Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Meet the East: Toronto

2008 record: 86-76, 11 games back.
(That record would have won the National League West and kept the Jays in contention until the end in the American League Central and National League East.)

* Roy Halladay, still perhaps the most underappreciated great pitcher in baseball, went 20-11 with a 2.78 ERA (and a 154 ERA+, third in the American League).
* B.J. Ryan (2.95 ERA), Jesse Carlson (2.25 ERA), Scott Downs (1.78 ERA) and Brian Tallet (2.88 ERA) made up the best bullpen in baseball.
* Vernon Wells and Alex Rios each hit close to .300, OBP'ed close to .350 and slugged over .450.

* Dustin McGowan, who had a 2.95 ERA in his first seven starts, didn't throw a pitch after July 8 and isn't due back from shoulder surgery until May.
* No regulars other than Wells or Rios slugged over .450; no one at all hit more than 20 home runs or drove in more than 80 runs.

No team in baseball faces the type of dilemma the Blue Jays face right now: Keep plugging away, or blow it up and start over?

The Jays are a legitimately good team; not only did they win 86 games a season ago, but based on their run differential, they could have won 92 games with a little luck. (They were 24-32 in one-run games.) Halladay is one of the best pitchers in the game. Jesse Litsch threw a pair of complete-game shutouts. But A.J. Burnett (free-agent departure) and Shaun Marcum (Tommy John surgery) both are gone; neither will be part of this year's Jays' team.

Instead, youngsters David Purcey (5.54 ERA in 12 starts last season), Casey Janssen (who missed last season with a torn labrum) and Scott Richmond (whose up-and-down rookie season culminated in a complete-game shutout at Baltimore) are the top candidates to fill out the rotation behind Halladay and Litsch.

Is that enough to compete in the most loaded division in baseball? Probably not.

The Jays had a window; in three seasons with Halladay and Burnett at the top of the rotation, the team won 87 games, 83 games and 86 games. Only five other teams in baseball -- the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Phillies and Mets -- can say they've won at least 83 games in each of the last three seasons.

But all five of those teams made the playoffs at least once in that span. The Blue Jays, on the other hand, never finished within 10 games of a division title and never finished within eight games of earning a wild-card berth.

Now Burnett is gone, and Halladay is under contract only until 2010. (He'll make $14.25 million this season and $15.75 million next season.) The contracts of Scott Rolen and B.J. Ryan likewise expire after the 2010 season. Same with Lyle Overbay.

No one likes to blow it all up and start over, not with a team that can consistently finish over .500. But the Jays weren't all that close to competing with the division's elite a year ago, and it would be wildly optimistic to give them a chance of doing that this year. With so many contracts set to expire after 2010, the Jays have one last chance to contend this season. If they finish somewhere around .500 yet again, they'll have no choice but to start selling off parts.

The only untouchables -- or, you could say, untradeables -- appear to be Wells and Rios, both under contract for big money until 2014. Wells is owed $12.5 million in 2010 before the numbers skyrocket to over $20 million a year for each of the next four years. (The center fielder can opt out after the 2011 season.) Rios is owed $9.7 million in 2010, $12 million in 2011 and 2012 and $12.5 million in 2013 and 2014.

Unless the Yankees step forward with an irresistable trade offer to fill their void in center field, it's hard to see either Wells or Rios going anywhere. (Would either team do a swap of Ian Kennedy and Austin Jackson for Vernon Wells? Who would blink first?)

Overbay and Rolen aren't going to bring much in the way of top-tier prospects. Ryan might or might not. Halladay, though, is just the sort of trading chip that's could revitalize a franchise.

J.P. Ricciardi has said -- emphatically -- that he's not going to trade Halladay.

"What do you think we'd get for Roy Halladay?" he told's Jayson Stark. "What do you think we could get that could ever replace Roy Halladay? He's the best pitcher in baseball. Who's going to give you a combination of guys that could (replace him)? All these guys you could supposedly get -- they won't become Roy Halladay. So if we think we're going to be good, we're going to be better with him here."

That's certainly true. But the Blue Jays haven't ever been quite good enough even with Halladay -- and teams can get better after trading ace pitchers. Just ask the Mariners, who traded Randy Johnson in 1998 and won 116 games in 2001. Just ask the Indians, who traded Bartolo Colon in 2002 and went to the American League Championship Series in 2007. And just ask the Diamondbacks, who traded Curt Schilling in 2003 and won the National League West in 2007.

In some ways, the Blue Jays face the same dilemma as the Padres, who tried all winter to trade ace Jake Peavy and start over from scratch. But Peavy has more than $50 million left on an extension that takes him through 2012. Halladay, on the other hand, is owed $15.75 million next season but nothing beyond that. If a contending team -- say, the the New York Mets -- decides it needs an ace to get over the hump right now, Halladay might be its best option.

And the Blue Jays might be able to name their price.

On the horizon:
Watch for outfielder Travis Snider, the former first-round pick who hit .301 and slugged .466 in 73 at-bats last September. New Hampshire fans are well-acquainted with Snider; he hit 17 home runs and 21 doubles in 98 games with the Fisher Cats next season.

He'll have a chance to introduce himself to the rest of the baseball world as early as Opening Day.

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