Baseball’s maxim is that it takes 40 games, one-quarter of the way through the season, to appraise a team's identity although veteran Mark DeRosa says “we’re getting close” to determining the ways of the Blue Jays. Halfway to that quarter-pole, Toronto is 8-12 after 20 games.
Here’s a review to date of off-season moves and in-season developments, specifically: free-agent acquisitions.... the 12-player trade with the Marlins... the seven-player trade with the Mets... the re-hiring of John Gibbons as manager... injuries... and reliance on Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion in the 3-4 slots of the batting order.
GM Alex Anthopolous signed LF Melky Cabrera, INF Maicer Izturis, INF Mark DeRosa, C Henry Blanco and SS Munenori Kawasaki in the off-season. They brought an aggregate batting average of .206 into Tuesday, with nine extra-base hits in a combined 40 games played.
LF Melky Cabrera, suspended 50 games by MLB after testing for performance-enhancing drugs and subsequently left off the postseason roster by the San Francisco Giants, received a two-year, $16-million deal. The steady 2-hole hitter until Tuesday night, Cabrera now finds himself down in the fifth spot in the lineup. He was batting .266, exactly 80 points lower than the .346 for the Giants. With two extra-base hits in 79 at-bats, a double and a triple, his slugging percentage was more than 200 points lower, .304 versus .516, and his on-base percentage had declined to .322 from .390. Allegedly implicated in an investigation of a Miami anti-aging clinic, Cabrera said at the beginning of spring training that he would co-operate with Major League Baseball’s investigation.
Izturis, aged 32 but playing as though older, was signed to a three-year, $10-million contract. His batting average is .158 versus .257 with the Angels, on-base percentage .186 against .320, slugging .287 against .315. Never having played more than 122 games with Los Angeles since 2005, he’s been used regularly as second, short and third by the injury-depleted Jays. He is struggling at third as he did with the Angels.
DeRosa, signed partly for his clubhouse presence on a roster with a small minority of players having experience with contending teams, was hitting .148. Blanco, 41, able to handle the knuckleball, is serving as R.A. Dickey’s catcher while going 1-for-10 at the plate. Kawasaki, batting .231, has replaced the injured Jose Reyes ably on defence despite a game-changing error in the ninth inning Monday.
Early returns have the 12-player exchange in November being hexed on both sides.
Start with the Marlins: Miami fans eviscerated team owner Jeffrey Loria as Montreal fans once scorched him for moving the Expos, after he tried to explain that because the Marlins finished in last place, logic dictated a start-over with a light payroll and rebuilt farm system. It will take several years to determine which team got the better of the trade, if either. Miami had the Majors’ worse record, 4-15, entering a scheduled doubleheader in Minnesota on Tuesday. Four players received in the trade are on the disabled list: C Jeff Mathis (broken collarbone in spring training, expects to return in May), SS Adeiny Hechavarria (bruised elbow, uncertain), RHP Henderson Alvarez (inflamed shoulder, back throwing) and outfield prospect Jake Marisnick (broken hand). LHP Justin Nicolino, projected as a Marlins starter in 2014 or 2015, and RHP Anthony DeSciafani are in Class A, at Jupiter. The Marlins flipped SS Yunel Escobar to Tampa, where he was hitting .167 and, at last look, not wearing eye-black. Incidentally, while not part of the deal, Miami pulled manager Mike Redmond out of the Jays system where he had managed at Lansing and Dunedin in 2011 and 2012.
Coming to the Blue Jays: SS Reyes (sprained ankle, projected July return) was deemed high-risk due to injury history and $82-million owed on his contract after this season, through 2017. Batting .395, the former NL hitting leader went down on April 12 and the offence sputtered thereafter by scoring 23 runs in nine of the following 10 games (excluding the eight runs on Sunday vs. New York), for a 4-6 team record entering Tuesday’s game in Baltimore. For utility player Emilio Bonifacio, the conversion from grass to turf, NL to AL, has proven most challenging; he was hitting .185 with three walks and a hit-by-pitch in 58 plate appearances while playing in the field as a liability. C John Buck caught LHP Mark Buehrle and RHP Josh Johnson in Miami, but the Jays flipped him to the Mets in the Dickey deal. Johnson (0-1, 6.86), following shoulder woes in 2011, has adjusted to a velocity drop into the 91-93 mph range by increasing the ratio of breaking balls to fastballs, with mixed results. Buehrle (1-0, 6.26), quietly becoming a staff leader, has been betrayed by shoddy defence, most recently on Saturday when he held the Yankees to three runs in seven innings with two scoring on a soft liner off third baseman Brett Lawrie’s glove.
Mets: C John Buck went into Tuesday leading the NL in RBIs with 22, and his seven home runs equalled the total of the Jays leader, catcher J.P. Arencibia. The Mets saw more upside in C Travis d’Arnaud than in Arencibia but felt he needed more seasoning, ergo Buck’s inclusion. Las Vegas was Toronto’s Triple-A affiliate last season, and it became the Mets’ when the Jays shifted that operation to Buffalo. Last season in Vegas, d’Arnaud played 67 games before injuring his knee. This season, a foul tip fractured his left foot in Game 12 and he’s out for two months. Well-regarded RHP Noah Syndergaard, a 2010 first-round draft choice by the Jays, moved up a notch in Class A to the Florida State League, where he had a no decision and 6.75 ERA in three starts. The Jays signed OF Wuilmer Becerra out of Venezuela for $1.3-million in 2011 but his jaw was broken by a pitch early last season and he’s yet to play in 2013.
Jays: R.A. Dickey, 38, signed to a $25-million extension, is 2-2 with a 4.38 ERA after starting the season with two poor starts relative to his 2012 NL Cy Young performance. His knuckleball returned to gold standard last time out against the White Sox until an exit after six innings with back spasms; he’s scheduled to pitch Tuesday in chilly Baltimore. The Jays decided to go with free agent Blanco as Dickey’s catcher; that left C Josh Thole, 26, after seven seasons in the Mets organization, hitting .361 in Buffalo; C Mike Nickeas, 30, also in Buffalo, was hitting .087.
Expected to produce runs bountifully with Reyes and Cabrera setting the table, each had a .200 batting average entering Tuesday. In a combined 33 games played, they hit four doubles and six home runs, driving in 16. At this pace, Encarnacion would hit 16 homers and drive in 64, after breaking out with 42 and 110 last season. Bautista has two doubles, four homers and eight RBIs in 13 games; he hit 27 homers and drove in 65 despite missing almost half the 2012 season with a wrist injury that required surgery.
Returning to the Blue Jays after going 305-305 first time around, Gibbons is reputed as a deft handler of relievers and, to date, the bullpen has arguably proven to be the team’s greatest strength after having entered the season as a described vulnerability. Watching the defence and batting order compromised by injuries and affected by high expectations, he’s been prudent with criticism, preferring to support the players publicly, predicting the performances will regain ballast soon. Using Izturis on third with Bonifacio on second in Lawrie’s absence backfired defensively and perhaps, offensively. The hitters as a group have been undisciplined at the plate, by consequence ranking in the bottom third of the AL in several significant offensive categories, and Gibbons said Monday that they’ve been counselled about chasing bad pitches early in the count. Resigned to a batting order he describes as “aggressive” and “free swinging,” he has been unwilling to attempt to change their ways. Arencibia and Colby Rasmus are neck-and-neck atop the AL leaders for strikeouts. His hitting coach, Chad Mottola, and pitching coach, Pete Walker, both returnees, had a combined 203 games of major league experience as players and three seasons of major league coaching coming into the season.
3B Brett Lawrie (14 games, abdominal), hurt prepping for the World Baseball Classic, RF Jose Bautista (seven, back and ankle), Reyes (10, ankle) have missed a combined 31 games, and RH reliever Sergio Santos (triceps) made five appearances before going on the DL.
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