Changes in Blue Jays Land

This season, to put it mildly, has not gone according to plan for the Toronto Blue Jays. There may be a few teams – the Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks come to mind – who’ve suffered worse fates, but that offers little solace. A rash of injuries that started in mid-May and continued well into July has been a major contributing factor.

Key Blue Jays Injuries in 2004

(C) Greg Myers, ankle, April 27 to present
(OF) Frank Catalanotto, groin, May 20-June 8
(2B) Orlando Hudson, hamstring, May 24-June 16
(RHP) Roy Halladay, shoulder, May 28-June 12
(1B) Carlos Delgado, rib cage, May 30-July6
(RHP) Justin Miller, hamstring, May 31-August 3

(CF) Vernon Wells, calf, June 16-July 16
(OF) Frank Catalanotto, groin, June 18-July20
(RHP) Roy Halladay, shoulder, July 20 to present

Highlighted above is an 8-day stretch during which the Jays lost four key players to the disabled list. Five other members of the Opening Day roster have missed significant action: Kevin Cash (15 games missed), Kerry Ligtenberg (13 missed), Justin Speier (25 missed), Chris Woodward (24 missed) and Valerio de Los Santos (out since June 6). The De Los Santos injury left the Jays without a lefthander in the pen after the demotion of Jason Kershner.

On the positive side of the ledger, the pickups of Frank Menechino and Gregg Zaun have made up for the injured catchers and middle infielders. Rookie relief pitchers Jason Frasor (acquired from the Dodgers for Jayson Werth) and Vinnie Chulk have pitched effectively. Rookie Alex Rios has played very well after a slow start, and J.P. Ricciardi draftee Dave Bush has looked like a Brad Radke clone.

It’s no wonder the denizens of Batter’s Box have dubbed this year the “season from hell”.

After taking the first two games in Skydome against the Cleveland Indians, the Jays were thrashed 14-5 and lost the finale in extra-innings. Then it was on to New York, where the Jays were thoroughly dominated in the first 3 games of the series. In the midst of the horror, a surprising trade occurred …

Former Baseball Prospectus cover boy Josh Phelps (who may end up being the last one ever because they no longer feature players on the cover) was shipped to Ohio. Phelps made a big splash in the American League after dominating the high minors in 2001 (.323 GPA in AA) and the first half of 2002 (.335 GPA in AAA). He had upper deck power and hit the ball hard with amazing consistency in his rookie season.

No longer a catcher after making the big club, his limited speed pushed him to the DH, with a possible move to first base if/when Carlos Delgado left town.

2003 was a somewhat disappointing year for Josh given the expectations, but it wasn’t all that bad. His strikeout-to-walk ratio improved from 4.3 in his rookie season to 2.9. In 2004, Phelps performed poorly against right-handed pitching and his overall numbers suffered. Here is how Phelps has performed against righties, lefties and overall:

 Josh Phelps - major leagues with Toronto (bats right)  
        vs. right-handers   vs. left-handers
Year       PA   OBP   SLG     PA   OBP   SLG   GPA ratio
2001-03   527  .348  .518    226  .372  .450     0.98
2004      202  .252  .290    118  .370  .633     1.75
career    729  .321  .453    344  .371  .514     1.15

Notes: the final column is the ratio of GPA versus left and GPA versus right (for right-handed hitters). Ratios in excess of 1.00 show a conventional split: i.e. right-handed batters hit lefties better. The farther away from 1.00 a ratio is, the more extreme the split the ratio represents. Est. PA is At-bats+Walks+HBP

                Overall Numbers               
Year   PA   OBP   SLG  $BIP   W%    K%   GB/FB
2002  287  .362  .562  .399  6.7  28.6    0.97
2003  453  .358  .470  .328  8.3  25.6    1.37
2004  321  .296  .417  .275  5.1  22.9    2.03

A significant feature of Phelps’s career progression is the increase in his groundball-to-flyball ratio: Phelps has morphed from a flyball hitter into an extreme groundball hitter, and his power and ball-in-play average have declined. Phelps has cut down his strikeout rate, but because he is hitting the ball on the ground and making outs in play more frequently, his overall production has suffered.

The saving grace is that Josh has been effective against left-handed pitching. In an attempt to deal with his problems against right-handers this season, Phelps was out of the lineup for extended periods putting in extra work with hitting coach Mike Barnett. As the year wore on, a Josh Phelps appearance when a righty was on the mound became increasingly rare. For the last three weeks in a Jays uniform he was stuck in the minor half of a DH platoon.

On Saturday, August 7th, J.P. Ricciardi gave up on Phelps and traded him to the Cleveland Indians for AAA 1B/OF Eric Crozier.

Crozier is an interesting player. He was drafted in the 41st round out of Norfolk State in 2000 and this is his 4th full minor league season. Coming from a weak-conference school and therefore playing a relatively easy schedule, it was no surprise that Crozier had a difficult time adjusting to pro ball. Except for a downturn in 2003 (likely due to an injury), Crozier’s hitting has improved every year. This season he was sporting a .375 OBP/.571 SLG/.312 GPA in AAA Buffalo before the trade. J.P. Ricciardi compared Crozier physically to a young Fred McGriff. If Delgado leaves in the off-season, Crozier will be one of the few power-hitting left-handed batters in the organization above A-ball (Gabe Gross, Eric Hinske and the disappointing John-Ford Griffin are others). Toronto is a good organization for a player like Crozier to be in right now: it looks like he’ll get a fair shot.

Still, it seems like little return for a young player of Josh Phelps’ stature, despite his struggles. J.P. Ricciardi has shown himself to be a top-notch farm system builder. Every farm team but Syracuse has either clinched a playoff berth or is very likely to do so.

If there is a weakness to J.P.’s trading approach it might be that once he sours on a player, he doesn’t drive a hard bargain. Interviewed on the Fan 590, J.P. stated that he was worried Phelps might be eligible for arbitration as a Super-2 (his service time is fairly close to the dividing line) and he didn’t want to risk an arbitration award of $1 million plus for a player he thought wouldn’t be productive. So instead of non-tendering him in the off-season, he got something he liked in return (Crozier). Another option would have been to wait and see if perhaps Phelps wouldn’t have qualified. I get the sense that Ricciardi likes Crozier’s immediate future more than Phelps’s.

Another one bites the dust …

When a team is out of the playoff chase and is playing uninspired baseball, the manager is always at risk. When the Jays were blown out by the hated Yankees for the third time in a row, Carlos Tosca’s denouement had arrived. Tosca got the news just after the Sunday afternoon loss. A hurried press conference was organized; Tosca didn’t have a chance to address his players one final time. The interim manager was to be now ex-first base and bullpen coach John Gibbons; a decision on a permanent manager would be made in the off-season.

As is the case with most managers, Tosca was criticized by the fans for his lineup selection and handling of the bullpen. Last season, the first half featured a merry-go-round of relievers all too frequently. That practice was curtailed in the second half, but it did not prevent the Jays from posting the 3rd-highest number of relief appearances (443; Texas 494, Detroit 451) in the American League. This season, the manager seemed unable to make up his mind about who the “closer” was to be. The nadir was reached when Terry Adams blew a “won” ballgame for the second time in a week on May 19th, when Matt Lecroy of the Twins hit a slam off him. Rookie Jason Frasor was moved into the closer role and has been there ever since.

Veteran newcomers Speier, Ligtenberg and Adams were used interchangeably in the set-up and closer roles in April and May. A constant shifting of roles is anathema to major league pitchers – it’s one of the things that can undermine a player’s confidence in his manager.

More recently, Tosca shook up the lineup a few weeks ago by installing rookie Alex Rios in the leadoff spot. A week later he moved Rios into the #3 spot and shifted Vernon Wells to #5. This was a baffling move, but because Toronto won that game, Tosca decided that he liked it and stuck with it – for a while. Alex Rios, at this point in his career, is unsuitable for batting #3. Rios doesn’t have much power (yet), doesn’t (yet) draw many walks, and hits the ball on the ground a lot (1.88 GB/FB). This is a recipe for rally-killing double plays. Wells has a lot more power, a much lower GB/FB ratio (1.16) and gets down to first a little quicker than Rios.

Shuffling the lineup to drop the best player on the team from #3 to #5 while installing a rookie whose skill set is unsuited for the task is sure to provoke mutterings from the troops. It will not make a huge difference in a team’s expected runs scored total, but it can undermine a manager’s credibility.

We arrive in our story at Sunday’s game in Yankee Stadium, with the Jays trying to snap yet another 4-game losing streak. Dave Berg, who had struggled mightily in the first half of the season, was on a hot streak. And so he started the game against right-hander Jon Leiber. Dave Berg hits right-handed, has very little power, very little speed and doesn’t play any defensive position well. He doesn’t have the range to play second base. Orlando Hudson is a switch hitter who hits better from the left side and is a phenomenal defensive player. But Hudson hadn’t been hitting the ball well of late (though he is unquestionably a better hitter against right-handers than Berg) – so he sat.

An eyewitness, someone whose opinion carries a lot of weight in my mind, had this to say in this Batter’s Box thread:

I think J.P. saw, from the body language of his players while B Williams circled the bases after the grand slam, that Tosca had lost the team. It was quite apparent that the stances of C Delgado and V Wells showed that they were already beaten after just six Yankee batters. I could really sense that vibe from my perch beside Rod and Tabby.

Unfortunately, his choice of Dave Berg over the O-Dog was the final nail in the coffin. That gave the Yankees one too many extra chances. You cannot discount the defense against these guys. …[Scott Carson, Sportsnet/TSN]

The inability to turn Matsui’s grounder to second base into the final out of the inning opened the door for Bernie Williams’s at-bat. Bernie hit a two-out grand slam and the Yankees led by 4 runs after the first inning, on their way to an 8-2 decision.

The players no longer seemed to have confidence in Tosca to make the decisions necessary to put the team in a position to win, and Ricciardi recognized this. The team’s poor play in April and after the All-Star break spelled doom for Tosca. The John Gibbons era began with a 5-4 victory over the Yankees in the concluding game of the series (Frasor game up a two-run shot to Matsui in the ninth to make it very interesting).

Is it all gloom in Jays land? The farm system has a lot of depth, but some critics point to J.P.’s mostly-college-players drafts and accuse the system of lacking high-ceiling players. So far, the last three drafts have produced one pitcher who looks like a keeper – Dave Bush. Josh Banks, though struggling in AA, is highly regarded, as are the pair of lefties drafted this season – David Purcey and Zach Jackson. Aaron Hill’s bat is heating up in AA, and that’s all the more impressive since it’s his first full season in pro baseball. Holdovers from the Gord Ash era such as Guillermo Quiroz, Brandon League and Dustin McGowan (now out for about 18 months after Tommy John surgery) are potential stars. There are many other players in the system who have a decent shot at being useful major leaguers.

No doubt this difficult season has set the timetable back, but the train is still on the rails.

References & Resources

Groundball/flyball and platoon-split data were taken from ESPN player profiles. I discussed Josh Phelps’ power potential after his rookie year in this article.

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