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December 1, 1997

One Man's Take on the Blue Jays

by Daniel Rotenberg

This week, we're joined by Daniel Rotenberg, who contribued this piece on the Toronto Blue Jays. We hope you enjoy it. Our thanks to Daniel for his work.

Introduction


In 1997, the Toronto Blue Jays were last in the AL in runs, walks, batting average, and on-base percentage. They were below average or far below average offensively at every position, with the clear exception of Carlos Delgado, their best offensive player. Their best defensive player was probably Alex Gonzalez, and he was not Gold Glove material at short. Led by the incredible Roger Clemens, pitching was clearly the team's strength (third in ERA in the AL).

Despite another losing season, the good news is that the Jays have a core of young, talented regulars in Delgado, Jose Cruz, and Shannon Stewart (and to a lesser extent, Shawn Green and Gonzalez). The last two Cy Young winners will start ~40% of the Jays games in '98. Whether the team will contend soon depends on General Manager Gord Ash's moves this winter and whether their touted prospects develop into stars. Specifically, the Jays need a second baseman, a catcher, and DH or firstbaseman (wherever Delgado isn't), Green and Gonzalez must improve substantially, Juan Guzman and/or Erik Hanson must return to health, Tom Evans must replace Ed Sprague, and Cruz, Stewart, and Kelvim Escobar must play as well as they did in their first months.

Let The Bad Times Roll

The Blue Jays are in unfamiliar territory. After eleven years of winning records, they have had four consecutive losing seasons. Losing is not the unfamiliar part; they did that during their first six years. Now, for the first time in Blue Jays history, the management talked about fielding a contender, and failed to do so.

The Blue Jays are currently building what amounts to only their third team in their 21-year history. After the championship years, the 1994 team was floundering under the .500 mark when that season came to an early end. This third team began to take shape in 1995. Devon White, Robby Alomar and Paul Molitor were in the last year of their contracts and were not expected to be re-signed. Green, Gonzalez, and Delgado were the heralded rookies. Pat Hentgen, Mike Timlin, Randy Knorr, Derek Bell and Ed Sprague were expected to take over leading roles. Three years later, the fans are still waiting for a competitive team. What has gone wrong?

The Jays' downfall can be easily traced. There are three basic elements to a team: ownership, management, and players. The Jays have simultaneously suffered blows in all three. First, new owners cut the payroll and put the team on the market. After the 1996 season, the payroll was returned to its previous, higher levels, and the team was finally taken off the market in late 1997. It now appears that the franchise can count on a stable ownership situation once again. Second and most important by far, Pat Gillick "retired," Gord Ash took over, and Cito Gaston remained the manager. Third, the free agent losses were not replaced as the prospects have not developed as expected.

It is my opinion that Ash and Gaston are the biggest reasons for the Jays' downfall. (However, if the kids do not develop into solid major leaguers soon, Gaston may get off the hook.) When White, Alomar, and Molitor left as free agents after 1995, Ash had to rebuild. He apparently forgot to inform Gaston, who kept playing the veterans instead of their prospects. Let us call this Major Mistake #1. Ash then decided that one year of so-called rebuilding was sufficient, and he brought in even more veterans with the stated intent of contending immediately. These are Major Mistakes #2 and #3: one year was not enough, and Ash continued to add second-rate players.

Manager Cito Gaston

Going back one year, the Blue Jays had entered the 1996 season hoping that a number of young position players would be able to establish themselves by summer's end: Delgado, Green, Gonzalez, Stewart, Tomas and Robert Perez, and Sandy Martinez. Thanks to Cito Gaston's unwillingness to play young players, Jacob Brumfield, Charlie O'Brien, Otis Nixon, and even Joe Carter got more playing time than they should have, at the expense of the kids. By the end of 1996, only Delgado and Green had proved that they could hit at a major league level - and they were still being platooned - and Gonzalez was the only regular. Slowed by an injury, Stewart was kept in the minors, while Martinez showed that he could not hit. But when Robert Perez hit well right from the start (.320 in all), Gaston still kept him on the bench, mostly in favor of the older Brumfield. Why? Why not let Perez show whether he was a major league hitter? No harm would have resulted to what was clearly not a contending team. Although Perez has since proven that he is not much of a hitter, he was one blatant example of Gaston's unwillingness to give unproven players a chance to play.

Gaston has been labelled a player's manager. He treated veteran players like men, he was laid back, and generally let his players be. Gaston, the person, was described in highly positive terms: a classy soft-spoken gentleman who treated others fairly and considerately. Gaston seems to be a decent and likable fellow, but how relevant is that? Besides, he was apparently so soft-spoken that communication became a problem. In addition, the Jays apparently dumped David Wells, Bell, and Knorr simply because Gaston did not personally like them, and got little in return.

Gaston was highly criticized in Toronto throughout his nine-year tenure despite his successes (four AL East pennants, two World Series wins). This was mostly due to his managerial style of doing practically nothing at all. Under Gaston, the Jays rarely bunted, pinch-hit, or pinch ran. They did not hit and run, platoon, or use the squeeze play. Gaston rarely showed emotion and never gave speeches. He kept his veterans in the line-up, taking them out only after amputation or retirement, whichever came first. The biggest complaint was that he has a slow hook with his starting pitchers. One word best characterizes his managerial style: loyalty. All the above can be seen as offshoots of his loyalty; let the regulars swing away and let your starter get out of his own jams. As is often the case, one's greatest strength becomes the cause of one's downfall.

Gaston's style worked well in 1992 when his pitchers were Jack Morris, David Cone, Juan Guzman, Jimmy Key, David Wells, Todd Stottlemyre, Duane Ward and Tom Henke. It worked well for the 1993 line-up which featured five all-stars, Rickey Henderson, and Tony Fernandez. There is a lot to be said for being loyal and showing confidence in your players, and also in not investing outs in one-run strategies. It may be better to "under-manage" than "over-manage". But Gaston never adjusted his style even though the team changed drastically. Loyalty is not a positive attribute when your loyalties are to mediocre veterans. Perhaps Gaston's biggest weakness was a direct result of his loyalty to veterans: his unwillingness to give young players a fair chance. From 1989-1995, he made regulars out of only a few young players: Olerud, Sprague, and arguably Junior Felix. A bad farm system is partly to blame, but Cito's habitual reluctance to entrust younger players with larger roles was a major problem. For example:
  • Green & Gonzalez
    During the first half of 1997 Gonzalez was the only youngster playing every day. His defense was fine, but he has yet to hit. Shawn Green has also struggled both offensively and defensively. Green has a strong and accurate arm, but frequently appeared tentative in the outfield, and he's made some ugly mistakes. Gaston's reaction to Green's lapses was to bench him. It took Gaston two and a half years to let Green, an I.L. batting champion and the AAA team MVP, play. It was only after the failure of The Sierra Experiment and Orlando Merced's injury that Green finally got the job full-time.

  • Carlos Delgado
    It is simply inexcusable that it took Gaston over three years to let Delgado hit every day in the major leagues. As a rookie, he had hit eight homers in April 1994 before slumping, benching, and dumping.

  • Stewart & Nixon
    Shannon Stewart should have been playing regularly by late 1996 instead of Otis Nixon, but only got the chance when Nixon got traded in August 1997. This is not a criticism of Nixon. Nixon should be admired for playing almost as well as ever at age 38. Nixon is still extremely fast, and he was stealing bases at a truly remarkable clip for a man his age. In fact, his on-base percentage might have made him one of the more potent Jays - though that's faint praise. On the other hand, he has NO power, NO arm, and his range has declined steeply in recent years. Ironically, the major question about Stewart is his arm. It simply did not make sense to continue playing Nixon on a non-contender when he was blocking the way of a highly touted prospect fifteen years younger than he. After the Jays donated Nixon to the Dodgers, Stewart finally got his chance and played even better than could have been hoped for: reaching base, hitting doubles and triples, and playing a solid center field. Stewart may not wind up being as great a player as Brett Butler, but he very well could be.

  • Joe Carter
    Joe Carter let it be known that he did not want to DH more than once a week, despite the fact that he's clearly lost a step and had gone from adequate to inadequate as an outfielder. Gaston would fill out his line-up, leaving the positions for Green and Carter blank. He then would let Carter decide who would play the field and who would DH. Gaston's loyalty had become preferential treatment, and it hurt Green's development defensively, and it hurt the team. He would sometimes put Carter at first and let Delgado DH. Delgado, a catcher in the minors, needed the innings at first base, and Carter was even worse at first base than in the outfield.

  • Third Base
    After a decent start, Sprague was awful. Rumors that Sprague was playing hurt throughout the summer were confirmed when he finally went on the DL with a bad shoulder. Why did Gaston continually put Sprague's name in the line-up even though Sprague was hurting the team? Loyalty of course. Even if Gaston did not know the extent of the injury, Sprague's play merited time on the bench. But benching a veteran was simply unimaginable to Gaston. In Sprague's absence, prospect Tom Evans played well. When Evans went down, Felipe Crespo hit well. When Crespo went down, Juan Samuel hit well. It was eerie that all three third basemen suffered the same otherwise rare shoulder injury. There is a rumor that if the Jays release Carter, Sprague may become the DH. Although the idea of Sprague DHing is laughable, three positive things would result: Evans will get to play, Sprague won't be at third, and Carter won't be a Jay.
General Manager Gord Ash

Who is Gord Ash? Ash is an accountant who joined the Jays in their expansion year. He worked his way up until he was the Assistant GM to Pat Gillick. His main task was contract negotiations. Before his short-lived retirement, Gillick had chosen Ash as his successor. Ash's track record is at best mixed, at worst awful. In his first year as GM, he re-signed Guzman to a one-year deal (which made no sense - see Baseball Prospectus 1996), gave Sprague a big contract (ditto) and added Hanson, Cairo, Risley, Nixon, Samuel, Brumfield and O'Brien. In other words, nothing much positive happened. Let's examine his recent moves more closely.
  • Olerud or Carter?
    With Delgado, Carter and Olerud basically occupying two positions, Ash chose to trade Olerud instead of Carter, obtaining Robert Person from the Mets. Publicly, the excuse was Olerud's salary and effectiveness, but that was ridiculous. The Jays still paid for most of Olerud's salary and they then spent tons of money on other (worse) players. I suspect that he was traded for four reasons. First, he had failed to fulfill the team's lofty expectations, which were based on his 1993 season. This reminds me of how "disappointing" Darryl Strawberry was when he would only hit 39 home runs. The second reason was Olerud's habit of taking third strikes, especially with men on base. Many of those were borderline strikes, i.e. balls, but Olerud would not "protect the plate", instead trusting his strike zone judgment. Compounding the problem was that Olerud would never have a bad word for the umpire. His quiet nature was interpreted as indifference or as a lack of competitiveness. The theory in Toronto was that having escaped death, Olerud had put the game of baseball in proper perspective, understanding what is truly important in life. In short, reason #3 was that the team was fed up with his emotionless methodical approach. Fourth, Carter was far more popular with Gaston. The fact that Olerud was offensively and defensively solid and considerably better and younger than Carter was conveniently overlooked. The punch line is that Olerud played better in 1997 than any Blue Jay regular.

  • Benito and the Pirates
    After the dismal 1996 season, Ash correctly saw that the Blue Jays had weaknesses at catcher, second base, in the outfield, and in the bullpen. He set out logically to rectify those problems by trading six prospects for 2B Carlos Garcia, RF Orlando Merced, and LHP Dan Plesac. He then gave a three-year deal to C Benito Santiago. In short, Ash chose the wrong guys to solve any of these problems. Santiago was a 31 year catcher, who has bounced around from team to team, and who was not being pursued by his former team despite coming off a "good" year. Of the four, only Plesac contributed, and even that acquisition was of dubious value. Is it so hard to find and sign the likes of a Plesac, an Assenmacher, or a Vosberg, that you must trade prospects for them? Garcia and Santiago were both awful, offensively and defensively. In the second half, Santiago uprighted himself, playing better defense, and hitting as could have been reasonably expected (ie, still rather anemic). Garcia was finally benched after getting hurt, with Tomas Perez and then Mariano Duncan were used. Not surprisingly, neither man solved the problem, though Perez's defense looks good. Merced played decently - as he always has - but failed to do anything to bring the team back to contending level. If Merced is your best outfielder, as he was in the first half of 1997, you've got a bad team. All he really did was take away at-bats from Green and Delgado.

    While no one anticipated that Benito and the Pirates would turn out quite as badly as they did, one wonders how Ash could have expected the hitters to help his offense. What was particularly insulting to the intelligence of Toronto fans were the claims by Gaston and Ash throughout April and May that these career National League players needed time to adjust to the American League. "Look at Grissom" - who was fighting an injury - they said. At the time, two other career National League players, David Justice and Matt Williams, were batting over .340. Obviously, adjusting must come quicker to those who can actually hit.

  • Cruz-zing with Clemens
    A Gord Ash supporter would argue that he identified and signed the best pitcher available in Clemens, and then stole Jose Cruz from the Mariners for Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric. True, but... Many other teams shared his opinion that Clemens was still a great pitcher; otherwise they would not have offered Clemens the millions of dollars that they did. Ash was simply able to outbid them while Paul Beeston out-charmed them. Ash admits that he did not expect Clemens to pitch as well as he did. So do we credit a) Ash, b) Beeston, or c) Clemens?

    While the Cruz trade was lopsided in favor of the Jays, it seems that the only people in the whole baseball world who felt otherwise were working for the Mariners. The Mariners obviously needed relief pitching and felt that they could afford to sacrifice offense. Spoljaric had been effective with the Jays, while Timlin, who lost his stopper role after the first game of the season (really!), might have turned it around under a manager who showed confidence in him. Cruz's defense is considered suspect so far, and he strikes out once a game. But that is no comfort to Mariner fans who immediately and strongly protested the trade. They realized that they had lost an exciting young player who could hit thirty homers a year for the next ten or fifteen years. So, while Ash certainly should get credit for his negotiation skills whereby he took advantage of a team panicking over its bullpen weakness, I view the trade as more of an example of the Mariners' bad judgment and panic than as a credit to Ash.

  • pitching
    The pitching (third in ERA in the AL) should be as good, if not better, in 1998. Although Clemens certainly won't repeat his Triple Crown, he and Hentgen should remain very good. Despite poor run support, Woody Williams pitched pretty well as the fifth starter who became the third starter when Guzman and Hanson were injured. If healthy - no sure thing - both will contribute more than in 1997. Robert Person did not pitch well, but has a fastball that will get him more chances. Perhaps the biggest key will be Chris Carpenter, who started terribly and finished strongly. Certain factors point to his continued development: success in the minors, a good fastball, the marked improvement during his short time up, his poise, and his work ethic. Even when he was getting hammered, one could see that he had good stuff. He could take a big step forward. In the minors, Roy Halladay is not considered ready yet. It is likely that one or two of these eight starters will be traded. It is equally likely that Ash will not get a fair return, if he follows the form of last winters' deal with the Pirates.

    In the bullpen, Kelvim Escobar is somewhat of a question mark, given that he only pitched 31 innings. But it's unanimous: 30 million Canadians would prefer to start the season with him as the closer than Mike Timlin. Paul Quantrill pitched well in a set-up role, about which I wonder: what took so long? The book on him since his Boston days was that he could throw strikes with four different pitches, but lacked an out pitch and a blazing fastball. The lack of heat meant he would not be considered seriously in the closer's role, and the lack of an out pitch translated into too many hits allowed, particularly of the home run variety. The book was consistently borne out by his record. What Quantrill does do is throw strikes. His stuff is just good enough to get through the order once, and it sure seemed obvious that he is best suited for middle relief. 1997 was his first chance in that role and he shone. Dan Plesac pitched well as the lefty set-up man, and will probably do so again. Tim Crabtree and Bill Risley were injured most of the year; whether they can contribute is questionable. Carlos Almanzar and Ken Robinson will also look for relief spots. Marty Janzen and Omar Daal pitched well in September, but were lost in the expansion draft (as well as OF Rich Butler). Daal's loss is no big deal, but Janzen still has the potential for a big up-side.

  • On-Base Percentage - Ash to Ashes
    The Jays' biggest problem was their inability to reach base. They were last in the majors in on-base percentage, and only the Expos were close. It is because of this glaring weakness that I am pessimistic about Ash and the Jays' short term future. It is my belief that Ash has no idea of the importance of on-base percentage. Look up the career on-base percentage (and the age) of the players he thought would lead the Jays to contention: Carter, Sprague, Gonzalez, Garcia, Santiago, O'Brien, Samuel, Brumfield, Duncan, Sierra... all of them are awful when it comes to getting on base. Ash was reportedly in trade discussions with the Expos - of all people - regarding Mike Lansing and Henry Rodriguez, and was looking at Darrin Fletcher. These are not bad players, but since none of them can get on base, they won't really help the Jays score many more runs, and they won't turn the Jays into contenders. This team will not contend until they drastically improve their ability to reach base. Only Delgado has proven any knowledge of the strike zone. Stewart did it for a month, and Green has shown signs of doing so also. Cruz and Gonzalez are young enough to improve.
1998

There is reason for optimism for the Jays. They ended the season with one of the youngest starting line-ups in the league. Regulars Cruz, Stewart, Green, Delgado and Gonzalez are all aged 25 or under. Gaston is gone. Tim Johnson, the new manager, will let the kids play, and that has got to help. Johnson is also expected to help the Jays with their clubhouse dissension and immature attitudes. Guzman and Hanson are expected back, and Escobar will not lose his stopper role after one game. Sprague and Santiago may not rebound to their 1996 levels, but both should easily be better than 1997. Gonzalez can only get better, and it will be hard to get less production out of second base and DH (unless they keep Carter). There should be some offensive improvement in seven spots, all nine if Ash gets a decent second baseman and DH. Unfortunately, the Jays will need substantial improvement to contend.

Despite these positive signs, there are simply too many question marks. Cruz, Green and Gonzalez need to improve, but will they? Will Guzman and / or Hanson come back and pitch well? Who will play at second? Is Escobar for real? Will they continue to play O'Brien, Carter and Sprague? In addition, with Gaston managing, the Jays only needed 10 position players. Ash must now provide 14. Will he be up to the task? Will Ash obtain players who can reach base?

Ash is remarkably and refreshingly forthright in his dealings with the media. And from the sounds of it, he is looking at 20-homer guys who don't get on base (like les trois Expos). Even with the expected loss (gain?) of Carter, the team has adequate power. Unfortunately Ash just doesn't seem to understand that you have to get to first base before you can score. He also seems to think that a player reaches his peak at age 31. As long as Ash is in charge, I remain pessimistic. He has shown little aptitude at player evaluation.

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