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View From the Other Side: Toronto Blue Jays

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Bluebird Banter’s Tom Dakers guides us through our next opponent, as the White Sox cross north of the border

ALCS - Cleveland Indians v Toronto Blue Jays - Game Five
By the Way: The original Blue Jays logo, which it seems the team has embraced again (or never got away from it, I haven’t been up to Toronto in awhile) is as cool as it gets, since 1977.
Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

A few days ago, Tom Dakers over at Bluebird Banter shot me a message to say hey, what’s up, our teams are playing soon, let’s talk. So we did. Apparently, like 97% of the baseball world, he doesn’t care much for the Hawk.

Anyway, my chat with Tom about our White Sox was published this morning, and it’s time to return serve.

The Toronto Blue Jays split their opening series at home against those big and bad and blustery and hey-wait-who’s-pitching? New York Yankees. The Blue Jays not somehow exploiting Aaron Judge in center field was well offset by seeing Dellin Betances wet his pants at the sight of Kevin Pillar streaking toward home.

What is up with Josh Donaldson? He had a dead arm that wasn’t supposed to be alarming at all, and now I’m hearing he’s like a day away from playing and mashing again? As a guy the White Sox would seem to fit with if Donaldson leaves Toronto after the season, so we’re interested: How is Donaldson going to age, and should all fans here just start passing the hat at games to try to afford Manny Machado instead?

The dead arm thing is truly weird. Donaldson had a rough and pretty strange spring. He started the spring with an arm thing that manager John Gibbons defined as, “his shoulder was hanging.” None of us knew what that meant. Then he had a leg problem that they referred to as a calf cramp. Now it is a dead arm. Donaldson leads the league in undefined injuries. The team has said that the release of a player’s medical information is up to that player, that they cannot say anything that the player doesn’t approve.

The arm thing seems to be getting better. On Opening Day, Donaldson could barely throw a ball across the diamond, but reporters say he was playing catch from 100 feet after Sunday’s game. He should be back playing third soon.

He also didn’t have a good spring with the bat. He didn’t hit a ball hard all spring. He does seem to be coming around slowly, but in the Yankees series, he was 1-for-12. We thought it was strange that, in Sunday’s game, they walked Josh to load the bases for Justin Smoak. Smoak had homered the previous inning and was 5-for-7 in the last two games to that point. Smoak hit a grand slam, and we won.

I don’t know how well Josh is going to age. Personally, I’d be thinking of moving him across the diamond to first (or to DH, but that would be tough to sell to Josh) if I intended to have him on the team beyond this year. He seems to bring a football intensity to baseball (and everything else), but football is a once a week game, baseball is an everyday game. He is a competitor, he gives his best all the time, but he’s 32 now and I can’t help but think that these little aches and pains type injuries will continue to get worse as he ages.

I suppose it’s an evergreen sort of question, but what is the state of the team and/or fan base dealing with a Boston Red Sox and Yankees team in the division again looking lights-out? Should Toronto be looking forward to a new competing window? A move like Granderson (and I love Granderson) seems a typical White Sox move this decade, getting that guy who has a 1% chance of spurring the team to a World Series (see Austin Jackson, et. al). Should Toronto be going for it? ARE they going for it?

I didn’t mind the Granderson signing. The Jays have a handful of good outfield prospects who need a bit more time in the minors. Granderson buys them that time and can be a positive role model to the younger players.

The Jays are walking a line between “going for it” and not adding salary that will carry over to future seasons. The have some excellent prospects coming up, and the team is better off keeping financial flexibility to help surround prospects Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Anthony Alford and holdovers Aaron Sanchez. Marcus Stroman and Roberto Osuna with the support they need to be a winning team.

Allow me to copy-and-paste your question to me, and ask about the Toronto pitchers we’ll be facing in the series.

Monday we have lefty Jaime Garcia starting. I can’t tell you much about him, he was a free agent signing this winter. He’s a lefty who doesn’t throw all that hard, low 90s, has a curve, change and slider. He had a very good spring. The hope is that, working with pitching coach Pete Walker, he can be a good fifth starter.

Tuesday it is J.A. Happ, another lefty, who can be very good when he challenges hitters by going straight at them and can be maddening when he nibbles around the edges and works his way to a full count with every hitter. He tends not to pitch deep into games, but he’s won 30 games over the past two seasons.

Aaron Sanchez, starting Wednesday, had the best ERA in the AL in 2016, at age 23. We expected him to take a step forward and be the ace of the staff, in 2017, but it turned out to be a season lost to blisters (and remedies for blisters). This spring he looked terrific, but we are going to spend the season watching him carefully, looking for any sign that the blisters are returning. If he’s healthy, he’s one of the best players in baseball, almost unhittable with a 95+ fastball and a great curve.

Does Marcus Stroman incur beef with many players, or was Tim Anderson being oversensitive?

You know, the old school, have no fun, show no emotions, types are going to dislike him. The Dennis Eckersleys of the world are going to complain about him forever. But most of today’s players seem OK with him.

He’s always going to wear his emotions for all to see. He’s always going to have a chip on his shoulder, he’ll be outspoken, and the old sportswriters will always hate his twitter feed, but then he’s likely good to piss those guys off. And he is going to continue to use pauses and quick pitches and changes of windup to keep hitters off-balance. Some batters are not going to be happy. That’s life, batters don’t like pitchers to do anything that gets them out.

Is Justin Smoak going to be the team MVP this season?

I hope so.

Until last year, he was the least popular of the Blue Jays players. I always say bet on the guys with big power. Not the guys that hit wall-scraper home runs, but the guys who hit it into the fifth deck. Smoak could always hit the ball a mile, he just chased too many pitches that low and off the plate. Last year he seemed to figure out not to chase so much.

We all wonder if the 2017 Smoak is the one we will see this year, or if he’ll revert to his old ways. The two home runs on Easter Sunday seem to suggest we’ll see the 2017 Smoak again this year.

There are a handful of others who could be MVP. Donaldson obviously, Sanchez, Stroman, perhaps Devon Travis or Randal Grichuk, but if I had to bet I’d pick Smoak.

I love a straight steal of home, as if any of us have ever really seen one. You OK with me saying that Betances wetting his pants seeing Pillar break and worm-burning the ball into a dugout or whatever takes some of the shine off of Pillar’s steal of home? More importantly, will Pillar’s ballsy three steals in an inning encourage him to try it again soon?

Yeah, Pillar obviously got into Betances’ head. It amazes me that a major league pitcher could be so easily rattled.

Pillar says he intends to steal more than last year. He stole 25 bases in 2015. He’s always been a high percentage base stealer (75% career). He is fast, you can see it in his defense.

The real question is can he get on base enough for anyone to care if he can steal bases. He tends to get to a 3-ball count and then he’ll chase. It is funny, he has a great eye until he gets to a 3-ball count and then it all goes out the window. He’ll go to a 3-0 count and then just chase. Every year he comes into camp saying all the right things about controlling the strike zone better and then, the season rolls around and he’s the old Pillar.

He’s started the season hot, but he’s always been a streaky hitter. He’ll go three weeks making you think he’s figured it all out, and then two months where he hits like a pitcher. So, I’m hoping that, this time, he has it all figured out, but I won’t believe it until he gets to the All-Star break hitting .300 with a .375 OBP and 15 home runs.

A half a dozen questions is note enough time to cover all the bases, so feel free to pass on a salient point from the inner mind of Bluebird Banter, a take or two on the team from you guys like: What are one or two of the most consistent storylines you guys debate or disagree on?

The keys to the Jays season is:

  1. Getting off to a better start than last year. They had their second win Sunday, game four of the season, and last year we didn’t get our second win until game 11. Four games mean nothing, but I’m hopeful. Last year we finished April with an 8-17 record. That can’t happen again.
  2. Health. Last year Troy Tulowitzki, Devon Travis and Aaron Sanchez all missed most of the season. Donaldson, Russell Martin, J.A. Happ and Steve Pearce all missed significant time. So far, he says, hand firmly attached to a piece of wood, only Tulo is injured with bone spurs. He should be back in action sometime between late May and the 2022 season.

The biggest debate in Jays land is when top prospects Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette will arrive in Toronto. Realistically, not this year. They are both 19, and they have not had an at bat above A ball. I have little doubt that either both would hit well enough to be a useful major leaguer. But there is no reason for the Jays to start their service clocks. The trouble is that we haven’t had prospects of this level in recent history, and casual fans don’t understand that players rarely leap from A ball to the majors.