The Jays are less than a week away from opening their 34th major-league season and never have the city's true-blue baseball fans needed to step up more than now. It was easy to support the '77-'80 teams because major-league baseball was a novelty and Toronto was just happy to be a part of the scene as the city tried to climb out from under the huge international shadow cast by Montreal.
It was easy to support the '85-'88 Jays because they had finally found their identity and the farm system was producing and winning seasons became the norm. Manager Cito Gaston said this spring that the '85 team managed by Bobby Cox may have been better than the World Series winners except for the lack of a true closer. Who can argue?
It was easy to support the '89-'93 teams because of the new stadium and the winning ways. Baseball games became a social event and even non-fans could go and be a part of the "scene". But, since then, following the Great Strike of '94 it's been difficult to be a Jays' fan. The biggest show of good faith by Jays' fans this year will be to support a team that they know is not good now but will be good in two years. The Jays can only continue to inject additional funds and move forward in player acquisition if fans show that they believe in the program as outlined by the new GM. Start to rebuild in 2010, then mold in 2011, then fine tune, then fill in the gaps with free agency, then win again. But buying tickets for a 90-loss team is tough to expect in this economy. It will be interesting.
On to the mailbag.
Q: Good Morning,
With this season said to be Gaston's last as Jays' field manager, how is Jays brain trust handling the process of who will replace him? Is it reasonable they are in a wait and see mode where they will be patient to see how current team meshes together, the young emerge, mature, or, to the negative, regress.
If they, by August, appear ahead of schedule or appear to be near competitive with Sox, Yankees and Rays in division, could they find a more mature tactical manager. Or if they are in transition mode, will they do as Leafs have done and clean house as best as possible of older players who either will not be part of future or middle ground players who have shown their limitations, thus a player-friendly caretaker, educator, player-friendly type put in place for a more extended learning and growing period?
Got to wonder about this current group, those who apparently had such thin skin regarding Gene Tenace etc. Interesting many who have done so little had so much to say in who leads. Who do Jays look to as man (dare I say woman) they will listen to, and accept criticism with?
Thanks, Grant Freeman
A: This is certainly Gaston's last season as manager. As far as the next Jays' manager, there is no hurry in pinpointing the man, although in the ongoing process, GM Alex Anthopoulos is keeping a loose list of candidates on a personal, secret list. I hate always to keep referring to the Tigers between '03 and '06 when they went from 119 losses to the World Series, but for instance the Tigers let Alan Trammell manage through 2005 and then GM Dave Dombrowski went out and recruited his long-time ideal manager Jim Leyland when it was time to win. What that says is that the 2011 manager does not need to be the man that eventually leads them back to the playoffs.
Anthopoulos has insisted that he will not be lured by the Siren's Song of contention at the end of July to make any stupid short-term moves that detour from the master plan – and that includes changing managers. There are other reasons he might consider a managerial in-season change, but contending is not one of them. As for players that are not part of the future, it matters not whether they are young or old, they will be gone by 2011.
Yes, we have to wonder about this current group that put up such a brave front on the Friday in Baltimore last October about not being sure whether they could continue to move forward if Cito stayed on, then as soon as Paul Beeston called the leaders together and stared them down asking for clarity and Cito asked the leaders of the mutiny to declare themselves there was dead silence and back-tracking in the room. So this became a media concoction? Not! This revolt was led by a group of mumblers, embarrassed by their own losing record, not even endowed with batting practice balls.
Q: Richard, how are Brett Cecil and Marc Rzepczynski doing this spring? They pitched a fair amount last year but there hasn't been much talk about them. Are they due to be sent to Las Vegas or can we rely on them if Brandon Morrow, Dustin McGowan and even Shaun Marcum don't work out this year?
Bruce Hutchison, Winnipeg
A: Cecil and Rzepczynski are running on parallel career courses. They were both shut down at the same point last September and both took private lessons at the major-league level that final month from then-pitching coach Brad Arnsberg on the art of throwing the changeup. Of the two, heading into the spring, Zep had a leg up because of a series of solid late-season starts that had impressed his manager. That being said, even though Cecil is likely headed for Vegas, he has been like a Phoenix rising from the ashes of his disappointing mixed-bag of first impressions last season. In 2009, his conditioning was in question. His pitch selection was in question. The depth of his repertoire was in question. But in the second half of this spring, after new pitching coach Bruce Walton stripped him down to bare essential for a couple of starts – fastball, change – then built him back up, his confidence and performance have soared. In the last part of the question, if Morrow and Marcum stumble (McGowan is out of the picture), by the time Cecil and Zep can step in to move up to 3-4 in the rotation, it will be far too late. Marcum is the key.
Q: Hi Richard,
You have projected that Aaron Hill will hit around 20HRs this year. ESPN also projected 25 HRs. Are there any particular reasons for declining power drastically from one year to other? Why can't he hit 28 to 32 HRs this year? In spring training, he is swinging the bats same way like last year. I also want your opinion on McCoy. Is it possible that Jays trade Alex Gonzales before or during the regular season? McCoy could be our SS, leadoff hitter and he runs well.
Nesan Thambi, Toronto
A: It's not really a case of declining power. Hill will have the same power, but may have a different selection of pitches to hit with fewer runners on base in the absence of Marco Scutaro and a bottom of the order that may not provide the ducks on the pond. Hill's comeback from the 2008 concussion that could have ended his career was really astounding. There is a chance as you suggest that he does hit 28-32 homers and that is if Adam Lind and Vernon Wells are hitting so well themselves that pitchers throw Hill fastballs in fastball counts with nobody on base (Scutaro gone) so as not to walk him or if the Jays are always behind by four-plus runs and pitchers always just want to challenge.
As for McCoy at shortstop, I would not be opposed at some point to giving McCoy a chance at shortstop because the rest of the team is slower than an all-Molina 3x100 relay team. You don't even need to trade Gonzalez for that to happen. A-Gon is on a one-year deal and with no commitment beyond 2010 and in a rebuilding mode who cares how he feels about it. To paraphrase Bogie in Casablanca, "We'll always have Johnny Mac."
Q: Hi Richard,
I love your column, thank you for providing your honest opinions and insights on the Toronto Blue Jays. I hope Florida is treating you well. As a long-time Blue Jays fan, I am concerned about attendance at Rogers Centre this year. The numbers looked very bad at the end of last year (I believe a single game attendance record, or lack there of, was set last season). Have you heard of any rumblings from the Blue Jays brass on their attendance expectations? And, if they are forecasting low figures, are there any incentives the Blue Jays organization is looking to offset this? Thanks, look forward to following you throughout this season!
Joe Bassage, Niagara Falls
A: You think you're concerned about attendance at the Rogers Centre this year? You should work at the Rogers Centre. The biggest positive about last year's cliff-diving late-season attendance was that under Paul Beeston, the actual ticket revenue was up from the previous two seasons because he stopped the practice of throwing tickets in the air and counting them as attendance if they hit the ground.
As for an estimate for 2010 it's hard to say because the team's competitiveness will determine a lot of that once August rolls around. There are 81 home dates, so if they average 20,000 per game then that comes out to 1.62 million. Not great, but it may be realistic. The one positive they have going for them is that they have 18 or 19 home games against the Red Sox and Yankees and will average about 35,000 for those games. Thank God they are in the AL East. Oh, sorry that's not the way they think about it. They'd rather have the Royals and Twins for those extra home dates. I forgot.
This is tongue-in-cheek, but the incentive the Jays seemingly have come up with to combat falling attendance is to jack ticket prices in the upper deck to $14 and take away more of the special dates that used to lure the casual fan with limited entertainment dollars to spend. Hey, let's see, those Ti-Cat home games are looking more appealing once July rolls around.
Q: Richard, what is holding up the Hechavarria deal? Is there any chance that it will never happen?
Ken Henry, Waterloo
A: It seems Adeinis "The Rifle" Hechavarria has been on hold longer than a Bernie Madoff client looking for an annual update. The Cuban Shortstop Crisis for the Jays is midway through its third week since the Yankees leaked the info that they had lost out to the Blue Jays in the hunt for a Red for October to eventually replace Derek Jeter. There has never been an announcement or even a confirmation from the Jays, but the belief is that even though the US government had cleared ML teams to sign the Cuban defector, that the Canadian government bring new issues to the equation that may not have been anticipated. This could no longer be about a physical for Hechavarria. There is really no rush for the Jays since at best, the kid would start at Double-A and work from there. Maybe Manchester, New Hampshire in April does not appeal to him.
Q: If Lyle Overbay has a good season, do you see the Jays trading him at or before the the trade deadline for prospects, considering that Brett Wallace will be the future 1B?
Thanks, Ricky B, Markham
A: Overbay is a pretty consistent player when healthy, a doubles machine, so there is no reason to believe that at the trade deadline there will not be a contending team that could use him. By July 31, the Jays are hoping Wallace will be ready for prime-time. If not, they would likely still try and trade Overbay for a future prospect and make do at first base with maybe even a Wallace/Randy Ruiz platoon. In any case, Overbay will not be here in 2011, therefore they will make every effort at the deadline to get the equivalent of whatever compensation he will be eligible for as a free agent – Type A or B. If he stays with the Jays and they bench him in favour of Wallace, it hurts his chances of being compensation-worthy and works against their own interests. Catch-35.
Q: Hi Richard,
Do you think there's any chance that MLB will ever locate another franchise in Canada (preferably NL so we'd have the possibility of a Canada-only World Series)? And if there is ever another Canadian MLB franchise, would it go back to Montreal or is another city likely to be a better market?
Richard Avery, North York
A: As long as there are other cities in the US seeking a major-league franchises, the odds are against Canada getting another MLB team. Vancouver? Too close to Seattle. Calgary? Too cold, too far. Edmonton, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Halifax? Too small. Montreal? The only real option, but baseball would have to admit it assisted in the Expos' demise and there would have to be a ti-gar de chez nous billionaire step up which has not happened.