Saturday, May 15, 2010

The 2010 Toronto Blue Jays

We've seen it before; only a mere year ago Jays fans were rejoicing in an unfamiliar feeling: legitimate contention. The Jays had gotten off to an unexpected 27-14 record by May 19 which was good for first-place in the best division in baseball. We had the best pitcher in baseball - Roy Halladay - and a seemingly endless supply of young arms to back him up. May 19 however, would be a turning point for the season and begin a nine game losing streak with sweeps by Boston, Atlanta (at Atlanta), and Baltimore. Injuries depleted those young arms and losing beget losing as the Jays stumbled to a 75-87 finish. Now as the Jays have overachieved once again to start the season but this time the atmosphere seems to be different. The bubble from last year has been popped and support for the Jays are now a soapy mess as fans say "not again". The cavernous 50,000+ seat Rogers Centre looked terrible with 20,000 fans in it in past seasons and this year it looks downright embarrassing with 10,000 people. Neither the Raptors nor the Maple Leafs are in the playoffs yet no one seems to be willing to talk Jays. It was as if the team were relegated to second-class status along with Toronto FC and the Toronto Marlies. Meanwhile, the Jays are becoming a feel good story in the MLB whether anyone in America and many in Canada notice or not.

Fred Lewis has been an incredible find and brings Toronto its first genuine lead-off hitter since Shannon Stewart circa 1999. Lewis doesn't steal a lot of bases (3 SB out of 5 attempts) but has good speed on the basepaths and certainly has the attention of opposing pitchers and managers. Vernon Wells is having a comeback year after years of being mired with nagging injuries. Fans may boo him for not living up to his $20 million contract but he is all too aware of the expectations that he has missed. This season Wells is confident that he is 100%  and in the power vacuum that was left with Roy Halladay's departure Vernon stepped up into a more vocal and veteran role. He is finally silencing critics with a .306 AVG, .980 OPS and 10 HR in 37 games. Travis Snider seems to have turned a corner in recent games and despite his struggles has still managed to hit 6 HR and .806 OPS. Jose Bautista does many things well as he can hit for power (7 HR) and patience (21 walks) and can steal a few bases when needed. I have not mentioned Aaron Hill and Adam Lind yet partly because they have had poor starts after their breakthrough seasons last year, a "sophomore jinx" for success, and are batting .184 and .223 respectively. They maintain in their regular 2 and 3 spots in the lineup and despite their struggles the Jays have still found a way to win. When the two offensive stars for the Jays come around and come even close to the levels they reached in 2009 the Jays offense should look downright dangerous. They Jays already lead the MLB with 57 HR (9 more than second-place Boston) and score just as many runs as the Red Sox and a few behind Tampa Bay and New York at the top. The Jays have done this with a balanced team effort with 10 HR from Alex Gonzalez and Vernon Wells and 8 HR from John Buck. Lyle Overbay has been a disappointment and hasn't had a good season since 2006 but is in the last year of his contract and Brett Wallace (traded from Oakland for Michael Taylor) seems ready to take over afterwards.

The biggest question mark for the 2010 Jays was how they could survive an entire season with inexperienced and, in many cases, rehabilitating arms. One of those rehabilitating arms was Shaun Marcum who was chosen as the opening day starter and defacto ace. Marcum despite missing all of 2009 has the most MLB experience on his belt - including a spectacular first-half of 2008 - among the Jays' starting rotation. The ace in waiting is obviously Ricky Romero, who notched a 12 K one-hitter earlier this season and struck out 12 again against the Texas Rangers in a complete game shutout. Brandon Morrow and Dana Eveland, two Alex Anthopoulos imports, have been volatile but have shown signs of brilliance. Morrow in fact leads the AL with 11.83 K/9 IP while Eveland's only poor starts were against Boston (twice) and Oakland. In the bullpen, Kevin Gregg has truly been a lights-out closer. This should be no surprise considering that Gregg averaged 28 saves over the past three seasons in the NL for the Florida Marlins and Chicago Cubs. Scott Downs is consistently tough - against right and left handed hitters - while Shawn Camp and Rommie Lewis deserve honourable mention as well.

The Future
Make no mistake,  I am no homer that is claiming that the Blue Jays will win the World Series this year or even the next for that matter. However the true beauty of sports is its unpredictability and although the Jays were given 100:1 odds to win the World Series this year, there is always that one instance where they shock the world and win it all. There is no reason why the Jays cannot keep up their current pace and finish third - a mere afterthought only a few years ago - ahead of one of the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, or Tampa Bay Rays. For a team that has proclaimed that they are in year one of a long-term rebuilding project that would be a tremendous accomplishment and catalyst for future success along the rebuild. For realists out there, the Jays are not contenders but you can take solace in the fact that you are watching some of the pieces of the future contending Jays teams. Based on the make-up of the younger players on the team and in the farm system the team should be comprised with big sluggers - Adam Lind, Travis Snider, J.P. Arencibia, etc.. - and strong starters - Ricky Romero, Kyle Drabek, Zach Stewart, etc... Anthopoulos has handled his responsibilities capably including snagging two top prospects for Roy Halladay in a deflated market and increasing scouting expenditures. He appears sincere when he says that this will be a legitimate rebuild and that he will not sell-out the team by making an expensive signing or trade to improve the team in the short-term. He also appears sincere when he says that in the meantime, the Jays will be more competitive than most fans think. The fans in Toronto do not seem to be convinced and have stayed away in droves. It is true that winning is highly correlated with attendance however I believe that the experience trumps all other factors. The Rogers Centre and the Blue Jays have never been considered hot tickets in town and it is very common to see waves of disinterested fans clearly there because of a work outing. The rebuild must transcend the team itself and focus equally on rejuvenating a detached fan base. The city can draw on its glory days of the early 1990s when the Blue Jays were the best organization in baseball and regularly led the league in attendance and it is only fitting that the same man who oversaw that period is at the helm now. Can Paul Beeston strike lighting twice?

Top 30 Blue Jays Organization Prospects

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