Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays have gone nearly 20 years since their last trip to the postseason, but that drought seems likely to end soon, perhaps as soon as this year. Toronto will contend if its starting pitchers continue to improve, and young position players like Yunel Escobar, Brett Lawrie and Adam Lind complement the American League’s top slugger last year, Jose Bautista, in the lineup. With two wild cards now in play, Toronto can be a team squarely in the hunt late in the season.
Only five teams had a higher earned run average from their starters last season than the Blue Jays, who checked in at 4.55, ahead of only the Twins, Rockies, Cubs, Royals and Orioles. To escape such inglorious company and become serious contenders, the Blue Jays need more of the same from ace Ricky Romero, a 27-year-old lefthander who improves every year. They also need to find out if Brandon Morrow can harness his exceptional stuff and produce consistent, top-level results. If he can, the Jays have a 1-2 punch to contend with the tough lineups of the AL East. The Jays hope that Henderson Alvarez can build off an impressive 10-start audition late last season, when he was the second-youngest starting pitcher in the major leagues, and they need Kyle Drabek to show why the Phillies were initially so reluctant to give him up for Roy Halladay. Alvarez and Drabek have more upside than Brett Cecil, the lefty who earned 15 victories in 2010 but was shipped back to Class AAA in April. He pitched well for a while, but finished 0–7 with a 5.16 ERA in his last 10 starts in the big leagues. The Blue Jays put him on a conditioning program to lose weight over the offseason. He lost about 30 pounds and has looked good in early spring outings. Dustin McGowan, who missed all of 2009 and 2012, is a long shot to return to the rotation, but is being tested this spring.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos was overjoyed to trade for closer Sergio Santos in early December, even though it meant sacrificing a top pitching prospect, Nestor Molina, to the White Sox in return. Anthopoulos raved about Santos’ strikeout stuff — he averaged more than 13 strikeouts per nine innings last year — and his contract, which includes six years of club control: three guaranteed, and three option years. Santos, a first-round draft pick by the Diamondbacks as a shortstop in 2002, played in the Jays’ farm system from 2006 to 2008, actually hitting 20 homers one year. But he found his calling as a pitcher with the White Sox and now leads the Toronto bullpen. Another acquisition late in the offseason was Francisco Cordero, the Reds’ closer for the past four seasons, and Milwaukee prior to that. He has 194 saves over five seasons, but he will be asked to fill the setup role in front of Santos. The Jays’ bullpen is now pretty deep and should be a strength, putting less pressure on the starters to get deeper into games. It is stocked with former starters like Jesse Litsch and Carlos Villanueva, and the Jays reacquired righty setup man Jason Frasor, who spent the final two months of the 2011 season with the White Sox. Frasor spent the first seven-plus years of his career in the Jays’ bullpen. Veteran Darren Oliver was signed in January as a situational lefty.
The Blue Jays pulled off a steal when they snagged Escobar from the Braves in a five-player deal in 2010. Escobar is 29 and a good fielder who gets on base and has some power. Critics have said he has an attitude, but with that kind of on-field profile, Escobar helps a team win. Judging by Wins Above Replacement, only the Blue Jays’ two All-Stars, Bautista and Romero, contributed more wins to the team than Escobar last season. Escobar’s keystone mate is Kelly Johnson, acquired from Arizona in August for Aaron Hill, who never came close to repeating his 2009 All-Star form. Johnson struggled for the Diamondbacks last season, but in 33 games with Toronto, he batted .270 with a .364 on-base percentage and three homers. He accepted the Blue Jays’ arbitration offer in December, and with another shot at free agency after this season, he should be motivated to put up big numbers.
If only Lind, the first baseman, could be the basher he was in 2009, when he hit .305 with 35 homers and 114 runs batted in. If he could, pitchers might be less inclined to walk Bautista in front of him. But with Lind a relatively easy out in the cleanup spot last year, Bautista led the majors in walks (132), including a league-leading 24 intentional walks. Lind should be healthier this season after dealing with injuries to his lower back and his wrist, and at 28, he should be in his prime. Across the diamond at third is Lawrie, who played like a veteran when he arrived from the minors last season. Lawrie, from Langley, British Columbia, showed why he was Milwaukee’s top prospect before he was traded to Toronto for Shaun Marcum. From his debut on Aug. 5 until he fractured a finger on Sept. 21, Lawrie led all major league rookies in OPS (.953) and was tied for first in homers (nine) and extra-base hits (21). He plays with swagger and is quick and athletic in the field.
There can be no doubting Bautista anymore. After his sudden explosion for 54 home runs in 2010, he led the majors for the second straight year, this time with 43. Bautista also led the majors in OPS (1.056) and walks (132), and at $14 million per year through 2015, his contract makes a lot of sense for the Blue Jays. Bautista has started at six different positions in his career but has settled in nicely in right field. New centerfielder Colby Rasmus never clicked with Tony La Russa in St. Louis, but at 25 years old, the former first-round draft pick is a strong candidate for a breakout season in his first full year in Toronto. Left field will be manned by Eric Thames or Travis Snider, with Snider still trying to unlock the power he has shown in the minor leagues.
The Blue Jays thought so highly of J.P. Arencibia that they traded Mike Napoli to the Texas Rangers before last season. Napoli became a second-half and postseason sensation for Texas, but Toronto is happy with Arencibia, who hit 23 homers, fourth-best among major league catchers and a record for a Blue Jays backstop. There’s room for improvement, though, considering his .282 on-base percentage. On defense, Arencibia threw out 24.3 percent of potential base-stealers while committing 12 passed balls, ranking second in the American League. The Blue Jays acquired a defensive specialist, Jeff Mathis, in the offseason, but Arencibia should not have to worry about his starting spot. Mathis was a career .194 hitter in seven seasons with the Angels.
Edwin Encarnacion is the incumbent at DH for the Blue Jays, but as designated hitters go, he’s not one of the best. He peaked early in his career with the Reds and has made little impact, positive or negative, in two-plus seasons with Toronto. His OPS was identical in 2010 and 2011: an uninspiring .787. With a bench that includes Ben Francisco, Rajai Davis and possibly the loser of the Snider/Thames left field battle, there should be plenty of names spinning in and out of the DH spot, unless Encarnacion’s career suddenly takes off. He’s 29 this season, so he probably is what he is. But when you play on the same team as the ultimate late bloomer — Bautista — perhaps there’s always hope of becoming a top slugger with little advance warning. Veteran Omar Vizquel, who turns 45 in April, made starts at third, short and second last season for the White Sox. He is with the team in spring training and likely to make the team as a utility infielder and mentor to the Jays’ youngster.
Rival executives see the Blue Jays as an imminent threat to contend for the playoffs, largely because of the smart leadership of Anthopoulos. The team is in a healthy place financially, with no regrettable contracts, several young, impact position players and a pitching staff guided by an astute ex-pitcher, manager John Farrell. Anthopoulos is confident that Rogers Communications, with its vast resources, will allow the team to spend big when he sees fit. With the Canadian market all to themselves, and an extra wild card spot on the horizon, all signs point to a renaissance north of the border very soon.
Eleven times in the last 14 years, Toronto has won at least 80 games but no more than 88. It’s a frustrating place to live, especially in the American League East, where 90 wins are generally the benchmark for relevance. The Blue Jays are building carefully, trying to build something sustainable to finally escape the good-but-not-great treadmill. They’re probably a year away from doing it, but if they’re close enough to contention this summer — a distinct possibility, given the upside of players like Lawrie and Morrow — expect the creative Anthopoulos to make a move that gives the Jays a chance to go for it.
SS Yunel Escobar (R)
Punished lefties for a .330 average (sixth in the AL) last season.
CF Colby Rasmus (L)
Should have plenty of motivation after Cardinals traded him and went on to win World Series. Will also see some time in the No. 6 slot.
RF Jose Bautista (R)
Jays’ highest-paid player is a certified bargain at $14 million a year through 2015.
1B Adam Lind (L)
Must provide better protection for Bautista, who drew 132 walks to lead MLB.
DH Edwin Encarnacion (R)
Had a .382 on-base percentage in the second half, 99 points better than he did in the first half.
3B Brett Lawrie (R)
Future franchise cornerstone, acquired from Milwaukee for Shaun Marcum; looks like a star in the making.
C J.P. Arencibia (R)
Rookie season produced 23 homers, a single-season record for a Blue Jays catcher.
2B Kelly Johnson (L)
Middle infielder with pop on a one-year contract makes perfect sense for Toronto. Will not be a surprise to see him batting second.
LF Eric Thames (L)
Will try to hold off Travis Snider for the starting job after slumping in September.
OF Rajai Davis (R)
Speedster’s spot is shaky after a career-worst season hampered by hamstring injury.
OF Travis Snider (L)
Posted a .394 OBP at Triple-A last year and .269 with Jays. Needs to prove he’s not a 4A player.
INF Mike McCoy (R)
Appeared at every spot on the field except catcher, left field and first base (yes, he even pitched).
OF Ben Francisco (R)
His pinch-hit, three-run homer won Game 3 of NLDS for the Phillies.
C Jeff Mathis (R)
After flipping an Angels catcher last winter (Mike Napoli), Jays will hold onto this defensive specialist.
INF Omar Vizquel (S)
The ageless future Hall of Famer will likely make the team as a mentor for Escobar and Lawrie.
LH Ricky Romero
Since 2009 debut, he’s lowered ERA and WHIP while raising wins and innings each season.
RH Brandon Morrow
Improving steadily, the strikeout specialist could break into stardom at age 27.
LH Brett Cecil
Very lucky to be 15–7 in 2010, very unlucky to be 4–11 last year.
RH Henderson Alvarez
Finished season strong, with quality starts in five of six appearances starting Aug. 31.
RH Kyle Drabek
Must continue to work on commanding his fastball to win back a starting job after rough 2011.
RH Dustin McGowan
Is competing with Drabek for final fifth spot in rotation. Returned last season after missing all of 2009 and 2010 to start four games with modest results. May be better suited for bullpen now.
RH Sergio Santos (Closer)
Despite free agent options, Jays traded for Santos and believe he can be elite.
RH Francisco Cordero
The former Rangers/Brewers/Reds closer has six 37-plus save seasons.
RH Carlos Villanueva
After five years with Brewers, he made 13 starts, 20 relief appearances in first year with Jays.
RH Jesse Litsch
Won four of eight starts last year before shoulder injury; a serviceable long man, but has been shut down until mid-April.
RH Jason Frasor
After brief interlude with White Sox, he’s back in familiar setup role.
LH Darren Oliver
Veteran specialist gave up four extra-base hits (in 94 PAs) vs. lefties with the Rangers in 2011.
RH Casey Janssen
Coming off his lowest WHIP and highest strikeout percentage of five-year career.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
Los Angeles Angels
Los Angeles Dodgers
New York Mets
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals