Grading the Jays
CBCSports.ca issues its final report card on Toronto's 2008 season
In our complicated modern world, we're told, there are no definite answers. No blacks. No whites. Only shades of grey.
So it is with the 2008 Toronto Blue Jays.
On one hand, the team failed to make the post-season for the 14th consecutive time since winning back-to-back World Series. The Jays also slid to fourth place in the American League East as Tampa Bay emerged as the division's newest powerhouse.
But the situation isn't that simple. Toronto's 86-76 record was a three-game improvement over its average of the previous three years, and it came in one of the toughest divisions of all time. With the rise of the young Rays to the level of perennial powers Boston and the New York Yankees, the Jays had to play 57 games against excellent AL East foes.
Still, thanks mostly to baseball's best pitching staff, Toronto finished with an outstanding run differential of plus-104. Only Boston was better in the AL, and the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia in the NL.
So it's fair to argue that with a few better breaks, the Jays could've won the AL East instead of Tampa and its plus-103 run differential. And given how the team performed against such superb competition, Toronto can reasonably claim it may have won four of baseball's other five divisions (the Cubs would've been tough to unseat in the NL Central).
See how much fun exploring those grey areas can be?
The question, though, remains: Were the Jays successful? We'll let you be the judge of that. But first, you may want to consult CBCSports.ca's end-of-season report card.
A baffling starting rotation fronted by ace Roy Halladay and second banana A.J. Burnett (think Batman and Robin with wicked movement) set the tone, while the rock-solid bullpen anchored by setup man Scott Downs and closer B.J. Ryan held the fort down late in games. Both units finished first in the majors in cumulative earned run average.
Burnett received a ton of (well-deserved) press for setting career highs in wins (18) and strikeouts (231), while finally staying healthy in a potential contract year. But let's pause for a moment to recognize Halladay.
The right-handed maestro may have been baseball's finest pitcher in 2008, finishing in the top five in wins (20), ERA (2.78), strikeouts (206) and innings pitched. San Francisco's Tim Lincecum is the only other hurler who can make that claim, and he worked in the soft NL West.
A second Cy Young Award may elude the Jays' best player because Cleveland's Cliff Lee sports a ridiculous 22-3 record. But if voters dig deeper, they'll see that no one pitched better against tougher competition than Halladay.
It starts in the infield, where new third baseman Scott Rolen remained a magician even at age 33 (too bad his bat pulled a disappearing act). John McDonald dazzled when he was in at shortstop, where Marco Scutaro also supplied fine work after the ill-fated David Eckstein experiment ended.
The versatile Scutaro and Joe Inglett did a good job filling in for the injured Aaron Hill at second, and Lyle Overbay was a vacuum at first. Rod Barajas kept runners honest from behind the plate, and even Gregg Zaun improved in that department after a miserable 2007.
In the outfield, Alex Rios (blinding speed, rocket arm) cemented his status as one of the game's most respected right-fielders, and did double duty in centre when Vernon Wells was hurt. Adam Lind is a solid young left-fielder.
Toronto ranked in the bottom five in the AL in runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, usually with weak sisters Seattle, Kansas City and Oakland the only ones below them. It didn't help that the Jays scored two runs or fewer in 30 per cent of their contests.
So who's to blame? Injuries took a lot of games away from Wells (two lengthy stints on the disabled list) and Hill (gone for the year after suffering a concussion on May 29), while Rolen's chronically achy shoulder had him swinging at less than full capacity.
Despite rallying for a strong finish, Rios regressed slightly from his breakout form of 2006 and 2007, with his batting average, on-base and slugging percentages and homers all falling.
Clearly, the Jays lacked a middle-of-the-order monster — someone who threatens to go deep on every pitch, but also has the patience to wait for the right delivery. Frank Thomas owns those skills, but he was let go early in the season. Adam Dunn also fits the bill, but Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi made disparaging remarks about the available slugger before Cincinnati traded him to Arizona.
Still, there's hope for the future. Lind, 25, has the talent to be a lineup fixture for years, and 20-year-old Travis Snider showed flashes of brilliance after shooting through the minors to earn a late-season call-up.
Under Gaston's guidance the team went 51-37, including a 10-game winning streak from late August to early September that had Jays fans dreaming of a return to the playoffs.
The soft-spoken Cito drew rave reviews for his steady management style, which provided a warm environment for the incubation of future stars Lind and Snider.
On Sept. 25, the Jays rewarded Gaston with a two-year contract extension, and the following week the team announced his entire coaching staff will return for 2009.
That despite the fact that one of the executive's better moves — hiring Gaston — may not have been his own. Many suspect the idea belonged to Paul Godfrey, who is stepping down as president after eight years.
Regardless, Ricciardi probably put together the best roster of his Jays tenure. But if he wants to avoid more whispers about his job security next season, he still ought to apply some fresh paint.
The biggest issue heading into the off-season is the status of Burnett, who'll likely opt out of the final two years on his deal after the World Series. Perhaps no one is more mesmerizing when his electric stuff is working, but it may be best to let someone else commit huge money to a guy who averaged 150 innings in his two seasons in Toronto that weren't contract years.
Then there's that elusive middle-of-the-order monster. Snider could become that guy some day but in the meantime, Ricciardi may have to dip into the free-agent market. There he might find the likes of superstars Mark Teixera and Manny Ramirez (both probably out of Toronto's price range) along with name-brand sluggers Jason Giambi, Bobby Abreu, Vladimir Guerrero and Pat Burrell.
Former Blue Jay Carlos Delgado, coming off an outstanding year, could be available if the Mets decline their option for 2009. Dunn will also be up for grabs but, well, you know.
Team Grade: B-plus
Lights-out pitching is baseball's most valued commodity, and Toronto's hitting can't be as bad as it looked this year (right?). With a few more good bounces and some better injury luck, the Jays could've ended their long playoff drought and kept Hogtown's attention off the Leafs for a few more weeks.
Forgive Jays fans, then, for heading into the long, grey winter whistling that familiar baseball refrain: Wait 'til next year.