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.

 

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Wet, wild…and wonderful #TFC

torontoeastchampsExhilarating. Euphoric.  Is there any other way to describe the incredible spectacle that unfolded at BMo Field last night as Toronto FC fought back from an elimination position twice to score a 5-2 extra time win (7-5 on aggregate) over Montreal to become Canada’s first ever entry in the MLS Cup, which will now be hosted in Toronto on December 10?

You didn’t have to like or understand soccer to enjoy the drama provided in the second leg of the East final last night.  And what a roller coaster ride for the 36,000 in attendance on a rain-soaked evening.   Disappointment after Montreal’s Aduro opened the scoring early.  Then the brilliant answers including the near-post header from an inspired Jozy Altidore before halftime to give Toronto a significant 2-1 lead.  Confusion opens the second half, and Montreal score again to take a potential tie-winning tie.  Then the tremendous elevation and header by Hagglund with 20 minutes left to force extra time.

Give TFC coach Greg Vanney credit – he pushed all the right buttons last night.  His substitutions of Benoit Cheyrou for a hobbled Giovinco, and Toussaint Ricketts turned out to be the difference as both scored in extra time on diving and sliding efforts into the 6-yard box to find the back of the net.  It was a magical sporting moment for the city of Toronto, for a city that’s seen a few of them recently thanks to the Blue Jays.

The TFC win overshadowed a lacklustre 3-0 Leafs loss in Calgary, and a 120-105 win by the Raptors over Memphis at the ACC (who are now a solid 12-6 and quite on track in the middle of a six-game homestand), and hardly anyone was paying attention when false reports about Edwin Encarnacion signing in Houston surfaced.  Yes, this  was a night that soccer and TFC, a franchise that bungled the first decade of its existence, truly arrived on Toronto and North America’s sporting radar.

So what to expect in the MLS Cup?  Home field advantage means more to TFC than any other team I would suggest, and the Reds have shown the resilience of a winner throughout these playoffs.  Toronto and Seattle did play to a 1-1 tie in their last encounter at BMo Field in July.  But no one would be more shocked than I if they weren’t hoisting the MLS Cup a week Saturday.

 

Go West, young #Leafs

The performance of young teams can often confound fans, and this year’s Maple Leafs really are no different.  After being outworked and outhustled in their loss at home to Carolina last week, the upstart Buds turned around and held Alex Ovechkin and the powerhouse Capitals in check in a 4-2 win at the ACC Saturday night.

Mitch Marner (16), tied for the NHL rookie scoring lead, celebrates with Tyler Bozak

Mitch Marner (16), tied for the NHL rookie scoring lead, celebrates with Tyler Bozak

Frustrating as it is to see this team play in its own end most nights, getting to watch Auston Matthews, William Nylander (who sat out Saturday with a mysterious injury) and Mitch Marner more than makes up for it.  Matthews (9-8-17) snapped his 13-game goal-less drought last week, and now sits a point behind Marner (7-11-18) and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine in rookie scoring.

Now, the Leafs head for Western Canada, with a rematch against Connor McDavid and the Oilers up first Tuesday night at the new Rogers Place.  The Leafs beat the Oilers 3-2 at the ACC on November 1, thanks to the strong two-way play of Nazem Kadri, who held McDavid in check while potting a pair of goals himself.  Somehow, though, I think the rematch will be a different story, especially with the Oilers having last change.  We’ll see.

Then it’s on to Calgary the very next night to face a hot goalie in Chad Johnson (no, not the former NFL receiver).  Johnson has been solid in supplanting (at least temporarily) Brian Elliott, going 5-2 and allowing just 12 goals in his last 7 starts.

Oh yes, and then it’s the return grudge match against Vancouver on Saturday.  You know, the one where Erik Gudbranson said Matt Martin would be “dead” after a series of third-period fracases in a 6-3 Toronto win November 5, highlighted by Nazem Kadri’s crushing hit on Daniel Sedin.  Retribution games are frought with a lot of unexpected possibilities, and you know the league will be watching closely for any questionable behaviour.  Still, you know you’re going to watch, simply for the possibility something will happen.  The Leafs need to keep their wits about them and focus on winning the game.

Toronto gets a three-day break after the west coast trip before returning to the ACC to host Minnesota a week Wednesday.

A trying Tuesday

A frustrating night to be sure if you watched either the Leafs 2-1 loss to Carolina or TFC’s 3-2 defeat in Montreal in the first leg of the MLS East final.

tfcmtlWatching TFC go down 3-0 early in the second half was not at all what I expected from this club, and it looked like disaster for a short time.  But the goals from Altidore and Bradley within seven minutes gives them legitimate hope heading into next Wednesday’s rematch at BMo Field.  Now, thanks to those two away goals, 1-0 or 2-1 victories will propel TFC into the MLS Cup.  With a crowd I expect will border on berserk, and friendlier field conditions than the trampoline turf at Olympic Stadium, the opportunity is there for TFC’s taking.

Meanwhile, at the ACC, Auston Matthews goal drought extended to 13 despite the fact he was AGAIN the best Leaf player on the ice last night.  Aside from he and Morgan Rielly, no other Leafs were noticeable.  While Matthews is great with the puck, I think he needs to play more without it – I’m just not sure he has the linemates to do that.  Perhaps putting him with JVR and Marner for a while might offer him more time and space?  Also nice to see Freddie Andersen solid again last night.  He held the Leafs in a game I felt they were (sadly) outplayed and outmuscled in.  Hoping for a different outcome in New Jersey tonight.

Lay off the kid #Leafs #BlueJays

There’s been a lot of talk and consternation among Toronto media types recently about Auston Matthews’ current goal drought.  I was rather astonished the other day listening to one of the noon-hour hockey talk shows to hear someone who should know better being critical of Matthews.  I can’t believe I’m quoting Donald Trump…but STOP IT.

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Anyone who’s actually watched Matthews and William Nylander play over the first 17 games of the Leafs season can see they’re dangerous every time they’re on the ice, and often play in the other team’s end.  Has he failed to convert a number of good chances recently, including a wide open net last night in the first period against Florida?  Yes.  But he’s far from the first goal scorer to go through a period of bad luck…seems to me Phil Kessel was quite streaky this way in his time in Toronto.  He’s wearing a Stanley Cup ring in Pittsburgh if you hadn’t heard.

Let’s get some perspective here: He’s 19, and most kids his age are still playing junior.  He has 12 points in 17 games, hardly a cause for concern.  Don’t compare him to Patrik Laine, who has 12 goals, because Winnipeg is a much better team, and he’s playing with some solid veterans.

If there’s one thing I think Matthews could benefit from, it’s some video work on positioning in the offensive zone.  I’ve seen more than one occasion where had he been in a different spot, we may not be talking about this at all.  The Leafs are above .500 and have scored 18 goals in their last 3 home games.  Mitch Marner is a difference maker.  Freddy Andersen has found his stride.  The defence is going to be maddening all season.  Just chill and enjoy the Leafs.

#BlueJays Update

I’m not happy to hear the Blue Jays are kicking tires on Sean Rodriguez, be it as a utility player.  He’s “excitable” much like Jose Bautista, and if you wish to move on from that temperament, bringing Rodriguez in certainly would be counter-intuitive.   With Reddick going to Houston, I imagine the Jays focus now falls on the likes of Dexter Fowler, and trade possibilities like Jay Bruce, CarGo (which I suggested previously here), Charlie Blackmon, and Adam Eaton (mentioned by Fox’s Jon Morosi this week).  I believe you need power and production from one of your corner outfield spots to contend, and it would seem Atkins and Shapiro seem to favour Bruce based on the fact they almost traded for him last spring, and have reportedly again engaged the Mets in talks.

One final thought…the fact Edwin Encarnacion seems to be waiting to sign after the new CBA is reached, where teams may have more room to spend with a new luxury tax threshold, does not bode well for his return to Toronto.  If the Blue Jays are truly working with an increased payroll number, as has been suggested, they may still be a player.  But the Yankees and Red Sox may simply be holding back right now ready to blow him away with an above-market offer once the new CBA is in place.

Jose, Edwin hit the open market #BlueJays

It’s been a busy few days of Blue Jays rumours ahead of today’s 5 p.m. deadline for players who were extended $17.2 million qualifying offers by their current teams to accept or reject them and choose free agency – we now know Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista have chosen the latter.434778

The biggest news of course came Friday afternoon when multiple sources reported free agent DH Kendrys Morales was signing a 3-year, $33 million deal with Toronto.  It’s left everyone trying to figure out what that means for Edwin Encarnacion’s future — is there a chance he returns now or not?  I’d suggest it makes it less likely, but only time will tell.  The Blue Jays also inked coveted Cuban infield prospect Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to a 7-year, $22 million deal on Friday – some expect he could start 2017 as high as Double-A.   Here are some of the other rumours that have been floated recently:

 

Jamie CampbellVerified account @SNETCampbell 2h2 hours ago

Sources tell me the have offered a 3-year contract to free agent pitcher Brett Cecil.

MLB Network RadioVerified account @MLBNetworkRadio Nov 13

.: “ are in on Josh Reddick & have discussed a trade with for Jay Bruce. Working on LH platoon for Upton”

Ken RosenthalVerified account @Ken_Rosenthal Nov 12

Sources: interested in Steve Pearce, possibly as RH platoon partner for Smoak at 1B. first mentioned possibility.

Personally, I think Reddick would be a great fit, and I’m encouraged the Jays seem to be open to pursuing trade options like Bruce — see my previous column where I suggest Carlos Gonzalez in Colorado should be considered a target for the Jays as well.  With regards to Cecil, I’m not sure they can do much better, sadly.  The only “lights out” bullpen lefties are Chapman and Miller, and Cecil then falls into the next tier.

How big a deal would a TFC title be?

Toronto FC’s devastation of NYCFC in the MLS Eastern Conference semi-final was one of the most impressive playoff performances by any Toronto sports team in recent memory – yes, Blue Jays included.  tfc2-logoTo beat the highest-scoring team in the league 7-0 on aggregate with a lineup loaded with world class (albeit past-prime) talent like David Villa, Pirlo and Frank Lampard is nothing to sneeze at.  The ball control and possession displayed by the Reds was truly clinical.  Now they face their nemesis Montreal, who knocked TFC out of the playoffs last year.  I have more confidence in TFC winning the MLS title than I did the Blue Jays winning the pennant this year, they look that good.  Regardless, a Canadian team will vie for the MLS Cup on December 10 for the first time in its 21-year history.  The atmosphere for both games could be unlike MLS has ever seen — perhaps up to 60,000 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, and the mad house that is BMo Field will be stuffed to the rafters.  Hopefully in a broader context it will have a positive impact on Canadian soccer at the grassroots level that will be seen years from now.  An MLS Cup win would be Toronto’s first significant sporting title since the Argos 2012 Grey Cup win (yes, I still consider Grey Cups significant) and a milestone for the current upswing on Toronto’s sports scene.