Reflecting happily on his 2,000th hit in the lively Tigers clubhouse on Tuesday, Torii Hunter may have incidentally touched on a factor behind the Blue Jays early woes and, logically, one of several reasons to expect a turnaround in their fortunes.
Hunter moved back to a cozy cocoon, the AL Central, by signing as a free agent (two years, $26-million) with the Detroit Tigers in the off-season. He'd spent the first nine years of his career playing in the same division with the Minnesota Twins, before departing for the Angels of the AL West in 2008. With the unbalanced schedule, he’d played a relatively high percentage of games in the division, giving him comfort with the stadiums, and likewise the Detroit fans' familiarity with him. Tiger fans gave him a standing ovation after he ripped a single to achieve the milestone.
"They've seen me play, they've seen me grow as a player," Hunter said.
He also pointed out that while the transition back to the Central is going easily for him, he witnessed former teammate Albert Pujols struggle for two months to adjust from the National League to the American last season, after leaving the Cardinals for the Angels as a free agent.
Similarly, several Blue Jays are adjusting to a new team/division/league, though general manager Alex Anthopolous dismissed the factor as a cause for the Jays 2-5 start to the season, instead believing the Jays are caught in an untimely funk.
“Combination of things,” Anthopolous said on a cold, drizzly morning in the first-base dugout, at Comerica Park. “We haven’t all clicked together. We’ve had some quality starts and haven’t hit; the games we’ve hit, we haven’t had quality starts. Once our rotation starts to settle in I think we’ll be fine.”
Due to the absence of third baseman Brett Lawrie (rib cage strain), Maicer Izturis, switching to the AL East after eight seasons with the Angels in the AL West, is playing third base rather than to his strength as a middle infielder. A wild throw that triggered a two-run insurance rally in the 7-3 loss to Detroit on Tuesday was his second official error, though only charitable scorekeeping in Toronto last week saved him from being charged with one or two more.
During his career, Izturis had made a total of 64 errors entering this season, slightly more than half (33) at third base where his fielding percentage was .947 in 290 games, compared with .990 at second base in 246 games and .972 at shortstop in 194 games.
Emilio Bonifacio broke into the Major Leagues in 2007 and had spent his entire career in the National League until being obtained from the Marlins in the off-season. There are no NL parks with artificial turf, the slick and sheeny surface in Toronto's Rogers Centre. Bonifacio made three errors at second base in Friday's game against Boston to help derail the AL debut of right-hander Josh Johnson, his teammate in Miami.
“Probably that was the game when we weren’t as strong defensively as we could have been,” Anthopolous said. “But I don’t think the team is built on one player. It’s not fair to say, ok, Brett comes back and all of a sudden we’re going to take off. There’s no question about what he does defensively, the range, the energy he brings .. but at the same time we can’t just rush him back.”
Lawrie re-injured the oblique muscle in the abdominal area during a tune-up game for the World Baseball Classic, and said afterwards that it wasn't as serious as a similar strain as the one that sidelined him for slightly more than a month last season. Anthopolous said the club hopes he can return against the Yankees on April 19 at home, or April 22 in Baltimore. He Will play in an extended spring training game on Thursday.
During the off-season, the Jays brought in pitcher Josh Johnson, Wednesday’s scheduled starter Mark Buehrle, shortstop Jose Reyes and Bonifacio in a trade with the Marlins, R.A. Dickey from the Mets in a trade, and outfielder Melky Cabrera as a free agent.
The newcomers to the starting rotation have yet to post a win - Buehrle, having spent 11-plus seasons in the AL Central with the White Sox and one with Miami in the NL, was scheduled to pitch Wednesday afternoon against the Tigers. Johnson has played exclusively with Miami. R.A. Dickey went from Texas in the AL West to the New York Mets of the NL East, and in the AL East he'll be confronting patient hitters who will challenge him to put his knuckler in the strike zone.
The one player seemingly unaffected by – even thriving with - the turbulence of change, Reyes, is hitting .444 with three stolen bases. J.P. Arencibia has hit three homers and is batting .296; otherwise, the entire offence is struggling.
“Some other guys aren’t performing and they have been here a while,” Anthopolous said. “I know we look for reasons when guys get off to slow starts but you just can’t … react to tiny sample sizes. Guys are in a funk. They’re striking out but they’re also hitting in the .100s or 0-hundreds if that’s the word. That’s part of it when they’re not hitting, whether they striking out, flying out, grounding out.”
The team batting average is .224 compared with the AL's overall .254, and on-base percentage is .288 versus .341.
Nonetheless, when manager John Gibbons repeats his daily message that the team will come around, he refers implicitly to the hitters in the key 3-4-5 holes of the batting order, and all were with the team last year. Through seven games in those slots, the Blue Jays hitters are averaging .179, .074 and .115 respectively.
In Tuesday's loss, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and J.P. Arencibia combined to go 0-for-12, while in those same slots, the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Andy Dirks/Matt Tuiasosopo went 8-for-12 with two doubles, a home run and six RBIs.
Bautista, in the 3-hole, missed three games with a twisted ankle before returning Tuesday as the DH to hit three balls hard, though to no avail. Hitting .188, he is one of six Jays sporting a batting average at the Mendoza Line (.200) or under.
Encarnacion (.074) injured a finger during the World Baseball Classic, and was held out of late spring training games. He's hitless in the last four games, going 0-for-17 in that span.
DH Adam Lind is averaging .118 as the regular hitter in the 5-hole. Benched on Tuesday, he was replaced in the slot by Arencibia who has a team-leading 12 strikeouts in 28 plate appearances.
Cabrera, the No. 2 hitter who spent four seasons with the Yankees, played 113 games for the San Francisco Giants last season before being suspended 50 games. He had three hits Tuesday, and it may be taking this long to recover his timing.
Bonifacio, a stronger outfielder than infielder though always more valued for his offensive skills, has an identical .231 batting average and on-base percentage through seven games, compared with .267 and .329 in his career. He’s batting ninth, in the ‘second leadoff spot.’ Along with Arencibia and centre fielder Colby Rasmus (.190), he has also reached double figures in whiffs, 10 each. Mark DeRosa, 38, is steadier at third than Izturis but has one hit - a homer, his first in three years - in 11 at-bats, for a .091 average. Rajai Davis, playing right field for Bautista, is hitting .200.
“We’ve seen over the course of time, a season has peaks and valleys,” Anthopolous said. “Think about Oakland last year, no one even talked about them in the middle of the summer, and they ended up winning 94 games and the division."
Notes: Dickey had a split fingernail during his start on Sunday when Boston rocked him; Anthopolous said he's pitched with it before ... Ricky Romero is making several changes to his delivery in Dunedin, including bringing his hands to his chest in the wind-up rather than over his head. Romero hasn't pitched in a game, and there's no timetable. ...The Jays claimed outfielder Casper Wells off waivers from Seattle. The right-handed hitter has a .246 average with 25 home runs and 80 RBIs in 224 games over three seasons with the Tigers and Mariners. Pitcher Alex Burnett was designated for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster.