That loud sucking noise

I scarcely know where to begin. It’s like trying to figure out where to start cleaning up in Greensburg, Kan. after the F5 tornado that touched down there. (The only thing that has sucked harder than the Jays in recent days, it should be noted.)

One thing I have derived from Toronto’s 2006-07 seasons is this: Never underestimate the value of a league average starting pitcher. Had the Jays enjoyed that commodity in 2006, they may well have made the postseason. Last year, A.J. Burnett and Gustavo Chacin spent a lot of time on the shelf and the Blue Jays had a rotation of Roy Halladay, Ted Lilly, and the pitcher du jour. That list was composed of Casey Janssen, Ty Taubenheim, Josh Towers (who was penned in as the fifth starter when the season started), Shaun Marcum, Francisco Rosario, Brian Tallet and Scott Downs.

They received 54 starts and mustered a mere 10 wins against 31 losses. Also, they averaged fewer than five innings per start and a sky-high ERA of 6.33. One has to wonder whether, if Toronto had received slightly below league-average pitching (4.56 ERA) in those 54 starts, it might have been good for an 18-23 record. That would’ve tied the Jays with Detroit for the AL wild card.

So far in 2007, Jays starters not named Roy Halladay have an ERA of 5.83. Here’s the aggregate pitching line (numbers rounded off) of a typical start from A. J. Burnett, Gustavo Chacin, Tomo Ohka, Josh Towers, Victor Zambrano and Dustin McGowan thus far:

  IP H ER BB  K
 5.1 6  4  2  3

In other words, by the time there’s one out in the sixth inning the opposing team has thrown four runs on the board and it’s time to bring in a reliever. A fresh arm from a bullpen that has an ERA of over eight in May and has an OPS-against on the wrong side of 1.000.

The AL’s ERA at the time of this writing is 4.47—or what’s considered a quality start. (6 IP/3 ER). Excluding the Jays, the average ERA for AL starting pitchers is 4.36. A little quick math tells us that the Jays’ 2-5 starters are a full run-and-a-half worse than an average non-Blue Jay AL starting pitcher.

Tell me four league average starting pitchers wouldn’t help Toronto:

Pitcher           ERA AVG AL SP* IP/GS  AL IP/GS*
Josh Towers      4.70   4.36      5.2      6.0
A.J. Burnett     5.09   4.36      6.0      6.0  
Gustavo Chacin   5.60   4.36      5.1      6.0 
Tomo Ohka        5.50   4.36      5.0      6.0
Victor Zambrano  9.00   4.36      2.2      6.0 
Dustin McGowan  16.88   4.36      5.0      6.0

*non Blue Jay starters

From this example alone we discern that having league average starters isn’t the end of the world. Toronto would be in the thick of things with Mr. Halladay and four of that particular animal. Heck, with Halladay’s appendicitis sidelining him for four to six weeks I’d be happy with league average starts in his stead until he gets back up to speed.

While the 13-19 start is hardly reassuring, it’s still early and folks forget that the 1989 Jays opened the season 12-24. Jimy Williams was fired, Cito Gaston came onboard and the Jays played .611 ball (77-49) the rest of the way to cop the AL East. This year, part of the problem is yet another season of devastating injuries: ace Roy Halladay, catcher Gregg Zaun, left fielder and leadoff man Reed Johnson, LHP Davis Romero, RHP Brandon League, LHP Gustavo Chacin, RHP John Thomson and LHP, possibly 3B Troy Glaus (again) and closer B.J. Ryan.

Speaking of which…

…the Jays have not been helped by general manager J.P. Ricciardi’s sudden bout of synaptic flatulence. The problem isn’t that he lied about Ryan’s injury, but that his lie served no practical point and purpose. In 1999—the year after Saigon Tim Johnson was fired, which may or may not be significant—shortstop Alex Gonzalez was hurt after a hot start. Then-G.M. Gord Ash kept quiet about the extent of A-Gon’s injury. Then he pulled off a coup, sending LHP Dan Plesac to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Tony Batista and John Frascatore. Ash said he kept quiet about the injury so as not to undermine his leverage in trade negotiations. If other G.M.s knew the extent of Gonzalez’s injury, they’d up the price for any shortstop Ash might have tried to acquire.

However Ricciardi’s reason (and I use the term loosely) was inexcusable at so many levels. One: He sent a guy they invested a lot of years and a ton of money on out to pitch while hurt and his ineffectiveness cost the Jays a couple of games. Now it’s cost them their closer for 2007 and a good chunk of 2008. Ricciardi’s decision hobbled the Jays’ bullpen staff—and possibly a contending club—just to lose a couple of games in a tough division. Right now I’m worried that Halladay passed away but Ricciardi is saying it’s appendicitis so St. Peter Gammons won’t keep asking him whether he’s really dead.

It was a decision of epic swingset-built-too-close-to-the-house-as-a-kid then ride the short bus to school stupidity. Ricciardi also made no contingency plans if Ryan was injured badly enough to require surgery or a stint on the 60-day DL—and guess what?

The Jays G.M. knew League wouldn’t be available, and Frasor’s first stint as a closer was so successful that they yanked 200 innings of league average pitching out of the rotation in the person of Miguel Batista in hopes that he could slam the door.

Ricciardi is the one who should be held accountable for this debacle.

As to the closer situation, Frasor is clearly not the answer. He was not the answer in 2004 and he isn’t today. For those who wisely leave the “Whine Cellar” door securely closed, we’ll just quickly touch on what we discussed last week:

Jason Frasor is reminding me of Mike Timlin. Timlin was a good reliever (in fact, he’s still gainfully employed). With the Jays he had a nice sinking fastball and slider combination. However when asked to close, he stopped trusting his stuff and was afraid to challenge hitters. Timlin would fall behind, then try to muscle up, causing his fastball to lose its sink and his slider its bite with predictable results.

I see Frasor falling into the same trap. He was asked to close in his rookie year and this year. In the middle two years of his career, when he was not closing, Frasor (in 124.2 IP) had a BB/9 of 3.25 and a K/9 of 8.16. In seasons he’s been asked to finish games, his BB/9 is 4.82 and his K/9 is 7.39 (in 80.1 IP). He looks like he’s afraid to challenge hitters with his stuff and now is starting to walk guys, then getting hammered when forced to come in. It’s 1996 all over again.

Although he didn’t give up any runs in his last outing, Frasor gave up a hit and two walks in less than an inning’s work against the Red Sox. Pitching in a setup role this season Frasor opened 2007 thusly:

  IP H ER BB  K
 6.0 3  1  2  9

Here are his numbers since he was named closer:

  IP H ER BB  K
 7.1 8  8  7  3

This has happened before, so it’s hard to believe it’s coincidental. First, manager John Gibbons and Ricciardi cost the Jays games by pitching an injured stopper. Currently, Toronto cannot afford to lose much more real estate in the AL East sub-division, hence they cannot wait around until Frasor finds his “inner closer.” It should be noted that the Jays have won only two games in which Frasor has appeared since being named stopper. It’s time for Gibbons to get Frasor back into a role where he has enjoyed success and put somebody else into the ninth-inning slot. (Of note, now that Frasor has been taken out of the ninth inning mix he pitched a perfect inning with a strikeout Thursday night against Boston—albeit in the ninth inning of an 8-0 game.)

As mentioned last week, Jeremy Accardo is red hot: In 13 games (14.2 IP) he has surrendered just seven hits and struck out 13. The only concern is that he has walked five for a 3.09 BB/9. But his career BB/9 is 2.7, which suggests that it shouldn’t be a huge concern; all the more so when you consider that during his minor league apprenticeship he was a stingy 2.4 BB/9.

Another candidate is Casey Janssen. He gives up less than an inning pitched, plus his 2007 BB/9 (1.10) isn’t an anomoly. In his professional career, Janssen averages just a smidge over 1.5 walks per nine innings pitched. Although he hasn’t struck out many, his minor league record suggests he is capable of doing so (7.89 K/9).

All they need is an opportunity. The worst-case scenario is that they’re no better than Frasor. It appears they’ve finally seen the light.

I’ve maintained that this is a potential postseason club—even without Ryan provided somebody steps up. The horses are there, for the most part, but there’s been a less-than-optiomal management of personnel.

  • Pitching an injured closer that ended his utility for 2007 (and possibly the duration of the contract).
  • Choosing Frasor as closer simply because he has “experience” in the role instead of objectively looking at all candidates.
  • Bouncing Towers from the rotation after a single bad inning.
  • Batting a hitter leadoff whose OBP is hugely batting average-dependent when Reed Johnson was injured.
  • Using the bullpen poorly, leading to an embarrassing 8.08 ERA, due to 4.73 BB/9 and .332/.411/.590 BA/OBP/SLG/against in May while starters are struggling. With Halladay out for awhile the ‘pen has got to step up and keep the Jays close.

It’s John Gibbons’ job to maximize the talent at hand or at the very least minimize the damage–all the more so without their ace. The Jays remind me of the Phillies. The talent to contend is there, but it’s not being used properly. Both teams need a major shakeup before much more of the season slips away.

Funny thing is, the perfect person to right this ship might be Cito Gaston.

But that’s for another day.

The Whine Cellar

See above.

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