The Week Ahead: Moment of truth for Blue Jays

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wells-vernon-blue-jays-100530.jpgThe Yankees, Red Sox, and perhaps, the Rays. That was the common thinking on how the AL East race would go entering the season.

The Toronto Blue Jays didn’t listen to those projections and enter the week at 30-22. They’re only in third place and 4 1/2 games back. But their record would be good enough for at least second place in any other division, and would lead the AL West and NL East.

How are the surprising Jays doing it? Quite simply, they are hitting the ball very, very hard. Led primarily by Jose Bautista (15 home runs), Vernon Wells (pictured, 13) and Alex Gonzalez (10), Toronto leads all of baseball with 85 home runs. And it’s not even close, with the Reds and Red Sox tied for second with 67. They also rank first in doubles, first in slugging percentage and second in runs scored.

The offense has survived slow starts by Aaron Hill and Adam Lind, and more than offset a pitching staff that has been predictably mediocre.

They’ve also been somewhat fortunate with the early season schedule, playing 20 games so far against the Orioles, White Sox, Royals, and Indians, and going 16-4 in those contests.

But things change a bit this week things change a bit, as the Blue Jays play host to the two best teams in baseball – who also happen to be division rivals – in the Rays and Yankees. After that, they head to Tampa for three more games before embarking on an interleague road trip to Colorado and San Diego.

It’s a tough couple of weeks to be sure, and will probably bring the Jays back down to Earth a bit. But get through this stretch with a decent showing and maybe we’ll start to believe.

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH
Phillies at Braves, May 31-June 2:
The Phillies have been struggling to score runs and now must face Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe. The NL East is getting pretty interesting.

Rockies at Giants, May 31-June 2: In addition to the Ubaldo Jimenez-Tim Lincecum matchup on Monday, we get Jeff Francis vs. Matt Cain on Wednesday. Both teams remain in the thick of the NL West race. 

Reds at Cardinals, May 31-June 2: Cincinnati enters the week with a one-game lead over the preseason favorite Cardinals atop the NL Central. Watching Albert Pujols smash three bombs on Sunday can’t help the Reds’ confidence that they’ll stay there long.

Braves at Dodgers, June 3-6: Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the Dodgers have been playing much better of late, climbing within two games of first place in the NL West. On top of that, they’re scheduled to get Andre Ethier back on Monday, who has been on the disabled list since May 18 with a fractured pinkie finger, yet still leads the team in home runs and RBIs. Things are looking up in Los Angeles.

Padres at Phillies, June 4-7: Guess which of these teams has a better record entering the week? I’ll give you a hint: The notoriously thrifty Padres are actually considering adding payroll via the trade market instead of trading away star slugger Adrian Gonzalez.

ON THE TUBE
Tuesday, 7:10 p.m. ET: Phillies at Braves (ESPN)
Wednesday, 8:15 p.m.: Reds at Cardinals (ESPN)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Marlins at Mets (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Brewers at Cardinals (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Rays at Rangers (FOX)
Sunday, 8:00 p.m.: Brewers at Cardinals (ESPN)
*Check local listings

And for those of you who have asked for a schedule of MLB Network games, you may find that here.

Are you on Twitter? You can follow Bob here, and get all your HBT updates here.

Drew Smyly brings youth and experience to Mariners rotation

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PEORIA, Ariz. (AP) Trades don’t surprise Drew Smyly anymore.

At age 27, the Seattle Mariners left-hander has been dealt twice. The first swap sent him from the team that drafted and developed Smyly, the Detroit Tigers, to the Tampa Bay Rays in midseason 2014. That trade landed star pitcher David Price in Detroit.

“I was surprised by that one,” Smyly said.

The most recent trade involving him came in January, when the Rays shipped Smyly to Seattle for three prospects in one of many moves by Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto. Smyly immediately joined the Mariners’ projected starting rotation, and is having fun getting to know his new teammates at spring training by way of manager Scott Servais’ clubhouse icebreakers.

Servais thinks Smyly is a solid fit as a still young yet experienced pitcher.

“One, being where he’s at in his career age-wise and service time, he’s kind of at the point where, put him in the right environment … very good defensive outfield, he’s a fly ball guy, maybe he does step up and take the next step,” Servais said. “Getting out of the American League East certainly should help him, but there’s no guarantees. Our division’s pretty tough.”

Servais suggested that another Arkansas native, ex-big leaguer Cliff Lee, might have helped sell Seattle on Smyly. Lee is a former Mariner and the two share an agent.

Smyly went 7-12 in a career-high 30 starts last season in Tampa, but won five games from July 30 to the end of the season after starting out 2-11. From May 21 to July 18, he lost seven straight starts.

“Pitching’s tough, you know,” Smyly said. “To manipulate the ball, to make it do different things, to put it in the strike zone with hitters that know what they’re doing. … I just had a rough stretch but I show up at the field every day, play catch and work on my craft and you know, that’s going to turn around one day.”

The 32 home runs Smyly surrendered in 2016 figure to be reduced in Seattle’s pitcher-friendly Safeco Field.

“It can only help,” he said. “But it’s still going to be up to me to execute pitches and pitch well.”

Smyly is set to join the U.S. World Baseball Classic team shortly. Before that, he’ll make his first spring training start in the middle of next week.

“It’s an honor to be able to put your country on your chest and play with some of the guys on that team,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it big time.”

NOTES: Servais plans to roll out what figures to be Seattle’s opening day lineup in the spring training opener Saturday against San Diego. It’s OF Jarrod Dyson, SS Jean Segura, 2B Robinson Cano, DH Nelson Cruz, 3B Kyle Seager, OF Mitch Haniger, 1B Dan Vogelbach, C Mike Zunino and OF Leonys Martin. … Servais said Cano and Cruz will play a little more than is typical for early spring games, as the two will depart for the World Baseball Classic in early March. … LHP Ariel Miranda will start Saturday, then RHP Chris Heston Sunday, RHP Yovani Gallardo on Monday and ace Felix Hernandez on Tuesday.

Mitt Romney’s sons are trying to buy a stake in the Yankees

TAMPA, FL - AUGUST 30:  Tagg Romney son of Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gives an interview during the final day of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 30, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate during the RNC which will conclude today.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Mitt Romney built his professional life in Massachusetts and was once the governor of the state. As such, it is not surprising that he has long identified as a Red Sox fan. So this has to be troubling to him from a fan’s perspective. From Jon Heyman:

The Romney family is bidding to buy a small stake in the Yankees months after their try for the Marlins stalled. If the deal goes through, it is expected to be $25 million to $30 million per percentage point and thought to be interested in one or two percentage points. The Yankees are valued around $3 billion or more.

The effort is being led by Mitt’s son Tagg, one of his brothers and their business partners. Mitt’s spokesman tells Jon Heyman that he has nothing to do with it personally. Tagg Romney is reported to have been planning a bid for controlling interest in the Marlins, but that has fallen through.

I find this interesting insofar as the M.O. for the Steinbrenners has, for years, been to buy out minority shareholders in the Yankees, not seek more. Indeed, when George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees back in 1973 he held just a bare controlling interest and there were a ton of silent partners, most of which were back in Ohio and knew Steinbrenner from his shipping business. I’ve personally gotten to know some of them over the years as there are a handful of them in Columbus and I crossed paths with them in my legal career. They have almost all been bought out in the past couple of decades. They still get season tickets and World Series rings and stuff. You can tell them by their personalized Yankees plates and the fact that, within the first ten minutes of meeting them, they will tell you that they once owned a piece of the Yankees but got pushed out.

In light of all of that it’s interesting that the Steinbrenners are once again accepting bids for small stakes in the team. Especially from someone whose interest in controlling the Marlins suggests that they do not consider it to be a mere vanity investment. Makes me wonder what the Steinbrenners’ long term plans are.