SB Nation's 2010 MLB Previews: Toronto Blue Jays, A Plan At Last

Every day, from March 1st through March 30th, we will be posting a new team preview for the upcoming MLB season, written up by our excellent network of baseball bloggers. Follow this section for daily updates as you prepare yourself for the summer ahead. Team previews will be posted in ascending order of Las Vegas World Series odds.

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SB Nation's 2010 MLB Previews: Toronto Blue Jays, A Plan At Last

By Daniel Hugo of Blue Bird Banter

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Introduction

After the past few seasons where the Blue Jays couldn’t seem to decide whether to rebuild or go for it, resulting in stagnation, last year’s season finally convinced the Jays to let General Manager J.P. Ricciardi go, replace him with his assistant, Alex Anthopolous, and put the team into rebuild mode.  Roy Halladay, the pride of the team, is gone.  While many expect the Jays to be terrible this season, and the harsh competition in the AL East certainly doesn’t help matters, I think the Jays may be good sooner than people might think.  

Position Players

C – John Buck
1B – Lyle Overbay
2B – Aaron Hill
SS – Alex Gonzalez
3B – Edwin Encarnacion
LF – Travis Snider
CF – Vernon Wells
RF – Jose Bautista
DH – Adam Lind

Bench: Mike McCoy (IF/OF), John McDonald (IF), Jose Molina (C), Randy Ruiz (IF/OF) 

Encarnacion was acquired in the trade deadline deal that brought Scott Rolen to Cincinnati.  Jays fans are hoping that his awful 2009 was brought on by his wrist injury, for which he had surgery over the offseason, and that he can return to his 2008 form at the plate.  Jays fans also hope that infield whiz Brian Butterfield can correct some of the footwork and positioning issues that have made Encarnacion a horrible fielder over his career.  The first of those seems possible, but the second seems like wishful thinking.  Shortstop Alex Gonzalez is the other new addition and while he will no doubt be a significant downgrade from the brilliance that was Marco Scutaro’s 2009, he should at least bring a steady glove.  

If you didn’t think that Jose Bautista was an everyday right fielder, you’re certainly not the only one.  Bautista is a useful bench player due to his versatility and ability to hit lefties, and did end 2009 on a high note playing every day (he hit .257/.339/.660 with 10 home runs playing right field everyday last September), but this is still a guy whose career line against righties is .202/.331/.303, and manager Cito Gaston has all but anointed Bautista the everyday right fielder and leadoff man.  Jays fans might hope that career minor-leaguer Randy Ruiz, another player who hit well during the stretch (.313/.385/.635 in 130 plate appearances last season) hits well enough to claim an everyday job, which might push Bautista to the bench, but such a move would sacrifice defense at a number of positions and leave the Jays without a leadoff hitter.  If anything I would think that Ruiz’s emergence into the lineup will come at the expense of Travis Snider, who hasn’t shown well so far early this spring and in whom Gaston does not appear very confident, despite his pedigree.   At the same time, it’s not like Bautista would need to do all that much to give the Jays more than Alex Rios did last season.  

Another player to watch is Vernon Wells, who really struggled last season, hitting .260/.311/.400, with just 15 home runs.  Wells has also graded poorly in the field the past two seasons (-18.2 UZR last year), suggesting he may be in decline.  Anecdotally, Wells seemed to improve in the second half, and he did suffer a hamstring injury in the spring, but I don’t think anyone doubts that he has lost a step or two.  As with Encarnacion and Gonzalez, though, Toronto doesn’t really have a better option waiting in the high minors, so I don’t see Wells moving to a corner spot anytime soon.  Wells broke his wrist during the 2008 season making a diving catch, and his wrist was giving him problems last season.  While it is, I suppose, somewhat encouraging that he too had wrist surgery over the offseason and reportedly feels good, it’s a bit sad when your cause for optimism for two everyday position players is offseason wrist surgery.  

Adam Lind (.305/.370/.562 in 2009 with 46 doubles and 35 home runs) and Aaron Hill (.286/.330/.499 with 36 long balls), along with Scutaro, provided most of the offense last season, and that’s likely to be the case again this year.  While I don’t expect either Lind or Hill to improve on his home run total, Lind was a force to be reckoned with last year and Hill has some room for improvement in terms of reaching base) . Youngster Travis Snider could help out, but he has to win an everyday job first.  Lyle Overbay, who had a good year with the bat in 2009 but couldn’t hit lefties at all, will be back, though the Jays have been and will continue to deal Overbay and clear the position for Ruiz, Brian Dopirak, or Brett Wallace.

The only other addition the Jays made was allowing Rod Barajas to leave and signing John Buck to a team-friendly deal.  Buck should provide decent offensive numbers for a catcher and has reportedly been working very hard on his defense. 

Defensively, the Jays slipped last year from their excellent 2008, and I expect them to slip again this season.  Replacing Rolen with Encarnacion is a large blow, and Gonzalez is unlikely to be any better than Scutaro was in 2009.  While Wells could improve a little, none of the other positions figure to be any better in 2010.  

Rotation

Shaun Marcum, RHP
Ricky Romero, LHP
Brandon Morrow, RHP
Marc Rzepczynski, LHP
Brian Tallet, LHP

Losing Halladay is a big hit, and of course no one will be able to replace him, but this group could surprise.  

Shaun Marcum missed all of 2009 after Tommy John surgery late in 2008, but he was an excellent pitcher from 2007-2008, showing the ability to strike batters out, despite not being a power pitcher, without walking many at all  (2.23 career K/BB ratio in the majors).   I don’t expect him to replicate the 3.39 ERA he managed in 2008 over 25 starts, as he was clearly aided by one of the best defenses in the league that year, but all indications thusfar this spring are that he is healthy and throwing well.  

Ricky Romero, the Jays’ first-round pick in 2005 (6th overall) made the rotation out of camp last year when he impressed the team with his stuff and tenacity.  Romero had some ups and downs last season, but ultimately turned in a solid rookie effort (4.30 ERA over 29 starts).  His K/BB numbers (141/79 over 178 innings) were driven a bit by walks that came in bunches, but overall, he did very well.  Romero has really impressed the Jays with his work ethic, stuff, and confidence so far this spring, and so it looks like he is in the rotation to stay.  Before spring training started, I thought just maintaining his 2009 production would be a fine 2010 goal for Romero, but now I’m starting to get my hopes up a bit.  

Brandon Morrow is the new face here.  He was, of course, acquired in the trade that sent Brandon League to Seattle.  Morrow made 10 starts last year but hasn’t really had an opportunity to start regularly.  The Jays intend to change that.  The line on Morrow is well-known – great stuff, walks too many.  While I generally don’t think that being overly generous with walks goes well with pitching in the AL East, Morrow is still relatively young (he will turn 26 this July) so there’s some reason to think that he may still improve his control.  

Rzepczynski (we call him everything from "Zep" to "Chef" to "Scrabble") looks to have locked up a rotation spot this season already.  He did a really nice job over his 11 starts last season (3.67 ERA, 60 Ks and 30 walks in 61 innings) and got a ton of strikeouts with his movement-rich offerings.  I can’t see him pitching quite as well this season, but he should be fine as long as he manages to limit the walks.  With the way his slider moves, I don’t think the Ks are going anywhere.  

Finally, Brian Tallet, the one guy I see being a below-average starter in the Jays rotation this season.  Tallet did a fine job filling in as an emergency injury replacement last season but it’s not as though he set the world on fire (5.41 ERA over his 25 starts, with a 1.61 K/BB ratio and a 1.53 WHIP).  Yet Cito Gaston has already all but handed Tallet the job over talented youngsters such as Brett Cecil (who was 22 last season and pitched as well, if not better, than Tallet did).  

The real wild card in the rotation is Dustin McGowan, the former first-rounder who hasn’t pitched since mid-2008.  McGowan suffered a torn labrum, a very difficult injury from which to come back, and his road back has been a rocky one.  That said, he has been throwing this spring, reportedly without pain, and the Jays haven’t ruled out that he would be able to start the season in the rotation, or else join the rotation soon after the season begins.  If he were able to return and pitch effectively it would be a big lift to a young rotation.    

Even if McGowan can’t go, though, I’d expect 2010 to see a Jays’ rotation in flux.  Unlike with their position players, they have a number of young pitchers who are either ready or almost ready for the majors in Cecil, Brad Mills, Zach Stewart, Robert Ray, and so on.  I’m guessing all of the above will factor into the Jays' rotation picture in 2010.

Bullpen  

Jason Frasor, rhp
Scott Downs, lhp
Kevin Gregg, rhp
Shawn Camp, rhp
Jesse Carlson, lhp
Jeremy Accardo, rhp
Casey Janssen, rhp

The Jays’ bullpen in 2009 was basically middle of the road, following excellent 2007 and 2008 bullpen campaigns.  It will be interesting to see where 2010 stacks up.  With the end of the B.J. Ryan affair, Scott Downs and Jason Frasor shared the closer job and both pitched extremely well.  Downs finished the season with 43 Ks and 13 walks over 46 2/3 innings (3.09 ERA) missing time when he injured his foot running out a ground ball in an at-bat he never should have had.  Frasor, for his part, had 56 Ks and 16 walks over 57 1/3 innings, with a 2.50 ERA, using a new split-changeup to really reach the next level, particularly against lefthanders.  Together they are a formidable righty-lefty combination.  

The Jays went out and acquired Kevin Gregg in the offseason, perhaps because they would like to trade Downs and/or Frasor.  I’m not sure I quite understand that as Frasor and Downs will likely both be Type A free agents after this season and  are the type of relievers that a team might give up a top draft pick for, while Gregg, if he is a Type A at all, is likely to be that brand of Type A reliever who no one wants to sign (assuming he is offered arbitration).   Gregg isn’t an awful pitcher but he had a bad case of homeritis last season and that doesn’t really bode well for his entry into the tough hitters and cozy ballparks that comprise the AL East.  We’ll have to see what happens.  

As for the rest of the pen, they should be capable enough, although each have really only had one good Major League season.    

In The System

The Jays have really restocked their system over the past year, taking it from one of the weaker systems in the league to a decent one.  That said, the reason the Jays had such a "weak" system in the first place is because of the impressive rate at which they have graduated players, particularly pitchers, out of the system to become capable Major Leaguers.  In terms of who could help out this year, a few names stand out.  

If Travis Snider doesn’t make the team out of spring, look for him to provide a boost when he does get called up.  Brian Dopirak had a huge year in the minors last season (.317/.371/.549 with 27 home runs and 42 doubles across double- and triple-A) and could be ready to make an impact in the Majors this season.  While he is a bit old (he turned 26 this offseason) he is a former top prospect whose ascent was slowed by injuries so one can’t simply write him off.  If Lyle Overbay is moved, Dopirak could find himself playing regularly.  Brett Wallace, who was acquired in the Roy Halladay trade bonanza (actually acquired when Toronto flipped Michael Taylor, one of the players they got for Halladay), will start the year at AAA and could also make his impact this season.  Wallace is being moved from third base to first base.  Finally, 2007 1st-round pick J.P. Arencibia had a rough season last year but still belted 21 home runs and 32 doubles and earned high marks for his work behind the plate.  He had offseason surgeries to correct a kidney problem and astigmatism, and so he could be primed for a big bounce-back year.  I wish he’d take a walk once in a while, but he could find his way onto the Major League squad midway through the season or so.  

Brad Mills is a control-and-command type lefty who is probably ready to step up and be a respectable Major League starter – he just needs the opportunity.   Brett Cecil had an up-and-down rookie season but definitely showed flashes of why he was a first-round pick – I think he could definitely contribute, given the chance.  

Miscellaneous

Cito Gaston is in his final year as a Major League manager.  At least that’s what we hear.  Toronto is set to make him a senior consultant after the season.  While he will be staying with the organization, it will be interesting to see how the players and the media treat someone who clearly will not be back to manage the team in 2011.  There were ripples of discontent in the clubhouse late last season, and while its easy to dismiss those as the sort of things that happen when a team goes through a long, unsuccessful season, there’s every reason to believe that 2010 will be another long, unsuccessful season, so I could see it coming up again.  On the other hand, new GM Alex Anthopolous has been a bit of a ray of light for the Jays, dealing Halladay for more than most thought he could get, pulling what could be a coup in getting Brandon Morrow, and renewing the team’s emphasis on scouting.  "AA" has Jays fans feeling optimistic for the first time in a while, even if this year isn’t the year.  

Conclusion

It should be an interesting year for Toronto.  If the Jays are smart, they will use their plate appearances, starts, and innings to develop their young talent and separate the guys who will be a part of the team’s future from those who won’t.  I’m prepared to be wrong, but I’m optimistic enough to think that the Jays can actually improve on last season’s win total, which wouldn’t be a bad step considering 2010 is the first year of rebuild.

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