the emergence of their bullpen. I posted that link because it's too weird to write something good about a team that hasn't made me feel that way all year. 

Colby Rasmus has produced one of his best seasons of pro baseball
Photo Credit: Some guy (@FakeTwiter) 
What adds to the frustration of 2013 is that they have produced offense at a very good rate. Seventh in runs, fifth in slugging percentage, five players with home run totals in double-digits (Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Colby Rasmus, J.P. Arencibia, and Adam Lind), with those same players all totaling over 40 RBI's. Rasmus has had his best season in Toronto (leads the team in doubles with 23), contributing offensively and remaining stable in centre field, finally showing signs of the player everyone thought he could be in St. Louis. Adam Lind, who has long been a whipping boy in my books since his arrival in 2006, is in the midst of a bounceback season, on pace for a savvy 20 jacks and 65 RBI's. Not bad, not great. 

And while Brett Lawrie has been injured and is still only 23, his inconsistent play and lack of maturity has become a topic of discussion over the past few seasons. Don't get me wrong, Lawrie is a freak of an athlete, and one of the rare cases of a player in this sport who can be motivated to play on a daily basis. He brings energy and fire to a lineup with several quiet leaders. Oh, and he's Canadian. But when you showcase an attitude that emulates an example of roid-rage (I'm not saying he's juicing, nor do I believe he does), it's hard for a veteran to take you seriously. You're 23: Do you really think a teammate with a family and who depends on this sport for a paycheck wants to see you crush four Red Bulls and scream at him for three hours? Is giving a death-stare to every ump who calls you out and getting in the face of your manager after he tells you to settle down, what's needed? Lawrie's career may go two paths: Either he works on his craft and finds a way to be a producing major leaguer, or he fizzles out like thousands before him, and runs out of talent to rely on before being pushed out of the game by 30. And that last option is more realistic than you think. Eventually, something will click in Lawrie's mind, and it will be the moment when he decides if he wants to be what we thought he could be. 

Which leads me to Bautista, who I still think is the best player on this ball club. While he has still produced offense and been a big part of whatever success this team has had, his numbers are slightly on the decline, as he is on pace for his lowest full-season totals since joining the club in 2008. We were witness to some of the single-greatest individual seasons that this team has ever had with Bautista, notably his 54 home run monster-2010 campaign. He has been on the record stating that he wanted surrounding talent. He didn't care about individual accolades, and was past the point of counting all-star appearances (four, for those counting at home). He wanted success in this city. He wanted a world series ring, not a home run crown. And, to an extent, he got his wish, and talent was brought in. But as of late, much as been made of his attitude and recent ejections from games. It's no secret that Bautista can get a bit antsy when it comes to officials, and has been known from time to time to take it too far (see: Here and here and here and here). But, unlike Lawrie, I feel as though Bautista has earned the right to get in an umpire's face and give him the business. Should he do it as often as he does and get ejected at a time when his team needs him most? Of course not. Like anything, you pick your spots. But the player who's 32 and has battled & grinded his way to the bigs is a helluva lot more entitled to voice his displeasure than someone who jettisoned his way to the majors. Yeah, Joey Bats is fire-tempered and can seem like a complete asshole at times. But that's what makes him him. That's part of the package. And if you don't like it, then find someone else who's going to bring you those type of numbers and that kind of leadership. Because even if you don't like Jose Bautista, he is the unquestioned leader of this ball-club. He's the one who told Lawrie to settle down while in the face of Gibbons. And he's the one who the players rally around every game. He may need to take it down a notch, but don't question his value to this organization. 

What has happened off the field might be the most interesting thing about this years edition of the Toronto Blue Jays. Last winter, after all the transactions that took place, and all the acquisitions that were added to Canada's only team in the MLB, the rise in attention was all due to moves that were made before a single pitch was thrown. Long before Dickey took the mound on that crisp April evening, people thought this team would, at the very least, compete for a division title. Everyone thought wins would be a guarantee. It was a given. Turns out, apparently you have to actually play the game to get wins. Weird. 

But, look past the management side of this team, and take a gander at what has happened with the players this season. Arencibia had to shutdown his Twitter account to avoid further distraction, following a media-war with Sportsnet analyst's Greg Zaun and Dirk Hayhurst. And while I like it when players fire back at reporters and talking heads, his whopping .221 batting average and 107 strikeouts (he averages over one a game), not to mention his less-than-stellar play behind the plate, shuts down any argument that he may have that the team is "over-criticized". 

I get it, Toronto is a ruthless sports market. Our baseball and basketball (Raptors) franchises are the only ones that represent our nation in their respective leagues. The amount of attention and day-to-day detail that follows these teams is almost unbearable. I can't go a single day without knowing the injury report of whatever active team is playing during the calendar year. But when you create these expectations for yourself, fail to live up to them, then fail to act professionally when faced with adversity...you have no one to blame but yourself. So when J.P. complains about Sportsnet being over-critical of his team, then do something about it. Don't go 0 for 4 with three K's and a pop-out. Don't indulge on every fan asking for a retweet, then delete your account when you can't handle your mentions being filled with advice on your stance. Arencibia gave this team confidence in trading stud catching prospect Travis d'Arnaud for Dickey. Now the onus is on him to prove them right. 

We haven't even mentioned the fact that John Gibbons is on pace for a worse win-loss record than any of the five seasons he was in Toronto for from 2004-08. One of the few off-season moves that I wasn't a fan of, Gibbons has failed to get the best from his players, and currently finds himself with a lineup that can't get it going. Night in and night out, with every loss that adds on to an already-abysmal record, this Jays roster looks uninspired and disinterested with finishing on a high note. And to be fair, you could make the case that the problem doesn't even lie with Gibbons, and that it is on the players. But, one must wonder if Gibbons will get another crack at manager next season, with general manager Alex Anthopoulos running out of options to improve his club. 

General Manager Alex Anthopoulos introducing John Gibbons as Manager
Photo Credit: Do you really even care? (@GoogleImages)

Oh yeah, that guy. 

Anthopoulos. The one who fans of this team and followers of this sport considered to be the second coming of Pat Gillick. The one who, with the green light from ownership, brought in as much talent as he possibly could. The one who tried to give this team the type of ball players that they have so desperately craved since their glory years. The one who sacrificed most of the organization's young prospects for proven studs. 

I still think that the 36-year-old executive has made moves that will improve this team, and that their best years are ahead. Anthopoulos recognized that the team he had wasn't going to do anything, and that to compete in what many consider to be the hardest division in sports, they had to bring in talent from outside the franchise. And they did. 

But right now, over halfway through the season, in what a lot of analysts are calling a three-to-four year window, results better come quick. And with the non-waiver trade deadline tomorrow, there aren't a lot of options to improve this club right now. If they still believe that division titles and pennants and championships are in the near future, then you have to stick it out with this core of players. Shi Davidi (@ShiDavidi) wrote a great column yesterday on this team and their financial situation, which explained that if this team wants to improve, it has to be from within. And, as stated before, considering you gave up a lot of youth to make this team what it is now, it'll have to be those same players you brought in that will point the ship forwards. 

Friends and I will be in Toronto for the weekend series against Oakland (August 9th to 11th), and there's a good chance we'll see all three games. I haven't seen the team play in person yet this season (that might not be such a bad thing), but I'm hoping to see what the blue birds are made of. Hell, at the very least, I hope Buehrle plunks Yoenis Cespedes in the temple and makes something half-interesting. 

A coaching change? Switching players around? A sudden realization that you only get a few chances at glory? Whatever it is, the Toronto Blue Jays aren't any closer to a World Series than they were the past 20 years. But the pieces are there. The support from the higher-ups is there. The passion from the fans is there. The city of Toronto wants to love this team like they did in the late '80s and early '90s. This city has a hidden passion for this franchise that can hold a prayer against the storied Leafs. And if they can find a way to harness the talent, and bring glory to a city that has longed for it since a certain home run that happened 13 days before I was born, then they will be adored more than they could ever imagine. 

Until then, with the way they play, fan responses like this will be all the norm...

Who can blame them? 

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