Jesse Litsch: The Key for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2008?

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Jesse Litsch: The Key for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2008?
I never thought I would say this, but I actually feel sorry for the Toronto Blue Jays. I have been for years now.

There was a time when I hated the Blue Jays, and that was during their back-to-back championship years (1992-1993) when they had the resources to outspend everyone and pick up expensive free agents (Jack Morris, Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor, to name a few) and hired guns (David Cone, Rickey Henderson). And whatever trades they pulled off seemed to benefit them (Devon White, Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter).

But the Blue Jays, who have not made it back to post-season play since 1993, have been stuck playing in the same division as the Red Sox and Yankees.

As a fan who roots for underdogs, my hatred for Toronto fizzled away. After all, my Red Sox had already won it all in 2004 (before winning again last year), so there was no reason to dislike the Blue Jays.

Toronto seemed to have made progress in 2006 finishing in second place above the Red Sox. And the Jays also started 2007 well, and they were in contention and had a shot--albeit a long one--at the AL Wild Card in the final months because of their pitching.

Toronto eventually finished with a 83-79 record in 2007, winning four fewer games than a year earlier.

And it looks like their pitching will have to be a key once again if they are to contend in 2008. Unless realignment happens, the Blue Jays will probably not make the playoffs again, given that the Red Sox and Yankees have taken to try and one-up each other during the past few years.

Of course, games are played on the field and not on paper, and if Toronto gets decent pitching, they will have a shot at the Wild Card.

It would be a nice contrast for sure, though, say if the Yankees miss the post-season. I, for one, am tired of seeing the pinstripers play October baseball annually.

Back to Toronto's pitching, long-time Jays radio broadcaster Jerry Howarth said on the Fan 590 this week that he believes Jesse Litsch (7-9 record, 3.81 ERA) is the best fifth starter in major league baseball.

That's a huge compliment, a bold statement actually, considering Litsch was a rookie in 2007, and didn't make his debut until May 15th. Litsch had his moments, and one highlight came against Josh Beckett and the Red Sox, a 2-1 win in July.

Litsch will no doubt be a huge upgrade over the train wreck that was Josh Towers (5-10, 5.38). I mean, anyone can do better than Towers, right? However, Litsch will probably not duplicate the numbers of A.J. Burnett, who despite being unable to stay healthy, still managed a 10-8 mark and 3.75 ERA.

Baltimore lefty Erik Bedard, who at one point was mentioned as a possibility with the Blue Jays, probably won't be traded to Toronto. Though the Jays probably wouldn't need him anyway, if the optimism for Litsch's contributions is legit.

So, if Litsch is going to deliver as the fifth starter, as Howarth predicted, what about the rest of the staff?

The top three in the rotation seem to be as solid a 1-2-3 punch as any in baseball, if they all stay healthy and pitch the way they did last season.

Here's a look at what those top three did for Toronto last season:

Blue Jays ace Roy "Doc" Halladay had an off-year by his own standards, going 16-7 with a rather high 3.71 ERA (for a staff ace) in 2007. "Doc", who started the season well, ran into problems in the middle of the year. He had a span of three outings in a four-start stretch where he gave up seven runs or more each time out, and also went on the DL on May 11th. However, Halladay rebounded in the second half, going 6-3 with a 2.75 in his final 14 starts and averaging 7.95 innings per outing over that span with 5 complete games.

While Halladay is no longer a strikeout pitcher and may never regain his 2003 Cy Young form, he is still capable of winning 15 to 18 games in 2008, provided that he stays healthy and gets enough run support. Halladay has shown that he could still go deep in ballgames, pitching a total of 7 complete games and averaging over 7 innings per start.

Dustin McGowan (12-10, 4.08) showed flashes of brilliance, tossing a near-no-hitter against Colorado at the Rogers Centre on June 24th. McGowan also had 15 quality starts (6+ IP, 3 R or fewer), and had 6 outings in which he allowed one or fewer runs. For the season, he allowed fewer hits than innings pitched (7.74 H/9 IP) and struck out 144 in 169.2 innings. And McGown showed that he could at least pitch against the beasts of the AL East, going a combined 3-3 against the Yankees and Red Sox. McGowan posted a respectable 7-5 record and a 3.29 ERA over his final 14 starts of the year.

Shaun Marcum (12-6, 4.13 overall) was another Blue Jay that impressed in 2007, although it didn't start out that way. Marcum began the year in the bullpen, pitching to a 6.06 ERA in 13 appearances. On Mother's Day (May 13th), Marcum was put into the rotation, and he delievered with 6 no-hit, no-run innings with seven strikeouts against the Devil Rays, but the Blue Jays lost 2-1. Ironically, Marcum would have five starts during the year without allowing any runs in 6+ innings pitched, but would have only a 2-0 record with three no-decisions in those appearances. Marcum, who remained in the rotation the rest of the way (and made 25 starts), was 9-2 with a 2.91 ERA as a starter after a 2-1 win over the Angels on August 15th. He faded a bit down the stretch, posting a 7.47 ERA in his final 7 starts, but still won 11 games (with a 3.91 ERA) as a starter.

Halladay is a "given", a starter who would give the Jays a shot every five days, and if McGowan and Marcum can duplicate their 2007 successes, that would give Toronto three dependable arms in the rotation.

So, as long as Halladay, McGowan, Marcum, and Litsch do their jobs, the Blue Jays will have a shot. If stopper B.J. Ryan can make a comeback from Tommy John surgery, and Jeremy Accardo (2.14 ERA), Scott Downs (2.17) and Casey Janssen (2.35) can come through again out of the pen, that would take a lot of pressure off the starters.

And if newcomer Scott Rolen (acquired in the Troy Glaus trade two weeks ago) can chip in offensively along with David Eckstein, Alex Rios, and Aaron Hill, all the better for the Jays. Toronto will also need old-timers Matt Stairs and Frank Thomas to deliver long balls and solid batting averages again as they did in 2007.

Lyle Overbay (10 HR, .240), who was re-signed to a four-year deal two weeks ago, and Vernon Wells (16 HR, .245), who had signed a contract extension prior to the 2007 season, were two busts last season. Both will have to have big comeback years.

But the pitching has to come together, and assuming Howarth is right, Litsch will have to be one of the keys.

If so, the Jays might contend for the Wild Card.

If not, GM J.P. Ricciardi's tenure in Toronto will be looked upon as a bust.

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