Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Ricky Romero throws a pitch against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium in New York

Well folks, this one’s about to get ugly. Not just this season, mind you, but for a few years – though, if Anthopoulos is as good as advertised, there might just be a way out of this mess. It’s too bad, really, as the makeup of this pitching staff makes this team one of the most interesting clubs in all of baseball. Too bad they exist in the gauntlet of the AL East.

There’s no mistaking it – Toronto is clearly the runt of the AL East litter for the forseeable future. While they have a few good full-timers and a number of interesting arms in the rotation, there’s just not a lot to build on here, barring the awakening of a number of sleepers on this team – a number of sleepers.

Either way, this team is in serious trouble for 2010 and beyond. Then again, when third place is all you can ever look forward to, does the disappointment really matter?

OF Travis Snider

In April 2009, many people thought that Snider, not Adam Lind, was Toronto’s pearl – primed and ready for a breakout. Six months later, Lind established himself as one of the most dangerous hitters in the AL East, while Snider found himself knocked down a rung in the prospect rankings.

Snider’s first full season was very troubling, indeed. Unlike most young hitters, a bad start did not lead to eventual improvement. In fact, he was very good at the outset, hitting .258/.324/.484 with 3 homers in 62 at-bats. It was putrid May (.216/.237/.243) and subsequent demotion that did him in, including an August that saw him strike out 19 times in 38 at-bats.

Still, he’s a young batter with a good pedigree who will be given every chance to claim the starting left field job in Spring Training. If he can improve on his ghastly strikeout totals (78 strikeouts in 241 at-bats, 32.4 percent strikeout rate), he’ll have a good career ahead of him. Easier said than done, however, as major league pitchers have a funny knack for making prospects look like has-beens and never-was’. Such was the case with Snider.

While he’s got the hitting ability and power to succeed, an improvement from a 71.3 contact percentage and 27.1 O-Swing Percentage are imperative to his progress. If he can’t do it, then Snider may already be maxed out – with perhaps a little more growth in the power department. Either way, no team will ever be satisfied with a fringe-fielding, .700-.750 OPS left fielder. Without a serious overhaul in the plate discipline department, Snider could be looking at that.

For the time being, however, he is as sleeperish as it gets, having turned 22 just two weeks ago, with plus power potential and a 6-0, 235 pound frame. The sky is the limit for Snider and 2010 will be very important in seeing how far he will climb – not to mention the team’s chances at turning in a .500 season.

Despite the rough 2009 year, Toronto fans would be wise not to get too down on Snider. He’s an impact prospect for a reason – and sometimes superstardom is only a tweak or two away.

CF Vernon Wells

Is it time, yet, where we can call Vernon Wells a sleeper? Sure, he’s been around a while, but he’s been so bad the last three seasons there must be room for a breakout. If not a sleeper, he’s at least a rebound candidate – and has been ever since that disaster of a season in 2007, when he followed up on a .303/.357/.542 2006 with a .245/.304/.402 debacle.

It’s hard to say what happened to Wells. He morphed from a good major league centerfielder in 2006 to one of the biggest contractual liabilities in all of sports the very next year.

Adding insult to injury, 2010 is the season where the backloaded side of his contract takes effect. From here on out, he’ll cost $107 million, including a total of $21 million this year ($12.5 base salary plus an $8.5 million signing bonus payment), $23 million in 2011, $21m in 2012, $21m in 2013, and $21 m in 2014.

Remember when Manny was waived by the Sox because his ~$20 million contract was deemed too pricey for the team to afford? At least he made up for the cost by being one of the premier hitters in the American League on a team that could comfortably afford high priced superstars.

But this is the Blue Jays. And, for a team that had an $80 million payroll last season, there’s no way they can expect to burn 25% of the budget on a centerfielder who finished 2009 with below replacement-level production (-0.1 WAR).

There may be no bigger burden to any one team in all of sports. Even if Wells finds a way to eclipse a .900 OPS (a mark he has reached just once in his career, 2003), he’ll still be, to this team, akin to a dropped, deep-sea anchor amidst a hurricane. Without a drastic increase in the club’s budget, it will be very hard for this roadblock to be lifted.

If there was any reason J.P. Ricciardi deserved to get fired, this was it. And deserve it, he did – many times over.

Possibly the most foolish contractual move in any major sport this past decade, it is now up to Anthopoulos to sweep up the ashes. There may be no way out of this one, however.

The team is, for all intents and purposes, operating on a $60 million budget through 2014. Competing with a payroll of this size in the AL East is no easy feat. Just ask the Baltimore Orioles. They’ll tell you that there are dark days ahead.

A “sleeper” due to his exceptional talent while posting a combined 2.1 WAR over the past three seasons, he is also the knockout blow to any postseason hopes the Blue Jays dreamt of having for either this or the next five seasons.

Sweet dreams, Jays fans. Some mistakes you just never stop paying for. In this case, the debt is $107,000,000.

SP, Entire Rotation

While it may seem impossible to classify an entire rotation as a group of sleepers, impossible never met the 2010 Blue Jays starting staff.

Apart from Ricky Romero – who also has considerable growth potential aside from his satisfying rookie season – there isn’t a single pitcher guaranteed a slot in the rotation. Nor is there a single pitcher among the eight or so candidates who is not capable of a true breakout year.

I haven’t seen a patchwork rotation like this in some time – patchwork describing both the rotation itself and the individual arms that comprise it.

Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum will both enter 2010 coming off severe arm injuries, though both last pitched in 2008 to great success. Marcum compiled a 4.24 xFIP while sending down 7.31 batter per 9 against a 2.97 BB/9 rate. McGowan clocked among the hardest average fastball velocities of starting starters in ’08 (94.8 mph) while posting a 6.87 K/9 rate and 4.32 xFIP.

The rotation also features candidates including Scott Richmond, Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, Mark Rzepczynski, and David Purcey.

Richmond, one of the great finds of the independent leagues in the last few years, posted 71 strikeouts in 85.1 innings in the first half of ‘09, before succumbing to the long ball late in the year while attempting to pitch through pain. If he can get the homers in control and find the strike zone with a bit more regularity, he could settle in as a nice middle-rotation starter.

Morrow, former closer for the Seattle Mariners, looks to switch to starting full-time this season. Another hard thrower, his biggest issues as a Major Leaguer have been finding the strike zone and keeping the ball out of the air. If he can find a way to fix these problems, he will be a good starter. Otherwise, he’ll likely be just adequate as a mid-to-back of the rotation hurler.

Cecil, Rzepczynski, and Purcey could all use quite a bit more seasoning. Though all put up impressive minor league numbers, none have been able to translate that success into big league results. Unfortunately, these pitchers are perhaps the Blue Jays best hope of building a winner for the future, as their arbitration clocks have just begun. Anthopolous would be wise to start these prospects in AAA, giving them a bit more time to refine their command and approach, while also allotting them innings later in the year so he can decide where to direct their futures.

Despite all the depth in the rotation, one of the more pressing problems is that the set lacks any real star power. Sure, at least one will likely grow into a number two billing, but the majority will likely pan out as average or thereabouts. While the makings of a solid rotation are there, it just won’t compete with the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox without some additional help.

Still, this wealth of relative mediocrity is, possibly, the Blue Jays only saving grace.

Making the most of a sticky situation, Anthopolous must find a way to give as many innings as possible to each of the seven aforementioned starters. Young, major league-ready arms can often fetch a good price on the trade market – especially if they have some track record for success and carry a few remaining arbitration years.

Luckily for Toronto, every one of these seven starters fits that bill – and the biggest favor Anthopolous can grant the franchise is to have a good idea of who can do what by the end of 2010.

With Kyle Drabek and Zach Stewart waiting in the wings in the high minors, Toronto would do themselves a great service in opening up a slot in the rotation for each by trading away some of their current, fringy Major League arms. Similar to what we recommended for the Orioles, they could use the spare pitchers to acquire some hitting, which they desperately need.

The parts are certainly there – a stable of Drabek, Romero, Stewart, and the best two of Cecil, McGowan, Marcum, Richmond, Morrow, Rzepczynski, and Purcey would be a strong rotation.

The smart money – or perhaps, the wishful money – is on Richmond, Rzepczynski, Cecil, and Purcey, if only because their arbitration clocks have just begun. McGowan, Marcum, and Morrow are well into theirs and likely won’t be around when the Blue Jays are ready to field a truly competitive team.

At the very least, the former set of pitchers can potentially outlast Vernon Wells’ contract, which is something that McGowan, Marcum, and Morrow cannot.

The good news for Toronto is that they seem to have too many arms to fail. There’s almost no way that they would be unable to find five suitable starters out of the ten-plus in the majors and high-minors.

Additionally, the more that succeed, the merrier, as spare parts can be interchanged for a shortstop prospect, additional bats, another corner infielder to complement Brett Wallace, a centerfielder, or corner outfielder. If enough starters have a good season in 2010, they will be able to fill these gaps and could compete after 2011.

A plan for short-term success may not be the best use of the Blue Jays resources, as the 2010-2014 seasons may be the most competitive the AL East has ever seen – with the Rays likely to field a very competitive team and the Orioles, possibly, making a serious bid somewhere between 2011-2015.

Toronto may have to get used to living in the cellar while making the most of their environment – finding as many cheap decorations as possible. For a team that finished 75-87 in 2009, lost one of the league’s best pitchers (Halladay), and has serious holes at many key positions, it will take nothing short of a miracle to get this team into the playoffs.

Though miracles do happen, it’s been a long time since one occurred in the AL East. The division is not a land of fairytales and is certainly not one where Cinderella ever gets to dance at the ball with Prince Charming.

For Toronto, it may be time to start thinking about the future – a distant one. In fact, for the sake of competitiveness, they may stand to make the playoffs sooner if they switched zip codes rather than duking it out on the Eastern seaboard.

While the team certainly has potential to surprise in 2010, the odds are stacked heavily against them making any sort of push for the playoffs. If the starting rotation features at least two breakouts, while Snider, Wells, catcher John Buck, and third baseman Edwin Encarnacion have improved seasons, then this team could make a playoff push. But that’s a huge if, and not one that anyone should take a bet on.

Perhaps one of the drearier teams in the American League, it’s an awful shame to see a team this interesting having to field competition like the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays.

Maybe a divisional realignment should be in order. It seems only fair.