Five Questions: Toronto Blue Jays

The Toronto Blue Jays head into 2004 undaunted by the powerhouse rosters of their division rivals in Boston and New York, and by the considerable improvements of the AL East’s traditional punching bags in Baltimore and Tampa Bay.

The Jays retain all the important cogs in an offense that scored 894 runs, second in the AL. Their pitching staff appears to be markedly improved – a rotation that was Roy Halladay and Kelvim Escobar and not much else, has been bolstered by the additions of Miguel Batista, Ted Lilly, and prodigal son Pat Hentgen. Batista, pitching in the noted hitter’s paradise of Bank One Ballpark, had the lowest ERA of any free-agent starter. Hentgen had a very good second half after finally getting fully healthy, and Lilly becomes the top lefthanded starter in the AL East, though he will start the season at less than 100% after hurting his wrist moving his TV.

In the bullpen, the difference is even more striking. GM J.P. Ricciardi is on record as saying he thinks the pen is as important, if not more important, than the starting rotation; for the first time in his Jays tenure, he has a bullpen with depth and class. The dice-rolling experiments of the past (from Doug Creek to Juan Acevedo) are gone. Solid, dependable pitchers with good track records have been brought in to supplement holdovers Aquilino Lopez and Jason Kershner. Terry Adams, Kerry Ligtenberg, Justin Speier, and Valerio de los Santos add an entirely new and very welcome dimension to the Blue Jays.

1) Is there really any point, when you’re in the AL East?

Well, it’s not like they can run up a white flag next to the red-and-white maple leaf in front of SkyDome and call it a year in March. Yes, the Yankees and Red Sox have strengthened their already awesome lineups. Yes, defeating either of those teams over 162 games will be difficult. But the Yankees and Red Sox are hardly the strongest teams ever assembled (despite the triumphal cries you may hear out of the Eastern media), and this Jays roster, peppered with stars and loaded with young talented players who could become stars, has the chance to be something very special.

At first base, second base, and centerfield, the Jays have players who can be reasonably expected to outshine both the Yankees and Red Sox offerings. Roy Halladay is the defending Cy Young Award winner. Eric Hinske and Josh Phelps are young sluggers who could break out decisively. Miguel Batista outshone Curt Schilling last year, and there’s no reason he can’t do it again — Batista is a very underrated pitcher. Yes, a lot of things will have to go right, but that’s why they play the ballgames.

2) Can the Jays collectively recover their hitting stroke of 2003’s first half?

Any chance the Jays have of contending in 2004 depends on the team repeating, or at least approaching, the outstanding offensive outburst of 2003. In the season’s first half, the Jays looked well on their way to scoring 1,000 runs, before settling for a comparably pedestrian 894.

Incidentally, part of the reason for the early-season explosion is SkyDome’s peculiar characteristics… it appears to be a relatively neutral park when the roof is open, but when the roof is closed as it usually is early in the season, the ball takes off and there are home runs galore. But the Blue Jays were only sixth in the AL in runs per game after the All-Star Break.

A substantial part of the Jays’ hitting success in 2003 was credited to hitting coach Mike Barnett, a respected teacher who helped turn Greg Myers from an all-or-nothing pull-everything slugger into a top-notch opposite-field power threat. Carlos Delgado and Vernon Wells had monster seasons, and will need to repeat those performances.

I think the Jays are due for a dropoff in some areas (notably from Greg Myers), but if Hinske can recapture his Rookie Of The Year form, Kevin Cash turns into the competent hitter the team knows he can be, and Orlando Hudson can hit lefthanded pitching even a little, the offense could be just as good as 2003’s edition.

3) Is Ted Lilly the next (ugh) Cory Lidle?

Cory Lidle, last year’s trumpeted starter acquisition, came over in a trade from Oakland and was surprisingly terrible, going 12-15 with a 5.75 ERA. Lidle didn’t have bad peripherals, but he simply fell apart with men on base, making his season doubly frustrating for Jays fans. Lidle would give up a one-out single, and immediately start stalking around the mound like Hamlet in Elsinore, looking like he’d rather eat the pitching rubber rather than throw another pitch. A walk, a double, and a single would follow, at the rate of one batter every five minutes, and finally the long man of the month would be summoned from the pen to throw gasoline on the fire.

There are some murmurs that Toronto’s new ex-Athletic, pitcher Ted Lilly, may be ready to repeat that disappointment. Like Lidle, Lilly is moving from one of the more pitcher-friendly parks in the majors to one of the least. According to a recent study, first-year pitchers in SkyDome also have extra problems with the home run ball, a problem that Lilly is generally all too familiar with. Lilly is, like Lidle, a deliberate pitcher when he gets into trouble.

John Gizzi, who follows the A’s as an ESPN Fantasy Correspondent, is very down on Lilly:

I have not been impressed with Lilly since the A’s acquired him. Lilly has played on five (now six) teams despite being left-handed, talented, and only 26-years-old. That he is talented is not in doubt, as his maddening stretches where he strikes out seven hitters in a row show, but it seems he’s another one of those pitchers with a nice K/BB ratio whose success doesn’t quite add up. He nibbles too much, he’s too deliberate on the mound, he’s got no reliable fourth pitch.

Lilly needs to be a solid third starter for the Jays to have a solid rotation, since their starting pitching is thin (former prospect Justin Miller, who spent 2003 recovering from shoulder surgery, is currently the sixth starter on the depth chart).

4) Will the Jays trade Carlos Delgado to a contender?

The Jays remain publicly committed to re-signing Carlos Delgado, who remains a clubhouse leader, the team’s most popular player, and their most productive player. But Delgado is also in the final year of a four-year, $68 million contract which has proved an obstacle to the Jays’ payroll flexibility.

Delgado would have been a deserving MVP in 2003 (not to say A-Rod wasn’t) and boosted what would have been a below-.500 team to the fringes of contention – he earned his money in 2003. But when Roy Halladay was re-signed to a four-year, $42 million deal it was widely assumed in the Toronto media that Delgado would not be re-signed.

The team is not taking that view, and they appear to believe that a deal can get done. Because the Jays have a strictly limited payroll and a number of long-term deals which begin to get more expensive in 2005, the team will need to pay Delgado a fair bit less than his current salary. He will also be 32 this June; a new four-year deal would take him up to his 37th birthday.

Delgado, though, is widely assumed to be amenable to a “hometown discount”, even though he publicly declared in March that he would not accept one. He appears to love Toronto and the cultural sophistication of the city (Delgado is a noted culture vulture) and to relish leading a young, hungry, improving team. If the Jays were to slide to a disappointing season early, and Delgado were to give an indication that he would not re-sign, he would likely be traded. I don’t think either of those is likely to happen.

5) Can the Jays’ top prospects help them this year?

The Blue Jays have a large group of top prospects who are close to the major leagues. Outfielder Alex Rios, fresh from tearing apart the Puerto Rican Winter League (nearly winning the Triple Crown there), is widely considered on of the two or three best outfield prospects in the game.

Catcher Guillermo Quiroz was one of the best hitters in the AA Eastern League at the age of 22 – he hits for excellent power and possesses MLB-caliber defensive skills.

Outfielder Gabe Gross, former starting quarterback at Auburn, split the year between New Haven and Syracuse and raked in both cities.

Pitcher Dustin McGowan posted a very strong performance at New Haven as well, and pitcher David Bush has a bright future after being converted from a closer into a starter. Meanwhile, highly-touted pitcher Jason Arnold was at Syracuse (AAA) and had a slightly disappointing season, but is still appearing on numerous top-100 lists.

Of all the players, Arnold and Gross are the most advanced, and therefore are most likely to move up in 2004. These young players represent much of the Blue Jays’ depth; the team has not made much effort to sign a deep bench or fringe free agents due to payroll constraints. An injury to an outfielder could possibly bring Gross to the major leagues at any time; an injury to a starter could see Arnold in the majors if he pitches well in the International League.

However, the Jays under J.P. Ricciardi have been relatively careful with the development of their prospects and would likely take a similarly cautious approach with the rough gems who are currently approaching the bigs. Holes will probably be patched from the small amount of spare veteran talent on hand, or possibly from waiver-wire pickups, until the youngsters have proven that they are irrefutably ready. All the young players have been sent to Syracuse to begin the year, and the only player from the minors likely to make the team in April is Canadian masher Simon Pond, who has enjoyed a very good winter and spring.

Unless the Jays fall out contention and trade veterans, none of the players listed is likely to log much time as a starter in Toronto. However, if that does happen, then all bets are off.

In Closing…

It would be very easy for Jays fans to get ahead of themselves. There is a monstrous amount of distance between the AL East’s leaders and the Blue Jays; Boston and New York had a very good claim to be the two best teams in baseball in 2003 and both are (arguably) stronger for 2004. I have been running simulations of the season to come, and while in many instances the Jays have done well (capturing the wild card and even the division on occasion – though this was before Alex Rodriguez came to the Yankees) there are many scenarios that present cold comfort for Jays fans.

In one very possible scenario, the Jays are the fifth-best team in the American league, but a combination of bad luck and a hot Yankees team puts them sixteen games out of the wild card by August 10. Of course, in the same simulation the Brewers and Pirates battled for the NL wild card. Crazy things happen.

But it underscores the fact that the Jays could be an improved team from their 86-76 season of a year ago, and still finish fourth in the AL East. In fact, with strong improvements in the AL East, as well as considerable improvements throughout the AL Central and in Anaheim, the Blue Jays could play as well as they did in 2003, offensive explosion and all, and finish below .500 on bad luck alone. It is not out of the realm of possibility. If the offense proves to have been a one-year wonder and the back end of the rotation falls apart, the result could get ugly.

That isn’t likely to happen. With an easy early-season schedule and improved pitching, the Jays will still be on the fringes of contention at the All-Star Break. But lacking the horses to push the Yankees and Red Sox all the way, the Jays are likely to end up in a season-ending slide, and considerably closer to fourth-place Baltimore than to the playoffs. The gains of 2003 will be consolidated, and 90+ wins are a real possibility, but I am predicting an acutely disappointing 84-78 season.

As a fan, I think we’ll win 94 games and be singing “Na-Na-Na-Na, Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye” to the Yankees on October 2 as we clinch the Wild Card. Like I said, that’s why they play the ballgames.

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