Jayson Stark: Toronto Blue Jays

Blue Jays suddenly in a great spot

November, 21, 2012
When the 2012 baseball season started, those Toronto Blue Jays had a lower payroll than the Colorado Rockies. And the Cincinnati Reds. And the Seattle Mariners. And 18 other teams. Feel free to look that up.

But when the 2013 baseball season begins, that's a neighborhood you definitely won't find the Blue Jays hanging out in. Not anymore.

Toronto Blue Jays

Thanks to the Miami Marlins' fabulous Talent Exportation Department, there are now only four teams in the entire sport with more money already committed to their payrolls for next season than the Blue Jays. And here they are:

1. Dodgers: $185.8 million

2. Yankees: $146 million

3. Phillies: $136.3 million

4. Tigers: $112.8 million

5. Blue Jays: $109.7 million

(* Source: baseball-reference.com)

And the Blue Jays aren't done. They aren't done spending (not with more than $90 million already committed to 10 players in 2014). And they aren't done shopping. They're out hunting for more top-of-the-rotation starting pitchers as we speak. And even after sending seven players to what's left of the Marlins, this is a team with the system depth to make another major trade.

But let's worry about the Blue Jays' next major trade some other time, OK? For the moment, let's just ask: How good are they right now? I tossed that question at one NL executive this week. And here's how he answered it, with no hesitation:

"I would have to pick them to win that division. The Yankees are getting older. Boston is done -- for next year. Tampa Bay is going to lose players. And what was Baltimore's record in close games -- like 28-1? Tell me that's going to happen again. So right now, for me, the Blue Jays are the best team in that division."

All right, so they don't have a true No. 1 starter to match up with a CC Sabathia or a David Price -- "but what they do have is a lot of No. 2s and 3s," the same NL exec said. And some of those No. 2s and 3s have a chance to be more than that. Brandon Morrow comes to mind. Ricky Romero comes to mind. And then there's Josh Johnson.

Josh Johnson


"To me, he's a No. 2 or 3 now, not a No. 1," the exec said. "His fastball isn't the same. The number [on the radar gun] is the same [as it was in his prime]. The life and the finish aren't. ... But I think he'll be better next year. He's still got a chance to come back [from his shoulder issues]. And this is a big year for him [with free agency a year away]."

Now add in the ever-reliable Mark Buehrle. Add in a bullpen full of live arms and, theoretically, a healthy Sergio Santos. Add in an offense that was three runs shy of leading the major leagues in runs scored the day Jose Bautista got hurt last July -- and now has imported the top-of-the-lineup energy of Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio. And what do you have?

You have the best team in the AL East. On paper. On Nov. 21. That's what.

And even though it's only Thanksgiving weekend, it's been a long time since we've been able to say that about the Toronto Blue Jays. Wouldn't you say?

• It isn't every November that you see 12 players and $146 million changing hands in one megadeal. But guess what? It was a bigger stunner to people outside baseball than inside baseball that ultra-aggressive Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos pulled off a trade of that magnitude. This, say his peers, is a man capable of making a 30-team deal someday.

"To be honest," laughed an exec of one club, "I'm surprised he didn't have four or five other teams involved in this one."

• Speaking of the Blue Jays, the Phillies have batted around the idea of an extension for baseball's most prominent former Blue Jay, Roy Halladay, but are proceeding slowly -- for now.

"I guess it's still possible," said Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. "But a lot has to do with how he feels and how he performs. So that's a decision and a conversation that would probably have to go into the spring, and maybe into the season."

Before Halladay's shoulder started acting up in midseason, the Phillies had actually had some preliminary talks with his agent, Greg Landry, about an extension that would keep Halladay in Philadelphia beyond next year -- and bring his salary more in line with the $24 million average annual value of Cliff Lee's deal. But Halladay's shoulder -- and the Phillies -- put an end to those talks.

"We kicked it around, but we tabled it," Amaro said. "It just wasn't the right time to focus on that."

Now, unless that extension talk resurfaces, Halladay will almost certainly become a free agent next winter. He'd need to bounce back from shoulder surgery and grind through 258 2/3 innings next year to vest his $20 million option for 2014. And only once in his 15 big league seasons has he worked that many innings: In 2003. At age 26.

• Agents who have spoken with the Phillies say that despite their pursuit of both a center fielder and right fielder this winter, one option who apparently is no longer on their list is Josh Hamilton. Amaro wouldn't comment on any specific free agent, but said people who think the Phillies don't have the wiggle room to make a big signing are mistaken.

"I don't know that yet," he said. "We haven't been given a real budget. I know it's not unlimited, but that's not usually how we work. There are limitations, but each situation is unique, in and of itself. We didn't budget for Cliff Lee. But we signed Cliff Lee. We haven't budgeted for a bunch of things we've done. Each situation is different."

• Teams that have touched base with the Rays say they continue to listen to all sorts of trade scenarios that could involve James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson or even David Price. But the odds of Shields or Price actually going anywhere might be almost as long as the odds of the Rays signing Zack Greinke.

David Price


Jeremy Hellickson


James Shields


"Oh, they're open to it," said an official of one team that checked in with the Rays. "They're open to being overwhelmed."

The asking price for Shields, other teams say, starts in the neighborhood of the five-player package the Rays got from the Cubs for Matt Garza, and goes north from there. And to pry the Cy Young Award winner away, it might take double that. So Hellickson remains a much more likely candidate to call a moving van. And even that's no lock.

• Those same clubs also don't believe that the other reigning Cy Young, R.A. Dickey, is really on the market -- yet. The Mets have listened on him since the GM meetings. But teams that kicked those tires came away with the impression the Mets still prefer to sign him, and are just lining up trade options in case those talks fall apart.

• Rumors are swirling that Zack Greinke is looking for a six-year deal, at Cole Hamels/Matt Cain dollars. But beware of those rumblings, because Greinke's agent, Casey Close, hasn't asked interested teams to make specific offers yet. Nevertheless, it would be an upset if Greinke doesn't haul in the biggest contract of the winter.

"Of all the free agents out there," said an official of one club, "the only guy I think will get his money is Greinke."

• A Jeremy Guthrie stat to ponder: From Aug. 1 on, only three American League starters had a better ERA than he did.

Max Scherzer, 2.08

James Shields, 2.21

Hisashi Iwakuma, 2.32

Jeremy Guthrie, 2.34

That's the good news. Now here's the scary news for the Royals: Guthrie (48-72) is one of only four pitchers who are 20 games under .500 during the past five seasons (2008-12) -- and the Royals now employ THREE of them:

24: Jeremy Guthrie (48-72)

22: Charlie Morton (23-45)

20: Luke Hochevar (38-58)

20: Felipe Paulino (11-31)

Anybody else suspect the Royals felt better about that first list than the second? Thought so.

Strike One -- Jays On Fire Dept.

After four weeks of playing baseball under the Florida sun, the Toronto Blue Jays are 23-5.

Roll that number around your brain for a moment ... 23 and 5?

It may feel normal for the North Carolina Tar Heels to go 23-5. But it sure isn't normal for any baseball team to be 23-5.

Toronto Blue Jays

The Elias Sports Bureau reports that the Blue Jays are the first team to win 23 of its first 28 spring training games in 15 years, since Jim Leyland's 1997 Marlins did it. And you know where they ended up.

Now I'm not ready to predict that the 2012 Blue Jays are going to follow that script and win the World Series. But I've seen this team a lot this spring. And this is not just some palm-tree-land aberration.

Scouts and executives around Florida continue to buzz about how this is one of the best lineups in baseball, from top to bottom. Heck, a guy who had an .859 OPS two years ago (Colby Rasmus) is probably going to hit ninth.

This team also has made massive upgrades to a bullpen that tied for the league lead in blown saves (25) last year and had the worst save-conversion rate (57 percent) of any team in baseball, with the exception of the bullpen-challenged Astros.

Anybody think a bullpen now manned by Sergio Santos, Francisco Cordero,Darren Oliver and Jason Frasor will have the worst save-conversion percentage in the league this year? I hope not.

But beyond that, this is now a team with an attitude -- a group that truly believes it's bound for something bigger, something better. And as Omar Vizquel told me Saturday, it hasn't just played all spring with tremendous energy, it's gone through every drill, from the first day of spring training, with that same energy.

"And it's carried over to the games," Vizquel said. "You can see it."

It's a rough, tough division. I know that. But I wonder about the Rays' offense, and their catching and shortstop issues. And I'm not sure where the Red Sox are right now on many levels. So I'm ready to predict the Blue Jays are going to shock the world and make the playoffs, as the second wild card, for the first time since Joe Carter's home run returned to Earth 19 years ago.

So what does this spring record mean, if anything? It might mean more than you think.

Over the past 20 years, only two other teams have won more than 75 percent of their spring training games, according to Elias. They both went on to have memorable years.

One was those '97 Marlins. They went 26-5 (.839) in the spring, then won 92 games that season and won the World Series.

The other was the 2009 Angels. Their spring record: 26-8 (.765). They then went out and won 97 games for only the third time in the history of the franchise, and swept the Red Sox in October.

Now past performance -- especially in spring training -- is never a guarantee of future success. But it shouldn't be ignored, either. So I'm just warning you now:

Don't ignore the OTHER team in the AL East. If you do, you'll be making a gigantic mistake.

Strike Two -- Luxury Lane Dept.

Cole Hamels set off a mess of confusion the other day when he told a media throng in the Phillies' camp that the Phillies might be waiting until after Opening Day to sign him mostly so they could avoid the luxury-tax implications.

Sounded good at the time. But as it turned out, it's a good thing this guy pitches for a living, because interpreting labor rules in his spare time isn't working out so hot.

Hamels actually would have been right about this if he'd made this statement last spring. You probably recall -- and so does he -- that the Red Sox and Adrian Gonzalez stalled until after the opener to announce his seven-year extension. But that was because the rules were different then.

The rule now goes like this, according to sources familiar with the new labor agreement:

• If Hamels signs a long-term deal before Opening Day 2012 and his $15 million salary for 2012 doesn't change, he and his team would have the right to choose whether they want the luxury-tax computations to begin with his 2012 salary or with the rest of the extension, beginning in 2013.

• If he signs an extension at any point during the season, the luxury-tax stuff automatically kicks in starting in 2013.

But the moral of the story is, it doesn't matter when he signs. The Phillies can put off the luxury-tax pain until next year if they were to get a deal done this weekend, next weekend or on Labor Day weekend.

Now that we've got that out of the way, though, here's the important part: It all appears to be a moot point, anyway. There are no indications the Phillies are close to a deal with Hamels in the first place, despite some suggestions in recent days that they're making headway.

Strike Three -- Don't Mess With Miguel Cabrera

It's almost two weeks now since a bad-hop ground ball clanked off Miguel Cabrera's face at third base and left him looking as if he'd just gone 10 rounds with Wladimir Klitschko.

I've heard people speculate quite a bit since then that Cabrera would be so scarred by that experience, in more ways than one, that he might find himself ducking out of the way of every rocket that comes speedballing its way toward him at third base.

But Cabrera's friends and teammates don't think so. And after speaking with him last week, neither do I.

I asked him at one point if he'd watched the replay of the ball that hit him. I expected him to say no, that he had no interest. But that isn't what he said. And the answer should tell us all something about him.

Oh, yeah, he said. He's watched that replay "a lot."

"I want to see if I do something wrong or something that could help me to get better," he went on, "or help me so that this no happen again."

And when he watched it, he decided there was "nothing I can do on that ball," he reported. "I was in good position. I do everything right. And then the next second, the ball is in my eyes."

We're talking about a guy, remember, who was signed as a shortstop, played more than 400 games at third in the big leagues and hasn't exactly been on vacation in Maui the last four years. He's been playing first base. Every day. In the same uniform.

He reminded us, too, that he's been conked before by many a ground ball. In the teeth. In the nose. In the chin. In the neck. And he's always come back for more.

So he has no plans, he said, to position himself differently or do anything different The Next Time.

"No," he said, emphatically. "Just go play."

And when Cabrera just goes out and plays, he's one of the best, and most underappreciated, players alive. Just ask a guy who knows a big-time player when he sees one.

"When a guy like that agrees to move to third base, it's a big deal," said the great Al Kaline. "When other players look at that guy, the best player in the American League, and they see he's willing to do that to help the team, they say, 'What can I do?' That's the ultimate team player, when you're a great player and you'll happily say, 'Sure, I'll do that for the team.' When I heard that, I said, 'I'd like to play with a guy like that.'"

Look, I understand Cabrera won't have to worry about saving any space in his memorabilia room for his Gold Glove award at third. But want to know why this fellow is my MVP pick for this year? I think Kaline just summed it up.

September History-Maker Edition

September, 14, 2010

If it's mid-September, it must be that time again ... yep, time to hit the waiver wire and start desperately trying to remake my fantasy-football roster (my fabulous team name: the Rumblers and Grumblers, of course).

But wait. It's not only that time. It's also time to relaunch one of my favorite September traditions in this blog -- a look at The History Makers of September.

Not all that history is real glorious, though. You realize that, right? But history is history. So there's plenty of more like this to come. But here we go with Episode No. 1 (plus other stuff):

Strike One -- Special K Dept.

Mark Reynolds


Only eight more strikeouts and Mark Reynolds will become the first man in baseball history to whiff 200 times three seasons in a row. Then again, he's also the only man who ever punched out 200 times in any season, so he kind of has this niche all to himself.

But here's an even more unusual rendezvous with history that was caught by loyal reader Zach Brumbaugh: At the moment, Reynolds is on pace for 218 strikeouts. But his batting average is only .206. So has anyone, Brumbaugh wondered, ever had a lower batting average than strikeout total (decimal points aside)?

Now this is what you call an astute reader question -- because the answer is a distinct no.

And here's the incredible part: There has really only been one whiffin' magician who ever came close. To those who pay attention to this sort of thing, it shouldn't shock you to know that guy was Rob Deer in 1991, a season in which he K'd 175 times while hitting .179.

But that was it. I could only find five other seasons in which a hitter even came with 50 points of this feat -- including one by Reynolds just last year. Here's that distinguished list:

By my calculations, if Reynolds gets the same playing time the rest of the way he has gotten all year, he would need to hit .323 from here to the finish line to get his average up to .219. Or, of course, he could always cut down on his strikeouts. But he's heard that song before.

Since he's currently 0 for his last 23, with 10 K's, the odds of him dodging this little slice of history aren't great. But it's one more reason to watch those box scores this month. And that's the whole point.

Strike Two -- Jose Can You See Dept.

Jose Bautista


It seems clear now that Jose Bautista is about to become our first 50-homer man since 2007 (when Alex Rodriguez and Prince Fielder both joined the 50-Bomb Club). But that's not the historic part of this feat.

The historic part is that this man hit just 13 homers last year -- in 404 plate appearances. So unless he starts laying down drag bunts every at-bat for the next three weeks, he looks like a lock to make the biggest jump ever into the 50-Homer Club by a man who was at least a semi-regular player in both seasons.

According to the Sultan of Swat Stats, SABR home run historian David Vincent, only three players have ever hit 50 in a season after hitting fewer than 20 the season before.

One is Cecil Fielder in 1988-90. But he's a tricky case. He hit nine home runs in 1988, played in Japan in '89 and then hit 51 for the Tigers in '90. So that pole vault, from nine homers into the 50s, would be the largest ever. But there are two asterisks:

    1) He only got 190 plate appearances in the U.S. of A. in '88, so he doesn't qualify as even a "semi-regular."

    2) There's also a missing season here ('89) -- not to mention a season in which Fielder hit 38 home runs for those Hanshin Tigers in Japan.

So Fielder kind of holds the "record," but if we draw the cutoff at a minimum of 400 plate appearances in each season, he's disqualified on that count alone.

That leaves two other men who catapulted from the teens to the 50s in back-to-back seasons:

    Brady Anderson: 16 HR in 657 PA in 1995, 50 in 687 PA in '96

    Greg Vaughn: 18 HR in 422 PA in 1997, 50 in 661 PA in '98.

So Bautista, who has 46 homers, also needs one more home run to tie Anderson's record for largest single-season increase ever (34) by a player who got at least 400 plate appearances in both seasons. And, for you mathematicians, he needs four to break Anderson's record for most mammoth leap into the 50-Homer Club.

You can make whatever you want of all this. I'm not offering it with any commentary whatsoever. Just trying to help put this stuff in historical perspective, as always. All I know is, Jose Bautista has had himself an eye-popping year.

Strike Three -- Useless Info. Dept.

We'll have more September History Watches coming up in future blogs. But in other news ...

• This will shock you: The Rockies are 30-14 from Sept. 1 on over the last two seasons -- and that's not the best record in baseball in that span. The Twins are 30-13.

• That Twins winning percentage the last two September/Octobers is an unconscious .698, while the Rockies are at .682. Last team to play .680 (or better) baseball in back-to-back September/Octobers before this year, according to the Elias Sports Bureau: the 2005-06 Angels (40-18, .690).

• The Rockies are now 22-6 at home after Sept. 1 the last two seasons. Last team to match or beat that in back-to-back years: the magical 2004-05 Astros, who finished 24-6 on their way to two straight improbable Octobers.

• One more on the Rockies: Over the last seven seasons, there have only been two double-digit September winning streaks by any team. Both have been by the Rockies: 11 in a row in September 2007 and 10 in a row this September. Last franchise to have two September double-digit winning streaks that close together: Earl Weaver's 1970-71 Orioles.

• Meanwhile, for all those wondering, Monday was the first time in their 49 seasons of co-existence that the Yankees and Mets ever played games on the same day that were 0-0 after nine innings. The only other times any two New York teams did that on the same day (while not playing each other), according to Elias: July 7, 1915, and Sept. 19, 1913 -- both involving the Dodgers and Giants.

• But hold on. There's more. Elias also reports Monday was just the second time in Yankees history they got shut out and lost on a walkoff homer in the same game. The other: May 26, 1970, when the Tigers' Willie Horton launched a walkoff against Mel Stottlemyre.

• But wait. There's still more. The Rays and Yankees played 11 innings Monday and only got four hits apiece. Loyal reader Eric Orns reports it was just the second game that long in the last 30 seasons in which neither team got more than four hits. The other: a Roger Clemens-Kazuhisa Ishii Astros-Mets tussle on April 13, 2005.

Brett Myers is now up to 30 straight starts of six innings or more. Bet you didn't know only two active pitchers ever even had a longer streak covering multiple seasons: Mark Buehrle (49 in a row in 2004-05) and Roy Halladay (32 in a row in 2008-09). Myers has two more years of this ahead of him, though, if he wants to beat the longest streak of the live-ball era. That's 78 straight, by Bob Gibson over four seasons, from 1967-70.

• If the Rangers and Yankees meet in the postseason, you should know that the Yankees have been swept eight times in the wild-card era, in a regular-season series of three games or more, by teams they wound up playing in October. According to Elias, they turned around and beat that team in the postseason six of those eight times. The only losses: The '95 Mariners swept a three-game series in May and then beat the Yankees in a five-game ALDS, and the 2004 Red Sox swept a three-gamer that April and beat the Yankees in a seven-game ALCS you may recall.

• Last team to sweep the Yankees in a September series and meet them again in the postseason: the 1999 Red Sox. A lot of good that did them. They then lost to the Yankees that year in the ALCS, 4 games to 1.

• And, finally, loyal reader Eric Orns chips in one more time with a big development -- the Double Switch of the Day. It came in Monday's Mets game, when they double-switched one Feliciano (Jesus) for another (Pedro). And how historic was that? Well, it's the first-ever double-switch involving those two. And they're the only two Felicianos ever to play in the big leagues. So there you go -- the first dueling-Feliciano double-switch of all time. And you heard it here first!