No, not even a sideways reference to the St. Louis Cardinals. Rather, a variation on the old "crystal ball" meme. Before I get into the minor league positional reviews ramping up to the top prospect lists, I want to pause for a brief post to look at the major league squad as we go forward into the winter before Alex starts screwing with the roster. Most of this is stuff you can figure out for yourself and on those points I will be brief, but I do want to be "on the record" as it were. Yes, if you don't know, I tend to be an optimist. My philosophy is if there is a REASON for caution I can document, then be cautious. But absent such a reason - how good do I think this guy is? What is reasonably possible to expect from him?
Sure, it's possible ANY player could all of a sudden suck for no apparent reason (the Jays know that better than maybe anyone) but you can't look ahead and just assume that will happen - at least i can't. i look at a guy and see what he CAN do and assume he just might.
The Blue Jays are set with:
RF - Jose Bautista. Really needs no elaboration. The most i could speculate about here is what's in store for a position shift in the out years of his contract when (if) the great minor league outfield prospects start crowding the roster. I wonder if Bautista would be content to become a DH when he's 35, 36?
CF - Colby Rasmus: Yes. Set. If you are worried about CF you simply fall in that category of fan who is constitutionally incapable of being optimistic about the Jays future. YES it was a difficult transition and a difficult year. But look at 2010 and give your head a shake.
3B - Brett Lawrie: Anything I could say here would understate how excited I am about Lawrie. I'm every bit as confident in him over the next 3-4 years as i am about Bautista, maybe more.
SS - Yunel Escobar: If/when Hech forces the situation Esco will almost certainly become the 2B, but until then Escobar is going to consistently be in the to 3-4 SS in the AL IMO That's a good place to be, given how difficult it is to find even an average SS in the majors.
C - JP Arencibia: Yes, Travis d'Arnaud might come take his job in a year or two, or make it possible to trade JP, but for now he's the guy. He's going to hit, most likely, 25-30 homers which is rare for a catcher, and his BA will come up some (say the .240-.260 range) and the OBP will tick up to reflect that and maybe another walk or two. I'm thinking something like .310/.470/.780 or thereabouts. If that disappoints you, look around the league. there's likely always going to be 2 or 3 "name" guys who hit better, but he's going to be fine. and when you look at what's coming, the Jays are likely to be cool behind the plate for the rest of the decade.
Uncertainty but not need:
LF - Travis Snider v. Eric Thames: Technically, Adam Loewen and Raji Davis are in the mix too, but it's going to take a couple of big piles of failure from Snider and Thames for BOTH to lose the job. There's certainly enough options that there will be no need for an acquisition here. Personally, I still think Snider is a considerably more talented guy (and I love love love Thames) and it really bugs me that we can't find a way to put both in the lineup long term without one of them DHing. But I can't really guarantee Snider will find the sweet spot he never found in 2011. There's also some possibility one of them would be included in a trade of a premium opportunity presents itself.
DH - Edwin Encarnacion v. Eric Thames: Technically you can include the other LF candidates here, but both Davis and Snider are better fielders than Thames and Loewen almost certainly is. The Jays obviously seem to believe that EE still has a real breakout season in him, and he might. I'm find with watching to see if it develops in 2012. BUT, I simply don't have the emotional investment in Eddie that I do in Snider and Thames (or even Loewen really). There's a part of me that would like to see Thames end up with this job eventually. Thames will, I think, be a better overall hitter than he was this year - something in the low .800s for an OPS I'm guessing, but he strikes me as the most obvious risk for a sophomore slump this coming season too. Or, more precisely, have an adjustment period sometime in the first half that drags down his overall line at the end of the year (not unlike the pattern of Encarnacion's offense in 2011).
2B - ???: Kelly Johnson is a free agent, who stands to bring back a compensation draft pick if he leaves, but he's also the clear class of the free agent class. I have NO idea if the jays liked him enough to forgo the pick in order to bring him back. if they don't, I'd expect a trade. One guy to keep your eye out for - Gordon Beckham. Alex is said to like him a lot and he fits the profile. of course, if the White Sox decide to shed some expensive guys and go younger he's not the kind of guy they will want to give up on.
1B - Adam Lind? - I'm not sure on this one. In a post-season interview, Alex spoke in pretty optimistic terms about Lind despite his horrendous second half (actually more than the second half, he was very bad from June 18 - 2 weeks after he came off the DL - through the end of the season). AA expressed confidence that Lind's back issues (i.e. core strength and conditioning issues) and that coming in better physically prepared to play 1B next year he'll return to being an elite hitter, and stay there over the course of the season. I'm inclined to take him at his word, with the caveat that obviously if something special presents itself - a guy who's clearly a better bet to be much better.
There's another factor here - the Reds have said they are not moving Joey Votto....right now. The actual best time for them to deal him is next winter (or this summer if there's a great match-up). it might be very well true that Alex is willing to let Lind take one more go rather than acquire someone else who would get underfoot when he takes a run at Votto a year from now (and i'm convinced if Votto is on the market the Jays will pull out the stops unless Lind advances into MVP territory). i know fans who are in "go for it NOW!" mode won't like to hear that but i expect it's the plan.
Bench - Bring back John McDonald. doesn't matter if you want it, it will happen; pick up a reserve catcher, my nomination is Ramon Castro; sort out if you have room to carry both Raji Davis and Adam Loewen in the majors and, if not, how can you not lose Loewen on waivers.
1. Rickey Romero - Nothing much needs to be said here.look at guys like Price and Lester and so forth - he's right there with them. I'm not sure he has MUCH room to step up to another level but this leve lis just fine.
2. Dustin McGowan - YES, he could fall apart at any moment and it's a blessing that the Jays have so many good guys so close that if McGowan goes down in June we have good options. But if I'm the manager and McGowan makes it through ST healthy and effective, he's my #2 and as long as he remains healthy you are going to be really impressed.
3. Brandon Morrow - The day is coming. I don't know specifically what year it will be, or even if it will be in a Jays uniform, but Morrow WILL be a Cy contender sometime in the next, say, 3-4 years.barring major injury. Bet on it.
4. Henderson Alvarez - it's true he's quite young, and there's every historical reason to steal yourself for the likelihood of regression particularly in 2012. I'm prepared for that, but at the same time, he had EIGHT walks in 63 IP. it was as good a rookie debut as the Blue Jays have seen in...a really long time.
5. Brett Cecil - Cecil is not a bad pitcher, he'd be a perfectly reasonable option as most team's #5 if he only get marginally better. but there are other, better guys coming, and ultimately if Cecil breaks camp in the rotation he will simply be a placeholder. I think it's not unreasonable to think it's possible Cecil will end up in the Zep role by mid-season.
6. Kyle Drabek - he might have simply caught Ankiel Disease and there's nothing for it. I can't find a strong indicator either way. but it's POSSIBLE he will recapture what made him special and if he does, he's the guy who pushes Cecil to the 'pen.
7. other internal options include almost the entire AA rotation (and Alex said specifically all of them might play in the bigs at some point in 2012) of Jenkins, McGuire, Hutchison, and Molina. Beyond that, Luis Perez showed impressive possibilities in his first start and Carlos Villianueva preformed admirably when called upon, there's still Jesse Listch and Joel Carreno also has started throughout his minor league career and would likely be at least competent. that takes you to as many as 14 pitchers deep. The market for FA starters is far too weak for the Jays to be shopping there, and with all due respect to professional opinions such as John Farrell's - the Blue Jays do not need to add a free agent starting pitcher this off season EXCEPT one possible exception:
Yu Darvish. The more i hear, the more convinced I am that if Darvish pitches in MLB in 2012, it will be as a Blue Jay. The fit between the type of player and type of acquisition he is, and the opportunity for a transformative player to be added to the Jays' current group is astonishingly obvious. I can't imagine that Alex would see this as the one moment when you open up the vault and do what you have to do. All the more so because it's worth a tidy sum to you to be sure he's NOT pitching in NY, or Boston, or Texas or LA. The only way the Blue Jays don't win this battle is if their scouts tell them that Darvish would be an ordinary guy in the majors.
If they don't get Darvish, the only way a starter is added is via trade, and that only if he can boost another high ceiling guy like Morrow. All this said - IMO a rotation of Romero/Darvish/McGowan/Morrow/Alvarez takes a back seat to no other rotation in the majors (assuming health).
Closer - entirely unpredictable. Alex has spoken in terms of needing a "real" closer, terms that do not seem to conform to a lot of his other ideas concerning value of particular roles. So even though a guy like Villianeuva or Janssen might actually make a perfectly respectable 9th inning guy, don't expect that to happen. On the other hand, I think we'd all be stunned if he through a pile of money at an "established" guy like Papelbon or Rodriguez. My guess, and my prediction, is that he will compromise in the middle between the 8 figure guys and the stop-gap types (like Rauch) and take a strong run at Joe Nathan. He struggled early recovering from TJ surgery that cost him all of 2010, but from June 28 through the end of the season he was his old dominating self and he would look absolutely golden as the Blue Jays 9th inning man.
I won't attempt to predict roles with certainty, but in general terms. I will also assume for the sake of this discussion that Darvish or someone else does push Brett Cecil out of the rotation, if they don't, there's a good chance that Alex will bring in someone from outside the organization to shore up the set-up options.
As far as I can see, these guys are a lock to be in the 'pen in April 2012: Casey Janssen, Jesse Litsch, Carlos Villianeuva and Brett Cecil (assuming none of them are acting as a stop-gap starter). Beyond that, Luis Perez is strongly likely to be there and Joel Carreno has a better than even chance.
With a closer, that's seven guys. But the depth beyond that is not so strong. Chad Beck got a lot of praise late in the year but is largely untested, Alan Farina will miss effectively the whole season after Tommy John surgery, Dan Farquhar is just ok, and Brad Mills was horrible in the majors. There's also Jesse Carlson if he can recover from shoulder woes (far from a sure thing). s it seems likely that Alex, even if he doesn't maneuver for a sure thing guy for the late innings, will seek to add 3 or 4 competitive guys who would give depth and competition, particularly for the younger guys. It'd be nice to have Tyler Buchholz back, eh?
One other thing here - it's possible Jon Rauch might accept arbitration. I sincerely hope he does not.
So, in summation, my look into the future (a mixture of prediction and desire) goes like this:
Sign Joe Nathan
Be ready if Votto goes on the market (unlikely)
Do something about 2B, damned if I know what
Tidy up the bench, and add some serviceable depth to the bullpen.
Do that, and stay healthy, and you have the makings of a contender. Remember this, the 2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays won 66 games. the 2008 squad won 97. The leap Toronto needs to make is only half that large, and it WILL happen. It might not happen in 2012, and it might be five games at a time over three years instead of 15 all at once - but it's coming. and 90% of what it takes to make it happen is already in the organization.