Sunday, March 25, 2018

2018 Toronto Blue Jays A-to-Z Guide

With the 2018 MLB regular season almost upon us, here is an A to Z guide on your 2018 Toronto Blue Jays

A is for Ace the mascot
Ace began his rookie campaign with the Blue Jays at the start of the 2000 season, replacing BJ Birdie who represented the Blue Jays from 1979-1999. Until 2003, Ace had a female counterpart in Diamond, who was dropped from the organization in 2003. On Jr. Jays Saturdays, Ace Jr. can also be seen working the crowd. On a personal note, I got to meet Ace at the 2018 Winter Tour in Vancouver. I did get my picture with him but unfortunately the person who took it with her phone never sent it. I did get Ace's autograph on a baseball. Check out this interview for some interesting facts about Ace.

B is for Bench players
Every team needs to rely on bench players to give the everyday players the odd day off. With durability questions at every infield position, the Blue Jays targeted good utility men who can play multiple positions in case of injuries. Josh Donaldson, Devon Travis and Troy Tulowitzki are all likely to need extra rest or have an increased likelihood of spending time on the DL. Justin Smoak and Russell Martin are getting older and their playing time will be managed to keep them healthy and fresh Yangervis Solarte has experience at all three infield bases and Aledmys Diaz can play every infield position but 1st base.  Steve Pearce will likely primarily be in left field but can also play first base. At the moment Luke Maille has the inside track to back up Martin. Having multiple options to play each position will be an asset.

C is for Canadians
Russell Martin, hailing from East York, Ontario, is the the most prominent Canadian on the Blue Jays. The veteran catcher is entering his 4th season as a Blue Jay. In 2017, Martin batted .221 with 13 HR and 35RBI. He allowed the most stolen bases in the AL, but many factors impact the ability of the catcher to throw runners out (how quick the pitcher is to the plate, the jump the runner gets and pitch selection, for example). Another Canadian on the Blue Jays is Dalton Pompey (Mississauga, Ontario). Once again, Pompey is likely to start the year in Buffalo and be the first call-up if/when injury strikes. Pompey did not play on the Blue Jays roster in 2017. I also met him at the winter tour in Vancouver this off-season. Finally, John Axford, from Simcoe, Ontario, is vying for a spot in the bullpen. As of this writing, Axford has made a good impression and has a strong chance to make the opening day roster.

D is for Donaldson, Josh
Josh Donaldson is in the final year of his contract. Not surprisingly, he has cut off contract talks to focus on the season. JD will be a cornerstone of the Blue Jays offense with Jose Bautista not re-signing. The Blue Jays will have to monitor Donaldson's workload as he has been bothered by calf injuries the past 2 seasons. Donaldson hit .270 with 33 HR and 78 RBI in 2017.

E  is for exiting players, through free agency or trade
Bautisa was the most prominent free agent not re-signed by the Blue Jays. He has yet to sign with a team and is reportedly leaning toward retirement. Other departing players: Darwin Barney (signed with Texas Rangers), Ryan Goins (signed with KC Royals), Raffy Lopez (signed with San Diego Padres) and Miguel Montero (signed with Washington Nationals)

F is for the fans
This blog would not exist without you loyal readers. A huge shoutout to everyone who took the time to read this post and continue to support Jays in the House. I'm looking forward to contributing my game recaps and weekly random thoughts.

G is for Granderson, Curtis
Curtis Granderson was the big free agent signing by the Blue Jays. Effectively, he was signed to replace Bautista. The one plus about Granderson is he can play CF when Pillar needs a day off. The 37 year old is in the twilight of his career but the hope is that he can contribute offensively and is a defensive upgrade on Bautista. In 2017, he hit .212 with 26 HR and 64 RBI

H is for Halladay, Roy
Opening night will be a very emotional day for the Toronto Blue Jays organization as the team honors "Doc" Halladay, who lost his life in a plane crash last November 7. Drafted by the Blue Jays in 1995, Halladay blossomed into a dominant pitcher. He won the Cy Young award as a Blue Jay in 2003 and again as a Phillie in 2010. The Penultimate start of Halladay's career was his perfect game on May 29, 2010. The 8 time all-star gave his team a chance to win every 5 days.

I is for Injuries
Injuries are part of the game in baseball. Troy Tulowitzki, Devon Travis, Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin are the most likely players to miss time with injury at some point. Tulowitzki is already not going to be ready for opening day with a bone spur in his heel. Devon Travis has missed the bulk of both the 2016 (shoulder and knee injuries) and 2017 season (flare up of bone bruise on knee). Toronto will have to be smart with Travis and his playing time. It remains to be season if his body can manage on the artificial turf at Skydome. Donaldson has had a troublesome calf muscle that has forced him to the DL in 2016 and 2017. Starting pitcher Aaron Sanchez missed all but 4 starts with a blister on his middle finger. Early signs indicate the problem is behind him. Finally, Marcus Stroman was briefly backed off at training camp with shoulder inflammation. He'll be monitored closely.

J is for John Gibbons
Skipper John Gibbons is entering his sixth season in this current stint as Blue Jays manager (he also managed the Blue Jays from 2004-2008). The Blue Jays are coming off a disappointing 2017 season where they finished 4th in the AL East with a record of 76-86. They won just once in their first 10 games of 2017 and 8 times in the first month of the season. If the team gets off to a similar start in 2018, don't be surprised if Gibbons is fired.

K is for Strikeouts (both defensively and offensively)
Getting a strike out as a pitcher is as much about making good pitches as it is about batters swinging and missing. Catchers play an integral part in calling pitches and framing pitches (pulling what would have been a ball back into the strike zone). Starter Marco Estrada led the Jays pitchers with 176 strikeouts. Offensively, the departed Jose Bautista led batters with 170 K's in 587AB. Kendrys Morales had the most strikeouts among players currently on the Blue Jays roster (132K). It is important that players be more selective and to swing if the pitch is close to the strike zone.

L is for Lineup, as in batting order
Assuming everyone is healthy, One of Devon Travis or Curtis Granderson will likely bat leadoff. With Bautista gone, look for Donaldson or Morales to bat clean-up. The catcher (Martin or Maille) will bat at or near the bottom of the order. When Tulo is healthy he'll bat 5th or 6th. Kevin Pillar will bat in the 8th spot as usual. Of course if a lefty is on the mound the Jays will have more righties in the line-up.

M is for Must see series
Here are three must see series this season:

May 22-24 vs. LA Angels
This will be the first meeting against the hyped rookie Shohei Ohtani. The Japanese import is attempting the rare feat of being both a pitcher and hitter. He will reportedly start opening day at DH and pitch 2 days later. In spring training, he has struggled both on the mound and at the plate. Will he still be playing 2 positions or will Angels management convince him to stick as a pitcher only?

June 25-27 @ Houston Astros
This will be a good test against the defending World Series Champs. Last season, the Astros dominated the AL offensively and they will have largely the same group of players returning this season. They will also have Justin Verlander for a full season. It should be a good series.

August 2-5 @ Seattle Mariners
Seattle is such a unique away series because it attracts many fans from Vancouver who don't normally get to see the Blue Jays play live. Vancouver is an interesting baseball market. While many baseball fans support the Blue Jays, there is also a large contingent who support the Seattle Mariners as they are the closest MLB  team to Vancouver geographically. Oh and of course, assuming healthy, Canadian James Paxton should get a start in this series. To make things more interesting, Ichiro Suzuki, another Japanese phenom from the early 2000's has signed a 1 year deal with the Mariners.

N is for new players to the team
The Toronto Blue Jays made several roster moves this off-season. Their biggest move was free agent signing Curtis Granderson (see above). They also acquired infielders Aledmys Diaz (from St. Louis) and Yangervis Solarte (from San Diego) in separate deals; see above (injuries) for their expected roles.  The Blue Jays further added to the outfield depth, trading for Randall Grichuk, who hit .238 with 22 HR and 59 RBI last season. The Blue Jays also boosted the bullpen adding Seung-hwan Oh, who will likely serve as setup man to Osuna, Al Alburquerque and Axford (see above, Canadians). A late signing as a fifth starter is lefty Jaime Garcia.

O is for outfielders
The outfield this season will feature two newcomers in Granderson and Grichuk. Either Granderson or Grichuk will represent a defensive upgrade over the unsigned Bautista. Kevin Pillar as usual will patrol CF most days and continue his defense prowess in the outfield, On a side note, Grichuk and I share the same birthday! The 26 year old Grichuk is entering his 4th full season in the majors and last season he hit .238 with 22 HR and 59 RBIs. Granderson, as noted above, is in the twilight of his career. Hopefully his numbers don't continue to decline. Pillar hit .256 last season with 16 HR and 42 RBI.

P is for prospects
The future looks very bright for the Blue Jays as they have some great looking prospects developing in the minors. Topping the list of prospects is Vladimir Guerrero Jr (son of former Expo and Angels star Vladimir Guerrero), who tore up the minors last season. Another great looking prospect is Bo Bichette, son of former MLB star Dante Bichette. The prospect I'm most excisted about, partially because he played for the Vancouver Canadians last season, is Kacy Clemens (son of ex-Jay Roger Clemens). Guerrero and Bichetter have the most upside and should make their major league debuts in the next season or two. At the trade deadline July 31, the Blue Jays acquired Teoscar Hernandez he  saw playing time as a September call-up. Hernandez could make the opening day roster.

Q is for Quantrill, Paul
Paul Quantrill, former Jays reliever for 7 seasons, has been serving as special advisor to the Jays since 2016. Not much to say on this one, found the letter Q toughest letter to think of.

R is for Relief Pitchers
Relief pitchers are an integral part of any baseball team. They secure a victory, bail out starters who have short starts due to injury or ineffectiveness, and specialize in getting certain hitters out. As a rule, most starters have a soft limit of 100 pitches a start or face the lineup three times, whichever comes first. Roberto Osuna will once again anchor the Jays bullpen. Osuna was 3-4 with 39 saves and a 3.09 ERA last season. Newcomer Seung-hwan Oh will likely be one of the setup men and also a backup closer. In 2017, Oh was 1-6, had 20 saves and a 4.10 ERA. Other Jays relievers will include Danny Barnes, Tyler Clippard, John Axford and Al Alburquerque. Depending on the opponent, the Jays will likely have 2-3 lefties in the bullpen consisting of a combination of Matt Dermody, Tyler Mayza and Aaron Loup.

S is for Stroman, Marcus
Marcus Stroman has much to prove this season after losing his arbitration case in January. Stroman is a bit of an enigma. Stroman likes to throw hitters off by varying his delivery. Sometimes he'll start his windup and pause halfway through. Other times he'll quick pitch a batter. He has a good arsenal of pitches but he also has a tendency to get emotional when on the mound. I remember one game last season when he was tossed by the umpire and he had to be restrained by catcher Russell Martin. I predicted in an earlier blog post that Stroman would pitch a perfect game this season. I still believe he is capable of doing this, provided he can keep his emotions in check. Stroman, who was a candidate to be the opening day starter, will be the 4th starter of the season, as he is recovering from shoulder inflammation. In 2017, Stroman went 13-9 with a 3.09 ERA.

T is for Troy Tulowitzki
Tulo has had a frustrating couple of seasons with injuries. In 2016, he missed 20 games with a quad strain. His 2017 season was even worse in terms of injuries. He missed a month from late April to late May with a hamstring strain and his season ended July 29 when he damaged ligaments in his ankle running to 1st base. His 2018 season will start late as he deals with bone spurs in his heel. When Tulowitzki was in the lineup in 2017, he hit .249 with 7 HR and 26 RBI.

U is for Urena, Richard
Richard Urena is a Blue Jays prospect who signed with the team as an amateur free agent in 2012. He made his major league debut on September 1 last year. In 29AB, he had 5 hits, including a triple and struck out 5 times. Defensively, he committed 2 errors as a SS. He will start the year in Buffalo but could definitely be called up at some point if/when Tulowitzki is injured

V is for Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is one of the top 5 prospects in baseball. In the minors last season, Guerrero hit .323 with 13HR and 76 RBI at the A/A+ levels. He's also had a great spring training with 6 hits in 9 AB's so far. Likely, Guerrero will start the season in the minors at the AA level but he could very well make his major league debut in September or in 2019. He is getting a long look at training camp.

W is for Walks (offensive and defensive)
For a pitcher, walks can be a good thing or a bad thing. If he walks a batter who is likely to do damage on the scoreboard then it is a good thing. However, if he walks a lesser threat and a bigger threat is up next it can mean trouble. Walks can also indicate if a pitcher is on and will drive up the pitch count. Some batters draw more walks than others as they are the threat or they are more patient at the plate. The departed Jose Bautista drew the most walks in 2017 (84) followed by Josh Donaldson (76). Jays starter Marco Estrada had the most walks on the mound (71).

X is for X Factor
The X factor for the Blue Jays success this season will be manufacturing runs. The Jays pitching staff should put 0's on the scoreboard most innings but the Jays need to provide them with run support too. Far too often last season, the Blue Jays were HR or bust when it came to offence. This season, I would like to see the Blue Jays play for more runs and bigger innings. Another X factor might be the health of Tulo, JD, and Travis. If all three are on the DL at the same time, the Blue Jays will be digging deep into their infield depth.

Y is for Yankees
The NY Yankees will be a team Toronto will be battling for a potential division win or Wild Card spot. The Bronx Bombers added NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton to the mix. Their starting rotation will have trade deadline pickup Sonny Gray to contend with and Jays killer Masahiro Tanaka, who struck out a ridiculous 15 Jays batters in the final weekend of play last season. Toronto was 10-10 in the season series vs. NY in 2017.

Z is for Zaun, Gregg
This season will mark the first time since the 2011 season that Gregg Zaun will not be analyzing Blue Jays games on Sportsnet. His contract was terminated November 30 after allegations of workplace misconduct. During his time as a Blue Jays analyst, he wasn't afraid to tell it like it was, even if it meant criticizing players performances. Marcus Stroman, in particular, took issue with some of the criticism. Replacing Zaun will be former MLB catcher Joe Siddal. Meanwhile, Zaun has started his own YouTube show called Manalyst TV, which is supposedly untethered by the constraints of network TV. Check it out if interested.

Stay tuned for my weekly 10 random thoughts commencing Monday April 2 and daily game recaps commencing March 29 (opening day).

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