Five questions: Toronto Blue Jays

Well, the only thing the Toronto Blue Jays worked hard at doing during the hot stove league was creating an absolute buzz-kill for this season. They never came right out and said they were rebuilding (although a few headline writers have spelled it out) but you’d think there was a rip in the space-time continuum judging by how often 2010 was invoked by the front office.

Regardless: This offseason should always be thrown in their faces whenever the Jays’ brass complain about player costs—they had the most club-friendly, bargain basement player marketplace in the history of free agency and doggedly abstained, letting the other four clubs in the division take advantage of the savings (well, maybe not the Yankees—they never pay anything but top dollar as a rule).

Adding insult to injury, not only did the organization all but make the marketing slogan for this season “Wait ’til next year” but it added that the budget for 2010 will be largely based on how the club does at the box office in the first half of 2009. What the front office is saying is that not only did it sabotage enthusiasm for aught-nine but the decison-makers will base the next offseason’s activity on the self-inflicted depressed interest in the marketplace.

This is supposed to build consumer confidence that this front office can put together a winning club? Who is in charge of marketing? This is the greatest demonstration of generating fan excitement seen in Canada since Jeffrey Loria and David Samson were running the Montreal Expos.

So, what questions are facing your 2009 Toronto Blue Jays?

1. Can the Jays find at least 450 league average innings beyond Roy Halladay and Jesse Litsch?

The Toronto Blue Jays are without 484 innings of 3.92 ERA starting pitching with the losses of A.J. Burnett (Yankees), Shaun Marcum (Tommy John surgery) and Dustin McGowan (tentative return: May-June 2009). That’s a major hit for any contending team. The Blue Jays’ front office dealt with the disaster swiftly and decisively by opting not to contend this season.

That’s not the solution I would’ve chosen, but then again, I’d prefer the Jays to invest rather than kiss the sagging gluteal region of commissioner Selig in hopes of equalization payments from the low loonie (again, not a description of yours truly despite the strong resemblance). However, that’s not the major league way (look to our brother Jeffrey Loria: he will show us the way) under P.T. Selig the master collusionist.

But I digress.

Anyway, on the bright side, Cito Gaston will have plenty of intriguing options in rebuilding the rotation: David Purcey, Casey Janssen, Brett Cecil, Brad Mills, Rickey and Davis Romero, Mike Maroth, Matt Clement, Wade Miller, Scott Richmond and of course the return of McGowan.

Despite my earlier snark, with the talent on hand coupled with the backing of one of baseball’s top relief corps and defensive units, I feel that this will be a pleasant surprise in aught-nine. Some official predictions we can all enjoy a good laugh over at the end of September: Purcey will establish himself as a slightly better than league average starter and Cecil will open a few eyes with his electric stuff, although he’ll have a few missteps along the way. Doc will be Doc, Litsch will throw 200 innings with a sub 4.00 ERA, Scott Richmond will have a .500 record (not that W-L records mean much) and average six innings and be compared with Woody Williams circa 1997-98 whenever he starts and by September McGowan will have Jays fans eager for 2010 to arrive.

2. Will Gaston be able to coax a better than league average offense from the personnel on hand?

This much is certain: The offense was a much different beast under Gaston and Gene Tenace than it was under John Gibbons and Gary Denbo. One stressed taking a lot of pitches and going the other way whereas the other was more suited to the talent on hand: using an intelligent aggressive approach about having a plan, waiting for a particular pitch and creaming it. One had the hitters do things a certain way, the other building on what they already do well.

The results spoke for themselves.

If Scott Rolen is healthy and Lyle Overbay has no lingering effects from offseason hernia surgeries they should be improved. However, Overbay likely will be slowed (I’ve had the operation) at the beginning of the season. On the other hand, Jose Bautista likely will bat against lefties, so the offense from the position should be better. Both Alex Rios and Vernon Wells should start hotter than in 2008, but Wells’ wonky hamstring is a wild card.

Speaking of wild cards: Production from Adam Lind, Travis Snider and Aaron Hill is a wait-and-see proposition while catcher and shortstop will likely be sub-par—it’ll be tricky but Gaston should be able to coax league average or slightly better from the talent on hand. Finally, a big bugaboo last season was the abysmal situational hitting under the previous regime. Odds are that won’t happen again. I hope.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that the club received far, far below league average production from spots generally reserved for big boppers last year: left field (until Lind arrived) and DH. Even if Lind/Snider/whoever produce at average levels for the positions, it will represent a huge upgrade from what the Jays received in 2008. Let’s face it, it would be difficult to duplicate the production of Brad Wilkerson, Kevin Mench, Shannon Stewart, Frank Thomas and (the post-May 15 edition of) Matt Stairs short of throwing games.

3. How effective will McGowan be when he returns from surgery?

The last thing to return to a pitcher coming off surgery is command—and the biggest issue with McGowan at the major league level was/is command. Expect early struggles for the big righty. but we’ll probably see the old McGowan by August or September.

4. Can Aaron Hill re-establish himself as a top-flight second sacker?

It may be a couple of months into the season before we find this out; Hill is a notoriously slow starter who generally warms with the weather and really hits his stride in August and September. If he starts slowly, no one really will know whether it’s rust stemming from his long layoff due to his Eckussion or he’s just being himself.

For the optimists among us, he’ll be just 27 and he’ll be busting his butt to make it back. One reason his concussion took so long to recover from is that he was ignoring his doctor’s advice and working out when he was supposed to be resting. His problems started to clear after he began heeding the old sawbone’s advice. Suffice it to say, the man is intense and desperately wants to play and contribute. It will be interesting to see how he works with Gaston and Tenace. It strikes me as a match made in heaven.

5. Is Adam Lind a full time regular or platoon LF/1B/DH?

The position itself is irrelevant; the man will not be in the everyday lineup due to his defense. What will determine Lind’s role will be whether he can readjust to adjustment AL pitchers made to him after his hot start following his recall. He returned and batted .329/.362/.600 over his first 47 games and when pitchers stopped feeding him fastballs he hit just .255/.287/.292 with nary a round-tripper until it was time to go home.

In the “sample size alert” category, Lind is just .240/.293/.359 against southpaws at the big league level, but that’s in just 167 at-bats. Regardless, he has hit at every level (with power) and has demonstrated that he can mash right-handed big leaguers; he’ll be 26 in mid-July, so the time is now for young Mr. Lind. If he can adjust to the breaking stuff he should be able to adapt to facing lefties as well. If he doesn’t make a significant impact this year (say, a 120 OPS+ and 20 homers assuming 500+ AB) he may find himself working as a spare part/platoon player. He is not gifted enough defensively to make up for shortcomings with the bat.

Overview

Despite the snark, I’m not ready to give up hope for the 2009 Toronto Blue Jays. There is bona fide talent available in both quantity and quality for the starting rotation—the only thing to worry about is inexperience. I think Purcey will have a better year than Burnett. With the defensive and bullpen support he has, Gaston will be able to cobble together enough quality innings from some combination of Janssen, Cecil, Richmond, Mills, the Romeros, Maroth, Clement, Miller and McGowan to create 350-plus frames of league average work.

The offense—while nobody’s idea of a juggernaut—will have fewer black holes (defined as when the hitting sucks so hard that it creates a vortex where runs cannot possibly escape) and a solid middle of the order with improved situational hitting under Gaston.

I am not sold on the Yankees’ rebuild; they’ve been adding talented superstars for the better part of the decade without finding the right mix. C.C. Sabathia will be good but it would be naïve to think that we’ll see the Milwaukee edition of him when you consider that he had an ERA+ of 116 in the AL last season and faced the Yankees once and the Red Sox not at all. He’s thrown a ton of innings the last two years and both Randy Johnson and Kevin Brown didn’t deliver as promised the Bronx.

The Yankees have had a fair number of talented arms wither under the New York spotlight, so I’m not prepared to anoint Sabathia as the second coming of anything at this point. Burnett has yet to throw consecutive seasons of 180+ innings and he’s coming off the greatest workload of his career. Mike Mussina is gone, Andy Pettitte is a year older, Joba Chamberlain has yet to throw 150 innings in a season and none of the vaunted kiddie corps have really proven they can handle a full season.

The lineup is aging, the defense is improved only at a non-vital position (Mark Teixeira at first base) and is dubious up the middle and the bullpen behind Mo Rivera is sketchy.

Color me skeptical as respects their chances.

While the Rays are solid, they received more than 150 starts from their Opening Day rotation last year. I’m betting that won’t happen again, and young teams have been known to regress.

Bottom line: I’m not willing to consign the Blue Jays to the bottom of the AL East standings just yet. Yes, they’re in tough but they play the games for a reason. Remember, just one year ago anybody who predicted that the Tampa Bay Rays would play in the World Series would’ve been written off as certifiably insane.

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