2009 Archives

5 Questions (AL East edition): The 2009 Toronto Blue Jays

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My friend Ian Gray is the biggest Blue Jays fan I know. As we talked last year, I was struck by how similar our teams' struggles were. Both the Braves and Jays had disappointing 2008s plagued by the troubles of an overspending New York rival, a not-completely-reliable front office, underperforming prospects, and an often suspect offense; we wound up losing more games than we might have and finishing far away from the playoffs even though we may have had playoff talent. And I often find myself passively rooting for the Jays, because any loss by the Yankees and Red Sox is a win in my book. Here are his extremely detailed comments on the Jays' outlook for 2009. (I just gave a similar interview for Alex Carver of Marlins Today on the 2009 Braves.)

1. The Jays are in a pretty tough situation in the East, with the ultrarich Yankees and Red Sox and the AL champion Tampa Bay Rays seemingly destined to control the top 3 spots in the division for the foreseeable future. (Not many 86-win teams finish 4th, as the Jays did last year.) Still, the Jays did finish second, Wild Card territory, in 2006... Short of realignment, what would have to happen for the Jays to have reasonable playoff hopes?

The Jays, at present, need to overperform expectations themselves while also catching a couple of teams on a down year. Rocco Baldelli was recently quoted as saying that there were four playoff-calibre teams in the 2008 AL East, and he's right, but the Jays were the weakest of the four and have slid back in the offseason.

This year is almost certainly a lost cause -- Toronto would need Jesse Litsch not to regress as the team's number two starter while simultaneously cobbling together an effective back end of the rotation from the cast of thousands of rehabbing, untested and washed-up pitchers in camp, and this is the side of the team that was a strength last year. On the offensive side of the ball, the Jays would need a breakout rookie season from Travis Snider coupled with bounceback seasons from Scott Rolen, Aaron Hill and Alex Rios, which are all possible but unlikely to arrive all at once. Sustained performance from Vernon Wells would be nice as well, and he's already hurt. So assuming that October 2009 will see be as quiet at SkyDome as the last fifteen Octobers, what do the Jays need in future years?

In 2010, the main area where Toronto is ripe for improvement is offensively. Assuming Roy Halladay is still around (see question 4) the rest of the rotation is likely to have settled into acceptable shape; the cast of thousands mentioned earlier isn't short on talent, with young pitchers like David Purcey, Brett Cecil and Brad Mills as well as rehabbing guys with promise like Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan and Casey Janssen. It might take a while this season to sort the wheat from the chaff, but it should happen by 2010. So what can the Jays do to score more runs?

The main spots on the diamond that cry out for better hitters are shortstop, catcher and first base, in roughly that order. Marco Scutaro is a decent utility player. John McDonald is a defensive wizard. Neither of them can really hit, though Scutaro isn't a bad stop-gap. This is also the position where the Jays have no one even close to ready to fill in-Justin Jackson is three years away, if he ever makes it. Behind the plate, J.P. Arencibia should be ready to take over by 2010 from Rod Barajas, and from the looks of things he'll be an upgrade. At first base, Lyle Overbay is a decent hitter, but he's not the sort of guy you want at first. David Cooper, one of the Jays' first round picks last year, may be ready for 2010, though that'd be fast.

So there you have it. The Jays can compete in 2010, providing that Snider builds on his first two seasons and Arencibia comes through. Provided, of course, that the three monsters in the division don't run away and hide. As it stands, the 2010 Jays could be, if everything goes reasonably right, a team with a win total in the nineties. If the Bosox, Yankees and Rays don't finish in that range, it will be because something has gone wrong. Which is the other side of the coin-something has to go wrong with the other guys for the Jays to have a shot. It's kind of discouraging, but there is hope.
More from Ian after the jump...
2. J.P. Ricciardi, a former Billy Beane lieutenant, has taken some flack for speaking his mind (in why he didn't want Adam Dunn) and handing out huge contracts (B.J. Ryan, A.J. Burnett, the Vernon Wells extension). Moneyball or no, how has he spent his money, and how good of a job has he done in building a farm system and a major league team? Is there anyone you would rather have piloting the ship?

J.P.'s been OK. If he wasn't such a loudmouth, he'd be widely viewed as a decent but not particularly great GM. He came in with orders to slash the payroll, which had gotten grotesquely large compared to the team's mediocre results under Gord Ash. He did it, and he did it without dooming the team to years upon years of terrible finishes.
The problems come on the second phase of the tear-down-and-rebuild cycle, as Ricciardi had a spectacularly bad draft in 2004, right when the team needed to be building up young players for the comeback. He's rebounded a bit since then, but it's worth noting that the only significant position player the team's developed under his guidance is Aaron Hill. If Travis Snider is as good as everyone thinks he can be, and Adam Lind finally puts it all together, the number will rise to three. That'd be great, but either way it's a pretty uninspired record.
He's been significantly better with pitchers, as Shaun Marcum and Jesse Litsch are both draft picks of his, as were the guys dealt to Milwaukee for Overbay. He's also demonstrated a remarkable facility in assembling bullpens. You have to go back to 2004 to find a year when the Jays pen was less than good; given that Jays fans took to calling 2004 "The Season From Hell" before the All-Star Break, it's hard to point at the bullpen even for that year as a weak spot for the team. So developmentally, he's been OK. Maybe a bit better than average, given that I think you'd rather develop a surplus of pitchers than one of hitters.
The trouble comes at the major league level, and acquisitions of hitters more generally. Ricciardi has a marked tendency to acquire guys with decent on-base skills and below-average power-the exact sort of player who was stereotyped as a Moneyball player, a la Scott Hatteberg. Gregg Zaun, Eric Hinske, Lyle Overbay, Frank Catalanotto...none of these guys were bad pickups. The trouble is that the team hung on to all of them except Catalanotto too long, and the Troy Glaus and Frank Thomas deals didn't work out. He hasn't managed to get a centerpiece for the offense, and what's worse is that he rarely seems to try.
As far as giant contracts go, Ricciardi is to be fair to him in a bind. Toronto is a major league backwater-the team hasn't been to the playoffs in a decade and a half and the team plays in Canada, which for 98% of Major Leaguers is not a plus. He more or less has to overpay to get top players to come to Toronto, and it's worth noting that of the three deals you mention two have worked out OK thus far. Burnett wound up a serviceable number 2, and Ryan's been a good closer in two of his three years so far. The Wells extension was madness. I mean, it's completely crazy. [ed. note: see this Hardball Times article for more.] But we'll see if it's an aberration that the team can work around, or if it's going to sink the team. On the whole, I think he generally does a good job with his contracts, for all the flak he catches.
Which leads me to the last point about Ricciardi-the man is a magnet for controversy, largely because he can't keep his mouth shut. To give him his due, he's remarkably open with the media in Toronto-many of the controversies he's been involved with, notably the Adam Dunn imbroglio, have started with a comment on his weekly radio call-in show, which I would wager is the most candid program of its kind in the majors. 
Now that I've given him his due, I have to say that the man would be better served by shutting up a lot more. The Jays under Ricciardi's tenure have been marked by several acrimonious staff departures, most notably that of then Assistant to the GM and now ESPN columnist Keith Law, and it's embarrassing to root for a team where the GM lies about injuries and then defends the lie with the Nixonian formulation that "it's not lying as long as we know the truth." It's my contention that Ricciardi doesn't get the modest credit he's due for his tenure as Jays GM largely because his public persona is so buffoonish; I also have to think it can't possibly be good for dealing with player agents or other GMs.
Ultimately, I think both that J.P. takes a lot of heat he hasn't earned and that it's probably time to make a change. As I say above, I think that a lot of the heat is generated by his public face, but I also think that consciously or not the sabermetric community has it out for Ricciardi. He was supposed to be Billy Beane North, and looked for a while to be on that path, hiring Law from Baseball Prospectus, trading Alex Gonzalez (a move of his I will always cherish) and other Oakland-esque moves. Then he moved away from that, and I think people felt betrayed. The bitter split with Law certainly didn't help.
I think Ricciardi is largely to blame for all of this, but it doesn't really matter. If his teams were contending, it could be dealt with. If there was a tangible sense that the team was on the cusp, it could be dealt with. They aren't and there isn't. I'm not sure who I'd like to see in his place, but I think it's time for a fresh start. Ideally, someone who can draft well; for the foreseeable future, Toronto will be a team that has to draft well to compete.

3. The Jays had a pretty incredible pitching staff last year, but a rather anemic offense after Wells and Alex Rios -- they led the league in fewest runs allowed, but were 11th out of 14 in runs scored. Is the pitching that good and the offense that bad? Will offseason departures like David Eckstein and A.J. Burnett affect the team's fortunes? Are there any key minor leaguers that you expect to see as regulars before the season's end? And will this be the year Adam Lind finally breaks out?

Well, as you imply, the pitching isn't that good because half the rotation's gone. Burnett's a Yankee, Shaun Marcum, who was the Jays' second best starter, will miss the whole season after undergoing Tommy John surgery and Dustin McGowan will be back in May at the earliest. That leaves Roy Halladay, Jesse Litsch, who has been walking a tightrope for the better part of two seasons, and the aforementioned cast of thousands fighting for the three remaining spots. 
That said, I think the pitching and defense is going to be better than the doomsayers would suggest. For one thing, the Jays are still a very good defensive team-replacing Joe Inglett with Aaron Hill and at least starting the season with Alex Rios in center field will likely be improvements. For another, as I say above I think there's enough talent in the horde of pitchers that while the Jays are going to lose ground, I don't think it's going to be the bloodbath some prognosticators seem to think. Between Burnett and Marcum, the team has to replace 370 very good innings. They're not going to be able to replicate the performance, but they ought to do well enough to fall only to the middle of the pack.
Now, you may be wondering why I feel that 2009's not going to be a disaster if I think the pitching's going to drop from 1st to the middle of the pack. The answer, naturally, is that I think the offense is going to improve. A full season of Hill will help, as will full seasons of Travis Snider and Adam Lind. I think Scott Rolen and Lyle Overbay will provide what they provided last year, with a little room for improvement, and Alex Rios also has a little room to grow. I don't expect miracles, and I think the team is going to slip back as a whole, but I think the Blue Jays will be better offensively next year than they were in 2008. It'd be hard not to be.
As far as specific departures, the guy I'm sorry won't be in the lineup is Shaun Marcum. He was great last year-really seeming to hit his stride. With any luck, he'll be back in 2010, but that's going to hurt. Burnett will be missed as well, though who knows what the Yankees are getting. I like Burnett, but he's fragile in more ways than one. As far as Eckstein goes...I can't remember a signing I hated more, and he proceeded to be even worse than my nightmares-Aaron Hill's concussion came as the result of a pointless Eckstein hustle play, as they collided on a pop fly in a blowout. I'm glad he's gone. Gregg Zaun was also clearly rusting out at the end; I liked him, but it was time to move on. Kevin Mench and Brad Wilkerson tormented Jays fans for a half season, they are also mercifully gone.
Exciting newcomers, up from the minors? Both Brett Cecil and Brad Mills are likely to make their debuts in the rotation this year; Cecil is a top prospect, while the Jays' brass loves Mills. Ricky Romero, drafted number six overall in 2005, may finally get to the big leagues as well. In his first full season, David Purcey should be interesting to watch; last year he was too wild to be effective, but there was promise there. On the offensive side, everyone knows about Travis Snider. If it's a good rookie season for him, I will likely be satisfied with the season as a whole, barring calamity across the rest of the board. The other rookie to watch is J.P. Arencibia, currently fighting for the backup job and the latest Blue Jay "Catcher of the Future." This is not a job you want. Josh Phelps, Jayson Werth, Joe Lawrence, Kevin Cash, Curtis Thigpen and Robinzon Diaz have little in common, but what they do have in common is that they are not now nor are ever likely to be the Jays' catcher. Here's hoping Arencibia can break the streak.
And finally, Adam Lind. I think the days of dreaming for superstardom are over. I do think that he's going to be a solid outfielder, starting this year.

4. Roy Halladay's signed through 2010 to a contract that looked absurdly below-market only a few months ago. He's due $14.25 million this year, and $15.75 million the next, and then he's a free agent. He's the team's best and most recognizable player, but he's also its most attractive asset, particularly if the baseball economy recovers somewhat over the course of the season. What is likely to happen to Halladay? Also, how are the Jays' finances looking? Do they have any breathing room in the payroll to take on salary and improve the team around him?

What's likely to happen to Doc? He's going to retire in 2020 with 325 wins and three World Series rings as a career Blue Jay, have his number 32 retired by the Blue Jays in an emotionally charged 2023 ceremony and be unanimously elected to the Hall of Fame in 2025. Why do you ask?
Reluctant though I am to be even the slightest bit realistic about Doc, the truth of the matter is that a lot is contingent on this year. Halladay has made no secret of the fact that while he'd like to retire a Blue Jay, he'd like to win a World Series more. I strongly doubt that we will ever see a public trade demand from Doc, but if the Jays suck this year, I would not be at all surprised if he winds up traded in the off-season. There's been talk that the Jays want to extend him, but I can't see him committing to a team that's treading water at this point in his career. If the Jays surprise this year, then maybe he re-ups in the offseason. If they tread water again, I think he breaks camp with Toronto in 2010, to be traded at the deadline if the team isn't going anywhere. I think it's pretty clear that if his contract expires without a new deal in place, he's leaving.
The Jays' big picture is in a bit of flux at the moment. Ted Rogers, the founder and CEO of Rogers Communications, the conglomerate that owns the team, died last year. What this means isn't entirely clear, but the team suffered through an endless corporate ownership period with Interbrew, the Belgian brewing company, in the 1990s. They didn't want the team, but couldn't figure out what to do with them, and the Blue Jays slipped from their position atop the major leagues to their current backwater status in the process. The worry is that the same dynamic may be in the early stages of playing out now with Rogers, as Ted Rogers was a fan of the team when the company bought it. On the other hand, the return of Paul Beeston to the president's office is a good sign-Beeston presided over the team through the glory days, and it's unlikely he would have returned to the team on the understanding that nothing was to be done about getting the team out of its rut. So we'll see. If the right opportunity presented itself midseason, I imagine that money could be found to improve the team. That said, I suspect that the payroll isn't going up, absent major improvements in the standings, in the n ext offseason or any offseason to come.
One final point, which you don't ask about here but which seems to me to be a logical extension of the front office stuff, especially the return of Beeston. I refer, of course, to the resurrection of Cito Gaston, major league manager. When Cito was announced as the interim replacement for John Gibbons, it drew an awful lot of skeptical commentary both within Jays' fandom and in the wider world of baseball. The truth of the matter is that Cito deserved a second shot a decade ago, and while it looks weird that it's finally come with the same team that fired him I think he's going to do just fine. Cito has always drawn fire for tactical passivity, but with the teams he had in the early nineties, that was the right play. Almost all of his players rave about playing for him-he is perahps the archetypal inspirational leader manager. Gaston is not going to lead the Jays to glory all by himself, but he is a manager who gets everything to be gotten out of his players. It's good to have him back.

5. What was the most surprising thing about the Jays' 2008? What will be the most surprising thing about the Jays' 2009?

From last year, the play of Marcum and Litsch, who were both much better than expected. Also, the team's second half surge was heartening and surprising, evoking memories of 1989, when Gaston took over for Jimy Williams and took a 12-24 team to the AL East pennant. This year, I expect an unusually good year from Scott Rolen, and a down year from Vernon Wells. Jesse Litsch is an excellent candidate to regress this year, unfortunately-that won't be a surprise, but it will be a downer.
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