My interest in the baseball play-offs waned somewhat once my prediction of a Phillie victory over Detroit became yet one more excuse to avoid the betting parlours. Do they still have betting parlours anymore? At any rate, my thoughts, as evidenced the last two days, has turned to the Toronto Blue Jays of 2012 (and the shenanigans that will shape them between now and then).
Question: How many Blue Jays are you sure will start AND finish the year as Toronto Blue Jays, considering their roster now, before the World Series begins? My answer? FOUR!
The Blue Jays are not World Series contenders as presently constituted. They are what they are. A .500 club where a solid to great season for most of their current players would get them to just short of 90 wins. And that won't change appreciably with little change in current faces two and three years down the line. In fact, it'd better change. Or I suspect we would then find out that the great useless wizard of odds, J.P. Ricciardi would be revealed as having never been fired and was operating the club secretly from behind the screen in New England. But enough of my nightmares.
Jose Bautista, Brett Lawrie, Ricky Romero and Henderson Alvarez will start and finish in Toronto. Everybody else? Hope they don't have long-term leases.
That's not to say that the other 21 guys in Toronto whites need to start packing right away. But they all won't be back and the ones that start in Toronto are no guarantee to finish in the same place.
As much as the pitchers would like Jose Molina back, the fact is that he's more valuable to Toronto as a Type B Free Agent and the sandwich pick he'd earn Toronto if he turned down arbitration and signed elsewhere this off-season. Swapping him out for one of the Pittsburgh coming cast-offs might work out for both clubs. And, while J.P. Arrencibia did knock the ball out of the park frequently enough to earn Rookie of the Year comments, he's never going to hit for average nor turn into a defensive whiz. But he might have a sell-high price that proves irresistable around the big leagues. Whether he goes in the off-season or part way through the year when uber-prospect Travis D'Arnaud goes the Lawrie route in a short stay in Las Vegas, the Toronto catcher of the future is NOT named Arrencibia. Trading him ASAP keeps his value as high as it's going to go. Sign a Jason Varitek or a Gerald Laird to babysit for the months D'Arnaud's in the Nevada desert and you might have the best of all worlds.
Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion both represent trade targets due to their contracts and chances of earning out on those contracts. Lind has a very favourable pay package with affordable options, while Encarnacion is a low-cost doubles machine who's busted 20 homers two of the last three seasons. Either could be all-year Jays next year, or both could be gone in a free-agent fuelled re-vamping this off-season. Frankly, Lind's the more valuable trade chip, with the higher up-side. He hits left-handed and that's a good thing. Plus, he's a really good guy that doesn't need Bautista mothering him. On the other hand, Encarnacion's fielding woes aside, he's a candidate to be moved. First, in the right environment, I think he could thrive and wouldn't be that much of a defensive liability. Secondly, he's signed for a year on a real nice ticket. Plus, I'd like to see him try LF to see if he could hide out there and provide the occasional infield help on the corners. If he COULD play LF, he'd make an almost ideal NATIONAL League player. What at the odds either of them moves? Less than 50-50. But it's not zero.
Shortstop Yunel Escobar ALSO has a team-friendly contract and he's re-emerged as a solid player thanks, apparently, to the guiding influences of Bautista. I'd be awfully wary of trading for him if I was one of the other 28 teams that might do so. I presume Atlanta would not be on that list. But the guy is thisclose to being the All-Star shortstop in the American League for the next half-decade. Escobar's problem is that Toronto has Adeiny Hechavarria on a major league contract. He never impresses with his bat, but has hit better each step up the ladder. Getting him to Toronto and Bautista's influences might just finish the polishing the defensive whiz needs to be an integral part of the next contending Blue Jay team. Add Hechavarria to whatever prizes Escobar could bring back could make Escobar an ex-Jay. Certainly, the validity of the trade plan should be evident a few months into Hechavarria's stay in Las Vegas.
Kelly Johnson is the best second-base alternative for Toronto next year, and if signed, would, indeed, finish the season in Toronto. But being the best free agent at the position (assuming Arizona finds a way to keep ex-Jay Aaron Hill), might price him out of Anthopoulous' adjudged price for his talent. And if AA has done anything, it's prove he won't go past his price. Johnson's advantage comes from Toronto's one organizational lack, second basemen. If pushed the wall, I'm sure Anthopoulos would reach out and see what San Diego would want for the last year of Orlando Hudson's contract. The Padres might be willing to deal the one-time Jay for nothing more than salary relief. Such a move, or something similar to it, would allow Anthopoulos to stave off the decision for another year. So, it's no lead pipe cinch that Johnson's back. Or that Hill would be coming back either.
Speaking of coming back, it's been so stated so often, that the return of John McDonald to Toronto borders on tampering. McDonald has all the appearance of a Toronto lifer. But it was he that approached management and discussed the desire to get meaningful October baseball on his resume before he packed it in. Did his taste in Arizona whet his appetite for more? Could he spurn the playing contract in Toronto to sign with, say the Phillies? I'd say no, but I've been wrong before. Regardless, if he does come back, there's no regular role for Mike McCoy. And that would be disappointing, Because I think he's a perfect 25th guy. But he's a free agent and won't have to accept the Toronto-Las Vegas shuttle for next year.
Mark Teahen and any other Blue Jay infielder not named Brett Lawrie. Gone one way or another. And Lawrie? Starting 3B in the All-Star Game. A Blue Jay for life. Hopefully.
Bautista will spend the whole year in right field, barring a long-term Lawrie injury. It's not like Brett stayed healthy all of 2010 and will never see the wrong side of the disabled list again. He's kamikaze all the way. Unfortunately, Jose demonstrated a little proclivity in that area himself, as he didn't give the walls the consideration they deserved. Even in meaningless All-Star Games. But the kind of idiot rumours like the Votto-Bautista trade scenarios postulated by the mentally infirm are nothing more than pipedreams for the other side. At $14M annually, Bautista is a bargain just for his on-field exploits. He might be worth that price for what he does off the field, too. Simply the best contract in the game.
Colby Rasmus is on a four-month trial in centre field next season. If he shows he can do the job, he becomes a long-term Blue Jay. If he makes it look like his first two seasons in St. Louis are the outliers, then Anthopoulos will simply bring up Anthony Gose to man the spot and deal Rasmus for whatever leftover value he might have. In the long-run, it cost this team some 2011 wins and Marc Rzepczynski to acquire Rasmus. And while the club might later rue the trade, this probably isn't a case of giving up Lou Brock to get Ernie Broglio. Given how quickly Anthopoulos admits his mistakes, a slow-starting Rasmus wouldn't get a lot of rope. On the other hand, Rasmus MIGHT be the star centre-fielder a contending team wins with. In that case, Gose to centre, Rasmus to right and Bautista to DH might happen sooner than people think. At the very least, Gose will get a go sometime in the second half this year. Might be September, might be earlier. The club needs to find out whether he can hit enough to get on-base and utilize his top-rated speed. The defence is major-league worthy right now.
Which leaves us with LF, the place where prospects go to disappoint in Toronto. It's been that way for decades. I'm on record with Toronto needing to cut bait with Travis Snider. Maybe he blossoms elsewhere. But he's not going to do it in Toronto. If anything, manager John Farrell seemed harder on him than did Clarence Gaston. If that's possible. And he and hitting coach Dwayne Murphy do not click. And while I DO see the chance that Murphy moves on, it's not overly likely that he would be replaced by Snider's hitting guru in Vegas. It would be decidely against the odds that Snider plays all year long in Toronto.
I like Eric Thames on a personal level. He seems to get it. But he's not going to be a defensive asset, not now, not ever. And I really, really fear his offense was very largely the creation of batting in front of Bautista, frequently with Escobar on base. Is batting .280 with some power good enough for a contending team? Would, say Rasmus, do better in the same luxurious spot? My answer to those questions is NO and PROBABLY. My biggest issue would then be to do what with Thames? He's liable to become an AAAA guy in Vegas. So, I think a trade might be Toronto's advantage. It's not as dire as the need to move out Snider. And he could be a reasonable place-holder on another non-contending team, with the resulting chance he might take the next step. But I wouldn't bet the farm he does the full-year thing. Not with Gose, Jake Marisnick and even Moises Sierra on the way.
Rajai Davis will start the season as almost the perfect fourth outfielder. He offers speed and some occasional power. He could, in fact, play left field for the team all season in his walk year. But, three things conspire against him. He's become a weaker fielder each of the last three years, using speed to overcome less and less of his lousy baseball sense. He's got a big ticker for a fourth outfielder. And he was brittle last year. On the other hand, his package is the kind that always attracts contending teams come the end of July. Sooooo, he stays for four months to build up value and then joins the caravan out of town when the action heats up.
Adam Loewen? A better story than a result. He's too old for real prospect status. My guess is that he's a fifth outfielder that some team will play as a fourth outfielder because he has enough defensive chops to play centre. But that team will not be Toronto. Dewayne Wise? Already gone.
Ricky Romero stays. 'Nuff said. Any idea of packing Romero and Lawrie AND more to get Joey Votto is so completely idiotic as not to deserve comment. But I will. MORONS. ALL OF YOU.
My last guaranteed keep is Henderson Alvarez, who would have elicited a "Who's he?" at the start of the last season by most everybody in fandom. I have always said the major league stars come from AA, that spending a year in AAA is a tacit admittal that the guy can be good, but never great. And I think Alvarez continues this trend. He might not top the rotation, but he'll fill the fourth or maybe the fifth slot all year long. Pitched too much to be a Rookie of the Year candidate in the coming season. Otherwise, save for those few extra innings, I think he'd be a leading contender.
Brandan Morrow is tittilating. Enough stuff for a number one starter, enough stuff to solve the Toronto Blue Jay closer issue. And enough less-than-spectacular nights to wonder if keeping Brandon League might have been the way to go after all. Sure, League did the same dance, but at least he was home-grown. That said, the only way Morrow doesn't start and finish in T.O. next year is because he gets traded in the off-season for something akin to an expensive sure thing. IF Tampa Bay wasn't in the same division, a Morrow for James Shields kind of deal would be the kind that would get him out of T.O. The other place to look might be Atlanta. Trading Morrow is unlikely, just not inconceivable.
Brett Cecil, Kyle Drabek and Dustin McGowan each have chances to start and finish starting in Toronto come 2012. I've never been a Cecil fan and think he could end up elsewhere the easiest of the lot. He's won 15 games as recently as 2010 and he was dynamite against left-handed batting even in his disastrous 2011. He'll eventually be a left-handed relief specialist, a la Arthur Lee Rhodes. But Cecil is the one pitcher that might bring back the most interesting return for the team. Selling of Drabek at this point would be almost counter-productive. Finding the right coach for him in Vegas is paramount to rebuilding his value. And it wouldn't shock me if they do 'Roy Halladay Redux' and send Drabek all the way to the beginning to rebuild his confidence, command and concentration. Which would not surprise me in replicating the Halladay result. On the other hand, Drabek might just actually be a nova who is now eclipsed. Either way, don't write his name into the pitching logs for all of next season. McGowan's health is the issue that prevents HIM from doing that. His command seemed to be back and he was pitching in the mid-90s again. Besides being a great comeback story, McGowan also has the pitching skill set to earn a rotation slot. Unfortunately, confidence in him requires having a surgeon on call.
There are kids who powered Lansing and New Hampshire on the way to great seasons last year. They've already passed might-have-beens like Brad Mills already. Will any of them, most likely Deck McGuire or Chad Beck, join Alvarez in Toronto? At various points in the season. But guaranteed for any of them? No.
The closer will not be Frankie Francisco next year. Might be Morrow. Might be one of the kids from New Hampshire. Probably will be a hired gun from elsewhere. Listed order of preference: Ryan Madson, Jon Papelbon, Matt Thornton, Heath Bell, Frankie Rodriguez. Put Jose Valverde at the head of the list if Detroit bizarrely lets him go. As for Francisco, he's gone for the sandwich pick he earned. Toronto won't pay his ticket at the price he'll get elsewhere.
Every other reliever who finished the season in Toronto are going to be in competition to come back. Casey Janssen and Jesse Litsch look like keepers, as does long-man Carlos Villanueva. It wouldn't be beyond the realm to see Shawn Camp and/or John Rauch start the year in Toronto on new deals. But each of those five is right-handed. One or two will definitely not be back, with Camp and Rauch being the likely cases. I think Rauch will be a Type B and I'm guessing Camp's close. Joel Carreno, another righty, did enough to suggest he'd compete, while still leaving Las Vegas as his likely season-starting residence.
As it stands now, Luis Perez did enough to suggest he COULD be part of the left-handed section of the team. But consistency wasn't his by-word. He looked a lot better in the starting rotation than he did in relief. Which means Toronto could have a brand-new lefty line-up in the bullpen. Who these new guys are is anybody's guess.
Bottom line with any bullpen is change. Not a single pitcher on this list of bullpen arms is even close to being guaranteed long-term Toronto residence. I mean, Rzepczynski was as close to a lock for long-term Toronto residence as the team had last year ... until he went to St. Louis in the Rasmus deal. Jason Frasor. Remember him? Set the club record for appearances by a pitcher. And days later was a Chicago White Sox.
Such is the lot in life of a bullpen pitcher (unless named Mariano Rivera), that they all keep their suitcases packed.
So, I rest my case. How many Blue Jays will play out the whole season next year here in Toronto. The odds are about 12-16 will pull off the feat. The number of guaranteed full-year residents in Toronto from the current 40-man roster? Well, I say four. But you know, I could be a tad bit optimistic in that prediction.