2011 pre-season preview: AL East – Toronto Blue Jays

Blue Jays 3B Jose Bautista

Toronto Blue Jays (2010 record: 85-77)

The Blue Jays had the busiest off-season of any team in Major League Baseball. GM Alex Anthopoulos continued the re-structuring of the club – and its salary structure – in earnest… and, in the process, managed to rid his organization of the most untradeable contract in baseball. For that alone, he should be considered a front runner for the MLB Executive of the Year Award.

Anthopoulos unloaded CF Vernon Wells on the desperate Los Angeles Angels who, having lost out on free agents Adrian Beltre, Carl Crawford and Rafael Soriano, perceived that it had to do something to improve the team. And so Anthopoulos, sensing weakness, pounced – sending Wells westward in exchange for C Mike Napoli and OF Juan Rivera while accepting responsibility for only $5 million of the $86 million still owed to Wells over the next four years. He then flipped Napoli to Texas in exchange for RHP Frank Francisco, who he sees as the club’s next closer.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg. In a flurry of other moves, he acquired Davis from Oakland to replace Wells in center field, obtained highly-touted infield prospect Brett Lawrie from Milwaukee in exchange for staff ace Shawn Marcum, and added Cordero, Dotel and Rauch to fill out his bullpen. It remains to be seen whether all of these moves will make his ballclub better, but it certainly freed up salary and provides flexibility no one in baseball thought possible.

Notable additions: RHP Chad Cordero, OF Rajai Davis, RHP Octavio Dotel, RHP Frank Francisco, 2B Brett Lawrie, RHP Jon Rauch, OF Juan Rivera

Notable subtractions: RHP Jeremy Accardo, C John Buck, LHP Scott Downs, RHP Kevin Gregg, OF Fred Lewis, SP Shaun Marcum, 1B Lyle Overbay, OF Vernon Wells

The offense:

Catcher: J P Arencibia

Infield: Adam Lind (1B), Aaron Hill (2B), Yunel Escobar (SS) and Jose Bautista (3B)

Outfield: Travis Snider (RF), Rajai Davis (CF) and Juan Rivera (LF)

Designated Hitter: Edwin Encarnacion

The offense led the majors in home runs last year, largely due to the breakout season of OF Jose Bautista… the question is whether the lineup will be able to repeat what it did in 2010. THAT would be a tall order.

Arencibia’s calling card is his power, which grades a 70 on the 20-80 scale and is (at least) above-average to all fields. He’s not disciplined at the plate and rarely draws a walk, so it is likely he’ll struggle to hit league-average. He gets excellent lift on the ball (58% FB rate), so with his power he should hit with plenty of power, but his strikeout rate in the minor leagues (20%) suggest he’ll resemble Mark Reynolds at home plate.

Lind was brutal last year, primarily because he hit .214 during a stunningly-bad first half. He rebounded to hit .267 in the second half of the year (with a .299 xBA) and nearly all of his peripherals improved in the second half as well (his second half PX was a robust 164). He should be on everyone’s sleeper list for 2011.

Hill followed up an outstanding 2009 campaign with an absolutely miserable campaign last season, but hope glimmers on the horizon. His peripherals largely fell within career ranges. So why did he struggle in 2010? He fell in love with the long ball. He purposely tried to hit more home runs, but his efforts did not have the desired effect. I expect he has come to understand that he can no longer go to home plate trying to hit a home run – that his goal must be to make solid contact – and that if he does so, the home runs will come.

Escobar had a horrible season last year, but his stats improved significantly after his mid-season trade to Toronto, so it may be that his performance in Atlanta was a function of unhappiness as much as anything else. He hit .275, with 4 HR and 16 RBI in 60 games after the trade, so it seems likely he’ll return to double-digits in home runs in the homer-happy Rogers Centre.

While Bautista had an extraordinary season last year, it was clearly an outlier in a career that has been pretty unexceptional – his career-best OPS+ entering last season was 99… and what is truly remarkable is that he posted an abysmal .233 BABIP and a hit-rate of just 24% while putting up super-human stats last year. But lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice… does it?. To my way of thinking, there is no reason to expect that he can come close to replicating last year’s performance… the question is, just how much will he regress?

I saw Snider frequently when he played ball in Double-A. His power was obvious, but he frequently struggled to make contact against Eastern League pitching. It seemed obvious to me that he needed more time in the minor leagues, but the Blue Jays promoted him to the big leagues. I said at the time the decision was a big mistake, and I remain convinced it was just that… while he has big league power, he has also shown he can’t put the bat on the ball with consistency.

Davis won’t give the Jays much in the way of power (his career-high homer total is five, established last year), but his performance is progressing in most other respects. He has the ability to make consistent contact and uses his speed to reach base safely – hitting an abundance of ground balls. His BA in 2009 was boosted by an excellent BABIP (.361) and higher than normal walk rate (6.7%)… but when his BABIP settled back to a more reasonable number last season (.322), he still maintained a solid batting average (.284).

There isn’t much to say about Juan Rivera, good or bad, other than he is now 32 years old and has been experiencing injury issues more frequently as he ages. Last year at this time, pundits were declaring that his 2009 statistical improvement was attributable to a spike in a couple metrics, and they warned that his 2010 performance would regress towards 2008 levels. It did. Expect more of the same in 2011.

Encarnacion is slated to get the majority of his at-bats as Designated Hitter, but that will depend on whether Bautista stays at third base or moves to the outfield. Either way, he’ll get 500+ at-bats, assuming good health. He has regressed as a hitter in terms of BA, but should continue to be a solid source of power. While his contact rate remains a solid 80% (+/-), his hit rate has been just 25-27% for three consecutive seasons. I’d love to say that his low BABIP (.235) offers hope for a significant improvement in his average, but he hasn’t posted a BABIP of more than .264 since 2007.

The pitching staff:

Rotation: LHP Ricky Romero, RHP Brandon Morrow, LHP Brett Cecil, RHP Kyle Drabek and RHP Jesse Litsch

Closer: RHP Frank Francisco

The biggest question for the Blue Jays will center around pitching, most notably the performance of Kyle Drabek in the rotation and the bullpen. The Jays rotation is very talented, but it is very young – and young pitching has been known to take one or two steps backward before being able to move forward.

At 6’0”, 210 lbs, stamina should not be an issue for Romero, but it seems to have plagued him in each of his first two big leagues campaigns. He has been very solid in the first half and less so in the second half.. in each year, he hit the wall in July and then fell apart in August and September. His peripherals indicate a strong skill set… the issue will be whether he is able to maintain those skills for a full six months.

Morrow’s dominance (11 K/9 IP) was the highest of any pitcher who pitched at least 140 innings last year, but his control (4.1 BB/9 IP) is non-existent. Over the last couple of years, he has demonstrated an increasing ability to keep the ball on the ground – raising his ground ball rate to 40% while lowering his fly ball rate to 42%. Pretty impressive for such a hard thrower!

For the second straight year, Cecil got off to a fantastic start but faded down the stretch. Overall, he made nice progress last year, showing an increased ability to induce ground balls. He lowered his walk rate by nearly a walk per game while sustaining his strikeout rate at 6.1 K / 9 IP.

The Blue Jays have been patient with Drabek, but I believe they are moving him into the big league rotation a year or two too early. I saw him pitch in Double-A a couple of times and came away feeling he’s not ready for a promotion. He has trouble throwing strikes with consistency (as is reflected in his walk-rate of 3.8) and controlling his pitches within the strike zone. His raw stuff is good enough to get away with such imprecision in the Eastern League, but it won’t be good enough in the AL East – not yet, anyway.

Litsch had a solid big league debut in 2007 and followed that up with an even better 2008 season, but suffered an elbow injury in 2009 that required Tommy John surgery. When he finally returned to action last year, his season was cut short by a hip injury. While he is another year removed from his elbow injury, he now has to deal with the consequences of his hip surgery.

Among all of the relief pitchers Anthopoulos collected this winter, Francisco will get first crack at the closer’s job – when he gets healthy. His stiffest competition will come from Jon Rauch, who took over in Minnesota when Joe Nathan went down with an injury last year. While Rauch pitched well in the first half, he imploded in the second half (walking 3.5 hitters for every 9 IP and compiling a 1.48 WHIP). Meanwhile, Francisco had a 1.12 WHIP last year and registered 25 saves for the Texas Rangers in 2009. He has issued 2.9 BB / 9IP over the last two seasons while striking out 10.3 batters for every nine innings pitched.

Prediction for 2011: 4th place (80-82)

The club will look very different in 2011. The changes will produce a net decrease in the club’s win total, but they’ll provide considerable salary relief for the franchise in the long run – allowing the team flexibility to be more creative and proactive in 2012 and beyond. The offense will remain very potent, but the pitching will hold the club back.


Blue Jays top prospect, Kyle Drabek

Top Five Prospects:

1. Kyle Drabek, RHP
2. Brett Lawrie, 2B
3. Deck McGuire, RHP
4. Anthony Gose, OF
5. Zach Stewart, RHP

Drabek is the son of former MLB Cy Young Award winner, Doug Drabek. He is a grad of The Woodlands High School – the same Texas school that produced Jameson Taillon (draft #2 by the Pittsburgh Pirates last year). Drabek slid to the 18th overall pick in 2006, largely because of questions about his maturity (which arose out of a couple of incidents during his senior year in high school).
He was the top pitching prospect in the Philadelphia organization when he was shipped to Toronto in the deal that sent Roy Halladay to the Phillies back in 2009. He spent most of last year in New Hampshire (Double-A) and was named the Eastern League’s “Pitcher of the Year” after leading the league in wins and throwing a no-hitter on July 4th. He got 3 starts after a promotion to Toronto in September… and while he was winless, he didn’t allow more than three runs in any of his starts.

He will be a #1 or #2 pitcher in the major leagues someday. He has an outstanding 12-to-6 curveball that will buckle the hitter’s knees… it rates a “70” on the scouts 20-80 scale. He throws both a two-seam and four-seam fastball that range from the low-90’s to the mid-90’s in velocity… the two-seam has good movement and is used to induce ground balls. He developed a cutter which he uses as an out pitch against left-hand hitters. His changeup is a work in progress, as is his command which – at this point – leaves a bit to be desired. The extent to which he masters and controls his cutter and changeup will go a long way to determining how he performs as a big league rookie in 2011.

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