Wednesday, February 29, 2012

30 Jays in 30 Days - Travis Snider and High Expectations

Who: Travis Snider, No. 45. Outfielder. 6’2, 235 LBS. 24 years old.

Tao-Approved Nicknames: Lunchbox. The Rosy-Cheeked Phenom. Formerly, The Great Big Giant Pasty White Hope.

History: Four partial MLB seasons and 232 games, All with the Blue Jays.

Contract Status: Agreed to a one-year, $435,800 contract before the 2011 season. Arbitration eligible after this season. Under control through 2015. One minor league option remaining.

Career Stats: .248 AVG, .307 OBP .423 SLG, .730 OPS in 877 plate appearances. 28 home runs, 104 RBI, 16 steals.

2011 Stats: .225 AVG, .269 OBP, .348 SLG, .616 OPS in 202 plate appearances over 49 games played. Three homers, 14 doubles, 30 RBI, nine steals. In 61 games in Las Vegas, Snider posted a .873 OPS with four home runs.

Meaningless Statistical Curiosity: Snider’s OPS+ last season was a painfully low 65. His total bases? Also 65. Weird, though completely meaningless.

Looking Back: Before we indulge your sense of disappointment in the former “Future of the Jays”, let’s start with this fundamental precept that has become clear to us upon further reflection: Travis Snider was mishandled as a minor leaguer, and rushed to the majors.

The Blue Jays were thin on top level talent and had little of immediate consequence when they called Snider to the show in late 2008. As a 20 year-old, Snider acquitted himself well in 80 plate appearances that year, but the question remains as to whether if he would have been better served to take a more deliberate path through the developmental leagues before skipping over levels. The last time Snider played a full season at any level of professional baseball was in 2007, when he spent the entire season in A-ball with the Lansing Lugnuts.

Sure, the argument can be made that Snider played well enough at each subsequent to merit promotion. But his whiplash-inducing ride from Dunedin to New Hampshire to Syracuse to Toronto in 2008 seems in retrospect to have been fuelled by a desire to make the future happen as quickly as possible.

Snider’s comes off as a guy who is pretty tightly wound, and we’re not sure that he was given the opportunity to work on his craft in a deliberate fashion. The result has been failure for which he was not prepared, and tinkering with his game at the major league level, where the games really count and the scrutiny is much greater.

And it’s the scrutiny that’s the key when it comes to Snider. There are very few players who can enter the league and excel at the age of 20 (or 21, or 22), and Jays fans should recognize that the struggles and development to which we’ve been witness should probably have been hidden away in some Podunk minor league ballyard. The notion that Snider is a “disappointment” or a “waste of a pick” (as we’ve heard on more than one occasion) is just flat-out bunk. Give your head a shake.

Looking Forward: At 24, Snider still has plenty of time to find his game.

For several years, we used Alex Gordon as a cautionary example to illustrate why Jays fans shouldn’t get ahead of themselves when projecting Snider’s potential, because even the most revered “can’t miss” propects take time to hit their stride. People kept wondering when Gordon would finally come close to the lofty expectations, especially through 2009 and 2010, two years in which he was bumped back and forth between the Royals and Triple-A. In 2011, Gordon finally broke through with an excellent season at the age of 27, and we hope that we can continue to use Gordon as a more positive example of why Jays fans shouldn’t give up on Snider.

Snider will be in tough to get big league at bats, with Eric Thames, Ben Francisco and Rajai Davis all in the mix for left field playing time. At present, it sounds as though the Jays’ brass is looking to either Thames or Snider to be the starter, with the other presumably setting up shop in Las Vegas, so Travis only has to beat out one guy for the job. How hard could that be?

2012 Expectations: We still expect that Snider might get demoted, possibly to start the season. On the plus side, we’re betting that he gets more playing time in Toronto than Vegas by the year’s end, and that he’ll be productive once he settles in.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

30 Jays in 30 Days - Edwin Encarnacion's Offense Is His Best Defense

Who: Edwin Encarnacion, No. 10. Designated hitter, occasional first baseman, former third baseman, winter league left fielder. 6’2, 235 LBS. 29 years old.

Tao-Approved Nicknames: EE is perfectly acceptable, and somewhat endearing. But don’t you dare call him E5, or we’ll write you a stern, scolding tweet to set you straight.

History: Seven MLB seasons and 786 games, with Cincinnati and Toronto. Entering fourth season with the Blue Jays.

Contract Status: Jays exercised one-year, $3.5 million option over the offseason. Free agent after this season.

Career Stats: .260 AVG, .336 OBP, .453 SLG, .789 OPS in 3078 plate appearances. 117 home runs, 392 RBI.

2011 Stats:.272 AG, .334 OBP, .453 SLG, .787 OPS in 530 plate appearances in 134 games played. 17 homers, 36 doubles, 55 RBI. OPS+ of 110, highest of his career.

Splitting the Season into Convenient Portions: In 95 games and from June 1st through the end of the season, Encarnacion posted a .360 OBP/.499 SLG/.858 OPS with 16 home runs and 24 doubles.

Looking Back: There’s something about Edwin Encarnacion that makes it hard for a significant portion of the Blue Jays fanbase to embrace him. Certainly, the Jays made an unpopular organizational about-face at the end of spring training last year, thrusting Encarnacion back into active duty at the hot corner in spite of assurances that he would never darken that side of the infield with his troublesome glove work. And when it went poorly from the outset, with EE making three errors in his first two starts in field, fans pounced on the weakness with choruses of hisses and boos.

There also seems to be something about Edwin’s body language that is off-putting to that angry horde, as though fans are seeking for him to appear more contrite after those gaffes. We’ve heard more than a few fans bemoan the fact that Encarnacion didn’t care about his eight fielding misplays at third, but somehow Brett Lawrie’s six errors are forgiven because he appears dutifully upset by them. (As though we could ever know such things.)

But if there was some perception that Encarnacion wasn’t sufficiently fazed by his bad defense, those struggles clearly affected him at the plate early on. He pressed and struggled through much of the first two months of the season, managing just one home run, striking out 21 times versus just four walks. But as the Jays transitioned Encarnacion out of the infield and into a role which saw him primarily used as a DH and occasional first baseman, his offensive numbers turned around dramatically. In July and August, he’d post OPSs of .909 and .960, and he was the Jays’ second best offensive player for a significant portion of the summer months.

A key part of that success - and part of the reason for our boundless EE optimism - was an improved strikeout rate. EE’s whiff rate of 14.5% was the lowest of his career.

Looking Forward: In spite of the fact that the Blue Jays already have a dozen or so options in left field, they asked Encarnacion to make an attempt at the position in five Dominican Winter League games. Though there isn’t much in the way of reports about how that experiment went, the fact that there’s been no further discussion of the notion probably speaks volumes.

Edwin’s defense at first base was perfectly fine last year, and given the physical struggles of Adam Lind last year, it would not surprise us to see Encarnacion get at least a start per week at that infield corner. Given our druthers, we might even like to see Encarnacion platoon with Lind versus left-handed pitching, though such a scenario seems unlikely at this point.

(Strange, isn’t it, how we’re always stuck talking about Edwin’s glove? It’s clearly the least of his tools, but it seems to overshadow all else.)

Encarnacion should get plenty of at bats in the middle of the Jays’ lineup this year, and given the current hopeless devotion to Lind as the cleanup hitter, we’d expect EE to find himself in the five-hole if he hits well, and maybe seventh if he struggles.

2012 Expectations: Wherever he occasionally plays in the field or hits in the lineup, we fully expect a solid season at the plate from Encarnacion. That 95 game stretch starting in June was no fluke, and if he can carry forward that level of performance, an OPS in the .830 range or higher is well within reach.

You might hope for something more than that out of your DH spot, but the major league average output for the position was an OPS of .764. We can’t see Encarnacion’s performance falling beneath that level, and we can imagine him providing good value at 50 points over the mean. Could he go 100 points above that level? It wouldn’t surprise us and if he does, he’ll be a tremendously valuable piece of the Jays offense.

Monday, February 27, 2012

30 Jays in 30 Days - Jesse Litsch is a Nimble Kitty

Who: Jesse Litsch, No. 51. Starting pitcher? Relief Pitcher? (You tell us!) 6’1, 225 LBS. 26 years old.

Tao-Approved Nicknames: Ginger Kitty. Don’t let your eyes deceive you, friend. He may not look like a varsity athlete, but he’s as nimble and spritely as a cat when pouncing on a ball hit in his direction.

History: Five MLB seasons and 88 games, including 67 starts, all with Toronto.

Contract Status: Signed one-year, $975,000 contract this past offseason to avoid arbitration. Has minor league options remaining.

Career Stats: 4.16 ERA in 417.2 innings pitched. 239 strikeouts, 119 walks.

2011 Stats: 4.44 ERA in 75 innings pitched, including eight starts. 66 strikeouts, 28 walks. 6.64 ERA in nine starts across three minor-league levels.

Splitting the Season into Meaningless Portions: In 46.1 innings as a starter, Litsch posted a 4.66 ERA with a 6.99 K/9 rate and a 3.50 BB/9. In 28.2 innings as a reliever, he was marginally better with a 4.08 ERA. Notably, he raised his strikeout rate to 9.42 per nine when coming in from the bullpen.

Looking Back: Since his surprise call up in 2007, Jesse Litsch has hung around the periphery of the Jays’ pitching staff for the past five seasons, though never really as an integral part. He’s never been a player for whom there have been high expectations, given that his fastball at best just ekes over 90 mph. He’s also never been – and we’re measuring our words here – a physical specimen that you could dream on or project. Still, with all of that middling prologue, it’s easy to forget that he’ll only turn 27 next month.

Litsch has improved his game in some key areas from his early days, learning how to put players away rather than depending on the good graces of his fielders. In his rookie season, Litsch posted a respectable 3.81 ERA, but also managed to strike out just 4.05 batters per nine. By last season, he’s increased that mark to a very serviceable 7.92, which will be especially important if he’s asked to pitch out of the bullpen this year.

His 2011 campaign is a hard one to judge, mostly because of how he was squeezed out of his spot on the roster by players with better stuff and lesser results (R.I.P., Summer of Jo-Jo). In his eight starts before relegation, Litsch pitched okayish (4.66 ERA, 36 Ks/18 BBs), though he only reached the seventh inning twice, and never pitched more than 6.1 innings in any start. Litsch threw a lot of pitches, averaging 100 per start, and 3.94 pitches per plate appearance.

Oddly enough, Litsch’s “best start” in that span is also the one that most frustrated us. In his April 11th start at Seattle, Litsch battled and got plenty of enthusiastic glove taps for keeping the Mariners off the scoreboard while the Jays’ bats were busy pounding Felix Hernandez to the turn of seven runs. The problem was that it took him 111 pitches to get through five innings, leaving the final 12 outs to the bullpen. The bullpen’s inability to keep the Mariners off the scoreboard in what turned into an 8-7 walkoff loss wasn’t Litsch’s fault. But a meandering, pick-and-nibble approach to each at bat left a lot of work on the table by the time Litsch was hitting the showers. That’s not what you hope for from your starting pitcher.

Looking Forward: In 2009 and 2010, injuries conspired to keep him off the major league roster, while last season, a combination of injuries and a full roster pushed him off the 25-man squad and down to Las Vegas, New Hampshire and Lansing. This year, the pile-up of pitchers might even be worse, so Litsch will be hard-pressed to wedge his way into an airplane seat headed north come the end of March.

Litsch’s best opportunity to stick with the Jays will be as a reliable and efficient reliever who might be able to pitch multiple innings. Otherwise, he’ll be cooling his heels in the Pacific Coast League, waiting for disaster to beset the starting rotation.

2012 Expectations: Litsch has a five pitch repertoire (fastball, slider, cutter, changeup and the occasional curveball), and when healthy, he’s demonstrated decent command of those pitches. We wouldn’t be surprised to see Litsch make the team out of spring training in a relief role, but we wouldn’t count on him sticking around for long. The battle for innings will be fierce this year, and Litsch has yet to show that he’s grasped the skill of good health, so we’d place the over/under on his MLB innings at about 50 this year.

(Photo? That's from the Daylife. There's a ton of pics there. Pretty cool, eh?)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

30 Jays in 30 Days – EXTRA! Off-Field Edition!

With our esteemed patron handling the pre-season preview duties for the active roster, there’s not much left for a part-time fill-in to do in the 30 Jays in 30 Days series. But there’s more to the team than the players, so on the weekends, I’ll be doing my best to take stock of some of the off-field staff of the Toronto Blue Jays as the 2012 season approaches. Up first is the manager, John Farrell.

Who: John Farrell. Manager. 49 years old.

Twitter hashtags inspired by managerial style: #Farrellball, usually accompanying tweets criticizing the manager’s seemingly mystifying decisions to allow runners to attempt to steal second base while Jose Bautista was at the plate, sacrifice bunt in bad situations, and pencil Corey Patterson in as a leadoff hitter.

Key characteristics: Lantern-jawed. Man, I’d love to be lantern-jawed. I think lantern-jawed people get respect just for being lantern-jawed.

History: One MLB season as a manager (81-81 record). 116 games, 698.2 innings as a major league pitcher over 8 seasons, retiring after the 1996 season. Assistant Coach and Pitching & Recruiting Coordinator Oklahoma State University from 1997 to 2001; Director of Player Development for the Cleveland Indians from 2001 to 2006; Pitching Coach for the Boston Red Sox (BAH! *spits*) from 2007 to 2010.

Contract Status: Signed as Manager prior to the 2011 season to a three-year contract (through the end of the 2013).

Intrigue!: In the absence of a big free agent or trade acquisition, John Farrell became the subject of perhaps the most contentious bit of speculation for the Blue Jays during the offseason. Reports surfaced that the Red Sox (BAH! *spits*), in the aftermath of their well-publicized September collapse and tarring and feathering of Terry Francona, were interested in bringing Farrell back into the fold to manage the club for 2012 and beyond. There was enough oomph beyond the rumours to have prompted the Blue Jays to make a shift in human resource policy – employees would henceforth no longer be granted permission to discuss “lateral moves” to other organizations.

But would it have mattered anyway?: Many of the more statistically-minded have set out to prove (and done a pretty convincing job of it at that) that the impact of any manager on any team is negligible, if there is any at all. I have a great deal of time for these arguments, but I can also see the – dare I say it? – intangibles that a manager might bring to an organization. It does look, from the outside, as though Farrell and General Manager Alex Anthopoulos have a strong relationship, a shared vision of how to assemble a roster, and a common commitment to long-term sustainability for the organization. I’m not sure you could say that with Cito Gaston (and you could say a whole bunch of other things about Cito Gaston too, but I won’t). In terms of on-field performance, it probably doesn’t matter that much who is making out the lineup card every day, but there is likely some value in having a person in the dugout pulling in the same direction as the guys upstairs.

Looking Back: Farrell took his fair share of heat last year for some of his in-game decision making. It’s difficult, though, to separate the decision-making from the talent he had on the roster to execute the decisions. In retrospect, I wonder whether Farrell had succumbed to the pressure of needing to “make something happen” because he was forced to field a lineup that consisted of one or more of Corey Patterson, Juan Rivera, Jayson Nix or Mike McCoy.

Farrell had to go with what he had in the starting rotation too. Given the lack of talent and depth among starters for 2011, I can't fault Farrell for much on how he used them. I don’t recall any egregious situations of starters being overstretched or yanked unfairly, which is perhaps testament to Farrell’s background as a big league pitcher himself, and a pitching coach for some pretty good arms in Boston (BAH! *spits*).

With respect to his management of the bullpen, we may again be able to take advantage of some informed hindsight, or at least give Farrell some benefit of the doubt. In the closer spot, Frank Francisco didn’t open the season healthy, forcing him to use Jon Rauch in the ninth. I think we can all agree watching Rauch close games was on par emotionally with watching a loved one having a limb amputated by a carnival worker. Francisco reclaimed the closer job later in the season and pitched pretty well. But apart from Francisco finally stabilizing things (far too late in the season), I never really got the sense that Farrell had any inkling from one day to the next what he was going to do with the ‘pen in general. But the roller-coaster ride may well have been a function of trying to find something that works with a thin batch of arms, not unlike the way the offense was managed.

Looking Forward: Perhaps blaming the talent Farrell had on the roster for his frustrating decisions is being overly generous to the man, but that’s what 2011 was like. 2012 is likely to be the season where we can see a truer measure of Farrell as a manager. There are fewer question marks with respect to incumbents and their roles (with the exception of left field and the backup infield spot, and arguably the first base/DH situation). Farrell knows who his closer is. He’s got a clearer picture of the other types of relievers he has and what types of situations he’ll ask them to face. He’s looking at the same challenges we all see in the starting rotation, beyond the 1-2 punch of Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow.

This is essentially a contract year for John Farrell. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which he enters 2013 as a manager with a contract set to expire at the end of the season. I remember that really pissed off Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Brad Pitt had to deal with his insouciance all season because of it.

Farrell is probably going to have to go to Anthopoulos and Paul Beeston after this season and say, “This is why I deserve an extension.” He’s going to need to be able to point to something – a better record, an improving core of players, a few breakthroughs nobody expected. If that something isn’t there, we might not see much more of the guy after 2012.

2012 Expectations: Farrell’s job, as I see it, is to help this team figure out what it is – by putting the best players in situations where they can continue to succeed and help the team win, and by sorting out the best way to assemble a supporting cast. There are going to be times this season when we all shake our heads and tweet our anger about Farrell’s lineup card or decision to send a runner. That’s part of the fun of being a fan. I think he’s a smart guy with a pretty good grip on what the team has, and what it can accomplish. I don’t think he’ll win Manager of the Year, but adding five wins to what he delivered in 2011 will keep him on an upward track.

Friday, February 24, 2012

30 Jays in 30 Days - Was Jason Frasor Ever Really Gone?

Who: Jason Frasor , No. 54. Relief Pitcher. 5’9, 180 LBS. 34 years old.

Tao-Approved Nicknames: The Sausage King. After Abe Froman. Because he’s from Chicago. You can look it up.

History: Eight MLB seasons and 475 games with Toronto and the White Sox. (Yes, that last part really happened. For 20 lousy games.)

Contract Status: Follow us closely on this one. The Blue Jays offered Frasor arbitration last year, which he accepted. The two sides couldn’t come to an agreement on a one-year deal (because really, why would Alex Anthopoulos ever do that?) But then, just before they went to the Jays’ first hearing since Bill Risley in 1764 (or something), a deal for one year plus an option was reached between the parties. Then there was some strange business of a trade. And the other team picked up the option year on Frasor at a cost of $3.75 million, then traded him back to the Jays, who had given him the option year in the first place.

Career Stats: 3.74 ERA in 478.2 innings pitched. 446 strikeouts, 205 walks. 36 saves. 6,999 sprayed loogies expectorated onto the mound pensively and deliberately. Expect (ha!) the milestone to be reached in the season opener.

2011 Stats: 3.60 ERA in 64 innings pitched. 57 strikeouts, 26 walks. Ranked first in Player Appreciation Added In His Post-Trade Farewell Interviews (PAAIHPTFI).

Perfunctory Nerd Stats: Frasor’s Win Probability Added (WPA) in Toronto was 1.10. In his sweet home of Chicago, it was -0.25.

Looking Back: Was Jason Frasor ever really gone? Was this the Blue Jays’ Bobby Ewing moment? Just days after slipping past Duane Ward to become the Blue Jays’ all-time leader in appearances for a pitcher, Frasor found himself caught in the middle of the Colby Rasmus trade and swept out of town.

The trade wasn’t kind to Frasor. He left Toronto with a 2.98 ERA, but in his first 20 games with the White Sox, he posted a 5.09 mark, giving up three homers and 11 walks in 17.2 innings. Maybe Frasor was a really hardcore Cubs fan. Or maybe it’s something about Hawk Harrelson’s presence that inspired him to such depths.

Or, maybe it’s the fact that for some reason, Frasor backed off on throwing his arcane “fosh” breaking ball in favour of a more pedestrian slider after the trade. In Toronto, Frasor tossed the the changeup/splitter hybrid 16.8% of the time, but dropped that to 13.5% in Chicago. He also threw a slider just 11.2% of the time, but cranked that rate up to 18.3% with the Pale Hose. Although that latter rate was on par with his pitch selection recent years. So maybe none of that means nothing.

On second thought, it probably was Hawk.

Looking Forward: Given the mess of humanity that the Jays will attempt to cram into their bullpen this year, we guess is that Frasor won’t be asked to throw many of the later innings. He pitched 37.0 of his innings in the seventh or eighth frames in 2011, but we figure he’ll be called upon to fill the void left by Shawn Camp. Last year, he threw just 6.1 innings in the sixth and the two-thirds of an inning in the fifth.

The side benefit to such a move would be that Frasor would be removed from the high-leverage situations where his ponderously deliberate approach to pitching is positively agonizing. The long exhales and stares into the horizon might make for drama, but it’s infuriating to watch when the game hangs in the balance.

2012 Expectations: Since mixing the fosh into his arsenal in 2009, Frasor has been a steady and consistent contributor, and there’s no immediate reason to suspect that he’s incapable of once again posting an ERA in the mid-to-high 3.00’s over 60-some outings. He won’t be the key to the team’s bullpen success, but getting solid fifth, sixth or seventh innings out of him can help to keep a few extra games close.

And given what a sport he was about leaving the first time, he might be a decent trade chip come this July as well.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

30 Jays in 30 Days - Francisco Cordero: I'm with Coco

Who: Francisco Cordero, No. 48. Relief Pitcher. 6’3, 245 LBS.

Tao-Approved Nicknames: Coco! (An old favourite from the Fantasy 411 podcast.)

History: 13 MLB seasons and 753 games with Detroit, Texas, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati. First season in Toronto.

Contract Status: Signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal this offseason.

Career Stats: 3.17 ERA in 785.1 innings pitched. 765 strikeouts, 327 saves. Three-time All-Star.

2011 Stats: 2.45 ERA in 69 innings pitched. 42 strikeouts, 22 walks. 37 saves, six blown saves.

Clumsily Handled Nerd Stats: Coco was a lucky duck last season according to his Expected Fielding Independent Pitching number (xFIP). Cordero’s xFIP was 4.12, more than a run and a half higher than his ERA.

Somewhat Scary Stat: Cordero’s strikeout per nine rate has fallen in each of the past five years. His 5.43 K/9 rate in 2011 was the lowest of his career.

More Frightful Figures: Cordero’s .214 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP!) was unsustainably below his career rate (.294).

Looking Back: It feels like just yesterday that Coco Cordero got real paid, inking a four-year, $46 million deal with the Cincinnati Reds before the 2008 season. And even if you quibble with the amount of importance that people place on closers, it would be hard to argue that the Reds didn’t get fairly decent value out of that contract. Cordero stayed healthy, racked up saves, and posted a 2.96 ERA while pitching in a homer-friendly park.

And yet, no one came calling when his contract was up after last year.

It could be that the precipitous drop in his strikeout rate had teams concerned that he could no longer miss bats. And while we can’t necessarily prove the following conventional wisdom, we’ll spew it out anyway: When old relief pitchers blow up, they blow up good. (Members of the John Franco Fan Club should send their complaints via postcard to the postal address of their choosing.)

Strangely, we’re all focused on the subtext of some of the bad numbers, while the text that is written by his performance isn’t all that bad at all. In particular, he dropped his walk rate to 2.84, his lowest rate since 2007. Moreover, he put up the highest ground ball rate of his career (50%) and the lowest fly ball rate of his career (33.8%), both of which were significant improvements over his 2010 numbers.

Looking Forward: Has Coco become a crafty veteran? Able to induce key ground balls when he needs them? Does he enjoy pumping his fist and dancing as much after a well-earned double-play ball as he did when he mowed hitters down?

Cordero’s fastball velocity has waned a bit over the past few years, averaging 93.0 MPH (down from 95.0 MPH in 2009.) But he’s adjusted by dialing back drastically on the frequency of its use (from 66.7% in 2010 to 41.2% last year) while increasing his usage of a changeup (from 6.7% to 18.8%) and mixing in a curveball (9.8%) that seemingly had never existed in his repertoire. (There are a few reports under 1.0% of curveballs thrown between 2003 and 2006 which are almost as likely to be labeling errors.)

2012 Expectations: If Cordero can be successful making a late-career adjustment to hitter, he could be a very useful piece at the back end of the Jays bullpen. At best, he could challenge newly acquired Sergio Santos for ninth-inning work. Even if he’s not as successful as that, he could still be an asset if he slid down the bullpen pecking order and provided the Jays with an arm in the sixth and seventh inning.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

30 Jays in 30 Days - Will the Real Kelly Johnson Stand Up?

Who: Kelly Johnson, No. 2. 2B (and maybe LF, but don’t mention that to him.) 6’1, 195 LBS.

Tao-Approved Nicknames: KJ. It’s not original, but it works well in Twitter. And there’s something about Johnson’s time in Phoenix that makes that make sense.

History: Six MLB seasons and 791 games with Atlanta, Arizona and Toronto.

Contract Status: Signed one-year, $6.75 million deal this offseason.

Career Stats: .260 AVG, .343 OBP, .441 SLG, .784 OPS in 3186 plate appearances.

2011 Stats: .222 AVG, .304 OBP, .413 SLG, .717 OPS, 21 homers and 16 stolen bases in 147 games between Arizona and Toronto. .364 OBP in 33 games after the trade.

Nerd Stats: From 2007 through last season, Johnson trails only Chase Utley, Dustin Pedroia, Rickie Weeks and Dan Uggla in Win Probability Added (WPA) among Major League second basemen (5.38).

Somewhat Surprising Stat: Struck out 26.6% of the time in 2011, the highest rate of his career and the highest rate among qualified second basemen in the big leagues last year.

Aaron Who?: In Johnson’s first 33 games with the Jays he posted a .781 OPS. In Aaron Hill’s final 33 games as a Jay, he posted a .479 OPS.

Looking Back: The Blue Jays finally got their man when they landed Kelly Johnson after the non-waiver trade deadline, in exchange for fan favourite John McDonald and Aaron Hill. (And it really says something about the decline of Hill that the one-time All Star and Silver Slugger winner could leave alongside a bench player, and be the player whose departure the fans mourn the least.)

The Jays pursuit of KJ goes back to the 2010 offseason when they attempted to lure him to Toronto, with the condition that he would play left field. (Because apparently, you can never have too many options in left field.) Johnson rebuffed them at the time, choosing to continue to play second base in the desert of Arizona, in spite of the previous dubious reviews of his glove work.

His reputation as a fielder was established early in his career with Atlanta, where he posted negative Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) numbers in each of his three seasons with the Braves. But since leaving the land of Tyler Perry and peaches, he has put up successive seasons on the positive side of that ledger (7.1 and 2.5 in 2010 and 2011 respectively.)

Upon signing him to a one year deal this year, Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos again mused about the idea of Johnson playing elsewhere (nowhere in particular...maybe someplace that rhymes with "deft yield"), a notion at which Johnson once again scoffed.

Looking Forward: In spite of being a middle-of-the-diamond player, it’s Johnson’s bat that seems to preoccupy most Jays fans, and his maddening inconsistency leaves one to scratch their head when pondering what we might see from him next year. Can he replicate his 2010 season with the Diamondbacks, in which he walloped 26 dingers and posted a stellar .865 OPS? Or can we expect a sub-.700 OPS, such as he posted in an injury-shortened 2009 (.692) or his final days in Phoenix (.699)?

It’s a fool’s errand to look at the 33-game sample after the trade in an attempt to find something to upon which we can hitch our hopes. But if you’ll indulge us as we rattle the bells on our jester’s hat, we note that Johnson’s strikeout rate dropped 3.9% and his walk rate went up by 3%, bringing those numbers into the same territory as his good years.

2012 Expectations: With John Farrell already angling to place Johnson in the second spot in the order, part of the Blue Jays’ early season offensive success will depend on him getting on base ahead of José Bautista. If Johnson can stop channeling his inner Mark Reynolds and demonstrate a patient approach, he could be a key piece of a successful season.

But as we attempted to game our way through a number of lineup scenarios this offseason, we kept finding ways to push Johnson to the bottom of the order. It's not inconceivable to us that he might end up hitting ninth by the time they crack open the lid on the Rogers Centre.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

30 Jays in 30 Days - Jeff Mathis, the New Kid in Town

Who: Jeff Mathis . No. 6, catcher. 6’0", 200 LBS. 28 years old.

Tao-Approved Nicknames: Somehow, we can’t stop calling him “Mike Mathis”, which is some sort of synaptic misfire that mashes together Jeff Mathis with his former manager Mike Scioscia and beloved catch-and-throw guy Mike Matheny. It has nothing to do with the former NBA referee.

History: Seven MLB seasons and 426 games played, all with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Contract Status: $1,500,000 for 2012. Free agent following the season.

Career Stats: .194 AVG, .257 OBP, .301 SLG, .557 OPS. 26 homers and 139 RBI in 1360 plate appearances.

2011 Stats: (Contains disturbing numbers. Reader discretion is advised.) .174 AVG, .225 OBP, .259 SLG and a .484 OPS in 281 plate appearances over 93 games. -1.0 WAR (Fangraphs edition.)

Nerd Stats: Fangraphs assessed Mathis at a dollar value of -$4.4 million last year. If the Angels can ever collect on some of that money he owes them, it might help to offset a small portion of the Vernon Wells deal.

Somewhat Surprising Stat: Hit nine home runs in 2008 in 328 plate appearances, and still posted a meagre slugging percentage of .318.

What the what?: His isolated power number in 2011 (.085) was higher than Joe Mauer’s (.081).

Looking Back: It can’t be easy being Jeff Mathis. On the one hand, your best attributes as a ballplayer are truly intangible, because there are precious few metrics that can fully measure the admiration of his former manager Mike Scioscia. Scioscia’s insistence on playing Mathis in recent years over better offensive options like Mike Napoli or Hank Conger became a laugh line for many of the more progressively-minded baseball fans.

It’s difficult for us to truly assess the value of a good catch and throw guy who is so inept at the plate, because even the counting stats that are available only tell a small part of the story, or so we’re led to believe. Sure, Mathis only allowed six passed balls in 698 innings squatting behind the plate (versus the eight that former back up José Molina gave up in 399 innings). But does that make up for the hole in the lineup that he leaves?

Looking Forward: With just one year left on his contract, Mathis is truly a backup and a stop gap until Travis d’Arnaud is ready to take the next step into the Majors. Moreover, we’d expect for J.P. Arencibia to get a heavy load of work this year, so don’t be surprised if Mathis makes only a token weekly start.

Just don’t spend too much time thinking about what happens if the Jays need to go to him in an everyday role for an extended period of time this year. Because those are the things of which nightmares are made.

Maybe that’s too harsh, because we really do respect the role that Mathis is supposed to play. As a stellar defensive catcher and a man who can whisper into the ears of pitchers to set them straight along their course, we may yet find that thing that made Scioscia so starry-eyed over the past few years. Let’s hope so.

2012 Expectations: Even with his deficiencies, the Jays made a point of going out to get Mathis, and we’d expect that by the time the team breaks camp, he’ll be designated as the personal catcher for at least one of the starting staff. Aside from that, anything better than terrible at the plate will have to be considered a plus.

Monday, February 20, 2012

30 Jays in 30 Days - Your Season Preview Begins With Rajai Davis

(Editor's note: If there is one thing that all of the "spend to contend" talk this offseason has done, it has convinced us more than ever that the kids love things that rhyme. Hence, we are embarking on a six-week journey to preview the upcoming season, one Blue Jay at a time. 30 Jays in 30 Days. It's not the smartest idea we ever had, but rhymes. So go with it.)

Who: Rajai Davis, #11, outfielder. 5'10", 195 LBS. 31 years old.

Tao-Approved Nicknames: "Ray-Jay", which is what Mrs. Tao insists on calling him, no matter how much we admonish her.

History: Six MLB seasons and 571 games played. One season with Toronto.

Contract Status: $2.75 million in 2012, and $3 million club option for 2013 (with a $500,000 buy out.)

Career Stats: .273 Batting average, .319 On-Base,.377 Slugging, .696 OPS. 177 stolen bases and 49 times caught stealing.

2011 Stats: 95 games played and 388 plate appearances. .238 AVG/.273 OBP/.350 SLG/.623 OPS. 34 steals versus 11 times caught. One home run.

Nerd Stats: -0.2 WAR (as per Fangraphs); -6.9 Ultimate Zone Rating in 2011.

Somewhat Surprising Stat: In spite of being lumped into the crowded left field picture, Rajai actually started more games in right field (7) than in left (4) in 2011.

What the what?: The Blue Jays were nine games over .500 (52-43) in games in which Davis played.

Looking Back: When he was initially acquired, we figured that Davis could be a decent fourth outfielder who wouldn't look overly out of place if forced into the lineup on a regular basis. The subsequent trade of Vernon Wells vaulted Davis into an everyday role, but his early performance as an everyday fixture at the top of the lineup served only to convince us that he'd best serve the team as a bench resource.

Given John Farrell's fixation with the running game at the outset of his managerial career, Davis seemed to be a perfect player to fit into this new philosophy. A speedster at the top of the lineup? What's not to love?

But Davis' Blue Jays career couldn't have started much worse. Sure, he beat out an infield single in his first at bat as a Blue Jay and stole two bases before scoring. But on that very first run to first, Davis looked as though he tweaked something, and the rest of his season was punctuated by extended periods on the bench and the disabled list. They say that speed never slumps, but it certainly pulls up lame more than its share of the time.

The injuries seemed not to allow Davis to ever get comfortable in the lineup, and aside from a passable month of May (.339 OBP), 2011 was a forgettable season. Moreover, Rajai spoke elusively about personal struggles that were on his mind as he scuffled through an extended hitting droughts in June (.483 OPS for the month).

Davis' defense in centrefield looked dodgy through most of the season, and he seemingly attempted to make up for bad routes or slow reactions with raw speed. The acquisition of Colby Rasmus only served to underscore the deficiencies with Davis' glove. (As did the late season reacquistion of DeWayne Wise.)

Looking Forward: Barring injury, it would be surprising to imagine him spending any time in the middle of the diamond. In the best case scenario, Rasmus will presumably getting the lion's share of the work in centre, and Bautista will hold down right, which means Rajai will be forced to scavenge for playing time left field along with the cast of dozens that are looking to fill that spot.

Davis' speed may well be the ticket that earns him a role on the bench, with pinch-running assignments likely to be his best chance to get into the lineup. The Jays won't be able to send him to the minors if he gets squeezed out of the 25-man roster, though don't be entirely surprised to see a trade to a National League team before they start opening the dome on a regular basis.

2012 Expectations: There's a small voice in the back of our head that wonders if he might not be a candidate for a bounce back season. Realistically, his best season lies three seasons in the past, and was fuelled in part by an unsustainable .361 BABIP. A full season bench role with an OPS around the .700 mark would probably be about the best scenario we could envision.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sundays in February are Terrible

Holy cripes was today ever a wasteland for TV sports viewing. It was EXACTLY the kind of afternoon that should have been filled with baseball games. I can’t watch golf. It’s dreadful.

You can tell it’s time for the season to start, because we’ve re-hashed all the exact same questions about the Blue Jays nine or ten times over. There is nothing left to discuss. Of this I am convinced.

But hey, no sense letting that stop me, right? Let’s talk about the outfield some more.

Of the Blue Jays position battles to take place this spring, the most scrutiny is likely to be given to the outfield. The Jays are heading into camp with Jose Bautista, Colby Rasmus, Travis Snider, Eric Thames, Rajai Davis and Ben Francisco, set to fight it out for three full-time spots. Realistically, though, the battle is between Davis, Francisco, Snider and Thames for left field and a bench spot as a fourth outfielder. Drilling down even further, the focus for many is the Snider vs. Thames question.

But what happens with the bench, and the resulting impact on the bullpen, is potentially intriguing. Alex Anthopoulos has indicated a willingness to carry five outfielders, which is a configuration we haven’t often seen with the Jays in recent years.

Presumably, carrying an extra outfielder would come at the expense of the bullpen, which in turn might have an impact on the types of relief pitchers the team carries. That is, with one fewer reliever on the roster, it might be a good idea to carry bullpen arms that can log more innings. Carlos Villanueva fits that bill, and so does Jesse Litsch, and so does Luis Perez – all three have starting experience.

And then there’s the question of options. Perez is out of them.

If they keep five outfielders (with Davis and Francisco on the bench, and one of Snider or Thames in AAA), they can keep only seven relievers. Six of them are going to be Sergio Santos, Casey Janssen, Darren Oliver, Jason Frasor, Francisco Cordero and Carlos Villanueva. The seventh will be one of Litsch or Perez. It’s hard to think Perez doesn’t have a leg up, given the fact that he’s a lefty and is out of options.

From where I sit, keeping five outfielders is going to keep Jesse Litsch off the 25-man roster, although given the not-terrible performance he delivered once he became a reliever late last season, he’s not a bad security blanket to have available to call upon in case of injury.

I still have trouble sorting out exactly how Ben Francisco fits into the Blue Jays’ plans this season. But the five-outfielder situation does give Anthopoulos a certain amount of the flexibility he so values. Having a surplus of viable major league relievers and outfielders may seem out of place in April, but it can be a nice problem to have later in the summer. It’s a long season. On the field, guys struggle and get hurt. Off the field, as we’ve seen, players like these can be the stuff of important transactions.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Various and Sundry - Catching up on a whole lot of nothing

As the final seconds ticked off the clock to end this year's Super Bowl, our Twitter feed filled with the rejoicing of our fellow baseball fans. "Football's over and baseball season is here!"

We were fully prepared to jump into that packed Plymouth Reliant K Car of joy and awesomeness, until it struck us that there remain two full weeks until the Blue Jays' hurlers and receivers punch the clock for the first time in Dunedin. And moreover, there's nothing quite so anti-climactic as celebrating the start of the new season by watching video of a row of catchers squatting and stretching and maybe (if you're lucky) pitchers' fielding practice.

Oh sure, baseball is coming soon. But we want it now!

And since there's not much else going on, let's pore through a whole lot of nothing.

Oh Manny: Remember a couple of winters ago, when Manny Ramirez was the big, proven, middle-of-the-order bat that everyone wanted the Jays to go after, damn the consequences? How about we pour some hot water on those shrivelled old leaves and make ourselves some tasty ManRam tea? (That might be a terrible analogy. Just be happy that we didn't torture it with some added bit about scones to go with the tea, because that's just ugly.)

The Jays have more than enough depth between left field and DH, and Manny comes with all sorts of warnings on his label. Still, for a one-year, minor-league deal with incentives built in, we'd be more than happy to take a chance that Manny would eventually make his way to Toronto with the motivation to come back to the big leagues and hit. For all the talk about how Manny's career is over, it's worth noting that he posted a .409 OBP in 2010.

Let Manny sit on the sidelines for 50 games, see how the rest of your lineup shakes out, and if you need him, you bring him aboard and give him at bats. And if you don't need him, you pay him out and let him sign elsewhere, or you trade him. What's to lose?

Old Friends, Bound for Moving On: There are few Blue Jays over the life span of our blog who have befuddled us more than Camp, as we teeter-tottered back and forth between appreciating his occasional contributions and loathing the sight of him jogging in from the bullpen with his ill-fitting pants and silly socks. Now comes the news that Camp has packed his pantaloons and is headed for the west coast, signing a big-league deal with the Seattle Mariners.

Over his Blue Jays career, Camp walked a few too many batters (2.8 per nine innings), while not striking out nearly enough (5.5 per nine), and depended primarily on the kindness of his infielders, managing to induce ground balls more than 50% of the time throughout his four seasons. Through the bulk of his time with the Jays, we never trusted him in any sort of situation where the game may have still been close.

Just as we were ready to run him out of town on a rail, he had a decent-if-lucky 2010 campaign, posting a sub-3.00 ERA (versus an xFIP of 3.93) in 70 appearances. And if our foggy memory recalls that season correctly, Cito seemed to look to him first whenever a call to the pen was needed. Every damn time. With those stupid baggy pantaloons billowing as he ran to the mound. Like he was some sort of bullpen Mountie.

Why did those pants annoy us so?

Elsewhere, Mark Teahen got an invite to the Nationals training camp and...whatever. It doesn't really matter.

Syracuse Honours King Carlos: Last Friday, former Syracuse Chiefs great Carlos Delgado (remember him?) was inducted into the Syracuse Baseball Wall of Fame. The Syracuse Post-Standard has an interview with Delgado from that evening, and we have to say that seeing him made us happy and wistful all in one fell swoop.

We're not sure what the right time would be to invite Delgado back to Toronto. On a certain level, it feels as though he's put a fair bit of distance between himself and the city over the past seven years. But there's no one who is more deserving of having their contributions to the Blue Jays recognized and saluted than Carlos, and we hope that it happens soon.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Growing Into Baseball

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me pass on my regrets this past week for having missed out on my regular weekend blogging duties. I had every intention of getting some of my rambling thoughts into cyberspace, until I got a text from a friend with an extra ticket to the NHL All-Star Game being held in Ottawa last Sunday. So yes, dear readers, I chose to attend a half-hearted and fairly lazy display of hockey over talking baseball with you.

The thing is, a younger me wouldn’t have thought twice about going to the hockey game. I might have been angling to get there on my own, not just dropping in as a matter of happenstance.

But now, I actually had to give it some careful consideration. My hesitation was not, as you might assume, because of my overwhelming sense of obligation to the Tao to get a weekend post up. (Bastard bounced my last paycheque.) It was because even though I’d never been to an All-Star Game of any kind before, I just had a hard time getting interested. I didn’t know many of the players on the teams; hell, I barely could understand how they got chosen. Fifteen years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case.

Something about getting older has simply made me a bigger baseball fan. Over the past decade or so, I’ve become a more engaged, passionate baseball fan than I’ve ever been of other sports – even the ones, like hockey and football, about which I used to be most passionate, and even played as a younger man.

Baseball attracts and further engages me in part because of the mountains of baseball knowledge that exist. I’ve personally been let in on the game in a way that hockey and football never allowed, at least based on what I had read and consumed. At the same time, all of this knowledge is growing exponentially by the day, and easier to find than ever.

That’s not to say that there aren’t the same resources out there for other sports. But they don’t bring you inside the game the same way. Football thrives, for instance, on its image as a battlefield, populated by superhuman warriors who bring home three-inch-thick playbooks to study, and mere mortals can only watch and wonder. Baseball seems much more human.

The books, websites, blogs, and other media that are out there can help a person know more about just about any aspect of the game, in an interesting and entertaining way. If you want to understand its statistics and how they paint a picture of the game in different ways for different people, you can start with Moneyball and work your way through to Bill James and beyond. If you want to read about baseball’s history, its unique character and charms, its brightest and blackest days, there have been generations of smart and talented chroniclers of the game to whom you can turn.

Tonight, I have the Super Bowl on TV.

(Side note: I started watching an hour late and was PVRing the broadcast, which allowed me to fast-forward through the commercials during the first half. I didn’t catch up to the live broadcast until Madonna’s withered carcass was about halfway through her spectacle. Three things about that: one, there really is no better way to get through the stop-and-start bullshit of a football broadcast. Two, this is another reason why baseball is more compelling to me, because they just play the damn game, and yes, it takes a while, but at least I don’t have someone trying to sell me Dr. Pepper every six minutes. I only have to put up with that when the inning ends or they change the pitcher. Three, the Super Bowl halftime show could run Up With People out there again and I’d be more interested in it than Madonna.)

The fact that I was willing to turn away from the largest North American sporting event of the year, and spent an hour scribbling some thoughts about baseball, tells you pretty much all you need to know about which sport has its hooks in me for good.

Pitchers and catchers report in two weeks.