Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Riches to Rags to Riches

Among all the great stories that are told in sports, none are as good as the hard-luck, down-and-out, miracle, feel-good stories. And, as I think of it, there are some real good ones on this year's Toronto Blue Jays. Heading into the start of the new season, here's a quick review of some of the stories so far:

Ricky Romero: A sixth overall pick in 2005, he looked to be a can't miss ace of the future. He spent some difficult seasons in the minor leagues, never living up to the hype associated with such a high pick.

For years, Romero was labelled "The guy drafted before Troy Tulowitzki" and was held up for ridicule whenever fans wanted to deride JP Ricciardi.

Things were still looking bad in the spring of 2009. Yet another bad start to the spring had him looking like a bust. Had it not been for Brad Arnsberg's insistence, Ricky would have been sent back to AAA and forced to try and work his way up again. Instead, Ricky managed to parley Ansberg's faith into a breakout season in 2009, going 13-9 with a 4.30 ERA. He improved on that again in 2010 going 14-9, but lowering his ERA to 3.73.

"RR Cool-Jay" (so dubbed for his obvious resemblance to the famous rapper, at least while his hat is on.) is also a feel good story for the work he does in his East Los Angeles community. He is very active and involved, promoting athletics and education to a community that has few role models. If that's not enough, he took his signing bonus, and bought his parents a house. Oh, and he's also dating Miss America. A really great story, that almost never happened.

Jose Bautista: Probably one of the more obvious stories on the team. Almost everyone by now has heard the story of Jose playing for 4 different teams in the same season. How he was bounced around organizationally. He was basically given to the Jays by the Pirates (traded for former catcher of the future, Robinzon Diaz)

Bautista never got a chance to develop properly. The Baltimore Orioles selected him in the rule 5 draft, straight from A ball. He struggled mightily amidst playing for 3 teams in a season (he never played for the Mets, who immediately dealt him back to the Pirates) and never developed an identity.

Once the Jays let Alex Rios go in mid 2009, and traded Scott Rolen to Cincinnati, Bautista got a chance to play regularly. Coupled with some mechanical adjustments that Jose made with Cito Gaston and Dwayne Murphy, he was able to begin hitting the ball with authority. his 10 home runs in September of 2009 only served notice to the league that he had arrived. His 54 homers in 2010 earned him a 5-year, $65 Million contract in the offseason. Not bad for a player who was nearly non-tendered a year ago.

Adam Lind: Most are quick to forget how low Adam Lind's prospect stock had fallen. I recently read an article that Kevin Goldstien from Baseball Prospectus wrote pre-season 2008, saying basically that Lind had missed his opportunity, had been passed by Travis Snider on the depth chart, and the most he could hope for as a career progression was as a fourth outfielder and part-time DH. Lind had been very successful at every major league level, but until mid-season 2008, had never been able to bring any of that success with him when he played at the highest level.

Again, credit Cito Gaston with embracing a young hitter, and emboldening him with confidence. Shortly after Cito took over from John Gibbons, Lind was called up for the final time. He homered in his first series in Pittsburgh, and kept hitting right through 2009. His success earned him the 2009 Silver Slugger award at DH, and a multi-year extension from the Blue Jays.

Lind then struggled again in 2010, although his overall numbers don't tell a complete story. He had a solid April, but had a miserable slump through May and June, which haunted his statistics for the remainder of the season. He actually .836, .832, .782 over the last three months of the season ( and .843 in April). If he can avoid another slump, he should be due for another strong season in 2011.

JP Arencibia: It is obviously far too early to label JP a success story. But, remembering how far he had fallen after 2009 really puts his recent success into perspective.

JP has been a .300 hitter at nearly every level throughout his career. His high draft position was more than warranted. He was working his way through the Blue Jays minor league system, and was ticketed to be in Toronto by 2010. Then 2009 happened.

2009 was a real step back statistically. Critics began speculating that he was focusing too much on his defence, or that he had finally been over matched by more experienced pitchers. JP has never been much for taking a walk, and so many analysts pointed to that as the reason for his faltering statistics in an otherwise hitter friendly environment (Vegas)

In the off-season, JP underwent two surgeries. The first corrected a kidney problem he had been dealing with over the course of the season. Not something small to overcome on its own. But coupled with the fact that he ALSO underwent LASIK eye surgery to correct "astigmatism and NIGHT BLINDNESS" it's pretty easy to figure out why he struggled. Especially considering that almost all baseball games are played at night. (I can't find his minor league splits, but remember reading somewhere that he still hit .300 in day games that year)

Now, JP is primed for a breakout as the official starting catcher for the 2011 Blue Jays. I hope he can continue to add to his story.

Brandon Morrow: Starter? Reliever! Closer? No! Starter!

His first several seasons in Seattle were tumultuous to say the least. Being drafted ahead of future freak-phenom Tim Lincecum (a Seattle Native) certainly stacked the deck against Brandon as well.

Management never seemed to settle on a permanant role for Morrow. His arsenal of pitches guaranteed that he would be successful at either position, but the Mariners never made up their mind.

Alex Anthopoulos took advantage of this, and scooped Morrow up at a bargain rate. It took Morrow several starts to settle into his new home and new role. But once he did, he DOMINATED. In June, July and August, Morrow went 6-2 with an ERA just over 3. He led the American League in Strikeouts per 9 innings. Most analysts consider Morrow a prime breakout candidate for 2011. Personally, I see him as the future Ace of the pitching staff. Another happy ending.

There are certainly other great stories. Alex Anthopoulos himself is a great story. Rajai Davis has taken a long and storied road to the Major Leagues. Aaron Hill came back from a vicious concussion to become an all-star. Kyle Drabek went from hot-headed kid, to a blown up elbow. He's put his career back together nicely.

There are also stories being written: Yunel Escobar was the short-stop of the future in Atlanta, but fell from grace. Can he rebound and add to the folklore? Travis Snider has been the golden child of this organization for almost 5 years, and has yet to break out. Maybe in 2011? Jesse Litsch has been battling serious injuries for nearly 2 calendar years. A comeback for him would be a great story. Juan Rivera broke out to become an all-star in 2009. 2010 made him trade fodder. A return to glory would net him a huge pay day in the off-season. 5th Starter favourite Edwin Encarnacion has shed 12 pounds, and improved his defensive athleticism. I would love to see him put all of his tools together in 2011 and really break out.

The stories are all baseball-related, but also heavily involve the human element. Telling these stories all at once really highlights the challenges that players face when competing at the highest levels. It also shows why this clubhouse has connected so well. This group has collectively been through the highest highs, and the lowest lows. Regardless of their success in 2011, they are all winners.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Fantasy Wrap Up

So, like many other baseball fans this time of year, I have been drafting major league baseball players to play for my various fantasy teams. My hope is that I will find the right combinations for each league, thereby beating people that I don't know, for a prize that doesn't exist.

Despite my acknowledgement that fantasy baseball is utterly and completely a waste of time, I find myself very excited this time of year. I've had some excellent drafts, and managed to protect several of my favourite prospects in the process (Let's go Zach Stewart!)

For those of you who aren't into fantasy baseball, I think you're missing out. Half the fun of baseball is the armchair-GMing, and a fantasy team allows you to make all the moves you want, with none of the negative consequences (aside from losing, which does sting a bit) I recommend to everyone that you should try it, and there are several excellent free sites available: (ESPN is my preference, but MLB.com's is also good, as are Fox sports and CBS sports) get out and give it a try. Worst case scenario: you end up wasting some time that you would have wasted anyway.

Where am I going with this post? No idea really. I basically wanted to encourage everyone to try fantasy baseball, and then go on to post the results from my three drafts, and leave myself open to ridicule. I'll explain my rationale for each, in case anyone wants my non-expert fantasy advice.

First up is my first-ever active league (an inactive league is one where most of the owners never make moves, and just make waiver acquisitions. Very annoying and inconsiderate, I almost gave up on fantasy baseball because of this) A friend from High School asked me to join, so I have to do well, or face personal ridicule.

It is a Rotisserie-style scoring league, which means that all the stats are cumulative over the season. The goal is to do well in each category, without necessarily winning in all. The other strategy is to be consistent. Here's my lineup, keepers are in Bold. (Keepers are players who were on my team from the previous season. In this league, we keep 8)

C- Brian McCann ATL
1B- Joey Votto CIN
2B-Sean Rodriguez TB
3B- Ian Stewart COL
SS- Elvis Andrus TEX
2B/SS- Yunel Escobar TOR
1B/3B-Ike Davis NYM
OF- Colby Rasmus STL
OF- Logan Morrison FLA
OF- Alfonso Soriano CHC
OF-Alex Gordon KC
UTIL- Adam Lind TOR
BE (nch) - Kyle Blanks SD
BE- Jesus Montero NYY

P- Chris Carpenter STL
P-Roy Oswalt PHI
P-Brandon Morrow TOR
P- Chad Billingsley LAD
P-Jonathan Broxton LAD
P-Joe Nathan MIN
P-Jose Valverde DET
P Jordan Zimmerman WAS
P-Edwin Jackson CHW
BE- Bud Norris HOU

As you can guess, I overvalue Blue Jays' players. Morrow's injury is a setback, but overall I was very happy with the way this draft evolved. I was fortunate to be starting with a returning MVP, and some solid pitching. I'm a sucker for high-upside guys, and can't seem to let go of Alex Gordon. Let's all hope this is the year. Hopefully I can keep an eye on the waiver-wire to get some saves, and I will likely have to trade to get more steals. Overall, I really like the shape of this team.

My next league is SUPER deep. It is a 20 team, 20 keeper dynasty league. (They even have a minor league protected prospects system) The league scoring is based on points allocated to each statistical category, and we play one head-to-head match-up per week, with the highest point total per week getting a win.This kind of league requires a lot more thought and research. I started with the Florida Marlins before our first draft, and I was lucky enough to protect Mike Stanton. I also got to start with one of the most Fantasy-friendly shortstops ever in Hanley Ramirez. Here's the team:

C- Matt Weiters BAL
1B- Gaby Sanchez FLA
2B- Gordon Beckham CHW
3B- Ryan Zimmermann WAS
SS- Hanley Ramirez FLA
OF- Travis Snider TOR
OF- Mike Stanton FLA
OF- Peter Bourjos LAA
UTIL- Alex Gordon KC
UTIL- Edwin Encarnacion TOR
BE- Milton Bradley SEA
BE- Cody Ross SF
BE-Chris Johnson HOU
BE-Jamey Carrol LAD
BE-Chris Heisey CIN
BE-Gerardo Parra ARI
BE- Rick Ankiel WAS

SP- Brett Anderson OAK
SP- Mat Latos SD
SP- Brandon Morrow TOR
SP-Jesse Litsch TOR
SP- Dan Haren LAA
P- Nick Blackburn MIN
RP-Evan Meek PIT
RP- Mike Adams SD
RP-Jason Frasor TOR
RP- Kerry Wood CHC
BE- Scott Baker MIN
BE- Jose Arredondo CIN
BE- Jo Jo Reyes TOR

Protected Prospects: Zach Stewart, Chad James, Jameson Taillon, Tyler Flowers, Jared Mitchell

You may have noticed that there is considerably less than 20 bold names. I have made a few trades since the draft, so the team looks pretty different. I traded David Price and Carlos Pena for Ryan Zimmermann and Scott Baker. I also flipped Aaron Harang and Tyler Colvin for Edwin Encarnacion. Dan Haren came over for Ben Zobrist and Anibal Sanchez. I really like this team, and overall, feel that it is my most well-rounded team. You may not like the lack of big-name relievers, but this league values holds as highly as saves. In fact, Closers rarely score higher than good relief pitchers, so I had targeted solid-but-unspectacular types for that position. we'll see how it pans out.

The final league that I participate in drafted today, which explains my fantasy-themed post. This is a completely new league for me, and a new scoring format. This league uses 7 hitting and 7 pitching categories for head to head match-ups. Each category won= 1 point, and whoever gets the most points wins the match. Ties are not broken. Also worth noting is that we get to keep 30 of the 40 players on our rosters for next season. Here's the list, I should mention that I got to start with 5 Jays, and 3 "prospects":

C- Miguel Montero ARI
1B- Justin Morneau MIN
2B- Aaron Hill TOR
3B- Jose Bautista TOR
SS- Starlin Castro TOR
LF- Travis Snider TOR
CF- Will Venable SD
RF- Justin Upton ARI
UTIL- Adam Lind TOR
BE- JP Arencibia TOR
BE- Sean Rodriguez TB
BE- Yunel Escobar TOR
BE- Carlos Beltran NYM
BE- Tyler Colvin CHC
BE-Alfonso Soriano CHC
BE- Kyle Blanks SD
BE- Dan Johnson TB
BE- Nolan Reimold BAL
BE- Mat Gamel MLW
BE- Eric Thames TOR
BE- David Cooper TOR

SP- Ricky Romero TOR
SP- Brandon Morrow TOR
SP- Kyle Drabek TOR
SP- Brett Cecil TOR
SP- Clay Bucholz BOS
RP- Ryan Franklin STL
RP- Jake McGee TB
RP- Jon Rauch TOR
RP- Kerry Wood CHC
BE- AJ Burnett NYY
BE-Zach Stewart TOR
BE- Rick Porcello DET
BE- Arodys Vizcaino ATL
BE-Esmil Rogers COL
BE- Takashi Saito MLW
BE- Jesse Crain CHW
BE-Barry Enright ARI
BE- Justin Masterson CLE
BE- Jo Jo Reyes  TOR

Wow, this draft was deep. I should have targeted some more youth, as I could have hidden them on my bench. As it is, I will not be able to play half these guys on a daily basis. I'm hoping to move some for prospects as guys realize that they actually have to have people play the games. Alternatively, I will have the deepest team in the league and never have to worry about injuries or slumps.

Looking at the lineups all on one page, it seems I'm really over committed to some players: Adam Lind, Alex Gordon, Alfonso Soriano, Brandon Morrow, Yunel Escobar, and Sean Rodriguez most notably. Some of these gambles will pay off (I'd bet most on Lind, least on Gordon and Soriano) so I'm hoping to have a good year. The other thing to account for is the fact that none of these leagues will be won at the draft. Jose Bautista was a waiver claim in almost every league I played in last year, and there is bound to be another player like that this year.

I also really like deep leagues. There's no skill involved in a 10-team league, where 50% of the MLB is undrafted. Those leagues can, and should be, won on the waiver-wire. Deep leagues require trades, and risks. Keepers add additional challenges. If you happen to be a first timer, look for those kinds of leagues.

Good luck everyone. Hopefully I'll be posting several review of this post, touting my success. If not, at least I had fun?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Twitter Has Made Me Lazy...

In honor of Twitter's 5th birthday, they deserved a spot in my headline. It's true though. It's so easy to spew forth my Jays/baseball-related thoughts into the twitterverse, and not have to provide any evidence, logic or backup thought. A full bog post now seems like a lot of heavy lifting. More than anything, I'm sure taht's what's made it successful.

But I am going to try to commit myself to keeping the blog alive. I will re-learn sentence-structure, and fight the urge to #hashtageverything.

As for our beloved Jays. Things are starting to round into shape. I was disappointed to hear that Mark Rzepczinski was informed that he won't be in the rotation. I think he has a Brandon-Webb-Pre-Injury Sinker, and his slider is a serious out pitch. A month or two on a minor league salary may have cleared up his control problems, but that's not for me to decide. He has instead opted to joint the bullpen battle, which is even more crowded than the rotation battle was.

This leads me to believe that the Jays, and /or their medical staff have some real, serious concern over Frank Francisco and Octavio Dotel's health. Rzepczinski would do well in a high-leverage role, and may be graduated quickly based on injuries. It also offers the team a second lefty out of the 'pen.

Speaking of leftys: Jo-Jo Reyes is generating buzz again. I have a sneaking suspicion that all the recent talk about "options" being used as tie-breakers for roster decisions means that Reyes may break camp as the 5th man in the rotation. (Drabek becomes the victim of his options) Why you ask? simply to try to build his potential trade value. Reyes could reasonably bring back a prospect (likely not a top one...) from a pitching-starved contender (STL, MLW, NYY, LAA, etc) or, he becomes this year's feel-good turnaround story, and he adds to the team's already overstocked pitching staff.

Over on the offensive side of things: I am worried about Aaron Hill. I wonder if it's too late to move Lawrie back to 2nd, and let him break camp until Hill has fully recovered.

Everyone else appears to be rounding nicely into form. The Podsednick injury pretty much sets the roster with Patterson, McCoy, Molina and Johnny Mac on the bench. Encarnacion has been swinging a hot bat, and I hope to see him carry that into April. Adam Lind is hitting the ball to all fields again, and there haven't been any negative reports at this point regarding his defense. Travis Snider has looked great with his Moustache and Mullett combo. This team looks solid. Dark Horse. I seriously regret not making the 50/1 prop bet on them to make the world series when I was in Vegas recently.

That's all for now. I have some other ideas brewing, but those merit their own post. Till then...

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Spring Has Sprung

How good is it to see baseball on TV again?

For those of you who missed it, The Rogers Corporation was kind enough to give us a (free) sample of the 2011 Blue Jays this afternoon on the regional networks. FANTASTIC! I forgot how much I missed baseball.

As for the game, The Jays walloped the Pittsbugh Pirates (who may never have another winning season, ever) I watched most of the game, until the starters left, and I mostly liked what I saw. Bautista is still in-the-zone, and Ricky Romero looked ready to start the season. Travis Snider got to hit 4th, and looked good in doing so. Speaking of looking good, he is growing a moustache. It is LEGEND- wait for it... also JP Arecibia is trying to grow a beard, mostly failing. DARY!!!! LEGENDARY! Here it is, so you don't have to search for it:

Meats don't clash, and neither do awesome moustaches and a semi-mullett. Looking forward to seeing Travis bring that bad boy to the Rogers Dome.

5th Starter Favourites Eric Thames and Edwin Encarnacion had diometrically opposite days. Thames looked amazing, working counts deep, and taking the ball to all fields. Encarnacion looked abysmal, striking out 3 times. If he could have seen less pitches, he probably would have. For all my campaigning for him, he sure has a funny way of repaying me...

All that said: Sample size, sample size, sample size. None of this stuff matters much until the final few weeks. Still hard not to be excited about Thames, and fellow prospect Brett Lawrie, who both look ready to come north (though likely neither will) Both are hitting over .300 (Thames is closer to .400) and hitting the ball with A-THORA-TAH! I hope they can carry this success into the regular season, as both will move significantly higher on the Jays depth chart, and get the league-wide recognition they deserve.

In other baseball-related news: It's fantasy time! the 5th Starter (me!) is very much excited about some of his upcoming drafts (and smug and satisfied over the already completed ones. And on that note: League owners, stop scheduling drafts during the first week of spring training. It's rude. Position battles are nowhere near decided, and injuries can ruin a season. But I digress...) I will post some fantasy predictions here once all my drafts have been completed. I don't want anyone stealing players from me in my upcoming drafts. You know who you are.

I'm glad to be back. I'll try to keep semi-regular posts going through spring, at least when something relevant happens. 'Till then...