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2014 Blue Jays Preview: A Farewell to Arms

Jerry Donabedian

Jerry Donabedian

Jerry Donabedian writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

2014 Toronto Blue Jays Team Preview

The 2013 Blue Jays had a loud offseason that created championship expectations, but the result was a mere 74 wins and a last-place finish in the ruthless AL East. While Mark Buehrle met expectations as a middle-of-the-rotation starter, the Jays' other major offseason acquisitions either underperformed (R.A. Dickey), missed significant time with injuries (Jose Reyes), or met both fates (Melky Cabrera and Josh Johnson). Johnson, Brandon Morrow, and J.A. Happ all opened the season in the starting rotation, yet the trio combined for a mere 44 starts, with Morrow (5.63 ERA) going down for the season in late May, and Johnson (6.20 ERA) meeting the same fate in early August. Despite boasting a roster with two or three potential aces, the Jays finished 2013 with a 4.81 starters' ERA, ranking 29th in the majors ahead of only the Twins.

As disappointing as the 2013 team was, 74 wins in the AL East is nothing to be ashamed of, and chaos in the rotation hid an otherwise solid roster. The Jays boasted the AL's fourth-best bullpen ERA (3.37) and finished eighth in the league with 712 runs. The lineup was strong enough to maintain a decent offense, despite getting just 93 games from Jose Reyes, 88 from Melky Cabrera, 107 from Brett Lawrie, and 118 apiece from Jose Bautista and Colby Rasmus. Surprisingly good seasons from Rasmus (.276/.338/.501, 22 homers) and Adam Lind (.288/.357/.497, 23 homers) helped to make up for all the injuries, but the Blue Jays were still forced to waste far too many plate appearances on replacement-level batters like Maicer Izturis, Munenori Kawasaki, Emilio Bonifacio, and Ryan Goins. The aforementioned quartet, along with Mark DeRosa, left the Blue Jays with a hideous .233/.286/.338 batting line from the second base position. Things were even worse at catcher, where J.P. Arencibia's miserable season meant the team got a .190/.235/.335 slash line from its backstops.

After last year's major trades left the organizational cupboard barren, the Jays opted for a much quieter approach in the 2014 offseason, with catcher Dioner Navarro and his two-year, $8 million contract qualifying as the team's biggest addition. However, the Jays are a candidate to add some late rotation help, and there are still a few noteworthy names left on the market. A protected 2014 first-round draft pick means that the team won't have to worry too much, if it wants to sign a starter who received a qualifying offer from his old team. Among the remaining free agents, Ervin Santana is the most frequently mentioned in connection with the Jays.

Whether or not the Blue Jays make another move, the team should have enough pieces in place to improve on a 74-win season. The roster features some injury-prone players, but not to an extent that explains last season's insane rash of ailments. With thumpers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion in the middle of the lineup, Toronto unquestionably has the potential to rank among the elite offensive teams in the league. If the big names can stay healthy, and Rasmus and Lind can prove that 2013 wasn't a fluke, the Jays could challenge for the major-league lead in runs. A bounce back season from Melky Cabrera would also go a long way, although, at this point, it's unclear exactly what he would be bouncing back to.

Question marks at second base and in the rotation notwithstanding, the Jays have enough talent that internal expectations likely involve the postseason. Between the tough division and last season's disappointment, external expectations seem to be much lower, with most preseason predictions and projections sticking the Jays in fourth or fifth place. Improvement seems likely, and a huge leap isn't hard to imagine, but the Jays are probably still a couple of arms away from knocking off the AL East heavyweights.

Offseason Moves

Lost Josh Johnson (Padres), J.P. Arencibia (Rangers), Rajai Davis (Tigers), and Chien-Ming Wang via free agency. Mark DeRosa and Darren Oliver retired.

In terms of 2013 production, the Blue Jays aren't losing much. The J.P. Arencibia experiment mercifully comes to an end in a textbook example of addition by subtraction. Josh Johnson is an intriguing bounce back candidate for the Padres, but he was awful in 16 starts for the Jays last season, before going down for the year with an elbow injury. Rajai Davis will be missed as a fourth outfielder, defensive replacement, and pinch runner, but the Jays have younger alternatives, including the speedy Anthony Gose. In Wang, DeRosa, and Oliver, Toronto loses three non-essential veterans.

Traded Brad Lincoln to the Phillies for Erik Kratz and Rob Rasmussen.

Kratz will likely compete with Josh Thole for the backup catcher's job, and the left-handed batting Thole may have an advantage, as starting catcher Dioner Navarro is a switch hitter who struggles from the left side. Kratz is about what you'd expect from a middling backup catcher-he offers decent power and draws some walks, but also strikes out often and isn't likely to hit for average. Rasmussen is an undersized, underwhelming left-handed pitching prospect, and he will likely open the season with Triple-A Buffalo. He's unlikely to reach the majors in 2014, unless the Toronto rotation is decimated by injuries again. As for Lincoln, the right-handed reliever struggled in 2013, posting a 3.98 ERA and 25:22 K:BB ratio over 31.2 innings. For a team with strong bullpen depth, Lincoln's absence shouldn't be an issue.

Signed free agent Dioner Navarro (Cubs) to a two-year, $8 million deal.

Here lies the Blue Jays' biggest offseason acquisition to date, and it looks like a wily signing. Navarro, a switch-hitting 30-year-old catcher, was shocking excellent last season, slashing .300/.365/.492, albeit in just 266 plate appearances. A repeat campaign is unlikely, but he figures to serve as the Jays' No. 1 catcher, and thus is in line for a significant bump in at-bats. To be fair, Navarro's strong 2013 was backed by a 25.4 percent line drive rate and 13.5 percent strikeout rate, though his 18.8 percent HR/FB rate (career 7.5 percent) sticks out like a sore thumb. He figures to see plenty of off days against right-handed pitching, as he owns a career OPS of .650 from the left side of the plate, compared to .778 from the right side.

Signed free agent Chris Getz (Royals)

Getz signed a minor league deal with an invite to spring training, and he'll have a chance to compete with Maicer Izturis and Ryan Goins for playing time at second base. Getz offers plus speed and solid defense, but he owns a .251/.310/.309 career slash line and was much worse than that last season. If he pulls off the upset and wins the starting job, he could make for a decent source of steals, though there's no power to speak of and not a ton of hope in the batting average department. Izturis and Goins are both more likely to win the job.

Claimed Brent Morel (White Sox) off waivers.

Once a promising prospect, Morel hasn't been able to sustain any success in the majors, and his recent stints in the minors hint at regression. He'll compete for a roster spot, but he's strictly a corner infielder, and the Jays have more versatile options.

Signed free agent Dan Johnson (Orioles).

Best known for his Game 162 heroics while with the Rays in 2011, the 34-year-old Johnson has logged just 36 major league plate appearances in the subsequent two seasons. He signed a minor league deal and is likely slated to open the season with Triple-A Buffalo. If Edwin Encarnacion or Adam Lind suffers an injury, Johnson should be among the first options for a call-up. He draws walks and has some power, but he isn't a great hitter, and his defense at first base isn't held in high regard at this point.

Signed free agent Tomo Ohka (Toyama Thunderbirds).

Following a four-year stint in Japan, the right-handed Ohka signed a minor league contract for his age-38 season. He strung together a few solid years in the early 2000s but struggled after 2005. He reinvented himself as a knuckleball pitcher in Japan, and he could eventually emerge as a candidate for the back of the rotation, if things go well in the minors.

Projected Lineup

1. Jose Reyes, SS
2. Melky Cabrera, LF
3. Edwin Encarnacion, 1B
4. Jose Bautista, RF
5. Adam Lind, DH
6. Brett Lawrie, 3B
7. Colby Rasmus, CF
8. Dioner Navarro, C
9. Ryan Goins, 2B

Lind will likely see semi-regular rest against lefties, and the Blue Jays may even look into finding him a platoon-mate, with outfielder Moises Sierra currently looking like the top candidate. Rasmus probably has a stronger case for the No. 6 spot than Lawrie, but putting Lawrie there keeps Lind and Rasmus, both lefties, separated in the order. When Lind sits, either Rasmus or Lawrie will likely slide up to No. 5. The second base job is open for the taking, and whomever wins that spot will likely be batting ninth.

Projected Rotation

1. R.A. Dickey
2. Brandon Morrow
3. Mark Buehrle
4. J.A. Happ
5. Todd Redmond

The first four spots appear to be settled and the first three definitely are. Happ isn't quite as secure, but he'll likely open 2014 in the rotation, regardless of whether the Jays come up with a late signing. If the team doesn't make that signing, competition for the final rotation spot figures to include Rogers, Marcus Stroman, Sean Nolin, Kyle Drabek, and Todd Redmond. Stroman and Nolin will likely open the season with Triple-A Buffalo, but they rank among the Jays' top prospects and both have considerably higher ceilings than Rogers, Drabek, or Redmond.

Closer: Casey Janssen may not match the gaudy strikeout totals of other top closers, but he walks significantly fewer batters than most of his counterparts and was thus able to post a sub-2.60 ERA in each of the last three seasons. He spent much of 2012 and all of 2013 as the Blue Jays' closer, and he should be fairly secure in the role, after converting 56-of-61 save opportunities the last two years.

The Toronto bullpen is deep, meaning the team will have plenty of options to replace Janssen, if he struggles or suffers an injury. Sergio Santos looks like the best bet to get first crack at the closer's role in the event of a Janssen injury/slump. Steve Delabar could also be a candidate, and playing matchups might actually make the most sense in such a scenario, given the depth of Toronto's bullpen.

Key Bullpen Members:

The aforementioned Sergio Santos was acquired before the 2012 season to serve as the Blue Jays' closer. He pitched just five innings that year before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery, and Janssen ran with the opportunity. Santos then missed more than three months of the 2013 campaign with triceps and elbow issues, but he returned for the final two months to finish the season with a 1.75 ERA and 28:4 K:BB ratio in 25.2 innings. He'll likely work the eighth inning this season, though the Jays will sometimes use left-handers Aaron Loup and Brett Cecil in the eighth when the matchups dictate it.

Loup produced a 2.47 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 53:13 K:BB ratio in 69.1 innings last season, and he held left-handed batters to a .200/.286/.220 batting line. He was similarly good the previous season, albeit in just 30.2 innings. Cecil, meanwhile, is a former starter and didn't start pitching out of the bullpen until late in the 2012 season. After struggling with the new role in 2012, he was excellent in his first full season as a reliever in 2013, finishing the year with a 2.82 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 70:23 K:BB ratio in 60.2 innings. Cecil held lefties to a .191/.223/.235 batting line last season, so between him and Loup, the Jays should be able to play matchups. Neither lefty is a true LOOGY, as both have been decent against right-handed hitters.

2013 All-Star Steve Delabar gives the Jays a third reliable right-hander, and he could compete with Santos for the eighth-inning work. Delabar wasn't as effective after the Midsummer Classic last year, but it's hard to worry too much about a pitcher that finished with a 3.22 ERA and 82:29 K:BB ratio in 58.2 innings. Dustin McGowan and Jeremy Jeffress are the final names to watch in the bullpen, Jeffress in particular. The fireballing former first-round pick never made it as a starter, but he pitched well out of the bullpen last season for both the Blue Jays and Triple-A Buffalo. Still only 26 years old, he could prove to be an excellent arm for middle relief, though he'll have to earn his roster spot.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise

Can R.A. Dickey return to ace form?

Last offseason, the Blue Jays surrendered top prospect Travis d'Arnaud to pry Dickey from the Mets' grasp, under the assumption that they were getting a surefire ace. Instead, Dickey struggled through much of the season and needed a relatively strong finish just to go 14-13 with a 4.21 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. Some regression from his fantastic 2012 was probably inevitable, but the Jays couldn't have been happy to see his K/9 dip from 8.9 in 2012 to 7.1 in 2013, while his BB/9 rose from 2.0 to 2.8. Moving from the NL East to the AL East explains part of the problem, but it's impossible to ignore the reality that Dickey just wasn't able to miss as many bats. Opponents made contact on 75.2 percent of their swings against Dickey in 2012, and that number rose all the way to 80.1 percent last season. His numbers after the All-Star break – 3.56 ERA, 85:24 K:BB ratio in 96 innings– provide reason for optimism, particularly given that his improved second half coincided with the return of his velocity. A true ace he probably isn't, but Dickey should still be the Jays' Opening Day starter, and he's a good bet to be the team's most reliable starting pitcher.

Is Jose Bautista a superstar or merely a very good player?

You won't face much argument if you call Bautista a superstar, as his massive 2010 and 2011 seasons still lurk in everyone's memories. However, he lost significant portions of his last two campaigns to injury, posting a .241/.358/.527 slash line over 92 games in 2012 and a .259/.358/.498 line over 118 games in 2013. That's still very good production, and Bautista is excellent on the bases and in the field, if you're comparing him to other sluggers. That's nice for Bautista and all, but what we really want to know is whether or not he's still a threat to hit 45 or 50 home runs. While that's obviously asking a lot of a 33 year old, betting against a healthy Joey Bats probably isn't wise. Even if he falls short of his ridiculous 2010-11 level, a rebound of sorts is entirely possible.

Who will play second base?

The Jays' lineup looks strong top to bottom, with the exception of the No. 9 hole that will likely be occupied by Toronto's starting second baseman. The Blue Jays still need to figure out who that will be, and the candidates aren't exactly appealing. Ryan Goins is reportedly the early favorite, after working on his stance and adding some muscle in the offseason. Hopefully, the changes are pretty drastic, as Goins slashed just .257/.311/.369 for Triple-A Buffalo last season, and fared even worse (.252/.264/.345) in 121 major league plate appearances. Maicer Izturis is the other leading candidate, despite slashing .236/.288/.310 in 2013, with just five home runs and one stolen base in 399 plate appearances. Unless Goins is a drastically changed player, neither he nor Izturis figure to offer much in the way of power or speed. Chris Getz, who signed a minor league contract, will also be a part of the competition this spring. Getz is a proven base stealer, but he can't hit a lick, which means he should fit in great with this group.

Will Adam Lind and Colby Rasmus Build On Strong 2013 Campaigns?

Lind's career path has been an odd one, with his massive 2009 season followed by three consecutive clunkers. He finally got back on track in 2013, slashing .288/.357/.497 with 23 home runs in 521 plate appearances. He actually showed signs of improved plate discipline in 2012 but didn't see any statistical gains until last season. His strong 2013 was partially the result of just 19.2 percent of his plate appearances coming against lefties, with that number easily representing the lowest percentage of any full season in Lind's career. His batted ball profile doesn't hint at much luck, as his .324 BABIP was supported by a strong line-drive rate (21.3 percent) and low fly-ball rate (32.8). What does stand out is Lind's 19.2 percent HR/FB rate, but while that number is high, it's not too far off of his 15.5 percent career mark. Lind may regress a bit in 2014, but it will be pretty surprising if he slips back to his 2000-12 levels of production, or even close to it. He's become a better, more disciplined hitter, albeit one that still can't handle lefties.

Rasmus is the more obvious regression candidate, after riding a .356 BABIP (career .298) and 17.3 percent HR/FB rate (career 12.3 percent) to a surprising .276/.338/.501 batting line in 2013. We know he has power, and we know he's an excellent athlete, but Rasmus struck out in a whopping 29.5 percent of his plate appearances last season. That's high, even for him, but it's hard to ignore the fact that his two best seasons (2010 and 2013) coincided with what were easily the two highest strikeout rates of his career. Of course, a .354 BABIP aided his excellent 2010, so it probably isn't wise to think of the strikeouts as a good thing. All in all, Rasmus is highly unlikely to match his .276 batting average from last season, and he probably won't even come close. But, his power is legitimate, meaning that a 30-homer season isn't out of the question, if he stays healthy.

Strengths

While it typically isn't wise to rely on the year-to-year performance of a team's bullpen, it's hard to see how this one could go wrong. The Jays have high-end arms, lefties, and depth. The only thing missing is a sturdy long man, but how many teams have one of those? On a sexier note, the Jays have Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista mashing in the middle of the lineup, with Jose Reyes batting leadoff. There are some question marks in the middle of the lineup, but the likes of Adam Lind, Colby Rasmus, and Brett Lawrie at least have reasonable floors. If everything breaks right, this could be baseball's best offense in 2014.

Weaknesses

Second Base has already been covered and, barring a trade, the Jays probably won't be getting much offensive production from the position. It's a weakness the team can live with, given the other potent bats in the lineup. The real issue in Toronto is starting pitching. R.A. Dickey is a strong candidate to bounce back, but as mentioned above, he probably isn't an ace. Brandon Morrow throws heat and has a ton of talent, but his career has largely been defined by injuries, and his strikeout rate hasn't been moving in the right direction. Mark Buehrle is Mark Buehrle, so there's that-Pencil him in for 30-35 starts, 12-16 wins, fewer than 150 strikeouts, and an ERA between 3.50 and 4.50. J.A. Happ looks like a decent No. 4 or No. 5 starter but nothing more. The No. 5 spot is up for grabs, and the Jays' best bet may be to rush a prospect (Marcus Stroman?) along. Did we mention that Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez are still unsigned?

Rising: Brett Lawrie's bat hasn't come along as quickly as expected, but he's still an immensely talented 24 year old with a strong grip on a starting job. His defense at third base should ensure that he'll be allowed to work through any offensive struggles, and the hope is that no such struggles will come to surface this season. Last year's .254/.315/.397 slash line likely represents Lawrie's 2014 floor, but it's rather unclear where his ceiling lies. While he doesn't look like a 30-homer or 20-steal threat, Lawrie could make major gains in the batting average department, and he has decent speed and power. If Melky Cabrera struggles early and Lawrie succeeds, the third baseman would be a natural fit to replace Cabrera in the lineup's No. 2 hole.

Declining: Still just 29 years old, Cabrera may bounce back a bit from a lost 2013 campaign, but his career arc is heading in the wrong direction. Blame PEDs (or lack thereof), unsustainable luck, or just an early decline; regardless, the Cabrera we saw in 2011 and 2012 is likely a thing of the past. His big years were aided by some friendly batted-ball fortune, and his peripherals really didn't change much in 2013, outside of his HR/FB rate, which dipped from 10.7 percent in 2012 all the way down to 3.2 percent last year. Cabrera should be a decent starting left fielder- just don't expect him to contend for another batting title or approach 20 home runs.

Sleeper: A popular sleeper pick in 2011 and 2012, Brandon Morrow probably wouldn't be thrilled to see his name back in this category. But, such is life when you're a talented, injury-prone pitcher with mid-to-high 90s gas and an inconsistent track record. Some will be scared off by his extensive injury history, others will run from his declining strikeout rate, and still others will avoid the right-hander because of his 5.63 ERA last season. Those are all legitimate concerns, but Morrow enters spring training at full health, and his ceiling is still worth the gamble.

Supersleeper: While he'll likely open 2014 in the rotation at Triple-A Buffalo, 2012 first-round draft pick Marcus Stroman has a good chance to reach the majors this season, and he will reportedly get a shot to compete for the No. 5 starter role in spring training. His 5-foot-9 frame has fueled speculation that the 22-year-old Stroman will eventually move to the bullpen, but he silenced some of his doubters last season with a 3.30 ERA and 129:27 K:BB ratio in 111.2 innings (20 starts) for Double-A New Hampshire. That performance ensures that he'll continue to be developed as a starter, at least for the immediate future. In an organization with few top prospects at the higher levels and poor starting pitching depth, Stroman stands out as a special talent.

Top Prospects

Marcus Stroman - see above.

Aaron Sanchez, P – Sanchez has front-of-the-rotation potential, but he still hasn't quite put it all together. The 21-year-old right-hander spent nearly all of last season with High-A Dunedin, where he posted a 3.34 ERA, 3.63 FIP, 7.82 K/9, and 4.17 BB/9 in 86.1 innings, with 20 starts among his 22 appearances. Minor improvement in his walk rate was offset by a more sizable decline in his strikeout rate, though the relative lack of strikeouts probably had a lot to do with moving up a level from 2012. Sanchez still has plenty to prove and he'll likely open 2014 at Double-A New Hampshire. He's unlikely to reach the majors this season, with his ETA likely sitting in 2015 or 2016.

Mitch Nay, 3B – The Toronto farm system is still weak from last offseason's trades, and Nay is one of the few promising position players in the organization. Like most of the Jays' top prospects, the 20-year-old third baseman is still quite a ways from reaching the majors. After getting selected 58th overall in the 2012 MLB Draft, Nay made his professional debut in 2013, spending the season with rookie-league Bluefield. He slashed .300/.364/.426 for Bluefield, with six home runs, 25 walks and 35 strikeouts in 258 plate appearances. His 6-foot-3 frame should leave plenty of room for more power to develop, and Nay's plate discipline already looks promising. He'll likely open 2014 in Low-A ball, but the Jays would probably like to see him reach High-A Dunedin by the end of the season.

Roberto Osuna, P – The right-handed Osuna is only 18 years old, so losing most of 2013 to an elbow injury was hardly the end of the world. That he'll likely miss all of 2014 after undergoing Tommy John surgery is a much bigger deal, but he remains one of the top prospects in Toronto's organization. While he only tossed 42.1 innings last season and finished with a 5.53 ERA, Osuna still managed to impress by posting a 10.8 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9 for Low-A Lansing, even as he dealt with a sore elbow. He's years away from the majors but has a ceiling as high as any Blue Jays prospect.