My Sports

29 June 2017

Artificial Turf Blues Games 76 & 77: A Pleasant Cover-Up

By // Sports

GAME 76
3-1 Loss vs. Baltimore
Season Record: 36-40

Tonight begins my list of the best draft picks in Toronto Blue Jays history. For the four of you who haven’t now begun to immediately scroll down the page or go back to liking cat videos on Facebook, let me explain my criteria for this list.

-First and second round picks don’t count. Those guys are supposed to turn out to be decent players on your MLB team. As you’ll see when I list the worst picks in Jays history, that doesn’t happen as often as you might think. Certainly not in Toronto.

-The player must have signed with the Jays when they were drafted. Over the years, Toronto has taken shots at players they knew they likely weren’t going to sign (a late round stab at Kris Bryant out of high school, for example) and have even wasted early picks on guys who refused to sign (James Paxton). Those guys don’t count because they are dead to me.

– Only players selected through the MLB Draft are considered for the list. Seems obvious to say, but players signed as teenagers from the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico who aren’t subject to the draft, like Tony Fernandez or Carlos Delgado, aren’t going to be included either. They aren’t dead to me – it’s just a different criteria.

The list begins tonight with picks 10 through 8.

10. REED JOHNSON – 17th round, 1999 (523rd overall) Selected out of Cal State-Fullerton by Blue Jays G.M. Gord Ash, Johnson maximized his strengths – defence, selectivity and some pop- and rose from a non-prospect into a 13 year MLB player (5 of them in Toronto) who even batted leadoff for a couple of seasons. His best season was 2006, when he was nearly a 5 WAR player, with a .319/.390/.479 slash line, 8 steals, stellar left field defence and was hit by a pitch an A.L. leading 21 times. He was surprisingly released in Spring Training 2008 so that Shannon Stewart could be re-given the LF job. Stewart lasted exactly 200 at-bats before being released and never played in the majors again. Johnson was a useful MLB player for several more years.

9. MICHAEL YOUNG – 5th round, 1997 (149th overall) He only reached AAA in the Blue Jays’ system before he was traded to Texas for pitcher Esteban Loaiza in one of Gord Ash’s rashest mistakes. He became a 7-time All-Star, batting title and Gold Glove winner for the Rangers while playing both shortstop and second base, while the Jays started superstars like Craig Grebeck, Chris Woodward and Dave Berg at those spots during the time. He retired with 2,375 base hits, received MVP votes in 5 different seasons and was the best man at Vernon Wells’ wedding. I can’t remember my own wedding anniversary date without having to roll my eyes up into my forehead to try to access the file, but I remember that without even a hiccup. Kind of explains a lot, doesn’t it?

8. ALEX GONZALEZ – 13th round, 1991 (354th overall) Though he was only even a league average hitter in one of his 8 seasons in Toronto, Gonzalez was the Blue Jays’ starting shortstop for nearly 900 games, with his above average glove making up him a semi-useful contributor for some really bad teams during that time. He never saw a slider away that he didn’t chase over his entire career, but he was an upper tier defender for nearly a decade who hit 137 career home runs and that’s a pretty decent grab for a 13th round pick. Just don’t ask Cubs fans about his stellar defence. They’re nicer about it now that they’ve won a World Series, but that blown double play in the Bartman game of the 2003 NLCS still bugs the folks in Chicago and rightly so. Luckily the Jays never even smelled a playoff appearance while he played in Toronto. Looking at some of the first round picks from those days will help to explain that. How’s that for a teaser?

COULDA, WOULDA, SHOULDA
(after each loss, three things that might have made a difference)

It will only read as a two-out walk in the boxscore, but Adam Jones’ stubborn at-bat as the fourth hitter of the game today may have won the game early. With a runner on first base and two outs, Jays starter Joe Biagini got ahead 0-2 on Jones, but his lack of a true strikeout pitch cost him dearly. Jones COULDA surrendered the at-bat, but the Orioles’ clean up hitter had the tenacity to foul off two tough pitches, lay off three other close ones and even broke his Diana Ross-like necklace during the at-bat to stall Biagini’s rhythm, eventually earning himself a hard fought base on balls to bring Mark Trumbo to the plate. Trumbo, who would own the MLB’s career triple crown if he only ever faced Blue Jays pitching, almost predictably smacked a two run double to centre field that put the Orioles ahead for good. The Jays came into the game with an MLB worst 6.12 first inning ERA and tonight Jones’ tenacity did the near impossible by making it grow.

Tonight’s game WOULDA had an entirely different look, feel and outcome if the laser beam Josh Donaldson hit in the sixth inning had not gone directly into Manny Machado’s glove as though it were a homing device. The confounding Kevin Gausman, who sports an ERA of over 7 vs. every other MLB team this season but below 2.00 vs. Toronto, had just exited the game after having put two runners on and was replaced by the hard throwing Mychal Givens. Donaldson then absolutely crushed a 3-2 slider that would have scored both runs had it gone three feet in any other direction, but Machado didn’t even have to move his feet. The way 2017 is going for the Blue Jays, of course the hardest hit ball of the night found its way directly to glove of the best defensive player in the league.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Kendrys Morales has been a disappointment as a Blue Jay, but I think it is fair to say that he hasn’t erased Edwin from fans’ collective memory, either. His slash line of .262/.308/.479 isn’t awful – it’s just kind of a non-event. He’s certainly hit a few big home runs, but he’s also had a lot of strikeouts (he’s on pace for 140 Ks and just 38 walks) in big situations and has never gotten really hot at the plate the way Encarnacion used to – a streak the Jays could have used at some point. Tonight was a pretty good distillation of his season – one meaningless single and three swinging strikeouts with runners on base isn’t terrible, but isn’t really good enough from a guy whose only skill is hitting. If you’re a one tool player like Morales is, you SHOULDA been able to not get yourself out against pretty mediocre pitching.

NOTES FROM MY COUCH

Welcome to the big leagues, Chris Smith. Any guy who has to wait until he’s 28 to make his MLB debut and pitched three seasons in unaffiliated independent baseball is not a hard guy to be glad for. His promotion comes at the expense of Jason Grilli’s forced retirement, who might be out of gas but had a hell of a trip, playing 15 MLB seasons and even appearing in an All-Star Game.
Another Jays home game, another moron trying to take a $5 baseball away from a Jays defender in a key situation. In the ninth inning, some big oaf (wearing a Donaldson t-shirt no less!) in the front row reached for a pop up and nearly interfered enough to steal a key out from J.D. Then, after Donaldson still managed to catch the ball in spite of the towering fan stupidity, this stooge has the stones to demand the ball! I’ve never been more proud of Donaldson than I was when he turned his back and ignored him entirely. If you see someone near you doing this, ‘accidentally’ spill your beverage on him, please. They have to be taught a lesson.

GAME 77
4-0 Win vs. Baltimore
Season Record: 37-40

We continue out list of the Top Ten draft pics in Blue Jays history tonight with numbers 7 through 5.

7. JOHN OLERUD – third round, 1989 (79th overall) A pitcher and first baseman at Washington State University, “Johnny O” was named the 1988 Baseball America College Player of the Year as a junior, but suffered a brain aneurysm before his senior season and didn’t play much, which is the only possible explanation for how a swing that perfect could have fallen so far in a draft year. Fully recovered by the time he was drafted, Olerud never spent a day in the minor leagues (well, not until 2005, anyway) and was a key cog in Toronto’s World Series-winning teams. He wore a batting helmet when he played in the field as a precaution, but never suffered any complications from the aneurysm and went on to have a career that deserves serious Hall of Fame consideration. (.295/.398/.465 career, 58 WAR, 3 Gold Gloves and 11 (count ’em) 11 stolen bases!) The helmet also inspired the funniest walk-up song choice in Blue Jays history – “Leave Your Hat On” by Joe Cocker. The only reason he isn’t higher on the list is because a third round pick isn’t as much of a steal as some of the other players on the list were, though very, very few first round picks have ever been as good as he was

6. WOODY WILLIAMS – 28th round, 1988 (732nd overall) Making two appearances in the NCAA Tournament with the University of Houston baseball team before being drafted, Williams’ career started like a 28th round pick’s would. He didn’t reach the Major Leagues until 1993 and did not crack the starting rotation until 1997. He was traded to San Diego the next year in exchange for Joey Hamilton (ugh, Gord Ash this list is not reflecting well on you), where he won 30 games over 2 1/2 years. He was named a National League All-Star in 2003 when he won 18 games for St. Louis and also made 8 postseason starts. He won 132 games and pitched over 2,200 innings in his 15 year MLB career. He was never a superstar and was about as dynamic as a sheet of loose leaf paper, but he was a consistently reliable pitcher and a key contributor for playoff teams in both San Diego (sic) and St. Louis before finishing his career with a pretty stinky season in his hometown of Houston at age 40. Not bad for a $1,000 signing bonus.

5. ORLANDO HUDSON – 43rd round, 1997 (1,280th overall) I’m not particularly knowledgeable about college baseball in the U.S. but I’m fairly confident that South Carolina’s Spartanburg Methodist College is not known for it’s distinguished list of MLB alumni. Give Blue Jays scouts credit, then, for finding Hudson down there and getting him into their organization so late in the draft. While his best seasons happened after he left Toronto (noticing a trend here?), Hudson still made a memorable impression while he was playing here in Hogtown. A switch-hitting, slick fielding infielder who played with an infectious exuberance, he won four Gold Gloves in his career and was a two-time National League All-Star. Pretty impressive considering more people were drafted before him in 1997 than the entire population of Spartanburg, South Carolina (N.B. – I don’t have a fact checker). He will also forever have a place in my heart for being sent to the minor leagues in Spring Training of 2002 when he said that new Blue Jays G.M. J.P. Ricciardi ‘looked like a pimp’. Never change, O-Dog. Never change.

BASKING IN THE GLORY
After each win, three things that might have been the difference.

A BIG PLAY Having just taken a 2-0 lead on Justin Smoak’s 21st home run of the season, the Blue Jays loaded the bases with two out in the fourth inning for Jose Bautista. It was an opportunity for the Jays to make the lead more comfortable and allow starter Marcus Stroman a bit of wiggle room, which he did not end up needing. Bautista torched a one hopper that Baltimore shortstop Paul Janish made a nice play on, spearing it on the short hop and throwing to second for the force play, but Kevin Pillar was anticipating Jose’s swing and narrowly beat the throw to second. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop then alertly tried to throw to first to get Jose but his throw was wild, eventually allowing two runs to score on what could have been a big defensive play to end the inning. Pillar’s hustle and anticipation were the big reason the Jays were able to tack on two runs without the benefit of a home run.

A BIG MOMENT – After allowing 6 home runs in his previous two starts, it was clear Marcus Stroman needed to do a better job of keeping the ball down in the strike zone tonight against this potent Baltimore lineup. When he started the game by allowing a leadoff base hit to Seth Smith on a very hittable pitch that was up in the zone, it didn’t augur well. Stroman then set to work, immediately showcasing his almost peerless ability to self-correct from pitch to pitch, setting his focus lower in the strike zone and four pitches later, induced Manny Machado into hitting into a double play, erasing the leadoff single. He was down and dominant for the rest of the game, with his cutter sharp and his slider with as much hair on it as I’ve ever seen. No Orioles base runner reached second base during his 7 and 2/3 innings and he was still hitting 95 MPH in the eighth inning. It was a big, ballsy statement of a start in a situation where his team really needed one.

…AND A LITTLE THING – It seems a foregone conclusion that Justin Smoak will make the All-Star Game this year. The only question is whether he is voted to start or whether an undeserving Eric Hosmer edges him out. During tonight’s game there was some discussion about whether any other Jays would join him in Miami for the Midsummer Classic and Stroman’s name was mentioned. That’s not an unreasonable assertion (though I don’t think it will happen), but I was surprised no one brought up Roberto Osuna. The only relief pitchers having better seasons than him in the A.L. are Craig Kimbrel in Boston and Cleveland’s Andrew Miller. I would think watching Osuna strike out Baltimore’s 4, 5 and 6 hitters on just 14 pitches today probably didn’t hurt his chances. I’m pulling for him.

NOTES FROM MY COUCH

Home plate umpire Quinn Wolcott’s strike zone was as wide as Sid Fernandez’ back (80’s Mets reference, lost on younger readers) and as generous as Cherry Forever tonight (Porky’s reference, also lost). As a result Blue Jays hitters chased several bad pitches in situations where they might not have. Against a pitcher like Miley, whose Achilles heel is his propensity to throw a lot of walks, Wolcott’s generosity was a serious disadvantage for Blue Jays hitters tonight. If nothing else, it provides a nice excuse why Troy Tulowitzki did nothing with the bat again.
Speaking of All-Star voting shams, the Blue Jays re-signed Michael Saunders today to a minor league contract, apparently determined to set an MLB record for the most below average defensive left fielders in one organization. Saunders handled himself with class all last year and is not a hard guy to cheer for, but I don’t see where he fits on the 25 man MLB roster unless there’s an injury.
This win was all about Stroman, who was nothing short of terrific, but it did nothing to remedy what is wrong with the Blue Jays’ offence. Their only earned runs were scored on solo home runs and they remain last in baseball in batting average and on-base percentage with runners in scoring position. Pillar got their only hit tonight with RISP and it didn’t even score a run because it was Kendrys Morales on second base, which shouldn’t really count. He’s only in scoring position ten feet from the plate. He’s the baseball equivalent of a recycling truck slowly collecting in the middle of a narrow street just 50 feet from your driveway.

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