When the Kansas City Royals reached the playoffs last season after a 29-year absence, it put Toronto on the clock. The Jays’ postseason drought, at 21 years, is now the longest in the four major North American sports leagues. The Jays acted aggressively to stop it two years ago, without success, but this winter they doubled down on their core, adding to it with a five-year deal for catcher Russell Martin and an inspired trade for All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson. There’s no excuse for the Blue Jays to miss the party again.
The Blue Jays’ rotation was expected to be a weakness last season, but it turned out to be a source of stability. They do not have a true ace, but they had five starters who earned at least 11 victories apiece, and by trading J.A. Happ to Seattle in December, they opened a spot for top prospect Aaron Sanchez. In Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison and Sanchez, they seem to have found long-term building blocks, with Daniel Norris coming up right behind. The Blue Jays valued their young pitchers so highly that they passed on the chance to trade them for more obvious veteran upgrades at the trading deadline. As it turns out, they need those pitchers now, to slot in behind — or eventually, perhaps, in front of — veterans R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle. Dickey is the majors’ reigning knuckleball master, and while he’s unlikely ever to repeat his 2012 Cy Young Award season with the Mets, he’s still durable at 40, and nobody likes to face him. Buehrle, 36, is the epitome of consistency; he started fast last season, but by the end, his stats wound up where they always do.
Toronto had one of the worst bullpens in the majors last season, with a 4.09 ERA that ranked 25th in the major leagues. The left side, though, is fairly settled, with Aaron Loup and former All-Star Brett Cecil, who averaged 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings last season. The right side is less settled, with Todd Redmond and Marco Estrada capable of giving length, although Estrada is prone to surrendering the long ball. Manager John Gibbons said in December that righty Steve Delabar, like Cecil a 2013 All-Star, remained in the mix despite spending much of last season back in the minors. Chad Jenkins pitches to contact, a risky approach, but managed a 2.56 ERA in 21 games last season.
Jose Reyes returns for his third season with the Jays, and while he’ll never be as electric as he was for the Mets, he remains, at 31, one of the game’s best shortstops. Reyes had a .726 OPS last season, the highest of all qualifying AL shortstops. Ryan Goins is in position to take over at second base, but his lackluster 2014 major league performance (.188 average) gives an opportunity to Devon Travis, 24, who came over from the Tigers. The Blue Jays think highly of Travis, who had an .817 OPS at Class AA Erie. Veteran Maicer Izturis, coming off knee surgery, also has a shot.
It’s no coincidence that Toronto’s season turned when Edwin Encarnacion hurt his right quadriceps on July 5. The Blue Jays were just a half-game out of first then, and when Encarnacion returned on Aug. 15, they were seven-and-a-half back. Encarnacion is perhaps the majors’ most obscure elite hitter, a monster power threat who also finds a way to put the bat on the ball consistently in an era of high strikeouts. He split his time last season between DH and first base, where he started 78 games. With Adam Lind gone now, Encarnacion will share time with Justin Smoak, the former Seattle first baseman who gets another chance to harness the power that never really broke out with the Mariners. Across the diamond is Donaldson, a skilled defender with power who replaces the talented but injury-prone Brett Lawrie in a trade with the A’s. The Jays have four years of contractual control over Donaldson, who is 29 and blossomed as a hitter with the A’s after studying film of the Jays’ Jose Bautista. Donaldson’s WAR has ranked second only to Mike Trout over the last two seasons.
The Blue Jays swallowed hard in February 2011 when they committed $64 million through 2015 (plus a 2016 option) to Bautista, who had failed to distinguish himself with four other teams and had enjoyed just one strong season. Now, the deal looks like a steal, because Bautista has become a consistent offensive machine, with the combination of power and plate discipline that every team craves. His modest (for a superstar) salary has also made it easier for the Blue Jays to add around him, although mostly in areas other than the outfield. Toronto plans to try the untested Dalton Pompey in center. Pompey, who rocketed from Class A to the big leagues last season, will be expected to show excellent range in center field. Pompey was expected to complement Michael Saunders, who was acquired in a left trade from Seattle. But Saunders tore cartilage in his knee after stepping on a sprinkler head shagging fly balls in spring training and is expected to miss at the first few weeks of the season, at minimum. Following Saunders' injury, the Blue Jays signed Dayan Viciedo, who hit 21 home runs with the White Sox last season, as insurance.
The Blue Jays struck early in free agency, elbowing out the Dodgers and the Cubs for the services of Martin, who agreed to a five-year, $82 million contract to play in his home country. The Blue Jays’ marketing department loves the fact that Martin is Canadian, but for the baseball operations folks, the move was all about the player. The Jays targeted Martin for his skills behind the plate — framing borderline pitches, blocking balls in the dirt — but also for his leadership, which will be pivotal. The Jays believe Martin has gotten back to the hitter he was in his early years with the Dodgers, with a swing that sprays balls to all fields and refined plate discipline that led to a .402 on-base percentage last season. Josh Thole is a backup with the important asset of familiarity with Dickey’s knuckleball.
Dioner Navarro, displaced at catcher, could fit as the primary DH as a switch-hitter who batted .274 last season and had a .365 OBP for the Cubs in 2012. The Blue Jays could also use Smoak, after claiming him on waivers, non-tendering him but then quickly re-signing him for $1 million. Izturis, who can play second, short and third, was limited to 11 games in 2014 due to injury. Kevin Pillar, who hit .323 in the minors last year, could be the fourth outfielder.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos enters his sixth season with the Blue Jays, and fans can’t question his desire to build a winner. Anthopoulos has used a solid farm system to build a team that is relevant again, but he kept an eye on the future last summer by holding onto his best prospects. The signing of Martin shows that Anthopoulos still believes in this core, and the trade for Donaldson was another go-for-it move that could help the Jays this year and beyond. Gibbons, a popular players’ manager, returns for the third season of his second dugout tour with the team. Gibbons has always had a close bond with Anthopoulos, but without a contract for 2016, it would be good for his job security to guide an improved roster to the playoffs.
With most teams struggling to score these days, the Blue Jays’ deep and powerful offense should set them apart from the pack. They improved it over the winter while managing to strengthen their shaky defense in several spots. The Jays’ staff lacks many in-their-prime performers, but the rotation has some pitchers with youthful promise. If one or two break out as stars, and the bullpen does its job, it’s reasonable to expect the Blue Jays’ first AL East championship since 1993.
2015 Prediction: 2nd in AL East (Wild Card)
SS Jose Reyes (S) Led big-league shortstops in hits (175) and times on base (214).
C Russell Martin (R) Blue Jays love his leadership, pitch-framing and all-fields swing.
RF Jose Bautista (R) Only one active player, Alex Rios, has more career games without a postseason appearance.
1B Edwin Encarnacion (R) Only player to hit 30 homers while striking out fewer than 85 times in each of last two seasons.
3B Josh Donaldson (R) Top 10 in MVP voting two years in a row; he brings power and defense to Jays.
DH Justin Smoak (L) For a player with one tool, power, his slugging percentage was a meager .339 for Seattle in 2014.
LF Michael Saunders (L) Prone to injury, but hit 19 homers with 21 steals as recently as 2012.
2B Ryan Goins (L) Just one error in 241 chances last season, but didn’t hit at all.
CF Dalton Pompey (S) Jays hope to ease in the speedy Ontario native in the No. 9 spot in the order.
C Dioner Navarro (S) Hit .301 in DH role for Jays last season; will see time there if not traded.
C Josh Thole (L) Adept at catching R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball, and he hit a solid .248.
2B Devon Travis (R) Turns 24 in spring, so time is right to bring power/speed combo to majors.
INF Maicer Izturis (S) Missed nearly all season after surgery to repair torn ligament in left knee.
OF Kevin Pillar (R) May compete with Pompey for the job in center, though he’s spent most of his big-league time in left.
RH R.A. Dickey Veteran knuckleballer went 6.0 innings or more in 19 of last 20 starts.
LH Mark Buehrle Durable southpaw is the fastest-working pitcher in MLB at 17.3 seconds between pitches.
RH Marcus Stroman Allowed a 53.8 percent ground ball rate and just six home runs in 20 starts.
RH Drew Hutchison Only American League pitcher to beat division-champ Orioles three times.
RH Aaron Sanchez Will get a chance to start, but Jays know he can be an asset in pen, too.
LH Brett Cecil (Closer) Ended season with longest scoreless streak of any AL pitcher (19.2 IP).
LH Aaron Loup Led the major leagues in inherited runners, with 66, and stranded 51.
RH Steve Delabar The 2013 All-Star struggled with control and split season between Class AAA and majors.
RH Todd Redmond His 75 innings led all Jays who pitched only in relief last season.
RH Chad Jenkins Fractured his right hand during batting practice in September.
RH Marco Estrada Prone to the home run ball; profiles as long man/spot starter/trade bait.
Beyond the Box Score
Wins, but no playoffs If you think it’s rare for a non-playoff team to have five pitchers with double-digit victories, you’re correct. The 2014 Blue Jays became the first team with that dubious distinction since the 2006 Chicago White Sox. The sting couldn’t have felt quite so bad for that Sox team, because it had won the World Series the year before.
Oh, Canada! The Blue Jays announced their signing of Russell Martin with a press release written in English and French. Martin, of course, went to high school in Montreal and will have broad national appeal to Blue Jays fans. And he’s not alone — Michael Saunders was acquired to play left field, and Dalton Pompey has a chance to win the job in center this year, which would give the Jays by far their most Canadian-flavored lineup ever. Other Canadians who have played for the team include Matt Stairs, Paul Quantrill, Corey Koskie, Rob Ducey and the departed Brett Lawrie.
The shortstop of steel Jose Reyes wears a cutoff Superman T-shirt under his uniform most games, and he showed up last season with a more permanent salute to his favorite superhero: a Superman logo tattooed high up on his chest, right at the base of his neck. The tattoo is in full color — red S, yellow background, red border. Reyes has also been known to wear Batman and Spider-Man gear if the mood strikes.
Buehrle and Cy Mark Buehrle is known for consistency, durability and control. He’s never won a Cy Young Award (in fact, he’s received votes in only one season, 2005), but he has a streak that is almost unmatched in baseball history. Buehrle has gone 14 seasons in a row with more than 200 innings and 61 walks or fewer. The only other pitcher in history with a streak that comes close to those criteria is Cy Young himself, who did it from 1897-1909.
New hitting coach After losing Kevin Seitzer to the Braves, the Blue Jays hired another 1980s third baseman, Brook Jacoby, to be their hitting coach. Jacoby, who made two All-Star teams for Cleveland, was the Reds’ hitting coach from 2007-13 and a minor league instructor for the Rangers in 2014. He is the Jays’ fourth hitting coach in four years and says, “I’m not going to try to make a big splash in the water. Just let the guys know that I’m here for them.”
2014 Top Draft Pick
Jeff Hoffman, RHP
Hoffman’s career at East Carolina ended last spring when he needed Tommy John surgery, but his confidence remained intact. “Whatever team takes the so-called risk and drafts me is going to get the best player in the draft,” he told the New York Times, a few days before Toronto scooped up him up with the ninth overall pick. A 6’4” righthander, he has a drop-and-drive delivery and profiles as a top-of-the-rotation starter. Hoffman’s fastball has touched 98, and he adds a heavy sinker, a decent slider and improving changeup. The surgery kept him out last summer, but he was throwing off flat ground in the fall and should be back in action by midseason. Hoffman would seem to be on track to make an impact in Toronto in 2016.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Daniel Norris, LHP (21) He had a 5.40 career ERA before a breakout 2014 that ended in Toronto. In the minors, he struck out nearly 12 per nine innings with mid-90s fastball and sharp slider.
2. Aaron Sanchez, RHP (22) Offered tantalizing glimpse of the future with strong bullpen cameo for Jays (1.09 ERA in 33 innings), but he’s a starter for the long term.
3. Dalton Pompey, OF (22) Has made a dramatic improvement in recent seasons and will have a chance to play every day in 2015.
4. Roberto Osuna, RHP (20) Returned to action last summer after Tommy John surgery; Jays hope he regains mid-90s fastball and feel for changeup.
5. Jeff Hoffman, RHP (22) Dominated in the Cape Cod League before his junior season at East Carolina. Still went No. 9 overall after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
6. Max Pentecost, C (22) Drafted two slots behind Hoffman in the first round in 2014; hit over .300 in two minor league stops but needed labrum surgery in October.
7. Franklin Barreto, SS (19) Jays gave him a $1.45 million bonus out of Venezuela in 2012, and he hit .311 with 29 steals at short-season Vancouver last year.
8. Devon Travis, 2B (24) Acquired from Detroit for Anthony Gose, he’s a good contact hitter with some power and speed who could easily win starting job at second base.
9. Richard Urena, SS (19) Toolsy athlete and lefty bat who hit .318 for rookie-level Bluefield last season.
10. Miguel Castro, RHP (20) Generates strikeouts and groundballs consistently, and will work on secondary pitches at High-A this season.