Division Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

What we said last year:

Derek wrote the season preview for the Blue Jays last season. Here’s what he had to say:

While questioning the Blue Jays’ ability to remain healthy could be reasonable, the fact of the matter is that they are in pretty good shape to open up the 2013 campaign. Even with all the new additions, they’re not quite the cream of the crop in the American League just yet. They’re still behind Detroit and Los Angeles, and possibly even Texas. Still, I like them better than the Yankees at this point and concur with the notion that they’re the division favorites.

What actually happened:

Well, pretty much the opposite of that happened. Once again, the Blue Jays couldn’t manage to stay healthy: Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes, Brett Lawrie, Melky Cabrera, Colby Rasmus, Brandon Morrow, and Josh Johnson all spent significant time on the DL last year, while R.A. Dickey, J.P. Arencibia, and several others fell well short of expectations. 2013 was pretty much a disaster on all fronts for Toronto. When was all said and done, they had just 74 wins to their name — 23 fewer than the Division Champion Red Sox.

Notable New Faces:

Dioner Navarro: After declining to tender a contract to Arencibia, the Blue Jays brought in Navarro to be their primary catcher this year. After about four years of being terrible, the 30-year-old Navarro put together a nice season for the Cubs last year. Navarro’s definitely an upgrade, but he’s a long shot to even come close his .300/.365/.492 batting line from last year.

Erik Kratz: Kratz was brought in to caddy Navarro and serve as R.A. Dickey‘s personal catcher. Unlike incumbent knuckle-ball catcher Josh Thole, Kratz can actually hit a little bit.

Key Losses:

J.P. Arencibia: Arencibia made substantial improvements to his defense by working with Blue Jays’ catching instructor, Sal Fasano. Unfortunately, he also forgot how to hit, posting a laughable .194/.227/.365 batting line last year. Jays fans are probably glad to see him go.

Josh Johnson: Johnson unsurprisingly got hurt last season and pitched pretty poorly in the starts he did make with an ERA over 6. Johnson can be a solid pitcher when healthy, but he clearly wasn’t last season.

Rajai Davis: After three unexciting years as their fourth outfielder, the Blue Jays let Davis walk this offseason. Davis is nothing special, but the Jays might actually miss him: The team’s reserve outfielders look like Triple-A fodder more than anything.

Darren Oliver: After two decades in the big leagues, the 43-year old Oliver finally walked away from baseball. Oliver had a nice career, but his value was negligible last year.

Brad Lincoln: Once a top prospect with the Pirates, Lincoln’s nothing more than a warm bullpen body at this point.

Mark DeRosa: After 16 years in the majors, DeRosa finally called it quits after last season. How he stuck around as long as he did is beyond me.

Health:

Staying healthy has been the biggest challenge for the Blue Jays the last couple of years. Its probably been due to bad luck more than anything, but there is such a thing as injury-prone players. At this point, its probably safe to pencil in Brett Lawrie, Jose Reyes, and Brandon Morrow for at least a month on the DL. But the other guys who missed time last year — Bautista, Cabrera,  and Rasmus  —  were relatively durable up until the last year or two and health shouldn’t be a problem for them going forward.

Casey Janssen: The team’s closer has been sidelined with shoulder soreness pretty much all spring. It’s not supposed to be anything too serious, but shoulder injuries are always a huge red flag for pitchers.

J.A. Happ: Happ has dealt with back tightness this spring, but should be good to go for opening day. Still, it’s something to keep an eye on. Happ is currently slated to be the team’s fourth starter.

Strengths:

Power: The Blue Jays have two legitimate 30 home run threats in Edwin Encarnacion and Bautista. And those guys will be supplemented by Rasmus, Lawrie, and Adam Lind who all have decent pop as well. Even Navarro and Kratz could end up combining for 20 dingers from behind the plate.

Regression to the mean: The Jays were pretty bad last season, but they have quite a few players who are probably due for a bounce-back season. Guys like Bautista, Cabrera, Lawrie, Dickey, and Morrow are all pretty safe bets to improve on their 2013 performances. That alone will add a few wins to their total.

Weaknesses:

Catcher: Navarro and Kratz will be the Blue Jays’ catching tandem this season. Both are adequate defenders with a little bit of pop, but neither is likely to hit enough to be much of an asset.

Second base: The Jays head into opening day with a complete zero at second base. Ryan Goins, who’s the favorite to start the year at the keystone, is basically the definition of replacement-level. Behind him, the Jays have Maicer Izturis, Chris Getz and Munenori Kawasaki — none of whom are really any better. Andy LaRoche, who’s apparently still alive, could be in the mix as well. I’d imagine the Blue Jays will be scouring the waiver wire when the end-of-spring-training cuts start happening next week.

Left field: This may not be a weakness at all, but its just really hard to know what to expect out of Melky Cabrera. Cabrera put up a 150 wRC+ in 2012 before he was suspended for PED’s and followed it up with an 87 wRC+ in his injury-shortened campaign last year. The real Melky is probably somewhere in the middle, but a repeat of last season’s performance could be an issue, especially since the backup options leave a lot to be desired.

Depth: The Jays have a solid collection of starting players, but don’t have much going on behind them. As mentioned above in the second base paragraph, the backup infielders are all replacement-level fodder. If and when someone gets hurt, the Blue Jays could be in some serious trouble. The same goes for the outfielders: Anthony Gose, Kevin Pillar, and Moises Sierra are all fourth or fifth outfielders at best. The talent on the Blue Jays’ roster is spread thickly, but unevenly — and that could prove troublesome if the injury bug bites again.

Defense: The Jays’ defense is definitely not their strong point. Encarnacion, Reyes, Cabrera, and Bautista all project to be well below average at their respective positions.

Season Outlook:

Although they had a pretty quiet winter, the Blue Jays have several bounce-back candidates and its hard to imagine them having as many injuries as they had last year. They’ll likely improve on last year’s record, but probably don’t have what it takes to be competitive in the AL East. Toronto has plenty of quality players, but their lack of depth will make it tough for them to absorb injuries or under-performance from more than one or two of their starters. In sum, the Jays have a good shot at beating out the Orioles for fourth in the AL East, but a lot would have to break right for them to sniff October baseball this year.

About Chris

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, and is an occasional user of the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell
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