The Blue Jays finished 81-81 in 2011. For those who can’t do the math, that’s a winning percentage of .500 and good for fourth in the AL East, a distinction the Jays have held each season since 2008.
Taking first in the ultra-competitive division seems to be a pipe dream, but the Jays seem to be gathering the pieces to be on the rise. GM Alex Anthopoulos has quietly built a team that could shake things up next season. Murmurs of playoff opportunities are starting to rise around the league.
Anthopoulos has demonstrated a willingness to deal players quite often, and by doing, so has landed some solid players and shed the organization of some cumbersome financial obligations. Not the least of which was Vernon Wells, previously tabbed untradeable. Several of the team’s projected starters have been acquired via trade (details below.)
I expect that trend to continue, and if the Jays make a big splash this off-season, it will most likely come from a trade rather than a free-agent signing.
Anthopoulos seems to be instilling a strong sense of loyalty with this staff, which should provide stability within the organization. Take Assistant GM Tony LaCava, who turned down the opportunity to replace Andy MacPhail in Baltimore. Or Manager John Farrell, who quickly dismissed whispers he may be in the running to take the job with former employer Boston.
Another front office member, Chuck Lamar, should pay dividends for the Jays. Lamar will step in as a special assistant for amateur scouting. He brings a wealth of experience from Tampa and Philadelphia, and should really help in the diligence for the draft in the future.
J.P. Arencibia had an excellent year in his first full season behind the plate. Surprisingly, he gained very little traction in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. His power numbers were very respectable, knocking 23 HR (a club record for catchers.) Although, outside of the long ball, he struggled at the plate, posting a .213 BA for the season. Also, his defensive skills came into question down the stretch.
Normally, a guy like Arencibia would be entrenched as next year’s starter, but Eastern League MVP Travis d’Arnaud will be breathing down his neck. Considered the third-best prospect to come over in the deal that sent Roy Halladay to Philly, behind Kyle Drabek and Michael Taylor, he is quickly becoming the most valuable return from the trade.
d’Arnaud injured his thumb playing with Team USA, but that shouldn’t stall his climb through the organization. Expect him to start in triple-A Las Vegas next year and garner serious consideration to steal at-bats by year’s end.
Adding to d’Arnaud’s case is the expected departure of back up option Jose Molina. Molina appears on the verge of a contract with Tampa Bay.
The Jays are without a natural first baseman. Last year Adam Lind transitioned from primary DH to 1B. No one is going to mistake him for Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, but he does provide the power numbers one would expect from the corner spot. Quick side note, I wouldn’t anticipate the Jays making a run at either of the big sluggers to replace Lind.
As long as Lind remains healthy, he should maintain his spot in the lineup. Keep in mind that he missed almost all of May due to injury. Also, if you discount a disappointing August, he had a fairly productive year.
Has to be the biggest question mark for a position player going into the year. Kelly Johnson held the spot for the second half of last year after once-promising Aaron Hill was traded to Arizona. Johnson does not have a contract for 2012, so the spot is currently up for grabs.
In a rather thin free-agent crop at 2B, the Jays will probably look to retain the services of Johnson. On the other hand, they would be eligible for draft-pick compensation should Johnson sign elsewhere.
A remaining possibility is Clint Barmes, but he appears to be close to a deal with the Pirates. That may leave Ronny Cedeno or Nick Punto as serviceable alternatives, but neither would supply the pop of Johnson.
Lawrie tore up the Pacific Coast League last season. A move to third from second didn’t seem to phase him at all. Batting .353 with 18 HR and 61 RBI, triple-A pitching seemed to be no match for the budding superstar. He also showed some sneaky speed in swiping 13 bags.
He stepped into the big-league order and continued to shine, posting nine home runs before hitting the DL with a hand injury. With a void at 2B, don’t count out a shift back for Lawrie, perhaps allowing the Jays to pursue someone like David Wright for 3B — although signs point to Lawrie earning the starting spot come spring training. If his minor league performance is any indication of what’s to come, he should be at the hot corner in the Rogers Centre for the foreseeable future.
Yunel Escobar has planted himself as the clear-cut starter here. Escobar also came to Canada by way of a trade, coming over from the Braves in a deal that sent Alex Gonzalez to Atlanta near the deadline in 2010.
One interesting scenario may involve shifting Escobar to 2B should fellow Cuban Adeiny Hechavarria prove ready to make the leap to the show.
Several candidates could end up as the starter here, with a platoon situation not out of the question either. Eric Thames emerged as the starter over the last few months of 2011. By no means has he secured the job. He should expect to battle Rajai Davis for the position. Davis hits a better clip but has trouble staying on the field. He ended ’11 on the DL, which allowed Thames to showcase his potential. Fresh off a contract extension, Edwin Encarnacion may steal some time out in left as well. The team seems to value his versatility and has filled in the outfield in the past.
A more intriguing option is potential international signee Yoennis Cespedes. The Cuban outfielder should establish his Dominican residency, making him eligible to sign with a major-league team. His price tag may prove too high, but the Jays have made competitive pursuits of international players in the past, vying for Aroldis Chapman and signing Hechavarria.
Another trade acquisition should fill this role. Colby Rasmus, who came over in a three-way deal during 2011, will patrol CF for now. Rasmus was another victim to injury and had to shut it down early last year.
Rasmus seemed to fall out favor in St. Louis, prompting his inclusion in the mid-year deal. He has a high ceiling and is still fairly young. The Jays have control of him through 2014, so he should have every opportunity to display his five-tool potential.
Waiting in the wings would be the swift-footed Anthony Gose. Gose, along with Hechavarria, raised some eyebrows in the Arizona Fall League.
Dewayne Wise spent significant time out there last year but doesn’t appear to warrant much consideration to win the job full time. I wouldn’t be reluctant to place the dreaded AAAA tag on him.
No doubt here: Jose Bautista will be the starter for 2012 and beyond. After leading the majors in HR in 2010, Bautista was well rewarded. He signed a $65MM contract last off-season and will be under Toronto’s control through 2015.
Bautista is a leading candidate for the MVP award to be handed out Monday, and deservedly so. With his new contract in hand, he hit .302 with 43 HR and 103 RBI, to go along with a .447 OBP.
After his year, the $65MM looks like a discount considering that salaries for Pujols or Fielder will be upwards of triple that.
Encarnacion projects to spend most of his time here. After picking up his option, it probably lessens the chance that there will be a strong push for another big bat.
David Ortiz had recently popped in the talks surrounding this spot, but the fact that he can’t offer effective on-field contributions should sway the Jays away here. An expensive contract for an aging slugger doesn’t seem to jive with the direction this team is heading.
At least one front-of-the-rotation starter has to be on Anthopoulos’s off-season laundry list. Since the departure of Halladay, the staff has been in desperate need of an ace.
Ricky Romero probably isn’t a true number-one but certainly has proven he is worthy of no less than the two spot. He was able to lead the mediocre staff with 15 victories and earned his first All-Star appearance.
Behind him in the rotation were Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil for most of the year. Morrow had flashes of brilliance, nearly reaching the top 10 in Ks for the AL. Unfortunately for the Jays, his performance slipped over the last two months of the season, and he went just 3-6.
Cecil provides some depth as a lefty but probably projects more as a bottom of the rotation guy. He couldn’t even crack five victories all year long and lost four straight games to end the season.
Help may be found in the farm system. Henderson Alvarez merited a September call-up after dominating lineups in the Eastern League for New Hampshire. Alvarez may be a big part of Toronto’s future but could probably stand another year of polishing in the minors.
Fellow prospect Drabek had a disappointing 2011. He came out of spring training as a member of the Toronto rotation. Hyped as the centerpiece of the Halladay deal, expectations for Drabek were lofty. After an unimpressive stint, he was demoted to the minors in June, where he continued to struggle.
Here is a spot where they’ll need to explore free agency. Especially if Alvarez and Drabek are both in need of further development in the minors.
Perhaps Erik Bedard, a native Canadian, would be a good gamble as well.
Should the posting fee for Yu Darvish ever be established, Toronto should be in on him as well. I believe Anthopoulos was one of a handful of execs that made his way over to watch the highly touted product of Japan.
An obvious weakness of last year’s club. Most evident in the high number of blown saves. Toronto was tied for the league lead last year with 25. Maybe a bit surprising seeing as incumbent closer Frank Francisco was expected to have a solid handle on the closer spot.
Due to his under performance, I’d expect the Jays to be involved in this year’s active closer market. Jonathan Papelbon may have priced them out of the market for top free agents like Heath Bell and Ryan Madson.
Instead, you may see them go after second-tier guys, maybe Francisco Rodriguez or Francisco Cordero. A couple players who had off years may enter the mix as well. Joe Nathan and Jonathan Broxton will both be searching for new homes next year and will probably be available at a discount.
Little impact here, but Jon Rauch’s option wasn’t picked up but that will be 53 appearances that need to be replaced. Luis Perez should be back in the pen full time after some spot-start duty, so that should add a lefty presence .
More pressing holes need to be filled but look for a couple free-agent signing to shore up the pen.
I won’t be so bold as to predict possible trades, here are the predictions based on current roster and possible free agent pick-ups.
1. Yunel Escobar SS ($5MM)
2. Colby Rasmus CF (Arb)
3. Jose Bautista RF ($14MM)
4. Adam Lind 1B ($5MM)
5. Brett Lawrie 3B (arb)
6. Edwin Encarnacion DH ($3.5MM)
7. Kelly Johnson 2B (free agent)
8. J.P. Arencibia C (arb)
9. Eric Thames LF (arb)
#1 Ricky Romero ($5MM)
#2 Mark Buehrle (free agent)
#3 Brandon Morrow (Arb)
#4 Henderson Alvarez ($450M)
#5 Jeff Francis (free agent)
Joe Nathan (free agent)
By the way, I failed to mention perhaps one of the most talked about additions: Toronto will be sporting its new logo and uni’s come opening day.