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August 14, 2000

AL East Notebook

Blue, Blue Jays

by Christina Kahrl

It's in the nature of a project like Baseball Prospectus to have some extremely good insights and some yakkers that we'd rather forget. One of my esteemed co-authors once came up with a great argument that Bryce Florie could be the best pitcher in the American League in the near future, and I thought that had to have been the silliest thing I'd ever heard come from someone not named Harold Reynolds. Of course, this exact same person argued that Moises Alou was someday going to match his tremendous 1994. I couldn't suspend my disbelief, and I'll be jiggered if it didn't turn out to be true not just once, but in back-to-back 1997 and 1998 seasons.

So sometimes, we need to look beyond our own knowledge base, our gut feelings and our instincts, and acknowledge our capacity to be wrong. More difficult still, we have to rise beyond the level of our disappointments.

OK, I know what you're saying: that's all well and good, but what does this have to do with the American League East?

Well, my personal blind spot--or just the most frustrating team in the league from an analyst's point of view--is the Toronto Blue Jays. I've been an outspoken advocate of the idea that as a team, this is a collection of top-notch talent that has undermined if not betrayed by the sinister cherub of the Great White North, Gord Ash. They have consistently failed to rise to the level of my expectations.

This outspoken advocacy of the "Wasted Opportunities" thesis about the Blue Jays has not gone unnoticed by our readers, who've had their own problems with suspending disbelief. A good example of the kind of feedback we've gotten, from AC:

"Is it you or the other guy who writes the transaction analyses who
has been touting the Jays for years now, and as recently as a month ago was
boasting (again) of how they would be blowing by other AL East teams? In
any case, that was as foolish this year as last...and the previous and the
previous and the previous...."

This is a reasonable criticism.

My frustration comes from knowing that the Jays have a very good lineup core right now. Carlos Delgado is leading the league in Equivalent Average and is probably the only viable alternative to Alex Rodriguez for AL MVP. Tony Batista, Shannon Stewart and Brad Fullmer are each among leading hitters at their positions. While I'm quick to condemn Ash for many things, snagging both Batista and Fullmer in trade within a single year is an unheralded coup. Raul Mondesi was turning in a solid season before his elbow injury and Darrin Fletcher has been the fourth-best hitting catcher in the league.

And despite all that, the Jays have managed to assemble a below-average lineup, posting a .259 Equivalent Average as a team through Thursday. For the sake of comparison to other teams in the wild-card hunt, that's behind the Indians (.270), Athletics (.268) and Angels (.261), and ahead of only Dan Duquette's scrap-pile offense (.248).

One of the basic problems is that the Yankees continue to be run by an outstanding management team. While Gord Ash was dredging up Mickey Morandini and Dave Martinez and Esteban Loaiza, Brian Cashman and company were getting Denny Neagle, David Justice and Jose Canseco. Even the Yankees' second-tier pickups, guys like Luis Sojo and Glenallen Hill, are better players than people the Jays are relying on like Marty Cordova or any of the team's second basemen.

So the easy answer for why the Jays aren't likely to win the East is that the Yankees didn't sit still, weren't afraid to pick up better talent while surrendering prospects and nevertheless managed to keep their best prospects out of their trades. I am quite guilty of a failure to anticipate the breadth and daring of the Yankees' moves.

But what about what the Jays have in hand, and whether they could have done something with it? I've been flogging the obvious people who have helped to undermine a potentially outstanding lineup. We can separate them into two groups: the veterans who disappoint Gord Ash, and the prospects who've disappointed analysts who wanted to believe.

Among the analysts' disappointments are Alex Gonzalez and Jose Cruz Jr., about whom we could argue all day. Gonzalez has been a tremendous disappointment to some for his failure to develop as a hitter, but I'd compare him to Royce Clayton: he's a good shortstop who, even if he disappoints, hardly hits as badly as either of the St. Reys, Ordonez and Sanchez. Cruz Jr. continues to be flogged for not being as great as other famous Juniors, but he needs to be evaluated not in terms of how great his father was or how excessive our expectations were, but in terms of what he is: a solid, if unspectacular, center fielder with good power and some patience. If he isn't an All-Star, neither is he somebody named Goodwin. If the worst two players in a lineup were Cruz Jr. and Gonzalez, that would be a pretty strong lineup.

But it's the disappointing veterans who have been the real offensive sinkholes; not just because they've been bad, but because they were so easily replaceable. First, you've got the second-base scar of a worse-than-even-we-expected Homer Bush, Craig Grebeck and now Mickey Morandini. The other veteran fill-ins have been just as bad: Marty Cordova was available on the cheap for a reason, and anybody who turns to Dave Martinez in a moment of need is, well, pretty needy. Alberto Castillo is no more handy than Mike Matheny was, as the Jays have continued to fail in casting someone as Buck Martinez to Fletcher's Ernie Whitt.

It is for this reason that I take issue with AC when he says:

"What I note as particularly comical is the fulminations the last few
weeks about how Gord Ash has torpedoed the Jays season. These fulminations
reached the pathetic with this line: 'This is where Jays fans can get
cranky that the organization discarded guys like Tom Evans, Casey
Blake and Jeff Patzke to no obvious end.' What obvious end
would, say, Tom Evans's 700+ OPS serve with the current Blue Jays? I know
it's seemingly impossible to admit being incorrect. But the years of
touting Evans despite his lack of production is as silly as continually
touting the Jays despite their obvious lack of pitching."

This raises two important points. When I bring up people like Evans and Blake and Patzke--and we could now add names like Mike Young and Brent Abernathy--I'm bringing up a collection of players with good track records as hitters. None of them has gotten a shot at major-league playing time and all of them should have been internal improvements on the second-base problem, either by playing it themselves or by taking over at third base and letting Tony Batista move over to second base.

Evans barely has 100 plate appearances in a major-league uniform spread over three different seasons, a meaningless sample in the context of his career. He is a great example of the kind of player that a good team capitalizes on and which a bad team ignores, because his skills are ones that don't excite rotoheads or several major-league GMs: he's a walker and a slick glove at the hot corner. Would a Tom Evans or a Brent Abernathy or even Jeff Patzke make all the difference for the Jays? I'm willing to say yes, because the Jays' lineup has problems getting on base and that's Tom Evans's core skill.

Clearly, most of the guys whose names I'm bandying about aren't going to get the opportunities they earned with years of good play in the minors. But when the alternative is the worst collection of second basemen in baseball, I'd be more than happy to take a chance on players with useful skill sets over Gord Ash's dubious taste in retreads. If there's a basic problem here, it's Ash's inability to build a good collection of supporting players to lend a hand to the obviously talented core.

The second point is the issue of the Jays' pitching problems. While the collapses of Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay deserve full treatment in an essay of their own, the Jays' pitching isn't nearly as much of a problem as it was a month ago. The current rotation of Jumbo Wells, a reborn Frank Castillo, Steve Trachsel, Kelvim Escobar and Esteban Loaiza is the best they've had all season.

The bullpen is another story, as there are currently only four pens doing worse on the season: the Astros, Cardinals, Padres and Orioles. A major problem has been the absence of a reliable right-handed middle man, and the most positive thing you can say is that maybe Carpenter turns into that pitcher.

As much as the Jays excite feelings of respect for their core talent and disgust for their failure to stock up on solid supporting players, they still have a very good shot at the American League wild card. They're competing with the Indians and the Athletics for it, though, and I don't realistically expect them to finish ahead of either of those teams. But they are in the position to challenge for the postseason, and building a better roster this year, as last year and as the year before, would help.

For me, the lesson the Jays represent is simple: if you give Gord Ash ways to come up short on the details, he seems to find them. Shame on me for forgetting about it, and for having to relearn this painful lesson in consecutive years.

Chris Kahrl can be reached at ckahrl@baseballprospectus.com.

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

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