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February 22, 2002

The Blue Jays' Lineup

Will the Changes Make a Difference?

by John Brattain

Sunday, February 25, 2001. That was the day the Toronto Blue Jays were eliminated from the 2001 American League race.

In my mind, anyway.

That day I was online reading the Toronto Sun and came across this tidbit courtesy of new Blue Jays' skipper Buck Martinez: "We don't give a damn, we're a team of free-swingers. I'd like to see us swing at better pitches, but I'm sure not going to tell anyone on this team to go up there looking for a walk. I'm not encouraging anyone to walk." After all, when a player with a career OBP of .284 says that, and the hitting coach sported a career .298 OBP...well, you can call that a recipe for disaster. When I heard Martinez say that I wanted to kick down the Jays' clubhouse door, knock Martinez flat on his back, sit on his chest, and stuff pages from the Baseball Prospectus down his throat until he saw the light.

I had visions--nightmares, actually--of clubhouse meetings with Martinez and Gaston shouting at their troops: "Walks are for wusses, boys! I expect each and every one of you to go up there and take your hacks like a man." When the Blue Jays finished below .500 with a team OBP of .325, good for tenth in the AL (and 11th in walks, just 15 freebies out of 13th place) ahead of such as offensive jugger-nots as the Detroit Tigers, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Baltimore Orioles, and Kansas City Royals--well, suffice it to say, I was far from surprised.

A year later, only Martinez remains. Gaston and his spiritual soul-mate from the Land of Out, Gord Ash, have been let go. Enter J.P. Ricciardi, a man who understands that OBP is not an acronym for On Bench Pouting or Outs Buck Prefers.

Ricciardi has his work cut out for him, as the Jays had a great many black holes in the lineup last year, such as Darrin Fletcher (.274 OBP), Alex Gonzalez (.303 OBP), and Homer Bush (.336 OBP) whose limited playing time in 2001 minimized the damage he inflicted.

For those who might defend Gonzalez's offense, given his career highs in home runs (17) and RBI (76), remember that those figures came at a cost of a whopping 519 outs. By comparison, Alex Rodriguez used 460 outs in accumulating 52 home runs and 131 RBI. Gonzalez spent outs like a drunken Rey Ordonez; in fact, Gonzalez in 2001 used 16 more outs than anyone else in MLB.

So Ricciardi is planning on a youth movement, making over the Jays' roster in the image of the Oakland A's. Felipe Lopez replaces Gonzalez at shortstop, Fletcher will lose at-bats to Josh Phelps behind the plate, Vernon Wells's bat is in, Brad Fullmer's is out, and the revolving door at third base will be halted in favor of Eric Hinske. It appears Bush, Carlos Delgado, Raul Mondesi, Shannon Stewart, and Jose Cruz Jr. will return.

What can we expect from the 2002 lineup?

  • Jose Cruz Jr.: Maybe it was the hype, maybe it was wishful thinking, but I thought Jose Cruz Jr. would be the next uber-superstar. Having said that, if you squint your eyes and look closely, you can see a youngish player gradually getting better. Although he sometimes looks helpless at the plate, there is noticeable improvement even in the midst of regression.

    Cruz showed some pretty fair plate discipline in 1998, walking 57 times in 352 at-bats (a walk every 6.2 AB) and posting a decent .354 OBP. In 1999, despite batting just .241 and whiffing 91 times, he did draw 64 walks--once every 5.5 AB--bumping his OBP to a respectable .358. Since then, Cruz has been going to the plate hacking. He's walloped 65 home runs over the last two seasons, but his AB/BB ratio has risen in each of the last two years (8.5 in 2000, and 12.8 in 2001) while his OBP has been below .330 in both seasons. Why did he regress? Well his home-run totals climbed and his OBP declined when Gary Matthews (career .364 OBP) was canned as hitting coach and Cito Gaston (career .298 OBP) was hired. A switch in hitting philosophy might've taken place, seeing as Gaston was never big on getting on base.

    Cruz's power numbers have increased in each of the last three years, a progression that is at least partly due to age. His slugging percentage has gone from .433, to .466, to .530 since 1999. His doubles totals are about the same as his home-run total which tells us he's not an all-or-nothing hitter. I have no idea what new hitting coach Mike Barnett's philosophy is, but it's safe to assume he'll be a walk-oriented guy.

    Prognosis: Expect Cruz Jr. to sacrifice some power for walks. He's a strong guy, so I wouldn't expect his power totals to go down much so I think we'll see a .265/.355/.510 type season with 35-40 doubles, 25-30 dingers, and at least 70 walks. If he shows some patience and plate discipline in spring training and the beginning of the season, he might be a good bet to bat cleanup. He has good power from both sides of the plate (.480 career SLG left-handed, .471 right-handed) and batting Cruz behind Delgado will give opposing managers one more thing to think about late in games.

  • Shannon Stewart: Stewart's percentages have been pretty static the last three seasons except in one department: slugging. Stewart's BAs have been .304, .319, and .316, and his OBPs .371, .363, .371, while his slugging percentages have roamed all over: .411, .518, .463. Its unlikely that Stewart will not return to the 21-dinger level of 2000.

    Oddly, Stewart is getting less selective at the plate as he gets older. He resents being used in the #3 slot, but if he continues to sacrifice walks for power, then chances are he won't be hitting leadoff (his preference). In 1998 and 1999, Stewart averaged a base on balls once every 7.7 and 10.3 AB. In 2000 and 2001, those figures jumped to 15.8 and 13.9 respectively. He may have been another victim of the Cito Gaston philosophy.

    The extra power he's shown has compensated for the drop in walks (2, 20, and 21 Runs Created Above Position the last three years) so if he wants to focus on power over patience, he might be better off in the middle of the order, considering Raul Mondesi hasn't been nearly as productive offensively (-7, 3, -1 RCAP) over the same span.

    One of the more amazing things about the Jays the last three years is this: in 1,831 at-bats, Stewart has walked 142 times. In that time, Jose Cruz Jr. has taken 180 walks over 1,529 at-bats. That's not an endorsement of using Cruz in the #1 spot, but it does show what the Jays are facing in their search for a leadoff hitter. Prognosis: Stewart looks like a good candidate to repeat his 2001 numbers.

  • Homer Bush: I have a friend who calls this guy "Misnomer Bush" which is a pretty fair description of his talents. Yes, he's fast, and yes, he's a decent defender, and yes, he'll probably hit about at least .275. In other words, he's the new millennium's version of Damaso Garcia.

    Bush is 29, and in a year's time, he has a good shot at being 30. There's nothing on his minor- or major-league resume that gives any hope that he'll grow to understand that ball four is a good thing. Over the last three seasons, he's been given 1,053 at-bats and only heard the umpire say "ball four" 47 times. He does have value provided he hits for a high average. He's hit .287 over that stretch, but with an anemic .317 OBP. I'll never understand why he's had so many opportunities to bat atop the lineup; perhaps it was done as part of the commissioner's directive to shorten baseball games.

    Prognosis: .280/.315/.365, with 15 stolen bases and a lot of time on the disabled list, which will hopefully create a shot for Orlando Hudson.

  • Carlos Delgado: Let's play "Sesame Street" and see which of these doesn't belong. OPS: .948, 1.134, .948; Runs Created: 127, 186, 141. Those are Delgado's numbers from 1999-2001. As you've no doubt noticed, Delgado's 2000 campaign was his career year. There's no doubt that Delgado is a marvelous hitter, but .280/.395/.550, and not 2000's .344/.470/.664, will be a typical Delgado year for the next few seasons.

    Of greater concern to Ricciardi and Co. is finding out where Delgado goes in September. Here are Delgado's OPSs by month for his career: April (999), May (883), June (928), July (962), August (1055), September to end of season (855). He's at his best in August and at his worst in September/October.

    Delgado's the best hitter the Jays have and should bat third. Prognosis: .280/.395/.550, 40 home runs, and a below-average September.

  • Raul Mondesi: As has already been mentioned, Mondesi's production is inadequate for a corner outfielder (.252/.342/.453). Last year, he was below average for an American League hitter (-2 Runs Created Above Average) and outfielder (-7 RCAP). Of greater concern is his power dropoff. Many predicted that he'd enjoy a jump in power at SkyDome after laboring for several seasons in Dodger Stadium. Initially, he did: after slugging .483 for the Dodgers in 1999, he upped that total to .523 in Toronto before suffering a nasty elbow injury that all but ended his 2000 season. Mondesi slugged a mere .453 last year. Has his wounded wing affected his power? He'll be 31 in a month, so we have to wonder how well he'll bounce back from his poor 2001 campaign.

    The talk in Toronto is that of the four outfielders, Vernon Wells will receive the bulk of the at-bats at DH. Last year Jays' DH, Brad Fullmer, had 80 Runs Created, making him a below-average DH; Mondesi's 97 RC would've made him a slightly above-average DH (which is preferable to being a below-average right fielder). Considering that of the four outfield candidates (1) Mondesi is the oldest and (2) Mondesi is the one the Jays would most like to unload, he might be the best one to DH. The downside, of course is that Mondesi could fall into a purple snit, and $10 million is a lot of jack to spend on a slightly above-average DH in a purple snit.

    The upside to Mondesi is that he is becoming more patient at the plate. He set a career high in walks last year while drawing a base on balls every 7.8 AB. If his power bounces back, he could fit in nicely behind Delgado. If his power doesn't return, but he continues to improve his walk rate (and OBP--despite his career best in walks, Mondesi sported just a .342 OBP in 2001) he might be best utilized behind Shannon Stewart in the number-two hole. Prognosis: .265/.350/.460; 25 to 30 dingers.

Now comes the hard part: trying to figure the newer guys.

  • Vernon Wells: Despite a meteoric rise through the Blue Jays' chain in 1999, Wells has had only one stop in which he's managed a walk rate of one every 10 at-bats (8.8 in Knoxville in 1999). In 1999, Wells enjoyed 588 AB and walked 52 times (once in every 11.3 AB). In 2000, he drew a walk every 10.3 at-bats in Triple-A; last year, also with Triple-A Syracuse, that total jumped to once every 14.2 AB, and worsened to once every 19.2 AB when Wells was called up to Toronto. In all, he walked every 15 AB in 2001.

    My point? Unless Wells hits .300 in Toronto, his OBP likely won't top .350. In fact, he's never had a sub-.300 BA and a 350 OBP at any time, in any place. If Buck Martinez is smart, he'll bat Wells eighth or ninth and hope he either develops patience or power (Wells didn't hit 20 home runs in either 2000 or 2001). Perhaps that's the reason the Jays' brass wants him to DH--to concentrate on hitting. Prognosis: .280/.320/.430 and lots of growing pains.

  • Felipe Lopez: The Blue Jays should hold their breath with this guy. They say Lopez has a lot of potential, but he doesn't have a lot of patience. In 1999 in Hagerstown (South Atlantic League), Lopez had a fair OBP (.351), but he also whiffed at an alarming rate (157 times in 537 at-bats). To prove that his strikeout rate wasn't a fluke, he fanned 110 times in 463 at-bats in 2000. He wasn't sacrificing patience for power either, as he slugged .371 with nine home runs. The Blue Jays were delighted that he launched 23 HR last year, but they came at a terrible price: a .324 OBP and a whiff every four at-bats.

    Lopez is young (he'll be 22 this year), but he's shown no knack for getting on base since Hagerstown. With Lopez/Wells/Bush batting 7-8-9, opposing pitchers just might call the outfielders in to entertain the crowds. Prognosis: As far as 2002 goes, Jays fans will be longing for the good ol' days when A-Gon(e) roamed between second and third.

  • Josh Phelps: First, the bad news. Phelps has never played above Double-A. The good news? His positive progression with patience bodes well for his development. In 1999 and 2001, Phelps slugged .562. At Dunedin in 1999, he hit 20 home runs in 406 at-bats but walked just 28 times (.379 OBP) while fanning 104 times. Two years later in Knoxville, Phelps went yard 31 times in 486 at-bats and drew 80 freebies (.406 OBP) while whiffing 127 times. You never like to see a lot of "K's" on a young hitter's resume, but seeing a lot of walks tells you that he's learning the strike zone.

    Interestingly, despite playing in Double-A in 2001, Phelps's major-league EqA was .242. Incumbent Jays catcher Darrin Fletcher hit .226 last year.

    Does Phelps break camp with the big club? Well, he couldn't be any worse than Fletcher was last year, and at the least he provides a platoon partner for the left-handed-hitting Fletcher. Prognosis: .255/.350/.445 and he's the number one catcher come August.

  • Eric Hinske: Perhaps I'm a homer, but I loved the trade that landed Hinske in Toronto. There have been some knocks on his defense, to which I reply: "Toronto won the 1993 World Series with Ed Sprague at third base." The Jays have had good glove men at the hot corner (Kelly Gruber); they've had good contact hitters (Rance Mulliniks); there have been some good power guys (Sprague, Gruber, Tony Batista). However, the Jays have never had a guy who combined patience and pop over there.

    I'm going to toss out Hinske's 15 at-bats in Triple-A Iowa in 1999 when we focus on the last three years: 1999 (A): .297/.385/.515; 2000 (Double-A): .259/.373/.486; 2001 (Triple-A): .282/.373/.521. That he maintained his OBP moving through three levels is a good sign. He strikes out a lot but actually struck out less in Triple-A (133 in 2000) than in Double-A (113 in 2001) in the same number of at-bats. So he has got a pretty good idea of the strike zone. His BA (.259 to .282), SLG (.486 to .521), HR (20 to 25), and doubles (21 to 27) all rose in his transition to Triple-A, although some of that has to be tempered with the fact that the Pacific Coast League is loaded with hitters' parks. He'll probably be an improvement over the comedy troupe that was third base for the Jays in 2001.

So, what can we expect position by position over last year?

C (plus)
1B (even)
2B (minus)
3B (plus)
SS (minus)
LF (even)
CF (plus)
RF (even)
DH (minus)

That gives the Jays three plusses, three minuses, and three evens. So although there'll be a lot of changes to the lineup, chances are the offense will be about the same. Still, this is the beginning of a major roster overhaul so breaking even offensively is a fair achievement all things considered.

John Brattain has covered baseball for About.com, MLBtalk, Yankees.com, TOTK.com Sports, and Bootleg Sports.

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