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Bluebird Banter Answers Dallas Morning News' Questions About the Blue Jays

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 Hi everyone.  Richard Durrett of the Dallas Morning News asked me a few questions about the Jays in anticipation of the upcoming series with the Texas Rangers .  Here are his questions and my responses, for our discussion. 

Dallas Morning News: The Blue Jays lost 9 in a row in late May, but have rebounded. What happened during that losing streak and why are they having better success now?

Hugo :  Great question.  As you can imagine, many things had to go wrong for the Jays to lose 9 in a row.  A few starters in the Jays' young rotation had bad starts back-to-back, the usually reliable bullpen had an awful stretch, the hitting suddenly went cold, and all semblance of hitting with runners in scoring position disappeared.  The Jays also had a healthy dose of bad luck during that run (Roy Halladay certainly didn't do anything not to win his two starts during the streak.  The truth is that the Jays are probably not as great as they were playing in April and early May and certainly not as bad as they were playing during that awful stretch.  They are a team reliant on defense, young starting pitching after Halladay, and a collection of above-average, if not spectacular, hitters.    

DMN: Second baseman Aaron Hill has surprised some folks this season. What’s the story with his season and all-around game?   

Hugo:   Even after Hill had a great 2007 as a 25-year old second baseman, Hill flew under the radar this season after a nightmare series of post-concussion symptoms ended his 2008, the year that was supposed to be Hill's breakout.  But the Jays have always had high hopes for the former first-round draft pick - J.P. Ricciardi was calling him "our Dustin Pedroia " before 2009 even started, and the Jays wisely locked Hill up to a long-term deal before the 2008 season so he'll be a Jay for a long time.  Hill may not keep up the power numbers he's shown early this season, but he's likely to be well above average at second with both the glove and the bat, making him quite a valuable player, if not a superstar.   

DMN:  How is reliever BJ Ryan doing and is he back to his old self? How is the team using him?

Hugo:   After a fantastic first season as a Jay, Ryan missed almost all of 2007 to Tommy John surgery.  B.J. returned early in 2008 and had a pretty good season, but things didn't seem right from the beginning of 2009, a season where many expected BJ to get back to his pre-TJ days.  Ryan's mechanical problems forced him to opt out of the World Baseball Classic, and his velocity and command problems dogged him throughout the spring.  Ryan broke camp as the closer, but it didn't last as he had some awful appearances and was eventually placed on the disabled list with what my co-blogger ungenerously refers to as CPS or "crappy pitching syndrome."  Ryan found the closer job not waiting for him on his return and has mostly been relegated to mopup work as he seeks to get his form back.  His most recent appearance was a good one so he is trending upward, but Ryan will likely have to have another good appearance or two before he is voluntarily placed in any high-leverage situations. 

Scott Downs has done a very good job as closer in Ryan's stead, but it's no accident that the Jays' usually steady bullpen began to falter in Ryan's absence.  Without him, each other pitcher was pressed a bit and cracks started to appear over a little time.  An effective Ryan will go a long way to returning the Jays' bullpen to the effectiveness it displayed in 2008. 

DMN:  Does Toronto have enough to stay with the Yankees and Red Sox (and even Tampa Bay) in the AL East?

Hugo :  That's a tough question.  I don't think there's any doubt that the Jays can't match the talent of the Yankees and the Red Sox on paper.  That's especially true in the absence of Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan , two major parts of Toronto's long-term pitching puzzle who are both out for most, if not all, 2009 as they recover from arm surgery.  That said, it's not as though the Yankees or the Sox have perfect teams with no concerns - a few injuries here or there can always turn the tide one way or the other.  I wouldn't necessarily expect Toronto to be atop the division when the season ends, but I also never expected them to be a 70-win team in 2009, as many writers predicted before the season started.  I think they are a good team but a lot of things still have to break in their favour for them to legitimately contend throughout the length of the season. 

DMN:  Just to calm any Rangers fans, there’s no chance Roy Halladay pitches on short rest in this series, right? Talk about what makes him so impressive.

Hugo :  Here's something I never get tired of talking about.  Doc combines fantastic stuff with a tireless work ethic, borderline monomaniacal intensity, and an uncharacteristic intelligence for the game.  Even among the best pitchers in the league, it's rare to find all four of those things together in a pitcher who is still very much in his prime, and that's what makes Halladay so tough to beat.  Few pitchers can combine the kind of movement that Doc has on all his pitches with his pinpoint control and command.  Whatever happens with Doc's future, it has been, and continues to be, such a privilege to watch him pitch every five days.   

As for whether he will pitch on short rest, I don't want to let Rangers fans off the hook, so I'll just say, hey, he only needed 97 pitches to go the full nine innings against the Royals on Sunday, so......

DMN:  Give us a quick scouting report on the rest of the Blue Jays rotation, since Rangers fans will see all four of them this week.

Hugo:   Sure.  Monday's starter, Casey Janssen , showed flashes as a starter back in 2006 before he turned into a mainstay in Toronto's bullpen in 2007.  Unfortunately for the former UCLA pitcher, Janssen missed all of 2008 with a torn labrum and that's a heck of a tough injury from which to return.  Janssen has made three starts as a Jay this season and did pretty well in the first two of them before really struggling in his last outing against the Angels .  He won't strike out many but uses a number of pitches and good command to induce lots of ground balls without walking many hitters.  He doesn't have a real out pitch and so you will sometimes see him get ahead of hitters but then struggle to put them away. 

Tuesday's pitcher is Brian Tallet and he is an interesting one.  A low-cost pickup for the Jays several years ago, he has filled mop-up, long reliever, and situational lefty roles in the Jays bullpen before being promoted to the starting rotation out of necessity in 2009.  Tallet has done a very nice job so far as a starter.  He's basically a three-pitch pitcher who doesn't overpower anyone but he has pretty good movement and changes speeds pretty well. We in the Jays' community are divided as to how long he can keep up his effectiveness, but it didn't shock me to see him emerge as a quality starting option. 

On Wednesday, the Rangers will see former first-round draft pick Ricky Romero .  Romero was slow to move through the Jays system due to some injury problems, but he made the rotation out of the spring in 2009 and looked great through his first three starts before a sneeze-related injury sidelined him for a while.  The East L.A. kid made good didn't look as sharp upon his initial return from the disabled list, but his most recent start was a very good one.  I would describe Romero as intelligent and poised on the mound.  He has a good fastball, particularly for a lefthander, and compliments it with a plus changeup and quality breaking pitches as well.  He has had some trouble with the home run this season and that's what he has to watch out for at the moment.   

Finally, on Thursday, your readers will see Scott Richmond pitch.  A fascinating case, after graduating high school, Richmond worked on the docks of his native Vancouver for 3 years before attending Oklahoma State University.  When he still went undrafted, Richmond pitched for three more seasons for the Edmonton Cracker Cats of the Independent Northern League before the Jays took a chance on him last season.  Now a 29-year old rookie, Richmond has a decent fastball and a pretty good slider, but I wouldn't characterize his stuff as extraordinary.  That said, he has done a pretty good job for the Jays this season, showing a decent ability to miss opposing bats and to limit self-inflicted damage.  His most recent start was a rough one, so Richmond will be looking to bounce back.  A righthanded pitcher, Richmond really struggles against lefty hitting and so his success is often determined by how well he can limit the damage done by the portsiders.