Five Questions: Toronto Blue Jaysby John Brattain
March 22, 2005
About 20 years ago I was living on my own (well I had a roommate). He had a slightly demented sense of humor -- which explains why we got along so well. At various times; mornings, afternoons, evenings, I’d find examples of his twisted mindset around the apartment. About this time, a cereal company (it might have been Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes) was running a promotion where you could join a club which earned you a t-shirt with the company’s cartoon logo announcing your membership to said club featured rather prominently. Anyway, the box listed a set of instructions on how to attain said t-shirt and the final step on this list stated in effect to ‘wear your t-shirt proudly.’
I woke up one morning and found an addendum to this list attached to the box written on masking tape which stated: “And go to school and take your beating like a man.”
This incident I think well sums up the Jays 2004-05 offseason. They did a bunch of things, they have something to show for it and all that’s left is for them to go to the AL East and take their beating like a man.
I realize that 2004 saw a club that suffered through a lot of injuries. However it didn’t change the fact that the bullpen reeked and they didn’t get a lot of production out of the traditional offensive positions. So, let’s see how the Jays will stack up in 2005:
1. Can the infield score runs without Carlos Delgado?First base/DH:
Good bye Carlos, hello Shea Hillenbrand/Eric Hinske. Despite being limited to less than 500 AB in an injury-filled year, Delgado was still the Jays biggest offensive weapon. Despite an adjusted OPS+ of 128, Delgado could be counted on for above average offense from 1B. Now the position will likely be shared between Hillenbrand (a below average hitter for 1B) and Hinske (who was a below average hitter for 3B). Hillenbrand has never had an OBP of .350 and has never slugged over .500. He’s got good doubles power, however his career .288/.322/.448 means he’ll be creating a lot of outs. Last year Delgado made 358 outs in 551 plate appearances while Hillenbrand went 412/604. Sadly, it was an off year for Delgado and it was Hillenbrand’s best season to date. On the bright side, Hillenbrand is just 28 which means that he still might build on his moderately successful 2004 campaign. The Rogers Centre is a better ballpark to hit in than Bank One Ballpark which won’t hurt either.
Hinske has struggled mightily since his wrist injury in his sophomore season. His .246/.312/.375 line might be acceptable for your backup catcher were he a defensive whiz, but not a corner infielder/DH. If his wrist is fully healed, he could be an asset; his minor league numbers consistently show a competent hitter with a good batting eye. Hinske’s five-season apprenticeship saw him bat .285/.380/.511 and his ROtY season wasn’t far off (.279/.365/.481). Since his 2003 season was marred by injury, I’m willing to be charitable and call his 2004 an off year. He’s only 27 and has time to put his game back together. If Hinske can get on base at his pre-2003 rate he’ll make a positive contribution. I’m not willing to cut bait on Hinske just yet, but this year is make-or-break for him.
Orlando Hudson AKA the “O-Dog” is the best 2B the Jays have had since Robbie Alomar. Of course when you’re competition consists of Tomas Perez, Carlos Garcia, Craig Grebeck, Miguel Cairo and Homer Bush, you know that the bar hasn’t been set that high. Hudson can be counted on for at least an average level of offense for a second sacker and sparkling defense. He’s got a bit of power as evidenced by his 32 doubles, 7 triples and 12 dingers last year and his OBP has gone up every year which includes a .341 mark in 2004. In over 2000 minor league AB the O-Dog posted a .287/.355/.433 line which shows a decent command of the strike zone. He’s just 27 and should continue to improve. I predict an All-Star game appearance for Hudson in 2005.
This position has been up for grabs since the departure of slick-fielding Alex Gonzalez. Granted, filling the shoes of Gonzalez shouldn’t have been too difficult a task, but as Chris Woodward, Chris Gomez and Mike Bordick proved -- it can be done. This year’s contestant --Russ Adams-- is the antithesis of A-Gon: A hitter with decent on base skills but a suspect glove. Jays’ fans shouldn’t expect a repeat of Adam’s .306/.359/.528 [in 72 AB] debut but they should expect something along the lines of his minor league numbers (.283/.364/.393 in over 1200 AB). Adams has some speed although he hasn’t stolen a lot of bases in the minors, but he swiped 83 bases and was caught just 19 times in his three seasons at the University of North Carolina. Adams is just 24 and he has the physique to develop a little more power (6’1” 180 lb). The Jays need a miracle or six to overtake the Yankees and Red Sox, so they may as well give Adams regular work and see what he can do over a full season.
The biggest move of the Jays off season was inking the Twins’ Corey Koskie to a three year pact. Koskie should be counted on for an OBP between .350-.400 and a SLG in the neighborhood of .450-.500. He’s been an above average hitter for a hot corner man in each of his major league seasons posting an OPS between .815-.855. He has good power, hitting at least 25 HR in two of his last four seasons and should be good for 30 doubles. Granted he strikes out an average of 113 times [over the last five seasons] but walks enough to post a healthy OBP. He sacrificed some walks for HR last year but should revert to the norm for 2005. Like Hillenbrand, he’ll be performing in a park better suited to hitters than the Metrodome was last year so expect a good year.
The much traveled Zaun is returning for his second season north of the 49th parallel. He offers decent defensive skills, has an average bat for a catcher, and walks about as often as he strikes out. Zaun will be 34 this year and probably won’t be able to catch much more than 100 games. Expect a .240/.330/.350 hitting line. Zaun’s greatest contribution in 2005 might come on the form of tutoring….
As difficult as it is to believe, Quiroz is entering his seventh professional season. Pretty impressive for a 23 year old. Signed as a free agent out of Venezuela at age 17, Quiroz turned heads in AA New Haven in 2003 hitting 20 HR in just 369 AB with an impressive .282/.372/.518 line. Quiroz has a bit of power potential and has demonstrated a decent batting eye during his tour of the Jays’ minor league system. Quiroz’ problem is contact having batted just .236 in almost 1900 minor league at bats. However, the Jays are high on Quiroz’s defense and solid throwing arm (he nailed 40% of potential base thieves in his spectacular 2003 campaign in New Haven). Toronto’s brain trust will happily take whatever he can chip in with the bat. Quiroz has time to develop and the Jays can afford to be patient. As of this writing, Quiroz is hitting .400 in Dunedin.
Expect improvement across the board for the members of the infield and DH. It should make up for the loss of production from Delgado’s departure so the infield’s offensive contribution should remain unchanged from 2004. As to catcher, the Jays will come north with the past and the future but no present. This will continue to be a hole in the Jays lineup. Defensively however, the Jays should be slightly above average as Zaun’s skills will likely erode and Quiroz’s will continue to grow. Perhaps Greg Myers or Ken Huckaby might win a job, but I’m guessing the Jays will go with Zaun/Quiroz.
2. Vernon Wells is good but can the Jays have a league average outfield?Centerfield:
Is Vernon Wells ready to be “the man”? He has everything he needs or is awfully close to being the total package. Despite an injury plagued season where he had 145 fewer plate appearances than in 2003, his walk-to-whiff ratio was almost unchanged (42/80 in 2003; 51/83). The numbers are intriguing in that he walked nine more times despite the diminished playing time. From 2002, his base on balls total continues to increase (27 to 42 to 51) so as he matures, Wells’ plate discipline improves. Wells is a Gold Glover, has terrific speed and both doubles and home run power. If Wells is healthy he should be a perennial All-Star.
So, what’s the problem? Can Wells handle the spotlight? Will he see enough hittable pitches being the sole power threat in the lineup? These are minor questions -- Wells is the real deal and if he stays off the DL, expect a big year. He’s just 26, so look for him to improve on his big 2003 campaign; I’m predicting another Gold Glove, an All-Star Game appearance, .300/.390/.550 with 40 doubles, 30+ HR, and depending on how often the guys ahead of him get on base, between 100-140 RBI. If the Jays finish over .500 expect him to get some love from the BBWAA when it comes time to vote for AL MVP.
The Outfield Corners
I think left field and right field are yet to be determined. So we’ll look at the most likely candidates. It boils down to four, two of whom will likely come north as bench players (although a lot can happen between now -- I‘m writing this on March 15 -- and Opening Day). Our [hopefully] fab four are: Alex Rios, Gabe Gross, Frank Catalanotto and Reed Johnson.
The 24 year old Rios is an interesting study. He’s never hit for a lot of home run power having only one season where he’s hit for more than three (he hit 11 in AA New Haven in 2003). Rios has definite extra base power with 98 doubles and 36 triples in 2061 AB since 2001 at various levels -- including the majors. He’s 6’5” but just 185 lb which should turn into some long ball power as he fills out. Rios’ lanky frame translates into a large strike zone which he still needs to master. He’s got the ability to hit for a high average; Rios hit .305 in the tough Florida State League known for its pitcher-friendly parks in 2002 and followed that up with a .352 BA the following year in New Haven when he hit his aforementioned career high in home runs.
As of this writing, Rios is hitting .350 in Spring Training. Rios will never be a prolific walker, but if he can boost his bases on balls while maintaining his ability to make contact Rios will be a solid contributor for a quite a while. Although a corner outfielder, Rios’ hitting style reminds me of a young right handed version of Lloyd Moseby. If he has a Moseby-type career, colour me happy.
Gross’ time is running out in the minds of some. That’s the bad news. The good news is: Gross is absolutely crushing the ball this spring. In 20 spring at bats, he has ten hits -- two doubles and five home runs. Gross’ debut on the Blue Jays’ varsity in 2004 was less than inspiring: .209/.311/.310. He’s always exhibited a good batting eye in the minors (.279 BA; .379 OBP) and at 6’ 3” 205 lb has the potential to develop more power. Gross has slugged .444 during his minor league apprenticeship but did manage to reach a cool .500 SLG during his brief stint (126 AB) in the Florida State League on the heels of three years at Auburn, where he slugged a mighty .641. Gross has patience, he has power potential and is red hot down in Dunedin. Hopefully at age 25 he’s on the verge of putting it together at the major league level.
I like Reed Johnson. He’s a decent defender, makes good contact, has a smattering of power and seems to be a reasonably astute base runner. However, I do not like the idea of Johnson being a full time player -- he simply does not produce enough for a corner outfielder. Johnson does a nice enough job against lefties (.312/.357/.478) but struggles mightily against righties (.266/.324/.365).
If the Jays are smart -- seeing as how Gross is ripping the ball this spring -- they should platoon Johnson and Gross. If Gross continues to mash, then let him face some easy lefties letting Johnson handle the tougher ones. If Gross shows he can handle a corner position on a full time basis then use Johnson from the bench as a pinch hitter against lefty relievers then at the deadline, deal him to a contender that’s looking for some depth. Johnson is just 28 which will add to his trade value. Bottom line, Johnson is a decent ballplayer, but he should not be mistaken for a corner outfielder on a contending ball club. He’s got fourth outfielder written all over him.
See: Reed Johnson
At best, Catalanotto would be a good platoon player. He rips righties (.303/.362/.472) but struggles against southpaws (.245/.322/.332). The Cat should go to the bench as a pinch hitter against right handed relievers and maybe spell the lefty hitting Rios against tough righties like Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina etc. Like Johnson, Catalanotto does a lot of things right (including above average on base skills) but his lack of power is inadequate for a corner outfielder on a contender. He too might be valuable as trade bait come the deadline.
It all hinges on Wells’ health. The Jays have the makings of a decent outfield if utilized properly. Between the youngsters Rios and Gross and the more experienced Johnson and Catalanotto they should be able to cobble together decent outfield production. The Jays need Gross and Rios to stop being the future and start being the present.
3. The Jays have Roy Halladay. Is there any hope behind him?The Rotation
Let’s play a drinking game. Every time I mention Halladay’s health/arm -- take a shot. After an injury plagued 2004 (take a shot), Roy Halladay took the ball one last time on October 2. There wasn’t much riding on the game; the Yankees had clinched the AL East and the Blue Jays had managed the miracle of the aughts -- they beat out the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for the division basement. Regardless, it was a big game -- how was Halladay’s arm? (take a shot) He had two short stints in late September but this was the test of how his wing had healed (take a shot): Halladay threw 86 pitches -- 62 for strikes. He went eight innings, gave up six hits, no walks, a single earned run, and struck out five.
If he has indeed fully healed from his arm miseries (take a shot) of 2004, he should be the staff ace and the anchor the Jays’ rotation desperately needs. If Halladay throws 240 healthy (take a shot) innings with an ERA of 3.30 (his ERA from 2001-04) and average run support, he should garner at least 15 wins and make a run at 20. Halladay is coming into his prime and if he’s healthy (take a shot), expect a run at his second Cy Young Award. If his injury woes (take a shot) continue, the Jays are even more screwed than they already are.
Geez, since we’re discussing “what ifs” we may as well cover off Ted Lilly. Make no mistake, Lilly can be a legitimate top-of-the-order starter. In 2004, Lilly logged 197.1 IP, posted an ERA of 4.06 (AL ERA: 4.87) and struck out 168 and was the Jays lone All-Star representative, and he‘s just 29 years old. Lilly finished 12-10 on a club that was 67-94. There were a few dark moments -- Lilly walked just over four batters per nine innings. However that’s a bit of an aberration since he’d averaged 3.22 BB/9 IP before 2004. Expect him to revert to more normal levels in 2005.
All sunshine and happiness right? Dream on.
Lilly has got a lot of question marks. He’s never logged 200 innings and has a history of being fragile. For his career, Lilly has had a league average ERA despite his talents. Lilly might finally throw 200 innings with a sub 4.00 ERA and win 15 games. Then again, he might pitch 70 injury-plagued innings with an ERA of 5.00 and go 3-6. To channel Forrest Gump (something that I‘ve been accused of a lot throughout my life -- or at least since the movie came out): Ted Lilly is like a box of chok’lits, you never know what you’re gonna get. However, it’s spring and Lilly has thrown 375.2 innings over the last two seasons without serious mishap, so I‘m guessing (O.K. praying) he‘ll log close to 200 IP with an ERA of around 4.00 and win between 11 and 15 games.
Bush capped a wonderful rookie season with a gem against the Yankees on October 1. Bush tossed a nifty two hit shutout walking three and fanning 11 throwing 117 pitches. Like Lilly, a .500 plus record (5-4) on a .416 team is nothing to turn your nose up at. Bush showed impressive command averaging just 2.3 walks per 9 IP and finished with a 3.69 ERA in just under 100 IP. A flash in the pan? Well his three year minor league career looks a lot like a pitching line from the 1960’s-early 1970’s:
W L ERA IP H ER BB SO 21 14 3.19 293.3 268 104 57 284Not a huge sample size but there’s a lot to like there: fewer hits than innings pitched, close to a strikeout per inning and less than 2 BB/9 IP. Even when we go back to Bush’s college years at Wake Forest, we see a guy stingy with walks as he walked just 26 in 134 IP in 2001 and 2002. In short, the man can flat out throw strikes. Since 2001 at the college, minor league and major league level, Bush has pitched 526 innings and walked just 108 -- a 1.85 BB/9 IP ratio. Bush may suffer the dreaded sophomore jinx but his peripheral numbers (K/BB: 9 IP) would indicate that unless he completely forgets how to throw strikes he should enjoy a good second season.
One of the hazards of being able to throw strikes is this: if you haven’t got enough on the ball, you‘re going to get hit. After a solid debut with the Jays in 2003 (8-1, 4.48 ERA, 105 ERA+), Towers struggled out of the gate in 2004 and found himself back in Syracuse where he pitched well (3-1, 2.50 ERA). Towers rejoined the Jays’ varsity in June with mixed results. The good news is, Towers continued to show the impeccable control that has been the hallmark of his professional career (1.4 BB/9 IP in four ML seasons). He finished the year at .500 (9-9) which is good on a sub .500 club. Towers had eight starts where he went seven innings or more and two others where he pitched well yet exited before the seventh. The bad news is that he had some simply awful starts and was hit hard throughout the year surrendering 148 hits in 116.1 IP. Towers also doesn’t strike out a lot (51 K) and gives up a healthy amount of gopher balls (16). This translated into a 5.11 ERA for the year. For Towers to succeed, he needs his defense to turn balls in play into outs and keep the ball in the park. If he can do this, he’ll be an asset in the number four slot in the rotation. If not, he’ll be an asset in the number two slot in the rotation ... in Syracuse.
The number five starter will likely be culled from RHP Ryan Glynn (1-0, 4.05 ERA), RHP Justin Miller (3-4, 6.06 ERA), and LHP Gustavo Chacin (1-1, 2.57 ERA).
The Jays rotation is its number one asset. However, it a Halladay injury (take a shot), a Lilly injury, a sophomore jinx, and an inconsistent Towers from being a train wreck. If everything clicks, they’ll keep the Jays in a lot of ballgames. If Murphy’s Law kicks in, expect the Jays to successfully defend their spot at the bottom of the AL East.
4. The Blue Jays bullpen scared me in 2004. Should I turn off the TV after six innings in 2005 to save myself unnecessary trauma?The Bullpen
Take a group of arsonists: add gasoline, matches, acetylene torches; mix in a generous helping of crystal meth and stir and you’ve got the recipe for the Blue Jays’ bullpen circa 2004. It was Tony Castillo, Bill Caudill, Joey McLaughlin, Mike Timlin, and Roy Lee Jackson flashbacks. It was like watching a slasher flick, a train wreck, and a group of St. Bernard’s puking their guts out to a New Kids On The Block soundtrack with the Spice Girls in the background.
Then things started really getting ugly.
I will confidently predict that the Blue Jays’ bullpen will be better this year. They’re already at rock bottom and they lack the shovels, picks, and jackhammers to go deeper; they’re arsonists, not miners.
The 34-year-old Miguel Batista (10-13, 4.80 ERA 5 SV 198.2 IP) has been anointed closer -- whoop-dee-dingle-do. His six career saves will doubtlessly keep the Red Sox and Yankees polluting themselves (with delight most likely) throughout 2005. Give Batista too little work and he begins to reek, so let’s give him a four inning workweek ... BRILLIANT!
You’d think getting three miserable outs before the opposition can push a couple of runs across wouldn’t qualify as a difficult task, yet the Jays are trying to find someone who can handle the task without endangering the well-being of the infield.
Don’t get me wrong, Miguel Batista is a perfectly serviceable league average pitcher however if the Jays are planning on using him for nine inning stints only -- well expect trouble. Batista might be a good candidate to try as a Rollie Fingers/Goose Gossage closer -- a guy you bring in to get the final 6-8 outs. It might also keep the setup men in the bullpen where they’ll do less damage. If they use him strictly in ninth inning situations, you’ll see a year long effort to perfect the blown save.
Toronto also decided to try a little subtraction by addition (edit: Koch has since been released) by adding RHP Billy Koch (2-3, 4.41 ERA 8 SV 49 IP) and LHP Scott Schoeneweis (6-9, 5.59 ERA 112.2 IP) to give the ‘pen a little flexibility, giving the Jays the flexibility to get a blown save from the left or the right depending on the situation.
Other candidates for the bullpen include last year’s erstwhile closers RHP Justin Speier (3-8, 3.91 ERA, 7 SV 69 IP) and Jason Frasor (4-6, 4.08 ERA 17 SV 68.1 IP); Kerry Ligtenberg (1-6, 6.38 ERA 3 SV 55 IP) and whomever doesn’t make the cut as the number five starter. One potential bright spot in the bullpen is starter-turned-reliever Brandon League who has shown an ability to get the ball over the plate (less than three walks per nine innings pitched since turning pro) and averaged 7.26 K/9 IP in his minor league career.
The bullpen’s biggest bugaboo last year was they gave up far too many walks. There’s a lot of youth available, so there’s hope that they’ll learn the joys of throwing strikes. If they’re aggressive, they’ve got a chance not to embarrass themselves. If they nibble, expect lots of trips to the mound in late innings that will not help one bit.
5. What are the most pressing issues facing the Jays in 2005?1. Assuming Halladay’s healthy (take a shot), can the Jays get 160-200 innings each out of Lilly, Bush and Towers?
2. Can the Jays get league average offense out of the outfield corners?
3. Will the Jays’ bullpen be able to cut their walks enough to be effective?
4. Will Eric Hinske be able to recapture his pre-2003 form?
5. Can Russ Adams give Hudson the help he needs up the middle? Josh Towers hopes so.
Conclusion: This is a young team. Gross, Rios, Adams, Quiroz, Bush, League and Chacin need to show that they belong. Hudson needs to keep progressing, Hinske needs to recapture his earlier career form and Koskie needs to perform at his normal level. Finally the Toronto Blue Jays need Halladay and Wells to be the superstars that their talent suggests. My prediction? Third place 83-79.
Our good friend, and THT stalwart, John Brattain passed away on March 24, 2009. John was a prolific writer, whose work can also be read at Sympatico/MSN Sports and Baseball Digest Daily. John's work was also featured at USA Today, MLBtalk, ESPN Insider, Baseball Prospectus, The Baseball Analysts and The Baseball Journals. Never afraid to express himself in any medium, he was also a frequent radio speaker.