Tag Archives: Mark Shapiro

It’s the Other 54 Games that Matter: The Blue Jays’ Season So Far

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There’s a saying in baseball, I first heard it paraphrased on The West Wing but I’m sure it originates somewhere else:  Every team is going to win 54 games, every team is going to lose 54 games; it’s what you do with the other 54 games that matters.  162 games is a brutally long season, and completely botching 70 of those outings could still net a team a record decent enough to win a division.

As the Toronto Blue Jays sit in third place just having clawed their way back to a .500 won-lost percentage (15-15), while elsewhere about MLB the Cubs, White Sox, Red Sox, Mariners and Nationals are off to explosive starts, both longtime fans and bandwagoners who marveled at the can-do-no-wrong 2015 Toronto squad have been left scratching their heads.  Last night’s 12-2 blowout against the Texas Rangers was a welcome dose of ointment for that itch, a hint of the promise this team still holds in its reserve tank.  And there are 132 games left to play.  39 more wins, 39 more losses, and a whole lot of possibilities in those remaining 54.

When I was eight years old and going to games at the Ex with my dad, I didn’t pay attention to off-season maneuvering – trades, free agent signings and so forth.  So long as those guys on the field were in blue and white, I and the rest of Toronto would be cheering for them.  The same cannot be said for the electron microscope that was placed on every rumor, both legitimate and cockamamie, surrounding the Blue Jays as a Kansas City glove closed on the last out of the 2015 World Series.  What kind of team would newly appointed team president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins assemble?  Would the notoriously tight-pursed Rogers Communications pony up enough loonies and toonies to get the band back together?  Did some of those guys even want to come back?

We found out the answer pretty quickly as the ramifications of outgoing GM Alex Anthopoulos’ decision to go all in on 2015 by purging the farm system crashed down like a bad hangover.

It was something of a poison chalice handed to Shapiro and Atkins, and while one can still legitimately question some of the choices they made, as fans, we were fortunate that as many of those same heroes of 2015 came back as they did.  Maybe for one last hurrah as it turns out, as the impending free agencies of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion loom in November, and plenty of teams with big bucks and hungry for big bats are salivating at the prospect of snapping one or both of them up.  (The thought of either in a Red Sox uniform in 2017 filling David Ortiz’s soon-to-be-hung-up cleats is enough to inspire cold sweats.)

We said goodbye to David Price, Mark Buehrle, Ben Revere, Mark Lowe, Liam Hendriks, Dioner Navarro, Cliff Pennington and the lovable Munenori Kawasaki.  We welcomed back J.A. Happ and Jesse Chavez.  We said hello to Drew Storen, Gavin Floyd, Joe Biagini, Franklin Morales, Pat Venditte and a whole slew of new and eager arms.  We finally saw a return on investment in Michael Saunders after he narrowly escaped a last-minute pre-season trade.  For the past couple of months this mix of veterans and newcomers has been struggling to jell as a team under the lights of the television cameras, the stares of thousands of fans and the weight of an entire country’s collected expectations.

So far, in 2016, we’ve seen our share of heartbreak.  The season’s first loss to Tampa Bay, when the Jays got smacked with a questionable application of the new “Chase Utley Rule,” reminded us again how vulnerable we are in close games and that Major League umpires in the clutch tend not to be on Toronto’s side.  (Recall that questionable umpiring handed Game 6 and the ALCS to Kansas City by awarding the Royals a home run on obvious fan interference, being too generous with the strike zone on poor Ben Revere and failing to call a blatant balk on Royals’ closer Wade Davis when the go-ahead runs were on base.)  We watched reliever Brett Cecil’s incredible scoreless pitching streak come to a spectacular dumpster fire of an ending as he, along with our carefully crafted bullpen, let lead after lead slip away.  And we shook our heads in stunned disbelief as we watched one of last season’s most beloved players, Chris Colabello, take an 80 game suspension when a banned substance was found in his urine.

April 2016 hasn’t just been a hangover from last year’s high; it’s been the full-on nauseous throes of heroin withdrawal.  Perhaps one consolation is that however the Blue Jays seem to be struggling, the hated New York Yankees are doing far worse:  9-17 out of the gate and poised for possibly their worst year in decades.

But let’s be honest with ourselves.  As much as Toronto sportswriters like to fantasize, the Blue Jays were never going to go 162-0 and sweep all three playoff series.  Baseball remains a game of obsessive statistics, and as hot as those other teams are right now, slumps (or regressions) are inevitable.  It could be that the Blue Jays have just spent April purging their bad karma, and that May 5’s trouncing of the Rangers – karmically embarrassing Texas starter Derek Holland, who wiped himself with a Blue Jays rally towel during the ALDS last year – is the Jays settling back into where they’re supposed to be.  They’ve won three in a row now, and while this weekend’s inter-league matchup against the Dodgers won’t be a cakewalk (particularly with the strikeout-prone Jays facing MLB strikeout leader Clayton Kershaw on Saturday), it’s a chance to solidify the team’s direction and remind themselves, the fans and the world that they are no fluke, that they remain a force to be reckoned with and a serious contender to take it all in the fall, no matter how many people say the Chicago Cubs are due.

The alternative, what Blue Jays fans dread most, is more slips and stumbles, a fall out of playoff contention, and greedy front office suits champing at the bit to launch a Marlins-esque fire sale at the trade deadline in favor of cheaper, lesser players who will proceed to suck for the next ten years – what baseball executives charitably like to call “rebuilding.”

We endured 22 years of that, we don’t have the patience to go through it again.  The franchise itself might not survive it.

The Blue Jays have all the ingredients of a championship team.  The defense is borderline flawless.  If Troy Tulowitzki isn’t producing at the plate, he’s making up for it in the hits he’s denying opposing batters.  The starting pitching has been the highlight of the season so far, on balance arguably the strongest five-man rotation in baseball.  Happ in particular, who was exceptionally average in his first stint as a Blue Jay and whose off-season signing was greeted with resigned sighs given that it slammed the door on any lingering hopes of reacquiring David Price, has been simply exceptional, going 4-0 with one no-decision and proving to be that guy about whom you can relax and let out a long breath when you know he’s going to be on the mound that day.  Yes, with the exception of Roberto Osuna, the bullpen has been a source of many jangled nerves, shouldering the blame for nearly every single loss so far this year, but they seem to be settling down finally, with Chavez starting to rack up the K’s and Biagini throwing clean innings (and curveballs in his post-game interviews) and once Cecil and Drew Storen figure things out the whole crew should prove to be as lights-out as any bullpen in the majors.

The big difference between this year and last is the hitting, or lack thereof.  It’s almost as though the Blue Jays read too many of their own clippings and league-leading 2015 stats, and have been so focused on belting the ball out of the park that they’ve lost their timing and failed to recall that small ball can win games as well as home runs can.  Interestingly enough, of last night’s twelve runs scored, only three of them came from homers, and those three were the result of one three-run blast by Encarnacion in the bottom of the third.  Whatever magical combination of circumstances was working for the Blue Jays on May 5th, 2016, they need to etch it into their brains and hearts and continue to summon it as they face Kenta Maeda and the Dodgers this evening.  If the bullpen can’t save you, and the umpires are against you, just keep the line moving, keep padding the lead and make the games into no-doubters.

It’s still too early to say that the corner has been turned.  There are at least 39 losses yet to come, and some of those are going to be nail-biters, and teeth-gnashers, and set-your-jersey-on-fire heart-shredders.  That’s baseball for you.  Like any team sport, it demands faith.  Toronto fans have been tested by far worse before, and last night was a crumb of that fabled manna falling from the heavens into a well-worn leather glove.  Let’s hope that it portends bigger and greater things, and if it doesn’t right away, there’s lots of baseball left.  It’s the other 54 games that will make the difference.

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What price David Price?

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It’s the $200 million question hanging on the lips of every long-time, newbie or recently returned (like yours truly) fan:  will southpaw pitching ace David Price, a free agent after a stellar 2 and a half months with the Toronto Blue Jays, re-sign with them for 2016 and possibly beyond?  I don’t imagine there’s been this much attention paid to a baseball off-season north of the border since, well, ever.  Hard to believe that we’re only a few weeks removed from this year’s World Series, and the last game we saw our 2015 boys in blue play against Kansas City in the ALCS.  Naturally everyone and his brother, sister and second cousin once removed has weighed in with opinions far and wide:  Price is definitely going to the Cubs to play for his former manager.  He’s definitely going to the Dodgers because they can afford to out-bid everyone.  He’s definitely going to the Red Sox to play for his former GM.  He’s definitely going to the Yankees because, well, doesn’t everyone want to play for the Yankees?  And the prevailing opinion amongst the collected experts, insiders and seasoned gossip-mongers is that there is no way, no how, no possibility in the world that Price is coming back to Toronto.

Not that there haven’t been rumors leaning that way as well.  As the off-season wheeling and dealing got going, the first Price rumor to circulate was based on that connection he had with Cubs manager Joe Maddon, whom he played for during his stint with the Tampa Bay Rays, and an old, off-hand comment that Price had made back in 2014 where he speculated that it would be great to play for a team like the Cubs and help them to a World Series at long last.  (Interestingly enough, were Price to don a Cubs uniform he’d have to forgo his jersey number, as Chicago retired “14” several years ago to honor legendary “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks.)  No one confirmed this speculation of course, but that was the leading narrative on Price for a couple of weeks.  And then a few days ago, a Chicago sportswriter got Toronto’s hopes up by telling Sportsnet’s Tim and Sid show that the Cubs were actually exploring other options for their pitching and weren’t likely to pursue Price.  Reports started flying that Price loved Toronto, was touched by how warmly he was embraced by its fans during his brief tenure, and considered the Blue Jays his first choice for a long-term deal.  But yesterday, Fox Sports’ bow-tied Ken Rosenthal promptly pissed all over Toronto’s renewed excitement by trying to slam that door again on their collective fingers, saying the Jays weren’t “a major factor” in Price’s off-season prospects, and fanning the Red Sox flames instead (despite the fact that Price and Red Sox star David “Big Papi” Ortiz don’t particularly like each other and based on their public statements to that effect would not be thrilled to play on the same team).  The subject of all this discussion, clearly watching it with a degree of bemusement, tweeted cheekily the other day that thanks for the attention, but he was going to go play in Japan.

Trying to look at this from a somewhat objective point of view, I think it’s not so much David Price himself that Toronto wants to hang onto, but rather the spirit of the entire 2015 team.  Even long-time sports cynics have noted how cohesive that gang was, how they meshed and worked together and supported one another in a way that few Toronto squads (and few MLB teams, if we’re being honest) have.  There was a magic there that the starved baseball lovers of Toronto and Canada don’t want to lose, and even as the Jays were mounting their comeback triumph over the Rangers and struggling to hold their own against the Royals, the spectre of all those pending free agents was gnawing away at the backs of our minds, leading us to wonder if money and circumstance would snatch this unexpected source of joy from us just as we were learning to love it all over again.  Truly, we only had half a year with these guys.  We wanted to see what they could do with a full season.  Then Alex Anthopoulos, the architect of the 2015 Blue Jays, departed unexpectedly, and chills shot through a million spines trying to speculate at what newly appointed team president Mark Shapiro had planned – helped not by a story that team owners Rogers had ordered Shapiro to slash the payroll for next year.  Maybe we were headed back to years of mediocrity in the name of the corporate bottom line.

But there were a handful of green shoots to be found.  The Jays worked quickly to lock in Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and R.A. Dickey for another season.  A huge sigh of relief came when red-hot starter and playoff-saver Marco Estrada inked a two-year deal and said that he hadn’t really been interested in playing anywhere else.  We have seen a few guys around the edges go:  LaTroy Hawkins hung up his cleats and retired; Cliff Pennington, utility outfielder (and pinch playoff relief pitcher) signed a two-year deal with the Angels; relief pitcher Liam Hendriks, the sole bright spot in the Jays 14-2 drubbing by the Royals in ALCS Game 4 with his four innings of scoreless relief work, was traded to the Oakland A’s for starter Jesse Chavez; and late-season infielder callup Matt Hague (unlike Price) is actually headed for Japan.  Still to be decided:  veteran starter Mark Buehrle, who struggled with injuries as the season drew to a close, will likely retire or sign a one-year deal somewhere closer to his home; while Ben Revere is a possible trade chip owing to his higher salary and a depth of cheaper options (including Dalton Pompey and the injured Michael Saunders) in left field; and free agent Dioner Navarro would prefer to play somewhere he can be the starting catcher instead of Russell Martin’s backup.  But that’s it.  Everyone else is staying put, and Jays executives have said that while they have had interest from other teams in some of their key guys, they’re certainly not interested in creating a weakness in one area to try and shore up another.  (Suggestions/hopes that Troy Tulowitzki and his expensive contract might get fobbed off on another team are likely bogus.)  What’s needed still is additional bullpen strength, including a hard-throwing left handed reliever to provide another option for Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup, and of course, the biggest question mark of all, that empty space on the starting rotation.

Some enterprising Blue Jays fans started a website, www.anypricefordavid.com, where you can enter your pledge of a charitable act you will undertake if Price signs and returns to with Toronto.  Yesterday, Price weighed in with his opinion on it, and for whatever it’s worth, this clearly isn’t something that a guy does if he doesn’t think coming back is a strong possibility:

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Obviously, the advantages to ponying up the cash to secure David Price are enormous.  A starting rotation consisting of Price, Estrada, Dickey, ace-in-the-making Marcus Stroman and Chavez and Drew Hutchison as possible fifth men/long relievers would be fairly fearsome for opposing batters.  Price is a natural team leader and provides a unifying voice in the clubhouse.  Yes, there is still the question of how he performs in the post-season, but, if he can help get you there consistently to have that discussion in the first place, isn’t that worth the cash investment alone?  Eventually, he’ll get over his post-season jitters just as Randy Johnson did.  Perhaps most important of all, his teammates love him, and he loves them.  One moment that stands out for me is when Josh Donaldson hit his third walk-off home run of the year, and while he was being interviewed about it, Price stepped into his face and bellowed “M-V-P!!!”  Again, not the act of a guy biding his time waiting to cash in on free agency.

Everyone on either side of this debate will agree that David Price has earned the opportunity to decide where he wants to spend the latter half of his career.  What is interesting is how quickly the purveyors of sports op-eds have been to suggest that Price can’t wait to pack his bags and flee the dreaded Great White North for whomever ponies up the most cash.  They can’t fathom that there might be something more in the equation for Price than just money.  I can’t speak to that of course, nor can anyone except David Price himself.  It’s quite possible too that Rogers will look at the books, weigh the prospect of added revenue from sold-out stands and post-season tickets/merchandise and decide to make the offer that Price’s agents will find the most palatable; or, they may put in only a half-hearted bid and try to make a play for one of the cheaper options out there, feeling that between Stroman, Estrada and Dickey the rotation is strong enough as is.  But ultimately, I’m going to come down on the side that thinks David Price is going to remain a Blue Jay.

Wishful thinking, perhaps?  Conventional wisdom says I’m wrong.  Conventional wisdom also said Stephen Harper was a genius for calling a long election campaign on the back of sending every parent in Canada a cheque, that he’d be returned with a second majority, and “just not ready” was going to spell the death of the Liberal Party.  I think David Price likes Toronto, I think he likes his Blue Jay teammates (he bought them all scooters, and jokes with them regularly still on social media), I think he likes the fans, and I think he feels there is some unfinished business there, i.e., a World Series ring.  Like the fans I think he may wonder how the Blue Jays can do with a full season with their winning 2015 roster mostly intact.  I think he wants to keep hold of that magic, like we all do.  So we’ll wait and see, and either we’ll be vindicated and have a good laugh at the expense of Ken Rosenthal and his ilk, or we’ll shrug and say thanks for the taste of David Price’s services that we were lucky enough to enjoy for those amazing few months this past summer, and wish him well in his future endeavors (hopefully in the National League so we don’t have to try hitting against him).

Mostly though, I think he’s coming back because my wife says she thinks he will.  And her judgment has always been enough for me to keep faith.  So you heard it here first, folks.

Waiting with bated breath.

UPDATE Dec. 1st: Price has signed a 7-year, $217 million deal to pitch for the Red Sox. So you can disregard everything you just read. However, I still love and trust my wife.

So long #14, thanks for the memories.