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.
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.
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.
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.