Blue Jays’ brass has tough decisions to make this upcoming offseason

With the Toronto Blue Jays in the heart of a pennant race heading into the second week of September, it’s difficult as a fan to look past the present and into the future. The Jays have encompassed a win-now mentality as they hope to take part in their first World Series since winning the second of back-to-back championships in 1993. After this season though, the win-now mentality of Jays management could backfire, while shattering hopes of contending for years to come.

Forgive my cynicism, but while this postseason push is encapsulating Torontonians and hopes of a World Series championship are on Jays’ fans minds, all I can think about is how the Jays will look in April 2017. A few big questions marks come to mind.

Gaps in the Lineup

With Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, and Michael Saunders set to hit free agency this offseason, Jays management has to decide which one or two members of the trio they’ll look to resign for next season and beyond. The trio plays a significant role in the heart of the Jays lineup, so deciding which one(s) to resign could make or break their 2017 campaign.
Jose Bautista

Bautista, 35, has had a pedestrian season for his standards, in large part due to his battle with injuries. A .227 average doesn’t do him justice, but Bautista would have been on pace to record impressive HR and RBI numbers if his battle with the injury bug fared a little better in 2016. Jays management should pass on resigning Bautista in free agency if his asking price and contract length demands remain similar to this past offseason. Signing Bautista to a short term deal could be the best option, but his camp likely won’t consider that option. The pickup of Melvin Upton Jr. is the Jays clear backup if Bautista heads for greener pastures after this season.

Edwin Encarnacion

Encarnacion, 32, is in the midst of a career season, hitting .268 with 36 HR and 110 RBIs. Edwin(g)’s performance this season will earn him a massive contract this offseason, the only question remains with which team he’ll be suiting up for next season. Jays management failed to renegotiate a contract extension with Encarnacion back in Spring Training, so Jays fans should hope Shapiro, Atkins and co. put all their eggs in the Edwin basket. Encarnacion hopefully resigns with the Blue Jays if contract negotiations go smoothly, but the lure of a position in the heart of the Boston Red Sox lineup could be appealing if things don’t go according to plan. With Big Papi (David Ortiz) retiring after his age 40 season, there’s a big hole Boston needs to fill in the heart of their lineup. If any team has money to throw Encarnacions way, it’s the Red Sox.

Michael Saunders

Saunders, 28, has recovered from an injury-riddled 2015 season, compiling a .267/23 HR/54 RBI slash line. Saunders provides steady production in the 5th spot of the lineup accompanied with average outfield play. With Bautista likely departing, keeping Saunders should be a top priority. If Shapiro and Atkins can convince Saunders to take a small discount to fit in Encarnacion’s new (pricey) contract, it’ll pay dividends in the long run.

The Farm System

After the win-now deals made during the Anthopoulous regime, the Jays farm system is depleted. A once prominent farm system now ranks 25th in the big leagues, per Bleacher Report. Anthony Alford and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. remain the Jays top hitting prospects, while most of their farm system pitchers aren’t among the top 100 pitching prospects in baseball. I was hoping that the Jays would trade Bautista at the deadline for pitching prospects, given their abundance of above-average hitters in the line ups, but to no avail.

After examining the potential scenario the Jays could be faced with after this season, let’s hope the team gives the fans what they’ve been craving for over two decades: a World Series championship.

What the Blue Jays playoff rotation should look like come October

Barring any major injuries to Toronto’s starters and continued offensive production, the four-man playoff rotation the Blue Jays could potentially be trotting out for the playoffs is one of the stronger rotations in all of baseball.

Cy Young candidate and 17-game winner J.A. Happ (3.19 ERA) is positioned to start Game 1 of the ALDS, assuming the Blue Jays close out the season with a second straight pennant crown. Happ epitomizes consistency every time he trots out to the mound this season, putting the Blue Jays in a favourable position to win. The run support he receives in his starts helps, but the work Happ exhibits on the mound doesn’t go unnoticed. Aside from his last two near-quality starts (5IP, 6H, 4ER, 1BB, 6K vs the Los Angeles Angels / 7.1IP, 7H, 4ER, 1BB, 9K vs the New York Yankees) and one start against the Oakland A’s back in mid-July, Happ has held opposing lineups to 1 earned run or fewer for nearly a six week stretch.

The debate is in full throttle as to whether the Jays will elect to start youngster Aaron Sanchez or Happ for Game 1 of the ALDS. Personally, I think Happ’s consistency is the more favourable choice to get the Blue Jays momentum going to start the playoffs. Sanchez (12-2, 2.99 ERA) has been incredibly consistent in his own right, but the career-high innings total (156.1 by the end of August) could factor into management’s decision-making come October. Slotting Sanchez in as the second man in the playoff rotation appears to be the safer choice of the two.

Given Marcus Stroman’s improved play over the past two months and ability to carry the Blue Jays deep into close games (excluding two or three starts), I would slot the other youngter of the rotation in for Game 3 of the ALDS. Stroman’s ERA (4.58) has dropped considerably over the past couple months, vaulting him back into his accustomed role as a reliable Blue Jays starter. His mastery of his pitches as well as his ability to keep the ball down and hit the corners of the strike zone are the main factors that are attributed to his revitalization. Something about Stroman’s September performance last season further encourages me to slot him in for Game 3; Marcus appears to up his game when it really counts most is not phased by the pressure.

To close out the playoff rotation, I’d slot in Marco Estrada. Aside from his last two starts, Estrada since coming off the disabled list has picked up where he left off and owns an impressive 3.47 ERA. I know you may be thinking based on his ERA alone that Estrada should be the Blue Jays #3 starter in the rotation, but there is one main reason I would argue the contrary. Assuming that the Blue Jays are in a tight series, positioning Estrada to pitch a potential close out game would be in their best interest. If history is any indicator, when the Blue Jays had their backs against the wall heading into Game 5 of the 2015 ALCS against the Kansas City Royals at Rogers Centre, Estrada came out and pitched one of the best starts of his career to send the series back to KC, much to the appreciation of Blue Jays fans (http://www.sportsnet.ca/baseball/mlb/gotta-see-it-estrada-gets-huge-ovation-from-blue-jays-faithful/). Estrada has proven to be a big game pitcher, and that’s what you need most if you hope to go deep into October.

As September approaches and the stretch run continues to heat up with the AL East pennant still up for grabs, let’s hope the Blue Jays continue their stellar play and lock up a second straight division title so this playoff rotation can become a reality. If this recent Minnesota series is any indication, the Blue Jays offense along with their sluggers are willing to contribute their fair share towards the cause.

What the Blue Jays should do with Aaron Sanchez

Aaron Sanchez has arrived on the scene this season, exceeding expectations and reaching his star potential far quicker than the Blue Jays organization initially expected. In only his third big league season, Sanchez has rounded into the true ace of the team’s big league staff, posting an 11-1 record accompanied with a 2.71 ERA.

With the Jays acquiring pitchers Scott Feldman, Mike Bolsinger, and Francisco Liriano towards the trade deadline’s closing hours, the hot debate topic on the Toronto sports scene is what to do with Aaron Sanchez. With Sanchez having already surpassed his career-high in innings pitched this season, the move to acquire a pitcher with the track record of Liriano indicates the Jays at one point will send Sanchez to the bullpen and hope Liriano can fill the void Sanchez leaves in the starting rotation. Sanchez thrived in the bullpen last season in an 8th-inning setup role, but many believe that limiting Sanchez to one to two innings of work could get the pitcher out of the current groove he’s been in so far this season.

I believe that the Jays would be smarter to skip some of Sanchez’s starts during the stretch run of the season. Although he would reach closer to 200 innings pitched if he pitches into the playoffs even after skipping some starts, Sanchez is far more effective in a starters role, where he can maximize his pitching prowess over a longer duration, which puts the Jays in a better position to let the offense takeover. Sanchez’s pitches mix in 97 mph speed with late movement, making him practically unhittable. Why wouldn’t the Jays want to maximize that? Further, why try and mess with what Sanchez has going? He’s clearly in a groove and moving Sanchez to the bullpen could impact the momentum he is riding.

There’s no definitive proof that limiting a pitcher’s inning total protects their long-term durability. Tommy John injuries creep up on pitcher’s arms rather unpredictably, and every pitcher’s body is different in how susceptible they are to sustaining serious injuries. Skipping starts rather than strictly making Sanchez a bullpen arm seems to be a logical solution for the Jays in attempting to protect their star pitcher’s prized arm.

Obviously you don’t want Sanchez making a jump of 100 innings over his career high this season, which is why it’d be smart to skip three or four of his starts down the stretch to keep him fresh for the playoffs. With Sanchez having pitched non-stressful innings so far this season, his durability shouldn’t be over analyzed at this point. He’s in better shape than he’s ever been in his major league career, and the shoulder issues he briefly experienced last season seem to be a thing of the past. It’s really a question of how well the Jays are able to balance winning it all this year with protecting Sanchez over the long-haul. Finding that point of equilibrium will be crucial for team management.

Evaluating the Blue Jays starting rotation

As the Blue Jays prepare for game 101 of the 162-game baseball season grind in San Diego, the team’s rotation has certainly satisfied, maybe even surpassed fan expectations to this point in the season.

After losing David Price in free agency to the Boston Red Sox, many fans felt that the gap left in the rotation from his departure could not be filled. The Jays ability to fill the rotation’s void became dependent upon youngsters Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman taking the next step in their respective developments, while hoping that veteran pitcher Marco Estrada could repeat the success he experienced during the 2015 campaign. The free agent signings of J.A. Happ; a former Jay who struggled mightily in his previous tenure with the club; as well as Jesse Chavez were overlooked, with all the attention focused on the trade that brought former Washington National reliever Drew Storen to Toronto to compete for the team’s closing role

At this point in the season, the rotation has significantly exceeded expectations. Aaron Sanchez after last night’s start has an astounding 11-1 record, to go along with a 2.72 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. Sanchez has won his last 10 starts, becoming the first Jays pitcher since Roy Halladay to do so. Sitting firmly in the American League Cy Young conversation, Sanchez has finally reached his sky-high potential in his 3rd big league season to help the Blue Jays rotation sore to new heights. Talks of maintaining his innings limit have halted given his stellar play; there are no indicators suggesting his play will begin to diminish as the season enters the final stretch.

Sanchez’s good friend Marcus Stroman has not experienced quite the same success this season after his miraculous September 2015 and playoff run, struggling with his command earlier on in the season and currently owning a 4.90 ERA, the highest among starters on the team. The team’s supposed ace still owns a respectable 8-4 record and has really bounced back in his last few starts, pitching deeper into ball games and commanding the strike zone the way fans know he can. Even with Stroman’s early/mid season struggles, the team is still positioned right in the thick of things atop the AL East.

Aside from the Jays’ young hurlers, the team’s position in the standings is largely attributed to the pitching of Marco Estrada and J.A. Haap.

Estrada has excelled in his second full season with the Blue Jays, despite a stint on the disabled list with back pain, earning a 2.94 ERA and keeping his home runs allowed down as he did last season. The biggest surprise in the Blue Jays rotation has to be J.A. Happ. Whatever adjustments Haap made in Pittsburgh with pitching guru Ray Searage, they are paying dividends for him in the 2016 season. Haap has collected a team-high 13 wins on the season, with only 3 losses on his record; his impressive hurling has translated into an impressive 3.27 ERA and is coming off a start in which he allowed only one hit over six innings. It’s safe to say Haap has helped filled Price’s void and has become arguably the Jays most reliable starter.

The team’s fifth starter, R.A. Dickey, has had a typical season for his standards since joining the Blue Jays. Normally one to pick it up towards the latter half of the season, Dickey has yet to enter a groove with his knuckleball, as he allowed 6 earned runs over just three innings. I love Dickey as a locker room presence and high character guy, it just makes my skin boil when I recall that former GM Alex Anthopoulous traded away highly-touted prospect and current ace of the New York Mets, Noah Syndergaard, as well as the Mets current catcher, Travis D’Arnaud for a 38 year old knuckleballer. That certainly should go down as AA’s most short-sighted trade, but you can’t fully blame him given that Dickey was coming off an NL Cy Young season in 2012 and the Jays were in “win-now” mode.

With just over sixty games remaining in the 2016 regular season, look for the Jays rotation to continue its success and help lead the team into the postseason. As long as the Jays offense remains formidable and produces consistently, the team should be posed for its second consecutive playoff run.

Quick tid bit on the NBA Finals

Although this post won’t provide much substance regarding the play of the Cavs and Warriors in the NBA finals, given how I’m writing this post in Israel and haven’t been able to watch full games aside from highlights, it will share my opinion pertaining to the flaws of the NBA playoff system.

The Finals Already Happened..

Let’s be honest, the Oklahoma City-Golden State Western Conference final series captivated everyone’s attention. OKC pushed GS to the brink of elimination in convincing fashion, and many felt KD’s time to shine was finally upon us. Then tides turned, and GS captured three straight wins to reach the NBA Finals for the second consecutive season. In doing so, the Warriors kept their potential legacy as the greatest team of all time in tact, while also showing just how resilient they can be, especially after multiple embarassing blowouts.

This NBA Finals has really not been close so far. The level of competition is lackluster at best, as the Cavs have looked overmatched at every position. The larger OKC defenders that successfully defended Thompson and Curry for much of the series are nowhere to be found. Without putting a legitimate defender on both Curry and Thompson (Shumpert can’t guard both, while Irving is an atrocious defender) the Cavs have a very slim chance of even pushing this to 6 games, even if LeBron pulls out 2015 Finals performance again. Then again, the presence of Love and Irving surely won’t allow him to take over the series in nearly the same way, given their tendencies to want the ball in their hands and play significant roles in the offense. Unfortunately, Love is also a below average defender, so whatever he can provide defensively will be negated on the other end.

Surely David Griffin is rethinking his decision to fire David Blatt…LeBron should never have garnered this much control over a team in the first place.
Look at the Warriors. Chemistry and team building from the ground up works far better than buying free agents.

Update after the Finals concluded:

I take back my doubts about LeBron and the Cavaliers. Becoming the first team to come back from a 3-1 deficit is impressive in itself…but when you consider that the comeback was on the NBA’s greatest stage, against an all-time team in the Golden State Warriors, it makes the feat all the more impressive. I eat my words Cavs fans.

Having Draymond Green suspended from Game 5 of the Finals certainly played a role in shifting the momentum of the series. Prior to Draymond’s suspension, the Warriors had their hands firmly grasped around the Cavaliers’ hopes of NBA immortality. Not having Green in Game 5 gave the Cavs new life, as they were able to dominate the game and send the series back to Cleveland. If Green wasn’t suspended, who knows if LeBron and Co. would have been able to pull off the monumental comeback. A beaten-up Curry certainly didn’t do the Warriors any favours either.

How the NBA continues to evolve before our very eyes

To the avid basketball fans that have continuously stayed loyal to the game they love for at least the past decade, it’s hard not to notice certain elements of the game that continue to evolve.

Whether it’s the dying role of the prototypical big man (the back to the basket, brute forces that dominated the NBA for the past three decades…you know, the Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon types), or the change in shot selection (name me a team that utilizes the mid-range shot nearly as frequently as in years past…that’s right, you can’t), the NBA is changing, for better or for worse.

Today’s NBA now favours those nifty guards that can hoist three-pointers at will and beat their defenders off the dribble with ease. Sounds familiar? It should, given how for the past season and a half we’ve bared witness to one such player, Stephen Curry, doing just that at a remarkable level…sorry, a historic level.

When else have we seen something remotely like this? Sure, we’ve seen great shooters (Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, and a near-retirement Jason Kidd come to mind), but has the league ever seen a talent that can shoot off the dribble quite like Curry? The answer is simple: never.

Curry’s ability to not only shoot off the dribble, but to get the ball out of his hands from his shooting motion so quickly is ushering in a new age the NBA has never seen before. I’m sure the majority of kids who grace the court at a young age nowadays no longer look to refine their post games or work on their mid-range game…the first thing they surely do is run out to the 3-point line!

Naturally, a game will evolve as players find new ways to combat certain tactics, hence why the big man isn’t what it used to be. My question is this: given the increased utilization of the 3-point shot in recent years, do you think once (and if) defenses learn to contain the 3-point shot, we’ll see a shift back to the dominance of previous trends, such as the traditional big man?

Personally, I think this could be the end of the evolution in terms of the way the game is played. Unless Curry is a once in a lifetime talent,  or the rules change, I don’t think it makes much sense to change the tendencies of the game. In terms of effeciency, utilizing the 3-point shot frankly makes the most sense.

Then again, if a 3-point shot heavy team like the Warriors ever does have a weakness exploited (never know, it could happen!), this entire narrative could change. It’s only natural that things evolve.

And…there go the Raptors

The Toronto Raptors were swept in the first round of the NBA eastern conference playoffs by a Washington Wizards team that thoroughly overmatched them in every way possible. Led by the dynamic young backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal, as well as by the veteran presence of Raptor-killer Paul Pierce, the Wizards dominated the Raptors in all four playoff contests. Excluding a late comeback in game one of the series by the Raptors that forced overtime, the team really showed no fight throughout the series. Additionally, Washington’s small-ball lineups proved too much for Dwane Casey’s poor defensive schemes, and his job status will surely be on the line this coming offseason as a result.

Aside from being dominated by small-ball lineups and a younger, more potent backcourt (as evident by the result of this series), the Raptors stars failed to show up. Kyle Lowry continued his decline since the all-star break, averaging a pedestrian 12 points and 5 rebounds in the series, while DeMar DeRozan continued to take low-efficiency shots when his team needed a bucket most. While Lowry’s play can partially be blamed on how he’s had to battle injuries of late, DeRozan’s performance in this series is unjustifiable. DeRozan will have to evolve his game and become more efficient in the future if he ever hopes to lead the Raps out of the first round.

The need for an increased amount of veteran presence on this Raptors team could not be anymore apparent than it is right now, especially when you consider how great an impact Paul Pierce has has on this Wizards team. Pierce was brought to Washington to provide leadership in playoff games, and he did just that. Hopefully the Raptors can learn from their previous two playoff series defeats by bringing on an experienced veteran with championship experience. Surely young Raps like Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross would appreciate it.