Running down the rosters: Toronto Blue Jays

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Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos has made a bunch of smart moves since taking over after the 2009 season and he was presented with one of the greatest gifts in major league history when the Angels took Vernon Wells’ contract off his hands and sent back Mike Napoli in return, yet his Blue Jays are still a fourth place team. This winter has to be regarded as a disappointment, as the Jays simply wouldn’t go the extra mile to land a star. In time, they may be better off for it — Prince Fielder wasn’t worth a nine-year deal and Yu Darvish certainly came with some risk — but right now, fans have to be wondering what good that new-found financial flexibility is actually doing.

At least the future is promising. All of the Jays’ best players are under control beyond 2012, and there’s quite a bit more talent on the way.

Rotation
Ricky Romero – L
Brandon Morrow – R
Brett Cecil – L
Henderson Alvarez – R
Dustin McGowan – R

Bullpen
Sergio Santos – R
Francisco Cordero – R
Jason Frasor – R
Darren Oliver – L
Casey Janssen – R
Carlos Villanueva – R
Jesse Litsch – R

SP next in line: Aaron Laffey (L), Kyle Drabek (R), Nelson Figueroa (R)
RP next in line: Luis Perez (L), Joel Carreno (R), Trystan Magnuson (R), Jesse Chavez (R)

It’s the rotation that figures to prevent the Jays from making a run at the AL East. Romero may be one of the game’s most underrated hurlers, but there are no sure things beyond him. Morrow ended up with a 4.72 ERA last season, while Cecil came in at 4.73. Since the Jays were unable to add anyone through free agency, the 21-year-old Alvarez appears to be nearly guaranteed a place, with McGowan, Laffey and Drabek competing for the fifth spot.

The guess here is that McGowan is the fifth starter, even though it might make more sense to stash him in the pen initially to manage his innings. The problem there is that the bullpen is simply too crowded after the late additions of Cordero and Oliver. Villanueva and Litsch seem redundant now that both are being viewed strictly as relievers, so perhaps one will be traded this spring. That’d open up a place for Perez as a second lefty.

Lineup
SS Yunel Escobar – R
2B Kelly Johnson – L
RF Jose Bautista – R
1B Adam Lind – L
DH Edwin Encarnacion – R
3B Brett Lawrie – R
CF Colby Rasmus – L
C J.P. Arencibia – R
LF Eric Thames – L

Bench
C Jeff Mathis – R
INF Omar Vizquel – S
OF Rajai Davis – R
OF Ben Francisco – R

Next in line: 1B David Cooper (L), INF Mike McCoy (R), INF Luis Valbuena (L), INF Chris Woodward (R), OF Travis Snider (L), OF Moises Sierra (R)

The only real question of the Jays here is left field. Either Thames or Snider will win the job as a starter against right-handers, with the other returning to Triple-A. Francisco figures to play against lefties regardless, with Davis also available off the bench.

There’s also some chance that McCoy or Valbuena could beat out Vizquel for a bench spot, but it seems unlikely.

The lineup has a great deal of upside, and I’m pretty optimistic about the group as a whole. Lind drove in 114 runs in 2009 and is still just 28. Encarnacion may have finally put it together when he hit .291/.382/.504 in the second half of last season. Lawrie looks like one of the game’s best young talents. Rasmus had an .859 OPS as a 23-year-old for the Cardinals in 2010. If two of those guys play up to their potential, then the Jays should be able to win a bunch of 7-5 games. If the Jays instead end up with Bautista and a cast of .700-.750 OPS guys, then even matching last year’s 81-81 record will be difficult.

What in the heck is Derek Jeter doing with the Marlins?

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Last night we linked the Miami Herald story about the Marlins firing special assistants Jeff Conine, Andre Dawson, Tony Perez and Jack McKeon. Let’s talk about that a little bit.

The firings themselves are eyebrow-raising inasmuch as “special assistants” like that are rarely key front office personnel. Former players, Hall of Famers and former managers like those guys are really ambassadors for the team and, particularly in the case of Jeff Conine, who is known as “Mr. Marlin,” why would new ownership want to kick its ambassadors to the curb? It’s not like you can just hire a bunch of new franchise legends for he role. Who ya gonna call? Dan Uggla?

Sure, I can see an argument for changing their responsibilities. If they actually had say in baseball operations, I can see new ownership wanting to relieve them of those duties. It’s also possible that Jeff Loria paid them too much money for guys who are only team ambassadors. So, sure, if the job is too cushy by the standards of the gig, I could see Jeter cutting their pay or their duties to make it conform to what other clubs do with their former stars. Maybe that makes them want to quit. If so, that’s OK I suppose.

Beyond that, however, it’s hard to see why you would NOT want guys like Conine, Dawson, Perez and McKeon to represent your club in the community and in the service of impressing prospective season ticket holders. The franchise’s first star player, a Hall of Famer who ended his career with the club, another Hall of Famer who is from Cuba (which is kind of a big deal in a place like Miami) and the manager who brought the club its last World Series championship are exactly who you want to represent your team. Especially when nearly everything else about your team has, for so very long, alienated the very public you want supporting it.

But let’s say, for the moment, that there was a good reason to fire those guys. Let’s say they’re all flaming jackwagons who have secretly poisoned the franchise from within. Let’s say that, despite his grandfatherly charm, Jack McKeon is a ruthless Machiavellian. Let’s say that Conine, Dawson and Perez beat up copy boys in the stairwells and microwave leftover fish in the break room every day. Even if that’s the case, how does this happen?

And here’s the twist: Jeter asked Marlins president David Samson to fire those four Marlins luminaries for him, because Jeter didn’t want to do it.

Even more strange, Jeter made the request after telling Samson what he already knew: that Samson would not be returning as team president.

It seems that Samson did carry out the firings. Unless some handsome severance package was being held hostage over it, I’m not sure how Samson doesn’t tell Jeter, “Hey Captain RE2PECT, know what? Up yours, you do it yourself.” Of course, one can only project one’s own sensibility on a guy like David Samson so much, so let’s cut him a bit of slack here. We don’t know how the conversation went. Maybe Samson was happy to tell those guys to hit the bricks.

But really, how doesn’t Jeter man-up and handle this himself? It’s not because he’s not yet officially the owner, because if he has the power to fire Samson, he has the power to fire Conine and his friends. Maybe there is more to this than the Herald story lets on, but as it stands now, it comes off as cowardice on Jeter’s part. It’s a really bad look.

I’ll be curious to see how this plays in the baseball establishment over the next couple of days. Everyone — particularly the press — loves Derek Jeter an credits him with a class, smoothness and media savvy matched by few others. This, though, was either (a) a failure of class and an act of disrespect to baseball luminaries; or (b) a complete bungling of public relations, serving to make what was, in reality, a reasonable move appear classless. It has to be one or the other.

Derek Jeter has been a teflon star for more than two decades, but two of the few things the media loves more than Derek Jeter are (a) old Baseball Men like McKeon, Dawson, Perez and Conine; and (b) “classiness.” It’ll be interesting to see if, for the first time in his professional life, the media gets its knives out for Derek Jeter for seeming content to dispense with both.

Dodgers top Giants, clinch fifth straight NL West title

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The Dodgers are NL West champions for the fifth time in a row. They clinched with a 4-2 win over the Giants on Friday night, taking their first and only lead on a mammoth record-breaking home run from Cody Bellinger in the third inning.

Rich Hill turned in another quality start, going six innings with five hits, a run and nine strikeouts to keep the Giants at bay. He tacked on an RBI hit of his own, too, lashing a double to left field for his first extra-base hit since 2007.

The Giants, meanwhile, deployed Jeff Samardzija and his 4.42 ERA for 4 1/3 innings. Samardzija was on the hook for the Dodgers’ four-run spread in the third and took his 15th loss of the season. Pablo Sandoval came through with a solo home run in the ninth, but the rest of San Francisco’s offense wasn’t so lucky against Kenley Jansen, who struck out the side to clinch the game — and the division.

After Friday’s showstopper, the Dodgers are just two wins away from their first 100-win season since 1974. If they win the remaining eight games of the season, they’ll beat out the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers for the most wins in franchise history.