This is one of a series of posts in which we throw cold water on each team’s pathetic offseason twiddlings while spraying champagne all over their ingenious winter machinations.
The Toronto Blue Jays have been stuck in a funk lo these last few years. They compete in a tough-as-nails division, dominated by two big-market teams, and they only crack the top two when something goes horribly wrong with one of those teams (such as when the Red Sox experienced disastrous injuries in 2006, allowing the Jays to beat them for second place by one game). And last year, despite heading into the season with a promising lineup, they themselves suffered injury after injury, apparently cursed by a vengeful swamp hag. Yet despite this, they managed to hang around second place in the AL East through the first half of the 2007 season, as the Yankees were similarly blighted. Unfortunately for Toronto, the Yankees then suddenly remembered, “Holy s—, we’re the New York f—ing Yankees!” and started winning again. And the Blue Jays finished the season 13 games out of first place.
What did the Jays do this offseason to try and break out of their perpetual state of mediocrity? The signed David Eckstein. Now, David Eckstein, though often treated as little more than a punchline by the average blogger, is not actually terrible. However, he’s not actually that good, either.
The other major move made by the Jays this winter was the acquisition of Scott Rolen in a one-for-one trade of third basemen, sending Troy Glaus to the Cardinals. Rolen, pissed off at Tony La Russa, waived his no-trade clause to get out of St. Louis. Glaus, whose tender feet didn’t enjoy playing half their games on turf, was just as happy to leave the Rogers Center. When healthy, the two are remarkably similar in their offensive output, but Rolen has struggled to stay on the field since a collision at first base that left him with nagging shoulder problems. Then there’s the question of how hard Rolen will play—certainly, La Russa got the impression he was dogging it. (But perhaps Eckstein, the intangibly gritty gamer that he is, will inspire similar intestinal fortitude in his fellow infielder. There. There’s your David Eckstein joke. I hope you enjoyed it.) At least Rolen will be an upgrade, defensively. But it’s the contracts carried by each of these men that render the deal a bit of a puzzle. As Paul put it in a recent email, “Glaus had one year at $12.75m left on his deal. So they sent him away and got back Rolen who has three years and $33m left. Why would you paint yourself into a corner like that when you had the ability to lose payroll?” Why indeed? And in a year when third basemen were either commanding lucrative contracts (A-Rod, Mike Lowell) or functioning as the centerpiece in the winter’s biggest trade (Miguel Cabrera), and you, J.P. Ricciardi, wanted to trade Troy Glaus, why would you trade him for a Scott Rolen when you could have gotten a couple of decent prospects with upside?
The Jays win just enough, apparently, to keep the FO from admitting defeat and deciding to rebuild. Yet they lose too much to make the playoffs. So they’re stuck. They’ve got one bonafide ace in Roy Halladay and a good No. 2 in AJ Burnett. The back of their rotation is better than most—and at least their 3, 4, and 5 pitchers are all young. Closer BJ Ryan, who had Tommy John surgery in May, says he’ll be ready to go by Opening Day. But even if Lyle Overbay and Rolen can both bounce back offensively this year, their lineup will still lack sufficient on-base, top-of-the-order types, and they could use another power bat. Their defense? No real complaints (though Eckstein is a downgrade at short). In fact, despite the holes in their roster, the Jays have enough youngish, decent talent—guys like Halladay, Burnett, Alex Rios, Vernon Wells, Aaron Hill—that if their farm system were stocked, they might have a chance to make a good run at the Wild Card in the next couple of years. But will the farm provide?
The Jays have some decent prospects in their system, but none are close enough to the bigs to help out in the near future. In fact, the organization’s most exciting youngsters can’t even drink legally. The best of these is outfielder Travis Snider, who just turned 20 on Groundhog Day. Baseball Prospectus describes him as “one of the top hitting prospects in baseball” who projects for “legitimate MVP-level numbers” in the future. That’s the good news. The bad? His flaws make his plate approach sound a bit like JD Drew to me (“could use more aggressiveness at the plate…currently works himself into poor hitter’s counts while letting not perfect–yet perfectly hittable–pitches go by”) and the hulking 245-pounder is not fast (he got caught stealing nine times in a row last year). In a perfect world, he’d be “a number-three hitter on a championship-level team, and a perennial All-Star.” However, he has yet to play above low-A ball. For better or for worse, he still has a ways to go. And after Snider, what has Toronto got? A talented 18-year old third base prospect (Kevin Ahrens); a solid, middle-of-the-rotation type lefty making the transition from a closer to a starter and aiming for AA ball by the end of the summer (Brett Cecil); a 19-year old with power but no natural defensive position position who has played all of 49 games in the Gulf Coast League (John Tolisano); and a good catching prospect who still strikes out too much (J.P. Arencibia).
All this leads me to believe that the Lansing Lugnuts will be a great team to watch this year. I wish I could say the same for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Acquisitions: Rod Barajas, C; David Eckstein, SS; Marco Scutaro, 3B; Buck Coats, RF; Scott Rolen, 3B
Losses: Josh Towers, SP; Troy Glaus, 3B
Projected Lineup, Rotation, and Closer:
SS David Eckstein, 33 years old, 3 homers, .309 avg
1B Lyle Overbay, 31 years old, 10 homers, .240 avg
RF Alex Rios, 27 years old, 24 homers, .297 avg
DH Frank Thomas, 39 years old, 26 homers, .277 avg
2B Aaron Hill, 25 years old, 17 homers, .291 avg
CF Vernon Wells, 29 years old, 16 homers, .245 avg
3B Scott Rolen, 32 years old, 8 homers, .265 avg
C, Gregg Zaun, 36 years old, 10 homers, .242 avg
LF Reed Johnson, 31 years old, 2 homers, .236 avg
SP1 Roy Halladay, 30 years old, 225.1 IP, 3.71 ERA
SP2 AJ Burnett, 31 years old, 165.2 IP, 3.75 ERA
SP3 Dustin McGowan, 25 years old, 169.2 IP, 4.05 ERA
SP4 Jesse Litsch, 22 years old, 111.0 IP, 3.81 ERA
SP5a Shaun Marcum, 26 years old, 159.0 IP, 4.13 ERA
SP5b Gustavo Chacin, 27 years old, 27.1 IP, 5.60 ERA
CL BJ Ryan, 32 years old, 38 saves with a 1.37 ERA in 2006; he had 3 saves and 2 losses, with a 12.46 ERA in 2007.
What the Blue Jays have assembled here is not a bad team—if they played in the NL Central. Though the Toronto brass has promised to rebuild many times, they’ve yet to actually do so. I’m not asking for a drastic fire sale; they just need to stop acquiring mediocre hitters in their 30s. If they could face up to reality and unload a couple of their older players this year at the trade deadline, they could conceivably end up with some prospects who could actually help them in 2009 or 2010. But hoping for the two teams ahead of you to suddenly collapse—especially when those two teams have healthy farm systems and way more revenue than you do—is not a strategy.
Looking towards the future of the division, with the Devil Rays ascendant and the Orioles finally starting a rebuilding process of their own, if the Jays keep on their current path, they will soon be recalling their days in third place with fond nostalgia.