The Jays had a very good series against the Minnesota Twins to open the season, winning two games against the 2010 A.L. Central champs, and now they must face one of the teams favored by many to be a candidate to win the A.L. West in the Oakland A’s.
Joining me for the series preview is Joseph Lopez, Senior Editor over at FanSided’s great Oakland site, Swingin’ A’s. He will be handling everything from an Oakland perspective in the preview. Here’s everything you need to know:
Toronto Blue Jays
2010 Regular Season Record: 85-77, 4th in AL East (11.0 GB)
2011 Regular Season Record: 2-1, 2nd in AL East (1.5 GB)
2010 Regular Season Record: 81-81, 2nd in AL West (9.0 GB)
2011 Regular Season Record: 1-2, 3rd in the AL West (2.0 GB)
April 5: RHP Brandon McCarthy (0-0) vs. LHP Jo-Jo Reyes (0-0)
Reyes (Mat): Jo-Jo has gained the support of many people in the Jays organization this spring training, including the pitching staff and Alex Anthopoulos. If you ask me, he’s been given the premium chance to get a rotation spot this season if he can do well this one start versus the A’s, so they’re sure to see all that he has to offer. If he doesn’t do well, he’ll likely be headed to the pen, or could be traded/released since he has no options left.
That makes today’s game an important one to watch if you’re a Jays fan. The Jays gave themselves a great look at him this spring by giving him the most innings amongst Jays pitchers. He threw 23 innings, and only allowed 10 hits and 8 walks while striking out 18 and maintaining a 3.52 ERA. If he carries that strong performance into his first start, the Jays should be willing to give him a second start and shift Jesse Litsch to the pen or AAA Las Vegas.
McCarthy (Joseph): After a competitive spring, McCarthy emerged as Oakland’s No.5 starter. He joins a staff that led the majors in quality starts last season with 103, and McCarthy hopes to help Oakland’s staff carry the team to its first post-season appearance since the 2006 season.Health issues have limited McCarthy to just 22 big-league starts over the past three seasons, but he’s remained healthy so far this year. In 26 innings this spring for Oakland, McCarthy went 1-1 with a 4.50 ERA. The former 17th round draft pick is 20-24 in career with a 4.56 ERA through 372.2 innings.
April 6: LHP Dallas Braden (0-0) vs. RHP Jesse Litsch (0-0)
Litsch(Mat): It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Litsch is battling Reyes for that last rotation spot, and he gets the start immediately after his against what should be a very similar lineup, giving Jays brass the perfect information to gauge their performances. The problem for Litsch is that the Jays could be looking to limit his innings as he is still building strength after an injury filled 2009 and up-and-down 2010, so no matter how well he does, he could be on the outside looking in when the dust settles.
After 22 IP this spring, Litsch had allowed 28 hits (18 more than Reyes who threw 1 more inning), 3 walks, and struck out 20 while maintaining a 4.09 ERA. The one advantage that Litsch has over Reyes is that he is far more proven as an MLB starter than Reyes and has a successful history with the Jays and the A.L. East. Look for him to do well, but to ultimately wind up in the pen or AAA if Reyes matches or exceeds his performance.
Braden (Joseph): Entering the 2011 season, Braden is hoping for better run support from his newly upgraded offense. The A’s added veterans Hideki Matsui, Josh Willingham, and David DeJesus to the lineup in the hopes of scoring more runs in 2011. Braden, who threw a perfect game last season on Mother’s Day, suffered a losing record of 11-14, despite having a respectable 3.50 ERA.
Lacking an overpowering fastball, Braden relies on his off-speed stuff and strong command of all his pitches to mow down opposing lineups. Braden’s success in 2011 will depend on two things: run support and command of his pitches. If he has both, look for another solid season from Oakland’s 27-year old “veteran.”
April 7: TBD vs. LHP Ricky Romero (1-0, 1.42 ERA)
After a strong start his first time out, the A’s will be facing a more confident and relaxed Romero on Thursday, something that can’t be enticing. The ace of the staff, he should be up to the task of shutting down a debatably lesser lineup against Oakland than he faced his first time out versus Minnesota. He allowed 7 hits and 1 ER over 6.1 innings while striking out 7. Since he doesn’t have an official opponent yet pitching wise, it seems likely that the Jays have a slight advantage for this start against the A’s. Expect a 7+ inning performance from the lefty.
Overall, the Jays are throwing a LHP-RHP-LHP mix to the A’s series that should help keep the A’s from getting comfortable at the plate.
TBD (Joseph): May be updated when a starter is announced.
Toronto: Jose Bautista and the Bullpen
Bautista: I’ll touch a little more on what we can expect from here on out from Bautista if my predictions are correct, but he’s already putting to bed any thoughts of an immediate grounding after the lofty numbers he put up unexpectedly in 2010. With 2 HRs in only 3 games, a .455/.600/1.000 line, you can’t help but expect another great season from Jose. However, that’s not the only reason he’s been the hot hand with the Jays. He has also taken on the role of leader often thus far with full gusto. Often seen talking to younger players, he has also approached others – most notably Yunel Escobar – in order to translate information from coaches and make sure lines of communication are clear. Finally, it’s very clear to those of us who have seen all 3 games the Jays have played thus far that Bautista is zoned in and is taking his work extremely seriously. Whether it’s to prove the doubters wrong, to earn his contract, or to help the Jays win, we’re all very happy to see him doing so well early on in the season.
The Bullpen: This should be short and sweet. The Jays pen has pitched 8.2 innings thus far, has allowed only 5 hits, 2 walks, 1 HR, 1 ER, and struck out 4 in the process. Jason Frasor, Casey Janssen, and Shawn Camp have continued their strong pitching in the Jays pen from 2010, while the newest additions, Marc Rzepczynski and Carlos Villanueva, have been strong additions to the pen. With the group doing so well, even without Frank Francisco (DL), Octavio Dotel (DL), and David Purcey (hasn’t pitched yet in 2011), it looks to be a very promising season for the Jays in terms of pen depth. Still, with only your current closer giving up a run this season, there remain some questions to be answered.
Oakland: Coco Crisp and Josh Willingham
Coco Crisp is one guy Oakland desperately needs to stay healthy this season. Crisp, 31, is a guy who can make things happen on offense, and we all know Oakland had a difficult time scoring runs last season, ranking 23rd in baseball with just 663 runs. In the 75 games Crisp did play in last season, he hit .279/.342/.438 with 8 HR and 38 RBIs. He also managed to steal 32 bases, the highest total in his career. Just imagine what he might do if he could stay healthy for an entire season. In the opening series against the Mariners, Crisp went 5-for-12 (.417 BA) and drove in a run.
Josh Willingham, who arrived this offseason via trade with the Nationals, also had himself a nice opening series, going 3-for-11 (.273 BA) with a homer and three RBIs.
Toronto: Edwin Encarnacion
Brett Lawrie has to be Encarnacion’s worst nightmare. Well, that and making throws to 1B. It’s already evident to all Jays fans that no matter how much weight Encarnacion takes off, he’ll forever remain the likeliest candidate for an E5 at 3B. With such a young group of SP pitching for the Jays, there’s no doubt in my mind that Lawrie will be brought up the moment that his arbitration time is settled. I’m pretty certain that Encarnacion knows that to be true as well, and Jays fans let him know already that it’s their preference during the last game that had him struggle with 2 errors (1 fielding, 1 throwing). On the plus side, he has hustled down the 1st base line like it’s nobody’s business and earned some infield singles as a result, so he has earned praise for that as a minimum. Still, I’m sure most fans are looking forward to his 30+ HR potential being seen in the DH position only. Thus far in the season, Edwin only has 2 hits and 2 RBIs in 12 AB for a .125 average and no power to go with it.
Oakland: David Dejesus
I guess I could also point to Hideki Matsui here as well, but DeJesus had just an awful opening series against the Mariners. A career .289 hitter, DeJesus had a difficult time against the visiting Mariners this past weekend going just 1-for-12 (.083 BA), with an RBI. Matsui, meanwhile, went 2-for-11 with a double and an RBI in his first series with the A’s. The A’s are expecting DeJesus and Matsui to help the offense score more runs in 2011, and since both are seasoned veterans, I wouldn’t be too worried about their cold start.
15-day DL: RP Octavio Dotel (left hamstring), RP Frank Francisco (right pectoral tightness and right biceps inflammation), SP Brandon Morrow (right elbow inflammation), OF Corey Patterson (head contusion), OF Scott Podsednik (plantar fasciitis in left foot), CF Rajai Davis is day-to-day (right ankle sprain)
60-day DL: RP Jesse Carlson (left shoulder), RP Dustin McGowan (right rotator cuff)
15-day DL: SP Rich Harden (strained lat muscle, right side), RP Andrew Bailey (strained right forearm)
60-day DL: INF Adam Rosales (Recovery from right ankle surgery)
In this section of all series previews, dubbed “3 on 3”, the writers will be asking the opposing team’s writer 3 questions regarding what to expect from the team in an effort to get more information to you, the readers. They’ll return the favor and ask 3 questions for which my answers will be posted on here and on their site as well. As always, anything that was covered is an invitation for any kind of feedback in the comments section below!
Mat: With so many questions surrounding the A’s in terms of where the power and run-driving ability will come from in the lineup, what have you seen this spring or early on in the season to show that the team may be able to score enough runs to win the West?
Joseph: Well, I think the A’s will ultimately win the division due to their strong starting rotation and revamped bullpen. Offensively, the A’s just need an average major-league offense to really compete in the AL West this season. They ranked 23rd in runs scored last season with just 663, and tallied just 109 home runs, 28th in the majors.
The A’s made good moves this winter in adding Matsui, Willingham, and DeJesus to the lineup, and I believe Oakland’s offense will be better suited to support a strong starting rotation down the stretch. The A’s faded out of the playoff picture last season due to a lack of run support, but this season should be a little different, granted that everyone stays healthy.
Coco Crisp is one guy who needs to stay healthy this season for the A’s. Crisp, while he doesn’t offer a ton of power, does make things happen on the base-paths. He stole 32 bases last season in just 75 games, and the A’s are quietly becoming a more aggressive team on the base-paths. This season should result in a ton of steals for Crisp, who should help lead an Oakland offense to a much better showing in 2011.
Mat: Due to the performances and injuries, I have to ask this question. Of all of the many high-quality relievers the A’s have on board, which one – aside from Andrew Bailey and Brian Fuentes – has proved to have closer like stuff?
Joseph: I like the A’s bullpen a lot this season, and while it appeared a little shaky in the opening series against the Mariners, the A’s ‘pen is extremely deep with talent. Even without Andrew Bailey, who is still nursing a strained right forearm, the A’s bullpen consists of guys like Grant Balfour, Craig Breslow, and Brad Ziegler who can close games out if needed.
I like Balfour a lot, especially since he comes over from Tampa Bay and the extremely tough AL East. He should make a nice transition to the AL West this year, and I think Balfour’s got the ability to help close games out while Bailey is out. Last season, Balfour had an ERA of 2.28 through 55.1 innings, and struck out 56 batters. He’s a reliable reliever in a stacked Oakland bullpen.
Mat: Since so much of the focus seems to lay in your rotation and possible lack of offensive output, I thought it would be interesting to get your take on the defensive capabilities of the A’s. Where are they really strong, and where are the weaknesses?
Joseph: Trust me when I say that the first two games of the Mariners series this past weekend is not indicative of Oakland’s strong defense. The A’s uncharacteristically committed five errors on Opening Night, and a total of seven errors during the three-game set with Seattle.
The A’s are a team that can make both the routine and non-routine plays on defense, but they did not show that against the Mariners. Heading into this season, the A’s know that their strengths are their starting pitching and defense. Quite frankly, the team everyone saw on Friday and Saturday was not the same one assembled by GM Billy Beane and the rest of the A’s front office.
Ownership expects Oakland to perform well on defense, and committing seven errors over a three-game span is not acceptable. The A’s are muchbetter than this, and I see no reason to worry as of right now. The A’s ranked 5th in the American League last season in Fielding percentage with a .984 team mark. They committed 99 errors, which was just seven more than your own Toronto Blue Jays.
The defense will have to play better going forward, simply because strong pitching and defense is the A’s recipe for success in 2011. The starting pitching needs a good defensive squad behind it in order to be successful in 2011.
Joseph: Everyone I think in the baseball world was surprised with Jose Bautista’s 2010 campaign. He’s off to a hot-start so far, hitting .455 with two home runs and two RBIs, but can the right-fielder match last season’s 54 HR 124-RBI performance?
Mat: Personally, I’ve been advocating that none of us really knows what he’ll do in 2011, but most of us believe that it will be much better than what he did before 2010. I, for one, haven’t seen a team being able to stay out of his wheelhouse since August of 2009, so I see no reason to believe he’ll slow down any time soon. Whether that leads to another 54 HR season depends on a lot more things that his bat, though, as many teams could begin to pitch around him a little more and will now be more selective in how they pitch to him. Last weekend’s AB against Joe Nathan in the 9th inning is the first example of that more conservative approach pitchers may take against Jose. If he can make the right adjustments and continue to be patient (and I believe he is mature enough to do so), I still think he’ll put up big numbers. But, I’d still lower expectations to 40-49 HRs with 120+ RBIs and more than 100 walks and runs once again. I’d also be willing to be that his average will be up a tick from 2010, in the .270 range.
Joseph: Last year, Aaron Hill’s numbers took quite a dip, as he hit just .205/.271/.394 with 26 HR and 68 RBIs. In 2009, Hill hit .286/.330/.499 with 36 HR and 108 RBIs, so what should we expect from Hill this season? Will we see the 2009 Hill or more of the 2010 Hill in 2011?
Mat: I’d love to have a crystal ball and be able to sit here and say that Hill will be healthy all season long, but I really can’t. The fact that the Jays didn’t pick up all of his options, which would have given them control over Hill through 2014, tells us that they also have doubts about his health. If healthy, there’s no doubt in my mind that he can top 35 HRs once again. But, the more likely scenario has him missing some games here and there, and winding up with another 25-29 HR season. Coming from a 2B, that’s still a top 5 stats season. Where you’ll see the biggest improvement from Hill is his overall line that should best .270/.325/.430. If the Jays get 25+ HRs and that line from Hill in 2011, they should be ready and willing to pick up his 2012 and 2013 options simultaneously, an option they have at the end of 2011. If not, they can also pick up 2012 only, or let him become a FA as early as 2012 – the unlikeliest of scenarios.
Joseph: The Blue Jays play in a very competitive American League East division, and with most expecting either Boston or New York to come out on top in 2011, where do you see the Jays placing this year? Can the Jays match last season’s 85 wins, or do you think they fall below that number?
Mat: Well, I posted my A.L. East predictions recently, and as outlandish as they may seem to some, I’m sticking with them. It’s an incredible time to be in the A.L. East, as it seems that all of the teams just continue to get better, year after year. Most of the best systems in MLB reside on there, and the cash…well, you know. I strongly believe that the Jays are the 3rd best team in the A.L. East, with a possibility of jumping ahead of any team if injuries land in their favor. The Jays have real impact talent ready to get a shot in the majors (with 3B Brett Lawrie, LF Eric Thames, SS Adeiny Hechavarria, SP Zach Stewart, and C Travis d’Arnaud being the closest to being ready to contribute – notice that it covers most positions that are weakest on the Jays roster?) and have more pitching depth than meets the eye.
As for the A.L. East, I absolutely believe that the Red Sox are overhyped, while the Yankees are under-hyped and the Rays will be forced to deal with Man Ram’s issues at some point in time – not to mention their young and vulnerable pen. As for the O’s, they’re unfortunately depending on older players that may have health issues in 2011 (Vladimir Guerrero, Brian Roberts, and Derek Lee in particular), so their attempt at finishing above .500 is dependent on them and their starters. Either way, they should be much better than they were in 2010.
Take a look here to read all of my thoughts on the A.L. East.
If Brandon Morrow’s elbow is fine and he pitches more than 180 innings in 2010, the Jays should finish well above .500 in 2011. They have the rotation, the pen, and more offensive power than they had in 2010. Don’t believe me? That’s your option. But, do take a look at the end of the year standings and get back to me!
Thanks to Joseph for joining me on the series preview and check out Swingin’ A’s for everything you need to know on the Oakland Athletics!