Trading the opening day starter in the off-season is a tough strategy to sell the ticket-holders. Doing so two years in a row is perilously close to baseball treason. And yet with the departure of Roy Halladay last winter and the rapidly emerging Shaun Marcum (13-8, 3.64 over 195 innings in ’10) that’s what Toronto’s Alex Anthopolous has done. Despite that apparent blunder of a trade, and despite the remarkable and unexpected shedding of Vernon Wells massive salary, the problem with Alex, and the Jays, this off-season hasn’t been what they did. It’s been what they didn’t do.
The team ended the season with several significant issues to be taken care of in order to make them not only match the 85 win tally of 2010 but take the next step towards the playoffs. They handled a couple of items well enough, and efficiently. John Farrell seems a good choice to replace outgoing manager Cito Gaston, and was in place, with much of the same coaching staff, by free agent time. The team’s rather one-dimensional offense and lack of speed on the basepaths was improved upon with the bargain basement pick up of speedy Rajai Davis (143 career steals in 476 games). With him they have the first legitimate lead off hitter since Shannon Stewart was on top of his game 7 or 8 years ago. If only the Jays had managed to fill other shortcomings as efficiently.
Around the diamond, there were glaring problems looming behind the plate and at first. The Jays catching last year was surprisingly good and surprisingly productive, something that was essential with a mainly young starting rotation needing a good amount of guidance and with 1B and 3B being below average in their offensive output. After JP Arencibia’s stellar big league debut, his 1 for 30 production at the plate left lingering questions as to his major-league readiness. His calling of games and defense removed the doubt and made it clear he’s not yet ready for the big show. Even in the minors, where his hitting has been star-caliber, he’s never been judged to be a good catcher. The jays perhaps should see if a first baseman’s glove fits his hand, or groom him as the DH-in-waiting but for the time being, they require a good, smart veteran catcher who can hit and can work with kids on the mound. Ideally John buck would have been re-signed, but given his $18 M contract from Florida and his Willie Wilson-like speed to get to it, that might not have been in the cards. However, there were other valid options around, particularly Miguel Olivo, who actually was on the Jays roster for a few days early in the off-season. He would have been a good investment for $3 or $4M, and Canadian Russell Martin would have been worth investigating. Martin is apparently healed up and , if so, could regain his all-star play of three years ago. Combined with returning back-up Jose Molina, either man would have made the Jays stronger behind the plate and , by extension, in pitching.
Another long-time problem for the birds of blue has been first base. Lyle Overbay came in saddled by unrealistic expectations and never really hit his stride, nor made the fans warm up to him. His defence has been very solid through the years, but because of his perennial .260-ish average and 20 homers, that’s rather like casting an ugly actress as a lead in a film because she has great diction. Not irrelevant, but not what’s needed to make a winner. Of the six division winners last season, only one (Texas) failed to have a standout first baseman who was the engine of the team’s offense. So the end of Overbay’s contract offered a perfect chance to upgrade the team. Derrek Lee would have made a good short-term upgrade and was readily available, as was Adam Dunn, although to land him, Toronto not only would have had to pony up a lot more cash, but also convince him that not only is JP Ricciardi gone but so too is his insulting nature. Ballplayers have a long memory when randomly insulted by management of other teams.
As good as Lee or Dunn are , and what they could add to the Jays, I’d have set my sights higher. What could be better for the Jays , and the fans, than to have an MVP at first? Answer: having a Canadian MVP. Justin Morneau alledgedly was displeased with the Twins and their new stadium last year and grew up watching the Blue Jays. Joey Votto grew up within sight of the Skydome. Obviously neither the Reds nor the Twins would be jumping at the chance to trade their big name Canuck, but given the depth of minor league talent the jays could have offered, and possibly budgetary concerns in both small-market cities , it was worth a try. Adam Lind, Brett Lawrie (since he’s here, although if I was in charge he wouldn’t have been since I’d not have shuffled Shaun Marcum off to the shores of lake Michigan), and JP Arencibia for Votto? Kyle Drabek and Lind to Minnesota for Morneau? It’d be a winner on the field and at the turnstiles, delivering protection for Bautista in the lineup and more than adequately replacing the power that left town in Buck and Wells. Instead, we have Adam Lind, a talented young player with a seemingly good attitude, having to not only try to regain his hitting stroke of 2009 but do so while learning a new position…not exactly a recipe for success.
Speaking of Bautista, the Jays are playing a dangerous game by pushing him to arbitration. The team and he are only three million apart, and given that the Canadian dollar is above par (compared to US $) for the first time in years and that they shed some $20M per season by trading Vernon Wells, it seems like a no-brainer. Give him the money he wants now, keep the new team clubhouse leader happy and work on locking him up for a few years while they’re at it. Is Bautista going to hit 54 homers again this season? Probably not. But anyone who watched him the past two seasons has seen a smart hitter who is capable of being a consistent power hitter with very good on base percentages and a cannon of an arm in right field.
Adam Lind likes playing in the field, and good on him for not wanting to sit on the bench for half the game. However, his strength is hitting, not fielding, and even that needs work right now. If I didn’t trade him for a stronger first baseman, he’d still be my DH for ’11. If I did trade him off, I’d have been looking at Vlad Guerrero , Jim thome or even Manny being Manny to handle the job . Seeing as how long Guerrero went before signing, and his past statements about being interested in playing in Toronto, one has to figure that was doable, and certainly Manny was pushing to be a Jay. I don’t know what his mental state is these days, but if he came across as motivated this season, he was well worth the gamble of $2 M or so that Tampa paid to land him. Instead we have to look forward to Edwin Encarnacion or possibly even lovable, but weak-hitting , John McDonald as the designated hitter. Could make us wax nostalgic for last year’s .237 and 72 rbi that Lind delivered as the DH and ensure a losing season.
A team which was 6th in runs and 10th in average last year , adding Juan Rivera and Rajai Davis andsubtracting Vernon Wells, John Buck and Fred Lewis. While comparisons have been made to JP ricciardi, it seems the boss he’s comfortable channeling is Pat Gillick. Stand Pat, as he was known. But even Stand Pat knew when to pull the trigger and bring in talent needed.
Next time, I’ll take a look at the mound woes and how they’ve been largely ignored.