As the hype surrounding the Toronto Blue Jays' 2013 season reaches a crescendo as we get closer to Opening Day, numerous Blue Jays will be feeling the pressure to meet higher expectations this season.
The organization as a whole has huge expectations to meet, coming off an offseason in which the franchise mortgaged a good chunk of its prestigious farm system to become instant contenders in the American League.
The fans and the media have set the bar high for the Blue Jays in 2013 and most people would consider the season a failure should the team fail to return to the playoffs for the first time in 20 years.
However, in order for the organization to achieve a higher plateau of success than in years past, it will rely on a number of key veterans to increase their production or improve upon the performances of the players they will be replacing. Almost everyone in Toronto will be feeling the pressure of increased expectations in 2013.
The newly acquired trio of starters—R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson—will be expected to seamlessly transition to the American League East and provide a vast improvement over last year's rotation.
Meanwhile, last year's ace, Brandon Morrow, will be expected to stay healthy and duplicate last year's success.
In the bullpen, Casey Janssen will be expected to thrive in his first full season as closer and secure close victories over the team's tough division rivals in hopes of winning a division title.
In the lineup, Jose Reyes will be expected to be one of the most explosive leadoff hitters in the game and help set the table for Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, both of whom will be relied on to be the heart and soul of the batting order.
Brett Lawrie will be expected to achieve the "phenom" label that has been placed on him and improve upon last year's solid first full season of work. Melky Cabrera will be expected to pick up where he left off in 2012 prior to a 50-game suspension due to testing positive for a banned substance.
J.P. Arencibia will be expected to improve as a hitter after last year's regression and after the organization had shown its faith in him by trading top catching prospect Travis D'Arnaud. Colby Rasmus and Adam Lind will be expected to rehabilitate their images with bounce-back campaigns or risk finding themselves on their way out of Toronto.
Finally, John Gibbons, back for his second stint as Blue Jays manager, will be expected to learn from his mistakes and do what he couldn't do the first time around: get the Blue Jays back to the playoffs.
Needless to say, expectations have been set high for just about everyone expected to be in the dugout for the team's opener on April 2nd at home against the Indians.
And the pressure of meeting those expectations will likely carry right through to Game 162, because if the Blue Jays fail to meet their concerted goal of returning to the playoffs, the term "disappointment" will likely appear frequently on both an organizational and individual level.
Unfortunately, it's very unlikely that everyone will live up to the added expectations in 2013. Inevitably, some Blue Jays will fall short of their expected performances. That doesn't mean that the Blue Jays can't still make the playoffs, but rather that other players will need to rise to the occasion.
This article will select one Blue Jay likely to rise up to that challenge of carrying the franchise back to the playoffs while also picking out one player who may fail to adequately meet the expectations set for them in 2013.
Likely to Fulfill Expectations in 2013: Josh Johnson, Starting Pitcher
Of all the players the Blue Jays acquired this offseason, perhaps the most interesting is Josh Johnson, a seven-year veteran who is still only 29 years of age.
R.A. Dickey may be the de facto ace after winning a Cy Young Award last year, and Brandon Morrow may be next in line after serving as the Blue Jays' ace in 2012, but Josh Johnson could emerge as the team's best pitcher.
First, take a second to appreciate his career numbers: 3.15 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 8.2 K/9 IP and only 59 HRA in 916.2 career innings of work. Those are ace-quality numbers on the surface, but they need to be put into the context of the upcoming season.
We all know Johnson has an extensive injury history and it is a bit of a risky proposition to bank on a full season of health from him. In half of the last six seasons, he has made 14 starts or less. Most recently, his 2011 season was cut short in May due to a serious shoulder injury.
Johnson was out of action for almost a year, but he came back fairly strong in 2012. Unfortunately, he didn't appear to be the same caliber pitcher he had been in recent years when healthy. Johnson lost some speed on his fastball last year and has been transitioning into a pitcher who throws more breaking balls.
Johnson struggled in April and May of last season, perhaps still recovering from the shoulder issue that shelved him for almost all of 2011. Minus a hiccup around the All-Star break, however, Johnson looked like an improved pitcher as he regained his arm strength and became more comfortable with throwing his curveball.
In the end, despite all of the obstacles for Johnson, he still recorded a solid 3.81 ERA (with a more impressive FIP of 3.40), 1.28 WHIP and struck out 165 in 191.1 innings. Most importantly, Johnson showed the ability to pitch a full season's workload and stayed healthy—even improving—late in the season.
Johnson, still under 30, could bounce back to his 2009-2010 form in 2013.
Far removed from shoulder issues, he could see the slight uptick in velocity that made him one of the game's best fastball pitchers and could also hone his curveball in year two of throwing it as a close-out pitch.
Pitching in a more hitter-friendly park may not affect Johnson as much as it would other pitchers. Johnson has always maintained a groundball rate better than league average and an excellent HR/FB percentage (which jumped to 8.4 percent in 2012 after a 3.8 percent mark in 2011 and 4.2 percent mark in 2012).
He has also been extremely stingy when it comes to allowing home runs (both at home and on the road).
Johnson's BABIP of .302 indicates he was less fortuitous than the average pitcher in 2012; the league average BABIP last year was .293. Johnson's LOB percentage was also a career-worst 71.9 percent.
If Johnson can get his fastball back to where it was, continue to master the curve and catch a few of the breaks he didn't catch in an unlucky 2012, these underlying numbers could start trending back to his career averages. If that happens, Johnson should see his ERA and WHIP return back to elite status.
Johnson is also in a contract year (if you subscribe to the notion that this is a motivating factor for some players). This is his chance—fully healthy and on a playoff contender—to cement his status as an elite starter, which he should then be able to parlay into a big contract next offseason.
First, however, he'll have to stay healthy in 2013. If he can, and his 2012 campaign is a good sign that he may be able to, Johnson should be able to carry over his solid second-half numbers to Toronto and live up to the high expectations of being one of baseball's top 20 starters.
If he can pitch as he did prior to the shoulder injury of 2011, he could just end up being the Blue Jays' ace, regardless of what the depth chart says.
Likely to Fall Short of Expectations in 2013: Casey Janssen, Closer
Let me preface this pick with a few disclaimers:
First and most obviously, I hope that I'm wrong in my prediction.
Second, I still think Casey Janssen is a very good pitcher and can still be valuable to the club in 2013.
Third, I would have preferred to pick someone like Colby Rasmus or Adam Lind, but I didn't think their expectations were high enough to warrant consideration. Janssen was not the ideal choice for this selection.
Fourth and finally, this has less to do with Janssen's abilities as a pitcher and more with the situation he has been thrust into for 2013.
Now that I feel I have aptly qualified this pick, allow me to suggest why Casey Janssen may fail to live up to the high expectations set for him in 2013.
Janssen was brilliant when he stepped into the role of closer, but knowing how fickle relievers can be, there is automatically a question of whether he can repeat the performance in 2013. And undergoing any kind of shoulder surgery in the offseason doesn't help his case.
Unfortunately, that's what Janssen did on Nov. 16th. The procedure was described as "repair[ing] lingering AC joint soreness" and all signs still point to Janssen being ready for Opening Day, but it's never a good sign when a pitcher—especially one with Janssen's history of arm issues—goes under the knife and the team tries to keep the surgery under wraps.
Perhaps it explains why Janssen struggled a bit in September last year or perhaps the surgery really was a minor procedure that will make Janssen a more effective pitcher in 2013. However, given the seriousness of shoulder injuries in today's game, I am a bit nervous as to whether there will be any lingering effects from the procedure.
Even if Janssen is back at 100 percent for Opening Day, as we all hope he will be, there are still concerns about whether he can do it again as a closer. Janssen has been spectacular in the bullpen for the last three years; however, he pitched primarily in low-leverage situations in 2010 and 2011.
He did a phenomenal job as closer last year, but he did so for a team which was basically calling it a season by the time he took over the ninth-inning job.
Janssen still had to close out games all summer long—which is never an easy task, regardless of the team—but emerging as closer for a Blue Jays team out of contention in 2012 was a pretty low-pressure environment as far as closing gigs go.
Opening 2013 as the closer for a team facing enormous expectations and likely to have a target on them from Game 1 will likely be a much more stressful and intense job.
Without too much experience in high-leverage situations, will Janssen be able to rise to the challenge? Closing out meaningless games down the stretch last year doesn't provide too much proof.
There is a long list of relievers who were fantastic in the seventh and eighth innings of games but just couldn't carry that success over to the ninth inning for very long. Those relievers were—and still are—considered very valuable pieces in almost any bullpen, but they're usually second or third on the depth chart.
Janssen has always given off that vibe to me; he's the type of guy I would love in a setup role, but I'm concerned about how he'll handle being a full-time closer. He's never been the dominant type of pitcher—the type that usually thrives at closing out games—but rather a consistently solid performer.
There's nothing wrong with that, but for whatever reason, recording the last three outs of a game is a whole different beast, one that frequently turns the elite into average and the "consistently solid" into below-average pitchers.
Janssen survived the ninth last year, but can he do it again with much greater expectations and pressure placed upon both him and the team?
He struggled mightily against the Red Sox and Orioles last year, but he was sparkling against the Yankees and Rays. He was better on the road than at home. He was even better against lefties as a right-hander. There are all sorts of statistical signs as to why Janssen should be able to at least continue his success.
However, when it comes to the ninth inning, it's often a matter of intangibles. You can usually throw the stats out the window. I hope I'm wrong, but I think Janssen may still be best suited for a setup role, despite a valiant effort as the impromptu closer on a hopeless team last year.
The shoulder surgery, his unsatisfactory finish to the season in 2012 and just the nature of closing out games and the difficulty of being consistently great as a reliever raises some concerns. In the end, I still think Janssen is a valuable piece to the bullpen; he just may turn out to be more valuable as a setup man.
He's still the safest pitcher in the bullpen, but if Sergio Santos comes back healthy, Santos may be better suited for closing. It's Janssen's job to lose, but if he pitches in April like he did in September, the team could make the switch quickly, knowing how valuable Janssen can be in mid-relief.
I think at the end of the year, Janssen should still put up solid numbers, but I would not be surprised if he isn't the team's closer.