The Blue Jays Aren't Going To Be Very Good This Season
One of the biggest misconceptions about the Blue Jays in recent years is that they've sucked. Not true at all. The Jays have won 256 games over the past seasons, for an average of just over 85 wins per season. You might be surprised to learn that this is the eighth-highest wins-per-season average in all of baseball in that span. So the Jays have certainly played some good ball as of late, and have had a decent core group of players on the roster. Things aren't dire. They're not the Nationals.
The problem, of course, is that the seven teams ahead of the Blue Jays on that list all have playoff appearances and, in the cases of the Phillies and Red Sox, World Series titles within that three-year span. As do the eight teams following the Jays on the list. You have to get all the day down to the Astros at #17 to find another non-playoff team, and even then, the Astros won the NL pennant in 2005.
What am I trying to say here? Basically, the Blue Jays are baseball's answer to going to the best restaurant in town and ordering a hamburger. Yeah, the burger might be perfectly enjoyable, it's good compared to other burgers....but it's far from the best option on the menu. I realize this analogy is pretty ironic coming from me given that I'm infamously notorious for ordering burgers anywhere I go, but hey, I'm a Jays fan. It fits.
Unfortunately for Jays fans and burger connoisseurs alike, the meat is about to go bad. It's very easy to make the case that the Blue Jays' success over the last three seasons was the peak that they could've gotten from this group of talent, and now they're entering 2009 with an unquestionably weaker team than last year. And, just to remind everyone, this means they're worse than the team that was only good enough to finish 11 games out of the division lead and nine games back of the wild card. And, just to pour a little more ice water on your erection, this finish was the Jays' second-best in relation to the division lead and wild card in the last seven years. They have never even been close to a pennant race since 1993. (And that 10-game winning streak last year doesn't count. I'm sorry, but when you go into a series at Fenway thinking 'Ok, if we sweep all four, then we'll only be three back!' that doesn't really count as meaningful September baseball to me.)
So what's the problem? A sextet of reasons...
* After suffering through an impossibly bad hitting year, the 2009 Jays lineup isn't much improved on paper. Many of the same question marks from last year are back (Will Wells stay healthy? Can Rolen stay healthy? Can Rios finally break out and become a bona-fide threat? Can Overbay avoid hitting into 532 double plays?) alongside a few new ones. Is Hill's brain okay after apparently exploding last year? Will Scutaro continue to trick people into thinking he's better than Eckstein? Why the hell is Bautista making $2.4 million dollars? Can Lind and Snider step in and become productive every-day players? This last one is arguably the key to the season. It's definitely time to see what Lind can do on a regular basis. As for Snider, I'm not sure that keeping him in the minors for another year would've been a bad idea. After taking so long to make Lind a regular, it seems like they're doing the opposite with Snider and getting him to the majors as soon as he's legally able to drink a beer in the clubhouse. Hey, if he breaks out, that'd be great --- the Jays are long overdue to have a young prospect turn into a phenom. I'm just saying that it seems like the team's philosophy of "Don't worry, Snider's here, our lineup is better" and dusting their hands off in triumph is more than a little premature. I predict the Jays will be roughly 7th or 8th in the AL in hitting, which if they had done it in 2008 would've probably meant a playoff berth, but unfortunately....
* ....the pitching staff that was arguably the league's best last year has lost three of its starters. We're down to Roy "The god who walks as a man" Halladay, and Jesse Litsch. Just to reiterate, Jesse Litsch is now the #2 starter on this staff. Now I like Jesse a lot and think he's a decent pitcher. As the number five man in the rotation last year, he did a fantastic job. But put it this way --- I'm in three fantasy baseball leagues, all of which range between 12 and 16 teams. There are some really deluded people managing some of these teams, and they really get some odd thoughts in their head ("Maybe THIS will be Jeremy Bonderman's breakout season!"). But on all of these teams, nobody took Jesse Litsch. And this is the guy who the Blue Jays are counting on to be the secondary ace of the staff. The rest of the rotation will be comprised of David Purcey, Ricky Romero and Scott Richmond, all of whom will end up ranging between mediocre to awful. You might call this an overly cynical assessment, but c'mon, the Jays are taking three guys who should be at best fifth starters and throwing them into a division against Boston, New York and Tampa Bay? The only way the rotation will be above sub-par is if Halladay completes his morph into Hall-of-Famer Charlie "Old Hoss" Radbourn and starts to pitch every other day.
* Now, speaking of Boston, New York and Tampa Bay, that's really the crux of the issue with the Blue Jays. These teams, who were already better than Toronto last year, made moves to improve themselves in the off-season. Boston and NY, of course, always do this, and it looks like the Rays have turned the corner and will become consistent threats as well. Meaning that now, the Jays are even more screwed. Before, the AL East was like the Scottish Premier League -- only two teams win everything and everyone else plays for a consolation prize. Now, the division is turning into the Portuguese Liga, where it'll be three teams sharing the championship bounty amongst themselves. The Jays, of course, are Hibernian or Sporting Braga in this scenario, doomed to consistently be runners-up. As I mentioned earlier, the Jays haven't been a bad team over the last three years, but in the AL East, 'not bad' doesn't get you anywhere. Short of division realignment, the Blue Jays have to realize that their current strategy and this current group of players just isn't good enough to compete with the big dogs. It's one thing to have a team that needs a few breaks to compete, but when you need to get breaks yourself and then require bad breaks for not one, but two opponents, then you're shooting for the moon. Even if, say, Tampa regresses after their dream season last year, then what, the Jays can throw a party for finishing third? Whoop-de-ding.
* The Rogers Centre's popcorn tastes terrible. Oddly enough, the popcorn they serve in the press box is fantastic, so I'm not sure why that brand couldn't be moved down to the main concession area. Uh, anyway, back to baseball.
* The Jays did nothing in the off-season. In a winter where a number of quality players signed lower-than-market-value contracts due to the economy, the Jays couldn't even afford to get in on the bargain-hunting due to a spending freeze initiated by upper management in the wake of Ted Rogers' death. I can't blame J.P. Ricciardi for a lack of moves this winter. Hell, the guy is general managing for his job; you don't think he wanted to make some moves in an effort to stay employed? However, with the search on for a new team president who will almost surely bring in his own GM, maybe J.P. was able to channel his frustration into writing a really super resume. (I guess we can cross off a job with the Nationals off the list given the presence of Adam Dunn.) Nothing deflates a fanbase like seeing a team with obvious problems do nothing to address them. This isn't even a rebuilding plan --- it's just the team running out the clock until the new president is hired. Now, theoretically, the idea is that the Jays are writing this season off and planning to raise payroll again in 2010 to go along with this allegedly strong batch of prospects coming up from the farm system. I'll believe it when I see it. Hopefully this time 'raising payroll' doesn't translate to 'giving Frank Thomas a pointless contract' and the strong prospects don't follow in the footsteps of Curtis Thigpen, Russ Adams and (I'd like to be wrong, but I have a bad feeling) Adam Lind.
* Now technically, the Jays did make SOME moves. Kevin Millar is going to provide right-handed support at DH and 1B. Michael Barrett is the new backup catcher. And...uh, well, that's it. The Jays stuck to their usual off-season bargain-shopping of signing veteran/washed-up players to relatively small contracts to see if they can contribute to the big club. On the face of it, there's nothing wrong with this strategy. It's just that these moves never, ever pan out for Toronto. Brad Wilkerson. Shannon Stewart. Tomo Ohka. John Thomson. David Eckstein. Kevin Mench. Royce Clayton. Those guys are all rough, no diamonds. And even in this off-season alone, Matt Clement, Mike Maroth and Bryan Bullington were all signed for peanuts and contributed less than peanuts. The only one that you could argue worked out was Matt Stairs, who kicked ass as a pinch-hitter and occasional starter in early 2007, but fell back to earth with a thud once they took him out of his comfort zone and made him play every day. If you're going to give a roster space and playing time to a guy, at least have it be a young guy with upside rather than signing some piece of crap and wasting 200 at-bats in letting him prove that he's still a failure. I don't have the numbers in front of me, but Brad Wilkerson was just about the worst player in baseball last season (except for one memorable at-bat). Not to beat a dead horse about this, but surely he and Mench could've been spared in order to give Adam Lind more playing time? Yes, I realized I called Lind a potential bust in the previous paragraph, but I'm serious, literally anyone would've been better than 'Mencherson' last season. The Jays would've been better off finding the dead body of Tris Speaker, taking him to the Temple on LOST to be re-animated by the Smoke Monster and then taking their chances with a 50-years-dead skeletal corpse.
So yeah, aside from the pitching and hitting, the Jays are a pretty good team. They're good defensively. The bullpen should still be okay, I guess, in spite of the fact that B.J. Ryan seems to be imploding before our very eyes and Scott Downs might be the closer. Hmm, maybe I should've written out a negative paragraph about the bullpen too. Whatever, I think the pen is going to be garbage every year and yet they usually surprise me by having at least a couple of guys come out of nowhere with huge years. I'll call it a push.
The bottom line is after three years of decent baseball, I'm predicting the Jays for a mild free-fall. They won't suddenly be god-awful, but I'd put them at 75 wins, 81 at the absolute max. They'll still finish ahead of Baltimore, for what it's worth. Woo hoo? I would happily eat my words if the Jays have a good season, but honestly, I fail to see how this team could be anything but mediocre.
And of course, this is the season where I get the Toronto Star season pass, so I could conceivably attend every home game if I wanted to (besides the ones where I'm working). Nothing says season tickets like a 75-win ballclub! Oh, who am I kidding, I'd get that deal even if the Jays were the '62 Mets. Baseball is awesome. Plus, this Toronto Star pass is pretty much the best deal in the world. 81 home games for $115 bucks. I'm almost afraid to talk it up here for year that someone with the Jays organization or the Star will come across this post and suddenly realize that they could be charging twice as much. Then again, if someone from the Jays organization is reading this entire missive, they might be more focused on the fact that I'm throwing the whole team under the bus. I guess I'll know if I get the cold shoulder in the press box. Or, even worse, if I'm punished by having the popcorn replaced by the concession stand variety. If that's at stake, then never mind! Late April Fool's! Blue Jays for the pennant! PLAYOFFS~~~!