The 2010 edition of the Toronto Blue Jays was full of surprises and provided many promising glimpses into the team's future. Whether or not anyone besides Blue Jays fans noticed is another matter entirely. The Jays were widely expected to finish at the bottom of baseball's toughest, deepest division, the mighty AL East. They only wound up one spot above the basement but they also went 85-77, the kind of thing that can only happen in AL East.
The fourth place finish despite the winning record is both a reason for optimism and cause for concern. The winning record is something to build on and at least shows the club is headed in the right direction. They were able to compete despite the loss of both Roy Halladay and Alex Rios from a year ago and survived disappointing seasons from Aaron Hill and Adam Lind, a pair who never came close to matching their 2009 breakout campaigns.
The cause for concern stems from the daunting task of taking this team from 85 wins to 95 wins. A big part of the Jays success stemmed from the excellent performance of it's young starting rotation. Will that rotation be able to perform better collectively in 2011 and 2012? Will it be able to stay healthy? And then there's figuring out how repeatable Jose Bautista's 2010 performance will be going forward. There's also questions about the situations at first base, third base and catcher to consider.
But what to do we know now that we didn't before the start of the season? First and foremost, Blue Jays GM Alex Anthropoulos has asserted himself as a man who knows what he is doing. He brought in Brandon Morrow and gave the kid a chance to pitch a full season as a starter. Morrow took the ball 26 times and pitched a career high 146 1/3 innings and finished up the season with a 3.16 FIP. Anthropoulos picked up Fred Lewis for next to nothing from the Giants and the twenty-nine year old turned in a solid season hitting .262/.332/.414 and stealing 17 bases in 23 tries.
Anthopoulos also made a pair of moves to sure up the teams future at the hard to fill position of shortstop by first signing Cuban shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria and then spinning the aging Alex Gonzalez for twenty-seven year old, Yunel Escobar. Hechavarria is a few years off but held his own in Double-A at just twenty-one years of age.
Escobar had fallen out of favor with the Atlanta Braves organization after two excellent seasons at the plate and in the field. The Jays picked him up in the midst of his worst season but he rebounded to hit .275 with a .340 on-base percentage. Anthopoulos picked up a cost controlled shortstop in his prime, the type of player that can often be impossible to go outside an organization and acquire.
Anthopoulos also made the controversial move of shipping first baseman of the future, Brett Wallace, to the Houston Astros for a relative unknown in center fielder, Anthony Gose. Several years will have to pass before seeing if the gamble pays off. But once again, Anthopoulos went out and got a talented up the middle player, a definite weakness in the Blue Jays player development system.
Vernon Wells is about to become an incredibly expensive player starting next season. It's unfathomable that Wells will be able to provide twenty million dollars plus worth of production over the next couple of years. In 2010, Wells turned in a solid performance hitting 31 homers, his first season of 30 or more since 2006. He stayed healthy playing in 158 games and hit .273 with a career high isolated power of .242. He isn't likely to produce All-Star caliber numbers anymore as he'll be 32 entering next season. His 2010 did show that not all hope is lost for the Jays highest paid player.
In addition to Morrow, Ricky Romero and Shaun Marcum were an impressive 1-2 combo at the front of the rotation. Romero's 3.73 ERA and equally impressive 3.64 FIP were fueled by his tremendous 55.2 percent groundball rate. Marcum walked just 1.98 batters per nine innings and sported a 3.74 FIP and a 3.64 ERA. Brett Cecil had a solid performance as well with a 4.03 FIP and above average control walking only 2.81 batters per nine.
Down in the minors several players showed promising development and moved closer to contributing to the big club in the future. Catcher J.P. Arencibia hit 32 homers for Triple-A Las Vegas while showing the best plate discipline of his career. Arencibia hit .301 with a .359 on-base percentage and a thunderous, even for the hitting happy Pacific Coast League, .325 ISO. If John Buck leaves in the off season, J.P. is ready.
The other prized prospect, pitcher Kyle Drabek, performed well enough with Double-A New Hampshire to earn a late season call up to Toronto. Drabek struckout 7.3 per nine innings and had a 3.87 FIP in 162 innings. It's possible Drabek will start 2011 in the Jays rotation.
Another player from New Hampshire to keep an eye on is right fielder, Eric Thames. In just his second pro season at age twenty-three, Thames hit 27 homers while batting .270 with an 8.4 percent walk rate and a .238 isolated power.
There's an awful lot to discuss this off season about the direction of the Blue Jays. 2010 has to be considered an organizational wide success. The team added talent, got younger, and pumped new life into it's player development system. The Tampa Bay Rays have shown twice now in three years that Boston and New York can be bested, The Jays are starting to look like they have a path of their own to the top.