Are Happy Jays Here Again?

I can’t believe a decade has almost past. The Toronto Blue Jays—after the debacle of 1995—had rightly decided it was time to rebuild the roster. The great team of 1991-93 had run its course, and they were clearly at the end of the success cycle.

As a fan, I didn’t feel I had much to complain about. The warm glow of those championships would last me until the Jays were ready to compete again. In 1996 the Jays looked to have some nice young talent: Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, Chris Carpenter, Kelvim Escobar and Alex Gonzalez. Shannon Stewart looked ready for the big time and there were a few intriguing talents still in the pipeline. On top of that, Juan Guzman looked like he was back.

The Jays looked like they were on the right track.

Then came the trade …

Nov. 14, 1996: Carlos Garcia, Orlando Merced and Dan Plesac were traded to the Toronto Blue Jays by the Pittsburgh Pirates, for Jose Silva, Brandon Cromer, and Jose Pett, Mike Halperin, Abraham Nunez, and Craig Wilson.

Then on top of that on Dec. 9, 1996 the Jays signed free agent catcher Benito Santiago, who was fresh off of a 30 home run season, which even at the time screamed fluke season (it was his only season with more than 18 home runs).

I was stunned … and not in a good way. General manager Gord Ash had aborted the rebuilding effort and decided the Jays were ready to compete. I thought at the time that it was colossal mistake, and my fears were realized, as the Jays finished 76-86. Even the signing of Roger Clemens later that December couldn’t remove the bad taste from my mouth.

I tried to be optimistic—I tried, but Gord Ash’s attempt at a big splash looked for all the world like an ill-timed, poorly executed belly-flop.

Well, the Jays have again made the big splash. After trying to go the Oakland A’s route to success, well, unsuccessfully, the Blue Jays’ front office—seeing the possibly vulnerable Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees—decided to pull out all the stops and party like it’s 1996.

Among the stops that were pulled out:

Well, here are my early February, partly analytical, mostly out-of-my-posterior thoughts on the Jays coming into the season. I (or Craig Burley) will probably go into more depth during Spring Training, but I’ve been riding the mood swing on these deals and decided to sort out my thoughts and inflict them upon all of you.

To begin with, unlike in 1996, the Jays did pick up some genuine talent. It’s a definite high-risk, high reward strategy. Let’s look at the potential rewards:

A.J. Burnett

He’s 29, he strikes out close to a batter an inning, and has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of almost 3:1, and gives up less hits than innings pitched. In short, he’s got an electric arm and could give the Blue Jays the best 1-2 punch in the AL East.

B.J. Ryan

He’s a strikeout machine (1.41 strikeouts per inning the last two seasons), a lefty, only 30 years old, has less than 400 innings on his arm’s odometer, and best of all—he’s not Miguel Batista. Like Burnett, the man has magic in that left arm of his. He well could be the missing piece of what was a terrific bullpen (save the closer) in 2005.

Lyle Overbay

Granted, he’s not the masher I’d prefer to see at first base. Of course a decade of Delgado will spoil a body. However he’s coming into his power years (he just turned 29), so I expect that he’ll crack 20 home runs if healthy (he ripped 53 doubles in 2004). Over the last two seasons, his percentages are a solid .301/.385/.478 and .276/.367/.449. I see a lighter version of John Olerud with the bat, which I can live with.

Troy Glaus

Also 29, Glaus has enjoyed seasons of 47, 41, 30 and 37 home runs. He has postseason experience, with nine home runs and a .347/.427/.819 line in 72 at-bats. Furthermore, like Overbay, he has good plate discipline (career AVG/OBP: .253/.358). I haven’t seen enough of his defense to comment intelligently on it (so if anybody is so inclined—drop me a line); his range factor is above league average, but his fielding percentage isn’t. Regardless the Jays didn’t trade for him because of his leather. Best of all the Jays gave up Batista to get him.

Here are the risks:

A.J. Burnett

He’s a bit of a head case, as evidenced by his being sent home toward the end of last season for making comments critical of the team (Florida Marlins). He’s been injured in two of the last three seasons and he’s going from a good pitcher’s park to the Rogers Centre, and now has to face the designated hitter. He could be lights out, and he could be Joey Hamilton 2.0.

B.J. Ryan

Over his career, he’s walked almost five batters per nine innings. Although he’s improved in this category the last two years (3.62 and 3.33), it’s something to keep an eye on—a minor nitpick at best. Furthermore, he’s only been a full time closer once … last year. The contract could be a concern, but his performance in 2006 should be fine.

Lyle Overbay

I don’t see a lot of risk in the on-field performance aspect. I think the Jays overpaid a bit, but Burnett replaces Bush in the rotation and I don’t think Gross was ever going to get a legitimate shot in Toronto. I’m wishing Gross well in Milwaukee, and hope that he’ll prove the Jays made a mistake in letting him go. I’ll be rooting for him.

Troy Glaus

To begin with, he cost Toronto Orlando Hudson. Hudson was an above-average hitter for the position and the best defender the Jays have had since Roberto Alomar. I think the plan is to play Aaron Hill at second base. Russ Adams‘ defense didn’t set my heart a-twitter, so the Jays defense up the middle, coupled with the infield corners (Overbay and of course Glaus), should makes things, shall we say, interesting for the pitching staff. The acquisition of Glaus’ bat will be offset by the sacrifice of defense at two infield positions. Furthermore, Glaus, like Burnett has been hurt two of the last three seasons.

Ryan and Overbay should perform as expected; however, for this offseason’s moves to take the Jays to the next level, Burnett and Glaus have to be healthy and productive. Overbay will not be a major difference maker to the offense by himself, and Ryan is only useful if he has leads to close out.

The upshot is that the Red Sox and Yankees have major question marks as well. The Jays have positioned themselves nicely for a run at October baseball. They don’t need a miracle, they just need for all the pieces to fall into place.

I’m cautiously optimistic—a lot more so than I was going into the 1997 season.

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