Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Looking Ahead: Toronto Blue Jays

Nothing major to report on the free agent front. The Red Sox are reportedly shopping Manny Ramirez "aggressively," and some think a deal could be done by this weekend. The GM Winter Meetings begin in Orlando next week, so we'll probably see some trades develop there.
The Red Sox have also extended their first offer to Daisuke Matsuzaka. Both sides swore that they would carry out the negotiations privately, without any public "reports" or acrimony. That lasted about as long as you'd expect. The Sox have been accused of trying to negotiate a lower bid than the $51.1 million they submitted, presumably in response to the large salary they're planning to offer Matsuzaka. Several MLB officials spoke out, saying that the bid is final and no "side deals" will be permitted. Red Sox President Larry Lucchino was in Japan talking with Matsuzaka's club, the Seibu Lions. The report I saw says that Lucchino was trying to establish a "working relationship" with Seibu. Yeah, surrrre. Besides, it's not practical to have a special relationship with any Japanese club; any Japanese player has to come through the bidding process and be available to all teams. Maybe they just want to share their recipes for chile con carne.

Lucchino also spoke out about the Red Sox' offer to Matsuzaka, effectively torpedoing the policy of media silence (as he is wont to do), saying that he felt that the offer sent to Matsuzaka was fair. This could, unfortunately, turn the negotiations public, as both sides now have to publicly argue over which numbers are really fair. Thanks, Larry.
  • The Phillies signed a 3-year, $24 million deal with free agent Adam Eaton. Eaton is a reliably below-average starting pitcher who doesn't even have the merits of durability or good health (he only threw 65 innings last year). Pat Gillick is once again heading in the wrong direction to solve his pitching problem. The Phillies need reliable pitchers, but apparently Gillick doesn't want to pay reliable prices. Either that, or he just doesn't realize that you're risking getting a big goose egg from the likes of Eaton and Jamie Moyer despite their salaries (and multi-year commitments). This is an oddly prevalent idea: I can't afford to spend $50 million on a good pitcher, so I'll spend $25 million on a bad one. GMs polarize the issue so that they must solve their problems by signing a free agent right now. This forces them into decisions like signing Eaton. You don't have to spend money blindly just to stay competitive; it's much more effective to spend it wisely. Sometimes that means shelling out big bucks, and sometimes it doesn't. But if you think that signing two or three low-end free agents will provide anything but a small blip on your team's radar, then you're probably next in line for the job of Pirates GM.
  • The Dodgers, on the other hand, exercised surprising restraint in signing Randy Wolf to a 1-year, $8 million deal. Wolf's deal, like that given to Moises Alou, is so good for the team as to be surprising. Wolf isn't nearly as productive as Alou; he's suffered through injury problems for what seems like forever and hasn't actually had a productive season since 2003. But the good thing is that, unlike the Phillies, the Dodgers have limited their liability. Even the worst-case scenario (a Wolf injury that gives them little or no production), and the Dodgers are out only $8 million and can start anew next year. If Eaton bottoms out, then the Phillies will be haunted by the same problem for two years now. That's why it's better to spend the money on a short-term contract (especially to those on the wrong side of 30) than to sacrifice that one extra year. Every year you see a team regretting that they signed that mega-star to one (or sometimes several) year too many. By contrast, you almost never see a team wishing that they had extended that mega-contract for one more year. Think -- when was the last time a big-money contract expired, and the team was actually disappointed? That should tell you something about the business sense being employed here. (Jim Hendry, I'm talking to you and your 8-year Alfonso Soriano abomination).
  • Along similar lines, the Cardinals signed Adam Kennedy to a 3-year, $10 million deal. The Cardinals did have a hole at second base, I admit. But does Kennedy -- a 31-year-old with a career 280/332/398 batting line -- really improve anything? The Cardinals were playing Aaron Miles, who at least had the virtue of being a year younger and is a career 280/322/360 hitter. Yes, Kennedy is an improvement over Aaron Miles -- but he's not a $10 million improvement. But again, the money doesn't bother me so much as the length -- what does a bad-hitting 31-year-old second baseman look like at age 33? Not Joe Morgan! It's another case of a team that can't afford a real improvement, so they spend a little money thinking that that in itself means an improvement. The Cards did the same thing last year with the likes of Juan Encarnacion and Miles himself, and it would have cost them the pennant if they hadn't had Pujols, Rolen, and Carpenter dragging their sorry asses to the Series.
  • The "other" Japanese pitcher posted this off-season is 27-year-old Kei Igawa. The bidding process is over, and the Yankees have won the rights to negotiate with Igawa for $26 million. Igawa's a good pitcher, but he doesn't look as good as Matsuzaka. But still, there's a part of me somewhere that wonders if Matsuzaka is twice as good as Igawa (his bid was $51.1 mil.)? And that's even before we see what salaries the two hurlers will be raking in! I'm no expert at translating performance from the Japanese leagues, but Igawa is a young strikeout pitcher and looks like a good investment. With Matsuzaka breaking the bank along with old-timers Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt, Igawa -- who has flown completely under the radar following the Matsuzaka feeding frenzy -- could end up the biggest bargain of the offseason, even if he doesn't actually pitch as well as Matsuzaka. Give credit where credit is due -- Brian Cashman and the Yankee front office found a relatively low-cost free agent pitcher with much better upside than Miguel Batista.
  • And now, the Blue Jays.

2006 W-L Record: 87-75
2006 pW-pL Record: 86-76
Runs Scored: 809 (7th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 754 (5th in AL)
Free Agents: Frank Catalanotto, Ted Lilly
Pending Options: Bengie Molina

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Lyle Overbay
2B -- Aaron Hill
SS -- Russ Adams
3B -- Troy Glaus
LF -- Adam Lind/Reed Johnson
CF -- Vernon Wells
RF -- Alexis Rios
C -- Bengie Molina*/Gregg Zaun
DH -- Frank Thomas

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Roy Halladay
A.J. Burnett
Gustavo Chacin
Pick 2 of:
Josh Banks, Francisco Rosario, Casey Janssen, Shaun Marcum

2007 Proj. Closer: B.J. Ryan

This is the area that really needs an improvement, as the Jays' average ranking in 2006 would indicate. The trouble is that, aside from Adam Lind, the Jays don't really have any quality hitters coming through the system. This makes them go out into the free agent and trade market and clog up the wrong end of the defensive spectrum with guys like Lyle Overbay, Troy Glaus, and Frank Thomas.
Lind should start 2007 in the majors. He's a left-handed hitter, but I don't have any information on minor league splits, so I don't know if he's especially weak against lefties. If he is, he can platoon with lefty-killer Reed Johnson. If not, Johnson can be a potent bat on the bench.
Lind is the one hitter in the Toronto organization that has people really excited. He's defensively limited to 1B-LF-DH (another one of those), but he's been mashing the ball in the minors, so he's earned a spot on the big club. In 2006 he hit his way up the ladder: from Double-A (310/357/543 in 91 games) to Triple-A (394/496/596 in 34 games) to the majors (367/415/600 in 18 games). Lind is especially good news, because he's a left-handed hitter on a team that leans very heavy to the starboard side.
While I may deride the Jays' free agent decisions and trade acquisitions, it's not as though they've gotten bad players. Their keystone combination of Lyle Overbay (312/372/508 in '06) and Troy Glaus (252/355/513) is very strong, if expensive. And both men will turn 30 next year which isn't terrible news, but is likely a sign that we've already seen their best.
One of the good things GM J.P. Ricciardi did in 2006 was to clear out the redundancy in the 1B/DH department, trading away Eric Hinske and Shea Hillenbrand. This did leave an empty spot at DH, which seemed like a great opportunity to punch up a dismal lineup. So Ricciardi signed Frank Thomas to a 2-year, $18 million deal.
I've really gone back and forth on my opinion of the deal. I'm ill-inclined to pay someone with Thomas' injury history as he enters his age 39 season. On the other hand, it's not a lot of money in this market, and it is just for two years. I guess the contract isn't such a big problem, except that it exacerbates some of the team's bigger problems: more money committed to risky free agents, more money spent on old players, more money spent on defensively useless players, and more money spent on right-handed hitting. Ask me again tomorrow and I might not be so negative. But I think Keith Law said it best when he said that the problem with the Blue Jays is that they're not signing guys like Frank Thomas before they hit the jackpot. The deals for guys like Thomas, Burnett, Glaus, and Overbay weren't so awful, but for once it would be nice for the Jays to get someone who's more productive than his salary. Of course, the best way to do that is to bring up rookies to work for peanuts.
The problems on offense and defense converge up the middle, where the Jays are plagued with low production. They've gotten good production from center fielder Vernon Wells, yes. But Wells will be a free agent after 2007 and is on the verge of a giant payday (which I don't think he really deserves). There's been talk that the Jays would trade Wells now to get some value in exchange for him before he walks away, but that would seriously hurt their chances of contending in 2007. If they do trade Wells (or lose him as a free agent), they could move Alexis Rios over to center. Rios is currently slotted to play right field, but should be able to handle center defensively. Rios is a guy who's always gotten people excited, but has almost never lived up to the hype. Then he got off to a terrific start in 2007. However, his numbers deteriorated, and he finished the year at 302/349/516. That's not bad if it's for real. The deterioration was due in part to a staph infection, but also indicated (I think) a regression of sorts. Rios' power is probably for real (all 17 home runs of it), but I seriously doubt he's going to stay above a .300 batting average. If his offense does drop, moving him to center would make him less of a liability. And it's not like the Jays are lacking for corner-outfielder types.
The middle infield is where the problems really lie. GM J.P. Ricciardi reportedly has a liking for versatile second baseman Aaron Hill. So if I'm Aaron Hill, I'm going to milk that cow for all it's worth (291/349/386 in '06). Hill is a valuable guy who can play across the infield at shorstop and third, but he doesn't hit enough to be anything but decent. He's a great guy to have when he's cheap, but you don't want to be the one stuck paying him free agent money (Adam Kennedy, anyone?).
Shortstop is such a hole that the Jays will likely try to fill it via free agency or a trade. They're said to be pursuing a middle infielder of any sort, with Aaron Hill filling whatever position is left open. The Jays were getting terrible production from Russ Adams (219/282/319) and need to learn that they don't have any more lineup spots to waste.
The catching duties are still somewhat up in the air. I cannot for the life of me pin down Bengie Molina's status, so as far as I know, there still hasn't been a decision made on his contract option for 2007. I doubt the Jays will pick it up, since they just gave Gregg Zaun a 2-year contract, and the option is too expensive at $7.5 million. If ever there were a player stamped "Don't Open After Age 30," it's Bengie, who hit 281/319/467 in 2006. But the Jays might as well pick it up since they aren't getting any bargains anywhere else. And why think about the future when you can just tolerate Bengie Molina for another year?
As my tone implies, I'm very skeptical of the Blue Jays' plan, but that doesn't mean I think it will be a total disaster. I don't think it's a good program for long-term success, and they will be left with more than one overpaid, aging star in the years to come. But for now it's pushed them into contention, and there's no reason to believe they w0n't return there in 2007. There may be a lot of "ifs" surrounding it, but I think we can safely predict that the Toronto lineup will be a step better than it was in 2006.

Here's where the Blue Jays' salvation lies. Lack of pitching and injuries really held the Jays back in 2007 -- and yet they still managed to finish 5th in the league in runs allowed. Part of that is thanks to the defense of guys like Wells, Rios, and Hill, but it also indicates the presence of some awesome potential. If that potential becomes reality, then the Blue Jays are in the Wild Card hunt, if not the AL East race itself.
Roy Halladay is perhaps the most frustrating example of a truly excellent pitcher being plagued with a series of pesky injuries. They're not all coincidental -- some were due to the huge workload he sustained in his younger years -- but when a guy suffers a leg fracture off of a line drive just when he looks like he's recovering from arm trouble, you can't help but feel for him.
And make no mistake -- Halladay is an excellent pitcher. There are many pitchers whose Win-Loss records and reputation make them seem like true superstars -- Andy Pettite comes to mind -- but Roy Halladay is the best pitcher in the American League after Johan Santana. Halladay finally managed his first healthy season since his Cy Young Award-winning effort in 2003, going 220 innings with a 3.19 ERA. He didn't rack up many strikeouts -- just 132, which is low even by his standards -- but he succeeds by allowing very few walks (just 34) and home runs (19). Halladay isn't as truly dominant as Santana, and his health history and strikeout numbers make it tough to predict another Cy Young Award in his future. But we really need to start realizing what an excellent pitcher Halladay has been, even through the injuries. In a 9-year career the 29-year-old has posted a 3.62 career ERA, a fantastic number given the era he's thrived in and the injuries he's suffered.
Behind Halladay is A.J. Burnett. I hate to come off as smug, but could Ricciardi really have been shocked when Burnett -- the celebrity spokesman for Ace Bandages -- threw only 135.2 innings? The salary explosion of the current offseason would make Burnett's $12 million annual salary almost reasonable if it didn't run for three more seasons after 2007 as well. Burnett pitched fairly well when healthy -- 3.98 ERA and 118 K in 135.2 IP -- but that's not really my point. They're going to have to get at least three healthy seasons out of the next four for this contract to make any fiscal sense. And what do you think the odds of that are, considering that Burnett has thrown at least 136 innings only 3 times in his 8-year career?
I listed Gustavo Chacin, because he's the only other "established" starter in the Toronto rotation. But Chacin's lack of strikeouts came home to roost. I was very wary of Chacin's future after he struck out only 121 batters in 203 innings in 2005, along with 70 walks. I worried that his 3.72 ERA wasn't as solid as it looked. It certainly looked pretty damn shaky last season. Chacin threw just 87.1 innings and posted a 38:47 BB:K ratio to go with a 5.05 ERA. That's not to say that Chacin can't bounce back and provide some league-average innings work. But let's not get ahead of ourselves again this year.
After those three starters, the last two rotation spots are open to any of several promising young hurlers coming up through the system. The most promising -- and most likely to win a spot -- is Josh Banks. The Jays have been much better at producing young pitchers than they have with young hitters, and this guy is the cream of the crop.
Banks had scouts and stat-heads alike salivating at his Double-A performance at New Hampshire in 2005. His BB:K ratio -- 11:145 -- is the sort of thing that looks like a misprint. He showed slight home run tendencies, but kept his ERA down to 3.83.
However, the shift from Double-A to Triple-A is a difficult one, especially in Toronto. New Hampshire is a very friendly pitcher's park, but Triple-A Syracuse is a hitter's paradise. This would explain why Banks' ERA ballooned to 5.17 while his BB:K ratio remained splendid -- 28:126 in 170.2 IP. I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing that the Syracuse ballpark is very cozy, because Banks' home runs allowed nearly doubled, from an acceptable 18 in 162.1 Double-A innings to 35 in 170.2 Triple-A innings. This is a problem, because while SkyDome isn't as cozy as Syracuse, it's one of the better hitter's parks in the league.
But while Banks does rate watching (a BB:K ratio is little consolation when you're providing more than one gopher ball per start), he also has enough raw talent to merit the enthusiasm that's surrounded him. Whether he starts the season in the majors or back in Triple-A, Banks has a spot in the Toronto rotation with his name on it. And the only people who can crowd him out of it are his fellow Toronto farmhands.
Francisco Rosario had no such trouble in Triple-A; in fact, Syracuse didn't seem to bother him much at all. In 2005, he spent a full season there and managed a 3.95 ERA, although his peripherals were weaker. He returned in 2006 and posted the strong peripheral stats he'd compiled in the low minors while lowering his ERA to 2.79. With a 13:50 BB:K ratio in 42 innings and just 2 home runs allowed, Rosario got the call to the majors. His 23-inning baptism was quite rough (6.65 ERA), but there's every indication that he's ready for the majors.
The only question is what he'll be doing once he gets there. Rosario was a starting pitcher in the low minors, but has been increasingly used in relief. In fact, a lot of his 2005-6 recovery at Syracuse may be due to his dual use as a starter and reliever. With B.J. Ryan entrenched as closer for the near future, Rosario will most likely be used as a setup man, especially given his fastball and strikeouts. However, the Jays may have a more pressing need for him in the rotation, if either Halladay or Burnett succumbs to injuries or Chacin falls apart once again. It seems that they've already committed to him as a reliever, but I wouldn't close the door to a return to starting if that's where they need him most.
If Rosario is in the 'pen (as seems likely), the #5 spot will go to either Casey Janssen or Shaun Marcum. Both are quality minor-league hurlers who suffered through rough trials in the Toronto rotation last year. Neither man projects as well as Banks, but they should be fully capable of filling out a big-league rotation. And having an extra man out there is an asset, especially on this team.
This is a very volatile pitching staff, with youth and bad health representing a great distance between the best-case and worst-case scenarios. Best-case, this group could come together and push their decent lineup into the playoffs. Worst-case is that the injuries hit and the kids aren't ready. A more likely result would be just one of the two happening. Either way, it's hard to write this team down for 90 wins, although the possibility is definitely there.

Offseason Game Plan:
In securing Thomas, Ricciardi seems to have filled his most pressing need, that of an impact bat. Now the only real item on his shopping list seems to be a middle infielder. Unfortunately, he's likely to overpay there, too, since the pickens are slim. The only high-quality middle infielder left on the market is Julio Lugo, and the bidding on him should ensure that he doesn't come cheaply. The Jays could go with a short-term solution and sign Ray Durham or Mark Loretta to play second, but they too will likely be overpaid, and neither man is a solid bet for the future. Durham's more reliable offensively, but also more of a defensive liability. Loretta, on the other hand, is defensively sound but is leaking offense like the Exxon Valdez. My advice? Save some money and find yourself a good bargain (cough, cough, Craig Counsell).
I would explore options for Vernon Wells, but I wouldn't get too eager to make the deal. This team has a short shelf life, and it could be all for naught if you slice off 6 or 7 wins in exchange for prospects. Sadly, it may be a little too late to turn your focus to the future.
Hopefully, Ricciardi won't feel the need to drop any big money on a pitcher. The Jays' bullpen has issues, but not big enough to merit saddling yourself with a Mike Stanton-esque contract. The starting pitching needs depth, but while you could improve it on the free agent market, it wouldn't be worth near the expense required.
Stay cool, J.P.

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