2010 Blue Jays preview: Few wins, but future bright(er)
Toronto Blue Jays' Randy Ruiz, center, celebrates with teammates John Buck (14), Aaron Hill, right, and Adam Lind after he hit a grand slam against Detroit Tigers' Jeremy Bonderman during the first inning of a spring training baseball game, Sunday, March 7, 2010, in Dunedin, Fla. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Josh Visser, ctvtoronto.ca
Published Saturday, April 3, 2010 7:17AM EDT
The consensus around baseball is the Blue Jays are going to finish last in their division this year, and the consensus is right. But fear not, this is a good thing for fans. Seriously.
The 2000s were a futile decade for the Blue Jays and new general manager Alex Anthopoulos seems to recognize that the team's lack of success was in part due to the organization's refusal to go through the short-term pain of rebuilding for long-term gain.
Starting with the devastating but necessary trade of superstar pitcher Roy Halladay, the young GM has made a number of moves over the winter that should see the team seriously competing by 2012.
That said, this is a 2010 season preview, and I'm not going to lie to you: It's going to be ugly. On the bright side, when this team starts performing in a few years, you'll feel glad you stuck around this year, as you can scoff at the bandwagon supporters.
At the very least, the franchise is finally being honest with its fans. No one is talking playoffs, no one is saying anything other than this team is in rebuilding mode, from its front-office down to the field.
The biggest question this year will not be the team's performance, but whether anyone shows up in the stands to see it. While the Jays are hardly in Montreal Expos territory yet, the number crunchers at Rogers are bound to take notice (not to mention the players on the field) if fans show up by the dozens like they did last September.
Okay, that was my requisite plea to support our local ballclub, and make my Saturday afternoons this summer a bit more pleasant. Onwards, to the 2010 Blue Jays!
With the exception of the all-star second baseman Aaron Hill and slugging designated hitter Adam Lind, there are no sure things at the plate.
Centrefielder Vernon Wells, with the massive, untradeable contract and weak stats as of late, desperately needs to have a solid comeback year or face another season of boos raining down from the Rogers Centre bleachers.
The Jays hope this is the year outfielder Travis Snider lives up to the hype. Only 22, Snider has 30-plus homer power in his bat, but has faced problems hitting big-league pitching consistently, especially left-handers.
The rest of the projected starting lineup, third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, outfielder/utilityman Jose Bautista, catcher John Buck, first baseman Lyle Overbay and shortstop Alex Gonzalez are all below-average or average hitters for their positions.
Not to mention the entire team runs as fast as a three-legged horse skates.
One interesting "Rocky"-type story could be first baseman/designated hitter Randy Ruiz. At 32, Ruiz has been now in his tenth organization, but has the opportunity to spend his first full season in the big leagues.
In 2009, he was voted the Most Valuable Player in Pacific Coast League playing for the Jays' AAA team. When called up for 33 games last season with the big club, he managed an impressive 10 homers and hit .313.
If Ruiz manages to drag significant playing time this year out of manager Cito Gaston and continue at that clip, you can expect the big man (he's listed as 6'3, 250) to become a fan favourite in the mold of Reed Johnson (if he had the body of Cecil Fielder.)
Toronto fans, while fickle, do love a scrapper.
Defensively, the Jays could have the weakest outfield in the American league and third base will be an adventure when it's manned by Encarnacion and not Bautista.
Normally, having a weak defence is not the worst thing in the world, but the Jays' young starting pitching is going to need all the help they can get.
The two Jays competing for the role of "pitching ace in name only" in the departure of Halladay are Ricky Romero, 25, and Shaun Marcum, 28. While they should form a strong nucleus for the starting pitching moving forward, one scary number must be pointed out -- 37. As in 37 career wins between the pair. Yikes.
Coming out of spring training the remaining rotation looks even more questionable. Flamethrower Brandon Morrow, 26, one of the Jays' key off-season pickups, has tremendous stuff but has battled injuries and has only a few starts to his name.
The four and five spots will consist of left-handed vet Brian Tallet and newcomer Dana Eveland. Youngsters Marc Rzepczynski (nicknamed "Scrabble" for obvious reasons) and Brett Cecil will probably get their shot later in the season.
Rzepczynski, who hadn't had the best spring, fractured a finger this week and will be unavailable for at least a month. Along with the talented, but perennially injured Dustin McGowan, that gives the Jays at least two potential top five guys who will start the season on the DL.
Eveland, picked up from the Oakland Athletics in the off-season, surprised with a tremendous spring training, forcing his way into the pitching rotation.
The bullpen is, as it has been in recent years, a source of relative strength for the Jays. While closer Jason Fraser and set-up guys Scott Downs and Kevin Gregg aren't going to scare anyone, they are all serviceable.
And let's face it; the closing staff will not be called on to work that much this year anyway. One of those three will more than likely be used as trade bait later this season.
The rest of those who will see some time in the bullpen this year, such as righthanders Casey Janssen, Jeremy Accardo, Merkin Valdez , Josh Roenicke, and Shawn Camp and lefthander Jesse Carlson, are above-average bullpen guys who will see a lot of innings this year.
That's the big club this year. My prediction: 70-92, fifth in the American League East.
But there's help on the way.
On the horizon
Unlike the J.P. Ricciardi era where the Blue Jays' farm system was chronically under-talented, the 2010 team has a burgeoning number of kids looking to impact the big club.
The Halladay trade to Philadelphia essentially restocked the entire farm system, with pitcher Kyle Drabek (son of Cy Young winner Doug Drabek) looking like the Jays' future ace and infielder Brett Wallace poised to become the team's everyday first baseman.
Both could be called up later this season, although the team may be more cautious with Drabek. However, there is a good chance his strong play in the minors could force the club's hand.
Also coming over in the Halladay trade was catcher Travis d'Arnaud, who may prove to be the sleeper hit in the trade. Several years away still, d'Arnaud, along with power hitting prospect J. P. Arencibia, may give the Jays stability behind the plate they haven't seen since Pat Borders (although, preferably with more offence).
Another problem position for the Jays, shortstop, could also be filled by another young player in the system.
Anthopoulos proved his mettle the beating the New York Yankees in unofficially singing young Cuban shortstop Adeinis Hechavarria to a $10-million four-year contract. While the deal has yet to be officially announced, it is considered done.
While unproven, Hechavarria has been compared to a young Alfonso Soriano physically, and certainly jumps to the top of the Jays depth chart at the position above Justin Jackson. The Jays also have a wealth of pitching talent including Zach Stewart (who came via the trade of Scott Rolen to the Reds), Chad Jenkins, Henderson Alvarez and 5'7 hurler Tim Collins, who could have an impact on the club over the next few seasons.
If there is any concern in the organization, it would be for lack of outfield prospects or someone to fill the hot corner at third, areas that may need to be addressed through a trade or a signing.
But without question, the organization appears to be going in the right direction. But whether the "right direction" is good enough to compete in the American League East remains another question entirely.