Like the Yankees and Red Sox, the Toronto Blue Jays were very busy this offseason and look very different entering 2015.
It was their pitching staff that did them in last year but that, too, looks very different. While the Jays did go out and acquire Marco Estrada, it’s their bevy of former and current top prospects that give Toronto a lot of hope as they look to improve their pitching.
Between elite stars all around the field and budding superstars in the rotation and outfield, there’s a lot of optimism in Canada but can their youngsters keep them competitive this year?
Batting Average: 7th
1B: Edwin Encarnacion, Justin Smoak
Encarnacion made it to his second straight All-Star game last season and put up his third straight year of pure dominance. Despite missing over 30 games, Encarnacion hit 34 home runs and drove in 98, while batting .268 and posting a .901 OPS. He walks a ton, doesn’t strike out nearly as much as most power hitters, and hits his fair share of doubles. He’s easily the best first baseman in the division and one of the best in the league.
Smoak hit 15+ home runs in three straight seasons before he was limited to just 80 games last season and batted a career-low .202 with a career-worst .614 OPS, seven home runs, and 30 RBI. If healthy, Smoak can provide good pop for the Jays off the bench, at first, or at DH, but not much else.
2B: Maicer Izturis, Steve Tolleson, Ramon Santiago
Izturis was limited to just 11 games last year before suffering a torn knee ligament and undergoing season-ending surgery. He’s a highly injury-prone player who doesn’t sport a great bat but has a solid glove at second and seldom strikes out.
Tolleson played his first full season in the league at the age of 30 last year and was a serviceable utility man off the bench. He doesn’t offer much at the plate but he has a strong glove and can play anywhere in the infield and outfield.
Like the other two, Santiago offers you next to nothing at the plate but he too can play anywhere in the infield and has a solid glove.
3B: Josh Donaldson, Danny Valencia
Though his average fell nearly 50 points last season, Donaldson has established himself as one of the top third basemen in the league and possibly a perennial MVP candidate. His .301 to .255 average drop aside, Donaldson hit 29 home runs, drove in 98, scored 93, and added 31 doubles in 2014 after hitting 24 home runs, driving in 93, scoring 89, and adding 37 doubles the year before. He’s a great on-base guy who can hit the gaps and owns a stellar glove at the hot corner.
Valencia came over from Kansas City last season after spending time with Minnesota, Boston, and Baltimore. He’s a solid backup with a serviceable glove who doesn’t hurt you at the plate.
Though he’s now 31, Reyes remains one of the game’s elite shortstops. In 2014, he batted .287 with nine home runs, 51 RBI, 94 R, 46 extra-base hits, and 30 steals. If he can stay healthy that’s right around the production we’ve grown to expect from the former Met and Marlin.
Goins offers next to nothing at the plate but he’s got a solid glove and can play both middle infield positions.
C: Russell Martin, Dioner Navarro
Martin earned a huge payday (read: massively overpaid) coming off one of his best seasons with the Pirates but whether he can repeat his 2014 production is debatable. Last season, he batted .290 with a .832 OPS, 11 HR, 67 RBI, and 45 R in 111 games. Of course, over the previous four seasons he batted .248, .237, .211, and .226. Still, he’s great at drawing walks, has solid pop at catcher, and is great behind the plate. We can question the length and value of his contract but he’s a very good catcher.
Navarro may see some time at DH after an impressive season in his first stint with the Blue Jays. Navarro batted .274 with 12 HR, 69 RBI, 40 R, and 22 2B last year after failing to play in more than 89 games in four straight seasons entering 2014. If he can match that kind of run production he’ll earn a spot in the lineup but his track record is highly inconsistent.
Jose Bautista finally stayed healthy last season and put up stellar numbers once again as he batted .286 with a .928 OPS, 35 HR, 103 RBI, 101 R, and 27 2B. When healthy, Bautista is one of the best power hitters in the game. Even when not healthy, he’s managed to hit 27 home runs in 92 games. A middle of the lineup featuring Joey Bats, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion is downright unfair.
Dalton Pompey is rated as Baseball America’s No. 30 prospect entering this season and there’s a lot to like about the speedy centerfielder despite the fact he only has 43 Major League plate appearances. Though he didn’t hit for a high average consistently in the minors, Pompey stole 38 and 43 bases over the last two seasons while hitting 37 and 40 extra-base hits. He draws a ton of walks and, if he can make better contact, a top of the lineup with him and Reyes should terrorize the basepaths.
Dayan Viciedo hit 21 home runs last season but was unceremoniously sent packing by the ChiSox anyway. The 26-year-old doesn’t hit for a high average but he’s hit more than 20 home runs in two of his last three seasons while driving in 56+ in three straight. He’s not a great doubles hitter and seldom walks but he offers the Jays good pop, both as a backup or as a starter, though his glove leaves a lot to be desired.
Kevin Pillar is likely to start in place of Michael Saunders while he’s out and has a very impressive minor league resume. Pillar is a career .322 hitter in 411 minor league games, has hit 39 doubles in back-to-back seasons, has stolen as many as 51 bases, and has a very good strikeout-to-walk ratio. The Jays may miss Saunders but Pillar could be one of the best outfielders in the division for years to come.
Michael Saunders is expected to be out for about six weeks after undergoing knee surgery after stepping on a sprinkler and tearing his meniscus. That’s actually good news as he was initially expected to miss half the season. He’s a solid bat capable of hitting 20 HR, 30 2B, and stealing 20 bases if healthy.
R.A. Dickey hasn’t looked like the Cy Young award winner the Jays signed away from the Mets two seasons ago but was significantly better in 2014 as he went 14-13 with a 3.71 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. Though he’s now 40, his knuckleball has given the journeyman longevity and he should post solid-though-not-great numbers in 2015 once again.
Mark Buehrle struggled in his first season with the Jays but bounced back in 2014 as he went 13-10 with a 3.39 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, and just 15 home runs allowed. Buerhle is one of the most consistent pitchers in the league, pitching over 200 innings in 14 straight years, every full year he’s been in the league. He’s near a lock to stay healthy and while he allows more runners on base than you’d like he should continue to post mid-3.00 ERAs if he can keep the ball in the park.
Drew Hutchison looked promising in his first full season in the league, posting a 1.26 WHIP and 184 K to 60 BB despite putting up a 4.48 ERA. The 24-year-old didn’t take long to reach the Majors as he pitched just 270 minor league innings, posting a 2.80 ERA and 1.09 WHIP with 288 K to just 84 BB. He’s a great strikeout arm and could be a steal in fantasy drafts if he can keep the ball in the park this season.
Marcus Stroman looked great in his first taste of the Bigs, going 11-6 with a 3.65 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 111 K to 28 BB in 130 innings. Stroman needed even fewer minor league innings to reach the Majors as the top-30 prospect posted a 3.24 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 197 K to 45 BB in 166 innings. He’s got a killer strikeout arm but doesn’t walk many batters and does a great job of keeping the ball in the park. The top of the rotation is old and unimpressive but Stroman and Hutchison give the Jays a lot to be excited about.
Marco Estrada is fighting for a spot in the rotation this spring after he fell off in 2014 and posted a 4.36 ERA last season. He didn’t pitch that bad, posting a solid 1.20 WHIP, but he allowed a league-leading 29 home runs which killed his chances of remaining in the Brewers rotation. He posted solid mid-3 ERAs and low WHIPs the previous two seasons so there’s potential there but he’ll need to a do a much better job of keeping the ball in the park if he’s to remain a starter.
Daniel Norris is the reason Estrada isn’t likely to get a rotation spot. A top-20 prospect entering the season, Norris posted a 2.53 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, and 163 K to 43 BB as he climbed quickly from Single-A to Double-A to Triple-A in a single season. Actually, he climbed all the way to the Majors as he pitched 6.2 innings in September last year, playing at every single level along the way. He occasionally struggles with walks but has lowered his hit totals significantly, keeps the ball in the park, and strikes out a ton of batters. The backend of this rotation should be the frontend of the rotation for years to come.
Aaron Sanchez is rated as the league’s No. 25 prospect entering the year and looked excellent coming out of the pen in the Majors last season but isn’t a sure-thing like the other top prospects on this staff. Sanchez posted an unbelievable 1.09 ERA and 0.70 WHIP in his first 33 MLB innings as a reliever. As a starter in the minors, though, he struggled mightily with his control as he walked 4.8 batters per nine innings in 356 career innings. He does a good job of keeping the ball in the park and limiting hits but walks can be killer. Of course, he’s just 22 so there’s plenty of time to develop.
Brett Cecil is already nursing a shoulder injury but is tentatively expected to be the team’s closer after Casey Janssen moved to Washington. Cecil has been a reliable middle reliever, posting a combined 2.76 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and 146 K to 50 BB over the last two seasons. Whether he can successfully transition to the ninth inning is anyone’s guess.
Aaron Loup has been a very good middle reliever in all three of his seasons with the Jays, posting a 2.77 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and 130 K to 45 BB over 168.2 career innings. His walks spiked last year, which is highly uncharacteristic, but if he can improve his control he’s a very reliable bullpen arm.
Steve Delabar looked good with the Jays and Mariners in his first three seasons, even reaching the All-Star game in 2013. He struggled in 2014 as he dealt with knee issues, though, posting a 4.91 ERA and 1.48 WHIP as his walks skyrocketed to a ridiculous 6.7 per nine. He’s always struggled with control but made up for it with strikeouts. He’ll need to stay healthy and drastically reduce those numbers if he’s going to bounce back to All-Star form.
Todd Redmond struggled early on in his career as a starter but looked solid in his first year in the pen as he posted a 3.24 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, and 60 K to 27 BB in 75 IP.
Defense: C to C+
Starting Pitching: C to B-
Overall: B- to B