March 2008

Go Green!

BRADENTON, Fla. – I like to think that the green hats being worn by the Pirates and the green bases here at McKechnie Field are a tribute to my Spartans earning a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tourney.

When we weren’t planning where the late-night drinks were to be had on this St. Patty’s Day, us scribes did manage to squeeze in some baseball talk with manager John Gibbons. A lot of the pregame banter focused on A.J. Burnett, who was today’s starter.

Gibbons noted that last time out Burnett started using a slider that he’s been tinkering with. It’s a pitch that might be used early in the season if Burnett’s right index fingernail hasn’t grown in enough to let him use his curveball.

"He’s never thrown that," Gibbons said. "He started tinkering with it last week and he threw some in the game the other day. I always thought it’d be a good pitch for him anyway. Once he gets his curveball back, that’s something he could flip over to get ahead. It’d be easier for him to control."

Gibbons also noted that today’s lineup isn’t necessarily the one he’s going to use this season. He said he’s still debating about whether or not to use lefties Matt Stairs and Lyle Overbay consecutively in the Nos. 6-7 spots (the variation of today’s order that he used the other day). Overbay has hit lefties well over his career, but having lefties back to back could help opposing teams late in games, when lefty specialist pitchers come into play.

Gibbons did not that he does like how using Scott Rolen in the four hole ahead of Frank Thomas adds more speed to the top of the order, but just because he’s tested it out in a few games doesn’t necessarily mean Thomas isn’t the cleanup hitter.

"Just because we’re hitting him fifth doesnt mean we’re going to hit him fifth. You could put Rolen up there [in the No. 4 spot]. Rolen’s one of the better baserunners in the game and that can keep that thing churning pretty good up top," Gibbons said.

Other tidbits:

  • Gibby said that the Jays still plan on bringing most of their regulars to Fort Myers on Wednesday for the ESPN televised Noon game against the Red Sox. Shaun Marcum will stay back in Dunedin for a Minors game, though
  • Reliever Armando Benitez is down for a live BP on Tuesday, and his first game appearance could be against the Yanks on Thursday. GM J.P. Ricciardi noted this week that top pitching prospect Brett Cecil might make an appearance in that game, too.
  • Gibbons reiterated again this morning that B.J. Ryan (making his second Grapefruit League appearance on Monday) probably wouldn’t pitch in back to back games in April, if he breaks with the team. That’ll create some save opps for setup man Jeremy Accardo. On days when Accardo is the closer, Scott Downs would be the primary setup man. Brandon League could figure into the mix, too.
  • Gotta love Thomas this spring. During batting practice, the Big Hurt grabbed a glove and stood at third base, bobbing his head up and down while he listened to tunes on his iPod. He kept the earbuds in with a helmet on when he took BP, too.
  • Some movement…Jays claimed LHP Bill Murphy off waivers from Arizona and placed Casey Janssen (torn labrum) on the 60-day disabled list. Murphy has some limited big-league experience and has bounced around a few organizations.

More later…

Top O the Mornin'

BRADENTON, Fla. – Happy St. Patty’s Day everyone. The Pirates are currently running through some bunt drills down on the field, wearing bright green hats in honor of today’s holiday.

Had a fun drive here this morning. When I got to the huge Sunshine Skyway Bridge and saw the "Last exit before toll bridge" sign, I realized I didn’t have any cash on me and only 75 cents in the cupholder. So, I had to exit and after about 4-5 miles of crawling through schools zones at 15 mph, I finally spotted a gas station where I could hit up the ATM.

So, I arrived at lovely McKechnie Field about 45 minutes behind when I would’ve been here otherwise. No worries, though, the Blue Jays team bus got here the same time I did — I had to stop to let Vernon Wells and Rod Barajas cross the street. Before I head down to the clubhouse for the beginning of the daily grind, here are…

Today’s lineups:

TORONTO (7-11) at PITTSBURGH (6-12)
at 1:05 p.m. ET at McKechnie Field

BLUE JAYS
David Eckstein, SS
Alex RIos, RF
Vernon Wells, CF
Scott Rolen, 3B
Frank Thomas, DH
Shannon Stewart, LF
Lyle Overbay, 1B
Aaron Hill, 2B
Gregg Zaun, C

PITCHING: RHP A.J. Burnett, LHP B.J. Ryan, RHP Brandon League, RHP Jeremy Accardo, RHP Lance Carter

PIRATES
Nate McLouth, CF
Jack Wilson, SS
Freddy Sanchez, DH
Jason Bay, LF
Adam LaRoche, 1B
Xavier Nady, RF
Ronny Paulino, C
Jose Bautista, 3B
Luis Rivas, 3B

PITCHING: LHP Zach Duke

There’s that same Toronto lineup that Gibbons used the other day. The only difference is that Stewart is in the six hole instead of Matt Stairs. Could this be the vs. LHP lineup? I think this is the order Gibby is leaning toward using. We’ll see come Opening Day.

Get to the Chopper!

DUNEDIN, Fla. – An Arnold reference there in honor of today’s events at Knology Park. After a light, breezy, Spring Trainingy workout at the Jays’ home ballpark — miles away from where the "B" squad was taking on the Twins in Fort Myers — Alex Rios came out of the clubhouse with a gasoline-powered, remote-control, four-foot long helicopter.

Rios and Jeremy Accardo set the thing up in the warning track in right field and Rios manned the controls, taking the helicopter for a spin around the park. When they were setting it up, Aaron Hill and David Eckstein headed up to the pitchers deck behind the right-field wall to watch — safely behind netting.

"It’s a little dangerous down there," said Hill, when Lyle Overbay walked out and gave a look of curiousity as to why the middle infielders were watching from above.

Shawn Camp came out to run some laps along the warning track and stopped when he saw the players setting up the helicopter.

"Jeremy, am I going to be in the hot zone running here?" Camp asked.

"You know he’s going to chase you with that thing," Hill quipped.

Rios flew the chopper for a bit, making it climb high, dive quick, nearly do a flip and steering it near the light towers, giving the local ospreys a scare. Roy Halladay — known flying remote control helicopters and planes inside the Rogers Centre — manned the controls for a bit and took the thing a lot higher than Rios was willing to go.

Rios started this hobby in November and has three such helicopters now — two smaller than the one he brought out on Sunday. He said the large one ran him about $2,300 and he noted that Halladay’s helicopter is even bigger.

Oh, baseball, right. They did have a workout thingy today, too, where players played catch, took batting practice and did some fielding work. Reliever Armando Benitez also threw for roughly 10 minutes in the bullpen and is scheduled to throw a live BP session on Tuesday before the Jays begin working him into a game.

Frank Thomas stood in as a mock batter for Benitez’s session and he walked away very impressed with the life on the pitcher’s slider, splitter and sinker.

"I’m telling you guys," Thomas said as he walked back on the field, "he’s ready to go. It’s the same guy I’ve seen over the years. I thought he was behind. Wow."

Later, in the clubhouse, Thomas expanded, saying, "If we can keep Armando healthy, he’s going to be someone who can surprise a lot of people. He’s hungry right now and he’s a little frustrated with the system, closing in on 300 saves and he doesn’t have a job. He’s always been one of those guys that pitch well under pressure and that adds something to this team."

Bullpen coach Bruce Walton didn’t have a radar gun on Benitez, but simply from his years of experience, Pappy estimated that the pitcher was hitting around 91-92 mph. I stood behind the bullpen for the session and was especially impressed with the late movement on his sinker.

I talked to Thomas some about the hitting slump he’s going through this spring and you can read that feature later today on bluejays.com. Here’s a few leftover quotes that didn’t make the cut:

"Right now, I just feel a little off. I’m a little jumpy. I just haven’t hit enough balls in the sweet spot. Guys have predominantly stayed out of the zone, so it’s been tough. But I’ve been through this plenty of times in the spring. I just take it for what it’s worth. You take your at-bats and try to get your timing right, because that’s all I can do right now.

"For me, right now, yeah, I’m not happy. I’m not getting any hits, but you’re going to have those periods. It’s Spring Training and once the lights turn on it’s a different ballgame and I have to be prepared like I’m always prepared."

Players heading to Bradenton for tomorrow’s tilt against the Pirates include: Thomas, Rios, Hill, Eckstein, Overbay, Zaun, Barajas, John McDonald, Scott Rolen, Marco Scutaro, Reed Johnson, Vernon Wells, Matt Stairs, Shannon Stewart, Jeremy Accardo, Brandon League, B.J. Ryan and A.J. Burnett, among others.

Catch you all tomorrow.

Skipping the trip

Dsc01477_1CLEARWATER, FLa. — You will not be hearing from yours truly from Fort Myers tomorrow. I have a running joke with our MLB.com Twins writer, Kelly Thesier — a former classmate of mine at Michigan State — that I’m boycotting all Toronto-Minnesota games on the road.

In three years on the beat, I have never been to Fort Myers during Spring Training and I’ve only been to Minnesota once — during the 2006 season. I missed Frank Thomas’ 500th homer in Minny a year ago and I won’t be making the trek to the twin cities this season because I have to stand up in a wedding. Go figure.

But, I’ll be at Knology Park bright and early tomorrow morning to hang out at Toronto’s workout for the A squad. Toronto’s bringing a real thin group to Fort Myers.

"I think you’re playing left field. You better check the lineup tomorrow," quipped Ricciardi, talking to The Star’s Richard Griffin.

Only Rod Barajas, Marco Scutaro, Reed Johnson and John McDonald had their names circled on the travel sheet. Poor Johnny Mac, I think he’s made every spring road trip for the past two years. Seems like it anyway.

I could be in bed right now, but I’m still winding down from sippin’ on a few Killians and listening to some terrrrrrible karaoke at a local sports bar. So, as promised earlier today, I’ll hit on a few of the topics that GM J.P. Ricciardi talked about today at the ball yard.

ROTATION: Ricciardi still won’t come out and say that Jesse Litsch will be the fifth starter, but he came pretty darn close to saying it today with this comment: "We’ve got five starters at the Major League level. So we’re pretty well set there." Soooo, that’s Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett, Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum and…well, Litsch. Ricciardi said the Jays are stretching out Josh Banks, David Purcey and Kane Davis, and Double-A pitchers Brett Cecil, Ricky Romero and Brandon Magee are on the club’s radar. The Jays are still pursuing potential trades, but there’s not enough flow available for a free-agent addition.

LEFT FIELD: When asked about the left field situation, Ricciardi said it’ll probably come down to whether Toronto skip John Gibbons is more comfortable with Reed Johnson or Shannon Stewart. That’d make you think Johnson is in the running, but with his next breath, Ricciardi said the Jays would probably wan’t to go with the best offensive club they can put together. Given how Ricciardi has pumped up Stewart’s offensive abilities, that sentiment would seem to point to him as the favorite for the job.

GIBBONS: Ricciardi was also asked about Gibbons being in the final year of his contract. The GM instantly issued great praise for the skipper, saying "I think Gibby will manage here a long time. All of us, at one point or another, are in the last year of our contract. Gibby knows he’s in good standing here. We like him a lot and the players like him." Right after that, one reporter asked why, if that’s really the case, was Gibbons not offered an extension. Ricciardi switched gears by saying, "Well, we’ll see. We’ll see how the year goes. We’ve got some expectations this year — like we’ve had in the past. We’ll see how they play out."

OTHER TIDBITS: Other items of interest included Ricciardi indicating that closer B.J. Ryan felt great one day after his spring debut. The GM said Ryan had normal soreness, but nothing out of the ordinary. … Ricciardi noted that starter Gustavo Chacin, who was optioned to Triple-A on Wednesday, probably wouldn’t be a viable option until around July. … Ricciardi said one of the biggest surprises of the spring has been Buck Coats: "We tried to get him for the last few years, whether it was a trade or a waiver claim or something like that. Then when we finally got him and you got to see him, he does a lot of things. He can be an extra outfielder."

After his start today, Roy Halladay expanded on his comments earlier this spring about the Jays lacking a sense of urgency last year. Instead of getting into that whole topic, let me just firect you all to the story I pieced together on the issue. One interesting item from that discussion was Halladay — a quiet presence in the clubhouse — said he would be willing to be more of a vocal leader on the team this year to hold players accountable.

That’s it for tonight. I’m going to read a few more pages of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (hooray for by one get one half off sales at the local bookstore) and then hit the sack. More bloggage coming manana…

Pirates again?

DUNEDIN, Fla. – It feels like Groundhog Day around here. Two home games in the past seven days and only Pittsburgh as the visitors. But, hey, the sun is out, there’s only a handful of clouds in the sky and there’s no long drive home when this game is over.

Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi held court for roughly 15 minutes with us scribes before the game, discussing a wide variety of topics: the fifth spot, left field, manager John Gibbons only being signed through this year, thoughts about Casey Janssen, the upcoming season and B.J. Ryan. I’ll be throwing together a few short items for the Web site on the scrum, and I’ll put some of what I don’t use on here after the game.

Until then, you’ll just have to stay on the edge of your seat (honestly, none of it was earth-shattering news) and be content with today’s lineups:

PITTSBURGH (5-11) at TORONTO (5-11)
at 10:05 p.m. ET at Knology Park

PIRATES
Nyjer Morgan, CF
Andrew McCutchen, LF
Chris Gomez, 1B
Xavier Nady, RF
Ronny Paulino, DH
Neil Walker, 3B
Brian Bixler, SS
Raul Chavez, CF
Josh Wilson, 2B

PITCHING: RHP Ian Snell

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

PITCHING: RHP Roy Halladay

What do you guys think about the Jays’ lineup today? I have a feeling that could potentially be a preview of Opening Day’s order. Gibbons seems to like Rios-Wells in the Nos. 2-3 spots, and he’s talked about using Stairs ahead of Overbay in the Nos. 6-7 holes. Gibby also hasn’t been committed to using Thomas as the cleanup hitter, meaning he could slip to fifth easily.

More later…

Rotating things around

ST. PETERSBURG – You heard it here first, B.J. Ryan is now in the running for the fifth spot in Toronto’s rotation. I mean, why else would he start on Friday before Jesse Litsch and why else would the Jays not commit to Litsch being the No. 5?

"Yeah, we should convert him," quipped Jays pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, joking about Ryan.

Ryan only started because the Jays wanted to make sure he got an inning done with rain clouds hovering overhead. Litsch followed with 4 2/3 innings in "relief" and gave up three runs on seven hits with three strikeouts and two walks. Litsch struggled with control, which isn’t good for a pitcher trying to wow Toronto.

Casey Janssen and Gus Chacin (a long shot at best, when camp opened) are both out of the running for the fifth, but Toronto continues to plead the fifth. Litsch appears to be the favorite, and manager John Gibbons and Arnsberg have both said they like him as the fifth, but their unwillingness to say he’s the clear frontrunner shows that the internal debate persists.

This could mean that the Jays have a trade in the works, or are merely unconvinced as an organization that Litsch can repeat what he did last season (3.81 ERA in 20 starts as a rook). Or, perhaps it’s just a way for GM J.P. Ricciardi to keep Litsch on his toes — keep the young pitcher from getting too comfortable out there.

With that rotation and the upcoming off-day in mind, here’s the tentative schedule through next weekend from Arnsberg:

Saturday vs. PIT: Roy Halladay
Sunday at MIN: Dustin McGowan
Monday at PIT: A.J. Burnett
Tuesday: OFF
Wednesday at BOS: TBA (Shaun Marcum Minor League game)
Thursday vs. NYY: TBA (Roy Halladay Minor League game)
Friday at DET: Jesse Litsch
Saturday at NYY: TBA (Dustin McGowan Minor League game)
Sunday vs. PHI: A.J. Burnett

Arnsberg wants to keep hiding his starts from the Yanks and BoSox, who play the Jays in the first two regular seaosn series. There’s also rumblings that manager John Gibbons is considering using a fifth starter on April 5 in order to give his starters an extra day of rest.

That’s all for today. I’m heading out. On the way back home, I’ll pop in the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols in honor of Wilner, who had never heard Anarchy in the UK before this spring.

Later…

Ryan avoids the rain

ST. PETERSBURG – Sorry for the delayed entry here. It’s the second inning, but I had to spend most of the pregame here at Progress Energy Park downstairs, trying to figure out if the Jays and Rays would get this game in in between the raindrops.

The game didn’t start until around 1:25 and just in case the rain picks up again, Toronto sent B.J. Ryan to the mound as the starter. In his Grapefruit League debit, Ryan turned in one shutout inning, striking out two and finishing the stint with 12 pitches (8 strikes).

Jesse Litsch is scheduled to take the mound in the second and is down to work four innings, weather permitting. On another note, Melky Cabrera and Shelley Duncan have been hit with suspensions for their part in the Rays-Yanks brawl the other day and they won’t be available for a few of the games in the season-opening series against Toronto.

Today’s lineups:

TORONTO (5-10) at TAMPA BAY (9-3-1)
at 1:25 p.m. ET at Progress Energy Park

BLUE JAYS
David Eckstein, SS
Scott Rolen, 3B
Alex Rios, RF
Vernon Wells, CF
Matt Stairs, DH
Shannon Stewart, LF
Lyle Overbay, 1B
Aaron Hill, 2B
Rod Barajas, C

PITCHING: LHP B.J. Ryan, RHP Jesse Litsch, LHP Scott Downs, LHP Brian Tallet, RHP Jeremy Accardo

RAYS
Elliott Johnson, 2B
Carl Crawford, LF
Willy Aybar, 3B
Cliff Floyd, DH
Eric Hinske, 1B
Dioneer Navarro, C
John Rodriguez, RF
Reid Brignac, SS
Jon Weber, CF

PITCHING: RHP Edwin Jackson

Sink or swim

Dsc01268CLEARWATER, Fla. – Back at the ol’ MLB.com headquarters here — otherwise known as the condo I’m staying at — where the internet connection is quick, reliable and blog-worthy.

The drive back from Winter Haven was uneventful, unless you consider that mass of cars that always shows up on the highays around Tampa eventful. Wilner didn’t insist on another Waffle House run, but he did request a stop at a 7-Eleven, so he could pick up some apples with caramel dipping sauce.

That quick bite had to act as a substitute for lunch, because the pulled pork sandwiches, which didn’t look good anyway, weren’t ***-friendly for poor Mike. The ham n’ cheese omelet I had this morning was more than enough to hold me until dinner time.

Wow, fourth graph here and food is the only topic at hand? Time to move on…

For those of you out there that still think Spring Training stats matter, you can begin hyperventilating at the sight of Shaun Marcum’s pitching line: 3 2/3 IP, 10 H, 5 R, 3 ER, 1 K, 0 BB, 1 HR, 65 pitches, 47 strikes.

What you don’t see within those numbers is what Marcum was doing, which was working on his two-seam sinking fastball over and over and over and over, even though the Indians were spraying it all over the yard and over the fence.

In the regular season, many of the counts that Marcum used his sinker in will be situations he turns to his changeup — his sick out-pitch. Take the 1-2 count to Pronk Hafner in the third. Marcum tested out the sinker and it promptly — pronkly? — was sent bouncing off the wall in right-center for a two-run tater.

Marcum really wants to perfect this pitch, so he has a reliable groundball-inducing option much like Roy Halladay. With a spot cemented in Toronto’s rotation, Marcum can afford to keep turning to the pitch without fear that he’s going to lose his job with subpar results. Marcum said he’ll keep firing away for one more start.

"If it doesn’t get better, I’ll throw it in the trash and go with what got me here," Marcum said.

After I got back to the condo here, I received word that the Jays made the following roster moves: Optioned Adam Lind, Curtis Thigpen, Robinzon Diaz, Buck Coats and Joe Inglett to Triple-A Syracuse and returned Ryan Patterson and Wayne Lydon to Minor League camp.

Catch you from St. Pete manana. Jesse Litsch takes the hill and B.J. Ryan is set to debut in Grapefruit League play. Stay tuned…

Trampus — King of Waffles

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. — Just arrived at Chain of Lakes Park here in the terribly named Winter Haven. On the way here, Wilner and I stopped off at a Waffle House to get some breakfast. Our waiter’s name? Trampus. I can’t make this stuff up.

At least I ran four miles this a.m., so I don’t feel so bad about eating at the House. Wilner insists we stop there every year on the way to Winter Haven, so I guess this makes it our last installment of the pseudo-annual event. The Tribe is skipping out on Florida in favor of Arizona for Spring Training next year.

Today’s lineups:

TORONTO (5-9) at CLEVELAND (6-8-1)
at 1:05 p.m. ET at Chain of Lakes Park

BLUE JAYS
Reed Johnson, RF
Gregg Zaun, DH
Joe Inglett, 2B
Lyle Overbay, 1B
Adam Lind, LF
John McDonald, SS
Buck Coats, CF
Hector Luna, 3B
Sal Fasano, C

PITCHING: RHP Shaun Marcum

INDIANS
Josh Barfield, 2B
David Dellucci, LF
Travis Hafner, DH
Victor Martinez, C
Casey Blake, 1B
Ben Francisco, RF
Jamey Carroll, SS
Danny Sandoval, 3B
Jason Tyner, CF

PITCHING: RHP Fausto Carmona

More later…internet connection permitting. It’s reeeaaaal shaky here.

Labrums and Fingernails

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Those are the storyines today. Casey Janssen is out for the year with a torn labrum in his right shoulder and A.J. Burnett is taking the mound without part of his right index fingernail.

There’s been some minor roster movement over the past few days. Prior to today’s game, lefty Gustavo Chacin was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse and Travis Snider was returned to Minor League camp. Yesterday, Russ Adams, Sergio Santos Tracy Thorpe, David Purcey and Jean Machi were optioned to Triple-A, while Pedro Lopez and Brian Jeroloman were sent back to Minors camp.

Before I delve back into the Janssen news for a bit, let’s get to today’s lineups:

PITTSBURGH (4-8-0) at TORONTO (4-9-0)
at 1:05 p.m. ET at Knology Park

PIRATES
Nate McCloth, CF
Jack Wilson, SS
Freddy Sanchez, DH
Jason Bay, LF
Adam LaRoche, 1B
Xavier Nady, RF
Ronny Paulino, C
Jose Bautista, 3B
Luis Rivera, 2B

PITCHING: LHP Zach Duke

BLUE JAYS
David Eckstein, SS
Alex Rios, RF
Vernon Wells, CF
Frank Thomas, DH
Scott Rolen, 3B
Aaron Hill, 2B
Reed Johnson, LF
Rod Barajas, C
Marco Scutaro, 1B

PITCHING: RHP A.J. Burnett

Now, in regards to Janssen. His absence will certainly effect both the rotation and bullpen. Brandon League looks to be in a good spot for a job in the ‘pen now, and John Parrish could make a push for a starting role.

Jesse Litsch is the clear favorite — Gus Chacin isn’t an option anymore — but GM J.P. Ricciardi said the fifth spot isn’t Litsch’s job by default. Ricciardi said the team would explore trade possibilities and perhaps other avenues. There are a few free agents still out there, and while adding depth is never bad, I say give Litsch the job.

The Jays are also saying the right things about Janssen’s injury, pumping up the idea that he’ll be back at 100 percent by next spring. That’s all well and good, but torn labrums aren’t easy to come back from. It could be a career threatening injury, but Toronto won’t say that.

One comment that I found interesting from Ricciardi was "With Casey Janssen, we have a great bullpen. Without him, we have a good bullpen." This quote comes from the main person who’s been hyping up Janssen as a potential starter. That made it sound like Janssen was going to be in the bullpen no matter what. Interesting, at least.

On another note, there are a few regular players making the trip to Winter Haven for the game against the Indians tomorrow. Shaun Marcum will pitch, followed by Parrish and others, and Gregg Zaun, Lyle Overbay, along with John McDonald, Marco Scutaro, Reed Johnson and Adam Lind, among others, had their names circled on the travel sheet.

I believe my name is circled as well.

UPDATE 4:21 p.m. – After picking up the save in today’s 4-1 win over the pie-rats, Josh Banks was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse. Burnett pitched well — I continue to be impressed in how strong he’s looked even without his curve — and Wells launched his first homer of the spring.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.