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Team Reviews: Toronto Blue Jays

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We are going to be posting team reviews and player comments for every team and for as many players as we can over the offseason (hopefully finishing sooner than later). There is no real rhyme or reason to the process, as evidenced by today's selection of the Toronto Blue Jays. I figured I might as well post it now before the landscape of the team changes any further. These were the reviews and comments that were supposed to make it into the baseball annual, but alas, that project has died in 2005. There are other years to work with it, but for now, we will use the content on the website. Enjoy!

The Toronto Blue Jays were not brought down by the monetary war fought further south in New York and Boston in 2005. Instead, a rash of injuries to many key players coupled with a few ineffective starters in the lineup signaled the end of 2005's chances for success. This was a good year for Toronto though; first of all, if not for the Roy Halladay injury that brought a halt to Toronto's playoff chances, they most likely would have led the American League East in Run Differential. Second of all, the Blue Jays sold the naming rights of the Skydome, renaming it the Rogers Centre. Which of course, gives the Blue Jays more money to spend on players. Supposedly, $210 million will be used on the team in the next three seasons, which at $70 million per year, is a significant increase. Considering they spent $45 million this year, Blue Jays fans can expect a pitcher and a hitter (although I vote for two hitters and some relievers) this offseason. Hopefully the money is spent wisely this offseason, and another Corey Koskie contract is not handed out. This will be covered in more detail later on in the review though.

The absence of Roy Halladay after an amazing first half of the season is essentially to blame for keeping Toronto out of playoff contention. After his last start on July 8th, the Blue Jays went 35-41 after a 45-41 start. With the way Halladay was pitching, in the 12-15 additional starts that he most likely would have made, I feel you can safely assume he would have won anywhere from 8-11 games. Which of course, does not mean the Blue Jays would have won 11 more games in 2005 had he been around. They would have had to lose a game on every possibly start day for Halladay for that to happen. The Jays certainly would have finished at .500 though, and may have impacted the AL East race even more than they did at the end of September. Just how dominant was Halladay? He finished third in Value Over Replacement Pitcher according to Baseball Prospectus...in 90 less innings than the two pitchers in front of him. If you take Halladay's VORP and prorate it to Johan Santana's innings pitched total, Halladay's total would stand at 86.1 rather than 52.7. Which is also 13.1 VORP higher than Santana's AL leading figure. Of course, since VORP is adjusted for many things, I just did a very bad thing with that type of calculation. You get the point though. Halladay finished with more value than Kevin Millwood, Bartolo Colon, John Lackey and Jon Garland. Except for Lackey (who was actually the Angels best starter, not Cy Young award winner Bartolo Colon), all three of those pitchers were named as Cy Young candidates. Did I already mention the 90 fewer innings pitched?

If Halladay was the only injury to the pitching staff, they may have been able to finish above .500 still. Having Ted Lilly be either ineffective or hurt (or maybe it was both) all season long certainly did not help things. Lilly had by far the worst season of his career, after posting a solid 2004 season. The good news for the Jays pitching staff is that they may have found perfectly capable starters for the other three spots in the rotation. Gustavo Chacin was a rookie starter who put up some very good numbers this year. Josh Towers finally seemed to do something good (which most likely annoyed Baltimore fans who had to deal with Sidney Ponson in their rotation again) and David Bush is capable as a #5 starter at worst; a potential #4 is also likely. Here are their peripherals in table form:

All three are pitchers with low strikeout rates (and Towers walk rate is also very low, but that is a good thing) with questionable-to-high homerun allowed rates. We may see some regression from Bush, unless he can cut down on his homerun or walk rate dramatically. His BABIP is too far below the league average to let him slip under an ERA of 5.00 forever. If the Blue Jays sign A.J. Burnett it may remove the question mark of Ted Lilly from the rotation, or at the least push out the least effective option. Burnett is a highly overrated pitcher, but in Toronto he may have some value since he would work as the #2 that he truly is. He will most likely be paid like a frontline starter [Note: Burnett has supposedly been offered a 5-year, $50 million contract), but contract value is relative to the team signing the player, and the Jays adding a necessary #2 for frontline money might not be such a bad idea for them. B.J. Ryan has reportedly agreed to a 5-year, $47 million contract, which would make him the highest paid reliever ever. This is a deal that makes sense for the Blue Jays on a relative basis much like the Burnett deal, but one that is causing executives from other teams to squirm. With the extra money the Jays have to spend the next few years, Burnett might be a good investment. Add in the fact that he may listen to former Florida and current Toronto pitching coach Brad Arnsberg when he needs help, and part of Burnett's problems are erased. I still expect a serious Burnett injury sometime in the future, and during the life of his new contract. His refusal to pitch to contact in Florida with the rest of the rotation does not sit very well with me, and will be cause for injury in a starter who throws rather than pitches.

As far as the position players go, there was an assortment of mostly league average players. Here is a graph showing the ten players with the most playing time in 2005 and their Net Runs Above Average.

As you can see, every above league average player seems to be canceled out, and Adams is much farther below average than team best Frank Catalanotto is above average. The Jays team NRAA for 2005 was -0.18, which is about as close as you can get to being league average. This was in part to their above average defense, which covered all but 4 positions. Russ Adams was one of the worst - if not the worst - defensive shortstop in the league, but he should improve with time. Hillenbrand, Hinske and Zaun were the three other below average defensive players, and with Zaun his defense is not that much of a problem. He's a catcher who is slightly below league average with market that is going to overvalue catching this winter, due to the lack of available talent. Hinske and Hillenbrand are both pieces that should be moved though. Hillenbrand appears to have raised his On-Base percentage, a serious point of contention when discussing his value, but it is a false representation of his accomplishments in 2005. Thanks to 22 (22!!) Hit by Pitches, his OBP was .343. Only the second best mark in his career (.348 in 2004 in the bandbox that is Bank One Ballpark) but one that I do not think shows any sort of progress. He only had 26 unintentional walks this year, with 22 HBP. If he could do that every year, then I would say have at it. If his perceived value is higher than his actual value I say move him while you can. Since Eric Hinske has no perceived value, I say trade him to someone who will not notice. Like the hot dog vendor or something. I am sure you can get a season's worth of relish and sauerkraut for him, and if not, you can always put him on waivers. If not that, there is always the Island of Misfit Royals. There are plenty of replacements for Hinske at either DH or first base this winter. If I had to keep either Hillenbrand or Hinske, I would keep Shea while dumping Hinske and eating his contract, which currently stands at $4.325 million for 2006. With a $5.626 million salary expected in 2007, now would be the time to jettison him.

Personally, I think Orlando Hudson and Aaron Hill should both remain Blue Jays, while Corey Koskie finds a new home, but the way it looks is that Hudson will be the one who is dealt and Hill will move to second base rather than supplanting Koskie. Not only is Hudson the best defensive player on this team, he is younger than Koskie and most likely will remain cheaper as well. The Koskie deal from last winter is one of those things I do not think I will ever understand. Nor do I want to really hear the reasoning behind it, for fear my head cannot take such abuse. Sadly for Jays fans, those Koskie for Morneau rumors were just that, and he will most likely be around at the least for another season.

The outfield could use a new member as well, or at the least, an improvement from Alexis Rios. Yes, he is one of the above average players according to NRAA, but that is due entirely to his defensive prowess. This team needs an explosive bat in a huge way. There are not many of those on the free agent market; in reality, there is Brian Giles and maybe Hideki Matsui [Note: Matsui is no longer available since the Yankees gave him a new contract, keeping his free agency from kicking in]. Of course, J.P. Ricciardi could always go out and sign Roberto Petagine to play first base and outfield, most likely for a minor league contract. That would most likely end up to be one of the better bargains of the winter, but I also do not see it happening.

Overall, the Blue Jays are putting themselves into a position where the American League East can be theirs for the taking. With above average defense, a pitching staff that rivals (if not exceeds) the best teams in the division, and a lineup that just needs a tweak here or there to be above average, the future looks like it could be bright after all. The only thing that will slow down the process is more Corey Koskie type signings. If those continue, look for more third place finishes in the future.

Player comments will be posted tomorrow or later this evening, depending on my homework schedule. Also, remember that these serve mostly as reviews rather than previews of 2006, although the later in the year they are posted the more preview-ish they will become.