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Saturday, May 02, 2009

Why the Jays are this year's Rays...

This can't be for real, right? It is just a matter of time until they fall back to fourth place, where they belong, right? Maybe the best fourth place team in baseball, but fourth place nonetheless. Nobody predicted this, right? Wrong.

If you check my column from March, "The Raging Jays," you'll find that I've been on the Blue Jays bandwagon for quite some time. In fact, last year I predicted that they would finish ahead of the Yankees (although I didn't figure that would still mean third place, behind the Rays). And I see no reason to second-guess myself now. In fact, it is quite possible that there is nowhere to go but up. After all, Toronto's AL-best record has been achieved without a single win from Jesse Litsch or David Purcey (the #2 and #3 starters going into the season). It was managed despite the fact that B. J. Ryan blew a pair of saves and couldn't find 90 MPH on the radar gun before he went to the D.L. and despite the fact that the team's best hitter, Alex Rios, has started the year hitting .248 with a 670 OPS.

Sure it may be fair to suggest that it is unlikely that Aaron Hill (.376, 5 HR, 989) and Adam Lind (.320, 5 HR, 957) will maintain their current paces. And 29-year-old rookie Scott Richmond (3-0, 2.70) isn't going to go undefeated. The Jays will suffer some cold streaks and they will be battling for a playoff spot down to the very end. But that's my point, they aren't going away. Yesterday they brought up Robert Ray and Brett Cecil to replace Purcey and Brian Burres, who had combined to go 0-4 with an 8.44 ERA in seven starts. Cecil hasn't exactly been gangbusters so far this season, but last year he went 8-5 with a 2.88 ERA and 129 K in 118 IP at three minor-league levels. He's only 22 and undoubtedly one of the top pitching prospects around. Ray is a little older (25) and not as dominant (132 K in 167 IP in 2008), but still a legitimate candidate for the back-end of a big-league rotation. It is reasonable to expect that they will be improvements on the pitchers they replace. Later this month Litsch, Ryan, and Ricky Romero will return from the D.L., further bolstering the pitching corps. Around the same time Shaun Marcum will begin a minor-league rehab assignment, putting him on course to rejoin the team in the second half. Marcum may not immediately be the pitcher he was before Tommy John (9-7, 3.39, 1.16 WHIP in '08), but he gives the Jays an additional option at the back-end of the rotation or in the middle innings. Similarly, Dustin McGowan, another major contributor in the staff that was best in baseball last season, could be ready to pitch sometime late in the year. It looked like a rag-tag bunch going into the year, now there appears to be some depth, although more injuries and/or setbacks could still be prohibitive.

Depth is of course essential to any team attempting to survive in the toughest division in baseball. Boston and Tampa Bay would not have made it to the postseason last year if it hadn't been for contribution by guys like Jed Lowrie, Willy Aybar, Justin Masterson, and Eric Hinske, all of whom stepped up and played well when major contributors missed time. The Jays bench will need to do the same and early indications are that they can. Kevin Millar has hit .350 in limited ABs. Jose Bautista is a hot prospect who never lived up to his billing in Pittsburgh, but could play 2B, 3B, or OF and hits for decent power. Right now he is hitting .310. John McDonald is, of course, one of the flashiest defenders around, more that an adequate replacement for Aaron Hill or Marco Scutaro defensively, which is critical.

Remember, the Rays were among the top defensive teams in baseball last year, led by great gloves up the middle. The Jays, currently leading the AL in Fielding Percentage, are similarly constructed. Rios (#2), Hill (#7), McDonald (#10), Rod Barajas (#4), and Scott Rolen (#5) are all rated as top ten fielders at their position according to John Dewan's FIELDING BIBLE, and Scutaro, Vernon Wells, and Lyle Overbay are just shy of being premier defenders as well. Only Travis Snider, well hidden in left field, can truly be considered a butcher.

Besides Cecil and Snider, their are a couple prospects to look out for later in the season. J. P. Arencibia is currently catching at AAA. In two stops last year the 23-year-old first-rounder out of Tennessee hit 27 HR with an 850 OPS. He could see time if Barajas struggles, or even at DH if Lind or Snider were to go down. Toronto's first-round pick from last year, David Cooper, also showed considerably skills in his half-season debut, hitting .333 with a 901 OPS. If he can continue at close to that clip at AA, he could make his debut in the second half.

Perhaps most importantly, after years of suffering under the ineptitude of John Gibbons, who was blessed with arguably better teams, the Jays have turned the reigns over to Cito Gaston, who has quite clearly improved the hitting approach throughout the lineup and has shown belief in his talented young players. First place is a familiar position for Gaston, who guided the Jays to their back-to-back championships in the early 90s. Like Joe Maddon of the Rays, he has captivated the entire clubhouse and has the Jays focusing on factors they can control and not thinking about the Yankees and Red Sox. That said, a major test comes in the middle of May when Toronto plays nine straight against the Yanks, Red Sox, and White Sox, arguably the three best clubs in the AL.

(Look, an entire column about the Jays and I didn't even mention Doc Halladay, who, in case you haven't heard, is the best pitcher in baseball.)

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