Five Questions: The Toronto Blue Jays

As you’ll recall, I was quite sarcastic in opening the “Five Questions” feature last season. After reviewing the many moves made by the Yankees and Red Sox, I snarked:

The Blue Jays answered all this with a single flourish—they went out and acquired Royce Clayton. The repercussions were seismic. Fans in both the Big Apple and Beantown cleaned out their undergarments and wrung out their socks. Brian Cashman and Theo Epstein stoically booked early October tee times. George Steinbrenner and John Henry threw ashes onto their heads and screamed: “All that time and money—WASTED!” while the city of New York informed the Yankees that they were pulling out of their stadium deal and could go to New Jersey for all they cared.

It truly was the stuff of legend. Scribes were even comparing it to the now mythic coup by his predecessor Gord Ash when he fleeced the Yankees back in 1997 getting then GM Bob Watson to surrender second baseman Mariano Duncan for Angel Ramirez. To this day people are amazed that not only had he acquired Duncan for a minor leaguer he actually got the Yankees to send along cash in the deal.

Within hours of the announcement, sports talk radio shows in both markets were inundated with livid callers demanding to know how their team, with all the wealth bestowed upon them from their hard-earned dollars, couldn’t get Clayton to come to terms with their clubs.

At the same time, two new web sites debuted: http://www.fire.briancashman.com and http://www.fire.theoepstein.com both receiving so many hits that their respective servers crashed within an hour of coming online. Season ticket sales bottomed out, renewals were few and far between, and the waiting lists for same all but evaporated. Meanwhile, mayor of Toronto David Miller opened discussions with the owners of businesses on Young St. about using the road for the World Series parade in early November.

Regardless, despite the Clayton deal making the Jays the odds-on-favourite among Vegas bookies to win 135 games plus 11 straight in the postseason, the Blue Jays do have some questions coming into what is shaping up to be less a season than a coronation and the beginning of a dynasty in 2007….

No snark this year. I’m one of those that haven’t given up on J.P. Ricciardi. Yes, I have been critical, but I always felt I saw progress. Not as much as I would have liked, mind you, but the last two years I felt that the talent was there but the breaks weren’t.

Again, I’m guardedly optimistic. Again, I have five questions regarding the Toronto Blue Jays…

1. How many starting pitchers will throw 200 innings?

Even with appendicitis limiting him to 31 starts last year, Halladay finished third in the AL in innings pitched. After that, it gets dicey. No. 2 starter A.J. Burnett has topped 200 innings twice in his career (2002 and 2005), but he has enjoyed only one season of 30-plus starts. Burnett has an opt-out proviso in his current contract and will be motivated to throw a lot of innings should he elect to exercise it. The Nos. 3-5 slots will likely consist of Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum and Jesse Litsch. McGowan last year set a career high of 191.2 frames, finishing strong (3.80 ERA over his last seven starts, whiffing a batter per inning), so that bodes well for 2008.

Shaun Marcum also had a career-high innings total and struggled with control issues as the season wore on. He was finally shut down after pitching into the sixth inning just once over his last seven starts. It appeared to be more of a fitness issue that he said he would work on during the offseason. With the season-ending surgery to Casey Janssen coupled with Gustavo Chacin being himself, Litsch owns the final rotation spot. Litsch logged 158 minor-league innings in 2006 and threw 187.1 innings last season between New Hampshire, Syracuse and Toronto, going 15-11 with a 3.17 ERA, 2.6 BB/9 and 5.1 K/9. His peripherals suggest that his ERA will rise, but the facts that he was a 24th-round draft pick and is just 23 years old leave plenty of room for optimism. Litsch’s minor-league strikeout rate was a decent 7.7 K/9 and will improve as he adds the strength that physical maturity brings.

The Jays can reasonably hope that Halladay and McGowan will top 200 innings, with Burnett and Marcum optimistically logging in the 180 range. If Litsch can keep the ball in the park and maintain his stingy walk rate, he could conceivably be effective enough to get into Burnett/Marcum territory. Other than Burnett and occasionally McGowan, the rest of the rotation keep the free passes to a minimum (though after his first 90 innings last year, A.J. cut his rate to 3.1 BB/9). A lot will depend on the pitch counts that skipper John Gibbons and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg allow Burnett to ring up. A stretch of six starts last May/June averaging 116 pitches kept Burnett from taking his regular turn until mid August, and then Gibbons/Arnsberg left A.J. to throw 809 pitches (also an average of 116 pitches) over his final seven turns.

2. Does the bullpen need B.J. Ryan?

Yes.

But…

It usually takes longer than a year for a pitcher to fully recover from ligament transplant (Tommy John) surgery. And it hasn’t been even a full year since Ryan went under the knife. After feeling soreness after an outing on March 17, the Blue Jays wisely decided to take things a little slower in his comeback.

This season, the Jays have a wonderful thing called depth, a quality they have all too often lacked, and they have a now-experienced closer in Jeremy Accardo and pretty much the same crew that they finished last season with, save for a readjusted (from his old weightlifting regimen) Brandon League and a recovering Davis Romero (assigned to minor-league camp earlier). Obviously, the relief corps doesn’t wish to lose anyone else, but they do have the luxury of letting Ryan work his way back without trying to rush him.

Hopefully, Romero can get up to his old flame-throwing ways, and Armando Benitez will… not screw up too terribly much. There is some help down on the farm as well in the persons of Jamie Vermilyea, Jordan De Jong, and, sooner or later (and I vote “sooner,” since the walk-happy Benitez always made me nervous), big righty Randy Wells. Bottom line, the bullpen should be able to hold onto most leads that they’re entrusted with.

3. Will the Jays have a league-average offense?

After last year’s injury-filled, replacement-level-replacements debacle, it would be hard for the Jays lineup to be any worse. No, we’re not expecting the 1927 or ’61 Yankees; it’s more of trying to get the sucking downgraded from F5 to F1 levels. There are changes—gone is Troy Glaus, and in his stead is a now (almost) healthy defensive whiz Scott Rolen who hopefully still has his old stroke lying around somewhere. Both Alex Rios and Aaron Hill will continue to improve and build upon their fine 2007 seasons. “The Big Hurt” has made some adjustments in his preseason work in hopes of getting off to a more productive start. If Vernon Wells is league average, it’ll be a nice improvement on 2007; if he can get back to his level of 2003 and 2006, that would be better still. Lyle Overbay should return to his John Olerud-lite levels while David Eckstein has legit on-base skills and should set the table for the big guns behind him.

The Jays reserves look to be among the better benches the team has had in recent memory. Some combination of Marcos Scutaro, Matt Stairs, Rob Barajas (or intriguing young backstop Robinzon Diaz), John McDonald and possibly Russ Adams will ensure that there will be decent backups both offensively and defensively.

Obviously, the Blue Jays offense could again reach F5 levels. Thomas and Stairs could both hit like 40-year-old non-steroid users. Rolen’s power could be in the past tense due to his shoulder woes, plus he could have lingering effects from his injuries (his OBP has been above .335 only once over his last three seasons) or continue adding new ones. Wells has had only two seasons in his career where he was significantly above league average offensively; those seasons could be the aberrations, and his true talent level could be league average (offensively). David Eckstein is 33 and might have trouble readjusting to the AL. Gregg Zaun will be old-for-a-catcher 37 (though he doesn’t have the wear and tear of other catchers his age, due to his catching only 877 major-league games). And although Rod Barajas has some pop, he is no better at getting on base than Sal Fasano.

These are well within the realm of possibility. That would make CA, CF, LF, SS, 3B and (of all things) DH below league average, leaving the offense in the hands of Alex Rios, Aaron Hill and Lyle Overbay.

I don’t think it will come to that. Pretty much everything that could go wrong last year did go wrong. It was a season-long devotional service to Murphy’s Law (five times each day, you bow towards the Rogers Centre and wait ‘til somebody goes Al Del Greco on your gluteal region).

4. Who will have the better season, Alex Rios or Aaron Hill?

The Jays have two very talented young players with room to grow. Both Rios and Hill are solid and improving defensively, both swing potent bats and cracked over 40 doubles last year, both have some speed (though neither will likely become prolific base thieves), and both will likely crack the century mark in whiffs. Best of all, both are in their mid 20’s (which I define as ages 23-27).

Although both Rios and Hill should hit .290-ish, Rios has more power, Hill has more patience. Rios is a solid defensive right fielder; Hill is rapidly becoming a stellar defensive second baseman. Rios last year had 74 XBH; Hill, 66.

Here is where I am conflicted. I see Rios, and he’s got so much natural athletic talent, it’s almost unfair. He’s got more raw ability than Hill does. However—and it just might be my perception—I see more fire in Hill. I know it’s cliché and impossible to quantify (plus no one truly knows how players are wired), but I get the impression that Rios is like the hot girl you knew in high school who treated most people like crap because she knew her looks bought her a lot of latitude.

I’m not saying that Rios treats people like that; rather, it’s that Rios knows he has ungodly talent and sometimes he lets that carry him. One of the best things the Jays did for him was state in 2006 that he would share right field with Eric Hinske. That gave Rios the motivation he needed.

I may just be blowing smoke here—perhaps Rios has found the motivation within himself—nevertheless, Hill (who is very talented himself) seems a bit unsure of his ability, and he tries to compensate by digging a little deeper. Hill’s motivation—a fear of failure—seems to be with him constantly.

I’ll be watching both Rios and Hill very closely in 2008. I think they’ll both have tremendous years. In the last two seasons, Hill’s bat has heated up in the second half (especially in September). If Toronto does make it to the postseason, Rios will get them into the thick of things with his early home run power, but it will be Hill who seals the deal.

5. Can John McDonald wrest the starting shortstop’s job from David Eckstein?

Don’t laugh.

Here’s the thing: The reason Eckstein has the starting job is because of his OBP. Absent his ability to make contact, he becomes a liability. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister of Defense (the awesome nickname bestowed upon John McDonald by the inebriated Mozarts of the baseball blogosphere at Drunk Jays Fans) worked long and hard in the previous offseason to improve his fitness so he could step up his game defensively. The results were obvious: McDonald was a season-long highlight reel, and the PM was likely a factor in the breakout years of so many of the Jays’ young pitchers.

But I digress.

Anyway, McDonald said he was going to spend the offseason working on his forearm strength and put the same amount of work into his hitting that he did into his defense in the previous offseason. I don’t expect J-Mac to become Hanley Ramirez with the lumber, but I can see a career year in the offing. Say, for example, he lives up to my prediction of (rummages around south end of anatomy to locate an opinion he can extract from said location and trumpet) a .260/.325/.335 season. Or, for that matter, even enjoys a modest bump from 2007 and hits .255/.298/.340. Now, suppose Eckstein slips back into his 2003 and 2004 levels (his previous two AL seasons) where he batted a combined .265/.333/.329.

Your unremarkable defensive shortstop is batting .265/.333/.329 while your pitching staff’s favourite fielding deity is hitting .255/.298/.340. Who do you think the club would prefer standing between Scott Rolen and Aaron Hill?

If the Jays contend in 2008 it will be because of pitching and defense with just enough offense to get it done. Unless the “X-factor” can maintain a high OBP, he will be a non-factor for Toronto. Part of this is personal: I enjoy the aesthetics of baseball. I enjoy the walk/3 run bomb style of the game as a diversion, but I love watching non-stop action on the diamond. I was a big fan of Rickey Henderson (when he wasn’t playing the Jays), an even bigger fan of Tim Raines, and I’m praying Kenny Lofton can find work. I also love watching superlative defense, be it watching Devon White or Garry Maddox track fly balls, Robbie Alomar and Omar Vizquel work the keystone in Cleveland, or the Mets 1999 infield of John Olerud, Edgardo Alfonzo, Rey Ordonez and Robin Ventura.

In that vein, a healthy infield of Scott Rolen, John McDonald, Aaron Hill and Lyle Overbay will be fun to watch. I’m sure the pitching staff would agree. It would be where ground balls go to die twice.

The bonus round! Can the Jays reach the postseason while in the same division with Evil Empire Episodes I & II?

Every time I hear somebody whine about how unfair the AL East is because of the presence of the Red Sox and Yankees, I want to throw something. Yes, they have tons of money; yes, they have massive payrolls; but it still comes down to making solid personnel decisions and having the breaks go your way. When the Yankees were a juggernaut in the late 1990’s it wasn’t because of their payroll. Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams were homegrown. Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, Paul O’Neill and David Cone were picked up in trades. Their free agent signings were of the El Duque (Cuba) and David Wells (coming off an 11-14, 5.14 ERA season) variety—getting a piece of the puzzle, not the shiniest bauble.

The Yankees did it with brains, not (financial) brawn. It wasn’t until after they fell short of the big prize that their payroll went meta.

The Red Sox made one major splash on Manny Ramirez and a minor one in Johnny Damon. They picked up Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe in a trade with Seattle. They got Pedro Martinez in a swap with Les Expos, Curt Schilling in a deal with the Diamondbacks, Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell in a trade with the Fish. In the latter three deals, the Red Sox used drafted and developed talent as the trade chits. They picked up Tim Wakefield and David Ortiz on the cheap while Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Trot Nixon were homegrown.

Again, brains—not brawn—built these championship rosters. Of the six World Series titles won by these two clubs since 1996, none were the result of repeated offseason spending binges. All of them were the result of identifying talent in either the amateur draft or the trade market (or the trash heap) and developing the young talent craved by teams with a star to deal.

This is why I think the Blue Jays’ lack of post-season baseball in the aught is due to a lack of front office competence and not to lavish spending by the Red Sox and Yankees. Think of the talent Toronto got in return for John Olerud, Chris Carpenter, Woody Williams, etc. Reflect on the returns they received when dealing Roger Clemens, David Cone and David Wells.

There are examples besides these.

It’s the reason I don’t blame the Evil Empires for the Jays’ misfortunes. I think they have the talent this year to stay in the hunt. The Jays have developed some nice pitching in Roy Halladay, Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum, Davis Romero, Brandon League, Casey Janssen and Brandon League. They have some nice home-grown positional talent in Alex Rios, Aaron Hill and possibly Vernon Wells. They did well in picking up Jeremy Accardo in return for Vinnie Chulk and Shea Hillenbrand. Gregg Zaun, Matt Stairs and Scott Downs (and possibly also David Eckstein) were nice inexpensive free-agent pick-ups.

It may be good enough for October baseball too!

Go figure eh?

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