Thursday, July 09, 2009

A requiem for the Jays

Today's loss to the Tampa Bay Rays (47-39) dropped the Toronto Blue Jays (43-44) below the .500 mark for the first time this season, which, sadly, is probably a more accurate reflection of this team's ability than their 22-12 start that gave them the best record in the American League [Jerry Crasnick,]. That early start was largely piled up against weaker opponents, and was also aided by some incredible performances from unlikely pitching stars. Since then, the Jays have fallen back to earth.

This still isn't a bad team, though. The Jays aren't the best team in baseball by a long shot, but they are a bit unlucky and have a knack of losing close games by a run or two, as this most recent sweep by Tampa Bay has demonstrated; the Jays fell 3-1, 10-9 and 3-2 in a series of very winnable games that dramatically hurt their record and their playoff chances. Their Pythagorean win expectation (which suggests what a team's record should be based on runs scored and allowed) was at 46-40 after yesterday's game, not a huge difference in terms of pure games, but one that would have them right behind Tampa Bay and theoretically in contention for at least a wild-card playoff berth. Instead, the Jays have put up plenty of runs in blowout wins, but not enough in the close games. The playoffs would still be a long shot if their record sat at 46-40, but a bit of luck as to which games runs showed up in would make things seem a bit more rosy than the current gloomy atmosphere.

When you consider that the pitching rotation has been held together with dreams and duct tape this year, even a 43-44 record is impressive. Soon after the start of the year, four of last year's five regular starters were out of commission, with A.J. Burnett lost to the Yankees in free agency and Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum and Jesse Litsch all likely out for the season thanks to injury. The lone survivor was the staff ace, Roy Halladay, who has been outstanding as usual this year (2.79 ERA, 154 ERA+, 10-3 record), but has faced minor injury problems of his own and missed a few games. Moreover, he also may not be around for long, if general manager J.P. Ricciardi's claims about listening to trade offers for him [Jeff Blair, The Globe and Mail] are to be believed. Pitchers Ricky Romero and Scott Richmond have stepped up admirably (145 and 117 ERA+ respectively), and Brian Tallet and Brett Cecil have been okay, but it's awfully difficult to contend in the toughest division in baseball with a pitching staff composed of spare parts. The relief side's been impressive as well, particularly closer Scott Downs (213 ERA+), but also Jason Frasor and Shawn Camp (168 and 113 ERA+ respectively).

The position players have been even better. Aaron Hill is having a season at second base that would put Roberto Alomar to shame, hitting .298/.336/.496 with 20 HR and 59 RBI and making highlight-reel plays in the field. Marco Scutaro is lighting it up at shortstop and batting .283/.382/.413, while Scott Rolen's hitting .330/.390/.486 and Lyle Overbay's batting .254/.375/.469. The lineup's dragged down a bit by the likes of Alex Rios and Vernon Wells and the odd decision to keep using Raul Chavez as a part-time catcher; Chavez has a good arm and is decent defensively, but he has the bizarre statistic of having a batting average exactly equal to his on-base percentage (both .262); he hasn't drawn a single walk in 85 plate appearances. Still, this is a strong batting lineup; Toronto's team OPS+ of 104 is fourth-best in the American League, and their team OBP of .340 is seventh-best.

In any case, this season is likely a lost cause. It would be tremendously difficult to come back even into the wild-card race at this point in time, particularly considering the strength of the Jays' own division. Not all is lost, though, and that's why the recent rumours about the Halliday trade strike me as odd. Halliday is still locked up for the next year, and keeping him around would give the Jays a plethora of pitching talent; Litsch and Marcum are likely to be back, McGowan may be back as well, and Romero and Richmond are also in the mix for the rotation. Tallet could return to the bullpen, perhaps joined by Cecil, and the Jays would have one of the better pitching staffs in the league. Moreover, if their hitters can keep up their production from this year and perhaps even underacheivers like Wells and Rios can be swapped out for prospects like Travis Snider or free agents, this team could be a powerhouse that could compete for the division title.

The window of opportunity is limited, though. With the strength of the AL East, it's very difficult to compete with Boston and New York year-in and year-out, especially when your attendance numbers are among the worst in the league. Toronto fans aren't going to the ballpark in numbers any more, and it's difficult to blame them; although it's still a lot of fun to go catch a game, the team hasn't been in contention for what feels like forever. That leaves ownership with a tough decision to make. They could cut payroll to a lower level and trade away Toronto's established assets for prospects, hoping to contend down the road, but that's likely to hurt attendance even more and isn't any guarantee of success.

The other option is to roll the dice. Keep Halladay for now and be active in the off-season, either via trading prospects for established players or signing players in free agency to buttress the roster. Try to resign him to a long-term deal before the next season starts, or hope that success will be enough motivation to convince him to come back. Spend big for a year or two and go for broke; a winning team will produce buzz, increase attendance and pay off the cost of the acquisitions, especially if they make the playoffs.

The status quo isn't particularly helpful, as the Jays are good enough to raise hopes and avoid high draft picks, but bad enough not to come close to the playoffs. To me, there's little point in trying to blow the roster up and start from scratch when the team is potentially so close. In my mind, the better option is to try and win within the next couple of seasons, when the team's still close to the top. The requiem for this season has been written, but there's still a lot of hope for the future.

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