Over the next three days, ready or not, it’s the 2006 Baseball Jays Bloggers E-mail Roundtable!
Ladies and gentleman, introducing your Blue Jay bloggers:
First up, Mark Willis-O’Connor of Bluebird Banter, a 20-year-old university student who just started blogging in December, but he shows plenty of promise: “Like most Torontonians old enough to drive, I remember where I was the night Joe Carter "touched 'em all" to win the World Series: in my parents' room watching on a little 16" Hitachi television, wondering how I managed to stay up past eleven o'clock (I was a very naive 8-year-old). I'm not overly superstitious, so I don't have a lucky jersey, baseball, or bloody sock a la Curt Schilling, of course. However, I did carry a stress ball whenever Miguel Batista came in to close games last season. It came in handy.”
|RICHARD LAUTENS/TORONTO STAR|
|A healthy Roy Halladay, some top-drawer signings - things are looking up . . .|
Aaron Reynolds has been photographing and writing about the Jays for the top-drawer Batter's Box blog since 2003: “ I never intended to end up writing about baseball on the internet -- initially, I was just trying to gather some loud fans together to liven up the Rogers Centre. If you remember the big bass drum up in the 500 level from a couple of seasons back, that was us.”
Next up, Dan (Magpie) McIlroy, also of Batter’s Box: “I don't think of myself as a blogger, and I'm not much of a numbers guy, although they kid me about my Data Tables. I never gave the subject much thought. I started writing at Batter's Box at the beginning of 2005. I was interested in rather odd projects, like... oh, a 9,000-word essay on the 1912 season. The lads at the box said "Cool, go for it." So I do.”
At cleanup, the third from Batter’s Box, it’s Kurt (Pistol) Lamont: “A part of Batter's Box for several years, I grew up a Jays fan on the south side of Lake Ontario in the 80s. I now reside in Red Sox nation as perhaps the only Jays fan that isn't employed by the team or a member of their family.”
Right behind Kurt in the order is Toronto Baseball Guys, Jim Turner doing the 'splainin': “We launched March 1, 2003, in an attempt to add something unique and fairly irreverent to the baseball landscape. At the time it seemed the mainstream media was more interested in taking shots at the GM than genuine analysis, and we thought we could do better." Jim is joined by a trio of friends from TBG's and their favourite baseball memories: Sean Doyle - Game 6 of the 1992 World Series, crowded around a tiny black and white TV with friends and watching Mike Timlin field Otis Nixon's bunt; Christopher James - Emerging from two baseball-free years in Eastern Europe to find Tony Fernandez, age 37: a) back on the Blue Jays, playing 3B, b) on the all star team and c) flirting with .400; Joel Williams - Alomar off Eck in the 1992 ALCS (and oh yeah, here's Jim's - The first 8 2/3 innings of any of Dave Stieb's one-hitters).
Next up, Darryl Lierman of Blue Jay Way, launched on June 6th, 2002: "It has grown by leaps and bounds, especially in the last 12 months. Been able to feature interviews with people such as past players such as George Bell and Pat Hentgen, to management staff like J.P. Ricciardi and Dickie Scott, to players prospects like Kevin Cash and Josh Banks. My favourite baseball memory has to be Joe Carter’s home run – sure, 99 per cent of Jays fans will say that, but it felt extra special for me because it was the same day as my 14th birthday. My favourite baseball memento would be a Juan Guzman autographed card, not so much for the player, but because it was a unexpected gift from my grandmother.”
|RICK EGLINTON/TORONTO STAR|
|. . . Though there's a long way to go to these kind of glory days.|
So there's your program (whew! that's some heavy lumber there). The plan is to handle the intros and some opening-day optimistic thoughts and a quick look at the AL Central in this Part I. Part II on Friday will finish off the AL and move to a few, um, fantasy possibilities. Then Part III on Monday will be all-Jays, setting up Tuesday's Opening Night.
With that ceremonial first pitch out of the way, let’s get started.
JABS: I realized, I guess it was around mid-February, that I was actually hungering for the upcoming season. And that hasn't happened to me for at least 10 years. Obviously that has a lot to do with the Jays' moves, and we'll talk about those later -- but you guys are hooked into this more than I am. Generally, how pumped are you for the season, and have you any sense of the level of interest your blog's readers have for the upcoming season?
AARON: In '03 I bleached my hair and then dyed it Jays blue for Opening Day; bleaching it hurt so much that I swore I'd never do it again, but I thought long and hard about doing it this year. I still might.
There's a definite split among both the readers and the writers at Batter's Box: the majority seem to have really, deliriously high hopes for the upcoming season, but there's a minority that includes a couple of really smart people who I usually listen to because they're brighter than me who don't see that big an improvement in the team. Not that they think that the team hasn't improved, because it would be really hard to argue that the team isn't better this year than last year, but more that they think the '05 Jays were lucky, and that the '06 Jays have improved enough to not be as lucky and finish with the same record. Vegas seems to agree, predicting that Burnett, Ryan, Glaus, Overbay and Molina plus a full season of Roy Halladay will only give the Jays about six more wins.
MARK: I'm always very excited for baseball at this point in the season. The weather is slowly becoming more benign, which, to those in cold climates, signals that the dawn of a new, exciting season is upon us. Judging by the reactions of Blue Jays fans I encounter everyday -- both via the Internet and in person -- I sense that the excitement level is particularly high this year. Of course, that's directly related to the fact that Ricciardi has assembled what many perceive to be a playoff-calibre team that's poised to dethrone the Yankees and the Red Sox. My main concern, however, is whether the excitement and support will remain as elevated should the team succumb to a slow start. Although, I certainly hope my concern becomes alleviated by a red-hot April.
PISTOL: The busiest month at Batter's Box was this past December when the Jays signed Burnett and traded for Glaus and Overbay, so reader interest has definitely picked up. Personally, the start of any baseball season is enough to get me pumped. However, now that Jays have made it through the rebuilding years and have a team capable of making the playoffs my excitement level is higher this year than any time since 1993.
|Francisco Liriano: Magpie's excited about his potential.|
DARRYL: I’m very excited for this coming season; heck, I’ve been out throwing the baseball around myself in 3 degree weather. Each and every season I always get pumped for Jays baseball, but coming into this year it’s the return of an old feeling. Not since the Clemens signing have Jays fan had the chance to see their team pick up the best players on the market. But this year it’s even beyond that, they just didn't get the best starter. They got the best closer, starter, catcher and 2 top-flight corner infielders. The month of December was a dream for fans. On Blue Jay Way we saw our biggest numbers ever in terms of traffic. I haven't seen fan interest like this since the glory days, people actually have the we-can-win mentality back. And it's not the hey we can sneak in via the wild card, it's we can win our way in.
JIM: Our numbers are way up, with referrals showing that lots of people are Googling names like Ryan, Burnett and Overbay. Whether you like what the Jays did or not, they have certainly stirred up some interest. For any baseball fan, spring training always has the lure of "maybe." Maybe that kid pitcher is the new Dwight Gooden, maybe last year's rookies will hit better, maybe we signed Jason Giambi's chemist, maybe this is OUR year. Even if you root for the Kansas City Royals, and your particular "maybe" involves rising flood waters throughout the cities of the AL Central, that old cliche that everyone is still in contention provides some hope. How many people really thought last year would be the year of the White Sox? For Jays fans, just the prospect of a full season from a healthy Roy Halladay is exciting, as it was last year. Add in all these shiny new players and the real games can't start soon enough.
MAGPIE: All this optimism makes me nervous. No good reason, it just does. We were pretty optimistic heading into 2004, as I recall. Coming off an 86-win season. That didn't work too well. (Next Monday, by the way, I intend to remind everybody, in Gruesome Detail, exactly what happened in 2004.)
JABS: We can get into the Jays in depth a little later, but right now I want to ask you about the AL in general. The White Sox surprised a lot of people last year. Magpie, you're a numbers-historical kind of guy -- why did they surprise people, and how do you see their chances at repeating the same kind of season?
|Bobby Jenks: Where'd he come from?|
MAGPIE: Obviously the 2005 White Sox surprised me - I wrote the Box preview for them last year (and this!) and I saw them finishing third. I thought they'd lost a ton of offence and the improved pitching wouldn't make up for it. As it happened, they did lose an enormous amount of offence – they scored 124 fewer runs in 2005 than the previous year. Huge, huge fall-off. But the pitching was so much better - in a home run park, no less - that they were a much better team anyway. Mostly because Garland in the first half, and Contreras in the second half, took a big leap forward. And the team defence was much improved as well. Iguchi, Pierzynski, and Rowand had a lot to do with that.
Can they do it again? Well, Jim Thome is a great hitter, and if they get 130 games out of him, it helps a whole lot. My main reservation about the White Sox is mostly just the law of averages catching up. They had a lot of very good fortune last year. Granted, you need that when you have to win it all. But they were extremely good in close games, which doesn't tend to hold up from year to year. Even the things that went wrong in 2005 somehow went right for them anyway. When their closer (Takatsu) was awful, they plugged in Hermansen (who was brilliant). When Hermansen got hurt, they plugged in Bobby Jenks (who they picked up off the scrap heap.) That sort of thing makes you think the dice were just a little loaded. I think they'll win 90 plus games, and not make it to the post-season.
JABS: Not even to the postseason -- well, the AL Central is turning into a pretty good division. Cleveland has to keep improving – I think Sizemore is the best young player in the majors -- and Minnesota can do better than last year's disappointment. Some are talking about the Tigers, though I don't see it. If the AL East is the best division, can we say this is the second best division in the big leagues? Who do you guys see coming out of it?
MAGPIE: I think it's Cleveland's year, it should be close, and it should be great fun. I don't think the Twins will be a factor, because I don't see where the offence comes from. I am very, very excited about Francisco Liriano - but young pitchers will break your heart if you count on them. (Detroit may sing that song too, although Bonderman and Verlander just might explode on the league.)
|Curtis Granderson: In good company with Gibson (left) and Trammell (right).|
PISTOL: The AL is as balanced as its been in recent years. The past few years it was almost a given that the Red Sox and Yankees would take the wild card with the other winning the division. Now I think they've both have slipped a bit and the wild card can come from any of the AL divisions. I'm not sure there's a clear ranking of the divisions. They're all pretty similar - two main teams at the top with a definite third team that can challenge the top two. In the Central that's the White Sox and Indians with the Twins as a dark horse. The Indians are probably the popular pick but it's not often that teams continually make smooth improvements in wins each year and Cleveland has gone from 68 wins in 2003 to 80 wins to 93 wins last year. I expect a drop from there this season which should be enough for the White Sox to take the division with about 90 wins that Magpie expects.
MARK: To be honest, it's incredible how competitive the American League projects to be, especially relative to the noticeably weaker National League. In my view, nine teams -- New York, Boston, Toronto, Chicago, Cleveland, Minnesota, Oakland, Anaheim, and Texas -- are legitimate contenders for the playoffs. And it wouldn't be too much a stretch to include Baltimore in that group, either.
As for the AL Central in particular, I share a similar view to Magpie. Ultimately, according to baseball savant Dan Fox, Chicago's and Cleveland's 2005 won-lost records adjusted for luck were 89-73 and 88-74, respectively (NOTE: Fox has gone back at these numbers, and suggests the White Sox were a very lucky bunch indeed). Clearly, either of the two -- or Minnesota, lest we forget -- could realistically win the division this season. My preseason favourite, however, is Cleveland, if only because of their youth.
CHRIS: While the White Sox did everything they had to this off-season to stay at the top of the heap (re: re-up Konerko), they also made a lot of noise that may not amount to anything … Admittedly, I am one of those guys who has my eyes on Tigers, drooling over the prospect of their prospects (I think Granderson, not Sizemore, will be the one to watch in the AL Central, and what about those young starters...), but I too think Cleveland will be the class of the division for some time to come. Youth, youth, youth, and an attitude of warriors that came out of nowhere last year. I mean did you see the way Martinez, Blake, and Boone turned it on in the second half? They each had such poor starts that on any other team they would have been long turfed, but given the chance, they not only pulled through, but each earned starters jobs again this coming year.
That fact, however, has as much to do with their perseverance as it does with the team’s brain trust. This is a smart club that rebuilt from the Belle/Lofton glory days awful quick, and they haven’t stopped looking forward. Instead of adding older former stars to the group this off-season, they added more youth, picking up future star Andy Marte and potential breakthrough LF Jason Michaels, as well as a decent SP in Paul Byrd. Cabrera throws bullets in the pen, and when Wickman finally falls, they will be fine with him and Mota. Oh, and then there are some kids named Hafner, Peralta, Martinez, and Sizemore. Even with a little evening out on this team (I think Sizemore will pick up whatever numbers Peralta loses, and without Howry and Rhodes, I do think the pen will be worse), these kids have the heart and youth to win for years, heart, youth, and hitting, plenty of hitting.
AARON: Cleveland is slaughtering the competition in Spring Training play, and we all know that means... nothing. Really, I don't pay enough attention outside of the AL East until the season is underway to know what's going on -- there's only so much space in my brain, and if I started paying attention to the ticker and actually caring what the Kansas City Royals were doing in the off-season, I'd probably end up divorced. But I do like Cleveland because they have Cliff Lee, and he was a centrepiece of a blockbuster, seven player trade I made when my fantasy team was tanking last year -- I traded everyone on my roster named Brad for everyone on another guy's roster named Cliff.
It didn't work out for either of us.
(Tomorrow, Part II: The AL West, and some fantasy thoughts).