2011 Season Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

Last year the Blue Jays surprised us by belting homer after homer en route to an above-.500 season. It made me kind of embarrassed to have written this before the season, but then again, who could have guessed that so many Blue Jays would go on power streaks? (In my defense, I had the right idea with the pitching staff.) The Jays have made a few changes this year, and in some ways they’re a weaker team than they were in 2010. But they’re set up for an AL East run in the not so distant future.

Strengths

(Chris Young/AP)

Despite losing Vernon Wells, the Blue Jays still possess plenty of power. Clearly they think that Jose Bautista’s breakout is real, since they signed him to a five-year, $65 million extension this past off-season. He won’t smack 54 homers again, but even if he hits 35 this year it will be a huge plus for the Jays. There are other hitters around him who can also crush the ball.

This year Travis Snider figures to get his chance to break into the bigs. He’s been in the league for the last three years, but has just 675 PA to his name. This year he’s starting with the big club and figures to stick around all season. What’s crazy is that he’s just 23. If he hits his stride this season he’ll provide an excellent left-handed power complement to Bautista. There’s also Adam Lind, a former top prospect who destroyed baseballs in 2009. He had a down year in 2010, but if that’s just a fluke then the Jays have just added even more power.

Another Jay who had a down year last year was Aaron Hill, who also broke out, at least in terms of power, in 2009. his 2010 was poor, but he still hit for some power. If he brings his average up, he’ll add some more right-handed pop to the lineup. The same goes for new acquisition Juan Rivera. He seems like the perfect fit for hitting coach Dwayne Murphy’s system. The same goes for rookie catcher J.P. Arencibia, whose No. 1 tool is his power. Finally, let’s not forget Edwin Encarnacion, who hit 21 homers in just 367 PA last year.

Weaknesses

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press,Nathan Denette

While the Jays led the majors in SLG last year, they finished 26th in OBP. That’s why their runs total ranked ninth. The power was there, but they just didn’t produce enough base runners. If Lind recovers and Snider approaches his ceiling then they will get a boost in that department. If not, they could be in for a year where they hit for plenty of extra bases, but don’t have enough runners on base to crack the top five in runs scored.

The bullpen has to be something of a concern, since the Jays lost a few key contributors in Scott Downs and Kevin Gregg. They did add Frank Francisco, which helps shore up the unit. But they also added Octavio Dotel, who could detract from it. Jon Rauch might actually be the best addition they made. Jason Frasor stays around, too, but it’s not as though the Blue Jays had a knock-out bullpen last year. That could be one of their most glaring weaknesses in 2011.

The starting staff, too, took a hit during the off-season. The Jays traded Shaun Marcum, perhaps their most effective pitcher, and inserted Kyle Drabek, a rookie. There are also reports that Brett Cecil’s velocity is down considerably — not good, since he didn’t throw all that hard to begin with. Brandon Morrow will miss the start of the season, which further hurts the staff. It figures to be pretty good once it’s completely assembled: Ricky Romero, Cecil, Litsch, Drabek, and Morrow, with Jo-Jo Reyes filling in.

Overall Outlook

I don’t want to make the mistake of underrating the Jays again, but unless they have breakout years from just about everyone, I doubt they’ll do much but play the spoiler in the AL East. This won’t be the case for long. The Jays have a good core of players and a fine farm system. They’ll be contending before we know it. In fact, this could be the last year where I write that they don’t appear to have it all together. At this time next year we could be looking at a four-team dogfight in the AL East. Hell, maybe even five.

About that 2003 stuff…

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Once the Yankees failed to sign Cliff Lee, they shifted into salvage mode and grabbed what they deemed to be useful players on the cheap. Among that group was fifth starter Freddy Garcia, long man Bartolo Colon, bench players Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez, and reliever Mark Prior. As each signing trickled in, a familiar wisecrack was bestowed from the masses: “they’d win if it was 2003!” The joke came in various forms, but the one constant was 2003 for whatever reason. People were fixated on that year. So, naturally, the question becomes: what’s so special about 2003 anyway?

2002
This is a convenient place to start since it’s Prior’s first (half) year in the bigs. He came up in late May and pitched to a 3.16 FIP in 116.2 IP, striking out 11.3 batters per nine. Colon was in the middle of a six-year stretch of 4-5 fWAR seasons, splitting a 3.73 FIP in 233.1 IP between the Indians and Expos. Sweaty Freddy was already a vet at age 25, with 87 big league starts to his credit. His second straight Opening Day assignment was followed by 223.2 IP of 4.01 FIP pitching. That’s a fine three-man pitching staff right there.

Jones’ .377 wOBA was the second highest of his career at the time, and the 15.6 runs he saved on defense (!) was then the lowest full season total of his career (!!) by eight runs (!!!). Chavez was a young buck just coming into his own at the time (24 years old), but his .364 wOBA was his third straight year in the .360’s. He also saved nine runs with the glove, down four from the year before.

(AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy)

2003
Prior zoomed right past Beast Mode and went straight into F*ck Sh*t Up Mode this season, giving the Cubbies 211.1 IP with a 2.47 FIP. Over the last eight years, there have been only five instances in which a pitcher has posted a FIP that low in a single season (min. 180 IP). He was, as they say, redonkulous. Garcia had one of the worst full seasons of his career with a 4.82 FIP in 201.1 IP, and Colon was rather ordinary with a 4.11 IP in a crazy 242 IP. That’s the sixth most innings thrown in a single season by a non-Roy Halladay pitcher over the last eight years. Jones had another phenomenal year (.361 wOBA, 18.4 runs saved) but Chavez slumped with the glove, costing his team 5.2 runs defensively. He did provide another .360-ish wOBA (.365 to be exact), the fourth straight year. This is the year everyone keeps referring too, though Prior and Jones were the only real standouts.

2004
Things started to go south for Prior in ’04, but he still managed a 3.53 FIP in 118.2 IP. Colon had the worst full season of his career (4.97 FIP in 208.1 IP), but Garcia had the second best of his career (3.67 FIP in 210 IP). Once again, Andruw was a monster, saving 24.3 runs defensively with a .351 wOBA. That’s his worst offensive performance in this here “study.” Chavez, meanwhile, had the best offensive season of his career thanks to a .383 wOBA, and he also saved eight-and-a-half runs at the hot corner. The Prior injury and Colon’s poor season really drag this group down.

Fatty vs. fatty. Fatty wins. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

2005
Jones stole the show this season, clubbing 51 homers and registered a .382 wOBA at age 28. He also saved 24.3 runs in center, resulting in an 8.3 fWAR effort that was second only to some guy named Alex among all position players. Colon won the Cy Young this year, but a 3.75 FIP in 222.2 IP is more really good than Cy worthy. Garcia (4.05 FIP in 228 IP) and Chavez (.342 wOBA, 7.1 runs saved) were solid but not brilliant. The ’05 season was Prior’s last hurrah, a 3.85 FIP in 166.2 IP. He made nine appearances in 2006 and hasn’t been back to the show since.

* * *

Now that we have an idea of what each player did during this completely arbitrary four year stretch, let’s recap it all using everyone’s favorite catch-all stat, fWAR…

While this fivesome did some fine work in 2003, the 2005 season is where it’s really at. Each player was worth at least three wins, and four topped at least 4.3 wins. The star-level performances aren’t there after Jones, but one star and four other above-average contributors is a recipe for success. So the next time someone says the Yankees would be doing great if it was 2003, make sure you point out that they’d be doing even better if it was 2005.

Stadium parking rates set at $35 per car

For the league's most transit-accessible ballpark, Yankee Stadium is surrounded by too many parking lots.

Throughout the last few years, I’ve followed the Yankee Stadium parking problems fairly closely. It fits in quite nicely with my urban planning hobby, and it also highlights the institutional problems with urban development planning in New York City. Essentially, the city added over 2500 parking spots in the South Bronx as the Yankees decreased stadium attendance and Metro-North opened a new station to serve the stadium. When the city’s Economic Development Corporation picked a company with a history of defaulting on its bond payments, well, nothing good could come of it.

As early as September, we first heard that Bronx Parking was in trouble. Their revenue stream fell far short of projections, and the company was, as recently as mid-March, in danger of defaulting on its bond payments. We had already reported in October that parking prices would increase 50 percent for 2011 with more rate hikes on the way.

Today, just a few short hours away from Opening Day and as fans from all over prepare to drive to the stadium, we know that parking prices at the Yankee Stadium lots will be $35 per car this year. That total could increase to $42 in 2013 and to $55 by 2015, Bloomberg News reported.

As the parking new percolates throughout those who rely on the garages for safe storage of their automobiles during the season, the good news for Bronx Parking and its bond holders is that the company will not default on its payment due tomorrow. For now, it can still dip into its reserve fund to meet its obligations. Still, Bronx Parking is changing the management of the garages, filing more detailed expense and revenue reports and working to improve signage along the Major Deegan to draw in more paying customers. As Juan Gonzalez of The Daily News noted, the city doesn’t expect to receive the $17 million in back rent any time soon.

For years, this parking issue has been on the minds of South Bronx residents and politicians. Those who do own cars — a small percentage of the area’s permanent residents are car-owning households — already bemoan the state of parking on game days. The city bars parking in a 10-block radius around the stadium, and while the Community Board is hoping to develop a residential parking permit plan, for now, residents must constantly move their cars during the season. It is far too expensive to park long term in the stadium lots.

Beyond those concerns though, most South Bronx residents wanted parks, not parking lots. They knew the stadium parking supply would far exceed demand and repeatedly asked the city to scale back its parking plans. Some folks think Bronx Parking should ask the Yankees to attempt to sell the spots, but with so many transit options, the number of spots is simply egregious. It was a bad planning decision five years ago, and one with which the city must live for the foreseeable future.

Pimping the RAB Tickets/TiqIQ partnership

TiqIQ presents the average Opening Day ticket prices on the secondary market. Click to enlarge.

As Opening Day dawns, I’d like to take a moment of your time to talk about RAB Tickets, our secondary ticket market partnership with start-up TiqIQ. Every year, hundreds of thousands of fans find their ways to sports events via the secondary market. For non-season ticket holders, it’s too hard to get seats on a single-game basis, and day-of sales are nearly nonexistent these days. Thus, sites such as StubHub, eBay and TicketsNow have become a popular destination for ticket purchases.

Last year, we entered into a partnership with TiqIQ. The company has developed a platform that aggregates ticket listings across all major secondary markets and presents the options in an easy-to-use display that shows seat location and ticket prices. Every time someone purchases a ticket using our co-branded site at RABTickets.com, we earn a small commission. TiqIQ can hook you up with tickets while you support your favorite Yankees site. (You can also find Rangers and Knicks tickets on the new landing page. We’re hoping to expand that to all NYC-area sports team.)

Over the course of the season, we’ll use some space on site to promote our partnership. TiqIQ supplies us with pricing graphics — such as the one at right — that shows how Yankee ticket prices are trending. Secondary ticket prices for Opening Day, for instance, have declined precipitously over the past few days as the weather forecast has worsened. If you’re buying tickets this week or next month, keep us mind. You can also find RAB Tickets right here on Facebook. Give the page a “like,” and be ready for contests and special announcements throughout the season.

For Opening Day, navigate to this page where as of this writing there are 3687 tickets for sale. The cheapest are some obstructed-view bleacher seats for $18 each, but there are plenty of decent seats left for under $30 a pop. And there you have it.

Open Thread: Mo … and everyone else

That’s tough to see, so I highly recommend clicking on the image to open a larger view. It shows the number of closers that each team has used during the Mariano Rivera era, which spans from 1997 to present (so 13 full seasons going on 14). Only two other clubs have used fewer than five closers in that time, and that’s the Angels (Troy Percival, Francisco Rodriguez, Brian Fuentes) and Padres (Trevor Hoffman, Rod Beck the year Hoffman was hurt, and Heath Bell) with three. The Cubs have managed to use eleven closers in the last 13 years, with the only repeater being Ryan Dempster. As if you needed more proof, Mo is awesome. (h/t Gleeman)

Once you’re done marveling at that, use this as your open thread. The Red Sox and Astros still have a Grapefruit League game to play tonight (on MLB Network), though all five hockey and basketball locals are in action as well, some against each other. Oh, and CC Sabathia will be on Letterman tonight, I mean it this time. Have at it.