Q: Hi Richard,
About a year ago the rumours of a dysfunctional Blue Jays clubhouse came to light. Now a year later it appears that by all accounts the chemistry is great. To what, or to whom, do you attribute this year's harmony? Is it safe to assume last year's culprits are no longer with the club?
Thanks, Tim Wood, Toronto
A: It was not a rumour. The poisonous fumes floating through the Jays' clubhouse on that final weekend in Baltimore were absolutely toxic. Vernon Wells on the Friday said, “I'm not sure that it can be fixed.” This in reference to a potential public airing of player concerns with Cito Gaston and Paul Beeston in attendance. Gaston to this day does not want to believe it was ever true, claiming it was simply an exaggeration by the media. That's total bullspit. It was real. But when push came to shove and the key returning players – Wells, and Aaron Hill and the non-returning players Rod Barajas and Roy Halladay -- met with Beeston and Gaston, the players wimped out and backed down.
Why the dysfunction in the first place?
Reason 1- There was no meaningful communication from the clubhouse proper to the manager. As Cito once famously said, “The players know my office door is always open...unless it's closed.” We know what he meant. Cito did not know if he was coming back or if the GM was coming back. They weren't on the same page, maybe not even in the same library.
Reason 2- With the changes in the coaching staff, the appointments of Dwayne Murphy as hitting coach, Bruce Walton as pitching coach and the addition of Omar Malave, the player-coach communication improved. Pitching coach Brad Arnsberg had his one favourite pupil, Roy Halladay, with whom most of his clubhouse time and energy was spent. Arnsberg and Gaston did not communicate. Pitchers had felt left out of any decision-making since Cito is not warm and fuzzy with any pitchers at the best of times, and there was no other outlet for their frustration except Walton, the bullpen coach, not in a position to do much until his promotion. That all changed with Arnsberg moving to the Astros and Doc to the Phils.
Reason 3- Cito and general manager J.P. Ricciardi worked together like nitro and glycerine. Players could see that the men they worked for – GM and manager -- did not agree and did not communicate like they should and did not like or respect one another. But the players felt they did not have to take sides because both men seemed to be on the way out. The solution from Beeston, a man all the players respected? The prickly GM was fired and the manager was made a one-year lame duck with a four-year parachute strapped to his back.
Reason 4- Kevin Millar was a poison in the clubhouse constantly belittling the current situation he was in and comparing the Jays' major-league situation unfavourably to the Red Sox in a very loud voice. The preachy Millar made sure young players were not allowed to find their own identity. No coincidence the home clubhouse featured a corner with Wells, Hill, Barajas and Millar.
Reason 5- It was a compartmentalized mess of unhappy millionaires and the losing record did not help.
This year's clubhouse chemistry is great because Gaston is more aware of his own status and is enjoying his own low-key farewell tour, teaching more than managing. His coaches let him know of any problems before he is ambushed. It is great because Walton, unlike his predecessor, pays attention to all his pitchers and makes them feel like a band of brothers. It is great because the new general manager is hands on and lets players know the lay of the land before any moves. It is great because players know Gaston's situation and are more tolerant of his foibles. It is great because Halladay, Millar and Arnsberg have moved on. Make no mistake, the Jays are not a better team without Doc but the removal of his huge aura has allowed guys like Brett Cecil to feel like contributing major-leaguers with room to smile. It is great because they have been winning and the young rotation and booming home run bats give them an identity.
Does Aaron Hill make the move over to third base sooner rather than later? It seems he may have enough power to play there (20Hr's in a down year). This would pave the way for an all-Cuban tandem up the middle of Adeiny Hechavarria and Yunel Escobar.
Chris Fenwick, London
A: Hill has played major-league games at second, third and shortstop and has said he is willing to do whatever is best for the team. Other than the versatile minor-leaguer Brad Emaus, the next third baseman on the horizon is former 2007 first-round pick Kevin Ahrens. He has stalled in his development and is still years away from the majors. So Hill at third base? Why not? He would be akin to Ron Cey of the Dodgers and Cubs. The Penguin was short and squatty and averaged .261 with 25 homers and 89 RBIs with a .799 OPS over the course of his career. Hill could be given a nifty nickname like “The Platypus” and become a fixture at the hot corner. I would do it if I was the Jays.
Q: I like the progress of the team this year but it seems that one aspect of the team has gone backwards and that is team defense. No doubt we took a step backwards with losing Scott Rolen and replacing him with Edwin Encarnacion (both glove and bat), but even Aaron Hill is having his problems. Did we get value back in that trade for Rolen? Are the Jays to target a 3rd baseman in free agency given they don't seem to have anyone on the farm yet for this? Also, is it likely that Lyle Overbay will be back? I like his glove but you need more production from your first baseman in the American League East.
Dean Germano, Redding, Calif.
A: The question of value back for Rolen is academic. There was only one landing spot he wanted to go and that was the Reds. It was close to his Midwest roots and reunited him with his Cards' GM Walt Jocketty. His parents were a huge factor in Rolen's trade. But in any case, the Jays got fair value. They were forced to take Encarnacion and his salary for 2010, but in addition they got righthander Zach Stewart, still considered one of the organization's bright lights, and Josh Roenicke, given several shots at the major-league staff but still looking for the command that will keep him with the Jays. Hill has been a disappointment this season, but his career is still finding its level. He has been on a roller-coaster that included a season-ending concussion in '08, a resurgence as comeback-player-of-the-year in '09 and a current lull in '10. As we mentioned above, without Encarnacion and unless you move Jose Bautista to the hot-corner fulltime, then you have a need. Maybe Bautista is the one-year answer. In any case, it's highly unlikely that Overbay will be back as a free agent in 2011. That decision was made long ago with an eye on rebuilding and for a 3-5 year deal, Overbay is not part of that vision.
Q: Do you think Kyle Drabek will be in the majors next season? If so, what is the possibility of converting Brandon Morrow to be the closer? It's just getting scarier and scarier every time Kevin Gregg comes in to close.
Chito Salalac, Burlington
A: If Drabek begins the 2011 season in the minors and remains in AAA-Vegas until early May, then the Jays can hang onto him for an extra season before six-year free agency. That seems to be the new reality with major-league teams. So the answer is yes, but not on opening day. As for Morrow becoming the closer, he has moved beyond that. The M's tried to harness that electric stuff into one-inning bursts, but when the Jays made the trade sending Brandon League to the M's, they promised Morrow he was becoming a starter. There are other options for the Jays in the ninth than taking a guy with no-hit potential every fifth day and making him an 80-innings per year guy. Makes no sense. But, yes, it's becoming scarier with Gregg but he's getting it done.
Q: Hi Richard,
Love the mailbag and very enthused by the strong play of the Jays recently and J.P. Ricciardi's concurrent terrible work for ESPN. Funny how things dovetail so nicely sometimes. Which brings me to my question: How much responsibility does Don Fehr, former executive director of the MLB player's union during the Steroid Era, deserve for covering up the PED use among his constituents? It seems like the MLB Players Union and Fehr were totally complicit in PED use and the sullying of the game of baseball during his reign. Oafs like Roger Clemens deservedly get dragged before Congress while Fehr gets a promotion. Can we expect the same from Fehr as he takes charge of the incredibly inept NHL player's union? Can we expect to soon see players routinely chalk up 75+ goal seasons (by exploiting) the NHL's non-existent PED policy? Thanks for your time.
Sean Cranbury, Vancouver
A: Fehr as director of the MLB players association deserves a huge amount of the blame for not seeing the damage that his blind protection of accused steroid users was doing to the game. Yes, his job as union head was to protect players and yes MLB did not have a testing program prior to 2004. But it was clear even back then that the majority of his own constituents, the rank and file of union members did not like the fact that they were forced to compete against cheaters while they themselves were clean. How many of those frustrated players felt so overwhelmed that they joined the parade of cheats? We'll never know, but that's one of the suggestions about Barry Bonds, that his skill-set of speed and power in the mid-'90s was ignored in favour of the giant shadow of the Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa home run derby and that he fought back with steroids and HGH.
As far as Fehr's reported new gig with the NHL: I respect Paul Beeston's opinion and he got to know Fehr well when he went to the Commissioner's Office a dozen years ago. Beeston believes that at some point Fehr changed and wanted to be part of the solution rather than the problem. I have seen many of those changes in Fehr, some of course brought on by Congress playing hardball with his cheating membership but others from a genuine concern of making the game better. Fehr will be a pain in the butt for NHL ownership but will likely end up being a part of a tougher NHL drug policy.
If Albert Pujols becomes a free agent at the end of 2011, do the Jays try to make a push to sign him? If he was going to play in the East (Yankees, Red Sox) would they be serious players in the sweepstakes? Would that not be a statement to the fans that Rogers is in the baseball business?
Brian M., Barrie
A: No, no, no. It's one thing to show fans that Rogers is in the baseball business, but if Pujols commands $25 million per year, that would force the Jays, together with Vernon Wells' contract, to pay a total of $45-50 million for two players. It makes no sense just to prove a point. If the Jays were serious players it would serve only to drive the price up for other teams like the Cards, Red Sox, Mets and others. If the Jays are going to compete for the division as early as 2012 (which is what I believe) then they can make better use of their financial resources. One former teammate of Pujols that I respect has serious reservations about Pujols in the clubhouse.
Love the blog, long time reader, first time writer. I was wondering if you knew why seemingly all Blue Jays pitchers (or most MLB pitchers?) wear some kind of necklace? I have been watching baseball for 20+ years now and I'm not sure if this is a recent trend but I have certainly noticed it on almost every pitcher in recent years. Any thoughts on this?
Nick Bloomfield, Toronto
A: The necklace is called “Phiten” and it's basically a thin amount of titanium covered in colourful cloth. It is supposed to have therapeutic effects in reducing fatigue, but nothing has been scientifically proven. It is supposed to affect the body's “bio-electric currents.” It's a bunch of mumbo-jumbo that sells necklaces. The company was founded in Japan in the '80s but it didn't really catch on until about the turn of the century. At home in Oakville, I manage an OBA midget baseball team and I'd say about half of my 14 players wear the Phiten and I have not detected any extra bio-electric energy from any of these guys. But I'm sure that chicks dig Phiten.
Q: Hi Rich, a few questions for you:
1) Do you see the Jays trying to sign Brett Cecil to a similar type contract as Romero next year? 2) What are baseball people saying as to why Lind and Hill are having such poor years compared to last year and are there concerns going forward? 3) Shouldn't the Dave Stieb bobblehead have a hand on its crotch?
Marvin Hoppe, Toronto
A: I believe the Jays under GM Alex Anthopoulos are handling the long-term contract extensions one at a time. First it was Adam Lind at the end of spring training. Then it was Ricky Romero a couple of weeks ago in Anaheim. The next two should be Shaun Marcum and then Brett Cecil and then Brandon Morrow. There is no rush for any of those players, so negotiations can continue behind the scenes with no particular sense of urgency. But rest assured from the GM himself that they will not be negotiated simultaneously. Having all those guys under long-term deals does not mean they will never be traded, but being locked up for reasonable contracts, in fact, makes it easier to deal those guys.
Lind and Hill around baseball are enigmas. The belief is that with veteran players that they will find their level eventually over the course of 162 games, but both Lind and Hill are on the beginning edge, age and experience-wise, of that theory. What are their levels? We don't really know. But what is evident is that both players seem to have been swinging at too many bad pitches and putting themselves in pitchers' counts. Both players have still have managed to hit home runs, so it's really the batting average and on-base that has been an issue. That could be for Lind from being overanxious to prove he deserves the money on his new contract and jumping at bad and borderline pitches that he normally would not. With Hill, coming back so well from the missed season in 2008, he may be just finding a two-year level that may become his norm.
As for Stieb's bobblehead, apparently when he strikes out a hitter his head bobbles up and down and when the Manny Lee bobblehead boots a grounder, Stieb's head bobbles from side to side.
Q: Enjoy the column, Richard. My question is whether you know if part of the Jays' aggressive hitting philosophy involves a focus on pulling the ball and a de-emphasis on swinging at balls on the outer part of the plate and going to opposite field.
If so, what if any role do you think this reluctance to go to opposite field has had in making certain Jays hitters more vulnerable to pitchers who command the outside part of the plate. Vernon, Lind, Hill and Snider, for example, appear to be trying to pull outside pitches which often results in weak pop flies or chopping grounders to the pull side of the infield.
Ben Bathgate, Toronto
A: I believe that the emphasis from Cito and Dwayne Murphy is not on their hitters pulling the ball but on getting the swing ready on time and that is what leads to more pulling of the ball. For instance, if Jose Bautista gets his front foot down earlier, before the pitcher, and begins all his personal swing triggers, he is looking to meet the pitcher's best fastball with his best swing and his bat out in front of the plate with all the power of his swing. The goal is to line the pitch up the middle or alley to alley. If anything comes in from the pitcher less than his max fastball, off-speed or inner-half, then the result would likely be a pull. Opposite field is not absent from this philosophy of hitting but is subordinate to hitting the ball hard by being ready early. Yes, the Jays are more vulnerable to a) pitchers they have never seen before and b) pitchers that turn the ball over and keep the ball down and away while changing speeds. The belief is that every pitcher will make one mistake every at bat and that's the pitch you want to hit. In the Jays' thought process, the mistake pitch will usually result in a ball pulled hard.
Q: Hey Richard, long time reader and I finally have a question that I believe many people might be curious to know the answer. Every June there are hundreds of high school ball players drafted into MLB and do not sign contracts with their respective team. Correct me if I am wrong, but most of these players go to college for two years and then have the chance to be drafted again. My question is why? Why would a ball player choose to attend college over minor league ball? Wouldn't a player learn more in the low minors (such as the Gulf Coast League). Isn't the player taking an obvious risk of not being drafted again? Or a risk of getting hurt? Is the potential of being drafted higher in the draft such a big factor?
David MacLean, Winnipeg
A: Players re-enter the draft mostly because they are not happy with their draft position and believe they can do better the next time. Maybe they don't like the team that drafted them. Maybe they actually are looking forward to an education. The rules are that after high school, if you re-enter the draft and go to a junior college or community college you can be drafted in two years. If you go to a four-year college program, you must wait until your junior year to be drafted again. As strange as it seems, major-college baseball programs are almost like being in the majors, travelling first class and using the best equipment, while signing out of high school and being buried in the Gulf Coast League or similar is like a cattle call. An immature young 18-year-old player, especially with the handicap of being from a northern climate with a shortened baseball summer, can get buried in an organization's minor-league system, while going to college and trying again later can give him the reps needed to compete once he does turn pro. Nobody ever believes they are going to get hurt. It's part of the athlete's myth of invincibility.