In a season dominated by the Baltimore Orioles, the Toronto Blue Jays did exceptionally well in 2014, finishing in the top five in runs, home runs, total bases, RBI, slugging and OPS. Toronto slugged its way past underperforming Boston and Tampa Bay to finish third in the AL East. Thanks to a few key offseason acquisitions, the Blue Jays lineup could be even more productive, which may be critical given the inexperience of the pitching staff.
One of the hot-stove season highlights was Toronto trading Brett Lawrie and three other players to Oakland for All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson. They also signed coveted free-agent catcher Russell Martin to further bolster an already potent offense. While the Jays were power-happy during the offseason, they failed to fill significant holes at second base and in the rotation.
Gone from Toronto are Melky Cabrera, Adam Lind, Colby Rasmus, Casey Janssen and Brandon Morrow. With six rookies on the 25-man roster, manager John Gibbons is looking for emerging talent to fill some pretty big shoes.
Toronto acquired Justin Smoak from Seattle during the offseason, providing an opportunity for Edwin Encarnacion to spend more time in the DH role. Second base is arguably the weakest position, and one the Jays failed to fill during the offseason. Gibbons’ choices include rookie Devon Travis, Maicer Izturis (15-day DL), Steve Tolleson (who’s filling a roster spot until outfielder Michael Saunders returns mid-April) and Ryan Goins (currently in Buffalo). No one has emerged as the definitive starter, so it’s a roll of the dice at second.
After dealing with a torn hamstring last year, Jose Reyes is on the comeback trail. Despite the injury, Reyes hit .287 with 51 RBI and nine homers last year. Jose Bautista (.286, 35 HR, 103 RBI) and Encarnacion (.268, 34 HR, 98 RBI) will once again bring the the thump in the middle of the potent Blue Jays lineup, and Donaldson, who takes over third from Lawrie, is expected to put up big numbers following last season’s 29 home runs and 98 RBI with Oakland.
Highly touted prospect Dalton Pompey starts in center fielder, completing his rapid rise to the pros. The 21-year-old Pompey spent a majority of 2014 in single-A Dunedin, before jumping to double-A and triple-A over the summer, opening eyes along the way by hitting .317 with a .392 OBP and 43 stolen bases in 500 minor-league plate appearances. He fizzled during his September call up, hitting .231 in 43 ABs, but has earned a starting role after a strong spring.
Marcus Stroman’s strong second half positioned him atop the Blue Jays rotation before a spring ACL tear during a spring training drill ended his season. Drew Hutchison (11-13, 4.48 ERA last season) got the opening day nod and earned the win against the Yankees, giving up one run on three hits in six innings. Entering his second full season, the expectations for Hutchison are high with Stroman sidelined.
R.A. Dickey followed his 2013 Cy Young campaign with two mediocre seasons in Toronto. The 40-year-old knuckleballer needs to be more consistent from start to start if Toronto has visions of postseason play. Mark Buehlre is back after another reliable 2014 season, but the remaining rotation spots are in the hands of promising, yet untested, rookies Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez.
The Blue Jays have opted to carry an eight-man bullpen to start the season, which may signal concern over how deep starters are expected to go. Brett Cecil moves from a setup role to closer with the departure of Janssen. Sanchez moves to the rotation with Stroman’s injury, leaving the bullpen in the hands of returning relievers Aaron Loup, Todd Redmond and Liam Hendricks, and Marco Estrada, who comes over from the Brewers. The final three bullpen spots are filled by rookies Miguel Castro and Robert Osuna, and the inexperienced, although technically not a rookie, Colt Hynes.
Opening day lineup
Jose Reyes SS
Justin Smoak 1B
Edwin Encarnacion DH
Jose Bautista RF
Josh Donaldson 3B
Dalton Pompey CF
Russell Martin C
Kevin Pillar LF
Devon Travis 2B
Six of the top 10 prospects are on the 25-man roster, so there’s a bit of a youth movement to complement a core of veterans. As long as Norris and Sanchez perform, they are here to stay. Pompey is already penciled in as the starting center fielder, so the top three Toronto prospects are on the 25-man roster and expected to deliver. Even with the top three at the major-league level, Baseball Prospectus still ranks the Blue Jays as the No. 10 minor league system, indicating there are plenty of viable prospects down on the farm.
As long as key players like Reyes, Bautista and Encarnacion stay healthy, Toronto is a threat to contend. But if Pompey becomes a catalyst at the top of the order and the young pitching staff exceeds expectations, the Jays could make a run at the AL East title. More realistically, they’ll finish second in the East with 85-87 wins and possibly challenge for a wild card spot.