The Toronto Blue Jays captivated a nation last season when they went all-in to make the playoffs for the first time since 1993. Jose Bautista’s bat flip in Game 5 of the ALDS still runs through my head on a loop and I’m not even a Blue Jays fan. Savor that moment, Blue Jays fans, because who knows when it will happen again.
The times, they are a-changin’ at Rogers Centre. Reading between the lines, some payroll cuts are coming for Major League Baseball’s only team north of the border. With a payroll pushing $140 million, Mark Shapiro was brought in from the notoriously-frugal Cleveland Indians as the new Team President and General Manager Alex Anthopoulos left shortly thereafter. Anthopoulous drew the ire of Shapiro for mortgaging the farm system to acquire David Price and Troy Tulowitzki and that made it eminently clear that the Blue Jays are heading in a different direction.
Normally, these season win total bets are wars of attrition. It’s about the marathon. For Toronto, however, this one is about the sprint. With very lofty expectations coming off of a 93-win season that included a 102-60 Pythagorean win-loss record, the Blue Jays could scrambling to trade everything not nailed down if things look grim by mid-July. Jose Bautista, RA Dickey, Edwin Encarnacion, Drew Storen, Jesse Chavez, Justin Smoak, Brett Cecil, and Michael Saunders are all impending free agents. Some of these guys would net a huge return in trade. The American League is very wide open, so the odds of the Blue Jays being out of the wild card chase are very small. However, this has all the makings of a last-gasp effort with a set of executives that believe in building organizational depth over the long-term.
It’s perfectly fair to wonder what, exactly, the Blue Jays are from a win-loss standpoint. This was a .500 team heading into the All-Star Break and they went 48-23 over the final 71 games. They won by five or more runs on 37 occasions. They were 15-28 in one-run games. This offense is going to be feared by pitchers around the league. This starting rotation is going to excite hitters around the league. The bullpen looks pretty solid. Does all of that add up to a team capable of being in the high 80s in the win column?
I feel like the Blue Jays have the widest range of any team in the AL East. They could win 95 and roll to the playoffs. They could win 80 and either sell off pieces or wish that they had. There’s a large set of possibilities with this team. It all depends which side you, personally, fall on.
Season win total odds:
BetOnline: 86.5 (-130/100)
5Dimes: 86.5 (-130/100)
Bovada: 87.5 (-115/-115)
Key additions: JA Happ, Drew Storen, Jesse Chavez, Darwin Barney
Key losses: David Price, Mark Buehrle, Ben Revere, Liam Hendriks
It was a pretty cut-and-dry offseason for the Blue Jays. David Price walked away, as expected, and the Blue Jays weren’t able to get a compensation pick because he was a trade deadline acquisition. Mark Buehrle retired, though he may realize that he misses baseball and find his way back on to a roster. Ben Revere, initially acquired on July 31, was traded for Drew Storen.
All in all, you have to like the moves that Shapiro and his team have made. The Blue Jays had some very clear bullpen issues last season. Aaron Sanchez moved back into the bullpen and did an excellent job to set up Roberto Osuna, who dominated big league hitters at just 21 years of age. Brett Cecil was steady as always, but depth was a concern. That’s why Storen, who will challenge for the closer role, was such an important piece. At a reasonable cost, the Blue Jays got a very reliable back-end arm and filled a need.
JA Happ and Jesse Chavez are very intriguing additions to the starting rotation. Mark Buehrle was an unsung hero for this team over the last two seasons. Unfortunately, Buehrle fell four outs short of his 15th straight 200-inning season, but replacing 200 average or better innings is exceptionally difficult. Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage put his pixie dust on Happ and he parlayed half of a good season into a three-year, $36 million dollar. Chavez is a really underrated swingman with enough chops to be a quality back-end starter.
Outside of Alex Anthopoulos’s unceremonious exit and the ensuing panic, the Blue Jays had a sneaky good offseason.
Why bet the over?
This. Team. Can. Rake. The Blue Jays hit approximately 400 home runs last season and toyed with left-handers like a pack of lions going after a deer with three broken legs. Toronto actually hit 232 home runs and had the fourth-best offense by weighted runs created (wRC) of any team in the last five seasons. That’s in an era when pitchers are throwing harder than ever and more hitters are striking out than ever. It’s hard to state just how impressive this Toronto offense was last season.
Toronto posted a .354 wOBA against lefties and even forced Baltimore to send one of its left-handed starters to Single-A to keep him away from their lineup. Overall, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jose Bautista combined for 120 home runs, 348 RBI, 324 runs, and 260 walks. The Miami Marlins hit 120 home runs as a team. The Atlanta Braves hit 100. The Marlins drew 375 walks. The Kansas City Royals drew 383. It is absolutely incredible how that trio produced last season and all three of them are back in the mix for the upcoming campaign. Two of them are in contract years, which has a very marginal effect on performance and production, but it will be an angle that will get played up.
Bautista’s defense has tailed off, though not enough to hurt his value and his arm is still a bit of an asset. Donaldson was one of the league’s best all-around players last season after saving 11 runs at third base. Encarnacion logged 481 average innings at first base. This is a really incredible group to build around. We’re talking about three guys that combined for 17.7 fWAR last season. Even with some regression, these three players will average five fWAR each, with Donaldson carrying some extra weight with his defense. That’s a really good start.
Overshadowed by the video game numbers of those three players, Kevin Pillar quietly put together a four-win season by hitting 12 home runs, stealing 25 bases, and catching anything that he could get to. Pillar is basically the Adele of MLB given his range. Only Kevin Kiermaier prevented him from being the best defensive outfielder in baseball and that’s a nitpicky subject.
Again, overshadowed by all the gaudy numbers, Russell Martin was absolutely outstanding for the Blue Jays last season. I’m going to oversimplify something here, but I know that Martin had a hand in it. Yes, the Blue Jays added David Price. Yes, they solidified the bullpen. But Martin, in his first season with the Blue Jays, needed some time to get acquainted with the pitchers. As lauded as he has been for his hitting, Martin is also an elite defensive catcher. In the first half, Jays pitchers allowed a .257/.318/.415 slash that came with a 4.18 ERA. In the second half, those numbers dropped to .236/.284/.388 with a 3.34 ERA. The strikeout-to-walk ratio went from 2.52 to 3.32. Martin’s 23 home runs were great, but paled in comparison to how he handled this pitching staff.
I haven’t even mentioned Troy Tulowitzki yet. Tulowitzki came at a hefty price, but the Jays got out of Jose Reyes’s contract, which was a win, and picked up a pretty good hitter. The trade didn’t go as planned, as Tulo hit .239/.317/.380 moving over to Rogers Centre, but his effort level went up if his defensive metrics are to be believed. This guy needed out of Colorado in the worst way. Given a full offseason to settle in, expect Tulowitzki to post really respectable offensive numbers. He’s probably a three-win player for Toronto this season.
The rest of the position players have varying levels of intrigue. Michael Saunders is a decent player on the fat side of the platoon. Devon Travis showcased some good offensive skills with surprising power for a 5-foot-9 second baseman and a good feel for the barrel. Dalton Pompey is a guy whose skill set I love from a defensive and baserunning standpoint. There’s a lot to like about this team offensively.
Marcus Stroman has plenty of upside and he’ll get the chance to show it beginning on Opening Day. Stroman had 130.2 exciting innings during his rookie season in 2014, but his 2015 season was taken from him when he tore his ACL during pitcher fielding practice drills in Spring Training. That took Toronto over from one of my favorite plays of last season to just a lean. Stroman has a special skill set and great control and command. He’ll be an adequate #1 for this team and could very well find his way back in the three-win category.
There’s nothing exciting about RA Dickey, and yet he carries a lot of value. Why? Because he munches a lot of innings. Dickey has thrown at least 208 innings in each of the last five seasons. They haven’t been great innings, by any means, but that doesn’t exactly matter. Dickey is a lock for 200 innings and that carries a lot of value. There are a lot of bad pitchers out there. Dickey is not a bad pitcher, per se, though sabermetrics obviously don’t look favorably on the low strikeout, high HR profile. The fact that he will give them length and a lot of frames is very significant.
Marco Estrada used his changeup and weak contact to post a 3.13 ERA last season. He was one of the pleasant surprises of the year for the Blue Jays and it carried over into the postseason. Estrada got an extension as a result and should be out there for 175+ innings this season. Once again, the value of getting length cannot be overstated. The guys behind Estrada, JA Happ, Jesse Chavez, and Drew Hutchison all have some upside. If Happ can sustain the improvements of last season, he’ll be a quality back-end arm. Chavez has been a league average type of starter. Hutchison has no command, but there’s some swing-and-miss upside there.
The bullpen has potential to be a very big strength. There are two really quality lefties in Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup, with Loup serving in more of a LOOGY capacity. Drew Storen and Roberto Osuna are going to miss a lot of bats in the late innings. Aaron Sanchez will be pushed into more of a seventh-inning role, which is fine since he is more of a pitch to ground ball contact kind of guy. If Steve Delabar can put it all back together, there’s some depth here, too. I’m really bullish on this set of relievers.
Why bet the under?
The offense shouldn’t struggle, so I won’t even pretend to find that a concern. There’s good depth there to overcome some regression or some injuries. Now, a long-term injury to Josh Donaldson would be crippling, but that’s just the nature of the beast. This starting rotation, on the other hand, is another story. The idea that JA Happ and Jesse Chavez can replace the 273 innings of David Price and Mark Buehrle is kind of humorous. Happ was a below average starter until Ray Searage got a hold of him. Chavez is a decent pitcher, but Mark Buehrle was really good, even if the advanced metrics don’t agree.
There’s also the issue of regression. RA Dickey was very fortunate with his strand rate and his ERA. Dickey doesn’t strike out batters anymore, so one would expect his strand rate to fall below the league average of around 72 percent. It was 73.3 percent last season. He had a 3.91 ERA with a 4.48 FIP and a 4.72 xFIP. As I mentioned, sabermetrics don’t look favorably on pitchers of his ilk, so those numbers are indicative of that, but he’s 41 years old with chronic neck and back problems.
Marco Estrada is the guy I want to focus on. Estrada luckboxed his way into a 3.13 ERA over 181 innings. He had a 79.2 percent strand rate with a well below average strikeout rate. Estrada’s 4.40 FIP and 4.93 xFIP suggest he got extremely lucky. Now, Estrada will still have a world-class defensive outfielder in Pillar to help him out, since very few pitchers induced fewer ground balls than Estrada last season. However, even if his regression partially hits, we’re likely talking about an ERA in the 3.90 range. That’s a big jump and one that could hurt the Jays in a big way, even with the projected offensive production. I cannot sell Estrada stock fast enough this season.
David Price was insanely good for the Blue Jays in his 11 starts, but it is disconcerting that he was their pitching leader in fWAR in just 11 starts. Mark Buehrle was second. The return of Stroman will offset that, but who is Marcus Stroman? Stroman has a great arsenal, but now we get to watch him try to throw 200 innings as a front of the rotation starter. At 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, it’s fair to wonder about his durability, as I said earlier. In his pro career, he’s worked 19.1, 123.1, 166.1, and 34.2 innings in four professional seasons. Can the stuff hold up throughout the rigors of a season? Obviously it’s not his fault that he got hurt and it wasn’t an elbow or shoulder injury, but guys with small frames that throw relatively hard are always going to be under the injury microscope.
You know what? I take that back about the offense. Troy Tulowitzki remains a wild card for me. I feel like he bounces back, but if we’re talking about reasons to bet the under, Tulo’s health has to qualify. A dirt infield would be a big help for him, but he’s missed significant time in the last two even-numbered seasons. He played 47 games in 2012 and 91 games in 2014. Some questioned his heart and desire to play through injury for Colorado and the altitude definitely has effects on the human body. It’s not a glaring concern, but it is an issue that needs to be addressed.
The loss of Liam Hendriks should be covered up, but there does seem to be a lack of depth in the bullpen. The key guys are great and should be fine, but the Blue Jays rotation doesn’t profile as one that will pitch deep into games. John Gibbons may try to pace Marcus Stroman at the outset. RA Dickey is a professional innings eater, but that injury risk remains. Marco Estrada averaged a shade over six innings per start. JA Happ throws a lot of pitches. Not many teams run five or six deep in the bullpen, and the Jays have essentially two closers, but workload could be a problem for the more prominent guys.
Pick: Toronto Blue Jays Over 86.5 (-130 – 5Dimes)
I loved this team last season and then Marcus Stroman went down during pitcher fielding practice in Spring Training. I love this team again. There’s so much offensive upside and these aren’t just guys that bash the ball and swing and miss a ton. They also draw walks. They also hit doubles. They’re also quality fielders. There’s a lot to like about this offensive club.
The pitching staff has some holes and some worries, but Russell Martin is an elite game caller, a solid pitch framer, and a guy that really helped this pitching staff once he got acclimated to his hurlers and the American League. I expect more of the same this season. No lead is safe against this offense and the bullpen has top-five potential. If you’re looking for an AL East future to bet, this is the team that I would take.
-END OF 2016 PREVIEW-
The hardest team to gauge in the AL East for the 2015 season is the Toronto Blue Jays. This is a team that has a lot of boom or bust potential because they have some excellent young arms that will have an impact and they made some savvy transactions over the winter. Unfortunately, they also have two huge question marks at the top of the rotation and a bullpen that projects to be among the worst in the league.
The Blue Jays were a streaky team last season. They finished the year 83-79 for just their second winning season in the last six. The highlight of the season was a 26-9 stretch from May 1 to June 6 that took the Jays from 12-15 to 38-24 and up to first place in the AL East. The Jays spent 61 days in first place overall, but a 9-17 August eliminated any chance of winning the division. The Jays entered play on July 31 trailing by 1.5 games. By August 31, they were 10.5 games out. There was literally no middle ground for the Jays. They played 47 games that ended with a difference of five or more runs and just 35 of their games were decided by one run.
Trying to survive in the AL East isn’t easy. The Jays are bankrolled by Rogers Communications, which makes them one of three teams owned by a corporation. The Seattle Mariners and the Atlanta Braves are the other two. But, what that means is that the Jays have basically an endless amount of money to tap into and they have increased payroll in an attempt to compete on a yearly basis. GM Alex Anthopoulos hasn’t always made the right decisions, but he has been proactive and that is his most admirable quality. He was proactive this winter and the Jays hit the season in a very interesting position.
Oddsmakers really believe in the Blue Jays this season, which is a little worrisome. I’m always skeptical when a team’s win total is inflated because it makes it very difficult to live up to those expectations. The Blue Jays are listed at 83.5 wins at BetOnline after Westgate Superbook posted 82.5, one lower than the number at Atlantis Sportsbook.
Key additions: Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin, Michael Saunders, Justin Smoak, Marco Estrada, Daric Barton, Ramon Santiago
Key losses: Adam Lind, Brandon Morrow, Sergio Santos, Anthony Gose, Juan Francisco, Brett Lawrie, Sean Nolin, J.A. Happ, Melky Cabrera, Casey Janssen
It was quite an offseason for Anthopoulos and the Jays. They have an affinity for acquiring Canadian players and Russell Martin fits that MO. It helps that he is also a good player. The Jays did ship out one Canadian, Brett Lawrie, but added Andrew Albers on a minor league deal as starting pitching depth. Michael Saunders is another Canadian, even though he was much closer to his British Columbia home when he was with Seattle.
Josh Donaldson was the crown jewel of the offseason. Donaldson reportedly had a spat with Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane and off he went. Donaldson was acquired for Brett Lawrie and Sean Nolin and he instantly fits in well with the Jays offense. Donaldson has good power, can draw walks, which is something that the Jays lack outside of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, and he’s an elite defender at third base. The Jays were -31 in defensive runs saved last season and Donaldson will help in that regard.
Some interesting depth signings offer potential value. The Jays have had a hole at second base for a while, but Ramon Santiago’s hat will be in the ring with Maicer Izturis and Ryan Goins. Justin Smoak is an interesting left-handed bat with some untapped power potential. Daric Barton, who probably won’t make the team, is a glovesmith at first base.
The guys that the Jays lost were either too hurt to really help the ballclub (Morrow and Santos), young players that were traded from positions of strength (Gose and Nolin) or the price of doing business (Lind and Happ).
Why bet the over?
Well, this is a team with a lot of helium. Considering all of the flaws of the teams in the AL East, whichever one puts everything together has the potential to run away with this division just like the Orioles did last season. That team could very well be the Toronto Blue Jays. From a talent and skill set perspective, Toronto might rank at the top of the division. They’ve got power, speed, raw, young talent, and a team conducive to their surroundings at Rogers Centre.
No team in the AL East addressed its needs better than the Blue Jays. They were -15 defensive runs saved last season as an outfield. It appears that Toronto is content with rolling out Dalton Pompey in center. The 22-year-old Mississauga, Ontario native made brief stops at Double-A and Triple-A before making his Major League debut last season. Pompey started the season in High-A and closed the year in Toronto. His bat will be a work in progress, but he is projected to be a good center fielder with excellent speed. He could be a force on the bases as well. Michael Saunders, when healthy, can be an asset in the outfield. He was +7 defensive runs saved in right field for Seattle last year and will play left field for the Blue Jays. Jose Bautista’s arm is a weapon in right field. This should be a league average or better outfield. Add in Donaldson on the infield to help out Jose Reyes and this is a much improved defensive team.
The Jays lost some platoon bats with good power, but they replaced them with guys like Saunders and Justin Smoak. Josh Donaldson is not only an elite defender, but he has 30 HR upside and walked 76 times in each of the last two seasons. Russell Martin will add some offensive punch to the lineup and he’s also a very good defensive catcher. Martin was worth 28 DRS over his last two seasons with the Pirates and is coming off of the best offensive season of his career. John Gibbons has said that Martin will bat second to set the table for Bautista, Encarnacion, and Donaldson and it will be much harder to pitch around those guys now. Adding a player like Martin deepens the entire lineup.
Something to understand about guys like Saunders, Donaldson, and Martin is that they are going from premier pitcher’s parks to one of the better hitter’s parks in baseball. That should lead to some increased power numbers. With increased power numbers comes more breaking balls and that should lead to more walks. This Blue Jays lineup has potential to be the most potent in the American League, especially if Pompey can get on to wreak havoc when the lineup rolls over.
There are two ways to look at the Jays rotation. You can either lament the fact that R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle are the “aces” of the staff, or you can focus on how outstanding the back of the rotation is. Once the season really gets going, rainouts and off days are going to change the complexion of the rotation anyway, so it’s not like Dickey and Buehrle will constantly be facing other teams’ top starters. Of course, there’s something to be said about a rotation where all five guys are going to be above replacement-level, no matter where they are slotted.
Looking at the old guys first, Buehrle had a renaissance in the first half of last season before leveling out, but the crafty southpaw still threw over 200 innings of well above average ball. Dickey is the only Blue Jays starter that walks an uncomfortable amount of hitters, but the 40-year-old pitched hurt most of last season with neck and back trouble. Knuckleballers have rubber arms and that means that Dickey should be able to give the Jays 180+ innings at league average or better. It’s not sexy, but it’s valuable.
Marcus Stroman has #rig. Fans of Baseball Prospectus and the great Professor Jason Parks will know exactly what I mean. Stroman’s arsenal is special and the first 20 starts of his Major League career were electrifying. Taking away the six relief appearances he made, Stroman posted a 3.29 ERA and a 2.79 FIP over 120.1 innings pitched as a starter. He had a K/BB ratio of 3.81 and induced ground balls nearly 54 percent of the time. He has a massive ceiling.
Speaking of ceilings, Daniel Norris is the next youngster to watch. Norris, like Pompey, was on the fast track last season as the Blue Jays moved deserving players up the ladder in a hurry. He had elbow surgery at the end of last season to remove some bone spurs and other loose bodies, but the southpaw possessed great swing-and-miss tendencies during his meteoric rise last season. The Jays could opt to take it a bit slower with him, but he’s going to have an impact on the 2015 season.
The forgotten man in the Jays rotation is Drew Hutchison, who had a strong 2014 season despite some batted ball bad luck. Hutchison basically missed a year of development after Tommy John surgery and the 24-year-old is still learning how to pitch and how to sequence. Lefties did a number on him last season, as he allowed 17 home runs, but Hutchison has good strikeout-to-walk rates and a veteran backstop like Martin can be an asset in furthering his development. Last season, Hutchison was around league average in the advanced stats and over 185 innings, that’s a good value.
In trying to maximize their window of contention, the Jays may roll with highly-touted prospect Aaron Sanchez in the closing role. Sanchez got a taste of the job late last season and it seems like a logical role for a pitcher that sits upper 90s with basically two pitches. The biggest benefit to using Sanchez in the closer’s role is that it will strengthen the bullpen as a whole. Brett Cecil’s skill set is tuned more for the eighth inning and for facing tough lefties than closing games. Between Cecil and Aaron Loup, the Jays are in good shape from a matchup standpoint.
Why bet the under?
As much as there is to be excited about, there are a lot of areas of concern with the Blue Jays. Health is the biggest one. After missing time in 2012 and 2013, Jose Bautista managed to stay healthy in 2014. This will be Bautista’s age-34 season and there’s always risk as players move into their mid-30s.
Jose Reyes had a resurgence last season and stole 30 bags and stayed in the lineup despite the suboptimal playing conditions in Toronto with the turf. While Reyes posted some good offensive and baserunning value, he continued to be a terrible defensive shortshop. Reyes’s value is tied to his health, his offense, and his running ability. Entering his age-32 season, buying into Reyes staying healthy is a scary proposition.
Michael Saunders has been a regular on the trainer’s table. Josh Donaldson could face a tough transition to the different playing surface after enjoying the very soft conditions in Oakland. The turf is tough to play on 81 times per year. It shortens careers and certainly can impact late season production.
There’s always injury risk with a pitcher, but 40-year-old R.A. Dickey and 36-year-old Mark Buehrle have higher risks. Buehrle, amazingly has worked at least 200 innings in 14 straight seasons, which is incredible in this day and age. People also thought that Bronson Arroyo was bulletproof and he needed Tommy John last season. Dickey has perennial problems with his back and neck in his elevated age. The Jays don’t have a ton of starting pitching depth with Sanchez in the bullpen and the idea of using Marco Estrada every five days is rather terrifying.
Injury problems have not popped up for Marcus Stroman yet, but anytime you’re a 5’9” pitcher that throws mid-90s, the concerns are there. Drew Hutchison is a former Tommy John recipient. Daniel Norris had an elbow procedure at the end of last season. There are risk factors with every pitcher and points like this could be made about every team. It seems, however, that the Jays are in a bit of a different situation than the other teams because of a lack of depth and a higher risk in most of their starting rotation.
The bullpen has the potential to be a major concern. Sanchez, Loup, and Cecil should be fine, but there aren’t many right handers of note in the bullpen. Steve Delabar was horrible last season and won’t even be guaranteed a job. There are still some good relievers on the open market and the Blue Jays could mitigate some risk by signing some of those guys. They have not shown any indication that they will go that route yet and this bullpen should be considered middle of the pack or worse unless that happens.
Russell Martin was a great signing and he’ll provide good defensive value, but his offensive profile screams regression. It’s rare for a 31-year-old catcher to have a career year, but Martin did just that with a .290/.402/.430 slash, a .370 wOBA, and a 140 wRC+. It was aided by a .336 BABIP, which was well above his career average of .289. Martin could regress, though the power numbers should go up going from suffocating PNC Park to hitter-friendly Rogers Centre, but don’t be surprised if Martin underwhelms offensively.
Pick: Over 83.5
The Toronto Blue Jays aren’t as much of a sleeper as I hoped they would be, but this is a team that has a big ceiling. I’m in love with Marcus Stroman and the Blue Jays have a great collection of reliable veterans and exciting youngsters. Josh Donaldson is an impact player for this team with a chance to be outstanding defensively and contribute over 30 home runs now that he’s away from the overflowing sewer that is O.co Coliseum.
Unlike most big power teams, the Blue Jays can overachieve a little bit in the more traditional categories like batting average because they have a lot of guys that hit the ball with a lot of force and that plays up on the Rogers Centre playing surface. Russell Martin is a huge upgrade to the pitching staff because he’s a strong defensive catcher and a good pitch framer. With the talent that’s in the starting rotation, stealing some extra strikes with good receiving skills and providing some veteran insight into the hitters is going to elevate that group that much more.
I was really hoping for a number around 80, but I feel like this is the only team that can challenge Boston for the top spot in the AL East. Frankly, if the Blue Jays stay healthy, they could go over 90 wins. That’s how high their ceiling is. There’s some talent left in the farm system that can help out, even with the trades that sent some of their prospects packing. John Gibbons has some decent depth on the team and the Jays should be an improved team defensively, even if Reyes doesn’t take a step forward at shortstop.
This is a big number, but I feel like the worst-case scenario for the Blue Jays is somewhere in the 79-80 win range, so I’m confident that they can go over this number without everything going according to plan.
-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-
The Toronto Blue Jays were expected to be one of the league’s top teams last season. The blockbuster trade with the Miami Marlins that included Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle plus the big trade with the Mets that gave the Jays R.A. Dickey led to a massive overreaction in the betting market. The Blue Jays fell very short of expectations with a 74-88 record in a season where oddsmakers put their win total at 87.5.
The Jays were never able to overcome a 10-17 month of April and a 30-46 record in the American League East was the worst record in that division by six games. The top four teams in the division combined to win 359 games, which meant that somebody had to lose. That team was the Blue Jays. They finished three games worse than their Pythagorean Win-Loss mark of 77-85. Only the White Sox and Astros had fewer road wins.
It wasn’t all lofty expectations and performance issues that hampered the Blue Jays. Health was a concern as well. Several players missed a month or more, including Jose Bautista, Brandon Morrow, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, Melky Cabrera, and Sergio Santos. Rajai Davis and Edwin Encarnacion also missed time and R.A. Dickey spent most of the first half of the season dealing with neck and back issues.
The Blue Jays are a different team at full strength, there’s no question about that. This is a team that hit 185 home runs and stole 112 bases last season, so their offense should have put together a better performance. In all honesty, it’s hard to see why the Blue Jays struggled so much. Their strikeout and walk rates were right around league average and low batting average on balls in play can be attributed to the fact that home runs don’t count towards BABIP. The Blue Jays finished ninth in run scoring in the Majors, which was good enough for eighth in the AL.
Defensively, the Jays were a trainwreck and that hurt a pitching staff that wasn’t spectacular to begin with. The Blue Jays ended the year 46.5 runs below average defensively last season, despite finishing 12th in defensive runs saved as a team with 15. The Blue Jays made 111 errors, leading the AL in throwing errors and, with the first year of Dickey as the main culprit, Jays catchers allowed 30 passed balls. Those fielding miscues led to 68 unearned runs allowed.
Between shoddy defense, average strikeout and walk rates, and the league’s second-highest HR/9 rate, the Blue Jays staff gave up the fourth-most runs of all teams. It was a combination of things that led the Blue Jays to a last-place finish in the AL East and better health and lower expectations may be what helps the Blue Jays back into contention.
Oddsmakers are expecting the Blue Jays to be better in the AL East this season. BetDSI.eu has the lowest number with a 79.5 and standard vig. 5Dimes.eu, BetOnline.ag, and Bovada.lv are all showing 80.5 with varying juice as high as -130 on the over and as high as -115 on the under.
Key additions: Dioner Navarro, Erik Kratz, Chris Getz
Key losses: Brad Lincoln, JP Arencibia, Rajai Davis, Josh Johnson, Darren Oliver
There wasn’t much excitement for Blue Jays fans this offseason, except for the near signing of Ervin Santana before Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy needed Tommy John surgery for the Braves. The team replaced JP Arencibia, he of the less than .600 OPS, with Dioner Navarro after his solid performance with the Cubs and Erik Kratz as catching depth. Chris Getz, a below average player, left via free agency.
The biggest loss for the Jays will be Rajai Davis, who stole 45 bases in 108 games, but even with the speed, he’s around league average as a player and was a below average defender. Josh Johnson was awful for the Blue Jays in his handful of starts and it’s not surprising that the team moved on. Brad Lincoln was a league average swingman and Darren Oliver, while valuable in his role, is a replaceable commodity and was on the wrong side of 40.
Why bet the over?
As mentioned in the intro, the Jays were bit hard by the injury bug last season. Missing two or three players at a time from the lineup is undoubtedly going to have an impact. Dickey’s injury issues made his transition to the AL more difficult than it was already going to be. Not to mention, with a neck/back issue, Dickey would be unable to finish his delivery properly. At Citi Field in New York, fly balls are a bit more manageable than they are at Rogers Centre. In all, 13 pitchers made starts for the Jays because of injury or poor performance. Most teams tend to write up around nine or 10 starters for a season, so that’s definitely a bad run of health. An additional problem with injuries is that they require the use of depth and the Blue Jays had very little last season.
Perhaps no injury was more detrimental than Jose Bautista. Bautista was going to be counted on to provide the huge middle of the order bat that the Blue Jays need, but injuries shortened his season, much like they did in 2012. Bautista was on pace to put up similar numbers to both 2010 and 2011 in each of the last two seasons, but hip and wrist injuries affected his performance and playing time. Bautista seems healthy this Spring and is having a great performance in Florida, so of course theres hope that he will stay in the lineup and continue to contribute.
One of the few silver linings to an injury-riddled season is that other players can step into the spotlight and shine. That’s what happened to Colby Rasmus. Once a top prospect in the Cardinals organization, Rasmus racked up over four wins above replacement player per Fangraphs last season with a .501 slugging percentage in just over 450 plate appearances. An oblique injury likely prevented Rasmus from hitting close to 30 home runs as that probably cost him 100-150 plate appearances. Rasmus was also one of the few bright spots defensively for the Jays. At 27, it’s entirely possible that the light came on for Rasmus and this is the player we can expect to see.
Edwin Encarnacion silenced critics in 2013 by following up his spectacular 2012 season with perhaps an even better one. While EE didn’t repeat the same counting numbers, improvement in his peripherals signal that his performance is not only sustainable, but extremely likely to continue. Encarnacion struck out less and walked a small amount for, while still hitting 36 home runs. Even though there was a minor drop-off in almost every other category, the plate discipline stats are important because, at 31, there could have been some signs of aging, but those don’t appear to be a concern. Expect another big year from Encarnacion and an even better one if the guys around him stay healthy.
It’s important to realize that the Blue Jays kept the core of the offense in tact and will be getting Jose Reyes back in the mix from the start. An injury in April really derailed the start of his season and it’s hard to get back on track after that. Adam Lind provided a lot of value and a healthier team will help keep him off the field, where he loses most of his offensive value. As a DH, Lind is a nice piece to have. There’s always hope that Brett Lawrie will start to show the promise that he showed in the minor leagues. It feels like he’s been around forever, but he’s just 24 and has only two seasons worth of plate appearances. Lawrie’s .280 BABIP is low for a player with his strikeout rate and average power, so expect him to make some positive strides this season.
Either way, while the offensive output last season wasn’t ideal, it’s the pitching staff that will dictate the Blue Jays season. R.A. Dickey dealt with injury early in the season and it really put him behind the pace he needed to put together solid full-season numbers. A lack of velocity hurt Dickey last season and he stressed to reporters that his goal was to reclaim that lost velo in Spring Training. As the season wore on and treatment started to work, Dickey’s numbers improved.
In the first half, Dickey posted a 4.69 ERA, a 4.90 FIP, and a terrible strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.96. In the second half, Dickey posted a 3.56 ERA, a 4.15 FIP, and a much better strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.54. Knuckleballs are completely different from any pitch and the way Dickey throws his is reliant on velocity. The slower it’s thrown, the more it has to move and the harder it is to control.
At 39, there’s going to be concern with Dickey, but predominantly throwing knuckleballs should prevent arm/shoulder problems. As long as the back and neck are improved, Dickey won’t put up similar numbers to what he did with the Mets, but a 3.50 ERA and a 3.80 FIP aren’t impossible and that would be well above league average.
Steady southpaw Mark Buehrle will be in the middle of the Jays rotation and his performance is about the only one that you can project with some sort of certainty. He’s a crafty innings eater with good control and a lot of pitchability. The Rogers Centre turf plus the hitter-friendly AL East parks led to a bump in Buehrle’s overall numbers, but the 35-year-old still projects to give the Jays 200 innings at league average or slightly better. Teams could do a lot worse than a 200-inning guy at league average.
Drew Hutchison is the wild card of this group because of the hype following his Spring Training performance. Hutchison returned from Tommy John surgery to make nine unimpressive starts in 10 appearances in the minor leagues. Hutchison won a job during Spring Training and there are reasons to believe in him. For starters, he holds a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 4.00 in the minor leagues to go along with an above average strikeout rate. Whether his strikeout rate translates or not, guys with command can make it at the Major League level and Hutchison allowed just nine home runs in 270 minor league innings.
The sky remains the limit for Brandon Morrow if his body will cooperate. Once a highly-touted strikeout pitcher, Morrow made just 31 starts over the 2012 and 2013 seasons. As his command sagged, so, too, did his swing and miss rate and the pain eventually became too much. There’s talent and upside in that right arm that the Jays will hope for. Bettors probably shouldn’t, but he could surprise.
The bullpen, which was a strength last season, appears to be a strength again this season. With Casey Janssen, Steve Delabar, and Sergio Santos, the Jays have three power righties that miss bats and have experience in high-leverage situations. Brett Cecil made the All-Star team last season as a matchup lefty, which wouldn’t have happened prior to Bud Selig’s absurd declaration that the winner of the game would decide home-field advantage in the World Series, but, the fact remains that Cecil was good enough to be considered. With four strong bullpen options, the Blue Jays are able to stock the rest of the pen with depth quality arms and still have a very strong group.
Why bet the under?
A lot of sabermetricians and advanced baseball thinkers believe that staying healthy is a skill and there aren’t a lot of Blue Jays who possess that skill. Not all injuries are created equal, but Bautista has been plagued by various ailments over the last two seasons and he’s approaching his mid-30s. The Jays rotation is stocked with guys who have had arm trouble or are on the wrong side of 35, so there’s a lot of risk with that group. Jose Reyes is already dealing with a hamstring issue and that’s unlikely to go away. Another consideration is that turf ages players faster than natural grass because of the strain of playing on that surface everyday. Advancements to playing surfaces have done wonders to improve career lengths for players, but it undoubtedly takes a toll.
The Blue Jays certainly hit home runs at a good pace, but home runs aren’t the only part of the game and the Jays were just barely below average offensively as a team with a wRC+ of 99. The Jays performed similarly with men on base as they did with bases empty, so there’s not really a bad luck element at play. As seen by the transactions list above, this is still pretty much the same team that it was last season. You’re literally betting on health by playing the Blue Jays over. The track records of the players in question would suggest that isn’t the best course of action.
Outside of the health of the rotation, it’s simply not very good. At best, the Jays rotation probably shakes out to be an above average Dickey and four average or worse pitchers. The depth options are clearly not upgrades since they couldn’t win jobs in a wide open competition. In a division like the AL East, there has to be something that sets the Jays above their opponents and the bullpen is the closest thing that they have. That’s great and it is a strength, but how many leads will they have to protect?
Depth remains an issue and the Jays project to be the league’s worst team at the second base position. Rasmus had a fine season last year, but a repeat of 2013 looks almost impossible. He posted a .365 BABIP while hitting 22 home runs and striking out nearly 30 percent of the time. The last time Rasmus posted a BABIP like that, in 2010 with a .354, he followed it up with .267 and .259 seasons in 2011 and 2012. That would drop Rasmus’s average down into the .230-.240 range and that would drop his on-base percentage below .300. The power is great, but so is not making outs.
Pick: Under 80.5 (-110, 5Dimes)
Ultimately, it’s hard to buy the Blue Jays rotation. Dickey and Buehrle are up in age and all of Morrow, Hutchison, and McGowan have arm troubles in their very recent past. The offense will perform, but the team projects to be bad defensively once again and that will only exacerbate a below average starting rotation. The AL East has too many good hitters to survive with a bad starting rotation, no matter how good the bullpen can be.
Health is such a big issue on this team that it takes way too many things to go right for a .500 season in a tough division. There will be stretches where the Jays look elite, but they will be overshadowed by sustained stretches of bad play. That was the case last season when the Blue Jays had an 11-game win streak in June that got them to within five games of the division lead. The Jays finished 24 games out. The Jays were 17 games under .500 against teams with .500 or better records and they’re likely to have four of them in their own division yet again, along with very few doormats in the other divisions.
The Blue Jays have pitching help down below with Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, but Stroman was at Double-A last season and Sanchez has never pitched above High-A. There’s hope on the horizon, but there’s not a whole lot of hope for 2014.