February 2008

Sights and sounds

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Roy Halladay said the origin of the four baseball cards that are stuck in his nameplate is a mystery. Prior to the game, cards for A.J. Burnett, Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum and Jesse Litsch appeared atop Doc’s locker.

Some wondered if it was Halladay’s way of hinting at what he believes the rotation should look like this year.

"I don’t know. They just showed up there. I had no hand in that," Halladay said with a grin.

Asked if Casey Janssen — competing against Litsch for the fifth spot — might add his own baseball card to the display, Halladay laughed and replied: "I’m sure it’ll be up there tomorrow."

On the way to the clubhouse, I also spotted a kid sporting a Brian Wolfe jersey. I told Wolfe and he laughed and said: "Somebody does own one. I didn’t know they sold them."

Also chatted with Scott Rolen after he sat through an odd interview with CityTV’s Kathryn Humphreys for the upcoming game broadcast on Sunday. One of the off-beat questions was something to the effect of, "Would you rather have no teeth or no toes?" Rolen went with no teeth.

"I figured if I had no toes, I couldn’t walk," Rolen said with a shrug.

Yeah, I guess he could still win a Gold Glove without teeth. Talk about in-depth journalism.

More after the game…

Opening Day preview?

Dsc01220_1DUNEDIN, Fla. — The sun has returned, the regulars are in the lineup and the good Doctor is on the hill. This could very well be a preview of sorts of Toronto’s opener in Yankee Stadium on March 31.

Halladay is only down for two innings, and the starting position players will probably only get a pair of at-bats each, but it’ll be nice to see the 2008 version of the Jays on the diamond for the first time.

That doesn’t mean some of them weren’t still checking to see if their name was on the lineup card. Center fielder Vernon Wells stared at one of the sheets hanging on the wall inside the clubhouse today, and couldn’t find his name. Then he realized he was looking at the order for Saturday’s game against the Rays.

"Oh, there it is, I am playing today," Wells said, grinning as he departed the clubhouse.

Today’s lineups:

DETROIT (2-0) at TORONTO (0-1)
at Knology Park at 1:05 p.m. ET

Curtis Granderson, CF
Placido Polanco, 2B
Edgar Renteria, SS
Marcus Thames, DH
Jacques Jones, LF
Ryan Raburn, RF
Brandon Inge, 3B
Jeff Larish, 1B
Max St. Pierre, C

PITCHING: RHP Justin Verlander

David Eckstein, SS
Alex Rios, RF
Vernon Wells, CF
Frank Thomas, DH
Scott Rolen, 3B
Matt Stairs, LF
Lyle Overbay, 1B
Aaron Hill, 2B
Gregg Zaun, C

PITCHING: RHP Roy Halladay

Some of you may have heard about the lineup pool us writers are in. About a week and a half ago, after manager John Gibbons was asked for about the sixth day in a row about the lineup, he asked each writer to scribble down what they think the order would be on Opening Day. The pool cost $5, and Gibbons said the winner could go to dinner with him.

Well, Ken Fidlin of the Toronto Sun saw the lineup today and said, "That’s mine! I’m the winner!" My version looked identical, except I had Stairs in the No. 2 slot and everybody else bumped down a slot. So: Eck, Stairs, Rios, Wells, Hurt, Rolen, Overbay, Hill, Zaun. The winner will be whoever predicted the lineup Gibby uses for Game 1 of the season.

Not much else going on so far this morning. B.J. Ryan apparently didn’t meet with Dr. Tim Kremcheck yesterday — that meeting is scheduled for Sunday now. Jason Frasor was supposed to pitch today, but the flu bug that’s been going around caught up with him. Dave Steib is in camp now as a guest coach, joining Pat Hentgen.

Another item of note, hanging above Halladay locker — stuck in his nameplate — were four very cool looking baseball cards. One featuring A.J. Burnett, followed by cards for Shaun Marcum, Jesse Litsch and Dustin McGowan. So, has Halladay made up his mind in regards to the rotation? Looks like Litsch is the favorite.

More later…

And they're off!

Dsc01388LAKELAND, Fla. — Things learned today during the Blue Jays spring tilt against the Tigers:

  • Miguel Cabrera was a terrible addition for the Tigers and is going to be a huge bust this season
  • Gustavo Chacin is clearly the favorite to win the fifth spot in the rotation
  • Jesse Litsch isn’t just going back to the Minors, he has a demotion to Class A Lansing in the works
  • Curtis Granderson is going to hit at least 50 home runs this year
  • Virgil Vasquez is a lock to throw a no-hitter this season
  • Gary Denbo is failing miserably in his attempts to turn the offense around, evidenced by Toronto’s 1-for-11 showing with runners in scoring position

Basically, it’s really easy to get all caught up in the results during the early goings of Spring Training. You can’t really gauge what progress is being made necessarily by peering at a box score or looking up at the scoreboard. The Jays lost, 4-1, and it doesn’t matter.

I’m pretty sure Cabrera’s 0-for-3 showing and Buckner-esque play in the field won’t deter him from having a monster year. Litsch and Chacin turned in contrasting outings, but that won’t really change where they stand in the race for the fifth spot of the rotation. Granderson homered off a palm tree, but he isn’t about to supplant Magglio Ordonez are the big bopper in the Tiggers’ lineup.

Granted, Litsch didn’t look great — four runs on four hits with a walk in two innings isn’t a pretty sight — but you have to keep in mind what he was doing. Litsch stuck to mainly fastballs and worked in a few changeups. He was attempting to pepper the strike zone, and from the results, it looks like he was very much over the plate. Problem was, he left a couple pitches up.

Chacin pitched well, spinning one shutout inning behind Litsch. Even so, he’s still behind Litsch and Casey Janssen in the competition for the lone rotation vacancy. Chacin admitted that he needs a lot more innings to get back to where he needs to be. Janssen isn’t slated to pitch until Sunday in St. Pete against the Rays.

As for that RISP stat, and the fact that Toronto went hitless for three innings, well, the pitchers are always ahead of the hitters at this point in time, and Toronto didn’t exactly have it’s regulars out in the batter’s box. Reed Johnson, John McDonald, Marco Scutaro and Rod Barajas were the only "regulars" who made the trip to Lakeland.

The Jays will probably put some of their real regulars — Vernon Wells, David Eckstein, Alex Rios, Scott Rolen, Aaron Hill, Lyle Overbay, Frank Thomas, Gregg Zaun, Matt Stairs — in the lineup against the Tigers at Knology Park on Friday afternoon. Roy Halladay will be making his first start of the spring, too.

Until then, don’t get too worked up over Toronto being on pace for an 0-30 record this spring. Later…

Good Luck, Litsch

LAKELAND, Fla. — Audioslave is pumping through the speakers here at Joker Marchant Stadium, where your Toronto Blue Jays are set to begin their 2008 preseason slate.

Aside from the obligatory traffic jam coming through Tampa, and that ******* old guy who forgot how to steer his truck correctly while picking his nose, it was a relatively smooth drive here to Lakeland with the CP’s Shi Davidi.

The pressbox is jammed, so a few of us scribes have claimed a TV booth as our personal working space. Glancing at the lineups for today, all I can say is Jesse Litsch drew the short straw for his first appearance. Hopefully, for his sake, he’s one of those pitchers who are ahead of the hitters right now.

Today’s lineups:

TORONTO (0-0) at DETROIT (1-0)
at Joke Marchant Stadium at 1:05 p.m. ET

Reed Johnson, LF
John McDonald, SS
Marco Scutaro, 2B
Rod Barajas, C
Adam Lind, RF
Buck Coats, CF
Joe Inglett, 3B
Chip Cannon, 1B
Travis Snider, DH

PITCHING: RHP Jesse Litsch, LHP Gustavo Chacin, and others

Curtis Granderson, CF
Placido Polanco, 2B
Ivan Rodriguez, C
Magglio Ordonez, DH
Miguel Cabrera, 3B
Carlos Guillen, 1B
Edgar Renteria, SS
Marcus Thames, RF
Jaque Jones, LF

PITCHING: RHP Virgil Vasquez

Nate Robertson was scheduled to pitch, but his wife Kristin gave birth to a baby boy, Wyatt Dale, on Wednesday night. So, needless to say, Robertson’s been given the day off.

Jays closer B.J. Ryan was scheduled to throw around 20 pitches in a live batting practice session versus some Minor Leaguers over at The Mattick this morning. Afterward, the plan was for him to meet with Dr. Tim Kremchek — the surgeon  who performed Ryan’s Tommy John — to go over the pitcher’s progress.

More later…

Too early for scorebooks

Dsc01264DUNEDIN, Fla. — The most fitting summation of Monday’s intrasquad game at The Mattick came from the mouth of manager John Gibbons:

"I don’t know what the score was. Was there a score? Did we score?"

The Ceruttis held a 1-0 lead over the Matticks when I finally left the field to try to catch up with Shannon Stewart on his first day in camp. Rumor has it that Sal Fasano later homered for the Matticks, but I know of no one who saw it happened. I’ll say he called his shot — sounds cooler.

After the game, when asked if there was any possible way to break camp with Stewart and Reed Johnson, Gibbons didn’t dimiss the possibility of carrying 11 pitchers. That’s highly unlikely, though. And speaking of Stewart, here are the incentives included in his contract:

  • 50K for 400 plate appearances, 50K for 450 PA, 75K for 475 PA, 75K for 500 PA, 50 K for being an All-Star, 50K for winning a Silver Slugger, 50 K for the World Series or LCS MVP and 100K for MVP. If he’s not on the team by March 30 and asked to be relaeased, the Jays have to meet his request.

I’m going to go out on a limp and say there’s a few in there that Steart doesn’t net. But you can start up your Shannon-Stewart-for-MVP campaigns if you like. If he does indeed make Toronto’s roster, Stew’s salary will jump to $1.5 million. So, hypothetically, if Johnson is cut and the Jays need to pay roughly 1/6 of the $3.275 million he’s owed in ’08, the team winds up with a cheaper left fielder.

One item of note this morning is that the Jays posted their pitchers for the first three Grapefruit League contests:

Feb. 28 at Lakeland: Jesse Litsch (two innings), followed by Gustavo Chacin, David Purcey, Lance Carter, Shawn Camp, Josh Banks, Jamie Vermilyea, Mike Gosling and Jean Machi (though not all of them can make one-inning appearances. Sides that day will be thrown by A.J. Burnett, Dustin McGowan and Randy Wells.

Feb. 29 in Dunedin: Roy Halladay (two), followed by one-inning outings for Jason Frasor, Brian Wolfe, Jeremy Accardo, Brian Tallet, Scott Downs, Brandon League and Kane Davis. Side to be thrown by Shaun Marcum

March 1 at Tampa: McGowan (two), followed by one-inning outings for Casey Janssen, Jeremy Cummings, Ryan Ketchner, John Parrish, Tracy Thorpe, Wells, Jesse Carlson and Jean Machi. Side for Litsch.

Lineups for today’s intrasquad game:

MATTICKS: SS David Eckstein, RF Alex Rios, 3B Scott Rolen, LF Matt Stairs, C Gregg Zaun, 2B John Tolisano, DH Travis Snider, 1B Chip Cannon, CF Buck Coats

Pitchers: Marcum, Downs, Accardo, Janssen, Wolfe, Wells

CERUTTIS: LF Reed Johnson, 2B Aaron Hill, CF Vernon Wells, DH Frank Thomas, C Rod Barajas, 3B Marco Scutaro, SS John McDonald, RF Adam Lind, 1B John Schneider

Pitchers: McGowan, Frasor, Tallet, League, Carter, Machi

In other news, Lyle Overbay is back in camp, but after missing two days with flu-like symptoms, he’s not in the lineup. Robinzon Diaz and Pedro Lopez also finally arrived after visa issues delayed their trips from the Dominican. Hector Luna’s still not in camp.

With that, I’m going to head out and try to commit some journalism.

Some healthy competition

Dsc01656_1DUNEDIN, Fla. — Funny that I’d wind up getting a nice photo of Reed Johnson looking over his shoulder today (left), because that’s exactly what he’s doing now that the Jays have thrown Shannon Stewart into the mix.

Stewart is expected to be in camp on Monday — his 34th birthday, no less — and he’ll be competing with Johnson for one half of the left-field platoon. Toronto manager John Gibbons said it’s going to be a platoon regardless of who makes the club, so Stairs’ playing time isn’t influenced by the move.

Basically, I view this Stewart signing as an insurance policy. Next year, Toronto will be going with Adam Lind in left field. Johnson’s a free agent after this year and he’s coming off a major back injury. He’s says he’s healthy, but if there’s any issues or the Jays aren’t convinced he’s back to being the old Reed, they have Stewart in place as a fallback option.

Or, let’s say someone gets injured this spring (honestly, with all these healthy guys running around, there’s nowhere to go but down), the Jays have some more options in place that can help the club avoid dipping back into the Minor Leagues, unless absolutely necessary.

ON DECK: The Jays will hold their first intrasquad game of the spring on Monday, when the Matticks will square off against the Ceruttis in a six-inning affair at the Bobby Mattick Training Center.

Monday’s Lineups:

MATTICKS — SS David Eckstein, RF  Alex Rios, LF Matt Watson, 3B Scott Rolen, C Gregg Zaun, 2B Marco Scutaro, 1B Chip Cannon, CF Buck Coats, DH Travis Snider

CERUTTIS — LF Reed Johnson, 2B Aaron Hill, CF Vernon Wells, DH Frank Thomas, 1B Lyle Overbay, C Rod Barajas, SS John McDonald, RF Adam Lind, 3B Joe Inglett

Overbay and Inglett were both out with flu-like symptoms on Sunday, but expected to be fine for Monday’s game. Pitchers will include John Parrish, Kane Davis, Shawn Camp, Josh Banks, Mike Gosling, Tracy Thorpe, David Purcey, Jamie Vermilyea, Jesse Carlson, Ryan Ketchner and Jeremy Cummings.

Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett, Gus Chacin and Davis Romero all threw in live BP on Sunday and won’t pitch in either intrasquad game on Monday or Tueday. On Tuesday, pitchers will include Shaun Marcum, Scott Downs, Jeremy Accardo, Casey Janssen, Brian Wolfe, Randy Wells, Dustin McGowan, Jason Frasor, Brian Tallet, Brandon League, Lance Carter and Jean Machi.

Stretch is at 9:30 a.m., so anyone wanting to come out to watch the game should probably be here by then. When asked if the lineup card for the first game had any mistakes in it, Gibbons said, "I guarantee you there’s a couple."

With that, I’m getting out of here and am looking forward to watching the Oscars tonight. I hope No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood are the big winners. Feel free to browse the spring photo gallery for the new additions.

Bet's off

DUNEDIN, Fla. — There was no way this was gonna fly. Shaun Marcum walked out of the Blue Jays’ clubhouse here at The Mattick this morning, heading to the agility field for stretch.

General manager J.P. Ricciardi’s youngest son, 9-year-old Mariano, sprinted over to Marcum, beaming: "You owe me $100! You owe me $100!"

Marcum stopped, turned around, went back into the clubhouse and returned with a bill in his hand. "Here you go," he said, tossing the money to Mariano. "I’ll bring you $50 more tomorrow."

Mariano walked toward assistant GM Bart Given, who understandably had an eyebrow raised. "I made a bet with Shaun," Mariano said. "You better tell your dad," Given replied.

Turns out that Mariano made a wager with Marcum on the Tampa Bay-Boston NHL game on Saturday night. "If the Lightning won, I had to tell my dad to give him a five-year contract. If the Bruins won, Shaun had to give me $100. My dad made me give it back to him."

"There’s no place for betting in sports," Ricciardi said with a grin.

I’m not an expect on league rules, but I’m pretty sure a GM’s little kids shouldn’t be betting on sports with the players. It was definitely a comical exchange this morning.

The Jays put out an official release to announce the Shannon Stewart signing. So, it’s official, there’s a surplus of outfielders.

Blue Jays bring back Stewart

Stewart_1DUNEDIN, Fla. — The only way Shannon Stewart was going to be rejoining the Blue Jays was on a Minor League contract. And there you have it…

Shannon Stewart is rejoining the Blue Jays on a Minor League contract. He’s expected to be in camp within the next few days and he’ll be put into the mix for the job in left field, which has been billed up to this point as being a Reed Johnson-Matt Stairs platoon.

Stewart’s presence doesn’t necessarily spell the end for Johnson, considering Reed hits left-handed pitching better than Stewart. With that in mind, Stewart wouldn’t seem to be a lock to bump Johnson from that role. Stewart will definitely provide some competition, though, and it’s not like the man didn’t hit last season.

Last year with the A’s, Stewart hit .290 with 12 homers, 48 RBIs and a .739 OPS in 146 games. Take a look at Johnson’s totals in his last healthy season in 2006: he hit .319 with 12 homers, 49 RBIs and an .869 OPS in 134 games for the Jays. It’s similar production, with a slight edge to Reed and his Shelby Cobra.

Last season, even when fighting injury, Johnson managed to hit .325 with a .381 on-base against lefties. Stewart hit just .269 with a .333 OBP against left-handers. Stewart has performed better against righties, which is presumably Matt Stairs’ part of the platoon going forward. Unless Stairs is possibly sliding back to a bench job.

This signing also makes you wonder about Jays skip John Gibbons and GM J.P. Ricciardi recently saying they’ve discussed the possibility of slotting shortstop David Eckstein into the lineup’s second slot. If Stewart makes the team, he very well could serve as the leadoff hitter — he did so for 101 games last year.

More on this later today…

Garbage was way off…

Dsc01499DUNEDIN, Fla. — Remember that song back in the ’90s? I’m only happy when it rains? Yeah, not so much when it comes to covering Spring Training down here in Florida.

The sky opened up with some heavy sheets of water this morning, forcing the Jays to move to their indoor cage for bullpen sessions and batting practice. It was a sloppy day all around with not a whole heckuva lot going on.

That’s probably why the most interesting thing that came out of today was a tidbit from the Record, based out of the Waterloo/Kitchener area. In this fine piece, the writer takes a shot at Jays catcher Gregg Zaun, among others, with this dandy:

An aside, if you will, on Zaun: If this guy really did consume some human growth hormone, or whatever, he got sold a giant bill of goods from a crooked dealer. Zaun looks like a doughnut-scarfing mutual fund salesperson, not a pro-ball catcher.

Zaun had a good chuckle at pretty much being called a fatso. "I’ve come full circle," the catcher said with a grin. "I’ve been called diminutive, I’ve been called someone with a slight build, I’ve even been called a hobbit. But I’ve never been called fat."

Zaunie joked that he thought about sending the author some Krispee Kremes in honor of his work. With Sal Fasano standing closeby, I said, "Zaunie, it’s better than being called a bratwurst-scarfing Bears fan." Fasano turned and threatened to knock me out, so I quickly reversed course (side note: I am a HUGE Bears fan and have been known to thrown down a brat or two in my time).

There’s a section in the article where the writer refers to Frank Thomas as "Tubby Thomas," and he wrote, "If baseball spring training were truly a gruelling, gritty shape-up struggle, Frank Thomas wouldn’t be so doggone fat, now, would he?"

Has this guy ever seen Thomas in person? Thomas is a huge man-beast — an intimidating behemoth of a person. One thing he is not is fat. He’s large, yes, but the Big Hurt is solid. It’s always nice how guys who are never around a team on an everyday basis feel the urge to take such swipes at players.

Oh, baseball news: Roy Halladay will start the second spring game, which is the first home game in Dunedin. Jesse Litsch will start the Grapefruit League opener, with Casey Janssen likely following him in relief. After Halladay, it’ll be Dustin McGowan, A.J. Burnett and Shaun Marcum.

This rotation allows Halladay to pitch on Opening Day in New York and for Burnett to slot in as the No. 2 guy, following by McGowan and Marcum. As for Litsch and Janssen, people within the organization are still divided on the issue of who should be the fifth starter. I’ve heard some players vying for Janssen to remain in the bullpen.

Pray for sunshine tomorrow…

Burnett inching along

Dsc01539_1DUNEDIN, Fla. — Any fears caused by the recent reports that Toronto’s A.J. Burnett was a little behind the other pitchers should be put to rest. The man threw against hitters today and looked primed for game action.

Burnett worked in his fastball and changeup and looked to be throwing at about 70-80 percent effort. He’ll start adding in the hook after he gets a few Grapefruit League contests under his belt.

Basically, Burnett had a quiet winter and he and the Jays decided to just take a more gradual approach to these first two weeks of camp. Once the spring schedule starts, he’ll be ready to pitch an inning or two, as is customary for the first appearances. There’s nothing to suggest that his slower program is any reason for concern.

B.J. Ryan also threw in the bullpen on Friday and the Jays plan on calling his doc — Tim Kremcheck — after Ryan’s next ‘pen on Monday. The closer’s program called for 10-12 bullpens before Ryan could face hitters and he’s currently through nine. So, Ryan may start throwing in Grapefruit League games early on, too.

Learned today: Frank Thomas intends on referring to Sal Fasano as "the dancing bear" — in reference to the veteran catcher’s soft hands, which can "make any pitch look good." Thomas also referred to Marco Scutaro as "my ninja" — a nickname apparently leftover from their days together in Oakland.

Toronto pitching coach Brad Arnsberg also noted that Jesse Litsch will line up in the No. 5 spot for the spring rotation, but don’t go getting all worked up about it. Casey Janssen is being stretched out and will be piggybacking on somebody’s starts, though there are plenty of people in the organization who seem to prefer keeping Casey in the bullpen.

I also introduced myself to hitting coach Gary Denbo today (I would’ve sooner, but the guy always seems to be in the batting cage working!) and my first impression was "Ow." The man has a real man’s handshake — a manshake, if you will. He about crushed my fingers. I don’t know how that can translate into boosting the offense, but it certainly can’t hurt. He’s definitely good people.

After a few days of physicals and photo shoots, the sked returns tomorrow with stretch at 9:30 a.m. I’ll be there… In the meantime, you can check out the new additions to the spring photo album.