2008 MLB Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

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2008 MLB Preview: Toronto Blue Jays
Manager: John Gibbons
Arrivals: C Rod Barajas, RP Armando Benitez, RP Shawn Camp, SS David Eckstein, 3B Scott Rolen, IF Marco Scutaro, OF Shannon Stewart
Departures: 3B Troy Glaus, SP Josh Towers

Offseason grade: C+

 

Starting rotation

The Blue Jays have built a very good, young starting rotation around Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett.

Dustin McGowan, who will turn 27 later this month, was a Jekyll and Hyde-type pitcher last year, having numerous dominant outings and a few poor ones.

For example, McGowan's complete-game shutout of the NL Champion Rockies was sandwiched between starts against the Dodgers and Mariners in which he threw a combined 6.2 innings and gave up 11 runs.

This wasn't isolated, as McGowan threw a one-run complete game against the eventual World Champion Red Sox in September, between two outings against the Yankees (home and away) in which he threw 9.1 innings and gave up 10 runs.

Through all of it, McGowan went 12-10 with a 4.08 ERA.

With a full season of MLB experience under his belt, McGowan should be able to limit his poor outings and capitalize on his good ones.

Seriously, if McGowan can minimize or eliminate the horrible starts, he could become one of the premier starters in the league. He's definitely proved that he has the potential to do just that, as I only listed a few of his better games from last year.

Shaun Marcum, 26, started 25 games for Toronto last year and went 11-4 with a 3.91 ERA in those games. Marcum's ERA for the season was higher than that (4.13) because he began the season in the bullpen, where he struggled.

Marcum did struggle in September, going 0-1 with a 7.27 ERA over four starts, but that shouldn't be a cause for concern for the Blue Jays. If he can put that September out of his head, 15 wins and a sub-4.00 ERA is a definite possibility for Marcum.

Jesse Litsch, 23, should round out the group of young Toronto starters. Listch went 7-9 with a 3.81 ERA last year, his rookie season.

While he did go through some growing pains, Litsch finished the season on a high note, going 6.2, 7.2, and 6.0 innings while allowing just one run in those three starts against Boston, at New York, and against Tampa Bay.

Litsch is another guy who could really find his groove after starting 20 games in his rookie season. He shouldn't be under a whole lot of pressure if he makes it as Toronto's No. 5 starter.

Casey Janssen, 26, is the biggest challenger to Listch for the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Janssen threw exclusively out of the bullpen in 2007 and had a lot of success, throwing 72.2 innings with an ERA of 2.35.

However, Janssen started his entire minor-league career, going 16-5 with a 2.94 ERA over 45 starts in three years with Toronto's A-, A+, AA, and AAA affiliates.

Janssen did start 17 games with Toronto in 2006, going 6-10 with a 5.22 ERA.

UPDATE, 3/12: It appears that Janssen will have surgery on his labrum and is out for the year. So much for that.

There's a glaring reminder of what could go wrong with young pitchers sitting right there on Toronto's 40-man roster, however.

That reminder is Gustavo Chacin.

Chacin burst on to the scene in 2005, starting 34 games, and going 13-9 with a 3.72 ERA.  

However, Chacin struggled in 2006 and then in 2007 had his season cut short before May due to labrum surgery. While he is apparently healthy for the 2008 season, he likely will be sent to Syracuse to open the season. He may not even be first in line to get the call to replace a starter, as Janssen likely would fill that role better than Chacin.

Of course, heading this rotation are Halladay and Burnett.

Halladay is one of the premier starters in the game today and is an absolute workhorse. In a day where complete games are becoming a rarity, Halladay has thrown 31 over his 10-year career with the Blue Jays, including nine in 2003, five in 2005 (when he only started 19 games), four in 2006, and seven last year.

Expect more of the same out of Halladay this year. If the Blue Jays wrangle their way into contention, look for Halladay to garner more than a few Cy Young votes.

Burnett has the reputation for being about as durable as Mark Prior or Kerry Wood, but he did manage to start 25 games last year for Toronto, going 10-8 with a 3.75 ERA.

If Toronto could just get 30+ starts—a full season without injury—out of Burnett, it'd do wonders for them in the East.

When healthy, Burnett can be dominant—just ask Boston and New York. Over the last three seasons, Burnett is 3-0 with a 2.51 ERA against the Red Sox and 2-2 with a 3.54 ERA against the Yankees.

Despite Halladay and Burnett, the young 3-4-5 starters will determine the success of this rotation. If they perform well, the rotation and the entire Blue Jays team will have success.

I personally think the young starters are primed for good seasons, but only time will tell.

Starting rotation grade: B

 

Bullpen

While it would be nice for Toronto is BJ Ryan stayed healthy for 2008, it's not entirely necessary.

Why? Because of Jeremy Accardo.

Accardo proved his ability to close last year, converting 30/35 opportunities and posting a 2.14 ERA.

At just 27, Accardo would be an excellent closer for anybody in the majors.

However, if Ryan is healthy, he deserves to close for this team. Ryan converted 38/42 saves in 2006 with a miniscule ERA of 1.37, proving that 2005, his first full year as a major-league closer, was no fluke.

If Accardo is relegated to set-up duty, the Blue Jays will have a nasty eighth and ninth inning punch that'll be tough for any team to crack.

Behind Ryan and/or Accardo is a solid group of relievers, starting with Scott Downs.

Downs has flourished since being moved to the Blue Jays bullpen for good in 2006. Downs appeared in 81 games last year and posted a 2.14 ERA, giving Toronto an excellent left-handed option out of the bullpen.

With Janssen on the shelf for 2008, Armando Benitez likely will get more innings in middle relief.

I'm not a big fan of Armando Benitez and don't think he brings much to the table (except blown saves). The Blue Jays would be best served from giving him the call in a tight seventh or eighth inning situation.

Brian Tallet gives Toronto another good left-handed option for middle or long relief after throwing 62.1 innings and compiling a 3.47 ERA in 2007.

Jason Frasor is a decent righty option for John Gibbons but has struggled since putting up very good stats in 2005. As long as the Blue Jays aren't counting on him in a lot of close situations, though, he should be fine.

Rounding out the group of bullpen pitchers for Toronto is Brian Wolfe, who appeared in 38 games with a 2.98 ERA for Toronto last year.  

Overall, this is a solid bullpen that, on paper, shouldn't run into a whole lot of problems in 2008. Again, a healthy Ryan is an added bonus, but not exactly a necessity.

Bullpen grade: B

 

Lineup

The key to this Blue Jays lineup is Vernon Wells.

After signing a seven-year, $126 million extension after the 2006 season, Wells had the worst statistical season of his career, hitting .245 with 16 home runs and 80 RBI.

According to some reports, Wells was hampered by a shoulder problem for most of the season—one that required him to have surgery on his left shoulder (officially, Wells had his labrum repaired, had four anchors put into his shoulder, had a cyst decompressed, and had a frayed rotator cuff cleaned up...yikes) in late September of 2007.

While Wells denies that the shoulder issue led to his drop in production, likely, that was the case. With a healthy shoulder and a whole lot of motivation, look for Wells to rebound and hit around .290/30/100 this year.

If Wells can do that, the rest of this Blue Jay lineup will fall in line and be successful.

Alex Rios is one of the better offensive talents in the game you haven't heard much about. Rios hit .297 with 24 home runs and 97 RBI last year for Toronto, made the All-Star Game, and finished second in the Home Run Derby.

At 27, Rios could really be coming into his prime. If he hits second, his RBI1 could take a dip, but he may see an increase in his batting average and home runs by seeing more fastballs ahead of a guy like Vernon Wells or Frank Thomas.

Speaking of The Big Hurt, Thomas is proving everybody wrong by staying relatively healthy and producing at a, well, Frank Thomas-like level over the last two years.

If healthy, Thomas should smack about 30 home runs and drive in 100 or so runs to go along with an obscenely high on-base percentage.

Scott Rolen, picked up from the Cardinals for Troy Glaus, is an interesting component to this lineup. His production dropped significantly in 2007, partly because of a myriad of injuries and partly because of a tiff with Tony La Russa that made first graders look mature.

Perhaps a fresh start in Toronto is just what he needed. After all, he's only a season removed from hitting .296/22/95. A healthy Rolen would be a great bonus to this Toronto lineup.

Leading off for the Blue Jays will be another former Cardinal in David Eckstein. Eckstein was hampered by back problems throughout 2007 and those back problems likely led to teams shying away from giving him the four-year deal he was looking for.

Instead, he took the one-year, $4.5 million deal with the Blue Jays. If healthy, Eckstein still is a .300 hitter and solid leadoff man, but, again, there's a reason why he didn't get a four-year deal.

John McDonald likely would take over at short if Eckstein goes down. He's a much worse hitter than Eckstein and would probably force somebody like Shannon Stewart, Reed Johnson, or even Aaron Hill to be the team's leadoff hitter.

Johnson may not be around much longer, as the Blue Jays are looking to unload him. If they fail, we could see a combination him, Stewart, or Stairs in left field.

Stewart is back in Toronto as a non-roster invitee after hitting .290 with the A's last year. Stewart was unable to find a team that would take him as a starting left fielder, so he settled to return to Toronto in a platoon situation against lefties.

That brings us to Stairs, the quintessential beer-league softball player. Stairs would play against righties in the platoon, as it's no secret he hits better against righties than lefties.

Stairs hit all 21 of his home runs against righties last year, taking that ridiculously long and powerful swing of his, blasting balls out of Rogers Centre like there was a keg of Miller stationed at second base.

Seriously, when I play softball, I try to mimic Stairs. I'm not saying it's a bad thing—I really enjoy watching him clobber home runs.

Hill is another excellent hitter just coming into his prime you probably haven't heard of. Hill hit .291 in both 2006 and 2007, but saw his home run and RBI totals jump from 6/50 in 2006 to 17/78 in 2007. For a back-of-the-order hitter, that's pretty solid.

Like Wells, Lyle Overbay saw a significant drop in his production in 2007 and, like Wells, it likely had something to do with an injury.  

On June 3, Overbay took a John Danks fastball off his right hand that broke it and sent him to the disabled list until July. After coming back, Overbay hit just .225 with only two home runs in 218 at-bats.

If Overbay can return to his career line of about .280 with 10-15 home runs and 30+ doubles, he could be another key component in this lineup.

Gregg Zaun will round out the Blue Jays lineup as a fairly weak-hitting catcher, but he won't significantly hurt this very solid Toronto lineup.

Lineup grade: B+ (if Wells and Overbay hit to their career averages, though, watch out.)

 

Bench

Marco Scutaro provides a lot of flexibility off the bench, as he can play 2B, SS, and 3B pretty well.

McDonald isn't exactly the best backup shortstop, but he appears to be in line to start if Eckstein goes down. That could change if Scutaro hits well in the few starts he'll get early in the year.

The Blue Jays outfield is deep off the bench, as at any time, a combination of Stewart, Johnson, and Stairs will be available.

Rod Barajas is a solid backup catcher who won't miss a beat filling in for Zaun.

Bench grade: B

 

I think there are five players who are key to this team in 2008: McGowan, Marcum, Litsch, Wells, and Overbay.

If the three starters improve off their 2007 performances and stay off the disabled list, Toronto will have a very good starting rotation.

If Wells and Overbay come back healthy and return to their career averages, Toronto's lineup will be extremely deep and will keep them in contention.

Will this team overtake the powerhouses of the AL East?

I can't see them overtaking Boston, but given the Yankees bullpen issues, don't be surprised if Toronto finishes second in the division in 2008.

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