Around the horn

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The biggest things we’ve learned since starting The 500 Level back in 2007?

1) There is an impressive collection of bloggers/reporters/writers out there online who cover the Toronto Blue Jays on a regular basis and provide some strong insight and analysis.

2) There is an equally impressive following of this coverage online. The Blue Jays’ fan base is much larger than I thought going in. Sure, it’s not 1993 anymore, but this team has a passionate following.

Here’s a quick look at some of that Blue Jays coverage going on around the internet today …

– A gushing CP article on Jays’ manager Cito Gaston.

– The Star’s Richard Griffin offers his advice to the Jays concerning Roy Halladay.

– Cubs take a chance on ex-Jay BJ Ryan.

– Drunk Jays Fans are talking about Beeston’s recent appearance on The Fan.

– Jays telecasts on Rogers Sportsnet are up this year.

– Bluebird Banter is talking injuries. Jays pitching injuries.

– Brian Dopirak is promoted to Triple-A Las Vegas.

– Jeff Domet at CBC.ca explains why Jays fans will be hurt if Doc is traded.

– The Tao of Stieb does not think too highly of Joba.

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George, Lloyd, Tom, Tony, Fred …

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Pinch hitting in The 500 Level today is Allen Ford, a former member of the grounds crew at old Exhibition Stadium (also affectionately referred to as ‘the mistake by the lake’). Today, he gives us his take on some former Jays …

Being a groundskeeper for a major league team has a lot of benefits. Not the least of which is the lifetime guarantee that no matter the party or gathering, you’ll always have at least one or two sure fire stories to throw out.

Of course, I spent one of those in my first post, so I’ll have to save my Ozzie Guillen for another time.

Once you bust out a story though, there’s always, always a Jays fan that wants to know what such and such a player was like.

Here then is my completely biased review of some of the 1988 and 1989 Toronto Blue Jays who I recall fondly — and not so fondly.

Tony Fernandez – A quiet guy, yet easily the hardest working player on the field. Batting practice and infield were never taken lightly by him.

Jimmy Key – An arrogant SOB. Never had time for us, and the clubhouse boys said he was a notoriously cheap tipper.  So when he came to us asking about preparing the mound in a certain way, we just nodded our heads and went about preparing it to suit other pitchers on the staff that we liked.

Ernie Whitt — Easily rivaled Key on the SOB scale. Don’t be misled by the good guy stuff.

Buck Martinez — I can only recall how I used to look at his jello midsection and pudding thighs and wonder, ‘how the hell is this guy a professional athlete?’

The Crime Dog, Freddie McGriff – A nice guy whose personality was every bit as smooth as his swing.

Willie Upshaw — Another nice guy who went about his business without ego. I remember early in my first season sitting in the dugout with my lunch when Chugger sat down beside me, looked at my sandwich, and said, “Can I have some of that?” I was absolutely speechless. Here was the great #26 asking me for my lunch!!! What a cool job this is.

Shaker Mo’ and Jesse Barfield — I mention these two together not because they played the outfield together, but because they always seemed to be coming or going from some bible meeting. Yet nice guys all the same. Lloyd signed a ball for me that read  “To the World’s Greatest Mom! Best Wishes, Lloyd Moseby”

Tom Henke – Just a good ol’ country boy who was always approachable and didn’t put on any airs. Once while squeegeeing off the tarp during a rain and lightning delay, Henke took a look at our metal squeegees and bellowed to us in his Southern drawl, “You boys might as well be out there with lightning rods on your heads!”

Dave Stieb – Dave Stieb is Dave Stieb, you know what I mean?

Todd Stottlemyre — Not the sharpest tool in the shed.

Jose Nunez – Made Todd Stottlemyre seem like Einstein.

Rob Ducey – How do you think a Canadian kid from Cambridge playing in the Major Leagues is?

Jerry Howarth and Tom Cheek — Tom was a nice guy who always carried himself with a certain dignity. The kind of person who you automatically respect. Jerry was a hard-working guy, but one you could always approach.

Garth Iorg — Maybe it was his name which always puzzled me, but he always gave me a sense that he never could quite believe he was in the Big Leagues.

Rance Mulliniks — Along with Tony Fernandez, another hard working guy who took BP and infield with the utmost seriousness.

I now come to my favourite player, one who polarized Blue Jays fans like none other, and played the game with style and swagger.

I am talking about your left fielder…

Number 11…

George Bell.

Simply put: George was nowhere near the villain the media made him out to be. With the hat tilted forward and stained with gel from his jheri curls, and his languid stroll and occasional lapses in the field, it is easy to see how the media could brand him as a problem. But I’ll vouch for the guy. Maybe I didn’t understand everything he mumbled, but at least he always made eye contact and had a nod for you. And he wasn’t above joking around by knocking on the door of the grounds crew room and surprising the unsuspecting person with a bat swinging by his head.

Now, what about some of the visiting players…

Allen Ford now lives and works in Ottawa as a graphic designer and still thinks about Fred McGriff’s sweet and languid stroke.

Reversal of fortunes

Sunday, July 12, 2009

It doesn’t seem like that long ago.

Back on May 18, the Toronto Blue Jays were on top of the world. Well, more specifically, they were on top of the AL East — three and a half games ahead of the Red Sox, to be exact.

At 27-14, they had fashioned wins in all sorts of different ways. But one thing that stood out was their record in close games – they posted a 9-3 mark in one-run games during that hot start.

A lot has changed since then. Another loss to the Orioles Sunday left the Blue Jays with a 44-46 record heading into the all-star break. And just as they found different ways to win early in the year, they’ve found all sorts of ways to lose since then. But it’s been the close games that have stood out once again.

Since that 27-14 start, the Jays have gone a disappointing 2-12 in one-run games. In games decided by two runs or less, they’ve gone 6-19. That trend has never been more apparent than over the last two weeks. Including Sunday’s game, each of Toronto’s last 10 contests has been decided by two runs or fewer (in other words, every game on the road trip). Unfortunately, they went 2-8 during that span.

Double trouble

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Entering action Saturday night, the Toronto Blue Jays led the majors with 193 doubles this season – nine more than the Red Sox, who ranked second in that category.

Those 193 doubles are the second-most ever by a Toronto team prior to the all-star break. In 2003, the Blue Jays amassed a club record 229 prior to the midsummer classic.

Three Toronto players were ranked in the top 10 in the American League in two-baggers heading into Saturday’s game against the Orioles. Adam Lind and Scott Rolen were tied for fifth in the league with 26 doubles apiece, while Marco Scutaro was tied for ninth with 25.

As a team, the Jays had recorded at least one double in each of their last 18 games, hitting 40 doubles overall during that span.

They made that 19 straight games on Saturday, as Aaron Hill, Kevin Millar and Scutaro each notched a double at Oriole Park. Unfortunately, that came in a losing effort, as the Orioles took Game 2 of the series, 4-3, on a walk-off home run from Melvin Mora.

Note: We noticed Mora slide into home after his trip around the bases. Will that lead to a beaning in Game 3? Find out tomorrow at 1:35 pm. Rookie Marc Rzepczynski may have the honours …

What is going on here?

Friday, July 10, 2009

The jury will be out for awhile on whether or not J.P. Ricciardi & Co. had a successful 2007 MLB draft. But we can say this with certainty right now: some of the top picks taken in that draft are not performing thus far in 2009.

Here’s a look at three of the top four picks …

AhrensRound 1, pick 16 – Kevin Ahrens, 3B

In 63 games at Dunedin this year, Ahrens has batted .221 (51-for-231) with a pair of homers and 23 RBIs. That .221 mark leaves him 69th out of 76 players overall in the Florida State League that have the minimum number of plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. The switch-hitter is batting .213 (39-for-183) against righties, and just .111 in July so far. After going 0-for-14 to start the month, the 20-year-old went 2-for-4 in a 4-3 loss to Lakeland last night.

Round 1, pick 21 – JP Arencibia, C

After posting solid numbers split between Dunedin and New Hampshire last year (.298, 27 HR, 105 RBI), Arencibia has struggled in 2009 at Triple-A Las Vegas. And it’s been a pretty steady struggle … .224 in April, .243 in May and .237 in June. That adds up to a .236 (64-for-271) overall mark along with a .291 on-base percentage. His power numbers are better (eight homers, 41 RBIs), and he was on a mini hot streak to close out the month of June (8-for-20 with four doubles and six RBIs in five games), but he hasn’t played since then and currently finds himself on the good old minor league 7-day DL.

Supplemental round, pick 45 – Justin Jackson, SS

Jackson has yet to find his groove at all in the minors since the Jays made him their fourth selection in the ’07 draft. In 66 games at Dunedin this year, the 20-year-old shortstop is batting .226 (48-for-212) with just 11 extra-base hits. That .226 mark puts him five spots above Ahrens for 64th out of 76 qualified Florida State League hitters. He’s been especially cold over his last 10 games, batting .152 (5-for-33) with 11 strikeouts. That has been a big problem for the youngster over the last two years. He had a whopping 154 strikeouts in 121 games in 2008, and already has 76 in 66 contests this season. 

The other top 4 pick – Brett Cecil – will take the mound for the parent club tonight in the opener of a three-game set against the Baltimore Orioles.

The 23-year-old was far from spectacular prior to being called up to the majors – in nine starts at Triple-A Las Vegas, Cecil went 1-5 with a 5.69 ERA. But with a plethora of injuries to starting pitching, the need arose for Cecil to join the Jays’ rotation. Since getting the call, the left-hander is 2-1 with a 6.23 ERA in eight games (seven starts) in the big leagues.

Down Hill?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Make no mistake: Aaron Hill deserves to go to St. Louis this year for the 80th MLB all-star game. His first half numbers are certainly good enough. Among American League second baseman, Hill ranks first in hits (112), home runs (20) and RBI (59).

However, there’s also no mistaking that his bat has cooled down since the start of the year. In fact, the Jays’ 27-year-old second baseman has seen his batting average go down each month this season — .365 in April, .307 in May, .245 in June and currently .229 in July.

Following action on May 24 against Atlanta, Hill was batting .350. And after today’s loss at Tampa Bay? .298.

Now, this isn’t the whole story. Despite a .245 average and a dismal .294 on-base percentage in June, Hill still managed to post solid power numbers: seven home runs, 19 RBIs and a .491 slugging percentage. Those are certainly nothing to scoff at.

On Thursday afternoon, the first-time all-star went 1-for-3 with a walk in a 3-2 loss to the Rays. During the three-game sweep that dropped the Blue Jays under .500 (43-44), Hill went 5-for-13.

In defense of defense

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

How does the game’s best defensive third baseman, who also owns the AL’s second-best average, not earn a spot on the league’s all-star team?

Aside from Blue Jays fan, this scenario has to have left Scott Rolen himself scratching his head in wonder.

“I’m disappointed,” Rolen told The Sun’s Bob Elliott once the all-star rosters were announced. “It would have been nice to go back and see passionate St. Louis fans. My family and I had talked about the possibility.”

But, as Rolen acknowledged, “Evan Longoria was voted in and Michael Young was a worthy choice.”

A worthy choice, perhaps. But certainly no more worthy than the Jays’ veteran third baseman. Through the first half of the season, Rolen still sits second in the AL behind Ichiro Suzuki with a .325 batting average. And boy has he been hot lately. The 34-year-old is hitting .380 (38-for-100) during his recent 24-game hit streak – the third-highest in Jays history and longest current streak in the majors.

Much of this success came after Jays’ manager Cito Gaston moved Rolen into the cleanup spot.

“When I put him there, he just responded,” Gaston said. “Ever since he’s been in that spot, he’s probably been the most valuable player on this team right now. He’s absolutely just stepped up another step and just done a great job for us.”

Blue Jays Spring BaseballAnd this is to say nothing about his defense – which has been nothing short of phenomenal this year.

I suppose it’s nothing new. After all, Rolen has already won seven gold gloves at third in his career. That puts him behind only two players at the position (both hall of famers) – Brooks Robinson (16) and Mike Schmidt (10). And he’s continued that remarkable play in the field in 2009.

But here’s the thing: defense just isn’t recognized when it comes to making the all-star selections. Well, at least, it’s put on the backburner behind all things offense. And certainly gone are the days when fans would base their selections solely on one’s defense (see Ozzie Smith).

The result?

Well, baseball fans may have just lost out on the chance to see the best defensive player in the game play on the big stage at the midsummer classic.

Here today, gone tomorrow

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Baseball can be very unforgiving. And that’s especially true for players on the downswing of their careers.

Take David Dellucci, for example.

A veteran of 12 major-league seasons, Dellucci was released by the Cleveland Indians at the end of May after appearing in just 14 games in his third year with the ballclub. Prior to that, he had played for five different organizations.

So, at 35 years of age, Dellucci was left searching for an employer once again. Only this time he knew that the number of suitors would be fewer this time around. Fortunately, the Louisiana native found a caller in the Toronto Blue Jays, who signed him to a minor-league deal on June 10.

“When we got him, I was hoping that he could come in and help us from the left side, as far as swinging the bat and giving us a little bit more pop from that side,” Jays’ manager Cito Gaston said. “If he goes back to his old form … and can hit us some home runs and drive in some runs, we really could use that help. That’s kind of what he’s here for.”

Although he got off to a slow start at Triple-A Las Vegas, Dellucci rebounded quickly, posting a .375 (15-for-40) average in his last 10 games with the 51s before earning a call up to the big club last week.

Of course, Dellucci was thrilled to get the call, but he also knew very well what he was getting into.

“For me, every day in a baseball uniform is a bonus,” the 35-year-old said. “Who knows? You have to go out there and play to realize if you’re coming toward the end of your career or not.”

So far, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the veteran in his early days with the Jays. Including tonight’s 0-for-2, two-strikeout performance against the Rays in a 3-1 Toronto loss, Dellucci is 0-for-13 in his first four starts in the outfield.

The unfortunate reality is that Dellucci is likely on a short leash. Though the Jays’ minor-league system doesn’t exactly have a ‘sure thing’ major-league ready left fielder to take over the job, they certainly have some bats down in the minors capable of getting their own tryout with the big club (in fact, the left field position may continue to operate as a revolving door for the foreseeable future). So, while 15 plate appearances is far from enough to prove oneself, Dellucci simply doesn`t have the luxury of getting 100 at-bats before decisions are made.

One thing’s for certain considering Dellucci: the veteran is going to have to start producing soon. Otherwise, the end of his career may come sooner than he`d prefer.

Looking to make his Marc

Monday, July 6, 2009

It’ll be a record-setting day tomorrow when the Blue Jays take the field in Tampa Bay for their series opener against the Rays. And that record will be set by Marc Rzepczynski

The 23-year-old left-hander will be the fifth different starting pitcher to make his Major League debut for the Blue Jays in 2009. That bests the four different debuts made in – wait for it – Toronto’s inaugural season back in 1977.

After it was announced that Brad Mills wouldn’t make the start due to bruised ribs, the Jays decided on Rzepczynski. And while there were certainly other options, the 23-year-old seems like a solid choice. After all, he’s been pretty dominant for much of the year down in the minors.

In 16 starts this year (14 at Double-A and two at Triple-A), the lefty has gone 9-5 with a 2.66 ERA, posting an impressive 104 strikeouts in 88 innings of work while holding the opposition to a .254 average. In his first two starts at Triple-A Las Vegas, Rzepczynski struck out 16 in 11.1 IP. Meanwhile, at Double-A New Hampshire, he posted a 2.58 groundout-to-flyout ratio.

The 23-year-old gets his first taste of the big leagues tomorrow …

Help send sweet-swinging Lind to St. Louis

Sunday, July 5, 2009

On April 3 of this year, MLB.com published an article about Adam Lind, the Blue Jays’ primary DH and occasional left-fielder. The article opened by talking about how, last May, the 25-year-old Lind thought there was ‘a real possibility he had played in his final Major League game.’

Lind had come off a disappointing 2007 campaign in which he had batted .238 with a .278 on-base percentage, 11 home runs and 46 RBI in 89 games for Toronto. Then, he went 1-for-19 to open the 2008 season. So, the youngster found himself sent down to Triple-A once again. Only this time, Lind legitimately thought he may have seen the big leagues for the last time.

“I thought, ‘I better get ready to have my Minor League career because I’m never going back,’” said Lind back in April. “With the start I had, I just figured, ‘Why would they call me back up?’”

Perhaps Lind was selling himself a little short. After all, he was still very young and still possessed a lot of upside. But you can’t blame him either if he had lost some confidence.

Since then, things have changed drastically for the 25-year-old.

Lind3After tearing up Triple-A pitching (.328, six home runs, 50 RBIs in 51 games), Lind was returned to the big leagues (thanks in large part due to a managerial change in Toronto). And that’s pretty much when Lind became Cito Gaston’s protégé.

In 82 games after his callup, the outfielder hit .296 with nine home runs and 40 RBIs. That earned him the full-time gig as the DH entering the 2009 campaign. And what did Lind have to say about that back on April 3?

“I just want to stay here, all 162 games, and put in that grind of the big league season,” he told MLB.com. “If I make it through a whole year in the big leagues, I’ve had a good year.”

No talk about numbers. No talk about tangible performance expectations. Of course he wanted to play well, but his focus was solely on getting the job done well enough to stick with the big club all year.

Halfway through the year, it’s become evident that Lind is far beyond simply ‘sticking in the big leagues.’ In 81 games so far, the left-handed hitter has batted .310 with a .384 on-base percentage, 18 home runs (including a two-run shot during Toronto’s 10-8 loss on Sunday), 25 doubles, and 57 RBIs.

Those numbers have earned the Jays’ slugger a spot on the Final Vote List for the MLB All-Star game. Though he wasn’t listed on the original ballot, his performance in the first half has given him a shot to join teammates Roy Halladay and Aaron Hill in St. Louis for the midsummer classic.   

So what were his thoughts on this honour?

“It’s cool to be considered an All-Star,” Lind said following Sunday’s game. “But like I’ve said, my goal this year was to try to stay here for the whole summer.”

Here’s the thing: he’s not kidding. People around the league have recognized Lind as a potential all-star, yet he’s still simply focused on ‘sticking in the big leagues all year.’ What a refreshing thing to hear from a professional athlete.

And you can tell he’s sincere by simply watching him perform day in and day out. His approach hasn’t changed at all since day one. Of anyone, it could be argued that Lind has a better grasp than any other Blue Jay on what Cito Gaston has preached all year to his hitters: have a plan when you go up to the plate and make the necessary adjustments.

This will be Lind’s first full season in the big leagues. And we put the emphasis on the word full. Lind is here to stay (well, hopefully he’ll be gone for a few days to St. Louis).

But after that, Blue Jays fans, get used to watching that sweet swing from the left side owned by Adam Lind, your full-time No. 3 hitter.

In the meantime, Vote for Lind here (a maximum of 25 votes per email address).