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March 9, 2008

Every Given Sunday

A Different Feather

by John Perrotto

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Fifteen years ago, the hottest spring training site on the Gulf Coast of Florida was the Blue Jays' camp in Dunedin, Florida. The Blue Jays had back-to-back World Series titles in 1992-93, and four American League East crowns in five years from 1989-93. Tickets were nearly impossible to come by for Grapefruit League games at cozy Dunedin Stadium.

Much has changed for the Blue Jays since those glory days. They haven't been to the postseason in the past 14 seasons, and have rarely even played an important September game in that span, as the Yankees and Red Sox have dominated the AL East. The Blue Jays have been perennially stuck in third place, finishing in that spot eight times in the past 10 seasons to go with one second-place finish and one fifth-place finish.

However, the Blue Jays at least have reason for cautious optimism heading into this season. While the Red Sox are clearly the team to beat, and the Yankees are again most formidable, the Blue Jays feel they have a puncher's chance to win the division. "It's always going to be tough when you're in same division with those teams," Jays manager John Gibbons acknowledged. "To finish ahead of either the Yankees or Red Sox, you're going to have to have one of those seasons where everything goes just right and breaks your way. But we do feel we can play with those teams. We believe we've put together a good team that is capable of winning a lot of games. It's the best team we've had since I've been the manager."

Gibbons replaced Carlos Tosca during the 2004 season, and has guided the Blue Jays to 80, 87, and 83 wins in his three full years. Gibbons did his best job last season, when Toronto finished above .500 despite having the opposite of the type of season it is hoping to have in 2008. Everything seemed to go wrong for the Blue Jays, and little broke their way. Toronto's pitching staff was decimated by injuries. Closer B.J. Ryan succumbed to reconstructive elbow surgery after just five appearances, while left-hander Gustavo Chacin started just five games because of a shoulder injury, right-hander A.J. Burnett missed six weeks with a sore shoulder, and Tomo Ohka was a bust after being signed as a free agent.

Forced to improvise, the Blue Jays found some able replacements. Jeremy Accardo took over as closer and had a 3.218 WXRL, while Shaun Marcum (4.3 SNLVAR), Dustin McGowan (4.3), and Jesse Litsch (3.0) all shined as rotation fill-ins in their first extended taste of the major leagues. That enabled the Blue Jays to finish a surprising second-best in the AL in runs allowed with an average of 4.31 a game. "It really does go to show you that there is a silver lining in every dark cloud," Gibbons observed. "The injuries we had truly were a blessing in disguise because we learned we have good pitching depth in the organization."

Now, the Blue Jays could have the enviable problem of more pitchers than roster spots. Ryan is making a speedy recovery from his surgery, and is optimistic that he will be ready for Opening Day. If Ryan is ready, Accardo will slide back to a set-up role and Casey Janssen, last year's primary eighth-inning reliever, will return to the starting rotation, where he would join Roy Halladay (6.7 SNLVAR), Burnett (4.3), Marcum, and McGowan. Janssen's WRXL was 2.629 last year. Reflecting on his newfound depth, Gibbons notes, "In the past, we've had a hard time finding reliable options for the pitching staff when we've had injuries or needed to make changes. This is certainly a different situation and a better situation for us."

The Blue Jays need to get better offensively after finishing 10th in the AL with 4.64 runs a game last season. They have taken steps to upgrade by importing the left side of St. Louis' infield, acquiring Scott Rolen in a challenge trade for fellow third baseman Troy Glaus, and signing shortstop David Eckstein to a one-year, $4 million contract as a free agent. Rolen's equivalent average was just .256 last season, while Glaus' was .282. Eckstein, who had a .266 EqA, replaces the slick-fielding John McDonald, who will now be the primary utility infielder after posting just a .211 mark in 2007.

The Blue Jays also signed Shannon Stewart as a free agnet. He posted a .266 EqA with Oakland last season, and figures to be platooned with Matt Stairs (.298) in left field. Meanwhile, Toronto will look for improvement from its returning cast, which includes designated hitter Frank Thomas (.288), right fielder Alex Rios (.284), second baseman Aaron Hill (.264), and catcher Gregg Zaun (.259). The Blue Jays will especially need first baseman Lyle Overbay (.241) and center fielder Vernon Wells (.240) to improve their production.

Gibbons believes that the three newcomers to the lineup can have a great impact on the Blue Jays, along with backup catcher Rod Barajas, signed from Philadelphia as a free agent, and utility infielder Marco Scutaro, acquired from Oakland in a trade. "All of those guys have been on winning teams, championship teams in the past," Gibbons said. "I think that's invaluable for a team like ours that hasn't been to the postseason for a long time. When times get tough, these guys know what it's like to fight through it and that can be a real learning experience for the rest of our players. We have the talent here. We just have to learn how to win."

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Pat Gillick has already said he will retire as Philadelphia's general manager at the end of this season. Though the Phillies have no succession plan in place, the two clear frontrunners are assistant GMs Ruben Amaro Jr. and Mike Arbuckle. That creates a situation where tension could exist as the season progresses. Furthermore, there are reports that some in the organization are already taking sides, something that could conceivably fracture the front office. Phillies president Dave Montgomery is known for being deliberate in the decision-making process and has no plans to name a successor anytime soon. "We've got a long way to go," Montgomery told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "We've got a lot of Pat left."

Gillick is staying neutral. "I think they're both qualified," he said. "They're both well thought-of in the industry."

Amaro was reportedly Houston owner Drayton McLane's first choice to replace Tim Purpura as Astros GM last year. However, McLane was supposedly talked out of it by club President Tal Smith, who instead hired former Phillies GM Ed Wade. While Arbuckle doesn't have the same name recognition as Amaro (a former major league outfielder), he is highly regarded in baseball circles for overseeing the Phillies' scouting and player development operations.

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The Dodgers have not won a post-season series since Kirk Gibson's dramatic pinch-hit home run helped them stun Oakland in the 1988 World Series. The Dodgers have also not been to the National League playoffs since 2004. That is making Frank McCourt, beginning his fifth season as the Dodgers' owner, a bit impatient. While he stopped short of saying GM Ned Colletti's job could be in jeopardy if the Dodgers don't make the postseason or at least contend, he is tired of waiting for the storied franchise's return to glory. "It's time to win," McCourt said during his annual spring training meeting with reporters this past week. "We made a commitment to our fans, and one of them was a full-fledged commitment to winning."

The Dodgers made two big free agent acquisitions in the offseason, signing center fielder Andruw Jones to a two-year, $18.2 million contract, and Japanese right-hander Hiroki Kuroda to a three-year, $35.3 million deal. They should add to the Dodgers' corps of outstanding young major-league talent. "Ned got what we needed this offseason, and we kept all of our kids," McCourt said. "I have to stop calling them kids, because they are men now."

That is why McCourt feels it is time for the Dodgers to win. Right-handers Chad Billingsley and Jonathan Broxton, catcher Russell Martin, first baseman James Loney, and outfielders Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp are no longer prospects, but bona fide major league players. "I think we are headed in the right direction now," McCourt said. "Not only should we be in a position to improve over last year, but we should also be in a position to do well for a long time, which was our goal from the beginning. We invested very, very heavily in our scouting and player-development systems. Both have improved dramatically. We have a lot of great young players who give us the nucleus to be a competitive team for years to come. The LA Dodgers should be a team fans expect to play every October. That should be our expectation, and it should be the fans' expectation."

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Kansas City center fielder David DeJesus' career on-base percentage is .358, which is not bad. However, he knows it needs to be better if he is to become one of the AL's premier leadoff hitters. Thus, DeJesus is looking to change the approach to his leadoff at-bats this season. "Before when I led off, I was just trying to have good at-bats," DeJesus told the Kansas City Star. "That's all I was thinking about. Have a good at-bat."

Royals special instructor Quilvio Veras, who had a .372 OBP in a seven-year career from 1995-2001, is trying to change that mindset. "Everything has got to be different for a leadoff hitter," Veras said. "For me, the leadoff hitter is the key to the game. If he's not getting on, then we're not scoring runs. If he gets on base, the big guys drive him in. You score runs, you win games."

Royals first-year manager Trey Hillman was glad to hear that DeJesus is getting OBP religion. "I've spoken to all of our players about eliminating batting average and going to OBP," Hillman said. "OBP really is the statistic that tells you what your chances are of scoring runs."

---

NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Cardinals have the inside track on signing free agent right-hander Sidney Ponson, who has lost weight, quit drinking, and hit 94 mph during a workout at the Cardinals spring training camp in Jupiter, Florida, this past week. Arizona, Kansas City, and Seattle are also said to be interested. Right-hander Kyle Lohse continues to bide his time on the free agent market, and the Mets and Phillies seem his most likely destinations, though Baltimore is also in the picture. The Dodgers might have renewed interest in Detroit's Brandon Inge now that rookie third baseman Andy LaRoche will miss at least two months with torn thumb ligaments, which leaves the team with the always-fragile Nomar Garciaparra at the hot corner. The Dodgers no longer expect right-hander Jason Schmidt, coming off of shoulder surgery, to be ready for the start of the season, which means right-hander Esteban Loaiza will have a rotation spot.

Mets GM Omar Minaya says he won't be forced into a panic move with left fielder Moises Alou out until at least May because of a hernia, and first baseman Carlos Delgado nursing a hip problem. However, the Mets have reportedly made inquiries about such right-handed hitters as Inge, Detroit's Marcus Thames, Baltimore's Kevin Millar and Jay Payton, and Pittsburgh's Xavier Nady. The Mets might also make a play for free agent outfielder Kenny Lofton, who could be in Tampa Bay's plans with Rays right fielder Rocco Baldelli being nagged by hamstring problems. The Mets are willing to trade a veteran reliever, preferably left-hander Scott Schoeneweis or right-hander Jorge Sosa. Inge has been playing some center field in exhibition games and the Cubs have been watching that experiment with interest. Bret Boone is playing so well in his comeback attempt with Washington that the Nationals would consider trading second baseman Ronnie Belliard and/or middle infielder Felipe Lopez. San Francisco has interest in Oakland first baseman Dan Johnson. The Giants aren't shopping for a shortstop, though Omar Vizquel will miss the opener following knee surgery, and Kevin Frandsen has been moved back to his natural position of second base. The Giants have three options at shortstop, and none have ever played in the major leagues--Brian Bacock, Emmanuel Burriss, and Ivan Ochoa.

Milwaukee has tabled contract talks with first baseman Prince Fielder, second baseman Rickie Weeks, and right fielder Corey Hart, but is still hopeful of singing all three to long-term deals at some point this year. The Brewers will likely platoon Tony Gwynn Jr. and Gabe Kapler in center field while Mike Cameron sits out the first 25 games of the season while serving his suspension for violating Major League Baseball's amphetamine policy. Colorado's Jeff Baker is making such a smooth transition to second baseman from third baseman/outfielder that the Rockies will likely look to trade Marcus Giles before the end of spring training. Arizona is willing to trade right-handers Brandon Medders and Dustin Nippert, who are both out of minor league options. The same goes for Atlanta with first baseman Scott Thorman. The Braves are playing shortstop prospect Brent Lillibridge at third base and center field, giving him a chance to make the Opening Day roster as a super utility player. San Diego is considering trying to trade for Boston's Coco Crisp now that center fielder Jim Edmonds has already broken down with a calf injury.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: Bartolo Colon has looked so good in Boston's camp after a so-so performance in winter ball in his native Dominican Republic that the Red Sox are considering using him as the fifth starter and having top prospect Taylor Buchholz begin the season at Triple-A Pawtucket. The Angels are willing to trade spare outfielder Juan Rivera for pitching help. Detroit is looking for a backup catcher, as Vance Wilson is still recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery, and the team has its eye on Houston's Humberto Quintero. More super utilityman fever: Cleveland is trying third baseman Andy Marte at first base and in the outfield, while Tampa Bay is auditioning shortstop Ben Zobrist at those same positions as well Texas manager Ron Washington has decided on Ben Broussard as his full-time first baseman, meaning he will not have him sit against left-handed pitchers. Free agent left-hander David Wells is not ready to retire at 44, and is looking to possibly hook on with a team at midseason.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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