This is where we sweat the little things...
Yeah there are the big stories floating around right now.
Josh Donaldson's wonky calf ("The Calf Muscle That Decided A Season",
coming to theaters this spring!), the "motivation" level of a certain
Mr. Jose Bautista (we've seen this guy play for like, eight seasons,
right? C'mon with this...), and the 64,000 dollar left-field question.
But spring is as much a season of questions as it is of hope. Sometimes
they're big questions, like the ones mentioned above, and sometimes
they're a bunch of small ones, like "can I still fit into any of my
T-shirts?" Ah, spring.
Anyhow, here are some small spring questions/issues facing the Blue Jays in Dunedin.
Mat Latos is one of those guys who you think has been in the league your whole life. Much of that feeling is likely a result of the Blue Jays now being his eighth MLB organization, despite that Latos will not turn 30 until this December. There are two reasons for this, one easily quantifiable and the other not so much. The quantifiable reason is his noticeable drop in fastball velocity the past few seasons, falling from mid-90s heat in his San Diego/early Cincinnati days to roughly a shade under 90 (according to Fangraphs Pitch FX) during his 11 start White Sox experience in early 2016. This happens to nearly every pitcher not named Nolan Ryan, and Latos is no Express. This heat drop finally caught up with Latos in 2016, as his strikeout rate per nine innings plummeted from his career average of 8.0 to 5.4 over 70 innings with Chicago and Washington. This drop also made him more homer prone (0.9 career versus 1.4) than usual, while his ability to limit base hits has steadily declined since his Padres days.
Another issue (another????) with Latos is his perceived attitude problem. Now, I specifically use the word "perceived" not because I think it might not be true (it almost definitely has been so in the past. He's come across as a knucklehead) but because we specifically have only our outsider knowledge of the man as fans or media reporters. None of us have actually been in a clubhouse with the guy for dozens upon dozens of games, from which any of us can form a solid opinion that "Yes, this guy is undoubtedly a knucklehead." This is one hell of a flimsy argument I know, I guess it's just that dugout chemistry is one of those things that really can be overblown. Not every team are the 2016 Cubs and not every team are the 1986 Mets either. If someone can help your team and does, their personality becomes way, way less annoying.
My last bit on Latos (jeez, I've written this much about gawddamn Mat Latos?) is that I've watched him pitch a lot. I still casually follow my #2 team the Cincinnati Reds (Votto Fo Life) but I watched at least seventy games a season between 2012-2014, and so I saw Latos a lot. So I gotta say, even when he had the big fastball, he is boring to watch. My word. He works slowly (he's almost Bedard-ish with guys on base), he throws a million different similar looking pitches that pointlessly nibble the strikezone just enough to be annoying, and he always has a stupid look on his face, like a kid who stole some gummy bears from a Bulk Barn and is eating them while denying he did it.
But if he actually helps the 2017 Blue Jays, I don't care about any of that stuff. You know, obviously.
Sixth Starter Rumble
The 2016 Blue Jays had one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball. Part of this was by gift of extraordinary health: the 2016 squad only used seven different pitchers to start games, and the five most successful at that task are all back to do it again for the 2017 squad. However, that gift is not the kind of gift that keeps on giving, and facing that reality it's definitely wise to bring a few depth options into the spring just to find out if they've got anything useful in the tank. I've already talked (way too much) about Latos, but the Bluebirds do have a cast of other characters that maybe, in some kind of randomized universe, give Toronto meaningful innings in 2017. So lets look at them! (Quickly because... why else).
Brett Oberholtzer: 2016: 3-3, 5.89, HR/9: 2.3(!), WHIP 1.62 (70.1 IP) -- MLB
Beyond an impressive debut with the 2013 I-Can't-Believe-It's-A-Major-League-Team! Astros, Oberholtzer has been a below average pitcher every season in the majors. His below averageness took a turn for the worse in 2016, when he was so unpitchably bad as a long man for the Phillies (the Phillies!) that they cut him loose to the Angels, where he was even worse. I mean, a decent Buffalo guy I suppose, but this screams Brian Burres to me (sorry for the horrible memory). If Oberholtzer's up making starts for Toronto in 2017, something much much worse has happened.
Lucas Harrell: 3-2, 4.21, 1.51 WHIP, 4.8 BB/9 (47 IP) -- MLB
This is a strange pitcher, folks. Everywhere he's ever been, whether it be the major leagues, the minor leagues, his one season in the Japanese League, this guy has never thrown strikes anywhere. In the majors he's walked on average a batter every two innings, in the minors it's a tick higher at 4.6/9, and in Japan it was 5.7(!) in 171.2 innings. And yet, four major league teams (White Sox, Rangers, Braves and Astros) have given him a significant auditiongg. This ain't great since, after all, throwing strikes is one of those things that gains importance when the level of importance gains significantly. There must be some kind of Jedi trick going on here. If Gibby starts talking about Harrell without prompting, I'm convinced it's true. Seriously, this is not the droid you're looking for.
Mike Bolsinger: 1-4, 6.83,1.2 HR/9* (27.2 IP) -- MLB
Bolsinger has been a bit of a topic in these parts lately, so instead of jumping into a discussion which many commenters have explored in excellent depth already, I'm just gonna say I think he's great AAA depth. Naturally, he's out of options. I do worry about a guy whose underlying numbers aren't all that great despite pitching half the time in the pitcher's Coin Heaven that is Dodger Stadium. We'll see.
Bullpen Jigsaw Falling Into Place
As of now, you have to assume these bullpen spots are set in rock:
This leaves three spots in flux. If Joe Biagini is really going back to the bullpen (not entirely certain at this point) then it leaves only two spots. Another left-hander beyond Howell would be a nice thing, and I'm sure John Gibbons has thought the same. Aaron Loup would be the favourite there, but his shakiness the past couple seasons will definitely open the door for someone else to have a great spring and steal the (potential) job. Oberholtzer could be an option (despite his awfulness in the Phillies pen last year), as could Matt Dermody (who actually pitched five games for the Jays last year? I do not remember this) or Chad Girodo. Maybe I merged Girodo and Dermody into the same person. I do that sometimes...
The final spot could go to a host of familiar names. Guys like Ryan Tepera, Bo Schultz, Danny Barnes. Or it could go to a starter the team likes in the spring and wants to keep around, like a Latos, Bolsinger, or (gulp) Harrell. Keep in mind that both Marcus Stroman and J.A. Happ will be off at the World Baseball Classic, Marco Estrada quite likely as well. Someone's gotta start spring training games for the Blue Jays in their absence, so it's clear that those fringey guys are gonna get a good long look this March.
Another guy stuck in a roster crunch is the preferred gloveman of Howarth Region. Ryan Goins is a spectacular defensive player, we can all agree on that. Teams and fans alike tend to fall in love with players like that. I mean, the glove wizardry of John McDonald was a bright spot during many dreary baseball summers for me. There's a reason why guys like this tend to stick around in the majors for a while, and I suspect Goins will do the same. But I don't see it happening here much longer. You've got a similar player with a better bat hanging around (Barney) and there's little point in keeping both of them outside of an injury. And if there is such an injury in the Toronto infield, that itself is a much bigger problem.
I'm not really sure if there is any kind of statistical WBC Effect, to be clear, if players who participate in the tournament have stronger or weaker seasons afterward. And I really do not care enough to look it up. Here, I'm thinking more of the false expectations that can develop from watching players on your team play in these games. For example, remember in the 2013 WBC when both R.A. Dickey and J.P. Arencibia were on Team USA and Arencibia actually caught Dickey for one of those games? And it wasn't a passed ball disaster? How little we knew and how little that showed us. I also remember watching that electric Dominican Republic team, led by a certain dynamic lead-off hitter and then being incredibly excited to see said hitter lead-off for the Bluebirds. All I'm saying is don't get too high if Stroman strikes out fifteen batters from Panama or too low if Jose Bautsta strikes out four times against some Australian pitcher.
House of Lourdes
Lets be honest, there's very little we know about this fella. He's a young, well regarded player out of Cuba with an older brother who has now played in the majors. Apparently he can play multiple positions (very good!) but he hasn't played a game in over a year because of political issues (very not good). Gurriel is definitely a wildcard, but at the very least he's a better wildcard than Charlie Kelly.
That's all I got for now. Maybe I'll do another one later in the spring. You know how maybes are.