Continuing to go in order of 2010 record from top to bottom, we've come to the last AL team that finished above .500 in 2010. Gone are first baseman Lyle Overbay, starting pitcher Shaun Marcum, catcher John Buck and reliever Scott Downs. Coming in to replace them is...well, nobody, basically. Pretty much every spot figures to be filled from within. How's that gonna work in the toughest division in baseball?
1. Can Jose Bautista Really Do That?
One of the stories of the year in 2010, Bautista -- who came into 2009 age 29 and the proud owner of a .238/.329/.400 line, mostly in the weaker of the leagues, with a career high of 16 homers and an average of 19 per 660-plate-appearance full season -- went absolutely nuts, at least tying (and usually smashing) his career bests in literally every positive offensive category. Including, of course, those majors-leading 54 home runs (which helped Toronto lead the majors in home runs too, with 257 to second-place Boston's 211).
So this is kind of Bautista's "prove it" year. Nobody would expect fifty-four homers again, but it'll be really interesting to see whether he keeps producing at an elite level or turns back into a pumpkin. And for the Blue Jays' season, it'll be a lot more "necessary" than "interesting."
2. Is This the Year for Morrow and/or Snider?
The Jays have two players who it feels like have been top prospects, or something like top prospects, for years now. Brandon Morrow was drafted by the Mariners fifth overall in 2006, ahead of Clayton Kershaw, (Washington native) Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer, among others, in what is turning out to have been a very, very good draft for pitchers.
And, well, he's obviously been no Lincecum. Now 26, Morrow holds a career 4.19 ERA (101 ERA+) and a career total of 344 innings, having just crossed 100 in a season for the first time last year. But while his final 2010 ERA was a pretty ugly 4.49 in his carefully-limited 147 innings, Morrow showed a lot of promising signs last year, striking out an awesome 10.9 per nine innings and limiting homers, putting up an impressive 3.16 FIP despite a better-than-prior-years-but-still-high walk rate.
Maybe this is just me, but it just feels like this is kind of a make-or-break year for Morrow. If he builds on his 2010 performance, steps into the void left by Marcum and puts together a really solid, full, 200-or-so-inning year for the Jays, he's still got a pretty long, productive career ahead of him, but if he regresses and starts walking five guys per nine again or gets hurt again, it's kind of hard to see him coming back again in 2012, at 27, and still turning in to a real impact starter.
It's hard to claim the situation is nearly so dire with Travis Snider, who was taken 14th overall in the same draft, but out of high school, so he's still just 23 (or will be on opening day). It's been an awfully disappointing record as a big leaguer so far, though, with offensive production just around league average and just 1.4 total WAR (baseball-reference and FanGraphs average) in a little more than one full season's worth of PA from 2008-2010, with some injury troubles and a little sign of progress. He's still got all kinds of talent and promise -- he's just two years removed from being named Baseball America's #6 prospect, after all -- but that's going to have to start turning into MLB results if the Jays hope even to repeat 2010's 85 wins in 2011.
3. Who fills all these holes?
As I noted up top, a lot of old Jays have departed, and no new Jays have really come in to take their place. Rookie J.P. Arencibia will likely be handed the starting catcher's role out of the gate, after hitting .301/.359/.626 with 32 homers in just 412 at-bats in his second go-round at AAA Las Vegas...but he hasn't shown a lot of patience in the minors, and the Jays were linked to Russell Martin and Jason Varitek before they signed elsewhere, so you can see how much faith they have in him to make the transition to MLB. Adam Lind, who has a total of 76 career big-league innings at first base and is no one's idea of a particularly adept or adaptable glove man, likely takes over as the more or less full-time first baseman by default after Overbay's departure.
What I'm most interested to see, though, is 23 year old rookie Kyle Drabek, yet another product of the 2005 draft (taken four picks after Snider), who will be looked to to take one of the rotation spots thanks to Marcum's departure. Drabek took the "loss" in each of his first three career MLB starts and boasts an ugly 4.76 ERA, but showed a lot of encouraging signs, putting up a 4.08 FIP/3.59 xFIP in his short 17-inning taste. He didn't strike out enough hitters in the minors to make it likely that he's a future #1, but if he can keep the walk rate down, he should be in good shape. The centerpiece of the Jays' portion of the Roy Halladay trade, it would be a huge benefit for this team for a lot of reasons.
I've had this idea for a while that the Blue Jays might be a dark horse candidate to challenge the division's big three this year, but looking at it more closely, it seems clear that a lot is going to have to go right for that to happen. Big comeback years from Lind and Aaron Hill; not too much of a dropoff from Bautista, big steps forward from Morrow and Snider, a big emergence or two from Arencibia or Drabek...one gets the sense that they'd need nearly all of this to happen. And it's possible -- none of it is too far out there -- but it seems pretty unlikely at this point that we'll be talking about a fourth-place Yankees, Red Sox or Rays team come next October.