Regular Season Record: 87-75
2nd in AL East – 10 games behind the New York Yankees
Home Park: Rogers Centre
Frank Thomas (DH) – Two year contract, with one option year
Royce Clayton (SS) – One year contract
Jason Smith (INF) – Rule V Draft
Matt Stairs (OF) – Minor league contract
John Thomson (RHP) – One year contract
Sal Fasano (C) – Minor league contract
Ray Olmedo (SS) – Claimed off waivers
Tomo Ohka (RHP) – One year contract
Victor Zambrano (RHP) – Minor league contract
Matt Roney (RHP) – One year contract
Jean Machi (RHP) – One year contract
Flown the coop:
Frank Catalanotto (OF) – Free agent
Ted Lilly (LHP) – Free agent
Justin Speier (RHP) – Free agent
Ben Molina (C) – Free agent
The Skinny: The Jays represent the middle ground in a top-loaded division. They’re pretty strong team, but they clearly have an uphill battle to overcome either of the two behemoths in the division. It is, however, a team with enough talent to make a run at contention with some good breaks.
One important factor that will come into play for the Jays is that a number of key players last year took strides forward last year. While some of that is likely true growth for young players (for example, Alex Rios seems to be realizing his potential) it is likely that some players will see a regression to the mean. (for example, Reed Johnson has never shown reasons to believe he’s a .319/.390/.479 hitter). The addition of Thomas makes this a better hitting team than the one fielded last year, but once we factor in regression from some of the overachievers, that improvement becomes narrow. On the other hand, if we look at the components of the team’s offence, only the Yankees had a higher OPS. At .284/.348/.463, the Jays were among the leaders in all three rate stats, but only middle of the pack in runs scored. Clearly, there’s some sort of underachieving that happened here. Is it a fluke, or is there some reason why they underscored their performance so badly?
One likely culprit appears to be the dreaded double play. Only Oakland grounded into more double plays than the Jays last year. Clearly all those extra outs would hurt the team’s run scoring. If we look where those double plays are coming from, one thing we notice is that two significant culprits – Molina and Hillenbrand – are no longer with the team. Additionally, Troy Glaus grounded into twenty five double plays last year, a number uncharacteristic for a flyball hitter who strikes out a lot. With limited team speed and solid on-base percentages, the Jays will likely still hit into their share of double plays, but the number should drop from 2006. Expect solid run scoring from this team.
On the pitching side of things, things look a little shakier, at least on the surface. The 2007 Jays have one established ace in Halladay, a very-good-when-healthy starter in Burnett, a premium closer in Ryan, and a lot of question marks. On the other hand, they have a LOT of question marks. There are a handful of unproven guys with decent arms, or competent pitchers with recent injury history. That creates an interesting situation where the team really doesn’t know who will fill out the most innings for the team, but it is quite likely that at least one of two guys will step forward and be respectable. The key will be whether the Jays’ talent evaluators correctly identify the best men for the rotation.
The bullpen should be stronger than the rotation overall. Ryan’s among the elite closers in the league, and there are all kinds of guys who have had success in the bullpen. The loss of Speier leaves the team without an established setup man, but with a number of guys like Frasor and League who have had bullpen success, and a number of borderline starters who will not make the rotation, it would be surprising if the Jays fail to manufacture a pretty good bullpen.
Strengths: As mentioned above, the hitting should be strong overall. They finished in the middle of the pack last year while underperforming their peripherals, and added a serious hitter in Thomas, so improvement is expected. The real strength of this team, however, may well be its defence. The outfield defence is excellent. With Wells, Rios, and Johnson, it’s close to having three center fielders out there. The infield isn’t quite as strong with the leather, but still figures to be solid provided they go with a shortstop who can field a bit. Glaus won’t be winning any gold gloves, but both Overbay and Hill on the right side are assets defensively.
Weaknesses: The first weakness is the shortstop position, which figures to be the one black hole in the line-up. One option to mitigate that weakness is to carry a respectable pinch hitter around for the primary purpose of batting in the shortstop spot during higher leverage situations. The potential Achilles heel, however, is the starting rotation. Between injury risk and performance risk, there’s not a lot of stability in the rotation, and some bad breaks in this area could struggle to stay above .500.
1. LF: Reed Johnson
2. 1B: Lyle Overbay
3. CF: Vernon Wells
4. DH: Frank Thomas
5. 3B: Troy Glaus
6. RF: Alex Rios
7. C: Greg Zaun
8. 2B: Aaron Hill
9. SS: Royce Clayton
Keys to Success: Team health will be a big factor. There are several key players with recent injury histories, and there’s not a lot of margin for error in a division with the Red Sox and Yankees. Can Thomas and Glaus stay healthy? Will Burnett throw close to 200 innings? There’s a few key risks that have the potential to blow up, but also have the potential for substantial rewards.
The next major factor will be how the rotation plays out. Some youngsters need to step forward and fill out the rotation adequately. The challenge here is not only on the end of the competing pitchers, but also on the part of Blue Jays management to effectively identify the most capable candidates. There’s enough talent there to piece together a half decent rotation, but it certainly won’t be easy to sort through and choose the right talent.
Thirdly, the young players who improved last year need to consolidate their gains. In particular, Wells needs to show he’s closer to the Wells of last year than the Wells of 2004-2005, and Rios needs to show that his power gains were real.
Prediction: Overall, I expect a performance close to last year’s team, in the 85-90 win range. It should be a solid team, and one that will look like a contender for stretches of the season, but in the end it would need some serious breaks to catch the two juggernauts atop the division. A third place finish is the most likely scenario, but there’s enough upside risk to challenge for a playoff spot. There’s a lot of risk involved with this team. That’s not a bad thing, as you need to take risks to compete in a division like the AL East, but it also leaves the possibility of a long season.
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