SweetSpot: Jesse Litsch

Jays' future bright, but what of the present?

February, 12, 2011
To call general manager Alex Anthopoulos a folk hero in Toronto does him a disservice. Sources tell me plans for a statue in his honor are already under way, a tribute to the Great Unloading (also known as the Vernon Wells trade). Despite not sniffing the playoffs in 18 years, an incredible amount of good will and buzz surrounds this Toronto Blue Jays team. The minor league system underwent a complete overhaul and the team hired a fleet of scouts. It is hard to argue the future isn’t bright in Toronto.

[+] EnlargeAdam Lind
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesThe Blue Jays are counting on a productive season from slugger Adam Lind.
Until we consider 2011, that is. The 2010 Blue Jays won a surprising 85 games, never competing seriously for a playoff spot but making a good show of themselves in the process. The young pitching staff excelled in the absence of Roy Halladay with Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow jostling for the Opening Day starter role for years to come. Free-agent acquisitions John Buck and Alex Gonzalez provided best-case scenario contributions: huge power numbers for cheap before giving way to draft pick compensation (in Buck’s case) and sell high/buy low trade opportunities (i.e. Gonzalez traded for Yunel Escobar.)

While the Jays brass keep their eyes firmly on the prize -- with 2012 pegged as the earliest possible season to make a playoff run -- the expectations of many fans jumped ahead of the intricate plan laid out by the brain trust. Fans clamber for big-name signings, hoping the elusive final piece falls into their collective lap.

For Blue Jays fans, the immediate future might be a little rockier than they expect. None of the losses suffered by the Blue Jays figure to torpedo the season. For the team to win 85 games again, far too many things must go right.

The rotation must stay healthy. While the No. 5 starter spot saw more than its share of pretenders; the top four Blue Jays hurlers toed the rubber at least 25 times apiece. A figure that would be higher had the team not shut down Morrow early in September. While replacing Shaun Marcum's 200 innings is tough, it won’t be the first time this team filled a gaping rotation hole. Young Kyle Drabek has the makeup and stuff to slot into the rotation directly, but he, too, comes with innings limits.

Staying healthy is vital for every team, rebuilding or otherwise. The Jays racked up the third-most days spent on the disabled list in all of baseball, according to Fangraphs research. A closer look at those numbers reveals the true impact of these maladies wasn’t quite so severe. Dirk Hayhurst, Jesse Litsch, Scott Richmond and Dustin McGowan spent much of or all of 2010 on the shelf. Only McGowan at his peak had an honest shot of making the rotation or any discernable impact.

The bullpen underwent a complete rebuild as well. A virtual parade of competent right-handed pitchers now lurk in the 'pen, hoping to scoop up whatever stray saves come their way. Losing versatile “setup” man Scott Downs is a huge blow for any team. Downs was long the team’s best reliever and the man generally tasked with the highest-leveraged work.

Adam Lind and Aaron Hill need to decide which season was a fluke: Was it 2009, when they powered the middle of the lineup, or their ugly 2010 seasons? Jose Bautista is not going to hit 54 home runs again, so the Jays need these two key players to produce runs in bunches. Maybe throw a walk in there for good measure.

The future is bright for the Blue Jays. Financial agility coupled with a renewed pipeline churning out major league-ready talent positions the Jays perfectly to make multiple runs at the playoffs. Be prepared for some growing pains in 2011.

Drew Fairservice writes the Blue Jays blog Ghostrunner on First. Follow him on Twitter.

Jays just might be for real

May, 19, 2009
From the ol' mailbag:
    Rob, the Jays are leading the AL in run differential by a fairly healthy margin. I took a look back to 2002 (as far back as the EPSN standings page will take me) and looked at all the teams leading the AL or NL on May 18. Of those 14 teams, 12 made the playoffs. The only two that didn't were the A's last season and the Mets in 2007.

    IOakland really wasn't all that good (+31) and there were four teams within five runs. The 2007 Mets lost six of their last seven to lose the division by one game.

    Interestingly, the Jays and Dodgers have the biggest differential leads at this point in the season since 2002.

    The Jays were +100 last year (second in the AL). I think there is a strong likelihood that they are simply one of the best teams in the AL, if not the best.

You know, that's a fair point, and one that I've not been smart enough to fully consider before now.

The Blue Jays did finish last season with an outstanding run differential. They scored 714 and allowed 610, which would typically lead to a 93-69 record rather than their actual 86-76 mark (which left them in fourth place). If I've said it once I've written it a dozen times: run differential is a better predictor than wins and losses. So why wasn't I more optimistic about the Jays this spring? Because aside from Roy Halladay, their outstanding pitching last season was anchored by A.J. Burnett, Jesse Litsch, Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan -- all of whom have combined to win exactly zero games for the Jays this season.

Should we have guessed that the Jays would pitch nearly as well this season and lead the American League in scoring? I'm not sure how we could have. But we're far enough into this season, and the Blue Jays are playing well enough, that we should not dismiss their chances of playing well through the summer and being a big part of the race in September. I'm not ready to anoint them as champions. I'm nowhere near that. Here's a bold prediction, though: the Jays won't finish fourth again.