10/17/2003 5:23 PM ET
Blue Jays blessed in the outfield
Established hitters are backed up by talent in minors
By Spencer Fordin / MLB.com
Reed Johnson hit .294 with 10 home runs and 52 RBIs in 2003. (Aaron Harris/AP)
It's the team's biggest strength, both on the big-league club and on the horizon. The Blue Jays are blessed with an abundance of young and multitalented outfielders, so that position should be a Toronto strength for years to come. None of the four current outfielders are older than 29 -- behind them, the Jays have four former first-round draft picks who are itching to make the Major League leap.
It's a good problem to have, even if it eventually leads to trading players to ease the logjam. For the time being, Toronto's in a perfect spot. The big leaguers all have defined roles, the prospects all need more time to develop. Next season, the outfield should look the same way it did in 2003. Vernon Wells will man center field, and he'll be flanked by Bobby Kielty and either Reed Johnson or Frank Catalanotto.
Only one of those four -- Catalanotto -- has an uncertain situation for next season. He's not eligible for free agency yet, but the Jays want to sign him without going to arbitration. The team is hoping to bring him back for a two-year deal if it fits into the payroll structure. By contrast, Wells has four seasons remaining on his deal and neither Johnson or Kielty are eligible for arbitration yet.
Even with the foursome of prospects lurking on the fringe, Catalanotto is still an important offseason priority. The left fielder batted .299 last year and figures to be at the top of the team's batting order. Plus, he affords the prospects -- Jayson Werth, Gabe Gross, Alexis Rios and John Ford-Griffin -- the chance to work themselves in slowly.
Werth is the closest to being ready, but his development stalled in a big way last season. Still, he might make the club out of Spring Training as a fifth outfielder, pinch-runner and defensive substitute. The other three, meanwhile, will likely start the season at Triple-A Syracuse. Gross could be in the big leagues by midseason, but the Jays will proceed with caution.
And why shouldn't they? With an All-Star in center and two emerging youngsters in the corner slots, Toronto doesn't have many weaknesses. Both Johnson and Kielty are well-rounded players, and they both fully grasp the concept of plate discipline. Johnson could walk more, but he got plunked 20 times to balance things out.
Frank Catalanotto / LF
Blue Jays site
If Catalanotto comes back, Johnson may slide in as the fourth outfielder. He'll still get plenty of chances to play, spelling both Kielty and Catalanotto. The scrappy speedster, who adapted well to both corner slots last season, would likely start every time the Jays see a left-handed pitcher. Johnson is one of Toronto manager Carlos Tosca's favorite players, so he wouldn't have to worry about being forgotten on the bench.
Kielty, who arrived in the Shannon Stewart trade, is a switch-hitter who struggled from the left side of the plate in 2003. His hitting skills cover a broad spectrum, from a solid batting eye to extra-base power. He said he's going to spend the offseason lifting weights, getting stronger than he's ever been, which may make him even more dangerous.
Wells, of course, is in the middle of the mix. He'll turn 25 this December, but he's already on the short list of best outfielders in the AL. As scary as this may sound, the Jays may have a Wells clone at Triple-A. Alexis Rios, the team's top pick in 1999, shot to the top of prospect lists after a startling season at Double-A New Haven.
Rios won the Eastern League's MVP Award and batting crown (.352), whetting people's appetites for a quick promotion. This year, barring another incredible season, he'll likely spend a full season at Triple-A. The Jays don't want to rush his development and since he's just 23 years old, they can afford to take their time.
Gross, the team's top pick in 2001, is a half-season ahead of Rios. He's already proven he can hit Triple-A pitching and if he has a superb half-season, he may join the team at SkyDome right around the All-Star break. Ford-Griffin, the final prospect in the mix, is probably looking at a full season at Syracuse. He thrived at New Haven last year and looks like he may be ready to blossom this season. His future may end up at first base or DH, but for now he'll be part of Syracuse's bonus-baby outfield.
As far as organizational depth goes, it may not qualify as an embarassment of riches just yet, but the Jays are sitting on a potential gold mine. All they have to do now is figure out which resources they want to tap for the long term and which might look best in another team's uniform.