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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.

Yu Darvish will be on 85-90 pitch count in 2016 debut on Saturday

FRISCO, TX - MAY 1:  Pitcher Yu Darvish #11 of the Frisco RoughRiders warms up in the bullpen before taking on the the Corpus Christi Hooks at Dr Pepper Ballpark on May 1, 2016 in Frisco, Texas. Darvish is on Major League rehabilitation assignment with the RoughRiders, the Double-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers.  (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
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Yu Darvish will be limited to 85-90 pitches when he makes his 2016 debut for the Rangers against the Pirates on Saturday, MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan reports. Darvish hasn’t pitched since August 9, 2014 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Pitching coach Doug Brocail said, “That would be a good pitch count. It all depends on how he looks during the game and how many pitches he has. We’re not going to have him go out there and throw 150 pitches. Hopefully he gets out there and uses his fastball to get early outs and uses his pitches wisely and keeps us in the game.”

Darvish has made five minor league rehab appearances beginning on May 1. Over three starts with Double-A Frisco and two with Triple-A Round Rock, the right-hander yielded four runs (two earned) on nine hits and six walks with 21 strikeouts in 20 innings.

Francisco Rodriguez becomes the sixth to join the 400-save club

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 15:  Francisco Rodriguez #57 of the Detroit Tigers pitches in the ninth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 15, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. Detroit won the game 6-5. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
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Tigers closer Francisco Rodriguez protected the Tigers’ lead in the ninth inning for what turned out to be a 3-1 victory. In doing so, he notched his league-leading 14th save of the season and the 400th save of his 15-year career. Rodriguez gave up a leadoff double to Freddy Galvis followed by a Maikel Franco single. However, he was able to retire Tommy Joseph on a sacrifice fly, Ryan Howard on a 4-3 ground out, and Carlos Ruiz on a strikeout to end the game.

Rodriguez is the sixth member of the 400-save club, joining Mariano Rivera (652), Trevor Hoffman (601), Lee Smith (478), John Franco (424), and Billy Wagner (422).

Rodriguez blew a save opportunity on Opening Day, but has gone 14-for-14 since. He carries a 3.57 ERA and a 16/6 K/BB ratio in 17 2/3 innings on the year.

Jose Canseco will participate in a softball home run derby contest in June

LONG BEACH, CA - JULY 16:  Jose Canseco #33 of the Long Beach Armada fields ground balls before the Golden Baseball League game against the Fullerton Flyers on July 16, 2006 at Blair Field in Long Beach, California.  (Photo By Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Former major leaguer Jose Canseco will be a guest at the Frisco Rough Riders game against the Springfield Cardinals on June 4. After the game, he’ll participate in a Home Run Derby Challenge in which he takes on local challengers and attempts to break his own world record for the longest softball home run at 622 feet.

Here’s the link to the Roughl Riders schedule, which offers details on the event.

For those who might not know, the Rough Riders are the Rangers’ Double-A affiliate. Springfield is the Cardinals’ Double-A affiliate.

Matt Harvey’s struggles continue

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 24: Starting pitcher Matt Harvey #33 of the New York Mets works the first inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on May 24, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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The Mets considered skipping Matt Harvey‘s start against the Nationals on Tuesday, but the right-hander said he wanted to make the start, so the club relented. Harvey has struggled mightily this season, entering the start with a 5.77 ERA and a 43/15 K/BB ratio in 48 1/3 innings.

Harvey was slammed for nine runs (six earned) in 2 2/3 innings in his most recent start against the Nationals last Thursday. He failed to finish the sixth inning in six of nine starts.

Things didn’t get any better for Harvey against the Nationals on Tuesday. He yielded five runs on eight hits — including three home runs — with two walks and a strikeout in five innings. Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, and former teammate Daniel Murphy each clubbed homers against him. Meanwhile, Stephen Strasburg continued to dominate.

One wonders, if there isn’t anything physically wrong with Harvey — and there’s reason to suspect there might be, particularly due to a decline across the board in velocity — the Mets might just put him on the disabled list to give him a couple of weeks to clear his head. Harvey was booed by the home crowd last week, and failing to live up to expectations in New York can put a lot of pressure on a person.