Jays mailbag: Remembering Charlie Lea
It seems that there have been too many occasions lately when we are tragically reminded that pro sports is about more than just league standings, individual statistics, team colours and civic pride. Pro athletes are flesh and blood.
Sports is real life, only played out under a revealing spotlight.
Upon closer inspection, our sports heroes are simply a cross-section of life itself, men, women, fathers, mothers, husbands, wives and friends looking for answers. Most times, when an athlete’s career is over, he returns to the mainstream and becomes another one of us, only with a much thicker scrapbook.
Thus it was that when the news that former Expos’ pitcher Charlie Lea had died of a heart attack at his home in Memphis at the age of 54, it hit hard, especially for those of us that had worked or played with him during the Expos years. Lea was a solid major-league pitcher, primarily in Montreal and briefly with the Twins from 1980-88, leaving much too early due to injury.
His career in the majors was less than a decade, but were seasons jam-packed with accomplishments that made him a significant character in the glory years of the Expos' franchise. More importantly, he was a great person, quiet and respectful, with a wry sense of humour, a loving husband, a father and a good friend.
Lea had remained connected to the game as a part-time colour man for the Memphis Redbirds, working radio home games in his adopted hometown where he grew up and attended college. He was born in Orleans, France.
On May 10, 1981 Charlie tossed a no-hitter against the Giants at Olympic Stadium in the second game of a doubleheader. It was the first Expos no-hitter at the Big O. He followed it up with a complete game shutout of the same Giants at Candlestick Park. Three years later, he was named the NL starter for the all-star game played in San Francisco. Lea ended his career with a 62-48 record and a 3.54 ERA.
In '82, Lea was part of a great young rotation that always reminded me of what the Jays are trying to put together to carry them into the future. The Expos '82 rotation was led by 32-year-old Steve Rogers, who was 19-8 and led the NL with a 2.40 ERA. The other four starters, Lea, Bill Gullickson, Scott Sanderson and David Palmer, were all between 23-25 years-of-age and emerging into solid major-leaguers as a tight band of brothers. Combined, the five Expos pitchers started 141 of the 162 games and reminded me of this year's Jays in terms of age and as real friends that legitimately enjoyed each other's company and cheered for one another's success. When I think of Charlie Lea it's always from those years, always competing, always smiling. Rest in Peace, Charlie.
Have admired your work for years. Two points. First, what are your thoughts about Travis Snider going into next year? Is he going to get 500 AB in the big leagues? Also, thought you'd either love or hate my post: http://mcantil.com/a-blockbuster-hot-stove-deal-that-makes-too-much-sense-to-ever-happen/ Keep up the great work.
A-First of all in the interest of fairness I must say that I really like Travis Snider as a person and if I ever had a son that played baseball – wait a second, I do – I would want him to grow up and have a baseball personality like Travis Snider, respectful of the game and of the people that populate it.
That being said, Snider's best chance of getting 500 at-bats this year is not with the Jays, it's with another organization via trade. If Travis stays with the Jays, he will end up going to spring training and trying to prove that he can play at the major-league level through hard work and defensive improvement. He did it last spring and he will prove it again, but will still have to either start the season as a fourth or fifth outfielder in Toronto or return to Las Vegas where he can play every day. He will be a first option if there is an outfield injury and that would be the way he could get 400 at-bats.
For Snider to get 500 major-league at-bats in 2012, he will need to be a part of a major trade wherein another team looks at his potential, his former draft status as a highly regarded first-rounder and decides that a change of scenery is all that he needs. My strongest memory of Snider that says he can do it is that April 13, 2009 game when he crashed two home runs off the facing of the upper deck in right field at the old Metrodome. It was a display of effortless power that he has had trouble replicating on a consistent basis. The Jays are looking hard for an alternative to Snider/Eric Thames/Rajai Davis in left field and I would be very surprised if the starting left fielder on Opening Day has yet to arrive.
Love the blog and the mailbag. My question to you is in regards to Chone Figgins. I saw something online that suggested that M's would be willing to eat a considerable amount of his salary to get rid of him. This is easy to understand considering what he represents to them (huge risk gone bad). However, if he can be used as a super-sub he seems to hold a lot of value. Do you agree that the Jays could do worse than having him back up Lawrie, our second baseman, and in the outfield. I also know that this would be a dream that many wouldn't dare dream, but what about if we take on his entire contract, throw in Brett Cecil, Kyle Drabek, Travis Snider, David Cooper (or even Adam Lind), and attempt to bring King Felix to Toronto? What are your thoughts?
Brian, Victoria, B.C.
A-Chone Figgins in the prime of his career, when he was a contributing player with the Angels was one of my favourite players with his certain mix of top-of-the-order speed, adequate defence and above-average competitiveness. When Cito Gaston was still the Jays manager he wanted him on his team. But somehow when Figgins got to Seattle it all fell apart for him. His OPS in three years has dropped from .789. to .646 to .484. Classic change of scenery scenario required? Perhaps, but it would be an expensive gamble for the Jays, unless the M's were willing to pick up a chunk of the salary, which reportedly they are. The Jays need a true leadoff hitter and a second baseman. Figgins is under contract through 2013, with a vesting option for 2014. If the extra year vested then that would mean he was performing. It's at least worth a look for GM Alex Anthopoulos. I would rather have a contributing Figgins — not last year's Figgins — at second base than Kelly Johnson. In any significant deal with the M's one would have to believe that Seattle native Snider could be one of the cornerstones.
I wanted to get your take on Chone Figgins and whether he would be a good acquisition. Here's a superior defender and switch hitter that can play 2B,SS,3B and the OF. His numbers are a little down since he went to Seattle (it seems everyone not named Suzuki does too), but he probably just needs a change of scenery. If it's true that Seattle is willing to absorb some salary (he has $17 million with 2 years, excluding the 2012 600PA vesting option) then I'm thinking he could be a pretty good bargain since Carroll (who the Jays were apparently interested in) got $7-million over two seasons and doesn't have near the ceiling that Figgins has. At worst he would be a Rajai Davis — a backup with great speed, but he would be much better defensively with better on-base skills, switch hitter that can play OF & IF. If they dumped Davis' $2.75 million salary, a more versatile Figgins might not be a much more expensive option. Thoughts?
A-See the answer above. But I would not acquire Figgins if he was only going to be a super-sub. The thought would have to be him in a starting role. The only downside is that if he is truly done as a contributing player in the majors, then you are stuck with that contract for two years. The Jays have to decide what is going on with the new CBA and Kelly Johnson before they explore something like this.
With the news swirling around the baseball community that the Jays are in fact in the market for a big-name closer, does a move like this in fact state, YES we are going to compete for a playoff spot next season? Would the Jays then if they did acquire a big name closer make more substantial moves to further solidify their roster? It would seem that if a closer was signed first it would be a precursor to bigger moves during the offseason do to the fact you just don't get a big name closer if you aren't willing to compete in 2012 or 2013?
Scott Cochrane, Niagara on the Lake
A-The news of Jays' interest in a closer isn't exactly “swirling” around the baseball community. It's been out there. In fact, on the final weekend of the season in Chicago, manager John Farrell admitted that handling the bullpen had been his biggest rookie weakness and that in '12 he wanted the closing role to be handled by one man. When the Jays decided to not bring Jon Rauch back and allowed Frank Francisco to walk, the obvious conclusion was that they wanted a legitimate closer through trade or free-agency. It had already been pointed out by many in the Toronto media. The “swirling” that you talk about is simply that the mainstream National writers in the U.S. have finally tweaked to it and, of course, until they say something about the Jays and their direction, it doesn't exist.
I have always believed and written that the Jays intend to compete for a wild-card and maybe even the division as early as 2012 and they will make every effort to build a contender during the offseason. That includes exploring every avenue with regard to a bullpen closer. If the Jays were not interested in contending right away then it would be counter-intuitive to sign a big-name closer to what would likely be a four-year deal wherein the best return in terms of saves and dominating statistics would come in the first two years given the accepted shorter shelf-life of a top closer. By the time they were ready to contend, his numbers would likely be sliding. The accepted logic is to wait until you feel you are contending before locking up a legit closer. If Anthopoulos is chasing a true closer, it means that he feels feel they are ready to contend. There is no accepted order to this winter's acquisitions – whatever presents itself first -- but make no mistake about it, Anthopoulos is working hard under his customary cone-of-silence to add significant players for 2012, not the Rajai Davis, Jon Rauch, Jose Molina type of role players.
Q-Do you think the Jays have a chance at obtaining Joey Votto this offseason? He has two more years left on his deal, and the Reds need to cut payroll. They have a young 1B, Yonder Alonso who could replace Votto to some extent. The Jays have a surplus of young pitching that they could offer (Deck McGuire/Kyle Drabek) and a young controllable middle infielder (either Yunel Escobar or Adeiny Hechavarria) that would be a good package for Votto. Dealing Lind, Snider, two pitching prospects and a young catcher (Carlos Perez or AJ Jimenez) could net Felix Hernandez as well.
Jason Sinnarajah, San Francisco
A-Why do people just assume that the Reds need to cut payroll. They have been to the playoffs as recently as two years ago and played 2011 with a team payroll of just over $80 million. They chose to sign Votto to a three-year deal prior to 2011 that will pay the Etobicoke native $9.5 million then $17 million for the next two years. That is the window of opportunity for the Reds to try and win again. Votto is perfect for Great American Ballpark and is a Gold Glove defender. They have a good young hitter behind Votto in Yonder Alonso but at spring training they can simply point out to left field and say “Go hither, Yonder.” Fans tend to look at Jays prospects as if no other team has prospects of their own and that everybody covets the Jays youngsters.
Reds' GM Walt Jocketty in October denied that the Reds had even discussed trading Votto. Nothing has happened since then to change his mind. Would Votto be an upgrade for the Jays? Well, yeah. The opportunity for Votto to be a Jay would be more likely as a free agent in 2014 or even heading into his final contracted season in 2013.
I love what Jose Bautista does for the Jays and he is clearly their best hitter. That being said, AA has expressed that the Jays have money available to spend to overpay for a player or two but only when those players are the final pieces. If the Jays do not believe that they can really compete in ‘12, I think that it makes sense to trade Jose. His value will never be higher than it is right now. Even if he hits .290 this year with 35 HR, by 2013 (when they will be on the cusp of really competing) he'll probably be around .280 25 HR. There are many people in the league who the Jays can go after that can put up those same numbers. The Jays should see if they can trade Jose for a young stud pitcher who has started to prove himself (Ivan Nova) and 2 other top prospects (Jesus Montero, Eduardo Nunez). I don't think that is an unreasonable asking price for the best hitter in the league. Do you think the Jays have or will explore options that involve trading Jose? If they can get a package that includes a front-line starter do you think they should consider this? Thanks!
Josh Cymbalista, Thornhill
A-These are traditionally the types of questions asked by fans who have been reared in fantasy leagues where numbers are the only thing that matters. Major league baseball is flesh and blood and matchups and personalities and elation and depression and 25 men living and working together every day for six months. It's not easy. Bautista is more than statistics for the Jays. CC Sabathia's 16 wins are different than Ivan Nova's 16 wins. Sabathia faces aces and contenders while Nova gets the rest. Bautista's 25 home runs are different than Adam Lind's 25 home runs. Bautista's presence in the batting order has a ripple effect while Lind's does not. Bautista's presence in the clubhouse has a lightning-rod effect. Lind's is just that of another good player that can contribute statistics to a winning team. The Jays worked hard to develop Bautista and then to sign him as a potential free agent. It doesn't mean that there are not storm clouds on the horizon. Make no mistake about it, with Matt Kemp and others reaching the $20 million per year plateau, if Joey Bats has another 40+ home run year with an OPS in the 1.000 range, he will be asking to open up negotiations again, but until then enjoy Bautista as a Jay because he is not going anywhere in 2012.
There are certainly lots of rumours floating around right now - I love this time of year! What do you think about the Jays chances of landing Jair Jurrjens and Martin Prado from Atlanta? Prado can play second, as well as the outfield, and Jurrjens is a young, mid-high end of the rotation guy. The Royals were asked for young outfielders but wouldn't part with them — we have lots of them! Enjoy the free agent frenzy!!
Jon Empringham, Woodstock
A-As soon as I read about the availability of Prado and Jurrjens, my interest was piqued. If I was Anthopoulos, I would go after Prado as my first choice at second base for 2012 and beyond, but as far as Jurrjens goes, the health issues he had in the second half of 2011, the diminishing strikeout rate, plus the fact that the Braves are interested in trading him red-flag any positives in acquiring the 26-year-old from Curacao. I would focus on Prado, who could play second base every day and also is an adequate left fielder. He has two more arbitration years before becoming a free agent. In terms of young outfielders, the Jays have gone from having no real outfield depth in '09 to having one of the most well-stocked 26-and-under outfield cupboards in baseball — Eric Thames, Travis Snider, Anthony Gose, Moises Sierra, Darin Mastroianni, Jake Marisnick, Marcus Knecht, Michael Crouse, Brad Glenn and Chris Hawkins, among others. As for Jurrjens, the Jays are also very deep in young starters that are not quite ready for primetime but that in a couple of years will sweep past a guy like Jurrjens like a high-90s tsunami. I would focus on Prado but I would do it now.
Is this the Jays' year to take the AL East? Is the AL East still the premier division in MLB now that the NL has won two WS in a row? Boston has tanked, the Yankees have blown it two years in a row in the post-season and don't show the desire to win and the Rays seem to have worn out their welcome. How long can we live in the future? Is Rogers going to sign 2-3 free agents this year to finally make the Jays a contender? What do they need? A starting pitcher, a closer and what else?
Bruce Hutchison, Winnipeg
A-The Jays are readying this winter to take their best shot at the AL East crown and, if not in 2012, then they will have a head start when the Astros head to the AL West and MLB adds a second wild-card in 2013. As for the AL East, it's still one of the premier divisions in baseball, although with the Marlins and Nats gearing it up; with the Braves and Phillies always strong and with the Mets trying to right the foundering ship, the NL East will be even better than it has been. But the relative strengths of baseball's divisions over the 162-game marathon that is the regular season would seem to have little to do with post-season success. It's whoever is hot at the moment. Look at the NL Central in 2011, with far and away the worst overall record of any division in baseball, but when push came to shove it was the Brewers and Cardinals, the last men standing, competing in the NLCS for a trip to the World Series.
Boston still has tremendous talent. They were touted prior to 2011 as the best Red Sox team ever, but I fear that Sox upper management will interfere with their young GM Ben Cherington, making Peter Angelos in Baltimore, by comparison look like King Solomon in his wisdom. In pro sports, there is nothing worse for an organization than panicky ownership that listens to fans. An example right now is Cherington seemingly wanting to hire Dale Sveum as manager to replace Terry Francona, while skeptical fans and owners remember his third-base coaching technique of waving runners around third to their doom, that at times made The Charge of the Light Brigade seem like Olympic Dressage.
The Yankees are the Yankees and will spend, with a fair share of their contracts not working out, but they bludgeon opponents into submission and will continue to do so. The Rays meanwhile are limited by payroll and have a ceiling that the Jays can reach. It's possible for the Jays to compete in 2012.
Q-Always love your fall/winter news and insight. With the Jays organization that seems to be moving towards a homegrown Canadian feeling, what are the chances of a Jays minor league team moving into Ottawa's empty baseball venue?
Philip McCloskey, Orangeville
A-That has been a goal of Alex Anthopoulos since he was an assistant GM, bringing minor-league baseball back to Canada in a significant way. The Jays started with the successful debut of a new Vancouver Canadians in a short-season Class-A format in 2011, winning their league championship. What Ottawa needs to do is to find solid ownership and find a Double-A or Triple-A franchise that is in financial distress where they are and to transfer the team to Ottawa. And Ottawa is not the only city that is possible, but is the most likely because, ideally, it needs to be done by 2013. The Jays may not be in Ottawa in 2013, but they more than likely won't be in Las Vegas. It's a good fit, but private ownership needs to step up to make it happen. Triple-A in Ottawa has been tried before with mixed results.