Is there hope for the Blue Jays in 2018?

Jays revamp outfield with Granderson and Grichuk

Is there hope for the Blue Jays in 2018?

The 2018 Major League Baseball (MLB) season is going to be tough for the Toronto Blue Jays. The Boston Red Sox have maintained their pitching and hitting power, and the New York Yankees have acquired powerhouse Giancarlo Stanton — who hit 59 home runs last season — in a trade that didn’t see them lose many significant players. That’s right, the Yankees now have 2017’s National League MVP and American League (AL) Rookie of the Year in their lineup, and the Jays are going to have to compete with that for years to come.

In terms of significant transactions, barring the Stanton trade, this year’s offseason has been rather cold, seeing minor trades here and there and no spectacular free-agent signings — José Bautista is still in limbo, belonging to no team quite yet.

Attempting to fortify a team not ready for the strong competition brewing in the AL East, the Jays signed free agent and former Met and Yankee player Curtis Granderson, dishing out $5 million USD for one year. Granderson, who is going to be 37 years old come Opening Day, will most likely split time in left field as part of a platoon. Granderson is a left-handed hitter — a type of player the Jays desperately need. Hitting 26 home runs last year for the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets, Granderson’s signing is encouraging but not an addition that can single-handedly lead the Jays to the playoffs.

What is exciting, however, is the trade that brought 26-year-old outfielder Randal Grichuk to Toronto from St. Louis, with pitchers Dominic Leone and Conner Greene going the other way. Not only is Grichuk a reliable defenseman more than qualified to fill Bautista’s spot in right field, but with enough plate discipline, he can shine with a bat as well. Offering a measly .238 batting average for 2017, Grichuk, who batted .276 in 103 games in 2015, is far too young to be written off as mediocre and will hopefully thrive in a hitter-friendly ballpark like Rogers Centre. Words of encouragement: he hit over 20 home runs in each of the past two seasons. Here’s hoping that number only rises.

But, in the interest of being realistic and objective, Grichuk would have to go through a Justin-Smoak-like transformation to be a power-hitter that is feared in the AL East – something that is very unlikely to happen.

In additional trades, the Jays picked up infielders Aledmys Diaz and Yangervis Solarte from St. Louis and San Diego respectively to play the middle of Josh Donaldson and Justin Smoak’s corners of the infield. Along with Troy Tulowitzki — who can hopefully rise up from his steady decline — and Devon Travis — who can hopefully stay healthy for a season straight — the infield is the team’s most stable and secure area. The outfield is fine too: the cast of six outfielders are an upgrade from last year, but it is nowhere near rivalling the outfield of the Yankees.

Pitching is something that has also been heavily neglected by the Blue Jays’ front office this offseason. It would be best for the team and the fans if the rumours of regular reliever Joe Biagini being promoted to a number-five starter remain just that — rumours. The Jays need to pay a starter and pay him well. Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman can’t carry this team on their two backs, and the Jays’ underwhelming goings-on in the bullpen only cast a shadow over the overall pitching situation.

Call me misguided, but I believe with enough pitching fortification, the Jays can confidently secure a Wild Card spot in the 2018 MLB season.

Not all is lost, but at this point, unless the front office can stir up a trade that gets Toronto a reliable starter and reliever — or two — the only hope for the team to make the playoffs is if they move to a different division altogether.

The Jays can extend their World Series window

An insight into the Toronto Blue Jays’ offseason

The Jays can extend their World Series window

Entering last season, expectations for the Toronto Blue Jays were high, despite the losses of slugger Edwin Encarnacion and relief pitcher Brett Cecil. However, the Blue Jays were unable to deliver on experts’ predictions of a playoff finish, ending the 2017 season with a .469 record, nine games back of the final wildcard spot in the American League.

Missing the playoffs after consecutive trips to the American League Championships Series has left fans pondering a dangerous question: has the Blue Jays’ World Series window slammed shut? If so, then a rebuild would be on the cards, and a difficult one at that. Toronto boasts one of the oldest rosters in the MLB, and they are burdened by the untradeable contracts of veterans Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin, both earning $20 million for each of the next two seasons. The future is bright with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette on the way, but they still find themselves playing High-A ball in Dunedin.

With the notion of a rebuild out of the question, how can the Jays squeeze out another shot at the playoffs? Let’s consider the team’s options this offseason.

 

The addition of an infielder

The Jays boasted a middle infield comprised of Ryan Goins, Tulowitzki, and the oft-injured Devon Travis last season. A healthy Travis started at second, with Tulowitzki at shortstop, and Goins deputizing both positions.

Injuries to Travis, Tulowitzki, and Josh Donaldson exposed the lack of depth in the infield and resulted in Toronto playing some combination of Darwin Barney, Chris Coghlan, Rob Refsnyder, and Goins — none of whom are with the club today — alongside Justin Smoak. This leaves Richard Urena and Gift Ngoepe as the Jays’ only depth at middle infield, making a utility infielder a top priority.

Eduardo Núñez is one such utility infielder. Valued at almost $12 million, he can play virtually anywhere in the field should a starting player go down with an injury. Batting .313/.341/.460 with 12 home runs, 58 runs batted in, and 24 stolen bases last season with the San Francisco Giants and Boston Red Sox, Núñez would bring some speed to an aged squad.

Speaking of speed, Dee Gordon may find himself leaving Miami soon, as new Marlins CEO Derek Jeter attempts to lower the club’s salary. A left-handed batter with a high on-base percentage makes Gordon the ideal leadoff man. He even snagged 60 bases last season, making him an attractive trade option for the Jays. Gordon would take over at second full-time, benching Travis, and making Goins the backup shortstop, creating depth by pushing the incumbent starters down the chart.

Depth at starting pitcher

The Jays’ rotation currently features Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez, and JA Happ, leaving a vacant starter slot. Toronto have rightly expressed interest in Jake Arrieta, one of the top pitchers on the market and a World Series winner with the Chicago Cubs. With a Cy Young Award and two no-hitters to his name, Arrieta’s proven track record makes him a tantalising option for the Jays. The downside? Arrieta would command almost $27 million per year on a long-term contract.

The most interesting option is dual-threat Shohei Ohtani, who is free to be signed on a minor league contract. Unproven against MLB opposition, he is considered a promising starter with a good bat. The one caveat to signing Ohtani is that all teams in MLB have a shot at signing him, so the Jays need a contingency plan should they fail. Toronto should take a run at him, but they will show reluctance to play him in the field if they succeed, as they’ve shown reluctance to push young players, such as Sanchez, too hard for fear of injuries.

Expect Toronto to pick up a few low-cost starters to improve pitching depth. Don’t rule out a return for Brett Anderson. 

Not splurging on sluggers

The loss of Jose Bautista has left the Jays short of a slugger in right field. With big-money power threats JD Martinez and Jay Bruce hitting free agency, it can be tempting for a club to spend big on a long-term deal for either, but they shouldn’t. If Toronto is serious about reaching the World Series in 2018, they need more than just Martinez or Bruce — they’d need to improve the infield depth and the pitching rotation to stand a chance against teams like Houston. Such moves would prove costly in the long term, as the Jays would be stuck with the hefty contracts of Martin, Tulowitzki, and any free agent acquisitions.

Instead, the team should place their faith in Teoscar Hernández, who showed some pop during a September call-up, to spare themselves the stress of carrying several overpaid veterans in the future.

Verdict: the Jays will express caution, making deals to improve depth and hope that last season’s misfortunes were but a blip. This team is good enough to turn things around on their own, and should get back to winning ways with minimal alterations.

Celebrating the life and career of Roy Halladay

The greatest pitcher in Blue Jays history died in a plane crash last week

Celebrating the life and career of Roy Halladay

Roy Halladay loved being a Blue Jay. He loved playing for Toronto’s baseball team, and he was vocal about it. Though a Blue Jays team fresh off of two consecutive ALCS appearances is genuinely something to be proud of today, Halladay, commonly referred to as ‘Doc,’ was part of a very different baseball team. His was an era before bat flips, sell-out games, walkoff home runs, and — to be blunt — competent baseball.

Halladay, nothing less than a prodigious pitcher, had little to be proud of, and yet he pitched in Toronto for 11 years, not once making it to the playoffs and not once complaining about it. This humbleness and kindness is what makes up the core of Halladay, a man who put as much effort into enriching Toronto’s community as he did to throwing his two-seam sinking fastball.

Halladay died at the age of 40 on November 7, when his plane crashed in the Gulf of Mexico.

It feels wrong to define by numbers a man so known for his generosity and spirit, but the numbers Doc put up in his 15 years of pitching in the MLB were tremendous. He recorded a 3.38 earned run average in 416 games played — 67 of which were complete games and 20 shutouts. Doc led the league in wins above replacement for pitchers four times: twice in the AL with the Blue Jays and twice in the NL with the Phillies.

Halladay was impressive off the field as well; his benevolent efforts to enrich a city that never gave him a postseason berth will forever be cherished and appreciated. While in Toronto, Doc and his wife Brandy established “Doc’s Box,” a suite that they annually rented out at Rogers Centre, where children from SickKids Hospital and their families could enjoy a day at the ballpark. He was also a keen contributor to Toronto charities, donating $100,000 to the Jays Care Foundation annually.

Though his impact and legacy within Toronto are unquestionable, it is important to note that, after being traded in 2009, Halladay pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies and added a couple more achievements to his already impressive arsenal. And, almost as if written by a novelist, in his first career playoff appearance with the Phillies in 2010, he threw a no-hitter. It was only the second post-season no-hitter in MLB history.

Earlier that year, he threw his first perfect game, becoming the 20th player in baseball history to record one and the first pitcher to ever throw a perfect game and a no-hitter in one season. Halladay was magic; genius, hard work, and talent all rolled into one spectacular pitching performance after another. Phillies fans understood why Doc was so admired in Toronto, and they showed him the same calibre of love.

I became a baseball fan after Halladay had retired in 2013 due to injury, so I never saw the man don powder blue or stark black on the mound in the Rogers Centre. While getting acquainted with Blue Jays greats, before Joe Carter, Vernon Wells, and even Roberto Alomar, I learned about Doc — the savant who, when pitching, uplifted an otherwise depleted baseball team into greatness.

When Doc took the mound, Toronto was no longer the vehicle for other teams to flex their pitching and hitting skills — no longer the punching bag. Once every five games, Doc worked his magic, commanding the league to pay attention to an unexceptional team with an exceptional player. With his two Cy Young wins and eight All Star appearances — six of which were with Toronto — Halladay maintained the Blue Jays in baseball fandom’s consciousness. For that, I came to revere his name.

He was a methodical and calm pitcher who worked his magic on the mound and stuck with his team through tough times. In an institution where teams have ever-changing rosters of more than 40 athletes, and play more than 160 matches a year, it is a true accomplishment to stay relevant after retirement and an even bigger one to be labeled a legend so quickly.

Those who were baseball fans during Doc’s reign had profound reactions to the announcement of his tragic death. Every sports news station remembered and celebrated the pitcher, every publication put out a touching tribute, and experts, journalists and fans alike joined forces in remembering Halladay’s generous spirit and incredible talent. The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Raptors both held moments of silence before the starts of their matches, effectively proving that Doc’s influence was not confined to baseball but rather spread into other sports.

It would be a disservice to remember Halladay as simply an athlete, and an injustice to recognize him solely by his statistics, as good as they may be. Halladay not only reignited a spark in Canada’s baseball community, but he put time and effort into enriching Toronto, both through his inadvertent ambassadorship when representing Canada’s team at an All-Star game and through Doc’s Box.

Already inducted into Canada’s Baseball Hall of Fame, it is only a matter of time before Doc gets his spot in Cooperstown. Now the conversation turns to the Blue Jays and how they will honour the man who breathed life into a team that was otherwise bereft of it. Put his name on the Level of Excellence, retire his number, erect a statue of him outside of the Rogers Centre — do anything and all that is possible to ensure that every generation of Toronto fans cherishes, appreciates, and reveres the legend that was Roy Halladay.

Troy Tulowitzki and the Coors Field effect

In the midst of his regression, what impact did Coors Field have on Tulowitzki’s prime?

Troy Tulowitzki and the Coors Field effect

On the early morning of July 28, 2015, a blockbuster trade shook the MLB. Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and veteran pitcher LaTroy Hawkins were sent to Toronto in exchange for Jose Reyes and three pitching prospects: Miguel Castro, Jeff Hoffman, and Jesus Tinoco. It was the type of trade usually reserved for the offseason, when clubs are concerned with either building up or tearing down their rosters.

Prior to the trade, the Toronto Blue Jays had hopes for a deep playoff run, but after the addition of Tulowitzki and Detroit Tigers pitcher David Price, the team both won the AL East pennant and achieved a postseason berth for the first time since 1993. Toronto eventually fell to the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series.

There’s no question that 2015 marked the rejuvenation of Canada’s baseball fandom. Josh Donaldson’s first year in Toronto was embellished by his AL MVP crown and the fact that he gained two All-Star teammates. Just two Septembers later, it’s impressive to note how much has changed. As of September, both players have caught the injury bug: David Price as a member of the AL East leading Boston Red Sox, and Tulowitzki being ruled out for the season with ligament damage in his right ankle in August after awkwardly stepping on first base a month before.

Despite the excitement that followed Tulowitzki’s trade, his performance in the two seasons he has donned blue and white has been, at best, average. And so the question remains: was he really that great of an offensive acquisition for Toronto?

Before that question can be answered, a different one must be asked: when traded to Toronto, was Tulowitzki all that exceptional of a player to begin with?

The answer may not lie with the Tulo himself but rather with his former home, Coors Field. Entering 2015, Tulowitzki’s career looked to be on track for an incredible playing history. He played six seasons with a batting average (BA) over .290, was a four-time All Star, and his Gold Glove defense placed him in the company of many iconic shortstops. But this is not necessarily all Tulowitzki’s doing — his home field, where half of his season’s games were held, has long been home to rumours that it inflates home players’ batting averages.

First, some things to consider about Coors Field: opened in 1995 in Denver, its dimensions in feet run 390-415-375, and it stands 5,280 feet above sea level. The latter number alone may knock shortstop phenomenon Tulowitzki off his pedestal. Coors Field stands significantly higher above sea level than any other MLB stadium; the Arizona Diamondbacks’ home, Chase Field, clocks in at second highest, standing 1,082 feet above sea level — over 4,000 feet less than Coors. And when considering the effects altitude has on both pitched and batted balls, it becomes apparent that not all stadiums offer equal hitting opportunities.

Let’s make the physics lesson quick: Magnus Force — or, the lift that applies to spinning balls — and drag are both reduced in Coors due to the high altitude of the field. Because of this, the ball travels about nine per cent further, so a home run that is hit 415 feet in Yankee Stadium, which is sea-level, is estimated to travel 450 feet in Coors. The trajectory of the ball’s flight also makes for sharper-hit balls, which can evade outfielders and turn into base hits.

Taking this into consideration, I looked at the BAs at home and on the road of all thirty MLB teams from 2010 to 2016, and I found that the Colorado Rockies are the most inconsistent. The discrepancy between home and away batting averages is astronomical. In 2010, the Rockies topped the league with their .298 BA at home, yet on the road, their BA was the worst of all thirty teams at a measly .226. In 2014, Colorado was again the best of the league, hitting .322 at home, and second worst on the road, hitting .228. Tulowitzki followed a similar trend: in 2014, despite playing four more games on the road, Tulo hit 14 home runs at home and seven away, hitting .417 at Coors and only .257 elsewhere. Tulowitzki’s home/away splits are as follows: at home he hits .310, and away he hits .269. Where he was consistently hitting either of the numbers, the first would make him a future Hall-of-Famer and the second would make him slightly better than mediocre. And after leaving Coors, Tulowitzki’s first full year as a Blue Jay was underwhelming: his BA of .254 was below league average.

Hidden behind all these numbers and statistics is one corroborated detail: Coors Field is kinder to its home players than any other field in the MLB. Whether it’s the altitude or the different dimensions, Rockies players both current, like Nolan Arenado and Carlos Gonzalez, and former, like Troy Tulowitzki and Matt Holliday, have significantly higher and better statistics at home than they do on the road.

The argument that players are just more familiar and comfortable in their home fields is valid, yet no team’s performance discrepancy is as significant as Colorado’s. In 2014, both the Detroit Tigers and San Diego Padres proved that consistency was not an impossible feat; the former had the second-highest batting average both on the road and at home, and the latter placed in last or second-last in both splits. In fact, the Tigers hit more home runs on the road — an impressive achievement given that teams don’t visit fields for more than four days in a row. Tulowitzki, once considered the face of the Colorado Rockies franchise, is beloved in Toronto — fans wear his jersey proudly, and chants of “Tulo” fill the stadium every time he comes up to bat. But his celebrity going into Toronto is, in part, due to the way in which his former home field was built.

Altitude doesn’t teach all the things Tulo has done, like hitting a home run, fielding a ball, or turning an unassisted triple play, but altitude does help the ball travel, and according to Tulowitzki’s disproportionate splits, Coors played a role in his rise to fame and success. When a player is the most paid person on their team — Tulowitzki, along with catcher Russell Martin, topped the Blue Jays payroll with $20 million salary per year — excellence is expected of them. It’s the kind of excellence that Tulowitzki has not yet shown.

Coors can’t instill talent in an athlete. When Matt Holliday left Colorado in 2009, his play did not severely worsen. Players have both flourished and diminished following departure from the Rockies. Though Tulowitzki’s stats have been in decline ever since he left his previous team, fans have only been getting louder and more vocal in their support for the once-prodigious shortstop. It’s a good thing the kids are happy, but at the end of the day, fanfare doesn’t win you ballgames.

Pressure mounts on controversially-named sports franchises

Changing the face of sport is harder than you think

Pressure mounts on controversially-named sports franchises

Public furor directed at several professional sports teams over offensive names and branding is reaching a fever pitch. Several professional sports leagues in North America include teams whose mascots, names, and logos have drawn criticism from many communities. When we consider that these logos and names are not only representative of the teams, but entire cities across North America, the concern broadens.

The NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, the MLB’s Cleveland Indians, and the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins are among the highest profile targets of public outrage. In addition to the inappropriate names, the teams logos heighten the organizations’ offense.

‘Chief Wahoo’ is the team mascot and logo for the Cleveland Indians — a cartoon depiction of an Indigenous man with red face paint. The logo has received heavy criticism and prompted petitions for it to change.

The Chicago Blackhawks are a team that have been lauded for their Stanley Cup victories and the success of their individual players, however, the team’s logo has also been a source of longtime contention. It is the face of an Indigenous man with feathers in his hair and war paint on his face. Some consider it to be one of the most offensive logos in professional sport.

Offensive logos, however, are not limited to professional sport, as controversy has sparked up around intercollegiate teams as well. The McGill Redmen have attempted to respond to the controversy over their name by devoting a portion of their website to explaining the origins of the Redmen name.

Richard Pound, former chair of the McGill Athletics Board stated, “Unless we find historical evidence which establishes that the Redmen name came from other than the colour of McGill’s uniforms, we intend to preserve the traditional name for our men’s teams.”

This argument is common throughout sports teams’ logo and name debates — franchises do not seem to want to change because to them, they represent the history of the team and the league.

Naming sports teams for symbols from Indigenous culture is disrespectful and offensive. It exploits these already marginalized communities through racist caricatures. We can only hope that in the future, sports teams realize the damage these logos cause and dismiss the idea of having Indigenous mascots, logos, and names to represent their team.

Sports Industry Conference

Conference helps students bridge the gap from sport enthusiasm to sport industry

Sports Industry Conference

Hosted by the University of Toronto Sports and Business Association (UTSB), the theme for this year’s sports industry conference was “Behind The Game: Building the Playbook.” Over 360 students from different universities across the province were in attendance.

Rookie season

There was a panel dedicated to mentorship and development that included Tyler Currie, —the director of international affairs for the NHL’s Player’s Assocation, and Rachel Bonnetta the host of Major League Soccer. 

The panelists agreed that mentorship was a key factor in the growth of the industry. “There is no substitute for a great boss,” said Saint John Sea Dogs president Trevor Georgie.

Currie spoke to the value of encountering what he refers to as an “anti-mentor.”    

Each speaker commented on the relationship between chance and preparation and the importance of honouring personal values. Each story emphasized that meeting a potential mentor is not enough to guarantee a smooth transition into the working world, but rather that students must make an active effort to engage with, and learn from, guidance.

No “I” in team

The second panel of the day highlighted the role of community and partnership in the industry. Jillian Svensson, vice president of business development and operations for You Can Play, explained that when it comes to removing barriers in sport, partnership is essential. Together, the COC and You Can Play have formed the “One Team” initative, which runs programs and promotes the acceptance of LGBT+ athletes in sport.

Shooting hoops

The first keynote panel of the day explored basketball and its growing popularity in Canada. Canada Basketball president and CEO, Michele O’Keefe explained that, while it will be a while before basketball reaches the level enjoyed popularity of hockey in Canada, the number of participants in the sport is on the rise. TSN insider and panel moderator Jack Armstrong recalled the evolution of basketball in Canada, from generating practice players to athletes “with the skills and athleticism to start and get drafted to the NBA.”

Former resident and current manager of the Toronto Raptors and Phoenix Suns Bryan Colangelo, added that he would like to see more funding coming from the federal government to encourage the sport’s growth.

Money ball

The third panel of the day, Data and Analytics: Staying Ahead of the Curve, featured industry insider Jason Rosenfeld, the director of basketball analytics for the NBA. The panel, which was moderated by Scott Cullen an analytics columnist for TSN, highlighted the importance of analytics and statistics in sports.

“The NBA needs to translate international statistics to NBA statistics [and] use data to see what is wrong and how to improve on that,” said Rosenfeld. He mentioned that fans are slowly but surely becoming interested in sports statistics. “It’s great to have fans excited about stats and data in the leagues; it’s fantastic.”

Going for gold

The fourth panel of the day, The Pinnacle of Sport: Sports at the Highest Level, discussed how far sport has come in Canada, and the importance of specific endeavours in that development. Masai Ujuri, general manager of the Toronto Raptors, was praised for his direction of the country’s sole NBA franchise. Johann Koss, founder of Right to Play, remarked that behind every successful sports team are multiple people and organizations who helped make the success possible. He suggested that “To build a successful team, [one should] build relationships and establish young communication with everyone you work with.” Tim Bezbatchenko, Toronto FC general manager, added that when creating long lasting success, “trust with the players is crucial.” 

Over time

The final talk of the night, International Expansion, saw TSN’s Leafs Lunch host Andi Petrillo interview NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

Daly, who was named the deputy commissioner in 2005, spoke about the potential for two new teams to emerge in the NHL. “We are discussing it, still in the early stages. Either [it] will be in Quebec City or Las Vegas,” he said.

Overall, the conference was a huge success. When asked if he believed this type of event was helpful to delegates, Tyler Currie said that a passion for business and sport is what brought the delegates to the conference.

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