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Chattin' With......Blue Bird Banter

Our interview series with our opposing team bloggers continues today with the Blue Jays and Blue Bird Banter writer Mark Willis-O'Connor. Like last week, the interview is rather lengthy, so I've relegated it to after the jump. But thanks to Mark for taking the time to answer my questions!

Interview Series

April 3rd-Camden Chat
Today-Blue Bird Banter

The Questions

Patrick Kennedy-Representing DRaysBay
Mark Willis-O'Connor-Representing Ble Bird Banter

DRays Bay-The Devil Rays and the Blue Jays are actually in very similar positions if you think about it. Like the Jays last season, the Rays are spending a lot of money this offseason to upgrade their home stadium, and just generally overhaul and make the fan experience better. Being one step ahead of us, how did last season's renovations to SkyDome ( I.E. new scoreboards, et al) work out, and did they really help the fan experience at all?

Blue Bird Banter-The two biggest renovations, in my opinion, were the new scoreboard and, more noticeably, the switch from AstroTurf to FieldTurf. Apparently, the old scoreboard simply had to be replaced, because there were concerns about its ability to function properly for the whole season. As for the other big renovation, I was definitely in favour of the switch to FieldTurf; it resembles grass much more than does AstroTurf, whose neon green appearance damaged many a retina. Some other renovations included new video boards on the outfield walls and various seating upgrades. Overall, though, I don't think it has helped change the negative reputation that many fans have adopted towards it. Retro, old-fashioned ballparks are easily the most well-regarded, whereas the Rogers Centre is the complete antithesis of that. Personally, I enjoy attending games there, and I think once the team's performance improves, attendance, as well as the general perception of the stadium, should improve as well.

DRB-Another thing Jays management did to help the fan experience was to spend a boatload of money this offseason on new players, I.E. A.J Burnett, Bengie Molina, B.J Ryan, Troy Glaus, Lyle Overbay.....what is the general feeling of the Blue Jays' fan base about these moves, what is your opinion of them, and do you really think that they give you guys a chance to compete against New York and Boston.

BBB-Since I was too young to effectively judge the fans' enthusiasm level during the great run of the early '90's, this is the highest level at which I've ever truly experienced it. Although most astute fans recognize that there's a lot of risk involved with this offseason's moves, the fact that the team hasn't looked this competitive in years overshadows that in most people's view. I'm cautiously optimistic about this season, in that I think they could theoretically win the division but it's more probable that they'll finish third -- again.

DRB-I just noticed that A.J Burnett, one of your big offseason signees, has been placed on the DL for the start of the season and will miss his first two starts. Now, how much concern do you have about this, and no matter how good Burnett is, with his injury history, did the Jays pay too much?

BBB-Right now, the hope is that he'll only miss his first start, but it's more likely that he'll miss his first two. I'm not very concerned about the injury, because the breaking up of scar tissue is not an uncommon occurrence for pitchers who've experienced major surgery. With that said, I'm very worried about how healthy he'll be throughout the duration of his contract. Add in the fact that his strikeout rates have been significantly worse when he's pitched away from Pro Player Stadium, and I'm very unsure about his future. On the positive side, he does possess great natural talent and was easily the best available pitcher on this offseason's free agent market.

DRB-Gustavo Chacin had a good first season last year, boasting a 3.72 ERA. What do you think of his future, and do you think he will get better as more talent comes into the rotation?

BBB-To be honest, I'm somewhat skeptical. For someone who allows many hitters to reach base (1.39 WHIP) he doesn't strikeout enough hitters to mitigate the potential damage (121 K in 203 IP). In fact, of all AL pitchers with a minimum of 162 IP last season, Chacin ranked 35th in WHIP. The only pitcher who ranked lower while also posting an ERA below 4.18 was Scott Kazmir. However, Kazmir's strikeout rate is superior and he allowed much fewer home runs. As a result, his likelihood of improvement seems much more plausible than Chacin's. That is not to say that a slight regression on the part of Chacin would render him useless, however. If he could pitch 200 league-average innings for the Blue Jays next season, he'd be a very suitable end-of-the-rotation starter.

DRB-Roy Halladay, the former Cy Young Award winner, missed the second half of last season due to an injury he suffered out in Arlington. How much concern is there about that injury, and with two front line starters as injury-prone as Burnett and Halladay, what is the possibility that the rotation collapses due to injury?

BBB-This may sound strange considering Doc's recent injury woes, but I have little to no concerns about his health going forward. Last season's injury, caused by a Kevin Mench line drive to his lower body, was simply a fluke. His arm is now well-rested, and since he normally has a low pitch count anyways, he should easily be relied upon for upwards of 200 very effective innings next season.

DRB-The Jays spent a record $47 million over five years to bring Baltimore Orioles closer B.J Ryan north of the border, and this is for a closer who had been in that role for just one year. Granted, Miguel Batista made the closer role a need going into the offseason, but was this really a wise signing, in your opinion?

BBB-Spending a lot of money on a closer seems like an unnecessary expenditure. For example, many of last season's top closers came out of nowhere to post great totals (Bobby Jenks, Todd Jones, Derek Turnbow, etc.). Additionally, they don't pitch nearly enough innings to justify the amount of money they're paid. However, despite what those comments would suggest, I'm not completely opposed to this signing. To me, if you're going to spend vast sums of money on a closer, make sure it's one of the best. Well, B.J. Ryan, despite his lack of experience in the role, is certainly one of the best. He strikes out a ton of hitters, he's relatively young, and doesn't have a whole lot of mileage on his arm. Although his performance will almost certainly decline as he approaches the final years of the contract, he should be a safe bet to produce consistently productive numbers from year to year.

DRB-What is your opinion of the Bengie Molina signing to be the starting catcher?

BBB-To me, the Blue Jays paid $5 million for someone who is very comparable to the much cheaper catcher they already had (Zaun).  However, considering Molina's great totals against left-handed pitching and Zaun's current injury situation, he certainly isn't a bad acquisition. Although the money could've been more efficiently, in my opinion, the added depth is warmly welcomed. Remember, last season, Ken Huckaby (34 OPS+) was the team's primary backup. Ugh.

DRB-One of the Jays' biggest moves of the offseason was the trade that sent Orlando Hudson to Arizona and brought home Troy Glaus and Sergio Santos. What was your opinion of this trade, was the prospect Santos and Glaus really worth someone as defensively astute as Hudson?

BBB-From what I've read, the Glaus trade is very well-regarded by most Blue Jays fans. But I'm a tad skeptical about it. With the addition of Glaus and the loss of Hudson, the infield defense looks to be made up of Glaus, Russ Adams, Aaron Hill, and Lyle Overbay. Overbay's defense is widely regarded as above average, while Hill performed very, very well defensively during his short time at second base last season. On the other hand, Glaus's defense is below average -- especially with respect to his throwing ability -- and Russ Adams was one of the worst defenders in all of baseball last season, according to almost every defensive metric.

One part of my brain says that Glaus will provide a lot of power to a lineup that didn't feature a single player who hit over thirty home runs last season; the other part of my brain says that the Blue Jays were already fifth in the AL in runs scored last season and traded away perhaps the best defender in all of baseball in Hudson. Again, there are a lot of potential risks and rewards, as well as a lot sleepless nights spent wondering (yes, I'm fully aware that I exhaust way too much energy worrying about this sort of stuff, haha).

DRB-While we are on the subject of the Jays' infielders, Lyle Overbay, Eric Hinske, Shea Hillendbrand, Troy Glaus all play corner infield positions. Was it really necessary to hoard up Overbay and Glaus?

BBB-Well, Hinske has no business holding down an everyday job. In 88 at-bats against left-handed pitchers last season, he posted a putrid line of .170/.215/.330. Against right-handed pitchers, on the other hand, he posted a much better line of .283/.358/.452 in 389 at-bats. If he can hold his own defensively, he should form a very productive right-field platoon with Alexis Rios.

Overbay's skills and past performance warrant his addition to the roster. Also, I don't think J.P. Ricciardi gave up all that much to acquire him. It was a very good deal, in my opinion.

The acquisition of Glaus was based solely on his offensive capabilities, since Corey Koskie is the superior defender. It would've been interesting to see how well an infield made up of Koskie, Hill, Hudson, and Overbay would fare compared to the team's current infield setup.

DRB-Speaking of Overbay, pro or con, the Dave Bush to Milwaukee trade?

BBB-Again, I'm very much in favour of it. Dave Bush and Zach Jackson are talented pitchers, but they both project to be end-of-the-rotation starters. Considering how many similar pitchers J.P. has stockpiled in the Blue Jays' farm system, that is certainly a fungible commodity. As for Gabe Gross, he's got some upside, but it was obvious that the team would never be able to accommodate him into its outfield. In the end, he projects to be a fourth outfielder -- someone with whom I'd gladly part in order to acquire Overbay.

DRB-Vernon Wells has been so great for Toronto in the past that he has made it so the year he had last year could be characterized as a disappointment. What are your hopes for a rebound, and how integral is he to the Jays' offense?

BBB-Well, looking at his stats, it seems like his marvelous 2003 was the exception rather than the rule. Consider his OPS+ totals since 2002: 100, 131, 103, and 104. One of those doesn't belong with the others. However, that's not to say he's not valuable. He's a good hitter who plays premium defense in CF, which is one of the most important defensive positions in the game.

DRB-There have been rumors on and off for many years that the Blue Jays will be leaving their only spring training home they've ever had, Dunedin and Grant Field. First off, have you ever been down to Dunedin for spring training, and if so, what is your opinion of the complex. Seeing as though the Jays just celebrated their 30th spring in Dunedin, is it really possible, with the recent renovations, that the Jays, who routinely finish last in Grapefruit League attendance, as do their Dunedin Blue Jays in FSL attendance, could leave Dunedin?

BBB-Sadly, I've never attended a game in Dunedin, but I'd love to visit Florida again someday (the last time I went was when I was nine). To be honest, I don't know much about that situation, so I wouldn't be able to shed much light on it. However, the poor attendance totals you mention surprise me, to be honest. They played very well last season and displayed many of the team's top prospects. But considering that those prospects will move to AAA and that the lower rungs of the farm system are somewhat lacking in talent, that could change in the near future.

DRB-Last question, I promise. If the Jays get off to a slow start, or end up the year with a disappointing record, say .500 or somewhere about there, does John Gibbons get the ax, and if so, who are your leading candidates to replace him?

BBB-He's under contract through 2007, so that may dissuade them from firing him early. I'm not certain who'd be the leading candidate, but Ernie Whitt, the manager of the Canadian team in the WBC, is someone to keep an eye out for in the not-so-distant future.

I think the Blue Jays, perhaps more than any other team, need to have a successful April. If not, the fans' enthusiasm may decline and many will turn on J.P., who has a lot riding on his offseason acquisitions.

Thanks again to Mark for answering my questions, he is a true friend of DRays Bay and we thank him for his insight into the team he blogs about. As a tribute, I even left in the British-Canadian spellings of words (favour)!

Photo Credits:
SkyDome: Web.Net
Burnett: CNNSI
Chacin, Gibbons:
Halladay-Morgan News