“Red Sox, Yankees … Red Sox, Yankees … I don’t care about the Red Sox and Yankees. We have to take care of ourselves. This is the most important year in the four years I’ve been here. This is your chance, from right now, to decide what kind of team you want to be.”
General manager J.P. Ricciardi is addressing his troops in a classroom down a hallway from the main clubhouse. Like schoolkids the players fill the desks in the back of the room but leave most of the ones up front unoccupied. This is what is known as the annual orientation meeting, ostensibly to introduce the training, coaching and support staff — and this year one embedded reporter — but also for the manager and general manager to set the tone for the season.
The Blue Jays are a blank slate. After a surprise third-place finish with 86 wins in 2003, Toronto sank to the basement in the American League East last year, losing 94 games. The Jays are Liechtenstein in a division with Cold War superpowers New York and Boston. Toronto’s best player, first baseman Carlos Delgado, signed with Florida as a free agent. In front of Ricciardi and Gibbons sit only four players who have made an All-Star team, and only one who has hit 30 home runs, centerfielder Vernon Wells. As if to acknowledge his increased importance to the club, Wells is the one player who dares to sit front and center, casually munching an apple.
So wrote Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci seven years ago this spring.
Can any three paragraphs better describe the state of the Toronto Blue Jays since their string of World Series victories in the early 1990s? In the last fourteen years, the Blue Jays have won between 78 and 88 games twelve times. Once they won 75, another 67, but those years were anomalies. The Jays have just once risen above third place. They have just once fallen bellow fourth. But more than this consistent competitive mediocrity, an unfulfilled hope has characterized most pre-season discussion of these rosters.
The Blue Jays are never leading the pack. They never have the best farm system, the best roster, the best financial situation. But they’re always that surprise team. They’re always that team everyone picks to come out of nowhere. They have, often, but they’ve never closed the deal.
Of late, a new hope has risen on the horizon of Toronto sports. Led by part-GM, part-wizard Alex Anthopoulos, a resurgent farm system bolstered by the trade of Roy Halladay to the Phillies two years ago, and the emergence of an offensive superstar, Jays fans have reason to believe that maybe, just maybe, this time it’s for real. But there are plenty of clouds dotting that horizon. Former offensive stars have dimmed. A young rotation has failed to develop. The Jays won just 81 games this past season and have been relatively quiet since the World Series. The signing of Yu Darvish, for a time considered a forgone conclusion, never happened. Darvish is in Texas and the Jays rotation is still an area of concern.
For us Yankees fans, this is a good sign. The Blue Jays have the management and young talent to be the Rays of tomorrow and anything that keeps them from reaching that potential is a barrier in the path of a team looking to unseat the Yankees. But there’s still plenty of optimism among Jays management and fans. The question is whether this optimism will be met – if not this year, then at least in the near future. Let’s take a look at the roster.
Behind the plate, the Blue Jays have a pair of young players with promise, though one a clear long term option, the other perhaps an afterthought after a poor 2011 season. JP Arencibia entered last season a rookie of the year candidate. His power and overall offensive prowess, his ability to hit like few catchers in the league, made him a sought after commodity. His .219 batting average last season reinforced the belief that the power will not alone keep his bat serviceable. Travis d’Arnaud, the team’s top prospect, looks to replace Arencibia behind the plate. He showed off his own 20+ home run power last season but also hit .311 in the Eastern League. d’Arnaud should make it to the big leagues this season. How quickly is largely a product of the Jays’ early season record.
The infield is an area of strength for Toronto. Yunel Escobar finished second among Blue Jays’ hitters in fWAR lsat season, hitting .290 with a .369 OBP, and playing good defense at short. The deal that sent Escobar to Toronto is looking like a good one a year and a half out. Dito the Kelly Johnson trade. Johnson picked up his production late in the year and should be a consistent contributor for Toronto next season. At first, the Jays have Adam Lind, and while Lind’s skill set still lurks behind the conversation, his 2009 explosion is starting to look more like an outlier than a breakout. Finally you have the Jays most exciting player, Brett Lawrie. A defensive liability (though his numbers last season don’t show it) it’s hard not to compare Lawrie to his former orginization-mate, Ryan Braun, also a Brewers third base prospect of old. Lawrie is an offensive monster. He hit .291 last season in 41 games with a .413 wOBA. He hit 9 home runs and stole 7 bases. Lawrie is going to be a superstar.
In the outfield you have one great player, and a couple of unknowns. Jose Bautista has emerged over the past two seasons as one of the leagues best players and should continue to mash home runs for the Jays next season. 2011 was perhaps another step forward as he honed his approach at the plate, though his second half slide is just a tad bit concerning. The real question marks here remain the left and center fielders. Colby Rasmus, once one of the more promising young outfielders in the game, struggled after a trade to Toronto. The talent is there. The upside is huge. The performance is a question, though. Left field is up for grabs, but one of the candidates to play the position is Travis Snider, the former top prospect in all of baseball. Snider was probably rushed to the big leagues and an issue of approach has held him back. The upside, like with Rasmus, is still there but he’s a long way from being a productive big leaguer.
All those question marks aside, offense is a strength for Toronto. Especially if some of their pieces rebound, you can expect a run-producing machine up north. The real question is one of pitching.
The rotation is promising but ultimately a mess. While 2011 may have looked like a breakout year for Ricky Romero, the underlying numbers don’t agree with that assessment. His FIP rose more than half a run, his xFIP by 16 points. Should we expect Romero to continue to pitch well? Sure. But not that well. Brandon Morrow is at the exact opposite end of the luck spectrum. His stuff, his talent, his peripherals indicate a future ace. The results are disheartening. Jays fans should continue to hope for a breakout but the longer it doesn’t happen, the less likely it is that it will. Brett Cecil and Jo-Jo Reyes both had terrible years for the Blue Jays. Cecil at least has some history to fall back on. Finally, Kyle Drabek failed miserably in delivering on the top-prospect hype he brought over from Philadelphia. He’s too young not to get another chance, but he was terrible.
The Blue Jays bullpen should be improved next year with White Sox closer Sergio Santos coming over, to go along with Francisco Cordero and Casey Jannsen and a number of other talented arms. Really, though, it’s the rotation that matters and the rotation is nothing short of a disaster. The minor league system is stocked with arms, but not so many at the high levels of the system, and in the near term one has to wonder where the help will come from.
Now that you have a better idea of what Toronto brings to the table, you can probably guess what I’m going to say next. Yes, we should be worried about the young talent Toronto brings to the table but even if the questions are answered affirmatively and even if that offense comes together around two young superstars and around Rasmus, and Lind, and Johnson, and the rest the pitching is just too poor for the Blue Jays to contend with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays. Morrow is promising. He and Romero could form a nice 1-2 punch. But Drabek is almost an afterthought at this point, Cecil is coming off a terrible season, and there isn’t much else there. If the Blue Jays look a like a potential surprise contendor, you aren’t looking close enough.
With that being said, in the long run, this could be different. They aren’t that surprise team. There isn’t the same buzz. But the Jays do finally have great management, perhaps the best management, in Anthopoulos and that scouting department. The Jays do have a strong farm system, perhaps the best farm system. They have arms in the lower levels and impact talent on the offensive side of the ball. They have a strong financial situation – they can afford to go after top free agents again. And for the first time since the middle of this past decade, they are building an offensive core. Bautista, Lawrie, Rasmus, d’Arnaud, and the rest of them. If the arms pan out, if the Jays can find some pitching depth for that rotation, they do have what it takes to compete a year or two down the road.
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