The Blue Jays kept the bad times rolling in 2013 as they finished last in the American League East with a 74-88 record (11 wins behind fourth place Baltimore), had a starters’ ERA of 4.81 (second-worst in all of baseball), had to shut down Jose Bautista for the second time in as many years going down the stretch, and overall were a huge disappointment relative to expectations going into the season.
Going into 2014, the team is largely the same as it was in 2013 save for a few pieces.
Notable Loss: Josh Johnson
Going into the year, there are three components to this rotation that are locks to be there:
The loss that was Josh Johnson – I use “loss” here because he was part of a significant prospects package in the trade from the Miami Marlins, not that he did anything positive on the mound – opens up two spots at the bottom of the rotation. But first things first.
Dickey had a pretty bad year last year and there are mixed reviews as to his overall season:
- Dickey had a much better second half (his ERA was over a full run lower) and it was due a mix of more strikeouts and fewer walks. His home runs per nine innings was pretty much identical for both halves and that’s a problem when you pitch at the Rogers Centre.
- Dickey’s ground ball rate took a nosedive from years past and it actually got worse as the season went on. If he’s not getting the ball on the ground then that means it’s getting up in the air and again, that’s a huge problem when you pitch at the Rogers Centre.
- Dickey struggled with injuries early in the season which he talked about with FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris. Dickey also talks about having to alter his mechanics and struggling to find his knuckleball. As the season wore on, his knuckleball speed went from an average of 74.4 in May to 77.2 in August. As he got healthier, he got the velocity back on his knuckleball and his strikeouts and control improved.
Dickey needs to be that second half pitcher all year long and the Jays need 180 innings from both Morrow (which he’s never done) and Buehrle (who will eclipse 3000 innings pitched this year if he gets close to that). Morrow is the big one here, as a full season from him would be a huge boost to the rotation.
The rest of the rotation will be a mix of Esmil Rogers, J.A. Happ, Drew Hutchison, and perhaps Marcus Stroman. Rogers has a hard sinker that is extremely effective when he keeps it down in the zone but gets crushed when he elevates it; Happ is a fill-in guy; Hutchison hasn’t pitched in the Majors since June of 2012; Stroman is a high-end prospect without an inning in the Big Leagues yet.
There are a lot of question marks in the rotation and a lot will have to break right for them if they hope to provide more stability than the rotation that got starts from Chien-Ming Wang and Ramon Ortiz last year.
The bullpen that was in the top-10 in baseball in ERA last year will be largely intact this year and it will be the strength of the Blue Jays.
Closing things down again this year is Casey Janssen. While Janssen doesn’t have your typical closer “stuff,” he is very effective at keeping the ball down in the zone and out of the air. There’s a reason he’s given up just 12 home runs over his last three seasons (over 170 innings pitched). There shouldn’t be much concern here.
The rest of the bullpen will feature:
- Sergio Santos – The high-strikeout reliever acquired a couple years ago has struggled to stay healthy but has shown flashes of excellence when he is available to pitch.
- Steve Delabar – An All-Star a year ago, Delabar is another power pitcher coming out of the ‘pen. He does give up too many fly balls to really be trusted consistently in the Rogers Centre but his strikeout arm can get him out of most jams anyway.
- Luis Perez – Perez missed almost all of the 2013 season with injury but he’s nearly a strikeout-per-inning guy who is very tough against lefties and is good in said role.
- Brett Cecil – Another All-Star who reinvented himself to go from starter to reliever, Cecil has developed into a lefty who can get outs on both sides of the plate (though, like Perez, he’s much tougher against lefties). He needs to put up another good season to really cement himself as an elite lefty reliever.
There will be others in the mix – Dustin McGowan, Aaron Loup, whoever doesn’t make the rotation – but those five guys should handle most of the workload in the later innings. Perez might start in Triple-A but he should be with the big team before long.
If I were to project a one-through-nine lineup right now, my guess is something like this:
- Jose Reyes – SS
- Melky Cabrera – LF
- Jose Bautista – RF
- Edwin Encarnacion – 1B
- Colby Rasmus – CF
- Brett Lawrie – 3B
- Adam Lind – DH
- Dioner Navarro – C
- Ryan Goins – 2B
Rasmus and Lind might switch places, maybe Lawrie hits at the top of the order, but something along these lines would make the most sense. Also, whoever is at second base could be moved around as Goins is not a lock to be there for the season.
Health, health, and more health is what’s needed for the top of this lineup: Reyes has durability concerns on the artificial turf; Melky Cabrera had a tumor in his lower back last year but is reportedly healthy for this year; Jose Bautista has been shut down two years in a row; Encarnacion had wrist problems which has been an issue for him his entire career. Three of those four guys are the catalysts for this offense and there are serious concerns about any of them playing 150 games this year. And they’ll need to for the Jays to have a shot at the postseason.
Barring a completely boneheaded move, Adam Lind shouldn’t see any left-handers this year, which makes the loss of Rajai Davis (who was good against lefties) all the more important. Not sure who his platoon-mate would be but for now I would assume it involves Cabrera rotating out to DH at some point.
Rasmus and Lawrie both possess the talent to be elite at their positions, both in the field and at the plate, but need to put it together for a full year. Rasmus did a pretty good job of that last year and returned to his 2010 self, which is was great to see (both were 130 wRC+ seasons). If he can do that again this year – he hasn’t put up two good seasons in a row yet in his career – then the Jays have one of the elite center fielders in the American League. Lawrie changed his stance at the plate last year and added some hot yoga to his offseason training in hopes of being more limber (and avoiding the disabled list with oblique injuries as he’s done in the past). If these two guys play to their ability, that takes a lot of heat off the top of the order.
The Jays have pretty much the same team as a year ago but expectations are wildly different, and that might not be a bad thing. Many fans (including myself) thought this team would at least challenge for a wild card last year and instead were realistically out of the playoff race by July.
That said, it was obvious what can happen to this team if everything goes wrong so it would be nice to see what can happen if everything goes right: What if Dickey returns to Cy Young form? What if Brandon Morrow finally pitches a full season? What if the injury concerns at the top of the lineup don’t come to fruition? If all those things happen, this team can challenge for a playoff spot.
It’s a problem when that many things have to go right for a team and that’s what makes me think this is not a winning team in 2014. It’s been a long time since the playoffs during the glory days of “Touch ‘Em All Joe” and it looks like the wait will continue.