Blue Birds of a Feather

The game collectively yawned when the Blue Jays acquired Jose Bautista (via James G).

The game collectively yawned when the Blue Jays acquired Jose Bautista (via James G).

The Toronto Blue Jays announced the move shortly before 3 p.m. on Aug. 21, 2008. The Jays, read the short press release, had acquired third baseman-outfielder Jose Bautista in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bautista passed through waivers first, with other GMs reacting the same way Jays fans did when they heard the news. With a yawn.

Everyone knows the rest of the story. After parts of five big league seasons with home run totals in the teens and batting averages in the .240s, Bautista opened up his batting stance and unlocked his power, becoming a perennial All-Star and team leader and amassing a 24.8 WAR since his arrival. He is now Mr. Blue Jay, the stubbled face of the organization.

Bautista’s phoenix-like rise is an old story that’s new again this year, because the Blue Jays are an offense full of Bautistas, players no one else wanted who have gathered north of the border to hit the cover off the ball in the first half of 2014.

At the All-Star break, the Blue Jays’ 4.49 runs scored per game were fifth in the big leagues and tops in the A.L. East. Their 116 home runs were the most in baseball and their 411 RBIs ranked fifth overall.

Make no mistake, Toronto isn’t following the same model as the successfully thrifty Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s. The current Jays’ offense is more a nod to their professional scouts than its amateur scouts. Their lineup is full of guys other teams couldn’t wait to get rid of.

Just look at who else is playing in the Toronto outfield with Bautista this year. To his right is center fielder Colby Rasmus, who, admittedly, has gotten on Jays fans’ nerves with his 29.5 percent strikeout rate and frequent stints on the DL.

But last year, Rasmus produced a 4.1 WAR after hitting .276 with 22 homers and playing better-than-average center field defense. According to The Fielding Bible, Rasmus had a defensive runs saved mark of +11. Considering those numbers, it’s hard to believe the Cardinals, which drafted him with the 28th overall pick in 2005, were more than willing to unload him to Toronto at the 2011 trade deadline.

Of course, there’s more to it than numbers. To say Rasmus did not subscribe to the fabled “Cardinal Way” is an understatement, and he took a ton of grief because of it. When Tony LaRussa and the Cardinal coaching staff implored him to use the whole field as a hitter, Rasmus said no and to this day remains a dead pull hitter.

But the kiss of death was his alleged request for a trade in 2010. None other than Albert Pujols, a god-like figure in St. Louis before he took the money and ran to Anaheim, called out Rasmus in September, amid the dying embers of the team’s playoff hopes.

“I think for him to come up and ask for a trade and that you guys should know about it, I don’t think that was pretty professional,” Pujols spat to reporters.

Normally forgiving and loyal Cardinal fans, who were already frustrated with their rogue center fielder, went off the rails after that. When you’re a Cardinal and manage to turn the faithful against you, that’s saying something. Good thing he left the country and not just the National League and state of Missouri.

The Jays’ current left fielder is yet another player who became toxic to his previous team — chemically toxic, in fact. As a San Francisco Giant in 2012, Melky Cabrera tested positive for synthetic testosterone and earned a 50-game suspension for it. The Giants were so disgusted they didn’t even want him back when his suspension was over. And he’d hit .346 in 113 games. The Giants won the World Series anyway.

It was the second time Cabrera was cast out. He was also a misfit with the Braves in 2010, when his inability to “play the right way” rankled team veterans, most notably Chipper Jones. That was a lot like being a Cardinal and ticking off Albert Pujols circa 2010. Once you do it, there’s no going back.

Nevertheless, after Cabrera’s second shunning and on the very same day the Jays made their blockbuster trade with the Marlins, the team swooped to sign the outfielder for a relatively cheap two-year, $16 million deal.

“Obviously, he made a terrible mistake,” Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos told ESPN after making the deal. “We heard he’s a great teammate.”

Obviously, he hadn’t spoken to Chipper Jones. The signing, however, was almost universally lauded by the media at the time. But like everything else from last season, it didn’t pay off. A benign tumor in his spine limited Cabrera to 88 games. Now he’s one of the steadiest players in a lineup that has been wracked with injuries.

Unfortunately, the injury bug bit the best of the Jays’ misfit players this year, first baseman and designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion. On July 7, he went on the 15-day disabled list with a right quadriceps strain. At first, the Jays thought he’d be out two to four weeks. But manager John Gibbons recently told reporters there is no timetable for his return.

That’s too bad, because Encarnacion has certainly earned a season in the spotlight. His ups and downs began after the Cincinnati Reds traded for him in back in 2001. Within a few years, the Dominican infielder had developed into one of their best position prospects. The Reds called him up in June 2005.

Despite putting up decent offensive numbers, Encarnacion became the bane of opinionated Reds fans — which is to say all Reds fans — for his frequent strikeouts and slapstick defense at third. In 2006, his first as a big league regular, Encarnacion’s UZR was -6 according to FanGraphs. In 2007, it plummeted to -14.7, and in 2008 it wasn’t much better — -12.5.

Encarnacion was hitting just .209 with five homers and 16 RBIs on July 31, 2009, when the Reds gladly sent him to Toronto in exchange for a 34-year-old Scott Rolen, whose back was ready to give out at any minute.

J.P. Ricciardi , then Blue Jays senior vice-president of baseball operations and general manager, said the deal was less about acquiring Encarnacion (plus reliever Josh Roenicke and pitching prospect Zach Stewart) than it was about giving Rolen what he wanted.

“Scotty, he’s actually got some personal reasons for wanting to be traded, and we tried to accommodate him for that, and we did.” Ricciardi told TSN. “We made what we thought was a good trade.”

Encarnacion wasn’t thrilled. He blew off the Cincinnati media on his way out of town, but his manager spoke up for him.

“It could be a good move for Edwin, too,” said former Reds skipper Dusty Baker. “Sometimes a change of scenery is good for you.”

Not initially. After a very Cincinnati-esque 2010 season with the bat (.244 average, 21 bombs, 55 RBIs and twice as many strikeouts as walks), Toronto put Encarnacion on waivers. The Oakland Athletics claimed him in November, then promptly released him a few weeks later. The Jays picked up their newly humbled infielder on Dec. 16.

Ouch. It’s hard not to be happy for his run of success after that. Encarnacion has averaged more than 30 home runs in the three full seasons since, and he’s driven in more than 100 runs the last two. This year, he’s surpassed Bautista as the Jay’s most lethal offensive weapon and is likely to have career highs in home runs and RBI should he be able to come back strong.

Until he does, probably in August, his power in the lineup will be replaced by another Reds reject, Juan Francisco. Francisco, also developed as a third baseman, was such a beast in his first three full seasons in the Reds system — averaging 25 homers and roughly 92 RBIs from 2007 to 2009 — that Cincinnati called him up as a 22-year-old in 2009. In 14 games, he went 9-for-21 with a homer and nine RBIs.

Alas, he was not to be the Reds’ third baseman of the future. Francisco suffered the same fate Encarnacion endured in the Queen City. Not enough consistency at the plate and poor defense. In 2012, Cincinnati traded him to the Atlanta Braves for middling middle reliever J.J. Hoover. It was official. Francisco was more suspect than prospect.

Atlanta traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers a year later, then the Brewers dumped him this past March, leaving him scarcely enough time to find another big league job. Luckily for both parties, the Blue Jays came calling on April 2, inking him to a minor league deal for depth at Triple-A Buffalo.

It was a classic Alex Anthopoulos move, grabbing a player off the scrap heap and stashing him at Triple-A. Francisco was no waiver claim, but the Jays GM has developed a bit of a reputation on the waiver wire.

A GM can claim players other organizations have put on waivers in an attempt to move them from their own 40-man roster, usually to the minor leagues. If the GM claims that player, the team has to keep him on its own 40-man roster. The low cost-per-claim makes the move relatively risk-free, although it can annoy the GM trying to pass that player through waivers.

According to an article in the Toronto Star on April 26, 2013, Anthopoulos had made an unusually high 21 waiver claims between then and Oct. 17, 2012. He’s still doing it, most recently claiming right-hander Brad Mills from the Oakland A’s on July 17.

When Adam Lind went on the disabled list on April 17, Anthopoulos selected Francisco’s contract from Buffalo. Francisco is no Encarnacion with the bat, but is already close to his career highs in homers and RBIs since taking over at the hot corner for injured regular Brett Lawrie. Now, Lawrie is taking more reps at second. Francisco has played himself into consideration for an everyday job.

The overall narrative of the misfit Blue Jays would be even better if the team can go on another tear similar to the one that put the Jays atop the division for the first few months of the season. They faded heading into the break, losing 23 of 34 games and falling five games behind the Baltimore Orioles.

The second half began inauspiciously. They lost their first game back at the hands of one of their own rejects, catcher J.P. Arencibia. He was Toronto’s first-round pick in 2007 but never could hit with any consistency. The Texas Rangers signed him last December after the Jays let him walk, and he’s shuttled back and forth to Triple-A ever since, hitting a paltry .143 in his first 21 big league games.

But in the seventh inning of their July 18 tilt at Rogers Center, Arencibia hit a three-run bomb off R.A. Dickey to put the Rangers up 5-0. Only the Jays could appreciate that kind of irony.

Watching Arencibia’s big fly soar into the left field seats was his replacement, another scrap heap pickup no other team wanted, including the Jays at first.

“I don’t think there was any point in the season where we were making plans for Dioner Navarro to be here in the offseason,” Anthopoulos told reporters after the signing.

Failing at attempts to shore up Toronto’s catching situation after Arencibia allowed 13 passed balls last year, Anthopoulos did some research to find yet another relative bargain.

“We did do a lot of work on Dioner, talked to coaches, guys he’s played with, guys that have (thrown to him), former teammates, front office,” Anthopoulos told Toronto Star columnist Richard Griffin a few days after the signing. “We probably made at least 20 calls to various people that have played with him, been around him, to try and put it all together.”

There is risk, especially in the second half of the season. Navarro, who hit .300 with 13 homers and 34 RBI in 89 games in part-time duty for the Chicago Cubs last year, hasn’t been an everyday catcher since his stint with the Tampa Bay Rays from 2007 to 2009. And he’s suffered injuries every year since then.

So the question now is, will Navarro hang on? Can he improve on his offensive numbers, which are so-so at .260, five homers and 38 RBIs through 289 at bats, more than he’s had since 2009? And can he stabilize a starting rotation that is the polar opposite of the Jays lineup, with its high-profile free-agent signings and young, home-grown pitchers?

The Jays had no idea what they’d be getting from Bautista after they signed him in 2008, and they have no idea what they’ll get from Navarro in the second half. But based on what has gone on north of the border with past bargain-basement signings, if Navarro does have success it will be real. And it will be spectacular.

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