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Series Preview: Yankees @ Blue Jays

Yunel Escobar has been a nice surprise for the Jays in the early going. (AP)

How tough is the American League East? Last year, the Blue Jays finished fourth with 85 wins, and, according to their third-order record, played to the level of an 89-win team, which was still just fourth-best in the division. Only in the AL East would a team that had a season that strong be considered in the middle of a rebuild, but the Blue Jays are. Rather than reloading to take a run at the division's big three, Toronto's two biggest off-season moves were a salary dump and a trade of one of their top starting pitchers for a prospect, both moves I praised.

The trade that sent Vernon Wells to the Angels along with just $5 million of the $86 million left on his contract over the next four years was universally praised for the $81 million of salary relief. Never mind the players acquired in return, fourth outfielder Juan Rivera and, via a subsequent trade with the Rangers, potential closer Frank Francisco. The latter was a free agent saddled with a Type-A status who found the market wanting and accepted arbitration from the Rangers only to be flipped to the Jays for unloved catcher Mike Napoli, part of the Wells booty. Rivera is useless defensively and owns a career .327 on-base percentage. Francisco has great stuff but is fragile. However, a clever general manager, which second-year Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos has thus far proven to be, can do a lot with $81 million.

Francisco is one of a trio of veteran sometimes-closers brought in by the Jays this winter, all on one year deals worth no more than $4 million, and all of whom could well be made available at the trading deadline to further flesh out Toronto's young core. Ex-Yankee Octavio Dotel, now 37, is no stranger to such treatment, having previously signed with a second-division team only to be flipped at the deadline in both 2007 and 2010, netting starters Kyle Davies for the Royals in '07 and James McDonald for the Pirates last year. The fragile Francisco, who has yet to throw his first regular season pitch for the Jays due to a strained left pectoral, is expected to return this week. Jon Rauch, who stepped in admirably for the Twins when Joe Nathan went under the knife for Tommy John surgery last season, has similarly assumed the closer's job with Francisco on the disabled list and may force Francisco to win it back upon his return.

The Jays' other big move this winter, beyond hiring former Red Sox pitching coach and Indians director of player development John Farrell to replace franchise legend Cito Gaston as manager, a coup in and of itself, was sending Shaun Marcum to the Brewers for Milwaukee's top (and nearly only) prospect, infielder Brett Lawrie. The sixteenth overall pick in 2008, Lawrie has All-Star potential at the plate, but wasn't much of a second baseman. Moved to third by the Jays, the 21-year-old is off to a blazing start in his first crack at Triple-A and could well be manning the hot corner in Toronto by mid-season.

In dealing Marcum, the Jays were not only trading an arbitration-eligible pitcher with a sketchy injury history and just two team-controlled seasons remaining, they were dealing from strength. Even without Marcum, the Jays have an impressive trio of young, team-controlled pitchers atop their starting rotation in incumbent lefty ace Ricky Romero, rookie Kyle Drabek, who starts tonight (see below), and former Mariners prospect Brandon Morrow, who is due to return from forearm inflammation to make his first start of the 2011 season this weekend. Those three young studs are the center piece of this team.

Toronto was supposed to have an offensive core built around Aaron Hill, Adam Lind, and Travis Snider, but those three combined to hit .229/.285/.422 in 1,512 plate appearances last year and have hit just .207/.260/.287 in 174 PA thus far this season. At 23, Snider is still young enough to find his major league stroke, but Lind, who will be 28 in July, and Hill, 29, now seem unlikely to repeat their strong 2009 seasons.

That leaves the offensive heavy lifting to Jose Bautista, who won't hit 50 home runs again this year but is making a strong early showing, suggesting his seemingly out-of-nowhere 2010 campaign wasn't a complete fluke, and slugging rookie catcher J.P. Arencibia, who has sent half of his hits for extra bases thus far this season, but isn't expected to catch much more than 100 games this year. It seems the Jays plan to ease Arencibia into a major league workload and help themselves to an excess of Jose Molina in the process. Also worth watching is 28-year-old shortstop Yunel Escobar, a Cuban defector who came over from the Braves last year in part due to personality conflicts in Atlanta. Escobar's bat didn't perk up much after that trade, but in his first three major league seasons he hit .301/.375/.426 and the change of scenery seems to be working this April, as he's off to a blazing start.

The Jays led the majors in home runs by a mile last year, but even with Wells, they weren't much more than an average offensive team, in part due to the reluctance of anyone but Bautista or Escobar to draw a walk. They're also a poor defensive club, which undermines their true strength, their pitching. Take away Morrow and Francisco to start the season, and it's no surprise that they've lost seven of their last nine coming into this quick two-game set against the Yankees in Toronto. Still, don't sleep on the Jays. They took ten of 18 from the Yankees last year and are moving in the right direction as a franchise. There are no pushovers in this division anymore.

Pitching matchups and Blue Jays roster below the jump . . .

A.J. Burnett (3-0, 4.67) vs. Kyle Drabek (1-0, 1.93) Tuesday, 4/19, 7:07, Ch. 9

The top prospect acquired by Toronto in the Roy Halladay trade, Drabek is the son of former Yankee and National League Cy Young award winner Doug and was the 18th overall pick in the 2006 draft. Promoted directly from Double-A last September, Kyle started his major league career with three starts down the stretch, the last of which, a quality start loss, came against the Yankees in Toronto. This year, the 23-year-old righty is one of a quartet of elite starting pitching prospects (along with Baltimore's Zach Britton, Tampa Bay's Jeremy Hellickson, and Seattle's Michael Piñeda) expected to vie for the junior circuit's Rookie of the Year award. So far, so good. Drabek has yet to allow more than two runs in a start and fell one out short in his last outing of a quality start each time out. He has struck out 17 men in 18 2/3 innings while allowing just one home run. The only drawback (sorry) thus far has been an excess of walks (11, which works out to 5.3 per nine innings). Drabek was never a control artist in the minors, but control was never a major issue for him either, so that's most likely a blip, perhaps evidence of early season rust or jitters. He brings mid-90s heat with movement and a real 12-to-6 yakker of a curve and should combine with lefty Ricky Romero and righty Brandon Morrow to give the Jays a very good Big Three for several years to come.

Toss out the seventh inning of his last start, which he started having already thrown 98 pitches, one shy of his previous season high, and A.J. Burnett's season ERA improves to 2.65. Burnett has just one quality start in three attempts, but fell just an inning short in his first outing, when he was suffering from sinus and throat infections, and took a shutout into the seventh inning in his last outing before coughing up four runs and getting the hook. Mix in a solid strikeout rate (8.3 per nine innings) and just five walks and there's reason to be optimistic about Burnett's ability to be a solid number three starter for this team. The only problem is that the Yankees lack a number-two.

Bartolo Colon (0-1, 3.97) vs. Brett Cecil (1-1, 6.19) Wednesday, 4/20, 7:07, YES

Colon is making his first major league start since July 24, 2009. With Phil Hughes on the disabled list due to a dead arm, Colon has assumed his place, having previously shadowed Hughes in each of his three disaster starts this season. Colon coughed up four runs in four innings in his first relief appearance, but still struck out five against just one walk, and in his two appearance since then he has allowed just one earned run in 7 1/3 innings while striking out 8 against two walks and five hits. On the season, Colon has struck out 13 men in 11 1/3 innings against just three free passes and one tater, continuing the fine work he did in Spring Training to make the team. Colon isn't a long-term solution for the rotation because he's extremely unlikely to hold up under the strain of a full-season of starting having not thrown 100 major league innings since 2005, but if Hughes can find the life in his arm without a particularly lengthy DL stay, Colon should be a solid replacement in the mean time.

Third-year lefty Brett Cecil handled the Yankees well as a sophomore last year, going 4-0 with a 2.67  ERA against the Bombers in five starts, though facing them three times over roughly a month down the stretch did seem to diminish his returns, with the last confrontation being his only non-quality start against New York on the season. Cecil hasn't been as bad as his ERA this season, but he has yet to really impress. He fell an inning short of a quality start in his first outing. Gave up five runs in five innings against the Angels in his second, and walked four and gave up two home runs in a quality start win against the Red Sox his last time out (the two homers, you see, were the only hits he allowed). A fly-ball pitcher with a low-90s fastball who gets by on a plus slider, solid changeup, and dominating his fellow lefties (.224/.255/.342 against him last year), Cecil has some significant holes in his game, but as a 24-year-old team-controlled player who needs to be no more than fourth starter on this team, he's an asset for Toronto.

Toronto Blue Jays

2010 Record: 85-77 (.525)
2010 Third-Order Record: 89-73 (.549)

Manager: John Farrell
General Manager: Alex Anthopoulos

Home Ballpark: Rogers Centre

Bill James Park Indexes (2008-2010):
LH Avg-103; LH HR-124
RH Avg-107; RH HR-114

Who's replacing whom:

• John Farrell replaces Cito Gaston
• J.P. Arencibia inherits John Buck's playing time
• Jayson Nix replaces Lyle Overbay
• Yunel Escobar takes over Alex Gonzalez's playing time
• Corey Patterson is filling in for Rajai Davis (DL) who is replacing Vernon Wells
• Travis Snider takes over most of Fred Lewis's playing time
• Juan Rivera replaces the remainder of Fred Lewis and Dewayne Wise (mL)
• Kyle Drabek inherits Shaun Marcum's starts
• Jesse Litsch is replacing Dana Eveland, Shawn Hill, and Marc Rzepczynski's starts
• Jo-Jo Reyes is filling in for Brandon Morrow (DL)
• Luis Perez is filling in for Frank Francisco (DL) who replaces Kevin Gregg
• Jon Rauch replaces Scott Downs
• Octavio Dotel replaces David Purcey and Brad Mills (mL)
• Carlos Villanueva replaces Josh Roenicke (mL), Rommie Lewis (mL), and Jesse Carlson (DL)
• Marc Rzepczynski inherits Brian Tallet's relief innings

25-man Roster:

1B - Adam Lind (1B)
2B - Aaron Hill (2B)
SS - Yunel Escobar (R)
3B - Jayson Nix (R)
C - J.P. Arencibia (R)
RF - Jose Bautista (R)
CF - Corey Patterson (L)
LF - Travis Snider (L)
DH - Edwin Encarnacion (R)


R - Juan Rivera (OF)
R - John McDonald (IF)
R - Jose Molina (C)


L - Ricky Romero
R - Kyle Drabek
L - Brett Cecil
R - Jesse Litsch
L - Jo-Jo Reyes


R - Jon Rauch
R - Octavio Dotel
R - Jason Frasor
R - Carlos Villanueva
R - Shawn Camp
L - Marc Rzepczynski
R - Casey Janssen
L - Luis Perez

15-day DL:

RHP - Brandon Morrow (right forearm inflammation)
RHP - Frank Francisco (left pectoral strain)
CF - Rajai Davis (right ankle sprain)

60-day DL:

RHP - Dusin McGowan (rotator cuff surgery)
LHP - Jesse Carlson (rotator cuff tendonitis)

Typical Lineup:

R - Yunel Escobar (SS)
L - Corey Patterson (CF)
R - Jose Bautista (RF)
L - Adam Lind (1B)
R - Aaron Hill (2B)
R - J.P. Arencibia (C)
L - Travis Snider (LF)
R - Edwin Encarnacion (DH)
R - Jayson Nix (3B)

Roster Update: Francisco has been activated. Litsch was optioned to Triple-A to make room for him on the 25-man roster. Morrow will take Litsch's place in the rotation this weekend.