Not long ago, the Toronto Blue Jays were expected to be in the position now occupied by the Tampa Bay Rays—the third wheel in the American League East.
While there is some strong young talent in Toronto, J.P. Riccardi's five-year plan is looking more like a two-term presidential rebuilding plan in action. It's hard to believe that this team is anything resembling "on the road to competing" in the most vaunted division in baseball.
Last year was a mess for the Blue Jays. Between injuries, slumps, managerial changes, and overall bad luck, the Jays still found themselves dreaming of a run at the Wild Card late in the summer.
While an 86-win season was respectable and would have put you in the playoffs in the NL West, it yielded another season that left Jays fans frustrated with what could have been.
Predictions: Joe, Tim, Shawn, Pat and writer emeritus Zach picked the Jays to finish fourth in the AL East, while Evan expects them to fill the bottom of the barrel.
C ROD BARAJAS | MICHAEL BARRETT
Rod Barajas is a veteran catcher adept at keeping runners honest and a good receiver behind the plate. Known to throw some lumber around in bunches, Barajas isn't expected to be anything more than the league average behind the plate, hitting .240-ish with 10-15 home runs and about 50 RBI.
Michael Barrett's a respectable backup, coming off an atrocious year in San Diego
. He's got less punch than Barajas, but if he can regain his swing, he could yield a higher average.
WHO HAS THE EDGE: Push. Man, is there a dearth of catching in the majors when Varitek garners an offensive push from any other team's best.
1B LYLE OVERBAY | KEVIN MILLAR
Much was expected of Lyle Overbay in Toronto after a solid 2006 season with the Jays and Brewers
, but a hand injury in 2007 seems to have derailed Overbay, and he hasn't been able to get back on track since. The days of expecting .300+/20+/80+ out of Overbay are a bit out of reach. Where does that leave you? Like much of the Jays' lineup, at/below league average.
WHO HAS THE EDGE: Youkilis > Overbay. No questions asked. Millar? That's a different story, as long as the grade isn't representative of on-field play. Is there anyone else that thinks Millar should have shacked up at MLB Network HQs instead of over the border in Canada?
2B AARON HILL
After a breakout season in 2007, Aaron Hill saw his 2008 cut short after colliding with David Eckstein. HILL is still recovering from the effects of post-concussion syndrome. His .291 average and emerging power (14 HR and 47 2B) in 2007 and outstanding defense were reason to believe that the Jays may have found a borderline All-Star at 2B for the next few years. Now, the Jays are relegated to sitting and waiting to see if Hill can recover, dust off his swing, and produce in 2009.
WHO HAS THE EDGE: Pedroia isn't going to lose this "who has the edge" battle many times, and he certainly won't here.
SS MARCO SCUTARO | JOHN McDONALD
Another position, and another tandem of below league average offensive players in the Jays' lineup.
McDonald, known as one of the best defensive SS in baseball, will start the season as the backup to Marco Scutaro, whose more balanced offensive and defensive contributions—combined with his overall position flexibility—guarantee him at-bats in 2009.
But let's not get carried away with how valuable those at-bats may be. Sure, Scutaro is a "gritty" ballplayer who seems to perform above the meager expectations placed upon him everywhere he goes, but he's a .265 hitter with single-digit home run power.
WHO HAS THE EDGE:
If Lowrie, edge Red Sox
...If Lugo, edge Red Sox (and that is saying something).
3B SCOTT ROLEN | JOSE BAUTISTA
Scott Rolen isn't the Rolen of old at the plate. Like his counterpart across the diamond, it is hard to expect the .300+/20+/100+ that became a trademark of Rolen in St. Louis. But when healthy, Rolen is still an above average hitter, and he's still got the Gold Glove pedigree at the Hot Corner that doesn't show any signs of diminishing.
However, when gambling on Rolen's ability to stay healthy, you almost have to take the "J.D. Drew perspective" and chalk up a few nicks along the way. As such, Jose Bautista will likely play some time at both corners this season and will likely find his way into the lineup against left-handed pitching.
WHO HAS THE EDGE: Push—Personally, I think Lowell is every bit the defender as Rolen and has a little more pop left in his bat. But there are enough question marks on both sides to chalk up a tie at the Hot Corner.
LF TRAVIS SNIDER | ADAM LIND
Taken by the Blue Jays out of high school in the 2006 draft, Travis Snider was ranked the Jays' No. 1 overall prospect this year by Baseball America. His play this spring not only cemented his role on the team, but likely in the starting lineup. Here's where we start to see some glimmers of hope for what is thus far a less-than-impressive offense. Projections for Snider are all over the map, but he did hit .301 with an .804 OPS in 24 games with the Jays in 2008. Baseball America gives us this summary of Snider:
"With strength, bat speed, and a simple left-handed swing, Snider projects to hit for average and plus power to all fields in the big leagues. Despite his lofty strikeout totals, he has exceptional control of the bat barrel, showing a knack for hitting balls in any part of the zone with authority."
WHO HAS THE EDGE: Snider might be better down the line than Jason Bay, but not yet.
CF VERNON WELLS
Wells has quietly been the offensive face of the Blue Jays franchise for the better part of the last seven years. Like much of the rest of the Blue Jays offense, injury plagued his 2008 campaign. Before it did, Wells carried a .300 average and led the team in home runs with 20.
While Wells may have lost a step in CF, he is still a plus defender and should look to return to his pre-2007 form in '09. If the Jays are out of the mix (which is likely) come the trade deadline, Wells might be an attractive "sell" candidate to further the Jays rebuilding efforts for 2010 and beyond.
WHO HAS THE EDGE: Blue Jays. It's hard to compare a top-of-the-lineup guy like Ellsbury to a middle-of-the-lineup hitter like Wells, but Wells' experience gives him the nod over the youngster.
RF ALEX RIOS
If there is a player to watch in Toronto this season, its Alex Rios. Rios recovered from a slow start last season and caught fire under new manager Cito Gaston and hitting coach Gene Tenace, hitting .308, with an OPS of .876 after the Gibbons regime ended. A plus defender with talent at every "tool," Rios needs to stand up and show himself to be a cornerstone of the franchise or to slide back into "almost greatness."
WHO HAS THE EDGE: This may be the only position that the Jays have a clear and decided advantage over the Red Sox. No knock on J.D. Drew, but Alex Rios has the potential to be a special player in 2009.
DH ADAM LIND | KEVIN MILLAR
Adam Lind can kill a fastball. The problem with that is pitchers can adjust, and they did. If Lind, who will see time at DH and in the OF (and potentially first base if Overbay is dealt at any time this season), can adjust to the offspeed stuff, he has the ability to be an above average major league hitter.
WHO HAS THE EDGE: Hmmm, perennial MVP candidate vs. Adam Lind? Papi wins.
SP ROY HALLADAY | JESSE LITSCH | DAVID PURCEY | RICKEY ROMERO | SCOTT RICHMOND
Last year, the Jays' redeeming strength was their starting pitching. Led by the throwback workhorse Roy Halladay, the Blue Jays' rotation finished the season with the best starting pitching team ERA (3.72) while amassing the most innings pitched (1021.2) and the second lowest batting average against (.250).
Starting pitching should be a strength again in 2009, right? Wrong. It's nothing but a question mark. As of today, a week before Opening Day, they still haven't locked down their rotation. What happened to cause such a steep fall?
Out: No. 2 AJ Burnett (FA), No. 3 Shaun Marcum (injury), No. 4 Dustin McGowan (injury)
In: Matt Clement, Mike Maroth (both cut this spring)
The Jays will be strong as ever at the top with Halladay and can match aces with anyone. Even with the potential of Litsch and Purcey, it's hard to bank of either as the No. 2 and No. 3 pitchers in your rotation at this point in their careers. They could easily be attractive options as a No. 4/No. 5 tailender. But a division with experienced and talented lineups across the board, I wouldn't expect the Jays' rotation to carry the team as they did a year ago.
WHO HAS THE EDGE: When you take away your No. 2, No. 3, No. 4 starters from the season prior, you are automatically behind the eight ball. Outside of the horse at the top, the Jays don't match up well against the Red Sox at any slot in the rotation.
RP SCOTT DOWNS | BRIAN TALLET | JESSE CARLSON | JASON FRASOR | BRANDON LEAGUE | JEREMY ACCARDO
Stacked with left-handed pitching, the Blue Jays' bullpen is always tough to break. With much of the cast of characters from last season returning this season, it's reasonable to expect the same result.
How good were Jays relievers last year? "Best in baseball" sound good enough?
The Jays' bullpen was the only one in baseball to post a collective ERA under 3.00 (2.94) and held batters to a .226 batting average. Of course, when you are relied on for fewer innings than any other bullpen in baseball, it does tend to mask any potential holes. But this pen is both deep and talented.
WHO HAS THE EDGE: Push. The Jays' pen is deep, talented, and proven. This might be the strongest part of their team this season. While the Red Sox have the consensus best pen in baseball heading into the season, don't sleep on this deep group of Jays relievers.
CL BJ RYAN
While Ryan is finally back to full strength after Tommy John surgery knocked out his 2007 campaign, he has struggled to find consistency in his delivery this spring. His struggles have progressed to the point that Cito Gaston has openly discussed turning to Scott Downs in the regular season should Ryan's struggles continue into April. If Ryan can right the ship, he can be one of the best closers in baseball. But this situation bears watching, as the Jays can't afford to give any games back this season if they are to compete.
WHO HAS THE EDGE: Papelbon. Even when healthy and at the top of their game, who would you have rather have on the mound in the ninth?
CONCLUSION: League average or below across the board at nearly every position, too much reliance on youth, high turnover in the rotation, health question marks from your closer...
This doesn't look like it will be the Jays' year to compete in the toughest division in baseball.