Optimists versus Pessimists: The Great Debate

Friday, September 17 2004 @ 10:31 AM EDT

Contributed by: Dave Till

As I think you've figured out by now, this hasn't been the best of seasons for the Toronto Blue Jays. (This is a bit like saying Hurricane Ivan is causing things to become a bit damp.) The question becomes: where are they going to go from here? Is the club on the way up, or on an express toboggan ride to the depths of Tigerland (or, to keep it up to date, Snakeland)?

To discuss this question, I have brought in two entirely fictitious experts: Oscar the Optimist, and Prentice the Pessimist. (I chose those names because we don't have anybody whose real name is Oscar or Prentice posting on Da Box.) Oscar thinks the glass is half full; Prentice, likewise, sees the glass as half full, but of something foul and toxic that he will be forced to drink anyway, and pretend to like.

Prentice, like most pessimists, speaks emphatically, so his words will appear in italics. Let the debate begin!

That's it. We're doomed.

What do you mean?

Face the facts. This team stinks. Their starting rotation is inconsistent, their offense, except for Delgado, is pathetic, and the bullpen... well, don't get me started. They're going to lose 95 games and, in the offseason, they're going to lose their best hitter. Probably to a division rival, at that. How can you possibly face the future with anything other than dread?

Sometimes bad things happen to good people. The Jays are a good team, honestly they are, and their GM makes good decisions. It's just that everything went wrong. Their offense was crippled by injuries, they lost their best starting pitcher to injury, and, well... they lost everybody else to injury too. Despite all this, some good things happened this year.

Name two.

Alex Rios and David Bush established themselves as quality major league regulars.

Rios isn't hitting for power. And Bush is a young pitcher and young pitchers will break your heart. You know this.

Rios isn't hitting for home run power, but he's hitting for doubles power. Doubles usually turn into home runs as a player gets older and stronger. And Bush isn't any ordinary young pitcher: he's a remarkably poised and mature young player who already knows how to change speeds and how to throw his curve for strikes at any time in the count. Billy Koch, he isn't. Think Jimmy Key.

That's two players and two players who aren't yet among the league elite. Big deal. Let's go around the diamond, starting with first base. Delgado is as good as gone, as somebody will offer him at least $12 million a year for four years, and the Jays can't afford that. How can the Jays replace that offensive production?

By carefully using Delgado's money to sign players who can contribute when placed in the proper situations. Or by trading for a good player that another team doesn't want to pay for. This is how the Jays got Lilly last off-season, and there's no reason to believe they won't do it again. There's lots of ways a smart general manager can improve his team for examples, just read --

Don't say it.

Moneyball.

I told you not to say it. The Oakland A's are smart, but they have three top starting pitchers. Anybody can build a contending team with three top-class pitchers in the rotation. The Jays used to have three top starting pitchers. One of them is now in St. Louis, and one is now in Anaheim.

Calling Escobar a top starting pitcher is pushing it, but never mind; we'll get to the pitching later. Now, let's consider the middle infield. Orlando Hudson is now one of the best second basemen in baseball, and Russ Adams is a promising young shortstop. And if he doesn't work out, there's Aaron Hill, who looks even more promising than Adams.

Promising. Hmph. That's like jam yesterday, and jam tomorrow, but never jam today. Other teams don't have promise; they have actual. The Jays don't.

I notice you didn't mention O-Dog.

Yeah... he is pretty good. But inconsistent. Some months, he hits .350. Some months, he hits .150.

Everybody goes into slumps; it's part of the game. Even Barry Bonds goes through stretches where he only reaches base about 48% of the time.

So, wise guy, what about Hinske, huh? He's not hitting for power; he's not hitting for average; he's not hitting, period. He's near the bottom of the league in everything other than slamming your bat down in frustration after hitting yet another popup. When are you going to give up on him? Oh, right, yeah: we're stuck with him for three more years.

Don't forget that Hinske isn't Josh Phelps there are a whole lot of things he can do. He runs well, he's patient at the plate, and he has made himself into a quality defensive third baseman through sheer hard work. Even if his bat doesn't come around, he's useful. And if he doesn't work out, the Jays have Hattig behind him, who is hitting lots of home runs in the minors.

Hitting home runs in the minors doesn't mean a thing. Josh Phelps hit home runs in the minors.

You're missing the point, as usual. Good teams don't have players like Hinske or Hattig. Good teams have players like Alex Rodriguez. Or Scott Rolen. They can field and run, plus they can do lots of damage with that wooden thing they carry with them to the plate, which many Jays treat as if it were a precious ceremonial object that needs to be returned to its owner in its original pristine condition. And their teams are going to the playoffs. The Jays aren't.


I guess we'll have to agree to disagree. How about the outfield? The Jays have some fine young players there, and they're only going to get better, don't you think?

Faugh.

Faugh?

Yes, faugh. I like the sound of that word, as it describes what I think of the Jays' outfield. Rios isn't hitting for power or drawing walks and, as I recall, you Moneyball types like that sort of thing, don't you? Wells is swinging at everything that doesn't swing at him first. And Gross isn't hitting for power or for average.

You're being too harsh. You shouldn't judge a player on what he can't do, but what he can and all three of the Jays' outfielders can do several things.

But none of them are among the league leaders in any offensive category, are they? Contending teams have players who lead the league in home runs, RBI's, runs scored, and all those other good things that you don't often see in these parts. Players like Manny Ramirez. No, I don't think you've won this argument. Not even close.

You miss the point. The Jays' outfield is going to get better. The Yankees and Red Sox have older outfielders who are going to get worse. The same thing goes at catcher, too. Check back with me in two years; you'll see that I'm right.

Here we go again. Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today.

Now, let's hold our noses and move on to the pitching staff. Halladay has been hurt. Batista has been awful since the All-Star break. Lilly is inconsistent...


You're reaching here. Lilly is among the best starters in the American League. Nobody knows this because he's getting awful run support.

OK, I'll give you Lilly. And Bush we've already covered. Then, there's the Jays' fifth-starter options: Towers, Miller, Douglass, and Etcetera. Towers can pitch, but doesn't have major-league stuff. Miller has major-league stuff, but doesn't have a clue where it's going. Douglass is like Miller, but with fewer tattoos. And Etcetera is some guy who keeps getting called up from Syracuse to get shelled; sure, he changes uniform numbers now and again to throw us off, but it's all really the same guy. If that's a major-league starting staff, then, as Dorothy Parker once put it, I am Alexander Dumas, pere et fils.

That's a fairly obscure reference.

Hey, we pessimists are well-read.

You're not going to believe this, since you view the world through thorn-covered glasses, but the Jays' starting staff isn't all that bad. Halladay is a staff ace when healthy. Lilly is a quality left-handed starter; many managers would cheerfully sign away their immortal soul to acquire such a player, and the Jays got him for somebody they didn't need. Batista is a good pitcher when healthy; he's just running on fumes right now. Bush is reliable and sometimes dominant, which is rare in a young pitcher. Towers is far better than most fifth starters, and Miller recently two-hit the Anaheim Angels.

Every team has trouble finding a quality fifth starter; for example, the Yankees have sent Tanyon Sturtze to the mound. As they say in logic class, Q.E.D.

Yada yada yada. Well, Q.E.D. this, my fine friend: try to say something positive about the bullpen. Go ahead. I'm waiting.

...

I thought so.

I will say this: relievers are cheap and easily obtainable. And the Jays have lots of pitching coming up through the system. Soon, they won't have to sign somebody like Ligtenberg, as players like him will be available for virtually nothing.

You might want to use a better example.

Sure, but you see my point: bullpen pitchers are an easily replaceable asset. If one breaks, go get another one. The Jays spent about $5 million and bought themselves a completely new bullpen last offseason; most of those guys had good track records. It's not J.P.'s fault that just about all of them crashed and burned; you can't predict bad luck.

Look, all this jibber jabber has been marginally entertaining at best; by now, your readers are probably in another thread, searching for cuttlefish or something. The bottom line is this: the Jays don't have the financial resources to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox.

The Yankees and Red Sox are at the very peak of their success cycles, like the Indians were a few years ago. Think of them as milk right at its Best Before date. Soon, the Yankees will crash and burn, and take the Sox with them (since the two teams are yoked together by Fate). Then, the field will be wide open, and a certain team of blue avians will take over.

What about the orange avians, then? Peter Angelos has pledged that he will spend $20 million more this offseason. They're ahead of the Jays as it is; with that money, they'll get even better, while the Jays slip behind.

Oh, yes, the Baltimore Orioles that fine example of a well-run franchise. A team that spends money on the free-agent market every offseason, and, before this year, finished fourth every year. Behind the Blue Jays.

This year, despite everything going wrong for the Jays, the Orioles are still only eight games ahead of the Jays. The Orioles signed two expensive all-stars last year, and are playing .460 ball. If they sign two more, they'll play .500 ball. That's not good enough. You can't build a house without a foundation, and the Orioles don't have a foundation.

If the Jays have a foundation, it's riddled with termites.

Cheap shot. My point is this: the only way to build a contending team is by growing it from within, and that's what the Jays are doing. Sure, this year was horrible, and next year may be horrible too, but the Jays were never planning to contend this early. Last year was a fluke, and this year isn't important. The plan is to win two or three years from now.

Yeah, right. Jam yesterday, and jam tomorrow. I've heard this before. What makes you think that things will change? What makes you think that Rogers won't get fed up with the losses and bail out? After all, he's a smart businessman, isn't he? And don't smart businessmen realize that losing money is a bad thing?

Smart businessmen know that you can't succeed in business without making an initial investment first. You have to grow a business from the ground up. And, in the first years, businesses expect to lose money. They'll make it up, with interest, when the revenues start to flow in later years.

And that's what the Jays are doing: they're investing from the ground up. Have you checked the Jays' farm system records lately? Syracuse isn't doing much, but all of the other full-season minor league teams are doing quite well. The Auburn Doubledays, in particular, are kicking butt and taking names. The Jays' farm teams are doing better than the farm teams of their divisional competitors.

So what? The Jays won't be able to afford to keep their best players anyway, as they can't afford to pay them. They've lost Clemens, Green, and Wells, and soon they'll lose Delgado. They're serving as a de facto farm team for the clubs that have money.

Rogers has never said that they won't pay money for players when the time comes; this isn't Interbrew we're dealing with. It's just that now isn't the time. Besides, when the Jays' farm system fully ripens, they won't need to buy a lot of expensive players they'll be able to trade for them.

Look, I know this year has been horrible. It's been awful for me too I can't begin to tell you how many times I've turned off the TV set in the eighth inning. It's gotten to the point where I turn the set off when the Jays' lead drops to one run in the seventh, as I don't want to watch yet another meltdown. And next year isn't likely to be much better for one thing, we'll be watching Carlos hit home runs at SkyDome as a member of the visiting team. (Please, baseball gods: let it not be the Orioles or the Yankees. Thank you.) But the Jays are a young team; next year, they'll be healthy, and they'll get better. Just you wait.

You said that last year. And what have we gotten in return? An endless procession of blown leads. Bats made of balsa wood. Injuries, injuries and more injuries. And baseball writers who won't be truly satisfied until they've gotten J.P.'s head on a spike and are dancing around it in circles, ululating in triumph. You might enjoy this sort of thing, but for me it's about as much fun as root canal without anaesthetic. I've given up. From now on, I'm going to stick to watching hockey.

Ummm...

Never mind. Give me the remote control. I'm going to watch the Antiques Road Show.

But I thought you were going to watch the Yankee game... oh, I get it. Pass the popcorn.

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