Five Questions: Toronto Blue Jays

This is the most talented Blue Jays squad in since the early 1990’s, and they are definite post season contenders—on paper. Of course, there’s a small matter of 162 games to be played, and—as any baseball fan worth his salt can tell you—a lot can happen. This year, general manager J.P. Ricciardi went with a high risk-high reward strategy. He went out this offseason and acquired some genuine talent: A.J. Burnett, B.J. Ryan, Troy Glaus, Lyle Overbay and Benji Molina. However, some of this talent comes with question marks—enough question marks that this roster also has the potential to do a spectacular crash-and-burn. This club could potentially win 94-96 games, but if enough goes wrong, they could finish 70-92. This is not a .500 ball club—it’ll either be in a postseason boom or a J.P. bust. According to my sources (the little voice inside my head), here are the five question facing this year’s edition of the universe’s favorite team (same source):

1. Can the Jays get 450 innings out of Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett?

Roy Halladay is developing an injury prone reputation. Despite missing large chunks of 2004 and 2005, it’s not deserved. Yes, he had a bad shoulder in 2004, but when he returned in September, he was back to his old form and remained there until a Kevin Mench line drive off his shin ended his 2005. Wisely the Jays didn’t let him pitch until his leg felt better, which both rested his shoulder and prevented new injuries that may have resulted from an altered pitching motion. He’s healthy and feeling good this spring so barring another freak accident expect at least 230 innings of Cy-quality pitching. After all, since his 2004 shoulder injury, he’s only used it for under 170 innings—I expect it to be healthy.

Then there’s A.J.

Yes, he may be a bit of a head case, but that’s not the part of the anatomy that worries me. Despite being fully healed from Tommy John surgery on his elbow back in 2003, he was shut down for an elbow problem in September 2004, and decided to scare the collective poachies out of Jaydom last week (or two weeks ago depending on when the powers-that-be decide to post this puppy) after leaving a Spring Training game with elbow soreness. On the bright side, after 2004, he threw 209 innings last year. He’ll be 29 which means he’ll be coming into his prime years. I’m gonna go with the optimistic side of me (the ones the Blue Jays and Leafs make a point of stomping the life out of every year post-1993).

2. The Jays have a closer (thank God), can the setup corps repeat 2005?

Reliever              W   L   IP   WHIP ERA 
Justin Speier         3   2  66.2  0.95 2.57 
Pete Walker           5   4  63.1  1.36 2.98 
Jason Frasor          3   5  74.2  1.27 3.25 
S. Schoeneweis        3   4  57.0  1.39 3.32 
Vinnie Chulk          0   1  72.0  1.31 3.88 

(note: these numbers are strictly based on relief innings)

First off, the Jays’ relief corps, despite finishing 8th in the AL in ERA, were much better than that. They were first in the AL East in that and WHIP and they tired down the stretch most likely due to fatigue from Roy Halladay’s injury, falling out of the wild card race, and Miguel Batista’s attempts at being baseball’s answer to Thich Quang Duc. When the Jays were struggling to stay in the wild card hunt after Halladay went down, they did admirable work keeping the Jays in games.

Of course, it’s difficult to know for sure who’s coming north with the big club, so I’ll just focus on the guys who logged more than 50 innings out of the pen in 2005. Scott Schoeneweis’s 2005 was way beyond his career norms, and should be expected to revert to his league average/just below league average form. He hasn’t enjoyed a good spring, so he may not even open the season with Toronto. Walker, who’ll be 37 in less than a month also enjoyed an atypical year. His pedestrian strikeout-to-walk, walk and strikeout rates of 2005 indicate that he enjoyed some good luck last year. If he comes close to those ratios, I doubt we’ll see a relief ERA of 2.98. Jason Frasor, 28, is coming into his third season. He made big strides in improving his strikeout-to-walk ratio and WHIP in 2005. Barring injury, I can’t see a regression, and the spring optimist in me might even hope for improvement. He was a little more gopher prone last year (allowing 0.96 home runs per nine innings … it was .53 in 2004)—something to keep your eye on. Vinnie Chulk, who is 27, improved his hit rate and cut his walk rate, but he took a huge step backwards in his strikeout rate (7 per nine innings to 4.9), which means he relies on his defense to make outs—and there’s no ) O-Dawg up the middle. He’s my pick to crash and burn in the ’pen in 2006. Of course, Scott Downs, Brandon League and Dustin McGowan might be in the mix somewhere. There are some nice live arms there, so I’m guessing that getting the ball to Ryan won’t be a big problem in 2006.

3. Can the Jays draw 3 million fans? 2.5 million?

Since 1999, the Jays have topped two million in attendance just twice, and have been pretty consistent in finishing in the bottom quarter-bottom third in AL attendance in the aughts. The strike, the baseball economy and poor teams are only part of the reason. It’s easy to dismiss the Jays’ recent struggles as “Toronto is a hockey town,” but the city has always belonged to the Maple Leafs, even when the Jays were drawing four million. Part of the problem was self-inflicted. During their glory years, they blew a lot of goodwill by what could be deemed corporate arrogance. They were a hot ticket item, they knew it, and they acted like the good times would continue forever.

Probably the best example was when you had to “pay” to watch the Jays take batting practice. The gates would open in time to watch to watch the visiting club take batting practice, but you were instructed that you could only watch the Jays from the Hard Rock Café, where you had to pay a cover charge. Basically the Jays acted like the snooty maitre-deat an exclusive restaurant. I know a lot of fans who were personally turned off the Jays during the early SkyDome era. Instead of accruing goodwill for the future, they acted like you were there to serve them. Throw in the strike, the worst record in the AL in 1995 and not being in the postseason since, coupled with their ballpark going from cutting edge and futuristic to antiseptic and sterile, and you have a fan base jumping off the bandwagon the moment the Blue Jays jumped the shark.

Can they recover? Of course they can. The Maple Leafs notwithstanding, Toronto loves a winner (Leafs fans just like the pain … we must, we keep going back for more) and if the Jays can hang tough into late September, 2.5 million is a possibility. If they continue to have a successful, contending ball club, three million might be doable in 2007.

4. Do the Jays have a middle-of-the-lineup that doesn’t inspire laughter?

Well I, for one, was not laughing in 2005. Nobody hit 30 home runs or 40 doubles, nobody drive in 100 runs or slugged .500, and the leader in OPS+ (400 at-bat minimum) last year was Frank Freakin’
Catalanotto at a clearly Winstrol-free 115. Vernon Wells has had one season with an OBP over .350 and a SLG over .500 (2003). The next couple of seasons (age 27-28) will determine whether he’ll be a slightly above-average hitting ball hawk or an All Star. His OPS+ in his first four full seasons are 100, 131, 103 and 104 so 2003—at the moment—appears to be an outlier. If he doesn’t step it up a notch, the Jays will have to assess his spot in the batting order. Glaus’ five full [injury-free] seasons have featured between 29-47 home runs and four seasons with a SLG in excess of .500, with a career high or .604 in 2000 (was it that long ago?). Long story short, if he’s healthy—he’ll rake.

ESPN predicts that Overbay will be a breakout player in 2006. He’s in a hitter’s peak power years (29), has had a season of 53 doubles (2004) and 19 home runs (2005). Overbay has a decent batting eye, and should flourish at the Rogers Centre. He has the potential for a John Olerud-type season (.380 OBP, 20 home runs, 45 doubles). A 3-4-5 combination of Glaus/Overbay/Wells (R-L-R), while not on the level of an A-Rod/Sheffield/Giambi-type combo should provide decent offense. Both Wells and Overbay could step up and if Glaus is healthy it has the potential to be a very pleasant surprise.

5. Will no O-Dawg mean bitching pitchers?

Assuming health, the loss of Orlando Hudson won’t impact Halladay and Burnett, since they’ve got the stuff to overwhelm hitters. Towers should fare OK since he’s a flyball pitcher. However Gustavo Chacin, whomever is getting the bulk of starts in the five-spot, and the setup corps is going to need to rely in defense up the middle. When the bullpen come in in the late frames of a close game with men on, you want your keystone to be able to turn two or get the final out of the inning. Unless you watched Hudson work his defensive wizardry game in and game out, you don’t realize how absolutely brilliant he is with the leather. I’ll be honest—between Russ Adams at shortstop and Aaron Hill at second base during those late and men on situations, it’ll rank up there on my stress-o-meter with the wonderful days of Tony Castillo with the sacks juiced, Mike Timlin in the ninth with a three-run lead, or, for that matter, Miguel Batista and Joey McLaughlin. Expect a decline in the cat population in Campbellford (see #6) in 2006.

Final thoughts

I’m sorry, but I’m not sold on Lilly-of-the-power-alley as a regular starter. Yes, he enjoyed a nice little run last year, but he rarely pitched past the sixth inning. He’ll only be 30, so he gets one more year to prove himself otherwise, well, I’ll think really nasty thoughts about him. My gut tells me to trade him if he puts together 5-6 good starts in a row. Of course, if he does that, why trade him—right? (Sigh.) Regardless, I think the Jays can afford a bit of patience with him, especially in view of Burnett’s elbow. I think this is the Jays’ best chance at the postseason in quite some time. The Yankees and Red Sox remain the teams to beat in the East, but they’ve got enough vulnerabilities that Toronto should be able to stay in the thick of things. They’ve got enough arms in the rotation and the bullpen and an improved offense. Last year I predicted 83-79, this year I’m guessing 92-70.

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