The recent trade of Matt Stairs to the Philadelphia Phillies was the first move by the Blue Jays' front office to indicate that the team has begun to look beyond another mediocre season in 2008. The unexpected trade freed up a roster spot for the team's highly touted prospect Travis Snider. Snider made his major league debut last night in the Bronx against Carl Pavano and the Yankees. He went 1 for 3 with a double and one run scored.
The team's purchase of Snider's contract prior to the roster expansion date of September 1st seems to imply that Cito Gaston will be playing him on a daily basis for the rest of the season. Travis Snider is not the most talented player in the outfield, but his potential power at the plate makes him an ideal candidate to be the team's future designated hitter. With regular playing time in September, it appears as though Gaston will be grooming the young slugger to fill this crucial role as early as next April. Since the promotion of Snider to the big league club ostensibly addresses the team's need for a fresh bat at the DH position, Ricciardi must now set his sights on the team's other weaknesses.
Despite the impending departure of A.J. Burnett, the Blue Jays starting rotation and bullpen will remain a strong point for the team in 2009. The Jays will most likely choose to fill the void left by Burnett internally, most likely with 26 year old lefty David Purcey. Purcey has had an up and down season this year to say the least, but he has shown great potential at times. If Purcey continues to develop his control in the offseason and into spring training, he will most likely start 2009 in the fourth spot of the rotation, ahead of Jesse Litsch. Dustin McGowan will be ready for spring training, and Jays fans shouldn't expect Shaun Marcum to start the year in Syracuse. Of course, Roy Halladay will be the ace of the staff as he is at the peak of his career. With these factors taken into consideration, Blue Jays fans can expect the starting rotation on opening day to be as follows:
1) Roy Halladay; 2) Shaun Marcum; 3) Dustin McGowan; 4) David Purcey; 5) Jesse Litsch
The Jays bullpen will also remain a strong point next season. One potential move that the Jays might consider is dealing B.J. Ryan to a team in need of a closer. Such a move would allow the better of the two closers-in-waiting Brandon League and Jeremy Accardo to take over closing duties full-time. Accardo would be the most obvious choice if he is able to bounce back from his season ending forearm injury. Casey Janssen might start the season as a middle reliever, but if he is able to bounce back from his torn labrum, he may work his way into the starting rotation by the All Star break, making Purcey or Litsch expendable. Expect Shawn Camp, Jesse Carlson, Scott Downs, Jason Frasor, and Brian Tallet to fight it out for middle reliever positions.
Like the pitching staff, the outfield should be a strength for the Jays in 2009. Both Alex Rios and Vernon Wells should be expected to bounce back from subpar seasons. Blue Jays fans should expect Adam Lind to be the starting left fielder straight out of spring training. Lind, Rios and Wells will be backed up by Travis Snider and utility man Joe Inglett, who has proven his worth this season as a major league player.
While the pitching staff and outfield will remain fairly strong for the Jays in '09, Ricciardi or his replacement must make some serious moves to improve the infield if this team is going to compete in the AL East next season. Scott Rolen remains a question mark at thirdbase, but if he falters again in 2009, look for Marco Scutaro to take over at the hot corner.
As always, there remains a huge gap at shortstop. Unless the Jays are able to pick up a big bat in the off-season, John McDonald can not be the everyday shortstop for this team. If by some miracle, the Jays are able to land a bat like Mark Teixeira than the team may have the power to compensate for Johnny Mac's poor hitting. Otherwise, look for the Jays to deal for a short stop the likes of Stephen Drew, Jhonny Peralta, or J.J. Hardy. Of course, the Jays would have to give up some decent assets for either of these players. Scott Rolen, Lyle Overbay, B.J. Ryan, Gregg Zaun may be attractive to other teams and could be included in a package with prospects to land that much needed hitting shortstop. Don't look for the Jays to acquire a short stop through free agency. The Jays will not overpay for Rafael Furcal, Orlando Cabrera, or another player of their caliber. Such a move would not fill the void at short that has plagued the Jays in recent years.
If he is able to shake his post concussion symptoms, Aaron Hill will return as the Jays' starting second baseman. Look for him to be backed up by Joe Inglett and John McDonald.
After a subpar season, Lyle Overbay becomes expendable at firstbase. The Jays may consider off loading him in a package deal for a shortstop. If the Jays want to contend, they have to make a serious run for Mark Teixeira. They must land a big bat that can protect the hitters in front of him. The money can be found to make such signing by trading players the likes of Ryan, Rolen and Overbay. Also, Ted Rogers has deep pockets, and he will have to spend some of that money if this team is going to return to early nineties glory. Remember where the Jays ranked in payroll when they won their back-to-back championships?
Expect the team to pick up their option on Rod Barajas. Barajas established himself as the number one catcher this season, and Gregg Zaun isn't happy about it. Don't be surprised to see Zaun go and replaced by Curtis Thigpen until J.P. Arencibia is ready for his MLB debut, which probably won't be for another season or so.
Overall, for any significant changes to take place with the Toronto Blue Jays, Ricciardi or whomever his replacement might be must be given the money and authority to go after an elite player who hits for both power and average (eg. Mark Teixeira). The way this team is built, they will not be successful unless there is a plausible offensive force in the lineup to protect players like Rios and Wells. If they are unable to land that big bat through either trade or free agency, they must at least land a shortstop who can hit for power. If they go into next season without either of these areas addressed, Jays fans can expect another mediocre year of around .500 baseball, which has been the defining characteristic of this team since the lockout of the mid-nineties.