The Rays are about to take on the American East leading Toronto Blue Jays, so I exchanged questions with Tom Dakers of the Toronto Blue Jays SB Nation site, Bluebird Banter. My answers to his questions are available here. You can also check out the matchups in our Blue Jays series preview.
Ian Malinowski: How surprised are you to be sitting in first place in the AL East right now? Do you think the team can keep it up?
Tom Dakers: I'm pretty surprised. Coming into the season I saw them as a .500 team. Maybe if they got a little bit lucky they might be slightly above .500. We deserved some luck after last year. My big hope was that they would stay on the edge of the race until mid-season, when our top 2 pitching prospects, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez would (in my little fantasy world) be ready to join the team and give us a boost that might get us into the playoffs.
So far, the injury gods -- who worked their magic on almost every player on the Blue Jays roster last season -- have been far gentler on us. If the team can remain healthy, we could have the best offense in the AL. Our bullpen could be as good as anyone's too, so we'll likely live and die with the starting rotation. If the rotation can be league average or so, and pitch us into the sixth or seventh innings most nights, we should be able to stay in the race. If we were to have an injury or two in the rotation, it won't be near as much fun.
IM: Give us a preview of the pitchers we're going to see, Hutchison, Buherle, and Hendricks.
TD: Drew Hutchison is just 23. He came up to the majors two years ago, made 10 pretty good starts, then, in the first inning of his 11th major league start, he walked off the mound and into Dr. Andrew's operating room. He missed almost all of last season recovering from the surgery, making a few minor league starts and pitching in the Arizona Fall League. He was a long shot to make the rotation out of spring training, but he was great all spring and his competition for the back of the rotation was terrible. He's been great. Throws mid-90s, hits his spots, keeps the ball down, and gets strikeouts. In his last two starts he gave us a complete game shutout against the Rangers and 5.2 innings of 1-run ball against the Red Sox. I think, by the end of the season, we'll be considering him our ace.
Mark Buehrle is, well, the same guy he's been for the past decade, just a more successful version of that guy. He's 8-1 with a 2.16 ERA and really he's been pretty much full value for those numbers. He's fun to watch, he gets the ball and throws. He doesn't stand around considering what pitch to throw. He says he'd rather throw the wrong pitch than mess up his rhythm. He hits his spots, doesn't strikeout many, but uses his defense. And he doesn't throw much harder than you do.
Liam Hendriks (no c), is someone that, as one of the newspapers so delicately put it, the Jays pulled off the scrap heap to pitch to (and beat) the A's. Like Buehrle, he throws strikes and lets his defense do the work for him. I don't know all that much about him other than that he's Australian, so I'd imagine he's good at knife recognition, drinks Fosters and knows the right spot to punch a crocodile, if one would happen to turn up on the pitchers' mound.
IM: I was always under the impression that Esmil Rogers was a decent guy to have around. What happened? (for Rays fans who don't know, he was DFA'd)
TD: What happened was he was terrible each and every time he pitched for us this year. Why is a different question and a tough one to answer. He was getting strikeouts (21 in 20.2 innings), he wasn't walking many (just 7), but he was getting hit, hard and often. In his 20.2 innings he gave up 28 hits, including 5 home runs. To me, it looked like his fastball was, though thrown pretty hard, straight as an arrow and major league hitters can get to a pitch that doesn't move. Add in that he couldn't seem to locate his other pitches and you have your basic recipe for disaster. The Jays kept him as long as they did because he was decent last year and he was out of options. When they did DFA him, he cleared waivers (surprisingly there isn't a big marked for pitchers who can't get anyone out). Now he is in Buffalo hoping to find his missing ability there (maybe under a plate of chicken wings?).
IM: I see that Brett Lawrie has played 76 innings at second base this year. I thought he was going to be moved there full time at some point. What stopped that project? What is the situation at second base right now?
TD: They talked about doing that last year, and he played there for a couple of games, got injured and the idea died. Or at least I had hoped it died, but apparently it was playing 'possum. To backtrack a bit, Adam Lind spent a couple of weeks on the DL and his replacement, Juan Francisco, was terrific. He's hitting .280/.370/.602 with 8 home runs in 28 games, so when Lind returned, they wanted to find a way to keep Juan's bat in the lineup. How to do that?
Well, it turns out that Francisco can play third base. Can play third might be overstating it. He does have a good arm and if a ball is hit directly at him, he can pick it up and throw it to first. If it is hit more than a couple of feet to his left or his right, it becomes the left fielder's problem.
Against RH pitching Juan stands at third and Lawrie moves over to second base. He's not terrible there. He has plenty of range, but he hasn't played enough that it is natural to him yet. Against lefties, Lawrie plays third and Steve Tolleson plays second. Tolleson has been surprisingly good, hitting .275/.356/.550, in18 games and he makes all the plays on defense. As long as Francisco keeps hitting (or until opposing pitchers stop throwing him fastballs), that's the way the Jays will do things.
IM: On the topic of Brett Lawrie, is he looking like a bust at this point, or do y'all still hold out hope that he can become an above average major league regular?
TD: Lawrie is still just 24 and he has an fWAR of 6.8 to this point in his career, so he really hasn't been all that bad. He just hasn't had that season that we've all been expecting yet, but he's young, he might yet figure it out. There are a lot of moving parts to his swing (likely too many) -- a Red Bull infused set of twitches and tics -- and he does have a hard time getting his timing down. He started slow, this year, but, for May, he's hit .273/.324/.455, not all that bad. Hopefully, as the season goes on, he'll continue to improve.
IM: Jose Bautista is walking nearly 20% of the time. What's changed for him. Has he altered his approach, or have pitchers suddenly decided (several years late) that it was time to get afraid?
TD: Jose has always had a good eye at the plate. He walked 20.2% of the time in 2011, but the last couple of seasons he hasn't been quite as patient. Why has it come back this year? In part, it might be because Edwin Encarnacion, hitting behind him, started the season slowly and pitchers decided it would be better to face Edwin than Jose. It might, in part, be because of the change in batting coaches, bringing a change in philosophies. I think, the last couple of seasons he was encouraged to expand his zone in a misguided effort to drive in more runs.
IM: Bigger home run threat, Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion?
TD: At the moment? Edwin. Edwin is locked in right now. He has hit 12 home runs in May. He hit two home runs in back-to-back games against the Red Sox last week. Every at bat he seems to hit the ball hard. He's always been a streak hitter and, when he's on, he's as good as anyone in baseball. Of course, next week Bautista might be the one that's hot.
IM: On the same line of questioning, Casey Janssen or Brett Cecil? Why are they each so good now? Who's better?
TD: Casey Janssen started the season on the DL and boy did we miss him. I don't believe in the 'proven closer' thing, I think if you are a good reliever you should be able to get saves. Unfortunately, our relievers don't seem to agree with me. When Casey was hurt, no lead was safe. We blew leads in close games and in games where we were up by a bunch of runs. Since he's been back, Janssen has 7 saves in 7 opportunities and he hasn't allowed a run yet. The whole team seems more confident with him available to close out games.
Cecil, in the past has been much better vs. LHH, but this year, he's been pretty effective against both lefties and righties. Small sample size and all. As a reliever, he's picked up a couple of MPH on his fastball and he has a very good curve. He one of John Gibbons' favorite setup men.
IM: Say that the Rays are out of contention at the deadline and the Jays are in a race for the division. What would you offer from the Toronto system for David Price?
To be honest, what the Rays would want, I wouldn't be willing to give up, unless he was willing to sign an extension with us, and I doubt that would happen. But, our top pitching prospect is Aaron Sanchez and I doubt the Rays would talk unless he was on the table. And, of course, the Rays would want more than that. I'd likely offer Sean Nolin (#127 on John Sickels MLB prospects list). I'm not sure that would do it for the Rays and I'd really don't want to want to give up Sanchez. I think it would all depend on how desperate the Jays are at that point and, of course, how sure the Rays are that they wouldn't be able to sign Price.