Monday, February 13, 2012

Baseball Season

No, I'm not giving up on the Leafs' season yet, although after the last 3 games, I've got that ol' familiar feeling called "February for the Leafs".

But, baseball season isn't too far off, and I read some disturbing things about the Jays the other day. Mainly, that the fans are restless.  19 years since the last World Series win, and the fans are restless. Please, add 26 years and then call the Leafs fans.

The concern seems to be in the Jays not trying hard enough for some big names like Prince Fielder and Yu Darvish this off-season. The Jays' explanation? No contracts longer than 5 years. Which is an improvement over the 3-year max back in the halcyon days of the '90s.

Makes some sort of sense. In any sport, 5 years is a long contract.  It's long if the player stinks and you can't dump him. It's long for the player if he has an amazing 5 years and doesn't see a raise while lesser players are raking in salaries commensurate with other teams' payrolls.  We have Bautista for 5 years, and that's looking like a steal.

What these fans want is a contender. I can't blame them. I want one too. But look up and there's the Yankees, Red Sox, and sometimes the Rays in our division. Second place in the AL East usually means the wild card. With the addition of second wild card, the Jays' chances improve tremendously.

But what I feel the fans are missing is what's right in front of their nose - the team we've got. Back in the big days, the Jays WERE the AL All-Star team. Big name free agents, blockbuster trades, rent-a-players down the stretch.  Also, a sold-out Skydome, Major League attendance records being shattered year after year, and teams that couldn't be ignored, despite being up here in the Great White North.

Now? Well, 20,000 is a decent turnout. A sellout is 10,000 less than it used to be. The Jays are a footnote in baseball news, and the fans here are starting to buy into that.  We're not a small market team. Toronto has 2.6 million people, the GTA has 6 million within an hour's drive from the Rogers Centre. Ownership is a company that pulls in over $12 Billion in annual revenue. But nobody's coming out to the games, so they can't validate putting up a $120 million payroll to satisfy a handful of fans. And since Toronto is a hockey town first and foremost, grabbing a Yu Darvish or Prince Fielder won't pack the stands. Hell, Prince would be a better choice because at least then you have a connection to old-school Jay, Cecil.

After all, we had the best pitcher in the Majors in Roy Halladay and couldn't bring in the numbers until he was about to leave, and now when he returns. We have one of the best hitters in the league in Bautista, who broke the all-star voting record, and can't keep all the beer stands open. The only way the people come is if the team starts winning deep into the season. No more of this "1st in April, 4th in September" crap.  We need to be fighting for 1st in August, if not running away with it. We need the team to be dominating the headlines in the dog days of summer. We need a winner.

And rushing that now, when Anthopoulos is doing yeoman's work on rebuilding, would mean a quick death.

Sure, there are holes. That's what rebuilding is about. You see what you've got, and fill in the gaps. Coming up is a prime time to finish the launch pad.

Bautista has proven himself.
Romero is our ace.

Does a Darvish help? Maybe. Of course, he hasn't played a lick in the Majors yet. Maybe he gets 18-20 wins. Maybe. After all, we play the Yankees, Sox, or Rays seemingly every other series. That replaces 6 wins from one of our 3-5 starters, so a net gain of 12-14 wins. Or the wild card spot.  Or maybe he's only solid in this division and pulls under 15 wins... also known as still 4th place.

But can't we get those wins elsewhere? Morrow is a strikeout machine behind Romero. Cecil and Alvarez pretty much have 3 and 4 locked up in the rotation, and Alvarez could do some damage with a full season.  Does McGowan make it back to be #5? Does he steal #2? Is Drabek mature enough to get in there? Can Arencibia follow up a fantastic rookie campaign in 2012? He's got Mathis to mentor him, and d'Arnaud coming up the ranks to light a fire. Escobar has become a solid shortstop when nobody was looking.

What about the close games? Oh, Cordero and Santos are the setup man and closer for this year, new to the team and getting on in years, but we don't want them forever, we just need them to fill their roles. Neither is going to overpower, but I'm thinking Santos has a pretty good ground ball crew behind him. They add to the veteran presence that is slowly being installed behind the young guns to provide experience, mentorship, and calm. If we get some protection behind Bautista, there's no telling where his numbers go.

Which brings me to Brett Lawrie. A Canadian boy who has "5-tools" bandied about him all the time. All I can say is that he has superstar written all over him. Sitting 20 rows behind home plate I watched this guy step up to bat and was blown away. Intensity radiated off him, and the crowd was louder than I've heard it in a long time. The kid's young, but has shown every bit of willingness to do what's asked.I watched him with the bases loaded, every muscle tensed, his bat quivering.  I turned to the guy next to me and said, "this is going out or he's striking out in 3 pitches."  1st pitch - ball. I was shocked this young guy had the wherewithal to hold off. Then he cranked it out of the park for the Grand Slam. The roof blew off the place in a nothing game with tons of empty seats. If he keeps his head in check, he's going places.  And he's the type of player who will bring the city along with him.

Then there's the talk of Votto. Some think it's a foregone conclusion that he'll be here in the next couple years. A Toronto native. An established powerhouse. And again, exactly the type of player this city will pay heed to. He'd be a good fit, and it's a move I'd keep an eye on.  Probably not this season though.

There's plenty of weak spots still - middle relief is better but still a question mark. Only two pitchers last year saw double-digit wins. Can Lind finally be consistent? Can Rasmus get his head screwed on the right way? Will Snider even sniff the bigs again? Can the team get a damned batting average? .249 is pathetic, and only Bautista was over .300.  The right side of the infield could use a bit of spackle too.

I said .500 would make me happy last year. The Jays obliged and nailed that number. This year I expect some surprises, and assuming general good health, a better record. They aren't winning the division this year.They might be fighting for a wild card spot. At the very least, I expect the Jays will have the adjective "surprising" put in front of them more than a few times.

Also, going back to the old logo is a nice touch. It's far better than everything since.

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