There's an interesting discussion each year, the week the Lou Marsh trophy is awarded for Canada's athlete of the year. This year, in what was a wide-open vote announced on Tuesday, the winner was world champion figure skater Patrick Chan.
The great thing about the Marsh award is that it includes all Canadian athletes -- male and female, pro and amateur, team sports and individual. No doubt there is a huge difference in the level of the Marsh competition whenever it's an Olympic year, which this year was not.
As such, the selection of the figure skater Chan for being undefeated in the calendar year of 2011 and setting several world records is a controversial one. After all, what is a world record in figure skating other than a panel of judges all deciding that that skate was pretty damn good. To me, sports that require judging are somehow sketchy when it comes to athlete of the year.
My choice, no surprise here, would be a baseball player in a year in which the Marsh field was unfortunately narrowed by a concussion to Sidney Crosby, no Olympics, either summer or winter and a Wimbledon injury to emerging tennis star Milos Raonic. But, in terms of baseball, despite another great season by Etobicoke's Joey Votto, my choice would have been Brewers' closer John Axford.
Axford's is a great Canadian rags to riches story that we love as a nation of underdogs. The 28-year-old native of Port Dover, Ont., was 2-2, with a 1.95 ERA in 74 games. He was 46-for-48 in save appearances as the Brewers swept to an NL Central title and a first round win over the D'backs. Certainly his numbers don't match up to Eric Gagne's Cy Young season for the Dodgers in '03, but how long did Roger Maris's home run record hold up. It doesn't mean there wasn't greatness in between.
Here's why Axford deserves recognition for more than just the raw numbers. The gangly kid with the floppy moustache could have quit but prevailed. He attended Notre Dame, had Tommy John elbow surgery in 2003 and was signed only after his final year of eligibility at Canisius College as a 23-year-old in '06 by the Yankees. Great arm, no command, he was released by the Yankees in December '07.
Axford may have thought he was done as a pitcher. He had had a failed stint in the Intercounty League for the Brantford Red Sox where he could not seem to throw strikes and had famously worked as a bartender at East Side Mario's in Ancaster. Would you like fries with that penne? Don't forget to tip your waiter.
There is also personal history for me here. In February of '08, my then-15-year-old son Patrick was asked by the fabulously energetic Rick Johnston, owner of The Baseball Zone in Mississauga if he could please catch this tall struggling kid who was trying to make a comeback and get signed.
Pat caught John Axford's 15-minute bullpen before hitting the cages getting ready for his Oakville A's season. Afterwards he praised Axford's arm but shook his head at his command.
A month later the Brewers signed Axford to a minor-league deal. They were one of the few teams that could make it through snowdrifts to see him tryout for scouts. That's a Canadian success story in itself that should be rewarded.
Axford in '10 replaced a future Hall-of-Famer Trevor Hoffman and in 2011 held off the challenge of '02 World Series star Francisco Rodriguez. Axford is also an award-worthy Canadian in that he has a tremendous relationship with his fans on Twitter and has never forgotten his roots despite reaching heady heights of success in his sport. He would have been my choice. At least, in an announcement made on Wednesday, he gets to share the 2011 Tip O'Neill Award with Votto, as voted by the Canadian Baseball Hall-of-Fame at St. Marys.
On to the Mailbag.
I am a long time Blue Jays fan and about to lose my mind, the time to put up and shut up is now. We have endured JP and his arrogant ways and now AA and his promises, the honeymoon is over we have heard 2012 for the past three seasons. We have seen salary shed with Wells, Rios, Halladay and others with little free agent spending. It's time to recapture our excitement. Give Fielder $250 million, trade for Hanley Ramirez get that one impact Top-3 rotation starting pitcher. These moves are doable, it’s not fantasy; sign the check for Prince, send Hechavarria, Lind and a young highly-touted prospect pitcher to Florida for Ramirez.... Can you imagine that lineup? Instead what do we get? Francisco and whoever that guy from Chicago is....Are you kidding me? Time to put up.
Scott S., Sudbury
A-The time to win is definitely 2012. Fans demand it. Jose Bautista won't say it but he wants it now. The time to get indignant about lack of progress toward that end is not now, it's the opening of training camp if the Jays have not done anything more to address that goal. Anthopoulos has two more months to work on his roster, but if this is what you get, then he has had a bad winter. Let's see, Brad Mills, Nestor Molina and Frank Gailey for Jeff Mathis, Sergio Santos and Ben Francisco. AA said he was going to use the organization's starting pitching depth to bring in talent to help the Jays win now. That's three minor-league starters, one of them, Molina, really good, for a backup catcher, a closer that has done it for less than one full year and a platoon left fielder. The Jays are not a better team now than they were at the end of the 2011 season. But there are moves other than Fielder and Hanley Ramirez that could be made to create a winner. However, the clock is ticking on AA's winter plans.
Q-With the recent trade for Ben Francisco is this a clear signal the Jays are going to trade either Thames or Snider for pitching and if so which one? And what are the chances of landing Fielder? I see a 2012 lineup as such Escobar SS; Lawrie 3B; Bautista RF; Fielder 1B; Arencibia C; Rasmus CF; Lind DH; Thames/Snider LF; Johnson 2B.
Chris A., Hamilton
A-I would say that the current plan is to use either Snider or Thames in a trade package for a mid-rotation starting pitcher. Right now, as roster players with major-league experience that have the ability to play left field, the Jays have eight players -- Snider, Thames, Rajai Davis, Ben Francisco, Kelly Johnson, Edwin Encarnacion??, Mark Teahen and Mike McCoy. That is a second Jays' pool of strength like minor-league starting pitching from which to deal. Pitchers out there that are available include Gio Gonzalez of the A's, Wandy Rodriguez of the Astros, Matt Garza of the Cubs, John Danks of the White Sox, Jair Jurrjens of the Braves and either Wade Davis or James Shields of the Rays. Anthopoulos' style is to allow opposing GMs to make their choice of which player from a particular pool they would like, so there is no internal Jays preference of which player, Snider or Thames, stays.
Are the Jays trying to lose so management can collect a cash bonanza when the team has to move to another city ? We just signed Ben Francisco, yet another in the long line of overage, under-performing mediocrities. Did AA learn nothing from Corey Patterson, Juan Rivera, etc? Why was career minor leaguer Mike McCoy batting leadoff? Why was DeWayne Wise brought back a third time? Why was Brian Tallet brought back - mercifully briefly? All this supports my semi-facetious conspiracy theory. For 2012 this team has one starting pitcher (Romero), one prospect (Alvarez), one five hundred pitcher ( Morrow — please no more about his potential upside! This is it ). Cecil is done. Luis Perez — another career minor leaguer . Drabek — rushed too fast, a chronic problem in the modern game. And is Tony LaRussa right about Colby Rasmus? Another 75 - 80 win season is in the bag.
Selby Martin, Toronto
A-Moving the Jays to another city as an eventual goal is a concept that is so far out there that it renders the rest of your rant as insignificant. Corey Patterson was insurance for a shallow position. Juan Rivera was a necessary contract that AA was forced to take in the Vernon Wells trade. McCoy batting leadoff was injuries. Wise was minor-league inventory whose best-before date has clearly been reached. Tallet was a Rivera-like throw-in to allow the Rasmus deal to be completed and was quickly let go. Nice of you to be able to sum up the Jays 2012 rotation in 42 words. As for Rasmus, there certainly are questions about his ability to handle major-league pressures, but the question becomes did Tony LaRussa merely recognize Rasmus's problems in coping or did he help to create them? Spring training will begin to answer the Rasmus riddle when he gets a fresh start with his new team and tries to fit in. The fact is he was a mess last season after the trade.
Q-Is Travis Snider about to be traded? Today the Jays picked up Ben Francisco who seems to be the ideal platoon guy (against lefties). One of Snider or Thames would be traded in that scenario. Also, today the Jays announced their winter tour schedule. Eric Thames is included. Last year I believe Travis Snider was on this. Interestingly enough Brett Cecil is also included this year. I wonder if management is happy with his offseason weight loss and has decided to keep around. Perhaps this mean Kyle Drabek is gone too. Trading Drabek and Snider would probably net us less now since 2011 was a setback year for both.
Jason S., San Francisco
A-The best thing for Snider and his career may be a trade where he can start over with a clean slate. His defensive abilities have improved last spring working with Torey Lovullo. He has major-league power and has a base-runner's speed. He is a good athlete and a good, respectful presence in the clubhouse. There may be a little too much made of which players are attending certain events like the Jays' winter tour. Vernon Wells was the centrepiece last January and how did that turn out for him? Players may have a conflict of schedule or may have had a season that, when asked, they felt the event didn't deserve their presence. They may be mad at the team. There may be players that are uncomfortable with public speaking or appearances. A bigger indication of organization intent is to find out who is on the cover of the media guide, or to check out the player that is featured on any off-season promotional material. That can sometimes give away a team's trade plans. As for Drabek and Snider, they are both highly regarded former first-round picks who both maintain value with any interested teams believing in the “change of scenery” theory. But you don't just give either guy away as a throw-in.
With AA's ability to give up one of the top pitching prospects the Jays had in Nestor Molina for an uproven but very talented, controllable Santos, will there be any more moves before February rolls around that shows AA's willingness to trade those prospects and turn them into major league talent? This trade really showed that AA isn't all about acquiring prospects for the minor league systems. What do you think will be the next domino to fall? 2b and Closer are address, what other holes/additions the Jays need to make to succeed in 2012?
Scott C., Niagara on the Lake
A-The Jays cannot stop their contender-building process where they are right now without adding one or two more starting pitchers through trade or free agency and more bullpen help. They could also use a big bat in left field. As I wrote at the moment of the trade in Dallas, I like Santos as a part of the Jays moving forward, but the caveat is he only had 28 innings pitched prior to 2010 and now has had less than one full season as a closer. His numbers are good, especially all the new-wave voodoo stats, but is he the real deal for a winning team. I would have acquired him and also inked a short-term proven closer so that Santos could be an eighth inning guy for now with ninth inning ability for the time being. He's under control for six years, with increases through the final three option years, 2015-17. When Santos proves he's a closer on a true contender then hand him that role still at a good salary, but at $1 million in 2012, you could still afford another one of the proven closers on the market.
Up to now AA's moves are moves to make the Jays competitive...not to excellent. Two old closers for one young closer...same middle of the pack 2nd baseman. I see little to persuade me that he's going to spend the money to go to the next level...even to get back with certainty to the 86-87 win level.
Peter T., Elizabeth City, NJ
A-Right now, the Jays have to rely on the natural improvement of being more experienced for Romero, Arencibia and Morrow. They have to count on a bounce back by Lind in his second season at first base and adjustments to situations of a mental challenge not of their choosing for Rasmus and Johnson. They have to count on Santos being the real deal as closer and Brett Lawrie's adrenaline continuing to fuel his excellence. They have to rely on Henderson Alvarez taking the next step and Jose Bautista staying healthy. They have to count on John Farrell handling his bullpen better and Yunel Escobar not losing interest. They were lucky to win 81 games last season given the injuries and tumult. An improvement of six win would be unlikely if the Jays entered the season with the team they have now.
Q-Richard your thoughts please.
The Blue Jays' haul at this year's winter meetings, seems to have been a disappointment to both the team's fans (not surprising) and writers (kind of surprising). When was the last time Toronto's fans and majority of the city's journalists in agreement think the Jays should make a big splash? Was this a Prince Fielder thing? Did we all think it would have been amazing to see Prince in a Jay's uniform, bringing back memories of Cecil and the awesome 80's when we were building towards conquering the American League? Was it a Rogers thing? I think as Torontonians we uniquely understand Rogers dominance over our city (I used to live in CityPlace, I understand). We know they have the money. There's also a decent business case to be made:
A) Again, they have a ton of money (congrats on MLSE by the way)
B) You can trade any contract in two to three years to the Yankees no matter how bad or uneconomical it seems (we have Anthopolous, he can pretty much do anything.
C) By signing Prince, the city's largest digital conglomerate will be a hero to all of Toronto for at least 60 days. Could you imagine the Rogers' CEO press conference that would follow the Prince signing? I would sign up for the extra HD channels that day.
D) We have Anthopolous, he can do pretty much anything. Let him build a champion around Bautista/Fielder/Lawrie. Rogers needs to remember that we used to run this league. 50,000 fans a game, 82 games a year, 4,000,000 fans yearly, four pennants, two league titles, two World Series.At $20 million a year for 7 years, how do you not make that move if you're Rogers?
Ashton L., Toronto
A-There are several problems surrounding the Jays and Prince Fielder. One is agent Scott Boras who tries never to lose or compromise in any negotiation. He does not have the greatest relationship with the Jays, having used their name with little truth or substance to their interest in the past to boost some of his clients' values. Number two is the required years 7-10 of any contract at $20-million-plus that Fielder is demanding. Think about the fact that once you lock up Fielder through 2021, he now becomes the payroll focus for the foreseeable future. Fielder has been surprisingly durable, but what about injuries. As he gets older, that body is not going to get smaller. The Jays made the mistake with Vernon Wells and ended up being eternally grateful to the Angels for taking the remaining years of the contract. Three is that CEO Paul Beeston believes that mega free-agents given the choice want to go to a proven winner, which the Jays are not. Personally, I believe the first three or four years of Fielder would be a honeymoon that would work but still not necessarily result in a World Series. After that it could be hell. Artificial turf would eat him up defensively.
Q-Having just read your story on the purchase of MLSE and the effect it may have on how Rogers treats the Jay, I can only hope you are wrong. It is no secret that any organizations goal is to maximize revenues in its various streams. Knowing what the 1990 Jays' were capable of in terms of attendance, mass audiences and marketing, I can not help but feel that that this was part of the reasoning in Rogers purchase of the Jays. To this end, Rogers have remained dedicated to rebuilding the brand and are on the verge of realizing potential while many investors point out that MLSE has for a large part utilized theirs. I am more inclined to hope that it is year round quality of television product that Rogers is hoping to guarantee. With luck, the Jays will improve again this year and seriously compete in 2013. Then Rogers will invest heavily.
Stephen S., London, ON
A-There were two things that bothered me about the Jays performance at the winter meetings in Dallas. Both of them surfaced when they acquired Sergio Santos on the Tuesday. First was when AA said that “payroll will go up when revenues go up, when fans start coming back to the games.” That's it. That's the best you can do. Blame the fans. He retracted the next day, in terms of fatigue and frustration.
But on Thursday the Angels signed Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, with not one extra fan setting foot through the doors of the stadium and by the weekend had sold an extra 1,000 season tickets. The Angels did not wait around patiently for revenues to increase before increasing payroll. Cart-horse? Chicken-egg? Payroll-attendance? Which comes first?
The second issue was when AA started talking about “parameters” and how he could make it work for the Jays whatever parameters he was given. In the past, even as late as the Thursday before the meetings at a luncheon with Toronto's baseball writers, he and Beeston were still happily talking about no actual payroll budget but that if they felt strongly enough about adding payroll they merely had to head up to the Rogers building and convince the powers that be that the payroll increase was necessary and that they had never been turned down. Something had changed in those six days. Could it have been the impending purchase of MLSE and the focus shifting to the big prize before some time in the future turning back to the Jays. It was the first time that Anthopoulos had ever shrugged when speaking about payroll. It was jarring.
I'm looking forward to your next mailbag following your trip to the meetings. It seems what the Angels have done puts the Jays further down (wild card). The Angels now have three 1B. I`d like to see a three-team trade involving Lind and Kendrys Morales (to Jays). I'd mentioned this before but never got a response. Playoff teams have 2-3 .300 hitters plus 2-3 switch hitters. Jays have neither. It'd be easier to manage against the Jays with the static L and R bats and no S. Do you think AA would pull a rabbit out of his hat for SP/LF (non worthy on the FA list)?
Kam H., Richmond Hill
A-I would say that the most legitimate contenders for the 2012 post-season at this point of the off-season are: AL West...Angels and Rangers; AL East...Yankees, Rays and Red Sox; AL Central...Tigers. The Jays, if there are two wild-cards as expected, may have felt they only had to beat out one of their three AL East opponents, but now you throw two AL West teams that should both have victory totals in the 90s, given that dynamic duo's 36 games vs. the A's and M's. It gets tougher for the Jays.
As for the suggested trade, I actually prefer Lind over Morales and as mentioned before, because of circumstances surrounding Lind, marriage, child, new position, conditioning, I am willing to give him a second season of being the first baseman before passing judgment. I see Lind having a bounce back. The other thing about .300 hitters and switch-hitters seems a personal observation. The switch hitter thing is just not a priority. What they do need is a stronger bench than they've had the past few years.
With the Blue Jays on the rise with an exciting young team, what are the chances that any of their games would be broadcasted to a national U.S. audience on, say, Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN or on FOX?
Vince T., Toronto
A-I would say that ESPN Sunday Night with a nice Toronto boy, Dan Schulman doing the play-by-play has a better chance of carrying the Jays than does FOX, which cares more about having an affiliate station in the markets of both competing teams.
With the new CBA seemingly hindering the Jays chances through drafting and international signings having a "cap" amount a predetermined amount being able to spend on such players given their draft position and with international signings everyone having the same amount of "cap" room available to each team. It would seem that AA's building model going forward will have to be adjusted due to the fact of penalties that could lead to at worst a per cent charge and lost 1st and 2nd round picks. My question is are the Jays able to increase their available funds in the draft and international signings by say "trading" with another team to increase their "cap'? Will AA be able to say make a trade for a player and give back a little better prospect if the trade partner say trades $2 million of either their draft or international available funds? Thx. This CBA seems to hinder the small to medium market clubs that build around drafting and international signings.
Scott C., Niagara on the Lake
A-The new CBA in my opinion was designed to favour the teams that were lazy in terms of creativity and international scouting. But just like AA and some other imaginative GMs were always one step ahead in gathering Type A or B players and flipping them for draft picks, I am confident that upon further review, AA will figure out new ways to take advantage of the new CBA. And in answer to your question, yes, teams are allowed to trade parts of their international signing cap in exchange for players or prospects. That fact will become another chip for GMs in making the adjustment. Also, there are tradable draft picks in that phony baloney competitive-balance draft — Nos. 31-36 and after the second round — that was designed as a bone to be thrown to small-market teams. There will be an adjustment period for teams, agents and players, but a guy like Jays' first-round pick Tyler Beede may have made a good educational decision going to Vanderbilt, but a bad business decision.
Read your article on Dave van Horne which you published earlier this year. I'm a former Montrealer who also went to Concordia, and now living in Glasgow, Scotland. Hence the reason for not seeing the article earlier. I remember Dave and the Duke ' so well as I was only a young lad when my dad took me to the Expos first home opener way back and gave me a cap to boot! I like to think that if not for the strike shortened season 'nos amours ' would have won the World Series and perhaps the franchise would have survived, albeit there was no chance of competing with Les Canadiens . Have always enjoyed reading your articles. All the best.
Charles C., Glasgow, Scotland
A-Thanks. And as far as I am concerned, Dave Van Horne and the late Tom Cheek are two of the best broadcasters on radio I've heard in my 39 years of working or covering Major League Baseball. Both men are in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame at St. Marys. Only one is enshrined at Cooperstown. It's a frustrating process, but fans should stay the course and keep up the campaign to get Tom in.
Great work with the Jays. I'm an ex-pat Torontonian living in Montreal and I grew up with the Jays. Now that the Jays have gotten back to a respectable look on the field, what about the field itself? What are the chances the Jays can “retro fit” the dome and keep the same location? Thanks for your time.
Patrick G., Montreal
A-They really do need to retrofit the dome. Some of the best free agents or players with veto rights won't come because of the artificial turf. That hurts the product. The Jays management has done a good job of player comfort underneath, but a grass surface with an all-dirt infield and more open-roof dates and more scoreboard replays would be a great start for fan comfort and concern. Why should fans at home know more about what's happening than fans at the game. They are encouraging fans to stay home. That's not right and if the no replay policy is to protect the umpires, forget the umpires. If the Argos are the issue or concerts, there are ways around it. Baseball fans should come first.