Blue Jays mail bag
I’m fired up about this baseball season. Today the postman only had to ring once. The AL East is proving to be as competitive as predicted, but how about those O’s. Who’d a thunk? Thus far, the pitchers the Jays seem to have the most trouble with are guys they’ve never seen before. That’s been the case forever. Concerns? How about the Big Hurt after his fast start and Jeremy Accardo? And don’t forget A.J. Burnett. Not surprising, readers seem to have those same thoughts. On to the mail bag.
Q: Who will it be next year as (Jays’) DH? Carlos Delgado, or Big Frank (Thomas)?
Bert Wilson, Georgetown, Ont.
A: It’s an interesting thought having Delgado back in a Jays uniform to end his career, but I think that window has been closed. If Carlos returned, this would no longer be his team, his clubhouse. That was part of his worth to the club. But watching him struggle with his health and his at-bats with the Mets makes you believe he doesn’t have much left in the tank.
As for the Big Hurt’s chances to be next year’s DH, every game, every at-bat brings him closer to a $10 million guaranteed contract for 2009, which would ensure that he would at least start next season as the DH. That may not be exactly what the Jays want or need at this point, but Thomas needed only 376 plate appearances heading into the season to have ’09 become guaranteed. The only option to clear him out would be to dangle his ’09 contract and pay about half of it to have him play elsewhere. But who would that be?
By next year, the Jays should be of a mindset that they would prefer to use DH as a resting spot for players like Matt Stairs, Scott Rolen, Adam Lind or Travis Snider when they are not playing the field. Remember how well it worked in ’05 with Shea Hillenbrand, Eric Hinske, Frank Catalanotto and others.
Q: My question is one regarding the third base situation in Toronto right now. Marco Scutaro has been seeing most of the time at third. I thought the reason that they were starting him over John McDonald was due to his better bat. His bat hasn't been anything special as of late, or all season, so the Jays let Joe Inglett start against Texas. My question is: Who? Joe Inglett? Have the Jays lost complete faith in John McDonald? It seems they'll trade spectacular defence and a fan favourite for ... Joe Inglett. Could you help explain the Jays decision to me?
Chris Poss, Brantford
A: When Scott Rolen was injured at spring training, the Jays hoped that Scutaro could fill the role for a month and play with the same effectiveness that he always gives you when he gets a spot start or two or, at the most, three games in a row. Scutaro is not an everyday player and has proved it in April as his offensive output and defensive focus have dropped off the more he plays. Recall the ill-advised spin and throw past Gregg Zaun that allowed the go-ahead run to score vs. the A’s. Inglett, a left-handed bat, was brought up to bridge the gap between Scutaro’s falloff and Rolen’s return.
But I agree with you about the options. If John McDonald can save you runs as a defender at third base and the difference in terms of offensive production is not dramatic, then why not Johnny Mac. Indeed, but it lessens the sting for McDonald that he is locked in to a two-year, $3.8 million deal. Sure it’s a long season, but Joe Inglett? Yikes! You’re right.
Q: Hi Richard,
I read your Mail Bag every week and it helps me get insight into my beloved Jays from a distance. You bring up a valid point about Johnny Mac as a “personal” infielder for Doc. I have two questions about it. Have you put it to Gibby or J.P. and what was their response? Also since Eckstein is signed only for a year and J. Mac for two and your correct assessment of, it is now or never for management. Might we see Johnny full time next year?
Richard Armstrong, Little Rock, AR
A: At spring training, I asked John Gibbons about Halladay as a personal shortstop in Roy Halladay starts and also as a late-inning defensive replacement for Eckstein. The answers were “No” and “No”. But after Doc was somewhat betrayed by his defence on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, the second time he started, at home against Boston, voila, Johnny Mac made his season debut at short. Coincidence? I think not. However, Doc’s last start in Texas saw Eckstein back at short with good results. The problem becomes who to bat at the top of the order if Eckstein is not there.
As for next season, the Jays in ’08 offered Eckstein the best opportunity to re-establish his career at short with a one-year deal. Many other teams in the off-season saw him as a second baseman, but he was not prepared to make that move so he took the Jays’ one-year offer. If he has a good year, the Jays may be prepared to make a competitive offer for two more years and Eckstein may not want to go through the process again.
As for McDonald’s chances of being the Jays’ starter in ’09, I think they are slim to none. The crop of free agent shortstops available in ’09 includes Orlando Cabrera, Rafael Furcal and Edgar Renteria, plus potentially six or seven others. That’s a tough market for Eckstein to enter and the Jays obviously don’t value defence as much as others do.
Q: Hey Richard,
1) It's great that Big Frank had a good first week, but I've truly never been a fan. He's slow on the basepaths and his bat speed can be measured in days. With his early struggles at the plate aside from a couple clutch hits against the Red Sox, why don't we get (Matt) Stairs a couple games in at DH? He has a much better OBP and would add another left handed bat to a right-heavy lineup.
2) It seems as though the early struggles of (Jeremy) Accardo and (A.J.) Burnett are due to being too predictable. Accardo can get away with it more often than not due to his role as a closer, but he only throws his fastball to one side of the plate. But Burnett relies so heavily on his two pitches that hitters can just sit on the fastball or the two strike curve. Why doesn't someone point him to the progress McGowan is having with a plus slider and mixing in a changeup? With just two pitches, can he ever live up to his 'potential'?
3) What's the over/under on months before (Brian) Tallet throws his arm out? With the way Gibbons is riding him, I say late July. Doesn't (Brad) Arnsberg have a say on how often pitchers are used? Tallet seems almost destined to join (Casey) Janssen before the end of the year.
Wayne L., Richmond Hill
A: One of the things I don’t understand about the Jays’ use of the Big Hurt as the everyday DH is Gibbons continuing to bat him in the five-hole ahead of Lyle Overbay. There was a situation in Texas with first base open where the Rangers basically pitched around Vernon Wells to get to Thomas. With a left-handed bat behind the centre fielder they might not have been so anxious to do that. But I think if they started to platoon him with Matt Stairs, that they would have a very grumpy Hurt on their hands, what with a vested option on the immediate horizon based on plate appearances.
Point two is a valid one. Accardo for some reason had abandoned, or virtually abandoned, his splitter, the judicious use of which made him so effective last season. In addition, his balance during delivery has been off and his pitches are up and hittable. As for A.J., obviously his career has been defined by his electric curveball. When it is not working for strikes, he looks bad because hitters sit on his fastball. That’s why it was so promising this spring when he was working on an effective changeup as a third pitch after losing his fingernail and not being able to grip the curve in his funky, one-finger-up-with-the-nail-in-the-ball manner. But Burnett is a career lunkhead as proved by his maxing out at 12 wins in his best season. Burnett is the Jeff George of baseball. This guy should have been chasing 20 wins at least a couple of times, but hasn’t. You can lead this horse to water (McGowan’s success) but you can’t make him think.
The third point regarding Tallet’s wall is a tough one to make a judgment on at this point in the season. If you asked Tallet, he would likely tell you he’s not pitching enough. The big issue I have with Gibby’s handling of his bullpen is that even though the Jays insist on carrying 12 pitchers, when it comes to crunch time even back-to-back-to-back they always use the same three or four guys. Why not carry 11 pitchers and en extra player (Buck Coats), plus the extra infielder?
Q: I've been watching the last few games with a buddy of mine and we ended up getting into a fairly lengthy debate about left-handed pitchers. We couldn't come to a decisive conclusion, so figured this would be the best place to go.
They say that the quickest way to get into the big leagues is to be a left-handed pitcher. Now, we all know there is no such thing as an 'easy way' to get into majors but hypothetically speaking: If a left-handed person had a decent arm and was fairly athletic but didn't start pitching until they were around 25 years old, do they have a shot at making it pro (assuming they have the work ethic and a bit of potential) or is age too much of a factor for the development process of pitchers? What is a reasonable age for pitchers to start pitching if they had the potential to play for a professional team?
A. Patel, Toronto
A: I believe you have slightly misquoted the old baseball philosopher. I believe the truism is that the best way to “remain” in the majors is to be a left-handed pitcher. It’s not necessarily the “quickest” way to get there. Just ask Chris Michalak or David Purcey or Brian Tallet, a guy who didn’t log as many as 20 innings in the majors until last year with the Jays at the age of 27.
You surely have to be as talented as a right-hander to make it to the majors, but once you have your foot in the door, that’s when a smart lefty (or is that an oxymoron?) can capitalize.
The “left-handed specialist” - the guy that can come in against the league’s best southpaw swingers and make them look bad - that’s the role that will keep you in the majors for a long, long, long time. Scott Downs has made himself into one of those after being a failed starter. Now he’s making $10 million over three years and building a gaudy mansion in Kentucky.
The baseball boulevard is littered with that type of cagey lefty with longevity and a nice pension – Dan Plesac, Jesse Orosco, John Franco, Arthur Rhodes, Darren Oliver, Bob McClure. I remember playing poker on a team charter with McClure back in the late ‘80s and him bragging that he had not thrown a strike in a month and yet was getting people out. He had a big sweeping curveball he used vs. lefties that always ended up in the dirt but had them swinging. His other pitch was something highly illegal he didn’t want to talk about. Yes, Mac had originally made it to the majors the old fashioned way, but once he got there – which is back to your point – he figured out that there was money to be made and pension time to be earned by just learning to do one thing. Get left-handed hitters out. Those are the guys that can hang around forever.
Enjoy reading your column. In Thursday night's game, in the sixth inning, Jays were down 1-0 and started the inning with Scutaro and Eckstein getting on 1st and 2nd. Shannon Stewart proceeds to pop up to the pitcher and then (Alex) Rios flies out to centre field. Why is Stewart not bunting? Sometimes I don't understand why Gibbons is not bunting in certain situations. The Rios out might have been a sac fly to tie the game.
Damian W., Calgary
A: Actually, I’ll have to disagree on this one. First, I’m absolutely giddy about the small-ball the Jays have been playing. With Brian Butterfield as the bench coach, someone that Gibbons likes and trusts, the Jays have been stealing and bunting and moving on the pitch more than in recent years. If they chose not to bunt with Stewart, it was because they already had the tying run in scoring position and wanted three shots at the RBI with the heart of the order coming up. Just because Rios flied to centre with a runner on second doesn’t mean the pitch sequence would have been the same if Scutaro had been on third.
Gibby in ’07 had 43 sacrifice attempts – not successful bunts, just attempts. That’s a crazy-low figure over 162 games, in fact the lowest in the majors. It seems this year, he’s already way ahead of that pace. Sometimes you just have to let the bats win a game for you.
By and large, I’ve loved their offensive, in-game strategy this year.
Q: I’m really interested at the prospect of adding Armando Benitez to our bullpen. Reports I read out of spring training indicated he had electric stuff, and his minor league appearances seem to be successful so far. Can we make room for Benitez? Is he an option?
Denis Landry, Sudbury, Ont.
A: Benitez will never pitch an inning for the Jays. When J.P. signed him at spring training it was for insurance purposes only, but that was like buying flood insurance for your tent in the Sahara – pretty much unnecessary.
Recently, the 35-year-old Benitez tweaked a hamstring covering first base for the Chiefs and needed a few days off.
There is a drop-dead date in May arranged by Ricciardi that he can just walk away from AAA-Syracuse if he’s not in the majors. That day will come. The Jays have younger, healthier, more talented options on the bullpen depth chart – their strongest area. The Jays gave Armando a chance to showcase his talents for others as much as for them. He may hook up with another team. Of course, I’ve been wrong before and may very well be again.
Q: Hi Richard,
I have a baseball 101 question. How many pitches does a reliever typically throw in the bullpen before they come into the game?
Ray Young, Toronto
A: It all depends on the pitcher. There are some veteran relievers that can crank it up and be ready in a dozen pitches, while others that are swing men or were former starters may need a full 25-30 pitches to get loose. It’s a personal thing, but if things don’t go very well when they get into the game, a lot of guys will tell you they didn’t warm up enough. Baseball is a game where, as a pitcher, if you don’t have an excuse for failure, if you don’t have a reason why a hitter was able to drive your best fastball into the third row of the bleachers then it may be over for you.
Click here to send Richard a question, and he'll answer a selection in his mailbag Wednesdays in this space.