May 31, 2012

Rasmus Worth Waiting For

Colby Rasmus is a unique player. The St. Louis Cardinals first round pick in 2005 has followed a complicated story line in the first part of his career; he came so far as being named the third best prospect in all of baseball in 2009 by Baseball America. After what seemed to be Rasmus’ breakout season in 2010 he looked to be on the verge of becoming a premier center fielder, batting .276 with 23 home runs at just 23 years old.

That all seems like decades ago now; since then he has fallen out of favour in St. Louis, due in part to a well-documented dispute with manager Tony LaRussa involving Rasmus’ father. He was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays on June 27, 2011, not even a year after his promising 2010 campaign. Up to that point his numbers had plummeted all around, shown by his OPS of .517 compared to his 2010 figure of .859.

Still, Colby Rasmus was a big-time talent, and the deal to get him sparked a ton of excitement among the Toronto faithful. The predominant feeling was that Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos had swindled the Cardinals out of a future face of the franchise.

The feeling didn’t last too long, though. In his first 35 games with Toronto, Rasmus hit a measly .173 with only three homers, before a wrist injury ended his season. In little more than a month, he had already worn out his welcome, and Blue Jays fans collectively gave up on Rasmus.

Not much has changed up until the end of May in 2012. Fans are still calling for a trade, claiming he will turn out to be nothing but a defensive specialist for his entire career. It has been quite the turnaround in terms of public perception of Rasmus, and quite the overreaction by Blue Jays nation.

His showing in 2012 has not been all that bad. A .717 OPS leaves a lot of room for improvement, to be sure, but he continues to show flashes of the hitter he once was and could be. There is definitely streakiness to his game, but when he is on, he is oh-so dangerous.

Rasmus has had a couple of these hot patches so far this season, where he seems to sting a hard line drive every single at bat, every single time he swings. He just gets in one of those grooves where you know he has a shot at taking any given pitcher deep whenever he steps up to the plate. When he goes on a tear, he is the biggest threat in the lineup.

Opposing managers know it, too. Rasmus has been intentionally walked more than anyone on the Blue Jays so far: four times already this season. That ties him for fourth in the American League in that aspect, surrounded on that list by names like Hamilton, Ortiz, Fielder, and Konerko. Rasmus’ stats are not even close to the numbers these guys have posted, but when he starts to feel it, he turns himself into a feared hitter.

Obviously he is prone to slumps, and when he falls into one, the parade of strikeouts and pop-ups can go on for weeks. At times it is downright painful to watch. The thing about Rasmus is when he does not contribute offensively; he finds a way to help win games with his defense. Usually when people hear this part of his game brought up, they roll their eyes and maintain that it does not make up for his lack of production at the plate.

It is true that defense alone will not be enough to stay in the lineup, but Rasmus’ playmaking at centre field is severely underrated. Throughout his career, especially this season, he has not only consistently avoided errors, but has shown the ability to be a game changer with his glove.

In 2012 he has already made several spectacular catches in the outfield, many of them at pivotal moments in the game. Rasmus has been at his best when it matters most: late in close ball games. These are not just plays that could have maybe shifted the momentum if he had not made them. He has laid out to keep go ahead runs off the board and to take walk-off singles away. He has provided defense with an impact.

Yes, the bat hasn’t come around the way the Blue Jays would have liked. The risk with Rasmus is undeniable; we knew that the day he arrived in Toronto. There is a chance that he never recaptures his 2010 form, and the Jays would have to look elsewhere for a starting centre fielder.

But if he does manage to hit his stride the same way he did two years ago, he will become an invaluable asset for the Blue Jays. Rasmus can win games so many ways: his defense is already one of them. If he finds his way at the plate, he could very easily be a 30-30 player not too far down the road.

When you have a guy with this much talent, this much potential, you have no choice but to wait on him. It makes no sense dealing him anyways, his trade value has gone down considerably; Toronto would not get anything significant back.

The Blue Jays might as well keep him until his one-year contract comes to an end. If he turns out to be a bust, let him go then. But if he starts to play to his star ability, you have to believe Anthopoulos will lock this guy up long term in a hurry. He would be crazy not to.

May 14, 2012

Guerrero Signs, Encarnacion Trade Looms

The Toronto Blue Jays’ signing of Vladimir Guerrero could be the first domino to fall in a potentially busy season for Alex Anthopoulos.

The 37-year-old was signed to a minor-league deal worth a pro-rated $1.3 million Thursday, and he is being evaluated by the club in extended spring training. If Guerrero can impress the Blue Jays’ management, he could earn a Major League spot as soon as early June.

With a man of this age, there are no guarantees that he will be able to make it this soon, or what kind of impact he would have if he does. The Jays do not have much money committed to Guerrero, so they would have no reservations about using him as a bench player. However, if he shows the brass enough to win their confidence early, he could find himself in the starting lineup not too far from now.

That scenario has one big question attached: who would he replace? Very significant, since anyone who loses their job would immediately be considered expendable. Any such player could theoretically be shipped out in exchange for the proven starting pitcher or the big bat the Blue Jays were rumoured to have been looking for this past winter.

In fact, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports has reported that Anthopoulos has already talked to the Philadelphia Phillies about the availability of Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino. In other words, a proven starting pitcher and a big bat. Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. fed the fire a little more, telling FOX that he is at least going to “keep all lines of communication open.”

All this has to be taken with a grain of salt, as all speculation must, but the recent chain of events make a convincing case that something is brewing in the Toronto front office. So this brings us back to wondering who would be dealt for these types of assets.

If Vladimir Guerrero turns out to still be a big league-calibre hitter, it would be a given that a current starter would be shipped out to make room. Since Vlad is no longer capable of playing any sort of defense, he would have to be slotted in as a DH, as he was last year in Baltimore, where he hit .290 with 13 home runs.

That leaves two options for the Jays: trade Lind and put Encarnacion at first base, or simply trade Encarnacion. With their body of work over the first month of the season, most people would assume Adam Lind gets the axe. A .190 batting average with just 3 homers has been a major disappointment for the Opening Day cleanup hitter. Actually, Lind is in a two-year slump, since he hit for a .932 OPS in 2009.

Aside from that, Edwin Encarnacion has hit absolutely everything in April, and he is hitting it hard. He has been far-and-away Toronto’s best hitter, surging to 10 homers in this young campaign. It would be unimaginable trading this guy now; Lind seems to be the blatantly obvious victim.

The thing is, Alex Anthopoulos has never done what is obvious.

Ever since he arrived in Toronto, Anthopoulos has preached his philosophy to “sell high, buy low.” He could see Edwin’s recent tear as his opportunity to get maximum value for the 29-year-old. Still, to get a guy like Hamels or Victorino, he would likely need to be packaged with additional talent, but the Blue Jays would be adding fewer assets than if Lind was the centrepiece.

Besides, Anthopoulos has publicly committed to Adam Lind. He believes that at 28 years old he can get back to his ’09 numbers, and he is willing to be patient with him. This might actually be interpreted by some as a ploy to keep his trade value up. The explanation would be plausible in other cases, but this organization has a history of backing up their word in these situations, the clearest example being Dustin McGowan.

Under these circumstances, in would be a shock if Adam Lind were traded, the only conceivable exception would be if Anthopoulos found an absolutely fantastic deal. Not likely. Taking nothing away from Edwin Encarnacion’s recent tear, his name makes enormously more sense in a potential trade. As tough as it will be for the Toronto front office and fans to let go of such a hot bat, watching a Cole Hamels-type pitcher in the rotation would go a long way to ease the pain.

Of course, all this is contingent on whether Vladimir Guerrero is still a Big League-calibre hitter. Much of that will depend on the kind of shape he has kept in his lengthened offseason. He will not have to beat Edwin’s numbers, which would be entirely unrealistic.

All he needs to do is show that he can minimize the offensive drawback without Encarnacion enough that gains from the bolstered pitching staff will outweigh the losses in the lineup, so the Blue Jays would come out a better team.

Honestly, the odds are Guerrero will not be able to give the Toronto Blue Jays quite that much freedom. He could just as easily become a bench player with sporadic starts. But for $1.3 million, the gamble is irresistible.

May 07, 2012

Drabek Still a Work in Progress

Kyle Drabek may be pitching better than ever, but his development will not be as easy as flipping a switch.

The 24-year-old righty is looking poised for a breakout 2012 season, throwing a 3.34 ERA through his first six starts with the Toronto Blue Jays. The media has been gushing about the progress made with his remedied stride toward the plate, even suggesting that the centrepiece of the Roy Halladay trade may still live up to his hype. While it would be fantastic if he were to fill his ace-potential shoes, there are signs in his first month of the year that he may still have some work to do.

Walking batters has been an issue for Drabek since he showed up in the Major Leagues, and he has done fairly well to control his pitches better this year. However, he has still issued 20 walks, the third most in baseball. There are stretches during his starts where he pounds the strike zone, and he is stellar when he does.

At times, though, especially as of late, he has slipped back into his old habits and allowed plenty of baserunners, as shown by his ugly 1.46 WHIP. He then has to face more batters, bloating his pitch count, shortening his outings. Because of this he has averaged less than six innings per start, while Romero, Morrow, and Alvarez all at or close to seven innings.

Still, he has managed to keep runs off the board. Drabek has been superb getting out of jams, holding opposing teams to a .133 batting average with runners in scoring position. His performance Saturday night against the Angels was a prime example: he got a couple clutch double play balls that kept Toronto in the game.

He has been a completely different pitcher with runners on. Contrast his .133 opponent average with runners in scoring position with a .284 average with nobody on. Even more telling are his home run numbers. He has conceded six long balls, tying him for eighth in the American League among starters. The thing is, all six were solo shots; not a single homer with a man on base.

These are very interesting numbers considering where he was last year. His tendancy was to lose his cool after making a couple bad pitches, and he would often get torched because of that. The lack of composure was the number one reason he did not last the year with the Blue Jays.

Fortunately, Drabek seems to have learned from that ordeal. His body language suggests that he is not letting his mistakes get to him the way they did in 2011. Watching him after four-pitch walks, you can tell he isn't happy, but instead of frustration, he shows determination to get out of the inning.

This is a huge step in the right direction; it is impossible to overstate how important it is for a young pitcher to control his emotions. That said, controlling his pitches remains a problem for Drabek, and it is now the biggest aspect of his game that is holding him back.

Although he has avoided the crooked numbers so far, it will be impossible to maintain a low ERA with a 1.46 WHIP. If he would pitch with the bases empty anywhere near as well as he has with the bases juiced, he would win a ton of games.

Of course, it never is as simple as it sounds. Unless he is the rare exception, he will be struggling all year to keep the ball in the strike zone, and in the ballpark. The good news is, if he can manage to figure it out in the end, 2012 could be the year Kyle Drabek becomes a real big league pitcher.

May 02, 2012

Schneider Changes Vancouver Long-Term

We have our best indication yet that Roberto Luongo is done in Vancouver, and this time in came straight from the horse’s mouth.

Luongo told the media last week that he would waive his no-trade clause if he was asked to by the Canucks management. He said he did not want to get in the way of what is best for the team, even if that means Cory Schneider taking over as the number one goaltender.

There has long been speculation that Luongo would ditched in favour of the younger Schneider, but it usually came from the same people spinning the Raymond-for-Nash rumours at the local bar. There was never any plausible reason to believe the Canucks would deal their star goalie.

Until the Kings series.

This year’s quarterfinal matchup against Los Angeles was nothing short of a disaster, the only bright spot being Cory Schneider, who took the net from Luongo in Game 3 and kept in for the rest of the series. That’s when talk really heated up.

Writer Jason Botchford became the latest to jump on the trade-Luongo wagon after Schneider earned back-to-back starts in Games 3 and 4. He wrote two days straight that this was a sign that the organization was moving Schneider into their long term plans.

In case you are unfamiliar with “Botch,” he is a sports reporter for The Province newspaper in Vancouver. He is one of the most respected hockey personalities in British Columbia, making frequent appearances on TSN to talk Canucks. It was one thing to have the local barber preaching this madness, reading it from Jason Botchford gave the story a shot of credibility.

In the following days, as Schneider continued his spectacular play, even Darren Dreger and Bob McKenzie were discussing the scenario on the TSN Panel. Speculating on where Luongo would go, and for how much, on national television, this armchair GM’s fantasy was actually taking shape in front of our eyes.

But even these brilliant minds could not answer the burning question: how are the Canucks going to get out of Luongo's contract? Fans were left to wonder about it until, of course, Luongo himself revealed that his no-trade clause will not be an issue.

With all this drama around Louie's rumoured departure, it is hard to imagine Gillis wanting to keep him around another year. Schneider says he deserves to start, Luongo is willing to make way, and Gillis gave the ambiguous "I'm not sure" when questioned about his goalie situation for next year. The fuse is already lit. It has to be assumed that Schneider will be Vancouver's number one in 2012/13.

That simple proposition raises all sorts of new concerns over the direction this team is headed. At present, there is not much separating the two 'keepers skill-wise, and after a suitable raise Schneider's salary cap hit will closer resemble Luongo's as well.

The real divide is the age gap. Luongo is 33, Schneider is 26. That's seven years of development for Cory. It is well documented that he is capable of turning into a world-beater in those seven years, while Luongo's play will be deteriorating. Choosing Schneider would clearly be a decision to get younger.

It raises an interesting point: if Vancouver wants to get younger in goal, are they going to do the same with the rest of the team? Schneider is likely a few years away from his prime, and he could remain a top-notch netminder until his mid-thirties, a decade from now. Do the Canucks want to make sure they are competitive during those years?

In just five years, Ryan Kesler will be 32 years old, while the Sedin twins will be 36. Not exactly elderly, but older than you would like the core of your team to be.

If you think you can see where this is going, not to worry; this is not one of those crazy, blow-everything-up-and-rebuild theories. Vancouver is still a strong contender for the Stanley Cup in the short-term; Cory Schneider in goal certainly does not hurt those chances. To squander such an opportunity would be nothing short of insane.

Having said that, what Schneider does do is lengthen Vancouver's Cup window. A strong goaltender can put even the sorriest rosters in the post-season. If the Canucks can maintain a talent level close to what they have today, they could wind up becoming perennial contenders.

Easier said than done right? Granted, it would not be a gimmie, but it is not as far a stretch as it first seems. The Canucks’ system is not bursting with superstars-to-be, but it is not as barren as most people would assume.

Chris Tanev jumps to mind as the strongest prospect Vancouver has, and he is certainly one of the most NHL-ready. For the last couple years he has made appearances on the Big Club showcasing his skating ability, defensive awareness, and coolness under pressure. He is a couple years away from being a solid NHL defenseman, but the Canucks can afford to be patient with him, which is the best possible situation for any raw talent.

Waiting in the wings are blueliners Kevin Connauton and Yann Sauve, who appear set to crack the lineup in the next couple years. Most evident though is the hole in the roster where Luc Bourdon should be, in small part because he would have been a terrific hockey player.

Offensively Jordan Schroeder, Nicklas Jensen, and Anton Rodin are all possible top-six guys, although they are a little bit further back in their development. Taking nothing away from these players, however, it is hard not to notice the absence of Cody Hodgson, who was dealt at the deadline, in this mix.

Since that trade there has been steady uproar of emotion, most of it questioning how Gillis could possibly let go of one of the most promising young stars in the game. Some of those questions have been answered by Gillis’ recent revelations of Hodgson’s “issues” in the recent media day. The kid Vancouver got back from Buffalo, Zack Kassian, should start to answer the rest of the critics very shortly.

Kassian is as elite a power forward prospect as there is. He undoubtedly has top-six stuff, and has drawn the lofty comparison to Milan Lucic. Still, most of British Columbia had never heard of him before, and his first couple months with the Canucks have done little to comfort the Vancouver faithful.

Before overreacting, remember that Kassian has managed to crack a very talented roster at the tender age of 21. He has struggled to make a consistent impact, but has shown flashes to suggest that he could be a very special player.

Compare that to Hodgson a year ago, who was trying to crack the roster at 21, struggling to make a consistent impact, but showing flashes to suggest he could be a very special player. Do you see where this is going?

When these two youngsters were swapped, fans expected Kassian to play at the level Hodgson had been. The expectations were simply unreasonable, so predictably there was disappointment when he could not meet them. We just need to be patient, Kassian will pay dividends in the near future, and, short of goalies, there is nothing more impactful than a massive, gritty forward who can put the puck in the net.

Even the forgotten piece of the trade, Marc-Andre Gragnani, could add some scoring punch from the back end if he lives up to the hype. Put it all together, and, while it isn’t Shangri-La, the farm system is set to provide reinforcements to the Show in the not-so-distant future.

They will be added to a group still in their early thirties that includes Ryan Kesler, Alex Edler, Dan Hamhuis, David Booth, and Chris Higgins. Not bad, but without the production from the Sedin twins, the Canucks will need find some more top-line scoring. It is too late to draft that kind help, so Vancouver will likely have to look to bring in players from elsewhere.

How will they do that? Have a look at the contracts that will expire in the next five years. Daniel, Henrik, Kesler, Bieksa, Hamhuis, Ballard. It other words, $30.5 million in salary. Every single one of these guys will take a pay cut when if they resign, due to either age or being Keith Ballard. That equals a lot of cap room.

In addition to that, paying Schneider instead of Luongo will likely cut costs at least in the short term, and it all comes full-circle. All this financial freedom would allow the Canucks to dip into free agency or take on salary in a trade if necessary. If production up front becomes an issue, the means will be there to fix it.

Trading Luongo could also be very useful to the cause, if Gillis can get the right kind of return. The rumours are Vancouver can expect a mid-first-round draft pick or an average prospect in a deal, potentially more or less, depending if Gillis can turn negotiations into a bidding war. If the front office plays its cards right, Louie could bring back a couple more youngsters to the depth chart.

That means avoiding the Luongo-for-Lecavalier type move (as if that were possible). More realistically, adding a Ryan Malone would certainly help the team in the next couple years, but if Vancouver is serious about contending year-in-year-out, they need to get younger.

That means no betting the farm on the next couple seasons. Would you rather have two years with 5-to-1 odds of a Cup, or ten years at 10-to-1? Cory Schneider between the pipes makes the latter a legitimate threat. If the Canucks have an opportunity to take a step back today and reap the rewards tomorrow, they would be fools not to take it.