The expectations for the Toronto Blue Jays have not been this high since the mid-90’s.
With a team that finished 85-77 and in fourth place in a difficult AL East in 2010, which ended up being about 15 wins better than what was supposed to happen, the leap to the next level in 2011 is a dream that fans in Toronto are hoping becomes a reality.
The magic number to make the playoffs in the American League will be 95 wins, and for the Jays to improve to that threshold they need to keep doing the things that made them potent in 2010—hit the ball extremely well for power, hope that the other big three in the AL East stumble slightly, and finally play well against the NL during inter-league games.
In 2010 the Jays were led by heavy bats who hit home run after home run and a deep pitching staff. Although the formula for success will be relatively the same for 2011, some of the faces and places have changed.
The pitching staff was the biggest surprise of last season. The young staff was thought to be developing and several of the pitchers who were supposed to lead the team ended up injured, but the Jays still managed to put lots of quality starts together.
They hope the same will happen this year.
With 99 percent of the pitching staff, including all the starters under the age of 30, there is a bright future in Toronto. After the trade of Shaun Marcum to the Brewers, Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow will be the top two starters this year.
Romero finished 2010 with 14 wins and, as the ace of the staff in 2011, he’ll be asked to win at least that many and should oblige. Although Morrow didn’t get the high win totals of some of the other members of the staff last season, he should be able to win at least 14-15 games this season. Morrow arguably has the best ‘stuff’ of anyone on the staff and will provide quite the 1-2 punch with Romero.
The third, fourth and fifth starters this season will probably flux throughout the season depending on injury and innings count.
To start the season, the Jays will have top 50 prospect Kyle Drabek make the jump to the majors. A lot is expected of Drabek since he was the key piece of the Roy Halladay deal. Brett Cecil, who finished 2010 with the team lead in wins, is back, and if he can continue his pace the Jays will definitely have a chance at the 95 wins.
Jo-Jo Reyes, Jesse Litsch and Mark Rzepczynski will also all get chances to take the hill for the Jays this season. All are hard throwing, young pitchers who will hopefully be able to give 6-7 innings a start and then make way for the strong bullpen.
The closer spot will only have one question this season: Who is going to get the ball? To start the season it will be Jon Rauch taking over for the inconsistent Kevin Gregg. Others that will get the ball at the end of the game will be Frank Francisco or Octavio Dotel. In a scenario with everyone healthy, Francisco should be the guy with the ball at the end of the game, but it is always nice to have options.
Jason Frasor returns as the set-up man and will be counted on to be a shutdown pitcher and hold the lead when called upon. Other names that fans will see out of the bullpen this year include Shawn Camp, Carlos Villanueva, David Purcey and Casey Janssen.
Now that the pitching staff has been set, the players that will score the runs to protect them need to be covered. The outfield has had the biggest makeover. With the magnificent trade to unload the contract of Vernon Wells, centerfield became vacant.
Newly acquired Rajai Davis from the Oakland A’s brings speed and enough offence to make up for the year on, year off Wells. Travis Snider has claimed left field as his own. He will need to be more consistent as a young player, but it seems Jays management has confidence in him to be the man going forward.
For awhile it seemed like the weak link in the outfield might be in right, but that is no more as manager John Farrell has decided that reigning home run champion and the Jays newly minted face of the franchise, Jose Bautista will be the everyday right fielder. Although it would be nice to see Bautista hit 50 home runs again, it will be tough for him as opposing pitchers will be on the look out for that sweet swing.
In the role of back-up outfielders will be Juan Rivera, Jayson Nix and Cory Patterson. Also, lurking are Scott Posednik and young farm hand Anthony Gose. The infield defence may be a little inconsistent at times and could cause some pain to the Jays pitching staff. They will probably make up for it with their bats, but the more sure handed they can be, the more likely the Jays are to get closer to that magic 95 wins.
Returning to the hot corner is Edwin Encarnacion. He gets a bad rap for his defence, but he covers a lot of ground, and as long as he can keep his throws accurate enough he will have a fine season.
The person at the other end of EE’s throws is Adam Lind. The young star has moved to first base and has proven himself defensively. He needs to return to his 2009 offensive form again, though, and that could make him an all-star.
The middle of the infield is strong with former all-star Aaron Hill manning second base. Hill is also a player who needs to return to his 2009 offensive form. Hitting for a .206 average despite hitting 26 home runs just isn’t going to cut it.
At shortstop is Yunel Escobar. A solid defensive player who also adds some speed on the base paths will turn the double without problems and help keep those ERA’s down.
Behind the plate this year is super prospect JP Arencibia. After making his debut last year with a bang, Arencibia was frustrated at the plate and then was relegated to back-up duty behind Bengie Molina. This year, he is the undisputed starter and needs to make the most of his opportunity.
Molina will still get the opportunity to play enough as he will catch Brandon Morrow and probably Jo Jo Reyes.
With all the shifting in positions in the infield, the everyday DH ends up being Juan Rivera. Arriving from the Angels as part of the Vernon Wells deal, Rivera has to be consistent at the plate and provide the protection for the likes of Hill, Lind and Encarnacion and his job will be complete.
There you have the team that will take the field for the Blue Jays this season and try once again to make Canada proud by bringing the playoffs North of the border.