Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Know Thy Enemy: Toronto Blue Jays

"Know Thy Enemy: Toronto Blue Jays" is sixth in a twenty-eight part series of season previews. Today our Canadian friend, Dave, stops by to give us his thoughts on the 2008 Toronto Blue Jays.

I do not dress up for Halloween, but if I did, I would dress up as J.P. Ricciardi. There are only two reasons not to select this costume: i.) In southern Ontario, you'd be more recognizable dressing as Gump Worsley, or the checking-line right-winger for the Peterborough Petes, and ii.) Dressing up for Halloween is for ladies. Though, as far as displays of cleavage go, J.P. Ricciardi is definitely leading the American League. That's what's so brilliant about the costume -- J.P. himself looks like the caricature of sleazy, wheeler-dealer general managers: Slicked-back hair, polo shirt unbuttoned as low as humanly possible, sunglasses either sitting on his nose or hanging from his shirt (possibly both), talking on a cellphone while tapping out a Blackberry message and checking his pager. I assume J.P. Ricciardi is the last remaining pager subscriber in North America.

The sleazy stereotype penetrates J.P.'s managerial style too. The only thing you can count on with J.P. Ricciardi is his constant desire to lie to you. When he says he's looking to make moves, he's standing pat. When he says he's "happy with the club," like this past offseason, he's looking to deal. When he says his closer's back is sore, whoops, he meant to say elbow. Sometimes I wonder if Ricciardi only keeps John Gibbons around as manager because he owes Gibbons significant sums of money from badly played poker bluffs.

Alas, this past winter, Ricciardi was "happy with the club," and therefore actively looking to make a blockbuster deal. Since becoming the Blue Jays' GM in 2001, Ricciardi has made a number of deals ranging from questionable (Trading two solid pitching prospects for Lyle Overbay) to absurd (Driving a dump truck of money up to Corey Koskie's house), but this year he was actually on to something. He dangled Alex Rios before the hitting-starved Giants and asked from Matt Cain or Tim Lincecum in return. Brian Sabean decided to pass on a two-time All-Star who could light up AT&T Park. Instead, he hoarded pitchers and paid Aaron Rowand $15 million a year. That's gonna work out greeeeat.

Ricciardi was right to try to change the identity of the Jays to a quicker team with superb defense and a murderer's row of starters. Since Johan Santana's move to the NL, a healthy Roy Halladay can legitimately attempt to stake claim to the AL Cy Young Award. Dustin McGowan and his ridiculous sideburns are now ready for prime time -- he added fastball control to his devastating curveball and solid slider last summer, and posted a 3.67 ERA and .217 BAA after the All-Star break last season. Shaun Marcum was great in his first full season as a starter, and ensured that Toronto area sports columnists can use the terms "crafty" and "grinder" in columns for the foreseeable future. And A.J. Burnett's ability speaks for itself, despite his constant infirmity and general weirdness.

So there's four solid guys for the rotation. Which is great, but if pitching is to be your identity, you have to do better than four solid guys. Casey Janssen will start the season in the fifth spot, and while he is a capable starter, his bullpen services would be valuable. Gibbons would prefer to start Jesse Litsch, who went from Double-A to serviceable starter last season but could use about season in the minors. Either is a decent option.

But if the Jays hit like they did last year, "decent" will not be enough. Most notably, Vernon Wells, who was discussed (and paid) as an elite centrefielder after the 2006 season, inexplicably stank last year. When healthy, Lyle Overbay was abysmal at the plate. Frank Thomas took heat from fans and the press, but didn't see enough pitches in the Jays lineup to put up the kind of numbers a cleanup hitter needs in the AL East. John McDonald did everything that was asked of him and more, but just isn't a starter on a contending team. Not only was noted steroid user Gregg Zaun a disaster at the plate, but he threw out a stunning 14 percent of runners last season. Attention fat free agents who signed with AL teams this year: If you want to try and steal a base this season, give it a try against Zaunie (You're welcome in advance, Miguel).

J.P. fixed a few things in the offseason. David Eckstein finally gives the Jays a sturdy leadoff hitter, and will form a formidable middle-infielder duo with the emerging Aaron Hill. Rod Barajas will actually throw a few guys out, and teach Zaun that you don't need steroids to bat .240. Shannon Stewart (who is owed an apology by all of Toronto for the undeserved boos he was greeted with after being traded by Ricciardi for a half-season of Bobby Kielty) is back to push Reed Johnson in left field. Matt Stairs was re-signed to push Lyle Overbay (a forceful push, no doubt) and to supply lefty pop off the bench. In sum, the Jays are slightly faster, will get on base a little more frequently, and will play better defense.

However, two inexplicable moves overshadow the offseason. First, Troy Glaus was traded for Scott Rolen, who this season will possibly:
a.) Get hurt and stay hurt
b.) Hit terribly
c.) Get into a fistfight with John Gibbons
d.) All of the above

I considered Glaus persona non grata after a season filled with injury and steroid rumours. McDonald and Marco Scutaro will be a decent platoon once Glaus gets hurt or indicted, I thought. But alas, Ricciardi made a mind-boggling deal for a few extra years of Rolen's attitude and salary, with questionable payoffs. Secondly, after failing to acquire Lincecum, Ricciardi pursued no other starters. Instead, Ricciardi has attempted to lock up Rios long-term, which is wise. But despite having Rios, Wells, Johnson, Stewart, Stairs, and Buck Coats (a utilityman with a name so pornstarish, you'd expect him to have Dave Stieb's moustache), Ricciardi has yet to dangle LF/1B prospect Adam Lind, a low-salary, high-upside lefty, to teams with starters to deal (J.P.'s old pal Billy Beane seems like a reasonable partner). The missing piece to the murderer's row was never acquired, so a bunch of career years at the plate and on the mound will be needed to contend with the Sox and Yankees.

In closing, I offer these brief predictions:

  1. If the Jays start slow in April, Mumblin' John Gibbons and his random lineup selections will be canned. Quickly.
  2. Reed Johnson will be bought out before opening day. Shannon Stewart and Matt Stairs will platoon in left, and Buck Coats' porn career will have to wait.
  3. The Jays bullpen (Jeremy Accardo, Brian Wolfe, Scott Downs, Brian Tallet) will be one of the top three in the AL, particularly if B.J. Ryan and Brandon League are back in shape.
  4. Aaron Hill will be an All-Star selection (especially if Brian Roberts goes to the NL).
  5. If the Jays are sellers at the deadline, A.J. Burnett's wife won't be taking limo rides from Baltimore to Toronto any more. I'm thinking Queens will be their destination instead.
  6. If healthy, the Jays can eclipse 90 wins. If not, Ricciardi might be answering his Blackberry elsewhere next year.

Projected lineups:
1.) Eckstein SS
2.) Overbay 1B
3.) Rios RF
4.) Thomas DH
5.) Wells CF
6.) Rolen 3B
7.) Hill 2B/Stairs LF
8.) Barajas C
9.) Stewart LF/Hill 2B

Now based in Ottawa, Dave aka Zeno of OkaySports was previously responsible for bullpen heckling in Section 104 of the Rogers Centre. His relationship with Jason Varitek is particularly acrimonious.

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