Our long, gray and snow-filled winter of discontent officially comes to a close today as the 2011 MLB regular season finally gets underway. For the Minnesota Twins and Toronto Blue Jays, the wait is just a bit longer but at least we will have other teams playing real baseball today to help us pass the time.
While I follow all of baseball in addition to obsessively following the Royals and Twins, I’m far from an expert when it comes to the Toronto Blue Jays. Fortunately Jared MacDonald, Staff Writer for Jays Journal, agreed to provide a Toronto perspective to this opening series. Any commentary or coverage on the Jays and their players was provided by Jared.
Toronto Blue Jays:
2010 Regular Season Record: 85-77, 3rd in AL East (11.0 GB)
2011 Spring Training Record: 16-14, 5th in Grapefruit League (3.0 GB)
2010 Regular Season Record: 94-68, 1st in AL Central (0.0 GB)
2011 Spring Training Record: 20-12, 1st in Grapefruit League (0.0 GB)
Carl Pavano was a pleasant surprise last season, his second with the Twins. In fact, that is probably selling things a little short. He went 17-11 in 2010 with a 3.75 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and impressive 3.16 SO/BB. Pavano finished the year with and ERA+ of 111, making it the 1st time since 2004 that his ERA+ was above 100. It would be foolish to expect the “Stache” to repeat that this season, but with his elite control and pitching savvy I think it is fair to anticipate he will be a league average pitcher – if not slightly better than that.
Making his first career Opening Day start, Romero takes the mound after, on paper at least, a less than impressive spring. In 19.1 innings (5 starts), Romero allowed 24 hits and 9 walks while compiling a team-worst 7.91 ERA, but he tied for the team lead in strikeouts with 20. Despite the fact he allowed at least 4 earned runs in 4 of his 5 spring training starts, Romero worked hard on improving his sinker this spring among other things and will be just fine when the Jays’ season kicks off on Friday. In 3 career starts against the Twins (22.2 innings), Romero is 2-0 with a 2.78 ERA, 1.059 WHIP and 4.4 K/9, his lowest K/9 against any opponent.
Pavano was given the nod on Opening Day, but there is no question that Francisco Liriano is the most talented starter the Twins have. Entering spring, trade speculation ran rampant as the team was unwilling to meet his reported salary demands to sign a contract extension, but in the end it appears there was FAR more smoke than fire to that story. On top of rumors he reported to camp having not followed the teams offseason conditioning program and immediately missed some time with shoulder soreness as a result. The rust showed in his first spring start, but after that he settled into a nice groove – including fanning a combined 16 hitters in his 3rd and 4th spring starts (8.0 IP). The spring may have been tumultuous for Liri but he appears to be locked, loaded and ready to take on Drabek and the Jays on Saturday.
With Brandon Morrow going on the disabled list for hopefully just one start, Drabek slides into the Jays no. 2 spot in the rotation after having a very successful spring. In 19.1 spring innings, Drabek allowed 20 hits, struck out 14, walked just 1, and due to allowing no more than 2 earned runs in any of his starts, he had a team-best 2.81 ERA. After being acquired in the trade that sent Roy Halladay to the Phillies in 2009, Drabek’s second spring training with the Jays has made him feel more comfortable and confident, and he feels all of his pitches are now Major League ready. Drabek has never faced the Twins before in his career.
Nick Blackburn had a forgettable 2010, his 3rd full season in the majors. He struggled to the point that the Twins demoted him to Triple-A Rochester for 4 starts after his ERA ballooned to 6.66 in his July 25th start. While it was far from an ideal situation – he hadn’t pitched in the minors since 2007 – Blackburn appeared to find himself again. He returned to the Twins rotation on August 23rd and when the regular season had ended he had whittled his ERA down to 5.42. During the offseason we learned that Blackburn had been pitching with pain and was less than 100% in 2010. He, like Scott Baker, had an offseason “clean-up” procedure on his elbow and had a very strong spring. In 6 starts and 26.0 innings Blackburn closed out spring training with a 1.73 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 11 to 3 SO/BB. He should be able to return to his 2008-2009 form which saw him put up 103 an 109 ERA+ seasons, as opposed to the 77 ERA+ season he had in 2010.
After going through an up-and-down spring, Cecil is hoping to, come Opening Day, resemble the pitcher he was last season that led the Jays with 15 wins and shaved over a full run off his 2009 ERA. Cecil has struggled with velocity issues this spring, and his spring training numbers weren’t pretty. His 16 runs allowed and 5.96 ERA were second-worst on the team after Romero, and the 29 hits he allowed this spring led all Blue Jays pitchers. Cecil saw a lot of action in the spring – making the most starts and nearly pitching the most innings out of Jays pitchers – so it will be interesting to see when he pitches during the regular season whether or not he worked out any kinks in spring training or if his velocity issues will be a problem.
Toronto Blue Jays:
While shortstop Yunel Escobar (.394/.444/.515) and newly-announced designated hitter Juan Rivera (.390/.413/.542) have certainly had successful springs and deserve honorable mentions, the 65 million dollar man Jose Bautista has made a statement over the last month. In his last 5 games, Bautista has gone 8-for-16 (.500), and, excluding Aaron Hill and his late return to the lineup, led the Blue Jays overall with a .400 spring batting average. His 3 home runs – one of which still hasn’t landed from a game against Tampa Bay on March 13th – rank second on the Jays, his 14 RBIs were the most on the team this spring, and his 1.099 OPS was second to only Rajai Davis. Obviously they’re just spring training numbers, but it appears promising at the very least for Bautista heading into Opening Day.
Villanueva, acquired from the Brewers in December for the classic “player to be named later”, was likely ticketed for Triple-A Las Vegas to open the season due to the fact he had an option and the amount of free-agent relievers the Jays added this offseason. Injuries to Frank Francisco and Octavio Dotel opened up some spots in a crowded bullpen, though, and if Villanueva is able to pitch like the way he did this spring, he could stick with the Jays when Francisco and Dotel return to action. Villanueva led all Jays relievers with 13 innings pitched, and gave up just 3 earned runs (2.08 ERA), including a stretch of just 1 earned run in his first 9 games (12 innings). Furthermore, Villanueva managed 14 strikeouts this spring – most among Jays relievers and good for a 9.7 K/9 – versus just 2 walks.
Denard Span, Danny Valencia, Tsuyoshi Nishioka and utility infielder Matt Tolbert all had hot springs, as did Luke Hughes who tailed off at the end and didn’t make the team. However, Delmon Young and Jason Kubel enter the season after tearing apart Grapefruit League pitching. Kubel hit 0.358/.452/.566 in 53 ABs while Young hit an even more impressive 0.396/.420/.646 in 48 ABs.
Toronto Blue Jays:
While the Jays stress they’re committed to Arencibia and downplay his recent struggles due to the fact it’s just spring training, the numbers definitely aren’t flattering. In 62 at-bats across 24 games, Arencibia has managed just a .161/.250/.242 line with 2 doubles and 1 home run, and he led all Jays hitters with 19 strikeouts. Furthermore, despite logging the third-highest amount of at-bats, Arencibia ranks dead last in hits among Opening Day starters, or any player with at least 40 at-bats for that matter. After going 3-for-4 with 3 RBI against the Red Sox on March 25th, Arencibia closed out the spring on an 0-for-12 skid. Even Aaron Hill – who logged less than half of Arencibia’s 62 at-bats – had more hits. Arenicibia has, however, improved defensively and showed promise with his eye at the plate, leading the Jays with 7 walks this spring.
Justin Morneau struggled at the plate and hit just 0.152/.194/.242 in 33 spring at bats. Of course, in his case, the slash stats are irrelevant. What is important is that Justin was cleared to play in spring games, made the Opening Day roster and didn’t experience any setbacks this spring in his recovery from the concussion he suffered last July.
Toronto Blue Jays:
15-day DL: RP Octavio Dotel (left hamstring), RP Frank Francisco (right pectoral tightness and right biceps inflammation), SP Brandon Morrow (right elbow inflammation), OF Corey Patterson (head contusion), OF Scott Podsednik (plantar fasciitis in left foot)
Despite the multitude of health questions surrounding the team as spring training got underway, the Twins emerge from Grapefruit league action healthy and ready to go. Their 15-day and 60-day disabled lists are clean and gathering dust. In fact injury only cost one player a potential spot on the Opening Day roster. Heading into camp, 27-year old RHP Anthony Slama was in the mix for a spot in the bullpen, but he suffered a stress reaction in his elbow early on and subsequently lost too much time to be a factor when the 25-man roster was being set. Slama was instead optioned to Triple-A Rochester but isn’t expected to miss much, if any, additional time.
3 on 3 Questions
Jared: With Justin Morneau set to return to regular season action against the Blue Jays — the team that he suffered a concussion against back in July — are the Twins still taking a cautious approach with him or is he cleared to play the bulk of the season? For what it’s worth, he appeared in only 11 spring training games with lackluster results, is he 100% healthy?
Wally: Justin Morneau is cleared to play and is no longer experiencing symptoms from the concussion he suffered last year. While the team may give him a few extra off days over the course of the season, it does not appear that they will treat him with “kid gloves” as long as symptoms don’t return. He played in only 11 spring games, but 7 of those came in the last 8 days so that gives a pretty clear indication that he’s ready to play everyday. The results were indeed lackluster, but the important thing is that he was able to come back and get some live action under his belt prior to Opening Day. Spring stats – for the most part – don’t matter. In Morneau’s case what matters is that he was allowed and able to accumulate any stats regardless of the results.
J: It’s no secret that key offseason acquisition Tsuyoshi Nishioka has looked good both offensively and defensively this spring, impressing Gardenhire enough to name him the Twins’ second baseman and shift Casillas to shortstop. Overall, what should fans expect of him this season?
W: In his first game this spring, Nishi made a brilliant defensive play to his left and then to his right, it was a statement early on that his reputation is well deserved. With the glove I have no doubt that he is going to make Twins fans forget about Orlando Hudson in a huge hurry and based on the games I was able to watch him play this spring, I think the AL Gold Glove is clearly within his reach. At the plate, he remains an unknown though he never seemed over-matched this spring en route to hitting 0.345/.367/.414 in 58 ABs. I anticipate that he will easily hit 0.280/.340/.380 and in doing so, surpass Hudson’s 2010 season in the field and at the plate. He is an absolute joy to watch, has a great personality and fans are going to fall in love with him very quickly.
J: Jim Thome thrived in his new role last season, his first with the Twins. Will the Twins take a similar approach with him this season, or consider getting him a few more at-bats given the success he had last season?
W: There is no doubt that Thome surpassed everyone’s expectations in 2010. There is also absolutely no doubt that he can still hit, contribute an OBP around 0.400 and provide a valuable power bat off the bench late in games. His at bats will largely depend on whether or not Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer bounce back from their subpar offensive seasons, on the health of Justin Morneau and of course how often the team chooses to DH Joe Mauer. In 2010 Thome wound up accruing 340 PA for the Twins and appeared in 108 games. I don’t believe he will eclipse those numbers in 2011 but he should wind up in the ballpark if he stays healthy.
Blue Jays Questions:
J: Lind is one of the Jays’ biggest question marks heading into the 2011 season. Will he resemble the player from 2009 that put up monster numbers en route to capturing a Silver Slugger award, or the player from 2010 that saw his average and on-base percentage plummet? Furthermore, how will he fare after making the switch from LF/DH to full-time 1B?
If spring training was any indication, bank on Lind’s 2011 performance to be more like his 2009 season rather than 2010. In addition to compiling a .367/.415/.583 slash line that helped make 2011 the best spring of his career, Lind has been on the record saying that getting back out on the field and playing a position – as opposed to sitting on the bench in between at-bats as a DH – should instrumentally help his production at the plate. Having seen Lind personally this spring, it’s easy to tell that he’s a lot more relaxed and has been working very hard on acclimating himself to first base. In addition to looking good in spring training games, Lind looked like a changed man from last year even in batting practice, hitting absolute bombs over the outfield fence and onto the clubhouse roof on multiple occasions. With Vernon Wells‘ departure and likely some kind of regression from Bautista, the Jays will desperately need Lind, among others, to step up offensively this season.
As for Snider, I think every Jays fan is excited to see what he can do in an everyday role this season. Many scouts and people around baseball have stated that they feel Snider is poised for a breakout year, and it’s hard to disagree with them. After battling health issues and being jerked around by Cito Gaston in 2010 – being the leadoff hitter on multiple occasions, for example – Snider still managed to hit 14 home runs and notch 32 RBIs in only 298 at-bats. He’ll have to work on staying healthy and his plate discipline to cut down on his strikeouts while upping his walks, but there’s no reason not to think that a conservative line of .275/.335/.515 with 25 HR and 75 RBI is a realistic scenario by season’s end.
W: There is no question that Yunel Escobar took a step back in 2010. He performed better after joining the Jays but he was still not nearly the player he was from 2007-2009. Now that he is presumably settled and comfortable in Toronto, what should we expect from him in 2011?
J: Pegged to be the Jays’ 2-hitter this season, fans should be excited about having Escobar for an entire season. Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos robbed the Braves blind when he was able to acquire Escobar when they sold low on him due to a lackluster performance at the plate and an apparent attitude problem, and his numbers improved once he arrived in Toronto. Now that he’s comfortably grounded with the Jays – seen frequently joking around with Bautista, Encarnacion, and Rivera this spring – it’s safe to estimate him returning to his 2007-2009 form, especially if his spring numbers are any indication.
In 20 games this spring, Escobar managed a .394/.444/.515 slash line. He led the Jays in on-base percentage, primarily due to his impeccable eye at the plate that helps him draw walks and curb his strikeout totals, and out of the Jays’ entire Opening Day roster that played all of spring training, only Juan Rivera had less strikeouts than Escobar.
With the Jays actually having a relatively stable leadoff hitter this year in Rajai Davis (and perhaps Scott Podsednik once the season is underway), Escobar, with the mental and mechanical adjustments he made this spring, should be able to thrive in the 2-hole with Davis motoring around the bases ahead of him and Bautista, Lind, Snider, Encarnacion, and Hill all hitting behind him.
W: Kyle Drabek has a lot of hype surrounding him. He’s got bloodlines on his side, but a lot of scouting reports and projections seem mixed on what his ceiling and floor truly are. What do Jays fans expect from him this season?
J: Right now, fans should expect to see Drabek start on Saturday and showcase his nasty 12-6 curveball in fine fashion. After that, once Morrow returns from the DL (whenever that is), Drabek’s situation with the Jays becomes cloudy.
There’s a divide among Jays fans that has some feeling Drabek has done all he can do in the minors and should remain in the Jays’ rotation for the entire season, and others feeling that the Jays should send him back down to the minors for a few months – preventing him from being eligible for super-two status in the process – to work on specific elements of his game and become a more complete pitcher, similar to the way the Rays handled Jeremy Hellickson.
Drabek will no doubt be a Major League pitcher for years to come, but just how good will he be is the question. Personally, I’m of the mindset to send him back to the minors to work on further refining his arm speed with his changeup, fine-tuning his cutter, making the delivery of all of his pitches more deceptive to opposing hitters, and mastering his command of his pitches overall. When called back up to the Majors, the result would be an improved pitcher that would mow down lefties and righties equally, have all of his pitches look identical when leaving his hand, and could very well develop into a bona fide Major League ace when all is said and done. Given the Jays’ rotation situation, though, it appears Drabek will stay with the Jays for the entire season and receive Major League experience.
In closing I want to thank Jared for working with me on this series preview and for offering his Blue Jays viewpoints and expertise along the way. If you want to read more Jays content, or if you want to read a excellent team-based baseball site I strongly urge you to check out Jays Journal. Whether your team opens the season today or tomorrow, I’d also like to wish everyone a happy and joy filled Opening Day.