The Toronto Blue Jays are in a tough spot. Mired in baseball’s most difficult division, the franchise has to choose between spending copious amounts of cash in an effort to keep up with the Joneses in Boston and New York, or trying to succeed the old-fashioned way. Thus far, player development has won out. But going that route hasn’t yielded much in the way of results. The team has finished fourth in the division 3 years running, although 2008 and 2010 did feature winning records. The fact is that if their geography was different, the Jays would be vying for a playoff spot. As the alignment stands, there isn’t much hope of that any time soon.
Last year, Toronto got to 85 wins, only 4 fewer than the Red Sox. Of course, those Red Sox were pretty short-handed, but it’s still encouraging for the Jays and their fans. And the 2010 squad had some upside. Like being the A.L. leader in homers and slugging– they were fair to middlin’ at getting on base and scoring runs, but boy could those Jays smack the ball hard. Toronto also boasted some of the game’s better relievers and some live, young arms in the rotation.
There was, however, too much mediocrity for the team to overcome its adversity. Toronto ranked 10th in the A.L. in team ERA, finished 6th in runs scored (despite all those round-trippers), 10th in batting average and 12th in OBP. Other than Aaron Hill, no one was terrible. But Bautista was the only standout.
2011 has brought some substantial changes to the team. It’s time to examine what they might mean, and what Jays’ fans can expect this year.
Best Case Scenario: If everything breaks right for Toronto, the team could finish behind Boston and New York. Third place may not sound all that positive, but it would be an improvement over recent history. The last time the Jays finished that well was in 2006. Over the past 2 years, the club has gotten ludicrous career bests from unlikely sources– Hill and Scutaro in 2009, and of course Bautista and his 54 dingers last year. Despite those performances they still haven’t made up much ground on the league’s elite. So expecting anything more than a fairly distant third isn’t realistic.
Most Valuable Players: That doesn’t mean that there won’t be some big-time players taking the field at Skydome. Jose Bautista is still the primary slugger, and could be even more vital this year now that the club has divested itself of Vernon Wells. On the pitching side, Ricky Romero becomes the team’s ace by default after Shaun Marcum was traded for the Brewers’ Brett Lawrie. If Romero is to carry this rotation, he has to build on last year’s 3.73 ERA.
Potential Breakouts: Even though former G.M. and Billy Beane disciple J.P. Ricciardi has moved on, the Jays are still following the Moneyball approach. By shedding expensive veterans in exchange for prospects, they hope to stay competitive without spending a mint. One prospect is Kyle Drabek, a pitcher acquired in the Roy Halladay deal. The highly-touted righty will not be on a pitch limit this spring as he competes for a spot in the rotation; with Marcum gone, the Jays need new blood to step up. Another prospect to watch is the home-grownJ.P. Arencibia. The talented catcher could be the Jays’ #1 option behind the plate now that John Buck is in Florida.
Worst Case Scenario: The Jays did some good things this off-season, primarily through addition by subtraction. Vernon Wells is gone, and the high-priced vets they got in return (Mike Napoli, Juan Rivera) are either gone or going as well. The Jays are not going to extend Bautista in-season; this team is all about youth and potential. Unfortunately, it could also be about a fifth-place finish in the East. The Orioles have been the division’s cellar-dwellers, but if things go awry for Toronto, it’s not much of a drop from fourth to last. Don’t be surprised if the very young rotation struggles and Toronto ends up as one of the league’s poorer teams.
**UPDATE: To satisfy the would-be critics, Bautista was extended shortly after this piece was written and days before it was posted. The Jays managed to get the deal done prior to the start of the season.**
Biggest Areas of Concern: It’s likely that Toronto’s oldest starting pitcher will be 26. That has to be weighing on new manager John Ferrell, the former Red Sox pitching coach. Having young arms is great, but Toronto has no veteran presence at all. That lack of experience could be an issue. Plus, the Jays also have to replace departed closer Kevin Gregg. Then there’s the lineup that struggled to hit last year. Chicks may dig the long ball, but it takes more than home runs to win in the MLB. And everyone needs to prepare for some major regression to the mean where Jose Bautista is concerned.
Players Who Must Rebound: After a huge 2009 (35 homers, 114 RBI, .932 OPS) Adam Lind took an equally huge step backward in 2010. His .712 OPS was a heart-breaking disappointment for Jays’ fans and one of the more unexpected outcomes in the A.L. He simply has to bounce back in 2011 if this lineup is going to have any pop. It’s also important for Brandon Morrow to return to form. Regardless of what Kyle Drabek does, Morrow is going to be relied upon as the #2 or #3 starter. After flashing some skills back in 2008 with Seattle, he’s worsened in each of the past 2 seasons. That has to change in 2011.
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