2011 Season Forecast: Toronto Blue Jays

Last Five Years:

2010: 85 – 77 (4th in AL East)
2009: 75 – 87
2008: 86 – 76
2007: 83 – 79
2006: 87 – 75

Consistently good, not always as competitive in the toughest division to win in baseball.

Runs Scored: 755 (6th in AL, but 4th in the AL East)
Runs Allowed: 728 (9th in AL)

With this combination of run scored and allowed, you’d expect 84 wins, so Toronto was pretty much on the money.

2010 Recap:

Most everyone had them fourth – so no surprises here.  Well, not at a team level anyway…  A LOT of surprises at the player level – but we’ll cover that down below.

After trading wins and losses for a month, the Blue Jays got hot in May and raced toward the top of the division.  Unfortunately, the Jays were equally cold in June and fell back to fourth.  June was their only losing month – from July 7th on, the Jays were 14 over .500, so if they hadn’t gone cold for the 30 days from June 6 to July 6, it’s very likely that the Jays could have sneaked into the playoffs.

What made Toronto competitive on heals of losing the best pitcher in their team’s history, Roy Halliday, was a BUNCH of home runs.  Jose Bautista hit 54, Vernon Wells slammed 31 dingers, John Buck had 20, Edwin Encarnacion hit 21, even Alex Gonzalez had 17 in just 85 games.  Aaron Hill didn’t hit much, but clocked 26 homers.  Adam Lind tallied 23, Lyle Overbay slashed 20, and even the half season of Travis Snider was good for 14.  Toronto hit 257 homers but only allowed 150, a gap that covered for other weaknesses.

During the season, the Jays made a few minor deals, but the one that made a splash was the trade in July that sent shortstop Alex Gonzalez and two minor leaguers to Atlanta for Yunel Escobar and Jo-Jo Reyes.

Starters:

As mentioned, Roy Halliday was gone, and the Blue Jays were forced to rely on a bunch of young arms – many of whom were returning from prior shoulder and elbow injuries.  Ricky Romero improved on an impressive 2009 rookie season and made 32 starts, logged 210 innings and win 14 games, pitching like an ace for much of the season.  Shaun Marcum returned to go 13 – 8 and missed by a start of hitting 200 innings.  Brett Cecil, the #1 pick in 2007, raced through the minors and showed moxie – leading the team with 15 wins.  Brandon Morrow, who never seemed to live up to the hype in Seattle, fanned 178 batters in just 146.1 innings, kept hitters off stride, and won 10 decisions.  The fifth starter role was given to Marc Rzepczynski and Dana Eveland, but at the end was given to former Phillie prospect Kyle Drabek, who looks to make the rotation in 2011.

Looking ahead, Shaun Marcum is gone, having been moved to Milwaukee for Brett Lawrie, a top second base prospect.  That leaves Romero, Cecil, Morrow, and either Rzepczynski, Drabek, Reyes, or Jesse Litsch – another former Jays starter coming back from hip surgery.  Drabek comes with the most hype – the top prospect in the Toronto chain, having gone 14 – 9 for New Hampshire in the Eastern League.  Reyes can pitch some, but more likely will start the year in the bullpen and pick up a start from time to time, which leaves Litsch and Rzepczynski battling for the fifth slot.  I think Drabek can be every bit as good as Marcum was in 2010, and if Litsch or Rzepczynski can make 25 healthy starts, this will be a slight improvement – if only because you won’t have the nine less than stellar starts of Dana Eveland in the mix (or, for that matter, Litsch’s nine less than impressive starts).

Bullpen:

Gone is Kevin Gregg, who saved 37 games last year.  Gregg is NOT a dominant closer – but rather a tolerable one,  He was ably supported by Shawn Camp, Scott Downs, Jason Frasor, Casey Janssen, and David Purcey.

For 2011, the closer looks to be former Ranger closer Frank Francisco, who can be much better than Gregg but historically is just marginally better.  Other closers are in camp, including Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch, as well as Frasor, Janssen, Camp, and Purcey.  This is a very deep staff and should continue to keep Toronto in games.

Catching:

Last year’s duo of John Buck and Jose Molina were impressive defensively – above average in six different categories, and league average in terms of basic mobility.  Buck also hit well – an all-star level performance.

Looking ahead, Toronto will be depending on rookie J.P. Arencibia.  After struggling through a rough 2009 season in Las Vegas, Arencibia pounded PCL pitchers to the tune of 32 – 85 – .301 in 104 games.  That translates to about 20 – 65 – .250, which is not too far from a typical John Buck season.  Molina remains as a capable defensive backup.

Infield:

The changes continue from the infield that started the 2010 season.  Basher Jose Bautista showed to be more consistent at third than Edwin Encarnacion, who will move to first or DH in 2011.  Yunel Escobar can find his groove and hopefully contribute like the hitter he was in 2009, and second baseman Aaron Hill will rebound from his .205 2010 season and hopefully retain his power.  Adam Lind moves to first base, replacing Lyle Overbay.  I’m nervous about this unit.  The left side will be marginally better than 2010 defensively, but the right side will not be.  Lind has yet to produce as many runs as Overbay, and the 85 games Alex Gonzalez played were productive and hard to immediately replace.

John McDonald is still around to back everyone up – as is Encarncion.

Outfield:

Left field will be manned by former Angel Juan Rivera, who replaces Fred Lewis – a fourth outfielder at best.  While an improvement, Rivera is starting to get old and in ten seasons has never played 140 games in a season.  Vernon Wells is gone, replaced by Rajai Davis.  Davis is faster than Wells, but about 25 runs behind him as a hitter.  In right is Travis Snider, who replaces Bautista’s role.  Snider is due to step forward as a hitter, but hasn’t been a strong fielder.

Down on the Farm:

AAA Las Vegas wasn’t loaded with prospects other than Arencibia, who will start on opening day, and Brett Wallace, who was traded to Houston for Anthony Gose – a low level centerfielder with speed to burn, but a problem with contact and little power.  (I’ll be honest, I don’t see the reasoning there unless one thinks Wallace didn’t have a future in Toronto, but I think he’s better than Encarnacion.)

AA New Hampshire had Drabek, but also Zach Stewart, who is a year older but not quite as good.  David Cooper is a first baseman who has stats that look like Lyle Overbay – but at AA.  He might be a year away, but he’s not quite there yet.  Eric Thames has more power and a touch of speed.  He could replace Juan Rivera and you might not lose a step.  Darin Mastroianni is a leadoff type hitter, great speed and good on base percentages.  At 25, he’s getting old for a prospect, but he could help somebody for a months if needed.  The guy who is really interesting is Cuban import Adeiny Hechavarria, who looks like Davy Concepcion did when he was 21 years old – great glove, could grow into a hitter (but not yet).  Tristan Magnuson was successful as a reliever in AA, with great control, but Danny Farquhar has better stuff – 79Ks in 76 innings, just 50 hits allowed.  He’s a touch wild.

Alan Farina didn’t look like a prospect after a season of struggle at A+ Dunedin, but he DOMINATED A+ in 2010 and moved up to New Hampshire and kept right on going (74Ks in 55.2 innings).  If he does this in Las Vegas, he may make the roster in September, 2011.  Joel Carreno is a starter with moxie who will start in AA this year after a successful run in 2010 with Dunedin.  Catcher Travis D’Arnaud will get to build on a reasonably successful 2010 season, but it would help if he shows a little more power.

2011 Forecast:

There are things to like.  The outfield defense should be stronger.  The team will be spending less money at a couple of positions, which helped pay for a Jose Bautista contract.  The pitching staff is rather deep, especially in the bullpen.  The only slip defensively is at first base – which means the team will likely stay around 715 runs allowed, if not a few less than that.

The things that make you nervous?  I think the offense has to fall back.  I can see Bautista having a good season, but will it be as good as last year?  Probably not.  You have a drop in offense at first and center and possibly at catcher against potential improvements in left and second.  But there are too many “downs” to make up for the possible “ups” – and I see this as being sixty to eighty runs less than 2010.  As such, I see Toronto falling below .500 to about 77 – 85, which could very well be last in the AL East.  This isn’t a BAD team, just a team in the wrong division and falling back because a couple of guys were over their heads last year.  On the other hand, there are signs that this team is trying to build a new foundation of young players that can get them over the 90 win plateau and finally get back to the playoffs.

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Baseball’s Opening Day Fun!

It’s nice to get back into the swing of writing…  I didn’t get all of the team forecasts done, so I’ll just add as many as I can in April before calling it good.  I DID rate all of the players by position for the first time ever, so I got THAT going for me…

I was able to watch a variety of different games, getting in most of the Phillies – Nationals game, the early innings of the Cubs – Braves slaughter (ouch if you are a Cubs fan like me), two innings of the Diamondbacks opener, and listened to about two innings of the Astros and Giants opener.  That’s a good opening day.

Things that caught my attention:

How about that play by Mark Buehrle on a ball that rocketed off his left shin into foul territory.  Buehrle ran it down and flipped the ball between his legs to first for the out.  [MLB]

I don’t think the Cubs should allow Carlos Zambrano to start on opening day.  He’s just too excitable.  Once a ball fell in that he thought should have been caught in the first inning, the game went out the window.

Jason Heyward became the umpteenth player in MLB history to homer in his first plate appearance – looking very comfortable as a major league outfielder.  [FoxSports]

Albert Pujols and Garrett Jones (who was immediately scooped up by Andy Finch in our fantasy baseball league) homered twice on opening day, which means they are on pace to hit 300 homers in 2010…

Jack Cust was released by the A’s – and isn’t too happy about it.  Cust hits homers and draws walks – but that’s about it.  Still – he produces runs for a team that doesn’t really have a cleanup hitter.  [Fanhouse]

Buster Olney writes that the Yankees are already concerned about the decline in Jorge Posada‘s defense.  But they have no worries about the lack of range displayed by Derek Jeter?  [ESPN]

Happy Birthday!

1903 Mickey Cochrane
1906 Benny Frey
1908 Ernie Lombardi
1937 Phil Regan
1943 Marty Pattin – I can still remember getting his baseball card as a little kid at a corner store  near by grandparent’s house in Chicago
1951 Bert Blyleven
1971 Lou Merloni

Hurry Back!

Lots of guys starting the year on the DL, including (but not limited to):

Brandon Webb (AZ) – 15 day, recovering from shoulder surgery
Marc Rzepczynski
(TOR) – 15 day, fractured middle finger on left hand
Daisuke Matsuzaka (BOS) – 15 day, neck strain
Cliff Lee (SEA) – 15 day, abdominal strain
Jose Reyes (NYM) – 15 day, thyroid condition
Jesus Flores (WAS) – 60 day, shoulder surgery
Chien-Ming Wang (WAS) – 60 day, shoulder surgery
Daniel Murphy (NYM) – 15 day, sprained knee
Coco Crisp (OAK) – 15 day, fractured pinkie
J.P. Howell (TB) – 15 day, left shoulder strain
Kerry Wood (CLE) – 15 day, right lat strain
Freddy Sanchez (SF) – 15 day, recovering from shoulder surgery
Ted Lilly (CHC) – 15 day, recovering from shoulder surgery
Russell Branyan (CLE) – 15 day, herniated disc
Ian Kinsler (TEX) – 15 day, sprained ankle
Tommy Hunter
(TEX) – 15 day, left oblique strain
Gil Meche (KC) – 15 day, bursitis in throwing shoulder
Alex Gordon (KC) – 15 day, broken thumb
Huston Street (COL) – 15 day, shoulder inflammation
Joe Blanton (PHI) – 15 day, left oblique strain
Scott Kazmir (LAA) – 15 day, hamstring strain
Brad Lidge (PHI) – 15 day, recovering from elbow surgery

Hey Pittsburgh fans! Your team is in first place!

Have a great day!

2010 Season Forecast: Toronto Blue Jays

Last Five Years:

2009: 75 – 87 (4th AL East)
2008: 86 – 76
2007: 83 – 79
2006: 87 – 75
2005: 80 – 82

Runs Scored: 798 (6th AL)
Runs Allowed: 771 (12th AL)

Having outscored their opponents by 27 runs, the Jays should have won about 84 games.  This isn’t the first time that Toronto has won fewer games than one might expect based on their runs scored and allowed data.  In 2008, they were ten games over .500 with essentially the same ratio of runs as the World Series bound Tampa Rays.  In 2007, the Jays scored one fewer run than they allowed in road games, but lost 47 of 81 games.  And that 2005 club finished under .500 despite outscoring their opponents by 70 runs.  That’s four of five years that Roy Halliday thinks that he should have been on a contending team – only to fall by the wayside.

Who should be held responsible for this?

Season Recap:

Most teams had the Jays landing in fourth place in the prediction category, but most of us figured it would have been more like 85 wins.

The Jays got off to a GREAT start.  It wasn’t long before Toronto, led by Halliday, Scott Richmond, and Ricky Romero, were running off and looking like they would be a force in the AL Beast.  After sweeping the Chicago White Sox on May 18, Toronto hit a SLUMP – all CAPS because they lost nine straight, six to Boston and Baltimore.  Rumors that Halliday was to be traded starting dominating the news – when it wasn’t some member of the rotation going down to injury – and I think the Jays got horribly distracted.

I know this – the team’s OBP every month was about .333 except July, when they must have started swinging at everything.  The OBP in July was .298.  So, even though the pitching staff was still getting the job done (a 3.81 ERA, best of the year), they couldn’t win, and it was July that put them out.

At this point, the Jays lost a lot – killing off the season as July started and finally bottoming out after reaching fifteen below .500 in early September.  Halliday never got traded and, in fact, once the team figured out they had better just enjoy being a team the rest of the way, the team had a winning September when it didn’t matter.

Pitching:

Roy Halliday was marvelous – 17 – 10 with a 2.50 ERA and saving his club 47 runs more than average pitching would have provided.  Ricky Romero finished with 13 wins and was about 8.5 runs better than average in 178 innings.  Scott Richmond lost 11 of his last 15 decisions, costing his team 14.5 runs, and then hit the DL where he’ll likely miss most of 2010.  Brian Tallett got 160 innings and his control got the best of him.  Brett Cecil got 17 starts, had a winning record, but seemed very hittable (5.30 ERA, 17 homers and 116 hits in 93.1 innings).

On the other hand, Marc Rzepczynski proved a potential rotation player with 11 decent enough starts – and hopefully can build on that for 2010.

In the bullpen, a closer could not keep a job.  B.J. Ryan wasn’t worthy – 6.53 ERA – and was shipped out.  Scott Downs hung in there for a while with 9 saves and decent numbers (good control); Jason Frasor was even better and eventually earned the closer role for good.

No worries – for 2010, the pitching staff will look different with Halliday having been shipped to Philadelphia for a boatload of prospects.

First, Shaun Marcum returns from an injury forced exile to take over the front of the rotation.  I like Marcum – he’s a fine pitcher, but he’s no Halliday.  Romero returns, as does Rzepczynski and Tallett, with former Mariner Brandon Morrow joining the rotation to take the ball in the first inning every fifth turn.

Marcum has always been an above average pitcher – but not 40 runs above average.  And Morrow has never been dependable as a starter.  Even Tallett is a converted reliever – which means his arm hasn’t been abused, but he needs to find consistency this year.

The bullpen starts with Frasor, but adds Kevin Gregg from the Cubs.  Scott Downs returns and will help.  Jesse Carlson and Jeremy Accardo round out the top five.  Gregg is inconsistent, too – but he’ll be a nice eighth inning option.  There is more depth here than in, say Baltimore.  I like Baltimore’s rotation better, though.

Looking forward, I see this unit performing about 50 runs worse than the 2009 rotation – mostly because Halliday won’t be there.  That puts a lot of pressure on the bullpen, and the sixth and seventh guys.  And THOSE aren’t the guys you want pitching important innings.

Catching:

Rod Barajas provided solid catching, but couldn’t get his batting average over .230.  Still – he had 19 homers and 71 RBI.  Essentially, the Blue Jays replaced him with the same guy – former Royal John Buck.  Buck can get the same numbers at the plate but probably not behind it; Buck isn’t as good as Barajas against the run.

Infield:

Lyle Overbay didn’t seem as mobile with the glove, and with a falloff at the plate, he was a bit of a problem.  Overbay ISN’T a bad first baseman.  Usually he makes up for his lack of power with fantastic fielding.  If he’s not going to be a gold glove winner, then his bat – still above average – looks pedestrian when compared to others.  His backup, Kevin Millar, didn’t help at the plate or in the field.

Aaron Hill came back from concussion issues to give head injuries to the baseball, hitting 36 homers and another 37 doubles.  Hill was nearly an MVP candidate.

Marco Scutaro was an amazing leadoff hitter, getting on base at a .383 clip and scoring 100 runs.  Backup infielder John McDonald still fields well, but his hitting is pedestrian.

The Jays started with Scott Rolen, who hit .320 (who saw THAT?), but was traded to Cincinnati for Edwin Encarnacion – who didn’t.  Rolen was traded because he was expensive, but at least he was producing.

For 2010, the infield still has Overbay and Hill, but the other side of the infield features Alex Gonzalez, who has little range and a fading bat.  He WON’T generate 100 runs of offense, and he’ll be worse in the field than the below average Scutaro.  Rolen, until the injuries, was know for being dependable – something Encarnacion is not – and he won’t ever hit like Rolen, either.  I can’t see Hill repeating, Overbay may slide some more, and the other two will KILL the Blue Jays offense.  Look for a 80 run decline offensively and a 20 run decline defensively.

Outfield:

Yes – Alex Rios was disappointing when considering his pay and his production.  However, Rios is an above average fielder and hitter.  He’s gone.  Jose Bautista, who was nearly as productive and cheaper, will get the nod in right field.  It’s no better than a wash going forward.

Vernon Wells remains in centerfield.  He’s old, has had below average range for half a decade now, and will have hamstring problems until he’s 100.  He’s no longer capable of 20 homers and doesn’t get on base much.  He also has a contract nobody else wants.

In left, Adam Lind will be a DH (whew!) but Travis Snider needs to step forward.  There’s a lot to like – he has power, but needs to make better contact.  At least he’ll get to more fly balls than Lind.  Randy Ruiz, a slugger, will also get some more at bats after hitting ten homers in 115 at bats last year.  Like Lind, Ruiz is immobile in the field, too.

I don’t think Bautista is a long-term answer and if Wells go down (and he will), they’ll need to get Phillies prospect Michael Taylor to the big leagues.

Prospects:

First, you have the prospects that the Jays got in the Halliday trade.  one, catcher Travis D’Arnaud, will make the club in a couple of years.  Pitcher Kyle Drabek will be allowed to find his feet in AAA before moving up to the bigs later this year.  And Michael Taylor isn’t listed on the 25 man roster, so he’ll get some time to prove his worth before getting the call.

Looking at AAA Las Vegas, you have to remember that to be a prospect, you have to hit about .330 – like Travis Snider.  J.P. Arencibia would be a better power prospect if he hit .336, but he hit .236 instead.  Other than Snider, who should be ready, nobody else is a prospect for the lineup.  For the same reason, pitching prospects never look so good – so you want good control and an ERA under 4.00 and there just aren’t that many who fit that bill.  Dirk Hayhurst might be close – but he starts 2010 on the 60-day DL after surgery on his right shoulder.  Maybe he can come back in 2011.

At AA New Hampshire, Reidier Gonzalez showed control but not enough strikeouts in his 93 innings.  Fabio Castro, a tiny lefty who has seven years with four franchises, looked okay but doesn’t have a strikeout pitch that he can depend on as he moves up and faces AAA hitting.

The best hitter at AA was Brian Dopirak, who hasn’t yet made it to the bigs but is starting to look like he might hit about .270 with some power if he gets there.  Dopirak hit .308 with 19 homers in New Hampshire, then .330 with 8 homers in Las Vegas.  With Overbay around, he won’t get a chance without someone getting hurt.

A+ Dunedin featured Darin Mastroianni, a speedy centerfielder who can steal bases (70 in Dunedin and New Hampshire last year) and finally started to look like a hitter last year.  He needs to keep drawing more walks to look like a Brett Butler type, but he made progress on that last year, too – 76 in 131 games.  Pitcher Bobby Bell had 112 Ks and just 22 walks in 96.1 innings, but the real ace might be reliever Tim Collins, a teenager last year, who had 99 Ks and 29 walks in just 64.2 innings.  That’s CLOSER material, and I’d name him as the most exciting prospect on the farm.

The Lansing Lugnuts featured a few young arms with promise.  Of them, I like Henderson Alvarez, who walked just 19 in 124.1 innings and led his team in Innings, ERA and wins.

Forecast:

Let the rebuilding begin.  We’re talking about a team that is going to lose 100 runs of offense, probably, and another 80 runs defensively.  Toronto will likely lose 95 games and possibly 100, costing Cito Gaston his sanity if not his job.  The system says 65.5 wins, but I’m rounding down in this division.

Torre: Manny, A-Rod, Other PED Users are “Hall of Fame Type Players”

Joe Torre, backing the multitude of players who were using PEDs, says that Bonds, Manny, Clemens, and A-Rod were Hall of Fame type players before they used – not that he thinks that means they should get in.  Torre has no problem standing behind his players, as they helped make Torre look like a winner after years of losing in Atlanta, St. Louis, and New York (Mets).  Let me ask you this:  Is Joe Torre a Hall of Fame manager now that we know how many of his players were using under his watch? [MLB]

San Francisco, as surmised, placed Randy Johnson on the DL with a strained throwing shoulder, a shoulder injured while batting. [MLB]

Pedro Martinez has a new suitor – the Philadelphia Phillies.  This despite reports that when other clubs scouted Pedro in June, he looked “unimpressive”.  MGR Charlie Manuel wants a horse, but may have to settle for a five or six inning guy. [MLB]

Ryan Freel’s best asset is his mobility – he gets around.  And now, Freel joins his fourth team in about 18 months – the Cubs traded him to the Royals for a Player to be Named Later.  According to FoxSports (quoting AP sources), Freel told Royals MGR Trey Hillman that he’s been bothered by a concussion (hit in the head with the ball while diving back to first on a pickoff play) and bad hamstring, which has contributed to Freel’s hitting .140 with the Cubs.  The Cubs are picking up part of Freel’s salary.  [FoxSports]

When Marc Rzepczynski makes his debut Tuesday, he’ll be the fifth Blue Jay to make his debut in 2009 – breaking the team record set when the Blue Jays entered the majors in 1977.  Rzepczynski is a lefty with skills – his K/9 rate has improved though he still needs to work on his control; he keeps the ball in the park.  Statistically, he reminds you of Kevin Brown. [FoxSports]

Tigers MGR Jim Leyland says that rookie Rick Porcello will not pitch until after the All-Star break, getting the kid some much needed rest.

Welcome Back!  Padre reliever Luke Gregerson; Rockies pitcher Franklin Morales; Cubs pitcher Angel Guzman; Cubs outfielder Reed Johnson; Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez; Royals catcher John Buck…

Hurry Back!  Padre David Eckstein goes to the DL with a pulled hammy; Red Sox 1B Jeff Bailey (high ankle sprain); Cubs pitcher David Patton (groin strain); Mets outfielder Angel Pagan starts a rehab stint, as does Brave Kelly Johnson and Phillies reliever Jack Taschner.

2009 Season Forecast: Toronto Blue Jays

Toronto Blue Jays
2008: 86-76 (3rd AL East, 11 games back)

If the Tampa Bay Rays were the team of destiny, then the Blue Jays represent the team of destiny lost.  My pick to win the wild card, the Blue Jays played just as well as Tampa, but didn’t play as well as they should have – and probably could have.  Allowing just 610 runs, the Blue Jays had the best pitching/defense combination in the American League.  Their offense was below average – only three teams scored fewer runs – but because they outscored their opponents by 104 runs, you would have expected this team to win 93 or 94 games.  They didn’t.   They missed that mark by 7 or 8 games, enough to have projected them into the race on the last weekend of the season had they just done what was expected.

Looking Back on 2008

Every good team has a bad month.  Toronto had two – one in April, the other in June.  That made it seem like the Jays were out of it all season.  Losers of eight of nine as the month closed, the Jays fell to the bottom of the division and had a long climb to get back in the race.

Then, after a decent May – actually, let’s call it what it was – an awesome May, where Toronto climbed all the way back to 31 – 26, the Blue Jays hit a HUGE losing stretch.  Seven in a row and 15 losses in 19 games put the season out of its misery.  And, yet, the Jays played three and a half solid months from there to get back to ten games over .500.  They were just too far back with three really good teams ahead of them to make any headway.

Looking at team splits, the only thing that stands out is that they couldn’t hit left handed pitching.  Righthanded hitters fared just as well against righties as southpaws, and left handed hitters couldn’t hit lefties at all – a .299 OBA and a .313 slugging percentage.  That’s a good year for Mario Mendoza, perhaps, but not enough to win any ballgames.

Tell me about that offense

When you think about the big hitters of the AL East, do you think about anybody in Toronto?  Frank Thomas was supposed to help, but 60 ugly at bats and that idea went out the window (and finally to Oakland).  Vernon Wells hit well, but missed a third of the season with injuries.  Alex Rios fought through nagging injuries and his own early season slump (tied to his signing a big contract and pressing?), but was rather ordinary in 600+ plate appearances.  So, with the three best hitters looking rather pedestrian, the Jays were rarely going to blow away opponents.

Behind the plate, Rod Barajas was a below average contributor, producing 4.3 runs for every 27 outs.  He has a little power (11 homers in 349 at bats), but hitting .249 with just 17 walks, he’s not helping the team keep rallies alive.  This is his third straight year with comparable numbers (for three different teams), so the likelihood that he’s going to improve any is null.  Greg Zaun backed him up and was no better – walked more, but hits for less power, and his batting average didn’t clear .240.

Lyle Overbay doesn’t hit nearly as well as his AL East brethren.  His batting average fell to .271, with average power and some walks as he played through a hand injury.  He’s an above average hitter – but not for a first baseman.  He needs to get back to .300 with 20 homers, otherwise his bat in this lineup is a liability.  Aaron Hill missed four months with post-concussion symptoms following a collision with David Eckstein.  The two months he played weren’t his best months.  Replacement Joe Inglett actually played pretty well – some speed, plate discipline, and the speed helps in hitting doubles and triples, making it look like he has some power (he doesn’t, really).  The Jays tried David Eckstein at short, but he’s really not a good enough hitter (or fielder anymore), then tried John McDonald, who struggled at the plate and apparently it affected his fielding, and even tried Marco Scutaro there, who played well.  Between the three, you had no better than league average hitting, though.  At third, you had the regularly injured Scott Rolen, who batted like 80% of Scott Rolen – okay, but not a great hitter anymore.  Scutaro played enough around the horn to get 517 just average at bats.

Consider this – all three teams that finished ahead of the Blue Jays last year are better at EVERY infield position.  That’s a huge hole to fill when trying to win this division.

Moving to the outfield, Alex Rios was disappointing, maybe, but not a problem.  He cleared 40 doubles, hit 8 triples, stole 32 bases, and was a decent outfielder.  You wish he’d walk more, but he still put 100 runs on the scoreboard.  Vernon Wells was a productive hitter, but missed a third of the season with hamstring problems (which, by the way, already recurred in spring training).  The problem with losing Wells is that there were no backup outfielders who could help.  The best left fielder (hitting-wise) was probably Adam Lind, and he’s tolerable.  Brad Wilkerson was miserable, and former Jays outfielder Shannon Stewart was equally unproductive in 52 games.  Having two less productive bats  in the lineup (when Wells was out) didn’t help.

The DHs were awful, from Thomas, through Stairs (who was a league average hitter – which is weak for the spot), and Kevin Mench.

The team did hit better after John Gibbons was fired and Cito Gaston was made manager – but for the Jays to compete in 2009, they’ll need to get healthy seasons from Aaron Hill, Vernon Wells, and Scott Rolen – and at this point, only one of three is really likely.

Defensively:

Normally, the Jays have a number of quality fielders helping the staff.  The defense in 2009 was good – but not as good as it used to be.

Overbay remains one of the best fielding first basemen, period.  If you don’t believe it, check out the putout numbers for his pitchers; 144, where no other was over 106.  And, he still makes a lot of plays throwing out runners on the paths. Aaron Hill, normally at least a league average second sacker wasn’t in 2009.  Joe Inglett was league average, but no better.  Eckstein has lost a step (and his job), but John McDonald wasn’t very good last year, and Scott Rolen is less mobile than he used to be.  Only Marco Scutaro looked like (and played like) a healthy and valuable defender.  And he was good all over the infield.

In the outfield, Alex Rios is pretty good – he actually played very well in center while Wells was gone.  Wells has been below average for each of the last three years in center – perhaps he should be in left with Rios in center.  Lind, Wilkerson, and a host of others had scattered skill sets but basically helped make outs.

Behind the plate, Barajas and Zaun were as good as any tandem in the American League.  They win more than they lost, the team ERA (despite the defense) was great, they were mobile, made few mistakes, and held the running game in check.  Barajas caught 22 of the 64 people who tried to steal, one of the best in the AL.

Now Pitching…

The Tampa Bay Rays pitchers had decent ERAs and Hits/9 ratings in part because the defense behind them was so good that it likely saved everybody about 110 runs in 162 games.  The Jays had off-seasons from a few players but remained agile in the field.  And, with only 84 errors, the team rarely allowed unearned runs – which makes the pitching look a little stronger than it might be otherwise.

That being said, the Jays pitching is still great.  Roy Halliday was a machine, winning 20 games, leading the league in complete games, and saving his team 40 runs more than the average pitcher – over a league leading 246 innings.  The best pitcher in the AL, bar none.  Behind him was A.J. Burnett, who won 18 games and led the league in strikeouts.  Jesse Litsch and Shaun Marcum were given more prominent roles and combined to save the team 30 runs.  Only the fifth slot, where Dustin McGowan and David Purcey struggled, was there an off slot in the rotation.

And, the bullpen was equally strong.  B. J. Ryan returned from elbow surgery to save 32 games with a 2.95 ERA.  Brian Tallett was successful in middle relief, and Jesse Carlson had a fine ERA and seven wins in relief.  Carlson has good control and keeps the ball in the park, exactly what you want a seventh inning guy to do.  Scott Downs was solid as the set up man, and two others, Shawn Camp and Jason Frasor were better than league average.  With four good rotation slots and a complete bullpen, the Jays were able to stop other lineups and stay competitive despite a lack of support from their own hitters.

Forecasting 2009:

Cito Gaston lost a couple of key contributors and will be relying on other players to stay healthy in 2009.  He needs a new #2 starter, and he could use three hitters to raise their gaimes.

McGowan was supposed to be the next rotation anchor, but hasn’t shown it yet.  If he or Purcey can’t make significant strides, I don’t see who is going to replace Burnett.   From a predictive standpoint, I don’t think Halliday stays 40 runs above average – maybe 25 after such a busy season.  Throw in a drop from the #2 slot, and that’s probably a 30 run decline from last year.  The bullpen had two or three guys pitching over their heads a bit – so I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a ten run drop here, too.

Defensively, the team isn’t getting better.  Hill may be back but he wasn’t magic.  McDonald can’t hit well enough to play short – Scutaro may have to take his position.  Rolen isn’t going to get better.  Overbay is at his peak already.  The outfield would be better if Wells were moved to a corner spot (he might not pull as many hamstrings, too), but I don’t see that Gaston has many options here.  They will be relying on 20 year old Travis Snider, who has young legs but a build (5’ 11” and 245) that doesn’t suggest mobility.  Oddly, the defense gets better when Wells is not in center.  Michael Barrett will likely back up Barajas this year – on the whole the defense is probably a wash over last year but might fall back ten runs.

Offensively, there is room for improvement, but only because Hill could come back and Rios could step up, and Wells might play a full season, and because Kevin Millar or somebody should be a better DH than what has been there.  Overbay could be better.  Or – they could not.  If the pitching and defense slides 40 to 50 runs (and it will), will the offense be 60 runs better?  It should be better, but not that much better.  Kevin Millar may be the DH – but he’s not that much better than what was here last year.  I see the team scoring 25 runs more than last year – but no more than that.

That puts the runs scored/runs allowed at 740/670, which is still good enough to win 89 games.  My hunch, though, is that even with Gaston running the ship, I have no idea how it’s going to be that good.  The system says 89, but I say 83 or 84.  The rest of the division is strong, the Orioles could be stronger, and even though Litsch and Marcum were good last year, they don’t give me the same feeling as 34 starts of A.J. Burnett.

Down on the Farm…

The Toronto AAA club, for years in Syracuse, will be in Las Vegas for 2009.  Last year, Syracuse was devoid of prospects.  The best players were discarded prospects like Buck Coats (former Cub), and Russ Adams (former Blue Jay starting shortstop), and they aren’t good enough to replace who is already here.  If Coats or Adams could play short, they wouldn’t be logging time in the Syracuse outfield.  The best AAA pitcher was John Parrish, a 30 year old Baltimore castoff, who went 9 – 1.

Robert Ray and Brad Mills pitched well for AA New Hampshire, but will likely start the year at AAA.  Travis Snider made a AAA call and cup of coffee with Toronto after hitting 17 homers in 362 at bats as a 20 year old.  He’ll be a major leaguer for a long time – and a DH by 2013.  Scott Campbell, from Auckland, New Zealand, looks like a future second baseman and #2 hitter – he hits for a high average, walks some, but he’s not a burner.

Brian Dopirak continues to hit and hit for power, but can’t find his way past high A or AA.  He was the leading threat for the Dunedin Blue Jays.  He’s 25 now and has to move up quickly to have a career.  Kenny Rodriguez didn’t have the best record, but he had the best stuff at Dunedin.  The palindrome named Reidier Gonzalez went 12 – 4, but doesn’t strikeout enough guys to make it far in the big leagues.  Mark Rzepczynski could win Scrabble tournaments with a name like that – but it’s his stuff that will get him promoted to AA soon.  124 Ks in 121 innings, few hits and homers allowed, and good control helped Mark to a winning record for the Lansing Lugnuts.  A slew of 19 year olds got most of the at bats, but struggled to hit .250 on the season.