The Optimism of the Pre-Season

Last year Toronto won the pre-season on paper. This year Toronto has finished dead last in the pre-season on paper. That has happened before and the results were surprising

In the spring of 1949, baseball writers around the country were declaring the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox the clear favourites to contend for a title. The Indians had powerful pitching behind the trio of Lemon, Feller and Wynn, with a dominant bullpen that included Benton, Garcia, and the venerable Satchel Paige. The Red Sox pitching was solid behind Parnell, but their calling card was offense. The attack was led by Ted Williams, but included the powerful lineup of Pesky, Stephens, Doerr, and the younger DiMaggio. Behind them all, as an afterthought, were the New York Yankees.

The Yankees started spring training with their leader as Joe DiMaggio battled leg and foot injuries. Their pitching staff was solid but uninspiring. Worse, they were wild, walking almost 200 batters more than they struck out through the season. Injuries kept virtually every player other than Rizzuto from getting close to a full season. And the icing on the cake was the appointment of Casey Stengel. Stengel was a favourite of the press for his bizarre phrasing and his clowning, but when considered as the manager of the Yankees looked like a sick joke. Jimmy Cannon suggested that the Yankees might have to get used to the cellar for the year.

It wasn’t a stellar year. As predicted, the Indians outpitched the Yankees. The Red Sox outpitched the Yankees. The Red Sox outhit the Yankees and the gap between the team and the Indians on offense wasn’t large. Except the Yankees hung on and ended up beating the Dodgers for Stengel’s first World Series win. That’s why I’m optimistic about the Toronto Blue Jays 2014 season.

Every team is constructed a little differently. The Yankees had steady reliable pitching and an ace closer in the bullpen named Joe Page, who pitched over a hundred innings in relief. None of their players save DiMaggio broke .300, but the aging and already dismissed Tommy Henrich stepped up in the Yankee Clipper’s absence to carry the offense. Boxed in by injuries, Stengel was all but forced to adopt his platoon method, shifting bench players in and out during a game, trying to get the best advantage inning by inning he could.

I’m optimistic because the Baseball Gods are fickle. They like chaos and they love the whiff of hubris. The Jays in 2013 could have come from the pages of Sophocles; a team all but crowned champions before the first pitch thrown laid to waste by injuries and accident. Now, it is the reverse. Josh Johnson’s Icarus-like plummet was enough to take the pieces acquired and now cast them as a group of also rans. The other teams, in a flurry of moves, added salary, shifted assets and signed new players, primed for a run. Toronto, on the other hand, made minor moves for bench pieces and acquired a catcher with severe question marks. On paper, it was a frustrating and even borderline inept off-season. But I am optimistic about the Jays season.

I’m optimistic because the Jays front a rotation that has tremendous upside. Dickey and Buehrle are classic workhorses capable of 200 innings of solid and occasionally spectacular performance. Morrow possesses the talent to be a top pitcher in baseball if he can avoid injury. Hutchison is young, but has never shown any issues handling a role in the starting rotation. McGowan, who as a feel good story seems like it was scripted from Hollywood, has a mighty arm and tremendous ability. If he can remain healthy, the Jays will have an effective and unforeseen weapon in him. They are backed by reasonable starting depth mixed between fringe starters/long relievers and a wealth of young talent cooking in the minor leagues.

I’m optimistic because the Jays bullpen is the best in the division. Janssen, who seems to be designed to be underrated doesn’t look or act like a dominant closer at all. But he goes out, throws strikes, and is effective. Behind him are the powerful arms of Delabar and Santos, each possessing the ability to blow hitters away and compliment that with plus breaking balls. Loup’s left-handed delivery is smooth, difficult to track and has shown over two years to bedevil opposing hitters. With him is Cecil, who brings a starters velocity to the left-handed relief role. Behind them are solid long relievers like Redmond, big arms in Jefferies and the sinker in potentia of Rogers.

I’m optimistic because the Jays will have a solid defense behind their pitchers, able to convert groundballs into double-plays and cut short rallies. With Reyes and Goins as a solid tandem up the middle, the Jays will turn their formerly porous infield into a weapon. A healthy season of Lawrie’s defensive wizardry and a non-tumous Cabrera anchors the left side of the diamond and the average defense of the right has an extra weapon in the arm of Bautista.

I’m optimistic because this lineup is full of people who can flat out hit. A healthy season from them could see five regulars crack at least twenty home runs each. Already, the regulars have done well in the spring, with Cabrera especially muscling the ball all over the diamond like he had in 2012 with the Giants. Encarnacion has undergone his transition from a promising bat to one of the premiere offensive players in the game, and Bautista has hit for both power and average in the spring. Lawrie’s quieter stance and more disciplined approach seems to be showing dividends which adds a major bat in the lineup. Lind’s ability to eat up right handed pitching Rasmus power offer threats around him. The bat of Navarro is an unknown, but the Rogers Centre may help him keep his power numbers in a respectable range.

I’m optimistic because I’ve learned over thirty years of watching baseball that the season is a process. It is like an intricate clockwork Babbage engine that slowly grinds forward. With each range of movements, the configuration changes, modifies, adapts to new information. The team may have a glaring offensive hole at second base. But it may not, either through improvement by Goins, a more productive platoon from Izturis, or a surprise year from minor league options. The starting rotation could come apart at the seams or it might enjoy an un-Toronto like season of health and effectiveness. Or the inevitable injuries to Morrow and McGowan might see to a dominant rookie season from Sanchez or Stroman. The Jays failure to spend now could reflect the wishes of ownership, or it could represent a grim assessment by the Front Office that the return for the dollar in performance from existing free agents isn’t there, but the return from salary relief from certain targeted teams if they fall out of contention is.

I’m optimistic because I know that four days before Opening Day, the team that I’m looking at will not look the same at the All-Star Break unless the results are good. Goins will not get 600PA under the Mendoza line. Happ won’t make 25 starts with an ERA over six. The three man bench can’t be looked at as anything but a temporary solution to an immediate need, as opposed to a philosophical change decided on by the Front Office. That the Jays can add salary and have assets to acquire players during the season which are far superiour and address short and long term needs far more effectively than paying a premium for mediocre free agents.

Most importantly, I’m optimistic because I am a baseball fan, and in the heady days before Opening Day takes place, every team has the same record. Every team starts with the same numbers and same potential to win. Realism is for August. March is for wild optimistic and speculation, where you look at a team and you look at all the questions and issues, and your response is ‘yeah, I know, I know, but... what if?’ What if Dickey repeats his Cy Young year? What if Encarnacion and Bautista steal a page from Mantle and Maris and spend the year competing for the home run crown back to back? What if McGowan’s Cinderella story lasts all year as he piles up starters, innings, strike-outs and wins? What if Lawrie is really to be full time the player we glimpsed when he came up? Those what-ifs are what take me back to why I love baseball and why I spent the pre-season as a kid listening to the spring on the radio, oiling my glove and telling myself this year had to be the year. I bet money with my brains but I follow baseball with my heart.

I am looking forward to this season, hopeful (perhaps to the point of idiocy as always) that the what ifs and the Baseball Gods will impact like they did for the pre-season dead and buried Yankees of 1949. That the Jays will tear away the team on paper with their performance on the field. But most of all, I’m excited for the season to start, because life during baseball is always that much brighter than life without it. Whenever I think about why I love this game like I do, I’m always brought back to a statement by Robert Creamer, which sums it up so beautifully.

"It's fun, that's what it is, it's fun. Baseball is more fun than anything else. You can watch it and just love it and enjoy it. I don't think that there's anything tremendously philosophical about it. I don't think there's anything metaphysical I just think it’s so much fun to watch."

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