Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Blue Jays Report Card - Part II - The Arms

From Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com on the struggles of Vernon Wells...

Wells' travails make for an intriguing test case in selective media overkill. When Red Sox DH David Ortiz was homer-less in mid-May, he was the target of incessant speculation in Boston and beyond. Did Ortiz's power outage stem from problems with his wrist, his knee, his eyes or his lack of a swagger? Did he miss Manny Ramirez, or was he really 36 years old instead of 33? Naturally, with no evidence other than Ortiz's statistical decline, the performance-enhancer freight train also chugged its way into the picture.

Wells, in comparison, has gotten a pass. His performance this season has been overshadowed in part by the ridiculous run of injuries to the Blue Jays' pitching staff. But he's Exhibit A that there's an advantage to playing in Toronto besides the terrific ethnic cuisine.

Blue Jays first baseman Kevin Millar, who spent three years in Boston, said a struggling star is bound to get more breathing room while tucked away in Canada. No surprise there.

"In this market, guys are very fortunate when they go through struggles, because it's not magnified by any means," Millar said. "You throw up a 1-for-10 in Philadelphia, New York or Boston, and it's the end of the world.

"I'm not saying any struggle is easy, because Vernon is definitely trying to cure his thing and get out of it. But you're definitely fortunate that you're in another country and you're playing for the Blue Jays and you've got three beat writers instead of 40."

Translation: Come to Toronto where you can suck and no one will care.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the Jays. Should someone tell Kevin Millar we have the internet up here?

Anyway, on to Part II of the Blue Jays report card...

Roy Halladay
– At the time he went down (trying not to cry and shaking my head in disgust) with injury, Doc lead the majors in wins, innings pitched, walks allowed and awesomeness. If you’re a true Jays fan, you never miss a Roy Halladay start. The fact that there was even a little talk earlier in the season about Zack Greinke being the best pitcher in the AL is like saying the Jonas Brothers are a better than Pearl Jam. Yes, Greinke had a nice run...for nine or ten starts. Halladay has been lights out for eight years now. Grade: A+

Scott Downs – Downs has been truly amazing since the start of the 2007 season but I wonder if hurting himself while getting out of the batters box will somehow cause a seismic shift in his karma. I mean, when opposing major league hitters step into the box and say to themselves, "this guy got injured during the most basic play in baseball" they would have to be confident, right? Grade: A

Brett Cecil - The 38th overall pick from the 2007 draft has made five starts this year as a 22 year-old and they break down like this: one excellent outing, three very solid performances and a beatdown in Fenway. I'll take that. Grade: B+

Ricky Romero – Ok, so maybe J.P. didn't screw up this pick in the 2005 draft as bad as originally reported. Romero has looked good as a rookie, throwing seven quality starts in only nine appearances and sports a very respectable 3.59 ERA. Yes, the end of the steroid era has changed the pitching landscape, significantly altering and improving the stats for every average and below-average pitcher, but Romero isn't the next Gustavo Chacin. No he's not. He better not be. Please, don't let him be. Grade: B

Brian Tallet
– I’ve always enjoyed his work, especially when he was playing Hyde on ‘That 70s show’. Pretty remarkable that an actor was able to change careers like that and I like how he downplayed it by using a stage name like Brian Tallet. And now, transitioning from relief to starting? That is impressive. Hyde struggles with his command at times and has had two horrendous starts (June 14 vs. Florida & April 29 @ KC) but overall he's been very valuable. Grade: B

Scott Richmond – I did not like the way Cito skipped Richmond’s turn in the rotation a few weeks back and apparently Richmond didn't either, because he threw up a dominating eight inning, five hit, 11 strikeout game in his return to a starting role. Also, it's pretty cool that he can perform at a major league level while mostly looking like he's 30 seconds away from falling asleep. Grade: B

Jason Fraser – Reason #9624 why bullpens can be slapped together in any way, shape or form: Frasor was absolutely ignored by previous manager John Gibbons but has reappeared in Cito Gaston’s bullpen and has been very good. I would trade high on every reliever I ever developed. You know, assuming I was a big league GM. Grade: B

Brandon League – Great when the score isn’t close. Grade: B-

Jesse Carlson
– Reason #9625 why bullpens can be slapped together in any way, shape or form: For the most part, you never know what you're going to get from one year to next. Grade: C+

Shawn Camp - Before his brutal appearance in Tuesday's game against Cincinnati, Camp had been pitching well, allowing only four runs over his last 16 innings and just a single run in his last eight. Of course prior to that he had a horrific three game stretch in late April and early May that probably would've buried him if our entire pitching staff wasn't held together by band-aids. Grade: C+

B.J. Ryan – How Riccardi didn’t dump Ryan’s contract last November is unfathomable. B.J. came back last year after missing ’07 following Tommy John surgery and posted solid numbers (32 saves, 2.95 ERA & only 4 blown saves) that should have made him marketable on the trade front despite the fact Jays fans could see the cracks forming. His $10 million salary was cheaper than what Brian Fuentes received from Anaheim this past offseason when several contending clubs were looking for an established closer. Throw in the fact that with Downs, Carlson and Tallet, the Jays bullpen was flush with lefties, and righty Brandon League was continually thought of as a potential option to finish games, and you understand why I nearly hurl my remote through the TV everytime I see Ryan enter a game. Now, with 19 hits and 14 walks allowed in only 18 unforgettably terrible innings, the Jays might be forced to eat the remaining $15 million on his contract. Grade: D-

Casey Janssen
– It’s beginning to look like the spectacular year he had in ’07 was the end of his career rather than the beginning. Grade: N/A

Monday, June 22, 2009

Blue Jays Report Card - Part I - The Bats

Well June is almost over, isn’t it great to have Dustin McGowan back in the rotation?

With the Jays rightfully reluctant to part with prospects in a bid to beef up the roster for a pennant run, why not simply part with dollars and try to sign Pedro Martinez?

The Jays would add a once-legendary veteran to the rotation who still might have the potential to be brilliant and Pedro would have the chance to stick it to Boston and New York. And if it didn’t work out, if Martinez is indeed finished, all it would cost Toronto is a few extra bucks. Win-win.

The Jays saved $10 million when AJ Burnett left town and combined with the strength of the loonie (and the resulting positive effect on the bottom-line for Canada’s only MLB team) you would think Toronto would be inclined to add a player or two as a peace offering to a dwindling fan-base.

Apparently not.

We’ll get to the rest of the pitching situation tomorrow, but in today’s Part I of the Blue Jays Report Card, we’ll examine the bats (which started the year off scorching but have since come crashing back down to earth)…

Marco Scutaro – Has been nothing short of outstanding this year, far exceeding both defensive and offensive expectations and providing a toughness and baseball smarts element that had been sorely missing on what seems to be a mostly un-inspired team. Scutaro is among the league leaders in runs-scored and has been right around the .400 mark in OBP all year. And his work on the field has been tremendous – just a single error through 71 games. However (and this is a monstrous ‘however’), he is in a contract year. Repeat: Contract Year. He’ll be 34 entering next season and hopefully Jays management allows another team to overpay him. Grade: A

Aaron Hill – He’s hit the ball hard from the first day he arrived in the bigs only this year the ball is really starting to carry for him. Hill had 28 career homeruns entering the season and with 15 already, may surpass that total this year alone. After he missed the final 100 games last year with concussion problems that lingered all the way into the offseason, the second baseman got right back on the career path that was (and will) eventually going to lead him to the All-Star game. Grade: A

Adam Lind – The most consistent big-situation hitter the Jays have had all year and arguably the most powerful bat in the line-up. Actually, the argument is over. With 25 homers in his last 157 games, Lind is Toronto's heaviest hitter. He also leads the team in back rubs from Cito which I have been tracking.

The list looks like this:

Adam Lind - 4
Gene Tenace - 3
Everyone else - 0

Grade: A-

Scott Rolen
– If I could just get myself to accept what Rolen is at this point (slap hitter and above average defender) instead of focusing on what he isn’t (home run hitter, run producer and everyday player) it would be a lot easier to cheer for the guy. It’s just that his $12 million salary is obscuring my vision. Grade: B+

Rod Barajas – Provides excellent bang for his buck at the catching position and has nurtured a young and unproven pitching staff to solid results. At the dish Barajas is on pace to set career highs in batting average, RBI, and walks. It'll be interesting to see if he sticks around one more year to bridge the gap until J.P. Arencibia is ready to take over full-time. Grade: B

Lyle Overbay – I’ve referred to him before as Lyle Doubleplay and Lyle Underbay but now I’m thinking he might be more Lyle Averagebay. Which isn’t all bad, it’s just that he created bigger expectations after batting .312 while hitting 22 homers and collecting 90+ RBI his first year in a Blue Jays uniform. It turns out he’s actually a 15 homer .270 hitter and 70 RBI guy. Again, not all bad. He plays a decent first base but I’m entirely ready for Adam Lind as our first-baseman and Jason Bay in left-field. Grade: B-

Kevin Millar – I have to admit I was a little confused by his signing over the winter, I just didn't think the soon-to-be 38 year-old Millar had anything left to offer. His OBP and slugging percentage have now declined four straight years but his clubhouse presence and professionalism have clearly aided the team. Plus, if the Jays do somehow stay in the pennant or wild card race, we can surely depend on Millar to come up with a catch phrase to rally around. 'Cowboy Up' can't be that hard to top, right? Grade: C+

Jose Bautista – I would have preferred to see Joe Inglett in Bautista’s bench role this year simply because Inglett is more versatile and he batted .297 with a .355 OBP in 2008. About the only area I see Bautista ahead of Inglett is in drawing walks and hearing. Check out those listeners to the right. Grade: C

Vernon Wells & Alex Rios – For the first time in a Jays Report Card I’m grading two players together. The reason is because I couldn’t stomach the thought of devoting two separate paragraphs to our 3rd and 4th hitters (for most of the year) who have combined for 15 homers and 68 RBI and have pretty much taken our season hostage. The pop-up artist and the strikeout artist have a combined batting average with runners in scoring position of -.126. I know that's a negative number but I assure you it's true. The gruesome twosome will make (steal?) $30 million a year for the next three seasons and I can’t imagine any of you out there feel good about this. Aside from the burger joints Wells frequents and the remote control car businesses Rios keeps afloat. Grades: D

Travis Snider – His 2008 September call-up and opening week of the 2009 season have Jays fan salivating at the thought of his impact on the future of the franchise. Snider is currently in the minors and injured but assuming he gets healthy it's likely he will be recalled by September at the latest. Grade: N/A

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Champs Have Arrived...But For How Long?

The Penguins have been Stanley Cup champions for all of a week and already we're hearing talk about how Pittsburgh is set to be the next dynasty. That appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals will be an annual occurence and as hockey fans we should pretty much be happy that we are lucky enough to be around to watch them do it.

Well, I'm not quite ready to buy it. Pittsburgh will be a good team the next few years, no question. With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as your backbone, you're going to win enough to make the playoffs no matter who else is on the team. But a dynasty? Multiple Cup wins? At this point that's a massive stretch.

Ever since Jordan Staal burst onto the scene with his 31-goal rookie season performance, the buzz surrounding the Penguins was how they could possibly keep their big three centers together in a salary-capped world. Even after signing a 4 year $16 million extension this past season, Staal is typically the first Pittsburgh player mentioned in trade discussion when considering the Penguins salary cap future.

And that's because the Penguins are a salary cap disaster. Heading into next year, the 2009-10 season, they'll pay $38 million (or 69% of cap space assuming a $55 million salary cap) to only seven players (or 30% of their roster). Those seven players, Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Kunitz, Gonchar, Orpik, and Fleury, form a very admirable core but it doesn't leave a lot of dollars to sign anything more than journeymen or inexperienced youngsters to fill out the roster. In fact, the Pens need to sign seven more players (four forwards, two defencemen and a goalie) to complete their roster and have less than $6 million to do it. So if Bill Guerin and/or Ruslan Fedotenko are coming back, they'll be coming back on the cheap.

The following year the situation will be even worse. Sergei Gonchar's $5.5 million contract comes off the books but Fleury goes up by $2 million a year to $5.5 a year and emerging defenceman Kris Letang will need a new deal. Even if they allow Gonchar to walk the Penguins will still be paying $35 million for only six players plus another 3-4 a year to keep Letang, which puts them right back to $38-39 million for seven players. Only that year, the 2010-11 season, the salary cap is projected to decline sharply, possibly down to $52 million or lower.

Even with two team-friendly contracts for bottom six forwards in Talbot and Kennedy, GM Ray Shero will still be forced to sign minimum-wage players to one year contracts and take chances on inexpensive journeymen. Maybe Sid and Geno will be good enough to win more Cups without any wingers, but maybe not. And that's usually where the Staal trade rumours come from, the perceived desire of the Pens to better balance the roster and perhaps provide one or both of their superstar centers with a bonafide scoring winger.

But the smartest move would actually be trading Marc-Andre Fleury, and more importantly, his sizable contract. Fleury is entering the second year of a 7 year $35 million contract and after back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals and superb efforts last week in games six and seven to win it all, his value may never be higher. I've made it known how over-valued I feel NHL goaltenders are in general (here ) and clearing out Fleury's contract would free up $4 million a year to spend on that goal-scoring winger and wouldn't break-up the solid foundation they've built up the middle.

If the Red Wings have provided the blueprint of how to win in the new NHL and they spent $2.2 million total on goaltending, does anyone really believe that the Penguins couldn't win the Cup next year with Scott Clemmensen or Antero Nittymaki in net?