Toronto Baseball Guys
Tuesday, July 31, 2012
  Snider for Lincoln
I was at the Rogers Centre on September 4, 2008. Jesse Litsch shut out the Twins 9-0, and a 20-year-old outfielder named Travis Snider belted his first career home run in just his fourth career game. I can recall turning to fellow Baseball Guy Rob Metcalfe and remarking "that might the first of 500 or more."

That seems preposterous when talking about a kid who looks indistinguishable from a bat boy, but less so when you look at the number of players who reach the majors at age 20. There simply aren't many, and among the ones there are you find names like Ott, Matthews, Rodriguez (pick one), Cobb and Williams.

After that September cup of coffee in which he hit .301/338/.466, many Jays fans envisioned Snider as a staple in the outfield for the next 10-15 years. It didn't work out, as Snider rode the shuttle between Las Vegas and Toronto showing occasional flashes of brilliance, interspersed with injuries and prolonged slumps.

His walk rate tumbled, from one every 9.5 plate appearances in 2009 to one in 20 in 2011. He continued to thump the ball in Las Vegas, but couldn't seem to consolidate that performance with the big club. Finally, on Monday night, Snider was removed from the game in Seattle, having been traded for RHP Brad Lincoln.

This prompted a collective "Who?" from Blue Jays fans everywhere.

He's a 27-year-old relief pitcher... from Pittsburgh.

That prompted a collective "What?!" from those same fans. Or, as Mike Wilner put it:

Clearly, the masses were underwhelmed, but that's only natural. No other fan base has been as inundated about Snider's unlimited potential as Blue Jays fans over the past 4 years, and thus no fan base will value him as greatly.

Lincoln is just more unrealized potential - a 4th overall pick who is just now establishing himself as a decent reliever. This trade bears some resemblance to the Brandon Morrow -Brandon League swap, in which both parties gave up on talented players who simply hadn't performed to expectations. Like two kids swapping cool toys that they just can't figure out: "Here, see if YOU can make it work."

Lincoln has a history of starting, so it's possible that, as with Morrow, the Jays feel they can "fix" Lincoln and hone his potential as a starting pitcher. Even if they can't, a WHIP of 1.1 and a strikeout per inning will make him a welcome addition to the Jays' pen.

Still, this is the first trade in a while in which the Jays have surrendered more upside. Snider's ceiling is still very high, and if given 550 at-bats next season, it wouldn't be shocking to see him hit 30-35 home runs. The trick will be whether or not he can stay in the majors.

Late Monday, the Jays shipped Eric Thames to Seattle for Steve Delabar. Thames was never a highly touted prospect and moved up the organizational ladder the old-fashioned way - he just kept hitting, including a serviceable .262/.313/.456 as a rookie in 2011. He's a good story, a hard worker and brought tons of enthusiasm, but his upside probably isn't too far above what he did as a rookie, and he did take some Magellanic routes to balls in left field. He's organizational filler who was enjoying another good year at Las Vegas and whose trade value was unlikely to increase much further.

Delabar has a closer's strikeout rate (46 Ks in 36 IP), but has also coughed up 9 home runs, which isn't easy when you pitch half your games in Safeco Field. Given the recent history of the Blue Jays and prospective closers, it's safe to say that the fan base won't be holding its breath.

Are the Jays stockpiling power arms in preparation for a larger deal? With the trade deadline hours away, we won't have to wait long to find out.

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Friday, July 20, 2012
  Top 5 Ways to Keep Brett Lawrie Healthy
Brett Lawrie is nuts.

That's not meant to disparage. In the year that Lawrie has been a Blue Jay, he's put together a highlight reel that would be the envy of most 5-10 year veterans. He runs the bases with abandon, chases every ground ball like a rabid squirrel and launches himself into camera bays with no regard for human life.

The problem is, his life is one of the ones for which he seems to have no regard. If he's throwing himself into the abyss of the Yankee Stadium camera well in a July game in which the team is trailing 4-0, what on earth will he be willing to do in a meaningful game?

Lawrie has the chance to be a generational talent, already having established himself as a major league regular at 22. He can't do that if he can't stay on the field.

Here are 5 ways to keep Brett Lawrie in the lineup:

5. Lawrie-Only Water Cooler

Lawrie plays as if he chugs a Red Bull between each inning, so this might help to take the edge off. Since we don't want any somnambulent Blue Jays out there, this is off limits for everyone except Brett.

4. Deployable Base-Running Drag Chute

Lawrie breaks out of the batters box after every routine ground ball thinking "double." This is admirable, but he's been pulled from games after tweaking his legs and back. This device, controlled remotely from the dugout by manager John Farrell, will give the skipper the option to slow Lawrie down if he feels he's about to overdo it.

3. Sumo Base-running Suit

Bautista has his elbow pad, Escobar his shin guard, Davis his base-stealing oven mitt - so here's something to keep Lawrie intact once on base. Now, this would only be for situations in which he winds up on third, since it's not much for wind resistance, but it will protect him from those home plate collisions he seems to relish, such as last season's memorable meeting with Jason Varitek.

2. Everything Nerf

Forget the TD Canada Comfort Zone, it's time for the Nerf Brett Lawrie Preservation Zone. Simply resurface the camera bay, seats, corners of the dugout, etc. in soft, yielding Nerf foam. Then Lawrie can launch himself anywhere he pleases. Of course, this would only work for home games, which would necessitate...

1. The Brett Lawrie-Bjorn

Since Lawrie can't be trusted NOT to throw himself over railings, down dugout steps, into shark-infested waters, we're going to have to go with a buddy system. Since Omar Vizquel has been in the majors longer than Lawrie has been alive, what better person to tether him to? Sure, you sacrifice a little bit of infield range with this particular device, but remember: safety first.

This way, he can still CHASE foul balls to the ends of the earth, but just in case he's about to go overboard, Uncle Omar will be there to pull him back.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012
  Time to Manage Like it's 1969
The most encouraging moment of the Cleveland series was John Farrell's willingness to use Darren Oliver for two innings to close out Sunday's 3-0 win.

It's something he should do far more if the Jays hope to remain in the wild card hunt.

Bullpen usage has become a blight on modern baseball. The endless parade of relief pitchers slows games to a crawl, and often for no particular reason. Pitching changes are made less because a pitcher is struggling and more because they've been shoe-horned into roles.

Did the Yankees really need FIVE relievers to pitch the final 3 innings of Tuesday's game (in which they allowed a total of 1 run)? Especially when four of those pitchers combined to throw 15 pitches?

The save is largely responsible, because with the save came the annointing of closers, and paying the closers like closers. Thus, whenever a save situation crops up, the closer MUST be called upon to collect said save. Why else are you paying this guy $10 million?

This has trickled down to everyone in the bullpen having a role: set-up guy, 7th inning guy, lefty specialist, righty specialist, IT specialist, 2nd lefty, mop-up guy, key grip, etc. This creates bullpens of 7 or 8 pitchers, which leads to 3 man benches, which leaves teams with precious little flexibility on the field, but hey - they've got pitchers with roles!

And managers are dogmatic about these roles, to the point that they will happily burn through an entire bullpen even in a tie game. This can eventually force a manager to stretch Jesse Carlson for 3 innings or stretch Oliver for 3 innings.

The most egregious example of this came this year in the May 6th game in which the Orioles and Red Sox used 14 relievers between them before using position players Chris Davis and Darnell McDonald to finish the game. Sure the game was 17 innings, but that's not unheard of . When you're calling on your first baseman to pitch in a tie game, it's just possible that bullpen usage has jumped the shark.

So, why not stretch out a reliever before you absolutely have to?

Starting pitchers used to be replaced for three reasons: they were hurt, they were tired, they were ineffective. Today, there's a fourth factor, which is pitch counts.
Bullpen usage should be governed by the same factors. The Jays depleted pitching staff gives Farrell the perfect opportunity to do just that, because the team simply doesn't have the arms to make a rigidly structured bullpen work. They barely have enough upright, carbon-based life forms to fill one out at the moment. The Jays' motto for the rest of the season should be "pitch until you struggle."

11 times, this season Darren Oliver has pitched an inning using a dozen pitches or less.

Send him back out there.

Yes, he's 41 and sure, his ERA is bound to go up a little if he stays in games longer, but the higher ERA will be mitigated by the fact that he's providing more quality innings and keeping struggling relievers in the bullpen (Jesse Chavez, I'm looking at you). Aaron Loup pitched two clean innings in his big league debut on just 21 pitches. Under the new system, he'd be heading back out for a third. 

This is more in line with how professional sports are supposed to work, in that you don't replace players who are having success. "Seventh inning guy breezed through his inning? Great, make way for the eighth inning guy." This is a meritocracy, not an assembly line. Each time you go back to the pen, you risk finding the pitcher having an off day.

How many games have the Miami Marlins allowed Heath Bell to flush away because "Heath Bell is the closer" and the closer MUST pitch in every save situation?

If managers became more comfortable with the idea of multiple inning relief appearances, they'd soon find they could get by with 5 and 6 relievers instead of 7 and 8, which would allow for a lot more flexibility on the 25-man roster.

This is not revolutionary, just how things used to be - and Farrell and the Jays are desperate enough to give it a try. With luck, it'll catch on.

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Friday, July 13, 2012
  Bautista Can Wishcast, Anthopoulos Can't
Jose Bautista wants to win. Badly.

If that wasn't evident from his dour body language after finishing second in the home run derby, it was certainly obvious from the theme of the interviews he gave during the All-Star break:

The Jays are in contention! (Albeit at 43-43)

They're only 2.5 back! (Nevermind the 6 teams they have to leapfrog)

Now is the time for the front office to make a move to put them over the top!

When it is pointed out that the pitching staff has only 3 functional ligaments between them, and that rebuilding the staff will cost the Jays a number of their prized prospects, quoth Joey Bats: "If that's what it takes... it has to be done."

This has set off alarm bells for Toronto's jaded sports fans - already saddled with that "nobody-likes-us" high school insecurity - that this could be the beginning of a disgruntled Bautista wanting out of town.

On the heels of Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Chris Bosh, Steve Nash, Roy Halladay, Roger Clemens, Shawn Green, David Wells... ok, you can't really fault them.

But if you dissect Bautista's words, even HE knows that replacing the lost pitching isn't realistic. Observe:

"I know it's wishful thinking"

"Maybe we can add one (arm) and win."

"Maybe people like Brett Cecil and other guys take advantage of the opportunity."

We're grasping at an awful lot of straws here. With Luis Perez the latest arm to go SPROING, the Jays now have 249.2 of their 770 innings pitched on the DL. Replacing a full third of a pitching staff at this point in the season, when every contender is looking to upgrade pitching and prices are exorbitant, could strip the Jays'  newly replenished farm system.

Anthopoulos has been marvellously cagey in his trades, dealing from a position of strength to pick up talented problem children from teams ready to contend. He's bought low. In this case, everyone knows what his needs are and buying low will be impossible.

If a low leverage move for an innings eater is available, great, But the likes of Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Zack Greinke and Cole Hamels are being sought by just about everyone and the cost will be prohibitive.

After years of a fallow minor league system, the Jays now have an impressive and growing array of prospects. The time may come to cash in some of the future to make a playoff run. This isn't that time, especially when the potential payoff is a lone playoff game that is itself a roll of the dice. Mortgaging significant pieces of the future for a single game will send the Jays into buyer's remorse faster than this guy.

Besides, it's hard to imagine pitching rentals performing better than Aaron Laffey and Carlos Villaneuva have so far. Where the pitching has lagged is with supposed rotation stalwarts Ricky Romero and Henderson Alvarez. They have to be better and the Jays will have to rely on winning a lot of 10-8 games, while sorting out which minor league pitchers can be a viable part of the future.

It's not as sexy as a blockbuster trade for a "proven starter", but it should still make for an intriguing second half, while preserving the young talent that can make this team a perennial contender.

After all, they are still just 2.5 games out.

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