Playing in a division with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees can be a real challenge, one that J.P. Ricciardi has not always been up to. He has been known for moves ranging from the shrewd to the completely senseless (raise your hand, Royce Clayton). More than anything, Ricciardi has seemed like the man without a plan and year in and year out, the Blue Jays fall just about a full tier short of the the level on which Boston and New York perform (the Jays did finish in second ahead of Boston in 2006).
That may change in 2008. In 2007 they were an 87-win Pythag team and they were such thanks to surprise performances from a number of young players. Moreover, the team was hurt by critical injuries, surprise under-performance and the sort of utter ineptitude that one has to think cannot be replicated at a couple of positions. In other words, off of this 87-win base there seems to be considerable room for improvement.
Toronto's core will not be going anywhere. Frank Thomas, Vernon Wells and Alex Rios figure to once again anchor the offense. Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan are the key hurlers. What has become interesting when looking at the Jays and their prospects for 2008 is the emergence of a number of young pitchers. Rich did a comprehensive profile of Dustin McGowan a couple of weeks back. Fellow youngsters Jesse Litsch and Shaun Marcum were also very good in 2007. Here is the line the three combined for last season:
IP SO BB H WHIP ER ERA TOR Youngsters 439.7 316 146 411 1.27 197 4.03
IP SO BB H WHIP ER ERA TOR Relievers 198 153 68 165 1.18 49 2.23
Of these six pitchers (the three starters and three relievers), only Downs is over the age of 26. There are no guarantees that these pitchers will replicate their performance but given how young they are on average, forecasting similar performance does not seem unreasonable. The Blue Jays finished third in the American League with a 112 ERA+ and with improved health from B.J. Ryan and a full season from A.J. Burnett (unlikely, I know), this Jays staff may catapult to the head of the American League.
On the offensive side, two positions stand out as real areas for improvement. Adam Lind was a .316/.377/.505 career Minor League hitter and burst onto the Major League scene as a late-season call-up in 2006. Last year, in 311 plate appearances, Lind managed a terrible .238/.278/.400 line. I think he is a great candidate for improvement and even if he does not, the Jays have the steady Reed Johnson to cover him.
The other position is shortstop. J.P. really bungled this one with the signing of Clayton last season and to make matters worse, John McDonald offered no relief whatsoever. Jays shortstops hit .237/.276/.322 in 2007. I don't really have much to offer here in the way of analysis but really, how the hell can they not improve off of that? One has to really question Ricciardi's decision to extend McDonald (a career 58 OPS+ hitter) but so long as his playing time is limited, he should not be too much of a problem. Also in the "figures to improve" category is Lyle Overbay, who only appeared in 122 games and put up a rotten .240/.315/.391 line.
It's never too soon to start looking ahead to the following season. Overcoming the Red Sox and Yankees will be a tall order but when I scan the 2007 teams to try and pick out a potential surprise club, Toronto sure seems to fit the bill. I'll be interested to see what sort of moves Ricciardi makes to tinker on the margins with his already solid club.