Saturday, January 22, 2011

SPORTS: Let The Cackling Stop

Vernon Wells is gone and some idiots have hit the web, all demonstrating a complete and utter ignorance that brings shame to Toronto Blue Jay fandom. The common rant, replete with spelling errors, is that Wells was an overpaid bum, usually with a bunch of other scathing innuendo thrown in for bad measure.

Here's a fact. Vernon Wells has been fairly well underpaid in his Blue Jay career. I'd cite numbers, but most of the bozos posting all over the place are incapable of doing math. The many times cited 20+ Million yearly contracts only NOW start to show up in Wells' bank account(s). He took less for the first few years of the contract extension he signed in 2007 in order to afford Ricciardi a chance to buy a contender around him, that would coelesce into a perennial contender by the time the Jays were going to have to cut seven-figure checks twice a month.

Another fact? Vernon Wells happens to be one of those guys who you wouldn't mind your little Johnies (and maybe even Jills) throwing a little hero-worship at. He's been giving back to the community for years in all kinds of ways. A sort of anti-Charles Barkley if you will, in style AND substance.

Dumping on Vernon Wells is plain ignorant. He earned his money here in Toronto, and then some.

All of that said, what Toronto Blue Jay fan can't like this trade on its baseball merits. Wells WAS about to become vastly over-paid through a combination of age, injury and Ricciardi's idiotic largesse. Afterall, it was contracts like Wells' that gave birth to calling dumb contracts 'Ricciardis.' Wells said yes to the EXTENSION. And who among us wouldn't have? (Yes, I'm aware Godfrey had a hand in this Ricciardi too. But a GM with pride who disagreed with the contract would have resigned. Ricciardi cashed Blue Jay cheques to the bitter (for fans) end). The money no longer ticketed to Wells will bring good to great upgrades as early as next year. While next year's free agent crop doesn't exactly glow right now, time has a habit of improving vision as objects of lust come into clearer view.

Mike Napoli has a chance to be a very good Blue Jay. He'll be the third catcher (or more, if JP Arencibia proves to be a AAAA type), letting new manager John Farrell occasionally pinch run for Arencibia or Jose Molina without fear of running out of catchers. He can also split time with Adam Lind at 1B/DH, spending more time on the field if Lind runs into problems. His acquisition makes Edwin Encarnacion a bench player, which means the couple of million signed there might be a wash. But I've always wondered it Encarnacion might actually be a guy who runs with a chance at some point. He's still youngish and I think there's still a chance. I had HIM as my breakout guy last year, with a small nod to Jose Bautista's chances. Still time. And at least he gives the team a backup 3B, allowing Johnny Mac to concentrate on the middle of the diamond.

Juan Rivera is a big-league outfielder, and a good one just two years ago. If he repeats 2009, the trade turns into something really, really great for the Jays. If he repeats last year, well, his $5.5M comes off the books at the end of the year and he can watch Encarnacion play third while Bautista goes back to right field. Something in the middle can be expected. But a Jays' fan can be forgiven optimism. Rivera seems to play well in contract years.

And that's part of what makes this trade grow in expectations as the year passes. At the end of it, Napoli and Rivera could very well be Type B Free Agents. And Type A is not out of the question, after Napoli comes to the Rogers Centre for 81+ games. Alex Anthopoulos will offer arbitration and the Jays will reap benefits come draft time in 2012. That's who he is. And that's how the Jays will become relevent in the Big East of the AL, where they play in the same sandbox as the free-spending Yankees and Red Sox. Call it the Tampa Bay Plan. And, as long as AA doesn't settle for safe backup infielders and back of the rotation starters from college (like his mypoic predecessor), the plan has a distinct chance of working.

In the meantime, Toronto does have an interesting conundrum. The starting outfield of Snider, Rajai Davis and Rivera is scary defensively. The club needs to think of acquiring an actual flyhawk to cover the Wells-to-Anthony Gose transition years. I fear Davis isn't the guy. But he will be, all of this year as the Jays go into full-blown tryout mode. Which might mean a step back in the win column. But it's important to know which pieces are going to back in 2012, to be combined with some newly-bought Jays to take a run at making the playoffs for the first time in three decades.

So, the Jays will field a starting lineup that will have Davis leading off, followed by Aaron Hill, Bautista, Napoli, Lind, Snider, Rivera, Arencibia and Yunel Escobar. The offensive bench will include Johnny McDonald, Molina, Encarnacion and likely Corey Patterson. How will that offence stack up against last year's bombers? Wells is gone, but Napoli rates to equal his homer total. Lyle Overbay is gone, but it has to be assumed that both Lind and Hill have bounce back years (They WERE Silver Slugger winners in 2009). Rivera seems like an upgrade over Freddie Lewis power-wise. The only decline will probably be at catcher where Arencibia will be hard-pressed to match John Buck's all-star numbers a year ago. But, if the lone remaining JP connected with the Jays DOES stumble, Napoli at backstop and Encarnacion at DH means that power deficit reverses. And lastly, I'm in the 'Bautista's for real' camp. I see a slight dimunation in his power numbers, not a dramatic dive from 54 down to the 30 area.

With about the same power potential, some improvements and/or reversion to past batting skills from the average standpoint of view and a manager willing to play small ball a little more, the Jays might very exceed last year's offensive numbers. Farrell's in charge of combining with Bruce Walton and Pat Hentgen to get the same kind of bullpen performance (which was slightly less than good last year) and some improvement out of the kiddie korps on the pitching mound. IF all that happens, the Jays are a mid-to-high 80's win team. But that's secondary to the questions 2011 will answer.

Is Snider an illusion or on the verge of breaking out? Is Davis the bridge to Gose or 2012's fourth outfielder? Can Rivera became a Type B Free Agent? Is Bautista an illusion or on the verge of a long-term Blue Jay career with a big contract go with that? Is Escobar the guy everybody thinks he is, or the same guy who disappointed everybody for the first two months in Atlanta and the last month in Toronto last year? Can Hill bounce back? And is Hill the 2B or 3B of the future? Can Lind bounce back AND learn to play 1B? Can  Napoli find enough at bats to make fans forget Wells? And can Napoli get enough time at catcher to qualify there and become a Type B Free Agent, or daresay a Type A? Is Arencibia a big leaguer or do the Jays have to await the arrival of Travis D'Arnaud? Can Encarnacion tap that offensive power potential if not burdened with playing 3B regularly? If any of the various corner infielders, DH's or corner outfielders falter, can uber-offensive prospect Brett Lawrie beat a path to major league stardom?

That's a LOT of questions that need answering on the offensive side of the slate. A series of positive answers would make the Blue Jays a contender a year early, with LOTS of money to spend come July. But we all know some of those answers won't come out in Toronto's favour. I've never been a Snider fan. Despite Don Wakamatsu (and the titleless coach, Molina), I fear for the catching, And the defence, on the whole, is a major step down from last year. I think Toronto will miss Overbay more than they realize, The bench is a little thin. But no Clarence Gaston while keeping Dwayne Murphy is a plus. No allegiance to a set line up, no matter how poorly some Gaston favourites are playing is a plus. It's hard NOT to be optimistic.

And when you think of the extra 75 million bucks Toronto had budgeted for and now finds free to spend in other ways, the future's so bright, AA has to wear shades.

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