T.O.: Titletown

Just a short note of congratulations to TFC for winning their first MLS Cup – the first for a Canadian-based team, making it even more significant.  TFC has been the best team in MLS for the past two seasons (they were the better team in last year’s final as well, you’ll recall, despite losing on penalties).  They are now in the conversation about MLS all-time “super teams” – amazing considering the ignominious start this franchise had.  Most importantly, I want to offer congratulations to my friends who are die-hard TFC supporters and have been even in the lean years – you truly deserve this wonderful moment.

I don’t write about TFC because I admit I don’t feel I have the technical knowledge of the game required to do it intelligently.  But I am more than a casual footy follower and have enjoyed watching the building of this franchise.  Altidore, Bradley, and Giovinco are now household names in this city. This team, this sport, has become a big deal.

It’s amazing that Toronto, a city that has endured much disappointment from its teams over the years,  will see its second championship rally in less than two weeks tomorrow, following the Argos Grey Cup triumph last month.  The Jays, Raptors and Leafs all remain more than competitive.  Enjoy this, Toronto, because it’s truly a golden era, and no one can predict how long it will last – or when the next one will come along.

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First Miami, next Toronto? #Jays

Word of the Giancarlo Stanton trade to the Yankees early today spread as fast as the cloud of perceived doom among fans of their AL East rivals.  It’s clear the Bronx Bombers are reloading now.  They’ll add free agent Manny Machado in all likelihood next year (or maybe sooner depending on how 2018 plays out).  The move must have the Blue Jays front office taking a renewed hard look at where this franchise is at.

Stanton was dealt because Miami has new ownership and is looking to strip payroll and presumably begin a Cubs-style multi-year rebuild.  With news this week of Rogers telegraphing its openness to sell (and make no mistake, it was done to signal intent and elicit potential buyers), you have to wonder if what we’re seeing in Miami right now may not be too far down the road in Toronto’s future.

The timing for a Cubs-style rebuild may not be better for the Blue Jays, starting in 2019.  With the Yankees prepared to open the vault again to supplement their young powerhouse base of talent, and the Red Sox likely to try to match, it is going to be very tough sledding in the AL East for the next several years.  The Jays and others may be fighting for the 2nd wild card at best.  With Shapiro and Atkins, you have a management team in place that has the experience to strip a roster down and successfully rebuild (Cleveland’s been ok the last couple years I think).  And if it is Rogers intent to sell, the Miami model is certainly one new ownership could conceivably follow.

Baseball’s winter meetings this week I believe will give us a good idea of what management and ownership are thinking.  With the futures of Stanton and Japanese phenom Shohei Otani now settled, many top remaining free agents will likely get signed this week.  Who the Blue Jays sign and the length of those contracts will be telling.  Will they add top calibre free agents like Lorenzo Cain, Jay Bruce or Alex Cobb and take another shot at competing in 2018? Or will they opt for second-tier options at shorter terms (Steve Pearce immediately comes to mind)?  We may have an idea in just a matter of days not only what 2018 for the Blue Jays will look like, but the longer term as well.

#Leafs rumours galore

Some of the perhaps lesser known hockey rumour sources were letting loose Sunday morning with some interesting tidbits.

@iamhockey1 ,who has a solid track record, says the Leafs have started negotiating with JVR, a free agent at the end of the season. Word is he’s seeking 5 years x $7 million but may take less as he wants to stay and win in Toronto.  As well, it was reported John Tavares, a big looming UFA, would consider a short term deal in Toronto but the Islanders remain his preference, and that GM Lou Lamoriello has agreed to a 2-year extension, but it won’t be announced until the new year.  And the Leafs and Pens are still talking about a deal for Tyler Bozak.

That’s not all!

@Rumorbreak reports the Leafs are preparing an offer to Carolina for defender Justin Faulk…Gardiner, Kapanen and first round picks could head the other way.

Who knows if any of this comes to fruition…but it wasn’t your typical Sunday morning in December as far as the rumour mill goes!

 

 

 

 

Dear Ricky Ray…I’m sorry #Argos

Dear Ricky:

I’d like to think it takes a certain amount of integrity to admit when you’re wrong.  That’s why I want to say publicly in this forum I was wrong about you, and want to take this opportunity to apologize for some of the things I’ve written on here over the past couple years (please don’t scroll down).

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I had advocated your departure from the Toronto Argonauts for some time.  Not because I ever doubted your talent or your ability. You don’t win four Grey Cups by accident. No, it was your lack of durability and the lack of support you had on your offensive line that made me question whether your time in Toronto had passed.  In successive seasons while injuries plagued you, the former management of the club chose you over more mobile up-and-comers Zach Collaros and Trevor Harris.  I believed at the time they had a better chance of bringing a Grey Cup back to the team I’ve followed and loved since Cedric Minter was a rookie than you.

Then came 2017.  When you went out in week 5 with an injury, I thought we were about to see the same old story all over again.  But in a twist of fate, you bounced back, while the younger Collaros and Harris have been banged up in Hamilton and Ottawa.  Thanks to Jim Popp and Marc Trestman, you finally got an offensive line that could protect you.  And things began to turn.  You won 8 of your last 10 games, including a 34-27 win over Edmonton I attended at BMo Field in September, the first CFL game I’d been to in nine years.

The winning drive you engineered in the East final was as thrilling a CFL finish as any I’ve seen.  And with the score tied at 24 late in the 4th quarter Sunday night, I found myself on the edge of my sofa, repeatedly pleading under my breath “just one last drive, Ricky, just one last drive.”  And you delivered.

So congratulations, Ricky Ray.  I have never been happier to be wrong in my life.  Retire, don’t retire, stay, go, I don’t care.  Do whatever you want.  You’ve earned that choice.  And my respect. Here’s hoping your perseverance both personally and collectively will spark a revival of interest in Toronto in a team that will always be a part of who I am.

Thank you, and again, I’m sorry.

Clint

The Hot Corner Hot Potato #BlueJays

It seems to be the question on every Blue Jays fans minds after the injury-plagued disappointment of a season just past — will the team sign third baseman and 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson to a long-term contract this off-season?  And if not, what are the consequences if they don’t?

Donaldson will be 32 in December, and it’s hard to see the team wanting to go past a four-year deal at this point, especially given his recent injury history.  Would $100 million be in order?  If so, would it be enough to get a deal done with Donaldson, who has publicly voiced a desire to stay in Toronto (the right thing to do from a strictly PR perspective.)

I think the bigger question for Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins is this — what do they want this team to look like in 2019?  Will they consider the competitive window closed after this season, and look to start infusing young talent into the lineup?  (Some advice to them on this:  if this is your plan, you need to start communicating it soon to manage expectations).

I frankly don’t think team brass is settled on the question given the meteoric minor league rise of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. this year (also a third baseman – for now).  While some don’t expect him to make a major league roster until 2020, some believe he could arrive much sooner.  If the latter is what the team believes, it may make them reluctant to commit to Donaldson right now.  And if that’s the case, do they end up in another Edwin Encarnacion situation where the moment passes, and both sides part ways even though that isn’t what either side really wanted?

The trouble with locking up Donaldson for multiple years at what he’s actually worth is it will tie the organization’s hands budget-wise until Russ Martin (due $20M in 2018 and 2019) and Troy Tulowitzki’s contracts come off the books (Tulowitzki is due the same, plus $14M in 2020 and $15M in 2021).  You’re looking at $60 million-plus tied up in three players through 2019, potentially $40 million in two players through 2021.   Will fans understand if the Blue Jays move on from Donaldson to give them more flexibility in 2019 and beyond?  Again, managing expectations now is crucial for this organization.

I believe it’s better to invest in the asset you know than the asset (read prospect) you don’t.  There’s no reason to think Josh Donaldson’s production won’t remain at an elite level until he’s 35.  The fans love his style of play and intensity, and they’ll continue to pay to see him every night.  And hey, Vlad Jr. can still learn a new position (first base is open after 2018!), or be packaged up to help the Jays make a deep playoff run if all goes right next season.  From both a business and competitive standpoint, it makes sense that Donaldson should be given the same chance Bautista and Encarnacion had to become all-time Blue Jays.  An interesting winter lies ahead.

What is the ceiling for these #Leafs?

Ok, ok, even I was a little jacked up after Auston Matthews fired a laser beam past Anton Forsberg to give the Leafs a 4-3 come-from-behind win over the Blackhawks Monday night to improve to 3-0 on the year.  The offensive explosions in Winnipeg and against the Rangers that preceded that win certainly project an air of early-season invincibility around this team.

Make no mistake, there is real reason for optimism surrounding this team for the first time in nearly 20 years that this team — yes, THIS team — is an emerging contender.  But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s temper this with a couple small doses of reality.

First, while this team outshot Chicago, a team that vanquished the defending champion Penguins 10-1 the other night, by a count of 43-21, they have not played particularly well in their own end, and they know it.

Second, no one knows how healthy this lineup will be able to stay.  They were among the lowest in games lost to injury last year, and one hopes that can continue — but the flip side of that is are they overdue?  The relative youth of the team would seem to help them in this respect, but no one knows for sure.

Third, it’s unclear whether salary cap issues could hamper the Leafs ability to add to the roster at the trade deadline if need be.  You need to be able to do that in this day and age to make a deep playoff run.  There’s no question the prospect and draft pick pool is deep to make a significant deal if necessary, but at the end of the day, we live in a cap world.

But let me be clear — this team has all the weapons it needs (save for that centrepiece defenceman) to give any team in the NHL a run for its money, whether it be on any given night or in a 7-game playoff series.  For now, let’s just have fun watching the most exciting Leafs team in at least a generation.

 

 

Watching #BlueJays future today in Dunedin

A rare convergence of genetics, talent and coincidence is on display at the Blue Jays minor league complex in Dunedin, Florida these days.  Three sons of former major leaguers (one a Hall of Famer and another who soon should be) are prominently atop the lineup of the Advanced A Blue Jays – Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.  Bichette and Guerrero in particular are garnering media attention in Toronto for the strides they’ve taken this season – both were just promoted from Lansing.

I took in their Florida State League game last night against the Lakeland Flying Tigers on a steamy yet pleasant evening in Dunedin.  Certainly a different scene compared to spring training where the stadium is packed – there may have been a couple hundred people in the stands at most, spread out among the general admission seating on Princesses and Pirates night at the ballpark.  It certainly provided an opportunity to get a very close look at these young prospects.

Initial impressions – Bichette is smaller in stature than I expected, and needs to work on this throwing strength if he wants to make it to the bigs as a shortstop.  But there’s no question about his ability at the plate.  He was hitting .381 before last night’s game and went 2 for 5 and was hit by a pitch at the end of a long solid at bat.  Biggio also had two hits including a first-inning homer that brought in Bichette.  Guerrero, still just 18, is every bit the physical presence his dad was, and appears to have all the tools to be a big leaguer soon.  He and Bichette had RBI singles in a 3-run 7th inning.  Sportsnet has a feature on Guerrero online today you can read here: http://www.sportsnet.ca/baseball/mlb/big-read-vlad-guerrero-jr-best-blue-jays-prospect-generation/

Fortunately, the Tigers bullpen woes seem to be systemic as the Dunedin Jays battled back from 9-4 down to win 11-9.

It’s curious to me how the compelling story of three sons of well-known big leaguers all playing on the same team hasn’t seemed to have captured the attention of more Tampa area media as yet.  Given Bichette and Guerrero’s pace of progress, who knows how much longer this rare phenomenon may last.  It’s likely overly optimistic to pencil them in for opening day 2019 in Toronto…but hey, stranger things have happened.  Having spent a lot of time around junior hockey in my previous life in broadcasting and having watched many of those young men make names for themselves in the NHL, I’m equally glad I was able to see these young talents at this stage of their development.