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Bluebird Banter Answers the Dallas Morning News' Questions

Hi everyone.  So, Richard Durrett of the Dallas Morning News sent me some questions in anticipation of the Jays' 4-game, 3-day series with the Rangers and, given the team's recent play, I gritted my teeth and answered them:

DMN:  The Rangers last saw the Blue Jays in June. Give us an update on the club since then. 

Hugo:  Do I have to?  Things haven't been pretty for the Jays since June.  July saw the pitching stay strong but the hitting falter, and August saw some better hitting but very poor pitching, with even ace Roy Halladay struggling.  The team's situational hitting has been very poor and its record in one-run games has been a disaster. 
In terms of personnel, Roy Halladay is still a Jay, as the world saw with the drama that played out around the trade deadline.  B.J. Ryan and Alex Rios, however, are not.  The Jays ate Ryan's salary as a sunk cost but the Chicago White Sox opted to assume the six years remaining on Rios' salary.  The Jays also traded Scott Rolen to the Cincinnati Reds for Edwin Encarnacion (who is presently nursing an injured hamstring) and two young pitchers, Zach Stewart and Josh Roenicke.  Losing Rios and Rolen has hurt the Jays' defense, which in turn has hurt the Jays' pitching. 
About the only bright spot since June has been the return of Travis Snider over the past two weeks.  He hasn't lit up the league, but is hitting much better than he did in April before being returned to the minors. 
DMN:  Roy Halladay has not been as dominant since the trade deadline as he has the rest of the season. Is any of that hangover from not getting traded or is he just in a mini-slump based on the opponents he’s faced and that he was due for some minor bump in the road?
Hugo:  Halladay isn't the type to let not getting traded affect his mental or physical preparation for games or his in-game focus, so I think it's just one of those things.  He's been facing very good AL East offensive teams that have seen a ridiculous amount of Doc over the past many years, and every so often, teams like that are going to figure him out a little bit.  Doc's walk and strikeou numbers have been as good as ever, so some of it is undoubtedly bad luck.  It's actually refreshing in a way to be reminded that even Halladay is only human.  That said, when Doc isn't himself and the Jays are struggling, it can be doubly painful because the team really depends on Doc to be the stopper. 
DMN:  Who has been the biggest surprise of the season for Toronto? The biggest disappointment?
Hugo:  Designated hitter/left fielder Adam Lind and second baseman Aaron Hill have been fantastic stories. Both are young home-grown players that have shown potential in the past but really took it to the next level this season.  But for me the biggest surprises have been shortstop Marco Scutaro and young lefthanded pitcher Ricky Romero.  In Scutaro's case, I just can't remember a player his age undergoing such a drastic change in his game.  He's been a fantastic leadoff hitter who has been impossible to keep off the bases, and played a splendid defensive shorstop as well.  As for Romero, he had been the butt of a joke at General Manager J.P. Ricciardi's expense for so long people forgot that he was a first-round pick for a reason.  Recently he's been struggling with his command, but unlike some of the other young Jays' pitchers, he won't need to be shut down to preserve his arm, so he should have a chance to turn it around in September. 
As for the biggest disappointment, it's clearly Vernon Wells.  Wells spent about a third of last season hurt, but he performed very well when he was in the lineup, at least at the plate.  This season, though has been a disaster with poor play on both sides of the ball.  He just hasn't been able to get going at all at the plate, and his defense has fallen off considerably from where it was.  The fans have turned on him as well and home games can't be fun for Wells right now.   I feel bad for him as his salary really shouldn't be held against him and he is clearly giving it his all, but the bottom line is that he has been one of the poorer everyday players in the league this season and a mid-market team like the Jays can't afford to carry a player like that, let alone at such an astronomical salary. 
DMN:  How has the bullpen performed the last month or so? What can Rangers fans expect in the late innings of close games?

Hugo:  August hasn't been a good month for the bullpen.  Scott Downs returned from the re-aggravation of a toe injury that had sidelined him earlier this season, but he hasn't gotten much work in since then and has been shaky when he has pitched.  After a splendid July, Brandon League has had an ugly August and has generally been a bit of a mystery all season - he has more strikeouts than innings pitched and very few walks, numbers that should suggest dominance, especially considering his hard sinker known for inducing groundballs.  Yet his ERA (presently 5.31) hasn't reflected that at all.  Lefthanded batters have been the main culprit.  Lefty Jesse Carlson and righty Jason Frasor have been the best relief pitchers recently, and I'd look for them late in close games at the moment. 

DMN:  Who are a few players to watch in this series?

Hugo:  Travis Snider is the one to watch at the moment, at least from the Jays' fans perspective.  The young slugger has struggled to make contact since being returned to the big club (he has struck out in over a third of his 46 plate appearances) but that has come from working the count more (8 walks in 12 games) as well as from his struggles to make contact so it's not all bad.  Snider is only hitting .198 since returning, but he has gotten on base at a .348 clip and hit three home runs.  The bottom line is that it's only been 12 games and he is still very much a work in progress, but one worth watching.  Adam Lind is making a bid at a 30-home run season (he's got 25 right now), which would be a lovely milestone for the young hitter, while Hill has already reached that (he hit no. 31 on Friday). 

DMN:  Can you give us a scouting report on the starters the Rangers will face in this 4-game series packed into 3 days?

Hugo:  Sure.  Brett Cecil will pitch in tonight's game and it could well be his last start as he has about maxed out his innings between the majors and the minors this season.  Cecil, like the Jays, was on his way to a very nice rookie season and had a spectacular July but August has not been kind.  The young Marylander has really struggled with his command and has given up 2 home runs in each of his last two starts to boot.  Cecil, a lefthander, has a good sinking fastball that he uses to induce groundballs, a very good slider, and a changeup and curve that have eluded him at times this season. 

In Tuesday's doubleheader, Brian Tallet will start the first game.  Tallet, essentially a career reliever prior to this season, stepped into the Jays' rotation early this season when it was decimated by injuries and did a credible job.  This will be his first start since being returned to the bullpen in late July.  Tallet is not a hard-thrower and relies on movement on his pitches and a good changeup. 
Marc Rzepczynski (that's "Zep-Chin-Ski") will start the other game on Tuesday.  Zep (as his teammates called him) is, like Cecil, a 2007 draftee and his emergence this season has been a nice surprise for the Jays.  He's been quite good in his 10 starts, showing excellent movement on his pitches and good strikeout and groundball numbers.  Like Cecil, he leans heavily on his fastball-slider combo and will occasionally struggle with his control. 
Scott Richmond will pitch on Wednesday.  Richmond is a great story as a 29-year old rookie who was pitching for the Edmonton Cracker Cats of the Independed League just a couple of seasons ago.  Richmond started off the season fantastically but, like the Jays, has fallen on hard times recently.  He was out for a few weeks with some inflammation in his throwing arm and hasn't been the same since returning.  Richmond has shown a solid ability to miss bats (97 Ks in 106 IP) and limit walks, but he can occasionally get hit hard.  He uses the traditional four pitches and is most effective when he is mixing them all in. 
DMN:  How do Blue Jays fans feel about the Rangers? Do they expect the team to make this wild card race interesting in the final month of the season?

Hugo:  I hope they do.  It's always fun to see a good wild-card race.  Though I suppose there is some vested interest among Jays' fans in the wild card winner coming from the AL East, since Jays fans like to complain about how difficult the division is, a complaint that has a lot of truth. 

DMN: Anything else Rangers fans should know about the Blue Jays?
Hugo:  The past two months have really taken its toll on the psyche of the team's fans.  Even after the Jays' hot start, fans expected the second half to be tough with so many games against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays, but things have been even rougher than anticipated with the team essentially winning 1/3 of their games for the past two months.  The Jays have been bad over that period, but they haven't been nearly this bad either.