Yes folks, it's the end of February. Last week, the 4 words dearest to a baseball junkie's heart were printed in newspapers across the continent - "pitchers and catchers report". Next week, spring training games begin. A month after that - a new season, ripe with the smell of hope, hotdogs, and (come June), suntan lotion in non-domed stadia.
So how will my beloved Blue Jays fare in the regular season? Sure, now is the Season of Hope for non-Royal/Devil Ray fans, but even though fans of a team like the Tigers are optimistic now, the 162-game marathon allows for reality to make it's presence felt. (Note: I prefer my presents velour, but I digress).
The Blue Jays certainly made their presence felt by signing pitchers A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan to 5 year contracts that are worth over $100M combined. They also added first baseman Lyle Overbay and 3rd baseman Troy Glaus in trade, and signed catcher Bengie Molina when no one else needed him. Of course, to add players to a roster, other players must be let go, and Toronto had to part with outfielder Gabe Gross and pitchers David Bush and Zach Jackson in the Overbay trade, and Gold Glove-winning second baseman Orlando Hudson and pitcher Miguel Batista in order to obtain Glaus. As well, the Jays will be paying $7.5M of the $12M remaining on Manitoban-born 3rd baseman Corey Koskie's contract, even though he will be wearing Milwaukee duds. Now, I'm not going to go into an analysis of the trades - that has been done to death by writers from coast to coast, and besides, I want to focus on the 2006 Jays, not whether or not they got hosed by Milwaukee and/or Arizona.
So, let's start with the pitching. The Jays have a $55M questiuon mark in 29 year old A.J. Burnett, a pitcher with a career record of 49-50, a history or arm troubles, and good but not great ERA of 3.73 in seven seasons with the Florida Marlins. Now, the win-loss record doesn't concern me too much, as that is more indicative of the team as a whole, rather than an individual's ability. The injury history does concern me, as it looks like (judging by his career stats
) that he missed some time in 2001, as well as undergoing "Tommy John surgery"
in 2003, affecting his 2004 totals. That being said, he seemed to have an injury-free 2005 campaign, and the Blue Jays claim to have had at least one, and sometimes two, scouts at every one of his games last year. In this case, the injury history is troubling insofar as the length of his contract. A caveat - the Blue Jays knew they would have to overpay to get free agents to come play for them - a perennial 3rd-place team (behind the omnipresent big spending franchises in New York and Boston) is generally not on a player's wish list. To wit - the Cardinals offerd Burnett 4 years and $40M. If Toronto went with 4 and $44M, Burnett likely would have opted for his favourite team from childhood. Toronto had to give him the 5th year in order to get him to sign on the dotted line.
As for his expected performance, well, there are many pitchers whose careers have somewhat paralleled his. At the one end is Randy Johnson
. What do they have in common? The rare ability to throw a baseball 100 mph, but not necessarily for strikes. However, at age 29, the light went on for Randy - it was his first full season in which he issued fewer than 100 walks, and he got even better in subsequent seasons as he was able to maintain his high strikeout rate. Now, baseball fans will tell you that Randy will be elected to the Hall of Fame his first year of eligibility. No one is saying that about Burnett, nor should they. However, RJ does show that 29 isn't too old for a pitcher to learn how to significantly improve his game. Perhaps Burnett can do the same thing. Or perhaps Burnett will follow the career path of Kris Benson
, a pitcher who has never lived up to the accolades he was accorded before he even threw a pitch in the majors. Personally, I think AJ will pitch closer to Randy Johnson than Kris Benson, if healthy, although 2 other factors come into play - he's moving from a league in which he faced a pitcher every 9 batters, rather than a designated hitter, and he's moving from an extreme pitcher's park to a moderate hitter's park. However, if he keeps getting strikeouts and groundouts, and finds a way to keep lowering the number of walks he issues, he'll do well as the number 2 pitcher in the rotation, after Roy Halladay. I won't speak much of Roy, except to say that I expect him to be one of the 3 best pitchers in the American League this year.
My bigger concern is the 3-4-5 spots in the rotation. Gustavo Chacin had nice nimbers for a rookie last year, but his ratio of strikeouts to baserunners allowed suggests that he may have been lucky last year. Ted Lilly (Ted the Tease) can throw 8 shutout innings one start, then give up 5 runs in 3 innings the next. And Josh Towers had a great ERA last year, but previous to that he didn't show much. However, his walk rate was extremely low, and while he didn't give up an exorbitant number of home runs (24 in 208 innings), if he could reduce that, he would make a worthy number-3 pitcher.
The bullpen - the Jays traded closer Miguel Batista to Arizona in order to land slugging 3rd baseman Troy Glaus, but that didn't matter as they had already signed left-handed closer B.J. Ryan to a 5 year, $47M contract despite his only being a closer for one year. This signing, to me, comes with a lot less risk than Burnett's. Ryan has averaged over a strikeout per inning every season of his career save two, and in each of those he was 2 strikeouts shy of reaching that ratio. Plus, lefthanders are valuable commodities, as batters have a difficult time 'reading' the pitches, and the fact that he throws upwards of 95 mph makes him that much more difficult to hit. I think Ryan can shut the door on opposing teams for 5 years worth of 9th innings (he is 30). The rest of the bullpen that put up an above-average showing last season returns, with the added benefit of the young guys having a year more experience under their collective belts.
First base moves from being the domain of Shea Hillenbrand and Eric Hinske to Lyle Overbay territory. Defensively, I assume it's a wash - the two H's were decent, not spectacular last year, and Overbay doesn't come with a reputation for having a cement glove. In fact, last year's first base crew might have benefited a tad from having Orlando Hudson playing next to them - the O-Dog was phenomenal at ranging far to each side to make plays. There are those who state with conviction that he is better defensively than Roberto Alomar was in his time in Toronto. Overbay won't have the benefit of Hudson next to him, then again, he didn't have that luxury last season. Overbay at the plate is the kind of guy who might hit 20 home runs - somewhat low for a first baseman - but he does make up for it by hitting an awful lot of doubles. Overall, I'd say he's a 'B' player - not an upper-echelon talent like Albert Pujols, but certainly not a weakness. A solid complementary player, if you will.
Second base will see a big change - from the awesome fielding/occasional hitting sparkplug/fan favourite Orlando Hudson to the 2nd-year Aaron Hill - a player who never played second until Hudson was hurt at the start of September last year. In 22 games, Hill acquitted himself with the glove, once making a long run to the stands to track down a foul ball. However, 22 games is a small sample size, and coupled with the fact that his hitting was unspectacular after a torrid 4-week start to his career (replacing the injured Corey Koskie at 3rd base), it would definitely be a stretch to say that the Jays are better off at this position than they were in 2005.
Shortstop once again is in the hands of Russ Adams, who played 139 games there in his debut season last year. Adams wasn't as proficient defensively with the glove as Hill, and was competent at best at the plate, leading some to suggest the team might be better off by playing Adams at 2nd and Hill at short. Regardless, the Jays are keeping the players where they are, and while they might be ok both offensively and defensively, there is nothing to suggest that the middle infield will be a strength.
At third base, the Jays convinced Troy Glaus to drop his no-trade clause and come north of the border. He should provide the home run power that was sorely lacking last season. Skeptics will point to his sub-.250 batting average and shaky defensive rep, however, it should be pointed out that his on base percentage is reflective of the high number of walks he takes. As for defense, last season he was recovering from the effects of shoulder surgery. He should be back to pre-operation form, which was reasonably efficient. For those who believe in the power of intangibles, Glaus was the 2002 World Series MVP.
The outfield is a mix and match zone, with the only fixture being Vernon Wells in center. Vernon is a smooth defender, who hit very well when he had power hitting Carlos Delgado batting behind him in the lineup. Perhaps Glaus' presence can help Vernon reach the .300 avg./30 HR plateau he enjoyed in 2003. As for the corners, it looks like a combination of Frank Catalanotto's bat and Reed Johnson's glove in left field, while Eric Hinske tries to regain his 2002 Rookie of the Year batting stroke alongside Alex Rios, who will be taking another step in his long-awaited conversion from potential into production. Not nearly as much power as you'd like from your corner outfielders, especially since Hinske and Rios seem to be the only ones capable of hitting 20 home runs in a season (hey, at least Hinske's done it before). Catallanotto's hitting reminds me of former Jay 3B Rance Mulliniks - a guy that would hit .300, with maybe 10 home runs but a lot of solid singles and the occasional double. Reed Johnson is a hustle guy that is probably best used facing lefties, and as an occasional spot starter. A great 4th OF for a playoff team.
Last year's catcher, Gregg Zaun, had a sizzling April. He tailed off afterwards, although he kept his walk rate up. However, he is more noted for his ability to work with pitchers and to keep his teammates fired up. Those attributes will come in handy this year, as the acquisition of former Angel Bengie Molina sends Zaun to a bench role. Molina is a better hitter than Zaun, and is 3 younger (34 to 31). However, while Zaun is at an age when catchers tend to break down, it should be pointed out that he really has only been a full-time catcher for 2 seasons - a tendency to party while in his twenties hurt his chances of playing more often. Now, though, he's clean and sober, and as such is fresher than one might expect for a catcher his age. Unfortunately, he was forced into catching too many games last year, as the team did not have a backup capable of hitting even .200. This year, Zaun is the backup. Molina had a career season last year (.295, 15 home runs). He also comes with a good reputation for working with pitchers. This should be a position of relative strength for the Jays.
Designated hitter falls into the hands of She Hillenbrand. Last year's 1B/3B/DH was also the team's most productive hitter. This year, he will be the full-time DH, although I am sure he will occasionally start at 3rd to give Glaus a day off. On those days, it's likely that whichever of Hinske/Rios/Catallanotto isn't starting will be the DH. Again, not the power you'd like from a traditional power 'position', but as long as they get on base, that's the important thing.
While the Jays have made significant improvements to last years roster, the fact remains that they share a division with not one but two 800-pound gorillas. In most any other division, I could see the Jays winning 90-95 games and challenging for a wild-card sport, if not the division title. However, should the Yankees and Red Sox remain healthy, as well as be active buyers at the trade deadline (since they can afford to be), it would be a bit of an upset for the Jays to unseat either of the top two. It would be a greater upset for the Jays to finish 4th or (gasp) 5th.
My prediction - final record of 88-74, an 8 win improvement over last year, and 3rd place in the AL East.