( Photo Credit : MLB.COM)

Its Go Time! Angels Welcome Blue Jays For 50th Anniversary Home Opening Series

There are story lines a plenty as the Halos welcome the Toronto Blue Jays for a 3 game weekend series. Tonight marks the Angels 5oth home opener , Vernon Wells will take on his former club for the first time and Scott Kazmir looks to right his wrongs as he takes the hill Saturday. There were so many factors at play and this is such a big early season series that we saw fit to collaborate with Jared Macdonald of  Jays Journal to help preview the series and lend some expertise on the Blue Jays.

Lets take a look at this series at a glance as Jared and I give you our thoughts on the pitching match-ups, players to watch and answer 3 burning questions from both the Halo and Jays perspective. 

Pitching Match-ups

  • Game 1 : Kyle Drabek ( 1-0 , 1.29 ERA)  vs Ervin Santana ( 0-0 , 4.05 ERA )
  • Kyle Drabek was electric in his first career start versus the Twins on April 2nd, throwing  7 innings of one hit, one run ball while striking out 7. He retired 15 of the first 17 batters he faced, with the only blemishes being a pair of walks to now-injured Twins second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Drabek had all of his pitches going, favoring his devastating curveball and menacing cutter to get his outs. He’ll look to work on his control in his first career start versus the Angels tonight – as he threw just 54 of his 101 pitches for strikes in his last start – but his raw ability as a power pitcher will definitely make Angels hitters work to get any hits off of him.
  • Ervin Santana looks to follow up two lights out performances by Jered Weaver and Dan Haren and lead the Halo’s to victory in their home opener Friday night. Ervin was solid in his last start going 6/2-3 innings giving up three runs on seven hits, with two walks and six strikeouts. He left with the lead and was in line to win before the second of the Angels  three bull pen implosions in Kansas City happen. As usual the key for Santana is slider command. If Ervin can manage to throw his slider for both a strike and an out pitch he can be a devastating pitcher to face. When he is not locating his slider,  hitters can lay off the breaking pitch, sit fastball and force Santana to work hard for outs
  • Game 2: Brett Cecil vs. Matt Palmer
  • In his last start against the Twins, Brett Cecil looked like two different pitchers. After striking out the side in the first and mixing up his pitches extremely well over his first four innings – the only blemish being a solo home run by Danny Valencia and his only hit allowed at that point – Cecil pitched differently in the fifth. That inning, he started pitching up in the zone en route to allowing 5 singles a walk. Travis Snider’s cannon throw to get Valencia at home plate helped limit the damage to two runs, but Cecil will definitely look to get past the fifth inning and a mere 75 pitches in his start against the Angels on Saturday. In  2 career starts versus the Angels, Cecil is 1-1 with a 4.85 ERA with 4 strikeouts, 3 walks, and 3 home runs allowed.
  • Scott Kazmir could be pitching to save his spot in the rotation in his second start of the season. His first start was brutal as Kazmir  surrendered 5 hits , 5 runs , 2 walks and hit a batter in just 1 and 2/3 innings pitched. For that horrendous effort Kazmir enters Saturday’s start with an ERA that more closely resembles Kobe Bryant’s scoring average than anything close to a major league worthy pitcher (27.00). Mike Scioscia was quick to pull the cord on Fernando Rodney so with another poor start Kazmir could be next in line. Saying Kazmir desperately  needs to have a quality start is an understatement.
  • Update: The Angels have placed Kazmir on the 15 day DL with “lower back tightness”,  so Matt Palmer will get the start in Kazmir’s place.
  • Game 3: Jo – Jo Reyes vs. Jered Weaver
  • Every Jays fan knows how Jo-Jo Reyes‘ less-than-stellar debut went. Overshadowed by Yunel Escobar’s walk-off homer, Reyes lasted just 3.1 innings, allowing 9 hits and 5 earned runs, with his fifth earned run coming as a sacrifice fly when reliever Carlos Villanueva entered the game. Jays manager John Farrell was interviewed during the game and said that Reyes’ stuff was there, he was just leaving the ball up in the zone too often, and A’s hitters were jumping on it. Reyes’ problem his whole career has been issuing walks, so the one silver lining, if possible, would be that he only issued one walk in his Blue Jays debut. Reyes has never faced the Angels before in his career, and will look to keep the ball down in the zone on Sunday.
  • The Angels ace has been just that across his first 2 starts of the season. Jered Weaver will face the Jays in his third start of the season sporting a 0.69 ERA, .77 WHIP and a 8.31 K/9  across 13 innings pitched.. In short Weaver has been brilliant. The key to Weaver’s success has been command. Weaver has been able locate all four of his pitches ( Fastball, Slider , Curve, Change) in any count and almost any location to date. If there is one thing Halo fans can gripe about it is that Weaver is still not getting into the 8th and 9th innings of games as most fans would like. The Angels bull pen has been shaky and in both of his previous starts Weaver has turned the game over to the pen with 1 and 2 outs left in the 6th inning. Look for Weaver to try and pitch more to contact to lengthen his time on the mound in Sunday’s game.
  • Who’s Hot – Blue Jays

While Adam Lind certainly gets honorable mention in this section, I think every Jays fan will agree that Yunel Escobar has been off to the hottest start. Prior to suffering a mild concussion in a collision with A’s third baseman Andy LaRoche after legging out a triple, Escobar has gone 9-for-19 at the plate, with a 1.342 OPS in his first 5 games. He’s looking like the standout player that he was for the Braves from 2007-2009 in every aspect of his game, as his defense has been excellent as well. With a firm grasp on the no. 2 spot in the Jays’ batting order, look for Escobar to continue to rake when he returns from injury, providing he has no lingering symptoms.

  • Who’s Cold –  Blue Jays

A throw-in in the Vernon Wells trade, Rivera quietly raked during the best spring training of his career, and it seemed he was prepared to succeed in his first season in a Jays uniform. Sadly, the regular season has been very ugly for Rivera so far. While virtually every Jays fan has been on Rivera’s case this season, it’s important to mention that he leads all Jays hitters with 5 walks. Unfortunately, that’s been the only good thing to mention about him. Aside from his ugly 1-for-17 showing at the plate in his first 6 games, Rivera can be seen not running out ground balls, swinging effortlessly at some pitches, and just being the complete opposite of the Jays’ slogan “hustle and heart”. Hopefully he sees playing his former team this weekend as motivation to change his attitude and possibly contribute at the plate as well.

  • Who’s Hot – Angels

Howie Kendrick – No one is really too sure what has gotten into Howie Kendrick so far this season. Everyone knew the guy can flat out rake, but he is actually taking pitches and dare I say taking walks! I wrote a mostly sarcastic article this off season about how maybe Howie becoming a father for the first time would teach him some patience at the plate. Well maybe I was onto something? Kendrick has gotten off to an almost comical start hitting .417/.517/.917  with 3 Home Runs and 5 walks in 24 at bats. When you take into consideration that Kendrick walked a grand total of 28 times last year in 616 at bats you cant help but notice his approach is different. Could Kendrick finally be on the way to winning batting titles as so many predicted? Only time will tell, but if he keeps up this patient approach the sky is the limit.

  • Who’s Cold – Angels

Vernon Wells- The Angels “prize” acquisition this off season has been brutal at the plate across his first 6 games as a Halo.  He appears to be transitioning smoothly in left field having already made a few highlight grabs and near misses on balls that most left fielders probably don’t get to , but on offense Wells has been offensive. He’s hitting just .111 with 8 strike outs and 15 runners left on base across 27 at bats. Whether Wells is pressing trying to again prove himself worthy or this is just a typical slump magnified because it opening week, no one knows. The fact of the matter remains that with Kendrys Morales still on the shelf the Angels need Wells to get going. Angels fans are hoping that perhaps the sight of Wells’ former teammates and the familiar faces across the dugout will be enough to get Wells charged up and ready to go.

  • 3 Burning Questions  Jared to Kalup ( Jays to Angels)

Jared: What were Angel fans’ initial reaction to the Vernon Wells trade, and how have they been taking to Vernon Wells now that he has played a few games with lackluster results?

Kalup: There were really three camps regarding the Wells acquisition. 1: The WAR heads who were livid from the moment the trade was announced. 2: The casual fan who recognized the name (Vernon Wells) and were just happy the Angels did something in what had previously been a quiet off season , and 3: The wait and see camp. These folks were cautiously optimistic that Wells could build upon his 2010 season and figured that if healthy and productive Wells would be more than capable of adding power protection in the lineup for Bobby Abreu, Kendry Morlaes and Torii Hunter. With Wells off to a slow start, needless to say the nay sayers are feeling vindicated and those who were positive whether overtly or cautiously are already showing concern. Wells has hit just .111 with 8 K’s throughout his first 6 games as an Angel.

J: Sticking with the outfield, how has Torii Hunter done since shifting to right field? Is Bourjos, to you, the real deal in center?

K: Torii’s adjustment to right has gone smoothly. Generally the move to right from center is the toughest because the ball from both right and left handed hitters has almost the opposite effect it will in center or left field. I’m not sure if Torii will become an elite right fielder but he has already seen a big increase in UZR/150 (4.50) with move to right field. Defensively Bourjos is already the real deal. The very fact that he pushed Hunter and now Wells to the corners speaks volumes to how the Angels feel about the kid’s defense, especially when you take into account that the Angels appear to largely ignore advanced metrics. Bourjos has a chance to be among the best defensive centerfielders in the game for years to come. Offensively this season and spring Bourjos looks a lot more comfortable. He has incorporated the drag bunt into his game in order to better utilize his blazing speed and he has surprising power that could eventually see him hit 20 -25 home runs annually. For 2011 I think .265/.338/.423 with 12 -15 home runs and 30 stolen bases are well within reach.

J: With Fernando Rodney losing his closing job recently to Jordan Walden, is he the best choice? Or could former Blue Jay Scott Downs assume that role when he returns to action next week?

K: Yes Walden was absolutely the best choice to step in for Rodney.  Jordan really impressed the Halos during his call up last year and kept those positive vibes going throughout the spring and in the first few games of the season. His fastball consistently tops out at 98 -100 with late life and when he has command of his slider he is nearly un-hittable. Walden was the rare bright spot in an otherwise disastrous opening series for the Angels pen. Secretly I think Walden was the backup plan to take over for Rodney all along and it’s why the Angels didn’t make any overtures toward Rafael Soriano or the other free agent closers this off season. It also explains why Rodney got the hook after just one blown save. As for Downs he is likely next in line to assume the closers role should Walden falter, but if all goes according to plan Downs will be the final plank in the bridge to Walden.

  • 3 Burning Questions  Kalup to Jared  (Angels to Jays )

Kalup: Excluding his obviously bloated contract , everything I’ve read and heard about Vernon Wells portrays an awesome teammate, great humanitarian, and all around good guy. Is this still the sentiment amongst Blue Jays fans? Most of what I saw from Blue Jays fans once the trade was announced was more along the lines of good riddance! Was all of the backlash solely tied to Wells’ contract or is there a large fan segment that feels he underachieved on the field?

Jared: You hit the nail right on the head, because that’s exactly what Vernon Wells is: a fantastic teammate who did countless charity work and was an easy person to like. The problem was, no one liked his contract and, up until last year, his production at the plate. While it’s an adjustment, to say the least, for Jays fans to see someone else manning center field this year, it’s wholeheartedly welcomed. Wells never lived up to his contract in Toronto (not that anyone could) and, combined with his declining range in center field, he was never elite at the plate. With the Jays getting younger and Wells in need of a fresh start, the trade came at a perfect time for both sides. The cost-savings for the Jays in the trade will be monumental for them going forward, and the Angels got to rid themselves of some spare parts and adding to a great outfield that already had Hunter and Bourjos.

While Jays fans are obviously pleased to see Wells’ contract depart, few fans and teammates are pleased to see Wells’ character leave. Regardless of his contract and struggles in Toronto, it’s important to remember that Wells had a full no-trade clause that he voided in order to make the entire trade happen, and fans should be appreciative of that fact.

K: What are Jays fans expectations for Ricky Romero this year? Is he expected to take that proverbial leap forward and become the next Roy Halladay?

J: Romero is entering his third season with the Blue Jays and, just like he improved last year over his 2009 season, Jays fans are expecting to see him improve even further this season. While I wouldn’t go as far as mentioning him in the same sentence as Roy Halladay, Romero is definitely going to show why he’s the ace of the Blue Jays’ pitching staff this year. Last year, he trimmed his 4.30 ERA (4.33 FIP) from 2009 down to 3.73 (3.64 FIP), and he actually made 3 more starts, increasing his innings by 32.

This season, look for Romero to reach the 30 start/200-inning mark again, as his hard work in between starts goes a long way in helping his durability over the course of a 162 game season. He worked hard on his sinker in spring training, and his results through 2 starts so far this season have been more than encouraging. Not only has he allowed just 2 earned runs in 13.2 innings in those starts, but he has kept his hits down and issued only 2 walks – something that, if nitpicking, would be the aspect of his game that he needs to work on the most this season.

K: With the highly touted J.P Arencibia off to a blistering hot start and others ahead of him in the lineup ( Rivera, Encarnacion, Snider) struggling, how long do you think it is before Arencibia receives the promotion to hit higher in the batting order ? Will he have to keep up this pace or will John Farrell likely keep the youngster hitting in the lower 3rd to minimize pressure?

J: In terms of offense, Farrell is taking a conservative approach with Arencibia in the batting order as he adjusts to his first Major League season as an everyday player. He has been on record saying that the priorities for Arencibia are his defense and learning his pitching staff to the best of his ability, and that any contributions offensively are secondary. The thing is, though, is that all but one of Arencibia’s 5 hits in 13 at-bats (.385 avg) have been for extra bases, and when he hasn’t managed a hit, he has still torn the cover off of the ball. For example, in Sunday’s game against the Twins, he went 0-for-3 with a walk, but ALL of his hits were deep fly outs to the warning track, and in clutch situations as well. If it wasn’t for speedy Twins outfielders Delmon Young and Denard Span, Arencibia would have easily gone 2-for-3 and won the game for the Jays in one circumstance.

If he continues to hit, and many Jays fans feel he’s going to do just that, Arencibia could very well be considered to move higher in the batting order, or at least DH on the days he’s not catching. This possibility would only be magnified if Encarnacion takes longer to break out at the plate, and Rivera keeps up his terrible pace there.

Medical Watch:

Angels

Questionable

  • SS Erick Aybar (sore oblique ) has not played since April 2nd. He is listed as day-to-day.

Out

  • RHP Joel Pineiro  (tight right shoulder) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 22. Joel was originally expected to start  tonight’s home opener but had a setback and his return is delayed.
  • LHP Scott Downs (broken left big toe) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 22. He made a rehab appearance for Class A Inland Empire on April 7, and he could be activated next week/
  • 1B Kendrys Morales (fractured left ankle) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 22. He could begin a rehab assignment next week in hopes of returning to the Angels by early May.
  • OF Reggie Willits (strained left calf) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 22. He began a rehab assignment with Class A Lake Elsinore on April 7, and he could  return to the Angels in mid-April.

Blue Jays

Out

  • 15-day DL: RP Frank Francisco (right pectoral tightness and right biceps inflammation), SP Brandon Morrow (right elbow inflammation), OF Corey Patterson (head contusion), OF Scott Podsednik (plantar fasciitis in left foot)
  • 60-day DL: RP Jesse Carlson (left shoulder), RP Dustin McGowan (right rotator cuff)

Questionable

  • Yunel Escobar remains day-to-day after suffering a mild concussion in Wednesday’s game versus the A’s, however Octavio Dotel was activated from the 15-day DL and Jose Bautista is set to return from a three game absence due to the birth of his daughter.

Tags: Blue Jays Series Preview