Mailbag: Spring training has changed but never loses its appeal
Tick-tick-tick. Spring training is drawing inexorably closer and we're definitely excited. Players are already heading down to Florida and Arizona to get ready, even though they haven't started collecting meal money from the team. Spending their own money at training camp? That's how you can tell they're excited.
The game has changed. Spring training used to be a lot different back in the old days. The money wasn't so good and players, even the stars, had to hold down real jobs in the off-season, so who had time to stay in shape. These days, the pitchers, especially the young kids, show up in camp and on the first day of pitchers and catchers are humping it up with 95-100 mph fastballs and unhittable curveballs. The Jays pitchers and catchers are on the field February 22 and, on the 25th, are joined by the full squad.
I recall back in the Expos' early years in '69-'71, they trained on a back field of the Braves complex in West Palm Beach before moving up the coast to their own digs in Daytona Beach. Catcher John Bateman had been drafted from the Astros in expansion. A leader, more than a player, he had a propensity to gain weight in the off-season and manager Gene Mauch would always have a date early in camp for a weigh-in. Every player had been given a mandatory weight to come to camp. It was a number concocted out of thin air by the late Joe Liscio, an old school trainer who liked to use a lot of mud to rub on injuries as his universal answer. Bateman after those early workouts, each day would squeeze into a rubber, skin diver's wet suit, XXL, and run laps until he had sweated off a few more pounds. He always made the weight. Bateman ended up catching for Eddie Feigner with The King and His Court touring softball team where there were no weigh-ins. This game has really changed. On to the mailbag.
I am fascinated by the idea that the Rogers Centre's relatively new turf being replaced with natural grass. In your opinion, how serious was BJ Management and ownership about this? If it did, is the theory that it improves the prospect of getting more seasoned free-agents who are worried about injuries beign aggravated by turf? Does it change the types of players being selected and developed in the minors? Does it change the atmosphere of home games at the Dome?
Dean Germano, Reddin, CA
A quick one: Beeston makes noises about a grass surface at Rogers Centre in the future. As badly as I want this, my gut says there is about 1% chance of it actually happening. This is hardly the first time grass has been mentioned, and probably won't be the last...and yet the turf 'lives' on and on. Am I being too pessimistic?
Tim Anderson, Copenhagen
A-I believe that grass would be a very important step in the future of the Jays. Uh, that's of course the type that cows eat. Historically, there have been several baseball injuries more than just the constant pounding on the knees, that can at least partially be credited to the artificial surface at the Rogers Centre. Now think about the amount of money possibly lost just in salary for a guy like Jose Bautista if he's disabled for most of any season. That saved salary would by itself pay for the RC conversion from turf to grass. Joey Bats, as an example, did in fact sprain his ankle badly on a baserunning play right after this year's all-star break. Luckily he has a high tolerance for playing with pain. But no doubt it continued to affect his second half performance. How much of that injury can be blamed on the artificial turf? We'll never know, but any lingering question of blame would be eraced by grass and dirt.
Besides, it's a better looking game for fans. There's something sportingly-romantic about any traditional looking baseball field with an all-dirt infield and the unique back and forth patterns of freshly mowed infield and outfield grass. But perhaps most importantly and something that may have kick-started the Jays' explorations of installing grass at the RC is the number of important free agents that choose somewhere else to play even though the money offer is the same – see Carlos Beltran -- and the number of players that may place the Jays on their personal, limited no-trade list in contracts with other teams because of the RC artificial turf. There is enough of a Jays handicap playing home games in what some young, unsophisticated ballplayers consider as the uncertainty of a foreign country, clearing customs, exchanging money, without worrying about the playing surface adding to that perception.
The Jays DO pay attention to the peripherals. They refurbished the home clubhouse to make it one of the most comfortable and player friendly in baseball. They changed their policy to stay at nothing but the finest luxury hotels on the road after Scott Rolen suggested that it was a factor in players' opinions of the organization. They have always gone the extra mile for players' families off the field. So why not the extra mile on the field itself? The difference in the grass chatter this time is that it is coming from the team itself rather than outside rabble-rousers. Oh, by the way, goodbye Argos, goodbye Bills once a year games, goodbye Moto-Cross, rodeos and anything that could do damage to a natural surface.
So based on that Monday night event at the Rogers Centre, it's very clear that the Jays will NEVER ever want or be able to sign star free agents or even type A since Beeston doesn't want to give out a contract of more than 5 years. Are you kidding me? 10 year contracts are ridiculous but the Angels and the Tigers will have a steady fan base for the next 10 years. Since this fact is known to rest MLB and MLBPA (5 year max) none of them would even consider Toronto. Grass or no grass. That's a shame since I now know that the Jays will be a mediocre team for MANY years to come with the occasional excitement of being only in the race. Your thoughts please?
Kam H., Richmond Hill
A-I believe that sometimes the young, still grateful Alex Anthopoulos is too deferential to his boss, the man who got him his job. Times change and, you're right, if the Jays stick to the ridiculous policy of not handing out any free agent contract longer than five years, then they will remain standed in the land of baseball mediocrity. The one key, hopeful statement that AA made at the State of the Franchise was at the end when he was swarmed by media, shrugged and pointed out that there was a time when Paul Beeston would not hand out any contract longer than “three years” and that has changed to five years.
Recall that Beeston gave up on keeping Jimmy Key back in the day because he wouldn't give him more than three years. The Yankees gave him five. So in the next two years, Beeston is likely to mellow and even if he compromises and goes to seven guaranteed years and maybe a couple of non-guaranteed option seasons, at least AA could hope to compete for the big boys. But you're right. It's a copout that they expect fans to just accept when they shrug and say “It's our policy to not give contracts longer than five years.” It's fine if it's your own young players, but if they went beyond that policy for outside free agents even their own guys would applaud. The extra year is why they did not go as hard as they should have on Yu Darvish and why they shrugged off Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols. It's a copout.
Q-With baseball salaries so completely outrageous aren't teams with scant resources like the Jays now nothing more than farm teams for the more affluent franchises. So is this not the real reason that the Jays did not bother to upgrade this offseason?
William Phillips, Belleville
A-I think you're wrong about baseball salaries being so completely outrageous. Remember, there's no salary cap and they play 162 games, about double the NHL and NBA, while the NFL plays 16. But my point is that baseball finally seems to be making the adjustment to the realiztion that there are two tiers of baseball talent. There's the superstars and then there's the rest of them.
Just look at the number of veteran free agents this winter that had trouble finding a job. It was unbelievable for fans but more importantly it was an eye opener for players and agents. Free agency used to be a reward. Now it can be a Gulag of uncertainty. Look at players like Carlos Pena, Johnny Damon, Francisco Cordero, Ryan Madson and many more. When A-Rod signed his quarter-billion contract with the Rangers in 2000 it was predicted at the time that it would be the beginning of the end for baseball small market teams. And it did indeed drag the salaries skyward of mediocre players whose agents argued “My client is half as good as A-Rod so pay him half the money.” That discombobulated the GMs and worked for the players for a long while, but it's not working anymore. Baseball has started to figure it out. It's like the film industry. You can be half as good an actor as Leonardo DiCaprio but you will never be able to demad half his per-movie salary if you're an extra. His name is on the marquee and you are merely a player. Pujols is a marquee player. Prince is a marquee player. Even Yu Darvish is a marquee player.
On the one other point, the Jays are not a team with scant resources. The Toronto population is 5.8 million and Canada is at 33.8 million. That is their market. There are no more MLB farm teams for more affluent franchises. Even the Yankees and Red Sox have realized they need to produce their own talent and take pride in their own scouting and player development. The Jays have solid corporate ownership in this marriage. Unfortunately Rogers has a mistress on the side named MLSE and that hurts.
I have trouble finding stats. on minor leaguers, so I may be wrong here but I don't think Daniel Norris has thrown a pitch in professional baseball yet. It seems to me that it's a stretch to rank him as a top-20 prospect in the Jays' system. A bit too much hype? Your thoughts? Still hoping to say "Hi" to you in Dunedin.
Bruce Spurrier, Courtenay
A-I'm with you. Norris was a highly ranked high school prospect just eight months ago. He signed late and has not thrown a pro pitch. But everyone in media wants to be the smartest guy in the room. So the Jays managed to get Norris later than expected and the kid has tremendous upside so everyone wants to be able to say when he makes it to the majors, “Yeah, in the winter of 2011-12 I had him in my Top 20. Aren't I smart? Hey, anyone can pick Deck McGuire or Chad Jenkins in their Top 20. They were both No. 1 selections. But Norris? Yeah, that was me.”
I think the ranking of prospects is largely copycat. Let Norris prove he deserves it on the professional field before throwing bouquets his way. Sometimes it's the organization and it's history that produces the love. I remember in the early '90s when Dan Duquette left the Expos for the Red Sox as GM. The Expos had a history of churning out GMs so when Kevin Malone took over, the first day on the job he came into my office and said, “Hey Rich, this is great. I have not even sat down in the chair and two teams called and offered me a job.” That was organization reputation and in the same way if the Jays signed Norris and got him with an unexpected pick, overpaid him, he must be Top 20.
Long-distance need for your insight. After all the hoopla about Adeiny Hechavarria, he's fallen from a top 100 overall to being ranked #16 amongst our own prospect base by mlb.com... even though his Las Vegas numbers offered hope his hitting was coming around... I know these lists are arbitrary and all, but wow. Is the kid a keeper?
Richard Elton, Melbourne, Australia
A-The same thing is happening to Hechavarria that we talked about in the previous question. Nobody among those compiling their lists wants to be seen as the only one to keep Hechavarria high on their list when all the other experts are dropping him down. It's a copycat world. The kid is only 22-years-old and has mad skills defensively.
People are down on him because of his $10-million, four-year guaranteed deal. But the Jays are bringing him along at his own pace and as long as he has options then they can watch him develop at the right pace. I am going to cut him some slack and watch closely this spring because standing out on the field every day taking infield with Omar Vizquel and Yunel Escobar can only help his development mentally as a future major-leaguer. He will start the year at Las Vegas, but if things go well, if the Jays have a deep lineup, if there is an injury to either Kelly Johnson or Escobar that puts him on the DL, then Hechavarria will likely get the call and have a chance to move up again on everyone's prospect rankings. He's fun to watch and physically stronger than you think.
I'm a long time Blue Jays fan in the UK and I was wondering about AA's 'disappointing' offseason so far. As fans, we want to know the details of the organization's game plan, but it's not in the organization's interest to broadcast every last detail for everyone to read about, so we have to accept some things will remain hidden until the time is right. The Jays made an unsuccessful bid for Darvish which would have kick-started the Jays' bid for the 2012 post-season, but this wasn't to be. Do you think that the relative silence from AA this offseason could be due to a bid for Votto next offseason, with the aim of success in 2013?
Paul B., Bristol, England
A-The reason we in the media are qualifying the 2011-12 off-season as disappointing is that at the end of the 2011 campaign in wrapping up the season, Anthopoulos said that the goal was to add a top-of-the-rotation starter, another power bat, a backup catcher and to strengthen the bullpen, especially at closer. Now, the easiest two things to do in each and every off-season are to change the bullpen and find a second catcher. The two toughest -- AA's other goals -- went unfulfilled. There was nothing being hidden by AA at the time or being guessed at by the media. He was flush with optimism and that's when he is at his most candid.
The original game plan is being delayed a year. I suspect some of it has to do with the late news of the successful bid for the MLSE share that has yet to be finalized. The Darvish and Fielder things were less about the huge money than they were about the silly principle of not going more than five years of guaranteed money. As for future Votto, that has nothing to do with anything that has happened this winter. The Jays would love to see Adam Lind succeed and rebound as a first baseman this year. But if Votto is available over the next two winters, the Jays will be there. But the Reds are poised to contend this year and Votto is an important part of that,. He is a free agent after 2013 and he will be demanding more than a five-year deal. So, unless the Jays change their policy, they're already out of the running for the Etobicoke flash.
Q-I beg to differ from all the doom and gloom out there that 2012 is going to be a lost season. With Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow continuing to mature as starting pitchers, I am also expecting Brett Cecil to rebound from his poor record last year. With Dustin McGowan and whoever else who make up the 4th and 5th starter, I do not think it will be too far-fetched to think that the starters alone can win 4 or 5 more games than last year. When you consider the much improved bullpen and continued even marginal improvement of Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus and Kelly Johnson, they should be able to win another 4 or 5 games, which will push them close to 90 wins and contender territory. The above, of course, is premised on not too many serious injuries to the key players. Mark my words, the Blue Jays will contend this year, particularly if they are still in the mix at the trade deadline so AA can pull off a trade for another bat or a blue chip starter.
Harry Ng, Qatar
A-I don't think that any projected 81 win season is ever “doom and gloom” it's just not good enough. You're reaching and praying with some of your upbeat analyses. While Romero, Morrow and the bullpen will all be solid, the pitching overall, especially rotation spots 3-5, will be the big question mark. The pen is considered effective to very good but only if they are consistently asked to pitch three innings or less in a game. It's when the starters fail and the pen is extended and gets out of its comfort zone, when Frasor enters a game in the third inning like he did last year, before he's even had a chance to have his first coffee, that's when problems arise.
If Drabek, or Alvarez, or Hutchison, or McGuire or someone else steps up in the rotation then they may move up in the standing. Kelly Johnson is what he is. Colby Rasmus is what he was two years ago. Lawrie is what he will be. The kid has to remain healthy. He is so intense on the field he might fracture a wrist giving a high five. It's far from doom and gloom but it's just as far from a wild-card berth.
Q-Trade Proposal: Roy Halladay for Anthony Gose, Travis D'Arnaud, and Kyle Drabek...which GM says no? This trade actually make sense again for both teams. The Jays need a veteran #1 starter to anchor their staff, and the aging Phillies badly need an injection of youth to a team that may be out of it in two more years. What do you think?
Darren Low, Toronto
A-The question should be “Which player says no?” The answer to that is Halladay. He wants no part of sustained mediocrity You're right about the Phils in two more years, but they want to take their best shot at another World Series this year before the window closes. By the time the suggestion is revisited at the end of 2012, the Jays may have changed their mind if D'Arnaud and Gose develop as expected.
Q-Travis Snider is an enigma, but exactly the guy AA would be trying to trade for. I say you play him every day during spring training and give him at least three at-bats. If his swing mechanics are not correct, you'll be able to evaluate him and get rid of him before the end of spring training without burning his one remaining option. I think the Jays should give him the opportunity to play the entire season regardless. You'd be trading him at his lowest point right now and quite frankly the only way he maximizes overall value to the Jays is if he is on the Jays. If he can't make it this year then we all know it, and he'll be worthless anyways. I don't like how the Jays use him as a human yo-yo and continually send him down as soon he starts to struggle.
Jason Sinnarajah, San Francisco
A-Perhaps the fact that Snider is the type of player that AA would pursue is why he is still on the roster after a couple of disappointing seasons. The great thing about baseball and having 30 different organizatons is that they are all possessed of huge egos. Snider is a first round high school pick that has been highly touted all the way through his pro career. Even though his numbers say that he has been a disappointment, 20 other teams may be looking at him and thinking that “if we get a hold of this guy, with a change of scenery and with our coaching, we can make him fulfil his potential.” All you need is more than one or two teams and a player's value stays high. Snider is far from the point where just one team would be interested. But as you point out, the Jays hang onto him and he is now going head-to-head in left field with Eric Thames and it's not like they bring different skills to the table. This is the clearest battle for a position that I have seen in years. The only thing that would change it is if AA before opening day reaches out and acquires that experienced power bat he was looking for all winter.
Q-When will the Jays retire Carlos Delgado's number?
Sean Martin, Toronto
A-It's the Level of Excellence and that does not involve retiring numbers. The only numbers retired are Robby Alomar's 12 for being in the Hall-of-Fame and Jackie Robinson's 42 retired by MLB. But I would suggest that the Jays should honour Delgado some time during the 2013 season, the 20th anniversary of his major-league debut. Whenever it turns out to be, just be sure to do it.
Love the blog. But I disagree with your recent criticism of AA. When he took over from Riccardi, AA said something like: we're going to rebuild, take the time to do it right and resist pressure to make a big move before the organization is ready. It's the same way Pat Gillick built the team, the same way Montreal competed all those years. The Jays' farm system is full of potential stars still one, two or three years away. Is it really worth it to trade them now, only to still be mired in mediocrity three years from now? I want the Jays to compete every year, not mortgage the future again to make a run that falls short. You don't do that by trading your prospects for players. And what's the sense of paying a free agent $22M a year to help you finish third?
As a longtime Maple Leafs fan, I can tell you I've been waiting for a GM to come in and actually build the organization from the bottom up, rather than trade 1st rounders for stars past their prime. Waiting two or three more years is nothing compared to the lows Leafs fans have endured since 1977. I would hate to see AA bow to media and fan pressure, make moves under these unfavourable circumstances, only to be criticized later by those who pressured him into dealing. Sometimes not making deals is the better move. Remember how happy we were when JP re-signed Vernon Wells? I say let AA keep playing the long game. Once the farm system begins to produce stars on a regular basis, that's when you blow $200M on a superstar free agent. And if it looks like trading Bautista makes more sense, then do it. Maybe for a top-of-the-rotation starter. Some fans will melt away, but strong TV ratings mean the Jays will go on. And once they start competing, even if it takes another three years, fans will come back to the park. Especially if they bring in real grass. About time!
Darren MacDonald, Sudbury
A-I respect your views and feel your pain as a Leafs fan. The Jays may have been able to put themselves in a position to reasonably expect to compete in 2012 if they had been able to make the trade for a starting pitcher first. But if it had to be the other way around and wasn't. If they had chosen to sign a big-ticket free agent hitter first and then after that were not able to get a pitcher, that would have been the wrong order, maybe even a disastrous sequence in terms of sticking to the professed game plan that you rightly pointed out.
My understanding is that Anthopoulos believes he made a competitive offer for Mat Latos from the Padres and that he was a little disturbed that his offer finished second to the Reds who gave up Yonder Alonso, Edinson Volquez and two other prospects. At that point, AA's head was spinning. He's not used to being wrong. He then felt the haul the Nats gave up for Gio Gonzalez was too high and after that he, correctly, did not want to surrender Lawrie for Michael Pineda since the Jays' area of strength in the minors is young starting pitching and his weakness is third base.
The fan base seems to be souring on the Jays' offseason moves, but with the doors of spring training swinging open soon I think there is room for some optimism. The biggest hole from last season was filled (8th and 9th inning relief) and the team returns a pretty good offensive lineup. I know everyone would love another top-end arm to go with Romero and Morrow but I am glad AA didn't overpay for a marginal guy like Gio Gonzalez or Matt Latos. Am I being too sunny or should the Jays be significantly better overall this season?
Ryan Hanchett, Goldsboro, NC
A-I think actually people sell last year's bullpen short. Manager John Farrell admits that he screwed up the pen by being reactionary and not sticking with his veterans in the situations they deserved. He went from Rauch to Francisco to nobody to Rauch to Francisco as closer. Casey Janssen was really good out of the pen. Remember that before the July trade for Colby Rasmus, there was depth with Frasor and Marc Rzepczynski and Dotel. But between July and September, they were scrambling to find the right role for Jesse Litch – that's role. Francisco ended the season being quite an effective closer, but I still wouldn't want to be a Mets fan with FF and Rauch now anchoring their pen. By the way, when we're talking baseball in February, there's no such thing as being “too sunny”.