Toronto Blue Jays
2009 Record: 22-12 (.647)
2009 Pythagorean Record: 21-13 (.618)
2008 Record: 86-76 (.531)
2008 Pythagorean Record: 93-69 (.574)
Manager: Cito Gaston
General Manager: J.P. Ricciardi
Home Ballpark (multi-year Park Factors): Rogers Centre (99/98)
Who’s Replaced Whom:
- Aaron Hill (DL) reclaims his playing time from Joe Inglett (minors)
- Travis Snider replaces Shannon Stewart and Brad Wilkerson
- Adam Lind replaces Kevin Mench and Frank Thomas
- Kevin Millar replaces Matt Stairs
- Jose Bautista replaces David Eckstein
- Raul Chavez is filling in for Michael Barrett (DL), who replaces Gregg Zaun
- Brian Tallet is filling in for Ricky Romero (DL), who replaces A.J. Burnett
- Brett Cecil replaces David Purcey (minors) and Dustin McGowan (DL)
- Scott Richmond replaces Shaun Marcum (DL)
- Robert Ray is filling in for Jesse Litsch (DL)
- Bill Murphy replaces John Parrish
- Scott Downs is closing in place of B.J. Ryan (DL)
1B – Lyle Overbay (L)
2B – Aaron Hill (R)
SS – Marco Scutaro (R)
3B – Scott Rolen (R)
C – Rod Barajas (R)
RF – Alex Rios (R)
CF – Vernon Wells (R)
LF – Travis Snider (L)
DH – Adam Lind (L)
R – Kevin Millar (1B)
R – John McDonald (IF)
R – Jose Bautista (UT)
R – Raul Chavez (C)
R – Roy Halladay
R – Scott Richmond
L – Brian Tallet
L – Brett Cecil
R – Robert Ray
L – Scott Downs
R – Jason Frasor
L – Jesse Carlson
R – Shawn Camp
R – Brandon League
L – Bill Murphy
R – Brian Wolfe
RHP – Dustin McGowan (labrum)
RHP – Shaun Marcum (TJ surgery)
RHP – Jesse Litsch (forearm tightness)
LHP – Ricky Romero (oblique)
LHP – B.J. Ryan (trapezius)
C – Michael Barrett (right shoulder tear)
R – Marco Scutaro (SS)
R – Aaron Hill (2B)
R – Alex Rios (RF)
R – Vernon Wells (CF)
L – Adam Lind (DH)
R – Scott Rolen (3B)
L – Lyle Overbay (1B)
R – Rod Barajas (C)
L – Travis Snider (LF)
The Blue Jays enter this week’s three-game series against the Yankees with the best record in the American League. If you saw that coming, you’re lying. The Jays’ Pythagorean record from last year (93-69) makes their current position seems less fluky, that is until you remember how the Jays won last year and how they’ve changed since.
The Blue Jays allowed fewer runs than any other team in baseball in 2008, which is how they managed a winning record (and that handsome Pythagorean) despite the fourth-worst offense in the American League. Leading the Jays’ attack was their major league-best starting rotation, which allowed a major league-low 3.72 ERA and turned in a quality start 54 percent of the time, a rate surpassed by only three teams in 2008. That rotation was headed by Roy Halladay (20-11, 2.78) and A.J. Burnett (18-10, 4.07). Behind them, Jesse Litsch and Shaun Marcum combined to go 22-16 with a 3.49 ERA in 53 starts, and Dustin McGowan (6-7, 4.37) was their primary fifth starter before his season was ended early by injury.
And there’s the rub. McGowan hit the disabled list in July with a frayed labrum that ended his season and, due to set backs, could keep him out all of this season as well. Shaun Marcum had Tommy John surgery in September and is also likely to miss most or all of 2009. A.J. Burnett then opted out of his contract and signed with the Yankees, reducing the Jays’ major league-best rotation to Roy Halladay and Jesse Litsch. Then, in his second start of this season, Litch left after three shaky innings due to tightness in his forearm and has been on the DL ever since.
So, 34 games into the 2009 season, the Jays have received just 8 1/2 starts from their starting five of 2008, yet they have the best record in the American League. What gives?
To begin with, the Jays are one of the best defensive teams in baseball. Last year, they were second in the majors to the Rays in defensive efficiency. This year, without David Eckstein on the roster, they’re leading the AL by turning 71.4 percent of all balls in play into outs. So, some of what looked like pitching last year, was actually fielding. Note the success of replacement starters Scott Richmond, who starts tomorrow, and Brian Tallet, who starts on Thursday. Richmond, a 29-year-old Canadian journeman, has gone 4-1 with a 3.29 ERA in six starts thanks to a defense-aided .245 opponents’ batting average on balls in play. Tallet, 31, normally a long-relief lefty, has been solid in five starts thanks to a .227 BABIP.
The Jays have also enjoyed strong debuts from rotaition prospects Ricky Romero and Brett Cecil. Though Romero, their first-round pick from 2005, is now on the DL himself, the two have combined to go 3-0 with a 1.29 ERA in five starts.
Also, the Toronto bullpen, the major’s best a year ago with a 2.94 ERA, is still among the best in baseball (3.66 ERA, tied with Seattle for fifth in the majors), with B.J. Ryan’s DL stay and 11.12 ERA being the primary difference and lefty Scott Downs (2.20 ERA, 3 SV) and righty Jason Frasor (4-0, 0.77) doing tremendous work in Ryan’s stead.
That alone is impressive, and with Ryan, Romero, and Litsch all on the comeback trail, perhaps even sustainable, but what keeps making me rub my eyes is the fact that the Jays also have the major league’s best offense, scoring an even six runs per game.
Leading the charge are second baseman Aaron Hill, who has returned from a season largely lost to post-concussion syndrome to deliver on his age-27 promise, hitting .353/.394/.549 with a team-best eight homers, and 25-year-old designated hitter Adam Lind, who is similarly realizing his potential by hitting .333/.405/.561. The Jays’ first basemen are hitting .287/.369/.519 thanks to Cito Gaston’s strict platoon of lefty Lyle Overbay (.256/.370/.537) and righty-hitting Yankee-killer Kevin Millar (.327/.364/.481). Gaston has also gotten good results by spelling struggling rookie left fielder Travis Snider against lefties, as utility man Jose Bautista has hit .333/.429/.389 in his place.
Though there are plenty of batting averages there that look unsustainable, youth and strategy have also played a large role in the Jays’ success with those players. Less convincing are Rod Barajas’s .319/.350/.511 line and Scott Rolen’s continued health. Meanwhile, Marco Scutaro has a .406 on-base percentage thanks to his maj0r league-leading 29 walks (against just 19 Ks), that despite his hitting in front of the red-hot Hill. The only potential counter weight to the expected regression up and down the Rays lineup is that Alex Rios hasn’t hit a lick yet.
The X-factor in all of this is the return of Cito Gaston. After going 35-39 (.473) under John Gibbons to start 2008, the Jays have gone 73-49 (.598) since Gaston’s return in last June, that despite the gradual disintegration of their starting rotation. Gaston has made a number of wise moves, including establishing Marco Scutaro and Adam Lind as regulars, dropping Rolen in the order, and platooning Overbay, but how much of that success is wisdom, and how much is just good mojo that is as likely vanish as miraculously as it appeared? Only time will tell, but if the Jays finish the season with the best offense in baseball, I’ll eat my hat. You read it here first, folks.
As for the Yankees, just when you thought things were looking up, Derek Jeter is out of tonght’s lineup with an oblique pull. I don’t yet know the severity of the injury, but the it seems like he’s not the only Yankee starter to come down with the bird flu with Halladay taking the mound tonight. Nick Swisher is also on the bench, leaving this lineup:
L – Brett Gardner (CF)
L – Johnny Damon (LF)
S – Mark Teixeira (1B)
R – Alex Rodriguez (3B)
L – Hideki Matsui (DH)
L – Robinson Cano (2B)
S – Melky Cabrera (RF)
R – Kevin Cash (C)
S – Ramiro Peña (SS)
A.J. Burnett faces his old mates and mentor, who are reportedly furious at him for opting out over the winter. Burnett has been good but not great in his last two starts, allowing seven runs in 13 innings, but striking out 13 against just three walks and one home run. Roy Halladay, of course, hasn’t failed to complete seven innings all year and has allowed more than three earned runs just twice in seven starts, posting a 6-1 record.