SweetSpot: Steve Tolleson

First-place Jays have had to adapt, adjust

May, 27, 2014
May 27
10:00
AM ET
The first-place Toronto Blue Jays? We’re coming up on finishing the first third of the season, and it’s a fun thing to think about: The first-place Blue Jays, for real. But how did they get there?

It’s easy to put down where they are to a couple of big developments: Mark Buehrle’s big start, 8-1 with the team going 9-1 in his 10 turns, or Edwin Encarnacion’s 13 home runs in May, or Jose Bautista staying healthy while posting an OPS north of .900 for the first time since 2011. Melky Cabrera is hitting and staying out of trouble (so far). Jose Reyes has played more games than he has missed.

Those are the things that, when they work, you congratulate yourself, because that’s all part of any master plan GM Alex Anthopoulos would have for how the Blue Jays contend. What’s interesting about where they’re at isn’t just the good things working out the way you’d like, it’s the other things that they’ve had to do. It’s the things they’ve had to fix, the elective decisions they’re making, to help themselves do even better.

Take their infield. Initially, they gave organizational soldier Ryan Goins a big chunk of the second-base job, figuring he’d split time with veteran utility infielder Maicer Izturis. Then Izturis tore up his knee, Goins didn’t hit, and predictably enough neither did veteran subs Munenori Kawasaki and Chris Getz. So, with all that failing to stick, the Jays got creative.

They’d already lucked into Juan Francisco’s availability at the end of spring training, signing him after he was cut by the Milwaukee Brewers, then employing the lefty slugger to good effect when DH Adam Lind got hurt. Looking at the wreck of their middle infield, they decided to try Francisco at third base despite years of scouting reports and weak performance to warn them against it. But they figured they were better off resuming the experiment with Brett Lawrie at second rather than continue futzing around with the scrappy second-base types most teams might accept -- Goins or Getz, it hardly mattered, use either and you’re probably not goin’ to getz anywhere.

So, at a time when offense is down, the Jays made the choice to play for runs instead of defense, and it’s working. They’re averaging 4.9 runs per game with a deep lineup capable of trading blows with the league-leading Los Angeles Angels and Oakland A’s. For the Jays, it’s a multi-positional platoon, one in which Lawrie flips between second and third base while playing every day, with Francisco at third base against righties and journeyman Steve Tolleson at second base against lefties, exploiting the .832 OPS the former Twins farmhand has put up in his abbreviated big-league career against southpaws. They’re 18-8 since Francisco’s first start at the hot corner on May 3 after starting the year 12-14. They’re 9-1 in the games Tolleson has started against a lefty, beating guys like Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, Jon Lester and C.J. Wilson and Scott Kazmir.

How does this work? Well, sure, as Francisco is slugging above .600 reflects, some guys can have a great 100 at-bats or so. But perhaps more importantly the Blue Jays are using guys for what they can do where they can do it, instead of getting hung up on what they can’t. Take Francisco: Built with the range of your average home appliance, he probably isn’t going to be an average third baseman in the major leagues. So what? Aspire to adequacy, and that’s what you get, and you might miss out on what the guy can do: Crush right-handed pitching with regular playing time, slugging over .500 in his extended minor-league career. A corner is exactly where you can hide his bat, where he might see only two or three chances per game. Yes, he’ll strike out a third of the time. He’ll also crank out a .200 Isolated Power at a time when finding people who can contribute on offense isn’t so easy.

But let’s also credit manager John Gibbons for pushing for runs. Take Monday’s game: Up by two in the fifth with nobody out, his lineup just chased Erik Bedard, so the Rays have Alex Colome come in to face Tolleson -- who’d already homered -- and Gibbons pulls Tolleson anyway to exploit the offensive advantage and bat Francisco against the righty, and devil take the subsequent defensive risks. Francisco walked, the inning just got bigger, and two more runs would score to put the Rays down for keeps. In an era when pitching substitutions and their effectiveness usually define in-game initiative, it was nice to see someone in the dugout take it back on offense and win a matchup game because he had the option, and he used it.

The flip side of this is to note that the Jays have to play for runs, because of the other thing that isn’t working for them in the early going: Their rotation, and seeing what they’re going to do about it. Outside of Buehrle’s turns, they’re 21-22 overall, and they’ve gotten just nine quality starts in 31 games from the rotation outside of those made by Buehrle and R.A. Dickey. They need better.

Someone like J.A. Happ might make for an adequate No. 4 or 5 in a contender’s rotation. And you can get excited about what Drew Hutchinson might become if you just look at his strikeout and walk rates and his FIP, but that’s only going to so far when he keeps getting clobbered the second time through the order (.825 OPS before Monday’s slugfest), or the third (.855). Maybe he’ll adjust, maybe not.

But if Hutchinson doesn’t become the third horse they really need, the Jays have a rotation that’s going to keep putting them in the slugfests that their offense will have to win for them. That’s fine as long as it’s going good, and creating leads that their excellent relief trio of Brett Cecil, Aaron Loup and Steve Delabar protect and hand off to closer Casey Janssen. But you’d like to see the Jays adapt their plan in-season again by adding an arm, and not just because banking on Brandon Morrow’s comeback from the DL at some point in July would be optimistic.

Sometimes contention is a matter of building on both the ideal and the unexpected. Given that the Jays can be happy to be where they are, here’s hoping they take some more chances to stay there.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.


"Show us some respect," yell Baltimore Orioles fans. Or maybe they're politely demanding. But I've seen the complaints in the Power Rankings comments, read the emails sent to "Baseball Today," been asked the question in my chats: Why doesn't anyone believe in the Orioles?

The Orioles traveled to Fenway Park this week in a precarious situation. They've lost two of three in Tampa. They've been swept in Toronto. They've lost two of three at home to Kansas City. They've lost two of three at home to Boston. They haven't won a series since the big weekend showdown in Washington from May 18-20.

So, yes, the concerns all of us "experts" had been raising -- it's a long season, let's see what happens to the rotation, let's find out if some of the hitters can keep up their hot starts, the bullpen can't keep its ERA under 2.00 all season -- were proving true. The O's were 27-14 after winning the second against the Nationals but had gone 3-10 since, with the staff posting a 4.95 ERA while the offense scored 3.5 runs per game.

These were the Orioles we all expected. And then they beat the Red Sox in extra innings on Tuesday. And then they beat the Red Sox 2-1 on Wednesday behind a solid effort from Wei-Yin Chen and scoreless innings from Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson. They're 5-0 at Fenway in 2012 and Chen is now 5-2 with a 3.49 ERA. The key moments came in the seventh inning after the Red Sox threatened with a pair of singles to start the frame. But after a sacrifice bunt, Chen struck out Marlon Byrd and induced Mike Aviles to pop out to first base.

Normally, Buck Showalter might have turned to his stellar bullpen, but after Tuesday's victory, in which the bullpen threw five innings, he left Chen to escape the jam. He set up Byrd with three fastballs and then got him swinging on a beautiful changeup. He threw three more fastballs to Aviles that he couldn't get around on. Don't underestimate Chen. His stuff plays up big, with his four-seamer reaching 94 mph. His last pitch to Aviles was clocked at 93. In 11 starts, he allowed two or fewer runs seven times and I think this outing will give Showalter more confidence to stretch Chen a little deeper into games.

So the Orioles remain in first place for another day, half a game ahead of the Yankees. Is it time to show them a little respect, to give Orioles fans what they crave? Let's do some position-by-position rankings to help sort out this tightly packed division. Rankings are simply listed in order of who I would want the rest of the season.

(Season-to-date Wins Above Replacement from Baseball-Reference.com, before Wednesday's games, listed in parenthesis.)

Catcher
1. Matt Wieters, Orioles (1.6 WAR)
2. Jarrod Saltalamacchia/Kelly Shoppach, Red Sox (1.6)
3. Russell Martin, Yankees (0.7)
4. J.P. Arencibia, Blue Jays (0.2)
5. Jose Molina, Rays (0.1)

There is a case to be made that Boston's duo is more valuable since they've combined for 14 home runs and an OPS over .900. But Wieters brings elite defensive skills and I also don't believe Salty is going to slug .583 all season. For the second consecutive season, the Rays are essentially punting offense at catcher. Rays catchers have the worst OPS in the majors.

First base
1. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox (0.8)
2. Mark Teixeira, Yankees (0.6)
3. Mark Reynolds, Orioles (-0.6)
4. Carlos Pena, Rays (0.4)
5. David Cooper/others, Blue Jays (incomplete)

Gonzalez is still struggling to get his stroke going, but he's the best of a weak group. Yes, I just called Mark Teixeira weak, but at this point he's a low-average guy who pops a few long balls, doesn't draw as many walks as he once did and isn't as great on defense as Yankee fans believe. But in this group that's good enough to rank second. Reynolds has a low WAR but he's missed time and that includes his bad defense at third base, a position we've hopefully seen the last of him playing. The Jays, meanwhile, need to quit fooling around at first base and find a legitimate hitter, or move Edwin Encarnacion there and find a designated hitter. You hate to waste a potential playoff season because you can't find a first baseman who can hit. (No, David Cooper is not the answer, although he's hit well so far in 11 games.)

Second base
1. Robinson Cano, Yankees (2.1)
2. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox (1.8)
3. Kelly Johnson, Blue Jays (2.1)
4. Ben Zobrist, Rays (0.7)
5. Robert Andino, Orioles (0.6)

I love Ben Zobrist almost as much as two scoops of Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch from Ben & Jerry's, but a .199 average isn't going to cut it in this group, even if you are on pace to draw 100-plus walks. Zobrist has actually play more right field so far, but should be back at second on a regular basis with Desmond Jennings back.

Third base
1. Evan Longoria, Rays (1.4)
2. Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays (3.1)
3. Alex Rodriguez, Yankees (1.2)
4. Kevin Youkilis/Will Middlebrooks, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Wilson Betemit/Steve Tolleson, Orioles (-0.1)

Lawrie's WAR is boosted by defensive metrics that treat him like he's the second coming of Brooks Robinson. He's a good player but don't I think he's been the second-best position player in the American League. Longoria hopes to return at the end of the Rays' current road trip. As for A-Rod, his health is always a question at this stage of his career, but Youkilis has health questions and I'm not a believer in Middlebrooks' ability to hit .321 with power all season. His 29/4 strikeout/walk ratio is something pitchers should learn to exploit. As for the Orioles ... third base is an obvious concern. But don't expect a rare intra-division trade to acquire Youkilis.

Shortstop
1. J.J. Hardy, Orioles (2.1)
2. Mike Aviles, Red Sox (2.2)
3. Derek Jeter, Yankees (0.9)
4. Yunel Escobar, Blue Jays (1.9)
5. Sean Rodriguez, Rays (1.9)

Wait ... Jeter has been the least valuable of this group so far? The other four all rate as excellent fielders -- in fact, Baseball-Reference rates them all in the top 13 fielders in the AL. Jeter, meanwhile, ranks 310th in the AL on defense -- out of 313 players.

Left field
1. Desmond Jennings, Rays (1.2)
2. Daniel Nava/Carl Crawford, Red Sox (1.7)
3. Brett Gardner/Raul Ibanez, Yankees (0.3)
4. Eric Thames/Rajai Davis, Blue Jays (-0.1)
5. Endy Chavez/Xavier Avery/Nolan Reimold, Orioles (-0.3)

Not to keep picking on the Orioles, but this is another problem position, especially if Reimold's disc problems lingers all season. Nava has quietly been a huge savior for the Red Sox, batting .305 with a .438 OBP. He's drawing walks at a crazy rate. He should slide some but he's provided the kind of depth the Orioles don't have.

Center field
1. Adam Jones, Orioles (2.5)
2. Curtis Granderson, Yankees (1.3)
3. B.J. Upton Rays (0.9)
4. Jacoby Ellsbury/Scott Podsednik/Marlon Byrd, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Colby Rasmus, Blue Jays (1.3)

Ellsbury might be the biggest wild card in this race, because the Red Sox can't survive much longer with the Podsednik/Byrd platoon. When will he return? How will he hit? He just started throwing and could return by the end of the month. I've conservatively put him fourth, which seems fair considering the unknown. And please note, Orioles fans, that I believe in Mr. Jones.

Right field
1. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays (0.9)
2. Matt Joyce, Rays (2.2)
3. Nick Swisher, Yankees (-0.1)
4. Cody Ross/Ryan Sweeney, Red Sox (1.6)
5. Nick Markakis/others, Orioles (0.3)

Markakis is out three to four weeks with a broken bone in his wrist, an injury that once again reflects Baltimore's lack of depth. But all five teams are solid in right field. Ross is about to return from his broken foot; we'll see if he pounds the ball like he was before the injury (.534 slugging).

Designated hitter
1. David Ortiz, Red Sox (1.4)
2. Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays (1.6)
3. Revolving Door, Yankees
4. Chris Davis, Orioles (0.3)
5. Luke Scott, Rays (0.0)

No respect for Davis? OK, he's hitting .295/.333/.494. And he has 53 strikeouts and eight walks. Sorry, call me skeptical, O's fans. Yankee designated hitters have actually fared well, hitting a combined .279/.354/.467 with 10 home runs.

No. 1 starter
1. David Price, Rays (2.2)
2. CC Sabathia, Yankees (1.9)
3. Ricky Romero, Blue Jays (0.3)
4. Josh Beckett, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Jason Hammel, Orioles (1.9)

Look, Hammel has been terrific so far thanks to a career-high strikeout rate and a career-high ground-ball rate. But this is tough group and the question is who is going to be best moving forward? My biggest concern is that Hammel has never pitched 180 innings in a season. Can he pitched the 210 to 220 that you need from a No. 1?

No. 2 starter
1. Brandon Morrow, Blue Jays (1.1)
2. James Shields, Rays (-0.4)
3. Andy Pettitte, Yankees (1.5)
4. Wei-Yin Chen, Orioles (0.7)
5. Jon Lester, Red Sox (-0.4)

I like Chen. Heck, right now I like him better than Jon Lester, which tells you how much I like him. But he averaged just 172 innings in Japan over the past three seasons. Can he hold up over 32 starts?

No. 3 starter
1. Jeremy Hellickson, Rays (1.0)
2. Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees (1.4)
3. Felix Doubront, Red Sox (0.4)
4. Brian Matusz, Orioles (0.2)
5. Henderson Alvarez, Blue Jays (0.4)

Matusz is holding his own at 5-5, 4.41, but he's still walking a few too many, allowing a few too many hits, a few too many home runs. The velocity is solid, averaging 91 on his fastball. We're talking minor upgrades needed in his command, getting the ball down in the zone more often to get more groundballs. If the Orioles are to have any chance, Matusz's improvement may be the single most important aspect.

No. 4 starter
1. Matt Moore, Rays (-0.6)
2. Ivan Nova, Yankees (0.3)
3. Jake Arrieta, Orioles (-0.4)
4. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox (-1.2)
5. Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays (-0.1)

Five pitchers who have struggled, but Arrieta's peripheral numbers are actually pretty solid. Like Matusz, there is hope for improvement. On the other hand, he's been awful since pitching eight scoreless innings against the Yankees on May 2, giving up 29 runs in 31.2 innings. His BABIP was .243 through May 2; it's .361 since. The truth is probably right in the middle, leaving Arrieta third on our list of fourth starters.

No. 5 starter
1. Alex Cobb/Jeff Niemann, Rays (0.3)
2. Drew Hutchison, Blue Jays (0.1)
3. Phil Hughes, Yankees (0.2)
4. Daisuke Matsuzaka/Aaron Cook/Daniel Bard, Red Sox (-0.3)
5. Tommy Hunter, Orioles (-0.5)

Hunter isn't really a major league starter, but I'm not sure Jamie Moyer -- just signed to a minor league contract -- is exactly a solution. The Orioles need to upgrade here.

Bullpen
1. Yankees (2.76 ERA)
2. Orioles (2.48 ERA)
3. Red Sox (3.66 ERA)
4. Rays (3.43 ERA)
5. Blue Jays (4.39 ERA)

If you watched Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson close out Wednesday's win, you'll realize the back of the Orioles' end has two guys with filthy stuff. Darren O'Day and Luis Ayala are strike-throwing machines and Troy Patton is a lefty who isn't a LOOGY. It's a good pen and it's deep. But the reliability of the pen ties into the rotation's inability to pitch deep into games -- Orioles relievers have already thrown 39 more innings than Yankees relievers, for example.

OK, let’s add it up … one point for ranking first, five points for ranking fifth. Hey, this isn’t meant to be scientific, so don’t overanalyze this too much. The totals:

Yankees: 36 points
Rays: 40 points
Red Sox: 45 points
Blue Jays: 51 points
Orioles: 53 points

Not the respect Orioles fans are seeking. Sorry about that; it’s nothing personal. Look, I don’t think the Orioles are going to fade away anytime soon. I worry about the rotation’s ability to hold up all summer and the bullpen’s workload. They lack depth on offense and have a couple of obvious holes. Hey, you never know, and the Orioles are certainly due for a winning season. I would love to see it happen.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Javier Lopez Jake Roth/US PresswireJavier Lopez is sending a message to Mark Kotsay: Tag, you're out!

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