This article is part of our MLB Team Previews series.
Blue Jays Season Preview
Brian Weidy, RotoWire.com
Last season, the Toronto Blue Jays didn't open up the checkbook and saw their minor league system and previous acquisitions pay dividends in the form of a nine-win improvement from 2013 to 2014 and their first winning season since 2010. The Blue Jays finished in third in the AL East, 13 games back of the Baltimore Orioles and one back of the New York Yankees. They were in first for a stretch between May 21 and July 5 and will look to build off that moving forward.
The Blue Jays were one of the best hitting teams last season, finishing fifth in runs, seventh in batting average, sixth in on base percentage and fourth in slugging percentage. Much of their slugging success was on the backs of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, who hit 35 and 34 home runs respectively. More impressively for Encarnacion was that he did it in just 128 games.
The biggest problem facing the Blue Jays is the AL East. With the Boston Red Sox making a big push in the offseason, the Yankees still being the Yankees, albeit significantly older than even a typical Yankees squad, the Rays still having one of the deepest farm systems and the Orioles coming off a division title, having 72 games annually against these four teams presents itself as quite the albatross.
Cabrera hit for the best average of any qualifying player on the team at .301 and is leaving quite the void behind him in left field. Cabrera signed a three-year, $42 million contract with the White Sox, nearly doubling his salary from 2014. With Cabrera gone, Kevin Pillar should slot into left field. Pillar hit .267 last season, but doesn't have close to the same kind of pop Cabrera had, who hit 16 home runs and 73 RBI whereas Pillar had just two home runs and seven RBI. Also gone in the outfield is Rasmus, who hit just .225 with 18 home runs and 40 RBI, though highly-touted prospect Dalton Pompey seems like a logical replacement there and may even be an upgrade.
On the pitching front, Janssen hurts the hardest as there is no natural replacement. Janssen converted 25-of-30 save opportunities last season, but saw his velocity and strikeouts dip after sitting out spring training due to a shoulder injury. To replace him is a trio of players vying for the closer role: Brett Cecil, Aaron Loup and Aaron Sanchez. Morrow was plagued by injuries last season and hasn't been the same pitcher since 2012 while McGowan was adequate as a spot-starter.
Signed free agent Russell Martin (Pirates)
In their only big free agent signing of the offseason, the Blue Jays upgraded the catcher position by signing Martin. Martin cost the team quite a bit, $82 million over five years to be exact, and for that, the team is hoping he can play as well as he did last season. Martin hit .290 with 11 home runs and 67 RBI and a sparkling .402 OBP; however, in the four seasons before that, he hit a combined .229 with a .326 OBP. Whether it's due to a change in approach at the plate, as his time with the Yankees was marred by high strikeout totals and depressed batting averages, or some other factor, the Blue Jays were impressed enough to give that large a contract to a 32-year-old catcher. Pittsburgh is one of the tougher places to hit home runs while the Rogers Centre is one of the easiest, which may mean Martin can come close to 20 home runs a year again.
Signed Justin Smoak (Mariners) off waivers
Once the 11th overall pick by the Texas Rangers in 2008, Smoak rapidly rose through the ranks of the minor leagues and was the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee deal before showing spotty consistency in the majors. Last season, Smoak struggled heavily, bouncing between Triple-A and the Mariners. For the Mariners, he hit just .202 in 80 games with just seven home runs and 30 RBI against 66 strikeouts. Smoak should provide depth at first base and at DH, though his fantasy value will be tied to how much playing time he sees in addition to how he performs when given at-bats.
Signed free agent Johan Santana (Orioles) to a minor-league deal
Once one of the best pitchers in the MLB, Santana has suffered myriad injuries of late, including the Achilles injury that derailed his comeback bid last season. Santana last pitched in the big leagues in 2012 for the Mets, where he went 6-9 with a 4.85 ERA in 117 innings before shutting it down. Santana may be able to provide help in the rotation or in the rotation, but as of now, this was a low-risk move to add an arm in the system.
This was a fascinating trade for both sides, with the Blue Jays getting a cornerstone third baseman at arbitration rates while giving up a huge package of prospects and a major piece in Lawrie to boot. Starting with what they gave up, Lawrie is the biggest piece, a major league third baseman who has shown flashes of being one of the top players at his position, but inconsistency and an inability to stay healthy—he played 302 games in the past three seasons—have contributed to his status as a massive question mark. The Blue Jays could have given up what Donaldson has become or they may have just unloaded an inconsistent and injury plagued piece for an All-Star.
Of the three prospects the Blue Jays gave up, the two pitchers—Graveman and Nolin—may not turn into major league arms, but are both under team-control for six more seasons and have the potential to become back-end starters or help out the bullpen down the line. Barreto is the real prize of the trio. In short-season Low-A ball, he hit .311/.384/.481 with six home runs, 61 RBI and 29 stolen bases. At just 19-years-old, Barreto could become the Athletics' shortstop of the future.
For the Blue Jays, this shows they are in win-now mode, sensing a closing window of opportunity with the rapidly expiring contracts of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion looming over the team's balance sheet at the end of 2016. Donaldson has been excellent over the past two seasons, posting a .277/.363/.477 line and hit 24 and 29 home runs in each of the past two seasons in one of the toughest parks for hitters. If Donaldson can keep up his high power numbers, moving to the hitter-friendly confines of the Rogers Centre will only help in that regard, Donaldson will once again be a phenomenal fantasy play at a reasonable rate for the Blue Jays.
Happ was a solid, middle-of-the-rotation starter, going 11-11 with a 4.22 ERA and 133 strikeouts in 158 innings; however, the Rogers Centre wasn't doing him any favors. In return for shipping off Happ, the Blue Jays got Saunders, who has experience playing in all three outfield spots and should provide good depth or may even slot in as a starter in left field. While he is currently out with a torn meniscus, his .273/.341/.450 line from last season shows that a move to a more hitter-friendly park coupled with more at-bats could pay dividends for the 28-year-old.
With Encarnacion establishing himself as one of the two best hitters on the team, Lind found himself on the outside looking in when it came to at-bats at first base or at DH. When he did play, Lind hit for a pretty good slash line at .321/.381/.479; however, he just wasn't going to see enough at bats. In return for Lind, the Blue Jays got Estrada, who found himself on the outside of the rotation midyear last season in Milwaukee and gave up a whopping 29 home runs. Estrada will be in the mix for the fifth starter spot in the rotation and will try to regain his form from 2012, where he posted a 9.3 K/9 rate with a 3.64 ERA.
Gose, primarily a center fielder who played at other positions along the outfield, hit for an unsightly .226/.311/.293 line. With the rise of Dalton Pompey through the system, Gose became expendable. In exchange, the Blue Jays got Travis, one of the brightest spots in the Tigers' farm system. With Maicer Izturis unable to stay healthy and a void at second base, Travis could step into the second base role as early as this season. Last season, he hit .298/.358/.460 for the Double-A Erie SeaWolves, with 10 home runs and 16 stolen bases.
Projected Lineup (vs. RHP)
1. Jose Reyes, SS
2. Russell Martin, C
3. Jose Bautista, RF
4. Edwin Encarnacion, 1B
5. Josh Donaldson, 3B
6. Michael Saunders, LF (when healthy)
7. Justin Smoak, DH
8. Maicer Izturis, 2B
9. Dalton Pompey, CF
With Saunders coming back in mid-April, a much better timetable than originally expected, it helps narrow down who will be playing in left field. Pillar is likely the fill-in, and may even play regularly against left-handed pitchers, but is more of a depth outfielder. Izturis is slotted in at second, but the 34-year-old played in only 11 games last season and Devon Travis is breathing down his neck as one of the top prospects in their system, but should start the season in Triple-A. Pompey has had an astronomical rise through their farm system, is the team's best option in center, and should hold down the bottom of the lineup.
While other players such as elite prospect Daniel Norris could be in the mix for a spot in the rotation or if Aaron Sanchez ends up in the rotation instead of in the bullpen, he could fight for a spot in the rotation. These should be the five members of the rotation barring injury. With no Opening Day starter announced, Dickey appears to be in line as their top guy with Buehrle sitting behind him as the second starter.
Closer: With the departure of Janssen, the door is open for Cecil, Loup and Sanchez. Sanchez is the first starter of the spring, so he may not be fighting for this spot, but his work out of the pen last season was outstanding, with a 1.09 ERA and a 0.70 WHIP in 24 appearances. Cecil went five-of-seven in save opportunities last season and Loup went four-of-eight, with both having similar pitch profiles. Look for Cecil to be the guy out of this group because Sanchez will likely find a home in the rotation; however, if not, he could be the jolt their bullpen needs to finish games in the ninth inning.
Key Bullpen Members: Whoever between Cecil and Loup doesn't get the ninth inning job should slot in nicely as the setup man, or they could both find themselves pitching in the seventh and eighth inning if Sanchez ends up as the closer.
Behind this trio are Steve Delabar and Todd Redmond, neither of which was very good last year, though Delabar should be used in the higher leverage situations than Redmond. Filling out the rest of the pen is Chad Jenkins and Kyle Drabek, both of whom can eat innings if need be.
Encarnacion has only played 150 or more games once in his entire career, in 2012 when he played 151, and Reyes has played 150 or more games only once since the start of 2009. Reyes played in 143 games last season while Encarnacion only played 128; however, both put up a full season's worth of numbers. Encarnacion's 34 home runs were seventh in the American League while Reyes' 30 stolen bases was also good for seventh in the American League. If both can play 150 or more games this season, then the Blue Jays have a good chance to win the AL East. If they suffer through injury-plagued seasons once again, the Blue Jays could find themselves in the all-too-familiar position of being on the outside looking in when October rolls around.
How good will Aaron Sanchez be as a starter or closer?
One of the big questions coming into the season is where Sanchez will play. If he's slotted in as the closer, will he be able to keep up his outstanding performance from last season? Sanchez isn't a power pitcher in the mold of the Yankees' Dellin Bentances; however, he can miss bats, striking out 27 in 33 innings last season. Sanchez is the Blue Jays' first starter of the spring and could slot in as the fifth starter, but that will likely come with growing pains. The team is expected to announce where he will be pitching by mid-March, which will shape the value of Sanchez quite a bit as he is currently more valuable to fantasy owners out of the bullpen.
In a park that is already hitter friendly, particularly when it comes to home runs, the top-half of the Blue Jays order is filled with power hitters. Reyes is one of the best hitting shortstops in the league, Martin has shown good power at catcher and a heart of the order featuring Bautista, Encarnacion and Donaldson is sure to strike fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers. With 98 home runs between the three of them, even with Donaldson playing his home games in Oakland, the Blue Jays should once again be one of the top teams at clubbing big flies.
Until players like Sanchez and Norris become full-time starters, the Blue Jays rotation has holes throughout. Dickey, now 40-years-old, is fairly consistent for a knuckleballer, is not really an elite option at the top of the rotation. Buehrle is an innings-eater, logging at least 200 innings pitcher in 14 straight seasons, but doesn't miss bats and will be turning 36 before the season starts. Beyond those two, the combination of Stroman, Hutchison and Estrada hardly inspires hope, as only Stroman posted an ERA below 4.00 last season.
Rising: Dalton Pompey - Pompey may have only played in 17 games with the Blue Jays, and his .231/.302/.436 slash line may be nothing to shake a stick at, but if Pompey's meteoric rise through the minor leagues is any indication, the Blue Jays may have found their center fielder for the foreseeable future. Last season, across three promotions—High-A Dunedin, Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Buffalo—Pompey hit for a .317/.392/.469 slash line while stealing 43 bases and scoring 84 runs in just 113 games. Pompey should open the season as the starting center fielder and should be a good source of steals from the get-go while the hitting could take some time to come around.
Declining: Jose Reyes - The four-time All-Star had a pretty productive season last year, playing in 143 games while hitting for a .287/.328/.398 slash line while chipping in 30 stolen bases in 32 attempts. But the 31-year-old has played more than 150 games just once in the last six seasons and posted his lowest slugging and on base percentage since 2009 last year. If Reyes can stay healthy, he is still one of the better hitting shortstops in the game, but his durability is always a question that hinders his fantasy value significantly.
Sleeper: Michael Saunders - Saunders has never played 140 or more games and has broken 500 at bats just once in his career, yet the Blue Jays see him as the left fielder to replace Melky Cabrera. He posted a .273/.341/.450 slash line last season with the Mariners in 78 games. In 2012 and 2013, Saunders contributed 10 or more home runs and stolen bases including 19 home runs and 21 stolen bases in 2012. If he can come close to those kinds of numbers, Saunders will have fantasy value in deeper leagues, even though he is starting the season on the disabled list with a torn meniscus.
Supersleeper: Justin Smoak - Once the centerpiece of a blockbuster trade, Smoak was claimed off waivers in the offseason after posting a .202/.275/.339 slash line in 80 games with the Mariners, just one year removed from a 20 home run season. Smoak has some pop in his bat and moving from Safeco Field to the Rogers Centre will certainly help in that department. If he can see regular at bats, the change of scenery could make him an interesting fantasy play.
Daniel Norris, LHP - Norris was phenomenal in the minors last season, starting in High-A Dunedin where he went 6-0 in 13 starts with a 1.23 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 76 strikeouts in 66 innings. From there, he moved up to Double-A New Hampshire where he struggled a bit, going 3-1 in eight starts with a 4.54 ERA and 1.37 WHIP, but did strike out 49 batters in just 35.2 innings. Those numbers were enough to get him another promotion to Triple-A Buffalo, where he pitched in five games, starting four of them, and carried a 3-1 record with a 3.18 ERA, a microscopic 0.97 WHIP and had 38 strikeouts across just 22.2 innings. Norris even saw action in the majors last season, pitching 6.2 innings, where he had four strikeouts and gave up four earned runs across five appearances including one start. The 22-year-old could crack the starting rotation for the Blue Jays, but if he can't, he will likely start in Triple-A Buffalo instead of working out of the bullpen. Norris has plenty of value long-term as he and Aaron Sanchez are primed to be the gems of the Blue Jays staff for years to come.
Jeff Hoffman, RHP - The ninth-overall pick in the 2014 draft, Hoffman has yet to throw a single pitch in the Blue Jays organization due to a torn elbow ligament suffered in April 2014; however, that has not diminished the prospects for this pitcher out of East Carolina. While pitching for the East Carolina Pirates in Conference USA, Hoffman amassed a 12-12 record with a 3.26 ERA, a 1.16 WHIP and 211 strikeouts across 250.2 innings. Hoffman is slated to be activated in late-April or May and should start with the Low-A Vancouver Canadians and could make his way up to High-A Dunedin by year's end. Hoffman still has a couple of years before cracking the majors, but his original draft prospects have him on the fast track if he can stay healthy.
Devon Travis, 2B - Acquired in November for utility outfielder Anthony Gose, Travis instantly became one of the Blue Jays top infield prospects. After hitting .298/.358/.460 for Double-A Erie last season in the Tigers' system, the 24-year-old could step into Izturis' shoes by the end of the season. He's shown a good combination of power and speed at all levels, hitting 16 home runs with 22 stolen bases across Single-A and High-A in 2012 and 10 home runs and 16 stolen bases with Double-A Erie. Travis should start in Triple-A Buffalo, but with a great spring, could find himself on the 25-man roster and starting at second base.
Roberto Osuna, RHP - The 20-year-old Mexico native didn't pitch much last season after having Tommy John surgery in 2013 and struggled when he did, giving up 16 earned runs in 23 innings pitched, but there is a lot of promise for the right-hander. In eight starts, split between the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays in rookie ball and High-A Dunedin, Osuna missed 32 bats, good for 12.5 strikeouts per nine. As he recovers more and more from the surgery, the highly touted prospect will probably start in High-A Dunedin before moving up through the ranks over the course of the season.
Max Pentecost, C - The 11th-overall pick in the 2014 draft played in just 25 games last season, six with the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays in rookie ball and 19 in Low-A Vancouver, but wasted no time making an impression. He hit for a .324/.330/.419 slash line while even stealing two bases. Pentecost is still a couple of years away and with the Blue Jays signing Martin to a five-year deal, it seems to block the path of Pentecost as a full-time catcher in the near future. He recently had shoulder surgery and won't be able to throw for three months, delaying his timetable through the minors, but that shouldn't dim his long-term prospects.
Richard Urena, SS - The 19-year-old middle infielder is still about three years away from making the major leagues; however, his play in the lower levels of the minor leagues have made him a player to watch. Urena hit for a .308/.354/.424 slash line in his two minor league stops in rookie ball and Low-A Vancouver. He won't steal a ton of bases—he had six last season in 10 attempts—nor will he hit many home runs—he hit two last season in 62 games—but shows good pop in his bat for a teenager on the strength of 22 extra-base hits. While he will probably start the season in Low-A Vancouver, Urena should steadily rise through the ranks of the Blue Jays system and will be someone to keep an eye on moving forward.