October 23, 2014

“Oh, Canada” Again in October??

January 7, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Will they be singing “Oh, Canada” again for the 2013 MLB Playoffs? Trying a formula reminiscent of the 2012 Miami Marlins, the Toronto Blue Jays have brought in Jose Reyes, Mark Buerhle and a host of others.  Many writers bought the “new” Marlins concept last year hook, line and sinker, which may explain why Toronto’s revamping their lineup with some of those same players has met with skepticism.

The Jays are betting they started with more talent than Miami and have added more pieces than the Marlins as well. Toronto is adding Reyes to spark their already potent offense, and more importantly, adding Josh Johnson and R.A. Dickey as potential aces. Will it make the Blue Jays better than the 2013 Yankees? And are the doddering Knickerbockers better suited for shuffleboard? Is the AL East in a state of disarray that will provide Toronto a chance to claim its first title in twenty years?

Pat Gillick put together the very fine Blue Jays teams in the eighties and early nineties. His clubs were a dominant force in the AL East for almost a decade until they won it all in 1993. The ’93 team was probably not his best team, but they won the World Series with a combination of veterans like Jack Morris and Dave Stewart and young stars like Robby Alomar. The current GM, Alex Anthopoulos, has large shoes to fill, but he has put together a roster that has striking similarities to the last of Gillick’s great Canadian teams.

With the trade for R.A. Dickey the “Ninja,” as Anthopoulos is sometimes called, has given Toronto as good a starting rotation as any in the AL East. They are nearly as old as the Yankees and may not be a match for Tampa’s young phenoms, but Dickey, Johnson and Buerhle are close. And with Jose Reyes leading off and Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion hitting in the middle of the order, the Blue Jays may have as potent an offense as the ’93 Blue Jays had with Rickey Henderson, Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter and Paul Molitor–to name a few.

It all remains to be seen of course. The “can’t miss” tag for the Florida Marlins famously undershot by a mile in 2012 with some of this same “All-Star” caliber talent. But the new guys have spring training to sort out their egos and try to mesh with the proven stars like Batista and Encarnacion. Chemistry is always a tough subject. Anthropoulos has tried quite a few mixtures over the past few seasons without notable success. When July and August put a fire under this new brew, it remains to be seen how they will react. And the “Ninja” may be betting his reputation on the results.

Canadian teams have traditionally prided themselves on native-born players and staff.  It is hard to imagine anyone more Canadian than Anthropoulos. He was born in Montreal and started his career with the Expos, but came to the Blue Jays in 2003 as scouting coordinator. He attended college at McMasters University in Ontario where he majored in economics like many of the new Moneyball-era management analysts. He worked his way through the Blue Jays organization until finally being named GM at the end of the 2009 season.

He has been as active as anyone in trading talent over the last three years. He first compiled a minor league organization that was ranked fifth best last year by Baseball America. The key piece in the trade that brought Dickey to the Jays was Travis d’Arnaud who is regarded as one of the best young talents in baseball. Also going to the Mets for Dickey was Noah Syndergaard, the top-ranked pitcher in the Jays’ organization.

The trade of d’Arnaud and Syndergaard signals that Anthropoulos and the Jays are pushing all of their chips into the table for 2013. The Los Angeles teams may be throwing around the big money, but the team that has been the most active in trading young talent to build a competitive team for 2013 is Toronto.  The biggest trade of an active off-season is still probably that between Toronto and the Miami Marlins. Anthopoulos sent seven players in all to Miami. The Marlins hauled in two top rated prospects, Jake Marisnick and Adeiny Hechavarria, along with two other minor leaguers, Yunel Escobar, Henderson Alvarez and Jeff Mathis. It was enough to fetch Jose Reyes, Mark Buerhle, Josh Johnson and John Buck.

Toronto now begins the 2013 season–less than three months hence–with a rotation headed by Dickey, the most recent NL Cy Young award winner, followed by Johnson and Buerhle. They are two of the top left-handers in the game over the past five seasons. The makeover was much needed. Toronto’s pitching staff in 2012 was among the worst in the NL, allowing 4.84 runs per game. With a league average offense that scored 4.42, it is easy to understand how the Blue Jays won only 73 games last season.

Adding Reyes at the top of the order should provide Toronto with the best middle infielder that Canadians have seen since Robby Alomar left for Baltimore in 1996. Reyes is not the only one who will add pop in the Rogers Centre. Melky Cabrera will start in left field. There is no reason to think that Cabrera’s suspension will affect his production. The two new faces should push Toronto’s offensive production into the top of the American League.

The loss of Arnaud makes J.P. Arencibia the every day catcher. He is no Pat Borders, but Josh Thole can over with R.A. Dickey and he is an excellent receiver who gives manager pugnacious manager John Gibbons two quality options behind the plate.

A potent lineup and potentially a dominant rotation? Will Buerhle and Josh Johnson do better for the Jays than they did for Miami? Josh Johnson in 2010 had a WAR of 6.8 and at 28 years old is certainly capable of regaining that form. There is no reason to think that Dickey’s knuckle ball will lose much despite him being 38. Mark Buerhle will be 34 to start the season, but somewhat like Dickey, his stuff should have a long shelf life. For a Blue Jay team that has had few blue chippers in the rotation, Buerhle’s 12 seasons in a row throwing 200+ innings is a big, big change. Dickey, Johnson and Buerhle, should provide what has been missing from the Blue Jays pitching staff for many years: reliability.

The rest of the rotation will include Brandon Morrow and Rickey Romero, both of whom can be dominant in their own right, but from year to year and game to game, it is difficult to know who will show up. Morrow, 28, has swing-and-miss stuff, but is often injured. He has managed no more than 179 innings since Antropoulos brought him over from Seattle and made him a starter. Romero was a top draft pick who managed two excellent seasons in 2010 and 2011, but saw his ERA balloon to 5.77 in 2012. They could both be brilliant in 2013, or just as easily hurt and awful.

Which raises the larger question of how well the pieces will come together. Will it work with ballet precision where the veterans continue to perform to their career norms while the younger players step it up? It is a lot to ask, but in 1993 the Jays only true quality starters were Juan Guzman and Pat Hentgen, both of whom were dominant that season. But veterans Dave Stewart and Jack Morris pitched reliably enough to keep the Jays afloat. Along with Todd Stottlemyre and Duane Ward, they were good enough to win the AL East by seven games.

It may be a narrow window that Anthropoulos is aiming for. Dickey and Buerhle are nearing the end of their careers and Jose Bautista is on the down side of his career and it is foolhardy to believe the Yankees and Red Sox will suffer too many down years in a row. Still, the starting Toronto lineup will be an average age of only 28. That is almost six full years younger than the Yankees, so this writer’s humble opinion is that when September rolls around, they will still have enough left in the tank to take the Yankees.

Opening day is still three months off, but the Blue Jays have made themselves into real contenders for the 2013 AL East title. It’s such a stirring anthem, “Oh Canada,” and it deserves to be sung once again in October at a major league game.

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