Blue Jays' top five prospects

  Vladimir Guerrero Jr. playing in the 2017 All-Star Futures game

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. playing in the 2017 All-Star Futures game

By: Tyler Kelaher

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Before the start of the 2017 regular season, Baseball America ranked the Blue Jays’ farm system 20th in the league. A year later, Toronto cracked the top ten with the seventh best prospect pool.

It wasn’t a plethora of newly acquired talent that jumped the system’s rank by 13 spots, but progressive development from the players who’ve been part of the organization for a couple of years.

All of Toronto’s top ten prospects were members of the farm system last year, with most showing a spike in performance and promotion to a higher level of minor league ball.

Here’s a closer look at the future of the Toronto Blue Jays:

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – 3B

Age: 18

The son of 2004 AL MVP, Vladimir Guerrero, the slugger was signed by the Blue Jays in July of 2015. Guerrero Jr. finished 2017 hitting .323 with 76 RBI in 119 games split between the Lansing Lugnuts and Dunedin Blue Jays. What separates Jr. from his father, is plate discipline. Guerrero Jr. recorded 14 more walks than strikeouts in 2017 and posted a .425 on-base percentage. Vlad’s effortless power and approach at the plate has him ranked as the third best prospect in all of the major leagues by Baseball America.

Bo Bichette – SS/2B

Age: 19

The son of four-time All-Star Dante Bichette, Bo was drafted 66th overall by the Blue Jays in the 2016 draft. With the ability to hit for power to both sides of the diamond, Bichette is projected to be a plus-or-better hitter. He finished 2017 with a .362/.423/.565 stat line, winning Midwest League MVP honours. His range and instinct make him a great middle infield option. Baseball America ranks Bichette the eighth best prospect in the league.

Anthony Alford – OF

Age: 23

Alford was taken 112th overall by the Blue Jays in 2012 despite his commitment to play football for Southern Mississippi. The multi-sporter oozes athleticism and can generate good power from the right side of the plate. He has above-average range in the outfield, but a knee injury diminished his speed and his arm strength needs more work. Injuries held Alford back from making a real jump in development, but he displays the physicality to be an impact player when healthy. Alford could’ve been called up to the big leagues last September, but the club wanted him to get more guaranteed at-bats in the minors.

Nate Pearson – RHP

Age: 21

Nate Pearson resembles the modern day pro hurler. The Jays’ 28th overall pick in 2017 stands at 6’6’’, weighing in at 245lbs. Pearson’s fastball consistently hits 97-98 mph but has been recorded above 100mph on occasion. His high velocity is mixed with a slider that hits the upper 80s, along with a decent changeup and below-average curveball. Pearson pitched just 20 pro innings in 2017, but posted an impressive 0.90 ERA with 26 strikeouts.

Logan Warmoth – SS

Age: 22

Drafted 22nd overall in 2017, Logan Warmoth slashed .306/.356/.419 in Class-A Short Season Vancouver where he won a Northwest League title. Warmoth shows good control of the strike zone with above-average hitting capability. Great athleticism, speed, range, agility and footwork make him an ideal shortstop or second baseman.

Week #1 of Blue Jays spring training

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By: Tyler Kelaher

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Groundhogs day has come and gone, the air is getting a little warmer, and spring training is finally underway. With just over a month before Opening Day, here’s the latest news out of Dunedin.

Josh Donaldson’s days are numbered in Toronto

Whoever attended Homestand’s live Pitch Talks event on February 1st would’ve heard Ross Atkins comment on his future plans for Josh Donaldson. He said when it came to a contract extension; he had a number in mind for the 2015 MVP with the hopes of making him a Blue Jay for years to come.

From the looks of it, Atkins presented that number, and Donaldson wasn’t impressed. “As of right now, all my attention and focus needs to be on this season”, said the All-Star third baseman. “We’re not in the same area, the same ballpark, to make a discussion toward moving forward.” When asked, Donaldson went on to confirm that he plans on hitting free agency at the end of the season.

This marks the third time in two years the Blue Jays front office found themselves in a deadlock with a big name player.  Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro were reluctant to sign outfielder Jose Bautista to a long term deal in 2016 (safe to say that was a smart move), and saw Edwin Encarnacion sign in Cleveland after turning down a four-year/$80 million offer to stay in Toronto.

Donaldson can still be re-signed by next off-season, though this year’s success will play a factor. The Blue Jays are more than likely to keep him through the trade deadline should they hold, or be in reach of a playoff spot.

If the team replicates their 2017 performance, Donaldson could be one of a few expiring contracts to be shipped-out for future assets.

Aaron Sanchez’s fingers could be ticking time bombs

After a 15-win season in 2016, Aaron Sanchez was an early Cy Young favorite before the start of 2017. He went on to throw just 36 innings due to blister issues on his throwing hand.

Manager John Gibbons has been happy with the strides the 25-year-old has made, and is confident Sanchez will have a healthy bounce-back in 2018.

With that said, no one can really judge how a pitcher’s finger will react through a full 162-game season. When asked about his durability, Sanchez had a “glass half-empty” approach. “I’m not going to sit here and say that I might not have an issue this year”, said the 2016 All-Star. “It could very well be that something pops up”.

Troy Tulowitzki is hurt AGAIN

The Blue Jays haven’t seen Troy Tulowitzki play since late July when he suffered a season-ending ankle injury against the Angels. To make matters worse, the shortstop has been dealing with a chronic bone spur in his right heel.

On the Jays’ first day of full-squad workouts, Tulo took a few groundballs and swung in the batting cage, but didn’t partake in the team’s fielding drills or exercise sessions.

Not the best news for a guy who’s costing the Blue Jays $69 million over the next four years.

Joe Biagini is looking for a roster spot

Biagini got the nod in Toronto’s spring training opener Friday afternoon. He gave up a hit while striking out two in two innings of work.

The right-hander got multiple starts last year to aid the many injuries in the starting rotation. After Toronto signed Jaime Garcia to a 1-year deal this off-season, the fifth starting spot seemed all but lost for Biagini.

A return to the bullpen or trip to Triple-A Buffalo are options the Blue Jays can explore but nothings set in stone yet.

MLB standardized baseball storage

After the juiced-ball allegations last year, the MLB is looking to make some changes. By 2019, all 30 teams may need to store their baseballs in an “air-conditioned and enclosed room”.

The idea is to better control the conditions of the balls storage units, and make each baseball as similar as possible in every major league ballpark.

MLB honours school shooting victims

Teams wore black Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School hats to honour the 17 people who were killed in the school shooting on February 14th in Parkland, Florida.

Members of the school’s baseball and softball teams were guests of the Miami Marlins and met with players, coaches and CEO Derek Jeter.

 

 

Takeaways from 2018 free-agency

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Tyler Kelaher

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Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in less than a week, yet there’s a strange smell in the air. Big names: Mike Moustakas, Jake Arrieta, Eric Hosmer and Yu Darvish are yet to sign with teams, raising tension between the MLB and the MLB Players Association.

Both signed and unsigned players are displeased with the lack of effort to sign personnel, stirring accusations from the MLBPA of collusion between team owners.

While there are differing views to this year’s slow-moving free-agency market, there are a few points that everyone can agree on.

Owners made smart business decisions

In December of 2016, the MLB and MLBPA reached a five-year labour agreement. The way the latest collective bargaining agreement is constructed, players who enter the league on entry-level contracts are generally paid close to the league minimum. After the expiration of the contract, the player becomes arbitration eligible.

Basically the first six years of a major leaguer’s career is spent under team control with next to no power when deciding annual salary.

Once a player becomes an unrestricted free-agent, he’s no longer under team control, and can negotiate the term and price he desires to any team interested. The idea is for players to sign high-price contracts with term in their prime, while their stock is its highest.

But why would an owner pay a 31-year-old millions of dollars when he can pay a 23-year-old a fraction of the cost?

Ergo, the league is getting younger every year, and free-agents aren’t getting paid. This doesn’t mean owners won’t lock down franchise players, it just means players who hit the open market might not be paid their market value.

We should have seen this coming

J.D. Martinez ended 2017 with a .303 average, 45 homeruns, and 104 RBI, to enter free-agency as one of the top outfield options in the game. With just over a month before the start to the 2018 season, Martinez is still without a team.

It’s too hard to believe that he hasn’t garnered enough interest, which makes me think blue-chip free-agents and team owners are smack-dab in the middle of a good old fashioned waiting game.

When Edwin Encarnacion declined the Blue Jays’ four-year, $80 million offer last off-season, nobody thought he would get even less on the open market. Yet Cleveland signed him for $20 million less and a year shorter than Toronto offered by following the very same tactic.

Martinez, Arrieta, Hosmer, Darvish and Moustakas might not be signed right now, but they should be before the season starts (barring a strike or spring training boycott). The way negotiations have progressed since the winter meetings, it’s possible the players will be the first to break, and ultimately accept less money and term to return to work.

Baseballs becoming a “young man’s game”

The game is getting much younger, faster, and more athletic.

The Cubs won a World Series with a team comprised of Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, Albert Amora Jr., Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber; all of whom below 25 years of age when they won.

The Astros did the same with Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers Jr., Alex Bregman and Joe Musgrove.

Drafting and developing is the name of the game in all four major sports. Teams are far less-willing to dump money on aging players whose performance could drop-off at any point.

With Josh Donaldson’s contract expiring after 2018, he could share the same dilemma by this time, next year.

Bob Kendrick's name synonymous with black baseball history

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Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Tyler Kelaher

Go to http://buytickets.at/homestand/r/pitch to buy your tickets to see Blue Jays GM, Ross Atkins, and Bob Kendrick live at Pitch Talks on February 1st! 

Two of Bob Kendrick's big loves in life are philanthropy and golf.

But as much as he loves them, nothing compares with his passion for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

For the last 15 years, the sharply dressed Georgia native has devoted his life to promoting the legacy of leagues that existed only because black players were barred from playing major league baseball. He's been an integral cog in the development of the world's only museum dedicated to celebrating the history and advancement of the Negro Leagues in America.

Bob grew up playing any in-season sport. Because of his school’s small student body, basketball and track were its only teams. When reminiscing about his varsity days, he told me, “I didn’t want to do any kind of running that didn’t involve a ball, so I went with basketball.” I immediately realized we share the same philosophy.

Bob moved to Parkville, Missouri in the mid-80s to attend Park University (Park College at the time) on a basketball scholarship. After studying communication arts with aspirations to become a sports journalist, Kendrick was hired by the Kansas City Star newspaper as a member of their promotions department.

In 1993, Bob was assigned to promote the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s first travelling exhibition, a popular collaborative display of the history of the Negro Baseball Leagues that the museum still hosts to this day. In the span of a month, roughly 10,000 people travelled to Kansas City to see the exhibit and absorb everything it had to offer. The wave of public interest sparked the lightbulb in Bob’s head.  “We knew we had something special”.

Bob joined the museum’s board of directors as a volunteer to build its brand through public relations and marketing. By 1998, he became the organization’s first Director of Marketing.

As Bob’s role with the museum grew, so did his relationship with the late, great John Jordan “Buck” O’Neil. Buck served as a trailblazer in the Negro Leagues community, boasting a well-respected playing career, as well as becoming a major league scout for the Chicago Cubs and Kansas City Royals. In 1962, Mr. O’Neil was named to the Cubs coaching staff, becoming the first black coach in the major leagues. Buck was the architect and long-time chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum until his passing in 2006. “There would not have been a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum without Buck O’Neil,” said Kendrick. “He was the driving force and the heart and soul…He gave it everything he had.” In 2008, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and museum honoured Mr. O’Neil’s legacy with the creation of the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award. Buck O’Neil’s eight decades of baseball contributions serve as Bob’s inspiration to this very day.

Bob was named President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in April of 2011 and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The community rallied around the museum’s celebration of Buck O’Neil’s centennial birthday that November. Kansas City’s baseball culture was in full-swing when it hosted the MLB All-Star game in 2012, allowing Kendrick to parlay the city’s excitement into the museum’s success.

In 2013, the museum held the second largest red carpet event for the blockbuster film “42”, outside of Los Angeles, welcoming cast members: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford and Andre Holland to celebrate the life and career of Jackie Robinson.

Success reached an all-time high in 2015 when the Royals won their first World Series in 30-years, flooding the streets of Kansas City in championship celebrations.

Last year, Executive Director of the MLBPA, Tony Clark, and MLB Commissioner, Rob Manfred, met in Kansas City to donate $1 million to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The donation served as a platform for the organization to excel for years to come.

Kendrick’s motivation to grow the name of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum has brought him to Toronto for Homestand’s first Pitch Talks event of the year on February 1st. Join us at Rivoli to listen to Mr. Kendrick, along with Blue Jays GM, Ross Atkins. There’s no better way to celebrate Black History Month than to learn about Bob’s experience as the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, or what he likes to call, “the house that Buck built.”

 

 

Pitch Talks Toronto Live Event!

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Homestand is excited to kick off Black History Month with the return of Blue Jays GM, Ross Atkins, and President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Bob Kendrick. The first panel and Q and A of 2018 will also include Morgan Campbell of the Toronto Star and Sportsnet’s own, Shi Davidi, hosted by Ashley Docking. Event takes place February 1st at Rivoli on 334 Queen St. West from 7-10pm. Go to homestandsports.com to pick up your $25 dollar, general admission tickets and be a part of the fun!

Blue Jays forecast to be sellers

                               Blue Jays and Curtis Granderson agree on a one-year, $5 million deal for 2018

                             Blue Jays and Curtis Granderson agree on a one-year, $5 million deal for 2018

Tyler Kelaher

Sign-up for this years Pitch Talks live events! Next up: February 1st at Rivoli featuring: Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins and President of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Bob Kendrick.

          Curtis Granderson’s one-year, $5 million deal with the Blue Jays can be perceived in different ways. One might say it’s a depth move that adds experience to an already weak outfield while plugging in a left-handed bat to the lineup. Others could see it as a case of déjà vu after the Blue Jays yet again failed to sign a blue-chip free agent in the off-season and settled on a soon to be 37-year-old.

At the end of the day, options and flexibility have been the name of the game for Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro. They’ve preached their plans of competing against a stacked American League East (despite failing to reach .500 in 2017), while putting themselves in a position to sell at the deadline. The way management has dealt with contracts during the offseason makes me think they’ll be ready to pull the chute whenever deemed necessary. And it all starts with Josh Donaldson.

In 426 games with the Blue Jays, Donaldson hit 111 homeruns, drove in an even 300 RBI and took home the 2015 AL MVP title. He’s been the team’s best player since the moment he stepped foot in the clubhouse; more than deserving of the “blank check” treatment that franchise players should receive when negotiating a contract extension.

Had the Jays been happy with the roster they have, Donaldson would have been signed to a long-term deal with an annual salary that matched his value. Instead, he and the team settled on a one-year, $23 million deal to avoid the sticky, hostile war zone we like to call arbitration; adding Donaldson’s name to the other five contracts ready to expire by the end of the season.

Along with Donaldson, the likes of Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Justin Smoak and newly acquired Curtis Granderson have one-year remaining with the club. They can be dealt as rentals at the deadline to fetch a quality return of young talent for the Blue Jays to evolve from a team in decline to a team with potential. Kendrys Morales has two years remaining on his contract, but it’s a safe bet the team is looking for buyers (should there be a team in the league interested in a 34-year-old who’s hitting has drastically dropped off and supplies next to no fielding capability).

The Blue Jays are the third oldest team in the MLB and their injury plagued, debacle of a 2017 created a need for turnover. Anthony Alford and Teoscar Hernandez are next in line to fill the voids in the outfield, while Bo Bichette and Logan Warmoth hope to get a call in the next year or two to get reps in the infield. The highest touted prospect in the Jays’ chain is Vladimir Guerrero Jr. who’s drawn comparisons and shown signs of an even higher ceiling than his MVP and 9-time All-Star father, Vladimir Guerrero.

Toronto avoided arbitration with 25-year-old right-hander Aaron Sanchez, agreeing on $2.7 million for the upcoming season. Both 26-year-old Marcus Stroman and 22-year-old Roberto Osuna filed for arbitration, but like Sanchez, remain under team control until 2020. All three appear to be cogs in the Jays’ future plans but the team will need to add pitching depth to compliment them if they hope to suppress the hard hitting division in which they reside.

The Jays are a team in transition and they aren’t fooling anyone, so don’t be surprised when Atkins delivers the “it’s time to go in a different direction” speech this summer.

 

Top available free agents

Tyler Kelaher

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            It’s been eight days since we rang in the New Year’s celebrations. Spring Training is six-weeks away and there are plenty of blue-chip free agents available. Here’s a look at the top free agents on the market:

 

J.D. Martinez - OF

J.D. Martinez played 57-games with the Detroit Tigers last season before being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks. He had a .741 slugging percentage in his 62-games with Arizona, a big jump from the .630 be hit with Detroit. The outfielder finished the season hitting .303 with 45 homeruns, 104 RBI and the highest OPS of his career at 1.066 (.017 higher than Aaron Judge).

Possible Destinations

Red Sox: Boston scored 878 runs in David Ortiz’s final season with the team. That number dropped to 785 in 2017. The Red Sox have plenty of cornerstone talent, but lack a solid power hitter. With a full outfield made up of Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts; Martinez could fill the DH spot and play a great role in the heart of the lineup. Whether or not Martinez wants to play the outfield regularly could affect where he signs.

Giants: After falling short in the Giancarlo Stanton sweepstakes, the Giants would call Martinez more than a conciliation prize. He’d be the power bat the team wanted, along with a presence in the outfield that can fill the void of the injury-ridden Hunter Pence.

 

Yu Darvish – SP

It was a wild 2017 for Yu Darvish. 31 starts between the Rangers and Dodgers saw him finish the season with a 10-12 record and 3.86 ERA. Darvish played an integral role in LA’s playoff run only to give up four earned runs in less than two innings of work in Game 7 of the World Series, ending his season on a sour note.

Possible Destinations

Cubs: Chicago’s starting rotation has thinned out since the departures of John Lackey and Jake Arrieta.

Angels: If there’s one thing the Angels did this offseason, its spend money. With that said, their starting rotation is well below satisfactory and Shohei Ohtani’s health is in question because of his UCL strain. If they manage to pay Darvish, he would be handed the ace role right away.

 

Jake Arrieta – SP

The 2015 Cy Young winner’s play noticeably declined in 2017. The 31-year-old gave up 10 more runs than he did in 2016 along with finishing with his highest ERA in four seasons. The most glaring drop off is his lack of innings pitched.  Arrieta threw 29 less innings than 2016 with just one-less start. Despite the right-hander’s underwhelming 2017, he’s a top option for any team’s starting rotation.

Possible Destinations

Cubs: Chicago signed Tyler Chatwood to a three-year, $38 million deal, but isn’t nearly satisfied with the vacancy Arrieta left after hitting free agency. Who would be a better replacement for Jake Arrieta than Jake Arrieta? They gotta pay the guy though. Arrieta’s looking for his payout and will get what he’s worth.

Cardinals: Along with the Cubs, the Cardinals are rumored to be showing the most interest in Arrieta. The team has a full starting rotation that is more than capable to lead its team to contention, but anything can happen from now to Spring Training.  

 

Eric Hosmer – 1B

Hosmer played his entire seven-year career in Kansas City, hitting 127 homeruns and 566 RBI in 1048 games, along with a World Series Championship in 2015. The four-time Gold Glover played all 162 games in 2017 and averages 149 games per season, making him a safe bet in the health department.

Possible Destinations

Royals: Kansas City offered Hosmer a seven-year, $147 million deal, their largest contract offer in franchise history. Safe to say they want nothing more than to lock-down the player they drafted and developed into the franchise piece he is now.

Red Sox: Boston wants to fill their DH spot, as well as add production from the left side of the plate. Hosmer would be a big upgrade to Mitch Moreland at first base and shift Hanley Ramirez to DH.

 

Notables

Lorenzo Cain – OF

Mike Moustakas – 3B

Jay Bruce - OF

 

 

 

 

 

Eight New Year's resolutions for the Blue Jays

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Aaron Rose

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As the calendar turns to 2018, the Toronto Blue Jays are hoping to put their 2017 woes in the past. If they can fix these eight issues, playoff baseball could return to Toronto this year.

Get faster in a hurry

The 2017 Blue Jays were the second slowest team in baseball. They stole just 53 bases and grounded into 153 double plays.  Losing Jose Bautista (who was the slowest outfielder in the Majors last year), should help, but Toronto will need either Anthony Alford or Dalton Pompey to contribute on the basepaths next season.

 Create clutch contact

An inability to convert with runners in scoring position plagued the Blue Jays last year. Though Ryan Goins hit a shocking .330 in run-scoring opportunities, the team as a whole hit just .230. Without Goins, Toronto needs to find another lucky bat and improve its timely hitting if the team wants to find success in 2018.

 Buy a backup backstop

Aside from Russell Martin, Blue Jays catchers hit .152 and connected for just seven home runs in 2017. Catching prospect Danny Jansen attracted attention within the organization, slashing .323/.400/.484 across three minor league levels last year, but the 22-year-old might not be ready to see Major League action in 2018. Toronto should look to add someone like Rene Rivera on a one-year deal.

 Insure the injured infield

Devon Travis and Troy Tulowitzki combined to play just 116 games last season. 2016 All-Star Aledmys Diaz is a nice addition for the Blue Jays, but Ross Atkins remains determined to add another versatile infielder. They’ll have to add another capable bat, because one-dimensional defensive players don’t cut it in the AL East.

 No more dismal defense

The Blue Jays were the worst defensive team in the Majors last year, according to MLB Statcast’s Out Above Average metric. In the outfield specifically, they ranked 24th in defensive WAR and — without Kevin Pillar in centerfield — it could have been much worse. That can’t continue if Toronto wants to contend next season.

 Health helps

Pitching health isn’t easily fixable, but a successful Blue Jays team can’t use 14 different starting pitchers next year. Aaron Sanchez will need to get his blister issues under control, but with so many injury concerns in the rotation, it might be wise for Toronto to bring in another workhorse starter to fill in the backend of the rotation.

 Save saves

While the Blue Jays bullpen wasn’t terrible in 2017, they struggled to hold onto leads, blowing a Major League-leading 26 saves last year. While Roberto Osuna dominated with 11.67 strikeouts per 9, his ERA ballooned to 3.38 in just 64 innings. The 22-year-old shouldn’t be replaced, but Toronto needs to find a way to convert in crunch time.

 Connect with the curve

The Blue Jays couldn’t connect against offspeed pitches last year. They ranked 27th in batting average against offspeed offerings, hitting just .208, but were even worse against the curveball, batting .189 with 16 home runs against the pitch. Toronto needs to change up its batting order next year, adding someone who can capitalize on offspeed pitches. Eduardo Nunez is one player the Blue Jays could look at, the 30-year-old infielder hit .320 with 15 extra-base hits on offspeed pitches last season.

 

Divided AL East increases Blue Jays' postseason potential

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                              Third baseman, Manny Machado, rumoured to be on the Orioles' trade block 

Aaron Rose

A polarizing AL East bodes well for the Toronto Blue Jays, who could turn success against weak divisional rivals into a postseason berth.

Though the Baltimore Orioles have threatened to take Manny Machado off the trade market if offers don’t get better, Wednesday’s news that Zach Britton ruptured his Achilles drastically hurt the Orioles playoff chances and likely pushes Baltmore toward trading its star third baseman. For the Tampa Bay Rays, trading Evan Longoria to the San Francisco Giants marked a turning point for the franchise, who could be amongst the league’s bottom dwellers next year. A pair of rebuilding teams in the division gives the Blue Jays a chance to boost their record by beating up on weak competition over 38 regular season games.

For a point of comparison, the NL West had a similar dynamic last season. While the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants finished in the bottom third of the league, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies all made the postseason. The top three teams averaged a 12-7 record against their struggling foes, advancing into the playoffs despite a tight NL Wildcard race. In the AL Central, the Minnesota Twins also rode a polarizing division into a surprise playoff spot last year, beating the lowly Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers a combined 23 times.

In 2017, the Blue Jays went 10-9 and 7-12 against the Rays and Orioles respectively, finishing two games below .500 against the two teams. A seven-win swing by beating up on weak divisional competition isn’t inconceivable for Toronto. Even if the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees continue to make splashy additions this offseason, a few savvy moves by the Blue Jays’ front office, coupled with the Orioles and Rays both tanking, could be the difference between selling off Josh Donaldson at the trade deadline and playing postseason baseball in October.

AL East looking like division of old

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NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton is introduced into the Yankees organization

Tyler Kelaher

Be sure to tune-in to the Pitch Talks with TK and Weiner podcast every Saturday on Homestand Sports!

From 2014 to 2016, there was a major flux in the American League East. Resurgence from the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles flipped the east on its head, knocking the Red Sox and Yankees out of the spotlight.  A 96-win season made a 2014 to remember for the Orioles who rode a 12-game lead of first in the division into the post season. In 2015, the Blue Jays were an offensive juggernaut. Their league leading 891 runs scored were 127 more than any other offense in the MLB. The Jays won the AL East title and appeared in the ALCS for the first time since 1993. 2016 was much of the same. Boston finished with the best record in the division, only to be swept by the Indians in the ALDS. After walking off the Orioles in a Wild Card game to remember, the Blue Jays returned to the ALCS for the second straight year.

Last December the Red Sox traded top prospects, Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for ace, Chris Sale. The transaction solidified Boston’s super-rotation after the retirement of David Ortiz, and returned the Bo Sox to AL East supremacy. What they lacked in power hitting, they made up for with pitching.  Despite an underwhelming year from David Price, the team combined for a 3.70 ERA in the hard hitting American League East. The second best team ERA in the AL was accompanied by the third best winning percentage (.574). With the team openly pursuing the likes of J.D. Martinez and Eric Hosmer, their lineup could drastically improve by the end of the winter meetings. Eric Hosmer would be a massive upgrade at first base, designating Hanley Ramirez to the DH spot while complimenting Boston’s young cornerstone talent comprised of Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers.

After falling a win short of the World Series in 2017, the Yankees made the most of the Miami Marlins fire sale by acquiring 28-year old slugger and National League MVP, Giancarlo Stanton. Another bullet in the chamber for a lineup that finished first in the MLB in homeruns. Slotting him into an American League lineup introduces options. Instead of playing the field all season, Stanton can fill the designated hitter spot, as well as occasionally alternate with Aaron Judge in the outfield to give the AL Rookie of the Year rest when needed.  In terms of offense, Yankees fans can bet Stanton will get plenty of opportunities to replicate his success in Miami. With a potent lineup from top to bottom, there isn’t much of a chance for opposing pitchers to pitch around guys in the heart of the batting order. Nothing’s more frightening than giving Sanchez the open base, only to face Judge next with Stanton on deck. Expect a bounce back season from Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances (should he remain in New York), along with regular playing time from blue chip prospect, Miguel Andújar, with the third base job up for grabs.

With rumours of Manny Machado and Zach Britton possibly departing from Baltimore, along with the Blue Jays aging, injury plagued roster; it’s safe to assume the AL East should return to the division we’re used to seeing with perennial domination from New York and Boston. You can love it or hate it, but you have to admit the goliaths are back and are here to stay.

 

Takeaways from the Blue Jays' winter meetings

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Aaron Rose

Be sure to tune-in to the Pitch Talks with TK and Weiner podcast every Saturday on Homestand Sports!

Josh Donaldson’s future

At least five teams have reportedly been in contact with the Blue Jays about acquiring Josh Donaldson, according to Jon Heyman, and the St. Louis Cardinals seem to be the most determined to pry the 32-year-old former AL MVP loose.

Though Blue Jays executives remain steadfast in their plans to contend in 2018, waiting until the August trade deadline to ship off Donaldson might not be wise. Last season, J.D. Martinez was traded at the deadline for three low-level prospects, despite leading the majors in slugging percentage. Though Manny Machado’s request to play shortstop next season has thinned out the third base market, Evan Longoria is likely still available and other versatile infielders could make it a buyer’s market for teams looking to upgrade at the hot corner.

Toronto’s asking price remains high, according to Ken Rosenthal, but if the Cardinals come knocking with a package including Jedd Gyorko and top-100 prospect Jack Flaherty, the Jays would be wise to accept.

Middle infield options

Don’t expect Aledmys Díaz to be the Blue Jays’ lone middle infield solution next season. Ross Atkins told reporters the team is still looking to add another piece to bolster their infield depth.

The Blue Jays have been in talks with the Milwaukee Brewers about acquiring Jonathan Villar, per Jeff Blair. Villar was a star in 2016, slashing .285/.369/.457 with 62 stolen bases, but his horrendous 2017 campaign had him relegated to the bench for parts of last season. The drop-off can mostly be attributed to Villar’s increased strikeout rate and his struggles with the changeup. After slugging .500 on the changeup in 2016, Villar saw that number fall to .217 in 2017, and pitchers increasingly threw it when he got behind in the count. Some quality time with Marco Estrada could fix Villar’s issues, but adding another strikeout prone player might be a bad decision for the Jays.

If Toronto is serious about contending in 2018, César Hernández would be a player to look into. The Phillies’ asking price would be high, likely including Anthony Alford and another top-tier prospect, but the 27-year-old is under team control until 2021 and has a skillset similar to Ben Zobrist. Though not a prolific base stealer, Hernández would immediately become the fastest Blue Jay, according to MLB Statcast data. He’s also a patient hitter who rarely strikes out and seldom swings at pitches outside the strike zone.

Outside of the trade market, Toronto has been connected to 30-year-old free agent Eduardo Nunez, per Heyman. Nunez played 3B, 2B, SS, and both corner outfield spots last year. Though his infield defence isn’t great, Nunez slashed .313/.341/.460 in 2017 and could be an everyday outfield with backup infielder potential for the Blue Jays in 2018.

Outfield options

Looking to add starpower to an already deep outfield, Toronto has reportedly checked in on both J.D. Martinez and Lorenzo Cain, but the expectation is their price tags will be too high for Toronto’s taste.

Shopping in the cheaper bins, Atkins mentioned both Carlos González and Jay Bruce as possible fits, and the team has also been connected to Carlos Gomez. Bruce would likely be the most expensive of these options; however, his negative defensive WAR should rule him out for Toronto. Gomez has had an up-and-down past few seasons, but hit well for the Rangers in 105 games last year. He can play anywhere in the outfield, but a nearly 30 percent strikeout rate is alarming and could be a deal breaker. González is the most interesting of these options. He had a horrendous first half of 2017, but posted an .836 OPS in the second half, with a scorching hot .377/.484/.766 in September and October. However, some of that might be attributed to Coors Field and lucky hitting. His .390 BABIP in the second half should be alarming for Toronto. He’s definitely worth a one-year deal, but anything longer might be cause for concern.

In the trade market, Avisail Garcia is reportedly on the Blue Jays radar, according to Bob Nightengale. The 26-year-old right fielder had a breakout 2017 campaign, finishing as a top 10-offensive outfielder in wRC+, but his defense metrics aren’t pretty. His numbers were also inflated by a major league leading .392 BABIP in 2017, so buyer beware, a significant regression should be expected. Under team control through 2019, Garcia won’t be cheap, and could be a risk the Jays aren’t willing to take.

Pitching Options

While offense seems to be Toronto’s main concern, Atkins told the media he expects to add one starting pitcher this offseason. Toronto hasn’t made much noise in the pitching market. They are said to be in on free agent right-hander Alex Cobb, according to Heyman. The 30-year-old recovered from Tommy John surgery last year to post a 3.66 ERA over 179.1 innings. With a fastball in the low-90s, Cobb isn’t a strikeout pitcher, but his curveball ranked amongst the league’s best. Aside from arm concerns, the potential adoption of a 20-second pitch clock in 2018 could disproportionality hurt Cobb’s performance. At 27.3 seconds between pitches, he ranked slowest in the majors in Pace, according to Fangraphs. In a free agent pitching market that lacks depth, Cobb could see his price tag exceed the Blue Jays’ intere

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Shohei Ohtani auction underway

                    Japanese superstar, Shohei Ohtani expected to sign in MLB prior to 2018 season

                  Japanese superstar, Shohei Ohtani expected to sign in MLB prior to 2018 season

Tyler Kelaher 

Be sure to tune in to the Pitch Talks with TK and Weiner podcast every Saturday on Homestand Sports!

In a sport that follows convention to a tee, Shohei Ohtani is blazing a new trail into the MLB. The 23-year old prodigy boasts a double-edged sword approach. A 2.52 ERA and 624 strikeouts in 543 innings during his five-year tenure in the Japanese Pacific League, along with a .286/.358/.500 stat line at the plate to compliment 48 homeruns, make him a blue chip commodity. The ability to reach speeds of 100-mph on the mound along with being an offensive threat at the plate brands Ohtani as the game’s true Swiss Army knife.

Once the clock struck midnight on December 1st, the Shohei Ohtani bidding war began. All 30 MLB owners ratified a posting agreement with Nippon Professional Baseball, freeing the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters to make Ohtani available. Opening the floodgates for every MLB franchise to make a run at signing the Japanese phenom.

Teams must pay a $20-million fee to the Nippon-Ham Fighters if they wish to negotiate with the prized asset. Because Ohtani is below the age of 25, he’s only subject to international bonus pool limits instead of true free agency. Clubs have their entire international bonus pool to their disposal in the hopes of signing him. The Texas Rangers currently have the most available finances to acquire international players with $3.535 million. The Yankees are second at $3.5 million, but are out of the running after Ohtani announced Sunday he won’t sign with the team. The reason yet to be determined (though I think I have an idea). Third are the Twins then Pirates, Giants and Mariners etc.

Most free agents determine their primary team of interest based on location, contractual preference and overall ability to contend. Because Ohtani plans to hit as well as pitch, there are other underlying factors in his decision. A primary one being which league is best suited for the two-way superstar.

The American League would allow Shohei to occupy the DH spot of the lineup on days he isn’t scheduled to pitch. Leading to a four game stretch where he would find regular at-bats and then a start on the mound every fifth game. Ohtani made it clear that he wants to do both and designated hitting might make the American League the best case scenario. But if his performance at the plate isn’t equivalent to the teams other DH options, he could be pushed to pitch exclusively.

On the flip side, the National League supplies a spot in the lineup for the pitcher currently in play. Ohtani would hit in every scheduled start and get consistent calls to pinch hit (or even play the field) on off-days. Not to mention the lighter load of pitching to National League lineups instead of hard hitting American League lineups that boast designated hitters.

Yet, there’s a reason we don’t see many two-way players in the MLB. First of all, it’s freaking hard to do. Second of all, it’s extremely taxing on the body. Throwing a baseball over-hand inverts the shoulder and is deemed an unnatural motion. Doing it 95-times in a three hour stretch causes wear and fatigue. That’s why we don’t witness many complete games anymore and that’s why starting pitchers normally get one start out of every five. Consistent at-bats during a 162 game season can only add to the risk of injury. Not to mention the possibility of Shohei playing the field in the National League where a DH spot isn’t supplied. Teams (like the Yankees) might not be willing to commit to a player who fully expects to do both.

But that’s what makes Ohtani an anomaly. He’s so damn good that teams are actually considering it, and since he’s going to get paid well below his market value, there’s sure to be plenty of suiters willing to lock down the Japanese superstar.

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Blue Jays at a crossroads after underwhelming 2017

                                                      Troy Tulowitzki helped off field after season-ending ankle injury

                                                     Troy Tulowitzki helped off field after season-ending ankle injury

Tyler Kelaher 

Be sure to listen to the Pitch Talks podcast with Tyler Kelaher and Josh Weinstein every Saturday on Homestand Sports.

                After taking the AL East title in 2015 along with back to back ALCS appearances, the Blue Jays occupied last place in the division for all but the final week of the 2017 season. Edwin Encarnacion is a Cleveland Indian and the greatness of Jose Bautista is all but a memory.

                Despite the message that the team would get younger, faster and more athletic, the Blue Jays took the oldest roster in baseball onto the field, and geez did it show. Toronto was plagued by injury. Big names such as Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Josh Donaldson, Devon Travis and Troy Tulowitzki hit the shelf, creating major shuffling in the lineup. Utility players: Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney, as well as minor league call-ups were asked to fill voids for outrageous stretches of time. Leading to the one word that best describes the Blue Jays’ season: inconsistency.

                The honeymoon phase is over. Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins are officially on the clock and need to decide what direction the team will go in. It’s easy to point the finger and blame them for the Jays’ struggles, but you shouldn’t. They inherited a team with aging players on ridiculous contracts along with a farm system as thin as paper. Trying to appease a fan base who witnessed their first playoff berth in 22 years.

                We saw what the World Series Champion, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros did on their road to supremacy. History proves that the teams who draft and develop their cornerstone pieces can consistently contend for years. Trading away future assets to build a foundation of players in the latter part of their prime creates short-term success that ultimately runs a team’s farm system dry. Trading for players such as R.A. Dickey, David Price and Troy Tulowitzki put the Blue Jays over the hump and made them a contending team through the 2015-16 seasons, while depleting their prospect pool into one of the worst in the league. A lackluster outfield, brittle middle infield and untrustworthy bullpen headline the Blue Jays’ needs. So if the team doesn’t look fit (on paper) to contend, why not use this time to rebuild? 

                Considering that J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada and (most importantly) Josh Donaldson become free agents by the end of next season, it’s highly plausible to see them shopped by the deadline if the team finds itself drastically out of contention.

                Many fans would cringe at the idea of losing their superstar third baseman, but the team didn’t dump money on Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion, and they shouldn’t on an aging Donaldson. Shapiro and Atkins can deal him at the peak of his trade value for future assets instead of signing him to an outrageous, long-term deal, or even watching him walk for free.

               Toronto’s top prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette aren’t expected to enter the league for a couple more years. The Blue Jays should acquire blue-chip, controllable talent to compliment the likes of Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and Roberto Osuna, who are still controllable through arbitration. Forecasting is the name of the game in the world of professional sports. The Blue Jays better kick it in high gear pretty soon or they’re going to be s*** outta luck.

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Judge's numbers speak for themselves

                         Aaron Judge watches a first inning homerun sail over the wall against the Orioles

                       Aaron Judge watches a first inning homerun sail over the wall against the Orioles

Tyler Kelaher

       By the end of the 2017 MLB season there were three guarantees in life: Death, taxes and Aaron Judge winning the AL Rookie of the Year.

      Judge displayed physicality at a level that baseball fans haven’t seen in a long time, hitting line drive shots out of the park at exit velocities that should only be seen in a video game. While there’s plenty to be said of a player whose physique is more reminiscent of a silverback gorilla than a 25-year-old man, I’ll let his season stats do the talking.

     Judge ended his year with 52 homeruns, breaking Mark McGwire’s 1987 rookie record of 49 in a single season. To put that in context, 2017 NL Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger made waves by hitting 39 homeruns this season, the third most by a rookie in history, yet 13 less than Judge. 

     While homeruns are something to be admired, to the delight of Yankees management, Judge performed in the regular season when it mattered most. 30 of his 52 homeruns were against teams in the same division. He combined for a .350 batting average in 49 games against the Orioles and Blue Jays while driving-in 46 runs. Games at the Rogers Centre felt like home affairs as Judge demolished the Blue Birds with a .294/.467/.765 stat line. It begs the question whether or not MVP was also up for grabs for the Yankees’ right fielder. Judge hit .385/.521/1.115 with 11 home runs and 24 RBI in his last 16 games of the season. He finished behind only Mike Trout in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS while leading the American League in wins above replacement.

     These numbers came in a season when Judge slumped after the All-Star break, where he won the Home Run Derby. There was a 55-game stretch in which he hit .185 and added to his season total of 208 strikeouts. That was the most in the major leagues and 124 more than the eventual AL MVP, Jose Altuve.

     Despite the massive amount of strikeouts, Judge’s on-base percentage never took much of a hit thanks to his 127 walks.  Judge reached base safely 286 times, the second most by a rookie behind only Kevin Seitzer, who did it 289 times with the 1987 Kansas City Royals (Elias Sports Bureau). In other words, he was a proven difference maker on even his worst of days. And that’s all you can ask for from a franchise player.

    Aaron Judge has all but cemented himself as the new face of the New York Yankees. Introducing a “swing for the fences” mentality in a year that saw 4,458 homeruns, the most in history. While he fell short of league MVP, Rookie of the Year was inevitable. And if he keeps playing at the pace he’s at now, there’s plenty more for the Bronx faithful to look forward to.

 

 

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