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Sunday, December 06, 2009

Offseason Prospectus #9: The Toronto Blue Jays

It wasn't that long ago that Blue Jays fans had a lot to get excited about. In the Spring of 2007 they were coming off a year in which they had finally unsettled the balance of power in the AL East. Since the Jays last playoff appearance, a World Series win in 1993, the Yankees and Red Sox have had a stranglehold on their division. But in early 2007, it looked like things were about to change. J. P. Riccardi, the Sandy Alderson disciple and Billy Beane bosom-buddy of Moneyball fame, had assembled a team that was making Brian Cashman and Theo Epstein uncomfortable.

For starters, there were Vernon Wells and Alex Rios, two Gold Glove caliber outfielders (Wells has won the award three times) in their mid-twenties who could hit a little as well. In 2006, Wells had finished fourth in the AL in extra-base hits, and Rios wasn't that far back, tied with Derek Jeter at 35th. Wells had already agreed to a fat extension which would assure he was a Blue Jay until 2014. Riccardi would negotiate a similar (though not quite as large) contract with Rios a year later.

The Jays offense did not begin and end with their young outfielders. They also had veteran slugger Troy Glaus, coming of a 38 HR, 104 RBI campaign. They had sweet-swinging first-baseman Lyle Overbay, who hit .312 in '06 and finished 4th in the AL in doubles. And, Riccardi had just signed the Big Hurt, Frank Thomas, coming of a resurgent MVP-caliber season with the Athletics. With young talents like Aaron Hill and Adam Lind also on the club, the '07 Jays had the makings of a team that could light up even the best pitching staffs in the league.

They also had one of the best pitching staffs in the league, led by the fearsome tandem of Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett. The back-end of the rotation was buoyed by a stable of impressive prospects, including Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum, Jesse Litsch, Gustavo Chacin, and Casey Janssen, all 25 and younger. And, they had a solid closer, B. J. Ryan, coming of a season in which he had saved 38 games and maintained a ridiculous 1.37 ERA.

For Blue Jays fans it must seem like such a long time ago. Vernon Wells and Alex Rios, who looked like such "sure things," have become two of the game's worst contractual albatrosses, having suffered terrifyingly steep drops in production of the last three years. As has Lyle Overbay. Every one of the five pitching prospects listed above suffered a major arm injury in '07, '08, or '09. Same goes for B. J. Ryan, who had to be released last spring. Frank Thomas had a solid, but injury-plagued '07. So did Glaus, who was dealt to the Cardinals after the season. And, as any Toronto fan will tell you, the list goes on and on.

Now, the Riccardi era is over. The Blue Jays gave Alex Rios away, and probably would've done the same with Vernon Wells, had anybody been willing to take him. Hill and Lind, who looked a couple of years ago like great complementary pieces, are now the core of the Toronto lineup. New GM, Alex Anthopoulos, must decide whether to trade Halladay, one of the most popular (and best) players in the history of the franchise, or risk seeing him walk away after the 2010 season. It's a ballclub in shambles, and the road ahead doesn't look particularly bright.

Free Agents:

Rod Barajas (34) C
Kevin Millar (38) 1B/DH
Marco Scutaro (34) SS


Jeremy Accardo (28) RHRP
Jose Bautista (29) 3B/LF
Shawn Camp (34) RHRP
Raul Chavez (37) C
Jason Frasor (32) RHRP
Casey Janssen (28) RHRP
Brandon League (27) RHRP
Shawn Marcum (27) RHSP
Dustin McGowan (27) RHSP
Brian Tallet (32) LHSP

ETA 2010?:

J. P. Arencibia (24) C
Brett Cecil (23) LHSP
Brian Dopirak (26) 1B/DH
Brad Mills (25) LHSP
Travis Snider (22) LF/RF

The first line of business for the Jays front office this winter is dealing Roy Halladay. Doc has made it clear that although he loves playing in Toronto, he wants the opportunity to pitch in the postseason while he's still at the top of his game (Halladay will turn 33 in May). It seems hard to imagine the Blue Jays looking like an imminent contender by the end of next season; so, in order to get the most in return for one of the most valuable commodities in all of baseball and to prevent the distraction which troubled the Jays for much of 2009 (the probable cause for Riccardi's dismissal), Anthopoulos will almost certainly deal Doc in the next couple months, perhaps as soon as next week's winter meetings.

Several teams will be rumored in the mix, but the Jays eventual partner will undoubtedly be a team with deep pockets and probably a deep farm system as well, making the Red Sox, Angels, and Yankees among the obvious frontrunners. Darkhorses could include the Giants, Cubs, Phillies, Rangers, Brewers, and Mets, although in each case there are potential issues with coming up with either enough quality prospects to make the deal or enough payroll to sign Halladay long-term.

Most of the rumors which has circulated thusfar, have the Jays coveting young pitchers like Clay Buchholz, Joba Chamberlain, or Trevor Bell. While there may be some truth to that, I expect any deal for Halladay will prioritize position players. The only places where the Blue Jays are committed beyond 2011 are second base (Hill), center field (Wells), right field (Travis Snider), and designated hitter (Lind). J. P. Arencibia's offensive production stalled a bit at AAA, but he'll still get a shot at taking over catching duties this spring. Edwin Encarnacion, who the Jays acquired for Scott Rolen, has two more years before free agency. He never lived up to expectations in Cincinnati, but he's still pretty young (27), so there's a good chance he will benefit from the change of scenery.

Alex Gonzalez and Jose Bautista are nothing more than place-holders and Lyle Overbay's contract expires at the end of 2010, so the most pressing needs for the Jays are long-range solutions at first and short. That's good news for the Red Sox and the Rangers, both of whom have quality and depth in their organizations at first base. There aren't really any franchises with a bevy of five-tool shortstops, so it's likely a question of whether the Cubs, Red Sox, or Mets would be willing to part with players who are currently a big part of their long-term plans.

(If I were making the odds for a Roy Halladay trade, I would say the Boston could put an end to it this weekend if they were willing to offer Lars Anderson, Jed Lowrie, either Buchholz or Bowden, and a low-end prospect at OF or P. That's a lot to put on the table, but having a rotation of Halladay, Lester, Beckett, Dice-K, and the remaining youngster might be worth it.)

The reason I don't expect Toronto to build a trade around pitching is that one thing J.P. Riccardi did very well was draft pitchers. The Blue Jays have a stockpile of relatively young, high-upside hurlers which is already the envy of most of their peers. What the franchise had trouble doing in recent years was keeping those pitchers healthy. This spring will see the return of Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan, and Jesse Litsch. Neither Marcum nor McGowan threw a single pitch in '09. And Litsch managed only two starts. However, in '08 that trio combined to pitch over 400 innings, won 29 games, and had a combined ERA of 3.71. None was older than 26 at that time. If each can bounce back and continue to mature, the Blue Jays could have the makings of a very formidable rotation as soon as 2011.

Also in their stable, they have Brett Cecil, 23, who had an up-and-down rookie campaign, when the injuries mentioned above pressed him into big-league action earlier than the franchise probably would've liked. But, during one five start stretch in July and August, he went 3-0 with a 2.01 ERA and 26 K in 30 IP. The young lefty has a vicious breaking ball, a lively fastball, and displayed good control in the minors. He is easily the equal of any of the more infamous young fireballers for New York and Boston.

Toronto's pitching corps don't end there. The Jays have a number of mid-twenties starters bouncing around the system. If Roy Halladay is traded, there will likely be at least one more quality pitching prospect in the mix. Not all of these guys will develop into starters who Toronto want in their big-league rotation, but there's a great chance four or five of them will, and the Jays will spend much of 2010 figuring out who that's going to be. Here's my early rankings:

1. Jesse Litsch (25) 13-9, 3.58 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 99 K, 176 IP in '08
2. Dustin McGowan (27) 12-10, 4.08, 1.22, 144 K, 170 IP in '07
3. Brett Cecil (23) 7-4, 5.30, 1.65, 69 K, 93 IP in '09
4. Shaun Marcum (28) 9-7, 3.39, 1.16, 123 K, 151 IP in '08
5. Marc Rzepcznski (24) 2-4, 3.67, 1.32, 60 K, 61 IP in '09 / 9-5, 2.66, 1.17, 104 K, 88 IP @ AA/AAA
6. Reidier Gonzalez (24) 4-6, 2.90, 1.15, 67 K, 93 IP @ AA in '09
7. Brad Mills (25) 13-5, 1.95, 1.17, 159 K, 147 IP @ A/AA in '08
8. David Purcey (28) 8-6, 2.69, 1.12, 121 K, 117 IP @ AAA in '08
9. Ricky Romero (25) 13-9, 4.30, 1.52, 141 K, 178 IP in '09
10. Robert Ray (26) 13-9, 3.61, 1.34, 132 K, 167 IP @ A/AA in '08
11. Luis Perez (25) 9-11, 3.55, 1.31, 112 K, 162 IP @ AA in '09
12. Scott Richmond (30) 8-11, 5.52, 1.49, 117 K, 139 IP in '09

Each of these guys, with the exception of Richmond, have flirted with dominance at some stage in their careers thusfar. Given some good luck, the Jays have the makings of an incredible young staff. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to assemble a lineup potent enough to make them competitive with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays. Sadly, at this point I'd have to say 2012 at the earliest.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster (Revised 1/1):

RF Jose Bautista (R)
2B Aaron Hill (R)
DH Adam Lind (L)
CF Vernon Wells (R)
3B Edwin Encarnacion (R)
1B Lyle Overbay (L)
LF Travis Snider (L)
SS Alex Gonzalez (R)
C J. P. Arencibia (R)

SP Jesse Litsch (R)
SP Dustin McGowan (R)
SP Shaun Marcum (R)
SP Brett Cecil (L)
SP Ricky Romero (L)

CL Jason Frasor (R)
SU Scott Downs (L)
SU Shawn Camp (R)
MR Jeremy Accardo (R)
SWING Brandon Morrow (R)
SWING David Purcey (L)
MOP Casey Janssen (R)

C John Buck (R)
IF John McDonald (R)
IF Brian Dopirak (R)
OF Reed Johnson (R) FA

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