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December 7, 2008

GM for a Day

Blue Jays

by Joe Sheehan

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TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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. 
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