Wednesday, January 18, 2012

When fans get in the way

There’s one thing about most sports fans: they’re opinionated. They know what’s wrong with a team, they know exactly what to do to fix the situation and they’re always right. The Blue Jays are suffering from this big-time at the moment. I find it troubling.

To be fair, the Jays have been pretty tight-lipped during the off-season, and it hasn’t always been in their self-interest to be so. Sometimes a little information, a reassurance from a club GM, can help reassure impatient fans, and heaven knows, Jays fans are getting impatient.

When current GM Alex Anthopoulos came on board, he took a lot of heat from fans even though they really disliked previous GM JP Riccardi. Why? Because Alex was young and unproven. During his tenure, though, AA has proven himself to be very good at his job and a pretty dab hand at being able to pull off blockbuster trades.

One thing he stated upon taking the helm was that Toronto was going to take their time to reorganize their farm system and develop a team that had the potential to win year after year, rather than trying to buy themselves a few players to put them over the hump. There was a new way of doing business.

And he’s stuck to his guns. He reinvigorated the scouting staff and that has led to some excellent draft picks and a restocking of the farm system with a number of blue-chip prospects. No, they won’t all make it to the Bigs, but some will. Via the trade route, AA has done some amazing things. Brett Lawrie is one of the players he’s brought in this way. He may have done it again this off-season with Santos whom many pundits are saying he “stole” from the White Sox. Time will tell.

Where the real friction with the fans currently resides is that the Jays have made no big free agent signings. Despite what Anthopoulos says and the way he wants to work (and it’s been pretty damn successful up to now), they want to see some big gun coming to Toronto. It may still happen, but it only will if AA and the Blue Jays brain trust really feels confident there is a major upside to such a deal. So far, they obviously haven't felt that way. Fielder for 10 years at 250 million? All I have to say to that is: why? It ain’t worth it.

To be fair, it’s obvious the Jays owner, Rogers, wants to see improved financial returns before they really open the purse strings. When AA stated that (in so many words) at the Winter Meetings, a lot of fans took it to mean that the Jays were less than serious in fielding a competitive team this year. Not so. They’re just not willing to throw money around to make the fans happy.

The one thing that’s struck me, though, is that these grumbling fans seem to be discounting the team the Jays have already assembled for next season. On paper – and right now every team is “on paper” – the Jays should be better than last year. AA has done his best to fix the faults of the bullpen, he’s getting players signed rather than taking them to arbitration, and he may have an ace or two still up his sleeve.

Let’s look at some of the things Toronto’s hysterical fans are overlooking:
• We’ll have Brett Lawrie for the entire year – and more seasoned as well
• JP Arencibia has handled his catching duties well and he was a proven hitter at AAA. Now that he can concentrate more on swinging the bat, he could open some eyes in 2012.
• The outfield defense at this point is really excellent (bit of a question mark in left field aside) and could get even better, depending on what transpires in spring training. It will definitely be better than what Toronto had coming out of spring training last year.
• Adam Lind has proven he’s a good first baseman. He will improve and as he becomes steadier defensively, like Arencibia, he’ll be able to concentrate more on hitting. Look for a breakout season from him. There. I’ve said it.
• Second base is a bit of a question mark. Maybe with being familiar with the team, Kelly will return to form. It worked for Escobar. The Jays now have a solid, all-round shortstop.
• Starting pitching remains a big question, though. Romero has legitimate ace stuff. Morrow does too, but hasn’t seemed to harness it yet, although at the end of 2011, he was looking much better.
• It was encouraging to see Dustin McGowan make it all the way back last year. He could be the real dark horse in this starting staff. There were some good things on display in September and he only needs to build on that. Watch out if he gets it all together again. This guy knows how to pitch. Remember Chris Carpenter?
• Henderson Alvarez seems to be somewhat forgotten many by the fans. This kid is good, keeps his focus well and has above average stuff. Don’t they expect him to get better?
• For the final starter, there’s a lot to choose from: Cecil, Drabek, possibly one of those prospects at AAA. If a team can get 10-12 wins from a fifth starter, they’re getting what they need. Cecil proved in ’09 that he could deliver 15 wins. Drabek might get his head together. Who knows what could happen here?
• At DH, the Jays have Encarnacion. Once they got him away from his starting position at third base, he seemed to settle down and hit far better. The team still likes him a lot, and with good reason. Expect him to get better. He has something to prove. Ditto for Colby Rasmus and Johnson, by the way. Could that be the reason AA only signed them both for one year? Now they have something to really play for.

The bottom line to all this is that if the Jays players who had good years in 2010 keep that up and some of the lesser lights come on in a way they’re fully capable of doing, this team could get to that 90-win plateau quite easily – without additional changes to the roster. I’m not saying that some a few players being brought in would be a bad thing, but let’s be sensible about it.

Also bear in mind that old adage: winning begets winning. If this team really goes on a tear, they will begin believing in themselves even more and that can mean an extra half-dozen wins more at the end of the season. They showed that character last year in pulling some games out of the fire. I’d like to see them build on that.

So to everyone in Toronto who’s freaking, chill out! You have to trust that AA and his front office team know what they’re doing. They’ve mapped out a path and they’re still following it. So what if the Jays didn’t get Darvish and will probably pass on Fielder? How many other teams have thrown away huge amounts of money to sign a free agent and gotten nothing much in return? (Take AJ Burnett. Seriously. Take AJ Burnett. The Yankees will thank you.)

I, for one, am still firmly behind AA and the Jays’ brain trust.


John Z said...

I think the Jays Brain Trust were also burned by giving Vernon Wells that huge contract...and then he slumped do you think the Jays are set in the outfield??
There are a few free agents still out there that might not be too expensive..but eventough they are on the downsides of their careers they could be an asset - Like Johnny Damon & Hideki players with humble personalities.

Rick Blechta said...

Rasmus is sensational in center field. I saw two games where he made Devon White-like catches and he's got a major league arm. The only question is his hitting – and his headspace.

Right field is a lock with Bautista, who does not get enough credit for his defense. He could well be the best right fielder in the AL.

Left field has several good possibilities. Thames is not bad (certainly as good as George Bell ever was) and looks like he can hit. He also is humble and works very hard to improve.

But also there's Travis Snider. His defense is good, he can run and the only question is hitting. Can he produce consistently or is he always going to be prone to massive slumps? If his hitting gets on track, he has game breaking power to all fields.

To my mind, that might be good enough – certainly good enough to start spring training with. I feel the Jays have to give Rasmus, Thames and Snider good shots at pulling it together.

Rather than thinking of the Wells contract blunder (and it was huge, plus you can’t forget Alex Rios), I feel the Jays are still looking at letting Chris Carpenter get away. That’s why you’re seeing them try to reclaim careers of players like Rasmus. That’s how and why they got Bautista and Escobar. Why shouldn’t they take a chance that they might have the same sort of player in Rasmus? If he puts it together, look out. If he doesn’t, then they can always look in other places. And Anthony Gose is lurking in the wings.

Bottom line: the Jays can afford to stand pat, at least going into spring training. They (and the fans) can’t really be sure what they have at the moment.

As for Damon, he isn’t much good in the field anymore, and Matsui is seemingly running on fumes now.

Will Braund said...

About the Blue Jay outfield, I agree with your let's not rush into bad trades and signings philosophy.

I think what the Jays need, in addition to their young talent continuing to pan out, is for several guys to have career years.

In 2007 Alex Rios was 24, 85, .297. Aaron Hill hit .291 with 17 HRs. Frank Thomas and Troy Glaus did okay. But Zahn, Overbay, and Adam Lind were busts.

In 2009 Lind hit 35 homers and Hill hit 36. Rod Barajas even hit 19. Great, but Rolen managed just 8, Snider only 9, and Wells just 15.

In 2010 they had by far the most home runs in the league but they were 6th or 7th in RBIs - that always seems to be an issue for the Jays. They even got great year from a closer (Kevin Gregg) in 2010 but their staff was 11th in ERA. So, they have a good year but not a great year - another 4th in the East finish. Gotta be frustrating.

It's been maddening too that they have had guys who shine and then fizzle badly the next year.

Maybe the current bunch can all have good years at the same time soon.

Rick Blechta said...

Excellent points about this team never seeming to fire on all cylinders. Part of it may be that they just need to catch fire for awhile and begin to really believe in themselves. Success begets more success, as they say.

The Jays have a strategy and they’re sticking to it in the face of a possible fan revolt. Remember "Stand Pat Gillick"? I think the same thing is going on here. It makes no sense to spend a ton of money when they’re not all that sure of what they've got.

Hopefully, the team’s roster shows up with a fire in their bellies, and then AA and his staff will be able to make the tough judgement calls to bring the team to their stated goal: post-season play.