An inside look at MLB's American League East teams
The Toronto Blue Jays acted boldly in the offseason to snap out of the relentless mediocrity that has characterized the franchise for almost 20 years. They raided the NL East, acquiring Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle from the downsizing Marlins and Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the rebuilding Mets. They also signed Melky Cabrera despite his suspension for his positive test for testosterone, and re-hired a former Jays manager, John Gibbons, who already understands the local culture. It won’t be easy in the always-treacherous AL East, but it’s reasonable to expect Toronto to find its way back to the playoffs for the first time since winning the World Series in 1992 and 1993.
The Blue Jays’ rotation had a 4.82 earned run average last year, ranking 25th in the majors. It underwent a drastic renovation in the offseason, with trades for Dickey, Johnson and Buehrle. The Jays signed Dickey to a contract extension through 2015, betting on a knuckleball that has baffled hitters for three years and earned Dickey the NL Cy Young Award. Dickey is 38, but his career is ascending as he masters the finicky pitch, which he throws hard and controls with uncanny precision. Johnson pitched better than his record indicated and made it through the season after losing much of 2011 to shoulder trouble. He’s still in his prime and should be stronger now, and he will be unfamiliar to many AL hitters. Buehrle, the longtime White Sox mainstay, is no secret, but it’s hard to find a more consistent, dependable pro. Brandon Morrow was on his way to a long-awaited breakthrough season before losing more than two months to an oblique injury, but on his best days his stuff can match anyone’s. The biggest question is Ricky Romero, who seemed to be growing into a force at the top of the rotation before regressing badly last season. The restocked Jays won’t ask too much of Romero, their Opening Day starter the last two seasons, but if he can find his way back to at least being league-average, he’ll help a lot.
The Jays thought they had their closer of the future in Sergio Santos, the former position player who saved 30 games for the White Sox in 2011. But Santos saved only two for Toronto before needing shoulder surgery, and he returns to find his job taken by the veteran Casey Janssen — who also had a damaged shoulder. Janssen pitched a full season but had an operation in late November to shave down a small portion of his clavicle to relieve soreness. It was said to be minor surgery, but shoulder trouble is never a good sign. If healthy, though, Santos and Janssen would form the back end of the bullpen, supported by two lefties — one old (Darren Oliver) and one young (Aaron Loup) — and an intriguing group of righties including Esmil Rogers, Brad Lincoln and Steve Delabar. Rogers blossomed for the Indians last season after never quite figuring out Colorado, fanning 54 in 53 innings, while Delabar also showed strikeout stuff after midseason trades to Toronto.
Maicer Izturis signed a three-year, $10 million contract with Toronto in early November, a move that added a nice, versatile player to the infield mix. Soon after, though, they added a lot more sizzle, trading for Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio from Miami. Bonifacio hopes to pick up where he left off early last season, when he was successful on his first 20 stolen base attempts. Injuries to his thumb and knee torpedoed his progress, though, and he appeared in only 64 games. Like Izturis, he can play all over the infield, a valuable attribute for a team that plays home games on turf and would like to rest some starters now and then. Reyes, in particular, could benefit from occasional days off the turf, considering his history of hamstring injuries. But he was healthy last season and led the National League in plate appearances with 716. He was not the dynamic force the Marlins wanted him to be, and when they saw a chance to escape the last five years of his six-year, $106 million contract, they took it. In Toronto, Reyes might be in a late-season pennant race for the first time since the Mets’ collapses in 2007 and 2008. He should be energized and, still just 29 years old, can be a sparkplug for a dangerous Jays offense.
Trading two years of Shaun Marcum for the start of Brett Lawrie’s career was a steal for the Blue Jays, who love Lawrie’s background (he’s from British Columbia), his versatile offensive skills, and his defense at third. Forget the 17 errors, which led AL third basemen. By more advanced metrics, Lawrie ranked among the most valuable defensive performers in the game, with exceptional range. He’s battling a rib cage injury this spring, but it doesn’t appear too serious. Across the diamond, the Jays can use Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion, who have enough power to fit the profile for a first baseman. Encarnacion had a monster year last season, with 42 homers and 110 runs batted in, double his total from 2011. The Jays rewarded him with a three-year, $29 million contract extension, a bargain for that production, but a waste if his season was merely an anomaly. That is how Lind’s contract looks now, with three consecutive seasons that have fallen well short of his 2009 breakout. Lind, who was sent to the minors last season after hitting .186 through the end of May, has club options for 2014, 2015 and 2016. He needs to turn things around in a hurry for the Jays to consider retaining him.
Gibbons was the bench coach in Kansas City when Cabrera exploded for 201 hits in 2011. Cabrera was even better for the Giants last season, before his suspension for testosterone raised questions about what kind of player he really is. The Blue Jays are spending $16 million for the next two seasons to find out. They’ll trust that Cabrera can be a dynamic player cleanly. Colby Rasmus clashed with an intense manager in St. Louis (Tony La Russa), and played even worse for another intense manager in Toronto (John Farrell). Gibbons has had run-ins with his own players, but by nature he’s laid-back and affable, and perhaps in that environment Rasmus can unlock the talent that made him a first-round pick out of high school in 2005. On paper, he’s the only weak link in an outfield highlighted by Jose Bautista, the game’s premier power hitter the last few seasons. A wrist problem ruined Bautista’s second half, but as long as the injury has healed, there’s no reason to expect anything other than lots of homers, RBIs and walks, and plenty of screaming drives down the left field line.
The Blue Jays used catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud to land Dickey from the Mets. One reason they were willing to part the rising star is that they believe in J.P. Arencibia, with power by far his best tool. He caught Dickey in the World Baseball Classic, which allowed him to become familiar with the knuckler. Veteran Henry Blanco (yes, he’s still in the league) will be the backup at age 41. He still throws as well as any catcher in the AL.
The Jays can use Encarnacion or Lind as the designated hitter, which is also a convenient place to shift Reyes on occasion and play Izturis at shortstop. Gibbons could also inject speed into the lineup by using Rajai Davis or Anthony Gose, both reserve outfielders, in the DH spot.
GM Alex Anthopoulos constantly chases undervalued talent. It’s a worthwhile strategy, but it only goes so far, and Anthopoulos changed course in November. The industry-rattling acquisition of Reyes, Johnson and Buehrle brought proven performers to the Blue Jays, who are owned by a communications giant — Rogers — and have a nation to themselves. Anthopoulos is savvy and aggressive, and in Gibbons, he picked a manager who knows him and knows Toronto.
Four different AL East teams have reached the playoffs in the last four years, and the Jays are tired of being left out. There are no more excuses. The roster is not perfect, given the injury history of Reyes and Johnson, the declining performance of Rasmus and Romero, and the questionable sustainability of Cabrera’s recent success. But Dickey gives them a legitimate ace and helps make this the most talented Toronto team in more than a decade. All the elements are in place for the first postseason games in Canada since Joe Carter homered off Mitch Williams in 1993.
SS Jose Reyes (S)
Ended lackluster season in Miami by hitting .310 with 11 steals after Sept. 1.
LF Melky Cabrera (S)
Must prove his recent breakout is more than a result of PEDs. He was a gamble worth taking.
RF Jose Bautista (R)
Trade from Pirates for catcher Robinzon Diaz is one of great heists in MLB history.
1B Edwin Encarnacion (R)
Blue Jays need him to show that career year in 2012 (42 home runs, 110 RBIs) was no fluke.
CF Colby Rasmus (L)
OBP tumbled from excellent (.361) to abysmal (.289) in two years; still has the talent to be productive.
3B Brett Lawrie (R)
Hit .319 vs. lefties to lead the Blue Jays in his first full season in the big leagues. A rib cage injury leaves his availability for Opening Day in doubt.
DH Adam Lind (L)
Career peaked in 2009 (.305-35-114); can he come close to that again?
C J.P. Arencibia (R)
Is his decent power enough to offset his low on-base percentage?
2B Emilio Bonifacio (S)
Had .360 OBP and 40 steals as everyday infielder for Marlins in 2011.
IF Maicer Izturis (S)
Veteran started at least 162 career games at second, short and third; will be a valuable reserve.
OF Rajai Davis (R)
Playing time could be scaled back despite 46 steals in ’12; could grab some at-bats as the DH.
C Henry Blanco (R)
The 41-year-old backstop has thrown out 45 percent of base stealers since 2008.
OF Anthony Gose (L)
Former second-round pick must make better contact to take advantage of great speed.
3B Mark DeRosa (R)
The veteran will fill in for the injured Lawrie, then return to utility role.
RH R.A. Dickey
Threw one-hitters last year vs. new AL East rivals Baltimore and Tampa Bay.
RH Josh Johnson
A free agent after the ’12 season, he hopes to reestablish himself as an ace.
LH Mark Buehrle
Gold Glove winner in each of the last four seasons, three with White Sox, one with Marlins.
RH Brandon Morrow
Untouchable when he’s on; in his 10 wins, his ERA was 0.68; could be one of the game’s best No. 4 starters.
LH Ricky Romero
Suffered 13 consecutive losses, with 7.42 ERA, before winning last decision.
RH Casey Janssen (Closer)
Went 22-of-24 in save chances after assuming closer’s role.
RH Sergio Santos
Given closer job in 2012 but made only six appearances before season-ending shoulder surgery.
RH Steve Delabar
12.55 Ks per 9 innings was the best figure in the American League in 2012 (min. 60 innings).
LH Darren Oliver
Posted the lowest ERA (2.06) of his 19-year career in 2012, his first season with the Jays.
RH Esmil Rogers
Had 3.06 ERA for Indians in 44 games after escaping Coors Field.
LH Aaron Loup
Held lefties to .207 average in 33 games after promotion from Class AA.