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December 7, 2008

GM for a Day

Blue Jays

by Joe Sheehan

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Team Audit | DT Cards | PECOTA Cards | Depth Chart

What we might call the Roy Halladay/Vernon Wells Blue Jays peaked last season. They did so without anyone noticing, without ever being relevant to either the AL East or wild-card races, and perhaps without having the kind of year that would get them off of a difficult treadmill.

Nevertheless, this was a fantastic baseball team in 2008, the best run-prevention team in baseball thanks to a strong rotation, deep bullpen and excellent defense. Despite playing in the loaded AL East, the Jays led the majors by allowing just 610 runs, and they also led if you use Adjusted Equivalent Runs Allowed. They had the third-best Defensive Efficiency and ranked seventh in PADE in the majors. Their pitchers were second in the AL in strikeouts and first in fewest home runs allowed.

So why did they go 86-76? Competition is clearly a factor. Per the Adjusted Standings, the Jays had a third-order record of 92-70, the fourth-best mark in the game. Unfortunately, two of the three teams better than them in 2008 were the AL East's division winner and the AL's wild-card team, shutting the Jays out of the postseason even had they played to their mark. Toronto's run prevention was so good that it carried a mediocre offense to that feat of ranking as the fourth-best team in baseball last season.

Were the Blue Jays in any other division in baseball last year, they would have made the postseason and been one of the game's best stories. With 2008 behind them, though, it's hard to see how, even with an improved offense, they get within 80 runs of last season's 610 allowed. Too many things went right for that to happen. Throw in this week's death of team owner Ted Rogers, and the uncertainty over the future grows. The Jays probably won't fall apart the way the Royals did after Ewing Kauffman's death, but a corporate-owned team whose benefit is largely its position as television programming certainly could see itself treated less well by the corporation in the short term. Rogers' willingness to let J.P. Ricciardi go over budget the last few years was a good thing for the organization, even if it was not a decision that produced a championship. Cutting back now would hurt the team, but there's an argument that no amount of money is going to make the Blue Jays better than the third-best team in their own division.

As part of the natural development of the organization, the lineup will score more runs next year. With Adam Lind finally establishing himself and Travis Snider appearing ready to join the big club, the Jays get major upgrades at two lineup spots, left field and DH, that were problematic a year ago. It's fair to say that Lyle Ovebay, Alex Rios, and Scott Rolen had years that were all on the lower ends of their respective ranges, and collectively should be 50 runs better in 2009. Despite seeming to always have one of the better-regarded catching prospects in baseball, the Jays used Rod Barajas in 104 games last season, and will bring him back for '09. Guillermo Quiroz, Curtis Thigpen, Robinzon Diaz haven't worked out, nor do they seem likely to.

The Jays' problem entering the Winter Meetings is the same one that has vexed them for years: their best position players do not form a championship-caliber core. Treating and paying Vernon Wells as if he is one of the best players in baseball doesn't make him that guy. He's had two great seasons, and the rest of the time is a good defensive center fielder who doesn't have a lot of great at-bats, leading to lower averages and OBPs than you need from your star. Like Devon White before him, Wells is good enough to be the fifth-best player on a great team. He's not good enough to be the best. The Jays have a roster full of guys like this, players who are good enough to play and that's about it. Because of that, it's difficult to make big upgrades over any one spot, which means there's no way to get a six-win bump in one fell swoop. Contract commitments and roster size make it impractical to improve six spots by one to two wins at a clip, so you end up with a team that's never really bad, but needs a year like the one that the pitching staff just gave it in 2008 to make a run.

That staff isn't walking through that door, by the way. A.J. Burnett used his opt-out clause after making 34 starts for the first time as a Blue Jay (after making only 21 and 25 in the two previous seasons), and he's not sticking around. Shaun Marcum made 25 starts with a 123/50 K/BB; he'll miss the season after Tommy John surgery. Dustin McGowan made 19 starts and seemed to be emerging as the second starter behind Halladay; then he lost the second half to shoulder surgery and might be back in May, with no guarantees as to performance. As good as the bullpen was last year, it featured performances from veterans or minor league veterans that are unlikely to be repeated as a unit-Jesse Carlson, Scott Downs, and Brian Tallet threw 187 innings with a 159/70 K/BB and a 2.26 ERA. It could happen again, but you simply can't plan for it.

No, the 2009 Blue Jays will allow a lot more runs and score a few more, but there's just no way to think they will be better than they were a year ago, and less reason to think that the standard for post-season baseball will be dropping. This team can be competitive, but it can't win without getting incredibly lucky, and the pieces are not available in this winter's market for them to make a last push. Their biggest hole is catcher, and you can't trade for a star there. The same goes for shortstop, although John McDonald does at least provide fantastic defense, perhaps enough to justify his bat.

I've criticized J.P. Ricciardi for many decisions going back to the Corey Koskie signing, and you might argue that the path of acquiring guys who were not stars, making trades for Rolen and Overbay, committing to Wells and Rios, is what got them here. Nevertheless, I don't envy him his current spot. Ricciardi built a great team in '08, yet he has nothing to show for it, and now he's got a team that everyone thinks should contend, but in fact has very little chance to make the playoffs, and will almost certainly be worse instead of better last year. It's a situation akin to what the Mariners faced a year ago, although the Blue Jays don't even have the benefit of the Mariners farm system on that point, where you could argue for worrying about 2009 instead of 2008. Like the Astros, the Jays' system is such that it argues for winning now, because the future hasn't been drafted yet.

The plan, given that there is truly no good solution for this situation short of realignment:

  1. Trade a random arm for Jonny Gomes. I'd be more specific, but the name doesn't matter, and will depend on finding someone the Rays want to take back. The Jays will be working in two young left-handed hitters in left field and at DH. Gomes is a generally limited player, but his primary skill is bashing lefties, and having him around would be handy. He's coming off of a brutal season, which isn't unrelated to the Rays having trouble finding playing time for him. Young enough to repeat his 2005-06 performance, Gomes would be a help to Gaston, both in setting his lineups and in bringing along his young players. I'm not suggesting that either be strictly platooned, just that there be a good option available against the Francisco Lirianos of the world. The Jays used Barajas, David Eckstein, and Shannon Stewart at DH against lefties last year; this will be better.

  2. Sign Braden Looper to a two-year, $10 million deal. The Jays are going to be missing a lot of starts next season. Looper fills the role of the guy taking them, and as a ground-ball pitcher he works to a strength of the Jays, the infield defense. If Rolen, McDonald, and friends can turn Jesse Litsch into a league-average starter, they can do the same for Looper.

  3. Trade Jesse Litsch to the Diamondbacks for Miguel Montero and a prospect. Litsch is entirely a product of his context, a slight improvement on the dear, already-departed Gustavo Chacin. On the other hand, he had 13 wins and a 3.58 ERA last year, and that should give him some trade value. Montero doesn't appear to be gaining any ground on Chris Snyder, and the D'backs have some innings to replace with Randy Johnson leaving. Montero would be a significant upgrade on Barajas, between them actually forming a strong platoon. Admittedly, trading Litsch is a risk because of the lack of starting pitchers in Toronto.

  4. Start the drafted guys. Look, this rotation is going to fall off, but what the Jays should have learned last year is that your defense can make your starters look good. A rotation of Halladay, David Purcey, Looper, Downs, Scott Richmond, and Ricky Romero is pretty scary-looking right now, but how intimidating were Litsch and Marcum a year ago? It's the defense that made the pitchers good, so continue putting that great defense on the field-that means committing to McDonald at short, and letting whichever of Lind or Snider is the better glove play full-time in left, as opposed to swapping them in and out of the DH slot-and hope it's enough to keep runs off the board. The offense will be better, and if the run prevention even gets close to last year's numbers, the Jays can compete.

This is admittedly an in-between plan for an in-between team. The present isn't good enough to go all out for, the past won't allow for too much slippage-Ricciardi will probably be let go at the next backslide-and the future isn't strong enough to commit to. These changes would make the offense better, leverage an over-valued asset in Litsch, and give the Jays another shot at 90 wins, even though that might not be enough. If you're good enough to aim that high, though, you should, and the Jays are. A good first half opens up the possibility of trading for starters in June and July as well.

Of the four of these I've done so far, this was unquestionably the hardest. The Jays are simply a difficult roster to manage, and that likely won't change until the next time the team rebuilds.

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

17 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Why would you trade for Montero (and give up the 2nd last piece of your '08 rotation) when JP Arencibia is probably about a year away?

Dec 07, 2008 11:55 AM
rating: 0

Probably because you really don't know what you're going to get out of Arencibia at the major league level. He'll get eaten alive if he tries to bring his current plate discipline to the Majors.

Dec 07, 2008 15:11 PM
rating: 0

Have you watched Shaun Marcum and Jesse Litsch pitch? Saying that these guys are complete products of their defense is very offensive.


Dec 07, 2008 11:58 AM
rating: 0
Camp WitRios

Anyone have any opinion on whether Snider is truly ready for everyday ABs this year? I'm expecting a year very similar to Jay Bruce in '08; raw talent with a ton of strikeouts.

Dec 07, 2008 12:05 PM
rating: 0

Joe - thanks for "doing" the Jays. I have to disagree with you on your suggestions though.

1) Your assessment that many of the Jays pitchers (particularly Marcum and Litsch) are largely products of the great infield defense the Jays had. That ignores Marcum's consistenly low BABIP - the Jays teach their kids to pitch to contact and they are remarkably adept at getting weak contact.The great infield D helps, but they Jays' pitching style helps just as muuch in making the infield look good. Did you not notice how much Marco Scutaro played last year? Do you really think he is that great a defender at 2B, SS and 3B? Compare his RF and F% to league averages - he was well above AL average for last year at all for all three positions, with the only exception being 2B RF.

2) The cupboard is bare - In the past, I would have agreed with that - but by mixing college and HS picks in the last 3 drafts, Ricciardi has actually put together a pretty good group of prospects. Snider, of course is still a rookie. Arencibia has the makings of a near average defensive catcher with serious power, if limited OBP skills. Prefer him going forward over Montero by a wide margin. Brett Cecil has some talking of possibly being the #5 starter as soon as now. Romero may finally be ready to be a #4/5 starter. Purcey looked ready to compete. Brad Mills is another pitcher who may not be that far away. David Cooper could be ready to take over for Overbay by 2010. Other hig ceiling guys (J. Jackson, K. Ahrens, etc.) are further away, but viable.
3) You did not comment on whether Lyle Overbay was a good enough for now option at 1B. I personally do not feel as though he is. Do you think he is a viable 1B on a contending team?


Dec 07, 2008 13:53 PM
rating: 2

Personally, I'd look into dealing some of the assets here and looking for 2011 as the year to win. However, JP may not have that luxury.

Dec 07, 2008 13:56 PM
rating: 0

I've just figured out a disadvantage of these articles. They read like a team chapter in the BP Annual. So to write something new in the Jays chapter, will whomever is assigned it have to write about something funky and not particularly important? Else won't he find him(her)self repeating alot of this stuff?

Dec 07, 2008 14:02 PM
rating: 0
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff

We're making a point of not having the same people do both, and as we're a group with a lot of divergence in our conclusions from team to team, I expect you'll find some significant differences.

Dec 07, 2008 14:23 PM

Joe, stop reading my mind because you're freaking me out!

I agree 100% that other than possibly (likely?) Snider in the future, the Jays as presently constructed on offence are a collection of #6 and #7 hitters that are tremendous complementary pieces if you've got a Stars & Scrubs lineup like Philadelphia but collectively form a mediocre offence that is destined to finish slightly above .500 unless dragged further kicking and screaming by fantastic run prevention.

We're still looking for a bat to replace Delgado in the middle of the lineup.

Dec 07, 2008 15:17 PM
rating: 1
Matthew Avery

Seems like, of all the AL East teams, the Jays would be the best fit for Teixeira from a team construction perspective. They need a big bat in the middle of the lineup somethin' fierce, they don't have any major contractual obligations, and with that addition, they instantly become a contender (IMO). The money, of course, is the factor the prevents this from being a real possibility. Perhaps they could make a play if they were to move Vernon Wells (the Braves need a RH bat for the OF and could supply a CF prospect in return) they'd have the money, but otherwise, I don't see it as a possibility.

Dec 07, 2008 15:55 PM
rating: 1

Are the Padres still moving Adrian Gonzalez? He seems like exactly the kind of middle of the line-up hitter who could turn the 2009 Jays into Manny's Dodgers. Would they consider trading Lind for A-Gonz? Then A-Gonz could slot at DH and hit 4th.

Dec 07, 2008 20:28 PM
rating: 0

Sorry dude, the Padres weren't ever planning on moving Adrian. Towers has been clear about that fromt he beginning of this offseason. Adrian is extremely cheap and our only legitimate threat in the lineup. He also plays great defense and has a strong following among fans as he is a local boy. Besides, Adam Lind is nowhere near good enough to land him.

We may be a bad team in rebuilding mode, but we won't be playing Santa Claus for the Jays this year.

Dec 07, 2008 22:26 PM
rating: 2

To further emphasize, Adrian Gonzalez at DH is an egregious waste of talent given that he's one of the top defensive 1B in baseball.

Dec 08, 2008 08:01 AM
rating: 1

The Jays are likely to turtle up, cut costs and be a bad team for 5 years to try to leapfrog the Rays/Sox/Yanks in 2013+. Doing what they have been doing hasn't worked---the Rays will be a contender for 5 years (until everybody hits arbitration) and the Sox/Yanks can keep spending $150-200M per year. With the passing of Ted Rogers, the sudden 'aging' of the Skydome and being in Canada---it will be dim for Jays fans for a while.

Dec 08, 2008 05:46 AM
rating: -1
Christopher Taylor

Echoing the sentiments of people who've posted before this summary reads like someone who doesn't a) watch the Jays b) doesn't know what they have in the farm system.

1) Litsch isn't Chacin. Look at his stats. Check out pitch/fx after he returned from the minors (his fastball was sitting in easily the mid-90s. Marcum isn't the product of his defense. The similarities in between the way he pitches and Maddux pitched are incredible.

2) Montero (for Litsch?! which makes it doubly laughable)... he's not needed on this team. JP Arencibia. That's all there is to say.

3) You mentioned Romero before Cecil? Sloppy Mr. Sheehan, sloppy. Cecil is more likely to help in 2009.

Lastly, this was hard for you Mr. Sheehan because you don't understand what's going on with this team... in fact, each time I've seen them mentioned in BP, I am more and more convinced that there's no one at BP who understands this team. Go back and look at your predictions about the 2008 team. Off base and no where close to projecting what they are - just talk about a team built like a 1980s FA built team.

Please don't write on the Jays anymore. It just makes you look bad.

Dec 08, 2008 12:45 PM
rating: 1

Litsch gets clipped for a lot of hits...a lot of hits. Marcum's better, but there's a limit to this command control/good mix, variety but average to weak in quality. These guys tend to be good trade candidates before wearing their welcome. Bannister, Robertson come to mind. And as far as return goes, Montero is a gem waiting to get uncovered.

Dec 08, 2008 17:08 PM
rating: 0
Christopher Taylor

Litsch, gave up 44H in 61 IP after his demotion to Syracuse. Small sample size? Sure, but he came back a different pitcher (see pitch/fx).

On the season, Litsch did give up about a hit an inning, but his WHIP is good. With the Jays defense, I'll take pitching to contact.

Lastly, I meant to mention previously that Sheehan is also living in the past with respect to McDonald. Check his 2008 plus minus. 2007 was a career year for McDonald and there's no way he should be playing at SS in front of Scutaro who is average at SS, but a much better hitter.

Litsch has as his best comp Fausto Carmona... would anyone trade Carmona for Montero (who's never had an OPS north of .800 at any level he's play 100 games at)? I'm not sure why the Jays should be eager to trade a know commodity like Litsch when they're short on arms.

All the Jays need is a similar approach to 2007. Sign low cost / high upside pitcher for the staff (and hope for better result than Ohka/Zambrano/Thomson), a slugger at DH. Move Overbay, but Lind at 1B and Snider in LF. The IF defense takes a hit but the OF defense is better. Compete.

The Rays and Jays run differential was almost equal in 2008. Odd are at least even of that happening in 2009. The Rays caught serious breaks in 2008. Hinske? Balfour? Their young pitchers living up to the hype instead of pulling a Hughes/Kennedy/Buckholz? The Rays are as over-hyped now as they were under this time last year.

Dec 09, 2008 12:34 PM
rating: 0
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