Not many Blue Jays were
untouched by Dame Injury in 2007. From Roy Halladay's appendix going kablooey to John Danks cracking Lyle Overbay's right hand with a fastball, from Vernon Wells tearing his labrum to A.J. Burnett being, well, A.J. Burnett, from Troy Glaus ' plantar fasciitis to Reed Johnson 's slipped disc, from Gustavo Chacin 's shoulder surgery to B.J. Ryan 's experiment with a cadaver's ligament in his elbow, this was one unhealthy squad.
Things have to be better in 2008, right?
One would think so. But the 2007 season was not a complete disappointment. Right fielder Alex Rios and starter Dustin McGowan both had breakout seasons. Rios set career highs in homers, RBIs and steals while nearly hitting .300 for the second straight year, and he enters 2008 as the highest-valued fantasy player in this organization. McGowan emerged from a career-long funk and finally started living up to his potential, with 12 wins, 4.08 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, .230 batting average against and 144 Ks in 169.2 innings. He's the most intriguing fantasy name on this roster, McGowan will likely be picked after the 12th round in a mixed-league draft but could provide No. 2 starter fantasy numbers. In addition, second baseman Aaron Hill surprised many by hitting 17 homers, shattering his former career-high of six. Hill's power appears to be for real, though we don't think he'll repeat that .291 average this season.
But there are a lot of question marks spilling over from the "Season of the Scalpel." Will Wells bounce back to his 2006 form -- that year he hit 32 homers and drive in 106 runs with 17 steals in '06 -- or was that a contract-year extravaganza? Can Burnett stay healthy enough to make more than the 23 starts per year he has averaged in the two seasons since signing a big contract with the Jays? Will Frank Thomas, now 40, stay healthy for a third consecutive season? Will new third baseman Scott Rolen's balky left shoulder ever allow him to become the player he was before injuring it? Can new shortstop David Eckstein get more than 500 at-bats, a number he has failed to reach in each of the past two seasons because of injuries? And will B.J. Ryan successfully come back from Tommy John surgery in less than a year? About the only thing you can count on with this squad is Halladay. The appendix, a random occurrence, was his only major health problem, and he was pretty good despite rushing back too soon after his surgery. The improved infield defense (for as long as Rolen and Eckstein stay healthy) also helps Halladay's cause in a big way.
Halladay is a lock. Everyone else? Get out your stethoscope.
Ballpark: Overall, the Rogers Centre (formerly the SkyDome) has been in the top seven in home runs allowed, when statistics are adjusted for park factors, in each of the last four seasons. It's a symmetrical stadium with very reachable power alleys (375 feet in both left-center and right-center). Popular theory has it that it's easier to hit homers when the dome is closed; when it's open, there tends to be a downdraft in the outfield. In 2007, Rogers Centre graded out as a pitchers' park in terms of runs (a runs-scored park factor of 0.944), but that appears to be an outlier. The dome had been a top-10 hitters' park four straight seasons before '07. Expect it to play out like a hitters' park again in '08.
Top sleeper: Overbay was a popular and supposedly safe midrange fantasy pick in 2007, and he stunk up the joint, primarily because he suffered a broken hand at the beginning of June. He was never right after he returned, hitting .225 with two homers and 17 RBIs in 218 postinjury at-bats. But if there's one thing a healthy Overbay can do, it's hit for average. He had never hit below .276 in his career before '07, and in '06, his first year in Toronto, he batted .312. Plus, his career on-base percentage is .362, and that includes his wasted 2007 season. He probably won't hit more than 20 homers even if he's on, but Overbay will be an 80-RBI guy who'll score 80 runs and hit .300, and you probably won't have to spend more than a 20th-round pick to get this 31-year-old. Now, because he doesn't give you typical first-base power, you'll have to make up for it at another position. But there's a ton of value here as long as he's healthy.
Trainer's room: Scott Rolen replaces Glaus, and the Blue Jays get exactly zero more confidence that their third baseman will make it through the season intact. Rolen has played in 115 or fewer games in three of his last five seasons, mostly because of a troublesome left shoulder. He had major surgery on it in 2005, then missed the end of '07 when he needed follow-up surgery to remove scar tissue. He's expected to be ready for spring training, but we'd be hard-pressed to expect him to return to his 2004 production (34 homers, 124 RBIs) again.
Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi misled to the media about Ryan last spring. Ricciardi claimed his closer was fighting a bad back, when in fact Ryan had an elbow problem. By May, the stud lefty was in line for Tommy John surgery, which usually takes more than a year to recover from. Our guess is Ryan won't be ready in April, and word around the league is not to expect the Blue Jays' closer to return to a major league mound until around June. Will he instantly reclaim his spot at the back of the bullpen? That'll depend on how effective he is in his rehab work. Toronto will do its darnedest to get Ryan some saves in the second half, so he's worth drafting at a discount. Still, as of this writing, Jeremy Accardo figures to be the safer commodity.
Platoon: Left field might be a mix-and-match for a while in Toronto. Johnson missed three months because of a back injury (and resulting) surgery in '07 and never looked right thereafter. And the Blue Jays clearly weren't ready to hand Johnson the leadoff spot in '08; they acquired Eckstein to handle those duties. Johnson figures to get first crack at playing the most in left field, but the team also re-signed Matt Stairs to a two-year deal and is still waiting for Adam Lind to translate his minor league successes into a big league job. Stairs and Lind are both left-handed hitters and Johnson is a righty; you do the math. We see Johnson playing four or five times a week to begin the season, with Stairs spelling him two or three times and Lind starting in the minors. But that could change anytime. Frankly, we've never been in love with Johnson's low-OBP skills (excepting his stellar 2006), even when he hit leadoff; further down in the order, we'd really be down on him. We'd actually prefer it if the 39-year-old Stairs just won the job outright.
Future closer: Accardo is probably pretty safe as Toronto's closer to begin 2008, although he did scuffle at the end of the 2007 season -- as indicated by his declining strikeout rate and by the fact that Casey Janssen stole some saves in September. Accardo doesn't have dominating stuff, and we wouldn't bite hard on him, especially since Ryan is working to return. There's even an outside shot Ryan could be ready to go in April, which would render Accardo a set-up man. We wouldn't pay a premium for either guy.
Backup to watch: Matt Stairs is an old, short, slow dude who never factors into your draft plans in April but somehow gets enough at-bats to have value by September. Because he signed a two-year pact this winter, Stairs doesn't figure to get completely buried on the Jays' bench; he should see time at first base and in left field. And in '07 he proved what he can do with regular playing time (.289 average with 21 homers, 64 RBIs and 58 runs in 357 at-bats). We'd go so far as to say that in his projected role, Stairs already has value in AL-only leagues, and he's an injury away from being an interesting waiver acquisition in mixed leagues.
Fantasy stud: Rios is entering his magical "age-27 season" -- it comes after his walk and contact rates ascend steadily over the past few seasons. But he has avoided true fantasy stardom because he wears out late in the year. Although Rios is one of those prototypical "five-tool" player capable of 30 homers, 100 RBIs and 30 steals, he still has never eclipsed 24 homers, 85 RBIs or 17 steals in any season in his career. Heading into his prime, you'd expect him to crack through his glass ceiling, and Rios is certainly getting hyped in all quarters as guy who could move to elite status in 2008. We join that chorus, but we also warn you about the risk: If Rios isn't taking his conditioning any more seriously this year, he could be a good trade-away candidate come July.
Prospect to watch for 2008: Curtis Thigpen looked like an interesting name for two-catcher leagues; he has shown a good eye and ability to hit for average in the minors, commodities are hard to find in fantasy catchers these days. However, the fact that Toronto recently signed Rod Barajas likely assures that Thigpen won't be on the Opening Day roster backing up Gregg Zaun. Of course, Barajas isn't very good, so if the 37-year-old Zaun goes down (a conceivable eventuality), one wonders if Thigpen might get called up anyway. The former University of Texas backstop is 25 in April, and although a position change isn't out of the question, he'd have fantasy value if he stays behind the plate.
Prospect to watch for the future: You wouldn't call the Blue Jays' organization one of the league's deepest, and the team's "best" prospects in recent years (Adam Lind, Ricky Romero, Gabe Gross) haven't exactly panned out. But Travis Snider could be an exception. He was great in the Arizona Fall League, and very solid at low Class A in '07. Snider's Achilles' heel is a propensity to strike out, so that'll be something the Jays watch closely as he begins '08 either at high Class A or Double-A. Snider just turned 20, so it's unlikely you'll see him with the big club this season. But 2009 might be his time, especially if the Blue Jays can't get production out of left field or they decide they don't want to pay Rios a bunch in arbitration (and can't sign him long-term).
Base-running philosophy: The Blue Jays stole only 57 bases as a team in '07, fourth-fewest in the bigs and only five more than the bottom-feeding Oakland A's. That's not a coincidence; after all, Ricciardi is a disciple of A's GM Billy Beane and believes in the same "Moneyball" principles, which include high-OBP players and a lack of faith in the stolen base. Alex Rios stole 17 bases in '07, Vernon Wells stole 10, and no one else of any fantasy consequence stole more than four. Toronto hasn't had anyone steal more than 17 bases since Jose Cruz Jr., Raul Mondesi and Shannon Stewart did it in 2001. While Rios absolutely does have 30/30 skills, and Wells could get healthy enough to approach 20 again, this is simply a team that doesn't run. Even the addition of Eckstein, who used to be known as a great base stealer, doesn't mean much. Considering the diminutive shortstop has attempted only 24 steals the last two seasons combined.
Fearless prediction: A.J. Burnett, Frank Thomas, Scott Rolen, David Eckstein, Reed Johnson, B.J. Ryan ... this is a franchise begging for major injuries once again. When everyone is healthy, the offense looks pretty fierce. But will everyone be healthy beyond April 2? We don't think so. The Blue Jays got even gimpier over the winter -- they acquired downside-of-their-career guys like Rolen and Eckstein, stayed put despite question marks in their third through fifth spots in the rotation, and their back end of the bullpen still looks pretty shaky -- and their margin for error is razor-thin. Plus, this team plays in the "AL Beast," in which first and second place are almost automatically out of reach, and Tampa Bay actually seems to be emerging from its franchise-long funk. We're not expecting any surprises from Toronto.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com.
You can e-mail him here.