Every lesson learned begins with the ABC’s of life. As such, here is a journey through the alphabet to help understand the next 12 months in Major League Baseball.
A is for analytics: This in-vogue department of every MLB front office is the direct result of Moneyball and is the latest trend that will render all teams equal. Eventually, baseball will have to find a new Billy Beane. Analytics for the Blue Jays is headed by Joe Sheehan, who will have to transfer his knowledge into a Rosetta Stone format for manager John Gibbons.
B is for Bautista bombs: Bautista was the Blue Jays player opposing teams game-planned to neutralize. Many superstars that finally reach the post-season struggle to meet expectations, but Bautista’s Game 5 series-winning bomb cemented his place in Jays’ history and an eventual addition to their Wall of Excellence.
C is for Cooperstown: It could happen this year for speedster Tim Raines but it won’t happen for B.C. native Larry Walker. However, both those former Expos stars deserve to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame for their starry careers. The announcement for the class of 2016 will be made Jan. 6.
D is for Donaldson: When the Blue Jays traded for Josh Donaldson, critics believed the move was redundant, that three pitching prospects plus a top young shortstop was too much to include, along with incumbent third baseman Brett Lawrie. But the move to the hitter-friendly ballparks of the AL East and batting second in a power-packed lineup resulted in a career year and AL MVP honours.
E is for Edwin: What makes the Jays lineup the most dangerous in baseball is its depth. Most of the buzz is on Bautista and Donaldson, but there is the sublime presence of Edwin Encarnacion, the keenest student of hitting on the roster. Encarnacion’s situation took centre-stage when his agent suggested if the Jays don’t negotiate an extension by opening day, he will test free agency.
F is for F-bomb: Face it, unless your team hoists the World Series trophy there will be f-bombs along the way. The Jays squandered home field to the Royals. F-bomb. Bautista and Ryan Goins shied away from a key pop-up in Game 2 of the ALCS. F-bomb. Ninth inning, ALCS Game 6, ump steals strikes from Dioner Navarro and Ben Revere and the Jays fail to score. Season over. F-bomb.
G is for general manager: The trend is towards younger GM’s that do all the heavy lifting in terms of free agents and trades while the team president takes centre stage for the announcement. The Jays have become a member of that two-tier pairing for personnel decisions, with president Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins. Nine of 30 MLB teams are in a similar position.
H is for height/heart: Marcus Stroman’s life mantra is “height doesn’t measure heart.” In 2016, the five-foot-seven future ace proved it. Stroman suffered a torn ACL and was declared out for the season. But his determination to pitch in 2015 remained all-consuming and, after a summer completing his degree at Duke and rehabbing at its excellent medical centre, Stroman was a key cog for the Jays in the post-season.
I is for Indians: We would like people to know that former Indians prez Shapiro was never a fan of Cleveland’s howling Chief Wahoo logo. If it had been up to Shapiro, he would have removed the insulting cartoon figure from existence. So please don’t transfer the curse of the Native Americans that said the Indians would never win a World Series to the Jays.
J is for Jacoby: The Jays responded to the tutelage of first-year hitting coach Brook Jacoby by leading MLB in runs scored. The former major-league infielder showed feistiness in defending his pupils, physically confronting a crew of umpires in a narrow tunnel at Fenway Park, and was suspended 14 games. He is the seventh Jays hitting coach in the past nine years.
K is for knuckleball: Fans and coaches often yearn for someone with a blazing fastball whenever something goes wrong with R.A. Dickey’s capricious knuckler. But the fact is that over the past four seasons, the 41-year-old right-hander has logged more innings than any other major-league pitcher. That is something the Jays desperately need in this untested-at-distance rotation.
L is for LaCava: The long-serving Jays executive is one of the nicest men in baseball and has a fierce loyalty to the organization. He interviewed with the Orioles for the GM job before Dan Duquette landed it, and he interviewed for the GM opening with the Angels. Even though his Jays boss (Alex Anthopoulos) departed, he stayed on as interim GM and has since been given a vice-president title with similar responsibilities.
M is for Martin: Critics didn’t see as much out of first-year Jays catcher Russell Martin as they expected. But the bottom line is he has seen plenty of post-season action. In his first year with the Dodgers (2006), Yankees (2011), Pirates (2013) and Jays (2015) his teams all made it to the post-season.
N is for Nation: Every Blue Jay obtained before or during the 2015 rush to glory marvelled at how quickly they became aware they weren’t just playing for a city but rather for an entire nation. Rogers ownership is still counting its national TV money.
O is for outrage: When MLB announced the start times for post-season games the Jays, as might be expected, were Royally screwed. It was all day games, all the time as befits the only team with no U.S. television market. There was more outrage when free agent left-hander David Price left with nary a Jays’ offer in sight.
P is for prospects: At the winter meetings, Shapiro took a subtle shot at the previous regime, explaining that the Triple-A Buffalo Bisosn rotation was five guys named Blank. In those 2014-15 off-season trades and those leading to the deadline, Anthopoulos stripped 10 of Baseball America’s top-30 prospects from Toronto’s system. The re-stocking process will take a couple of drafts.
Q is for Quantrill: Canada’s national junior program, under Greg Hamilton, develops this country’s best young players. This year, Cal Quantrill, son of former Jays reliever Paul Quantrill, is a prime example. A junior starter at Stanford, Cal underwent Tommy John surgery in March. He was selected by the Yankees in the 26th round three years ago but will go higher this year.
R is for rotation: The Jays are counting on an awful lot of good luck with a 2016 five-man rotation that includes Stroman, Dickey, Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ and one of Jesse Chavez, Drew Hutchison, Roberto Hernandez or Aaron Sanchez. Neither Dickey and Hernandez have ever worked 200 innings in a calendar year and there are not a lot of swing-and-miss arms in the bunch.
S is for Shulman: One of the overlooked acquisitions of the off-season, ESPN’s Dan Shulman has volunteered to be the third man in the TV booth, sometimes the second. The Toronto native has continued to live in Toronto even as he does award-winning play-by-play on ESPN’s MLB and college basketball coverage. The U.S. network will remain his priority, but that’s still good enough.
T is for Tulo: The all-star shortstop seemed uncomfortable as a Tulo-come-lately with the Jays. When he was injured and missed the final month, the perception was he would rather be somewhere else. The guy is intense and is hard on himself. But positive signs have been seen lately, including Instagram photos of Tulowitzki enjoying time with Jays teammates in Vegas for the big UFC card.
U is for under-rated: Under-rated by angst-ridden Blue Jays fans is the spectacular defence that supported average pitching. The defence will be in place from opening day this year rather than from July 30 on. That includes Martin, Tulowitzki, Ryan Goins and Kevin Pillar up the middle.
V is for Vlad: The signing of highly touted prospect Vlad Guerrero Jr. was a coup for Anthopoulos but blew MLB’s mandated 2015 and 2016 international budget. Guerrero was too young to play for a team but this year, at 17, may be advanced enough to get in a full-season at Class A.
W is for Wrigley: It appears the road to the World Series will go through Wrigley Field. Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon has become a magnet for talented veterans that see a dynamic young core of players who will be there for years. Add an overdue fan-base that has waited 100 years for a championship. Cubs president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer are the template for the Jays’ hiring of Shapiro.
X is for x-factor: To compete in 2016, the Blue Jays will need a bolt from the blue, someone to unexpectedly step up. Last season it was Estrada, Roberto Osuna, Pillar and Chris Colabello. This year there will need to be a similar number of pleasant-surprise contributors.
Y is for YOLO: “You only live once” was the mantra of Anthopoulos at the trade deadline, as he stripped talent from Buffalo, New Hampshire and Dunedin to make Toronto a powerhouse. And after all, isn’t that what Jays ticket holders prefer? Right now, emphasis by Atkins may be on rebuilding the farm system but when July arrives, it should be YOLO time again.
Z is for Zimmermann: Z could have also been for the Star beat guy Mark Zwolinski, whose tales of playing in the New York Mets system with J.P. Ricciardi, Billy Beane, John Gibbons and Darryl Strawberry are highly entertaining. But we’re reserving Z for Jordan Zimmermann, whose five-year, $110 million (U.S.) free agent deal with the Detroit Tigers set the bar early for other starters.