Over on the side I started working on a rather elaborate post but I decided to take my time with that one and do it right, so I needed something else to fill the dog-days (anti-dog days?) of January.
I always hate to write posts like this because inevitably when you do, one team or another pulls off a big transaction that alters the landscape. But still, ya gotta talk about SOME thing, right?
What I propose to do is write four articles, each in turn comparing the Jays position-by-position to one of their division rivals. I might also do one comparing them to other potential wild card contenders, but I haven't decided on that because then you run into disagreement about who is and isn't worthy of being listed a contender. We know who's in the division.
Comparisons like this tend to confirm pre-conceived opinions, so I'm gonna go for full disclosure up front so we can compare and contrast. My starting assumption is that the Red Sox are clearly better than the jays, and the O's are clearly worse - thus I'll save those two teams for the latter two posts. I further asses, on a quick and dirty look, that the Yankees are marginally better than the Jays (not out of reach) and the Rays have lost so much as to be marginally behind Toronto.
I begin, as the title implies, with the Rays. All the following assumes health, except in players with chronic injuries such as McGowan.
The Rays got a bit of a surprise in 2010 when John Jaso stepped up and had a surprisingly effective year and seized the starting role. Jaso, 27, is, at the plate, sort of the Rays' version of Brian Jeroloman. A respectable average and a happy-making pile of walks. He has marginal power, delivering only 26 XBH in 109 games in 2010. His OPS was .750 but it's worth noting he tailed off in September. Nevertheless, his calling card is the base on balls, otherwise he's a negligible force on offense.
For the Jays, JP Arencibia is almost certainly going to step into the starting job and offensively, he's virtually the opposite of Jaso - only marginal walks and promising power. While it's impossible for us to guess how much success JP will have translating his game to the majors, Jaso has not set a terribly high bar to reach. It has been widely assumed JPA will be a John Buck type hitter. It's a given that one shouldn't assume that JP, as a rookie, will equal what Buck did last year, however, when one says "Buck-like" they are thinking primarily of last year.
Conclusion - Jaso is a sophomore with a short track record, JP has even less to go on. If each play up to their skill set, they should make very similarly valued contributions to their team, albeit in very different ways.
The Rays have yet to sign a replacement for the departed Carlos Pena and it's difficult to conceive they will go into the season without doing so, but as it stands, 31 year old journeyman Dan Johnson is the nominal incumbent. Johnson is a AAA masher who was a league average guy (103 OPS+) for the A's from '05 to '07, but hasn't done well in the majors since. He is another guy who knows how to take a walk, and in the minors he shows solid power. But he's closer to Randy Ruiz than to, for instance, Lyle Overbay.
Adam Lind steps into the 1B role for the Jays, you all know about 2009 - and about 2010 - and what's at stake for him as a hitter. Still, it's hard to imagine a world in which Lind isn't an obviously better player than Johnson.
Conclusion - Lind by a considerable margin.
There are a couple of different ways the Rays could go here, but the best defensive lineup was young (25) Sean Rodriguez at 2B. Rodriguez has yet to be any sort of threat with the bat. Even though 2010 was his best year, and first shot at regular playing time, he managed only a .705 OPS and a little bit of speed.
As with Lind, I need not remind you of the ups and downs of Aaron Hill at 2B, but as with Lind, I can't wrap my mind around any healthy scenario in which Hill is not a wildly more productive hitter.
Conclusion - even with uncertainty factored in, you have to give this one to Hill and it's not close.
For the Rays, young Ried Brignac, once a hot prospect, has had the way cleared for him to be the everyday guy at short. Brignac was solid, not spectacular, in AA at age 21 and marginally worse in the following three years as he progressed to the Rays. Now 25, Brignac is coming off a season in which his OPS was .692 but he's also just now getting to play his natural position.
In Toronto, Yunel Escobar, 28, put up almost exactly the same OPS after coming over from Atlanta - but the difference is his OPS for the previous three seasons was .801 and that's a more likely representation of his talent level.
Conclusion - whatever you think of Brignac's upside, I don't see how you can not go with Esco here?
At first blush, there would seem little point in spending much time on 3B, after all, who wouldn't want Even Longoria manning third for their team? Longoria is still just 25 and has a career OPS of .881 along with the strong vibe that a some point he's going to advance to the next level.
But on the other hand, if the Jays are putting together a starting line up right now, the major league home run leader, Jose Bautista, lines up at the position for Toronto. Of course, no one knows how much of that production he'll be able to sustain, but Joey Bats had a .995 OPS last year and it's not likely he turns back into a complete pumpkin in 2011.
Conclusion - not knowing how much Bautista will regress makes this one of the toughest calls here. In one sense, there legitimate reason to argue that JB wil remain at a premium level and be Longoria's equal next year. But I'm going to let the previous trace record, and Longoria's age, lead me to predict the younger guy wins out here.
One of the Rays best prospects, 24 year old Desmond Jennings inherits the task of filling Carl Crawford's massive shoes. Many think he's ready, but as we know, there's no sure thing when it comes to breaking in rookies. Jennings has doubles power, great speed, and a solid ability to get on base. But he is a rookie, and as with Arencibia, results are highly speculative.
Without adding another player, the Jays would seem to be "stuck with" Raji Davis in left field (one might quibble who's left and who's right but my hunch is that it was Cito who was skeptical about Snider in RF). Davis is a 30 year old player with great speed but an erratic bat. His 2009 would likely be better than Jennings might do, his 2010 probably won't measure up.
Conclusion - too much uncertainty here to call a winner. so I'm stuck with calling it a wash, though my instinct is that one of them will likely be clearly better than the other.
BJ Upton is at a bit of a crossroads. The former high draft pick and mega-prospect is now 26 and his "breakout" age 22 season seems like forever ago. Over the last three years his average season has been, well, average. He's still young enough to recapture the magic of 2007, but there's no way to guess if he will.
That's a position not unlike Vernon Wells was in a year ago. Coming off a three year stretch which featured two injury-plagued stinkers, many were prepared to write him off. In answer he posted the second best season among major league center fielders. The important point here, though, is that the season he had last year is a perfectly typical healthy season for Wells. When he's not hurt, that .850ish OPS is what you can expect.
Conclusion - Upton certainly has the skills to outperform Wells. But until he gets back to the promise he once had, I have to cal this one for Wells.
You want a cautionary tale about Jose Bautista? let me introduce you to Ben Zobrist. Coming into 2009, his age 28 season, Zobrist had about one seasons worth of games played and a .650 OPS. of course, in 2009 he went out and posted an astonishing .945 and anyone would have been forgiven for thinking "late bloomer" and predicting continued success. The clock struck midnight, however, sometime before Opening Day 2010 and Zobrist went on to post a paltry .699 in 151 games played mostly in RF. One can only wonder which guy - if either - will show up for 2011.
Travis Snider finally seems to have a clean shot at playing virtually every day for the Blue Jays. Snider had a .767 OPS last year and he got in about half a season of at bats. His pace would have taken him close to 40 doubles and 30 homers and, in my opinion, 2011 is going to be the year he introduces himself to the baseball world with authority. Still only 23, what we've seen so far - which is still undoubtedly better than what one might reliably expect from Zobrist, is but a shadow of what is likely to come (with the caveat that Upton illustrates how a great young player can inexplicably not develop according to projections).
Conclusion - how can you not expect a much better season from Snider?
It's a bit imprecise to call Matt Joyce the Rays DH. In reality he's the guy who stands to be the next most busy. Zobrist is a quite versatile guy and chances are Joyce will play a lot of RF while Zobrist moves around the diamond. But there's not another obvious candidate to be in the line-up on any given day. The 26 year old Joyce quietly was pretty productive in 2010, but his problem is that he can't touch LHP. One assumes that the Rays will, at some point, pull a guy off the scrap heap to play vs. LHP in th DH role, but for now, Joyce is going to be a liability in 1/4 (roughly) of all games.
For all the grief Edwin Encarnacion took for his wildly erratic arm while playing 3B, most recognize that the man has some offensive tools. Relieved of his leather by the Jays, we now get an experiment in what he can do when all he has to do is hit. Encarnacion, at his best (so far) hit's about as well as Joyce, and the now 28 year old doesn't have a pronounced inability to hit either left or right handed pitchers. If he plays and is healthy every day, EE is a legitimate threat to hit 30 homers.
Conclusion - absent a platoon partner for Joyce, I have to give EE the slight edge. This is one place that could swing though.
Overall, so far, three which are a wash due to uncertainty, one goes to the Rays and five go to the Jays.
David Price v. Ricky Romero
Price is a year younger, had a full run better ERA in 2010, and a much lower H:IP ratio. I think Rick-Ro will close the margin some this year, but it's difficult for me to imagine he will reach Price's level. give this one to the Rays.
James Shields v. Brandon Morrow
Shields is 29 and has given up steadily more hits and homers over the last three seasons. It's early to say that he peaked in 2008 and is on the decline, but the stats sure trend that way. Morrow is 26 and in his second full year as a SP (I don't need to explain to Jays fans how that happened). I don't think you will find anyone arguing that, if healthy, he has ace - if not Cy Young - ability. His K:9 ratio would have been the highest in the majors had he enough innings to qualify. I don't think you will find a single GM or scout in baseball who'll disagree with it when I say - Morrow by a fairly wide margin.
Jeff Niemann v. Brett Cecil
The right handed Niemann, who'll be 28 on Opening Day, has 66 major league games and a 4.20 ERA over his career. Meanwhile Cecil, 24, 46 games played and a 4.60 ERA. On the surface, pretty similar results. I think most people think Cecil is going to get better, however, whereas Niemann likely is what he is. I'm going to call this a push, even though I fell like Cecil is going to be the better pitcher going forward.
Wade Davis v. Jesse Litsch
Some will argue that Drabek is the #4 but I think comparisons of similarities are important and since each team has a rookie breaking in, we'll put these two together. Davis is 25 and has been a well regarded prospect for the Rays for a few years. Last season, as a rookie, he pushed aside Andy Sonnanstine and siezed a turn in the rotation, acquitting himself fairly well in the process. It was a respectable year, though the Rays would probably like to see a few more Ks and a bit better WHIP. Litsch will be 26 by opening day, and was a largely unheralded prospect. But in his first two seasons, he out-preformed what Davis did last year. He's coming off an injury, and a year in which he was coming off TJ surgery. He has much the same cautionary notes as Davis.
My call here is the opposite of the #3 spot - they are close enough to call it a push, but my instinct is Davis will have a slightly better result.
Jeremy Hellickson v. Kyle Drabek
Hellickson is a year older, and both players have been highly touted prospects who are getting their first full shot. As prospects, it's hard to find anything wrong with Hellickson, he has impeccable control and may already be the Rays second best starter. Drabek lost most of his age 20 season to TJ surgery, so in a sense he's almost two years ahead of Hellickson in terms of speed to the majors. Most scouts probably take Hellickson, but given the vagaries of rookie SP, I don't feel comfortable picking one as a clear favorite here.
On the whole, I make the rotations largely a push.
In the bullpen, the Rays have a guy coming off major injury - JP Howell -as their closer, a guy who was non-tendered as their best set up reliever, and a couple of non-discript rooks they got via trade. Oh, and Sonnanstine. Whatever you think of the Jays pen, I hope I don't need to detail these guys to say that the Toronto bullpen is in FAR better shape.
Frankly, I'm going to have to look closer before I conclude the Rays are even better than Baltimore at this point, let alone Toronto. I think so, based on the rotation, but I wouldn't say so with any confidence. I think a LOT of things would have to go wrong with the Jays for them to finish behind Tampa in 2011.