Monday, April 1, 2019

Ten weekly random thoughts: Week 1: March 25-31

Marcus Stroman led the charge as Blue Jay starting pitchers dominated the season-opening series with 22 shutout innings

Baseball is back and so am I! Yours truly is back for a second season doing weekly random thoughts posts (to be released Mondays @ 7AM EDT.) I will also be doing game recaps (to be released as soon as I complete them after each game). These random thoughts posts will comprise of injury updates and my take on hot topics from around the league. I will try to keep it mostly Blue Jays based. I will also reward a Blue Jay of the week. For this initial post, I will look at the off-season moves the Blue Jays made, as well as some predictions for the upcoming season. Here are 10 weekly random thoughts from week 1 of the MLB.

1. Let's kick things off taking about the off-season moves the Blue Jays made. Obviously, the biggest move was naming Charlie Montoya to replace John Gibbons, who mutually part ways after five seasons managing the Blue Jays. It's far too early to judge Montoya as the season hasn't started yet. However, my initial impressions of Montoya have been positive. I like that he is a straight-shooter who tells things like they are. Another big move the Blue Jays made was releasing Troy Tulowitzki, who signed with the Yankees shortly after. Tulo missed the entire 2018 season after having surgery on both heels. I liked Tulo as a player, but he was too injury prone and his skills were in decline due to the injuries and age. His replacement, at least to start the season will be Freddy Galvis, who is excellent defensively (led the NL IN fielding% as a SS three years in a row).He has been very durable having played every game 2 seasons in a row. Not surprisingly, Yangervis Solarte was also not offered a new contract. He notoriously had issues with effort, not hustling to first base on a ground ball.

The Blue Jays also parted ways with Aledmys Diaz, trading him to Houston in exchange for minor leaguer Trent Thornton, who could make his MLB debut this season. The Blue Jays cleared the logjam at catcher, sending veteran Russell Martin to the Dodgers, his original team, in exchange for a pair of minor leaguers and cash. I would have loved Martin to remain a Blue Jay a bit longer, but Danny Jansen is clearly ready to assume the role of backup catcher to Luke Maile. Besides, Martin is in the twilight of his career and his skills have been declining for a while now. The Blue Jays added a  trio of arms to the rotation, signing Matt Shoemaker (2-2 with a 4.94ERA in 7 starts last season with the Angels), acquiring Clay Richard from the Padres for a pair of minor leaguers (Richard was 7-11 with a 5.33ERA in 27 starts last season) and signing Clay Buccholz, who was 7-2 with a solid 2.01 ERA in 16 starts last season. Perhaps the riskiest off-season move was signing David Phelps, who is still recovering from March 2018 Tommy John surgery. Lots of new faces and I can't wait to see what this team can do on the field!

2. Speaking of elbow injuries, there are some early concerns with John Axford, Ryan Tepera, Ryan Borucki and Bud Norris all dealing with various elbow injuries. Axford and Tepera are expected to miss potentially big chunks of the season. Tepera is seeking the advice of noted Tommy John surgeon Dr. David Altchek. Tepera was expected to have a prominent role in the bullpen this season as one of the setup men to closer Giles. Tepera was 5-5 with a 3.62ERA in 68 appearances with 7 saves in 2018. Thankfully he doesn't need TJ surgery and should be back in the near future. Minor league signing Bud Norris is the third pitcher dealing with arm issues, although his injury is considered minor and he is expected to be ready for opening day. John Axford has a stress reaction injury in his pitching elbow. This is the same injury that caused Yu Darvish to miss the bulk of the season last year. Axford was 1-11 with a 4.41ERA in 45 appearances, including 1 start for the Blue Jays last season. He only made another 5 appearances with LA after fracturing his leg on a comebacker. Axford is expected to miss a month at least. Once healthy, he is expected to be a mid-game reliever.  Norris was 3-6 with a 3.59ERA in 64 appearances, including 28 saves for the Cardinals last season. These three injuries will force the Blue Jays to dig into the depth chart. Sam Gaviglio (3-10 with a 5.31 ERA in 26 appearances (24 of them starts) in 2018), David Paulino (1-0 with a 1.35 ERA in 7 appearances in 2018) and Danny Barnes (3-3 with a 5.71ERA in 47 appearances last season) are among the candidates vying for the spots available in the bullpen. Ryan Borucki became the latest pitcher to be diagnosed with elbow problems. He was scratched from his final spring training start and will miss his first start of the season at minimum, There could be a number of factors playing into this recent surge of elbow injuries. One could be the use of weighted balls. This study points to the risks of using weighted balls while training. Another factor could be overuse from last season. Due to the inability of starters to pitch deep into games last season, the bullpen was asked to pitch up to half the games in many cases. It stands to reason that some of the relieves might be prone to injuries this season.

3. Is there a more snake-bitten player when it comes to injuries than Devon Travis? Once again, the Blue Jays second baseman will miss a good chunk of time after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. In the past 3 seasons, he's missed significant time with bone bruises in both knees. In 2017, he was limited to just 50 games and in 2018, he played 103 games. This time, Travis appeared in just 2 games and got 4 AB's, drawing a walk before the latest injury. Lourdes Gurries Jr. will get the bulk of the playing time in Travis's absence. Gurriel Jr. had a tough season last year, struggling mightily with defense. He'll have the opportunity to redeem himself with Brandon Drury (acquired in the JA Happ trade at last year's deadline) also slotting in from time to time.

4. The MLB is implementing several rule changes for the 2020 season designed to increase the flow of the game. Baseball is a unique sport that has no official time clock. Innings continue until three outs are recorded or the final run is scored if it is the bottom half of the 9th inning or later of a tie game. The average game can range from a couple of hours to up to 5-6 hours. One change the MLB is implementing is reducing the mound visits (charged when the catcher or coach visits the mound, except for injuries) from five to six. This seems like a no-brainer to me. No team ever reached 6 mound visits, and besides, pitchers and catchers have plenty of time to sort out pitch selection in the dugout between innings. They can even talk about how they will switch signs to prevent sign stealing between innings. The next rule change is forcing a pitcher to either face three batters or end an inning. Another excellent rule change. Lefties are usually only brought in to face one batter. They should be capable of getting both righties and lefties out IMO. A lot of time is wasted when switching pitchers as each reliever entering the game is entitled to 8 warm-up pitches, unless the pitcher is injured, then they are given as much time as they need. Commercial breaks are being reduced to two minutes. This next rule change is going to have major ramifications for GM's. The MLB wants to implement a hard trade deadline of July 31st. Currently, July 31st is the deadline to trade players without having to put them on waivers. to be eligible to play in the playoffs, trades must be completed by August 31st. By having a hard deadline of July 31st, it will force teams to decide earlier if they are buyers or sellers. It will affect the players available if the wild card race is tight as it tends to be every season. Had there been a hard trade deadline 2 years ago, the Houston Astros would not have gotten Justin Verlander. The MLB is lowering the number of players allowed to be on the roster in September from 40 to 28. This is being done to make things more fair so everyone is on a level playing field, while still allowing for a few recalls.

5. Two Blue Jays with a lot to prove are Marcus Stroman (the opening day starter) and Aaron Sanchez. Both pitchers missed significant time with injuries last season. Stroman was a disaster statistically, with a 4-9 record and a 5.54ERA. Those numbers can be attributed to a bum shoulder that cost him a month on the DL. Later on in the season he had blister problems, ending his season a few weeks early, Aaron Sanchez missed a month of the season after getting his finger caught in his suitcase prior to a start vs. Anaheim. Like Stroman, Sanchez is also prone to blisters. Sanchez was 4-6 with a 4.89ERA in 20 starts last season.

6. Let's get into some predictions for next season:
World Series: Yankees over Dodgers
AL East champ: Yankees
AL Central champ: Indians
AL West champ: Astros
NL East Champ: Braves
NL Central Champs: Brewers
NL West champs: Rockies
AL WC teams: Red Sox, A's
NL WC teams: Dodgers, Cubs
AL MVP:  Jose Altuve
NL MVP: Ronald Acuna Jr.
AL CY YOUNG: Chris Sale
NL CY YOUNG: Noah Syndergaard
AL ROY: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
NL ROY: Victor Robles

7. Four key series to watch: Blue Jays:

March 28-31 vs. Detroit Tigers- opening series of the season. You can't read a whole lot into this series. No doubt the Blue Jays will want to get out of the gate strong with the Yankees and Red Sox fielding strong teams again this season.The Blue Jays were 3-4 against the Michigan rivals last season. The Blue Jays were clobbered 18-6 on the Sunday before opening day by the Tigers

April 9th AND April 11th @ Boston Red Sox- this one will be a great early test for the Blue Jays, taking on the defending World Series champs. The Blue Jays were a miserable 4-15 against the Red Sox last season, and things won't be any easier this year with Boston fielding, more or less, the same team. The MLB has scheduled an off-day in this series in the event of a rain-out, as it has done in recent seasons for early series where the chances of increment weather are higher.

June 4-6 vs. NY Yankees- A couple ex-Blue Jays will be participating in this series. Tulo (assuming he's healthy) will no doubt be motivated to do well against his former team. Last year's ace and opening day starter JA Happ could get a start against his former team. It will be his first time back in Toronto since the trade to the Yankees a few days prior to last year's trade deadline. If you like watching Canadian born players, James Paxton, who threw a no-hitter against the Blue Jays last season, is now a Yankee. New York has a very strong team on paper and should give Boston a run for its money

August 20-23 @ LA Dodgers - Blue Jays fans can see ex-Blue Jay Russell Martin for the 1st and only time this season as LA will not visit Toronto. It is unlikely the Blue Jays will get to see Martin play in Toronto again as the veteran catcher will likely be retired before the two teams are scheduled to play in the 2023 or 2023 season (the MLB tends to rotate interleague play between divisions every years)

8. A big trade went down the day before opening day. Kendrys Morales was shipped out to Oakland in exchange for a minor leaguer and cash considerations. Morales was a free agent bust. In 2 seasons with the Blue Jays, Morales batted .249 with 49 HR (including a consecutive 7 game streak last season) and 142 RBI. It is likely the Blue Jays will platoon between Rowdy Tellez and Teoscar Hernandez at the DH spot. Older players, such as Justin Smoak, will likely receive spot starts as well.

9. Finally, Russell Martin fulfilled his dream of pitching in the majors, throwing an inning in the Dodgers 18-6 rout Saturday. The ex-Blue Jays catcher has now played every position except 1st base and center field. I don't see him getting the opportunity to play center field as he is slow at the best of times and not suited to a position that requires one to cover a lot of ground. I can see Martin getting the opportunity at first base perhaps on the last weekend of a season. Martin is in the twilight of his career with maybe another season or two left in him.

10. Blue Jays of the week: The four starting pitchers: Marcus Stroman, Matt Shoemaker, Aaron Sanchez and Trent Thorntnon combined to throw 22 shutout innings, scattering 9 hits, walking 9 batters, and striking out 28 batters.Let's see how long they can keep the streak going.