When the Jays open the 2011 season against the Twins on Friday, it will be this columnist's 39th major-league live-at-the-stadium home opener in a row, 22 with the Expos — the first four at Jarry Park, 18 at Olympic Stadium — and now 17 opening days covering the Jays at SkyDome/Rogers Centre.
It always seems that last day, the final 24 hours before opening day bring on familiar, but uncontrollable emotional reactions. Comparison? Let's see, hmm. If I can remember that far back, it's like when you're young and carefree, getting ready for a highly-anticipated first night out, infatuated by a fresh, new love.
You absolutely know how you would like the ensuing six months to turn out, minus the dog days, but it rarely happens the way you anticipated. Of course, that doesn't make it bad.
With either one, you're tied for first with everyone else, none of the exposed flaws you clearly know exist on display, just like in baseball. Your mind races, the mouth gets dry, the heart pounds out of control, contemplating the end-of-the-spectrum eventualities of success and failure that lie ahead.
In your mind's eye either thrilling scenario ends with a celebratory tangle of humanity at the moment of ultimate triumph — although one is in a packed stadium, the other behind closed doors.
Perhaps it's why aspects of inter-personal relationships are commonly given clear baseball similes, like “reaching second base,” “rounding third and headed for home,” “missing the sign,” “getting shut out,” “fantasy keeper,” “out in left field” or even “struck out.” (See Meat Loaf's iconic Paradise by the Dashboard Light).
The fact is Opening Day never gets old. The Jays are sold out. Play ball, gentlemen. On to the mailbag.
Q. Why are the Jays putting Edwin Encarnacion back at third and moving Jose Bautista to right field. This move would make sense if they had traded Juan Rivera, but it does not make sense. The only reasonable explanation is that they want to strike fear literally into the Yankee and Red Sox fans who sit behind their dugout during the Yankee/Red Sox visits to Rogers Centre.
Jason Sinnarajah, San Francisco
A. The key for Encarnacion's fantasy owners is that whether his tenure at third base is long or short, the Jays had promised him before he signed his new contract that if healthy, he would get his chance for 600 at-bats. They just couldn't promise in what role that would be. The move of Encarnacion back to third base is baffling on the surface but understandable the more you think about it. The position shuffle, in fact, has a ripple effect on seven Jays' organization players – Encarnacion, Bautista, Rivera, Adam Lind, Juan Rivera, Brett Lawrie, Corey Patterson and Scott Podsednik.
One key is that when the Jays negotiated for the long-term with Bautista, the understanding was that he would be a right fielder as soon as they could make it happen. Jose said he had nothing to do with the sudden position change, that he was as surprised as anyone. Technically correct. This spring he hadn't said anything to put pressure on management but he didn't need to. They already knew his feelings.
Rivera is the man that doesn't fit the Jays' picture moving forward. His $5.25 million contract was what the Jays were taking on in the Vernon Wells trade more than Rivera the player.
It's like if in Da Vinci's famous mural The Last Supper there was a 13th apostle named Juan on the far right-hand side. The painting still works, but there's something just not quite right. The belief here with Rivera and the Jays is that he will DH and play the corner outfield until GM Alex Anthopoulos can find a new home for his bat. AA is willing to eat salary in order to clear the deck of Rivera, who just doesn't fit the big picture of what they are trying to do.
With Rivera gone, it opens a spot for outfielders Patterson and Podsednik, both currently injured. It also opens a spot for the 21-year-old Lawrie to be promoted and learn third base on a daily basis from the Jays' excellent major-league coaching staff. That then allows EE to get his at-bats as DH and backup first baseman, the original plan. The temporary move of the chronically scatter-armed EE to third base is also an affirmation of Lind's ever-evolving transition to first base.
Q. Hi Richard. Should we be worried about Brett Cecil's loss in his fastball velocity? If so, how worried?
Mike S, Toronto
A. Yes we should be worried. Pitching coach Bruce Walton said that it happened two or three times last year and that Cecil's velocity always comes back. The excellent pitching coach had no theories on the cause. It's like waiting out the common cold. Cecil's fastball at its finest tops out at 90-92. Insiders say that his fastball speed this spring ranged between 86-91.
Finally, in his penultimate spring start, his frustration bubbled over. After yielding five runs in the sixth against the Braves including an absolutely crushed Dan Uggla bomb, Cecil, in a self-flagellating, post-game panic attack, had no explanation and questioned himself. Next time out, in his final spring tune-up, after a necessary session on Dr. Walton's psyche-soothing therapy couch, he had come in off the ledge and was speaking optimistically of hitting 91 m.p.h. once again. We don't know if that may have been Cecil merely whistling past the graveyard.
Recall last spring when Jason Frasor lost 2-4 m.p.h. off his fastball as the year opened. He lost the closer's role to Kevin Gregg before finally getting back to his usual 93-94 m.p.h. But it's easier to hide and adjust for a three-out reliever like Frasor than for an every-five-days starter like Cecil.
The Jays need everything to fall into place in order to compete with the .500 mark. Worry with Cecil is start-to-start, week-to-week. That could be enough to impact a Jays' season already on a tightrope.
Q. Hi Richard. I have read recent articles suggesting the Jays coaching staff is teaching Rajai Davis and Yunel Escobar to hit with more power. Is there a concern that Jays are giving up batting average for the sake of 5 more home runs? Top of the order guys need to get on base. You can only have so many guys who hit .240 with power.
David T, London
A. That's the misconception to what Jays' batting coach Dwayne Murphy is trying to accomplish. He's not teaching his students to hit with more power. He's teaching them to hit the ball hard. It works for everyone, including notorious non-power guys like John McDonald.
Consider the basic that in every six-pitch major-league sequence or plate appearance. He believes the pitcher is going to make one mistake or you are going to guess right one time on pitch, on location. Murphy is saying that whether that mistake or good read comes on the first pitch or the sixth pitch, the fact is your eyes should light up and you should crush that pitch. It's the best one you're likely to see.
In past years, as McDonald describes his own awakening, he would take that juicy pitch if it was early in the count because he didn't play often so he felt his goal was to see pitches and make the opposing pitcher work. He would arrive at two-strikes and have to defend his zone and adjust to pitcher's pitches.
In fact, Murphy's philosophy should not breed lower batting averages, although it's likely to lead to lower on-base averages. The explanation for a guy like Bautista drawing 100-plus walks is that Murphy preaches the discipline to not chase pitches out of the zone and the further fact is when you're a 50-homer guy, pitchers tend to try and make you chase with balls off the plate. If you don't chase, you walk.
Q. Hi Richard. How does Adam Loewen fit into the organization's plans for the future? Is there a chance he'll get back to the "show" after his injury? We never hear anything about him.
Domenic Jannetta, Toronto
A. The Jays signed outfielder Loewen early in the winter and left him off the major-league 40-man roster, exposing him to the Rule 5 draft where every other team passed. Loewen saw a lot of game action with the major-league Jays at spring training and impressed manager John Farrell with his raw athleticism and his upbeat attitude. Here's a guy that's already been in the majors as a pitcher trying to fight his way back as an outfielder. Think Rick Ankiel. He will go to Vegas, where he and Eric Thames and David Cooper will have a chance to impress the Jays in a hitters' ballpark. He's solid inventory.
Q. Hey Richard. What's your take on Yunel Escobar? He seems to fly under the radar, but I think he's poised for a fantastic season with all-star potential.
J Koops, Hamilton
A. There are moments when you see flashes of what frustrated the Braves so much about the talented young Cuban shortstop. There was the ball he drove to right centre that he thought was going to be caught in the alley but with a gale blowing out, it carried over the centre fielder's head to the fence. Two runs scored, but Escobar had been trotting out of the box and watching and even though he turned on the afterburners was thrown out at third.
But Escobar has something in Toronto that he didn't have with the Braves. He has Jose Bautista. After that out at third base, which was the third out, Escobar waited on the infield for his glove to be brought out. Bautista handed it to him and then quietly lectured him for 45 seconds while the pitcher warmed up and they took grounders from first base. Later in the game, Bautista hit a routine grounder to short and sprinted all the way through the bag. Point made. Escobar does have a chance to be an all-star. He's big, strong and talented on both sides of the ball.
Q. Richard, I hope I am wrong; however, I am not buying the Ricky Romero hype. Mostly because when he is 'off' he is really bad and does not often tough out hard wins. When his stuff is working he looks great but then he can look the exact opposite his next start. I thought it said something when he was bypassed for the opening day start last year - did the coaches feel the same and not trust his stuff? Love the Expos memories...keep it up.
Scott MacPherson, Calgary
A. At this point, Romero is less an ace than he is the No. 1 pitcher in the Jays' rotation. It's tough for any Jays' No. 1 in the rotation because memories of Roy Halladay in that role are still fresh. Romero is still developing. It must be remembered that just four years ago, in 2007 he was trying to find himself at AA-New Hampshire.
Just two years ago, in 2009 he was the final starter out of spring training and only because the other candidates took more of a late-spring step backwards than he did. He has come a long way in a short time, but still has much to learn. The Jays have a No. 1 starter but don't have an ace — yet.
Q. Hi Richard, I really liked the insights you wrote about Arencibia's level of readiness in last week's mailbag. The pressure must be very high on the kid. Speaking of kids, is there anything you can share about how Gary Carter handled the pressure as he became the No. 1 catcher in Montreal in 77, that JPA could benefit from? Thanks always.
Roland Jodoin, Calgary
A. The pressure on Arencibia would be higher if the Jays, after missing out on Rod Barajas, who spurned their offer to sign with the Dodgers, had not decided in December that they were going to stick with Arencibia and allow him all the rope he needed to develop in the spring and at the start of the season. He knows that and trusts their word.
The pressure would be greater if catcher Travis D'Arnaud was at AAA-Las Vegas rather than in New Hampshire. The pressure would be greater if manager John Farrell had not decided that Jose Molina could handle Kyle Drabek and Brandon Morrow allowing Arencibia a 3-of-5 work schedule to ease his way into being the starting catcher. The pressure would be greater if he had not had two years at Triple-A including last season's MVP of the PCL.
As for the Expos' Hall-of-Fame catcher Gary Carter, it didn't start out all gravy way for him either.
As a rookie Carter played a couple of seasons of rock-em-sock-em right field. The second year, the disastrous 1976, included a rib-crushing catch crashing into the short chain link fence at Jarry Park, missing significant time. When the Expos moved to Olympic Stadium, he moved behind the plate, but there were still pitchers that said they would prefer pitching to Barry Foote, still only 25-years-old. Carter's major problem early was that he was a bundle of energy and bounced around behind the plate instead of presenting a consistent target for his pitchers.
Another problem was that he tried too hard to be one of the guys as an early 20s major-leaguer. It didn't always work. He was trying too hard. There are parallels with Arencibia and if J.P. comes anywhere close to Carter's career, it would be great.
Q. Hi Richard. I always look forward to your mailbag. Based on the likely Opening Day roster, how would rank the Blue Jays' defence? Will the loss of Overbay and Wells have a significant impact? I know that defence is very difficult to quantify, but other than McDonald and Bautista (and Snider, who I feel is underrated as a fielder) I don't have a lot of confidence in our team in the field, and worry about what effect this could have on our young starters. Am I way off-base?
David Wencer, Toronto
A. There is cause for concern as far as the effect of the Jays' defence on the young starting pitchers. The only two positions at which the Jays should be considered above major-league average are shortstop and right field and right field only because of the deterrent of Bautista's throwing arm. At this point the Jays could be considered below average at first base, third base and behind the plate.
Even if it's one extra out required per game because of a play not made, that's what adds pitches and stressful situations to young pitchers and could have a subtle effect on their statistics. To Rajai Davis from Vernon Wells in centre field is a good example. Wells was sublime, with early jumps and good reads, gliding to the spot and making it look easy. Davis is faster and more spectacular, but that's because he's always making up ground for the split second longer reaction time than Wells and the slightly-off route he may have started out on. Overbay's glovework will be subtly missed as well.
Q. Has Scott Richmond had his moment in the sun or is there still a place for him in MLB? Also, since there's apt to be a fair bit of movement between here and Las Vegas during the season, tell us a little bit about who gets paid what and when. For example, if a player comes up for a couple of weeks to fill in for an injured regular and then is send down again, does he get paid the major league minimum while here and then reverts to the Triple A scale when he returns? And what is the Triple A scale these days? Thanks.
Jerry Lawton, Toronto
A. Richmond at the start of this spring had one healthy start in a Phillies B squad game and looked great. He was enthused afterwards. He was hitting 92 mph and spotting his breaking pitches for strikes. Then mid-spring he went through a dead-arm period and by the time he bounced back was optioned to Triple-A Vegas. In '11 there's a chance Jays' fans will see him later in the year, but in 2012 and beyond, he may have to find another team as the torrent of Jays' young starting pitchers sweeps over him.
As for salary, yes, any major-league call-ups during the year are pro-rated off of the minimum salary which is $400,000 plus a 2010 cost of living percentage bump.
The 40-man roster players have different rules for service time. Six-year free agent contracts are guaranteed and those players can't be sent out without their permission. Players who are arbitration-eligible are governed by minor-league options, but if they are sent out, their contracts stay at the major-league numbers. Players with five-plus years of service must give their permission to be sent out. Any player from pure rookie to arb-eligible players are generally working on split contracts where if they are sent to the minors, receive minor-league salaries for the time they are there, pro-rated. Triple A minimum is $32,500 for a rookie to that level and can reach $125,000 for certain veteran six-year minor-leaguers. It's a five-month season.