On Tuesday night, the retiring Star columnist Dave Perkins asked if he could cover one more Blue Jays game before stepping aside, leaving the paper at the end of the month. Dave was the Star's baseball columnist back in the glory years and still knows more about the Jays, their great traditions and dirty laundry than I ever will. I gladly stepped aside for the night, deferring to my friend, because I owe a lot to Dave. It was Perkins as sports editor of The Star in 1994 during the baseball strike who called me in Montreal at my Expos' PR desk and asked me to recommend someone to replace himself as the Star's baseball columnist. He had just stepped up to become sports editor, a role he left after a few years, anxious to get back to opinionating, at which he was the best. I named three potential writers for him and quietly suggested, “And what about me.” Many writers had gone to PR roles and snoozed their way through their later years, but nobody had gone from MLB PR to a major newspaper as a columnist. Dave was willing to put his rep on the line with his bosses and take a chance with precedence. I wrote a couple of mock columns on Expos games, eventually went down to the Rogers Centre (then the SkyDome) for lunch with Dave and John Honderich and was later hired, beginning my career in February 1995 with baseball still in its strike mode. I wasn't very good early on, trying to be too glib, too funny, too outrageous, but he didn't fire me, for which I remain grateful. Anyway, like I said, I owe a lot to Dave and wish him all the best in his future endeavours – which I am sure will still include a lot of his rough-edged, acerbic, brilliantly outrageous opinions ... only not for this newspaper. The Star will miss him.
Q: Hi Richard,
The BJ's never cease to cause me to scratch my head. In my opinion they have a pretty decent lineup and the addition of Yunel Escobar makes it even better, I think. When does a baseball team stop or reduce rebuilding and concentrate on developing a team and really see what you have? I know good teams are always tinkering and trying to improve but maybe sitting back and letting a team evolve may give you a more truer and accurate opinion. I like the Jays and their future but with constant rebuilding they may rebulid themselves out of a good opportunity. Didn't the Jays of championship years have a pretty static line up? Thanks for your insight.
Brian Runciman, Oakville
A: I agree with you on the basic building belief that at a certain point as a sports team you have to stop calling it rebuilding and actually go for the gold. I think Alex Anthopoulos also believes that. But the problem with the previous GM and his regime was that he was impatient to the point that he never allowed his team the time to build and give an accurate picture of where they actually stood before adding pricey pieces and taking a run at the Yankees and Red Sox. It meant he would take the 86 wins in 2003 and turn it into 67 Ws in 2004. He would take the 87 wins in 2006 and turn it into 83 Ws in 2007. He would take the 86 wins in 2008 and turn it into 75 and into being fired with a year remaining on his contract in 2009. More than team-building, J.P. Ricciardi's eight-year reign seemed more about legacy building. His own contract became more important than any season-ticket holder's contract.
The basic art of rebuilding in baseball is to take players from a strong farm system, let them develop, find out who the real players and pitchers are, then when you are really ready to compete, go out and sign any missing pieces you were not able to produce yourself. The Jays behind the scenes right now in 2010 are deciding, for example, which 5-8 starting pitchers they want in the rotation or on the roster in 2012. The others become inventory. They are deciding whether Escobar is the man at shortstop in 2012. Whether Fred Lewis and Jose Bautista are going to be part of it when they make a run. All those decisions are being made internally while Cito Gaston, who will not be a part of it in the dugout when the time comes to compete, grinds out 162 games of audition.
Q: Hi Richard:
Great to see the Hawk inducted into the Hall. You were the Expos PR man for 18 years and left the team to come to Toronto. I read the book, My Turn at Bat and am confused. Did the partners really destroy the club by not putting in the money, was Loria planted there to shift the club and is Brochu really the villain here? Stephanie Myles is a great writer, so I tend to believe what I read is true and that she wouldn't put here name to this book if it was fabricated. What's your take on this, or are you not able to talk about this subject. I sure miss going up for games in Montreal, the last one was hard to take.
Marty Greenberg, Toronto
A: One of the best owners in baseball at the time, Charles Bronfman was disillusioned with the impersonal, money-grubbing, owners vs. players direction that the game was headed. It was not fun for him anymore. He wanted out. He asked Claude Brochu to find local ownership that would not move the team. After all he was an Order of Canada holder and was a true patriot who could have made far more selling to the highest bidder. Brochu struggled to find interest, but rounded up a consortium of which he was the general partner, despite having none of his own money in the mix. He was given 10 per cent. Brochu knew he was in a no-lose situation. So he played hardball with the provincial government for a new stadium threatening that if he didn't get it they might be forced to move – in which case he knew he could cash in big time. If they got the new stadium, he stood to cash in again. The problem was in operating the team that cash calls for more operating capital were tough because he would always have to pony up 10 per cent and he didn't really have it. His choices were a) stay in Montreal with the freshness of a new downtown stade, or, b) sell to the highest U.S. bidder. Unfortunately some of his partners were not aware of his hard-line inner stance of baseball pragmatism. When they figured it out they forced him out and he made some money in the buyout but not as much as he would have under the other scenarios. Jeffrey Loria became MLB's hand-picked man because they were going to use the Expos to get him in the door of the ownership fraternity, then flip his ownership to the Marlins and transfer John Henry's ownership from the Marlins to the Red Sox. It was an insidious three-way that only served to screw only one group — Montreal's fans. Baseball's original plan was to contract the Expos as the flipping flips took place. That's evil. But when contraction fell through, they were forced to follow through with their commitments to Loria and Henry and to have MLB reluctantly and arrogantly take over the Expos, which was a disaster of the “we don't give a rat's ass about Montreal fans” proportions. MLB finally killed two birds with one stone when they shifted the Expos to Washington D.C. claiming that Expos fans didn't care anymore. The politicians had been lobbying hard for a franchise and baseball had to protect against any close scrutiny by irate congressmen and senators. As for Expos' fans, it's hard to care for a team and go to games when MLB takes your tricolour hat, craps in it and tells you to wear it proudly. That's the Reader's Digest version as seen by me. But it may be a slanted opinion because I may still be angry.
Will you explain these trade deadlines with waiver and without waivers in MLB? I cannot quite figure them out. There is one coming up the 'non waiver' trade deadline. Can you tell me what this means and what it means after because there are always trades after the 'deadline'? I enjoy your column.
Marcel Frazier, Thunder Bay
A: Basically, up until July 31 at 4:00 p.m. EDT, GMs can pick up the phone, call another GM and say “I'll give you Player 1 for Player 2.” If the deal is acceptable they get it done. After August 1, in order to be traded, Player 1 must be placed on major-league waivers which is a 72-hour period during which his name is presented to all 29 other clubs via e-mail for possible “claim”. If a player is claimed by multiple teams, the team with the worst record at the time is the one entitled to Player 1. However the original team can withdraw his name from waivers and he then stays with them. But the second time they place him on waivers after August 1, it is irrevocable and they can't recall him if claimed. The way that teams complete a trade post-July 31 is a) if the player clears his original waivers with nobody claiming, they are free to make a deal just as pre-deadline, or b) they can negotiate with the claiming team for player compensation in order to allow him to be claimed threatening that if a deal can't be worked out they will recall him from waivers. Basically, when you hear that so-and-so has been placed on waivers in August, it's no big deal. Every player gets placed on waivers in August every year just to gauge interest and with the knowledge he can be pulled back.
Q: Hi Richard,
I look forward to your mailbag every week. A lot of people must be asking you: as Kevin Gregg is struggling, what options do the Jays have for a closer? Are there any closers in the system who would benefit from some ML work this season? Would it make sense for the Jays to trade for one, or is it better to just ride it out? Is Kevin Gregg considered one of the pitchers the Jays are developing? What should they do?
D'Arcy Draper, Richmond Hill
A: Gregg was signed as a stopgap, fallback closer that wasn't going to cost that much ($2.75 million) in 2010 and would allow them to either develop one in the system or find one on the market by their contending year of 2012. He's done his job – sometimes in exciting fashion. He has two club options that would make him an interesting trade option for another club. As for the part of the question about “closers in the system”, the fact is that most closers are not developed as closers in the system. If there are closers in any team's farm system, their likely role at the major-league level will be setup or middle relief. The more likely route to closer-dom is the route David Purcey has followed, wherein you are a highly regarded minor-league starter and at some point they discover that you have two quality pitches but lack that one extra quality pitch in the repertoire that will take you to the next level as a starter. With a pared-down repertoire, you pitch in relief in the majors and then take over as closer and thrive. Purcey is a candidate. Otherwise, when you're looking for possible candidates for two years down the road, check out the Jays' minor-league starters, not their relievers.
Q: Hi Richard,
Enjoying your baseball blog and this Blue Jay season, too. Ever optimistic, I can see playoffs - let's hope - in the near future. With Jose Bautista's excellent season - both in the field and at the plate - it got me wondering who you view as the top two or three BJ players who you come to appreciate, over time, the more you see them play (the ones who always do the "little things" to help the team win.
Stu Royal, Erin, Ont.
A: You're right about Bautista and it would be a shame to see him be traded because of what he has accomplished for the team both offensively and defensively. In addition he is a good base runner, taking the extra base, reading hits and knowing when to take chances. Plus his versatility as a right fielder/third baseman has allowed them to fill nicely for injured players. That's a great question regarding “come to appreciate over time.” I can think of three Jays since I joined the Star in 1995. The first is Roberto Alomar. I knew what he could do from watching him with the Padres and in the two World Series years, but until I saw him play every day in '95, I didn't appreciate all the little things he did with the bat and the glove and on the bases. No. 2 is Scott Rolen. I knew of his Gold Glove status and his sometimes prickly relationship with media, but I didn't know until he was with the Jays, how much of a leadership role he took, how great a baserunner he was and that he was the best defender at third base I had ever seen. Too bad his tight shoulder and his battle to compensate and change his swing cost him some quality time as a Jay. He is back now with the Reds. No. 3 is Orlando Hudson. In his first couple of seasons with the Jays he did things in the field that reminded of a poor-man's Robby. He was a catalyst whose contributions went beyond his numbers.
A few weeks ago Cito talked about his concern about the quality of Jesse Litsch's stuff coming off surgery. From what you've seen lately, has Litsch's stuff gotten any better? How long does it generally take to know whether a pitcher will ever make it all the way back from Tommy John surgery?
Tony Baer, Baraboo
A: After his last start, Gaston expressed concern more for Litsch's endurance than for his stuff. As soon as he struggled in the sixth inning on Sunday against the Tigers, Cito lifted him. Litsch was not happy, but the stats show that the sixth inning since his return in June has done him in. I think Litsch's career before surgery has been overblown making the question “ever make it all the way back” an interesting one. The fact is Litsch was 20-19 in 50 career starts pre-Tommy John surgery and yes he has the potential to be a starter in a major-league rotation, but if he does establish himself, it won't be as much “coming back from Tommy John surgery as it will be “continuing to develop after a year-long interruption.” Further to your question, T.J. elbow surgeries are becoming fairly predictable in terms of players coming back. It's the shoulder (e.g. Dustin McGowan) that is the wild-card for pitchers.
Q: Hi Richard,
I enjoy reading your columns and getting your insights to the game. My question is related to future catching and third base positions. JP Arencibia is certainly proving that he has a power bat and is likely major league ready now. However, it seems like every time I see a box score for Las Vegas, he has an error or passed ball. Does he have the defence to be a major league catcher? With such a young pitching staff, defence will be equally if not more important than his bat. Admittedly, the only aspect of his game that I know of is his statistical ability. However, given that we have organizational depth of quality catching prospects (Brian Jeroloman, Travis D'arnaud, Antonio Jimenez, Carlos Perez) and not much on the horizon at third base, should we consider sending JP to the instructional league to learn 3B? His bat would work there and he must have a decent arm since he is a catcher. Inexpensive veteran catchers are always available via free agency every year and we could continue that trend until one of the previously mentioned are ready?
Tom Fitzgerald, Newmarket
A: Why settle for an inexpensive veteran catcher when you have the possibility to have developed in your own system a young, exciting hitter at the position. In order to separate yourself from the pack you need a couple of impact players at the key positions. Now that's not to say that one day Arencibia won't end up playing another position, but there are catchers that were just adequate defensively that had great careers (see: Mike Piazza, Jorge Posada). They say that everything about Arencibia has been better since his surgeries for astigmatism and for his internal disorder last off-season. I do believe a great young offensive catcher will do more to help you compete than moving him to third base and mixing and matching behind the plate. As long as you continue to keep a defensive, game-calling veteran catcher to back him up – like Jose Molina. As for the young catchers further down in the Jays' system, whenever one of them is ready (likely D'Arnaud), bring him up like the Angels did with their two young, quality receivers.
Q: Dearest Richard,
Why on earth are four man rotations KAPUT? It's not like hurlers like Bob Gibson or Whitey Ford had a problem with it...right? And they travelled by train a lot! These fellas now are pussy-cats...do you agree Sir?
Sally Cole, Exeter, England
A: I do agree that by-and-large, today's fellas are now pussy-cats. That being said, the last pitching coach to try and go with a four-man rotation was Ferguson Jenkins in a brief experiment with the Cubs. As I recall, he was fired shortly thereafter. The thing is these major-league cats of pussy have spent their entire pro careers, no matter which organization, working in five-man rotations. There is a recovery period for the arm and the body between starts and pitchers develop routines. It couldn't be one organization, it would have to be every organization that starts from the lowest levels of the minors developing pitchers to go every fourth day. It won't happen. I'll stake my 8-track player, my game of Pong and the keys to my Pinto on it.
Q: Looking at historical hitting all-time leaders it seems the one category that lacks any players of the modern era is triples. Why are there no modern players in the top 50 all time in triples? Is it a function of the game changing or the talents of the players (defensively or offensively) being different than decades ago?
Phil W., Sarnia
A: Back in the day, there were many major-league ballparks that were today's normal distance or sometimes even less down the lines but faded away to cavernous centre fields, with deep power alleys. That's because ballparks were built on downtown city blocks and took those contours. Fenway Park is a living example. In any case, during the Golden Years for triples, prior to WWII there were more balls to more fences being chased by a bunch of slow white guys that resulted in three-base hits. Today's modern parks are mostly made for the excitement of home runs and balls in play rattle off fences back to outfielders that turn into doubles. Austin Jackson of the Tigers, playing in that home ballpark with his speed and power could be the next great triples machine.
Q: Hi Richard,
In line with AA's current mantra, do you think Jeff Francoeur would be a good fit with the Jays? I personally am not expecting him to launch 29 homers again but if he averaged 15HR, 70-80 RBI and added double-digit assists for the Jays, I'd be happy with that. I realize adding another OF to the mix isn't ideal with Snider, Wells, Lind in the long term plans and Fred Lewis making an impression on the leadoff spot. However, adding Jeff to Vernon would give the outfield a lot of defensive credibility (also allowing Snider to be in LF). I also believe that while Lewis has been effective, he is not a long term solution. This may be a pipe dream but I believe they should acquire Francoeur, deal Bautista, and I was way on board with you about Chone Figgins so I think they should revisit that now that he had a blowup with his manager. Thoughts?
Jon Kwok, Kitchener
A: I don't think Francoeur fits into what AA is trying to do in that he will be a 5-plus player at the end of the season. Yes, he is young (26), but not controllable beyond 2011. Besides he lost his starting job with the Mets. In fact Bautista's assets and length of major-league service are almost the same in terms of throwing arm, power potential, low average, etc. So you have Bautista already but you are advocating trading him and getting Francoeur. I don't get it. I agree that Lewis is not part of the future and I agree with you about Figgins being a nice add.