TORONTO — It really does seem as if it’s coming down to J.A. Happ, doesn’t it?
This was a lost weekend for the Toronto Blue Jays in more ways than one. Francisco Liriano looked uncomfortable on Saturday before developing a neck issue which could rob him of a start before the trade deadline and might have further diminished his trade value.
Marco Estrada? Our Ben Nicholson-Smith detailed the statistical and confidence collapse of a guy who rebuilt his reputation in the past three seasons with the Blue Jays: 38 earned runs in 36 innings over eight starts; just twice completing five innings. His batting average on balls in play since June 1 is just under .400. His mark from 2015 to 2016 was .224, the best in baseball.
The last instalment in his crash came Sunday: 3.2 innings in which he needed a first-inning visit from his manager. Even with the Blue Jays professing not to be in rebuild mode but rather looking to add pieces to help make the now-improbable a little less improbable in 2017 while bolstering their cause in 2018, Liriano and Estrada’s imminent free agency made them pieces around which trade packages could be assembled. Straight up you wouldn’t get much for them. But add in a mid-level prospect and agree to take on some long-term commitments? Who knows? Now … maybe not so much.
As much as contending teams don’t offer much for “projects,” baseball is full of people who think they can reinvent the wheel, so maybe somebody out there thinks they have the key that would make Estrada an asset down the stretch. Liriano? The lack of command that has prevented the Blue Jays from viewing him as a slider-fastball reliever is something that was talked about throughout the league when he was acquired by the Pittsburgh Pirates. That also cuts into his value as perhaps a bullpen piece for another club.
Which brings us back to Happ, who until he was drawn and quartered by the Houston Astros in the game before the all-star break looked like the kind of pitcher built for the stretch drive. He’s tough with runners in scoring position (an OBP of .246 compared to the league average of .338) and has a strikeout rate of 39.7 per cent the third time through the lineup, first among all qualifiers in the Majors and double the MLB average of 18.6 per cent). Few pitchers have been able to come over to the rough and rugged American League East and change the way the game thinks of them as Happ has done.
Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports – the GM Whisperer – reported Sunday that the Milwaukee Brewers were eying Happ, but that there were no formal talks nor any indication the Blue Jays were inclined to move him. Happ makes $13 million next season in the final year of a three-year deal, so he’d be perfectly fine as part of the Jays rotation. President and CEO Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins seem to view the contractual status of Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and Roberto Osuna as constituting a window that runs through 2020 and any move they make needs to bring in assets that dove-tail with those three as much as possible.
If Sonny Gray and Yu Darvish go off the board and somebody’s willing to overpay at the deadline, then and only then should Happ be a candidate to be moved. Don’t be fooled into thinking he can be replaced this winter in free agency.
CANADIAN MEN’S SOCCER
Canadian men’s national soccer head coach Octavio Zambrano is drawing deserved praise for the manner in which he’s committed to youth to get the country into the quarter-finals of the Gold Cup. But through the round-robin stage of the event, it’s the team’s two veterans who have attracted the eye.
Junior Hoilett, one of the prodigal sons of Canadian soccer, was his early 20s as a Brampton native who toyed with the possibility of playing for either Jamaica or – a long-shot, here – England. He didn’t commit to Canada until 2015 and wasn’t officially cap-tied until last year’s World Cup qualifying loss to the Honduras.
An experienced European player, he has been engaged almost from the start of this tournament, crossing balls into the box repeatedly and drawing the second-most fouls (nine) in the tournament heading into Sunday’s final group stage matches. He has been a handful for defenders and, with Cyle Larin being added for the knockout stage, it will be fascinating to see how he and Alphonso Davies play off the Orlando FC striker and vice-versa.
Scottish-born midfielder Scott Arfield of Burnley, meanwhile, has emerged as a voice on the field and in the locker-room. Eligible to play for Canada despite representing Scotland at the under-19, under-21 and ‘B’ levels because his father was born in Toronto, Arfield not only logs consistent minutes in the Premiership for a club that punches above its weight, but he is also unsullied when it comes to Canada’s twisted international soccer history in a way that the likes of Julian de Guzman or even Will Johnson could ever be.
Getting through to the quarter-finals of the Gold Cup hardly hints that Canada will be a factor in the next round of World Cup qualifying, But there is a significance to the manner in which Zambrano’s 4-3-3 appears to have tempered the usual fear Canadian players have with the ball at their feet and the manner in which there is some nuance creeping into the units game.
QUIBBLES AND BITS
• Of course, you knew this would happen. After his remarkable performance in Monday’s Home Run Derby, the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge was going to be under the spotlight for any signs of a slump, which is a concern that is part old wives’ tale/urban myth/anecdotally evident. Judge was 0-for-13 Sunday before an infield single and, yes, he was robbed by the Boston Red Sox’s Jackie Bradley, Jr. But, if you’re interested, he is 1-for-18 with six strikeouts since the Derby. Hmm. After Sunday’s game the eight competitors in the Derby had combined to go 22-for-98 (.224) with the Colorado Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon, the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez and Los Angeles Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger homering. Bellinger’s came Saturday when he became the third Los Angeles Dodger to hit for the cycle, joining Wes Parker (1970) and Orlando Hudson (2009). Dixie Walker (1944), Jackie Robinson (1948) and Gil Hodges (1949) cycled for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
• One of Donald Fehr’s contemporaries in the baseball world wonders how much longer he will stay on as head of the NHLPA in light of what appears to be another one of those internal dramas that have plagued the association for much of its existence. This one consists of an apparent tiff ostensibly involving finances, but likely rooted in the players’ hell-bent desire to help line the coffers of the IOC without any tangible benefit to themselves. Two things to keep in mind if this drama resurfaces in the early fall when everybody gets back from Muskoka. First, Fehr is an outsider in the hockey world and there is a segment of that community that has always despised him (witness those silly “leaks” on the Friday night of the last lockout that called into question Fehr’s command of his union). It’s no surprise there would be a whispering campaign against him. Hockey people like their players dumb and indentured. Second, Fehr does get a lot of money. His reported annual salary of $3 million is three times what he made annually as head of the Major League Baseball Players Association.
• Glenroy Gilbert, head coach of Athletics Canada, plans on running his first team out in the men’s 4×100-metres relay event at next weekends Diamond League meet in Monaco, one week ahead of the World Championships in London. But Gilbert told me this week he was uncertain whether that meant Andre De Grasse would match up against Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, even though it’s the last tuneup ahead of the worlds. Bolt has already committed to running the 100-metres individual race in Monaco, which De Grasse is planning on skipping. De Grasse, incidentally, set a meet record of 20.03 seconds Sunday in winning the Diamond League 200-metres race in Rabat, Morocco. He has two 200-metre wins and a pair of 100-metre wins in his past four Diamond League events, to go along with his gold medal in both races at last weekend’s Canadian championship in Ottawa.
The “Family Values Tour” of Floyd Mayweather and Connor McGregor accomplished little other than contributing to the decline of Western civilization and filling dead summer space.
I’m not certain any more pay-per-view packages were sold, and both participants were shown yet again to be reprehensible human beings. But what was interesting was watching the way the fight was portrayed in North American and contrasting it to Europe. Nobody here sees it as an athletic event. Nothing is on the line. MMA won’t gain or lose fans and there aren’t enough boxing fans left for it to much matter.
But the ITV feed of the London event was telling. The buildup to the appearance of the two fighters was mostly all about upcoming boxing matches – Chris Eubanks Jr.’s in particular – and there was serious analysis about Mayweather as a boxer. It was a reminder of just how much healthier boxing is in the U.K. and Europe in general, where it is very much a part of the popular discourse.
Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show from 9 a.m. to noon ET and Baseball Central from noon to 1 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan