TORONTO, CANADA - APRIL 17: Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays celebrate Jose Bautista two run homer during MLB action against the Tampa Bay Rays at the Rogers Centre April 17, 2012 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
The Mets head north of the border to open a three-game interleague set with the Toronto Blue Jays and that means that it's time for Amazin' Avenue's Five For Five series preview. The Jays currently sit in third place in the competitive AL East with a 21-18 record. They're four games behind the division leading Orioles. I spoke with Tom Dakers, manager of SB Nation's Blue Jays blog Bluebird Banter and here is what he had to say about the state of the Jays:
SS: What would you say has been the biggest success for the team so far this season and conversely, what has been the biggest disappointment? Any early season surprises?
TD: Biggest success would be our infield defense. Brett Lawrie (who, unfortunately you won't get to see) has been nothing short of amazing with the glove at third. We were told he would have an iron glove, but, if he continues like he has been, there should be a Gold Glove in his future. Kelly Johnson, at second, and Yunel Escobar, at short, have been great as well. We lead the league in double plays turned. We'll make some errors, but we'll get to any ball possible. Now Yan Gomes, who is taking Lawrie's spot at third, won't be impressing with the glove. He's only played 10 games at third, in his minor league career, all coming this year. He's always been a catcher/first baseman.
Biggest disappointment? Well, Adam Lind's play has earned him a trip to Vegas, so that's one. Our bullpen has blown too many saves, but, in the last couple of weeks, they seem to have righted the ship. Casey Janssen now has the closer role and he has converted his 3 opportunities, without allowing a base runner (something that we weren't sure Jay closers were allowed to do). Colby Rasmus has a low batting average (.203), but has been hitting line drives at a good rate (21.8%, best of his career) so we can hope he is just having bad luck and that things will turn around for him.
SS: Jose Bautista went on an all out assault of the American League in the first half of 2011, hitting .334/.468/.702 with 31 home runs but the second half of the season saw him fall to .257/.419/.477. Now a month and a half into 2012, Bautista sits at just .199/.325/.419. What has changed for Bautista over the past few months and do you think he has a chance to get back to mashing the way he did a year ago?
TD: Jose has hit 3 home runs and has a .273/.360/.636 line over the last week, so I think we can say he is back to mashing. He has always been a streak hitter. Timing is so important for him. He has started slow in the past. I think he'll fine. He is on pace for 42 home runs this year. Anyone that has been in a season long slump but is still on a pace to hit 40+ home runs is pretty good. He is as intense as any player you'll ever see.
SS: Edwin Encarnacion has been excellent early on for the Jays at the plate. Encarnacion was always sort of raw back when he was with the Reds and his plate discipline numbers don’t look all that much different from years past, while his HR/FB rate is an inflated 19.7%. What has he done to get off to such a hot start and do you think this is at all sustainable?
TD: Edwin turned it on the second half of last season, hitting .291/.382/.504. He is another streak hitting, when he is on, he is as good as anyone in baseball. Last year, the Jays messed him up at the start of the season. He was told, going into spring training, that he was going to be the full time DH, filling in at first occasionally. Then, at the end of spring training, they told him 'you are our third baseman. If there is any player that needs a full spring training to get ready to play third, it is Edwin. Not surprisingly he made a number of errors in his first couple of weeks. HE took the defensive play to the plate with him and had a very slow start. Many were figuring he would be released, but, when they finally moved him back to DH, he started hitting.
With Lind back in the minors, EE will be playing first for this the foreseeable future. He's not the smoothest first baseman you will ever see, but he isn't the error machine he was a the other side of the diamond. Another nice thing about Edwin is that he is showing more of his personality, this year, he is smiling, he has been dancing in the dugout, he's having fun, finally.
SS: Adam Lind put up an impressive season in 2009 and looked primed to develop into a nice, young power hitter but the last three years have seen his contact abilities erode and the Jays optioned him to AAA on Thursday. Do you think there’s any shot he can rediscover that 2009 magic?
TD: Any shot? Yes. Realistically, no, he's not going to be that player again. Lind has been in the majors for good parts of the past 6 seasons (counting this one) and he has put up OPS's of .678, .755, .932, .712, .732 and, this year, .586. Any child who grew up with Sesame Street knows which of those numbers just doesn't belong here. The great season was the outlier, so I don't expect to see it again. It is too bad, Adam has the prettiest swing you could ever want to see, and he has learned to play a pretty good first base. But the Jays are going to have to figure out another answer at the position.
SS: Give us your best scouting report of this weekend’s Blue Jays starters.
TD: Today we have our Ace, Ricky Romero. A lefty, his best pitch is a changeup that RHB have great trouble with, he has reverse splits to go with a fastball that can get to the mid 90's. When he is on, he rarely walks anyone. The last few starts, he hasn't been on, he has walked 11 in his last two games. I don't expect that to continue. He normally is very focused, I'm not sure why the blimp the last couple of starts.
Tomorrow Brandon Morrow. Brandon is my favorite pitcher on the staff. Any start can be special. He's been very Jekyll and Hyde like over the last couple of years but has started this season off much better, he has a 2.22 ERA in 8 starts. The difference this year? He is getting some ground balls. Last year he had 1 double play turned behind him, and that was in the last start of the season, this year he's already had 5. Last year his ground ball percentage was 36%, this year 44.4%. He wasn't getting as many strikeouts, in his first few starts, but has turned that around the last few starts. The fastball is always going to be his strength but he was been sinking it more this year.
Henderson Alvarez starts the last game of the series. Henderson, well he is the subject of a lot of debate on our site. Some of us, think that a pitcher can't possibly have sustained success with a strikeout rate of 2.5/9, but then, at least to this point of his young career, he has been having success. He gets soft ground balls by the dozen and, with our infield, that's a good thing. He has a .230 BABIP against, I don't know that that is sustainable, but if he continues to keep the ball on the ground, all should stay good. He is really a 2 pitch pitcher, with a sinking fastball and a slider. He's trying to mix in a change but it is a work in progress. Peter Gammons tweeted that Alvarez would have more wins than Yu Darvish, in five years time. I'd like Peter to be right but I very much doubt it. If he can come up with a pitch that gets him occasional strikeouts, he'll be good. If he can't, I think his low strikeout rate will catch up to him sooner or later.
Big thanks once again to Tom Dakers of Bluebird Banter for answering our questions! Tonight's game in Toronto starts at 7:07 PM and it'll feature Jon Niese on the hill up against Ricky Romero. You can catch all of the action on SNY and WFAN 660.