We're thrilled to lead off our major league player interviews with the Blue Jays' new leadoff hitter. Reed Johnson came almost literally out of nowhere this year. Beginning spring training in the minor league camp at 26, and unproven above AA ball, he was an unlikely candidate to have any impact in Toronto. Things have changed.
By the final week of the Grapefruit League campaign, none of the non-roster invitees signed as minor-league free agents had seized their opportunities to go north as the fourth outfielder. When Jayson Werth got hurt, the Jays needed someone to fill in for a couple of exhibition games, and Johnson was rewarded for his hard work. The impression he made that week earned him an early-season emergency callup, and he's never looked back since returning in May. When Shannon Stewart went on the DL, the hustling "dirtbag" rookie became a regular and again made the most of his chances, hitting .327 in June, with five home runs. Two of those came one memorable Sunday afternoon against the Cubs, when he became just the fourth player in history to lead off and end a game with a homer. In addition to his exploits at the plate, he's made spectacular defensive plays in left and right field, and is exciting to watch on the basepaths. We caught up with Reed in the dugout after a recent batting practice.
Auburn won and Charleston split a twin-bill, but Syracuse, New Haven, and Pulaski all lost. If you know (without looking it up) who Endy Ozuna is and why he started for Charleston last night, you can take over this gig.
Josh Towers will start tomorrow. Juan Acevedo was released, and Dan Reichert gets another chance. In the National Post, Cory Lidle admitted to John Lott that he's the latest Jay to have played in pain for too long, calling it "a bad decision":
"I could have had this taken care of a month and a half, two months ago," he said. "Yet I kept saying, 'Next time it'll be fine.' "
See all my previous rants about crossing the line between courage and foolishness.
My cousin Joe and his nine-year-old son lost their home in Florida to a tornado Thursday. It's in the lower left of this front-page photo from the Palm Beach Post
They're OK, and salvaged some possessions, so it could have been even worse. Neither was home when the storm hit -- nor was the guy next door, who had a neighbour's trailer land on his roof -- but they returned to find branches through the walls, part of the roof ripped off, both porches gone, the floor broken and the entire frame destroyed.
This has nothing to do with baseball, except that they're both huge fans. My thoughts and prayers are with Sammy and Dugout Joe.
Now that I've stuck an Erasure tune in many of your heads .... ESPN's Page 2 has an article
about the most underrated athletes of all time. Among baseball players, Stan Musial, Arky Vaughn and Lefty Grove receive prominent mention. "Underrated" is a tricky term, of course, since everyone has a slightly different definition. Underrated by whom? Fans, media, other players? But hey, most of the fun baseball debates usually involve the phrase "that depends on your definition of..."
Anyway, this made me think: who's the most underrated Blue Jay of all time? Everyone is allowed two nominees at most, one pitcher and one hitter. Your reasons can range from the sentimental to the sabrmetric, but you have to provide those reasons.
Here are my nominees:
In a town where too many baseball columnists find it easier to bash the GM than to understand what he's accomplished, it's refreshing to read an unbiased article. Larry Millson of the Globe and Mail
calls the Jays "a team experiencing growing pains as they try to regain contending status" in a balanced review
of a .500 club. Says J.P., who knows the market better than most:
"We're never going to get pitching unless we develop and draft our own. That's the biggest void in our organization."
He's right, as usual. The previous regime would have thrown three year deals at Omar Daal and Ismael Valdes, perpetuating the mediocrity. Ricciardi acquired one-year rentals with no strings attached, which he will do again this winter. Perhaps the stopgaps will work out better than Lidle, Sturtze, Creek and Tam; if so, the illusion of contending could last even longer in '04, but it's still a transition year. Two great drafts have created a deep talent pool of minor-league arms, though it will be 2005 before any of them has a real impact on a big-league pennant race. By then, the system will be self-replenishing; in the meantime, fans have to be patient.
There are few players whose 2003 development is being watched more closely by management than Corey Thurman. The 2002 Rule 5 pick from Kansas City pitched effectively enough last season, mostly in low-pressure relief outings, then spent most of the current season polishing his craft as a starter in Syracuse. In his first start following his most recent (and hopefully final) callup, last time in Anaheim, was a solid effort to defeat the nosediving World Champions; tonight, though, his work is cut out for him. Into Skydome come the Texas Rangers, a team that treats the Jays' home field like its own personal BP cage.
The Rangers come into town swinging some heavy lumber, aided considerably by a top four in their batting order as dangerous as any in the American League. It's audition time for the Rangers, both in the bullpen and in the outfield, as John Hart continues to replenish Texas' farm system. One position that won't see an audition this season, though, is designated hitter; Rafael Palmeiro vetoed another trade last night and will likely not be swayed before the end of the month.
Texas comes in with nine rookies on their roster, including an All-Star third baseman, a fleet-footed centrefielder who was a stone-handed minor-league middle infielder as recently as six weeks ago, and a starting pitcher who quotes Major League. It'll be an interesting test for Corey Thurman tonight, who's himself auditioning for a starting job for next season.
Lots of good stuff this week. Enjoy the series!
On to the Advance Scout!
The bats were booming in the minors last night, as this post-Farm Report review of the Jays' top prospects reveals, but there were also some marvellous pitching performances, in what may be the first time this season every farm team came away victorious (including two doubleheader sweeps).
Rich Harden is 3-0 with a 1.33 ERA in four big-league starts. A's teammate Mark Mulder says, "he's got way better stuff... than what I have," and opponents are similarly impressed:"He's got multiple strikeout pitches, that's a sign of a true horse," (A.J.) Hinch says. "He doesn't need a whole heck of a lot of help if he pitches like he did tonight."
It's amazing that a 21-year-old from Vancouver Island, hardly a hotbed of competitive baseball, has come this far, this fast. Harden won't remain unbeaten forever, but he has the talent and the confidence to be a star. Jeremy Sandler of the National Post profiles
the rookie sensation.
A few days late (thanks to a crashed hard drive and a Long Weekend out of town) and more than a few words long (5,500, at my last count), here's the July edition of the Blue Jays' Farm Report. In almost all cases, I've used the stats from August 1 for consistency, although in some places I've used August 5 numbers when a guy has just been called up or has made tremendous strides. I'm rushing this one into production slightly, so keen-eyed readers' comments, corrections and updates will be welcomed. Enjoy.
Being a boor is earning Robert Szasz publicity
, and the D-Rays seem to condone it, if not encourage it, so Eric Hinske can expect more of the same this afternoon. If I had the misfortune of sitting near this jerk, it would be so distracting, I might accidentally spill a few jumbo soft drinks in his general direction. An attention-seeker this pathetic knows where the TV microphones are, so he can disrupt the game for viewers, too.
Joe "Hardy" Kennedy, whose agent must be named Applegate, has never lost to Toronto. The young man is suffering from a sore back and a crisis of confidence -- four hits, three walks and five earned runs in just one inning last time out, along with hints that this is his last chance to avoid demotion -- so it will be interesting to see how he can continue his miraculous success facing a team that always finds a way to make him look good. Kennedy is 3-8, 6.48 this year with an opponent's average of .321; without his 2-0, 3.86, .221 in two previous starts against the Jays, those numbers are truly horrible. The exorcism of this demon is long overdue.
The good folks at Baseball Primer
are saddling up their mid-season Primey Nominations
right now. Batter's Box has already received a few nominations as Best Weblog, for which we're profoundly grateful; in only our ninth month of existence, it's good to know we're making an impact. If you haven't cast your vote, please do, and not necessarily or just for Da Box: the Primeys recognize excellence in online baseball writing, reporting and analysis generally, and are well worth supporting.
We've got an Eastern League "batting champion" on the New Haven Ravens (and he ain't Alexis Rios), a "Triple Crown" batsman in Auburn, and a Jamie Vermilyea sighting in Dunedin. What more could one ask for in a minor-league update?
[The scare quotes are there to obviate the need to remind me how useless the notions of "batting champions" and "triple crowns" are.]