Thursday, March 31, 2011

School's Out

Fuck You Alice Cooper

With the impending arrival of Opening Day and the prospect of immersing myself in another baseball season intellectually comes the realization that, considering my humble, rustic university sharehouse accommodations - and the customary void of such amenities as basic cable and three-prong outlets, among other things - my enjoyment of all things baseball this summer will be largely dependent on the functionality of certain illicit websites. No, I don't budget money earned at my almost-$10/hour job (sadly, $10 would be an improvement - BC's wage laws are about as far behind the times as their revolutionary rhetoric) to subscribe to, so if the powers that be manage to bring down a major underground website, I'm the one left to seek out the nearest bar (which would be terrific and all, if I hadn't just quit drinking three months ago).

But whatever happens, in between trying not to write an essay about the momentousness of a historical event that happened shortly after I was born in a country I've never visited, I will park myself on some kind of chair - computer chair, barstool, borrowed couch, whatever the case may be - at four o'clock tomorrow afternoon to watch Ricky Romero do his best to dice through a lineup of slapdash hitters to make the likes of Rajai Davis, Corey Patterson and Scott Podsednik proud (from their seats in the clubhouse, mostly). I love Opening Day, and while the weather may still be toeing its own Mendoza line (I mean freezing, idiot) in Ontario, here on Canada's own little tropical island the official hallmark of spring couldn't come a day too soon. It's been baseball weather here for going on a month now, and if there's anything that might awaken me from my post-university existential daze, it's going to be the sweat smell of leather and cracking bats.
Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life. Google tells me this is a Leo Sayer quote, but I've never heard of Leo Sayer in my life, so I'm quite certain it's my addled brain's regurgitation of Tyler Durden. Regardless, it's one of those platitudes that in their New-Age sentimentality hold some small kernel of truth, especially for me today, and I mean beyond the obvious literal existential interpretation. Today was the last undergraduate class of my university career, and tomorrow is first day of the 2011 Blue Jays' season. Coincidence?

...okay, yeah, probably. I learned a long time ago that wearing the same number as John Olerud in my house league did not transform me into a sweet-swinging first baseman. (I was more like Johnny Mac, replete with the profusion of ground balls rolled over down the third base line.) Baseball fanhood is a one-sided proposition, and must by nature remain an unrequited, sort of stalkerish, committed relationship. My rational atheistic perspective should keep me from reading too much into random disconnected occurrences. The game remains the same, regardless of my patronage.

But fuck it. It's baseball season!

Thursday, March 24, 2011


So the latest (okay, not latest - let's just say my west coast location lags 24 hours and call it even) news out of Blue Jays camp is that, with Morrow down, the Jays are preparing to roll with a 5-man rotation of Romero, Cecil, Litsch, Reyes, and Drabek.

The first thing that pops into my head when I see this group, or more specifically Reyes' spot within it, is not hell yes. It's more like sink or swim. The goal seems not to be putting the best five men on the field but shooting for whatever upside may be there for the taking.

With Reyes in the rotation and Francisco (presumably) on the DL, there's now room for both Purcey and Janssen in a seven-man pen, along with Rauch/Camp/Frasor/Dotel/Zep. With injuries taking the toll that any honest (read: cynical) fan should prepare for it doesn't seem particularly likely that we'll see a Werth-for-Frasor deal this Opening Day. Note to all late-February roster-overflow complainers: problems tend to work themselves out.

With the current regime (Side note: why do we use the noun regime, with its weird sub-connotations of fascism, when referring to baseball teams? Am I reading too much if I say it's because the average baseball fan swears a lifelong oath of unrequited fealty to a powerful organization featuring godlike figures? Okay, I'll stop.), let's start that line again: With the current regime's interest in retention of assets, Jays fans should be willing to accept the proposition that going forward the emphasis is not on exploiting talent so much as exploring it. Remember when Mike Smith got 6 starts on the 2002 Blue Jays? Okay, you probably don't. (I'm not sure how I do. How does a name like Mike Smith stick with a person? Must be the that it was so generic that I remembered it for its very genericness.)

But the point stands: Mike Smith was a bad pitcher on a bad team. In 2002, JP Ricciardi was in his first year as GM and trying to figure out what he had. If that meant signing Tanyon Sturtze off of one of the worst seasons in memorable history or calling up a mid-round pick with a superficially decent ERA against International League hitters, he would do it. Jo-Jo Reyes is probably not a good pitcher. He may not belong as a starter, and even if he does eventually carve out a career for himself as a crafty lefty (Ted Lilly has also had his issues with wildness, for example), there's no guarantee that this will be the year. But he's young and he's out of options, so he gets the Mike Smith treatment.

Anyway, while I'm on the subject of idol-worship and young GMs, let me take a moment to breifly rip everyone proclaiming AA Executive of the Year based on some positive early results. I need only direct you to that first Ricciardi team: sans-Mondesi, a combination of Ash picks (Halladay, Wells) and JPR acquisitions (Hinske, Politte) emerged to give that sub-.500 team the look of youthful potential. The oldest starting position player was Ken Huckaby, who was caddying for Kevin Cash anyway (remember that?), and with a rotation of Halladay-Carpenter-whoever going forward, in the post-Ash era we as Jays fans looked to Ricciardi's glib efficacy and saw him as our American savant and saviour. A real baseball guy, we said. None of this "Canadian bank-manager out of his league" business. That all seemed validated, too, when the 2003 version won 86 games (one more than 2010, but who's counting?). Well, fast-forward ten years, and who's at the helm? Oh yeah, it's the Montrealer with the economics degree.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Roster Machinations

(First off, apologies to anyone who has been checking this space - but with the final month of my final term at university wrapping up, I haven't exactly had the time to devote my writing to a low-traffic personal website. Look for a heavy volume of posts starting somewhere early-mid April. This is just a quick refresher post to get some stuff out of my system)

It's March 22, and Aaron Hill just played his first game of the spring and is apparently still nursing a quad. Given that Pods is also one-legged at the moment, it seems that the three-headed monster vying for the last two roster spots is no longer much of a monster: McCoy becomes the necessary 2B caddy at while Patterson will certainly start the season as the fourth OF. It's not a bad alignment, but it certainly cuts into any perceived depth Jays fans might have deluded themselves with; with McCoy breaking camp as a borderline starter, the Lawrie temptation only grows. While I don't think the Jays'd go back on everything they've said over the spring and plunk him in the middle infield just to cover for an injured Hill, the roster constrictions certainly tighten the skin that holds everything in place. If Patterson is a pure bench guy, then with one more OF/DH/1B injury Bautista has to move to cover and make room. If one of the outfielders struggles early on, likewise there's an argument to be made for introducing a platoon of sorts (Snider/Rivera) and making way for the native frat boy.

Oh, and if there's another infielder go down, well, brace yourselves:
The pen situation is similar at the moment, but I'll save that for another post.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Great Pasty White Flags

Look, 2011 is probably going to be painful. While Travis Snider could transform into Carlos Delgado, Brandon Morrow could finish top ten in Cy Young balloting, all while Opening Day third baseman Brett Lawrie wins ROY, chances are that for everything that goes right, something is equally probable to go south. A rotation keystone goes down with TJ or pitches his way to a 6.50 ERA and a shot to earn back his salary on the Strip; one prospect or another stalls out completely; a hitter has an exasperating year. It's simply rare that everything breaks right, particularly on such a raw team.

If you've played fantasy baseball before, you've probably seen (or been) that guy who loads up on all the hyped prospects on draft day, only to find himself in 10th place in mid-July with a roster stuffed with players bearing the painful red-lettered "NA" in the left-hand column. For every Jason Heyward there's an Alex Gordon, as prospects are everything that the word implies: untapped possibilities. There's a reason that as a ten-year-old Marty Janzen fanboy I came to loathe the word "potential." To say that someone has potential is  somewhat damning because it means, by its very nature, that success has not been fully achieved. Albert Pujols doesn't have potential, he has mad skillz.

None of which is to say that one should approach roster-building with the Houston Astros' non-strategy of papering over problems with middling, established players. The virtuous Geoff Blum doesn't have any great potential either; it's fairly easy to establish roughly how much he'll suck each year (80 OPS+, give or take). You can't win the World Series with replacement players - not even if you're the 2002 Angels - and it's a lot easier to grow a first round stud or acquire him in his minor league days than it is to add a mid-career Griffey.

On one level, as a patron of simulation baseball, I love Anthopoulis' approach: it's the sim league strategy of clearing contract space, stockpiling draft picks and picking up bargain-basement guys, and then sitting back and waiting for your superior farm system to develop into a world-beating roster. In Out of the Park Baseball, it almost always works (well, depending on the competition), but real baseball is not so clean-cut. Remember the 2002 Cubs? Thanks to wunderkind Mark Prior's second overall selection the previous June, BA loved them. Nine years later, Carlos Zambrano is a great, if tempestuous, pitcher, and Juan Cruz is still doing his thing in the back of somebody's pen, but Prior hasn't pitched a meaningful inning since Saddam was still in power. And Hee Sop Choi? Bobby Hill?

I know others have done the assassination of prospect porn far more convincingly than I can muster in a few short and statistically impoverished lines. My point isn't to undermine the notion that a great roster can be built out of first round picks and value trades - there's a lot to love about the youth and depth of the Jays' system. But can we stop pretending that this is a roster that can compete in the AL East?

When the Orioles signed Vladimir Guerrero, Keith Law absolutely tore into them. What he saw was a permanently mediocre team with a history of blocking their prospects in a failed attempt to compete with the big boys. Tejada signs, the O's finish in 4th place. Tejada leaves, the O's finish in 4th place. Tejada comes back, the O's finish in 5th place. And no doubt, there's something to be said for showcasing Nolan Reimold - Vlad isn't going to bring the Orioles the wildcard.

But he does make them better this year. Derrek Lee, though very mediocre last year and also past his prime, has historically been a very good first baseman. Even if the Orioles give up both of those guys in July, as they probably should, that's still (very roughly) 500 ABs from one 133 OPS+ player - at bats that went to the unforgettable Ty Wigginton in 2010 (remember Geoff Blum? If he was a corner infielder instead of a middle infielder, he'd be Ty Wigginton). They also added guys like Hardy, Reynolds, Duchscherer and Gregg. Whatever flaws all those guys may or may not possess, without going into any great detail, I think it's fair to say that they all should be better than the guys they are replacing. With those moves and others, the O's certainly have the potential (yes, that word again) to be much improved in 2011.
The 85-win Blue Jays have gotten younger, but they've also gotten worse. You can't simply shrug off a Shaun Marcum and Vernon Wells and expect not to suffer consequences. Perhaps Juan Rivera could have a great year and replicate Wells' production - or he might hit .250 with marginal power like he did last year. Perhaps Kyle Drabek will step up and give us the 3.90 ERA that so many project - or maybe he'll have to deal with exposure or mechanical flaws and, like so many pitchers before him, ride the shuttle between Vegas and Toronto. Without a major league track record, we simply can't know these things.

JP Arencibia hit .300 with 32 homers in Vegas in 2010, but don't forget that he put up a .728 line in his first go-round in even more PAs in 2009. If the adjustment from AA was a setback, might we not see an adjustment year in the majors? Consider how long it took Adam Lind to find a foothold after years of tearing his way through the system.

Captain Double-A has done his part to build a world-beating roster, but he's done it with an eye to the future. So let me call it now: Toronto Blue Jays, your last-place team in the 2011 American League East.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Grunge is not dead!

It's not raining in Victoria tonight, just a hop north of Seattle, but it probably should be. On Tuesday afternoon, we were greeted with the sombre news of Mike Starr's death.
I've got to come clean here; I'm a misplaced grunge kid, 20 years past my due date. Got the beard, the long-hair, the melancholy, even the thing for heroin chicks (not heroin chic, mind you - it was more about the destitution), but no music scene. I don't know why it is that a genre that passed its prime in my infancy holds such an appeal; in my more cynical moments, I wonder if maybe 1993 is simply my Jerusalem, and I'll do anything to bring back the memories:
Maybe this grunge obsession subconsciously hints at why I emigrated the Pacific Northwest (Canadian Southwest?) in the first place. Am I searching for a bridge to hovel under?

To be fair, I did spend the summer after high school sleeping in the backseat of a Ford Explorer, but the only time I ever made the pilgrimage to the homeland of grunge was for this:

Scoring Summary

4thV Wells doubled to deep right center, M Scutaro scored, A Rios to third.10
4thG Zaun grounded into fielder's choice to left, A Rios scored, V Wells out at third, L Overbay to second.20
4thA Lind singled to right, L Overbay scored, G Zaun to third.30
4thR Sexson reached on infield single to pitcher, A Beltre to third, A Beltre scored, R Sexson to second on throwing error by pitcher J Litsch.31
4thY Betancourt singled to right, R Sexson scored, J Clement to second.32
6thG Zaun singled to right, V Wells scored, L Overbay to third, S Rolen to second.42
6thA Lind doubled to left, L Overbay and S Rolen scored, G Zaun to third.62
6thY Betancourt singled to center, J Reed scored, J Clement to second.63
7thA Beltre homered to right, J Vidro scored.65
8thR Sexson homered to left.66
9thW Bloomquist singled to deep left center, R Ibanez scored, A Beltre to second.67
In short, I didn't spend much time railing heroin. In fact, I wound up rather benignly hitching a cab to Safeco with a gentrified couple from the Lower Mainland, and then spending the innings between the third and the seventh discussing Dustin McGowan's potential, Roy Halladay's Cy Young chances and the meaning of life with a cheerful, heavyset Calgarian in a Blue Jays uni.

So, I wasn't exactly living in Kevin Bacon's Seattle. (For those who don't get the reference, Singles features a not-quite-famous-yet incarnation of the band.) There was no Mark Teixieira on the field.

At heart, in spite of the appearance, I'm more baseball geekboy than Cobain. That Canada Day we watched a strong start from Jesse Litsch (pre-injury) laid to waste thanks to an impressive meltdown by the normally reliable Snakeface and that punk-ass Carlson. (Someone who works at SkyDome once told me that Carlson was only right when he had his bong in the bullpen, but I can't corroborate the story.) In four short innings at spacious Safeco the two lefties managed to transform a 6-2 lead into a 7-6 loss at the hands of Willie Bloomquist. (Yes, that Willie Bloomquist, who looks far too gentle for Cornell or Cobain's dulcet tones, but who am I to judge?)

In that game, you'll notice, Brandon Morrow got the win en route to the best year of his career, according to ERA. Obviously a season in which he threw 146 innings should be held to a different standard than a season in which he threw 64 innings, but regardless, his 2008 was very strong.
(Yes, I suck at photoshop. Don't shoot me.)

As 2011 approaches, we've been hearing a lot of calls of ACE! ACE! when it comes to our boy Brandon, 26-year-old superstud. I'm here to tell you to hold your horses.

Over at GROF, Drew previewed the 2011 rotation a couple of weeks ago. All four projection systems he lists (Marcel, RotoChamp, James, and fan voting) place Morrow's 2011 ERA between 3.78 and 4.04, which seems not only a miniscule range, but also a touch optimistic. As much as I love Morrow's electric arm - and, with the possible exception of a healthy McGowan, he's certainly got the most charged arsenal on the staff - and his fantastic finish to 2010, pitchers don't always develop on a linear curve. How many times have we been warned about small sample sizes? Yes, his OPSA fell almost a hundred points between the first half and the second half of 2010, which supported the naked-eye perception that he seemed to be improving before our eyes. But it's not a necessary leap to say that will carry forward.

For comparison's sake, in 2007 AJ Burnett's OPSA dropped 94 points between the first and the second half as he put together his best Toronto season. In 2008, he managed to stay healthy and add an extra 8 victories, but his ERA floated up to 4.07 and we all know how his time in New York has worked out. While I do understand that a 30-year-old Burnett is not a perfect comparison for a 26-year-old Morrow, I am prompted to wonder: how many times did we hear AJ reiterate that he wanted to be a pitcher, not a thrower? How many times did we hear he was working on a new changeup? (Three times in three years, if my count was right.)

Again, I look back upon the trifecta of Carpenter, Halladay, and Escobar, all of whom would eventually become superlative pitchers, but each had his own personal struggles along the way. I like Morrow's potential as much as anybody. But young power pitchers have a high crash-and-burn ratio, whether due to injury, mechanics, or psychological issues, so let's not get our expectations out of line.

A mind map from Mike Starr to Brandon Morrow:
1) In 2010, Starr starred with Dennis Rodman in Celebrity Rehab with Dr Drew
2) In 1996, Rodman and Michael Jordan won the NBA Finals
3) In 1994, Terry Francona managed Jordan on the AA Birmingham Barons
4) In 2010, Jon Farrell was Francona's pitching coach on the Boston Red Sox
5) In 2011, Farrell will manage Brandon Morrow on the Toronto Blue Jays