Opening Day is now less than two months away, and the Blue Jays are still surrounded by questions.
One of the biggest concerns is third base. Will Jose Bautista shift there, despite his personal preference to play RF? Will Aaron Hill or Yunel Escobar (or both) shift from their current spots? Will Edwin Encarnacion reprise his role of E5? Or maybe, just maybe, will the team break camp with an unproven, raw rookie manning third?
That rookie, of course, would be Canada’s own Brett Lawrie, acquired from Milwaukee for Shaun Marcum.
The Blue Jays have high expectations for Lawrie – you simply don’t trade your Opening Day starter and erstwhile ace for nothing. But whether or not those lofty expectations begin to be filled this season is still unknown. The odds are heavily stacked against Lawrie becoming the Opening Day 3B, but with a huge spring he still has a chance.
Which brings me to my main point: if Toronto does start the 2011 season with Lawrie at third, then the Jays will likely have three rookies making huge contributions this season. J.P. Arencibia is on target to receive the majority of the starts behind the plate, and all signs point to Kyle Drabek starting 2011 in the rotation.
That gives the Jays three highly touted rookies. Even if Lawrie doesn’t make the team, both JPA and Drabek might have a solid opportunity to receive Rookie of the Year votes – something extremely rare for this franchise.
Yes we all know that Eric “I Ate My Trophy” Hinske and Alfredo Griffin have won the ROY award in the past (Griffin in 1979, Hinske in 2002). But other than that, the Jays have not had a lot of success with rookies.
Using baseball-reference as my data source, I looked at the Rookie of the Year voting results for each year from 1977-2010, the range spanning Toronto’s MLB existence. In that 34 year period, the Toronto Blue Jays have had 19 different players receive Rookie of the Year votes, but only five have finished in the top-3 (the aforementioned Griffin and Hinske, plus Mark Eichhorn in 1986, Juan Guzman in 1991, and Jose Cruz in 1997 after spending half the season in Seattle). Below is the complete list:
Of course that list must be taken with a grain of salt. The Jays were a winning franchise from the mid-80’s to the mid-90’s, meaning they went without a high draft pick for many years. It also meant the focus was on acquiring major league ready veterans and high-priced free agents to help them win, instead of breaking in raw rookies. Many times, when the Jays did have high-profile rookies, they eased them in slowly, eschewing Rookie of the Year chances for slow and steady progress (like Travis Snider).
But still – only five players in franchise history have finished in the top-3? Many Blue Jay stars never even received a single ROY vote, including Tony Fernandez, Dave Stieb, Jimmy Key, Roy Halladay, Vernon Wells, Carlos Delgado, and Aaron Hill.
That total seemed strange to me. It seemed very low. To determine if it was low, I set out to put that total in context by comparing Toronto’s ROY performance with the rest of the AL East. Here is what I found:
In the past 34 years Toronto has actually had more players receive ROY votes than Boston, New York, and Baltimore. (Tampa Bay has only been around since 1998. Their 10 rookies projects to about 26 over the same time span).
But while the quantity of player is there, the quality hasn’t been. The Jays are dead last when looking at top-3 finishers, and are only ahead of the Yankees when looking at the top-5.
Most disturbing is the column highlighted in yellow. In the past five seasons, the Toronto Blue Jays have not had a single player receive a ROY vote. Not one. Boston and Tampa Bay have each had five, Baltimore two, and the Yankees one. The same Yankees who have been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on free agents have still been able to produce a rookie good enough to receive recognition. (The fact that it was Joba Chamberlain who received that vote in ’08 can be laughed at now, but still – a vote is a vote.)
So while Toronto has failed to produce a real rookie threat in the last five years, the rest of the AL East has been churning them out at a rapid pace. And if you don’t count Joba, the names are exceptional:
Boston – Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima, Jacoby Ellsbury
Baltimore – Nick Markakis, Brian Matusz
Tampa Bay – Delmon Young (since traded to MIN), Evan Longoria, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, John Jaso
But if there is ever going to be a year to break that mould it’s 2011. With Drabek, Arencibia, and maybe Lawrie in the mix the Jays have a phenomenal chance to get back in the ROY race.
The better news? With Anthopoulos at the helm, 2012 looks pretty good too.