This week’s Conversation took place over the past week.
Edward Overend: There is no team as hot right now as the Toronto Blue Jays. What better time to speak with the ESPN Sweetspot blogger for the Jays, Jenn Smit. Jenn, your team are, as we speak on a nine game winning streak, have the highest scoring offense in MLB by a lot and have climbed right into the race of the always competitive AL East. Apart from the obvious, Josh Donaldson, what has started to go right recently that has led to such a sustained period of winning?
Jenn Smith: The most significant improvement has been the starting rotation, which is pitching deeper in to games, allowing the bullpen to have some much-needed rest. The bullpen has been the team’s greatest weakness, and was overworked early in the season, so this improvement has been critical to the team’s recent success. And, obviously, the Jays’ lineup is perhaps the best in baseball. The Blue Jays offense have scored far more runs than any other team, and lead the majors in WAR. Offensive contributions are coming not only from those of whom you expect it – Donaldson, Bautista, Reyes, etc. – but from the entire lineup. The key to this is that the lineup is finally mostly healthy, so we’re seeing what they’re really capable of. Having Jose Bautista back in right field allows for flexibility with the lineup, so it’s possible to, for example, have Edwin Encarnacion’s bat in the lineup at DH while playing Justin Smoak, who’s having a great month of June, at first. Then there’s Chris Colabello, who’s been on an offensive tear. No matter what the score is, right now this team just never seems to be out of the game – they either just keep chipping away, or explode for runs and put up a crooked number like they did against the Red Sox on Friday night. It’s really quite incredible to watch.
EO: With all the runs that the offense is capable of producing, it just seems the starting rotation need to be able to keep the team in games to give them a chance of winning. Obviously you suffered a big blow in Spring Training losing Marcus Stroman, who might very well have been the club’s best starter. There’s a real and distinct difference in the personnel. You have two old horses in Mark Buehrle and RA Dickey. Then you started the season with three young guys rounding off the rotation. Daniel Norris was sent back to the minors and Marco Estrada took his place, but could you tell us a little about Drew Hutchison and Aaron Sanchez.
JS: When Marcus Stroman was injured, Drew Hutchison was expected to become the ace of the rotation. He had a decent year last season, and looked like he was going to be a breakout candidate for this season. However, he got off to a rough start in April and early May. He failed to get through five innings in four of his six starts and was striking out fewer batters while walking more batters than he did in 2014. Basically, he was getting a lot of contact on both his fastball and his slider, both pitches with which he had a lot of swing-and-miss success last season. He has shown signs of brilliance this year, including pitching a Maddux against the White Sox on May 25th. But, in his most recent outing Friday against the Red Sox, he got lit up for eight runs in 2 1/3 innings in what he called the worst game in his entire life. He just didn’t have his control. When he’s on, he’s able to locate his fastball down and away. When he’s off, he leaves it up and over the plate. I think the inconsistency is due in large part to the fact that he is only 24 years old and is still relatively inexperienced.
Aaron Sanchez is an interesting case for the Blue Jays. Last season, he was called up late in the season and was brilliant out of the bullpen. At spring training this year, Blue Jays management – as well as the media and the fanbase – were divided as to whether Sanchez’s role should be as a starter or as a reliever, even though he has always been projected to be a starter. The idea of having him in the bullpen seemed to some people to be somewhat of an easy fix to the Jays weak bullpen. However, the injury to Stroman changed all of that. Like Hutchison, he also experienced command issues early in the season, giving up a lot of walks. He’s worked a lot with Russell Martin at just throwing the ball down the middle of the plate and trusting the movement of his pitches, especially his fastball. He’s also throwing his curveball more and locating it better. Both improvements have meant a decrease in walks and an increase in ground balls. However, Sanchez missed his last start due to “upper body soreness” (though at first it was reported as being an attempt to manage his innings) and he has now been placed on the DL with a lat strain. The DL stint has been backdated so should miss just one more start. In the meantime, Scott Copeland – who was fantastic in his start in place of Sanchez last Wednesday – has been recalled.
EO: As we’ve been having this chat the Blue Jays have completed a sweep of the Red Sox in Fenway with the offense continuing to mash. Whilst it’s still early, this must have been what Alex Anthopoulos was hoping for when he made some big trades back in the Fall of 2012. Lots of big time prospects, Travis d’Arnaud, Noah Syndergaard and Henderson Alvarez went then for win now pieces. Going into 2015, how did you see Anthopoulos’ position as GM?
JS: One of the narratives of the 2015 season is that Alex Anthopoulos’ job is on the line – many believe that if the Blue Jays fail to make the postseason again this year, he’ll be fired, along with manager John Gibbons. This is due in part to the fact that President Paul Beeston is retiring at the end of the year and there is an assumption that the new President will want to bring in his own General Manager. However, the Jays are now in the final year of the “three year window” to make the playoffs that Anthopoulos set back in the 2012 offseason, when he made the blockbuster trade with the Marlins and snagged then-Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey – the offseason that had odds makers and baseball pundits alike projecting the Jays to win the World Series. It’s easy to sit here and judge those trades with the benefits of hindsight. Folks can debate as to whether or not R.A. Dickey’s 200+ innings each season have been worth the cost of Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud. They can argue as to how the scouting department missed the mark on Josh Johnson. But, the one thing that cannot be disputed is the fact that Anthopoulos went for it that season. He got ownership to increase payroll and he went for it. You have to respect that. And, that’s what fans wanted – for the Blue Jays to at some point go “all in” and that’s exactly what he did. There are many reasons why it didn’t work out, but, again, that’s with the benefit of hindsight. And, what we’re seeing out on the field now – this unbelievable lineup – is the direct result of Anthopoulos. He signed Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion to team-friendly contracts. He somehow made a trade with Oakland to get Josh Donaldson (which, quite frankly, is pretty incredible). He signed Russell Martin. Some waiver-wire pickups and minor-league signings – Chris Colabello and Ezequiel Carrera come to mind – have proven to be quite valuable. He also made sure to rid the team of the supposed malcontents that were apparently contributing to a negative atmosphere in the clubhouse. And, now we’re finally beginning to see the vision that I think he’s had all along – the offensive juggernaut that is the Blue Jays lineup. The biggest knock against him right now is that he did not acquire pitching during the offseason. That’s fair to a certain point, but it wasn’t for lack of trying on his part. I disagree with fans who think that Anthopoulos should simply overpay to attract free agents to Toronto. And, I think he’s constantly looking to make improvements to the team. He’s been adamant that he will not make decisions simply to save his job, that he’ll only do what he thinks is best for the team. Regardless of whether or not the Blue Jays make the postseason this year, I think that Alex Anthopoulos has been a creative and gutsy General Manager working within certain limitations. And, regardless of whether or not the Jays make the playoffs this season, his focus on drafting pitchers has set the team up quite nicely for the future. Quite frankly, he deserves to keep his job at the end of this season, regardless of the outcome.
EO: One final question, Jenn. Around the time I first got into baseball, the Blue Jays had huge attendances. Admittedly, they also had a very expensively assembled and successful team at the time and baseball was very much the new show in town. Do you think the appetite for the game is still in the city and would a strong challenge for the division bring the numbers flocking back to Rogers Centre?
JS: Oh, without a doubt. Even though the Leafs dominate the sports culture in this city, there is a tremendous baseball fanbase that has stood by the Blue Jays through it all. The passion and hope surrounding this team is palatable. Also, this city as a whole is starved for an exciting, dynamic team that can make a real run at the postseason. I’ve already noticed an uptick in attendance since the eleven game win streak. People are genuinely excited. Casual fans are paying attention. And, even though there is still working to be done – most fans want the front office to bolster the pitching staff – there is a different vibe about the 2015 team. If the Jays continue to play good baseball, the fans will most certainly flock to the ballpark.