Phillips: As Josh Johnson goes, so do the Blue Jays

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Steve Phillips, TSN Baseball Analyst
7/5/2013 2:26:53 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 controversial slide by Colby Rasmus into Omar Infante, the important effect of Josh Johnson on the Blue Jays, the Texas Rangers' signing of Manny Ramirez, and the rocky state of umpiring this season in the majors.

1) Torii Hunter and Max Scherzer suggested that Colby Rasmus's hard slide into Detroit's Omar Infante on Wednesday was a "dirty" and suspendable play. Agree or disagree?
 
The Tigers believe Rasmus' slide was dirty but John Gibbons and the Blue Jays players believe it was just tough hard-nosed baseball. It is amazing to me that people can look at the same thing and have two very different perspectives on what they see. 

More often than not where we stand on something is determined by where we sit on it. Two teams can see the same play and can see very different things.

The Tigers sit in one dugout and say it was a dirty play and the Jays sit in the other dugout and say it was clean. 

In their dugout, the Tigers saw Rasmus slide late into second base with the intention of hurting Infante. The Tigers saw Rasmus slide when he was almost on top of second base. Most players slide earlier so that they end up on the base at the end of the slide. The Tigers saw Rasmus' spikes on the bottom of his shoes pointing toward Infante's shin when he first jumped into the slide. This spikes-up style of sliding is often done to cause injury to a player. Finally, the Tigers saw a play where their well-liked teammate ended up injured by a not so well-liked Jays' player. 

In the Blue Jays dugout they saw Rasmus go into second base hard with the intention of breaking up a double play. Nothing more. Yes, he started his slide late but it was a legal slide where he could still touch the base. In their mind, Rasmus was trying to make contact with Infante to disrupt his ability to complete the double play, not injure him. The Jays saw Rasmus's spikes kind of high but they never made contact with Infante's shin - only his foot. The Jays saw Infante's injury as the unfortunate by-product of the risk of turning a double play.

So who is right? 

Well first let me tell you where I sit before I tell you where I stand. I grew up in Detroit, a Tigers fan. I love Tigers' manager Jim Leyland and have great respect for him. He has been very kind to me over the years. I also played in the minor leagues with Jays' manager John Gibbons. He worked for me in the Mets organization. I consider him a friend. As a minor league baseball player I took pride in playing tough hard-nosed baseball. I loved to break up double plays. Yet, I was a second baseman/shortstop so I understand the difficulties and dangers of turning a double play. This is where I sit.

Here is where I stand: Colby Rasmus did start his slide late but it was legal. He did have his spikes a bit high but it was because he jumped into the slide for maximum momentum. The spikes did not make contact with Infante's leg. It is unfortunate that Infante was injured but it is the risk that second basemen assume when they blindly approach the base and turn the double play. I hope he is back in the Tigers' lineup soon. 

In my opinion Rasmus's slide was just tough hard-nosed baseball and was not malicious. He did his job and did it well.

Another significant thing to consider is that I don't believe Infante had a shot at getting the double play anyways. Rajai Davis hit the ball slowly. He is fast and was quick out of the box. Infante should have just settled for the forceout at second base and jumped to avoid the contact from hard-charging Rasmus.


2) Following another tough start on Wednesday, is it time for the Blue Jays to see what the market is for impending free agent Josh Johnson?

The Blue Jays are tough to figure. They have shown more than a flash of brilliance in winning 11 games in a row earlier this year but they have gone 3-8 since then. It is tough to figure out who this team truly is. Are they contenders or pretenders? The standings say they are only 6.5 games out of a wild card spot but they sure don't feel like a playoff team this week. 

Josh Johnson is a lot like the Jays themselves. He has shown his own flashes of brilliance in his career. At times he has dominated the opposition and looked like one of the best pitchers in the game. At other times he has been affected by injuries. There are times too when he looks lost and battles against himself and not his opponent.

Is it a coincidence that the pitcher with the most talent and potential has been the most inconsistent starter on an inconsistent team loaded with talent? Not really.

Johnson has now given up 11 runs in his last 8 1/3 innings of work. He is struggling, that much is clear. His velocity however is good as he pitched mostly with a 94 MPH fastball in his start on Wednesday. His velocities on his secondary pitches are appropriate as well, creating enough differential to get the necessary change of speed from his fastball. He seems healthy and strong.

So what is the problem?

The problem is execution. It is as simple as that. It is up to Pete Walker, Jays pitching coach, and Johnson to become more consistent with his location. He has to become the ace that is within him.

Right now Alex Anthopoulos is stuck in limbo. What should he do with his team? What should he do with Josh Johnson

Anthopolous can make a trade here and there, but if his good players don't play well, they will not win. So when he says regarding trades, "Right now, we're not engaged in anything at all." What he means is that he is waiting to see who his team is. He is waiting to see if Josh Johnson will pitch like Josh Johnson. I will go so far as to say that if Johnson doesn't pitch like the ace he can be the Jays will not make the playoffs. They need a stopper. They need an ace. Johnson is the key.

Waiting is the right thing for Anthopolous to do. 

Beware though that if you hear rumours that the Jays are shopping Johnson it will mean that Anthopolous believes this season is over. So despite his troubles you don't want to see Johnson traded. If he is, hockey will become the focus earlier than expected in Toronto.


3) The Rangers signed enigmatic Manny Ramirez this week, with the intention of making him a DH. Good move or bad move?

Manny Ramirez hit .352 with eight home runs in 183 at bats in Taiwan's Chinese Professional Baseball League this spring. That league is commensurate with a high Class A league similar to the Jays' Dunedin team in the Florida State League. It isn't great competition.

Speculation arose that Ramirez left the Taiwanese team with the hope to sign with a major league club. The word on the street was that the Hiroshima Carp of the Japanese Professional League had some interest. There seemed to be little reaction among MLB clubs. 
The signing is surprising as the Rangers admittedly never scouted Ramirez in Taiwan nor did they attend his workout in Florida last week. They just looked at the back of his baseball card and saw a .312 career batting average 555 home runs and 1,831 RBI.

It is not often that general managers make decisions like that but Jon Daniels, Rangers GM, realizes he is in a battle with the A's and surging Angels to make the playoffs. When it comes to the baseball evaluation for Ramirez it is easy. The back of the baseball card does tell the story. Watching Ramirez beat up on Class A caliber talent wouldn't tell a scout anything. The real issue is whether Manny can still hit big league pitching and whether he will be a good teammate and play Ranger baseball.

Manny is aloof. He doesn't always hustle. He can come up with phantom injuries when he wants a couple of days off. He can be silly and goofy sometimes too. Other than that he is an easy guy to have around.

The bottom line is that talent wins in the major leagues. We would all like to have a team of milk drinkers who are clean cut and solid citizens. But talent wins. Managers have to manage the personalities, egos and quirks of the players.

I don't like this move for the Rangers. I LOVE IT! Why not? If Manny can still play he will be a low cost, big return player. If he can't play or behave then they can cut him loose and move on. The risk is minimal, the return can be great. 


4) Foul Ball

The umpiring in Major League Baseball has been atrocious this year. There have been horrible calls from missed home runs to misunderstanding the rules. It has been awful. In my lifetime in baseball I don't remember so many blatant and obvious mistakes. We have a problem and it needs to be fixed.

More expansive use of instant replay is necessary and it needs to happen quickly. Easier said than done as things never happen all that quickly in MLB. This has to be negotiated between the Players Union and the Commissioner's office and then once agreed upon taken to the Umpires Union for their approval.

I remember at a general managers meeting in 1999 there was a vote taken on the potential usage of instant replay. There were three of us who voted in favour of it. Only three! The next year the vote was taken again and 10 voted in favour. The following year the number went to 15 and each year thereafter the numbers grew until the Commissioner relented and implemented limited use of instant replay at the end of the 2008 season.

What we have in place now though is not enough. This season makes that clear as day. There are some changes pending for 2014 but they need to happen now. Next year is too late.

All I want is for the right call to be made.

Here is what MLB needs to do: Each umpiring crew becomes a five-man staff instead of four. Their rotation includes each base and the replay booth up in the press box.

Each manager is given a red flag to throw on the field when they question a non-ball/strike call. This will save time on arguments and the ensuing umpire caucusing that takes place.

The umpire in the replay booth will have final say on what the replay shows. He will call down his decision and play will continue.

The plays to be reviewed will be expanded beyond the current home run/no home run fair/foul calls. Bang-bang plays at first base can be reviewed. Tag plays at any base can be reviewed. Hit by pitch can be reviewed. Catch or no catch on a trapped fly ball can be reviewed. And more...

Sure there are predicaments with this. Where do runners on base get assigned if a call is changed from a catch to a trapped ball? What if an out call ends an inning and the baserunners stop but then the call is overturned. Where do the runners go? None of this matters to me. Put them where you judge they would be and move on. Overturning big obvious mistakes is critical.

As a general manager I would never have a problem with losing a game on an overturned call when it is the right call. And I don't want to win a game because of a botched call by an umpire either.

Where there is crisis there is opportunity. There is an umpiring crisis this year. Hopefully, we can use it as an opportunity to improve the game and ensure that the right and proper calls get made.

Josh Johnson (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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