The leaves are changing and the hot stove is beginning to percolate. Pretty soon, we’ll be craving hot chocolate, hot totties, and Hot Shots Part Deux. So it must be time for UmpBump’s What They Need series, which was voted by UmpBump writers as the sixteenth best What They Need type posts on the internet. Let’s kick things off with our lonely neighbors up north, the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Blue Jays are in quite the pickle. They ought to take some solace in the fact that they won 86 games while playing in what was the toughest division in baseball this year and the overwhelmingly primary reason for their competitiveness was their pitching and defense. As a team, the Jays allowed 3.77 runs per game, which was by far the best in all of baseball. Their pitchers did very well in the three most important aspects of pitching – missing bats, limiting walks, and keeping the ball inside the park.
But it’s highly unlikely that they could repeat such successes. For one, A.J. Burnett became a free agent after opting out of the last two years of his contract that was due to pay him $24MM. Perhaps far worse, their two prized 26-year old pitchers, Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan, are recovering from surgery – Marcum had Tommy John and will miss the entire 2009 season and McGowan’s return date is uncertain following surgery on his labrum, though it’s believed that he won’t be back until the season is well underway. Although this is a team that still boasts ace Roy Halladay and the somewhat promising Jesse Litsch, that’s three starters that will have to be replaced before Opening Day. And I don’t know how they plan on doing this.
One spot is probably going to be filled by David Purcey, a former first-round pick who made his big league debut in 2008 following a very impressive showing in AAA-Syracuse. While Purcey was certainly not immune to struggles in the 12 starts he made for the Jays thanks to a high walk rate, his minor league numbers over the past year or so seems to suggest that he’ll be just fine on that front in due time. But beyond Purcey, it’s anyone’s guess.
It’s certainly possible that the expected return of Casey Janssen could be another piece of the puzzle, but I am skeptical as to how reliable he could be in such a role. In 2007, Janssen surprised many by becoming an effective set-up man just one season after bombing in 17 starts. But he missed all of 2008 after requiring surgery on his labrum. His minor league numbers suggest that his strikeouts could improve, but he’s yet to show that at the big league level.
Below the surface, the Jays do have other promising young pitchers. Coming into 2008, one of their best pitching prospect was 23-year old lefty Ricky Romero. But he struggled quite a bit in the 21 starts he made for AA-New Hampshire before posting a good ERA in AAA-Syracuse. It’s clear that his control remains a major issue, walking over 4.1 hitters per nine innings. There’s also lefty Brett Cecil, but he could use some more development time in AAA and Brad Mills has only notched 32 innings in AA.
I wouldn’t be so down on the Blue Jays’ chances next year if their offense was even decent. But it’s not. It’s increasingly clear that they made a huge mistake by signing Vernon Wells to a ridiculous 7-year contract that pays him $86MM over the last four years. Wells is going to be 30 come Opening Day and he’s already among the worst defensive center fielders in baseball. He’s going to be a corner outfielder very soon and when that happens, his bat won’t look so special. And Wells was the best bat in the lineup in 2008, which should tell you something.
So here’s what I think the Jays ought to be doing.
- Explore what value Roy Halladay has in the trade market. With the current state of their rotation, I have a very hard time seeing them competing in 2009, with or without Doc. If they can get a major league ready bat or two (preferably at the infield corner spots) plus a good prospect, they’d be in much better position to compete in 2010. With his comparatively bargain contract ($30MM over two), he has far more value to a contending team than the Jays.
- Find a DH that can actually hit. I don’t have too much of a problem with teams who fill their DH slot with aging hitters that rotates annually. I do have a problem with teams with DHs that can’t hit. This is the easiest spot on the Jays roster to improve if they feel that prospect Travis Snyder isn’t ready to take over full-time.
As it is currently constructed, the Jays have no positional players that rate above average and I don’t expect that to change all that much in 2009 no matter what they do. Their corner infield spots are taken up by over-the-hill hitters (Overbay and Rolen) whose main value lies in their defense. If those skills slip soon, they’re in serious trouble. I also don’t foresee their two “big” bats, Wells and Alex Rios, to get any better than they already are since they don’t walk nearly enough. I do like Adam Lind and hope that the Jays give him a regular gig to show what he can do. If they can get value back for Halladay, the Jays will still have a good rotation come 2010, with McGowan and Marcum at the top followed by Purcey and Litsch. If prospects Mills and/or Cecil develop well, then they’ll be very good. But all of that will be for naught unless their lineup actually scores some runs, which is why getting hitters in return for Doc is crucial to their future success.