A little more than a year has passed since the Toronto Blue Jays shocked the baseball world and captured the hearts of Canadians nationwide, following two huge trades and the free-agency signing of outfielder Melky Cabrera.
The moves made by general manager Alex Anthopoulos made the Blue Jays fan base forget all about the departure of manager John Farrell to the Boston Red Sox.
Rather, the fans began expecting to watch the team compete in the postseason for the first time since 1993, when it won the second of its back-to-back World Series titles.
To say that the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays underperformed following their offseason makeover would be an understatement. The team won just 10 of its 27 games in April and despite winning 11 consecutive games in June, was never in contention during the latter half of the season, finishing seventeen-and-a-half games out of a playoff spot.
To add salt in the wound, the Boston Red Sox, led by Farrell, clinched the division and went on to win the World Series.
Fast-forwarding to the 2014 offseason, there is considerably less hype going into the season than there was last year, when Las Vegas experts had declared the Blue Jays the odds-on favorites to win the World Series.
There are no such predictions this year from neither the experts nor the fans. Anthopoulos, too, has stayed quiet on the trade and free-agency fronts, with his only notable move being the signing of catcher Dioner Navarro.
While it may be easy write off the 2014 Toronto Blue Jays before the season even starts, fans should do well to remember that the returning roster consists of mainly the same pieces that had the baseball world raving last year.
The only two notable departures from the team are catcher J.P. Arencibia and pitcher Josh Johnson. Arencibia, with a batting average of .194 and an on-base percentage of .227 was arguably the worst hitter on the team. Johnson, meanwhile, only made 16 starts last year, in an injury plagued season and compiled a team high 6.20 ERA. Because of their sub-par performance, the departure of these two may even turn out to be an “addition by subtraction” scenario.
While many of the players no doubt underperformed, injuries also played a huge role in the 2013 Blue Jays’ struggles. Aside from the aforementioned Johnson, starting pitchers Brandon Morrow and J.A. Happ both spent a significant amount of time on the DL. Ace R.A. Dickey pitched a large part of the season with a lingering back injury that sapped the velocity from his knuckleball and led to some sub-par numbers.
Players from the starting lineup such as Brett Lawrie, Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes, Colby Rasmus and Melky Cabrera all spent time on the DL with various injuries. These injuries forced the team to rely upon bench players and minor league call-ups for a large part of the season.
Based on the roster the Blue Jays still have, the team should see much better results if the regulars can avoid the DL for the most part in 2014.
The team’s lineup still boasts formidable names up the middle in all-stars Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Leadoff hitter Jose Reyes is still one of the best table-setters in the game. Colby Rasmus quietly had a breakout season last year and will look to continue that success in a contract year. Melky Cabrera is also an impending free agent following the 2014 season and will be playing for his next contract.
It’s worth noting that even with all the injuries in 2013, the Blue Jays offence still finished eighth in the American League in runs scored, fourth in home runs and sixth in stolen bases. This is still a potent offence and playing half its games in the very hitter-friendly Rogers Centre only adds to that.
The bullpen, led by closer Casey Janssen, was the team’s major strength last year and sent two relievers to the All-Star game. As the starting pitching faltered, the bullpen was overworked and ended up second in the AL in innings pitched. Despite logging so many innings, the bullpen still put up the fourth lowest ERA in the AL.
The starting pitching remains the team’s major weakness, and the one area holding the team back from being counted as a contender. Aside from Dickey and Mark Buehrle, who were solid though unspectacular last year, Morrow and Happ are both being counted on to have bounce-back years following their injury plagued 2013 seasons. The fifth starter in the rotation is still a question mark, but this is something Anthopoulos is aware of and trying to address.
Adding another frontline starter into the rotation would go a long way towards replacing the departed Johnson and giving the club a chance to compete. Free agents Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez would be prime targets for the team to go after. It's also worth noting that while both Santana and Jimenez are linked to draft pick compensation, the Blue Jays have both of their first round picks protected in the upcoming 2014 MLB draft and would only lose their second round pick if they sign either free agent. The club also has highly touted prospects such as Marcus Stroman who could challenge for a spot on the rotation.
Provided that its stars stay healthy and its starting pitching can be improved, this team still has the pieces to be a force in the American League and rebound from a disastrous 2013 season.
*All statistics are from baseball-reference.com