Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Toronto Blue Jays' 2009 Slightly Premature Preview

Man, just thank your stars you're not a member there are several fan bases that begin 2009 absolutely up a creek. The San Diego Padres and Baltimore Orioles are two that jump to mind. The Fathers figure to be atrocious outside of a handful of players—so bad that not even playing in Major League Baseball's weakest division is likely to save their season.

The Orioles are in a different boat, in a different creek, but they're in the same kind of trouble.

Baltimore's squad is much stronger than San Diego's, but the American League East is vicious and Baltimore's home nine aren't strong enough for those waters.

Unfortunately, it's time to add a third team to that imperiled duo—the Toronto Blue Jays.

Their boat is even stouter than Baltimore's and it's still gonna get trashed by the three-headed hydra at the top of the division.

Toronto's got a bona fide ace at the top of the rotation, some nice depth to the rotation, a rugged bullpen, two nightmares for opposing pitchers, and young kids on the way to reinforce everything. And it still won't matter.

It's not so much that Toronto won't be better than either the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, or the Tampa Bay Rays. It's that about the entire, non-Canadian baseball-watching world would be floored if the Jays managed to finish aperch two of those teams.

And this is a very good team—good enough to walk away with the National League West, duke it out with the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central, fight with the Philadelphia Phillies/New York Mets atop the NL East, keep pace with the best in the AL West, and probably win the AL Central.

Yet, Toronto's season is basically over before it's started. In juxtaposition, that sentence and the preceding paragraph look psychotic, but look at the Blue Jays' roster:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—Rod Barajas
First base—Lyle Overbay
Second base—Aaron Hill
Third base—Scott Rolen
Shortstop—John McDonald/Marco Scutaro
Left field—Adam Lind
Center field—Vernon Wells
Right field—Alex Rios
Designated hitter—Travis Snider

As a unit, that one'll make you smile despite several gaping holes.

The shortstop position is currently assigned to two guys on the wrong side of 30 who hit for no power and minimal average. Luckily, both McDonald and Scutaro figure to just be keeping the infield captain's chair warm for top prospect Brad Emaus.

The kid will turn 23 in a couple weeks and is doing pretty well thus far while getting a good look in Spring Training. The organization's No. 4 prospect according to Baseball America—20-year-old Justin Jackson—is also in camp, but he's up just for a taste of the Show.

Either guy would be a better option since there is at least upside to giving a kid some burn. I sincerely doubt either McDonald or Scutaro is going to suddenly blossom into a huge asset.

The No. 5 prospect David Cooper, who is a 22-year-old first baseman, is also up for the exhibition simply to stretch his legs with the pros. Ditto third baseman and top prospect Kevin Ahrens (20 in April).

On the flip side of that coin, the Blue Jays' Nos. 1 and 2 prospects are getting some serious playing time to mixed reviews. Snider (No. 1) is a 21-year-old outfielder and is wrecking spring pitching. J.P. Arencibia (No. 2) is a 23-year-old catcher and is getting wrecked at the moment.

The bench isn't scary, but there are some useful bats. Guys like Jose Bautista, Joe Inglett, Scutaro, and Kevin Millar should contribute in limited roles.

Starting rotation

Ace—Roy Halladay (R)
Second spot—Jesse Litsch (R)
Third spot—David Purcey (L)
Fourth spot—Scott Richmond (R)
Fifth spot—Matt Clement (R)

Again, that's a rotation that will put a grin on your mug if you root for the Blue Jays.

The fourth and fifth spot have become a bit of a question mark due to the losses of Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan. Marcum's progressing better than expected, but he was expected to miss all of 2009. McGowan was expected back in spring, but he's progressing more slowly than expected. Murphy's Law—gotta love it.

Consequently, Toronto is giving the eye to several guys in camp to start the year in the back end of the rotation.

Clement has actually looked decent thus far in the preseason and Scott Richmond impressed at times in his short '08 stint so they seem to have the inside track.

Veteran Brian Burres was salvaged from the Orioles' scrap heap so he figures to get a stab at one of the spots. Mike Maroth's there although that may be as close as he gets.

There are also three young arms who are trying to become 2009's wunderkind.

The Blue Jays' No. 3 prospect Brett Cecil is off on the right foot after two decent starts. The lefty will be 23 in July and could find himself in the rotation if someone ahead slips up or he continues to raise eyebrows.

A pair of 24-year-old lefties are also in camp as prized blue-chippers—Brad Mills has pitched well in two starts while Ricky Romero is struggling a tad.


Closer—B.J. Ryan (L)
Set-up—Scott Downs (L)
Set-up—Jesse Carlson (L)
Set-up—Jeremy Accardo (R)
Set-up—Brandon League (R)

Now the introduction doesn't sound so crazy, does it? This is a damn fine baseball team and still not in the same league as New York, Boston, or Tampa Bay.

The offense is led by Alex Rios and Vernon Wells.

Rios just turned 28 in February and seems set to become the monster everyone always expected him to become. For some reason, they just expected him to do it when he was still a kid, which probably happens less frequently than those same people think.

In 2008, Alex raked to the melody of a .291 average with 47 doubles, 15 home runs, 91 runs scored, 79 runs batted in, 32 stolen bases, a .337 on-base percentage, and a .798 OPS. Sure, the homers were a little low for a guy his size and with his ability.

Nobody's perfect, but that stat line is pretty close.

Wells is the other turbo engine on the offense—he hit .300 with 22 doubles, 20 HRs, 63 runs, 78 RBI, a .343 OBP, and an .840 OPS. At 30, Vernon's probably a pretty safe bet to paint a similar picture in '09.

Adam Lind is another guy to watch. He's a former uber-prospect that's been tarnished a bit by some false starts, but he started putting it together in '08. He finished within shouting distance of .300 and started to flash the power that once had everyone's blood up.

Aaron Hill casts a similar, but slightly less exciting profile. He's got less power in his smaller frame and more speed.

Lyle Overbay's an underrated asset at first base. He's never gonna mash with the typical boppers at the position, but he'll give better average than most of them and isn't totally lacking for power. Last season saw him hit .270 with his customary 30+ doubles and 15 or so big flies.

Who knows what you'll get and how often you'll get it from Scott Rolen? You can bet whatever production you get and whenever you get it, it won't be the Rolen of old. Those days are g-o-n-e.

Rod Barajas will give you decent power while donning the Tools of Ignorance and that's probably enough.

The situation only gets better as you move on to the pitching.

Roy Halladay is one of the best and most reliable pitching in the Bigs. This is your Cy Young pitcher in the AL if '08 were a normal year—in baseball's most brutal division, Doc went 20-11 with a 2.78 earned run average, a 1.05 WHIP, struck out 206 batters, walked 39, surrendered 18 homers, and threw 246 innings. Along the way, he chalked up nine complete games and two shutouts.

Only a super-human year from Cliff Lee denied Halladay the hardware so look out in 2009. Doc might be pissed. Good luck with all that.

Jesse Litsch is quietly becoming one of the game's better young pitchers. The kid is only 24 and cobbled together a find year under the same adverse situation as Halladay i.e. the AL East. Litsch went 13-9 with a 3.58 ERA, a 1.23 WHIP, 99 Ks, 39 walks, 20 bombs, and 176 IP.

The long balls are a bit too many, but he's got plenty of time to improve.

David Purcey will be 27 in April and the Jays seem sold on the dude, but there isn't a ton that I see to like. To be fair, this is probably the fifth starter with all the arms healthy and there's a lot to like about him in that role.

Out in the bullpen, the story gets better.

B.J. Ryan seems to have put his injury woes behind him as he saved 32 games in 36 chances last year while posting a 2.95 ERA, a 1.28 WHIP, 58 Ks, 28 walks, and only four homers in 58 IP. Not bad for a guy who was considered a risk at the start of the year.

The guys entrusted with getting the ball from the starters to Ryan were no less dazzling in '08.

Scott Downs came out of nowhere to post a 1.15 WHIP, a 1.78 ERA, 57 fans, 27 walks, and only three dongs in 70+ IP. Jesse Carlson gave Downs a run for his money, posting a 1.03 WHIP, a 2.25 ERA, 55 Ks, 21 walks, and only six home runs in 60 IP.

Like Ryan, both Downs and Carlson are southpaws. Three freaky-deakies in one 'pen—that's a nice luxury to have.

The righties weren't as sparkling, but Jeremy Accardo had some forearm issues and lost the closer's role so that may explain his drop in production. And Brandon League did manage an ERA just over 2.00 in limited action so there's reason to hope on both fronts.

As I said above, this is one of the better teams in MLB on paper heading into 2009. If Toronto happened to have landed in any other division in baseball, this would be a serious playoff contender.

The club has a stout lineup and robust pitching staff with more talent on both fronts set to arrive in the very near future.

Yep, the Toronto Blue Jays would be quite the player in five of six divisions. But they're not, they're in the American League East.

And that makes them cannon fodder for the big guns in 2009.

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