There are signs that teams “get it.” I don’t think it’s any secret that the Blue Jays are one of the teams that get it. Sprung from the brain of the Athletics like Athena, the front office put together by J.P. Ricciardi can compete with the brain trust of any team. Despite revenue problems, hamstrung by contracts written in a bygone era, and having to play in the same division as the Red Sox and Yankees, the Blue Jays definitely get it and are headed for success.
Toronto had one organizational strength in the minors coming into the 2001 season, and that was behind the plate. Looking back at the first BP of the 21st century, three catchers were noted as coming up fast behind starter Darrin Fletcher–Josh Phelps, Joe Lawrence, and Jayson Werth. Werth was acquired from the Orioles, fresh off a disappointing season where his defense was questioned; Lawrence was just being moved to catcher from third base; and Phelps was displaying an inability to both hit and catch. By the 2002 preview, Lawrence was deteriorating behind the plate and was being pushed back out to the field, Werth was struggling behind the plate, and Phelps was becoming a masher still coming to terms with his power.
During the 2002 season, a shift occurred for the Jays. Despite having an older catcher in Darrin Fletcher, and decent-if-uninspiring backups in Ken Huckaby and Tom Wilson, the Blue Jays had enough vision to release all three catching prospects from the tools of ignorance. Where most teams would have struggled with decisions on which of the three was the greatest health risk, the Jays realized what they had to lose were, above all else, three solid hitters. Clearly, all three would be more valuable players if they could hit at their current level and catch, but it just wasn’t possible. This was quickly recognized and the Jays allowed all three to move to Plan B. Also entering the picture was another convert to catching, Kevin Cash.
Fast forward to the present day, and even more changes have taken place. Phelps became the BP cover boy, surely sealing his fate as a doomed project. Never mind the fact that he hits enough to DH, play some left on occasion, and should be ready when Carlos Delgado heads elsewhere–the curse of the BP cover is enough to bring down any shooting star. Jayson Werth, who like Phelps also couldn’t handle the battering behind the plate, is closer to taking on the outfield, but the acquisition of Frank Catalanotto gives the Blue Jays the luxury of making sure Werth’s ready before starting his service time clock.
As for Lawrence, he’s looking like he’ll be the control group. Released after failing at second base, he signed a minor league deal with the Brewers. New Brewers GM Doug Melvin may be thinking outside the box on many things but Lawrence seems to be the Brewers’ Triple-A catching plan. How quickly he breaks down or is injured too severely to have any kind of career will show how smart the Blue Jays with their decisions. It should come as no surprise that Gord Ash himself, formerly in charge of running the Blue Jays into the ground, is behind Lawrence’s return behind the plate.
Josh Phelps remains a yellow light, despite the move to DH. His back and knees are balky even when healthy, but the Jays know this and deal with it. Phelps has one of the funkiest PECOTA cards of the kajillion I’ve looked at; but even though he doesn’t show up on the list, I still think his best historical comp is Harold Baines. Baines to me is the definition of DH and a player whose career wouldn’t have existed without the role. On another team or at another position, I’d be a lot more concerned about Phelps. Don’t expect 150 games out of him and everyone will be happy with the result.
Longtime BP favorite Frank Catalanotto suffered through a year full of injuries and seemed to struggle from one stint on the List to the next. A back stress fracture was the most serious, but he also dealt with a broken hand, a strained hamstring, and trade rumors that kept him awake at night and his bat asleep for much of July and August. In Toronto, he’ll be a bit more settled position-wise. The back worries me more than anything, and if he hadn’t been hit in the face with a flyball, I’d have been more comfortable saying that his streak of bad luck was left behind in Arlington.
The Blue Jays didn’t allow their best pitcher, Roy Halladay, to injure himself in pursuit of a mythical number (20 wins) as Ricciardi and manager Carlos Tosca worked closely to manage his innings down the stretch. With a $3.85 million contract this off-season, Halladay wasn’t penalized for failing to hit some meaningless milestone. Despite the massive increase in innings, Halladay shouldn’t be considered a more significant injury risk than any other pitcher. His mechanics, once retooled by a trip to Single-A, remain flawless, and there are few pitchers I would point to as more likely to repeat their 2002 performance and health. The rest of the staff, while uninspiring, is also healthy, and a healthy staff is often a lucky staff. It could get a lot better if Ricciardi can turn his dissatisfied SUN, Kelvim Escobar, into a shiny new pitching prospect. (May I suggest a deal with the Phillies for Brandon Duckworth? The Phillies have the depth to lose Duckworth, and the Phillies are at a point where a “closer” has some value.) The Jays already have Escobar’s replacement in place in Cliff Politte.
The Blue Jays are in a perfect position in the AL East. By staying healthy and having the team depth and flexibility to deal with the inevitable traumatic injuries, they’ll be in the position to take full advantage of any collapse in one of the older teams that should lead the division. The Jays might get outplayed, they’ll definitely get outspent, but they probably won’t get outsmarted.