Spring Postcard: Blue Jays set to begin post-Halladay era
Blue Jays have many young pitchers, but pressure is on Kyle Drabek
Former first-round pick Travis Snider could be a breakout star in 2010
Even without an appointed closer, the bullpen remains team's strength
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1. The Blue Jays are set for their post-Doc education.
He's not sure where it came from, but tucked behind the nameplate above Kyle Drabek's locker is a Topps baseball card of Roy Halladay. Fitting, really.
The comparisons will be inevitable: Halladay, the longtime ace that new general manager Alex Anthopoulos says "might go down as the greatest Blue Jay of all time," was traded to Philadelphia in the offseason for a package of prospects headlined by Drabek. The 22-year-old phenom was a Phillies first-round pick in 2006 and is the son of Doug Drabek, the 1990 National League Cy Young winner.
Of all the young pitchers, veteran Toronto reliever Jason Frasor singled out Drabek for his polished command, jumping fastball and good off-speed pitches. Then he paused and added, "I would hope so -- that's who we got for Roy."
And so Drabek, Baseball America's No. 25 prospect, will forever be linked to Halladay, the Toronto legend who is referred to in reverent tones at the Jays' Dunedin complex for the example he set. "We all admired what he was about," Jays pitching coach Bruce (Pappy) Walton says of Halladay. "I think we all took a little from Doc that's going to stay with us."
Last week, on the same afternoon when Halladay tossed two brilliant innings in his Phillies debut against the Yankees down the road in Clearwater, Drabek was a bit rockier, yielding two runs on three hits in two innings during his first spring appearance. But, considering that the Jays aren't likely to compete this year, Frasor says the pressure is off Drabek. "He doesn't have to make it happen this year," Frasor says.
But Toronto fans may be getting impatient: The Jays have neither made the playoffs nor won 90 games in a season since their World Series titles of 1992 and '93. Such is life in the AL East.
2. Will there be a second straight breakout year for a power-hitting lefty outfielder?
In 2009 Adam Lind, who turned 26 midseason, officially arrived, belting 35 home runs and 114 RBIs to go along with a .305 average and a .370 on-base percentage. In 2010 the Blue Jays hope that 22-year-old Travis Snider, an '06 first-round pick who has crushed minor-league pitching everywhere he's gone (including a staggering 1.043 OPS in 66 games at Triple A), will do the same in the big leagues. Second baseman Aaron Hill recounts tales of mammoth batting-practice home run after mammoth batting-practice home run hit by Snider and considers him a future cornerstone of the club.
"I want to see Travis Snider do really well this year, because everyone knows the potential that he has," Hill says. "Last year he didn't make adjustments fast enough to catch up with big league pitchers. That's because he's young, he's only 22 years old. That just comes with experience."
One thing's for sure: Snider won't be impressing with his speed. Not only he has been caught stealing more times (17) than he's been successful (14) in the minors, he tried telling a few coaches that a gazelle was spotted during sprints last week, reportedly seen wearing his No. 45. One of the coaches, however, shot him down -- at least somewhat in jest -- saying that it was more like a hippo on the loose.
3. How healthy are the M&M boys?
Two of Toronto's recent promising starters -- Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan, each of whom won 12 games in 2007 -- are rehabbing from major arm surgeries; neither has pitched in a major league game in more than 500 days. In the last year and a half McGowan has had operations to repair fraying of his right shoulder labrum and damage to the cartilage in his right knee. He has thrown some bullpen sessions but likely won't be rushed onto the Opening Day roster.
Marcum, who had Tommy John surgery in Sept. '08, is farther along and advanced as far as one Triple A start at the end of last season. He then pitched in the instructional league in September and October, which he called the "turning point" of his recovery. At 28, he's the senior member of the young Jays staff and the leading candidate to get the ball on Opening Day. "It feels like a new arm, so I'm ready to go," he says.
They do not yet have an appointed closer -- it's a three-way battle between Frasor, lefty Scott Downs and free-agent acquisition Kevin Gregg -- but the Blue Jays do have great depth and versatility in their relief corps. The fun-loving group, which makes Jesse Carlson the butt of most of its jokes ("It's all in good fun," says Downs) has two experienced lefties (Carlson, Downs) and seven relievers who have saved a combined 187 games. Two of them, Jeremy Accardo and Gregg, have each saved at least 30 in a single season.
"We have had some great bullpens since I got here in '04, but I think this is going to be the best," Frasor says. "We've got lefties, we've got righties, we've got power arms. We don't have that Mariano at the end, but one through seven, I think we match up with anybody."
Gregg has the most experience, with 85 saves, and when he's on the mound, "He don't look real nice," Walton says. "He brings an aggressiveness. He goes after hitters with his best two pitches and tries to get it done in a hurry."
New Faces, New Places
John Buck and Alex Gonzalez
The veteran Buck was signed away from the Royals to work with Toronto's young pitching staff, which on Opening Day will likely feature Ricky Romero, Brian Tallet, Brendan Morrow and either Marc Rzepczynski or Brett Cecil behind Marcum. Of those pitchers, only Tallet is older than 25. Buck says he's used to dealing with entire staffs of young pitchers from his K.C. days, but adds that the Blue Jays are "more prepared."
Gonzalez, meanwhile, is a solid defensive stopgap at shortstop after Marco Scutaro went to Boston as a free agent. Gonzalez has never been even an average hitter (based on OPS+) in his 11 seasons, but he remains a defensive whiz and his range should be a supportive influence on the staff.
Hill, fresh of a monster season in which he had 36 homers and 108 RBIs, says he followed the same workout routine as last season "to a T. Not that I'm superstitious or anything." ... Walton's goal for replacing Halladay's 230 innings per year average -- about 40 innings more than most starters -- is to have the rest of rotation members increase their innings by 10 ... Lind noted that one underrated aspect of the AL East is how good the bullpens are and how much power there is at the bottom of each lineup -- guys who can "not necessarily just hit a single here and there, but really put their team in the lead." ... An Indiana native, Lind went to a couple of Colts games and some Pacers games in the offseason, but for the latter he said he went primarily to see opponents like the Celtics and Cavaliers ... Marcum says he uses the Super Bowl as his calendar benchmark to know when it's time to leave his Kansas City home for spring training in Dunedin.
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