Yesterday over at Grantland, Jonah Keri has relaunched his podcast for 2014, and — lo and behold! — Alex Anthopoulos was the lead guest, offering much of the same kind of stuff that we’ve heard from him over the past year, but with enough twists to keep it fresh and interesting — and, at times, somewhat maddening.
Actually it probably doesn’t even reach quite the level of “maddening” — what he offers us is quite a bit more good than bad, I’d say — but in there we still manage to find a little bit of revisionist history, a little bit of dancing around Jonah asking the crucial question when it comes to the idea that pitchers are afraid to sign here, a little bit of goalpost pushing, and a little bit of hollowly saying exactly what you’d expect him to about Colby Rasmus.
On the off-season…
Asked to give an overview of how the Jays got to where they are, and failed to make a splash this winter, Anthopoulos an excellent of walking the tightrope between pure honesty and putting as positive a spin on things as he could. To wit:
When the season was over we didn’t know the status of Brandon Morrow. He was going to throw, basically, a simulated game early- to mid-November, and we were going to have to wait to find out how he was going to do, and if he was going to be ready for Spring Training. That was going to dictate some of the factors in the off-season. A guy like Drew Hutchison, that we were really high on in 2012 before he got hurt — as a 21-year-old and really started to turn the corner — he was going to go out and pitch in the fall league and we wanted to go out and see him and evaluate him. I got a chance to see him in November as well, and he really turned the corner. So, once Morrow had come out of his simulated games and had a clean bill of health, and we had full expectations for him in Spring Training, and seeing Drew’s progress in the fall league, we felt that was two starters that we didn’t have that we were going to add to the rotation.
We still wanted to be able to add one more starter if we could, via free agency or trade, but we didn’t want to force anything. There were some trade talks that we had that ultimately didn’t materialize — we would have had to force a move, and we obviously didn’t believe in doing that.
That’s not an incorrect chronology of events, and the stuff about how good they ended up feeling about Morrow and Hutchison isn’t new either, it’s just… really? I mean, where was this “if Morrow’s OK and Hutchison looks great, we really only want to add one starter — but only at the right price” stuff back in September, when pitching was the number one priority and they were bound and determined to find a way to improve? Because I didn’t hear it, and I certainly don’t think that it was by design that the Blue Jays’ rotation looks the way it does today.
Maybe I’m overdue for a tinfoil hat, but that spin on things sure seems exactly to me like the cheap veneer the Jays prefer to use when covering over whatever strangeness went on behind the scenes this winter.
On Pitchers’ Fears Of Toronto…
Anthopoulos then continued with the excuse-making-cum-truth-telling:
And from a free agency standpoint, there were a lot of guys out there — like you talked about, it was deep — we just didn’t like the price point for us. And that’s not to be critical of other clubs that signed them. The other component, too, is just because someone’s a free agent, they don’t necessarily have Toronto as their first choice — American League East, the ballpark, things like that. Sometimes the price for us isn’t the same as the price for somebody else, and ultimately we didn’t want to make what we felt was going to be a bad deal.
After a brief exchange, Keri returned to this notion, and slightly aghast, asked the one question that, for some reason, nobody ever seems to whenever Anthopoulos plays this card– which, lately, has been a lot:
“Anybody with the most basic, rudimentary knowledge knows that if you pitch in San Diego, it’s going to go better than if you pitch in Toronto,” Jonah explained. “I feel like that’s obvious. So if you have a three ERA in San Diego, and a 3.95 in Toronto, that might not be any different at all. So, I guess what you’re saying is that, either in the player’s mind, or in the agent’s mind, or maybe in fact in team’s minds, the bidding is going to go differently if the surface stats look prettier. Are we still at that point where there are going to be teams that bid that way and players and agents that react that way?”
It seems insane — it is, in fact, quite probably insane — but Anthopoulos claims that we are still very much at that point.
I definitely think some of that goes on, and the same way from a hitting standpoint. I think places like Colorado might be some of the places where people might look at the numbers — look at a guy like Jeremy Guthrie, who went over there and didn’t perform, then goes over to Kansas City and is back on track, and he performed so well in the American League East — but I think it’s the unknown. Yes, I think people will definitely discount, to an extent, being in the NL and being in larger ballparks — that definitely comes into play. I think there’s a little bit of a fear of the unknown — how much will your numbers go up in the American League East? How many more home runs will you give up? Will it ultimately derail your performance? All those type of things. I think, regardless of what the facts are — and like you say, I think everyone knows the influence of ballpark — stats still look better on a page when there’s better performance there, regardless of where a guy played.
If that’s really true, it’s sure going to help the smart teams. So… y’know… let’s hope its not true.
The awful Rogers Centre turf also came up, and while I know that Paul Beeston has already said, unequivocally, that there will be no grass in there until 2018, Anthopoulos gave him an extra year, and was as ambiguous as ever about whether it’s really even going to happen, claiming that, “Within four or five years we plan on having real grass in there, and that would certainly be an advantage to us.”
However, he also explained that it seems like back issues are the biggest ones caused by the turf — which is part of the reason that they were less fearful of a guy with hamstring issues like Jose Reyes (who, he points out, first injured it this year in spring training, on natural grass). “We try to watch their exposure to it, but the fact that it is our home park, our players get accustomed to it that much more,” he said, noting that it’s visiting teams who really seem to have the most trouble with it.
On Dustin McGowan…
In my post earlier today, I looked somewhat dubiously at some of the peripheral number that Dustin McGowan has put up so far this season — in a tiny, tiny sample size — and wondered whether the results will be able to keep translating as well as they did on Friday against Baltimore, given the low swinging strike rate, the low ground ball rate, and the extreme fly ball rate. One thing to keep in mind, though, which Anthopoulos notes, is that McGowan still has yet to fully complete his transformation into a starting pitcher — and that’s not just because he doesn’t quite have his pitch count up, either.
“He’s just starting to use his changeup again,” Anthopoulos explained, “which is an out pitch as well — he just fell in love with the fastball-slider combination out of the bullpen — and he’s slowly going to start incorporating his curveball, which can be pretty good pitch as well.”
All of that, one assumes, will help. Just as long as he keeps the ball down, that is.
On Brett Lawrie…
While trying to be as positive as he could — especially with a hopeful, yet not entirely outlandish, flourish at the end — Anthopoulos spoke about Brett Lawrie, and the player that he thinks he can be — a player who is a whole lot different than the one we thought the Jays were getting when they shipped Shaun Marcum off to Milwaukee in exchange for him.
From an offensive standpoint there’s no question, there’s more there with the bat. He’s got tremendous raw power, but it hasn’t really shown itself in games. I don’t know that he’s going to be a guy you see hit 20 or 30 home runs a year. I don’t think his swing is that type of swing, to lift the ball. I see him more as a gap-to-gap hitter that can get extra base hits with his legs, because he does have that speed. He does well when he becomes selective at the plate. Even when we had him in the minor leagues, when we really tried to stress getting the walk rate up, and being a little bit more selective, and having a plan at the plate, he started to excel offensively. Again, he’s off to a slow start right now, he had a nice game over the weekend, but there’s no question that there’s definitely a lot more there in the bat. And he provides so much value with his glove that if the bat does come on and be elite, he’ll be a superstar player.
It’s not bad, but it’s not good, either. And I hate to bring up this name, because there are certainly many big differences, but watching Lawrie right now I sometimes am reminded of Travis Snider, who we’d hear talked about as being “in between” velocities with his swing, and hesitant with the fastball. I haven’t thought about, or looked at, what’s plaguing Lawrie nearly enough to stand behind a statement like that, so I guess I maybe just mean that he looks lost and hesitant sometimes — and, of course, he lunges at the wrong pitch other times, and almost always makes poor contact when he does get the bat on one. And… well… there’s a lot that’s kind of fucked up there, though the optimist in me doesn’t feel yet like it’s anything that can’t be fixed. Wouldn’t say it’s just a selectivity issue, though.
On Extending Colby…
It’s certainly easy for a GM to say everything that a fan wants to hear about re-signing one of the team’s key contributors at a time like this, with the season underway, when he doesn’t have to back those words up with any kind of action at all, and leaves enough room to allow himself to wriggle away from them down the line, should a deal fail to be consummated. That said, I was actually impressed with the confidence with which Anthopoulos spoke about his desire to get Colby Rasmus re-signed — especially since, if he shows anything with the bat (and so far, after a slow start, he has been), he’s going to be in line for a crazy payday.
There is still enough performance uncertainty on Rasmus, though, that I think the team can get themselves a friendly-looking contract, provided they actually have been given the resources to do so. Or… even if not, really. The Jays have $96.2-million committed to next year’s payroll already, with Brandon Morrow and Sergio Santos having relatively expensive options that will likely be exercised adding $18-million to the payroll right there. So that’s $114.2-million, plus a bunch of other raises, and replacements or new contracts needed for Melky, Colby, and Casey Jannsen, all of whom are free agents. If the team is deemed good enough to be kept together, that doesn’t leave a lot of room, however, commitments for 2016 right now amount to just $27-million, meaning that there ought to be a way to get a back-loaded deal done, assuming the club believes that its payroll ceiling isn’t going to be dramatically slashed.
So, it’s not impossible that the Jays could still re-sign Rasmus. In fact, Anthopoulos mentioned the mid-season extension he did with Edwin Encarnacion as an example of the team finding the right time to make an offer that made sense to both sides — and given Colby’s historically volatile performance, timing means a lot.
Better still, he asserted his desire to re-sign Rasmus more strongly than I think I’ve heard before:
I think with Colby, if we were to engage we’d want to keep that quiet, and just not have the media distractions. But we feel very confident that ultimately he’s someone we want to have around long-term. And if things align, we’ll be able to do that and keep him here.
No, it’s not much, and yes, he could say anything at this point and it wouldn’t mean a damn thing (plus, y’know, what the hell else is he going to say?), but I’d sure like to see the Jays keep making good on their supposed strategy of paying to keep quality, (essentially) home grown talent around once they reach their free agent years. That he at least didn’t make it sound like the possibility is remote is a good thing, right?