2012 Outlook: Toronto Blue Jays

The 2011 Toronto Blue Jays were about as average as one team can be, finishing 81-81.  Their offense and bullpen were almost exactly average, while the rotation and defense were just a bit below average.  However, they had arguably the best hitter in baseball and an up-and-coming star debut, leaving them with much more intrigue than a typical average team.  While it is extremely hard to compete in the AL East, things could look up for Toronto in the coming years.

The lineup is anchored by Jose Bautista, who definitely proved 2010 was not a fluke.  Leading the majors with a 181 wRC+, he provided about 8 WAR with his big power and great plate discipline, posting a 17% UIBB rate.  I’m not sure if he can hit .300 again, but I would expect a .280/.420/.580 season from him.  He has poor range in right field, but his great arm offsets some of that deficit.  However, his outfield mates are not exactly great.  Colby Rasmus struggled last year, especially after arriving in Toronto.  He’s a flyball hitter who has good but not great power, so his BABIP shouldn’t be much above average, meaning his production also won’t be much above average.  His defense in center field has declined after his rookie year, now rating below average.  Left field is a mess, with some combination of Eric Thames, Travis Snider, Rajai Davis, and Ben Francisco getting the playing time.  Thames showed good power, but poor plate discipline and defense.  It looks like he will need a platoon partner, which could be provided by Ben Francisco.  Travis Snider was supposed to be the everyday left fielder, but his plate discipline has severely declined, leading to uninspiring numbers.  If last year’s power loss is more than the wrist injury, his bright future will dim quickly.  Davis is most likely to be a backup/platoon for Rasmus in center.

Speaking of bright futures, Brett Lawrie burst onto the scene last year, hitting .293/.373/.580 (163 wRC+).  While I don’t see him posting a .300 ISO over a full season, he should post a .280/.350/.480 slashline with good defense at third base.  To his left, Yunel Escobar rebounded from a poor 2010, posting a 116 wRC+ with very good plate discipline.  I still see the Escobar for A-Gon and Pastornicky trade in my nightmares…  Another former Brave in Kelly Johnson will start at second base, acquired in an August trade with Arizona for Aaron Hill.  He’s had oscillating BABIPs the past few years without much change in his batted ball profile, which is a sign of plain dumb luck.  Much more concerning was the rise in strikeouts, from ~22% to over 26%.  If those come back down towards career average, he should be a very good pickup for Toronto.  Adam Lind is looking at a make-or-break year at first base, trying to perform closer to his 2009 level.  His plate discipline has been a problem for him too, posting consecutive sub-.300 OBP seasons.  It is likely that Toronto could go a different direction if his struggles continue.  Mike McCoy and Luis Valbuena will battle for the utility spot, with Omar Vizquel also in camp as a NRI.

J.P. Arencibia showed great power and not much else, striking out over 27% of the time and posting a .255 BABIP, which is not far from expected considering his batted ball profile.  If he can get his OBP to .300, there will be enough power there to be an above-average hitter.  With Jeff Mathis as his backup, it won’t take much offense to be a better option.  Edwin Encarnacion has finally found his niche at DH, with good plate discipline and power.  He deservedly got the nickname E5, and now he should not have to wear a glove much this year.

The starting rotation has two locks and a bunch of question marks to round it out.  Consistent and durable lefty Ricky Romero leads the staff.  His above-average strikeout rate and great GB% has held steady his first three years, while his control is slowly improving.  Averaging 7 innings a start last year, Romero showed the ability to throw 220 innings in a season, which should leave him around 4 WAR with his skills.  Brandon Morrow had another season of mismatching ERAs and peripherals.  His big strikeout arm leaves him with a good FIP, but his ERA was over a run higher than his FIP in 2011.  He had a much higher BABIP when runners were on base, despite allowing less line drives.  The flyball pitcher should see his ERA drop towards his FIP.

Spots 3 through 5 are wide open.  Brett Cecil made the most starts of anyone returning, but had a 4.73 ERA and 5.10 FIP in his 20 starts.  Kyle Drabek started the season as the up-and-comer, but struggled mightily with his control, walking 15% of hitters before getting sent down to AAA, where the struggles continued.  Henderson Alvarez does not have such problems, walking only 3% of hitters in his 10 starts.  The 22-year-old doesn’t miss bats, but he induced over 50% groundballs, so he should be able to keep the ball in the park at a decent rate.  Carlos Villanueva made 13 starts at the end of the season, posting a poor ERA with average skills.  Dustin McGowan returned from the dead, pitching for the first time since 2008.  He was not sharp in his four starts, but the velocity was good and he will likely find a spot on the team either in the rotation or the bullpen.

The Blue Jays bullpen will have a new look with three new faces.  Sergio Santos was acquired from the White Sox, bringing a young power arm to the late innings.  Francisco Cordero was a late free agent pickup, giving Santos competition for the ninth inning.  Darren Oliver begins his 19th season, a still-effective lefty.  Jason Frasor and Casey Janssen return from last year’s bullpen, giving them a fair amount of reliable arms.

Toronto is a good team who isn’t close to competing with New York, Boston, and Tampa Bay.  There has been some talk about the Blue Jays possibly going for Canadian Joey Votto next winter in a trade or after the 2013 season as a free agent.  If that would happen, the AL East would likely turn into a four team race.  As for 2012, they are looking to see if Lawrie is for real and trying to get Rasmus and Drabek back on track.  If all three perform well, Toronto could give the Big 3 a headache this season.

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