At 34-30 the Jays are playing better than most expected. Yet they’re still stuck in the AL East, where they currently reside in fourth place. Their situation is nearly identical to last year, when they were 34-31 through 65 games. By the All-Star break they had fallen to 44-46 and were ready to deal. While this team could play above-.500 ball for a bit longer, their situation remains the same.
Buy or Sell?
Most teams with a 35-30 record at this point would probably look into adding a few pieces. The Jays actually have just a few weaknesses, and two of them in particular, second base and DH, come from players who powered their hot start last season. Yet the Jays aren’t any other team. They’re an underdog in the AL East, which features not only the two teams that share the best record in baseball, but also the team with the next best record in the AL.
Unless buying involves players that can help them not only this year but also in the next two, the Jays should probably quell any shopping urges. Even if the Red Sox further succumb to injuries and the Jays overtake them, they still have to get some help from either the Yankees or the Rays. And, again, that would also require the Jays not only to keep up their current pace, but also improve by a decent margin. They’re currently on pace for 87 wins.
At the same time, they don’t have much to sell. Despite his improvement over last year’s performance, Vernon Wells‘s contract is still untouchable. Their three best pitchers — Shaun Marcum, Ricky Romero, and Brett Cecil — are under team control for a number of years and can help the Jays rise back to contention in the future. Their two most reputed hitters, Aaron Hill and Adam Lind, are both hitting poorly and, anyway, are young enough that they can help in the future as well.
In the final year of his contract, Lyle Overbay sounds like an attractive trade chip, especially since the Jays have first base prospect Brett Wallace on the farm. His .311 wOBA is underwhelming for a first baseman, but the outlook isn’t all bad. Since May 14 he is hitting a much more respectable .306/.359/.537, which is a bit more in line with his career numbers. He doesn’t provide a ton of power from the position, but a contender with a weakness at first base — say, the Angels — might find Overbay useful.
Jose Bautista remains under team control for 2011, so perhaps the Jays can find someone to buy high on him. He has cooled off a bit in his past nine games, in which he is 2 for 32 with no extra base hits. Assuming that some of his hot start is a legitimate improvement, the Jays can probably find a taker, though if no team is willing to pay a premium they could easily just hold onto him.
One name that seems interesting at the moment is John Buck. Signed to a $2 million contract after Kansas City declined to tender him a contract in December, Buck has joined the power hungry Jays offense, knocking 11 home runs, which already eclipses his 2008 and 2009 totals. His BA and OBP remain at their normal low levels, and there has to be concern that his power will revert after a trade. He is eligible for free agency after the season, which might make the Jays more apt to deal him. But, since they don’t have a ready replacement for him, I’d expect them to wait until the last possible moment, when their non-contention is completely assured and they risk little by installing Jose Molina as their starting catcher.
On The Farm
The Jays restocked the farm when they traded Scott Rolen last July and Roy Halladay in the winter, but that wasn’t enough of a haul to catapult them to the top of the farm system rankings. Baseball America, which ranked the systems before the Roy Halladay trade, put the Blue Jays 28, and commented that they’d have been No. 30 if not for the Rolen trade. Keith Law expresses a similar sentiment, but ranks the Jays 16th thanks to the two trades. Kevin Goldstein had them at 22, down from No. 10 in 2009.
The drop in the Jays’ system ranking comes mostly from the disappointing performances from their top prospects. A few of them have shown signs of recovery this year, which, while it likely won’t help the Jays fill holes immediately, might help facilitate their selling of position players. For example, with Brad Emaus hitting well enough at AA to warrant a promotion, and then hitting well at AAA, the Jays might be more apt to trade Hill. With J.P. Arencibia showing improvement in his second AAA stint, maybe the Jays can find a taker for Buck.
Even then, the Jays might not be apt to trade one of these players if his replacement isn’t ready for the call-up. Since both Emaus and Arencibia could use more time on the farm the Jays might wait until the off-season to trade either
The Jays’ $78 million payroll is their lowest number since 2006, so they could probably add salary if they were so inclined. A number of factors, beyond their unlikely chances of contending, mean that they almost certainly will not. They’ll shed a number of salary obligations this off-season, including $6 million for Halladay, $7 million for Overbay, $4 million for Scott Downs, $2.75 million for Alex Gonzalez, $10 million for B.J. Ryan, $2.65 million for Jason Frasor, and $2 million for Buck. But they’ll also add a few million in current obligations, including $4.5 million more for Lind and $10.5 million for Wells.
That, however, amounts to roughly $19.4 million in savings, which the Jays can use during the off-season to improve the team. If they’re going to raise payroll it seems like the off-season, rather than July, is the time to do it. This year looks rough for the Jays, but next year is a whole new season. Maybe then they can make the AL East a four-horse race.
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