As part of our Dangling Conversation series we sent a handful of questions to Toronto Sun writer Bob Elliot, to hear some different opinions and Bob was nice enough answer them for us, I love his story about Aaron Hill this spring. Bob Elliot has written about baseball since 1978, covering the Expos and in 1987 moved to Toronto to cover the Blue Jays for the Toronto Sun.
Bob was nominated for the J.G. Taylor Spink award this past year and came in second in the voting. Spink award winners go into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He has written three books on baseball; Hard Ball, a bio of former Blue Jay George Bell, The Ultimate Jay's Trivia Book and The Northern Game: Baseball the Canadian Way. If you have an interest in baseball in Canada, the Northern Game is a great read.
Though he claims to be Canadian, he doesn't watch hockey.
Bluebird Banter: Will the offense improve?
Bob Elliot: They have a shot at being better -- three bad months (team batting average of .261 or less, out of the first four in 2008. Out of Rod Barajas, Lyle Overbay, Scott Rolen, Adam Lind, Vernon Wells and Alex Rios, returning starters from a year ago, none had a career year. Only Scutaro and Inglett did and they were supposed to be back-ups on opening day before David Eckstein didn't work out and Aaron Hill was injured.
Rios should be better with a full spring plus past of 2008 under Gene Tenace and Cito Gaston. An executive with another club told me this spring hiring a new hitting coach is so difficult because it some times takes three years for the best hitter to buy into a new guy's approach. Well, Jays hitters were not buying what Gary Denbow was selling and he was gone that Friday June morn in Pittsburgh along with manager John Gibbons. Tenace's approach is closer to Mickey Brantley, axed at the end of 2007.
Wells showed in good shape, ready for the WBC, like in 2006 when he had a rare fast start. It was then discovered he had been on the disabled list more than 45 days (52) and thus fell under chronic clause for insurance purposes like Albert Pujols and lots of others. While he hired a full-time trainer that all went out the window when he re-injured his hamstring. Problem with his hamstring it could be chronic. Wells said his trainer was disappointed but that he was working with "damaged goods." Playing centre is no place for a player to take it easy with a tender anything, not the way Wells plays running into walls, making quick starts and stops.
Don't think you can expect career years from Barajas, Overbay or Rolen at this stage of their careers.
You can expect solid years from Travis Snider, Lind and Hill -- who got me good the first game of the spring. Was standing alone at his locker waiting to ask him how he felt his first game after missing so much time with his concussion. He saw me from about 50 feet away and put his head down. He got about 10 feet away, looked up with his left eye looking in, his right eye looking in and then his eyes went all goggly, like a cartoon character. My jaw almost hit the floor, thinking the worst. He broke out laughing.
They'll be better, but it's like my mother used to say on baking day ... somewhere between a large "pinch" and a small "dash."
Who will make up the back end of the rotation?
Had I answered this when Tom first asked in early March before coming home for the WBC it would have said Brett Cecil for sure. Call a real estate agent for a condo. Done deal. Cecil was impressive his first three outings. An advance scout's job in the spring to report back to the boss what the make up of 25-man team he's covering will be. At least four scouts said Cecil was a can't miss for the rotation. Well, that was way back then, now Cecil has been sent to minor-league camp while WBC-ing (Scott Richmond has returned to camp).
After Roy Halladay, Jesse Litsch and David Purcey, it's Casey Janssen, Matt Clement, Scott Richmond and Brad Mills battling for the final two spots. Hopefully Richmond gets to pitch for the Jays, Team Canada wouldn't let him pitch.
How do you think Lind will do this season?
Have always been a big backer of the former South Alabama Jaguar. Have written they should have given him the DH job rather than that cheap free-agent sign Frank Thomas in 2007. Lind has an upside, while Thomas was headed down the other side of the mountain. Thought Lind could play left the next year. The Jays say Snider is better in left.
Is Snider ready to make an impact this year?
Snider reminds me a little of Andres Galarraga. Know they don't play the same position or even swing from the same side. They're similar when it comes to the build up before arriving. Both came with big-time advance notice and it was more than the respective club's scouting departments singing their praises, like the Los Angeles Dodgers P.R. machine. If you listened long enough they had eight Rookies of the Year -- every year. Baseball America loved both. As Dan Driessen, finishing in single digit home run totals, scuffled at first base with the 1985 Expos, the lobby, which began in the spring, grew stronger and louder to recall Galarraga from triple-A. Manager Buck Rodgers said that the Expos would not promote Galarraga until they saw how he handled struggling with a 2-for-47 stretch. Finally, in August Galarraga was promoted because "he never struggled" in the minors.
Snider never struggled either save for the throwing errors. He has linebacker legs and most scouts project him as long term as a DH. He can hit and is driven with an excellent work ethic. He will make an impact. Even if he does struggle for a couple of weeks, as Galarraga did his rookie year or Carlos Delgado, or Shawn Green did, he will hit a the major-league level. The Jays need to be patient with him.
What do you feel Cito's strengths and weaknesses are?
In his first run as manager his strength was getting along with everyone, getting the most of his players and being a player's manager -- Angels manager Doug Rader tried to change Devon White into a slap hitter so he would cut down on strikeouts and before the Jays acquired White that hectic winter meetings at the Rosemont O'Hare in 1990, the centre fielder spent time at Triple-A Edmonton. Gaston told White to hit like he always hit. He didn't have to walk, didn't have to worry about striking out. Three days later Robbie Alomar and Joe Carter came over for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez. Alomar was considered a whiny baby with the Padres. He refused to play shortstop. When Jays shortstop Dick Schofield was injured in ‘93 and the only back-up was Alfredo Griffin, who was OK for a week, but not for a month, Alomar knocked on Gaston's door and volunteered to play short. The Jays re-acquired Tony Fernandez, which solved the problem. The Jays lost in the ALCS in 91, then won back-to-back World Series in ‘92-93 with two problem childs in the lineup. Gaston's weakness then, was his handling of younger players and not giving them a chance.
Now, he appears to still be a player's manager off 88 games in 2008. Not sure what his weakness will be this time around. From the time he took over for Jimy Willians when the Jays were 12-24 he was under pressure to win and not on a long-term contract. He had very little security and was almost fired after they fell flat in the ‘91 post-season. Now, he has a two-year deal worth roughly $4 million US. And no pressure. He already told us in December at the winter meetings "we'll have a good team next year ... in 2010." He was preaching wait ‘til next year when it was a year away. Weaknesses will show after a month or so when the losses mount. It was a wonderful love affair the final few months of Flashback Fridays, but a lot of fans wanted Gaston replaced in ‘95, ‘96 and ‘97 when he was finally fired.
Should the Jays go into rebuilding mode?
Methinks they already are to a certain degree. It's not open-pit, strip mining like the winter meetings of 2001 when the current GM took over dumping contracts for Luke Prokopec, minor leaguers and Eric Hinske, who worked out in 2002. And then not so good. They tried to deal Rolen and Overbay. They still are trying. They have shed payroll, chosing not to re-invest money saved when A.J. Burnett left. Despite all that, Paul Beeston, CEO on an interim basis, met with Gaston and his coaching staff in their spring diner at the Bon Appetit restaurant. With Tony Viner and Phil Lind, the Rogers Communications honchos, present Beeston told the group: "we're not looking for a quick fix, we're going to get through this year and then, then the goal is go on another 10-year run."
Who is your favorite Jay to talk to and why?
Very good question. In Dunedin it was Michael Barrett who has a wonderful sense of history of the game and explained what he'd tell his one-year-old son in 10 years when he looks at Mark McGwire's autographed picture hanging from Barrett wall and asks "so dad why if the big red head not in the Hall of Fame?" He is thoughtful and articulate. When I left I was unsure if he'd make the team and I still don't know. Next to him it would be Rolen, Wells, Halladay, and of course, the nicest man in the room -- John McDonald. It is a good room for players.
Where do you think the Jays will finish this season, do you think they have any shot at the playoffs?
They'll finish fourth. They have no chance of making the post season. The thing is if either C.C. Sabathia or Burnett get injured or if a Boston hitter breaks down, both have the money to go and get a replacement at the July 31 deadline. And then there is Tampa Bay.
Bob Elliott covered the Montreal Expos from 1980-86 and joined the Toronto Sun in 1987. He does not golf, does not follow hockey and spends his spare time posting at the CanadianBaseballNetwork.com, a site dedicated to promoting Canadian baseball.