In my last column, I made a throwaway remark about the Blue Jays possibly and concomitantly being the third-place team in the AL East and the third-best team in all of baseball. It’s an intriguing notion–unassailable quality knuckling under to circumstance. Even so, it’s worth asking whether Toronto might have the goods to displace Boston or New York in the junior-circuit pecking order.

With the Red Sox and Yankees already brimming with talent and throwing cash around like Marion Barry sans tracking collar, the Jays, in spite of their substantial merits, will likely be resigned to the brand of pre-October respectability to which they’ve accustomed in recent years. Nothing terribly wrong with that. That’s especially the case for a team on a hermetically sealed budget and facing an unbalanced schedule packed with tilts against the Sox, Yanks and the suddenly passable Orioles. The upshot is that snagging a playoff spot for the Jays may be harder than it is for me to work a Procol Harum reference into this sentence.

Unaccommodating circumstances notwithstanding, one’s led to wonder: What would need to happen for the Jays, undeniably a fine team with a highly intelligent front office, to pass playoff muster this season? The first step is to determine how much ground they’ll need to make up.

Here’s what Nate Silver’s PECOTA projection system says about the AL East in ’04:

Team        Record   Runs Scored  Runs Allowed    Differential  Deficit
Yankees     105-57      920           654            +266        0
Red Sox     105-57      922           661            +261       -5 
Blue Jays    84-78      856           826            +30        -236
Orioles      82-80      789           773            +16        -250
Devil Rays   64-98      712           900            -188       -454

It’s no surprise that PECOTA has the Jays tabbed for their customary third-place finish. Going by the projections, for them to jump ahead in the AL East queue, they’d need to improve their run differential by roughly 232 runs, which would give them a better differential than Boston. I don’t need to tell you that that’s scarcely to be expected. Even so, let’s assume the Sox and Yankees neither exceed nor fall short of the above runs scored-runs allowed projections, and then let’s see where the Jays might stand to gain some ground in terms of run differential. Here are the PECOTA Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) forecasts for the projected Blue Jay lineup:

Lineup                2003 VORP    Projected 2004 VORP
C  - Greg Myers        28.0              3.1
1B - Carlos Delgado    72.2             50.3
2B - Orlando Hudson     9.8             12.7
3B - Eric Hinske       16.6             35.4
SS - Chris Woodward     7.1             16.4
OF - Frank Catalanotto 19.2             14.9
OF - Vernon Wells      62.3             32.8
OF - Reed Johnson       8.5              6.4
DH - Josh Phelps       20.5             27.4

As you can see, PECOTA projects declines in VORP from year-ago levels for Myers, Delgado, Catalanotto, Wells and Johnson. In the aggregate, those declines add up to 82.7 runs. For the Jays to have a prayer, those declines can’t happen. It’s almost inevitable that Myers will regress to the mean (his .307/.374/.502 line last season is plainly out of step with the rest of his career), but on the other hand it’s hard to envision the Jays tolerating a VORP of 6.4 from a corner outfield spot, what with talents like Jayson Werth, Alexis Rios (although he’s a center fielder) and Gabe Gross in the upper reaches of the system. The latest word is that Kevin Cash will get the majority of the starts at catcher.

It also seems unwise to bank on Delgado and Wells replicating their fine seasons of 2003. But this piece by nature is an exercise in wild optimism, so let’s say the Jays stave off these declines while holding serve in the other lineup slots. That brings the run deficit down to 149 runs. Now for the rotation:

Rotation               2003 VORP   Projected  2004 VORP
SP1 - Roy Halladay     66.8             48.5
SP2 - Miguel Batista   38.2             20.7
SP3 - Ted Lilly        20.5             15.7
SP4 - Pat Hentgen      26.4             16.1
SP5 - Josh Towers       9.2             11.6

Here we have more opportunities to make up some ground. PECOTA sooths declines for Halladay, Batista, Lilly and Hentgen, to a cumulative tune of 50.9 runs. Halladay was unabated brilliance in ’03, and to rely on that happening again, at least to such a stunning degree, is unwise. But those runs must come from somewhere if the Jays are going to dislodge either the Sox or Yankees, so we’ll run with it. Batista’s projection strikes me as especially low, so I think a marginal gain for him is very much a possibility. Let’s say all that happens; the Jays’ deficit is whittled down to 98 runs. On to the pen:

Bullpen                     2003 VORP   Projected 2004 VORP
CL - Justin Speier             17.3          11.3
RHP - Terry Adams              20.8          10.1
LHP - Valerio De Los Santos    -4.4           5.5
RHP - Talley Haines              NA            NA
LHP - Jason Kershner           15.1           6.0
RHP - Kerry Ligtenberg         15.1          11.1
RHP - Aquilino Lopez           18.2          13.7

According to PECOTA, declines are in order for Speier, Adams, Kershner, Ligtenberg and Lopez. That’s to say, everyone except for De Los Santos will be worse (projections for Rule-5 pick Haines aren’t available). The bullpen loses 34.3 runs from 2003. In this case, I think the Jays have a fair shot at making up the difference. PECOTA could certainly beat me at chess, but I think it’s underrating the Toronto pen. In particular, I’ll be surprised if Speier, Ligtenberg and Lopez don’t outperform their forecasts. So the pen shaves the margin down to 64 runs. The bench:

Bench         2003 VORP   Projected 2004 VORP
Kevin Cash     -13.6            3.8
Jayson Werth    -1.5           12.3
Chris Gomez     -3.1            4.7
Dave Berg       -0.6            1.7

Well, no help there. PECOTA projects VORP improvements for all four players, so the deficit remains 64 runs. What else?

OK, let’s projects five runs worth of additional skills growth for Hudson and five runs of improvement for Lilly over 2003 levels. That gets us down to 54 runs. Werth wrests more playing time from Johnson than projected, and that adds up to five runs. Haines is a keeper and constitutes a five-run improvement over the relievers that otherwise would’ve used up those innings. Now we’re down to 44. I’m pretty much out of ideas, and Toronto is still four-and-a-half games out of the Wild Card spot.

That means for the Jays to garner a playoff berth in 2004, not only must the majority of their lineup and almost the entirety of their pitching staff exceed projections, but the Yanks or Sox must also fail to meet their team-wide forecasts by 40 runs or so. While stranger things have happened, it’s highly unlikely that the Jays will rise above “show” in the brutal AL Central. This is a team that could possibly win any other division in baseball. Instead, they’ll be shanghaied by the fact that they toil in the same neighborhood as the overloaded Yankees and Red Sox.