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Phillips: Are the Blue Jays flawed or off to a bad start?

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Steve Phillips, TSN Baseball Analyst
6/28/2013 2:09:06 PM
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Each week, TSN Baseball Analyst Steve Phillips breaks down all the big stories and issues around Major League Baseball on TSN.ca. This week, he looks at the Toronto Blue Jays' roller coaster first half, the team's decision to demote (and promote) Munenori Kawasaki, A-Rod's social media spat with the Yankees and how some of the game's top teams are getting by without a solid closer.

1) We've seen the Jays struggle, and we've seen them win 11 straight. Are the Blue Jays tragically flawed or is this just a team that got off to a bad start?

"It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." Charles Dickens wrote this in his first chapter of his novel A Tale of Two Cities about the time leading up to the French Revolution. 

He may well have been writing about the Toronto Blue Jays' first three months of the baseball season. It's been a roller coaster ride for sure. So we're left trying to figure out whether this will be a season of light or darkness?  A season of wisdom or foolishness?  Do we have everything before us or nothing before us?  Who are the Blue Jays?

There's a saying in sports: "You're never as good as look when you're playing your best and never as bad as you look when you are playing your worst." 

This Jays team has looked really bad at times. They were 10-21 on May 4 and the surprise wasn't how they had lost 21 games - it was how they won 10 considering how badly they had played. By early June, things hadn't improved much as they were 12 games out of first and in the cellar of the AL East. Boy, they looked bad.

But then it happened.

The Jays started to look good. Really good.

Not only did they start to hit; they hit in the clutch. Not only did their starters pitch better; they became the best in baseball for two weeks. Their bullpen - which had been surprisingly strong all season - became perfect as they had a 28-inning scoreless streak. Their defense, which had been extremely generous to the opposition (allowing the league's second most unearned runs), started to make plays. Big plays. Game-saving plays. They looked like baseball's best team.

So which is it? Will the real Toronto Blue Jays please stand up?

I believe in them. I've believed from the offseason, through spring training and during their awful first two months. And now when they look great.

Whenever a team has a significant roster turnover in the offseason, it takes time for them to come together. The World Baseball Classic made finding a rhythm and cohesiveness very difficult as the Jays had numerous players representing their respective countries. The early injuries to Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson were particularly damaging.  Reyes is the catalyst to get things going and Johnson is the stopper to shut down losing streaks. The Jays never got it going and never were able to stop during the first two months. But now they're back - Reyes, Johnson and the Blue Jays are all back.

I picked the Jays to win the division. They may not do that, but I still believe they'll make the playoffs. I like their starting pitching and that will be difference maker in the second half of the season.

So this will be the best of times - a season of light and a season of wisdom. I sure hope they don't make me look foolish!

2) In his time with the team, Munenori Kawasaki became a fan favorite and his energy and personality appeared to be a very important part of the team. Was he the wrong player to send down earlier this week when Jose Reyes came back?

Munenori Kawasaki is back - What time is the parade?  Melky Cabrera was placed on the DL Thursday with left knee tendinitis and Kawasaki was recalled from Triple-A. I know you all love him. Heck, I love him and why wouldn't you? He's a hard worker - tough, energetic and he loves the game. He's fun and funny. Grateful and humble. He's everything you want in a great player.

Except he's not a great player.
 
Every good team needs a Munenori Kawasaki, but if you have 25 of them you'll finish in last place.

Everyone was so upset at the notion that sending Kawasaki could mess up the team's mojo. Now team chemistry and spirit is important and Kawasaki is beloved by his teammates as much as he is by the fans. But chemistry doesn't develop through mutual adoration; it comes from winning. When Reyes returned from the DL, Kawasaki became the 26th best player on a 25-man roster. It's as simple as that. He needed to be demoted. Now with Cabrera on the DL, Kawasaki is back in the picture.

There's no doubt that Kawasaki will be back in Buffalo soon. And yes - fans will be upset again. But don't panic; he'll return to Toronto again in September if not sooner.

3) Alex Rodriguez and the New York Yankees are at odds over his rehab status and how it should be handled (A-Rod went public on Twitter with his thoughts, which GM Brian Cashman refuted). Who's right and who's wrong in the dispute?

Cashman said Alex Rodriguez needed to "Shut the ---- up!"  And Cashman is my hero. Do you know how many times I wanted to say that to a player or manager? 

Rodriguez had tweeted out his excitement that he had been cleared to start playing in rehab games by the doctor who performed surgery on him.  Unfortunately, that doctor didn't have exclusive right to approve Rodriguez's return to the field. Also, Rodriguez's tweet contradicted a statement made earlier in the week by Cashman.

Now Cashman was wrong to lash out at Alex Rodriguez as he did. His aggressive response toward Rodriguez represents the anger and frustration that the Yankees front office and the fans hold for A-Rod.
 
They're mad about the $114 million that Rodriguez is due through 2017. They're mad that he may have misrepresented himself when they gave him a new contract. They're mad that he was injured and that the injury may have stemmed from his use of performance-enhancing drugs. They're angry that he performed at his his worst when the games meant the most last season. They're disgusted that he sent a note to a woman in the stands during a playoff game. Cashman is personally upset because he isn't the one who gave Rodriguez the ridiculous contract, yet he's the one suffering now because he is unable to make the necessary moves to improve the team because of the contract. So yes - the Yankees are upset. Very upset.

There is some good news for the Yankees. The longer they drag out A-Rod's return, the more insurance they can recover (80 cents on the dollar) from his disability policy. And if they stall long enough, maybe he'll get a 100-game suspension for his alleged role in the Biogenesis drug scandal and save close to $15 million in salary.

This relationship is only going to get worse. And just think, they have just over four more seasons together.

4) Foul Ball

Every time I think I know a little bit about baseball, things happen and I really start to wonder.  I believe championship teams need solid, stable closers. All outs are not equal. There is a reason why some guys can handle pitching the ninth inning and some guys can't. The last out of the game is the toughest out.

I have always preferred veteran experienced closers. I want a guy who has failed before. It's easy to handle earning the save and winning games. Not everyone can handle the mental anguish of blowing a game in the ninth inning. Even the best closers will blow a save every now and then but they have the ability to flush out the negative thoughts and get back on track. If they don't get it right one time, they get it right the next time.

This all makes sense, doesn't it?  So can someone explain to me how three of the six teams leading their divisions have had serious closer problems this year? 

How is it that one team has a nearly perfect closer who in the past couldn't pitch in the seventh or eighth innings, let alone the ninth?

The Boston Red Sox are now on their third closer of the season - Koji Uehara. The first two lost their jobs due to injuries and poor performance. The Detroit Tigers let Jose Valverde out to pasture last winter and then re-signed him in May because rookie Bruce Rondon imploded in the role. Valverde then reminded the Tigers why they let him go in the first place and they have released him again.

The Arizona Diamondbacks were counting on J.J. Putz to close, but when he got hurt they gave the job to Heath Bell who had an ERA over 5.00 last year and is headed that way again this season. 

The Pittsburgh Pirates have had an unbelievable season so far. Their closer Jason Grilli has saved 26 of 27 games and has a 1.82 ERA. Grilli was once a four-run pitcher - meaning that he was okay to pitch when his team was
four runs up or four runs down. If the game was close, he tightened up and made bad pitches. So who is the guy on the mound now?

So far this year, everything I believe about the importance of a closer has been crushed. Yet I hold steadfast in my opinion. 

The instability of the closers on these teams will cost them. It may or may not keep them out of the playoffs, but at some point it will cost them.
 
Unfortunately, it will likely happen when the games mean the most.

Here is my vow: If for some reason I don't get it right this time and closers aren't that important, I am going to bounce back and get it right the next time.

Maybe I should have been a closer.

Esmil Rogers J.P. Arencibia (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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