Optimism is running rampant on the streets of Toronto, and rightly so. The excitement is due almost entirely to the offseason moves made by the Blue Jays.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos made good on his promise that he spend the necessary money in order to improve his team.
He was able to improve defensively, offensively, his starting pitching and his bullpen via trade as well as free agency. Big name acquisitions now comprise a large part of the team and I, for one, cannot wait to get this season underway.
Here is a complete overview of how the Blue Jays are shaping up heading in 2013.
2012 Record: 73-89, fourth in AL East
Key Arrivals: RHP R.A. Dickey (from NY Mets), RHP Josh Johnson (from Miami), LHP Mark Buehrle (from Miami), SS Jose Reyes (from Miami), IF Emilio Bonifacio (from Miami), OF Melky Cabrera (FA), IF Maicer Izturis (FA), RHP Jeremy Jeffress (contract purchased), RHP Esmil Rogers (from Cleveland), C Josh Thole (from NY Mets), C Henry Blanco (FA)
Key Departures: SS Yunel Escobar (to Miami), 2B Kelly Johnson (FA), RHP Henderson Alvarez (to Miami), C Jeff Mathis (to Miami), SS Adeiny Hachavarria (to Miami), RHP Jason Frasor (FA), SS Omar Vizquel (Retirement), 3B Yan Gomes (to Cleveland)
Projected Rotation (as per the official site)
1. R.A. Dickey (20-6, 2.73 ERA, 1.053 WHIP)
2. Brandon Morrow (10-7, 2.96, 1.115)
3. Mark Buehrle (13-13, 3.74, 1.171)
4. Josh Johnson (8-14, 3.81, 1.280)
5. Ricky Romero (9-14, 5.77, 1.674)
Projected Starters (BA/OBP/SLG)
C: J.P. Arencibia (.233/.275/.435)
1B: Edwin Encarnacion (.280/.384/.557)
2B: Maicer Izturis (.256/.320/.315)
3B: Brett Lawrie (.273/.324/.405)
SS: Jose Reyes (.287/.347/.433)
LF: Melky Cabrera (.346/.390/.516)
CF: Colby Rasmus (.223/.289/.400)
RF: Jose Bautista (.241/.358/.527)
DH: Adam Lind (.255/.314/.414)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
The injury bug left the 2012 Toronto Blue Jays pitching staff as a fraction of what it was when the season started. Players that were counted on early in the season, including Kyle Drabek, Brandon Morrow, Drew Hutchison and Sergio Santos, all missed significant time with various injuries last year.
But what a difference a year makes. A couple phone calls from general manager Alex Anthopoulos, and what was a fairly meager starting rotation turned into an absolute powerhouse in the already strong AL East.
Although there are seven starting pitchers listed on the Blue Jays website right now, the five that will see regular time on the hill are extremely strong. Offseason trades brought the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey to Toronto, along with Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle.
These trades made enough of an effect to move last year's Opening Day starter, Ricky Romero, to fifth on the depth chart. They also warranted an investigation from MLB commissioner Bud Selig, and made Twitter erupt, but that is beside the point right now.
R.A. Dickey was absolutely lethal last year with the New York Mets. He finished the season with a 2.73 ERA and struck out 8.9 hitters per nine innings en route to his first All-Star appearance and the Cy Young. His performance has earned him the chance to pitch on Opening Day for his new club.
Since there is not much room to improve, even a slight decline in production out of Dickey will be acceptable. There is a popular theory amongst his critics that Dickey will falter in the windless confines of a domed stadium, but the evidence indicates otherwise. Last year Dickey pitched in Tropicana Field, under a dome, and recorded a one hit complete game.
Brandon Morrow has shown Blue Jays fans what he is capable of over the last three years, including coming within one out of throwing a no-hitter against the Tampa Rays. He is coming off an injury-plagued year where he only pitched 124.2 innings and struggled to get batters out via the strikeout. He recorded 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings, a career low for a pitcher who has relied on the strikeout as a means to retire batters throughout his career.
Mark Buehrle’s transition to Toronto has been less than ideal for him and his family, having to leave behind his family dog due to a ban on the breed in Ontario. His Staffordshire Terrier/bulldog mix will stay with his family in St. Louis and not make the move to Toronto.
There is no reasonable way to predict how living away from his family for the first time in his career will affect his performance on the field, but his career statistics speak for themselves.
Buehrle has recorded double digit wins in each of his last 12 seasons and has a career 3.82 ERA. He has pitched at least 200 innings and, on average, gives up just one home run a game.
Buehrle is entering the latter years of his career, but at 33 years old, still looks to have the drive to compete. Pitching out of the third spot in the rotation, the Blue Jays hope to get his usual 200-inning, ten win season. Anything less would be disappointing, anything more would be a bonus.
Another newcomer that found himself in blue and white by way of the Miami Marlins is Josh Johnson. In 2011, Johnson found himself on the disabled list and only pitched in nine games. Last year, although healed, he struggled to win games and was shipped out as part of a salary-cutting move by owner Jeffrey Loria.
Johnson relies heavily on his slider, a pitch notoriously hard on the arm and one that typically takes a little longer to regain control after sustaining an injury. If he can find his deadly knockout pitch that allowed him to strikeout 191 batters in 2009, he should be able to get his record back to well above .500.
The motivation for Johnson to have a good season has never been higher. He is in the last year of his contract and will be rewarded in the offseason with a significant pay raise if he can regain his form.
The last piece of the rotation puzzle is the much talked about Ricky Romero. Romero’s struggles last season have been well documented and analyzed, but offseason surgery has him feeling better and looking to get past last season’s woes.
(Offseason surgery, by the way, that was performed to correct elbow problems. Elbow problems that were apparently not a factor in his struggles last year, although he feels “100 times better” after the surgery. Curious to say the least.)
Romero will have an improved offense to give him run support, and with the flexibility in the rotation, he may find himself matched up against opponent’s fourth and fifth starter for at least the early part of the season. He should be able to exploit this mismatch and get off to a strong start.
As a whole, the rotation looks to be a force. They have the talent and diversity to cause serious problems for hitters.
In any three game series the Blue Jays can really mess with hitters' timing. Imagine facing Romero’s curve one day, Dickey’s knuckleball the next and Morrow’s fastball the third day. Absolutely lethal.
Scouting the Bullpen
The bullpen is one of the only areas that did not see major changes this offseason. Just two new faces grace the relief pitching corps, Esmil Rogers and Jeremy Jeffress, both acquired to add depth.
Heading into the season, the most talked about role in the bullpen will be the closer. When Sergio Santos got injured last year, Casey Janssen filled in admirably. His 22 save performance earned him the opportunity to begin this season as the closer, forcing Santos into the setup role.
The old adage that you can never have too much pitching holds true for the Blue Jays bullpen, as there are a number of players that could pitch in each role. Janssen and Santos are capable of handling the closer’s duties with the odd man out being the setup man.
Converted starter Brett Cecil, Brad Lincoln and, potentially, J.A. Happ will see time in long relief. Aaron Loup and Steve Delabar will be the middle relief pitchers, while Rogers, Jeffress and Darren Oliver will be counted on as specialists.
If everything goes according to plan, the Jays will not have to go deep into the bullpen, as Dickey and Buehrle will be expected to pitch over 200 innings while, most nights, the other starters should be able to provide at least six innings of work.
If things go awry, the bullpen is well stocked to handle the task. Save for Aaron Loup, each member of the bullpen has at least three years experience pitching in the MLB. Whereas youth may be beneficial elsewhere on the diamond, experience in the bullpen to tackle high-pressure situations is always a plus.
Scouting the Hitting
The best part about the offseason trades that changed the makeup of the lineup so drastically is that the Blue Jays gave up very little major league quality talent.
Last year’s shortstop Yunel Escobar was shipped out, along with Adeiny Hachavarria and Jeff Mathis, while Kelly Johnson was lost to free agency; but other than that, most of the talent was retained. With more hitters coming in than leaving, manager John Gibbons has a lot of firepower and lineup combinations to work with.
Whereas last year the lead of spot was a trial and error type of situation, newly acquired Jose Reyes will be a mainstay at the top of the order this year.
Reyes has proven he can be an extremely effective leadoff hitter with a career .342 OBP, and just one year removed from hitting .337 with the Mets. He has the speed (410 career stolen bases) and power (462 career extra base hits) to be a real threat at the top of the order.
Who will hit second is a little bit less definitive, but there is really no bad option. Whether it ends up being Melky Cabrera, Brett Lawrie, Emilio Bonifacio or a revolving door of players, the Blue Jays are in a fortunate situation to have so many options. Whoever hits second will be tasked with getting on base (ideally pushing Reyes into scoring position) for the big guns that are coming up next.
Hitting Bautista third in the lineup is probably the best thing for this team. Firstly, it forces opposing pitchers to face him in the first inning. It also means that pitchers cannot pitch around him in order to get past him in the lineup.
The reason it is foolish to pitch around Bautista is the Blue Jays clean up hitter, Edwin Encarnacion. He enjoyed a breakout season in 2011 and has never looked back. He has hit .276 over the last two years including 42 homeruns last year.
While once a liability at the plate (career .245 BA pre-2010), and in the field (his 103 errors from 2005 to 2010 earned him the nickname E5) Encarnacion is now a source of strength in a very powerful lineup.
The rest of the lineup will be some combination of Colby Rasmus, Adam Lind, J.P. Arencibia, and Maicer Izturis. Each of these hitters have the ability to contribute significantly to the team but have struggled to do so consistently in their career.
Rasmus hit .276 in 2009 and saw his average drop to .225 in 2011 before recording 75 RBI in 2011. Regardless of his performance at the plate, Rasmus has been steadily improving in the outfield and has played the ultra-important center field position well during his time in Toronto. Whether or not he can hit consistently at the plate will be secondary to his play in the field, especially hitting alongside such talented hitters.
The ever-so-frustrating Adam Lind will be on a short leash this season. His time in Toronto was on the clock last year, and that clock may become an hourglass this season.
When the Blue Jays put him on waivers last year, not one team filed a claim for him. That was a clear indication of his perceived value around the league, and unless he can improve at the plate, he will be spending much of his year two hours down the road in AAA Buffalo.
That being said, when he hits, he hits well. In 2009 he hit .305, and after being recalled from AAA last year, he hit .301 to close out the season. Consistency is a clear issue for Lind, but his upside remains an enticing conversation piece. If he can figure out how hit consistently, he may be the piece that turns a good lineup into a great one.
The Blue Jays have a very good batting order. Not the best in the league, but powerful enough to give their starting pitchers a lead. Which may be all they need.
What a luxury to actually have to sit down and think about whom to put into this section. Some teams have one pitcher whose name jumps off the page as the indisputable ace, but with this team, it is not as cut and dry.
Is it Mark Buehrle who has a perfect game under his belt? Probably not. Is it Brandon Morrow who Toronto fans have watched mature before their eyes over the past three seasons? It could turn out to be Morrow, but as of right now it’s not.
It could also end up being Josh Johnson, but instead of acting like we don’t know where this is going, let’s just all agree that R.A. Dickey has earned the recognition of being the stud of the staff.
Dickey won 20 games last year, the NL Cy Young Award, made his first All-Star appearance and put the world on notice that the knuckleball is back. He will be the man toeing the rubber on Opening Day, will be counted on as a clubhouse leader and relied on to record a win for the team every fifth day.
R.A. Dickey is the pitching stud, nestled inside an extremely talented rotation.
Health permitting, it has to be Jose Bautista right? A wrist injury last year put an abrupt end to a two-year joy ride that Bautista was having at the plate, but in 2013 he will be back.
Bautista led the league two years straight in homeruns and had back-to-back seasons with 100 RBI. If he can stay healthy, there is no indication that he won’t be able to return to the form that warranted him MVP consideration in 2010 and 2011.
He can hit for average, for power, at the top of the order and in the clean-up spot while playing the field or as the designated hitter.
With Reyes hitting in front of him, there will be plenty of opportunity for Bautista to knock in some runs and with Encarnacion hitting behind him, he will see his fair share of pitches to hit. Everything is lining up for Bautista to have a monster year at the plate.
I’ve always seen an x-factor as an intangible. Something that matters but just can’t be quantified in any reasonable manner. Momentum and crowd noise are examples of x-factors. It’s something that definitely plays a role in the outcome of a game or a season, but the impact of which cannot be measured.
For this team, chemistry is the x-factor. One of the most important intangibles is the culture in the clubhouse. Teams more talented than this have faltered because of issues behind closed doors, and avoiding any of those problems will be a large factor in their success.
The returning group of players have shown that they like playing with each other. Whether it is the unique postgame celebrations between Bautista, Rasmus and Rajai Davis in the outfield, or the brotherhood of Team Unit (Lawrie, Arencibia and Bautista), it is clear that this is a team with a lot of youthful enthusiasm that loves to play the game.
Sometimes this youthful zeal can be a hindrance. Young players can get distracted on the road, not get motivated for games or find themselves concentrating on extraneous distractions, like their social media presence, more than baseball.
That is where the acquisition of the veteran players will be a key role. Veterans like Dickey, Buehrle and Reyes will work to keep the youngsters in check on the road and in the clubhouse.
Combine last year's enthusiasm with this year's belief that they can win a World Series and the situation is magnified. Their youthful enthusiasm and chemistry could be their downfall, but more likely, it could be their x-factor to success.
Prospect to Watch
Young prospects is where the offseason trades may come back to haunt the Blue Jays. They may not have given up much major league talent, but they traded away a small fortune of minor leaguers.
The prospects that played for the Blue Jays last year and are still under contract are limited. Aaron Loup pitched so well out of the bullpen in his rookie season last year, that it is hard to call him a prospect anymore.
The only one left is Anthony Gose. Gose came up to help fill the void left by Jose Bautista’s ailing wrist last year, and did not have the coming out party he had hoped for.
Due to the depth of the Blue Jays, he may not see any action in a MLB uniform this year, but his development is worth watching. He struggled mightily against left-handed pitching in the minors and he needs to improve in that aspect of his game before he can be counted on to contribute at the highest level.
Worst-case scenario is an injury that forces him to play before he is ready. Best-case scenario is that as of September, he will join the team just in time for a playoff run and gain some valuable experience.
Wherever Gose ends up playing the majority of his baseball this season, his progress will be something to watch.
What They Will Do Well
The Blue Jays did a lot of things well last year and a lot of things poorly, but one thing that no one can deny is their aggressiveness.
They tried to manufacture runs, especially early in the season, by stealing bases and playing small ball to move runners into scoring position. Alas, pitching woes, among other things, put an end to that. Falling behind early in games with a struggling pitcher on the hill did not allow the Blue Jays to risk potential runs.
With a stronger lineup this year, look for the Blue Jays to play extremely aggressive. Reyes, Lawrie, and Bonifacio have the speed necessary to move up 90 feet in order to get in scoring position. Look for John Gibbons to give the green light on a lot of straight steals and hit and runs.
Being aggressive could be the difference in a one run game, which could be the difference between a playoff spot and watching them on TV. Aggressive baseball is something the Blue Jays will do well, and often, in 2013. If these guys can channel their energy and play within themselves there will be a lot of smiling Blue Jay fans.
What They Won't Do Well
Heading into spring training, there is not too much talk of the Blue Jays shortcomings. Not to mention, Toronto fans have a reputation of being perennially optimistic despite their better judgment. This year they have reason to be hopeful, as there is not a glowing weakness on this team.
There are some things to keep an eye on, though, such as the second half of the batting order. The bottom half of the order is significantly worse than the top half (Arencibia is a career .222 hitter, Rasmus hit .223 last year and we all know about the struggles that Lind has had), and has the possibility to adversely impact the team’s ability to score runs.
Another thing to keep an eye on is their record while playing in NL ballparks. Manager John Gibbons has had no experience managing or coaching a major league team where the pitcher is forced to hit, and how he uses his substitutions late in the game will be an interesting plot line. It could be the difference between a win and a loss on the road.
As fans, the time for complaining is over. Whether you love the offseason trades, hate them or are indifferent, it is time to stand behind your team.
You like them enough to read this comprehensive preview (or at least skim it, no hard feelings), so why not like them enough to show them your support?
The Blue Jays are in win-now mode, and as fans we need to be in support-now mode. Watch them on TV or, if you can head down to the ball park, pack the house. Show the team that this city appreciates a good baseball team and help them win.
This is a team built to win 90-plus games and earn a playoff spot. Be a part of that ride. The waiting is over—it is just time for execution!
Matthew Appleby is a Toronto Blue Jays featured columnist who spends his summers watching baseball, and his winters counting Maple Leafs wins (because it is easier than counting the losses). Follow @applebyinc