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Previewing the Blue Jays with Bluebird Banter

This is it people, tonight is opening night for our Twins! Series number one is in Toronto, and with a preview of the Jays and their off-season we have Tom and Hugo from Bluebird Banter. Thanks to both of the guys for answering my questions (it makes for good compare-contrast), and enjoy!

Jose Bautista's 5-year, $60-million dollar deal was, I think, the number one thing on everyone's mind this winter in regards to the Blue Jays. Bautista is a talented guy, but with his breakout season coming at 29 the Jays were in a precarious position in terms of how many years and dollars they could commit to him. How do you feel the Jays did in locking Bautista up?

TOM: I pretty much guessed Jose would get about $13 million a year but I was expecting a 3 year contract. I didn’t think the Jays would want to go any longer than that, and I’m sure they didn’t want to go longer, but you do have to offer something that the player will sign. I’m pretty ok with the contract, It isn’t like they are paying him so much money that he has to hit 56 home runs each year to give us value for our money, if he gives us 20 to 35 homers each year and keeps getting on base at a decent rate we will be getting good value for our money.

It was funny, as soon as the contract was signed the ‘experts’ were saying it was too much money for a guy that only had one good season but, after a couple of days, the stories turned more to ‘it is a risk but a reasonable risk’.

Sure he might implode. Yes, he has only had one good season, but he made fundamental changes to his swing back in September of 2009 and hit 9 home runs that month and then carried it into 2010. He knows how to take a walk, he took 100 last year. His batting average was a bit low last year, .260, but he did have some bad luck on ball in play, with a .233 BABIP after a .275 number the year before. The guy swings hard and hits the ball a long way, this isn’t a guy who got lucky and had a few balls scrap the fence on the way over. He had the longest average distance on home runs balls in baseball. And he is a good guy, liked by his teammates and a good role model for the other Latin American players, if that matters to you.

The safe thing for GM Alex Anthopoulos to do would have been to wait out this year and then try to sign him. But if he has another good season, his asking price would have been a lot more and maybe we wouldn’t have been able to afford him.

HUGO: I'm really of two minds about it. I have to admit, it's not a move I would've made, myself. It seems like a big risk for a mid-market team to commit so much money to a player who's only had one good season, no matter how great it was. On the other hand, the deal is reasonable enough that Bautista doesn't have to replicate his 2010 for it to be a worthwhile move for the Jays, and with the Jays able to move Vernon Wells' contract there isn't much guaranteed money on the books going forward. That said, I do wonder whether the Jays will wish in a few years that they had the money to spend on their crop of young talent, which will be getting expensive by then.

How the hell did you convince the Angels to take Vernon Wells and his terrible contract off your hands?

Answers and more questions afer the jump!

TOM: Our GM is going to be touring with David Copperfield this year. "So what, you can make an elephant disappear, I can make the worst contract in baseball disappear." I don’t know how he did it with a straight face. If I was GM and, as reported, the Angel’s GM came to me and said ‘I want Vernon Wells’, I’d have turned into Daffy Duck and done 10 minutes of WHOO-WHOOs, before, grudgingly accepting his offer, whatever it was.

HUGO: Great question. That move has really convinced Jays fans that Alex Anthopolous is a wizard. While Defense Against the Dark Arts would certainly come in handy in the AL East (particularly now that MLB has that Potions-testing program), I'm more inclined to think it was the Angels overreacting a bit to missing out on Crawford. I was a big Wells fan and I'll miss the player, but certainly not that awful contract.

The Jays flipped Mike Napoli pretty quickly, no doubt J.P. Arencibia's minor league track record (.275/.319/.507) made that a pretty easy decision for them. What can we realistically expect to see from Arencibia this season?

TOM: They told J.P., going into camp, to just worry about the defensive side of things, at least at first and seemingly he did, he hit almost nothing this spring. He is a streak hitter, I think if he gives us a .250/.300/.450 line with 20 or so home runs, we’ll be happy. He looked pretty good, to me, behind the plate, but then I only saw a week’s worth of spring games. It is funny, he came up last year, when catcher John Buck was hurt, and his first game, first pitch, he hits a home run. Next at bat another homer, later a double. His reward from Manager Cito Gaston was a nice spot on the bench to watch games the rest of his time up with the team.

HUGO: I don't think the Jays saw Napoli as a realistic option behind the plate. I haven't seen enough of him there to opine on that, but presumably the Jays have. I'm a little bearish on Arencibia for this season. I think he'll have his ups and downs, and will have his hands full catching a young pitching staff in a very tough division for pitchers. His approach has improved but I'd still bank on a .245/.290/.400 type line. The good news for the Jays, but bad news for Arencibia, is that they have a lot of good looking young catchers coming up through the system. While there's no one near ready to step in this season, the Jays will certainly be looking to see how he progresses as the season goes on.

Contributions from Travis Snider and Adam Lind could help give the make the middle of the lineup a threat. Is Lind capable of repeating 2009's production, and what does Snider need to do to become the offensive force his minor league numbers imply he can be?

TOM: I am a huge Travis Snider fan. I am wearing my Travis Snider shirt right at this moment (which likely means he should pack his bags, my last two Jays jerseys read Halladay and Wells). I think he’ll be fine. People forget that he is still just 23 because we have been talking about him for so long. I don’t think he was a favorite of former manager Cito Gaston’s and I think he likely was pressing a lot of the time because if he had a bad game he’d be on the bench for a bit. He has had some injury troubles, but I think getting to play everyday and not having to worry about being shipped to Triple-A if he has a bad week will help him.

Lind, I think, got a little pull happy last year. He’s had a really good spring. I’m not sure he’ll get to the 35 home runs and .305/.370/.562 line of 2009, but I’d be happy if he went back to going with the pitch and hitting doubles the way he can. I also think it is good that he will be playing first base this year. I think DH is a tough spot for a young hitter. Start the game with a bad at bat and all you can do is sit and think about it for a couple of innings. I saw him play first this spring, and he look pretty good at the position. He has the nicest looking swing. I have a hard time thinking that a swing that looks that perfect wouldn’t give good results.

HUGO: Count me as one who has Lind chalked up for a big bounce-back year. I am concerned about his complete inability to hit lefty pitching last season (an epically bad .117/.159/.182 line over 145 soul-crushing plate appearances) but he was fine against lefties in 2009 and he's too good a hitter not to bounce back. The Jays think playing in the field everyday will help Lind's focus at the plate and I've heard they're extremely happy with his play at first base, a position he played in college. As for Snider, he's a line-drive machine (24.3% LD% last season, 22% over his short major league career) and has shown a lot of power (.191 ISO) but really needs to improve his approach. Cutting down a lot on his strikeout rate last season was the first step, but now he needs to get back near the walk rates that he had in the minors. Swinging at one-third of all pitches outside the strike zone, as Snider did last season, isn't going to cut it. Still, he's just 23 and I think this will be a breakout season for him.

Now that you're a full year post-Roy Halladay, who is Toronto's #1 pitcher? I'd guess Ricky Romero, but I know Kyle Drabek is highly rated.

TOM: Yeah Ricky is number one at the moment. He is a very serious, very driven young man. I talked to him for a moment this winter and he said how important it was to continue to improve, to keep learning and keep working to be the best he can be.

That said, I think Brandon Morrow is the most talented of our starters and could become something very special. Morrow is starting the season on the DL with a ‘we have too many pitchers without options and we have to limit Morrow’s innings anyway, let’s look at the other guys’ injury. He might miss two or three starts but he would have been shut down at the end of the season anyway. Morrow throws hard and all his pitches move, sometimes out of the strike zone.

Kyle Drabek looks great, has a terrific curve and a good fastball, but he is making the jump from Double-A and I think it would be asking a little much for him to step up and be the number one starter this year. I think he’ll be good but I wouldn’t be surprised if he has the odd game where he is hit hard. Hopefully not Saturday though.

HUGO: I actually think at least a plurality of Jays fans would pick neither of those, but Brandon Morrow. While I might argue that they're a little over-enamoured with Morrow's filthy stuff, it's hard to ignore the incredible 10.95 K/9 he posted (tops among major-league starters, though he was a few innings short of qualification) and big decline in his walk rate (just 4.06 last season). I am a bit concerned about Morrow's ability to stay healthy, though, particularly in light of his having made the switch from reliever to starter last season. I'd go with Romero, of whom I've always been a big fan, even in the dark days when he was mainly a punchline at then-GM J.P. Ricciardi's expense. I do agree that Drabek is highly regarded, though, and I'm a fan myself.

Toronto's bullpen, a lot like Minnesota's actually, lost a number of their big-name, high-performance bullpen arms over the winter. The good news is that now, you've got one of ours in Jon Rauch. (He won't shank you, he just looks like he will...he's actually a really nice guy.) Is the bullpen the Jays' biggest weakness this season?

TOM: The Jays let last year’s closer, Kevin Gregg (who wasn’t a fan favorite) and terrific lefty Scott Downs leave as free agents and said ‘thank you very much’ for the draft picks. As well Brian Tallet, who was awful last year, was shown the door. During the off season our GM seemed to be collecting as many right handed relievers as he could find, figuring, I guess, that there was going to be a shortage. We signed Jon Rauch (thank you) who will start the season as the closer and Octavio Dotel (who will start the season on the DL) as free agents and traded for Frank Francisco (who also will start on the DL but should be back with the team quick and will take over as closer) and Carlos Villanueva, who had a great spring. Hold overs Jason Frasor (who as a Type-A free agent, couldn’t get offers this winter), Shawn Camp and Jesse Litsch as right handers in the pen. So from the right side I think we are stronger than last year.

Lefties in the pen, to start the season, are David Purcey, who couldn’t find the strike zone with a compass this spring and Marc Rzepczynski (Scrabble for us who are spelling challenged) who is being transitioned from starter to a reliever. Marc looked pretty good in the role this spring but we were a lot better off with Scott Down from the left side last year.

All-in-all I think it is a pretty strong and deep bullpen.

HUGO: Good question, and it's hard to say because there are so many new faces. With Frank Francisco and Octavio Dotel on the shelf, it looks like closing duties will fall to Rauch for now. Jason Frasor, Shawn Camp, and Casey Janssen have been doing a nice job from the right side in Toronto's pen for a few seasons now and that's like to continue. Lefty David Purcey has made the switch from starting pitching prospect to bullpen arm, but his control was erratic this spring and he won't have a job for long unless he throws strikes. Carlos Villanueva looked very sharp this spring, and then converted lefty starter Marc Rzepczynski will round things out. I'm not all that worried about the bullpen, but I do think there will be a few ripples as people settle into new roles.