Scouting the competition: Toronto Blue Jays

Here's a look at the Toronto Blue Jays and their chances for improvement in 2008.

The Toronto Blue Jays are an interesting team. They've had two good years in a row under Manager John Gibbons, but good in the American League East, with the monsters in Boston and New York, are just not good enough.

It's amazing the Blue Jays had a winning season in 2007 considering all the injuries. There were thirteen surgeries for twelve different players on the roster this past season, so getting players healthy will be priority number one for next year.

In fact, it won't be a shock if there's not a lot of movement by General Manager J.P. Ricciardi this winter. He might do some tweaking here and there, but for the most part he's got to cross his fingers that some major players come back strong and healthy.

Yes, the team does need some help offensively after finishing 10th in the American League in runs scored (753), 9th in home runs (165), and 13th in stolen bases (57). The team could use a leadoff hitter and possibly an upgrade in left field, so Ricciardi might use some depth in the pitching staff to make a trade.

The pitching staff was decimated with injuries in 2007, but it still put up solid numbers at the end of the year. Toronto's staff had a 4.00 ERA, second best in the American League. It was first in complete games (11) and second in quality starts (91), while the bullpen was fourth in the AL with 44 saves.

Toronto's bullpen was very good, posting a 3.46 ERA. Closer B.J. Ryan had Tommy John Surgery in May, but Jeremy Accadro stepped in and was outstanding. Accardro had 30 saves and posted a 2.14 ERA. He was helped by two solid setup men, Scott Downs (24 holds in 81 games, 2.17 ERA) and Casey Janssen (24 holds in 70 games, 2.35 ERA). Jason Frasor (4.58 ERA in 51 games), Brian Tallet (3.47 ERA in 48 games), and Brian Wolfe (2.98 ERA in 38 games) provided outstanding depth.

The rotation had a 4.24 ERA and was led again by Roy Halladay, who is one of the best pitchers in the American League. Halladay is a true ace. He had 21 quality starts in 31 appearances, with a 16-7 record and a 3.71 ERA. A.J. Burnett battled injuries but still started 25 games, posting 17 quality starts. He was 10-8 with a 3.75 ERA. If Burnett is healthy, he and Halladay form a solid one-two punch.

Dustin McGowan (18 quality starts in 27 appearances, 12-10, 4.08) and Shaun Marcum (15 quality starts in 25 appearances, 12-6, 4.13) were surprises as they stepped in for Burnett and Gustavo Chacin, who was expected to be the third starter but had only five starts. Also, Jesse Litsch came up from the minors and started 20 games (12 quality starts) and was 7-9 with a 3.81 ERA.

Josh Towers started fifteen games but had only four quality starts. The Blue Jays will probably non-tender Towers and set him free again. The Braves have had interest in Towers in the past and could be a decent backup option for the Atlanta rotation.

McGowan, Marcum, and Litsch could once again follow Halladay and Burnett. Toronto hopes Chacin will be back next season, and they've even talked about moving Casey Janssen from the bullpen to the rotation. If that happens, the Blue Jays might use that depth to improve the starting lineup.

The lineup does, however, have some bright spots. Obviously Alex Rios is one of the top young players in the game. He hit .297 with 24 home runs and 85 RBI along with 17 stolen bases in 2007 and will only get better. And second baseman Aaron Hill was perhaps the Blue Jays' MVP in 2007 after hitting .291 with 17 home runs and driving in 78.

Considering his pay raise last winter, Vernon Wells' season was a bit of a disappointment (.245, 16, 80, 10 SB, .304 OBP). But there's no doubt Wells is still a premium player.

Another disappointment was first baseman Lyle Overbay, who hit only .240 with 10 home runs, 44 RBI, and a .315 OBP. Overbay needs to rebound next season, and third baseman Troy Glaus needs to stay healthy. Glaus had a nagging foot injury that limited him to 110 games this past season, but he's had surgery already and should be ready to go next April. Glaus hit 20 home runs in 385 at bats, so a full season could produce closer to 35 home runs for the Blue Jays.

Gregg Zahn started 93 games behind the plate and hit .242 with 10 home runs, 52 RBI, and had a .341 OBP. Zahn might split more time next year with Curtis Thigpen, a good prospect who started fourteen games in the big leagues at catcher.

Left field and shortstop are two question marks. Reed Johnson was a huge disappointment and might be non-tendered. Johnson hit only .236 with 2 home runs and 14 RBI in 275 at bats. Rookie Adam Lind had a decent start to his career (.238, 11, 46), but the Blue Jays may prefer to find a better option that could also lead off in the lineup.

And at shortstop John McDonald is an outstanding defensive player, but he's just a poor hitter. McDonald has no power and hit only .251 last season with a .279 on base percentage. Don't be shocked if the Blue Jays search for another alternative this winter.

Would Toronto inquire about Braves shortstop Edgar Renteria? He's affordable and they have pitching available. The Braves would probably ask for Georgia native Dustin McGowan in any deal for the All-Star shortstop.

The Blue Jays have a decent option as the Designated Hitter in Frank Thomas, who hit 26 home runs and 95 RBI last season. Thomas remains a major threat in the Toronto lineup.

Toronto has only two free agents, Matt Stairs and Joe Kennedy. They want to bring Stairs back as insurance for Thomas and for Overbay at first base. Kennedy is a pitcher the Braves might have some interest in this winter. The lefty has experience as both a starter and a reliever.

If Toronto can guarantee its top players that missed time in 2007 can rebound next season, they'll have a decent chance to compete with the Red Sox and Yankees. But a little tweaking by J.P. Ricciardi this winter might give the team a better shot at a playoff run in 2008.


Eligible for Free Agency: Joe Kennedy, Matt Stairs
Eligible for Arbitration: Josh Towers, Brian Tallet, Jason Frasor, Scott Downs, Gustavo Chacin, San Fasano, Aaron Hill, Hector Luna, Ray Olmedo, Alex Rios, Reed Johnson



Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.



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