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Blue Jays' Team Preview: Is This Real Life?

Derek VanRiper

Derek VanRiper

Derek is the Senior Baseball Editor for RotoWire.com, where he's been a two-time finalist for the FSWA's Baseball Writer of the Year award, and winner of the Best Football Article on the Web (2009) and Best Baseball Article on the Web (2010) awards. Derek also co-hosts RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio (XM 87, Sirius 210) from 11a-2p ET on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.


2013 Blue Jays Preview

Entering the fourth season of Alex Anthopoulos' tenure as the Blue Jays general manager, expectations are higher than ever after a very busy offseason. Competing with the big-budget Yankees and Red Sox has presented a significant challenge for the Jays over the last two decades, but the window to become frontrunners in the AL East was open this winter and Anthopoulos wasted no time making the moves necessary to claim that mantle.

With a pair of blockbuster deals and an opportunity to sign a marquee free agent at what could amount be a significant discount, Toronto will likely open the season as favorites to come away with the division crown. In recent seasons, the Jays have been a feast-or-famine offense relying very heavily on the long ball, but their new-look lineup features a pair of tablesetters in Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera to put even more pressure on opposing pitchers when they navigate through the heart of the order. There is still a great deal of pop with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion looking down the three and four spots in the order, but the balance in the lineup should generate more consistency from the offense, while a revamped rotation should eliminate some of the pressure on Bautista and company to carry the load on a day-to-day basis.

Offseason Moves

Acquired RP Esmil Rogers from the Indians for INF Mike Aviles and UTIL Yan Gomes.

Rogers flourished in a relief role for the Indians after escaping Colorado before getting dealt to the Blue Jays in the offseason. He's got a live enough arm to warrant some consideration as a darkhorse candidate to close but those hopes were likely dashed when Toronto tossed its hat into the AL East race as they are now very unlikely to give an unproven commodity a chance to close out games. He could emerge as one the team's primary setup men, however, as part of an improving Toronto bullpen.

Signed INF Maicer Izturis.

Izturis had a disappointing season as the Angels' primary utility infielder in 2012, slashing .256/.320/.315 in 319 plate appearances. He's not exactly ancient at 32 years old and has a .273/.337/.381 career batting line, so there is some hope that he'll recover in 2013. After signing with Toronto there was a bit of speculation that Izturis could become an everyday starter, but that appears highly unlikely now that the Blue Jays have added Melky Cabrera, Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio. Izturis figures to work as a utility infielder again, and will likely be the go-to guy on Toronto's bench. Pretty much any injury, besides one at catcher, could potentially open up additional playing time for Izturis, since the Blue Jays can always move Emilio Bonifacio the the outfield and stick Izturis at second base.

Acquired RP Jeremy Jeffress from the Royals.

It has been quite a ride for the former first-round pick who had dealt with a pair of drug-related suspensions to open his career as well as a series of off-field incidents which turned him into more of a cautionary tale, the most recent being three charges stemming from a domestic assault in January of 2012. Still, the club stood by him and after a modest spring, started him off at Triple-A. He shuffled back and forth between Kansas City and Omaha a few times, but ultimately failed to take a significant step forward. With the bullpen being the Royals' greatest asset in 2012 and expectations equally high for it in 2013, Jeffress' services were no longer required and he was dealt to the Blue Jays in the offseason. He will compete for a bullpen job this spring, but will likely open the season in Triple-A once again.

Acquired SS Jose Reyes, SP Josh Johnson, SP Mark Buehrle, IF/OF Emilio Bonifacio, C John Buck and $4 million cash for SS Yunel Escobar, SP Henderson Alvarez, SS Adeiny Hechavarria, C Jeff Mathis, OF Jake Marisnick, SP Justin Nicolino and P Anthony Desclafani.

It's The Loria Strikes Back, really. The Marlins went fire sale (again) and the Blue Jays were in position to take full advantage. For years, the Jays have been positioned to add payroll when the time was right. With the Yankees and Red Sox slipping a bit, opportunity was knocking in Toronto and the roster was bolstered in ways few could have ever imagined in one fell swoop. All four players that the Jays acquired and kept (Buck was subsequently traded to the Mets) in this deal will have significant roles, and provides major upgrades to the rotation and starting lineup accordingly. Since they will be detailed below, we'll take a look at the players Toronto parted with here.

There are plenty of questions about Hechavarria's ability to hit big league pitching, even though he grades out as an elite defender. Alvarez took a big step back last season, but gave the Marlins a cost-controlled option to take the ball every fifth day. Escobar was flipped again by the Marlins to the Rays, while Mathis should back up young catcher Rob Brantly. As for the prospects, the Blue Jays were strong in the outfield without a place for Anthony Gose, so the toolsy Marisnick was deemed expendable. Nicolino could eventually serve as a viable No. 2 or No. 3 starter, but he's a few seasons away after spending 2012 in the Midwest League (Low-A). Desclafani projects as an eventual contributor in the bullpen.

Signed OF Melky Cabrera.

Cabrera had quite a tumultuous 2012 season starting out as the Giants' offensive catalyst, winning the All-Star Game MVP, becoming an early-season NL MVP candidate before getting suspended for 50 games after testing positive for synthetic testosterone. After hitting .346/.390/.516 with 11 home runs and 13 stolen bases in 113 games, it is unclear what numbers were influenced by PEDs. However, his .379 BABIP is unlikely to be duplicated as his 52.2 percent groundball rate represented a career high. With Cabrera's move to Toronto, he could post a career-best home-run rate if he can improve upon his 26.6 percent flyball rate.

Acquired SP R.A. Dickey, C Josh Thole and C Mike Nickeas from the Mets for C Travis d'Arnaud, SP Noah Syndergaard, C John Buck and OF Wuilmer Becerra.

As with the Marlins trade above, the focus here is on what the Blue Jays gave up. It's not entirely unreasonable to suggest that the Mets received more for Dickey than the Marlins received in their talent-laden salary dump. If d'Arnaud's bat is as good as expected, the Mets get six years of control on a potential top-10 catcher, while Syndergaard also projects as a potential No. 2 or No. 3 starter, but he's a couple of years away from contributing in New York. Buck figures to serve as the stopgap to d'Arnaud, as the Mets may opt to give their young catcher some extra seasoning at Triple-A to delay his arbitration clock. Becerra is just 18 years old and spent 2012 in the Gulf Coast League, so there's little known about his potential at this point, but he's likely four or five seasons away from making a big league debut, if he proves to be good enough to ascend through the minors.

Signed C Henry Blanco.

Blanco was limited to 21 games as Miguel Montero's backup before a torn thumb ligament ended his season in August. While he quietly hit eight homers in 100 at-bats in 2011 (.870 OPS), the veteran backstop failed to match that production during his second campaign in Arizona. Most of the value Blanco has provided throughout his career has come as a defender and clubhouse leader, but the Blue Jays are giving him a look in spring training after signing Blanco to a non-guaranteed deal in January.

Signed OF/INF Mark DeRosa.

As a pinch-hitter, reserve-type, the Jays apparently value DeRosa's clubhouse presence. There's little in the way of regular playing time for him as spring training gets under way, but that's likely an ideal arrangement now that he's 38 years old and three full seasons removed from his last productive campaign in 2009 split between Cleveland and St. Louis.

Projected Lineup (v. RHP/LHP)

1. Jose Reyes, SS
2. Melky Cabrera, LF
3. Jose Bautista, RF
4. Edwin Encarnacion, 1B
5. Brett Lawrie, 3B
6. Adam Lind, DH
7. Colby Rasmus, CF
8. J.P. Arencibia, C
9. Maicer Izturis or Emilio Bonifacio, 2B

The first four spots appear to be locked up with Reyes and Cabrera setting the table for Bautista and Encarnacion. From there, we could see plenty of fluidity depending on the performance of Lawrie following a disappointing 2012, the always inconsistent Lind, and enigmatic Rasmus. Second base figures to be a job battle throughout the spring, as Bonifacio's versatility could move him around the diamond each day as a near-everyday player even if the Jays elect to use Izturis as their primary second baseman. In any event, Reyes and Cabrera should generate a lot of RBI opportunities for the big boppers in the heart of the order.

Projected Rotation

1. R.A. Dickey
2. Brandon Morrow
3. Mark Buehrle
4. Josh Johnson
5. Ricky Romero

Assuming injuries don't shake things up before Opening Day, Dickey gets the nod for the opener followed by the above order. This group has been completely revamped by the offseason blockbusters with the Marlins and Mets, as Romero is now considered the team's final rotation option after starting the opener in 2012. J.A. Happ opens the year as the Jays' sixth starter, which given the injury histories of Morrow and Johnson could afford him opportunities to take the ball throughout the year.

Closer: Casey Janssen - Janssen quietly had a very good season in 2011, posting a career high in ERA (2.26) and WHIP (1.10) but wasn't noticed by most fantasy owners until becoming the fill-in closer in 2012. For the second straight season, Janssen improved his WHIP (0.86) and his K/BB (6.09), now sitting at elite levels. Although Sergio Santos is expected to return to the mix during spring training, Janssen appears to have done enough to keep the ninth-inning role to begin the season as long as he doesn't have any lingering issues following November shoulder surgery.

Other Key Bullpen Members: Sergio Santos, Brad Lincoln and Esmil Rogers - Santos may push Janssen as the closer if he's healthy again, while Lincoln and Rogers form an underrated tandem in the setup roles that could give Toronto a surprisingly strong bullpen in 2013. With an improved rotation, there will be added pressure on this unit to protect leads in the final frames as expectations are sky high.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:

Edwin Encarnacion's 2012 season - is this real life?

Doing his best Jose Bautista impression, Encarnacion became the latest Blue Jay to vault into the fantasy elite with a power surge. In 2012, Encarnacion set career highs in home runs (42), runs (93), RBI (110), walks (84) and steals (13). His HR/FB rate doubled from 2011 to 18.7 percent last season, causing concern for regression, but his walk rate increased and his BABIP was actually lower than his career average. While some of his home runs will likely turn into doubles, fantasy owners should be more worried about his injury history than a complete drop-off. Throw in the improvement to the tablesetters in front of him, and Encarnacion could be positioned for an impressive encore.

What should we expect from Brett Lawrie?

Coming off an impressive debut in 2011, Lawrie was a trendy early-round third base option heading into drafts. Like many before him, Lawrie struggled to make the necessary adjustments in his second big league season, showing little power (11 home runs) and a drop in OBP (.324). Injuries also mounted, and he missed games due to knee, back, calf, and oblique pain, causing some to wonder about his reckless playing style. The jump in groundball percentage (50.2%) is disturbing, but Lawrie should show more power in 2013 and could be an ideal post-hype sleeper, especially with a loaded lineup around him if he can make the necessary adjustments.

Can Ricky Romero bounce back to his pre-2012 form?

While some may have projected slight regression for Romero, few thought he would fall completely off the map, posting a career high ERA (5.77) and WHIP (1.67). Shortly after the season concluded, Romero had surgery on his left elbow and plasma injections to both knees, causing more questions heading into next year. If healthy, he is guaranteed a starting role and will be more likely to bounce back if injuries played a role in his struggles. Given the uncertainty regarding his health throughout last season, it's difficult to put much stock into his 2012 numbers. Early on this spring, Romero appears to be healthy, and he's admitted that there were times last year where he was clearly impacted by his ailments.

How many at-bats will Emilio Bonifacio see this season?

Bonifacio came out of the gates blazing in 2012, swiping 20 bases over his first 39 games while posting a respectable .268 average and .351 OBP over 170 plate appearances before making his first trip to the DL in late May with a thumb injury. He returned in mid-July following surgery, but lasted just 22 games before aggravating the injury, and subsequently suffering a knee injury that ended his season. The Blue Jays' new utility man will put his plus-speed (30-for-33 on stolen-base attempts with 244 at-bats last season) on display in a suddenly loaded Blue Jays lineup, although he played just 15 games at second base last season and may not qualify there in some leagues to begin the year. Playing time for Bonifacio may hinge on the success of Colby Rasmus in center field, as that figures to be his primary spot if Maicer Izturis manages to secure the starting gig at second base this spring. With his versatility, 400 at-bats are likely a good baseline expectation given the crowded depth chart around him.

Strengths

On paper, the potential to have one of the best top-to-bottom lineups in baseball, but at the very least, a 1-4 quartet that rivals that of any other club. With health, a much improved rotation capable of putting multiple starters in the mix for the AL Cy Young Award. The Jays will also boast a strong bench with speedster Rajai Davis back in the fold as the fourth outfielder and Bonifacio potentially working as a superutility player.

Weaknesses

While the Jays open the season with six viable rotation options, the depth ready to contribute in the big leagues behind them in the minors is somewhat questionable with Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek returning from Tommy John surgery. Deck McGuire has failed to live up to expectations thus far, which could leave the starting pitching vulenerable if significant injuries befall the regulars.

Rising: Melky Cabrera - It's strange to tab a guy coming back from a 50-game suspension for PED use as a riser, but moving into a very good lineup and much more hitter-friendly environment than he's played in over the last two seasons in San Francisco and Kansas City, there's a surprising amount of things to like about Cabrera. Even his 2011 power and speed numbers are the return, Cabrera should be very profitable as a five-category player with Jose Reyes in front of him, and the likes of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion driving him as the Jays' No. 2 hitter. Further, his price on draft day will likely be discounted in most circles thanks to the aforementioned suspension and concern as to whether he can sustain his skills after last season's positive test.

Declining: Colby Rasmus - Rasmus struggled out of the box but went on a tear in June after an apparent fix in his batting stance. The hot streak was short lived and his final numbers were discouraging as he hit .223/.289/.400. While Rasmus managed to hit 23 home runs, his walk rate (7.5 percent) dipped for a second straight season and at age 26 he can't rely on potential much longer. The Blue Jays are in win-now mode, which affords him less leash if he runs into another stretch of prolonged struggles at the plate.

Sleeper: Sergio Santos - After coming to Toronto in a trade for Nestor Molina, Santos was immediately named the closer for the Blue Jays. The good news ended there as he only pitched five innings in 2012 and blew two saves before having season-ending shoulder surgery. Casey Janssen had a fantastic year filling in for Santos, which leaves him in a setup role to begin the season. Consider, however, that the Jays went out of their way to acquire Santos for ninth-inning duty before last season, after having Janssen in tow for several years. It's not difficult to envision a scenario where he takes the job back sooner rather than later.

Supersleeper: Anthony Gose - Gose became one of many prospects in the Blue Jays organization to make their debut when Jose Bautista went on the DL in mid-June. While his walk rate was solid (9.0 percent), he had trouble making contact, striking out in 31.2 percent of his at-bats. Gose is similar to teammate Rajai Davis, offering elite speed and little power, but the addition of Melky Cabrera may push Gose back to the minors for the start of the season depending on the other moves the Jays make before the start of the season. Depending on the performance of Colby Rasmus and a potential trade of Davis, Gose may spend most of the year at Triple-A, or find himself as part of a potent lineup with an opportunity pile up runs scored and steals as a contributor in center field. Keep in mind that Gose swiped 69 bases as a 20-year-old at Double-A in 2011 and 15 in 18 attempts over 56 games for the Jays last season, so it won't require a starting gig for him to make an impact in deeper formats.

Top Prospects

Aaron Sanchez, SP - Sanchez spent most of the 2012 season working as a starter at Low-A Lansing, where lapses with control (5.1 BB/9) offset an impressive ability to miss bats (9.7 K/9) and record a large number of outs on the ground (2.22 G/F). If his secondary pitches don't develop as expected, Sanchez possesses a big enough fastball to succeed with a transition toward a late-inning relief role. Still just 20 years old, the Jays can afford to give Sanchez plenty of time to hone his command in the lower levels of the minors, and it's possible that he will return to the Midwest League to start 2013 before getting his first exposure to High-A.

Anthony Gose, OF - See above.

Marcus Stroman, RP - Stroman was selected 22nd overall by the Blue Jays in the 2012 draft and the general thought was that he would move quickly through the Jays' system. After 19 minor league relief innings, posting a 3.26 ERA over two levels, Stroman was suspended 50 games for violating baseball's minor league drug program. After the completion of his suspension, he will start 2013 in the minors, but could find his way into Toronto's bullpen if he pitches well.

D.J. Davis, OF - Davis was selected 17th overall by Toronto in the 2012 amateur draft. Davis is an elite athlete with top level speed, stealing 25 bases in 60 minor league games. While he is still raw, he has shown the ability to take a walk, a skill the Blue Jays hope will make him stand out and move quickly in their system. Considering that he's just 19 and on the brink of his first full professional season, Davis is likely three-plus years away from getting onto the big league radar.

Deck McGuire, SP - Control issues and home runs plagued McGuire at Double-A last season, and the shine is fading from prospect star as a result. The Jays don't need to rush him into the mix, so a return to New Hampshire with the chance to iron out his high walk rate is likely in order after he issued 62 free passes and served up 22 long balls in just 144 innings last season.

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