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Springtime Storylines: Are the Blue Jays doomed by baseball’s toughest division?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: New manager John Farrell’s tall order in Toronto.

The Big Question: Are the Blue Jays doomed by baseball’s toughest division?

Toronto has won at least 80 games in 10 of the past 13 years, but because the Blue Jays are in MLB’s toughest division they’ve finished higher than third place just once during that time while never winning an AL East title.

Last season was a familiar story, as outgoing manager Cito Gaston led the team to a 12-game improvement and 85-77 record … which was good for fourth place. To replace Gaston the Blue Jays hired former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell and his challenge isn’t to simply remain consistently competitive, but rather to get over the third-place hump and actually secure a playoff spot for the first time since back-to-back Gaston-led World Series titles in 1992 and 1993.

Unfortunately, as usual the Red Sox and Yankees look like 90-win teams and the Rays are capable of making a playoff run as well, which leaves the Blue Jays needing to out-perform their expectations and have a couple rivals under-perform theirs. Those are long odds, yet if switched to the AL Central or AL West the Blue Jays would be legitimate contenders. But that’s nothing new. Consider that since 1998 they’re one game below .500 versus the AL East and 30 games above .500 versus the AL Central and AL West.

In a different division the Blue Jays would have made the playoffs several times in the past 13 years and Farrell might be taking over a team looking to defend its division title. Instead they seem destined to win 80-something games and finish third or lower for the 16th time in 17 seasons.

So what else is going on?

  • Toronto’s lineup was one of the most powerful in baseball history last season, slugging 20 percent more homers than any other team while finishing just seven long balls short of the MLB record. Jose Bautista won’t go deep 54 times again and they replaced 31-homer Vernon Wells with light-hitting speedster Rajai Davis in center field, but J.P. Arencibia and Juan Rivera are very capable of topping the 40 homers lost in free agent departures John Buck and Lyle Overbay, and another 200-plus bombs are in sight.
  • Despite blowing away the competition in homers the Blue Jays ranked just sixth among AL teams in runs, due largely to a measly .312 on-base percentage that was third-worst in the league. They got particularly bad OBPs from the supposed table-setters, as the first two lineup spots combined to get on base at just a .309 clip. That should change this year, as Davis posted a .337 OBP with 91 steals in 2009/2010 and Yunel Escobar and his .364 career OBP will be around for the whole season.
  • I don’t expect the lineup to be any worse overall, but even if runs are harder to come by the pitching staff actually has a chance to carry Toronto. Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow are among baseball’s best young one-two punches and 23-year-old prospect Kyle Drabek is a third potential top-of-the-rotation starter, while the rebuilt bullpen boasts no fewer than six established, setup-caliber relievers in Frank Francisco, Octavio Dotel, Jon Rauch, Carlos Villaneuva, Jason Frasor, and Casey Janssen.
  • Unfortunately the season hasn’t even started yet and that pitching depth is already in danger, as Morrow, Francisco, and Dotel are expected to spend at least part of April on the disabled list. Morrow’s return is the biggest key, but so far at least the Blue Jays don’t think he’ll miss significant time.
  • If everyone is reasonably healthy pitching depth will be a strength, but the position players are a different story. Arencibia needs to hold his own as rookie because backup Jose Molina is one of the worst hitters in the league and fellow glove-first reserves John McDonald and Corey Patterson fill out the bench. The lineup can’t afford a rash of injuries like the pitching staff is already dealing with.
  • Bautista’s monster season ranks as one of the most out-of-nowhere breakouts in MLB history and the decision to sign him to a five-year, $65 million extension a year before free agency was a risk, but he doesn’t need a repeat of 2010 to justify the deal. Bautista was worth significantly more than $13 million in 2010, so even going from 54 to, say, 34 homers and maintaining most of the improved plate discipline would make him worth the money.
  • And while Bautista is almost certain to see his production decline significantly, Aaron Hill is one of the best bounceback bets around. He hit just .205, but his homer rate remained nearly the same as his 2009 breakout and his awful batting average was due to an unsustainably bad .196 mark on balls in play that ranked worst in MLB by a wide margin.

So how are they gonna do?

It’ll likely involve fewer homers and better pitching, but give or take a few games last year’s 85-77 record is a realistic expectation for the Blue Jays in 2011. The only question is whether that will put them in third place or fourth place.

‘A lot of pain’ – Marlins cope with Fernandez’s death

JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Pitcher Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins poses for photos on media day at Roger Dean Stadium on February 24, 2016 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
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MIAMI (AP) Jose Fernandez made his major league debut against the New York Mets in 2013 and was scheduled to face them again Monday night.

Instead, Miami mourns and the Marlins must push on without their 24-year-old ace, who was killed in a boating accident early Sunday.

“Deep in our hearts there is a lot of pain,” third baseman Martin Prado said. “Somehow we’ve got to overcome that.”

Fernandez and two other men died when their 32-foot SeaVee slammed into a jetty off Miami Beach at 3:15 a.m. Sunday, authorities said. The news sent shock waves throughout Major League Baseball.

The other two victims were Emilio Macias, 27, and Eduardo Rivero, 25, according to Darren Caprara, operations director of the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office.

The Marlins’ Sunday afternoon game against Atlanta was canceled, but there were pregame tributes and moments of silence for him throughout both leagues. Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz asked the Tampa Bay Rays to cancel a pregame tribute they scheduled in his honor before his final game in their ballpark Sunday.

Fernandez’s backstory made his death even more heart-wrenching. He escaped from Cuba by boat on his fourth try as a teenager, and when his mother fell into the Yucatan Channel during the journey, he jumped in and pulled her out.

“I don’t have the words to describe the pain I feel,” Ortiz said. “Jose was one of the special cases. The story behind him and his family and the way everything happened. You know how remarkable his career was going. But the most important thing was his kindness and the kind of person he was. It’s hard, man.”

A jersey with Fernandez’s name and number hung in the Mets’ dugout as they played Philadelphia at Citi Field. Mets manager Terry Collins reminisced about Fernandez’s debut against his team three years ago.

“When the first pitch left his hand, the first thought is, oh, wow, this is something special,” Collins said. “This was not only one of the greatest pitchers in the modern game, but one of the finest young men you’d ever meet, who played the game with passion and fun and enjoyed being out there.”

Marlins players and team officials gathered at the ballpark to grieve together.

“All I can do is scream in disbelief,” said Hall of Famer Tony Perez, a Marlins executive and native of Cuba. “Jose won the love of all. I feel as if I had lost a son.”

An emotional news conference was attended by every player on the Marlins, except their ace. The players wore team jerseys – black ones.

Manager Don Mattingly and president of baseball operations Michael Hill flanked team president David Samson and unsuccessfully fought back tears. Slugger Giancarlo Stanton didn’t speak but later posted a tribute on Instagram.

“I’m still waiting to wake up from this nightmare,” Stanton said. “I lost my brother today and can’t quite comprehend it. The shock is overwhelming. What he meant to me, our team, the city of Miami, Cuba & everyone else in the world that his enthusiasm/heart has touched can never be replaced. I can’t fathom what his family is going through because We, as his extended Family are a wreck.”

Fernandez was on a vessel that hit a jetty near a harbor entrance, said Lorenzo Veloz of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The boat remained in the water for several hours, its engines partially submerged as its nose pointed skyward, as debris from the crash was scattered over some of the large jagged rocks.

Veloz described the condition of the boat as “horrible.”

There was no immediate indication that alcohol or drugs were a cause in the crash, Veloz said.

A native of Santa Clara, Cuba, Fernandez was unsuccessful in his first three attempts to defect, and spent several months in prison. At 15, he and his mother finally made it to Mexico, and were reunited in Tampa, Florida, with his father, who had escaped from Cuba two years earlier.

The Marlins drafted him in 2011, and Fernandez was in the majors two years later at 20. He went 38-17 in his four seasons with Miami, winning the NL’s Rookie of the Year award in 2013, and was twice an All-Star.

Last week Fernandez posted a photo of his girlfriend sporting a “baby bump” on his Instagram page, announcing that the couple was expecting its first child.

Fernandez became a U.S. citizen last year and was enormously popular in Miami thanks to his success and exuberant flair. When he wasn’t pitching, he would hang over the dugout railing as the team’s lead cheerleader.

“When I think about Josie, it’s going to be thinking about a little kid,” Mattingly said, pausing repeatedly to compose himself. “I see such a little boy in him … the way he played. … Kids play Little League, that’s the joy Jose played with.”

Mattingly then wiped away tears, and he wasn’t alone.

Associated Press writer Freida Frisaro contributed to this report from Miami.

All Marlins players will wear number 16 in honor of Jose Fernandez tonight

MIAMI, FL - JULY 09:  Jose Fernandez #16 of the Miami Marlins pitches during the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Marlins Park on July 9, 2015 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
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The Marlins game was understandably cancelled yesterday. The baseball schedule has always gone on in such situations, however, and the Marlins will host the Mets tonight in Miami.

As they do so, they will all be wearing number 16, Jose Fernandez’s number, in honor of their fallen teammate.

A nice gesture on what will certainly be an emotional night.