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February 15, 2006
The 2006 Blue Jays
If you've been reading this space, you've seen some harsh words for the Blue Jays' decision-making in the past 14 months. Starting with the Corey Koskie signing the previous winter, and extending through the Ben Molina pickup last week, the Jays have taken on a staggering amount of high-risk money, gotten much older, blocked or dealt some of the best products of their player-development program and generally run screaming from any rational approach to a building a long-term winner.
But can it work?
Forget the commitments and the questionable trades and the possibility that the Jays are simply going to burn $30 million or so in the years 2007 through 2010. Forget everything beyond the next 162 games. How good is this team, and can it win this year?
After all the shuffling, the Jays' offense isn't going to be much better than it was in 2005. Adding Troy Glaus is a boon, as he will be an upgrade over the limited production they got from Koskie and Eric Hinske, whose at-bats he'll replace. Molina will assume some of Gregg Zaun's playing time and obviate the need for last year's terrible backup catchers. Those two spots will be better. Lyle Overbay looks like an upgrade, but he's a .280-EqA guy, which isn't getting it done at first base. He'll be more problem than solution.
On the other hand, the Jays return six of the same players who were part of last year's 775-run offense. They're relying heavily on development from pre-prime players like Aaron Hill, Alexis Rios, Russ Adams and Vernon Wells, all of whom were at least mildly disappointing last season. (Quietly, Hill's strong start devolved into a .261 EqA by the end of the year.) These players aren't likely to form a lineup core on par with the Yankees' and Red Sox' cores. Other than Wells, who is now three years' removed from his superstar '03, none of these players has enough upside to make a difference.
That's the Jays' problem. They may not have any truly awful hitters in the lineup, but other than Glaus, they don't have any very good ones, either. They have a number of guys, like Overbay and Rios and Molina and Shea Hillenbrand, who will hit for decent averages with some doubles, play enough to rack up good RBI numbers, and do very little to push you towards a championship.
The Jays' lineup doesn't work; not enough OBP, not enough power, no speed. Nate Silver's PECOTA projections peg the Jays for 759 runs this season. I think that figure is about right.
Of course, you don't need to score 900 runs to win. The Angels and White Sox each won their divisions last year by scoring 761 and 741 runs, respectively, while relying on dominant pitching staffs. With the Jays' massive investments in pitching in over the winter, they're clearly looking to replicate that success.
It's not likely, however, that this team can hold its opponents under 700 runs. Roy Halladay is an ace starter on any team, and should be fully recovered from the fluke broken leg that ended his 2005 season. There's a big fall-off after him, though; no matter how much money he makes, A.J. Burnett doesn't look like more than a mid-rotation guy with some durability questions. His performance outside of Pro Player Stadium is that of a guy who struggles with his command and can be homer-prone.
Behind the big-money guys are two pitchers who were very reliant on last year's superb infield defense. Gustavo Chacin's peripherals (121/70 K/BB in 203 innings) don't support his 3.72 ERA, and the loss of Orlando Hudson won't help matters. Josh Towers has a better chance of sustaining last year's level thanks to a microscopic walk rate (29 in 208 2/3 innings), although he's just as susceptible to any changes in the infield defense (1.69 G/F last year, 1.72 in '04).
Ted Lilly is the wild card, and probably the difference between a good rotation and a not-so-good one. One of the most frustrating pitchers alive, Lilly has been alternating good starts and disaster ones for most of the 21st century. His chance to be a star is likely gone, as he's never improved his command and he's still homer-prone. If he can replicate his 2003-04 lines, though, he'll stabilize a rotation that doesn't have a whole lot of depth.
Overall, the Jays' rotation is an asset, but like the lineup, not good enough to carry a winning team. Jays' pitchers have been supported very well by their defense over the past few years, and that defense won't be as strong this year after the loss of Hudson. His absence should show up in the ERAs of Halladay, Chacin and Towers, and will be another barrier to success for Burnett.
B.J. Ryan is a good pitcher coming off of the best 115 innings of his life, stretching back to mid-2004. All relievers are unpredictable, though, and when you consider that Ryan is a one-pitch guy with a violent delivery and a limited track record of success, it's hard to see him as a game-changer. The Jays have enough live arms lying around that they could have assembled a pretty good bullpen without Ryan, although having him will help in head-to-head matchups against the Yankees and Red Sox, each with multiple lefty power hitters.
The Jays' bullpen won't hurt them, and the investments in everyone but Ryan are minimal, which allows them flexibility should anyone underperform. As with the rotation and the offense, however, there's not enough talent here to make a big impact. It's just a slightly-above-average pen, to go with the slightly-above-average rotation and slightly-above-average offense. PECOTA projects 772 runs allowed, which seems a little high to me but within reason. The dropoff in their infield defense is a hidden cost that is going to have very real on-field consequences.
In another division, the Jays might well make a run at October. Not having any glaring weaknesses looks real good if you have a weak schedule and only have to shoot for 88 wins. The Jays, though, are in the AL East, with two of the best teams in the game and two other competitive organizations. Just being good isn't enough, and despite all the money and all the moves, this team hasn't been elevated to championship-caliber, and if it doesn't look like that in 2006, I find it hard to believe it's going to look better in 2007 or beyond, with a suddenly unproductive farm system and the two $50-million men getting older each year.
The Jays will hang around the wild-card chase, and maybe they can find an impact bat in the July bazaar, one that will make a difference in their offense. Without that kind of add, they're just another second-tier AL team hoping that this is the year 87 wins will be enough to make the playoffs.