The Toronto Blue Jays have long since settled into a role as an also-ran in the American League East.
When the 2012 season begins, the Blue Jays will be looking to snap an 18-season postseason drought. The last time they went to the playoffs was the year they won the World Series in 1993, and they're currently riding a string of four straight fourth-place finishes.
The tricky part with the Blue Jays is that they're rarely a bad team. They're just never as good as the heavy hitters in the AL East. It's a top-heavy division, and in recent seasons, the Jays just haven't been able to keep up with the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays.
Will their fortunes change this season?
It's definitely possible. Here's a look at how the Jays are shaping up heading into the 2012 season.
2011 Record: 81-81
Key Arrivals (courtesy of BaseballProspectus.com): C Brian Jeroloman (waivers), 2B Luis Valbuena (from Cleveland), C Jeff Mathis (from Los Angeles Angels), RHP Sergio Santos (from Chicago White Sox), OF Ben Francisco (from Philadelphia), RHP Jim Hoey (waivers), SS Brian Bocock (FA), LHP Aaron Laffey (FA), RHP Jason Fasor (from Chicago White Sox), RHP Vince Bongiovanni (FA), OF Ricardo Nanita (FA), LHP Darren Oliver (FA), RHP Nelson Figueroa (FA), SS Chris Woodward (FA), SS Omar Vizquel (FA), C Kyle Phillips (FA), RHP Francisco Cordero (FA), RHP Rick Vandenhurk (FA).
Key Departures: LHP Brad Mills (to Los Angeles Angels), RHP Nestor Molina (to Chicago White Sox), LHP Frank Gailey (to Philadelphia), RHP Myles Jaye (to Chicago White Sox), RHP Daniel Webb (to Chicago White Sox), 3B Mark Teahen (FA), C Jose Molina (FA), RHP Jon Rauch (FA), RHP Frank Francisco (FA), RHP Shawn Camp (FA).
Projected Rotation (per official site)
- Ricky Romero (15-11, 2.92 ERA, 1.14 WHIP)
- Brandon Morrow (11-11, 4.72, 1.29)
- Brett Cecil (4-11, 4.73, 1.33)
- Henderson Alvarez (1-3, 3.53, 1.13)
- Dustin McGowan (0-2, 6.43, 1.57)
- Kyle Drabek (4-5, 6.06, 1.81)*
*Drabek is not listed as a starter in Toronto's rotation on the team's official website, but he's in the mix. At last check, Jon Morosi of FoxSports.com reported that Drabek is hoping to break camp with the big club, but it's "unclear" if he's going to be able to make the cut.
C: J.P. Arencibia (.219/.282/.438)
1B: Adam Lind (.251/.295/.439)
2B: Kelly Johnson (.222/.304/.413)
3B: Brett Lawrie (.293/.373/.580)
SS: Yunel Escobar (.290/.369/.413)
LF: Eric Thames (.262/.313/.456)
CF: Colby Rasmus (.225/.298/.391)
RF: Jose Bautista (.302/.447/.608)
DH: Edwin Encarnacion (.272/.334/.453)
Closer: Sergio Santos (R) (4-5, 30 SV, 2 HLD, 6 BLSV, 3.55 ERA, 1.11 WHIP)
Darren Oliver (L) (5-5, 2 SV, 16 HLD, 4 BLSV, 2.29, 1.14)
Jason Frasor (R) (3-3, 14 HLD, 2 BLSV, 3.60, 1.40)
Francisco Cordero (R) (5-3, 37 SV, 6 BLSV, 2.45, 1.02)
Casey Janssen (R) (6-0, 2 SV, 7 HLD, 2 BLSV, 2.26, 1.10)
Jesse Litsch (R) (6-3, 1 SV, 3 HLD, 1 BLSV, 4.44, 1.29)
Carlos Villanueva (R) (6-4, 1 BLSV, 4.04, 1.26)
Luis Perez (L) (3-3, 4 HLD, 2 BLSV, 5.12, 1.55)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
Toronto's starting pitching was decidedly mediocre in 2011. Blue Jays starters posted a 4.55 ERA and had an uninspiring 2.12 K/BB. Walks were a pretty big problem, as only Boston's starters walked more batters than Toronto's starters in the American League.
In the end, Blue Jays starters made just 80 quality starts, fifth-fewest in the AL.
It's not all bad, though. The Blue Jays have some quality arms in their rotation, starting at the top with Ricky Romero.
Romero has gotten better every year he's been in the big leagues. Though it went largely unnoticed, Romero had an outstanding season last year, winning 15 games with an ERA under 3.00 and a very respectable 1.14 WHIP. His best work was done after the All-Star break, as Romero went 8-3 with a 2.72 ERA.
The key stat? Hitters hit just .193 off Romero after the break.
And now for the obligatory "But..."
Mark these words: Romero is a regression candidate. His numbers look good on the surface, but the truth is that they look a little too good.
I'll give Romero props for keeping his K/9 rate on par with his performances in 2009 and 2010 and for dropping his walk rate, but he benefited from a surprisingly low line-drive rate while keeping his ground-ball rate a solid 54.7 percent. While this was going on, Romero's fly-ball rate increased, and his HR/FB rate ballooned to 13.2 percent.
The other number that stands out is Romero's .242 BABIP, which is absurdly low. It therefore is not at all surprising that his 4.20 FIP was way higher than his 2.92 ERA.
We're likely going to see Romero regress to being more like the pitcher he was in 2010. His ERA will shoot back up to the mid 3.00s, and he'll put a few more runners on base.
On the bright side, it's not like he'll suddenly turn into A.J. Burnett.
If you ask me, the guy to watch in this rotation is Brandon Morrow. I'll have more to say about him in just a minute, but suffice to say for now that Morrow has ace potential.
The latter half of Toronto's rotation has some upside. The Jays will get a huge boost if Brett Cecil recaptures his 2010 form. He won 15 games that year with a solid K/BB rate, a high ground-ball rate and a low opponents' slugging percentage. Those numbers all got worse in 2011, in part due to bad luck and in part due to simple regression on Cecil's part.
Henderson Alvarez is a wild card. We only have 10 major league starts to consider when it comes to him. A couple of them were quite good, and on the whole, Alvarez's major league career got off to an impressive start. He's earned his spot in this rotation.
We also know Alvarez got the call in the first place because he owned the Double-A level after he was promoted in 2011. In 14 starts at Double-A, Alvarez went 8-4 with a 2.86 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP. He's not going to put up numbers like this in the majors, but the Blue Jays will be happy as long as he provides innings and keeps his ERA in the low 4.00s or better.
Beyond the top four pitchers in this rotation, who knows what the Blue Jays are going to get out of the No. 5 spot. The spot seems to be Dustin McGowan's to lose, but he hasn't been healthy since his breakout season in 2007. McGowan had great stuff back then, but shoulder injuries really took their toll.
If the Jays get the '07 version of McGowan, this rotation is going to be pretty stacked. I'd advise nobody to hold their breath for that, though.
And then there's Kyle Drabek. If you saw my note at the top, you'll know that Drabek is going to have to earn his spot in the big leagues. He didn't do that in the majors last season, and he struggled after he was demoted. He's not going to be handed a rotation spot until he shows he deserves it.
There is some upside when it comes to this rotation, but there are also question marks. Toronto's starters could be more productive than they were in 2011, but a lot of things will have to go right.
Scouting the Bullpen
Just like its rotation, Toronto's bullpen was on the mediocre side in 2011. Blue Jays relievers had a 3.88 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP. Not horrible, but not great either.
However, those numbers don't count for much concerning this year's 'pen. It's pretty much a completely different unit.
The Blue Jays went out of their way to reshape their 'pen during the offseason, most notably trading for Sergio Santos. He performed well as the White Sox's closer, and the Jays will be using him in that same capacity in 2012.
What you have to like about Santos is his ability to strike hitters out, which is what you want your closer to do in the ninth inning. Santos' K/9 last season was an impressive 13.07, and opponents hit just .181 off him. He walked a few too many guys, but the Blue Jays will live with that as long as he strikes hitters out and keeps them from racking up extra-base hits.
Santos will have some good arms setting up for him. Darren Oliver is something like a million years old, but he's easily one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball. He gets by with smoke and mirrors, but you can't argue with the numbers he's posted in recent seasons. The Blue Jays should be glad to have him.
Francisco Cordero is unpredictable, but the Jays can look on the bright side and realize that Cordero is coming off the best season of his career. He kept his walks much lower than usual, and hitters hit under .200 against him.
I also like Jason Frasor. He's always walks a few too many guys for my taste, but he strikes hitters out and he generally does a decent job of keeping the ball in the ballpark. He'll do for a sixth- or seventh-inning guy.
Oh, and Casey Janssen is good too. He cut down on his walks in a big way last year, and opponents hit just .228 off him. If he has another year like that, this Jays 'pen is going to be stacked.
On paper, I'd actually wager that Toronto's 'pen is one of the better 'pens in the American League. The restructuring process will be worth it.
Scouting the Hitting
Toronto's bats worked just fine last season. The Blue Jays finished fifth in the American League with 743 runs scored and fifth in the AL with 186 home runs. The Jays didn't hit for a good team average, and they didn't post a good team OBP, but they scored plenty of runs thanks to the thunder in their bats.
The Jays are in for more of the same this year. Their lineup has its shortcomings, but virtually everyone in it can hit the long ball.
The charge will be led, of course, by Jose Bautista. He checked in at No. 3 on my countdown of the five best right-handed hitters in baseball, and there's no denying that Bautista has established himself as the best pure power hitter in baseball over the last two seasons.
The numbers definitely support the notion. Bautista has hit 97 home runs over the last two seasons, and his slugging percentage over the last two seasons is a ridiculous .613. When he makes contact, he hits the ball very hard.
There is, however, a slight bit of concern about Bautista. Nobody could get him out before the All-Star break last season, but seemingly everyone could get Bautista out after the All-Star break. He hit .334/.468/.702 before the break and .257/.419/.477 after the break. That's a serious regression, one that is more than a little worrisome.
In situations like these, we typically blame the Home Run Derby. It's merely a theory, but it's going to be a true bummer if Bautista's power suddenly goes the way of Bobby Abreu's.
The good news is that there are plenty of power hitters who can pick up the slack in the event that Bautista's power does come back to earth. This lineup is going to mash.
Adam Lind is a key hitter. I'm presuming he'll be batting cleanup again, meaning he can do Bautista a big favor if he starts hitting like he did back in 2009. Lind was one of the top hitters in the American League that year.
The last two seasons have seen Lind's power numbers take a dive, and there's no real reason for it other than the fact that Lind just hasn't been making the kind of solid contact he did in 2009. That year, his BABIP was .323. In the last two seasons, Lind's BABIP has been well under .300. In the meantime, his walk rate has declined and his strikeout rate has remained more or less constant.
So, it's simple: Lind just needs to put the bat on the ball. I wish there was a scientific explanation for how he can do that, but it's entirely up to him. He's a better hitter than he's shown in the last two seasons.
The guy in this lineup I'm most excited to watch is Brett Lawrie, who will be taking over full-time third base duties. It took him roughly three-and-a-half seconds to get acclimated to the big leagues after the Jays brought him up last year, as he hit .326 with six home runs in the month of August. He had a 1.055 OPS that month, which is absurd.
Lawrie won't stay that hot throughout the entire 2012 season, but I'd say it's reasonable to expect him to hit 25 home runs. Maybe 30 if he's lucky. Things will get even better for him as his career goes along. The dude's a good hitter.
There are other high-ceiling bats in this lineup. J.P. Arencibia struggled to maintain any kind of consistency in his first full season last year, but he's a guy who put up outstanding numbers in the minors. With a full major league season under his belt, the only way for Arencibia to go is up.
Then there's Colby Rasmus. His career is still young, but he'll be looking to resurrect it in 2012. I'll have more on him in a minute.
The upside guys will have to realize their potential and the solid hitters (Yunel Escobar, Edwin Encarnacion, Kelly Johnson, et al) will have to be solid, but this lineup revolves around the power guys in the middle. If they mash, this lineup will score runs, and the Blue Jays will be able to avoid any kind of disastrous season.
They typically do.
I hinted about that Brandon Morrow has ace potential. Allow me to explain.
You don't need me to tell you that Morrow can strike hitters out. You should know that by now. He finished second in the majors in 2011 with a K/9 of 10.19, and over the last two seasons, his K/9 stands at 10.53.
That's the highest mark among all pitchers.
Morrow made 30 starts for the first time in his career in 2011, and the bright side is that he lowered his walk rate while keeping his BAA a respectable .237.
The trouble is that Morrow elevated a few too many pitchers. His line-drive rate increased to 22.4 percent, resulting in fewer ground balls. Opponents basically had an easier time squaring Morrow's pitches up than they did in 2010, when his LD percent was a mere 17.8 and his HR/FB rate was a mere 7.1.
Morrow went through some growing pains, which was bound to happen. If he takes the experience of 2011 and uses it to get even better, he's a guy who could post an ERA in the 2.00s while striking out a ton of hitters.
Cross your fingers, Jays fans.
Jose Bautista is pretty awesome.
Even despite his bad second half last season, the numbers Bautista has put up since 2010 are simply astonishing. Over the last two seasons, his OBP of .412 ranks third among all hitters, his .613 slugging percentage ranks first and his 1.025 OPS ranks second.
The number that truly stands out is Bautista's ISO, or isolated power. It was a ridiculous .357 in 2010, and it was .306 in 2011. The league average, according to Fangraphs, is about .145. As you may have noticed just by watching, Bautista's power is well, well above average.
I don't want to call Bautista a dead pull hitter, but he's definitely at his best when he's getting his arms extended and roping the ball to left field. In 2011, Bautista hit .462 on balls hit to left field, with 35 of his 43 home runs.
If the Home Run Derby is to blame for Bautista's struggles in the second half of 2011, I wonder if he got a little too pull-happy. He doesn't want to tinker with his swing too much heading into 2012, but he would definitely be wise to go back and review what he was going in the first half of 2011 and try to get back to doing exactly that.
If he does, Bautista will continue to mash.
This is a pretty important season for Colby Rasmus. He'll basically be looking to prove that he belongs in the big leagues and that his breakout season in 2010 wasn't a fluke.
As bad as Rasmus was for the St. Louis Cardinals, he was even worse for the Blue Jays. He batted just .173 after coming over in a midseason trade, and even his OBP flirted with the Mendoza line. Instead of reviving his career in Toronto, he dug himself an even deeper hole.
In looking at Rasmus' numbers from the last two seasons, it stands out that his walk rate, which was low to begin with, dropped from 2010 to 2011. Oddly enough, so did his strikeout rate. Rasmus was putting the ball in play well enough, but he just wasn't getting hits.
The most telling stat is Rasmus' BABIPs from the last two seasons. In 2010, his BABIP was .354. In 2011, it was .267.
So, just like with Lind, Rasmus will simply be looking to make good contact in 2012. It's something that's far easier said than done, but Rasmus can start by being more selective at the dish.
If Rasmus hits like he did in 2010, this lineup is going to be considerably deeper.
Prospect to Watch
It is widely agreed that Travis d'Arnaud is one of the top prospects in baseball. ESPN's Keith Law has him ranked No. 6 overall, and Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus has him ranked No. 16 overall.
D'Arnaud projects as a top-notch defensive catcher with an above-average bat. In plain English, he projects to be a true baseball rarity. All he needs is a little more seasoning.
D'Arnaud definitely put himself on the right track in 2011 with Double-A New Hampshire. He hit .311 with a .371 OBP, slugging 21 home runs and driving in 78 runs.
He's probably still a couple years away from reaching the big leagues. But given the improvement d'Arnaud showed in 2011, the Blue Jays can feel safe in looking forward to getting a true impact player.
What the Blue Jays Will Do Well
I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that Buatista will be just fine after his second-half regression last year, and I think Lind will get back to being more like his 2009 self.
If so, this lineup is going to have little trouble scoring runs. Most of them will come via the long ball, but that's not necessarily a bad thing given the amount of power in Toronto's lineup.
I also have high hopes for Toronto's bullpen. On paper, it's deep and talented, with a solid group of arms forming a bridge to an intriguing closer in Santos. If this 'pen gets a lead, it will hold it.
What the Blue Jays Won’t Do Well
I like Brandon Morrow, and I think there's some upside with a couple of Toronto's starters, but this rotation is well short of being elite.
This is going to be a problem in the American League East. The Rays and Yankees both have outstanding starting rotations, and the Red Sox's rotation is not as hopeless as the reports would have you believe. Toronto's rotation is nowhere near as bad as Baltimore's, but it's not great either.
There's some chatter that the Blue Jays could be a dark-horse contender in the AL East this year.
But heck, isn't this always the case? We're always talking about the Blue Jays as an intriguing team, but they rarely end up actually making a run at the AL East crown.
This is a tough year for the Jays to do so. The Rays and Yankees are going to duke it out for the division title, and the Red Sox will be in the mix too if the back end of their rotation pans out and their bullpen realizes its potential. Even if everything goes right for the Jays, they're not going to have enough firepower to keep up with the big boys.
It's looking like another fourth-place finish.
Projected Record: 83-79, fourth in AL East.
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Zachary D. Rymer is a lifelong baseball junkie with an impressive collection of Nomar Garciaparra rookie cards and a knuckleball that is coming along. He loves the Red Sox and hates the Yankees, but he has a huge man-crush on Derek Jeter and would like nothing more than to have a few beers with Nick Swisher. He's always down to talk some baseball, so feel free to hit him up on Twitter: