The Jays announced this week that they have sold out the home opener at the Rogers Centre on Friday, April 1 against the Twins which is proof positive that fans are buying into the two-year-old program of GM Alex Anthopoulos and President Paul Beeston.
There have been no unrealistic promises of contending this year but yet fans have responded to sell out – at least for the opener. For the first time in a long time, major-league baseball is opening the season on a weekend, something they should have done long ago.
How long the fans stay faithful and believe in their Jays is another story. Hey, the Leafs have surged into 10th place in the conference. Gotta plan the parade route.
The Jays have a rugged early-season schedule in April/May that includes 20 road games among the first 31 contests, with a west-coast swing and stops in New York, Texas, Boston and Tampa. It will be an interesting baseball season with a wide range of victory totals possible for a still-building home team.
For all you fantasy baseball experts the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame has an interesting fundraising idea. The Hall and its president, Tom Valcke, have organized a pool in which fans can choose their own team of major-leaguers for the regular season and contribute $10 to the excellent, non-profit organization located in St. Marys, ON.
The 2011 pool is offering more than $1,200 worth of prizes, including a very unique prize to the champion - a limited edition special bat created by the Hall of Fame bearing the signatures of Canada's three MVPs, Larry Walker, Justin Morneau, and Joey Votto. Check it out online at http://baseballhalloffame.ca/ if you gert a chance.
On to the mailbag.
Q. Hey Richard. Very much enjoy your insights into all things Blue Jays and MLB. Over here in the Middle East it's nothing but football (soccer) and cricket, sigh.
My question relates to the Jays' coaching staff. Given the changes and how instrumental they will be to a relatively young team, what are your thoughts thus far in spring taining and how do you think this coaching staff (manager included) matches up against other teams' coaching staffs? And finally, is there a coaching staff over the years in all of MLB that you would pay special tribute to? Thanks.
Paul M, Manama, Bahrain
A. This Jays' coaching staff is a teaching staff and that's what the Jays needed at this time. The manager John Farrell is a former pitching coach who knows that side of the game but also knows what kind of offensive teams gave his Red Sox pitching staffs trouble in preparing for them. That is why he wants to integrate an aggressive running gameplan into the Jays' offensive mix.
The pitching coach Bruce Walton is entering his second year as the main pitching guy after years as the bullpen coach. He knows his pitchers' individual personalities and cares about their health above all. The staff, especially the starters, are very close to each other and to their coach.
Hitting coach Dwayne Murphy gets much credit for Jose Bautista's dramatic power surge, but his philosophy of hitting the pitch you are looking for no matter when it comes in the pitch sequence has helped guys like John McDonald as well as the power guys. If it's not a pitch that you were expecting, just take it until you have two strikes. Murphy also has helped guys get ready on time and be in hitting position earlier to get the bat head out front for maximum power.
It's been a long time since the Jays have had a catching guy per se, but Don Wakamatsu has spent countless hours in discussion with rookie J.P. Arencibia, helping him with the finer points of the game. He is a former major-league manager with the M's.
Luis Rivera is in his first year with the Jays, but has been on a coaching staff at the major-league level with the Indians and has managed himself at AA-New Hampshire where he forged a strong relationship with guys like Kyle Drabek, Eric Thames, Adeiny Hechavarria and others. He is a former major-league shortstop and pays close attention especially to the middle of the infield.
Brian Butterfield's ongoing resume includes work with a young Derek Jeter in the Yankee system in the early '90s and continues today for his fourth Jays manager as a valuable instructor on the mental side and the mechanics of playing the infield. As a third-base coach, he's not afraid of challenging the defence by going first to third, second to home, but if his runner is thrown out, there's usually a calculated-risk explanation, depending on game situation, score, runner and defender.
The Jays have never really had a hands-on outfield instructor, but this spring Torey Lovullo has been tenacious with the outfielders, constantly hitting them groundballs in the outfield from behind a screen during batting practice, taking Travis Snider through exhausting throwing repetitions as other players shag during b.p. and preaching hitting the cutoff man, throwing to the right base and proper jumps and routes to flyballs. Lovullo has nine years as a minor-league manager, the last five at Triple-A.
Pat Hentgen is a rookie bullpen coach working with a veteran bullpen. He will learn from Farrell and Walton and can contribute from his experiences as a Jays star and Cy Young winner. He knows he's learning but brings a mental preparation expertise to the task. At least four of these coaches could go on to become major-league managers. Not sure about the manager yet, but this is one of the best coaching staffs in baseball right now. It's hard to compare going back in time, but in this day and age, with players rushed through the minors, the need for a teaching staff is as great as it has ever been. That's what the Jays have.
Q. Hi Rich. Adam Lind's conversion over to 1B seemed to be a big topic of discussion as spring training rolled around, yet I haven't read or heard much in terms of his development so far there. How has he progressed at that position, seeing as how opening day is less than two weeks away? Thanks.
Thomas Turniawan, Antigonish, NS
A. Lind's conversion has gone just about as expected for a man that has played the position before in college, but obviously not at this level. His best asset is handling throws in the dirt, although he fanned on a sinker from Yunel Escobar at shortstop on Wednesday night. His feeds to pitchers covering the bag have been good, far better than last year when he forced David Purcey into the air and he came down on the corner of the bag and sprained his ankle. He is better going towards the line to field groundballs, rather than going to his right. He is not graceful looking, but there are no style points. His throws to second base are not always precise, but he is not afraid of the throw.
Coach Brian Butterfield works with him constantly before practice and during batting practice hitting him countless groundballs and preaching footwork. The only criticism is that Lind did not take the knowledge of his impending position change to get a head start with the glove either at Instructional League or in any winter league.
Q. It seems like the prevailing rationale for keeping Jo-Jo Reyes in the running for the No. 5 spot in the rotation is his lack of options. Why should that drive the Blue Jays decision making? Why not base it solely on performance? It almost seems a bit unfair to Jesse Litsch -- a guy who seems recovered from injury and has more of an established track record.
Jay V, Petrolia
A. Manager John Farrell has called the lack of any remaining minor-league options when there's a decision to be made a “tiebreaker” that it only comes into play if there are two players of similar talent and one of them has options. Then he would go to the minors.
Farrell swears it will be the best 12 pitchers that break with the team and nothing else. That's a noble, very difficult goal, but it's what the Jays are saying. Guys with no options like Reyes and David Purcey are inventory and why would the organization want to give up useful inventory for nothing.
The more good players you control the better. There was an Expos player in the '80s who upon signing his first big contract decided his wife after wearing an outfit once should throw it out instead of having it dry cleaned. Sure she always looked good in new clothes, but was it the most efficient plan for her closet inventory over time? She waived her wardrobe once a week without thinking about or worrying about the future. If you let a major-league player go right now because you have something similar on hand, that's short-sighted.
In any event, he 26-year-old Reyes has been a revelation at camp including his six strong innings vs. the Yankees on Wednesday. He has overcome knee injuries from the past to earn a spot on the roster. The Jays' lack of options, the lack of ability to send him out to the minors without passing him through waivers (where he would surely be claimed) was a factor, but his performance on the mound this spring meant that even without the injury to Brandon Morrow, Reyes was going to be on the team. It will be an interesting decision when Morrow returns to the rotation, but it's likely Reyes will stay.
Q. Richard. With David Cooper having such a strong spring, do you think that if the Adam Lind test at first base fails, could you see a Cooper promotion in May/June, and move Lind back to DH? With Cooper in the lineup it would add another left-handed bat to a right-handed heavy lineup. Do you think this would happen about the same time as a Lawrie callup?
Scott Cochrane, Niagara on the Lake
A. Edwin Encarnacion has been promised regular at-bats to re-sign with the Jays. If the Lind first-base conversion failed, Edwin would get the first shot.
David Cooper has certainly opened eyes this spring with John Farrell wondering out loud how a guy with his sweet swing was ever a .250 hitter in the minors. Cooper is just 24-years-old and just completed a second stalled season at AA-New Hampshire. However while hitting .257, he doubled his home run total of the year before to 20. At Tampa this spring he hit a bomb over the right field bleachers that landed on the concourse and bounced out into the street. He was selected 17th overall in the 2008 draft and that's a lot of pressure for a young player that starts out slowly in his career. In that draft, Brett Lawrie was chosen by Milwaukee 16th overall and Brett Wallace No. 13 by the Cards. The Jays had liked both those guys as their own first pick.
Q. Hi Richard. Love and look forward to this column every week! My question pertains to having multiple coaches. There is a lot of discussion on the effect Dwayne Murphy had on the majority of Blue Jays hitters last season. His philosophy has clearly helped the majority of our hitters, at least in terms of power production.
However, given that Adam Lind and Aaron Hill had a much worse showing last year, is it possible that Murphy's approach just doesn't work for everyone? I know there are a number of factors involved in a player's performance, but it seems unusual that there is a clear division between the players that performed best last season from those that excelled in 09. Perhaps this is just coincidence but I'm curious: has any organization toyed with the idea of having two hitting coaches? This would allow players to choose who they feel most comfortable receiving instruction from or to get a fresh perspective when they are slumping.
Ryan Brooks, Toronto
A. That's an idea whose time will never come. In 2009, Cito Gaston talked about having three hitting coaches on the team, Gene Tenace, Murphy and Cito himself. That only worked for the Jays because all three men were preaching the same message of going to the plate with a gameplan, looking for your pitch and hitting it as hard as you can no matter what the count. In 2010 Tenace left the staff and the basic message remained the same. In '09, both Lind and Hill had solid years. In 2010 they tailed off although each hit 20-plus homers. Good hitting is so much about the mental approach and going to the plate with confidence. Having two different hitting coaches borders on panic and lack of confidence.
Q. What part of the Blue Jays team do you think they need to improve in order to compete for a championship. I think the team looks really good but just needs sometime to mature.
Craig Robinson, Swift Current
A. The Jays need a stud No. 1 starter that has done it before, with 230-plus innings and regularly working seven innings per start. They had that man in Roy Halladay but that wasn't going to work anymore. When they traded him to the Phillies it meant taking a two-year step backwards. This is year two. That stud pitcher may be on hand but the Jays won't win anything until he steps up.
The Jays also need a reliable top of the order, first and second place hitters that set the table regularly for the 3-4-5 guys putting pressure on the pitcher and defence with the threat of speed, ensuring that an opponent can't pitch around the middle of the order because there are runners on base. The protection for Jose Bautista will come as much from those batting in front of him as from those batting behind. The Jays to win need a catcher that can lead a pitching staff with confidence but can also deliver some offence. J.P. Arencibia is supposed to be that guy, but is still working on all aspects of that description.
Q. Recently it has been suggested that both Kyle Drabek and Brandon Morrow would benefit from throwing to veteran catcher Molina rather than rookie catcher J.P. Arencibia. Arencibia's struggling this spring, not only with handling breaking pitches and opposing baserunners, but also with his batting average that hovers around .100. Will Molina be sharing starting catcher duties with Arencibia as the 2011 season begins? What's the prognosis for Arencibia?
Andrew W.,Tampa Bay
A. It looks like Arencibia will begin the season catching games for Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil and Jesse Litsch, while Jose Molina will handle Kyle Drabek and the Morrow/Reyes combo. When Morrow returns and if Reyes is still in the rotation, Jo-Jo would likely go over to Arencibia. If that 3-of-5 thing continued all year it would give Arencibia about 97 starts behind the plate. That could change as the season goes along and he picks up the nuances that he lacks right now.
Defensively, Arencibia has been throwing well. He has boxed some balls around as a receiver, not because of an inability to handle breaking pitches but because he needed to soften his hands and relax. He is doing a better job at that as the spring goes along as well as improving his glove action at the bottom of the strike zone and getting away from stabbing at the ball giving umpires a bad impression of certain pitches, losing strikes for his staff. Defensively he is getting the hands-on treatment from coach Don Wakamatsu and can often be seen sitting at Molina's locker discussing catching. His hitting is the major issue right now, but the Jays are committed to him with no time frame. They point out how John Buck had a slow start for two months in 2010 and they stayed with him and he became an all-star.