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:

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.


NEW – What we’ve learned the last three months #BlueJays #Leafs #Raptors

Sometimes it’s helpful to take a couple of steps back from the hourly hot takes that dominate today’s sports narrative and take a look at the bigger picture.  Looking back, many things this blog site has had to say have held true, while changing circumstances have altered the playing field in other areas.  I thought now might be a good time for a review.


It’s one thing to make a bold prediction just to make it, it’s another to base that prediction on some insightful observation.  Back in December, this blog surmised the Leafs stood a plausible chance of making the playoffs based on unforeseen weakness in the division (thanks to internal chaos in Florida and a historic depth of injuries in Tampa), and a eureka moment against the Penguins in December.  Well, here we are with the young Leafs facing Washington in the first round of the playoffs, thanks to a phenomenal March performance. Pre-season, I had pegged Calder trophy favorite Auston Matthews to be in the low 60’s in points, Nylander 55 and Marner 50…all exceeded my expectations greatly – I certainly didn’t expect 40 goals from Matthews. Oh yeah, and Nazem Kadri scored 30 and Connor Brown 20! The trade deadline addition of Brian Boyle also stabilized a shaky fourth line.   It’s proof that Mike Babcock can do great things with talent that buys into his system.

In the long run, I think it’s best this Leafs team is facing Washington and not a banged up Ottawa squad.  The Leafs could beat Ottawa, but I think it would present a false sense of progress, much like a young talented Colorado team experienced three years ago finishing first in their division.  They haven’t approached anything close to that since, and a teardown now appears in order there.  Washington is a legitimate Cup threat and will show the Leafs what they need to do to take that next step. The Leafs certainly didn’t look out-of-place in the series opener, so it will be interesting to see just how quickly they learn that lesson from the Caps (and maybe teach one of their own?)

I don’t feel they can take the next step without improving on defence, and that includes dealing Jake Gardiner for a comparable D man.  Damn the analytics, I believe he’s a zero sum player (that is, his offensive upside is equally offset by his terrible, soft play in his own end).  Morgan Reilly needs to be paired with someone who can allow him to utilize his offensive skills to its fullest, and Nikita Zaitsev needs pairing help as well.  I expect a very different looking Leafs blue line come this fall.


Aside from resigning Jose Bautista after the departure of Edwin Encarnacion in the wake of the addition of Kendrys Morales, the number one offseason concern was the bullpen.  The Jays front office did a decent job restocking the pen, adding veterans Joe Smith and JP Howell.  So far the pen has only had a direct role in two of the Jays eight losses.  But again this year, cold bats in April have put the Jays behind the eight ball. The unknown duration of Josh Donaldson’s calf injury certainly doesn’t help.  Last year, the Jays hit .236 in an opening month where they went 11-14 also in part due to a very leaky bullpen.  That combined with September’s hitting swoon almost certainly cost them a second straight AL East crown.  The past two springs have featured a lot of down time for the veteran players and you have to wonder if the organization needs to look at its spring approach going forward.  That said, let’s put the 1-8 start in perspective.  By going a modestly successful 24-16 over their next 40 games (which with their solid rotation isn’t a stretch), they would be back to .500 before the end of May.  Being at or slightly over .500 in mid-July means the Jays will be in the hunt for the wild card and will certainly be deadline buyers again this year.  So as discouraging as this start has been, there’s lots of time for the Jays to right this ship.


The addition of Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker at the trade deadline certainly changed the outlook for the Raptors for the better. Would be scary to think where they’d have finished without them. But now, this is a team that can play interior defence and also has a lot of scoring options.  The lengthy injury to Kyle Lowry was unfortunate, as it allowed the Celtics to overtake the Raps for the division crown.  Now as the #3 seed, they face a potential second-round playoff matchup with Cleveland and LeBron should they get past Milwaukee (and they should!).  The Cavs, however, are banged up and have many feeling that they’re vulnerable.  This year might be as good a chance as any for the Raptors to break through to an NBA final.  Going forward, resigning Ibaka would be the best thing this team could do to cement itself as a contender for the next couple of years at least.

Spring 2017 has certainly turned into an incredible time for Toronto sports.  Toronto FC appears poised for another MLS Cup run this year, the Marlies can make another strong playoff push, and the much-need front office housecleaning by the Argos which brought in Jim Popp and Marc Trestman can only improve their chances and renew optimism around that team this year.


Playoffs? Why not? #Leafs #BlueJays


If this young Maple Leafs team does the improbable and makes the NHL playoffs this year, look back to December 10th.  That was the 2-1 overtime win at home over Pittsburgh. It was their best and complete effort of the season as they matched the defending Stanley Cup champs stride for stride. But it was like a light switch turned on for this team,  like they figured out what Mike Babcock means when he talks about “playing the right way.”  Now the Leafs sit 3 points back of Boston with games in hand in the division and 4 back with 3 games in hand on Philly in the wild card.  And they have 17 games left against their mediocre division, only one of those against Montreal and only one west coast trip left. I stated I didnt expect this team to challenge for a playoff spot until next year. The fact we can even discuss the possibility realistically halfway through the season is truly a pleasant surprise.  There’s no question the Leafs need upgrades on defence, but if management pursues this at the trade deadline, they need to make a true hockey trade versus dealing picks and/or prospects for a rental.  Stick to the Shanaplan.  Here’s hoping for meaningful hockey in March.

Blue Jays or Crickets?

A lot of fans are understandably frustrated at the lack of action by the Jays front office and departure of Edwin Encarnacion to Cleveland for less money than Toronto offered.  They still need a corner outfielder, bullpen help and a back up catcher.  To me the priority must be to beat Boston head to head. With lefties Sale and Price, the best remaining free agent bats head to head are Mark Trumbo and Jose Bautista. They need to sign one of them. That said, I believe the front office has earned the benefit of the doubt after last season and it is too early to panic in this late developing market.

State of Toronto’s sports union


2016 to many will go down as a horrible year that had scattered moments of greatness.

To Toronto sports fans, however, 2016 represented perhaps the dawn of a new era.  Save for the Argos, all of the city’s big teams became competitive. Three conference final runs (Jays, Raptors, Marlies), one league final appearance (TFC) where a better fate was deserved, and a draft lottery win (Leafs) that brought hope and optimism.

That said, I think we know where we are with these teams. TFC is head of the class in MLS. The Raptors are the 2nd best team in the East but lack the defensive identity needed, especially down low, to entertain any notion of knocking off Lebron and the Cavs. The Blue Jays starting pitching will keep them competitive in 2017, but they still need to fill many holes and add another big bat if Edwin Encarnacion doesn’t return to make a third straight playoff appearance.  The Leafs will be exciting to watch for years to come, and will upgrade their defence and forward depth – just not likely this season. Don’t expect a playoff berth in April, though their division is weaker than expected, which will make March interesting. The Argos are an irrelevant mess.

Titletown Toronto isn’t.  But it’s a far sight better than where things have been most of the last 20 years.  And fans going into 2017 can actually legitimately think for a change “so you’re saying there’s a chance…”

Still Title-less town…but this is fun #TFC


Toronto FC’s crushing loss in the MLS Cup final on penalty kicks was tough to swallow for many sports fans.  It’s counter-intuitive that a team that has no shots on goal during play should win anything, let alone a league crown.  But that’s what happened Saturday night at BMo Field.  The bottom line is TFC wasn’t able to put the ball in the net either…when this team succeeds, it’s because Giovinco plays well.  He did not.  Michael Bradley was a non-factor, and had his weak penalty try stopped.  The moves Greg Vanney made to get to win the East final, late substitutions of Cheyrou and Ricketts, didn’t pan out this time, though Ricketts had a glorious chance in extra time that rolled just by the post.  That meant no Giovinco in penalty kicks.  It may not have mattered, but it could have.  I think I knew when former TFC keeper Stefan Frei made that amazing one-handed save on Jozy Altidore in extra-time that this wasn’t going to be TFC’s night.

Regardless, it was damn exciting to watch, and this city has seen one team reach its league finals and two others reach their conference finals in back-to-back years in the past two seasons.  The Toronto sports scene is alive again, and just imagine if these young and upcoming Leafs can find the next level.  Despite last night’s heartbreak, it’s good to be a Toronto sports fan right now.