2009 Toronto Blue Jays: Were We Supposed to Add Players This Offseason?

BaseballEvolution.com Spring Preview
by Tony Aubry, BaseballEvolution.com
April 4, 2009

Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Kevin Millar Util
Michael Barrett C
Matt Clement SP
Mike Maroth C
TJ Beam RP
Departed Pos.
AJ Burnett SP
Matt Stairs DH
Brad Wilkerson OF
John Parrish RP
Gregg Zaun C

The Blue Jays won 86 games in 2008 based primarily on pitching and defense. They were first in baseball in ERA and runs allowed, gave up the 6th fewest walks, were 7th in strikeouts, and their defense was ranked 8th best according to Ultimate Zone Rating. Alas, the Jays lost three top pitchers heading into the 2009 season. AJ Burnett went to the dark side via free agency, while both Shawn Marcum and Dustin McGowan had major arm surgery.

Competing with the beasts of the east would have been tough enough even with those pitchers; without them, it seems almost impossible for the Jays to finish higher than fourth.

Out of all the teams in the AL East, the Jays probably are the weakest at the catcher position. The combination of Rod Barajas and Michael Barrett is certainly not too pleasant. Neither of them does anything particularly well, and neither would start anywhere else.

Lyle Overbay bounced back in 2008 after having his worst year of his career in 2007. However, much like Barrett and Barajas –although not as bad- he does not do anything particularly well, with the exception of having a good eye. After having a career year in 2006, his OPS has not reached .800 again, and the first baseman is now on the wrong side of 30.

Aaron Hill

Aaron Hill seemed poised to become a very solid player after knocking 66 extra base hits and playing superb defense in 2007. Unfortunately, he was bit by the injury bug and was limited to 55 games last year. 2009 will be Aaron Hill’s age-27 season; throughout baseball history, players have peaked at that age. Any offense resembling what he provided in 2007 combined with his excellent second base glove could make Hill one of the best-kept secrets in the league.

Despite turning 35 years old today ,Scott Rolen can still pick it at the hot corner with the best of them. On the other hand, Rolen has failed to play 145 games in each of the past five seasons, and his offense has been on the decline in the past three seasons. When manning third base, Rolen should provide all-world defense with league-average offense.

Pos '08 '09
C Barajas/Zaun Barajas/Barrett
1B Overbay Overbay
2B Inglett/Hill Hill
3B Rolen Rolen
SS Eckstein Scutaro
IF Scutaro Inglett
IF McDonald McDonald
LF Lind/Stewart Snider
CF Wells Wells
RF Rios Rios
DH Stairs Lind
OF Wilkerson Millar

Due to injuries to Hill and Rolen, Marco Scutaro played the role of Honus Wagner for the Jays last season, and fielded the three positions very well. On opening day, you will see Scutaro at shortstop, where he played the best defense last season.  An injury to Rolen is inevitable, which will cause Scutaro to shift over to third. Taking his place at short will be John McDonald , who is a damn good fielder in his own right.

Albeit never deserved, there was a point where some people would call Vernon Wells one of the best players in the league. Oh, have the times changed. Wells’ offense has declined, and a fractured wrist held him to only 108 games last year. Also, for the first time in his career, Wells’ defense plummeted, costing his team almost 14 UZR runs. Wells turned 30 recently, and has been complaining about soreness in the wrist he fractured; the odds are already against him for 2009.

Alex Rios, like his teammate Hill, did not progress after a very good 2007 campaign. In fact, he got worse in almost every offensive category aside from stolen bases. On the bright side, Rios had a great second half of 2008 by going .300/.337/.542 with 11 homeruns, which may be a sign of good things to come. On the other side of the ball, Rios is the best right fielder in all of baseball and of the best outfielders in baseball, period. According to UZR, Rios saved a combined 23 runs in both right and center field.

Starting left field will be rookie Travis Snider. Snider was called up towards the end of 08 after getting through all three levels of the minors and battling an elbow injury. Snider will probably not hit .300 like he did in short stint in 2008, but will provide power.

Should Snider struggle or Wells get hurt, they have a pretty good insurance policy in Adam Lind. Lind turns 26 this summer, and although he has somewhat struggled in the majors, his career minor league numbers are staggering. He is a career .318/.379/.509 hitter, but from his age-23 season onwards, he is a .333/.406/.525 hitter. Lind has struck out a lot at every level, but in his time at the major league level his BB% has dipped below 6%.  Of course, Lind playing in the outfield would mean that Kevin Millar is getting regular at-bats as the team's designated hitter.

Blue Jays Team Capsule

Cy Halladay
Losing three-fifths of the best starting rotation in baseball this offseason makes the Jays' starting rotation difficult to analyze, save for their ace.  After three workhorse seasons, Roy Halladay has shed his injury-risk label and is the clear favorite for the AL Cy Young Award. 

After Halladay, Jesse Litsch jumps from fifth-best starter in the rotation to #2.  He is a finesse pitcher who will be completely reliant upon the excellent defense behind him.  David Purcey, Ricardo Romero, and Scott Richmond round out the front five.  Purcey and Richmond were each impressive in stints between Triple-A and the majors last year, while Romero struggled in Double-A and has no place on a big league pitching staff.  22-year old southpaw Brett Cecil figures to replace him with his intriguing four-pitch repertoire by mid-season.

Pos '08 '09
SP Halladay Millwood
SP Burnett Litsch
SP Marcum Purcey
SP McGowan Romero
SP Litsch/Purcey Richmond
CL Ryan Ryan
LP Downs Downs
LP Carlson Carlson
LP Tallet Tallet
RP League League
RP Frasor Frasor
RP Camp Camp

While the back of the rotation is a mess, the bullpen returns in-tact, even though it shouldn't have done.  In BJ Ryan, Brian Tallet, Scott Downs, and Jesse Carlson, the Jays had four of the most effective left-handed relievers in baseball last year.  Most effective, but not best.  Their peripheral stats were solid-but-unspectacular, as they took advantage of the excellent defense behind them as did the rest of the staff.  One or two of these southpaws should have been dealt for an innings-eater in the rotation and a dominant right-handed reliever.  The demand for effective southpaws is great, and the Jays have missed an opportunity to parlay their surfeit into players that they actually need.

In the absence of such a deal, the Toronto pen figures to be good once again, although regression to the mean should prevent them from being the best in the league again. In fact, one of the reasons they were so effective last season is that they threw the fewest innings of any bullpen in baseball.  With the rotation full of rookies, the workload for the pen will increase and the effectiveness will be curtailed.

Final Word

The Toronto offseason was terrible, as they lost three excellent starting pitchers, failed to use their bullpen surplus to address other needs, and boasted Kevin Millar as their marquee acquisition.  But that doesn't mean this isn't still a very good team.  This is a ballclub that had a pythagorean record of 93-69 (.574) that went 51-37 (.580) after Toronto legend Cito Gaston reclaimed his rightful role as King of the Blue Jays.  Full seasons of Adam Lind and Travis Snider will replace worthless at-bats from Brad Wilkerson, Matt Stairs, Frank Thomas, and Shannon Stewart, transforming their offense from one of the worst in the league to at least league-average.

The question is whether their team defense is good enough to bolster their unproven rotation to the point where they are serviceable pitchers.  The answer is probably no.  The 2009 Blue Jays will be better than most people expect, but probably won't be able to make the postseason unless the front office is willing to show some initiative.

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