Category Archives: Toronto Blue Jays

bonifacio izturis

Starting Positions Up for Grabs in the East

AL BEast Notebook – Feb 27

Spring is the time to evaluate talent, give new people a chance to show what they can do and try new things. While most starting spots and lineups are established already, there are a few position battles to keep an eye on this spring.

1. Blue Jays: Toronto acquired two second basemen this offseason, one via free agency and the other in a trade. At this point in the beginning of Spring Training it is basically a dead heat for the starting job. Maicer Izturis is a career utility infielder that has never played more than 122 games in a season. He’s a career .273 hitter with no power and moderate speed for a middle infielder, last year stealing a career-best 17 bases. He’s good-not-great with the glove. He does a lot of things pretty well; he’s fundamentally sound. Emilio Bonifacio is five years younger and has blazing speed. In 2011 as a full-time starter he hit .296 with 40 stolen bases, but did strikeout 129 times.

Bonifacio and Izturis are both switch-hitters that are moderate defensively, although Izturis is quite a bit better at second. They can play just about anywhere, but that’s pretty much a moot point as the only real opening is at second base. Izturis is a balanced player with a low ceiling. Bonifacio adds a big speed element but his batting average is unpredictable, although the last few years he is walking more and boosting his OBP.

As the Jays already have speed merchant Rajai Davis on the bench, I would start Bonifacio in the nine hole at second. Bonifacio has an on base percentage of .362 versus lefties over the last three seasons and is still on the upswing in his career. But performance in spring training could make things the other way around.

2. Orioles: The final starting rotation spot in Baltimore is wide open and there’s a whole bunch of pitchers in the running. Tommy Hunter was a long shot and had a poor first game so he’s behind the pack. But Steve Johnson, Jair Jurrjens, Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz and T.J. McFarland are all still possible candidates. Of that group Johnson pitched really well last year while making just a few starts (4-0, 2.11 ERA, .174 average against, 1.07 WHIP in 38 innings). Jurrjens was an All-Star in 2011 (also really good in 2009) but bombed last year. He tends to pitch lights-out every other year, so here’s hoping 2013 continues the trend. He hit 93 on the radar gun in Sunday’s game, so that’s a good sign. Arrieta, Britton, Matusz and McFarland are more likely to be fighting for a long-middle-relief role with the losers pitching in Triple-A. But anything can happen this spring and Buck Showalter is far from making a decision.

3. Yankees: Yes, Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart are fighting for the starting catcher job but let’s be real; neither is expected to do much more than catch breaking balls. The real question is in the outfield.

Curtis Granderson’s injury presents a real dilemma. Even if just for one month, it’s tough to replace a 42/115/110 guy. Brian Cashman is unwilling to use Eduardo Nunez in the outfield and does not want to bring in Johnny Damon for an audition. I sure as heck hope he doesn’t break open the piggy bank to acquire Vernon Wells’ or Alfonso Soriano’s terrible contract for a one month surrogate. That leaves Juan Rivera (34) and Matt Diaz (turning 35), two career bench players that got on base less than 29% of the time last year while providing no power or speed competing with minor leaguers that are unlikely to be ready for the Major Leagues. Perhaps Zoilo Almonte, Slade Heathcott or Melky Mesa will emerge (great trio of names, Zoilo, Slade and Melky) and we can see what they have to offer. Zoilo probably offers the most long-term potential, and has already made a little positive impact hitting a home run and throwing a runner out at third base. Thankfully and hopefully it is just for one month, but there are five guys to keep tabs on in Yankee camp.

4. Rays: It is unlikely that Wil Myers will come up to the team before May and Tampa’s roster is pretty settled. But after David Price and a trio of strong young arms (Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb) there is still one starting pitcher spot still available.

It is pretty much a three-legged race between Jeff Niemann, Roberto Hernandez, and youngster Chris Archer. Hernandez is new to town and while he has one great year on his resume (19-8, 3.06), that was a long time ago and there have been four poor seasons since. Unless he catches lightning in a bottle this spring I see little chance he gets the nod. Archer, 24, is another great young arm that showed he has great stuff in limited action last year for the Rays (29.1 innings, 36 strikeouts, just 23 hits). He’s got a great fastball and slider. Niemann is a low-risk, low-reward candidate for the final spot. His fourth season was injury-plagued but he was effective when he was out there (3.08 ERA, 1.11 WHIP). He is out of minor league options and I assume that helps his chances. I find it hard to believe that the Rays would start the season with four pitchers age 25 and under. Niemann gives them a little stability and Archer can grow some more in Triple-A, so I think they will go with Jeff. They are in conversations about possible trades, and that would thin out the competition.

ra dickey

an Early Starting-Five Eval: Toronto Blue Jays

AL BEast Notebook – Feb 22

2012 was a disaster for the Jays. Along with the injury to Jose Bautista the rotation was a total mess. The Blue Jays had twelve pitchers make at least two starts but unlike the Orioles, most were not effective. All due respect, but you aren’t going to have a great season when Henderson Alvarez, Carlos Villanueva, Aaron Laffey, Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison and Brett Cecil make 96 (60%) of your starts. So what did they do? This offseason the Jays made a splash in the trade market and stacked their starting rotation instantly into one of the best groups in the American League.

Starting Rotation

Ace: R.A. Dickey (B+)

2. Brandon Morrow (A-)

3. Mark Buehrle (B+)

4. Josh Johnson (A-)

5. Ricky Romero (B+)

In the mix: J.A. Happ, Chad Jenkins, Kyle Drabek

Down the road: Dustin McGowan

Other than inserting Justin Verlander and David Price, this is as solid and diverse a rotation as you can have. You have lefties and righties. You have hard throwers mixed with soft throwers. You have the reigning NL Cy Young and another pitcher with two no-hitters (one a perfect game). You have four former All-Stars. You have two older veterans that are still very effective and three players right in their prime (age 28-29). You have four pitchers that have been slated as an ace at some point in their careers and the other (Morrow) is good enough to be. You even have someone with a World Series ring.

I like R.A. Dickey (I think it would be hard not to) and he was so stinkin’ good last year. He is obviously a legitimate ace. But at the age of 38 and moving from the NL East to AL East, you can’t expect him to duplicate 20-6 and a 2.73 ERA again. However, he has a lot less pressure this year since he actually has quality pitchers around him and a lineup that will produce much more run support than the New York Mets. He is older but he does not have a lot of mileage on his arm so he should be able to hold up. Another great year (or two) is in store for the tricky knuckleballer.

Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson are very similar: young power pitchers with very good stuff who have been injured frequently. I’ve been projecting Johnson as a top-flight pitcher in the National League for years but he kept getting hurt. Last year he was finally healthy (or at least made over 30 starts) but ended up having about his worst season statistically and was not helped when the Marlins tanked their season. Morrow was headed for an outstanding year until an oblique injury ruined his summer. Still, his batting average against and ERA were among the league leaders so if he can hang in there (and Johnson can bounce back in his new start), Toronto could have two of the top breakout pitchers in the AL.

Mark Buehrle has thrown over 200 innings twelve years in a row. He’s a contact hitter who doesn’t throw very hard but is a true horse, going deep into games because he keeps his pitch count down. He’s his own best friend, winning four straight Gold Glove awards. Frankly, his stats through the years are nothing to write home about but the Blue Jays know exactly what they are getting: a veteran who will give them 200 innings, 14 or 15 wins, an ERA around 3.90, and a couple complete games along the way. Not bad for your #3 starter.

After an 8-1 start, Ricky Romero tumbled terribly losing 13 games in a row last summer (with just one no-decision in there). He ended up being one of the least effective pitchers in the American League, a surprise for the guy slated as the #1 starter in town coming off a sub-3.00 ERA in 2011. Turns out he wasn’t healthy, having issues with both knees and his pitching elbow. If those are resolved and he is more comfortable, the Jays have a sneaky strength at the back end of the rotation.

Not only do the Blue Jays have a solid rotation but they have several guys ready to step in if something happens. J.A. Happ (now 30) has always been that #6 starter that can be effective if called upon (16-8 in 39 starts with a 3.15 ERA in cozy Citizens Bank and Minute Maid Ballparks in 2009-10). There is also young Chad Jenkins and Kyle Drabek down in AAA, and the once-promising Dustin McGowan should finally be healthy and ready to make an impact later this season. But most importantly, the guys 1-5 are quality arms that should prevent any extended losing streaks.

Overall Grade: B+

Pitching Depth: A

Biggest Strength: Top-to-bottom strength; breakout potential

Biggest Concern: New situations; three NL to AL East transfers