Canada’s sole ML franchise hasn’t seriously threatened American rivals since the early 90’s, when the Blue Jays were World Champs in 1992 and 1993. They haven’t tasted the post season since and that drought will continue in 2009. Despite decent pitching, a scarcity of potent bats will preclude Toronto from threatening the Rays, Red Sox or Yankees in the AL East. Although Buy American is all the rage, consider making an exception for some of these fine fantasy imports.
Roy Halladay (SP): A perennial top five selection among fantasy starters, Halladay burnished his credentials with an outstanding 2008 season. Reaching the 20-win plateau for the second time in his illustrious career, he recorded a career-high 206 strikeouts and topped things off with a shimmering 2.78 ERA. The bump in his strikeout rate was unexpected and bodes well for 2009. He possesses excellent control (a career 3:1 K:BB ratio) and is remarkably durable, having tossed 220 plus innings each of the past three seasons. Still in his prime at age 31, expect similar output in 2009 but be prepared to pay a premium based upon Halladay’s sterling reputation.
Alex Rios (OF): A tasty blend of speed and power, Rios continues to entice fantasy enthusiasts with his tremendous gifts. Last year, speed predominated as Rios recorded 34 thefts while clubbing 18 homers. Although it’s questionable if he’ll ever attain the 30 home run power scouts originally envisioned for him, Rios continues to mature as a hitter suggesting additional upside. His speed, ability to score runs and hit for a high average justify his placement within the fantasy top fifty. If he falls beyond that, pounce because he has 25-25 potential for 2009.
Vernon Wells (OF): Once considered on the cusp of top tier fantasy outfielders, injuries and declining production have seen Wells’ perceived value drop precipitously. In early mock drafts, he consistently slipped beyond the top 100 players chosen. Wells was an All-Star as recently as 2006, when he slugged 32 homers with 106 RBI and a .303 average. Then injuries intervened (his hamstring and wrist hobbled him last year), sapping his power. The fall was swift, with Wells averaging just 18 homers the past two seasons. With many prognosticators questioning whether he will ever again reach 30 homers, you can purchase Wells at a steep discount. He has already been sidelined this spring with a strained hamstring likely to keep him out until late March, so assess his recovery. If healthy, he could be a major sleeper with 25 homers and 85 RBI a distinct possibility.
B. J. Ryan (RP): Many sounded skeptical when Ryan pronounced himself fit less than a year following his May 2007 Tommy John surgery. He quickly silenced all doubters, regaining his closer role and accumulating 35 saves last season. In 2006, Ryan fanned 86 batters in 72 innings. Last season, with the velocity on his fast ball down a notch, he managed just 58 whiffs in 58 innings. Still heady stuff, just not lights out. With the hope he will be stronger two years removed from the knife, expect the temperature to rise on his heater. Ryan should approximate last year’s saves total and offers excellent value if drafted in the 11th round or later.
Jesse Litsch (SP): In just his second big league season, the 23-year old Litsch showed surprising maturity, recording 13 wins with a 3.68 ERA in 2008. That maturity will be tested this year. Driven by Dustin McGowan’s injury and the departure of A.J. Burnett, Litsch inherits the second spot in the rotation. He proved efficient on the mound last year, limiting opponents to 39 walks in 176 innings. He relies on an exceptional slider and changeup to mask a below-average fastball (4.7 K/9 rate). His growth will hinge on how well he controls his long ball tendencies (19 homers allowed last year). If he can handle the added pressure, Litsch could net 15 wins this season.
Lyle Overbay (1B): Several years ago, Overbay was heralded as the next Mark Grace: Lacking in fence busting power but possessing a knack for driving in runs and consistently batting around .300. Such comparisons were certainly deserved in 2006, when Overbay spanked 22 homers with 92 RBI and a .312 average. Unfortunately, that looks like his career peak. The following year, he managed just 10 homers and 44 RBI before rebounding slightly in 2008 (15/69/.270). Here is the classic case of a hitter whose diminished bat speed came quickly and unexpectedly a la Andruw Jones. He underwent hernia surgery in the off-season, so don’t spend more than a late round pick on his declining skills.
Aaron Hill (2B): Hill was a trendy pick in 2008 fantasy drafts, coming off a sensational 2007 season in which he belted 17 homers with 78 RBI and a vigorous .291 average. A violent May collision with teammate David Eckstein landed him on the DL. He struggled with post-concussion syndrome for the balance of the season, poking just two homers in 205 at bats. Although he appears to have “cleared his head,” Hill’s 2007 power surge looks illusory. He hit a combined nine homers the two seasons prior and his 2007 slugging percentage topped out at just .361, well below his career high. It would be unwise to expect more than 10 homers this season, along with 55 RBI and a .280 average. He’ll be available in the final rounds of your draft if you want to gamble on his upside.
Scott Rolen (3B): Rolen has become a mere shadow of his former power hitting self. A review of his home run totals for the past five years is illuminating: 34, 5, 22, 11, 8. The former NL ROY and five-time All Star has seen his power sapped by a series of debilitating shoulder injuries. He’ll be 34 by opening day and only has a job until Toronto can groom a replacement. Unless your league rewards defensive excellence, Mike Lowell or Ty Wigginton are better late round alternatives.
Adam Lind (OF): One of the more celebrated Jays prospects of recent years, Lind finally got major league exposure last season. The talented lefty didn’t fare badly, hitting nine homers with 42 RBI and a .282 average in 326 at bats. However, with expectations ratcheted so high, those numbers were mildly disappointing to the Jays front office. Lind should receive 450 at bats this season, and if you bid on 15 homers, 70 RBI and a .275 average, you won’t be disappointed.
Dustin McGowan (SP): A 12-game winner in 2007, McGowan was expected to be a major contributor in the Jays rotation last season. He was on pace to duplicate his win total when disaster struck in July. He tore the rotator cuff in his pitching shoulder, concluding the season with just six victories. Barring any setbacks in his rehab, McGowan is slated to rejoin the Jays rotation in May. When returning from rotator injuries, pitchers are typically reluctant to air it out, tending to overcompensate with their off speed repertoire. If McGowan follows suit, his initial outings could be unpleasant to watch as he struggles to regain speed and command. Evaluate his progress through several starts, waiting until he regains his effectiveness before acquiring him.
Travis Snider (OF): There’s thunder in this 21-year old lefthander’s bat. Considered a top five prospect by many ML scouts, Snider displayed steady power during his 2008 tour of the Toronto farm system. Compiling nearly 500 minor league at bats, Snider cranked 23 homers with 91 RBI. That performance earned him a late season Canadian audition, where he hit .301 in 73 at bats. The Jays had their enthusiasm tempered by Snider’s flailing tendencies (a strikeout every three at bats). He is poised to be Toronto’s starting left fielder and given sufficient at bats could belt 25 home runs. He’ll strike out a ton, so the average may suffer but Snider is talented enough to soon become the cornerstone of this franchise.
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