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.

 

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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.

LEAFS

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.

BLUE JAYS

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.

RAPTORS

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

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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

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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…”

Much work to do #BlueJays

shatkinsAfter word broke Thursday night that the Blue Jays’ primary free agent target, outfielder Dexter Fowler, was signing in St. Louis, fans took to Twitter to vent their ongoing distrust of Rogers ownership and Shatkins (President Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins).  Many are frustrated at how the Edwin Encarnacion negotiation has played out, and with the fact Steve Pearce was the only notable move the Jays made at the now-completed Winter Meetings.

All is not lost, however — at least not yet.  All this means is the Blue Jays need to move on to their secondary plans to fill the holes in the outfield, at backup catcher and in the bullpen.  There are many options, including resigning Jose Bautista.  There are numerous trade targets that could be pursued — Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce, Charlie Blackmon, Carlos Gonzalez just to name a few.  Although, if the report that the Jays balked at trading Marcus Stroman for Blackmon straight up is true, it’s hard to see how the Jays get anything done in the trade market given how shallow their prospect pool is.

There is another option I think they need to consider, it would go like this: Re-sign Edwin, sign Ben Revere and platoon him with Pearce in left, and platoon Upton and Carrera in right. Trade Justin Smoak for whatever you can get – a backup catcher maybe.  I believe this would make them better both offensively and defensively than last season.   And they need a right-handed power bat like Edwin’s now that the Red Sox have traded for lefty ace Chris Sale.  The fact of the matter is now, the road to winning the AL East goes through Boston and only Boston in 2017.  They need to put a team on the field that can beat the Red Sox head-to-head.

The next couple of weeks will be critical to see if the Jays brass can keep this team competing at the top in 2017.

Edwin all but gone; #BlueJays ink Pearce

Hope of an Edwin Encarnacion return to Toronto appears to be all but extinguished as the Blue Jays signed Steve Pearce to a two-year, $12.5 million deal. Monday.  456665Pearce had a .867 OPS last season in 85 games in Tampa and Baltimore, and hits left-handed pitching well.  He’s versatile defensively, having played first and second base and the outfield.  But he’s never caught on anywhere as an every-day player — the most games he’s played in a season is 102 in 2014 in Baltimore. He’ll be 34 in April.

This move seems to commit the Blue Jays to a platoon solution at first base and DH, with Kendrys Morales and Justin Smoak already on the roster, and rumours that the Jays are also interested in Texas first baseman Mitch Moreland.  If it frees up resources to secure a Dexter Fowler, Jays fans may accept the trade-off.  If not, the approach isn’t likely to sit well with the fan base.  As a firm believer you need dominant production at first base to compete in the AL East, I’m very skeptical of this approach.

More to come as baseball’s winter meetings continue…

Winter meetings preview #BlueJays

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As baseball’s winter meetings begin this weekend, the Toronto Blue Jays have plenty of holes to fill and questions to answer.  Their only key move has been the signing of DH-first baseman Kendrys Morales, and lefty reliever Brett Cecil has already departed for St. Louis.

There will be a few more names to add to the free agent pool after today’s 5 p.m. non-tender deadline.  I expect the Blue Jays will try to address their needs through both the open market and via trade, as there just aren’t enough puzzle pieces in the free agent market that fit the Jays most pressing issues.

The Jays are among three teams most recently linked to former Cub Dexter Fowler, who’s reportedly seeking upwards of $18 million a season.  To me, this would be a key get for Toronto as they look to get more left-handed and agile, and it would give them a legitimate leadoff threat.  The Jays are also rumoured to be engaged in trade talks regarding Mets outfielders Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson.  If the Jays were successful in adding two of these three, their lineup would certainly be potent, even if Edwin Encarnacion (likely to leave) and Jose Bautista sign elsewhere.   Another outfield name in trade rumours is the Tigers’ JD Martinez, owed $11.75 million in the last year of his two-year deal.  Being a right handed power bat, he’s likely not on the Jays radar at this point.  I’d suggested previously that Colorado’s Carlos Gonzalez (owed $20M in 2017) should be an option the Jays look at, but the Rockies now appear to be in win-now mode, so he simply won’t be available now (he is a free agent after this season).

Boone Logan and Jerry Blevins are the top lefty set-up relievers on the free agent market, which is now a Toronto need with Cecil leaving.  Most teams don’t fill out their bullpens until later in the offseason, and with Joe Biagini, Jason Grilli, and Roberto Osuna already pencilled in, the Jays are in a better starting position than most teams in this regard.

So if making acquisitions by trade, what would the Jays be able to give up?  Those options likely won’t be popular with fans.  Names like Kevin Pillar, Marcus Stroman, Dalton Pompey, Connor Greene, Vlad Guerrero Junior and Anthony Alford are sure to come up.  How much are the Jays willing to give up to take advantage of their window of opportunity to win, which likely closes after 2018?

It’s worth remembering that the biggest move in Blue Jays history came December 5, 1990 when they acquired Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter for Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff.  Three years, later, the Blue Jays had a pair of World Series titles.  Could we see another blockbuster deal at the winter meetings in 2016 that could put this team on the verge over the top?  We’ll certainly be watching.