Tuesday, March 30, 2010

2010 Year in Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

Sweeps week rolls on this morning with a look at the Toronto Blue Jays, last seen in 2009 with a 75-87 record, finishing 4th in the AL East, 28 GB the 103-59 Yankees.  The Blue Jays had themselves quite the offseason.  Let's get to it.

Key Departures: 

Goodbye, Doc.  I won't miss Halladay mowing down the Yankees game after game after game.  It seemed like we would face Halladay every time we played the Blue Jays.  We just couldn't catch a series where we got the soft end of the Jays' rotation.  Oh no.  There was Doc, going eight innings strong, throwing 132 pitches, striking out 7 and walking none.  Think I'm exaggerating?

In 2008, he faced the Yankees six times, six!, holding them to a .211/.262/.335 line with a K/BB ratio of 4.43.  Mind you, the Yankees faced the Blue Jays...wait for it...six times in 2008.  In 2009, he faced the Yankees five times, holding them to a .240/.274/.413 line with a K/BB ratio of 4.00.  The Yankees and the Blue Jays faced off 6 times in 2008, but two of those series were two-game affairs.  From 1999 to 2009, Halladay held the Yankees to a .239/.289/.367 line posting a 3.52 K/BB ratio.  He turned the Yankees into Nick Punto every time he faced them.  I'm glad Halladay is done tormenting the Yankees, but I'll miss getting the opportunity to see a master of the craft at work.

The Blue Jays dealt Halladay to to the Phillies for C Travis d'Arnaud, RHP Kyle Drabek, and outfielder Michael Taylor, whom they immediately flipped to Oakland for 3B prospect Brett Wallace. They lost SS Marco Scutaro to free agency when the Red Sox signed him to a two year deal, but will receive Boston's first round draft pick as compensation since Scutaro was a Type A free agent.  Other losses include C Rod Barajas, 1B Kevin Millar and RHP Brian Wolfe.  

Additionally, the Jays lost RHP Brandon League and minor league outfield prospect Johermyn Chavez when they traded them to the Mariners for RHP Brandon Morrow.

Key Additions: 
As mentioned above, the Jays picked up C Travis d'Arnaud, RHP Kyle Drabek, 3B Brett Wallace and RHP Brandon Morrow in trades this winter.  They also acquired RHP Dana Eveland from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for cash.  Other than that, the Jays went short-term and low-cost with their free agent signings, inking defensive king SS John McDonald to a two year, $3M deal, SS Alex Gonzalez to a 1 year, $2.75M deal, RHP Kevin Gregg to a 1 year, $2.75M deal with a $4.75M option for 2011 and an $8.75M option for 2012, and catcher John Buck for a 1 year, $2M deal. That's a grand total of $10.5M committed to the payroll.

Talent en Route: 
Without a doubt, the most highly regarded prospect the Jays now have is RHP Kyle Drabek.  This 23 year old was Philadelphia's first round draft pick in 2006 and was showing promise in his first season of work in 2007 by posting a 4.33 ERA in 54 IP, striking out 46 and walking 23. However, this campaign was cut short in July of that year when Drabek injured his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery.  In 2008, he returned to the mound for 32 innings, but 2009 was his first full year back and he did not disappoint.  Drabek threw 158 innings in 2009, splitting time between High A and Double A.  In High A, he struck out 10.8 batters per nine innings and walked 2.8 batters per nine.  Over 61 innings, his ERA was 2.48.  Upon his promotion to Double A, Drabek's K rate dipped slightly 7.41 batters per nine, and his walk rate stayed the same at 2.9.  Over 96 innings, Drabek posted an ERA 3.64.

Drabek is obviously a very talented pitching prospect, and is almost major-league ready.  His first full year of work when coming back from Tommy John surgery was tremendous, especially the control he exhibited.  Often, pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery find control to be one of the last things to return.  Additionally, Drabek has a good repetoire, using a great curveball to complement a legitimate power fastball.  However, there are a few things that  concern me about Drabek.  For one, I'd like to see his K rate in the higher levels of the minors be a bit higher than the 7.0 range. This will be the year that we see if he's able to do it.  Secondly, Drabek's jump in innings in 2009 seems a bit excessive, especially given his injury history.  Drabek threw 23 innings in 2006 as an 18 year old and 54 innings the following year before going down with his injury.  In 2008, he logged 32 innings in rehab starts and then was unleashed for 158 innings the following year.  It's almost as if the Phillies were trying to get as much out of him to maximize his trade value.  The last thing that gives me pause about Drabek is his size.  At 6'0", 185 lb, he has likely maxed out in terms of velocity and projection.  There's no rule that says you have to be tall to be a successful major league pitcher, but it certainly doesn't hurt.  This is just nit-picking though.  There's plenty to love about Drabek, and he'll be a big name to watch in 2010.

The second prospect to focus on in 2010 is big man Brett Wallace, a left-handed hitting, oversized masher listed generously at 6'2", 205 lb.  Here is a picture of Wallace when he played for the Cardinals:

That's a big boy.  Wallace has been around the league in the past two seasons.  He was originally drafted by the Blue Jays in 2005 in the 42nd round of the 2005 MLB draft, but didn't sign and went to Arizona State, where he was two-time Pac 10 Player of the Year.  In the 2008 MLB Draft, the Cardinals picked him with the 13th pick of the first round, and he put up an incredibly impressive line of .337/.427/.530 between A and AA as a 21 year old.  Of course, Wallace is an advanced college bat, so the real test of his ability came when he faced better pitching.  The following year, Wallace began in AA and improved his on-base skills while seeing a drop-off in slugging, putting up a line of .281/.403/.438.  The Cards promoted him after 32 games to AAA.  Here he saw further regression (.293/.346/.423), before getting traded to the A's in the Matt Holliday deal, at which point he went on an absolute tear, going for .302/.365/.505 and hitting 9 home runs in 182 ABs.  He finished the year with a combined line of .293/.367/.455, and then was promptly dealt to the Jays in exchange for OF Michael Taylor.  

Brett Wallace is a pure hitter and possesses the ability to hit for average and power.  Unfortunately, Wallace's defensive skills are minimal, due to his unathletic build and lack of speed.  The Jays will move him to first base, where his bat should play fine.  He is scheduled to start in Triple A in 2010, but may force his way onto the major league roster by mid-year.  Wallace will be a good source of power for the coming years, even if his defensive skills are minimal.  As a hitter, he reminds me a lot of Billy Butler, and I think Jays fans would be happy if Wallace can produce at Butler's level in the near future.  

2011 Salary and Free Agency Outlook
Thanks to the Rios and Halladay deals, the Jays have shed a lot of payroll going into 2010 and should begin the year with a payroll around $70M, down from $80M in 2009 and $94M in 2008.  The financial picture improves considerably for the Jays in the future though, as they only have $33M committed to payroll in 2011.  Unfortunately, $26M of that is committed to one player, Vernon Wells.  Wells is scheduled to make a sickening $26M in 2011, $24M in 2012, $24M in 2013 and $24M in 2014.  Words fail me. 

The Jays have a slew of players that will be due for significant raises going into 2011.  Brian Tallet and Shawn Camp are both due for their fourth and final year of arbitration in 2011, and Jeremy Accardo and Edwin Encarnacion are both scheduled for their third.  Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan and Casey Jansenn are all due for a big raise in their second year of arbitration eligibility, and Morrow, Litsch, Lind, Eveland and Carlson all become eligible for the first time. The good news for the Jays is that they have considerable talent that won't reach arbitration eligibility until at least 2012 in Travis Snider, Scott Richmond, Brett Cecil, Ricky Romero and Marc Rzepczynski.  Additionally, 2B Aaron Hil is signed to a very club-friendly deal that will pay him $4M in 2010, $5M in 2011 and gives the Jays $8M club options for 2012 and 2012 and a $10M club option in 2014.  That's a lot of cheap talent under team control for a very long time. 

So what will the Jays attempt to do in free agency in 2011?  Lyle Overbay, Jason Frasor, Scott Downs and John Buck are all scheduled to become free agents, so the Jays have ostensible holes at the back end of the bullpen, at first base, and at catcher.  As we noted above, though, Brett Wallace should be able to man first base by at least Opening Day 2011, leaving the Jays with a projected lineup of: 

C - Jose Molina or FA
1B - Brett Wallace 
2B - Aaron Hill 
SS - Alex Gonzalez (club option $2.5M)/John McDonald ($1.5M)
3B - Edwin Encarnacion 
LF - Travis Snider/Adam Lind 
CF - Vernon Wells 
RF - Jose Bautista/Travis Snider
DH - Adam Lind 

The obvious holes here are at catcher and RF.  I doubt we'll see the Jays pursue a big name at either of those positions.  At catcher, Buck may be a good candidate to return.  In right field, Xavier Nady might be a good fit.  The Jays could use Snider to RF and sign someone like Johnny Damon to play LF and split time at DH with Adam Lind.  Another option would be to sign a first baseman and use Lind in left, Snider in right and Wallace at DH, but I suspect the Jays want to see if Wallace's glove can stick at first before slotting him as a DH. 

In the rotation, the Jays have a ton of cheap, solid talent with a lot of upside.  Marcum, Romero and Morrow are the Jays' top three starters according to the Jays' Depth Chart, but Morrow has already had shoulder trouble this spring and I'm bearish on his ability to remain in the rotation long-term.  Thus, if Frasor and Downs leave via free agency, we might see the Jays shift Morrow to the bullpen, where his power stuff would play up.  The back-end of the rotation is solid, with strikeout artist Marc Rzepczynski and lefty Brian Tallet occupying the fourth and fifth spots.  Rzepczynski was one of my deep sleepers to target in fantasy baseball this year, and I'm wondering if we might see big things from him this year.  Beyond that, the Jays have Eveland, Cecil and McGowan waiting in the wings, all decent options with varying amounts of upside.  This has the potential to be a formidable pitching staff in 2010 and 2011, even without Roy Halladay. 

The Future of the Blue Jays
The Jays went through a tough time in 2009 when they realized the current construction of the team wasn't good enough to compete and that they needed to rebuilt and deal ace Roy Halladay.  It was a dark time for Jays fans, but things are on the up and up.  For one, ownership decided to can the criminally stupid JP Ricciardi.  If not for Ricciardi and his asinine signings of Rios, Wells and BJ Ryan, the Jays could have had the payroll flexibility to keep Halladay and even sign him to an extension.  What's done is done, though, and there are reasons for optimisim.

For one, they hired Alex Anthopolous to be their GM, and he has done a superb job in his first few months in an extremely difficult situation.  Secondly, they have a lot of high upside pitching talent coming off injury in Marcum and McGowan (and Litsch in 2011).  Thirdly, they have good, cheap options for the rotation in Rzepczynski, Romero and Cecil, with Drabek and Eveland on the outside looking in.  Finally,  they have solid, cheap bats in Hill, Snider, Wallace and Lind, and enough salary room to make a splash in 2011 or 2012 if they desire.  It's going to take a lot of things to go right, and in the AL East you have very little margin for error, but I think the Jays are going to see an improvement in 2010 and 2011, and fast.  And if they're able to deal Wells without eating his salary, then watch out.  

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