The Royals host the Blue Jays, giving us our first look at the mashers up north. We talked to Tom Dakers at Bluebird Banter about Toronto's chances of competing this year in a parity-filled Eastern Division.
Royals Review: The Blue Jays have the best run differential in the league, but are barely above .500. What has been their issue?
Tom Dakers: Pitching….pitching….pitching, plus bad luck/bad play in close games. When we win, we win by 10 runs, when we lose, it is those fun one run games, where they tease you with hope in the last inning, generally getting the tying run on base, before hitting into the game ending double play. Or they will be winning by a run, late in the game, and we’ll make that stupid error, right at the wrong moment. Or, the rare occasion we do get a well-pitched game, the offense takes a day off. But mostly it is pitching. Our starting pitching has been…..the nice way to put it is inconsistent.
Our only starter who can put together two good games in a row is Mark Buehrle. Many of us expected a breakout season from Drew Hutchison, and he has a very nice looking won-loss record (8-2), but that’s mostly because the team is scoring 7.1 runs/game for him. He’s been good at home, on the road he has an ERA of 8.81 in 10 starts. Normally I’d ignore huge home-road splits for a pitch, figuring it is a small size issue, but Drew has been so awful, on the road, that it makes me figure something is going on. Maybe he misses ketchup potato chips or his pregame poutine? R.A. Dickey has been as bad as Hutchison, without the benefit of his teammates scoring a dozen runs a game for him. Dickey allowed just two runs yesterday, but the team was shut out for just the second time this year. Marco Estrada has been much better than most of us figured he would be, but he’s been up and down. And the team has had no luck in finding someone to fill the fifth spot in the rotation, since Aaron Sanchez went on the disabled list.
Royals Review: Salvador Perez is a Gold Glove-winning catcher, but Russell Martin has a sterling defensive reputation as well. Have you noticed a big upgrade in the defense behind the plate and the way he handles pitchers?
Tom Dakers: Yes, Russell Martin has been much better behind the plate than Dioner Navarro was last year. The thing you notice most is that Martin is pretty athletic, he’ll spring out from behind the plate to catch popups or go after bunts. Dioner was pretty slow moving. Still is. Martin also has a great arm, he’s thrown out 40% of base steals. And he is much better at framing pitches than Navarro was. He is fun to watch.
Royals Review: We're familiar with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion by now, but the Jays are finding power from guys like Chris Colabello and even are old friend Danny Valencia. What is it about Toronto that allows everyone to hit with power?
Tom Dakers: I don’t know what is going on, but I’m happy to have it continue. Colabello has been a huge surprise. His batter average has been propped up by a .428 BABIP, which, we are finding, isn’t sustainable, but the power has been a surprise too. Some of it is Rogers Centre is a good place to be a hitter. Some of it is likely the company you keep. Guys see Bautista, Donaldson and Encarnacion having so much fun hitting the ball into the upper decks that they want to try it too.
Royals Review: Devon Travis is one of the most impressive rookies in the league this year, acquired in an interesting swap of young players for outfielder Anthony Gose. Has he surpassed your expectations and what kind of player is he?
Tom Dakers: Travis has quickly become one of my favorite players. At the start of spring training, I didn’t expect him to make the team, I figured they would want him to do a couple of months at Triple-A. And then, when he didn’t get a hit for the first week of spring, but when he started hitting, he didn’t stop. First impressions carry a lot of weight, Devon started the season hot, hitting .325/.393/625 in April, making fans of us all. What surprised me most was the power, for the first month he was keeping up with Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson in home runs.
Unfortunately, he seemed to be a magnet for little injuries too. He was taken out turning the double play a few times, he got hit by a pitch in the ribs and his batting numbers started to fall. Then a bad hop ground ball hit him in the collarbone and he ended up on the DL for more than a month. Since his return, he’s back to hitting the way he did at the start of the season, .370/388/.457. He’s also a better defensive player than we were led to believe. We were told he was a good bat/poor glove type of middle infielder, but he’s great (and fearless) at turning the double play, and he has more range that you would expect. He’s easily our best second baseman since Aaron Hill. In a couple of years I think I’ll be saying he’s our best second baseman since Roberto Alomar.
Royals Review: What do you think of the job done by former Royals bench coach John Gibbons, now in his second stint as Jays manager?
Tom Dakers: I like Gibby. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t do things that drive me crazy, but on the whole, I like him. There is a #firegibby group, but then I’m sure every manager gets that. He had a harder time figuring how to use the guys in the bullpen this year. Part of that was because our starters had troubles making it to the fifth inning and part of it was because they were trying to piece together a bullpen made up of minor league free agent signings, waiver pickups and 20 year-old rookies. It took too long to sort through them, trying to find the few that could help. The players seem to like him and he, most of the time, seems to try to stay out of the way and let the players play.
The things that drive me to drink include:
• Bringing in a reliever to finish an inning, and the pitcher will get out of it on a handful of pitchers, but then he’ll bring someone else in to start the next inning. If a reliever is doing well, I’d rather he stay in the game longer. I always think the more pitchers you bring into a game, the more likely you are to find that one guy that just doesn’t have it.
• Using the hit and run with batters that are the swing and miss types. I’m not a big fan of the hit and run, but when you do it, don’t use the guys that strikeout a bunch.
• He has a reluctance to put in a defensive replacement for Jose Reyes. Reyes is getting older and doesn’t have a lot of range, and, lately, has a tendency to make errors at the wrong moments. We have a very good defensive shortstop on the bench, but Gibby won’t bring him into games when we are ahead. It would help keep Reyes rested and healthy and it would stop me from screaming at the TV when a ball bounces into the outfield that really should have been an out.
• I wish he would use the DH spot to rest guys like Reyes and Bautista. They both tend to get little minor injuries, if we could DH them some it might keep them rested and healthy. On the flipside, Gibby is using the DH spot to rest Donaldson and Martin, which I like.
Royals Review: The Jays suffered a major blow this year losing Marcus Stroman, and the starting pitching has been a major issue this year. Do you expect them to aggressively seek a pitcher in a trade?
Tom Dakers: I do expect them to look for starting pitching. The team really needs a starter or two. The trouble is that just about every team in baseball could use another starter or two and it seems like there are far more buyers than sellers. The laws of supply and demand have me worried what the cost of picking up a starting pitcher would be. The Jays farm system is getting restocked again, after being emptied in the trades for Reyes, Buehrle and Dickey. I’d hate to see it emptied out again.
Royals Review: What needs to happen for the Jays to be contenders in October?
Tom Dakers: The pitching has to improve. Starters have to go deeper into games. We have to stop making the bullpen throw 5 or 6 innings each game. Beyond that…a little more consistency from the offense wouldn’t hurt. It seems we either score 10+ runs or 3 or less, and rarely in between. Finding a left fielder that can both catch and throw a ball wouldn’t be a bad thing. Most important, they have to stay healthy. For a change, the AL East isn’t filled with great teams. The team that stays healthy and finds five starters that can throw 6 or 7 innings a start might just be the one that wins it.
You can read all the latest Blue Jays news at Bluebird Banter. Many thanks to Tom Dakers for his help.