Tony DeMarco MSNBC.com Sports Columnist Tony DeMarco
MSNBC.com Sports Columnist Tony DeMarco
Q: Do you think the Blue Jays can ever become contenders if they rely solely on their farm system to develop major-league-caliber players, rather than go after free agents?
- Howard Schumann, Vancouver, B.C.
A: The Jays very well could be contenders this year - especially if the two-wildcards-per-league plan is implemented. And if they were in any other division except the AL East, they could have made the playoffs already. So, the quick answer to your question is 'absolutely'.
For those who don't know, Alex Anthopoulos quickly is developing into one the game's best general managers. He has accumulated a young-and-talented big-league roster while clearing the albatross contracts of Vernon Wells and Alex Rios, and the Jays also have one of the elite minor-league systems in the game.
Around Jose Bautista, there is a nucleus of young hitters with upside, led by third baseman Brett Lawrie, who should break out in his first full big-league season. The Jays finished sixth in the majors in runs scored and 10th in slugging percentage in 2011, and this projected lineup should top that: SS Yunel Escobar, 3B Brett Lawrie, RF Jose Bautista, 1B Adam Lind, DH Edwin Encarnacion, CF Colby Rasmus, LF Eric Thames/Travis Snider, C J.P. Arencibia, 2B Kelly Johnson.
The back end of the bullpen - an Achilles' heel in last season's 81-81 finish - has been significantly upgraded with the additions of emerging closer Sergio Santos, Francisco Cordero, Jason Frasor and Darren Oliver.
What the Jays need this season is another starting pitcher - maybe control artist Henderson Alvarez? - to emerge behind Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow.
Anthopoulos' dealings actually have lowered the payroll from a peak of just under $100 million in 2008 to a projected $85 million this season - but he wasn't able to land any of the off-season's top free agents. So that will have to wait until 2013.
But it's not hard to see the Jays being one of the game's top-10 franchises again in the very near future.
Q: Do you think Justin Verlander can continue to handle the heavy workload in 2012 that won him the AL MVP? Or will it just set him up for injury?
- Herman Fuenzalida, Amityville, N.Y.
A: Throwing an MLB-leading 3,941 pitches year after year - as Verlander did in 2011, not counting the playoffs - probably isn't the best way to stay 100 percent healthy.
Verlander just turned 29, and he has been as durable a starting pitcher as there is in MLB. He has made between 30 and 35 starts in all six of his full big-league seasons, and has averaged 238 innings in the last three seasons - 240 in 2009, 224 in 2010 and 251 in 2011 - with no time on the disabled list.
So at this point, there doesn't appear to be any need for alarm, or dramatic reductions in his workload. Just the usual caution teams use with their franchise arm.
Q: You recommended moving in the fences at Safeco, or the Mariners never would attract hitters. Petco is in the same boat, but the Padres are trying to tailor their team to fit the ballpark. Is it safe to say you think that attempt is doomed?
- Bob Kellogg, San Diego
A: My point with the Mariners was that they have to rely on drafting and developing their own hitters, or trade for them in lieu of free-agent signings - but that doesn't necessarily doom the franchise.
After all, the M's did make back-to-back ALCS appearances in the first two full seasons in Safeco Field - 2000 and 2001 - and won 91, 116, 93 and 93 games in the first four seasons there.
But it's obviously tough to attract free-agent hitters to play 81 games in Safeco, and moving in the fences could mitigate that. When your offense - with the benefit of the DH - scores fewer runs than every National League team, something is very wrong.
The Tigers moved in the fences at Comerica Park, and the Mets are doing so at Citi Field, so there is precedent.
As you mention, it's the same story in Petco Park, and it reached a nadir last season, when Ryan Ludwick's 11 homers led the team. That's just not right. Carlos Quentin and Yonder Alonso will help in that department, but the ballpark has so much to do with it.
But tailoring your team strictly for your home ballpark can backfire when the team takes to the road. The Rockies fought this battle for years, when they had wide home/road record discrepancies before they started storing balls in the humidor to mitigate the offense-friendly conditions at Coors Field.
The old Red Sox teams also struggled with this, as they constructed slugging lineups that were dangerous in Fenway Park, but were hindered in the bigger road ballparks by a lack of speed and defense.