Five Questions: The Toronto Blue Jays

The Red Sox went out and got Daisuke Matsuzaka, J.D. Drew, and Julio Lugo. Plus Boston will have the services of Jon Lester and Matt Clement in 2007. As a crowning touch, the Crimson Hose will be unveiling full time the wonder that is Dustin Pedroia. The New York Yankees look forward to possibly debuting uber prospect Phil Hughes, added Kei Igawa from Japan, traded for intriguing prospect Humberto Sanchez, bolstered the bullpen with Luis Vizcaino, and tightened the infield defense with Doug Mientkiewicz. They will also welcome back an old friend: veteran southpaw and 186 game winner Andy Pettitte.

It was all for naught.

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:

1. Can the Jays cobble together a league average 3-4-5 end of the rotation?

In 2006 A.J. Burnett and Gustavo Chacin spent significant time on the disabled list. Because of that, the Blue Jays had a rotation of Roy Halladay, Ted Lilly, and the pitcher du jour. The list of names under the heading “du jour” were: Casey Janssen, Ty Taubenheim, Josh Towers (who was penned in as the fifth starter when the season started), Shaun Marcum, Francisco Rosario, Brian Tallet, and Scott Downs.

This trio was given the ball 54 times and mustered a mere 10 wins. They also were tagged for 31 losses, averaged fewer than five innings per start and had an hGH inflated ERA of 6.33. This put a tremendous strain on a bullpen that—before the All-Star break—had to rely on the likes of Francisco Rosario (5.03 ERA), Scott Down (5.14 ERA), Jason Frasor (5.18 ERA), Pete Walker (5.40 ERA), Vinnie Chulk (5.79 ERA) and Scott Schoeneweis (5.95 ERA) to pitch three-plus innings to get the ball to B.J. Ryan (assuming they scored enough runs to be in a position to use him).

One has to wonder if Toronto received slightly below league-average pitching (4.56 ERA) in those 54 starts if it might have been good for an 18-23 record. That would’ve tied them with Detroit for the AL wild card.

That shouldn’t pose a problem in 2007. The Blue Jays have a good mix of exciting young arms and veteran experience to fill out those roles. Between Chacin, John Thomson, Tomokazu Ohka, Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum, Casey Janssen, Francisco Rosario, Victor Zambrano, Josh Towers, Ty Taubenheim and Scott Downs, Toronto should not have much of a problem cobbling together 90 or so starts/500-600 IP of league-average work. They might even do a little better than that.

2. Which bullpen will show up in 2007?

Back in mid-July we discussed the Jays’ fortunes to that point in time; relieft pitchers, other than B.J. Ryan, were flirting with a 5 BB/9 rate. They were also throwing too many home run balls—a lethal combination. Of course they were routinely getting behind hitters and putting themselves in counts where hitters could sit on the fastball with predictable results. However, their K/9 rates were very good, which told us that the stuff was there, just not the command. The bullpen cut their walks rates significantly and the rest fell into place and they finished 2007 with one of the best relief corps in the AL. The loss of Justin Speier hurt of course, but they’ve got some terrific arms behind Ryan: Brandon League, Jeremy Accardo, Davis Romero, Jason Frasor and whoever gets beaten out of a spot in the rotation. The Blue Birds can look to guys like Rosario, McGowan, Downs, Janssen, Marcum, Taubenheim and Towers to potentially fill out the ‘pen. If they keep their BB/9 under 3.5 they’ll have one of the better pens in the Junior Circuit.

3. Can Vernon Wells hit in a pennant race?

Wells and Roy Halladay, are the lynchpins around which the Blue Jays have built the pitching, offense and defense. They’re the go-to guys who will be looked to step it up a notch if October baseball is a distinct possibility.

Is Wells up to the task? It depends which numbers you look at. One set makes him look pretty good, others make him look pretty bad.

His situational hitting is fairly good except for ‘late and close’:

   Situation      BA    OBP   SLG
   Career        .288  .336  .492
   2 outs, RISP  .261  .333  .514 
   Late & Close  .251  .311  .414 
   Tie Game      .291  .342  .494 
   Within 1 R    .287  .341  .484 
   Within 2 R    .290  .339  .493 
   Within 3 R    .289  .339  .491 
   Within 4 R    .288  .336  .486 
   Margin > 4 R  .290  .335  .525 

However…

   Situation          BA    OBP   SLG
   Career            .288  .336  .492
   Before Aug. 1     .300  .350  .530    
   After Aug. 1      .280  .320  .440 

Also of concern:

      Wells         Damon
   Year OPS+ RCAA OPS+ RCAA 
   2002  100  -4   113   2
   2003  131  32    94 -18 
   2004  103  -1   117  25
   2005  104   2   113  26
   2006  126  29   120  26 

So we have a player who hits well in most crucial situations, yet his bat cools off when pennant races begin in earnest. Also, despite his superstar contract, Wells has yet to demonstrate that he is a superstar-caliber player. The talent level is definitely there. However his production level is not yet established. Is he the league average offensive player that he was in 2002, 2004-05 or is he the player on the cusp of superstardom that he demonstrated last year and in 2003? While he provides much better defense than Damon, can Vernon Wells be the line up-carrying offensive force the Jays need him to be? When your offense over the last five years is five runs created above average below another club’s leadoff hitter…

Of course Wells is only 28 so he’s just beginning his peak. The Jays are paying him big money to be ‘the man’ in 2007 and beyond. The other pieces are seemingly in place, but Wells has got to show that when a pennant race heats up, so does his bat.

4. Who are the most likely candidates to miss large chunks of the season?

Generally a team has to be healthy to contend, unless they’ve got Yankee-like resources from which to draw. Injuries to Burnett and Chacin, coupled with Towers’ ineffectiveness and Rios’ infection, might have cost the Jays a real shot at October baseball. Granted, a good team should be able to shoulder the burden of being a starter or two down and press on, but Toronto has yet to demonstrate any ability do that. Some players who will keep fans on the edge of their seats for all the wrong reasons include: Halladay (not injury prone, but certainly a bit accident prone); Burnett (averaged fewer than 140 IP per season since 2002); Frank Thomas (history of leg injuries running on the Jays’ field turf); and Troy Glaus (wonky knees playing on turf). When two of your top starters and two of your top offensive threats have a tendency to get hurt, it keeps both fans and general managers alike up at night.

5. Should the Jays use the designated hitter rule for the pitchers or the shortstops?

The Jays have three candidates to play short: John McDonald, Royce Clayton and Rule Five-er Jason Smith. All of whom, in their current incarnations, are repetitive strain injuries on the thumbs of umpires just waiting to happen. In 2006 McDonald was given 286 plate appearances, and as a thank you, he garnered 220 outs. To deal with a 32-year-old out machine J.P. Ricciardi went out and inked a 36 year old who was, to be sure, a step up— Clayton accumulated 367 outs in 502 plate appearances. Clayton was simply trying to prove that his .279/.338/.397 (in 652 PA) season in 2004 with the Rockies wasn’t a fluke.

Ricciardi wisely realized that it might not be enough, so he picked up veteran journeyman Smith in the Rule Five draft. Smith was coming off a .279/.340/.475 season. Naturally the question arises: Why on earth would a team leave a middle infielder coming off of an .815 OPS season off the 40-man roster?

Several reasons actually:

  • He accomplished that in 240 AB while splitting time between Colorado Springs and Coors Field.
  • Smith’s major league career line is .230/.270/.385.
  • His minor league line is .264/.307/.423.
  • Take out his 2006 season in the Mile-High State and Smith is .260/.290/.410 as a professional.
  • At age 29 his chances for improvement are minimal.

Sounds like he’ll fit right in.

Expect whomever is batting eighth to be walked a lot—especially with men on base and first base open. Toronto has three players available to man short—average age: 32; they have enough experience as evidenced by at least 9,500 major league plate appearances, they have an aggregate OBP of .304 but have enough pop to hit a home run every 75 plate appearances.

Oh well, leadoff hitters aren’t supposed to be big RBI guys anyway.

Other notes

Picture the American League as Muhammad Ali. Now visualize Josh Towers as the face of George Chuvalo. Get into the Delorean equipped with the flux capacitor and drive it to Toronto. Dial in the date March 29, 1966 and you’ll see the only time when something in Toronto was hit as early and as often as Josh Towers was 2006. It was like a combination of Ground Hog Day and a bad acid trip. See Josh Towers, see Josh Towers start game, see Josh Towers get more crap kicked out of him than if he had accidentally ingested a case of chocolate Ex Lax. Repeat…again, and again, and again. He ended up with an ERA that was as inflated as a supermodel’s chest at a plastic surgeon that ironically, was the same number used by John Gibbons to call the bullpen—9.11.

Despite the setback, I can see Towers putting 2006 behind him and giving the Jays close to 200 IP of slightly-better-than-league-average pitching. In over 600 big league innings Towers has an amazing BB/9 of 1.46. Granted, he doesn’t have terrific raw stuff (4.53 K/9) but he has to learn to mix what pitches he has and keep hitters off balance. With his control he should be able to come inside fearlessly. There’s no reason Towers cannot be a useful major league pitcher.

The Jays have to be cautious in their use of Gregg Zaun. While he doesn’t have a lot of games under his belt behind the dish (774) that would cause the wear and tear typical of a backstop, Zaun needs to be handled judiciously. He’s going to be 36, and having been a fairly fit 36 year old myself a few too many years back I can attest that it’s a lot different than being 26. Last year he caught 72 games and DH-ed 19—just about perfect. He set a career high in home runs and had arguably his best overall season. In 2005 Zaun, then 34, caught 132 games and through July 31, caught 84 games and batted .280/.380/.410; he finished the season batting just .220/.340/.330 over the final two-plus months.

If they want his offense in a pennant race both Gibbons and Ricciardi have to make sure Zaun is well rested. Do they really want to have to rely on Sal Fasano’s career 77 OPS+ bat in front of McDonald/Clayton/Smith with one out and runners on second and third in a tie ninth-inning in September at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park?

The outfield of Reed Johnson, Wells, and Alex Rios are key. Johnson needs to show that his .390 OBP wasn’t a fluke and that he can give the Jays at least a .360 OBP out of the leadoff spot. Wells has to play how he’s paid. Rios, while he shouldn’t be expected to duplicate his .330/.383/.585 first half, needs to demonstrate that he’s good for at least a .280/.360./500 line—in short, he has to prove that he’s got the bat of a corner, not a fourth outfielder.

Final thoughts…

It’s amazing how things look completely different with the passage of time:

Player          Years    Total Dollars
Javier Vazquez    3      $34.5 million
Ted Lilly         4      $40.0 million
Gary Matthews Jr. 5      $50.0 million  
Gil Meche         5      $55.0 million
Carlos Lee        6      $100  million
Barry Zito        7      $126  million
Alfonso Soriano   8      $136  million

Suddenly these contracts don’t look quite as onerous.

Player        Years    Total Dollars
Frank Thomas    2      $18.1 million
Lyle Overbay    4      $24.0 million
Roy Halladay    3      $40.0 million
Troy Glaus      4      $45.0 million
B.J. Ryan       5      $47.0 million
A.J. Burnett    5      $55.0 million
Vernon Wells    7      $126 million

Play ball!

Go Jays Go!

Pretty please?

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