A Cautionary Tale

As promised, here is my look at what happened to the Toronto Blue Jays this year, in light of the similarities between the Indians of 2004 and the Jays of 2003:

In 2003, Toronto was one of the best offensive clubs in baseball. Lead by Carlos Delgado and Vernon Wells, the Jays hit .279/.349/.455 for the year, and trailed only the Red Sox in runs scored. Here’s their main 9:

  • C Greg Myers (329 AB) .307/.374/.502
  • 1B Carlos Delgado (570 AB) .302/.426/.593
  • 2B Orlando Hudson (474 AB) .268/.328/.395
  • SS Chris Woodward (349 AB) .261/.316/.395
  • 3B Eric Hinske (449 AB) .243/.329/.437
  • LF Shannon Stewart (303 AB) .294/.347/.449
  • CF Vernon Wells (678 AB) .317/.359/.550
  • RF Reed Johnson (412 AB) .294/.353/.427
  • DH Josh Phelps (396 AB) .268/.358/.470

and a couple of their main reserves:

  • Frank Catalanatto (489 AB) .299/.351/.472
  • Mike Bordick (343 AB) .274/.340/.382
  • Tom Wilson (256 AB) .258/.331/.391
  • Bobby Kielty (189 AB) .233/.342/.376

Delgado had an MVP-worthy season in 2003, and Vernon Wells was an All-Star. During the season, the Jays traded Shannon Stewart, a pending free agent, to Minnesota for Bobby Kielty (who was eventually dealt for Ted Lilly). Mike Bordick retired after the season, but the rest of offense was kept intact. Except for Myers and Delgado everyone in the starting lineup was under 30 years old. Given this, you’d expect the Jays to continue to hit in 2004, and given an upgrade in the starting rotation, you’d give them a shot to make the playoffs.

Then 2004 happened.

  • C Greg Zaun (257 AB) .276/.378/.401
  • 1B Carlos Delgado (309 AB) .236/.339/.476
  • 2B Orlando Hudson (322 AB) .258/.340/.419
  • SS Chris Gomez (294 AB) .286/.343/.347
  • 3B Eric Hinske (426 AB) .251/.314/.373
  • LF Reed Johnson (420 AB) .274/.327/.379
  • CF Vernon Wells (377 AB) .281/.344/.456
  • RF Alexis Rios (269 AB) .290/.334/.398
  • DH Josh Phelps (295 AB) .237/.296/.417

The injury to Carlos Delgado hurt the offense the most, but that doesn’t completely explain the huge drop in power this year (from .455 in 2003 to .398 this year). Eric Hinske has really fallen off a cliff after his breakout season in 2002, and Vernon Wells is way off from last year’s numbers. Losing Greg Myers also theoretically hurts, though 2003 was probably a career year for the veteren catcher. Though not included in this exercise, losing 2003 Cy Young winner Roy Halliday was also a big blow to the team in general.

So what does this tell us? That offenses simply cannot be expected to reproduce at high levels indefinitely. Injuries happen. Regressions happen. Career years happen. One of the hardest part of a GM’s job is to try to predict trends in a player. Is Casey Blake becoming a pretty good player, or is it just a two-year fluke? Is Ronnie Belliard capable of producing similar numbers in the future? How many good years does Omar Vizquel have left in him? What about Ben Broussard? Jody Gerut? Coco Crisp? Do you cut bait on Matt Lawton after the season, or take your chances with him one more year?

In a middle-sized market, signing the wrong player to the wrong contract can be devastating to an organization. John Hart revolutionized the way teams treat young players financially; he locked up among other, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Charles Nagy, and Bartolo Colon to long-term contracts, buying out their arbitration years. Sometimes that worked fantastically, other times (Jaret Wright) the contracts became albatrosses. Mark Shapiro has said many times that he won’t aggressively seek to lock up players through their arbitration years. This Spring Training, he declined to offer Jody Gerut a multi-year deal; in retrospect, that decision looks pretty smart. While he may get burned in arbitration with some players, at the very least the Indians will be paying a player what he’s worth. Financial flexibility seems to be the organizational motto lately; by having more control of your players, you can be more creative to acquiring talent from year to year. Only three players have guarenteed contracts next year; CC Sabathia, Matt Lawton, and Aaron Boone. So this offseason will be the first big test of Shapiro’s financial strategy.

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