This is the third part of a series of posts on the keys to the Toronto Blue Jays 2010 season. Part I, where we introduced and laid out all the keys, is here. Part II, in which we discussed the importance of Kyle Drabek's continued emergence as a future ace, is here. Part III will focus on the growth of Aaron Hill and Adam Lind.
From Part I:
2. Adam Lind / Aaron Hill -- In my opinion, it's actually more important for us to see Adam Lind and Aaron Hill repeat their banner year performances of 2009 than it is to see some of the prospects take a big step forward. Consider it this way: if Lind or Hill regress hard, there's a good chance that 2009 is a fluke. Hill has been a consistent producer for some time now, but as he ages, his fielding bible award-winning glovework will decline and it will be increasingly necessary for him to hit like he did last season to retain his value over the next few years. Lind, as we have seen, isn't going to be winning any fielding bible awards anytime soon and the Jays are going to depend on his bat both to keep them out of last this season and keep them in the playoff race in the seasons to come.
First, let's get something out in the open here. Aaron Hill and Adam Lind are two very different players. Aaron Hill is a middle infielder, Adam Lind is a 1B/LF/DH-type. Aaron Hill has won two Fielding Bible awards and is considered one of the finest fielding second basemen in baseball, Adam Lind is a below-average fielding leftfielder. Although both players hit 35 HR last season (actually 36 for Hill), Lind's OPS (932) and wOBA (.394) put him as one of the top offensive contributors in the American League, while Hill's contribution with the bat (829 and .357, respectively) were a tad less spectacular, though still extremely solid. Aside from missing almost all of 2008 due to a concussion, Hill has been an above average player ever since he broke into the big leagues at 23. Lind, after limited success in the Majors, finally broke out last season. So what we see is that players of fairly similar values in 2009 (4.2 fangraphs WAR for Hill, 3.7 fangraphs WAR for Lind) got there in very different ways. So why look at them together?Well, the answer to that question lies mainly in what I consider to be a fairly similar likelihood that Hill and Lind could burst or bloom (yep, Cursive reference) next season. Both hitters had offensive breakout seasons at ages 27 and 25, respectively, and still have some room for growth. So why should we be worried about either player busting?
Let's start with Aaron Hill. Hill's UZR dropped significantly in 2009, from 8.8 in '06 and 6.6 in '07 to -2.3 in 2009. Is this cause for concern? It's difficult to tell. While Hill's UZR took a big dip in 2009, his TotalZone numbers were still extremely strong (+11) and, as mentioned previously, he won the Fielding Bible award (in fact, he beat out Dustin Pedroia in a tiebreaker because four voters on the panel considered him to be the best fielding second baseman in the game). So it's certainly possible that UZR missed something here (it is generally accepted that it needs a sample of about three seasons to reflect true talent level, after all). However, even Hill's excellent TotalZone grade of +11 was a precipitous drop in his glovework from 2007's +23, when he didn't need a tiebreaker to take home the Fielding Bible award. Hill's frame certainly seems a bit bulkier, so maybe he's lost just a little flexibility as he's added power. Even if it hasn't yet, the potential for Hill's glove to decline is certainly there, particularly as he ages. If he continues to bulk up, it is possible that the Jays will move him over to third base, where added size shouldn't affect him nearly as much. If Hill does eventually become merely average with the glove, he'll lose a pretty significant portion of his value.
Hill's offensive contributions could also regress signficantly. While Hill's been a consistently above-average player over the last few seasons, until last year, his glove had been worth more to the Jays than his bat. As we all know, he rarely draws free passes (just 42 last season for only a 5.7% walk-rate). Unless Hill maintains his HR/Flyball-rate of 14.9% (which would not be extraordinarily high, except for the fact that his InfieldFly-rate was 11.6%) or starts taking some more walks, it will be a tall order to maintain the high level of offensive production he gave the Jays last year. Most projection systems think Hill will remain an above-average hitter, but see him hitting closer to 20 HR and consequently providing significantly less value as a hitter than he did in '09. If, over the next few seasons, Hill regresses as a fielder and doesn't hit as well as he did in 2009, the Jays will be going from a position where they have a star to a position where they have someone who is just average or slightly above. As long as Aaron Hill is with the Jays, he needs to remain a strength, relative to the rest of the division.
Now that we've discussed Aaron Hill, why should we worry about Adam Lind? Well, we all know that before Cito Gaston managed the current iteration of the Jays, he won a couple World Series championships in 1992 and 1993. What might be news to a few of you out there is that before our beloved manager brought home those two championships, he was a pretty mediocre player. Mediocre to the tune of -2.5 career WAR, almost a full win worse than someone named Alex Gaston. In spite of his sub-replacement level career, the Gaston we know and love actually had a brilliant offensive season in 1970 at age 26, hitting 29 HR en route to an OPS of 907 (OPS+ of 144) and wOBA of .400. The next season, Gaston's star fell abruptly. He OPSed 650 with a wOBA of .295. Until he was used strictly in a platoon situation, Gaston was a significantly below-average hitter. Now this is obviously not something we're hoping happens, and I don't expect it to happen either, but that doesn't mean that it couldn't. Sure, we can sit back and tell ourselves there's nothing to be afraid of -- Gaston's 1970 season was no more than a fluke thanks to a .378 BABIP. Lind's, at .323 last season, is certainly more sustainable. Personally, I don't think Adam Lind falls off a cliff this season, he's demonstrated pitch recognition, patience, power and the ability to hit line drives. But so had Garrett Atkins.
As I said before, I think Aaron Hill and Adam Lind will continue to emerge as stars, but this is not guaranteed. If they don't, then two of the only positions we're going into this season counting on being strengths for years to come won't be. And as we all unfortunately know, in the AL East, being just average just doesn't cut it. Finally, while long-term plans and growth may be what most relevant to some Jays fans, we still need some offense in 2010 if we want people to show up and we don't want to be a last place team. If the team's two best hitters last year don't bring that offense, who will?