The defense rests
Lost in the problems the Blue Jays had in 2004 was the dramatic improvement in their defense, which went from tied for 11th in the AL in 2003 to tied for second in 2004 with a .985 fielding percentage. The Blue Jays made 91 errors last season compared to 117 the year before, and that was largely due to the improvement of Eric Hinske at third base, as well as the improvement in second baseman Orlando Hudson’s game.
Drop the puck
The debate has been one of the longest-running in Canadian sports history: Which is the biggest hockey city in the country, Toronto or Montreal? The Blue Jays’ Frank Catalanotto thinks he knows. “I’m supposed to be playing in the center of the hockey universe and I had to go to Montreal to get a hockey injury diagnosed,” said Catalanotto, who made three separate trips to the 15-day disabled list before undergoing surgery on Aug. 26 to repair a groin injury (right external oblique fascia) often suffered by hockey players.
Corey Koskie figures to be a popular addition to the Blue Jays. A native of the farming community of Anola, Manitoba — located in the Canadian Midwest — Koskie becomes the first Canadian to be an everyday position player for the Jays since Dave McKay played second base in 1978. McKay is now a coach with the St. Louis Cardinals. Other Canadians who have worn the Blue Jays uniform in the majors are: Paul Hodgson (1980), Rob Ducey (1977-92, 2000), Denis Boucher (1991), Vince Horsman (1991), Rob Butler (1993-94, 99), Paul Spoljaric (1994, 1996-97, 99), Paul Quantrill (1996-2001), Rich Butler (1997), Steve Sinclair (1998-99) and Simon Pond (2004)
…And Gibbons too
Koskie won’t be the only player in a Blue Jays uniform to cut his teeth playing baseball in Canada. Manager John Gibbons is as ‘Texas’ as they come, but the one-time catching prospect for the New York Mets played his first Little League game in Goose Bay, Labrador, where his father was stationed while in the United States Air Force. “When you’re talking about playing baseball in Labrador, you’re really talking about a short-season league,” Gibbons says.
Once a swashbuckling offensive unit, the Toronto Blue Jays tumbled into the depths of the American League in most hitting categories and finished last in the American League East. With the greatest offensive player in club history, Carlos Delgado, gone as a free agent and team owner Rogers Communications ready to make do with a $52 million payroll in a division of big spenders, it’s hard to see how the club will rebound from a 67–94 record, the Jays’ worst since 1980.
Roy Halladay overhauled his off-season conditioning program after two separate stints on the 15-day disabled list with shoulder soreness, and he can be expected to regain the form that saw him win the 2003 Cy Young Award. All-Star Ted Lilly has settled in to the No. 2 spot in the rotation, and Miguel Batista’s 200 innings of often-erratic pitching will be too much to overlook despite a late-season move into the closer’s role. David Bush, who in only his second season since being converted from a college closer to a starter flirted with a no-hitter against the A’s, has a lock on the fourth spot. Of Bush’s four losses, two of them were in games in which the Blue Jays were shut out. Finding a fifth starter will be the real task, with prospect Gustavo Chacin challenging Josh Towers.
For the third season in a row the Blue Jays’ bullpen was a mess. Its 34 losses were the most of any AL club and its 16 wins the fewest, while six of its 16 blown saves came in the ninth inning. Rookie Jason Frasor made 63 appearances and recorded 17 saves after he was obtained in a trade for Jayson Werth. One year before, Frasor was closing for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate. The Blue Jays spent much of the offseason trying to add some bullpen depth, knowing that closing prospect Brandon League would best be served with another year in the minors. A return to form by Kerry Ligtenberg (bothered all year with a hip injury) and a healthy year from Justin Speier (who had a 2.70 earned run average after the All-Star break and was bothered with elbow tendinitis) would go a long way towards restoring order.
The Blue Jays have good infield depth in their minor league system and will tap into it in 2005, with former first-round draft pick Russ Adams (2002) starting at shortstop after belting four home runs in just 72 at-bats following his call-up. Orlando Hudson has turned into a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman and has outstanding range to his left. He led all AL second basemen with 3.59 assists per nine innings.
Eric Hinske’s prize for going from a defensive liability at third base to leading all AL third basemen in fielding percentage was a move across the diamond to first base, where he will be given a shot at replacing Delgado. He’s agile enough for a big man to make the transition. Newly acquired Shea Hillenbrand will spell Hinske at first against tough lefties. The Blue Jays signed Canadian-born Corey Koskie to a three-year, $16.5-million contract to help offset the loss of Delgado; he will play third base on a new artificial surface that will replace the SkyDome’s aging turf.
Vernon Wells won the first of what will be many Gold Gloves for his defensive proficiency in center field and finished the 2004 season on a bit of a power tear after missing 24 games with a strained left calf muscle. That was comforting for the Blue Jays’ brass, because with Delgado gone this is now Wells’ team. He will be flanked by Alexis Rios in right field and Frank Catalanotto in left. Rios is an above-average defender whose total of 11 outfield assists was fourth-highest in the American League. He will also be called upon to improve his power numbers and become more of an offensive force. Catalanotto is a .296 career hitter who has hit .330 and .299 in the only two seasons he had more than 300 at-bats.
The Jays have a strong catching prospect in the system in Guillermo Quiroz, but the team desperately wants him to spend another year at Triple-A to hone his game. But their hand may be forced, since 38-year-old Greg Myers is coming into spring training as a non-roster invitee after playing in just eight games due to a severely sprained ankle. Gregg Zaun, a revelation both offensively and defensively last season, is also an option.
Hillenbrand will be the primary DH. He is a capable offensive player who should hit at least 20 home runs and drive in 70-80 runs. Frank Menechino made 62 starts, 26 at second base, 15 as DH, 14 at shortstop and seven at third base. He also pitched in a blowout. Reed Johnson will be the fourth outfielder. The Blue Jays added John McDonald as another infield backup, after bidding adieu to valuable Chris Gomez — the latest in a line of players brought in to babysit the departed Chris Woodward.
This is year four of general manager J.P. Ricciardi’s reign, and in that time the Blue Jays have not shown the signs of becoming the model Moneyball franchise on the field, especially offensively. Off the field, the team is poised to turn a profit and has finally concluded negotiations to purchase SkyDome, which might make for added revenue in the future. Manager John Gibbons, Ricciardi’s former minor league roommate, is a rough-hewn former highly touted catching prospect who was 20–30 after replacing Carlos Tosca in August. Gibbons showed himself to be aggressive and restored a semblance of order to the bullpen. It looks like he will chafe less than Tosca did under Ricciardi’s hand.
The Blue Jays did not spend a single day above .500 in 2004, and while injuries took away the likes of Halladay, Delgado, Wells, Catalanotto and Myers for significant periods of time, that alone does not explain the team’s free-fall into last place. Ricciardi still enjoys the support of ownership, but he’s on his third manager and there is nothing to suggest Gibbons will be able to do better than Tosca. The expiration of Delgado’s four-year, $68-million contract means that Ricciardi has some financial flexibility for the first time since he assumed the job, but it’s not enough to contend in this powerful division.