Saturday, June 26, 2010

Jays Need Speed

The last time we saw playoff baseball in Canada, the Blue Jays had one of the best lineups in baseball. John Olerud, Paul Molitor and Roberto Alomar finished 1,2,3 in the American League batting race and the Jays had four guys steal at least 20 bases. Roberto Alomar lead the team with a total of 55 by the end of the season.

This year’s installment of the Blue Jays is quite different. While Jose Bautista and Vernon Wells sit near the top of the American League home run race, the team needs to pick it up in other offensive categories.

As a team, the Jays are hitting .239 going into Saturday’s action. That’s good enough for worst in the American League, and better than only Houston’s .237. They have an AL-worst OBP of .307, meaning they’re not getting guys on base when needed. Yet, they are second to only Boston with a .446 slugging percentage. Finally, the Jays have a Major League-low 25 stolen bases to this point and are on pace for only about 54 steals as a team for the entire season, one below Roberto Alomar’s mark of 55 in 1993. Former Jay Alex Rios, whom the Jays lost to the White Sox through waivers last season, has 20 so far this year.

The Jays’ reliance on the home run to score is not exactly a good thing. If facing a good pitcher who can induce a lot of ground balls like Roy Halladay, their offence becomes almost non-existent.

When the Blue Jays acquired Fred Lewis from the San Francisco Giants in April, they acquired a potential leadoff hitter for themselves. Since joining the Jays, Lewis has managed a slash line of .288/.331/.459. The man who the Jays had leading off to start the season, Jose Bautista, has established himself as a true home run threat now that he leads the AL with 20 home runs to date.

If the Jays have any chance of either winning the division or at least the wild card, they will need to make some changes to their offence. With Edwin Encarnacion being demoted to Triple-A Las Vegas, the door was opened for Jarrett Hoffpauir to come to the Majors. While he has only played in four games so far this year, Hoffpauir has not exactly provided what the Jays really need: speed on the basepaths and the ability to get on.

Essentially, the Blue Jays need to find themselves a better leadoff hitter and move Fred Lewis to the number two hole. There are several reasons for this.

First of all, Lewis has consistently had his batting average around the .280--.290 range for the last few weeks. This shows that he is certainly a reliable hitter. However, that .331 OBP is currently a career low for him, and his 5 stolen bases are far lower than one would like to see from somebody in the leadoff spot. He has 21 doubles as the leadoff hitter with 3 triples. Some may argue that due to this, he does not need to steal as many bases as he puts himself into scoring position right off the bat. For those of you who may subscribe to that point of view, allow me to provide another theory.

The Jays would be best suited to obtain a new leadoff hitter and move Lewis to the #2 spot in the order because with numbers like that, the leadoff guy may not necessarily need to steal a lot of bases. With a guy on deck who can conceivably hit about 40-45 doubles in a season, that could potentially allow a fast runner to score all the way from first base. With Lewis’ .288 average, we know he can be a reliable hitter. Putting somebody else in front of him with speed and who can get on base will allow the Jays a chance of having other ways to score aside from waiting for the next home run.

Now, some of you may be wondering who the Jays should go after at this point. As noted earlier, Encarnacion has been demoted to the minors, allowing the Jays some flexibility with the lineup. To keep Bautista’s power bat in, he could potentially be moved to third base. Adam Lind can remain the DH, with an everyday outfield consisting of Vernon Wells and Fred Lewis plus a newcomer at least until Travis Snider returns.

By looking at the current standings, I can see many potential trade targets for the Blue Jays to go after on teams that will likely not make the playoffs at this point. In no particular order, I would like to present my two favourite options:

Michael Bourn, Houston Astros
Michael Bourn is fast. He managed 61 steals last season and already has 22 this season in 28 attempts. Despite his .257 average, he has an OBP of .334 which is only slightly higher than Fred Lewis’. Bourn has a $2.5-million salary this season and is arbitration eligible for two more years, so the Astros may ask for quite a bit. From looking at the Astros’ farm system, it is clear that they need help. The Blue Jays could provide this in the form of young pitching, either off their current roster or in the form of prospects. Although Bourn currently plays centre field and was a 2009 Gold Glove winner, he has had some Major League experience at all three outfield positions and could possibly make a move to right field with the Blue Jays. Overall, Bourns ability to get on base, move himself into scoring position and great defence are something that the Blue Jays need.

Scott Podsednik, Kansas City Royals
Podsednik seems to have revived his career both this season and last season. He is currently hitting .295/.342/.375 for the Royals with 20 steals in 28 attempts while playing left field. His current salary of $1.65-million is far less than Bourn’s, and Podsednik comes with a $2-million club option for 2011 with a $100,000 buyout. However, it should also be noted that Podsednik can void this option with 525 plate appearances this year and with 312 through 69 games, he appears to be well on his way to reaching that milestone. Defensively, Podsednik is not quite as sharp as Bourn, and he’s also 7 years older. Although, Podsednik managed to help the White Sox win the World Series in 2005 and performed quite well throughout the playoffs that year.

There are likely many other guys the Jays could go after. But I feel as though these two guys would provide the most help to a lineup that is in dire need of baserunners and speed. It’s amazing what having a little speed on the basepaths can do to a pitcher’s mindset.

Realistically, I’m aware that simply acquiring one of these two players may not solve all the problems the Blue Jays have and get them to the post-season for the first time since 1993. There are many other holes that need to be filled as well. However, I feel that it is certainly a step in the right direction. We have not seen somebody with the ability to steal 40-50 bases a year on the Blue Jays since the days of Shannon Stewart. By bringing in Bourn or Podsednik and moving Lewis to the #2 spot in the batting order, I believe that the Blue Jays could make themselves a much more competitive team that could make a trip to the post-season.

Do you agree?