Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Ten Random thoughts: a look back at the off-season that was (or not...) and a look ahead to the 2024 MLB season

As the calendar turns to April, the 2024 MLB season kicks off this week. With the return of baseball, comes the return of the 10 random thought posts and in two days the daily game recaps. The 2023 season ended in anticlimactic fashion with the Blue Jays getting shut out 2-0 to the Minnesota Twins after pulling starting pitcher Jose Berrios. Predictably, the Twins immediately scored a pair of runs off of reliever Yusei Kikuchi, who was arguably the Blue Jays comeback player of the year in 2023. The obvious need heading into the off-season was upgrade the offense, which consistently failed to drive in runners in scoring position through the 2023 campaign. This random thoughts post will examine the Blue Jays home run swing at attempt to snag the biggest fish in free agency, Shohei Ohtani, who created a buzz a tweet came out December 12th that the modern day Babe Ruth was on a plane to Toronto to sign a record deal with the Blue Jays. a day later, he announced on his Instagram page that he had instead signed with the LA Dodgers and choose to remain in LA, but more on that later. We'll also look at injury concerns heading into the season and more. Here are ten random thoughts from around the MLB. 

1. As per usual, we will begin this post current injury concerns heading into the season. Blue Jays catcher Danny Jansen will begin this season the way he ended last season, rehabbing from a broken bone in his throwing hand. On September 1st last season, Jansen broke a bone in his middle finger of his throwing hand when a pitch was deflected by a batted ball. He missed the rest of the regular season, as well as the two wild card games of the abbreviated postseason. Fast forward six and a half months, and Danny Johnson was back at square one after getting hit by a fastball, breaking the pisiformis bone in his throwing hand. It's incredible how often the Blue Jays catcher finds himself dealing with an injury. He's hit frequently by deflected balls due to his poor positioning of his throwing hand when receiving a pitch. Most catchers are smart enough to position their catching hand behind their back when receiving a pitch, However, Jansen tends to leave his hand exposed. Jansen also does not wear batting gloves when batting, perhaps something that will change after a stint on the shelf after getting hit by a fastball. In his absence, what the Blue Jays are hoping will be relatively short-term, Alejandro Kirk the bulk of the starts with Payton Henry backing him up. The Blue Jays rotation will be a man short with Kevin Gausman expected to miss at least the first turn through the rotation as he ramps back up after he didn't bounce back very well after his first spring training appearance. An MRI show no major structural damage thankfully, but the Blue Jays will certainly be cautious with their ace. Another pitcher who didn't bounce back from his first spring training appearance was Alek Manoah. the Blue Jays right-hander who really needs a strong showing after a disastrous 2023 season where he was demoted twice after several subpar starts. Manoah spent the offseason focusing on his physical fitness as well as revamping his delivery. his spot on the team, never mind the rotation, was something that he had to earn. Now, Bowden Francis has the opportunity to take that spot in the rotation for the season with Manoa likely to start in the minors, once he is healthy of course. Jose Berrios is lined up to get the opening day start with Chris Bassitt, Kikuchi, Francis and newcomer Yariiel Rodriguez to follow. the Blue Jays largely avoided a major core player missing significant time. Closer Jordan Romano is dealing with inflammstion in his throwing elbow. It is hoped that an injection will settle the issue. The backup closer Erik Swanson is dealing with forearm tightness too. Here's hoping both pitchers come  back in a timely manner. Like last season, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and George Springer will get some games as DH. Justin Turner will get the bulk of the Reps as DH, along with potentially Joey Votto, should he make the team. 

2. A major need for the Blue Jays in the off-season to improve the offense. They chose to do so in two different ways: restructuring the coaching staff and through a couple of free agent signings. The inability to score runs was why today's word eliminated from the playoffs. The Blue Jays window to win the World Series will be as short as season with Guerrero Jr and Bichette heading for free agency after the 2025 season. Jansen becomes a free agent after this season. Hitting coach Guillermo Martinez remains in charge of dolphins the offense. Don Mattingly will have an expanded role as offensive coordinator. Minor league coach Matt Hague was promoted assistant hitting coach alongside fellow assistant heading coach Hunter Mense. Veteran 3rd base coach Luis Rivera retired at of the 2023 season and was replaced by Carlos Febles. Some of the runs not scored were due to some poor calls to send or not send baserunners. Bichette was throwing out at home a couple of times late in the season and in the postseason. Guerrero Jr. picked off second base in a key play in the elimination game. There are two thoughts that come to mind with the structuring of the coaching staff. Frst, will the different coaches be on the same page with respect to the strategy for the offense? Second, that's a lot of different opinions that players are going to have to consider when they are at the plate. Third, who is really in charge of hitting? Is it Martinez? Is it Mattingly, the offensive coordinator? Is it John Schneider, manager of the whole team? The past several years, the Blue Jays offense has largely been All or Nothing. they have players who can hit home runs, but they aren't very good at driving in runners when pictures are able to eliminate the home run through their pitch selection. The Blue Jays had one of the highest rates of leaving in scoring position in the first half of last season. They improved over the second half, but they couldn't drive in a run when it counted in fact, the Blue Jays had the bases loaded one out the sixth inning of game 2 of the Wild Card series and a single would have tied the game. Instead, Matt Chapman grounded into an inning-ending double play. In the final inning of the same game, the Blue Jays got a runner on first base with one out and couldn't advance him passed second base. The Blue Jays must change the approach at the plate if they are going to be successful in 2024. There is definite concern that there are no too many cooks in the kitchen with the restructuring of coaching staff. time will tell if the offseason changes improved the offense. 

3. In terms of free agency, the Blue Jays put all their proverbial eggs in one basket, taking run at signing top free agent Shohei Ohtani, who would have how old is the Blue Jays both offense and pitching (in 2025 after he recovers from his second Tommy John surgery. The 2024 free agent class was pretty weak overall with Chapman and Ohtani the clear best players available. things got interesting in mid-December when it was tweeted out Ohtani was on a plane to Toronto. That rumor ended up being false and Ohtani signed the biggest contract the MLB history the next day, with the vast majority of the contract deferred until the final years of the deal. After six seasons of futility with the Angels, Ohtani wanted a change of scenery, but evidently didn't want to venture very far. The Ohtani saga dragged out a couple of months and as a result Blue Jays lost out on a few other strong players who could have improved their lineup, Lourdes Gurriel Jr, Cody Bellinger and Juan Soto among others. They did manage to retain center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who saved a few runs with outstanding defense ;last season. Sidewinder Adam Cimber, third baseman Chapman, and second baseman Whit Merrifield chose to leave as free agents. None of them were happy how last season ended. Chapman in particular, had a public spat in the dugout with manager Schneider, after the Blue Jays chose to pitch to Ohtani in a game against the Angels. The void at third base will be filled by committee with free agent signings Justin Turner and Isaiah Kiner-Falefa getting the bulk of the reps. Veteran utility infielder Cavan Biggio will also get some starts. Turner is coming off a solid season where he batted .276 with 23HR and 96RBI. Kiner-Falefa hit .242 with 6HR and 37RBI. An intriguing minor-league signing two weeks ago was to Canadian Joey Votto, who is in the twilight of his career and is just 25 hits shy of the Canadian MB record for career hits. He would add a left-handed option to the line up and could back up Laddy at first base. The Blue Jays are largely banking on the fact that so many players underperformed. they are hoping that Guerrero Jr bounces back to his 2021 season, had career high numbers and finished 2nd in AL MVP voting. Of course, Guerrero Jr. benefited from playing in minor league ballparks for much of the season with the Blue Jays unable to play in Toronto with covid restrictions. The MLB has to revamp its free agency rules. The Dodgers should not have been able to defer that much money Ohtani's record $700 million dollar deal to avoid the luxury tax and allow them to sign more players. Also, free agency is far too long. The MLB should adopt NFL's rules where teams have 5 days to negotiate with free agents. This makes for a much more robust off-season and it would take away the control the player agents have to drag out the process and manipulate things as happened with the Blue Jays and Ohtani where a rumor was started that had Ohtani on a plane to Toronto only for him to sign in LA after the Dodgers sweetened the deal a bit more. The MLB is the only league without a hard salarry cap. Instead there is a luxury tax that is applied to teams after they go over a certain payroll limit. This creates an environment where teams like Dodgers, Yankees and Padres can sign all the best players and create super teams. 

4. Moving on, Blue Jays fans will be able to enjoy the completed renovations that started at the end of the 2022 season. the first part of the renovations that were completed for the 2023 season focused on changing the outfield dimensions, raising the bullpens and knocking out the 500 level creating fan zones to watch the game. Last season's renovations focused on creating a new 100 level that bring the fand closer to the field (the seats in the new 100 level have adjustable armrests and cup holders). As a result of the renovations, the Blue Jays will begin their regular season on the road with a ten game trip. They will open the home portion of their schedule on April 7th against their expansion cousins Seattle Mariners. 

5. Like there is every year, there are going to be some rule changes MLB this season. One major new rule is the base runner is now going to be considered as being in the base path if they have both feet on the dirt. Up to this season, base runners had to run the last half of the distance between home and first base between the foul line and a 3-foot line drawn on the right hand side of the dirt. This move was made to prevent from blocKing bases. The pitch clock is also seeing a change decreasing from twenty seconds to eighteen seconds with runners on base. Pitchers will also have one less mound visit with the total allowed decreasing from five to four. An extra mound visit will be allotted to the defensive team after the 8th inning if that team is out of mound visits. Pitchers are still able to reset the clock by stepping off twice per plate appearance. Defensive players will be able to for a mound visit without actually visiting the mound. One delay tactic for the pitchers is being removed since the time clock operator will reset the clock after a dead ball and not after the pitcher has climbed the mound. A final rule change for this season is that pitchers warming up in the bullpen for the next inning will be required to phase one batter. Reducing the pitch clock and mound visits is going to be an effective way to decrease the time of games. However, it will not help slow pitchers like Alek Manoah, who struggled mightily to adjust to the pitch clock, and as a result had a disastrous 2023 season. as far as the reduction of mound visits. Not one team has reached the limit of mound visits since mound visits were introduced several seasons ago. A couple of thoughts come to mind with regards to batter limits for pitchers that are warming up in the bullpen. First, if it is a left-handed pitcher warming up in anticipation of facing a left-handed batter, the opposing team is almost certainly going to pull the batter in favor of either a switch hitter or a right-handed batter. Also, what if there are two pitchers warming up in the bullpen. Would it be okay to announce one pitcher into the game, remove them once the other team pinch hits and then use the other pitcher. Both pitchers will surely be ready, so it will not decrease the warm up time or add three minutes to the game. 

6. Is this going to be the last season in the Blue Jays competitive window? if the season really goes off the rails and the Blue Jays are out of contention around the All-Star break, the Blue Jays could explore trading players who will be up for free agency at the end of the 2025 season or even this season. it is going to be important that the team advance past the Wild Card round to show Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. that the team is serious about competing. Blue Jays have some intriguing prospects be ready to join the team full time very soon. David Schneider real promise in his cup of tea last season. Can he repeat what he did after he was called up or was it just a hot streak? Ernie Clement and Nathan Lukes are also viable options will have big league experience. The Blue Jays cut ties with utility man Santiago Espinal, trading him to the Cincinnati Reds for minor league pitcher Chris McEvian after Espinal was clearly out played by Clement and Schneider in spring training this year. Espinal hit .273 with 11HR and 99RBI over 4 seasons with the Blue Jays. Ricky Tiederman is quickly rising through minors and is the Blue Jays top prospect. Guillermo Martinez is likely on a short leash after the disastrous season last year where the Blue Jays struggled mightily with runners in scoring position. The bottom line is the Blue Jays need success now. 

7. Three Blue Jays that need to impress: 
  • Vladimir Guerrero Jr. -Three years removed from his career high in pretty much every offensive category call, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.will be looking to show that 2022 and 2023 were anomalies and not his true self. Another thing Guerrero Jr. needs to show is that he is serious about the game (and I'm not talking about him fun in the dugout celebrating when good things happen. Guerrero Jr is prone to mental lapses that lead to errors. Case in point, game two of the wild-card series in October. Vlad was picked off second base with one out and the Blue Jays to score a run. He has also had lapses in the field which led to errors that put runners scoring position or worse. free agency is coming up fast for Guerrero Jr. and he's going to want to showcase himself to the league. Should this season goes sideways, it is possible that Guerrero Jr, will be traded at the trade deadline to gain assets as opposed to losing him for basically free in two year's time.
  • Danny Jansen - And now we come to the perennially injured Danny Jansen. Every season it seems like the veteran Blue Jays catcher misses time for one at least one injury (although usually he has more than one stint on the IL). As mentioned above, one major factor in Jansen's unfortunate injury history is where he positions his hand when receiving a pitch. Catcher is the most physically demanding position on the field and catchers do get banged up as the season progresses. However, some of the injuries could be prevented if he would just put his hand behind his back when receiving a pitch. When he is at bat, Jansen also seems to be a magnet for getting hit by a pitch. He also doesn't work batting gloves, which makes him more at risk of getting injured, not only getting hit by a ball. but due to the vibrations of ball hitting bat. When Jansen is healthy, he is amoong the top catchers defensively and can contribute to the offense. Did I forget to mention that Jansen will be a free agent after this season. Are the Blue Jays going to commit to him long-term? Certainly he will be coveted in the offseason by teams looking to upgrade at catcher.
  • Alek Manoah - Finally, there's Alek Manoah. Drafted in the first round of the 2019 amateur draft, Manoah made his big league debut two years later against the Yankees. He was solid in both 2021 (9-2, 3.22ER over 20 starts) and 2022 (16-7, 2.24ERA in 31 starts). Last season was a different story. Manoah came into spring training last year having gained weight in the off-season, and was out of shape. He also had to adapt to some major changes in the rules, in particular the pitch clock and rules around delay tactics. Manoah is among the slowest pitchers to pitch. it seemed that he was rushed a lot of times and as a result he was hitting batters and walking batters. The pitches he did get over the plate often caught too much of the plate and were hit hard. Manoah was demoted twice last season, June 6th to the Florida development league, which is the lowest rank in the minor league system. The thought was to do a Roy Halladay style reset. The Blue Jays deceased ace went through a similar reset after struggling in the higher level. The day before that demotion, Manoah didn't even get out of the first inning and gave up a grand slam home run. A month later after two starts in the minors, neither of which were very good, Manoah was back in the bigs. after 6 more start where Manoah continued to struggle with his command, Manoah was sent back the minors, this time the Triple-A level. He would not throw another pitch and did not report right away to Buffalo. the team also took time to examine him to rule out physical injury impacting his picture. Factors on why Manoah struggled so mightily include adjusting to the pitch clock, his physical fitness, players adjusting to his pitching after facing him for a couple of seasons, and his attitude (Manoah wasn't afraid to trash talk the other players while on the field. Manoah came into spring training visibly in better shape. However, he made only one spring training start due to tightness in his right shoulder. The first appearance wasn't exactly encouraging multiple walks. Maybe starting in the minors might be a good thing for Manoah, build up some confidence against weaker batters. If Bowden Francis throws well to start the season, Manoah may have to wait for an injury before he gets an opportunity for the Blue Jays again.
8. Here are some individual award predictions:
  • AL MVP:  Marcus Semin - he led the league in games played (162), at bats (670), runs (122) and hits (185), Semien also 3rd in RBIs (100) and 12th in home runs (29). Also, Shohei Ohtani is now in the National League.
  • NL MVP: Freddie Freeman - finish third in MVP voting last season and now has better protection line up with Shohei Ohtani, meaning he should see better pitches.
  • AL CY YOUNG: Kevin Gausman - led the league in strikeouts last season and finished third in AL Cy Young voting. With last year's Cy Young winner, Gerritt Cole expected to miss the first month or two of the season with a forearm strain, the competition for the Cy Young Award is wide open.
  • NL CY YOUNG:Spencer Strider - led both leagues in wins (20) and strikeouts (180) and finished 4th in NL Cy Young voting last season. With Blake Snell also likely missing month or so of the season, since he did not sign until March 19th with the San Francisco Giants, unless he has a stellar season, the NL Cy Young Award will likely see a new winner.
  • AL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Evan Carter - he made the Texas Rangers late in the season and ended up being on the playoff roster. He looked great in the 23 games played in the regular season last season, batting .306 with 5HR and 12 RBI. He also hit.300 with a home run and 6 RBI in the postseason.
  • NL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Yoshinobu Yamamoto - coming over from Japan, Yamamoto Boutique the majors by storm. Sure he had a rough outing in his first regular season start, but he's going to bounce back and dominate.
9. Here are my predictions of who makes the playoffs and the world series winner:
AL WILD CARD TEAMS: Houston Astros, Tampa Bay Rays, Cleveland Guardians
NL WILD CARD TEAMS: San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks, Philadelphia Phillies
WORLD SERIES WINNER: Dodgers over Rays

10. Blue Jays player of Spring traning: Ernie Clement. Signed as a free agent by the Blue Jays a year ago, Clement was called up a few times in the 2023 season. While he got a few games in his brief stints in the first half of the season and August, he became a regular in the lineup when he was recalled at the end of August. Clemente showed that he had potential be an asset as a utility infielder. He batted .380 with a home run and 10 RBI over 29 games and 50AB last season. In spring training, Clement was outstanding, hitting .380 with 3 HR and 8 RBI. in fact, his play was so good, along with Davis Schneider, that the Blue Jays traded Santiago Espinal to the Pittsburgh Pirates for a minor league pitcher late in spring training.