Monday, April 6, 2009

Opening Day!

The first pitch to the Toronto Blue Jays season is a couple of hours away! The Detroit Tigers pose a quality test for the 4 games series. Last season everyone (including myself) was hyping up the Tigers BIG time. This year, without the pressure, they could very well snatch the AL Central crown from the Chicago White Sox...

Roy Halladay will make his 7th straight opening day start, go up against Justin Verlander...

I'll be going to the first game tonight, and will blog about the big Jays victory later this evening (a win that will put them on pace to finish 162-0!)

Enjoy the game!

The enigmatic Vernon Wells

Vernon "V-Dub" Wells has always put up good numbers. Since being selected with the 5th pick in the 1997 draft, he has been a professional ball player in the truest sense. Yet it's hard to find much sympathy for the 3 time gold glove winner. Maybe it's the 7 year, $126 million contract he signed two seasons ago, or the label that he's not a "clutch" player, not to mention his countless maladies, but Wells' fan fare is slipping with each passing year...

Last season, V-Dub put up very respectable numbers for a guy battling two injuries (broken wrist, hamstring) 20 HR, 78 RBI in just 108 games. One has to wonder that if he can complete a full campaign this year, with the addition of Adam Lind & Travis Snider in Toronto's lineup whether he could post 100+ RBI for only the 2nd time in the last 6 seasons...

It's not not to already be concerned and frustrated with Wells. He's missed a chunk of time in spring training due to problems with his hamstring & wrist (again!) Is another trip to the DL imminent? Or will Wells bash 25-30 homers and drive in 100+ runs? Fans are growing restless and impatient with the same script. In a close ball game, it's expected he'll pop out or whiff. He always "pads" his stats when the game is out of line. For a guy that brings so much to the clubhouse (leadership, offense, great defense), there is an air of mystery behind Wells. He is an all star centre fielder wrapped in an enigma...

The Jays Bullpen

As it stacks up now, Manager Cito Gaston is bringing back relatively the exact same bullpen as a year ago. Heading North to the big club are:

RHP Brandon League
RHP Jason Frasor
LHP Scott Downs
LHP Jesse Carlson
RHP Shawn Camp
LHP Brian Tallet
LHP B.J. Ryan

One noticeable omission is RHP Jeremy Accardo. In 2007 he saved 30 games with the Jays, but had his season come to an abrupt end in early May of '08 due to a forearm injury. Because Toronto can send him to AAA without having Accardo clear waivers, he simply got caught up in a numbers game (not to mention a poor showing in the spring.) Accardo is slated to be the closer in AAA Las Vegas.

A couple of concerns and needs for the Jays bullpen are:

The health of closer B.J. Ryan
Brandon League vital to success
The presence of a solid long reliever

Much has been said about B.J. Ryan in the past few years, specifically his loss in velocity this spring. There shouldn't be that much concern. Ryan is a closer who had nothing to play for in the spring. Wins don't matter in the Grapefruit League, so there wasn't an adrenaline rush for the big lefty. Ryan entered some games in the middle of the contest as well, which he's not accustomed do doing. He'll settle in just in time when the games count. Whether he returns to 2006 form might be a bit of a stretch...

Which is why Brandon League is vital to the ball club's success this season. Like Ryan, League lost 8-10 MPH velocity on his pitches two seasons ago after overdeveloping his lat muscle in the offseason. League, however, has persevered and has regained his form. League is destined to be the Jays closer of the future (and not so distant present.) If Ryan falters, LHP Scott Downs will be called upon to close down games, at least initially. League presents the best option because of the heat and because he's a RHP. If 2006 all-star Ryan is fine, then Toronto should explore League in the 8th inning along with Downs. Rolling out lefties in the final two innings is asking for trouble (though it was successful in '08)

If the rotation is in flux throughout the campaign, Toronto will need to utilize an effective long inning reliever. To ensure the bullpen isn't taxed night in and night out, a great long reliever will go very far in the Jays success in '09. Toronto had the fewest innings pitched by relievers last year (425), but that number will surely spike. Having a guy like Brian Tallet shut down those middle innings would be huge. Tallet has done so before, and had decent success. He has brilliant stretches of play, then falters for games at a time. More consistency from Tallet is key. Another option is journeyman Shawn Camp. Save for one awful outing in May vs. the A.L. Champion Tampa Bay Rays, Camp had a decent showing in his first season with the club. He could be trusted to eat up more innings this year. Carlson, back for his first full season in the bigs is another quality option.

Blue Jays batting order

For the first part of last year, and worse yet, for a couple of seasons, the Jays offense has floundered. However, after the June 20th firing of Manager John Gibbons and the subsequent re-hiring of beloved Cito Gaston, the Jays offense improved steadily. There is cautious optimism that the club's bats could come around to respectability (especially with Aaron Hill back in the fold, and the continued development of Adam Lind and stud prospect Travis Snider)

the projected lineup is:

SS Marco Scutaro
2B Aaron Hill
RF Alex Rios
CF Vernon Wells
DH Adam Lind
3B Scott Rolen
1B Lyle Overbay
C Rob Barajas
LF Travis Snider

Coming off the bench will be:

Jose Bautista
Kevin Millar
John McDonald
Michael Barrett

Toronto does not have a prototypical lead-off hitter. Scutaro is a solid veteran that works the count and will always give a good at bat, but he lacks speed and doesn't have one strong skill that jumps out at you. Toronto used Joe Inglett in the lead off hole last season, and he produced well. However, because he has options Toronto decided to send him to Triple AAA without a spot for him on the major league roster. Expect him to be on the team at varying points throughout the campaign. Toronto could experiment with Hill setting the table, or fall back on Rios to produce in the #1 slot. This will be a point of contention throughout the season...

Another issue is having the first 4 batters batting right handed in the lineup. Ideally, left handed hitting Lyle Overbay could slide up and hit in the 2 hole, pushing Hill down in the lineup to break up the righties and lefties. It's also hard to believe Snider will bat 9th for a long portion of the year. He is a true blue chip prospect, one ranked extremely high throughout MLB, and once he gets more seasoning in the bigs, he'll play a big role in the meat of the order...

Another option is batting Lind in the 3 hole, pushing Rios to 5 behind Wells, followed by Overbay & Rolen. Manager Cito Gaston likes sticking with a set lineup more often that not, so once he finds a suitable order, unlike his predecessor Gibbons, he'll stick with it...

Whether or not Toronto's lineup scares anybody, General Manager J.P. Ricciardi has brought in quality depth. Bautista can play multiple infield positions and the outfield, right handed Millar will undoubtedly start against difficult left handed pitching, McDonald will be a phenomenal defensive specialist, and Barrett should provide decent leadership and a little bit of pop for a catcher...

up next, we'll take a look at the great Jays bullpen, and whether or not they can hold up with the expected added workload this year...