It’s been an exciting first week of baseball for the Blue Jays. They had a swell opening road trip in which they took 2 of 3 from both the Yankees and the Orioles while ruining their opening days in the process. They then returned home to be shut down offensively for 3 of 4 games against the Rays. In the other, they scored 12 runs on the power of 3 long balls. However, this season started with far more than just some wins, losses, and the usual excitement associated with winter finally giving way to the boys of summer. There has also been a huge number of interesting story lines that have captivated the Jays fan base. New big name acquisitions including Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson made their Toronto debuts, we saw Martin catch the knuckleball for the first time (he managed to avoid an Arencibiaesque nightmare), and most of all we saw the kids as they traded Buffalo and Dunedin for the bright lights of Yankees Stadium, Camden Yards, and the Rogers Centre. This, for me, was the easily the best part of watching these last 10 games. It’s been great to see the quality of the contributions from some of the younger players and to watch how good they’ve looked in all aspects of the game. So let’s review the week that was for the rookie Toronto Blue Jays.
Maybe the biggest surprise amongst position players has been the unexpectedly great talent displayed by Devon Travis. Travis was acquired in the offseason from the Tigers for Anthony Gose. He was the top prospect in Detroit’s rather barren farm system. He had mixed reviews from scouts at the time including Keith Law who said “[Travis] had a great year but……. he’s old for where he played, and he’s an undersized guy without tools. Not a prospect for me, nor for any of the scouts I talked to who’d seen him.” But AA saw something in him and it looks as though he may have been right to. After going 0 for 12 to begin spring training, Travis lit it up and won the second base job (though with Izturis injured, his competition was non-existent). What has he done so far in 10 Major League games? Well, he’s managed to slash .371/.421/.657 and he’s even tied with Bautista, Encarnacion, and Pompey for the team lead in long balls. Hell, his first hit was a homerun at Yankees Stadium. I mean… seriously, who does that? Defensively, he’s dispelled the criticism leveled at him by most scouts and has shown the ability to turn double plays at lightning speed. It’s funny, watching the games so far this year has been so much nicer than in years past. I couldn’t figure out why at first but it recently donned on me that for the first time in 6 years, the sight of a Blue Jays second baseman coming up to bat isn’t causing me physical and psychological distress. So thank you for that Mr. Travis.
He might not be hitting triples like he did in September, then again who could with that giant green sponge preventing anything from splitting the gaps (#turfgate anyone?), but the Blue Jays centre fielder is going a long way to showing us why so much confidence was placed in a kid who began 2014 in A ball. His numbers haven’t been ideal so far as he’s slashing just .158/.220/.368, but he has 2 homeruns and 5 RBIs, not to mention the defensive upside he’s shown. Also, he’s been having good at-bats and he’s been putting in extra work with Blue Jays hitting Coach Brook Jacoby. Plus he’s a local boy…so there’s that.
Ya he’ll be just fine.
We can all relate to spending the offseason wading through piles of stories about Daniel Norris’ “unique” way of life including his fondness for living in an old Volkswagen van in Walmart parking lots. They were cool at first but it’s been nice to see the focus shift to that other cool thing that he does: pitch. In his first start of the season, he gave up 3ER over 5.2 innings against the Yankees and fan favourite Alex “I Made Some Mistakes” Rodriguez. Norris pitched confidently, often using off speed pitches while behind in counts and racking up 5 strikeouts before hitting a wall in the sixth and giving up 2 solo shots, one of which to the aforementioned Yankees slugger. It was not spectacular but he hung in there and earned his first career W. Then, against the light hitting Rays, he allowed 2ER in five innings. He admitted later that he had to battle as he didn’t have his stuff working for him. The Jays lost that game because the Rays, as they always seem to do, brought up some nobody to start for them and watched as he shut down the Blue Jays bats. The next step for Norris will be making it a couple innings deeper into ballgames. So let’s all give the van stories a break, at least for a while.
In his two starts so far, Aaron Sanchez has shown the ability to improve. His first start did not go well. However, it was only one start and there was no reason for fans to give up on him and start losing their sanity on call in shows or in comment threads. It was Sanchez’ first career start and it was against a very good offense in Baltimore. He didn’t have command of his fastball which meant that locating his off speed pitches (what everyone was worried about going in) didn’t end up mattering a whole lot. Also, his velocity was down. However, in his next start against Tampa, he showed flashes of brilliance with his fastball sometimes getting up to a controlled 97 mph in 5.1 solid innings. We saw in the spring and last summer that fastball command is something that Sanchez can be dominant with and it will take far more than 2 starts to see what kind of pitcher he will be for the Jays over the next 6 months.
I’ll just say it. Wow. This guy has answered the prayers of the Blue Jays front office. They needed a flame throwing righty to handle some late innings in tight ball games and in came Castro, an unlikely hero who can blow batters away at 98 mph while costing the jays 1/26th of what Papelbon would have. This type of reliever has been shown to be a huge factor in team success over the past few years. If you don’t believe me, google “Kansas City Royals.” Castro has yet to allow an earned run, while giving up just 3 hits and two walks in 5.1 high leverage innings. He sort of took the closer’s job from Brett “Goggles” Cecil after just two games. By sort of, I mean that he has handled the big save opportunities, where he has gone 2 for 2, but Gibbons has also used him in a more versatile and what I would call a more intelligent manner. Rather than always keeping him for the ninth, Gibbons has used him earlier sometimes if the situation/batting order has called for it. Nobody wants to see their best reliever sitting in the pen in a sweater and watching as an inferior pitcher blows the game, simply because it is not “time yet” for the “closer”. This is one example of defying standard managerial convention that many have been waiting a long, long time for and I hope Gibbons continues thinking in this way. It’s too early to anoint Castro as a God or King just yet, but so far he’s let everyone breathe much easier about the bullpen.
He’s Castro’s partner in crime and fellow teammate who, at 20 years old, also can’t order a beer on the road. Weird right? Osuna is a highly talked about prospect who is still rebuilding arm strength after being set back with Tommy John surgery. Nobody really saw him as a guy who could break camp with the team, yet he did and he hasn’t disappointed since debuting in the Bronx. His numbers mirror Castro’s. He has allowed no runs over 5 innings and he’s only allowed 3 baserunners over that span. His debut was a sight to behold. Close your eyes and imagine the least stressful in-game situation at which to debut as a relief pitcher. Osuna’s first appearance occurred in an environment completely opposite to whatever you just imagined. The Jays were down by one run in the eighth on a cold, rainy night at Yankees stadium with the bases juiced and who else but
A-Roid, sorry, A-Rod coming up to the plate. This all occurring right after the experienced late inning relievers, Cecil and Loup, blew a lead. Osuna responded to this challenge with a strikeout of A-Rod, and then he popped up Stephen Drew to end the inning. That’s composure if I’ve ever seen it.
Now there’s one more player that has to be mentioned. Although he’s not a rookie, it’d be a travesty not to acknowledge the amazingness and ridiculousness of what Kevin Pillar has done so far this season. Let’s just say that there have been few Jays fans crying themselves to sleep over the absence of Michael Saunders. Pillar has slashed .282/.282/.436 so far with a home run. His discipline has been much improved as he is no longer striking himself out on pitches in the left-handed batter’s box and is instead making consistently hard contact. However, his glove is what he’s being applauded for the most. He has already made about half a dozen beautiful plays including one of the best catches in Blue Jays history in game 3 of the series against the Rays. He supermanned up the 10 foot tall left field wall at Roger’s center to take a home run away from Tim Beckham. Enjoy.
And I thought that superheroes were fictional…
The rookies have not been perfect but they’ve been pretty good and in a city that doesn’t provide sports fans with much to be excited about, these kids are doing just that.