2006 W-L: 87-75 (2nd place)
2006 Pythag: 86-76
Frank Thomas, Victor Zambrano, Tomo Ohka, John Thomson, Royce Clayton, Jason Smith, Matt Stairs
Bengie Molina, Frank Catalanotto, Ted Lilly, Justin Speier
The Blue Jays In a Nutshell:
Thanks to a superb performance from the top three pitchers in their rotation, the Blue Jays finished second last year in the AL East. With the loss of Ted Lilly and the addition of James Andrews's client list, the rotation may suffer. By contrast, replacing Shea Hillenbrand and friends with Frank Thomas will earn a lot of those runs right back. The Jays are rolling a lot of dice, but if Thomas and a couple of the imported starters stay healthy, the Jays could push their way up to 90 wins and beyond.
The starting lineup won't change that much from last year; after the addition of Frank Thomas, it's just more at-bats for Gregg Zaun and a new OPS-less face at shortstop. As it turns out, none of those alternations are likely to make a huge impact.
Let's start with the Big Hurt. As long as he's in the lineup, he's a good bet to come close to his 2006 numbers: 270/381/545. Since he's nearing 40, they might tail off a bit, but the bigger danger to the Jays is what happens in the games Thomas doesn't DH. Last year he got about 550 plate appearances, which seems like the absolute ceiling of what can be expected from him.
Staying optimistic, let's say he performs at about the same level and stays approximately as healthy. Mixing his production with the 15-20 games of non-Hurt, the Jays ought to get something like 270/370/525 out of their DH. Last year, they got 291/337/472 from the handful of guys who DH'd.
Using the simple form of runs created (OBP times SLG times AB), the difference there is about two wins. That's not bad--short of trading for Miguel Tejada, there aren't a lot of spots the Jays could've upgraded by two wins. On the other hand, J.P. Ricciardi took on a lot of risk in exchange for that two-win upside: if Thomas plays in fewer than 100 games, or doesn't produce in the games he does play (which, admittedly, doesn't seem likely), that advantage is wiped out. It wouldn't be the end of the world if the Jays only matched their 2006 DH production, but it would be a colossal waste to do that in exchange for the $10 million or so they're paying Frank.
Now, for Royce Clayton. It's no secret that Clayton isn't much of a hitter--his career line is an underwhelming 258/313/368. Since Aaron Hill will now be the full-time second baseman, that means Clayton is replacing Russ Adams and John McDonald, who got over 500 at-bats between them.
Never will a team benefit from Royce Clayton like this team will. McDonald hit 223/271/308, and Adams hit 219/282/319. The fact that one of those guys was in the lineup darn near every day last year is one of the more damning indictments of Ricciardi's effectiveness as GM. Between Clayton's glove and the improved offense from the middle infield, that ought to be worth another win or two for the Jays.
Of the returning hitters, there are some impressive performances for them to match: Lyle Overbay, Troy Glaus, Vernon Wells, and Alexis Rios all slugged over 500 with OBPs of 349 or above. Of those four players, only Glaus's 2006 SLG was below his career average. It's easy to say that Overbay, Rios, and Wells are in their primes, and can be expected to repeat, but more practically, I'd expect a step back from one of them, probably Overbay.
Any rotation with Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett up top can't be all bad--as long as that pair is healthy, anyway. Last year, Halladay reminded us that, over 30 starts, he can be one of the top five starters in the game. And while Burnett just barely passed 20 starts, he managed an ERA under 4.00 in the AL East.
After that, the questions begin. Gustavo Chacin appears to have a spot, followed by two of Tomo Ohka, John Thomson, Victor Zambrano, and Josh Towers. Zambrano wasn't supposed to be ready under mid-season, but he's on pace to be pitching in April.
The first three of those guys are recovering from various health problems, while Towers is recovering from a bout of dreadful pitching. Unlike the Thomas signing, this is an area where Ricciardi took advantage of high-risk possibilities--of Ohka, Zambrano, and Thomson, odds are one of them will turn out to be decent, perhaps even league-average or better, for the season.
However, there could be a rough stretch or two in which the Jays try to figure out which one of those guys deserves a spot. There was plenty of that last year while Josh Towers pitched his way out of a job. Fortunately, with the three newcomers alongside Towers, Casey Janssen, Shaun Marcum, Ty Taubenheim, and Dustin McGowan, John Gibbons has options.
With that kind of strength in numbers, the Jays season doesn't depend on any one pitcher coming through. what matters will be Gibbons's trigger finger. He gave Josh Towers 12 starts last year; I would hope that if, say, Zambrano gets crushed in his first several starts, he doesn't make it to double digits. The backup plan may itself be uncertain, but it's better than an ineffective Zambrano.
If the back end of the starting rotation is a crapshoot, the back half the bullpen is even more so. With the departures of Justin Speier and Scott Schoeneweis, jobs are up for grabs, and--at least in the case of Speier--it'll take quite a performance to replace him.
Luckily for the Jays, Jason Frasor may provide that performance. While he's been better than league-average for his three-year major league career, last season was the first in which he struck out more than a batter per inning. Not only that, his walk rate was lower than in the two previous years, so perhaps Frasor has reached his peak.
If Frasor is the safe bet for 8th-inning duties in front of B.J. Ryan, the wildcard is Brandon League. It's not quite right to call him the wildcard--the Jays were ready to give him the job before he got hurt this spring, and he may yet start the season in that role. On the other hand, his track record is iffy; it may be due to the small sample size, but he's barely struck out five batters per nine in the big leagues.
There's little doubt that B.J. Ryan will again be one of the best closers in baseball, but after him, it's all uncertainty. Plenty of the options to fill out the pen are starters who didn't cut it in that role, and someone like Zambrano or Taubenheim could end up in the pen, as well. As in the rotation, it will depend on Gibbons's ability to mix and match until he finds an alignment that works; I doubt he'll stumble on to the best possible six- or seven-man bullpen out of spring training.
All Together Now
Without another $210 million to spend, J.P. Ricciardi had to get creative to have a shot at catching the Yankees and Red Sox. The median projection for this team is probably little (if any) better than last year's record, but by building a high-variance team with a handful of impact players, Ricciardi made it possible that the Jays will reach 95 wins.
Of course, high-variance cuts both ways: if Zambrano, Ohka, and Thomson are all ineffective, and if Frank Thomas spends 2/3 of the season on the shelf, the Jays might have a hard time cracking .500. But really, in this division, it's 95 wins or bust, and the Jays are built accordingly.