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2008 Toronto Blue Jays
Do they really have what it takes? 2008 Spring Preview
by Scott Glab,
March 17, 2008

Do you remember the last time the Yankees and the Red Sox weren't the top two teams in the AL East? Well, it was actually 2006, when a late season Boston collapse led Toronto to an 86-76, 2nd place finish...which was also good for 7th in the AL. Other than that, the status quo at the top has remained the same since 1997. So what could possibly push the Blue Jays into the playoffs this year?

2007 Standings- AL East W L PCT GB HOME ROAD RS RA Pyth W Pyth L
Boston Red Sox 96 66 0.593 - 51-30 45-36 867 657 101 61
New York Yankees 94 68 0.580 2.0 52-29 42-39 968 777 97 65
Toronto Blue Jays 83 79 0.512 13.0 49-32 34-47 753 699 87 75
Baltimore Orioles 69 93 0.426 27.0 35-46 34-47 756 868 71 91
Tampa Bay Devil Rays 66 96 0.407 30.0 37-44 29-52 782 944 67 95

They've played like an 86-88 win team for the last three years, despite key injuries to their pitching staff. Factor in that the BoSox and Yanks are relying heavily on both extremely old and extremely young players, and 2008 plus a dash of health and a pinch of luck may be the best recipe in years for the Blue Jays to fly in October. But do they really have what it takes?
Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Scott Rolen 3B
David Eckstein SS
Marco Scutaro 2B
Buck Coats IF/OF
Rod Barajas C
Armando Benitez RHP
Shannon Stewart LF
Shawn Camp RHP
Ryan Ketchner LHP
John Parrish LHP
Departed Pos.
Troy Glaus 3B
Josh Towers RHP
Royce Clayton SS
Jason Phillips C/1B
Tomokazu Ohka RHP

2007 Starter    Gregg Zaun
Projected 2008 Starters   Gregg Zaun, Rod Barajas

There seems to be a common trend among catchers that are considered journeymen or defensive specialists to develop their offensive skills to the fullest in their early-to-mid thirties. Henry Blanco and Mike Matheny transformed from abysmal with the bat to merely below average. While Zaun doesn't have their defensive skills, he started with a below average bat and has progressed to nearly average. And with Rod Barajas backing him up this season, the Blue Jays figure to get pretty decent offense from the catcher position. By the way, does anyone know why his name is spelled "Gregg" when it's short for Gregory?

First Base
2007 Starter   Lyle Overbay
Projected 2008 Starter   Lyle Overbay

Who is Lyle Overbay? Or rather, what first baseman will his career come to resemble? Worst case scenario paints him as a Rico Brogna and has him out of baseball by 2010. Best case scenario has him pounding the ball in his mid-thirties like David Segui. But most likely, he starts to resemble Sean Casey more and more every year. Actually, what we are sure about Overbay is that he is the only lefty in the starting lineup, with Zaun being a switchie and his backup/sometimes DH Matt Stairs being the other significant lefty available. Not too well-balanced.

Second Base
2007 Starter   Aaron Hill
Projected 2008 Starter   Aaron Hill

In 2007, Aaron Hill learned how to swing the bat. His walk rate dipped slightly and his strikeouts increased, but boy did he make better contact. His slugging average rose 73 points, highlighted by his 47 doubles. And he was already a fabulous defender. And he is only 26 years old.

Aaron Hill
Third Base
2007 Starter   Troy Glaus
Projected 2008 Starter   Scott Rolen

In a rare straight-up swap, the Blue Jays sent Troy Glaus to the Cardinals for Scott Rolen this off-season. Either player could prove spectacular or disastrous in 2008. It's easy to forget that Rolen turns 33 this April, considering that he's been a starting third baseman since 1997. But it's also easy to forget that he has had shoulder problems for the last three years and has been abysmal with the bat for two of them. Still, Rolen's career averages are around .280-.370-.510, and anything less should be viewed as a disappointment.

2007 Starters   John McDonald, Royce Clayton
Projected 2008 Starter   David Eckstein
Surprise Candidate
Shannon Stewart
A veteran fighting for respect and playing time on the team that weaned him. This may be just the motivation he needs to approach the batting-champ highs I predicted for him 5 years ago.
Disappointment Candidate
BJ Ryan
The Jays will rush him and he will falter

Eckstein was the 2006 World Series MVP and Rolen's teammate for three years. He is a far, far better signing by the Jays (1 yr, 4.5M) than Royce Clayton was last year (1 yr, 1.5M). Clayton, as we at Baseball Evolution boggled at last year, was a clear offensive liability who got jobs based on his reputation as a defender 10 years ago. Eckstein is a 33-year old shortstop with back problems and quickly deteriorating fielding prowess, yes, but he also hit .309 last year and has a career .351 OBP. Teamed with the slick fielding John McDonald, this could prove to be a valuable platoon, and will at least avoid being the train wreck that the position was last year.

2007 Starters   Vernon Wells, Alexis Rios, Adam Lind, Reed Johnson, Matt Stairs
Projected 2008 Starters   Vernon Wells, Alexis Rios, Adam Lind, Reed Johnson, Matt Stairs, Shannon Stewart

I picked Vernon Wells to be the 2007 AL Disappointing Player of the Year, and it was a fabulous choice... for me, but not for poor Vernon. He is still a fixture in center field and should rebound a bit this year, but certainly not enough to justify his 7 year, $126M contract. Alexis Rios is solid-to-excellent offensively with a cannon arm in right, and Shannon Stewart and Reed Johnson are battling for time in left. Throw Stairs into the mix on occasion because he can flat out hit, and Adam Lind because he is young, lefty, and hit a ton in the minors, and this outfield should be plenty adequate, though not spectacular. In other words, it probably won't cut it in the loaded American League.

Blue Jays Fun Fact
John Gibbons (270) should pass Jimy Williams (281) this season for third most wins for a Toronto manager all-time. Also in reach is second place Bobby Cox (355), but Gibbons is years away from challenging Cito Gaston who rides the top with 683 wins
Designated Hitter
2007 Starter   Frank Thomas
Projected 2008 Starters   Frank Thomas

Thomas stayed healthy throughout 2007 and posted fine yet unspectacular numbers. Matt Stairs was healthy, but only had around 400 plate appearances, and he knocked the snot out of the ball. Both players turn 40 this season, but between them, Barajas, and the glut in the outfield, Toronto has plenty of options here.

2007 Crew   Jason Phillips, Russ Adams
Projected 2008 Bench   John McDonald, Marco Scutaro

The Blue Jays were forced to use Adam Lind last year for injured Reed Johnson, and that seasoning should prime him to contribute in a role off the bench. No more Jason Phillips or Royce Clayton, but welcome Rod Barajas and former A's starter Marco Scutaro as their more capable replacements. Sal Fasano and Curtis Thigpen remain to battle for the third catcher position, and Joe Inglett is a career minor league middle infielder who will vie for a spot on the opening day roster along with C/3B Robinson Diaz.

Starting Pitchers
2007 Starters Roy Halladay, AJ Burnett, Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum, Jesse Litsch, Josh Towers, Tomokazu Ohka, Gustavo Chacin
Projected 2008 Starters Roy Halladay, AJ Burnett, Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum, Jesse Litsch, Gustavo Chacin

BJ Ryan
Josh Towers is in Colorado!! Josh Towers is in Colorado!! I could go on about how the Blue Jays' two proven commodities (Burnett and Halladay) need to combine for over 400 IP, or about how effective their youngsters were last year (McGowan and Marcum were 25; Litsch was 22) or how electric McGowan's stuff is, but it is far more important that the Blue Jays ditched Towers. Over the last two years, Towers has started 27 games and posted a 6.50 ERA while yielding 222 hits in 169 innings, and giving up nearly two home runs per 9 innings.

So, to summarize: Josh Towers is in Colorado!! Josh Towers is in Colorado!!

Relief Pitchers
2007 Relievers Jeremy Accardo, Scott Downs, Casey Janssen, Jason Frasor, Brian Tallet, Brian Wolfe
Projected 2008 Relievers BJ Ryan, Jeremy Accardo, Scott Downs, Jason Frasor, Brian Tallet, Brandon League

While all 5 of Toronto's starters are righties, their bullpen boasts an elite lefty setup man in Downs and an elite lefty closer in BJ Ryan. In theory. In practice, Ryan is 10 months removed from Tommy John surgery, and while an effective comeback is possible in that time span, I wouldn't bet my maple syrup collection on it. Accardo served as the closer in Ryan's absence last year and was brilliant, but this bullpen needs a healthy Ryan to hang with the heavy hitters in their division.

Outlook for the Season

It's easy to paint a picture of optimism for an obviously talented team whose nucleus has been together for about three years now. But nothing comes for free in the AL this year. As in the past three seasons, if fate rolls the right way, these guys could win 90-95 games and win the division or the wild card. But they could just as easily win 90-95 and be left out in the cold. More likely is that they win 85-88 games, and remain relevant in the AL until late August or September, when they can relish their role as able spoilers and also-rans.

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