By Scott Garbarini, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (67-94) - Fifth Place (AL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: DH - Shea Hillenbrand, 3B - Corey Koskie, RP - Scott Schoeneweis
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: 1B - Carlos Delgado, SS - Chris Gomez
PROJECTED LINEUP: Frank Catalanotto (LF); Orlando Hudson (2B), Vernon Wells (CF), Corey Koskie (3B), Shea Hillenbrand (DH), Eric Hinske (1B), Alex Rios (RF), Gregg Zaun (C), Russ Adams (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Roy Halladay (RHP); Ted Lilly (LHP), David Bush (RHP), Josh Towers (RHP), Gustavo Chacin (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Miguel Batista (RHP)
MANAGER: John Gibbons
After winning 86 games and producing the American League's Cy Young Award winner in 2003, the Toronto Blue Jays had high hopes for 2004. However, a rash of injuries to nearly all of their key players, an offense that ranked among the AL's worst and a bullpen which was simply awful led to a dreadful 67-win campaign, the organization's worst in 24 years. So the question remains -- are the Jays the up-and-coming contenders they appeared to be in 2003, or the hapless cellar-dweller that took the field to near record, low crowds at SkyDome (now known as the Rogers Centre after the Canadian communications giant's recent purchase of the club) a year ago?
The answer is probably somewhere in between. Toronto doesn't possess the players or finances to compete with the AL East's top dogs, New York and Boston, but has enough talent, both at the big-league level and in the farm system, to make 2005 a season of improvement and optimism.
The Blue Jays' success in 2003 largely stemmed from an offense which put up nearly 900 runs and ranked among the most productive in the AL that year. Toronto didn't come remotely close to those numbers last season, as the Jays finished 12th in the league in batting average (.260), tied for 12th in home runs (145) and 13th in both runs scored (719) and steals (58). Making matters worse is the departure of first baseman Carlos Delgado, the franchise's all- time leader in homers and RBI, via free agency.
The Jays' woes were not limited to their everyday lineup. After winning 22 games and capturing his first Cy Young in 2003, ace Roy Halladay was bothered by a sore shoulder which shelved him for two months and finished a pedestrian 8-8. The rest of the rotation, save All-Star Ted Lilly, was mediocre at best. Even when Toronto's starters put the team in position to win, the bullpen rarely complied. The Blue Jays blew 16 saves and led the American League with a startling 34 losses in relief. Veteran Miguel Batista has moved from the rotation to the closer's role in an attempt to bolster the team's most glaring weakness.
Toronto's biggest offensive challenge will be replacing Delgado, who has slugged 30 home runs or more in each of the last eight seasons and finished one shy of his seventh straight 100-RBI campaign. The club did make one major free-agent signing, landing third baseman Corey Koskie from Minnesota, and will shift Eric Hinske across the diamond to first.
Koskie, a native Canadian, is a quality hitter and sound defensive third baseman whose hard-nosed style of play will be a plus for his new team. However, he has a lengthy history of injuries, including a sprained wrist which limited him to 118 games and a career-worst .251 average last year, although he still belted 25 home runs. True to form, Koskie missed a good portion of the spring with a strained groin.
If the Jays are to improve this year, they sorely need a productive season out of Hinske, who won the AL's Rookie of the Year award in 2002 after a .279 average, 24 homers and 81 RBI. He hasn't approached those totals the last two years, batting .243 and .246, respectively, while hitting just 27 home runs combined.
Toronto did make a solid addition by acquiring Shea Hillenbrand from Arizona in the offseason. He will serve primarily as the designated hitter but can fill in at both corner positions.
The Jays are well set at second base, where the improving Orlando Hudson has emerged as one of the league's premier defenders. The 27-year-old switch- hitter was one of the few Blue Jays to step up offensively last season, as Hudson got markedly better from the right side and finished with a respectable .270 average along with a career-best 12 home runs. Management believes Hudson is primed for a breakout year in 2005 and can win a Gold Glove.
The shortstop duties have been handed to rookie Russ Adams, who wowed manager John Gibbons and GM J.P. Ricciardi by blasting four home runs during a September call up. The Jays don't envision that type of power from the former first-round draft pick, but Adams should develop into a solid line-drive hitter and an offensive upgrade over last year's inhabitants at short, Chris Gomez and Chris Woodward.
With blue chip prospect Guillermo Quiroz slated to spend the year in Triple-A, journeyman Gregg Zaun will get the majority of work behind the plate. A career backup, Zaun played in a personal-best 108 games last season and hit a commendable .269 with six home runs and 36 RBI, while drawing praise from Gibbons for his handling of Toronto's young pitchers.
With Delgado now off to Florida, this is now Vernon Wells' team. The multi- talented centerfielder was a prime reason why Toronto finished so strong in 2003 and it struggled so much in 2004. He led the AL in hits (217) and finished with a .317 average, 33 home runs and 117 RBI two years ago, but slipped to .272-23-67 last year, mainly because of a strained calf which forced him to miss 24 games. Wells is only 26 and there's no reason to believe he won't return to being one the league's best all-around players, provided he gets adequate protection in the lineup. He is one of the game's top centerfielders and won his first Gold Glove in 2004.
Wells will be flanked by promising youngster Alex Rios in right and Frank Catalanotto in left. Rios was rushed to the majors during the team's injury rash last season and acquitted himself well, batting .286 with 15 steals and racking up 11 outfield assists. He only hit one home run in 426 at-bats, though, and will have to show more power in his sophomore campaign for this team to make strides offensively.
Catalanotto was also dogged by injuries a year ago, but is a career .296 hitter whose patience at the plate and on-base ability provides a needed spark at the top of the lineup. He is a poor defender, however, and could be trade bait by midseason if prospect Gabe Gross, who is having a monster spring, continues to produce in Triple-A.
Although his free-swinging nature contradicts Ricciardi's "Moneyball" philosophy of valuing walks and working pitchers, Hillenbrand is a quality hitter who can be counted on for around 20 homers and 80 RBI. He batted a career-best .310 for Arizona in 2004. Catalanotto, Hinske and Koskie will likely get at-bats at the position during the course of the year.
Halladay's 2004 campaign was a disappointment, but he still gives the Blue Jays what the other two also-rans in the division, Baltimore and Tampa Bay, do not have: A bona fide number one starter who can go toe-to-toe with the Randy Johnsons and Curt Schillings. Halladay went an outstanding 41-14 between 2002 and 2003 and his ability to go deep into games makes less work for the team's shaky bullpen.
Lilly, who was acquired by Toronto from Oakland last spring, had a solid debut season with the Blue Jays. The lefthander led the team with 12 wins and his 168 strikeouts tied for sixth-most in the AL, earning him a spot as Toronto's lone All-Star representative. However, Lilly has not pitched in a game this spring due to tendinitis in his left shoulder and is expected to start the season on the DL. Toronto better hope the ailment is a minor one, as the rest of the rotation is a work in progress.
A pair of promising youngsters in David Bush and Gustavo Chacin join holdover Josh Towers to fill out the remaining starting spots. Bush, a former closer at Wake Forest, handled himself quite well in 16 starts following a mid-season promotion. The righthander went 5-4 with a 3.69 ERA, issued just 2.3 walks per nine innings, and took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against Oakland in only his third major-league start.
Towers also has great control but below-average stuff which gets pounded if he isn't throwing strikes. His 9-9, 5.11 season of 2004 is pretty representative of what to expect this year.
Batista's shift to the bullpen was partly brought about due to the emergence of Chacin, a 24-year-old lefthander who went 18-2 with a 2.73 ERA between Double and Triple-A, then beat the Yankees in a September start. His spring outings were up-and-down, but Gibbons loves the kid's makeup and aggressiveness. However, Chacin's got a ways to go before he can draw comparisons to another Venezuelan...lefty Johan Santana.
This has been a problem area for Toronto for a number of years, as the club hasn't had a reliable closer since Billy Koch (who coincidentally was released by the Jays in the spring) in 2000. Aquilino Lopez, Justin Speier, Terry Adams and Jason Frasor were all given shots as the stopper during the year, and all struggled in the late innings. Batista did a good job when moved to the pen in September, as he converted all five of his save opportunities, and has the stuff to be an effective fireman. Most importantly, he has been acceptive of the role and hasn't viewed it as a demotion. However, Batista has been plagued by bouts of inconsistency throughout a career, which raises a red flag. He could very well end up back in the rotation if Chacin struggles or the club deems prospect Brandon League ready to step in.
Speier floundered during his chance at closing, blowing four of 11 saves chances, but has a good arm and pitched very well down the stretch. His slider repertoire can be deadly to right-handed hitters, who batted just .213 off him last season. Frasor (4-6, 4.08) led the team with 17 saves as a rookie last year but was lit up after the All-Star break. The Jays think the diminutive righty will be better as a set-up man in his second season.
Toronto didn't have a lefthander in the pen for much of last year, hence the signing of free-agent Scott Schoeneweis, who floundered (6-9, 5.59) as a starter with the White Sox in 2004 but excelled as a lefty specialist during the Angels' march to the world championship in 2002.
The Blue Jays also expect a better performance out of 33-year-old righty Kerry Ligtenberg, who battled a hip injury all year long and struggled to a 6.38 ERA in 57 outings.
Righthander Vinny Chulk, who made 47 appearances last year, and former starter Justin Miller are battling for the remaining relief slots. Veteran Pete Walker and lefty Scott Downs have a chance to make the roster as swingmen out of spring training.
Reed Johnson should again receive plenty of playing time as a fourth outfielder. The scrappy right-handed hitter batted .301 against lefties last year and will likely platoon with Catalanotto in left. Thirty-eight-year-old Greg Myers, who played in just eight games due a severely sprained ankle, will likely be kept as a backup catcher and lefthanded bat off the bench. The Jays hope he can put up numbers similar to 2003, when Myers hit .307 with 15 homers in just 329 at-bats. Fiery utilityman Frank Menechino, who batted .301 after being claimed off waivers from Oakland in May, also returns, while good- fielding, light-hitting John McDonald was acquired from Cleveland to back up Adams at short.
Unlike last season, the Blue Jays aren't coming in with the expectations of contending for a playoff spot. Despite losing Delgado and his dangerous presence in the middle of the lineup, the offense should improve provided Wells returns to his 2003 form and Koskie spends more time on the field than in the training room. And the bullpen can't do any worse than last year's performance. Still, the Jays don't have enough firepower or pitching depth to challenge the Yankees or Red Sox at the top of the AL East. If Halladay is healthy and puts together another Cy Young-type season, Toronto should climb out of the division basement and win about 75 games.