As the season winds down, the biggest concern for mailbag readers seems to be the future of A.J. Burnett and his opt-out clause with two years left on his five-year contract. According to his agent, this is a unique deal in the history of baseball for any pitcher to have an opt-out like this. Given his agent’s obvious pride in the Burnett contract, it would be hard to see them not going the distance and using the clause to either gain a lucrative extension with the Jays or a brand new five-year deal elsewhere. Other questions in the bag concern the future of the pitching staff, the good young prospects and the team’s MVP. To the mailbag.
Q: Hi Richard. I think you make some very astute criticisms of J.P. Ricciardi and I agree that it is time for a change. However, I believe I could go through a number of your mailbags from last year where you opined that there was no way that A.J. Burnett would opt out of his contract. Obviously you now realize that barring last-minute (Tommy John) surgery, he is going to opt-out. Don't you think this proves that the A.J. signing was a good risk to take? While I would not re-sign him, it was a far better risk to sign him as opposed to guys like (Kevin) Millwood and (Jarrod) Washburn (neither of which would get 15 million a year on the open market/win 20 games this year or in the future). At the least, I am glad we have a GM that pays for future performance (Burnett) as opposed to past performance (Barry Zito).
Yoshi Ahma, Richmond, B.C.
A: The fact of the matter is that if Burnett had spit the bit again this year and had posted another 10-8 season, he would never have left $24 million on the table for the final two years, because nobody would have matched that in free agency for a 32-year-old that had never won more than 12 games in any season. The key to changing the perspective on Burnett’s immediate future with the opt-out was when Gil Meche and Ted Lilly signed over-inflated contracts with the Royals and Cubs respectively. But to say that the increased market for mediocre pitchers proves that Ricciardi was right is wrong. The Burnett contract for the Jays of $55 million for five years was the actual deal that forever raised the bar on mediocrity. It’s like paying Pam Anderson the same money as Meryl Streep for starring in your next Sophie’s Choice because Pam seems to have more obviously electric stuff and you’re hoping she might actually learn how to act in the meantime. The logic is flawed. It would be great to pay for future performance if in fact you got the future performance every year. But for $30 million of A.J. in 2006-08, the Jays have received 36 victories with seven starts remaining and 16 of those were when he knew there was a pot of gold waiting at the end of a 20-win rainbow.
Q: Hi Richard,
Maybe you can explain this one to me. In the past couple weeks, I've been hearing all of this talk about A.J. Burnett's "career year", which will possibly lead him to opt out of his contract at year's end. Remembering that his ERA was well over 5.00 just a month ago, I double-checked his stats.
Sure enough, this season's ERA is more than half a run higher than his career ERA and his WHIP is also much higher than normal. His strikeout numbers are good, but they're only slightly better than his career K/9 (innings) ratio, and are actually lower than last year's K/9 numbers. In fact, his win-loss record and games started numbers are the only numbers that are noticeably better than what he's put up over the last 5 years. In contrast, Halladay's ERA, WHIP, and K/9 are shaping up to be the best he's ever compiled in a year where he's thrown at least 150 innings. But where's the love for his "career year"?
My question is this: when was it decided that a context-specific stat like wins is the determining factor in declaring a "career year", especially when Burnett's ERA and WHIP seem to suggest it's actually his worst? Or is it maybe that the "career year" stat is the number that we don't see - namely, A.J.'s usual 5-10 games lost to injury?
Neil Shyminsky, Toronto
A: The reason that this is a career year for Burnett is that baseball is a team sport and the team goal is victories. Major League Baseball is not Fantasy Baseball where every ERA, WHIP, VORP or DORK stands on its own. No matter which way you slice it, Burnett has been more valuable to the Jays this year than in either of his previous two seasons in Blue Jays black. In his best 22 starts this year, A.J. is 15-4 with a 2.97 ERA, while in his less than magnificent seven outings, he is 1-5, with a 10.30 ERA. In all of those seven starts, Burnett has allowed between 5-8 earned runs, while averaging 5-2/3 innings. To dismiss wins as a “context specific” stat is silly in a team sport that by definition is a “context specific” sport.
Q: Hi Richard,
Is it just me or is Gaston really treating Burnett like a hired gun during these dog days in August? Routinely, AJ is throwing 120 pitches plus per outing, while Marcum rarely gets over 100 pitches. Are the Jays so sure of AJ opting out this coming off-season? It will be really bad for the Jays if Burnett blows out his shoulder in his last start of the season and AJ stays for two more injury-riddled years. I remembered Ken Rosenthal saying something that teams will stay away from trading for Burnett fearing that he may decide NOT to opt out of his deal. Which team do you think is in the market for Burnett this off-season? Will he be able to get another Barry Zito-like deal?
James Ho, Vancouver
A: It’s funny how the national U.S. media guys get all the credit. If Rosenthal used the line about teams fearing A.J. might NOT opt out of his deal, then he got that out of one of my mailbags or a column. Life comes full circle. As for your question, I can’t believe that we are in a discussion about whether the Jays are abusing A.J. arm. Here’s a guy that averaged a mere 23 starts in his first two years with the team and is finally healthy enough to be taking his regular turn all the way through a season and we’re worried about him throwing 120 pitches.
I think the Yankees, Mets, Cardinals, Orioles, Dodgers and whatever team ends up with Brad Arnsberg if he decides to leave the Jays are candidates to land Burnett. I think Burnett would settle for a nice five-year deal, averaging $15-18 million, which would take him through age 37 and into retirement.
Q: Hi Richard,
Thanks for the mailbag. It's always an enjoyable read. As the Jays run out of time in 2008 and the off-season looms, fans can at least get excited about the state of the team's pitching. They already have MLB's best bullpen, and the young starters hold promise.
My question: with the return of guys like (Casey) Janssen, (Jeremy) Accardo and (Brandon) League into the fold, the potential re-invention of (Jesse) Litsch, and Brian Wolfe's apparent transition to starting, who do you envision making up the team's 2009 starting five and bullpen. Which pitchers won't be in Jays uniforms next season, and how much stock do these players hold as off-season trade bait?
Neil F., Toronto
A: How about a seven-man list of rotation candidates at spring training ’09 of Halladay, Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan, Litsch, Brett Cecil, David Purcey and Janssen. Take five of those. McGowan and Janssen are returning from injuries and may not be ready for the start of the year. Burnett will likely be gone.
The bullpen would be built around B.J. Ryan, Scott Downs and Brandon League. Jesse Carlson would seem to be useful as a third lefty in middle relief, while Shawn Camp could be serviceable from the right side. Likely departures include Brian Tallet and Jason Frasor. Accardo will be returning from injury and could be doubtful for the start of the year. They always sign an off-season minor-league free agent or two that always step up as spring training candidates. Scott Richmond is unlikely and Brian Wolfe will probably start at Triple-A. If I was the Jays’ GM, I would trade in the off-season for a solid, young No. 3 starter giving up prospects.
Q: Hi Richard,
If at the end of the season or even before that J.P does get fired and Cito (which has been mentioned as a possible candidate) is offered a choice of either GM or remaining as manager, which do you think he would choose? I think he enjoys the daily interaction and the proximity with players more, so I think he would choose to stay as manager, but what do you think (or has he said anything either way)? Also, how much say does Cito have in player movements to and from the minors. For example, who felt that Litsch should be recalled? Cito, J.P or a combination of the two?
V. H., Markham
A: Gaston would be solid as a GM, willing to listen to his advisors, nurturing good relationships with other teams and making decisions based on baseball skills. But if he was given the choice, having waited 11 years to get back in the dugout as a manager, I believe he would opt to continue on as skipper.
In the current situation, Gaston is asked his opinion in passing about players being called up or sent down, but the actual decision is 100-percent Ricciardi. The bigger question is “who felt Litsch or Marcum should be sent down?” I don’t believe the advice of the coaching staff was considered in either case.
Q: Hello Richard,
With all the talk of that soccer team in Toronto getting a grass field, what are the chances of the Jays ever playing on natural grass at the Dome? Whoops, I mean Rogers Centre.
Ray Y., Toronto
A: As long as the Argos and Bills are going to be playing at the Dome, then the chances of getting natural grass are slim. I do wish that instead of the cutouts for the bases, they would put in a full dirt infield like they have indoors in Tampa. I think that would improve the optics of the Jays’ stadium and the game. The technology is there for growing grass indoors, especially with a retractable dome, but the constant conversion of the surface between baseball, football and whatever other events are inside make the possibility of a grass field remote.
Q: Hello Richard,
Your insight and knowledge of the game is unparalleled, so I wanted your thoughts on who you think is the Jays MVP this year? Since his call-up, my vote would be for Adam Lind, but on a whole, I think it would have to be Marco Scutaro.
Terry Lowe, Mississauga
A: That is an interesting question. My top five for team MVP would be 1-Halladay; 2-Scutaro; 3-Downs; 4-Rios; 5-Wells. If you’re just going with position players then Scutaro would have to be the man. That’s a sad commentary on the Jays’ offensive season. Lind has been an important piece of the turnaround under Gaston, but he has not been there long enough to be considered for team MVP.
Q: Prospects Time! Can you give me some realistic timelines for the following Jays prospects: Brett Cecil, JP Arencibia, Kevin Ahrens, Travis Snider, Ricky Romero and the immortal Chip Cannon.
Jason Sinnarajah, San Francisco
A: Those are pretty much the prospects to be asking about. I can see both Cecil and Arencibia opening the ’09 season in the majors. Cecil is pitching well at Triple-A and has advanced through three levels this year. Arencibia has over 100 RBIs in the minors this year and if Rod Barajas was still on board next year, he could mentor the younger man until he was ready to take over the position full-time. Snider is on a collision course with the majors sometime during the ’09 season but not Opening Day. Romero could come up in an injury situation in ’09 but is more likely in 2010. The third baseman, Ahrens needs a lot more work and could be three years down the road. We’re not sure whether Chip Cannon will ever make it, even though he has the name.
Q: Hi, I'm a long time baseball fan and have a quick question about the one of the rules. I saw an example of this the other day. A runner is on second and no one is on first the ball is popped up right over second base who has the right of way? If the runner moves he will presumably be tagged out and the fielder can't push the runner out of the way to catch the ball. I tried to find it in the fielding rules but the closest I found was the part about fielder interference but I didn't see anything directly on point. Any ideas?
Jamie Grant, Barrie, Ont.
A: If a runner is standing on a base, he can never be called out for interference unless it is for an action with his arms, reaching out and intentionally making the play more difficult for the fielder. But the base belongs to the runner and a fielder making a catch on a popup has to work around it. If the runner had headed for third and was returning to the base and the fielder was standing on the base looking up for the catch, it is up to the runner to avoid contact by sliding or otherwise finding an open corner of the bag to connect with.
Q: Hi Richard,
I have to say that I'm puzzled by the trade for Jose Bautista. Jays seem to be stockpiling middling infielders, sort of like they did with left fielders earlier in the year. Reminds me of when I was a kid and we collected baseball or hockey cards and we kept a few extra for trading - but if I recall the traders had to be good cards and something that someone else wanted.
Don't get me wrong, I really like Scutaro and (Joe) Inglett, and they make a great super-sub combo to back up (Aaron) Hill and (John) McDonald next year, but unless they are resigned to being without (Scott) Rolen for a very long time, why make this trade? You can sign me 'still fuming about Johnson'.
Brian Willis, Vancouver
A: Ricciardi does seem to fall in love with one position and continues to load up there. The Bautista trade with the Pirates for catcher Robinson Diaz does seem to indicate that the Jays are very worried about Rolen’s return for the start of the ’09 season. There are no third base prospects on the immediate horizon in the minors.
The key to next season is Aaron Hill returning as an effective player. If Rolen can’t return, it will be a financial disaster for the Jays, with $22 million still committed to Rolen over the final two years of his deal. An ’09 infield of Overbay, Inglett, Bautista and McDonald does not seem to be a championship lineup. But, with Rolen, Hill and an outfield of Wells, Rios and Lind all doing what they can do, the Jays could compete offensively and defensively. Bauista is not a frontline player for a contending team.
I have found the Jays to be a much more exciting team to watch since Cito Gaston has taken over, and the Jays record since his hiring has supported this. However, there are still people out there who feel that Cito is not the best tactical in-game manager around, with his strengths being off the field in nurturing his players (Adam Lind, etc.). With this in mind, do you think that Cito's decision not to pinch-run for Matt Stairs after his walk on Sunday afternoon (Aug. 24) was a strategic error in undoubtedly the biggest game of the season for the Jays? It was the 7th inning, and a 2-run lead with Burnett on the mound and (Scott) Downs/(B.J.) Ryan ready would have been optimal. (David) Eckstein was available to run, and Bautista would have still been available to pinch-hit when Eckstein's spot came up later in the game. I realize that Stairs was not the go-ahead run, but when playing against the Red Sox you can never have too much insurance, and in the biggest game of the year it should be played as such.
Lars Glemser, Calgary, Alberta
A: The mistake that saw Stairs thrown out at the plate to end the seventh inning vs. the Red Sox was not made by Gaston in not pinch-running for him. The mistake was by third-base coach Nick Leyva.
As the Barajas double bounced off the stands down the third-base line and out into medium left field, Stairs was approaching third base, but Leyva was not giving any signals. As Stairs approached the base with the brakes starting to kick in, Leyva began furiously waving his runner. Stairs tried to turn it back on again but had lost his full speed. The throw from left missed the first cutoff man and was fielded on a tough hop by the third baseman who turned and fired a high throw to Jason Varitek. It looked like Stairs' slide beat the tag, but it doesn’t matter. He was out because the ball arrived first and he was out because Leyva didn’t wave him all the way. That should never have been a situation where Gaston pinch-ran for Stairs. As you pointed out, the go-ahead run was at second base. You never want to reach extra innings with a depleted bench because you pinch-ran for a guy in the seventh.
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