Projected Division Finish
1. Boston Red Sox
2. Toronto Blue Jays
3. Baltimore Orioles
4. Tampa Bay Rays
5. New York Yankees
Toronto Blue Jays
2014 Finish: 83-79 (Third Place)
Projected Batting Order
SS Jose Reyes
C Russell Martin
RF Jose Bautista
DH Edwin Encarnacion
3B Josh Donaldson
1B Justin Smoak
LF Kevin Pillar
CF Dalton Pompey
2B Devon Travis
Projected Starting Rotation/Closer
RHP Drew Hutchinson
RHP R.A. Dickey
LHP Mark Buehrle
LHP Daniel Norris
RHP Aaron Sanchez
CLOSER Brett Cecil
The Blue Jays are trying to take that final step. I have liked their makeup for a while, but they have been unable to take full advantage of their talent. A few years ago it was injuries. Last year, it was ineffectiveness, especially on the mound. The Blue Jays have a potent offense and it got more potent this offseason with the addition of Josh Donaldson. However, if the Blue Jays want to make some noise in the wide-open AL East, they have to get better on the mound. And with them not adding any arms, its clear the Blue Jays will try to make a go of it with the arms they already have, which is certainly a risk.
The Blue Jays have a phenomenal offense. Last year they hit 259 as a team (tied for third in the league) and ranked in the top 4 in hits, runs and were second with 177 HR. Their home park helps with that, but the rest is their sluggers. They have two of the best home run hitters in baseball in Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. They added Josh Donaldson this offseason to give them the best middle of the order in baseball.
Jose Bautista is the leader of this club and has been one of the best players in baseball over the last few years despite missing a lot of games over 2012 and 2013. But he stayed on the field last year and showed what he was capable of when fully healthy. He hit 286 with 35 HR, 103 RBI, 101 R and a 403 OBP off the strength of 104 BBs. He is a phenomenal hitter with a slugger’s mentality but much better batting AVG. He is one of the most dependable hitters in the game and one of my favorite players. I think he is a lock for 270+ with 30+ HR and 100 RBI/R. Perhaps more if he’s fully healthy and with the offense he has behind him.
Edwin Encarnacion is the cleanup man hitting behind Bautista. He made adjustments since joining the Blue Jays in 2010 and immediately became a power hitter. He’s hit 112 HR since 2012, tied for second in the league behind Miguel Cabrera. Last year he hit 268 with 34 HR and 98 RBI. He did all that in only 128 games. He, too, has become a reliable slugger with the ability to get on base and hit for solid AVG. I like him for 265+ with 30+ HR and 100+ RBI/R as well. Both Bautista and Encarnacion could flirt with 40 HR and 130 RBI this year.
New third baseman Josh Donaldson makes up the third part of this monster middle of the lineup. He’ll hit 5th and take his powerful swing to a much better ballpark for his makeup. In Oakland, a hitter’s graveyard, he hit 255 with 29 HR and 98 RBI. The year before he hit 301 with 24 HR and 93 RBI. The AVG is variable and you wonder where it will end up. But the power is legit. I think hitting in Toronto will enable him to see that AVG climb to match his HR output. Put him down for 260+ with 25+ HR and 90+ RBI. I wouldn’t be surprised if he also makes it to 30 HR and 100 RBI, though 80+ R is a better estimate for the number 5 hitter. And there is no question that these three make up the most potent 3-4-5 combo in baseball.
That group will be trying to drive in the top of the order, which isn’t quite as formidable but is still solid. Jose Reyes is the leadoff hitter at short. He has lost a step from his All Star days with the Mets, but is still very fast and has great contact skills. Similar to Bautista, the issue for Reyes is health. Last year he improved and made it into 140 games, but still missed time. When he was on the field, he was productive at the plate hitting 287 with 30 SB and 94 R. I don’t think he’ll ever steal 40 bags again. And his 328 OBP was lower than the Jays would like. If he can stay healthy, I think he can have another season around 285 with 25-30 SB and over 100 R. But there is already chatter about him heading to the DL after getting hurt a few days ago.
The other major addition to the Jays this year will hit second and be the primary catcher. Russell Martin was added in a big free agent deal after his phenomenal year in Pittsburgh. He hit 290 with 11 HR and a 402 OBP. But he is really prized for his defense and clubhouse character. While I wouldn’t chase that AVG on a 32-year old catcher with a lot of innings on his legs, I do think he can reach double-digit homers again. But as much as I like this signing, I don’t think his offense will stay at its current level. I’ll put him down for 255 with 14 HR, 68 RBI and 60 R. His real value comes on defense.
The rest of the offense isn’t as frightening. The Jays are trotting out three youngsters and two veterans who will share the DH duties. Dioner Navarro was the starting catcher last season but will get most of his ABs as a DH now. He is currently the backup catcher, but there is a possibility that Josh Thole will get recalled from Triple A to catch knuckleballer R.A. Dickey if Martin and Navarro can’t handle the job. Navarro initially requested a trade, but seems happier knowing that he will be the backup catcher and get a fair number of appearances as the DH. He played well last year hitting 274 with 12 HR and 69 RBI. His power plays in that park and the AVG was a welcome surprise. I think he can get 400 ABs this season and hit over 260 with 8-10 HR in limited action.
The other DH will be Justin Smoak. He’s been an all or nothing hitter his whole career with Texas and Seattle hitting for power and nothing else. From 2011 to 2013 he hit 15, 19 and 24 HR respectively. But his highest AVG in that time was 234. The hope is he can hit even more HR in a park like the Rogers Centre, but the Jays aren’t counting on him. He will be in a DH platoon and may nab some playing time at first. Think 400 AB, 20+ HR and an AVG around 220.
Center field will be manned by youngster Dalton Pompey, left field by youngster Kevin Pillar and second base by rookie Devon Travis. All have bright futures, but young hitters can struggle. The Jays are having them hit lower in the lineup until they prove themselves. Lots of speed potential here, but the rest is a question. They would love Michael Saunders to come back from injury to take back a starting job because he has power and speed potential. Danny Valencia and Maicer Izturis provide veteran depth on the infield.
Once again, this offense could be among the best in the league if healthy. They have a great middle of the order and solid guys at the top. The one Achilles heel of this team could be depth. What compounds that is the fact that two of their stars are injury prone. They don’t have any proven talent at the bottom of the order and the options on the bench are somewhat limited. But if this team is healthy, the middle of the order should hit enough to cover any other deficiencies the Blue Jays have at the plate.
Unlike most teams with potent offenses, the Blue Jays also have a strong defense. Many teams sacrifice defense for better offense thinking they can hit enough to cover up for any mistakes in the field. That is not a problem in Toronto. This defense can play. Edwin Encarnacion, a former third baseman, is at least average and some metrics have him pretty good at first. I like him there and don’t mind his aggressiveness. Youngster Devon Travis won the second base job partly due to his great defense. Josh Donaldson is a very good defensive player at third, almost great. The only subpar defender on the infield is Jose Reyes, who is not what he once was. His reaction time has diminished with age and his arm isn’t as strong as it used to be. He actually cost the Blue Jays runs in the field last year. Jose Bautista’s great defense is often overlooked due to his offensive prowess. We all know his arm is legit (a former third baseman) but he gets great reads and has more than enough speed to cover a huge range in right field. Pompey and Pillar are good, young defensive players in center and left. And catcher Russell Marin is great behind the plate. Valencia can back up first, second and third. Izturis can back up second, third and short. When Michael Saunders returns, he can play either corner. Smoak provides depth at first. This defense is one of the better ones in the division and the league.
While the Blue Jays feature an elite offense, their pitching staff isn’t as sharp. That being said, they weren’t bad ranking in the middle of the AL in every major pitching category and featuring a team ERA of 4. That’s not championship caliber pitching, but with this offense it could be playoff caliber. The Blue Jays didn’t add any new names on the mound. They are hoping their young pitchers mature and that is enough to put them over the top. It’s a risk. And it’s further complicated by the fact the Toronto lost Marcus Stroman for the season with an ACL injury.
The Blue Jays have a lot in on Drew Hutchinson. They are counting on the youngster to be their ace despite only 44 starts in his big league career. Last year he went 11-13 with a 4.48 ERA in 32 starts. He averaged about one strikeout per inning in 184 IP. The good news is that he was effective and stood up to a full workload. He’s got good stuff and keeps the ball down. The bad news is he’s still learning to pitch and allows too many base runners (60 BB, 245 BAA, 1.26 WHIP). I think he can be an effective pitcher and has a bright future. I just think the expectations for him for this season may be too high and he will feel the pressure. Put me down for 12-15 wins and 200 IP but also 10 losses and an ERA of 4.25 with 185/190 Ks.
R.A. Dickey is returning for his age 40 season. He went 14-13 with a 3.71 ERA last year and 173 Ks in 215 IP. The good thing about Dickey is that he can log a lot of innings even at this point in his career and generally is competitive. A lot of knucklers are former position players who are trying to stay in the bigs. Dickey has been a pitcher his whole career which allows to him to throw a harder knuckleball and harder fastball than any other knucklers. He also is able to avoid walks better than others, but all knuckleball pitchers are prone to the base on balls. I’m expecting 10-12 Wins with an ERA around 4. Toss in 170+ Ks in 220 IP if healthy.
Veteran Mark Buehrle is back again this year as well. Dickey and Buehrle are two of the oldest starters in the game, but both are able to pitch effectively. Buehrle has never thrown hard and his control and ability to pitch to contact have kept him a viable starter for the last few years. He went 13-10 last year with a 3.39 ERA. He gives up a ton of hits (287 BAA) but does a great job avoiding walks. That will keep you employed in the big leagues. He had some luck on his side when it came to stranding runners, but a lot of that is veteran savvy. Put him down for 12 Wins, an ERA of 4 and 200 IP.
The rest of the starting rotation is even younger than Hutchinson. Lefty Daniel Norris has made 5 big league appearances and 1 start to this point in his career. He struggled in those outings with a 5.40 ERA and 5 BBs in 6.2 IP. He has to lay off the walks and may struggle this year. He’ll get better with age and hi stuff is legit, but he’ll have to make a lot of adjustments to even be average this season
The last starting spot belongs to Aaron Sanchez. Sanchez has a little more experience than Norris, but exactly one less start. His 24 relief appearances last year are the total of his MLB experience and he was good in his role out of the bullpen. He pitched to a 1.09 ERA in 33 IP with a 0.70 WHIP and 128 BAA. Those numbers are very strong, but also represent a limited sample size. Having him start full time is another risk, but one the Jays have to take with Stroman’s injury.
The bullpen looks like a stronger crew, but not crazy good either. Aaron Loup and Marco Estrada have experience and live arms. Estrada provides some starter insurance and Loup is a closing option. Brett Cecil is trying to re-make himself as a reliever and was hoping to be the closer coming into the season. He was pretty good in relief last year, but gave up too many walks and struggled in the spring. It lost him the closer’s job and he is starting out the year as a setup man. Miguel Castro is being given the keys to the closer’s role but having a rookie in that role is a real risk. He’s got the stuff, but having a closer work out his growing pains in the 9th is potentially dangerous.
This pitching staff is not great. It has potential to be solid, but I don’t know. Buehrle and Dickey should be capable innings eaters. Hutchinson can be a horse as well, but is being asked to do more. The back of the rotation is a question. The bullpen has some good arms, but not having a solid closer makes things fuzzy. If there are any serious injuries, the Jays are in trouble. This pitching staff won’t be asked to win a lot of 1-0 games. But they have to be able to hold down the fort in a strong offensive league and great offensive park. If the Jays make the playoffs, its because everything worked out really well on the mound.
This offense is so good that I think they can overcome a lot of pitching deficiencies. What helps them out is that the defense on the field should be very strong as well. Pitching wins championships, but playing in the AL East this year is going to be easier than in years past. And with this offense, they will be in every game.
I’m putting the Jays down for 92 Wins and second place finish in their division. I also think they can take home a wildcard spot and break their playoff drought.