For The Thrill of It: I'm happy to have flown the Jays' nest

Will Hill
9/27/2009 3:57:45 PM
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The question I've most frequently been asked over the last year is, "Do you miss working for the Jays?". Depending on my mood, the weather outside for snowboarding or golf or the most recent results of the team my answer has varied. Asked that question today and my unequivocal response would be, "Hell no!".

In the last two of the seven years I spent there, my rather fancy title was Director, Guest Services and Fan Experience. I had many duties, but chief among them was dealing with customer complaints for the Jays and Rogers Centre. I was repeatedly yelled at, berated with profanity, cruelly insulted and totally degraded....and that was all in one morning dealing with upset moms after a Wiggles concert.

One thing I was always grateful for is that in the two seasons in which I handled Jays-related complaints the team finished with a winning record. Based on what I was subjected to in relatively good times, I can't even begin to imagine (and don't even want to think about) the nature and the number of complaints they'd be receiving these days. I'm just glad it's not me answering that phone or those expletive-laced emails.

Then there is the matter of what I hear from those still working at the stadium. The employees I've spoken to are disappointed, depressed and demoralized. One remarked, "You know, I can't ever remember 2004 being this bad".

For those of you who don't recall (or deliberately chose to forget) the "Season That Fun Forgot", allow me to refresh your memory. The Jays lost 94 games, finished in last place, saw the most prolific slugger and one of the most popular players in team history walk as a free agent at year's end and, above all, had to deal with dual tragedies -- the death of John Cerutti and the diagnosis of a brain tumour that would later claim the life of Tom Cheek. If current-day employees are using that season as a measuring-stick, then these are dark times indeed at 1 Blue Jays Way.

I can't say this year has been as wrenching as that soul-sucking 2004 campaign, but I know it'll place a distant second. It's been a memorable season, but for all the wrong reasons.

There was the trade-or-not-to-trade Doc debacle, a month-long ordeal that fans remember far more vividly than Roy Halladay's starting assignment at this year's All-Star Game.

Toronto waved goodbye to B.J., but not before Ryan gave up five bombs in one forgettable half-season of work.

Toronto also waved goodbye to Alex, but not before Rios dropped F-bombs at a children's charity event in one unforgettable YouTube clip.

Just as fans were coming to grips with Scott Rolen rolling out for mysterious "personal reasons", the Jays announced they were unable to reel in three of their top five draft picks for reasons that remain equally mysterious.

And then there's that record-setting performance at the box office -- the four worst crowds in stadium history. You Belong at the Game? Sorry friendly Jays Marketing folks, but evidently the ticket-buying public begs to disagree....en masse.

So, yes, I've been especially happy to spend this misery-filled season observing from afar for Canada's Sports Leader as opposed to working from within Canada's baseball team.

But here's a further reason I'm happy to have flown the nest. As grim as things have been, I really can't see how they are going to get much better next year. Let's quickly review five ways this team could improve between now and Opening Day 2010.

1) Good health = Good Times

Over and again, I've heard claims the Jays will be decidedly better in 2010 with the healthy return of Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan and Jesse Litsch to the rotation. Really? Ignoring the lesson learned from B.J. Ryan and Casey Janssen that it's a dicey proposition at best to rely on pitchers returning from catastrophic arm injuries, I want you to look instead at these two groups of numbers.

Pitching Group A - 72 starts, 28-23 W-L, 39 quality starts, 3.71 ERA, 6.30 strikeouts/nine innings

Pitching Group B - 55 starts, 21-17 W-L, 31 quality starts 4.46 ERA, 7.27 strikeouts/nine innings

Group A is the combined efforts of Marcum, McGowan and Litsch in 2008. Group B is the combined efforts of the three rookies baptized by fire this year, Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil and Mark Rzepcynski. Looking at these and other metrics, you can't really say one group is decidedly better than the other. In other words, the Jays weren't really that much worse off without those three injured pitchers. So how much better will the team actually be with their return?

2) A Shopping Spree

Assuming that Rogers ups the payroll (unlikely)...and assuming the Jays are able to convince free agents to come to a division where they will get beaten with great regularity by baseball's two nuclear super-powers (even less so)....and assuming that players will actually look seriously at committing to a team with an interim president, a vilified general manager and, at least outwardly, no clear direction or strategy (are you kidding?)....then, yes, the Blue Jays might be able to improve themselves through free agency.

But I ask, have you actually looked at the list of prospective free agents this offseason? I have...and I quickly tried to look away before turning to stone. It's an ugly bunch at best. It's certainly nothing like the class the following year when Halladay, Joe Mauer, Josh Beckett and Albert Pujols are all up for new deals (although Pujols does have an option year on his contract).

Is it really wise to shop for fruit when your choices are some rotting apples and brown bananas? Speaking of fresh produce -- let's talk about the farm system.

3) Farm-fresh Goods?

For many years now, the Jays have over-drafted pitching. The reason? You must have pitching to win in the AL East and the only way to obtain it is through the draft. Trades for established starters at the Major League level are simply too costly. Moreover, free agents want nothing to do with Toronto, Tampa or Baltimore, where their ERA's get beaten to a bloody pulp by the bats of the Yankees and Red Sox. So the Jays are long on arms in the minors, as we've been forced to witness this year.

The flip side of that is bats are in precious short supply in the minor league system. Making matters worse this year is some of the most highly regarded positional players had mediocre to miserable campaigns, like Kevin Ahrens who hit .215 in Dunedin, or his teammate Justin Jackson who struck out 87 times in 78 games or J.P. Arencibia who had a woeful .284 on base percentage in Las Vegas.

This is not intended to write these players off. Ricky Romero stands as proof that patience pays with prospects of this ilk. Rather, what I am suggesting, is each of these players seems to still be some time from a) arriving in Toronto and b) making meaningful contributions there.

So what farmhands can help, aside from the pitchers that we've already seen? Well, the MVPs from Toronto's top two minor league affiliates were 31-year-old Randy Ruiz and 25-year-old Brian Dopirak, who was previously left for dead in the minor leagues by the Cubs. With all due respect to them, both players are much closer to being a Crash Davis than a Nuke Laloosh.

4) Youth Must Be Served

Yes, it's reasonable to expect some of the younger players, like Adam Lind and Travis Snider and the young arms, to make progress from one year to the next. But isn't it equally reasonable to expect players like Jason Frasor, Marco Scutaro and Rod Barajas to struggle to meet this year's level of performance (assuming the latter two don't walk in free agency)? They are all into their thirties and have put up better numbers this year than at any other time in their respective careers. Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay are also both on the wrong side of 30 now and into the age of diminishing returns for a Major Leaguer. You can't make the assumption young players will naturally improve, without recognizing that older players are just as likely to fall off.

5) The Doc Dilemna Part II

Aaron Hill, Lind and Snider are untouchable. Wells and his contract are untenable. The young pitchers are still largely unproven. That essentially leaves the Jays with one commodity that could fetch a significant return - Halladay.

With or without Halladay, 2010 doesn't exactly seem to be shaping up as a banner year for the Blue Jays, does it? As much as it pains me to suggest it again, shouldn't the club trade him and take another step back in 2010 with an eye towards a Tampa-like leap forward in 2011 or 2012? After all, it can't be any worse than this year, can it?

Either way, I'm happy to ask all these questions from outside as opposed to still being on the inside and having to face them. That and those angry Wiggles moms.

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