TORONTO BLUE JAYS
2006 Record: 87-75, 2nd Place
Manager: John Gibbons
On SBN: Bluebird Banter
Incoming: DH Frank Thomas, SS Royce Clayton, RHP John Thomson, OF/DH Matt Stairs, RHP Tomo Ohka, RHP Matt Roney, IF Jason Smith
Outgoing: C Bengie Molina, OF Frank Catalanotto, LHP Ted Lilly, RHP Justin Speier
Return to Glory?
Since winning back-to-back World Series titles in 1992-93, and a stretch from 1989 through '93 where the team won four of five AL East titles and finished second in the other year (1990), the Blue Jays have failed to reach the postseason. Some people forget that Toronto had a fantastic period of 11 seasons where they were a consistently very good team, starting in 1983 under Bobby Cox and ending with Cito Gaston's '93 championship team.
Since then, the Jays have finished over .500 five times in 13 seasons, and the 2006 team was as good as Toronto has seen since the glory years. With J.P. Ricciardi at the helm and a front office that's more than willing to spend money to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox, Toronto finished a game ahead of the tattered Sox last year to end an eight-year run of New York and Boston finishing 1-2 in the division (Toronto finished in third place all but one of those seasons, when injury sent them tumbling into last in 2004).
After an offseason that saw the Blue Jays give free agents B.J. Ryan and A.J. Burnett big contracts and trade for Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay, the Jays locked up Vernon Wells long-term and added 500-home run club bound Frank Thomas to what could be a deadly lineup. They lost more key players than they added this year, though, subtracting setup man Justin Speier, part-time outfielder Frank Catalanotto, lefty starter Ted Lilly and catcher Bengie Molina. The catching job will just go back to reliable veteran Gregg Zaun, while the Jays hope Jason Frasor or Brandon League can step in and fill Speier's shoes in front of Ryan, who had an incredible first season with Toronto, coming as close as a closer can to earning the huge money he was given.
While it won't be easy to beat out the Yankees or Red Sox, the Blue Jays are commited to making the AL East a three-team race every year.
Thunder On the Mountain
The addition of Thomas could have a huge impact, positively or negatively, depending on how the Big Hurt's health is. Thomas played 137 games in his one-year rebound stint with Oakland in 2006, and he hit .270/.381/.545 with 39 home runs and 81 walks in the process. Thomas has never lost his eye or his power, but in the last six years he's been a complete guessing game in terms of reliability. He played 148 games in 2002 and 153 in 2003, and he was effective both years, but he also played in 34 games in 2005, 74 in 2004 and just 20 in 2002. He's also as close to immobile as a ballplayer can be at this point -- of his 126 hits in 2006, 39 were home runs and 76 were singles. He hit just 11 doubles, and scored just 77 runs despite his .381 on-base percentage. He did a lot to solidify the Oakland lineup and help lead them to the ALCS, but he is one-dimensional.
Thankfully, he'll have lineup support with the Blue Jays that he did not have in Oakland. Wells (.303/.357/.542, 32 HR), Glaus (.252/.355/.513, 38 HR), and Overbay (.312/.372/.508, 46 2B, 22 HR) return and offer plenty of punch on their own. Reed Johnson will be the full-time left fielder after hitting .319/.390/.479 in 461 at-bats last year, no longer sharing time with the departed Catalanotto. Alex Rios came into his own last year as well, and Zaun can carry his load at the bottom of the lineup. Johnson will likely lead off for the Jays in spite of questions that still surround the 30-year old as far as how he'll fare in every day play, but it's obviously a risk the Jays are willing to take.
If he were to falter, Aaron Hill or Rios could lead off, or we could see the emergence of 23-year old Adam Lind, who destroyed pitching at Double-A New Hampshire last year and was named his league's MVP. Lind also torched the ball in stints at Syracuse (.394, 5 HR in 34 games) and in Toronto (.367, 2 HR in 60 at-bats).
Toronto will also likely have a new shortstop, as they acquired veteran Royce Clayton to compete with failed prospect Russ Adams. Clayton's bat won't help you win anything, but the Jays have plenty of firepower already, and Clayton is a professional shortstop. Toronto will be his 10th major league team, and his seventh in the last six years.
But Pitching Wins Championships
Toronto's main weakness going into 2007 is still the starting rotation. Roy Halladay returns after another outstanding season (16-5, 3.19 in 220 IP), and A.J. Burnett remains the No. 2 starter after a 21-game campain in '06 that surprised no one. When healthy, Burnett is effective.
The Blue Jays lost Ted Lilly, but lefty Gustavo Chacin could re-enter the rotation full-time and ably replace Lilly if healthy, and if he can become a bit more consistent. In 2005, Chacin pitched 203 innings and did quite well, with a 3.72 ERA. He was a bit lucky, and in his 17 games in 2006, he didn't fare quite as well, posting a 5.05 ERA.
Veteran right-handers John Thomson (2-7, 4.82 in 80 innings with Atlanta) and Tomo Ohka (4-5, 4.82 in 97 innings with Milwaukee) will have chances to enter the rotation as well, but will be competing with 25-year old Shaun Marcum to round out the last two spots in the rotation. Casey Janssen (Kris Benson's mortal enemy in 2006) will also be in the mix.
The bullpen has decent depth with Ryan, Frasor, Brandon League, Scott Downs, Jeremy Accardo, Dustin McGowan, Matt Roney and Brian Tallet all suiting up for the Jays this spring. Ryan will close again, but they have to replace Justin Speier as the set-up man, which could prove difficult, or could be immediately filled by League, who did very well between Syracuse and Toronto last season.
Why Toronto Won't Win
They're almost all offense, or at least until anyone but Halladay proves they can be a reliable starting pitcher. Plus, while the Jays did finish second in 2006, a huge part of that was Boston being torn apart by injury, and the Jays still managed to finish just a game ahead of the Red Sox. Adding Thomas is good, but it's the only real improvement they made to the team, and that is simply unlikely to propel the Blue Jays into a serious bid at the division this season. With Boston reloaded and the Yankees still packed with good players, the Jays will be hard-pressed to not return to their usual third place home.