Friday, April 1, 2011

*AA's Vision Taking Shape


This off-season Alex Anthopoulos has been busier than Charlie Sheen's dealer. Okay, you're right, no one is THAT busy (move over Seacrest, Sheen's dealer is the new hardest working man in showbiz. ZING!). Two months ago I wrote about some of the moves he's made and the direction he sees the team moving in (read the article by clicking here). Not a whole lot has changed since then as far as the roster goes, but the identity of this team has begun to show itself over the course of spring training. With the home opener now upon us, a few predictions and assessments are in order.
    Let's take it from the top. John Farrell, the new manager of the Toronto Blue Jays gets nothing but rave reviews from people around the league. His baseball IQ is showered with praise, he's respected immensely by his former players, and he seems to be a perfect fit here in Toronto. The question will be whether or not he can get the same level of production out of this young roster as Cito Gaston did last year. 

    There have been a few changes , with Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, and Shaun Marcum all playing in new cities this year, but the nucleus of the roster remains in tact. Will the addition of players like Rajai Davis change the way the Jays' offence produce runs? Will they still be a power team? I say yes. You have a freshly minted Jose Bautista returning, Adam Lind and Aaron Hill are both good for 25+ dingers, and Travis Snider and Edwin Encarnacion should provide around 20 each as well. The long ball shouldn't be an issue. With Davis at the top of the order, we should see a few more multi-run homers (last year's Jays not only led the league in home runs, but also in solo homers). The extra bases should in theory translate into a more balanced offence.

    On the other side of the diamond, the Jays have a similar look. The "Jose-Bautista-at-third" experiment has been turfed heading into tonight's opener, with Encarnacion reassuming his duties, and Bautista heading back into right field (where he was top 5 in the league in outfield assists last season, and where he's most comfortable). Encarnacion also impressed team officials with his glove during the spring at first base, giving Farrell a viable option should the Adam Lind project fall through. To that end, Lind has delivered what most people expected: a decent glove that still needs a lot of work. How Lind does at first base could be a pivotal point to how well this team's defence performs, and could also have a ripple effect on Adam Lind's net worth to the team in the long-term. With him under contract for several seasons, the Jays will not be keen on paying him big money to just DH, so if he fails as a first baseman look for Lind to become trade fodder by the time the deadline rolls around.

    On the mound the Jays are yet again one of the deepest teams in the league, even after losing their top pitcher two years in a row (Roy Halladay, and Shaun Marcum respectively). The starting five will be Romero, Cecil, Morrow, Drabek, and Litsch. A scary unit for any batter. Lefty Jo-Jo Reyes will start the season as a starter while Morrow recovers from a minor injury, and has the potential to make it tough on management. Reyes has some top-notch stuff, and although he would still be effective as a situational reliever, with a couple solid starts there could be a bit of a debate over who stays in the top five. 

    The bullpen is overflowing with able arms, although most are right handers. The team is going to have to send some very capable pitchers down to AAA to start the season, but that depth will be a key during the exhaustingly long regular season, when there are certainly going to be injury issues along the way. Frank Francisco is pencilled in as the closer, but possible NBA reject Jon Rauch will get an audition in the role to start the year while Francisco recovers from a minor injury (Rauch is the tallest player in MLB history at 6 foot 10). 

    Some of the most promising young pitching in the league won't count for much unless there is a capable body calling the game from behind the plate. Enter J.P. Arencibia. Everybody knows the kid has a bat, he was the AAA MVP last season after clocking 30+ dingers, and there are few people in Hogtown who don't remember his epic 4 for 5, two home run Major League debut. Possibly the most key question mark for this year's Jays will be how Arencibia handles the game-calling duties with an unseasoned pitching staff. He's going to have to get the most out of every starter for this team to compete this year, and in the years to come. Jose Molina is said to be a great mentor, is a very serviceable backup, and can gun down nearly anyone trying to sneak in a stolen base. The catcher position does prove to be a pivotal point of production for the Jays to succeed.

    You have to factor in the invariables that will certainly pop up over the course of 162 games. There are going to be injuries. There are going to be slumps. How do you balance out the producers with the lame ducks? Simple: depth. This team is deeper with young talent than any Blue Jays squad in recent memory, with stars like Brett Lawrie lurking in the shadows. For the record, I do believe Lawrie will get a shot somewhere mid-season, and if his spring training was any indication, he'll stick. This kid is a bona fide blue-chipper, a Canadian, and could be the answer for years to come at third for the Jays. Adeiny Hechavarria will put the heat on Yunel Escobar to perform in his contract year, and should provide further stability to the infield picture down the road. He could see some time with the big club as well if injuries become an issue.

    When you weigh all these factors together, you've got a  pretty talented group. The question is can this group produce now rather than later? I think the Jays will wind up in the 85-90 win range, much like last year, but they'll pick up those wins in a different fashion. Rather than clobbering the ball game in and game out, we're going to see a much more balanced team, with a greater focus on team defence. With the big guns in New York and Boston, they'll have to play defence if they want to at least duplicate last year's 85 wins. The Rays are thinner, but still not a pushover, and the doormat Orioles have a bolstered lineup as well that will be tougher. One thing that never changes in the AL East is the level of competition, but the Jays look poised to start a major upswing over the next few years. They just won't kick down the door to the playoffs right off the bat. 

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