Toronto Blue Jays season preview
Gaston's charges prepare for campaign without pitchers Burnett, Marcum
In the final days of spring training, Toronto Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston was asked to assess the performance of Scott Richmond, who coughed up nine hits and six runs to Detroit over six innings of work in his last start.
"Not too bad," was the even-keeled Gaston's response. "Hopefully he gets his control down and we'll see what happens [in his first regular-season start] in Cleveland."
Staying patient, which has never been an issue with the 65-year-old skipper in his three stints in Toronto, probably will have to be Gaston's biggest strength throughout the 2009 season, which could be filled with more bad days than good.
The Blue Jays, coming off a 86-win campaign, enter this season with an unproven No. 2 starting pitcher (David Purcey), new fourth and fifth starters in Ricky Romero and Richmond who are replacing the injured Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum, and a $10-million US closer (B.J. Ryan) who has had trouble throwing strikes this spring.
A slumping economy prevented general manager J.P. Ricciardi from adding top free-agent hitters over the winter, so the promising Adam Lind and Travis Snider will share time in left field and at designated hitter. But will it be enough for Toronto to compete for a playoff spot come September?
With the Blue Jays set to open their season April 6 against the visiting Detroit Tigers, CBCSports.ca breaks down the team in five major categories and offers an outlook on where Canada's sole major league club will finish in the American League East Division standings.
Big things were expected at the start of the 2008 season, with veteran slugger Frank Thomas, outfielder Shannon Stewart and scrappy infielder David Eckstein on board, but the Blue Jays — then managed by John Gibbons — responded with an 11-17 record for April and struggled mightily with runners in scoring position much of the season.
Toronto finished 10th in the 14-team American League with a .264 average and disappointing 126 home runs. The Blue Jays also stood 10th in on-base percentage at .331 — a category held in high regard by Ricciardi.
Gaston and hitting coach Gene Tenace can only hope the signs of a better offensive performance that showed in the second half of last season will shine through early and often in 2009.
It starts with Vernon Wells, the cleanup hitter and centre-fielder who will earn $1.5 million US in the second year of a seven-year, $126-million contract extension. On March 1, he was paid $8.5 million as part of a $25-million signing bonus.
He missed 54 games last season with a broken wrist and left hamstring injuries but hit .300 with 20 home runs (the only Blue Jay to reach that number) and 78 runs batted in.
Shortstop Marco Scutaro, who knocked in a career-best 60 runs in '08, will hit leadoff after averaging better than .280 with runners in scoring position. Second baseman Aaron Hill will bat second. He was sidelined much of last year with a concussion, but hit 17 homers in 2007.
Toronto will also need first baseman Lyle Overbay to return to his form of 2006 (.312, 22-92) if it has any chance of advancing to the post-season. He was a .273 hitter a year ago with 15 dingers and 69 RBI.
The same applies to Rolen, who spent the off-season making the necessary adjustments to his swing in order to take some of the strain off his surgically repaired left shoulder. Rolen, who has topped 30 homers three times in his career, managed just 11 in 115 games in 2008.
Veteran Michael Barrett beat out Raul Chavez as the backup catcher to Rod Barajas. Two seasons ago, Barrett hit .244 with nine home runs for San Diego.
Taking away three-fifths of a rotation would cripple many teams and especially the Blue Jays, who couldn't compete with other teams for the services of top free agents C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Derek Lowe over the winter.
Burnett signed with the New York Yankees for five years and $82.5 million US after opting out of the final two years and $24 million of his contract with the Blue Jays. In 2008, he set career highs in wins (18), strikeouts (an AL-best 231) and innings (221).
Marcum, who posted nine wins and a 3.39 ERA in 25 starts a year ago, will miss the entire season following elbow ligament replacement (Tommy John) surgery. McGowan (6-7, 4.37 in 19 starts) reportedly will be out at least through May following surgery in July to clean up a frayed labrum.
Taking over are Richmond and Romero, who has yet to debut in the majors. Richmond, despite a 6.63 spring ERA in five appearances, beat out Brad Mills after Casey Janssen, who missed all of 2008 with a torn labrum, suffered a setback in his recovery from surgery this spring.
Richmond was 1-3 with a 4.00 ERA in five late-season starts with the Blue Jays in 2008. In eight starts for triple-A Syracuse, he went 1-3 with a 3.56 ERA.
Ace Roy Halladay, who finished second to Cleveland's Cliff Lee in 2008 Cy Young Award voting after posting 20 wins and a 2.78 ERA, has started 255 major league games over 11 seasons. Projected third starter Jesse Litsch, Purcey, Romero and Richmond have combined for 65.
The good news is all seven hurlers who formed one of the AL's best relief corps in 2008 are back. The bad news is there is no clear-cut winner for the closer's job.
Ryan, two years removed from Tommy John surgery, is not suffering from an apparent injury, but there are concerns about his diminished velocity. In his first nine spring outings, Ryan had a 7.88 ERA and had more walks (seven) than strikeouts (six) over eight innings.
Last season, he converted 32 of 36 save opportunities and struck out 58 batters in 60 innings to go with a 2.95 ERA.
Gaston has said fellow southpaw Scott Downs, 33, might get some save chances early on. Downs has turned in back-to-back stellar seasons in a set-up role, posting ERAs of 2.17 in 2007 and 1.78 in 66 games last year.
If that happens, look for right-hander Brandon League (2.18 ERA) and lefty Jesse Carlson (2.25 ERA in rookie season with Toronto) to assume the set-up duties. The latter also fanned 55 in 60 innings. Shawn Camp, Jason Frasor and Brian Tallet are Gaston's other options.
Toronto finished in a tie for second with five other teams in fielding percentage last season with a 98.6 per cent success rate.
Overbay, at first base, was tops among Blue Jays regulars with a .997 fielding percentage.
Rolen, a seven-time Gold Glove winner at third base, finished at .964. He made just 11 errors in 115 games.
Scutaro will play the majority of games at shortstop, but expect Gaston to insert the sure-handed John McDonald (65 errors in 629 games) in the later innings.
The outfield tandem of Wells in centre and Alex Rios in right is strong. Wells has won three Gold Gloves and Rios tied Melky Cabrera of the New York Yankees for fourth in AL outfield assists with 14 last season. In left, the five-foot-11, 230-pound Snider doesn't possess much range or speed and is considered a below-average fielder.
Hill, who has shown gradual improvement in his two-plus seasons at second base, should form a solid double-play combination with Scutaro.
Gaston returns after taking over from Gibbons on June 20 and guiding the Blue Jays to a 51-37 record. With an 86-76 overall mark, Toronto fell 11 games shy of the AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays.
Gaston, who has a career 734-673 record and .522 winning percentage with Toronto, was rewarded with a two-year contract extension last September.
The winner of back-to-back World Series in 1992 and '93, Gaston and hitting coach Gene Tenace have Blue Jays players taking a more aggressive approach at the plate compared with Gary Denbo, who was in charge at the start of the 2008 season.
Gaston began his first stint in Toronto as hitting coach in 1982. He took over from manager Jimy Williams seven years later, leading the Jays to the first of four post-season appearances under his watch. He stayed on as manager until 1997.
The remainder of Gaston's staff — pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, bench coach Brian Butterfield, third-base coach Nick Leyva, first-base coach Dwayne Murphy and bullpen coach Bruce Walton — is signed through the 2010 campaign.
The best-case scenario has the Blue Jays battling for the wild card, but plenty has to go right. Starting pitchers Romero and Richmond will have to be more like Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum and less like Tomo Ohka and Victor Zambrano. Also on the mound, Ryan will have to return to his 30-plus save form, allowing Downs to do what he does best in the eighth inning. At the plate, Gaston badly needs a healthy season from Wells and improved numbers from Rios, Rolen and Overbay. Worst-case scenario is the AL East basement, behind the Baltimore Orioles, for the first time since 2004.
74-88, fourth in AL East