So, this is the Blue Jays' year, eh?
Such annual hope for these Canadian birds has become a sort of measuring stick among preseason prognosticators. Once again, there are those who think Toronto can beat out the Yankees and the Red Sox this season for the American League East crown.
Then there are those who live in real world.
That's not to say it's impossible. Heck, if last season taught us anything it's that even one of the most bumbling franchises in recent memory can make a stunning run to the World Series. But go ahead and tell me how many of those picking the Jays to win the division did not do so with the caveat, "if they stay healthy," or as we like to call it, the out clause.
It doesn't take an MD to predict that the Blue Jays -- who host the Sox for the first of three games tonight -- staying healthy the entire year is like Mario Batali going all of 2008 without a slice of pizza. In the realm of universal combinations of possibility and chance, sure. But not bloody likely. This, mind you, is a team that boasts DL perennials Scott Rolen (already injured) A.J. Burnett, and B.J. Ryan (already injured). Relief pitcher Casey Janssen is gone for the season. Well, that's a heck of a start. Pennant, here we come.
Nevertheless, when it came to swaying from the norm this preseason, it became somewhat fashionable to pick the Jays to win the East, a prediction that has been coming from some minds for the better part of four or five years now, warning us that this rebuilding effort of Worcester's own J.P. Ricciardi was getting ready to take flight. We listened and watched and waited. To reward its believers, Toronto came up with second-place finish in 2006, and even that took a monumental injury-related collapse by the Red Sox. I think the Jays even raised a banner to commemorate the accomplishment.
After the Red Sox finally broke the Yankees' stranglehold on the AL East title in '07, it seems more folks have been willing to toss their weight Ontario's way, praising the team's deep pitching as a harbinger for later this summer. The Globe's Nick Cafardo thinks it's based on a "law of averages." The Herald's Tony Massarotti seems to think it's because Clay Buchholz is Jaret Wright redux. The Toronto Star's Richard Griffith likes the team's depth at every position. But then again, he likes their depth at every position every year. In fact, even before he wrote his latest ode to the Jays, The Onion predicted he would do so days earlier:
Following a flurry of offseason activity by his hometown Blue Jays, Toronto Star baseball columnist Richard Griffin has written his yearly mid-March article asserting that the Jays have a chance to contend in the AL East. "The acquisitions of Scott Rolen and David Eckstein just might get the Blue Jays over the hump and turn them from also-rans to world champions," wrote Griffin in an excerpt that was lifted directly from his 2007 article but with the names Frank Thomas and John Thomson substituted out, which itself was copied from a 2006 article about A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan." Though the Jays will be facing defending champion Red Sox and the $200 million New York Yankees a combined 37 times this season, and the Rays might be the most improved team in baseball, the Blue Jays are also very good."
Bronze medal darlings of Major League Baseball, the Blue Jays aren't even a bridesmaid in the AL East, rather they are in baseball purgatory, not good enough to go any further, yet just decent enough not to have to worry about the cellar. They're a typically Canadian "nice" group of players, highlighted by a fairly deep, if vastly overrated, pitching staff. For the number of times we read last month about what a deep starting staff the Jays have, we must have missed the moment big stars Shawn Marcum and Dustin McGowan transformed them into the 1995 Atlanta Braves. Roy Halladay is an annual candidate for the Cy Young, but Burnett has proven little else except that he'd be a killer No. 4 starter for any team.
Dave Perkins of the Toronto Star writes, "Kids aside, would you trade Toronto's top three starters -- Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett and McGowan -- for the first three of either New York (let's say Chien-Ming Wang, Pettitte and Hughes) or Boston (Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Lester)? Not me."
I assume that Dave is one of very few without his hand raised.
The lineup is decent, I suppose, and David Eckstein is going to make writers in Toronto eventually cringe from the number of times they write "spunk" and "spark" when referring to the shortstop (He's won everywhere he's played…), but Alex Rios, Frank Thomas and Vernon Wells won't exactly strike fear into pitchers like David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez do on a nightly basis. In fact, look at the heart of that Blue Jays order and tell me which one of the Red Sox (Ortiz-Ramirez-Mike Lowell), Yankees (Bobby Abreu-Alex Rodriguez-Hideki Matsui), or Rays (Carl Crawford-Carlos Pena-B.J. Upton) you would trade it with. The answer is none.
The Blue Jays are an all-around decent team playing in a division where excellence is needed to win out. And by excellence, we mean lots of cash. Yet when digging for reasons why somebody other than the Red Sox or Yankees will win the AL East for the first time since 1997, it seems trendy to question the unsure prospects of kids like Buchholz and Ian Kennedy, while tabbing Jesse Litsch as the can't-miss kid.
There's been a rush to be right about the Jays ever since Ricciardi began his rebuilding plan, which at this point seems like it began right after Joe Carter hit that ball over the left field corner wall. And…well, this could be the year. Again.
If it's not though, it could be Ricciardi's final moments in Toronto. In a great preview of what the Blue Jays' performance this season means for their GM, the Globe and Mail's Jeff Blair writes, "Of the nine general managers in major-league baseball who have held their jobs with the same team since he joined the Blue Jays on Nov. 14, 2001, Ricciardi is the only one who has not taken his team to the postseason at least once."
No more excuses. The Blue Jays have to beat both the Red Sox and the Yankees. They need to make the playoffs for the first time since 1993. Anything after that is a bonus at this point. If they can stay healthy, of course.
Ryan, Rolen, Janssen… It's only April 3 and they're already on strike one.
Don't worry Toronto. It will be a respectable third place. Beware those Rays though.