2004 Toronto Blue Jays Preview - Part Two

Thursday, March 25 2004 @ 10:15 AM EST

Contributed by: Coach

Yesterday in Part One, I reviewed 2003 and gave the organization two thumbs up. Tomorrow, don't miss Part Three, Jordan's look at the system's best prospects. Now, let's meet your 2004 Fighting Jays.

Here's where I could have done some research, crunched the ZiPS numbers, factored PECOTA and invented a longevity quotient. It's more fun for me to rely on my eyes and my baseball instincts. However, I have refined my tried-and-true WAG (wild-ass guess) method you know, the nonsensical approach that appraised Doc at 22-7 last March and foolishly predicted a career year for a 37-year-old backup catcher into the COACH system, an acronym for Completely Optimistic, Analysis-free hunCH.

Don't laugh; I use the same unscientific style in fantasy ball, where I'm usually a contender and have won a league or two. I've loved baseball stats for more than 40 years, and Bill James and his disciples have greatly increased my understanding and even appreciation of the game, but I'm also from the Stengel-Berra school if you know where to look, you still can observe a lot by watching.

25-Man Roster

Unless otherwise specified, ESPN three-year platoon splits are used, from the majors only; AB in parentheses. Instead of listing the starters, bench, rotation and bullpen, I'm counting down the likely roster from twenty-fifth to first, in order of their importance to the team. "Important," in this context, is a combination of the expected 2004 role for each player, how easy it would be to replace him in the event of disappointing performance or injury, and what he might bring to the Jays in 2005 and beyond. In other words, it's a completely arbitrary ranking.

25Simon PondUTIL Age: 26Bats: L AAA in 2003: .306/.353/.460 (248) / AA: .338/.440/.513 (228)

The determined Pond, attending his first big-league camp in his tenth year as a pro, has made the most of the opportunity. He's even earned the affectionate nickname, "Bamm-Bamm Rubble," from the GM. The B.C. native made dramatic progress in 2002, his first year in the Jays organization. He was a bit old for the FSL, so nobody really took notice. He destroyed AA last year, earning a promotion to AAA, where he became the Syracuse MVP in half a season. Pond has followed that up with a very good winter in Puerto Rico and an outstanding spring.

His value to the Jays includes public relations it can't hurt in Toronto to have a Canadian player, and TV ratings should go up on the west coast but even if he makes the club, he'll be the most replaceable man on the roster. If Pond was a good defender at any position, he would get more at-bats; he's primarily a pinch-hitter who can DH or play a few innings at the various corner spots. If something unfortunate were to happen to Eric Hinske, Simon would be one of the prime candidates to fill in at third, and could make a more significant contribution.

Pond, whose teammates call him "lumberjack" among other things, could actually be more valuable to his country this year than to his employer, but as he told Richard Griffin last week, he'd much rather play in the big leagues than the Olympics. You can't blame him he's been consistently ignored by national team selectors. While the door to the majors has finally cracked open, it may not stay that way for long. By 2005, some of the younger options in the farm system, like John-Ford Griffin, may be ready to challenge for Simon's job.

Actually, it isn't his job just yet. Still competing in Florida and deserving of the 25th spot is Howie Clark, who has a better glove than Pond, plays one more position (second base) and has already hit .302 and .357 in parts of two seasons in the majors. The Jays might also break camp with 12 pitchers. Justin Miller appears to be fully recovered and has looked good in Florida; perhaps the best solution, if it's within the rules, would be to start him on the DL he is returning from surgery and work him up from Dunedin to Syracuse on rehab assignments. Why rush him? Bob File seems to be all the way back from the surgery he had on his collarbone; he might also benefit from taking it slowly, and I don't remember him being in the Ligtenberg-Adams class when he was 100%. Vinny Chulk has also looked good in the Grapefruit League. The decision to go with just four bench players and a dozen pitchers, one I generally disagree with, often depends on the time of year, the upcoming schedule and the health of the other eleven arms. Maybe later, I won't complain.

For now, I've been touting the Canadian-bred rookie all spring, and I'll never apologize for letting my heart overrule my brain. Welcome to the Show, Simon!

COACH 2004 Forecast: 140 AB, .285/.355/.470

24Jayson WerthOFAge: 25Bats: R AAA in 2003: .236/.285/.420 (236) / AL: .208/.255/.417 (48)

There's a widely-held belief that Jayson is merely keeping a spot warm for Gabe Gross or Alex Rios, and his Toronto days are numbered. Some have speculated that the main reason he'll go north with the team is because he's out of options. Even if it's his last chance with this organization, he's still trying to prove himself to others. If he makes a positive contribution for a month or two, Werth may have more trade value than Pond, because he's younger and a former #1 draft pick with better "tools."

Jayson's had some tough luck with untimely injuries, particularly last spring. He can't expect regular at-bats because he hasn't hit enough to earn them; he has some power, especially against lefty pitching, but is prone to striking out. It's the fourth outfielder's conundrum; if he did play every day, perhaps he'd improve at the plate. A terrific athlete, Werth can contribute as a late-inning defensive replacement for Catalanotto, and provides flexibility as the third catcher. Obviously, his value goes up, at least temporarily, if any of the outfield regulars gets hurt.

It's also possible that Jay will be the odd Jay out. Pond could make the team as the fourth outfielder, with Clark or a 12th pitcher becoming the 25th man. Rumours are currently floating that the Mets or Dodgers might be interested, so a Werth trade before they break camp would not come as a huge surprise. It seems inevitable that Jayson will be moving on; let's hope he brings something decent in return.

We're going to have to get used to this. One of the direct results of a well-stocked farm system is that talented players will be leaving every year, because there isn't room for everyone. Reed Johnson came from out of nowhere last year to pass Werth on the depth chart, and the AAA phenoms are closing in. Jayson's window is closing fast.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 40 AB, .240/.300/.430

23 Chris Gomez IF Age: 33Bats: R v R .274/.314/.418 (720) v L .217/.244/.327 (217)

The Jays made overtures to free agent shortstop Rich Aurilia, who presumably would have taken the starting job from Chris Woodward. When Aurilia chose Seattle, Gomez became the affordable alternative, a $750,000 insurance policy in case Woody falters. Chris won't be the bargain Mike Bordick was in 2003, and he's not as brilliant defensively, but that's an unfair comparison. Perhaps because of his relationship with J.P., Bordick accepted a contract for a fraction of his value, and there's simply no way to replace him in this price range.

Gomez, a teammate of Jason Giambi on the 1991 College World Series team at Long Beach State, reached the majors two years later with the Tigers, then was traded to San Diego in 1996. He became the regular shortstop for the Padres, signing a three-year contract for almost $8 million, and played in the 1998 World Series. Knee problems, eventually requiring three surgeries, limited him to just 76 games in 1999 and a mere 54 at-bats in 2000. He was released in 2001, catching on with Tampa Bay, for whom he hit 18 home runs in a season and a half. Last year, as a utility infielder for the Twins, he didn't provide a lot of offence in 175 AB, but made a significant contribution by playing 3B when Corey Koskie was hurt, as well as filling in at second and short.

Gomez will instantly become much more important to the 2004 Jays if starter Chris Woodward can't hang on to the everyday job. In any event, he'll get a few starts when Woody deals with the inevitable aches and pains and takes a day off. With Jorge Sequea, Russ Adams and Aaron Hill not too far away, it's likely that Chris will be moving on I hope he enjoys his time in Toronto, and spends most of it on the bench.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 105 AB, .255/.315/.350

22 Dave Berg UTIL Age: 33Bats: R v R .256/.308/.372 (508) v L .264/.310/.384 (242)

His three-year numbers don't suggest much of a platoon split, but last season, Berg's OPS was an anemic .506 vs. righties and a robust .859 off southpaws. If Orlando Hudson continues to have problems trying to hit lefthanders, Dave will get more playing time. Otherwise, he's a jack of all trades the sixth infielder, fifth outfielder and occasional pinch-hitter.

A 38th round pick in the 1993 draft, Berg finished in the top ten in hitting in the Eastern League in 1996 and the International League in 1997, finally making it to the Show in 1998. After three more seasons as a part-time player with the Marlins, he came to Toronto in 2002, where he started games at seven different positions: everywhere in the infield, both corner outfield spots and DH. It's stretching it a bit to call Dave a shortstop; he's third on that depth chart behind a couple of guys named Chris.

The doctors never really solved his mystery illness in 2003, when he would become dizzy and fatigued after a few minutes of practice. Let's hope it doesn't recur, but if it does, Dave can go on the DL and the Jays could either give Gomez more work or take a good look at Jorge Sequea. As long as he's OK, Bergie, a "character" who helps keep the clubhouse loose, should be a capable bench player who gets a few starts at second base. He'll probably have to catch on somewhere else in 2005, as a half dozen (or more) Jays rookies will warrant strong consideration for roster spots next spring.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 120 AB, .270/.325/.415

21 Valerio de los Santos LH Age: 31 v R .218/.312/.383 (266) v L .242/.315/.331 (124)

A healthy de los Santos should be more valuable than LOOGY Trever Miller was last year. Miller probably could have returned, but wasn't on the same page as the Jays with his salary expectations. They are paying a bit more ($850,000) for de los Santos, on the theory that he's a harder thrower, at least as tough against lefty batters, and considerably better vs. righthanded hitters. In 189 big-league appearances, Valerio has a respectable 1.32 WHIP vs. RHB, compared to a woeful career WHIP of 1.79 for Miller against righties.

A one-time phenom in the Brewers organization, rated their top prospect in 1998 by Baseball America, de los Santos missed most of 1999 after a back operation. Tommy John surgery cost him the entire year in 2001 (he pitched just one inning) and he began 2002 on a rehab assignment, eventually returning to the Brewers in mid-May. Because he was arbitration-eligible, cost-conscious Milwaukee traded him to the Phillies late last season.

Valerio throws mostly low-nineties fastballs and splitters. A tender shoulder early in camp and some individual attention from pitching coach Gil Patterson temporarily delayed his Grapefruit League debut, but he's since looked sharp in four outings.

It won't be long before the young arms in the Jays' farm system are ready for prime time. There won't be room for all of them in the rotation, so the need for free agent help in the bullpen will diminish. For now, the one-year free agent stopgaps are necessary, and we wish de los Santos all the best in his effort to earn a bigger paycheque next season, wherever that may be.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 65 IP, 3-4, 4.40 ERA

20 Josh Towers RH Age: 27 v R .282/.296/.498 (482) v L .312/.347/.541 (443)

Josh's career stalled in the Baltimore organization, only to be resurrected last year, when the Jays signed him as a minor-league free agent. They let him work in the Syracuse rotation, calling him up for good in August. His complete game against the Mariners that month was one of the more emotional nights of the year at the Dome. Though it wasn't the biggest crowd, it fed off the pitcher's obvious excitement; I certainly felt more than just a beer buzz. We stood and screamed our delight when Towers struck out Mike Cameron to end the game, then rushed off the mound to embrace his "awesome" personal catcher Kevin Cash, for whom he has nothing but superlatives.

"Cash is phenomenal, man. He really sets up great."

A refreshingly candid, outspoken player, Towers knows his job depends on throwing strikes. That's what he did in September, going 4-0 with a 3.06 ERA to earn himself a job this spring. Because he doesn't have overpowering stuff, and he's always near the plate, Josh does give up some well-hit balls, but the Jays can live with a few solo homers if he continues to have a K/BB ratio like last year's 6:1 (42 K, 7 BB in 64.1 IP). Fun fact: Towers has never walked more than two batters in a major league game.

It was very hard to decide where Josh belongs on this list. He won't be needed at all for the first couple of weeks, but he could get off on the right foot against Baltimore he still carries a grudge against the O's and go on to have a great year, in which case he'll be more "important" than most of the relievers. On the other hand, he could become a victim of the numbers game, lose his spot to Justin Miller (who has no options left) and spend much of the year in Syracuse. I really like Towers, but he is replaceable the most likely starter to be bumped when one of the prospects is deemed ready for promotion. His future might be in the Toronto bullpen, or in another organization.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 100 IP, 5-4, 4.50 ERA

19 Greg Myers CAge: 38 Bats: L v R .263/.354/.465 (548) v L .291/.333/.430 (86)

Many Jays fans share my admiration for Crash, and are pleased that he's making a farewell tour. Greg, who turns 38 April 13, has discussed retirement already; in fact, he was expecting 2003 to be his last season, but had so much fun, he came back for one more year. Before his body started to show the signs of wear and tear, that first half was truly incredible: a .343 average, .428 OBP and .561 SLG in 198 AB, with 10 homers. The hope now is that by limiting him to one or two starts per week behind the plate, Greg will stay sharp all season.

Last year's astonishing results have been written off as a fluke in many quarters, especially where the contributions of hitting coach Mike Barnett are overlooked or ignored. The truth is, Myers completely reinvented himself as a hitter, embracing the middle-out approach. That was obvious to me in 2003 spring training, when I made the outlandish predictions he not only met, but surpassed. I'm certainly not going to assume he can match last year's numbers the very definition of "career year" but he'll be a lot closer to them than to his previous levels.

Myers would rank much higher on this list if there was even the slightest possibility he'd be back next year, or if there wasn't a potential future all-star waiting in the wings in Syracuse. If the Jays are in the race, he'll be an asset down the stretch. If not, or if Guillermo Quiroz is destroying AAA pitching, Crash could be traded to a contender; it's not hard to envision something happening with the Dodgers or A's. If you're a fantasy owner trying to guess when Crash will catch or DH, start him against hard-throwing righthanders.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 195 AB, .285/.340/.460

18 Terry Adams RH Age: 31 v R .279/.333/.382 (785) v L .242/.316/.326 (631)

Check out that platoon split. Adams is actually tougher on lefties than on righthanded batters, which might mean fewer mid-inning pitching changes this year. Terry had his "500 game tuneup," minor elbow surgery, after last season, but so far in spring training, his arm appears to be fine. The six earned runs he gave up the other day are no cause for alarm; both the pitcher and the manager dismissed it as just one of "those" spring innings.

A 4th round pick of the Cubs in the 1991 draft, Adams made the Show in 1995 and stuck in 1996. After stints as the Cubs closer in 1997 and 1999, he was traded to the Dodgers. He pitched 84 innings, all out of the bullpen, for L.A. in 2000, then in 2001, made 22 starts in addition to 21 relief appearances, for a career high 166.1 IP. Signed by the Phillies as a free agent, he was again used as a swing man, making 19 starts in 2002; he also won both ends of a doubleheader that year, which is a good day's work. Last year, exclusively in relief, Adams had a career-best 2.65 ERA in 68 IP.

The Jays signed him to a one-year deal for $1.7 million; the Box-proposed, Wilner-confirmed nickname "Patch" is supposed to refer to him getting the team from the starter to the closer, but it has a long-term connotation as well. Adams is another veteran pitching for his next contract there's a very good chance his role will be filled by one of the young guns in 2005.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 70 IP, 6-3, 3.70 ERA

17 Jason Kershner LH Age: 27 v R .231/.306/.356 (160) v L .202/.278/.326 (129)

Kershner was a bargain pickup by the Jays in 2002 when he was put on waivers by the Padres. Now he's one of just four pitchers from the 2003 Jays to return this year, mostly because he limited lefthanded batters to a .178 average and a .493 OPS. Jason's a stringbean, listed at 6' 2" and just 165 pounds; as you might expect, he's not overpowering, but relies on an assortment of pitches, including a screwball, and precise control. He's pitched particularly well when rested, but is capable of working on consecutive days if needed.

Until the Jays' brain trust knows exactly what they have in de los Santos, it's too soon to know exactly how the southpaw relievers will be used. Kershner's importance to the Jays could actually increase if he doesn't end up as the so-called #1 southpaw in the bullpen. It's not that he can't get a lefty batter out under late-inning pressure, more that he was so effective in long stints, earlier in games.

After a couple of limo rides on the Syracuse shuttle, Jason stuck with the Jays for the final three months. He pitched 99.2 innings combined, and had a 9-4 record. He has a chance to pick up several more wins this year if he's used the same way to keep his team in games when the starter's had a rough night, until the potent Blue Jays bats wake up. If he simply repeats what he did last year, he'll be back to do it again in 2005.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 90 IP, 7-4, 3.95 ERA

16 Kerry Ligtenberg RH Age: 33 v R .211/.248/.333 (421) v L .268/.391/.419 (272)

What in the world were the Orioles' GMs thinking when they declined Ligtenberg's $1.2 million option for 2004? The Jays, not known for overspending, thought he was worth twice as much, for twice as long. Kerry's signing in December inspired 160 comments in a Batter's Box thread; fans were starving for any improvement in the bullpen. Since then, there has been even more good news on that front.

A starter as a Minnesota Golden Gopher he has a degree in chemical engineering Ligtenberg was undrafted and pitched two seasons for the independent Minneapolis Loons before turning pro. He's been making up for lost time ever since, with an ERA+ between 129 and 156 in each of his six seasons.

Kerry neutralizes righthanded hitters (35 K, 3 BB in 2003) but was somewhat prone to the long ball last year, and hasn't fared well against lefties. On a two-year deal, for $4.5 million, he's paid more than the other relievers, yet isn't in the closer mix. He does have ninth-inning experience; back in 1998, took over for Mark Wohlers as the Braves' closer, and racked up 30 saves in 34 chances. The next spring, he needed elbow surgery.

Since returning in 2000, Ligtenberg has been a highly effective setup man in Atlanta and Baltimore, and should continue that role as a Fighting Jay this year and next. He'll face a lot of tough righthanded batters in key situations, losing a few battles but winning his fair share.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 65 IP, 2-4, 3.80 ERA

15 Frank Catalanotto LF Age: 30Bats: L v R .315/.376/.492 (1024) v L .236/.323/.343 (140)

Cat would be rated considerably higher on this list if there was a chance of him being around longer. On a one-year deal for $2.2 million, he will be testing the free agent waters again next winter. Frank, who turns 30 on April 27, will be a key component of the 2004 lineup, batting second most days ahead of the heavy lumber. It's possible that he'll be traded before the deadline, especially if Gross and/or Rios are tearing up AAA. If he's having a good year, he'll be an attractive second-half rental for most playoff contenders.

A tenth round pick of the Tigers in 1992, Cat was still in AA when he was selected by the Oakland A's in the 1996 Rule 5 draft, presumably on superscout J.P. Ricciardi's recommendation. Returned to Detroit for the '97 campaign, Frank hit .300 with 16 HR in Toledo and earned his first big-league callup. Even then, the former second baseman was something of a man without a position, and never seemed to get a sustained opportunity. Traded to Texas in 2000, Cat hit .330 and the following year, fifth best in the AL. Various aches and pains, including a pulled groin, sore lower back and broken hand, limited Cat to just 68 games in 2002, so the Rangers allowed him to leave as a free agent.

In his first campaign as a Blue Jay, Catalanotto equalled his career high with 133 games played, and set new personal bests in runs, doubles, homers and RBI. His vision problems took some of the luster off what could have been another sensational season; there's no way he should have finished with a .299 average. In April, he hit .345, and took a 10-game hit streak into mid-May. It became obvious to me that something was wrong in June (.275) and it got worse in July (.227) until he finally took time off to visit his optometrist. There have been incorrect reports that he was fitted for new contacts; it was actually prescription eye drops that did the trick. Cat admitted later that he had been having trouble picking up the spin on the ball, which explained why he'd been putting so many fastball swings over the top of breaking pitches. In August, he hit .412 and walked more often than he struck out, for a nifty .508 OBP.

One of my favourite hitters, Cat epitomizes the Mike Barnett principle of controlling the strike zone up and away and reacting from there. This has the happy consequence of "accelerating" the bat head when the pitch is off-speed, which is the only time you'll see Frank pull the ball, and resulted in almost all of his career-high 13 homers last season.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 350 AB, .325/.375/.460

14 Reed Johnson OF Age: 27 v R .279/.348/.383 (290) v L .328/.366/.533 (122)

Those splits are from 2003 only, and 122 AB is far too soon to call him a lefty masher, but Johnson has a lot of pop for a little guy. A relative unknown who had missed most of the 2002 season with injuries and had amassed just 159 undistinguished AB in AAA, Reed was called up from the minor-league camp with a week to go in spring training last March, when none of the more experienced non-roster invitees had staked a claim on the fourth outfielder's job. He made an immediate impression, as the kind of hustling "dirtbag" the blue-collar Jays appreciate.

Johnson walked just 20 times, but had a .353 OBP, reaching first another 20 times when hit by a pitch. How impressive is that willingness to take one for the team? Well, it led the club, it's a new Blue Jays rookie record, and Jason Giambi, in 233 more plate appearances, topped the AL with one more HBP. In August, just about the time some people thought he was wearing down, Sparky went on a 20-game hit streak. There's no way he'll get complacent or change his game; he only knows one speed full throttle.

In only 114 games, Reed had 10 bunt singles last season, tied for third in the American League and seventh in the majors. It's another specialty, one Johnson practices constantly. Several times, he executed perfect push bunts, just hard enough to get past the pitcher, drawing both the first baseman and second baseman to the ball and leaving the bag completely unattended.

Reed's long-term value to the Jays is probably as a fourth outfielder or as part of a trade. His range is stretched a bit by CF, but he's above average in either corner, and throws well. Until dislodged by Gross or Rios, he's an everyday starter, making him very important to the club's 2004 hopes. If the Sparkplug continues to reach base and set the table for the big RBI men, the offensive machine will stay in high gear.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 350 AB, .285/.355/.440

13 Kevin Cash CAge: 26 Bats: R 2003 AAA: .270/.331/.442 (326) AL: .142/.181/.192 (106)

It was no surprise that Kevin had trouble adjusting to American League pitching. In a Batter's Box interview, John Sickels agreed that it's been a pattern throughout his development.

Cash tends to struggle at first, then make some adjustments. In his case, I'm not sure he'll ever be more than an adequate offensive player. But given his glove, that's OK. At the least, he'll have a Kelly Stinnett-like tenure in the Show, and he might be able to get beyond that.

In his first try at AAA, Cash hit .220; a year later, after another very slow start, he improved that to .270. His .142 in the majors can only get better, and he's been working toward that goal all winter.

"That's all I did in the off-season hit hit hit," he told Rosie DiManno of the Star. "Have to go more up the middle because I'm a little pull-happy."

Mike Barnett recently told Spencer Fordin of MLB.com that Cash had "put on a clinic" off the breaking-ball machine.

"Everything's coming into place, and he feels real good about it," said the hitting coach. "It's a credit to him. After going out there and spending all that time, he wants to come back and hit for a half hour. To me, that's what's going to get him over the hump."

Defensively, Cash helps shut down the running game. He nailed the swift Carl Crawford in consecutive games last year, and Tosca has encouraged him to make snap throws to both first and third base to keep runners honest. The converted third baseman threw out 55% of runners in both the Sally League and the FSL; his career minor league number is over 50% 159 out of 313 attempts.

Kevin's value to the 2004 Jays might be minimal if he struggles too much with the bat, he could even be sent down, with Quiroz given a chance to replace him but I believe he will eventually become an adequate hitter, and his superb defensive skills will be important as the #1 backstop this season, and as #2 for the next few years.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 330 AB, .215/.280/.375

12 Justin Speier RH Age: 30 v R .233/.302/.421 (489) v L .255/.310/.434 (318)

Another very nice offseason acquisition, as the Jays' brass flew below the "big name" radar. When Tim Worrell spurned Toronto for the Phillies, Ricciardi wasted no time trading Mark Hendrickson and Sandy Nin to get Speier from the Rockies, then agreed on a one-year deal for $1.6 million. Justin will be arbitration-eligible again next winter, so we don't know what will happen, but if both team and player are happy with the relationship, they should be able to work out something reasonable. If he does become a Proven Closer over the next two years and leaves as a Type A free agent, the deal will pay additional dividends.

Though Speier has finished games in Coors Field and his numbers in that hitter's paradise are quite respectable (.244 opponent's average in 108.2 IP) there's a cautionary note in his ESPN Scouting Report: "He has a tendency to get too excited when he is given the task of closing out a save."

If Carlos Tosca gets the same impression, with the memory of Politte emotional meltdowns still clear, Justin will probably be the eighth inning specialist. However, I can't let go of the notion that the Jays have nothing to lose by giving first crack at the ninth-inning job to the new guy, who after all, has been far more successful than Aquilino against lefty batters. Lopez can always take over if that doesn't work out. I don't think the Jays have made a final decision yet; if they have, it's a well-kept secret. My guess is that Speier gets the chance, and makes the most of it.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 70 IP, 3-4, 3.90 ERA, 32 SV

11 Aquilino Lopez RH Age: 29 v R .186/.273/.248 (161) v L .250/.353/.411 (112)

Whatever they're paying Keith Law, he's more than earned in the Rule 5 draft alone, where J.P. has given him a great deal of credit. Corey Thurman, though eventually released and now nursing a sore shoulder, was certainly worth the risk. Aquilino Lopez was an even better pick. Seattle, with the likes of Julio Mateo and Rafael Soriano in their system, soured on Lopez because of his age, which advanced by nearly five years one day. The Mariners' loss was the Blue Jays' gain.

In just his second season, Lopez may again be the team's ace reliever, even if he's not the primary closer. Carlos Tosca likes how he shakes off poor results, and has also praised his "feel" for pitching. Aquilino's split against lefty batters, which is a small sample size anyway, was skewed by one April game against the Yankees, when he walked Giambi and Williams, then gave up a three-run jack to Matsui. Lefties will always hit him better than righties, some of whom find him untouchable. In particular, he owned Nomar Garciaparra, who I can't remember even hitting a loud foul ball in half a dozen key plate appearances last year, and he held Manny Ramirez to a single in four trips.

Last year, Aquilino was just trying to make the team in spring training. Early in the season, his role wasn't clearly defined, and he still wasn't sure he was a big-leaguer. Along the way, he picked up a couple of two-inning saves, and more confidence. By August, he was the closer, racking up five saves with a 2.84 ERA, and in September, he added seven more saves three of the two-inning variety with a 1.32 ERA. Obviously, his "three year" splits above are for 2003 only, but it's worth noting his career minor league totals, even though he was old for his leagues: 461 K, 128 BB in 416 IP, for a 28-16 record, with 29 saves and a 2.70 ERA.

If the Jays are going to battle for a playoff spot this year, they need Lopez to repeat or improve on his terrific rookie season. It says here that Aquilino will continue to be an important part of the bullpen for the next few seasons. That gives him the slight edge in value over Speier, who may be here for just a year, two at the most.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 80 IP, 6-3, 3.65 ERA, 12 SV

10 Chris Woodward SSAge: 28 Bats: R v R .272/.317/.450 (536) v L .229/.300/.362 (188)

There aren't many 54th-round draft picks playing significant roles on a contending team. Woody is being asked again to be the everyday shortstop, which makes him a very important guy in 2004 for the Jays. The only alternative is journeyman Chris Gomez, with minor-leaguers Jorge Sequea and Russ Adams not quite ready to be big-league regulars. Many of us expect Woodward to take over for Dave Berg as a multi-position backup as early as next year whenever the Adams era begins but for now, he's #1.

In 2003, Woody was handed the same assignment, only to bobble it. His 17 errors included several misplays on easy chances. This spring, he's done an incredible amount of work with coach Brian Butterfield taking more than 200 ground balls in some practice sessions to become more consistent. With the encouragement of his wife Erin, Chris has also taken up yoga, which might help him relax and concentrate, and won't hurt his flexibility.

Woodward has had some unusual splits the last couple of seasons. In 2002, he had a .906 OPS and hit all 13 of his homers off righthanded pitching, but seemed hopeless (.450 OPS) vs. lefties. Last season, he handled southpaws just fine .307/.360/.485 yet had trouble against righties, fading to a .657 OPS. So I really don't know what to expect from him this year, but I suspect that if he is fielding his position well, that confidence will carry over to his at-bats.

There is some serious talent within the division at shortstop, not counting the Yankees' third baseman. Woody doesn't have to be Jeter, Garciaparra or Tejada in order for the Jays to keep pace. He just needs to be himself.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 420 AB, .270/.325/.430

9 Josh Phelps DH Age: 26Bats: R v R .272/.348/.518 (471) v L .297/.372/.450 (202)

If any Blue Jay had a right to complain about playing time last year, it was Phelps. He wouldn't, of course. The young man with the prodigious power will you ever forget the two bombs he hit off Clemens in 2002? is patiently biding his time, trying to make the most of his limited opportunities.

The native of Alaska, who grew up in Idaho, might have become an engineer if not for baseball. Though he isn't keen on studying video of himself, Josh applies a scholarly, analytical approach to hitting, often solving the problem of the opposing pitcher in his second or third at-bat.

Josh is following in the imposing footsteps of Carlos Delgado, another former catcher converted to first base to keep his bat in the lineup. Depending on what Delgado decides after the season, Phelps could inherit that job full time next year. Will he receive a contract extension, or are his days in Toronto numbered? If he cuts down his strikeouts this season, draws a few more walks, shows some dexterity around the bag and stays healthy, locking him up makes perfect sense. On the other hand, if he's viewed as a one-dimensional slugger, with so much talent rising through the system, Josh might eventually be considered trade bait, especially if Delgado returns.

Mr. Phelps (or as Jerry Howarth calls him, "Big Joshua") is another difficult guy to rank. I expect another year of occasional frustration, when Carlos Tosca sits him against some righties and uses Myers at DH. In fact, the emergence of Simon Pond may also cost Phelps some AB, which is a shame. The former BP cover boy should hit another 25 homers as a part-time player this year, and my tea leaves can't predict his future in Toronto with any certainty.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 360 AB, .275/.365/.520

8 Pat Hentgen SP Age: 35 RH v R .271/.324/.454 (421) v L .231/.306/.425/(510)

ZiPS says he'll make 18 starts, five relief appearances, for just 127 IP and a 5.39 ERA. I'm not picking on Dan Szymborski here; I simply don't think any projection method can do Hentgen justice. The guy missed most of 2001 and virtually all of 2002 with elbow surgery, and it wasn't until midway through last season that it became obvious he's back as a pitcher.

Hentgen was 1-5 with a 5.40 ERA and hadn't pitched in exactly two weeks when he took the mound against the A's July 12. There was no reason to expect such dramatic improvement, but he went seven innings, leaving in a 3-3 tie, and never missed a turn the rest of the way. Five days later, he beat Texas, then came into SkyDome as a curiosity, holding the Jays to just five hits and two runs in a strong six innings. He followed that with eight innings of four-hitter, allowing the Red Sox just one run at Fenway, and also beat the Yankees and Mariners down the stretch. Here's his "tale of two seasons":

Pre All-Star5.2515159073.2814343123143.280
Post All-Star3.10631313187693130132757.216

Though it's true that the popular Hentgen has some positive PR value, that's no more of a factor in Pat's return than it was for Greg Myers last year. He was one of the best free agent starters available, especially at the price. The fact that he's someone for Doc to relate to is one of those intangibles; you know it can't be a bad thing, but it's hard to measure exactly how good it is.

Hentgen is important to the 2004 club, and even though he's on a one year deal, don't count him out for 2005. He almost certainly could have been got more than $2.2 million, or another guaranteed year, from another team, but made concessions to be part of the renaissance in Toronto. See, it's not just fans, but veteran players, buying the Ricciardi sales pitch.

Sooner or later, the Jays won't need "hired gun" starters, because the cream of the crop will have emerged from the farm system. This year, we're lucky to have one of the good ones back in town.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 170 IP, 13-9, 4.25 ERA

7 Orlando Hudson 2B Age: 26 Bats: B v R .300/.357/.462 (517) v L .168/.210/.221 (149)

Those horrible numbers vs. lefthanded pitching suggest that O-Dog, like Jose Valentin, should give up switch-hitting. So far, all of Hudson's 13 big-league home runs have come off righties. The strange thing is, he's a natural righthanded batter, and that's the side where he's having so much difficulty. If he gets off to another slow start in that regard, he might be platooned with Dave Berg.

Orlando is beginning to get noticed around the league for his defensive prowess, which continues to improve. In addition to his range (he makes the sliding stop in shallow right field as well as anyone) I've seen him do some amazing acrobatics around the bag, including some very creative ad-lib tags. The dazzling plays used to be somewhat balanced by muffing some easy chances, but O-Dog became much more consistent as the 2003 season progressed.

At the dish, I suspect we haven't seen his best yet; every player takes a different amount of time to adjust to big-league pitching. Hudson was a .300 hitter in AA and AAA, and the ball jumps off his bat, often down the line or in a gap, where he is quite capable of legging out triples.

His value to the team in 2004 is considerable; the future is less clear. Hudson has yet to be offered a contract extension, and has been a popular subject of trade rumours. Because he plays with such obvious energy and flair, he's become a fan favourite, but don't get too attached with Russ Adams and Aaron Hill on the way, it's unlikely that Orlando will be in Toronto his whole career. While there's certainly no hurry to move him, there will soon be more economical alternatives.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 475 AB, .285/.335/.450

6 Ted Lilly SP Age: 28 LH v R .259/.327/.462 (1203) v L .214/.272/.322 (345)

Theodore Roosevelt Lilly is now the best lefty starter in the AL East. The Yankees and Red Sox don't have one; Baltimore and Tampa have mediocre and/or unproven ones. Lilly, never John Gizzi's favourite, has yet to live up to expectations for an entire season he has had his share of physical problems, perhaps due to "throwing across his body," and also has a reputation as an uncoachable head case. Gitz isn't alone in cautioning Jays fans about investing too much hope in Lilly, who has now been traded by the Dodgers, Expos, Yankees and A's; here's what the boys at the Elephants In Oakland blog thought:

Like we've said a billion times, we'd be big Ted Lilly fans if he listened to Rick Peterson and wasn't such a stubborn JACKASS. He's the classic million dollar talent with a five cent head. Which is a shame. That's what gets us in the end, the wasted talent.

The A's, frustrated by his inconsistency, resorted to the unusual step of not allowing Lilly to shake off the catcher. Whether or not that helped, he finished strong in 2003, going 4-1 in September with a 2.05 ERA, and was terrific in two postseason appearances against Boston.

The Jays are gambling $5 million over the next two years that Ted is a late bloomer, just coming into his prime, and that Gil Patterson will be able to get through to him. The odds are that one of the three new starters will disappoint this year, and if it's Lilly, there will be a long lineup to say "I told you so."

Lilly injured his left wrist in February, supposedly moving a television. He finally made his spring debut last night, pitching two innings; he settled down after giving up a single and a homer to his first two batters. While he may not be ready to throw a complete game in his first few starts, he's not expected to miss a turn when the regular season begins.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 165 IP, 12-10, 4.50 ERA

5 Eric Hinske 3B Age: 26 Bats: L v R .274/.365/.485 (758) v L .230/.301/.389 (257)

Am I saying Hinske is the fifth best player on the Blue Jays, or that he's irreplaceable? Not exactly. Eric is just one of several essential components if the 2004 Jays are going to seriously threaten for the postseason, but I'm also considering the future. We still don't know exactly what will happen with Phelps and Hudson, to name two other fine players, but Hinske's going to be a big part of the club for the next four years, which boosts this ranking.

The 2002 Rookie of the Year went through some professional growing pains as a sophomore, literally and figuratively. A broken hamate bone affected him at bat and in the field; he hit just .234 in April and .211 in May before having it surgically repaired and going on the DL for a month.

Much has been written in the Batter's Box about Eric's defence. It's true that he's not the most graceful third baseman, with some poor throwing habits, double-clutching on some and taking too much off others. He's a diligent worker, has a great instructor in Brian Butterfield, and while he'll never be Brooks Robinson, he will improve. Any shortcomings with the glove should not detract from what Hinske can do with the bat, and on the bases.

Here's a confident prediction: Eric won't hit a double every 10 at-bats this year. Not many players ever do; that's a doubles machine. His 45 two-base hits came in just 449 AB, compared to Vernon Wells (678 AB) and Garret Anderson (638 AB), who tied for the league lead with 49 doubles. At least a dozen of those 2003 two-baggers would probably have been homers if he had normal strength in his bottom hand; those same shots should clear the wall in 2004, which will put him back in the vicinity of the 24 taters he hit as a rookie.

Hinske, who checked into camp in terrific shape, is a very good baserunner and an excellent base-stealer. He's not the fastest man on the team over 30 yards, but has 25 SB to only 3 CS in his career so far. His wheels, his patience and a .349 career OBP make Eric a very good option to hit second behind Cat when Reed Johnson takes a day off. Most days, he'll bat sixth or seventh in the lineup. Any thought of him being a platoon player (or a first baseman) is premature; Hinske raised his SLG against southpaws from .339 to .436 last season, and that should continue to improve with experience.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 550 AB, .280/.360/.485

4Miguel Batista SPAge: 33RHv R .232/.301/.350/ (1051)v L .268/.338/.389 (887)

Thanks very much to the Diamondbacks for declining their $5 million option. Thanks to J.P. for convincing Batista that Toronto offered him the best opportunity. Thanks to El Artista for being a fascinating, likeable guy, in contrast to the departed Kelvim Escobar, who was probably my least-favourite Blue Jay. Both are excellent pitchers, and their results over the next three years will be compared often. Their stats may actually be similar, but intangibles could make a difference. Instead of being a party animal, Miguel is a mentor for the younger Latin players; he's given Francisco Rosario some advice about throwing a cutter, and Lopez will benefit from his presence all season.

Batista ranked 12th in the NL last season with a 3.54 ERA, pitched a career high 193.1 innings, struck out a career-best 142 batters, tied for the team lead with 10 wins and picked up five saves along the way. Originally signed by the Expos, he was briefly with the Pirates in 1992 as a Rule 5 selection, then returned. After missing most of 1994 with a right shoulder strain, Miguel was signed by the Marlins, where he alternated between AAA and the big club, both starting and relieving. His next stop was the Cubs, followed by a third stint with Montreal. In 2000, he was traded to the Royals, who eventually released him. His last three seasons in Arizona have been relatively stable, even though he's been switched several times between the rotation and the bullpen. Typically, El Artista is philosophical about his nomadic career. "Every man should keep walking until he finds his home," he says. "I keep on moving."

It may take a while for his new catcher to get on the same pitch-calling page. An overwhelmed Kevin Cash says Batista throws eight pitches "two-seam and four-seam fastball, cutter, sinker, curveball, slider, split and change."

They are all pretty good, too.

"You can put his stuff up there with anybody. I caught, last year, the best pitcher in the game," Cash said. "Nothing taken away from Doc, but his stuff is very close."

In 2004, Batista is the fourth most important Blue Jay. If he stays in Toronto for the full three years of his $13.1 million contract, Miguel could end up being even more valuable than the next man on this list.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 210 IP, 17-12, 3.95 ERA

3 Carlos Delgado 1B Age: 31 Bats: L v R .300/.439/.625 (1123) v L .257/.354/.424 (526)

How can someone who narrowly misses the league MVP be third most valuable on his own team? This could be Delgado's farewell season in Toronto, which means the team's next championship bid might come without him. Even if he does return, it's hard to argue that a first baseman who turns 32 in June will have more value than a center fielder and an ace in their prime.

Carlos had an absolutely marvelous 2003 campaign. His 97 RBI at the All-Star break was the third-best first half in baseball history. He came back to earth a little in the second half, but still led the American League in OPS (1.019) and the majors with 145 ribbies. His four-homer game, just the fifth in league history, was like an exclamation point on the season.

Delgado, facing a defensive shift by many opponents, seemed to steer a lot more pitches from lefties last year for singles and doubles to the opposite field. For whatever reason, he was far more productive against southpaws in 2003 (.395 OBP and .475 SLG) than his three-year split suggests. That could be the Mike Barnett influence, but Carlos still gives a lot of credit for his success to Cito Gaston, his manager for six seasons.

"He helped me out with the mental approach of the game, figuring out what my strengths are," the slugger said. "How guys try to get me out, tipping pitches he basically taught me how to pick it up. He was a big developer in my game, he helped me learn to develop my plan."

Delgado needs just 41 RBI to reach 1,000 in his career, and will pass Lloyd Moseby for second place on the all-time Jays list for games played in his 98th game this season. If he appears in 156, he'll take over top spot on that list from Tony Fernandez. He's already the Jays' all-time leader in runs, doubles, home runs, RBI, total bases, walks, HBP, and slugging percentage, among other categories.

Carlos isn't the type to be distracted by his impending free agency. He's already said he has all the money he needs, and he knows, by the way the club dealt with Roy Halladay, that J.P. Ricciardi is a man of his word. The team really does want him back, but the Jays probably won't be able to match offers from wealthier franchises like the Dodgers or Angels.

"A lot depends on what we do this year," explained the GM at the beginning of spring training. "If we push the envelope, like we hope to do, maybe we can get a little bump in the budget."

If 2004 does turn out to be Delgado's final season as a Blue Jay, we owe him a lot of standing ovations.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 500 AB, .310/.400/.630

2 Vernon Wells CF Age: 25 Bats: R v R .292/.327/.506 (1012) v L. .314/.356/.486 (370)

Wells, signed through 2007, is willing and able to put the team on his broad shoulders if Delgado leaves. Already respected for his character in the clubhouse and his talent on the field, Vernon has many great years ahead of him, at least four of them in Toronto. Please, don't jump on me for using RBI to make a point, but the only other center fielders in baseball history to drive in 100+ in their first two seasons were pretty good ones Joe DiMaggio and Al Simmons.

Defensively, either there are a few statistical measures that don't give him enough credit, or I've been seeing an optical illusion. Vernon gets a superb jump, takes a short, direct route and turns quite a few doubles into outs. Not unlike Mike Cameron, he rarely dives or climbs the wall, playing with smooth efficiency. Almost never throws to the wrong base, doesn't miss many cut-off men. Range? Somebody queue up the replay of the play when Shannon Stewart got in his way, and notice where Wells is.

At the plate last year, often following the on-deck circle advice of Delgado, V-Dub set a new team record and led the majors with 215 hits. Some think he's impatient, and no other Jay is more likely to have a really good cut at the first pitch, but this doesn't mean Vernon goes up there "hacking." He's just ready to take advantage of any mistake, and pounded the get-ahead fastball at a .405 clip, with a .705 slugging percentage.

I don't want to give the impression that Vernon is "too good to be true," but sometimes I wonder. As a person, he doesn't even swear, often amusing his teammates with a passionate "gosh darn it" when he returns to the dugout after being robbed of a hit. As a player, he's still very young, and still learning. It's scary to think that there's room for improvement on the 2003 model, but there is.

Another stellar season from Wells is critical to the team's 2004 chances, and he's sure to take on even more responsibility with each passing year. On almost any other team, he'd be the most important player, but Toronto fans have another young superstar.

COACH 2004 Forecast: 600 AB, .320/.380/.570

1 Roy Halladay SP Age: 27 RH v R .232/.272/.342 (1053) v L .256/.294/.369 (1287)

Every baseball fan knows what Halladay did last year: 22-7, 3.25 and his first Cy Young award. Winless in April, then AL Pitcher of the Month in May, when he was 6-0, leading the Jays to a 21-8 month, the best in club history. While his teammates couldn't sustain that momentum, Doc just kept winning eleven consecutive starts, fifteen consecutive decisions. Despite leading the majors in innings pitched, with a career high 266, he remained strong, with four consecutive complete games (he finished five of his six starts) in September. Opponents hit .175 off him in the final month, when he struck out 42 and walked just five. Sure, that included Tampa twice and Detroit twice, but he also dominated the Yankees in the Bronx, with a masterful 10-K 4-hitter.

What makes Roy great? A brutal training regimen keeps his 6' 6" body in peak condition, and he works just as hard on the mental aspects of the game. The story of his 2001 relegation to the low minors to completely re-learn his craft has been told many times; Doc emerged