Looking ahead

Right now I’m camped in front of the boob tube watching the first game of the White Sox/Blue Jays’ day-night doubleheader.

I’m amazed at my anxiety level considering that I resigned myself to the Jays’ fate toward the end of August when they lost three straight despite surrendering just six runs to the Rays and Yankees that preceded their current winning streak.

Toronto would be 79-63, on a 12-game winning streak and winners of 20 of their last 24 had they gotten some offense; all that’s on the line today is an eight gamer and remaining in the postseason picture albeit mathematically.

At any rate, it looks like I have to keep my promise to the good folks at Batters Box and not fire J.P. Ricciardi (if the Jays could beat Matt Garza) Sunday since Bauxite Daniel McIlroy is going to make me keep my word. I did confirm my pledge on Baseball Digest Daily and while I have no executive powers, I guess it means no more editorials calling for his head.

It doesn’t mean I won’t want other parts of his anatomy on a silver platter.

Heh.

The thing is—what does the Jays’ current hot streak mean and not mean for the club and Ricciardi’s offseason?

Many are saying that this is just the Jays’ usual hot September once the pressure of a postseason race is off; indeed, they have played exceedingly well in the season’s closing days as the string was being played out in 2006 and 2007. Others are saying that it proves that John Gibbons was a buffoon and Cito Gaston a managerial Jedi Master who finally unlocked the team’s potential, while still others opine that Toronto’s early season underperformance was random and the team’s late-season success simply the case of the hitters reverting to their normal levels.

These are important questions going into the hot stove league—the correct answer to them will dictate what changes need to be made and what should be left alone this winter.

(Game break, through five innings: This is turning into a David Purcey/Matt Garza type pitching duel—I think it‘ll be another 1-0 game. Neither team can touch A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez who are both absolutely filthy today. Certain things will not be mentioned.)

Probably the old baseball axiom applies to the 2008 Jays: a team is never as good as it looks when it is hot and never as bad as it looks when it is cold. The Jays were a better team than they showed under Gibbons but probably aren’t as good as they’ve shown over their last 24 games (17-7).

Obviously the pitching is solid but picking up another starter wouldn’t hurt; when you give starts to John Parrish and Scott Richmond then clearly there is no such thing as too much pitching. Slumps occur, injuries happen, regression is always a possibility etc., and while the Jays have all kinds of in-house pitching options (insofar as the starting staff goes) it’s best to make sure you have a little extra depth.

The biggest question is the offense. Toronto is batting .290/.338/.467 over the aforementioned 24 games. From April 8 to May 2—a stretch of 24 games—the Jays hit .247/.335/.351 and went 9-15. Neither run represents the team’s true talent level.

(Game break, bottom of sixth: Finally, a breakthrough. Lyle Overbay smokes a two-out, two-run double with two out, his second double of the game. The Jays need 12 more outs to run their winning streak to nine. Suffice it to say, it‘s crucial for Burnett to get through the next half-inning unscathed.)

It’s pretty unfair to say the Jays’ fine play is the result of the pressure being off; they have been playing well since about the second week of July. Since July 8, they’re 34-19 when nobody was truly out of it (well, maybe the Pirates). As we stated last week, it’s not the Jays’ fault that the Rays and Red Sox didn’t fall back.

Further, I do think Gary Denbo’s approach to hitting did hurt the offense. Taking pitches (especially meatballs) simply to work the count for its own sake and trying to go the other way was ill-suited to the roster. Cito Gaston (and Gene Tenace’s) proactive “have a plan, wait for a pitch in your zone and cream it” style was a better fit. They’re called “pitcher’s counts” and “hitter’s counts” for a reason. Deliberately spotting the pitcher a 0-1 count hoping later to find a pitch a hitter can take the other way didn’t sound like a recipe for run scoring.

The Jays’ hitters are now free to be themselves rather than what Denbo felt they should be, and it has shown up in the win-loss record. When I interviewed Gaston back in 2000, he felt it important to work with a hitter’s strengths and emphasize what he does well rather than changing him into something that he’s not.

Gaston candidly admitted trying to do just that with John Olerud with disastrous results. The lesson has stuck with Cito.

(Game break: The no-hitter is gone on a base hit by Orlando Cabrera—while Rolen got to the ball, a hit was the correct call by the scorer. The ball was absolutely stung by O-Cab. A Johnny Mac defensive brain fart on a double play ground ball has first and second, one out. A wild pitch moves them up to second and third and one out. Jim Thome cashes in a run with a sac fly and Burnett gets Paul Konerko to fly out to Vernon Wells. Nice job by Burnett in keeping his composure.)

The Jays are genuinely a better team under Gaston but that isn’t a knock on Gibbons; Gibby was certainly capable, but I think he was too much under the influence of Ricciardi’s wishes and Denbo‘s approach neutered the offense. Gibbons acquitted himself well enough in his first stint as a field boss and deserves another shot, preferably with a team that will give him more latitude. Yes, he made mistakes, but he also seemed to learn from them and he gained a lot of valuable experience and insights that will serve him well next time he’s hired.

He may end up managing in the minors before he’s offered a big league job again, but I think he’ll be back.

But I digress.

(Game break: I just noticed something—Burnett has pitched six innings of one-hit/one-walk ball, struck out five but is at 98 pitches. Those two errors really helped put a dent in his pitch count. Unless he has a quick 1-2-3 inning I think he‘s done after seven.)

The Jays have shown under Gaston that they have a solid core and “blowing it up” is not only unnecessary, but foolhardy. They have holes but pluggable ones: Wells, Alex Rios, Adam Lind, and Lyle Overbay vs. RHP are a decent core. Aaron Hill and Joe Inglett will ensure that second base will be well cared for offensively and defensively. Scott Rolen is a question mark offensively; catcher will be more a defense-first ’will take what they chip in offensively’ since it’s important that the pitching staff (the team’s No. 1 asset) is comfortable.

The key upgrades will be shortstop, designated hitter and, in my opinion, a platoon partner for Lyle Overbay.

Ricciardi says he’ll be content if he has to go with Marco Scutaro and Johnny Mac at short if he cannot find an upgrade. The trouble is that both the free agent and trade market looks thin. Rafael Furcal is coming off back surgery and will cost a bundle, and Khalil Greene, if available, might rebound outside of Petco Park, but it’s hardly a guarantee and beyond that…

It may be that we’ll be seeing the incumbents in 2009.

As to DH (possibly a combination of Travis Snider and Lind) and a right-handed-hitting first baseman we’ll have to see what is left over after the big spenders are through.

(Game break, bottom of seventh: Another Johnny Mac error! It leads to a stolen base by Alexei Ramirez. More pitches for A.J. who bears down and fans Nick Swisher and Juan Uribe to end the threat. Burnett is unflappable, but will he pitch the eighth? With 112 pitches and a possible start on three days’ rest, I’m guessing he’s done. On the bright side, Ozzie Guillen has already gone three deep into the bullpen … just the thing you want to see in a twin bill.)

What will decide the Jays’ fate next year isn’t so much what is done during the offseason but what Ricciardi does during the 2009 season if things don’t start well. As I’ve stated here, at BDD and Sympatico.MSN is that J.P. was too slow in addressing the problem with the offense and the blown games early in the season are the reason that their fine play under Gaston will most likely go for naught.

As I stated elsewhere, J.P. “Barried” the Jays early and were “Dunn” in by him late; while I have some thoughts on why Bonds’ didn’t come to Toronto (cough cough), the whole Dunn fiasco was as bad. To state that Jays fans wouldn’t be very happy if he came to Canada underestimates how much we would enjoy it if games like this were to have major playoff implications for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Gaston (and Garza) most likely bought Ricciardi another year; the Jays’ solid play isn’t the result of de facto elimination but rather a glimpse of how close this team is to contention. Make no mistake though, the status quo will not get it done next year because you cannot have four question marks in the lineup and hope to contend in a division with the revamped Yankees, the powerful Red Sox and the emerging Rays regardless of the strength of the pitching.

The Jays have the best starting staff in the AL, the best bullpen and defense, and they are in third place which demonstrates that a team still needs a solid offense. It’s up to Ricciardi to make it happen.

(Game break, top of ninth: two out hits by Rod Barajas, Snider and Inglett have added an insurance run. It‘s time for B.J. Ryan and I’ll admit, I’m worried sick. A nine-game winning streak is riding on a closer who has been nicked for runs in his last three outings and thrown around 25 pitches each time out. Chances are good that by the time you read this you‘ll already know the result so I‘ll end it here. If it goes badly, well … nobody likes to see a grown man cry).

Epilogue: (What the heck)

WOOT!

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