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2010 Toronto Blue Jays: The Halladay is Over Spring Preview
by Asher B. Chancey,
March 25, 2010

Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Brandon Morrow SP
Kyle Drabek SP
Alex Gonzalez of the Marlins SS
Edwin Encarnacion 3B
John Buck C
Jose Molina C
Kevin Gregg RP
Departed Pos.
Roy Halladay SP
Scott Rolen 3B
Marco Scutaro 2B
Gregg Zaun C
Rod Barajas C
Alexis Rios OF

The Twenty-Aughts started with lots of promise for the Toronto Blue Jays. Coming off of back-to-back winning seasons, the Blue Jays had what appeared to be some of the best young players in baseball in Shannon Stewart, Jose Cruz Jr., and Brad Fullmer, three veterans entering their primes in Raul Mondesi, Carlos Delgado, and Alex Gonzalez, and two young pitching prospects named Kelvim Escobar and Roy Halladay starting to hit their strides, not to mention young Vernon Wells making his way through the minors. But it wasn’t meant to be: the Blue Jays never could put it all together, and they ended the decade by trading away Halladay after failing to finish second or better more than once in the decade.

Going into the new decade, there is no real reason to think that the Blue Jays are going anywhere anytime soon in the AL East. This is a team that has young and unproven pitching, a haphazard bullpen, solid-to-good hitting, and an aging defense. And Edwin Encarnacion. These guys might win 80 games this season, but I doubt it.

2009 Standings - AL East
East W L PCT GB Home Road RS RA Exp W% RHP LHP
New York Yankees 103 59 .636 0 54-24 46-35 915 753 .588 67-41 36-18
Boston Red Sox 95 67 .586 8 56-25 39-42 872 736 .577 65-42 30-25
Tampa Bay Rays 84 78 .519 19 52-29 32-49 803 754 .529 54-48 30-30
Toronto Blue Jays 75 87 .463 28 44-37 31-50 798 771 .516 53-59 22-28
Baltimore Orioles 64 98 .395 39 39-42 25-56 741 876 .424 40-61 24-37

1. The Infield

The Blue Jays’ infield is one of those group that you look at and think to yourself, “If I could pick one season from the past for each of these guys, they would make a really good infield.” Unfortunately, the Blue Jays don’t get to have the Lyle Overbay of 2004 at first base, the Alex Gonzalez of the Marlins of 2003, and the Edwin Encarnacion of 2006 to go with their Aaron Hill of 2009. Don’t get wrong – Aaron Hill is one of the elite infielders in the American League, Lyle Overbay just had a pretty good year (his first out of the last four), and Edwin Encarnacion (hard as this may be to believe) is still on his way up. Nevertheless, this crew does not inspire lots of confidence.

Aaron Hill

Put it this way: last year, the Blue Jays had Marco Scutaro (100 runs, 35 doubles, 111 OPS+) and Scott Rolen (.320 AVG, 124 OPS+, 29 doubles in 88 games) at shortstop and third base. Now they have Gonzalez and Encarnacion.

2. The Outfield

The good news for the Blue Jays is that the Alexis Rios Mistake has officially come to an end with his waiver; he is now the White Sox’ problem. The bad news for the Blue Jays is that Vernon Wells is no longer an elite defensive centerfielder and the Jays either don’t know it or they are just stuck with his contract and can’t do anything about it.

It would be bad enough if Wells were merely a bad defensive player, but he has also gone from overrated offensive player to offensive liability. It pains me to dog a Louisiana guy like this, but in two of the last three seasons, Wells has posted OPS’s of .706 and .711. His big anomaly season, two years ago, was an .840 OPS in 108 games. And that is what it has come to – an impressive season for Wells is one in which his OPS approaches .850.

In the outfield corners, the Blue Jays will feature Adam Lind (LF) and Travis Snider (RF). Snider looks like he can dominate in the majors, having put together a .304/.382/.533 career in 353 minor league games. The only problem is that he is 22 years old, he is five-foot-eleven, he strikes out about three times as much as he walks, and had a rather bad year in 77 games with the Blue Jays in 2009 (okay, so that was four problems). He may one day be a star in the majors; this year won’t be the year.

Blue Jays Team Capsule

9/30/10: Solo Molina - Something unprecedented is happening with a home run hitter in Toronto. Sure, Jose Bautista is the first player ever to increase his home run total from the previous season by more than 40, having gone from 13 last season to 54 this year. But something equally odd is going on with backup catcher Jose Molina.

After hitting a solo home run on Friday, Molina has six homers for the year in 179 plate appearance. That may seem pretty reasonable, but get this: he's only driven in a dozen runs. To drive in 12 runs in 179 plate appearances is pretty terrible, but to do so despite hitting six homers is nearly unprecedented. Only eight players in the history of Major League Baseball have hit six homers while driving in fewer than 12 runs, and one was Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano in 2006. Of the ten players to have driven in exactly 12 runs while hitting six homers, only two have done so in more than 179 plate appearances. If Molina logs two more plate appearances this season without driving in a run, only one player would be "ahead" of him. 14 more PA, and he would have the most plate appearances ever for a player to hit as many as six homers but drive in as few as 12 runs in a season (passing Jerry Kindall of the 1957 Cubs). Five players have hit seven homers and driven in 12 runs (including Pittsburgh's Matt Clement this year), but each had fewer than 179 plate appearances.

It gets even weirder. Molina began the season with four RBI before hitting his first home run. So in his last 130 plate appearances, Jose Molina has hit six homers and driven in just eight runs. Luis Medina had six homers and eight RBI for the Indians in 1988, but that was in just 16 games. Molina has appeared in 56 games this year.

In case you were wondering, only five of Molina's homers this year were solo shots; he did hit a two-run homer. The crazy thing is that this ratio is not far outside of his career norm. 18 of his 26 career home runs have come with no one on base, a whopping 69%. That, my friends, is what you call not terribly clutch. --KG

As for Lind, he spent the majority of his games last season at designated hitter, but he had a breakout year at the plate, hitting 35 homeruns with 114 RBI while scoring 93 runs and batting .305 with a .932 OPS. He also had over 80 extra base hits, which is exciting. The only problem with Lind is his K/BB ratio, which is about 2:1, but he is a career .300 hitter in professional baseball and has both power and the ability to get on base. Hard to not like a guy like that.

So, one-for-three ain’t bad, right?

3. The Starting Pitching

Obviously, Roy Halladay is now gone. Halladay’s departure exposes a problematic Jays rotation, to say the least. The Jays' two most experienced starters, including their opening day guy, haven’t pitched since 2008. The Jays two most promising youngsters are unproven, including one guy who has never pitched well at any level. The fifth spot in the rotation is a toss-up between a career reliever who got shelled in his first season as a starter and a second year guy who looked impressive in only sixty innings in 2009.

Ladies and Gentlemen, your 2010 Toronto Blue Jays.

Shaun Marcum is the ace of the Toronto Blue Jays in Year 1, A.H. Marcum hasn’t pitched since 2008 and is 18 months removed from Tommy John surgery. To be fair, in Marcum’s most recent season, he went 9-7 with a 3.39 ERA and a K:BB ratio approaching two-and-a-half. Nevertheless, as a former Fantasy owner of Shaun Marcum, I can tell you that it always felt like he was over-achieving; every start seemed like a miracle, and I was always looking to trade high. Coming off of Tommy John surgery and never having pitched more than 159.0 innings, this guy is a gigantic question mark.

By the way, Marcum may now be the answer to an interesting trivia question: has a pitcher returning from Tommy John surgery ever made his first start back as his team’s opening day starter?

Ladies and Gentlemen, your 2010 Toronto Blue Jays.

If Ricky Romero were playing for the Philadelphia Phillies, every Philadelphian would know his name and he’d be the scourge of sports talk radio; I dunno what they think of him in Toronto. The Blue Jays spent their first round pick, number six overall, in 2005 on Ricky Romero, a six-foot, left-handed pitcher. Let this be a lesson to all you kids out there who hope to one day run a major league franchise: don’t spend high draft picks on either a) short pitchers or b) left-handed pitchers. Certainly don’t spend picks on short left-handed pitchers. Romero’s minor league numbers are appalling: 4.42 ERA, 1.84 K/BB, 1.474 WHIP, and over a hit per inning allowed. If he can’t get it done in the minors, how is he supposed to do it in the majors? Nevertheless, there he is, second on the depth chart for the Blue Jays.

Oh, and by the way, with the seventh pick in that draft, the Colorado Rockies took Troy Tulowitski. With the 11th pick, the Pirates got Andrew McCutcheon, which was followed by the Reds taking Jay Bruce 12th. Jacoby Ellsbury went 23rd to the Red Sox, and Matt Garza went 25th to the Twins. Of course, that is the same draft in which the Mariners took Jeff Clement third overall, so it could have been worse.

Brandon Morrow

Brandon Morrow joins the Blues Jays as a result of the Halladay deal. Before I get re-excited about Morrow, he is going to have to show me that he can throw strikes: his 204 strikeouts and 128 walks do not make a major league starting pitcher. Everyone knows Morrow has the talent to be a quality major league starter. Will this be the year?

The most exciting pitcher on the Blue Jays roster may be Marc Rzepczynski, which for anyone reading aloud out there is pronounced Zep-CHIN-ski. Rzepczynski enjoyed a brief but dominant minor league career, striking out 277 batters in 254.2 innings and posting a 2.76 ERA. In his 61.1 inning debut with the Jays in 2009, Rzepczynski kept the party going, striking out 60 batters and giving up only 51 hits. If Rzepczynski can do what he did last season over 150-200 innings, the Blue Jays will have a major asset.

(By the way, if this guy does break through in 2010, there has rarely been a player more in need of a one-on-one with Charlie Finley for the purpose of picking a nickname. I have a suggestion that I know is a little over the top, but: Zeppo Marcs. It works.)

To the fill the fifth spot in the rotation, the Jays have a choice between a converted reliever who got shelled last season, a player returning from a year and a half off, and a youngster with upside who has been rushed to the majors way before his time.

It will be interesting to see what Brian Tallet does for the Jays in 2010. A six-foot-seven lefty, Tallet saw consistent improvement from 2005 to 2008 as a reliever, going from a 7.71 ERA to a 2.88 ERA. The Blue Jays decided to use him as a starter in 2009, and he got somewhat shelled – 7-9 with a 5.32 ERA in 160.2 innings. Coming into this season, he is now 32 years old and does not really have any of what baseball experts like to refer to as talent.

Tallet could easily be the odd man out when Dustin McGowan returns from injury. McGowan is a very talented pitcher in the Greg Maddux-Brian Lawrence mold; he doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but he seems to pitch smart. If you are Maddux and you can harness that, you could be a Hall of Famer. If you are Lawrence and you cannot, then you will be a very decent Triple-A pitcher. For McGowan, coming off of a variety of non-Tommy John injuries, a return to the rotation is all but guaranteed; when he returns, he could quite literally take anybody’s spot in the rotation.

The current odd-man out is Brett Cecil. The Blue Jays definitely violated the Corey Patterson Lesson with Cecil. A first round pick in 2007, Cecil was excellent in low-A ball in 2007. In 2008, they moved him to A+ ball, where he was dominant; after four starts, he moved up to Double-A ball where he was human, but still posted a 2.55 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 77.2 innings pitched. So impressed with his eighteen Double-A starts were the Jays that they moved from to Triple-A ball for his last six starts of the year, and he finally came down to earth: 2-3, 4.11 ERA, 1.94 K/BB ratio. In 2009, Cecil started the season in Triple-A (Las Vegas, by the way – why the hell is Toronto’s Triple-A team in Las Vegas?), and he was torched: 0-3, 16 earned runs in 17.1 innings, nine strikeouts and eight walks.

So how did the Jays respond to this? They called him up, citing injury problems to their major league roster, and the fantastic season he was having in the minors carried over. Cecil went 7-4 with a 5.30 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 1.82 in 93.1 innings pitched.

This is classic mismanagement. Truth be told, Cecil should have been left in Double-A to finish the season in 2008, and he should have been treated to a full season of Triple-A in 2009. In Cecil, the Blue Jays have been reckless with a Grade A pitching prospect, and now he enters 2010, at the age of 23, not having pitched consistent or well for over a year after being moved along very smoothly over the course of his first two seasons.

Cecil is allegedly in the running for the fifth spot in the rotation. The Jays need to send him to Triple-A with an eye toward a May call-up if he looks like he’s back on track.

4. The Bullpen

The Blue Jays currently (and allegedly) have a three-man race for the closer position: former Cubs and Marlins closer Kevin Gregg, and longtime Blue Jays relievers Jason Frasor and Scott Downs. (Pop Quiz: What major league baseball team – not the Jays – does Scott Downs always make me think of and why? Answer below.) The logical (and probable) choice here is to make Gregg the closer, since that is what he does, and leave Frasor and Downs as the set-up men, since that is what they do. As a Cubs fan, I can warn the Blue Jays: Gregg will make you want to kill somebody from time to time, but he’ll also be solid.

Wait a minute – wasn’t B.J. Ryan just around here somewhere?

The Blue Jays have a trail of interesting former-starters in their bullpen this spring, including former Brewers/Diamondbacks/Athletics prospect Dana Eveland, former Nationals “Ace” Shawn Hill, and former Blue Jays rotation mates Jesse Litsch, David Purcey, and Scott Richmond (though to be fair, Richmond and Litsch are rehabbing injuries).

There’s no way this motion will get me hurt.

Hey, here’s a question: with Shaun Marcum and Jesse Litsch returning from Tommy John surgery, Dustin McGowan returning from major shoulder and knee surgery, and now Scott Richmond being sidelines with a shoulder injury, do you think maybe the Blue Jays need to take a look at something they might be doing wrong as an organization?

5. Catcher

Ordinarily I would not devote a significant amount of space to the catcher position, but the Blue Jays have an intriguing platoon there this year with John Buck and Jose Molina. Jose Molina calls a great game behind the plate – and caused a minor insurrection in New York when Yankees pitchers started demanding that he catch their games instead of Jorge Posada. Meanwhile, John Buck has always been known as an offense-first catcher, and has the dubious distinction of not only having caught Zack Greinke right before his nervous breakdown, but also having Greinke’s Cy Young season coincide with Buck’s missing all but 55 games in 2009 – not exactly ringing endorsement of his pitcher handling abilities.

Can the Blue Jays manage Buck and Molina into an effective platoon? They should – Molina has been on two World Series winners and Buck has, at times, been the best offensive player on his team despite never playing more than 118 games. This could be an excellent situational platoon.

6. Other Toronto Blue Jays Notes

- Humorously, while the Blue Jays began the last decade with Alex S. Gonzalez at shortstop, they begin this decade with Alex Gonzalez of the Marlins at shortstop.

- Here’s an interesting phenomenon: The 2009 Blue Jays finished with only 25 saves, tied for the fewest in the majors with the Cleveland Indians. The Blue Jays also finished 75-87, or eight games below their Pythagorean Projection, which had them slated for an 84-78 record. Only the Cleveland Indians did worse, finishing nine games below their projected 74-88 record. Is there a correlation here? - By the way, since 1986, only seven teams have finished with fewer than 25 team saves in a non-strike season.

- Here’s another funny statistic: the Jays finished first in the majors in doubles but last in the majors in triples in 2009. This reminds me of what Mark Grace said when they asked him to what he attributed his ability to hit 500 doubles in his career: he was able to get to 500 because of his ability to turn triples into doubles.

Outlook for the Season

The Toronto Blue Jays already have one foot in the grave playing in an AL East division that is getting more competitive instead of less. Meanwhile, this team is getting less talented instead of more. It is going to be a long season for Blue Jays fans, and I suspect they won’t even be able to pretend to think they have a chance in the division as soon as May 1st. It is an unfortunate fate for this team, but it is theirs.

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