"They Were Who We Thought They Were" (a.k.a. Blue Jays midseason report)
Well, it's not like we didn't see this coming. On the downside, well, I'll admit it, the first seven weeks of the season had me on the bandwagon. In my heart of hearts I knew the Blue Jays wouldn't keep it up, but it's been so long since this team has been a contender that I put all logic aside and thought that this might end up being one of those magical seasons when an average team suddenly puts it all together and goes on a run to a pennant. On May 18, the Jays were 27-14, had the second-best record in baseball, and they had just swept the White Sox four in a row. Everything was coming up Milhouse for the Toronto nine --- and then they promptly went on a nine-game losing streak. To use one of my roommate's favourite catchphrases, "the dream.....is DEAD!" As far as postmortems go, I could've written the "they were who we thought they were" at the end of May, but now that we're at the virtual halfway point of the 2009 baseball season, it's time to officially get the fork out and stick it in BJ Birdie's back. Yes, I know his name is Ace now, but he'll always be BJ Birdie to me.
Given that the Jays are a .500 team after yesterday's win over Baltimore, it only seems fitting to break down the Toronto season with a good news/bad news format.
GOOD NEWS: Aaron Hill became the best second baseman in the American League, returning from his concussion-marred 2008 season swinging a power bat. Marco Scutaro turned into an OBP machine in the leadoff spot. Adam Lind emerged as the slugger this team so desperately needs. Scott "GBOAT" Rolen just rattled off a 25-game hitting streak and is playing like his old self thanks to his regular dose of off-days in afternoon games that follow night games. Hell, even Rod Barajas has hit better than expected. While it has been satisfying to see the team hit so well this season given their struggles last year, it's also friggin' frustrating as hell given that if they had done half as well in 2008, they would've turned a lot of those one-run losses into wins. In fact, the Toronto lineup as a whole has been tremendous, except for....
BAD NEWS: ....Vernon Wells and Alex Rios. Ostensibly the two best players on the team. Both are frustrating in different ways. In Wells' case, the fact that he's making $20 million a year through 2014 is frightening given that he already seems to be on the downswing of his career. But here's the weird thing about Wells; it would be one thing if he was just outright sucking, but it seems like his problem is the Rogers Centre. Going into last night's game, his line at home was a deplorable .172/.249/.287, but on the road, he's .337/.367/.520. Guh? This is why I can't totally write off Wells quite yet. I have to believe that his home splits will improve in the second half of the season, since they're so drastically off of his career numbers that something has to give. Now, keep in mind that even if he does turn it around, he still won't be $20-million-per-year good, but I've ranted about that absurd contract enough already. Fun fact: in early 2007, I actually argued that Wells was a better player than Grady Sizemore. Yeah, I think I lost that argument. Keep that in mind as you read this post featuring my alleged baseball expertise. Anyway, onto Alex Rios. His numbers are starting to pick up a bit, and he'll probably ends up with his usual stats, but man....this guy. I've seen 10-year-olds with better baseball sense than Rios. That play in Philadelphia a few weeks back when he somehow didn't tag up from third on a sac fly to left was one of the most mind-blowing plays I've ever seen. This guy is a MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYER. It's one thing to make an error or something, but that play was like watching a player take the field in an inning, go to field an oncoming liner and suddenly realize that he is wearing a shoebox instead of a glove. I've officially given up on believing that Rios will ever 'turn it on' and suddenly become a star. Time for the Jays to deal him to the National League. Maybe they should see if the Giants would still be interested in a Rios-for-Tim Lincecum trade. Makes sense to me. JP Ricciardi might also want to start a stopwatch in order to keep track of just how long Giants GM Brian Sabean would laugh after being pitched that trade offer. While on the subject of hitting, Travis Snider didn't exactly blow people away in his first few weeks in the big leagues, but not to worry, he'll be better in 2010. And Kevin Millar is a waste of a roster spot.
GOOD NEWS: Roy Halladay continues to be the messiah!
BAD NEWS: The Halladay trade winds are blowing harder than ever given recent statements from JP saying that the Jays are listening to offers and a fairly non-committal response from Halladay about his future in Toronto. Frankly, I think this is being a bit overblown. Ricciardi only said that the Jays are listening to offers, which they technically should be doing at all times. Like, if St. Louis wants to deal Pujols and Carpenter for Halladay, I think JP will pick up the phone. Also, it makes no sense from a negotiating standpoint for Halladay to overtly state that he wants to remain in Toronto, if that's even the case. Honestly, if I'm the Jays, I don't deal Halladay unless he has said something behind the scenes to indicate that he's ready to move on. Unless some team gives up some absurd Pierzynski-to-San-Francisco kind of package for him, there really is no benefit to giving up the best or second-best pitcher in baseball. I really hope it's only a personnel decision and not a financial one. Surely Rogers would loosen the purse strings to re-sign Halladay if he did want to stay.....wouldn't they?
GOOD NEWS: In spite of a ton of injuries to the pitching staff, a number of young pitchers have more than held their own. Ricky Romero is a legit Rookie Of The Year candidate. Scott Richmond has pitched very well as both a spot starter and a long man in the bullpen. Brian Tallet, thrust into the rotation due to injuries, has delivered quality outings in all but five of his starts this season. Future ace (insert hopeful question mark here) Brett Cecil showed some good stuff in the big leagues earlier than expected.
BAD NEWS: Oh the humanity! Virtually every pitcher on the team has been on the DL at one point or another. Twelve different men have made starts for the Jays, including some guy named Marc Rzepczynski whose name sounds like a 200-point Scrabble score. On the one hand, the fact that the Blue Jays are dipping into their Plan G options for starters and they've still held their own is pretty amazing, since I doubt any other club could withstand these many injuries and even be a .500 team. On the other hand, it's not a good sign when your pitchers keep dropping like flies. Makes it kinda hard to attract free agents or to entice young draft picks to sign when your club needs two hands to count the number of arm and shoulder injuries in its pitching rotation.
GOOD NEWS: The bullpen was unbelievably good in the first two months of the season.
BAD NEWS: The bullpen has been unbelievably bad in the last month and a half of the season. At this point, I have faith in Scott Downs and Jason Frasor. Maybe Jeremy Accardo. And I guess Dirk Hayhurst too, though he rarely seems to pitch in critical situations. But whenever you see Shawn Camp, Jesse Carlson or Brandon League enter a game, hold onto your hats. The zenith, of course, was BJ Ryan, who pitched so poorly that even though releasing him outright meant that the Jays had to eat $15 million, I'm okay with that move. If nothing else, it saves my mother from making her obligatory "he looks just like Casey At The Bat!" comment whenever Ryan enters a game. That is her second most-used Blue Jays observation, right after her 'Loverboy' nickname for Lyle Overbay.
GOOD NEWS: This might be the best defensive infield I've seen since the days of Gruber/Lee/Alomar/Olerud. Scott Rolen makes at least one jaw-dropping play every series. Hill/Scutaro are as solid a defensive combo up the middle as there is in the majors, and that's not even counting John McDonald on the bench. Lyle Overbay is one of the better-fielding first basemen around.
BAD NEWS: Well, there really isn't any defensive bad news to speak of, other than Wells' declining range in center and Lind's struggles in left (but given that he is groomed for a DH role, that's not surprising). So, let's instead talk about how the search for Toronto's new team president is taking longer to finish than a Norman Mailer novel. What's the holdup? Ted Rogers' death understandably slowed the hiring process last winter, but it's already mid-July and there haven't even been any rumors about what's going on. Is Paul Beeston just going to stick around? Did Rogers' death effectively put this whole season on ice and the real rebuild is being saved for 2010? Or, there's also my personal theory that the Jays are just waiting for me to wrap up my soccer and MLB.com obligations before officially offering me the job in November. How kind of them! I knew that using that different font on my resume would pay off.
Ok, onto the awards portion....
Team MVP: Lind or Halladay, I guess Lind if you want to define this as the 'position player of the half-year' award
Team Cy Young: Halladay, duh. Though credit to Scott Downs, he at least deserves a mention.
Team Rookie of the Year: Romero, no question
Best game: May 12, 5-1 over New York at Rogers Centre. That was, without question, the biggest baseball game in Toronto since Game Six of the 1993 World Series. Never in my adult life had I experienced that kind of a buzz surrounding a game --- virtually everyone I know in Toronto went, it was discussed on every radio station, and it seemed like the whole city was fired up to see Doc take apart the Yankees and to see the Jays lineup embarrass A.J. Burnett. Even if this season ends up being a bust (which it will), that early fast start led to a perfect scenario for that one glorious game. Fun fact: I didn't go! I was out on a semi-date (it's a long story) wherein I ate a tofu burger and went to see the Star Trek movie. Good lord. I had my pal Dave texting me score updates throughout the night, so at least some vestige of my fandom remained.
Worst game: Without a shadow of a doubt, May 27 against Baltimore. The Jays were up 8-3 going into the bottom of the eighth, Halladay had just come out of the game and things were rosy. Then, the Orioles promptly scored five runs off the awful Toronto bullpen and sent the game into extras. Aaron Hill hit a two-run shot in the 11th to put the Jays ahead again, but then Ryan allowed four runs in the bottom of the inning to blow things yet again. I think this was the moment when BJ Ryan's Toronto tenure officially went down the toilet.
Best play: This one immediately leapt to mind. I was in the stands at this game, and the best part of the play may have been the spontaneous minute-long standing ovation that Rolen received afterwards. It was almost as if the entire crowd thought "Wow, maybe he actually is the Greatest Blue Jay Of All Time and it isn't just a clever Wilner nickname" all at the same time.
Funniest ha-ha moment: Rod Barajas scoring from first on a double and more or less collapsing onto home plate with a belly-flop of a side. He even laid flat on the ground for a few moments like Wile E. Coyote after he has just fallen off of a cliff.
Funniest sad moment: Cito Gaston forgets how to properly execute a double switch in Philadelphia. This would've been tragic, except Raul Chavez (who would've been taken out of the game) threw out a runner at second to end the inning, and Barajas came up the next inning anyway and cranked a pinch-hit homer that won the game. Someday, I need to follow Cito to a roulette table and simply bet on whatever number that he picks.
Best in-stadium change: Replacing the Rogers Video with a Roundhouse restaurant. Roast beef and turkey sandwiches as a pregame meal? Yes, please.
Worst in-stadium change: This is the last year for the Hard Rock Cafe, as the HRC isn't renewing its lease for 2010. Aw, man! Paying $5 for a window-side seat was a great, cheap way to catch a ballgame. Where else am I going to see a guitar autographed by Robert Fripp? Nowhere, that's where! (Or, possibly at the Hard Rock Cafe at Dundas Square. But I'm still outraged.)