Are the Rays Overlooking the Jays and O's?

Are the Rays overlooking the Toronto Blue Jays and teh Baltimore Orioles?

Rays, Yankees, Red Sox.  No, it will be the Red Sox, Yankees, Rays.  No, you're delusional it is the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays ,etc.  This order of finish discussion was prevalent over the winter on Draysbay, Pinstripe Alley, and Over The Monster, as well as many other blogs and social media outlets.   I often get irritated by the national media and their focus only on the high profile teams, especially the Yankees and Red Sox, while seldom giving enough appreciation towards the teams that are attempting to compete with fewer resources and less margin for error.  In a way, have I myself been guilty of overlooking the efforts of the Blue Jays and Orioles this offseason and much of the last couple of seasons?  Could those organizations be heading in the right direction and be closer to being relevant in the AL East than we suspect?     Every spring as the media outlets release their season previews, a little voice in my head reminds me, "if the Rays can go from 66-96 to first place in the AL East, anything is possible."   So, after an offseason of looking up primarily at the Yankees and Red Sox and a week before pitchers and catchers report for spring training, let's take a look at the Toronto Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles.

Although a lot of information is presented for both the Blue Jays and Orioles organizations, I hope that the information is presented in an easy to scan format.   As I was compiling my research on these two organizations several questions continued to rattle in  my head  which I felt were worthy of discussion.

  • Is Alex Anthopoulos getting too much credit from the national media for the Jays organization turnaround?  Remember, Scott Rolen had already been moved for prospects, Alex Rios' contract had already been moved, he had a high value trade chip ready to move in Roy Halladay, and had 9 draft picks in the first 80 picks. Prior to the draft, the front office removed the edict that the team not pay over slot for draft picks and gave Anthopoulos the green light to spend what it took for draft bonuses. If Tony Reagins initiated the Vernon Wells discussion then it would stand to reason that Anthopoulos benefitted from the Angels failure to sign Adrian Beltre or Carl Crawford more than possessing the skill of being an innovative deal maker.
  • How does Alex Anthopoulos beginnings as GM with Toronto compare to the situation encountered in Tampa by Andrew Friedman? As the Rays were rising up in 2008 the national media seemed determined to give some credit to Chuck Lamar. Will JP Riccardi be given credit when and if the Jays become a relevant team in the AL East?
  • How do the 2011 Jays stack up to the 2008 Rays? Is it possible to believe that if things break the right way that the Jays could compete this year?
  • How has Andy MacPhail kept his job in Baltimore?  It's like a yearly obsession to revamp the offense with well known names, add an established starter tot the rotation for stability, and add a bullpen arm. Every year the moves seem to backfire on the Orioles and the 90 loss seasons continue to pile up.
  • Will the Jays and more specifically the Orioles be competitive enough to help one of the teams in the AL Central or AL West to sneak in as the Wild Card?

TORONTO BLUE JAYS: A TEAM WITH A PLAN

The future of the Toronto Blue Jays began in earnest on October 4, 2009, when after 8 seasons and a 642-650 record (without a post season appearance) General Manager  J.P. Riccardi was fired and replaced by Alex Anthopoulos.  Although only 32 years old, Anthopoulos had been working in MLB since 2000 with the Montreal Expos in their scouting department, he was hired by Riccardi to fill the role of the Jays scouting director in 2003,  was named the assistant GM after the 2005 season and shortly thereafter was named vice-president of baseball operations.  Anthopoulos would begin his tenure as GM with the goal to reduce the payroll and leverage the money into the farm system and player development.   Not even two years later and the Toronto Blue Jays have an estimated $70 million dollar projected payroll for 2011 and only $17.4 million   (including buyouts) dedicated to the 2012 squad.  The farm system is ranked fourth in all of baseball by both Baseball America and ESPNs Keith Law.  The Blue Jays also have three of the top 50 prospects on MLB.com top prospect list.   The following moves detail how Anthopoulos moved the franchise from  an overstretched payroll to one with financial flexibility and from an organization with a farm system void of talent to where it is today in 16 short months:

  • On December 16, 2009, Roy Halladay was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for right handed pitcher Kyle Drabek, outfielder Michael Taylor and catcher Travis D'Arnaud.  Anthopoulos would immediately trade Michael Taylor to Houston for first baseman Brett Wallace.
  • On December 23, 2009, the dust hadn't settled on the Roy Halladay deal when the Jays sent reliever Brandon League and 20 year old outfield prospect Johermyn Chavez to the Seattle Mariners for Brandon Morrow.
  • On April 13, 2010, the Jays would enter the international market and sign Cuban shortstop Andy Hechavarria to a 4-year, 10 million dollar contract.
  • In June of 2010, the Jays held 9 picks in the first 3 rounds of the amateur draft.  In advance of the draft, Anthopoulos had doubled the size of the scouting staff and replaced the previous scouting director.  According to MLB.com, Paul Beeston approved a change in how the Blue Jays approached the draft and authorized Anthopoulos to go over recommended slot on his draft picks.  The Jays would go over slot 12 times and spend 11.6 million (Baseballamerica.com) on draft bonuses which included 20 six-figure bonuses. 
  • On July 13, 2010, the Jays would again enter the international market and sign Venezuelan pitching prospect Adonis Cardona and third baseman Gabriel Cenas.
  • On July 15, 2010, the Jays sent 33 year old shortstop Alex Gonzalez plus prospects to the Atlanta Braves for 27 year old shortstop Yunel Escobar and prospects.
  • On July 29, 2010, the Jays sent Brett Wallace to Houston for outfield prospect Anthony Gose.
  • On August 14, 2010, the Jays signed left handed pitcher Ricky Romero to a four year contract extension, buying all of his arbitration years plus one of his free agent years.
  • On December 10, 2010, the Jays traded Shawn Marcum to the Milwaukee Brewers for second base prospect Brett Lawrie.
  • On January 21, 2011, the Jays stunned most of the national media by shedding the remaining 4-years and 86 million dollars left on Vernon Wells contract by trading him to Anaheim for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera.  A cool 70 million in savings realized after factoring in the cash contributed by the Jays and the contracts of Napoli and Rivera being taken on by the Jays.
  • On January 25, 2011, the Jays sent Mike Napoli to the Texas Rangers for closer Frank Francisco and cash. 

These moves have elevated the Jays to a team that has highly valued young talent on the way to the majors and are owned by Rogers Communication, a company valued by Forbes at 16 billion and a President (Paul Beeston), who during the Jays State of the Franchise meet and greet, had this to say about future spending:

"We raise our revenues, we raise our expenses at the same time and our salaries. ... We should be a city that can have $140 million, $150 million in the way of salaries. We could support that, and that's the direction that we're headed."

At the same time Beeston is speaking about $140 and $150 million dollar payroll their GM is relaying quotes about finishing the rebuilding job:

"We're going to look to spend it the right way and not just spend for the sake of spending," Anthopoulos said. "But there's already been talk of how we can leverage this money into the Draft, how can we leverage this money into Latin America signings; are there other players we can go out and acquire? The flexibility to go so many ways with it is very exciting."

2011 Preview

The Jays finished the 2010 season with a record of 85-77 and in fourth place in the AL East with an offense powered by a team record 257 home runs (4th most in ML History).  At the end of the season manager Cito Gaston retired and the Jays hired first time manager John Farrell.  Farrell intends to be slightly more aggressive than previous managers and when asked about this by Tom Daker of Bluebird Banter Farrell responded:

Well, we've made some changes to the roster that will really help that, the acquisition of Rajai Davis.  I think there are some guys on the rosters that are returning players that could be a little more aggressive on the base paths.  They are not going to be restricted in terms of ‘will they run' the green light will be given to them. Yes we want to instil a more aggressive attitude on the base paths. Overall to be a little more unpredictable with our ability to score runs, rather than being so reliant on the home run. It is a strength of ours, but I think there is other areas that we can shore up to make us a little more even in our approach to the offense.

Key subtractions:  starting pitcher Shawn Marcum, catcher John Buck, first baseman Lyle Overbay, centerfielder Vernon Wells, reliever Scott Downs, reliever Brian Tallet, and closer Kevin Gregg

Key additions: centerfielder Rajai Davis, left fielder Juan Rivera, closer Frank Francisco and setup men Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch.

Projected Rotation: LHP Ricky Romero, RHP Brandon Morrow, RHP Brett Cecil, RHP Kyle Drabek, and RHP Jessie Litsch/LHP Mark Rzepczynski

Projected Bullpen: Frank Francisco (CL), Jon Rauch, Octavio Dotel, Jason Frasor, Casey Janssen, Shawn Camp, and LHP David Purcey.

Projected Lineup: Rajai Davis (CF), Yunel Escobar (SS), Jose Bautista (3b), Adam Lind (1b), Aaron Hill (2b), Travis Snyder (RF), Juan Rivera (LF), Edwin Encarnacion (DH), JP Arencibia (C)

Key Backups: John McDonald (UT) and Jose Molina (C)

Although defined as a team in a rebuilding mode, the Jays certainly don't appear to be the traditional rebuilding roster.  The Jays return three very able starters in Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, and Brett Cecil.  If Kyle Drabek and Jessie Litsch or Mark Rzepczynski give them quality innings in the first half of the season, the Jays have the veteran type of bullpen that could shut teams down in the later innings.  The Jays lineup lost 71 home runs by losing Vernon Wells, John Buck, and first baseman Lyle Overbay and a repeat of Jose Bautista 54 home runs performance from 2010 is not probable.   The Jays are hoping that Juan Rivera and JP Arencibia will replace some of the power lost and that Aaron Hill and Adam Lind have better offensive years than 2010.   If the Jays can hang around long enough in the AL East, they have the type of farm system that could provide help and the ability to reach out and make a trade for help without the financial restraints that would've prevented maneuvering around the trade deadline.    

BALTIMORE ORIOLES: PERPETUAL LATERAL MOVEMENT

The Baltimore Orioles have not finished above .500 in any season since their last playoff appearance in 1997.   The current President of Baseball OperationsAndy MacPhail was hired on June 20, 2007 and has turned in seasons of 39-52 (2007), 68-93 (2008), 64-98 (2009), and 66-96 (2010).  When MacPhail was hired he made it clear at his press conference that the responsibility to change the fortunes of the Orioles would be on his shoulders:

"I'm absolutely responsible for baseball operations," MacPhail said in a press conference. "I like one voice. I like simplicity. I'm looking for all the help I can get, but at the end of the day, I have to believe that it's the right thing. I have to say, 'This is the best thing for the Baltimore Orioles.'"

MacPhail, much like Anthopoulos in Toronto, had the opportunity to rebuild the Baltimore farm system through the trading of established stars.   Shortstop Miguel Tejada was traded to the Houston Astros for five players including Luke Scott and starting pitcher Erik Bedard was traded to the Seattle Mariners for five players including centerfielder Adam Jones, reliever George Sherrill, and starting pitcher Chris Tillman

Each Orioles team from 2008 through 2010 has been constructed with a mix of veteran players brought in to give the younger kids' time to develop.   The 2008 team had quite a few veterans on it (catcher Ramon Hernandez, first basemen Kevin Millar, shortstop Juan Castro, third basemen Melvin Mora, outfielder Jay Payton, relief pitchers Chad Bradford and Jamie Walker) all over the age of 32.  The team also had a nice nucleus of offensive players to build around in Brian Roberts, Luke Scott, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis.  While Jeremy Guthrie gave the Orioles a front line starter for their rotation and George Sherrill provided a reliable late inning reliever option.

The 2009 Orioles would add Matt Wieters and Nolan Reimold into the lineup giving the team four starters under the age of 25 (Matt Wieters, Nolan Reimold, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis).  The starting pitching was the Achilles heel of the 2009 Orioles season as Jeremy Guthrie struggled with his command and Koji Uehara was overwhelmed by major league hitters.  Rich Hill would be injured and only make 13 starts and Mark Hendrickson would spend the year primarily in the bullpen.   Rookies David Hernandez and Jason Berken would get battered in their inaugural seasons.  Rookie Brad Bergesen would provide a little hope as he would post a winning record in 19 starts.  George Sherrill continued to be a reliable late inning reliever for the Orioles.  Despite the 64-98 finish, MacPhail decided to bring back manager Dave Trembley for the 2010 season.

The 2010 Orioles would have the same look as the other Baltimore teams with a mix of veteran being brought in to surround the younger players.  This time the Orioles brought in Kevin Millwood via trade to help the rotation, they brought in Miguel Tejada via free agency to be their third baseman, and signed Garrett Atkins to play first base.  The bullpen was given help with the addition of free agent Mike Gonzalez who was brought in to be the Orioles closer.   The season didn't progress the way MacPhail had hoped as the Orioles started the year 2-16.   After a 15-39 start manager Dave Trembley was fired and replaced by Juan Samuel who would post a record of 17-34 before being replaced by Buck Showalter.  Despite the final record of 66-96, the Orioles would bring excitement back to Camden Yards over the last two plus months of the season finishing the year with a 34-23 record.  

2011 Preview

The results of the 2011 offseason for the Orioles will either be an example of the persistence of Andy MacPhail or it will be example of the old saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  The Orioles will once again look to revamp the offense while adding in a veteran influence to the pitching staff, while waiting for their young players to gel.  The 2011 offseason has certainly been active for the O's:

  • On December 6, 2010 third baseman Mark Reynolds was acquired for pitcher David Hernandez and Kameron Mickolio.
  • On December 9, 2010 shortstop JJ Hardy and utility infielder Brendan Harris were acquire for pitching prospect Brett Jacobson.
  • On January 6, 2011 first baseman Derrek Lee was signed as a free agent.
  • On January 13, 2011 closer Kevin Gregg was signed as a free agent.
  • On February 3, 2011 pitcher Justin Duchscherer was signed as a free agent.
  • On February 4, 2011 designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero was signed as a free agent.

The Orioles did not re-sign Kevin Millwood, shortstop Julio Lugo, outfielder Corey Patterson, and 1b/DH Ty Wiggington.  As of today, reliever Alfred Simon is in jail in the Dominican Republic as he is the prime suspect in the shooting death of his cousin. 

Projected Rotation: RHP Jeremy Guthrie, LHP Brian Matusz, RHP Brad Bergesen, RHP Justin Duchscherer, RHP Jake Arrieta.

Projected Bullpen: Koji Uehara (CL), Kevin Gregg, LHP Mike Gonzalez, Jim Johnson, Jeremy Accardo, Jason Berken, and LHP Mark Hendrickson.

Projected Lineup: Brian Roberts (2b), Adam Jones (CF), Nick Markakis (RF), Vladimir Guerrero (DH), Luke Scott (LF), Derrek Lee (1b), Mark Reynolds (3b), Mark Wieters (C),  JJ Hardy (SS)

Key Backups: Cesar Izturis (SS), Felix Pie (OF), and Jake Fox (C)

The Orioles are hoping that the additions of Vladimir Guerrero, Mark Reynolds, JJ Hardy, and Derek Lee along with a healthy Brian Roberts will add quite a punch to an offense that ranked 13th in the American League in Runs, 11th in OBP and SLG%, and finished the year with a team OPS+ of 90.   The Orioles are hoping to see Brian Matusz continue in 2011 the way he finished 2010 by going 7-1 with a 2.18 ERA from August 1st on.  The farm system is ranked 21st overall by Baseball America and 24th by Keith Law.  Some of this is due to players graduating to the Orioles but there is not a lot of depth ready to help.  Chris Tillman and Nolan Reimold both have experience and could help the Orioles in 2011 and left handed prospect Zach Britton could be ready to make his debut during the 2011 season.  The Orioles have the type of offense that could make for many a long night against the oppositions pitching staff but the uncertainty of the Orioles starting pitching staff could, like so many years since 1997, short circuit the season early.

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