By David Pressman, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2003 FINISH (86-76) - Third Place (AL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: RP - Terry Adams, SP - Miguel Batista, RP - Valerio de los Santos, SP - Pat Hentgen, RP - Kerry Ligtenberg, SP - Ted Lilly, RP - Justin Speier
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: SP - Kelvim Escobar, SP - Mark Hendrickson, OF - Bobby Kielty, SP - Cory Lidle, RP - Trever Miller, RP - Cliff Politte, C - Tom Wilson
PROJECTED LINEUP: Reed Johnson (RF), Frank Catalanotto (OF), Vernon Wells (CF), Carlos Delgado (1B), Eric Hinske (3B), Josh Phelps (DH), Greg Myers (C), Orlando Hudson (2B), Chris Woodward (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Roy Halladay (RHP), Miguel Batista (RHP), Ted Lilly (LHP), Pat Hentgen (RHP), Josh Towers (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Aquilino Lopez (RHP)
MANAGER: Carlos Tosca
Everyone associated with the Toronto Blue Jays must be so sick and tired of playing third fiddle to the biggest rivalry in sports. The ownership decided if it cannot fix its problems on the field, it can sure look good trying. Armed with a new logo and different colors on their shirts, the Blue Jays enter the 2004 season with the same old story attached to their name. While looking up at the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees for the better part of a decade, the Jays' mantra is that they are a good team, but the Yankees and Red Sox are simply too good to contend with in the American League East.
Despite residing in a town where a World Series title would be page two news behind the start of Maple Leafs training camp, the Blue Jays have a solid support network in place. Toronto is a tremendous sports town and, despite playing underneath the tabloid-like following of the hometown hockey team, the Blue Jays have attracted respectable attendance figures, about 20,000 fans per game, over the recent past.
The Jays have placed third in the AL East for the past six consecutive seasons and have posted a winning record in four of those campaigns, giving way to one of the more consistently successful franchises in baseball. While the steadiness the club has shown, the lack of upward motion should be a bigger concern to Blue Jays fans. Being a good team is all well and good, but there is not much evidence that this franchise will be anything more than that in the near future.
General manager J.P Ricciardi will enter his third season with the club and has already shown a commitment to winning within the confines of a tight budget. Hired away from the Oakland Athletics to bring a model of building from within, Ricciardi has a solid nucleus to work with and construct around. It will be through his deep statistical analysis of young talent that the missing pieces of the organization will find itself. However, all the talent in the world comes with a price, and with other clubs in their division possessing seemingly bottomless pockets, it is nearly impossible for Toronto to keep high- priced talent down the road.
The corner infield is the strength of this lineup on offense. At first base, Carlos Delgado has been one of the most underrated players in baseball for way too long. When players like Jim Thome, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa are mentioned in baseball circles, it is always a mystery why Delgado is not considered a member of that elite group of hitters. And while Toronto may not be the best place to gain publicity in Major League Baseball, he should still garner much more respect among the average fan. Delgado is closing in on 1,000 career RBI and with over 300 home runs, should without question end his career with at least 500. Over the last three seasons, Delgado has averaged 38 homers and 118 RBI to go along with a solid .285 average. However, one of the best first basemen in the game will most likely see his decade-plus run in Toronto come to an end after this season, when a handful of teams will throw money at him as a free agent. It could be scary to see what Delgado can do in a contract season, so expect another monster offensive campaign from the 31-year old. Although he does not possess a great glove, or even a good one at that, Delgado's offensive numbers, which are as spectacular as they are consistent, overshadow his defensive liabilities.
Opposite Delgado is Eric Hinske, who was voted the 2002 AL Rookie of the Year when he belted 24 homers and drove in 84 runs. However, a broken hand bothered Hinske for most of last season and he was forced to split time with Mike Bordick at the hot corner. Although he finished fifth in the American League in doubles last season with 45, Hinske must focus on improving his fielding if he wants to become an elite third baseman. The problem for Hinske is that there is really no litmus test for him - the only place he can noticeably go is down. With a Rookie of the Year tag already on him, if he does not match his first- year numbers, some might start to get sour on him. A good start is key here, because if June 1 comes and there are no power numbers in sight, his confidence could be crushed.
Playing to Hinske's left will be another young infielder who is part of the Blue Jays' youth movement. Chris Woodward batted .260 with just 49 runs scored and a single stolen base last year, numbers that are just not good enough for a shortstop who showed promise of power with 13 homers in 2002. And to make matters worse, the one crucial part of playing his position was almost worst than his hitting. Woodward struggled with the glove, committing double digit errors before the All-Star break last season. Although young enough to turn his game around, Woodward must show significant improvement in the next two years before Ricciardi decides to take an alterative route. Former Minnesota Twin Chris Gomez was brought in and will vie for playing time should Woodward falter.
Veteran catcher Greg Myers had a breakout season in 2003, but it took him longer than most - about 15 years longer.In his mid 30's, Myers ended with 15 home runs and 52 RBI plus 101 total hits while providing the defensive stability of a journeyman backstop. But he cannot rest on his laurels, as the young Kevin Cash will certainly push Myers for playing time. Despite his struggles as a late season call-up in 2003, Cash is improving and Myers is aging. Look for the position to be split, with Myers taking a majority of the playing time while his young counterpart is groomed for the club's future catching duties.
Rounding out the infield is Orlando Hudson at second base. The 26-year-old is the prototypical player at his position on most major league teams. He does just enough offensively to not hurt his team and provides solid defense in the right portion of the infield. Although Hudson has never had a steady partner with which to mold a great double-play combination, he gets his job done, and most of the time goes unnoticed despite a consistent position near the top of the league leaders in defensive assists. While a 2003 batting average of .268 was nothing to write home about, the switch-hitter battled his way to 57 RBI and nine home runs. Hudson should produce another less-than-stellar season at the plate, but the other tools he brings to the ballpark will keep him in the Blue Jays starting lineup for the foreseeable future.
The centerpiece of the Blue Jays' outfield is also their center fielder. At the age of 25, Vernon Wells is viewed by many as possibly the next great five-tool outfielder in baseball. His 33 home runs and 117 RBI complemented his .317 average and 118 runs scored last season, with only base stealing (4) as his only offensive weakness. In just two full seasons, Wells has already led the majors in hits, posting 215 in 2003, and became one of only a handful of players in history to reach the 100-plus RBI plateau in each of his first two campaigns. If that is not enough, just try to get a deep fly ball past him - fat chance. Wells is also a tremendous defender and covers an enormous amount of ground in the outfield. He will once again bat third behind Delgado, where he will rarely see a fastball he doesn't like. The sky is the limit for Wells and if he produces another strong season, will be mentioned along with Andruw Jones and Carlos Beltran among the finest young outfielders in the game today. His consistency is the key to another good season for Toronto, which finished second in the American League in offense behind Boston a year ago.
Wells will be tented by Frank Catalanotto and Reed Johnson, who will start the 2004 season as the starting left and right fielders, respectively. The former is an ex-utility infielder who has transposed into an everyday starter after coming to the Blue Jays from Texas prior to last season. He is neither flashy nor powerful, but solid enough to hold down his post for a team that is built around a few stars and a bunch of pluggers. In just under 500 at-bats last season, Catalanotto drove in 59 runs and went deep 13 times while floating around .300. And while his pair of stolen bases fails to show it, he does possess the speed to be a threat on the bases - now he just needs to get on base more to use it. That might very well happen, as manager Carlos Tosca has entertained thoughts of using him as the leadoff hitter.
Johnson takes over in right for Shannon Stewart, who was dealt near the trade deadline last July. Although currently without the tools to make Jays' fans forget Stewart, Johnson certainly impressed the Toronto brass enough to give him a shot. His 121 runs scored and 52 RBI as a less than full-time player in his inaugural season were not bad. Perhaps Johnson's best skill is his desire - he rarely shows up to the ballpark unprepared and is also a pure hustler.
If Johnson stumbles out of the gate, his shot at a starting spot might be snatched away by Alexis Rios, the Double-A Eastern League's Player of the Year in 2003. With an embarrassment of talent, Rios looks too good to be stuck in the minors. His fate very well be decided by Johnson, either as a replacement or the victim of a trade if Johnson comes through.
With the addition of Josh Phelps to the lineup as a full-time designated hitter, the Jays' offense should improve. In under 400 trips to the plate last season, Phelps posted 20 homers and 66 runs batted in. While he will never be confused with Manny Ramirez, Phelps has decent power, but must improve his consistency, cut down on strikeouts and bring his average up. In a perfect world, the Jays will move him to first base, if and when Delgado leaves town.
The top of Toronto's rotation is among the best in the business. Roy Halladay is a stud and one of the top pitchers in baseball. All the 26-year-old 2003 Cy Young winner did was not lose one game for almost two months in 2003, a season in which he finished 22-7 with a 3.24 earned run average. The list of praise could go on forever about Halladay, but the short and sweet of it is that he will be one of the game's dominant righthanders for years to come. Look for another 20-win campaign and another Cy Young is certainly possible. Halladay, who is simply unhittable at times, inked a four-year contract extension in the offseason.
Behind Halladay is the 2-3 combination of Miguel Batista and Ted Lilly. They replaced Kelvim Escobar and Cory Lidle, who were lost to free agency.
Batista came over as a free agent from Arizona and brought with him two double- digit win seasons in the past three years. He could be a good second righty for Toronto, but he must cut down his ERA, a task which will be tough in the AL East. Batista has a deadly cut fastball that can reach as high as 95 mph, and a solid change-up to go along with it. The main question surrounding him is whether or not he has the mental toughness to hold down the number two spot for a team that desperately needs consistent help behind its ace.
When the Jays received Lilly in a trade involving Bobby Kielty, they knew exactly what they were getting. Although not a very long-tenured major league pitcher, Lilly brings a wealth of postseason experience with him. A former Yankee reliever and Athletics' starter, he won 12 games last season behind the "Big 3" in Oakland. Lilly should provide good depth in the middle of the rotation. As the only lefthanded starter on the team, it is imperative that Lilly remain consistent. He will be relied upon to stop losing streaks and calm down a young staff during tough times.
Pat Hentgen returns to Toronto after a four-year absence. Penciled in as the fourth starter by Tosca, he is now almost three years removed from "Tommy John" surgery and showed last season that he has recovered. In 22 starts for Baltimore in 2003, Hentgen went 7-8 with a 4.10 earned run average. All those in the organization are hoping he will return to his pre-injury status, when he recorded double-digit victories in eight straight seasons from 1993-2000. In the second half of year, the 35-year-old finished a solid 6-3.
The bottom of the rotation will see Josh Towers, another righthander, take the mound every fifth day. This young hurler is perhaps the one that the has most fans in the great white North most excited. In eight starts as a regular last year, Towers furnished a 6-1 record and a sub-3.50 ERA. He does not overpower hitters, but rather uses both his finesse and his brain to get outs. If all goes accordingly, he will steadily move up the ladder and solidify the middle of this rotation for the next 3-5 seasons.
The closer's job was still up for grabs late in spring training with righthanders Kerry Ligtenberg, Justin Speier and Aquilino Lopez the candidates for the position. Ligtenberg was 4-2 with one save and a 3.34 ERA in 68 games for Baltimore in 2003. Speier had nine saves in 72 appearances for the Rockies last year, while Lopez had 14 saves in 72 contests for the Blue Jays in 2003.
There is still a small chance Tosca may go with a closer by committee approach, but with three power arms in Ligtenberg, Speier and Lopez, he has the luxury of not being pressed into a difficult decision.
Former Philadelphia Phillies battery mates Terry Adams and Valerio de los Santos will be in long relief roles with the Blue Jays, while righthander Jayson Durocher will serve in a set-up role.
Dave Berg and Howie Clark will come off the bench to give help to the infield, while Chad Hermansen and Jayson Werth will help spell relief to the outfield. Berg has been a reliable backup since starting his career and he has the ability to play a number of positions. Last season, Berg hit .255, but he saw e time at all infield positions, except catcher.
The sum total of what the Blue Jays have up and down their roster is, by all accounts, a good baseball team that has room to grow from within. The starting pitching is mostly young and is surrounded by the promise of many bats that have the potential to be lively.
However, the imminent loss of Delgado in the next six months will be devastating to a team that has relied on him as its shield for so long. Halladay will continue to shine as the brightest in this age of young star pitchers, but he alone is not enough. The depth behind him must improve for this team to get where it wants to go, and that is more than their annual third-place finish.
The shame of it all is that this really is a good team that likes to breed its own players from the ground up. And while the Jays have succeeded in doing that with a crop of youngsters, their inability to compete financially is their ultimate downfall. The ownership just doesn't have the kind of money that New York, Boston, or even the Baltimore Orioles do; and if they can't even compete in their own division, how can they expect to get to the postseason?
Simply, they cannot.
The Blue Jays can and will continue to plug along and win more games than they lose, but even on their best day, they do not have the pitching or the talent to consistently beat the teams they need to. The Yankees and Red Sox will rule the AL East. Until a system is put in place to even the financial playing field, the Blue Jays will just have to be happy with who they are - a good team in a great division.