AL East Breakdown: Toronto Blue Jays
By Brian Phair
Continuing with my breakdown of each AL East team leading up to Spring Training, here is my take on the Toronto Blue Jays. The only MLB franchise north-of-the-border has been beating the winter cold with several moves, both trades and acquisitions. GM Alex Anthopoulos has done an impressive job keeping busy, attempting to put together a competitive team in the most competitive division in baseball. The 2010 season was the 1st for Anthopoulos as GM, after 8 years of J.P. Riccardi at the helm, so he still has a lot to prove. Last season, the Blue Jays finished with a very respectable 85-77 record, but it was only good enough to place them 4th in the AL East, 11 games behind the 1st place Tampa Bay Rays. (more after the jump)
One of the biggest changes this off-season for the Blue Jays was not player-related, but the signing of their new manager, John Farrell. The former Red Sox pitching coach was the perfect fit for the job, because the Blue Jays were in the beginning stages of trying to revamp their pitching staff. Farrell spent 5 years in Boston and his pitching staffs were always successful, even when battling through spells of tough injuries. He gained experience working with young talent, helping them grow (Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz), which will likely help him tremendously in Toronto. I hope Farrell is successful in Canada, but not too successful.
Now, on to the players. There were some extremely notable departures from Toronto this off-season, so let’s begin there.
LHP Scott Downs
RHP Kevin Gregg
1B Lyle Overbay
RHP Shawn Hill
RHP Jeremy Accardo
LF Fred Lewis
RHP Shaun Marcum
CF Vernon Wells
Just reading through the list of departures is exhausting for the Blue Jays. There was clearly a focus on re-vamping the club, especially with the pitching staff. Outside of the pitching staff, however, there were a few big name players that were on the move for the Blue Jays, the biggest being the trade of CF Vernon Wells. His massive contract extension a few years ago turned out to be a total bust and for the last few seasons, the Blue Jays have wanted to dump Wells’ salary on someone else. A move was finally able to be completed, sending Wells and cash to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for Juan Rivera and Mike Napoli. It was certainly one of the most talked about moves this off-season, because by unloading Wells, the Blue Jays had considerably more flexibility with their money.
The Blue Jays turned around and sent C Mike Napoli to the Texas Rangers for RHP Frank Francisco, further improving their bullpen. Another notable position player departure was C John Buck. In an extremely thin catching market, Buck became the #2 sought after player (behind Victor Martinez) and signed with the Florida Marlins. With the emergence of their young, hot-shot catcher, J.P. Arencibia, the Jays felt Buck was expendable. Just today, Anthopoulos told a crowd of Blue Jays fans that he wants to give Arencibia every chance to shine in the majors in 2011.
"We really don’t want to get in the way of J.P. Arencibia because we do believe that he’s an important component of this team. He has nothing more to prove down [in the minors]. He needs to get an opportunity to play up here and we might have to let him live through some struggles early on. –GM Alex Anthopoulos"
The Jays also let their 1st baseman Lyle Overbay file for free agency after 5 years with the club. He played in 122+ games every season with the Jays, but struggled to break the .250 batting average barrier in 2007 and again last season. He did hit 83 home runs in his Jays tenure, but that wasn’t enough for a new contract. He signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates instead, a 1-year, $5 million deal. The only other notable position player departure was outfielder Fred Lewis, who hit .262 with 8 home runs in his only season with the Jays. Lewis had little value in the market, so the 30-year old signed a 1-year, $900K deal with the Cincinnati Reds.
Moving on to the pitching departures, the list is long. With relievers Kevin Gregg, Scott Downs, and Jeremy Accardo and starters Shawn Hill and Shaun Marcum, the Jays clearly were interested in overhauling their pitching staff. Off the top, the loss of Accardo was insignificant, because he was inconsistent in his 4+ years with the Jays, posting a 8.10 era in 5 games in 2010. Downs on the other hand, was a significant piece of the Jays bullpen for the past 6 seasons. He was a dominant lefty who posted a 3.13 era in 365 games (18 starts and 347 relief appearances) and became a staple match-up guy late in games. Gregg was a solid reliever in his only season with the team, posting a 3.51 era and appearing in 63 games.
The 29-year old Hill didn’t see much playing time in the majors, but in his 4 starts, had just a 2.61 era. The bigger loss was Shaun Marcum, who was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for Brett Lawrie in early December. Marcum emerged as a solid anchor in the Jays rotation. He had a breakout season in 2007 and was on pace for another strong campaign in 2008 before he began to have elbow injuries. Unfortunately, Marcum had to have Tommy John Surgery and didn’t return to action until last season, but in his last 3 seasons in the majors (2007, part of 2008 and 2010), he has shown shades of brilliance. He went 34-21 with a 3.72 era in 94 appearances (81 starts) since the beginning of 2007.
Now that we have examined the long list of players no longer with the Jays, let’s look at a selection of the important acquisitions the club made this winter.
RHP Octavio Dotel
RHP Chad Cordero
LHP Wil Ledezma
RHP Jon Rauch
RHP Frank Francisco
2B Brett Lawrie
LF Juan Rivera
CF Rajai Davis
No surprise, similar to the departures list, the Jays made a lot of moves surrounding their pitching staff. Besides the list above, the Jays also made moves to bring in a handful of minor-league pitchers, hoping to build their system up and reap the type of success the Red Sox and Yankees have felt over the past few years with young talent emerging in the big leagues. The minor-league moves won’t make fans happy immediately, but it is definitely a sign of the long-term vision and success the club hopes to generate. Given the team’s success in 2010 with the 22nd highest payroll in the league, some more development and an increased budget will go a long way in the coming years.
Some of the bigger name pitchers that will join the Jays in 2011 include veteran relievers Jon Rauch, Chad Cordero and Frank Francisco. All three of these guys have some closing experience, compiling 207 saves combined (128 for Cordero), which will help the Jays lineup their bullpen late in games. Cordero is by far the biggest question mark, because he has appeared in just 15 games since the beginning of the 2008 season because he needed surgery to repair a labrum tear and then had issues with the Nationals assignment in the minors, causing a derailment of his success. If he can turn around and return to the success he had from 2005-2007 (2.79 era, 113 saves), then the Jays will have an extremely strong bullpen. They still need to solidify a lefty-specialist role, but with Jesse Carlson and David Purcey, they have potential options.
The Jays also brought in pitchers Carlos Villanueva, Octavio Dotel, and Wil Ledezma. Both Ledezma and Dotel bring a plethora of experience to the table. Ledezma may be the lefty-specialist the Jay are looking for, but he has not shown any consistency since his time with the Detroit Tigers. Dotel has had a strong 3.75 era in his 12 seasons as a major-leaguer, the past 3 in the NL with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Colorado Rockies. Villanueva, on the other hand, is a bit less experienced, but still brings a lot to the table, maybe more than any other acquisition this winter. He has a decent 4.34 era in 5 seasons in the majors with the Brewers and has shown signs of potential dominance, but just hasn’t been able to sustain success. In a new environment, Villanueva could find that consistency he has been missing.
As for position players, the Jays acquired 3 via trade: outfielder Juan Rivera in the Vernon Wells trade, 2nd baseman Brett Lawrie in the deal for Shaun Marcum and outfielder Rajai Davis in return for relievers Danny Farquhar and Trystan Magnuson. Rivera is most well-known for his time with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, where he hit .277 with 92 home runs the past 6 seasons. He will bring a powerful bat to the Jays lineup and will balance the light-hitting Davis they also acquired. Davis is a fast, solid-average, low-power guy, who will balance the overall home run-heavy lineup of the Jays. The more balanced a lineup is, the more challenging it is to match-up against (i.e. the Red Sox philosophy this year). Finally, the trade for Brett Lawrie has the potential to be great, but he is a young minor-league 2nd baseman who is unproven. He will certainly add overall depth to the young farm system, making them better in the future.
If anything, the Jays were busy as hell this off-season. They let players walk in free agency and took initiative to progress the franchise past the 85-win, 4th place mark. They may not see incredible results this season, even though they have a strong team not to be overlooked. They are building to be competitive now, but also have sustained, long-term success thanks to their growing minor-league system. To give a sense of their improvement, in 2009, Keith Law of ESPN.com rated the Jays the 18th best minor-league system in baseball and the 2011 ratings he just released this past week, placed them 4th overall. Not a bad jump.
The Jays will always struggle to compete in the AL East because the talent is so great, but as they continue to grow and improve, they will begin to put more and more pressure on the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and Tampa Bay Rays. They aren’t there yet, but they made strides this off-season.