Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How Close Are the Blue Jays to Contention?

By
Image courtesy of The Star
Remember the fabled “five-year” plan? It’s something we can joke about now, but during the previous regime, it felt like an empty promise. It sounded similar to something a politician would say to win over indecisive voters.

For J.P. Ricciardi, the plan worked … at least for a while. Admittedly, I even bought in to it and was thrilled to see the Blue Jays ramp up their spending on player salaries past the $100 million dollar mark.

Even when all those things came together, it never really felt like the Blue Jays were close to contention. Rather than being proactive and bolstering their farm system and scouting, it seemed like they were waiting for either the Red Sox or Yankees to fall out of contention for their window of opportunity.

Fast forward to 2011 and things are even more competitive than ever. What used to be a two horse race in the AL East has now become a three horse race. As the Red Sox can surely attest to, the margin of error is slimmer than ever to reach the post-season.

After watching the contrasting styles at the helm of J.P. Ricciardi and Alex Anthopoulos, one thing I’ve learned is that you can’t structure your entire strategy around what other teams are doing around you. The Blue Jays certainly should be cognisant of what the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays are doing, but their plan shouldn’t be based on external factors.

With the way things are proceeding for the Blue Jays, I think most can agree that the Blue Jays are on the path to success, but the real question is – how long will it take them to get there? Personally, I believe it’s sooner rather than later.

If you asked me at the beginning of the 2011 season when I though the Blue Jays might be ready to make a run for the playoffs, I likely would have answered 2013 or 2014 at the very earliest. With all the acquisitions and trades this year alone, I’d say that timetable might have been moved up to 2012.

The thing that really indicated the Blue Jays might be pushing for the playoffs now was the acquisition of Colby Rasmus. Toronto already had a centre fielder in place with Rajai Davis (albeit a very streaky one), so the upgrade in the outfield to me signaled a slight shift in AA’s plan.

One thing is for sure, the bar for excellence has been raised in the American League East. And it takes a culmination of every aspect of the team (pitching, hitting, defense) clicking on all cylinders at the same time to even have a shot at the playoffs.

The Yankees and the Red Sox pitching staffs have left something to be desired, and yet despite those shortcomings, they are poised to capture a couple of playoff spots. So for the Blue Jays to surpass them, Toronto has to be that much better.

As for areas where the Blue Jays can improve, obviously the bullpen and the starting rotation are the two major concerns. I’m not certain whether that means they need to bolster the bullpen and rotation with free agents or offseason acquisitions, but as it currently stands, there are just too many question marks on the pitching staff for the Blue Jays to be contenders.

Maybe like the Atlanta Braves, everything will just click with a young bullpen and not much will have to be done at all. Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters seemingly came out of nowhere and become the equivalent of Ward/Henke from the Blue Jays glory days.

As far as the starting rotation is concerned, I think the Blue Jays need solid efforts from at least three of their five starting pitchers. Ricky Romero can be counted on, Brandon Morrow is working his way back into the good books, but after that it’s a lot of “what if’s”.

Sometimes, even the best laid plans go awry. Alex Anthopoulos could go out and sign C.J. Wilson and Jonathan Papelbon and both could have horrible seasons. History dictates they would probably be okay, but you never know what could happen with free agents.

Nobody can say for certain whether it will take two years, five years, or ten years for the Blue Jays to put together a squad that can compete with the elite of the AL East. But I think we can all agree that AA is going about things the right way.

Bolstering the scouting staff, developing players in the minor leagues and acquiring high-ceiling talent is a much more sustainable strategy than just plucking the best free agents off the market and hoping for the best.

Even with the most highly-touted prospects, there are never any guarantees whether or not they will develop into the superstars they may be billed as. But the more high-ceiling players the Blue Jays have like that in their system, the better the chances at least one or some of them will actually pan out.

Nobody wants to shoot themselves in the foot and guarantee that the Blue Jays will make the playoffs within the next five years. As comforting as that might be to hear, I’d rather see the Blue Jays go through their growing pains in the short term to so long as it leads to long term improvement and success.

12 comments:

  1. A few thoughts:

    1. I remember when J.P. Ricciardi was hired thinking that this guys strength will be in his drafts, that he had a keen eye for talent. Well, I did a quick look back at the history of J.P. Ricciardi drafts, and realized they were remarkably bad. Even his best draft pick (Romero) was a mistake as he passed on Troy Tulowitzki, who at the time was projected to go 3rd overall. He should have been jumping out of his shoes to take him with the 7th overall pick. I may do a blog on Ricciardi's lack of success in the draft.

    2. How close are the Jays to contention? This really depends on who they can pick up through free agents or trades. If we are talking about the team as currently constructed, I think it is a lot further away that most people would like to believe. Also, while I truely believe the Jays could be competitive as soon as next year with the right acquisitions, I'm not sure how realistic those acquisitions coming to fruition really are. As much as we would love to see Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, CJ Wilson, CC Sabathia, etc. sign with the Jays, they may have no interest in coming to Toronto either because they don't want to play in Canada, and/or they don't see the Blue Jays as a serious competitor with the Rays, Sox and Yanks in the same division.

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  2. I really think we're only one big (successful) acquisition away from having an outside shot next year; whether it be Pujols/Fielder or Darvish, or someone like Lincecum via trade, we aren't that far away - if most things fall our way.

    And that may be the strategy for this offseason - acquire one more long-term piece, hope to compete next year; and (if we aren't in contention by mid-year) trade some of our lower-caliber talents who have some value at midseason (EE, Lind, Cecil, Thames, even Escobar and Romero might fall into this category) for high-ceiling prospects, and hit the free-agent market hard during the 2012 off-season.

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  3. Peter, not to sound like a J.P. Ricciardi apologist, but I think the reason the Blue Jays went with Romero over Tulowitzki was they had already drafted Russ Adams in the 2002 draft and were hopefully he would be the starting shortstop.

    The thing with those free agents is the Blue Jays would undoubtedly have to overpay to bring them to Toronto ... and they would fetch a huge contract regardless.

    Gabriel, the more and more I think about it, the more I believe AA will stay away from the big name free agents and will instead target somebody via trade. It just makes much more sense financially, especially if those players are already under team-friendly contracts.

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  4. Ian, I agree that free agency is unlikely to be the main venue for adding talent this offseason, but it is an outside possibility. There are a lot of players who would make some sense to sign (Fielder, Pujols, Berkman, Thome, CJ Wilson), but none of them make a tonne of sense (in the way that Pujols does for the Cubs, for instance). Yu Darvish is perhaps a stronger possibility, and does fit AA's appetite for high-risk, high-reward options.

    The difficulty with making a big difference on the trade market is that we don't have a bunch of high-value tradeable guys at the ML level right now, and I doubt AA will be happy to part with our top prospects. Even AA's wizardry doesn't mean he'll be able to pry a Lincecum-like talent away from another team this offseason.

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  5. Clearly money does not equal on-field performance.
    Any player who doesn't want to play in Canada or has fear of the AL East will never be a Blue Jay. That attitude is not welcome in Toronto's clubhouse.
    I did not know Roy Halladay, but if Ricky Romero is the only "sure thing" ...that can't be a good sign. Didn't Roy just want to win?
    I really like many of the "middle range" guys on our team, but if they are more valuable in trades...hey, that's baseball. I trust AA to be smart with kissing favourites like Wells goodbye in order to refresh the team. Trade half the outfield for a few pitchers? That does not make sense when I keep hearing about the promising growth in the minors. I wish for a mixture of both.
    Having said that, AA's magic only goes so far. He can bring guys in, and make them disappear, but it'll be down to the wire in August 2012, 13 or 14 and up to individual Jays to see who contends for the pennantS.

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  6. It depends what AA's plan is. Does he want to go for broke, sign a big free agent pitcher or closer and go for it next year? Or maybe compete for a better record, maybe win the wild card, and definitely contend in '13 or '14? I believe we still need a Number 1 starter and a closer who can effectively shut the door. Kevin Gregg and Jon Rauch were not the answers. They might have been effective, but those guys gave up too many hits, before they closed it out. I hated seeing the bullpen doors open and one of those guys coming out. Used to give me panic attacks. BTW, how does Travis Snyder fit in now?

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  7. They'll be better in 2012, but contenders? Too many holes to fill: 2B, backup C, most of the bullpen, at least 2 starters, arguably LF and 1B/DH...

    I truly believe that Lawrie, Rasmus, Drabek, and Alvarez have it in them to be great. I want to believe that Arencibia and Thames can build on good rookie seasons, that Morrow will put it all together, that the 2010 Yunel Escobar won't resurface, and that Jose Bautista can put up another year of 1.000+ OPS.

    It's just asking a lot to expect all of that to happen in one year. And I'm not sure any 2 of Fielder, Wilson, Darvish and Papelbon could make enough of a difference, if that stuff *doesn't* happen.

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  8. Gabriel, and on the Yu Darvish thing ... I don't think he would travel all the way to Japan to scout him personally unless AA was pretty serious about signing him. He could've easily just sent a scout to check Darvish out.

    Mary-Beth, the Yankees have proven that money can buy you success, but they also have a pretty decent farm system too. The Orioles tried to buy up a couple free agents and made some trades, and look where it got them - still last in the AL East.

    Tony, I hear ya on the closer issue. The problem with that is there are never any guarantees with closers: it's such a revolving door of people, I think the best thing to do is try to assemble the best bullpen possible and just hope for the best.

    As far as Travis Snider, that's another blog post for another day: but with the emergence of Thames and Loewen, I think things are looking worse and worse for Snider as the months progress.

    Roberto, I think for the most part the lineup is basically set. The pitching staff is where the most questions arise. We can all "hope" that Morrow will bounce back, Cecil and Drabek will emerge as solid back-end starters, but I think the likelihood of all of those things culminating at once during a season are pretty slim.

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  9. One of the difficulties of living in the AL East is that while solid back-end starters are valuable elsewhere, they make contention difficult. One simply cannot fill too many spots with average players. Cecil and Litsch both might be solid back-end starters- but I'd rather hope that Drabek, McGowan, Morrow & Alvarez develop into good #2 types. Perhaps Morrow and McGowan have true #1 potential.

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  10. Gabriel, I think that might've been part of the reason why they moved Litsch to the bullpen. At best, he was a #4/#5 starter, and the Blue Jays have plenty of arms like that on the team already.

    Better to give Alvarez and Drabek a shot and see what kind of upside they have.

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  11. The stupidity on this board is unreal. 3-4-5-6 years for us to be in contention. Great idea, why not just ride the coat tails of one of the top 5 position players in all of the world, lets wait until escobars trash, until Rickies in his 30s, great idea.

    Im not saying spend money for the sake of spending it but you dont complete in the ALE when your rivals have Tex and Agon and you have .180 hitting Lind for half the season as your number 4 hitter. With of course no 1b prospects (mcdade is our best) who can hit for any type of power and ZERO hitters that have clean up potential. Sign prince and chase the wild card into sept next year giving the young arms another year to develop and you go into the next with a few tweaks with hopes of going to the WS.

    And you dont trade your strong suit ie our young arms for Votto whose going to want near prince money to extend anyways.

    common sense is hard.

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  12. Anon, the time line for the Blue Jays to contend is definitely sooner rather than later. It would seem like a waste to putter through Jose Bautista's best years, so opening the wallet now makes sense.

    Although some would say signing big name free agents is never a good idea, the only thing the Blue Jays would have to give up is money - no prospects or players have to be dealt, all it takes is money.

    I'd live to have Joey Votto as much as the next guy, but it would take a boatload of prospects just to land him. And at that point, maybe that would even be taking a step backwards.

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