Organizational Rankings: Present Talent – Toronto

Despite not finishing higher than third place in the AL East over last three seasons, the Blue Jays have boasted one of the top pitching staffs in that span. The group allowed the second fewest runs per game in 2007 and then improved on that mark in 2008, finishing first with just 3.77 runs allowed per game. Injuries to a number of starters, including Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan, and Jesse Litsch, caused them to drop in 2009, but all three should return this season and help bolster the Jays rotation.

One key departure, of course, offsets this pitching gain. When the Blue Jays traded Roy Halladay they essentially signaled their 2010 surrender. This could not have been an easy decision. Halladay had been with the Jays his entire career and was, by no slim margin, the team’s most popular player. Even with him the Jays stood little chance against the Rays-Yanks-Sox triumvirate. Without him those chances diminish to near nonexistence.

Surprisingly, though, the Jays staff might not be much worse than in 2009. Again, injuries forced a number of young players and even a reliever into the rotation. Chances are they won’t need Brian Tallet, a career reliever, in the rotation again this season. They could also see progress from Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil, and Marc Rzepczynski, three rookies who made 57 starts last season and who could make many more in 2010. Add in the returns of Marcum and McGowan to start the season and Litsch around the All-Star break, plus the addition of Brandon Morrow, and the staff could perhaps reproduce its 4.47 ERA from 2009.

Still, a 4.47 staff ERA without a powerhouse offense won’t cut it in the AL East. This mark also assumes a steady performance from the bullpen, which has lost one of its top contributors, Brandon League. The team does appear to have many options for the pen, though, and could piece together a successful unit. Pitchers who don’t break camp in the rotation — McGowan, Brad Mills, and Robert Ray among them — could pitch out of the pen, giving the Jay options.

While the Jays pitching staff took a turn for the worse in 2009, its offense moved in the opposite direction. In 2007 and 2008 their offense ranked below league average. Yet in 2009 the unit ranked sixth in the AL, a tenth of a run per game behind the Rays. Unfortunately, many of their top contributors will play elsewhere in 2010, most notably Scott Rolen and Marco Scutaro. Furthermore, they likely won’t see such an impressive season from Aaron Hill this year, who hit 36 home runs in 2009. None of the popular projection systems has him at even 25.

Three players will prove the keys to the Jays’ 2010 offense: Adam Lind, Vernon Wells, and Travis Snider. Lind, once a highly touted prospect who spent 2007 and 2008 splitting time between AAA and the majors, broke out in 2009, posting a .394 wOBA. His defense cost him in WAR, just 3.7, and he’ll probably spend most of his time at DH in 2010. Snider broke camp with the big league club last year, but after producing a paltry .288 wOBA through May 20 he headed back to AAA. His return in mid-August went a bit better, but the Blue Jays expect much more from their 2006 first round pick.

Wells plays the part of wild card. After signing a seven-year, $126 million contract after the 2006 season, Wells has produced just 2.1 WAR in the following three seasons. This includes his -0.1 WAR from 2009 which is due not only to his .314 wOBA, but also to his -18.2 UZR. After posting positive UZR figures from 2004 through 2006, Wells has been in the negatives the past three seasons, and in the double-digit negatives in the past two. He hit well in 2008 and has a generally positive track record, leaving the Jays with hope for 2010 and beyond. As we’ve seen over the past three seasons, though, it would be a mistake to rely on his production.

The Blue Jays do have a number of talented players on their roster, and in any other division they might have dark-horse potential. Given their spot in the AL East, though, it appears Jays fans will have to wait until next year — and maybe even the year after. But with four top-100 prospects and four of the top 41 picks in the 2010 draft, they could make their run yet. Just not this year.

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.