Toronto Blue Jays 2014 Preview

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Less hype, less hope for Jays in 2014


It would be fitting, in a can’t-predict-baseball kind of way, if the Blue Jays made their move just when the rest of the league stopped paying attention. It could happen, because there’s undeniable talent on this roster. Toronto could surprise, but will more likely stay in the cellar.

The Blue Jays went all-in on 2013, trading several top prospects, boosting the payroll, attracting more fans — but winning only one more game and finishing last in the American League East. Most of the same cast returns for another try, with a lot less optimism but also much less hype. Don’t count them out, but don’t start planning that parade route, either.


Rotation

Almost everything that could have gone wrong for the rotation did go wrong last season, as the Blue Jays’ starters often dug too deep of a hole for the offense to make up. We say almost because of Mark Buehrle, who proved again that he is the living example of the timeless baseball cliché: Never get too high or too low. Wherever he has pitched in the last five years — the White Sox, the Marlins or the Blue Jays — Buehrle has had 12 or 13 wins in each season, with nine to 13 losses, an ERA between 3.59 and 4.28, and at least 200 innings. He turns 35 in spring training, and until he shows otherwise, the Jays can expect the same for 2014. The rest of the rotation is harder to predict. R.A. Dickey had a respectable first season in Toronto but was unable to remain at the Cy Young level he displayed with the Mets in 2012. The knuckleballer was 4–7 with a 5.18 ERA through the end of May and gave up 23 homers in 18 home starts (with a 4.80 ERA), compared to 12 homers in 16 road starts, with a 3.57 ERA. Brandon Morrow has been a full-time starter for four seasons with the Jays but has yet to throw 180 innings in a season. He has more strikeouts than innings for Toronto but missed most of last season with an entrapped radial nerve in his right forearm. Morrow was throwing simulated games in Arizona in December. The Jays admit that they need him but also that he is a major question mark. The back of the rotation should be filled by J.A. Happ, who lost two months after a line drive to the head last season, and someone from the group of Todd Redmond, Esmil Rogers, Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek — most likely Drabek.


Bullpen
As bad as the Blue Jays’ rotation was, the season could have been a lot worse if not for one of the league’s better bullpens. The Jays ranked ninth in the majors in bullpen ERA, at 3.37. Righty Steve Delabar and lefty Brett Cecil both made the All-Star team before injuries and ineffectiveness spoiled their second halves. Even so, both are assets for this season in a bullpen that could have interchangeable closers in Casey Janssen and Sergio Santos, who showed that he was over his elbow problems. “They both could be very valuable for us,” manager John Gibbons said at the winter meetings. “The night that Janssen is not doing it, we've got Santos to do it.”


Middle Infield

The Blue Jays liked what they saw late in the season from second baseman Ryan Goins, who hit only .252 but showed enough to make him the incumbent, according to Gibbons, going into spring training. Goins, 26, is a .273/.330/.376 hitter in the minors, without much speed, so he seems to have limited upside. Shortstop Jose Reyes is all about upside; the question is always whether or not he will be on the field to display it. Reyes has played in more than 133 games only once in the last five seasons, missing two months last season with an ankle injury suffered in April. He hit well enough (.296/.353/.427) but finished with only 15 stolen bases in 21 attempts and has four years left on his six-year, $106 million contract.


Corners 

The Blue Jays alternated between Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind at first base, with each starting more than 70 games at the position and providing good pop. Encarnacion, 31, quietly had another remarkable season. In an era of ever-increasing strikeout totals, he fanned only 62 times, compared to 82 walks, and still managed 36 home runs. He’s that rare contact hitter who also has exceptional power. Third baseman Brett Lawrie started the season with a rib strain and also missed time with a sprained ankle. His production has gone steadily down since his impressive rookie showing in 2011, but in fairness, he has battled health problems and is only 24. He still has time for the breakout season many have predicted.


Outfield
The Blue Jays see Melky Cabrera as an everyday left fielder. But Cabrera, who cashed in off an artificially inflated 2012 season that included a drug suspension, was nothing special last season, hitting .279 with three homers and a .322 on-base percentage in 372 plate appearances. Center fielder Colby Rasmus strikes out a lot, and while he has never really grown as a player over five years, he showed good range in the outfield and is a power threat who mashes righthanders (.284/.359/.534). Right fielder Jose Bautista is one of baseball’s premier power hitters and has made the All-Star team in each of the last four seasons, but he has played only 210 games the last two years, missing time with a wrist injury in 2012 and a hip problem late last year.


Catching

The Blue Jays parted ways with J.P. Arencibia, whose occasional power was not enough to make up for an astonishingly poor on-base percentage. In his place, they signed Dioner Navarro, a switch-hitter who has improved his OBP in each of the last four seasons. The Jays gave Navarro a two-year, $8 million deal, even though he made only 53 starts for the Cubs last year and has not been his team’s regular catcher since 2009 with Tampa Bay. At 30, he should be able to handle the increased workload, with Erik Kratz and Josh Thole on hand to back up. Kratz, a 29th-round draft pick by the Blue Jays in 2002, is a .220 career hitter with 18 homers in 378 major league at-bats, mostly with the Phillies.


DH/Bench

Like Rasmus, Lind crushes righthanders but really struggles against lefties. Only three of his 23 homers came against lefthanders, who held him to a meager .208 average. Lind did chase fewer pitches out of the strike zone, and the overall patience at the plate resulted in a strong .357 overall OBP, his best mark since 2009. The Blue Jays picked up his $7 million option for 2014, but he faces free agency after this season with one last chance to show teams the potential he flashed five years ago. Off the bench, Anthony Gose has excellent speed and worked on his skills in winter ball; he could challenge Cabrera for playing time. Another spare outfielder, Moises Sierra, is out of options and has value as a right-handed bat, especially given how poorly Lind and Rasmus hit lefties. Infielder Maicer Izturis had his worst offensive season but offers versatility as an option at third, short and second.


Management
General manager Alex Anthopoulos, a Montreal native, understands the potential of the Blue Jays, who are the only team in Canada and are backed by a communications giant. He traded top prospects on a bet that 2013 could be the year the Jays broke a two-decade postseason drought — and lost badly. But even last April, Anthopoulos was looking beyond one season. “This team’s not built only for ’13,” he told the New York Times. “No matter what happens, this team has a chance to be together for a while.” True to his word, Anthopoulos kept the core largely intact and retained Gibbons, the feisty, folksy manager who understands the marketplace, manages his bullpen effectively and works well with the front office.


Final Analysis

It would be fitting, in a can’t-predict-baseball kind of way, if the Blue Jays made their move just when the rest of the league stopped paying attention. It could happen, because there’s undeniable talent on this roster. But last season showed that relying on injury-prone hitters and a rotation full of questions was no guarantee to produce a winner. The Jays need to improve their defense, generate runs consistently in ways other than the homer and, above all, get more from a rotation whose 4.81 ERA last season ranked 29th in the majors, ahead of only the Twins. That’s asking an awful lot in a division with the World Series champion Red Sox, the strong-armed Rays, the free-spending Yankees and an Orioles team that has averaged 89 wins the last two years. Toronto could surprise, but will more likely stay in the cellar.

Lineup
SS    Jose Reyes (S)    
Incredible stat of the year: Reyes had 382 at-bats and zero triples.
LF    Melky Cabrera (S)     
One more year to prove the Blue Jays weren’t suckered by his PED-fueled success.
RF    Jose Bautista (R)     
Powerful anchor of lineup must stay healthy for a full season. Has 152 HRs since 2010.
1B    Edwin Encarnacion (R)     
Stolen from Reds in ’09 deal for now-retired Scott Rolen. Has 214 RBIs in last two seasons.
3B    Brett Lawrie (R)     
At 24, he still has potential to live up to promise he showed as a rookie in 2011.
DH    Adam Lind (L)     
Free-agent-to-be has never repeated ’09 peak, but had solid .854 OPS last year.
CF    Colby Rasmus (L)     
This may be what he is: good power, lots of strikeouts. Productive, but not a star.
C    Dioner Navarro (S)     
Learned plate discipline (.365 OBP) while playing for the Reds with Joey Votto.
2B    Ryan Goins (L)     
Tied franchise record by hitting safely in first eight career games.

Bench
INF    Maicer Izturis (S)     
His sickly .597 OPS knocked him from a possible starting role.
C    Josh Thole (L)     
Light hitter but has good rapport with knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.
OF    Anthony Gose (L)     
Former second-round pick of the Phillies has 250 steals in parts of six minor-league seasons.
OF    Moises Sierra (R)     
His name, if not his stats, conjures up two notable sluggers of the ’90s.
C    Erik Kratz (R)     
Power bat gives Jays a threat in lineup when Navarro gets a day off.

Rotation
RH    R.A. Dickey     
Battled inconsistency and nagging injuries to pile up innings and go 14–13.
LH    Mark Buehrle     
At least 10 wins and 200 innings for 13 consecutive seasons.
RH    Brandon Morrow     
Oblique muscle injury cut short 2012 season; last year, it was forearm trouble.
LH    J.A. Happ     
Starts fresh after season marred by three-month recovery from liner off head.
RH    Kyle Drabek    
Former first-round pick is returning from major surgery.

Bullpen
RH    Casey Janssen (Closer)    
Named Jays Pitcher of the Year after recording 34 saves and 0.987 WHIP.
RH    Sergio Santos     
Jays hope third Toronto season’s a charm after he had a 1.75 ERA in 29 games.
RH    Steve Delabar     
All-Star in the first half, injured and ineffective in the second half.
LH    Brett Cecil     
Former starter found success in relief, where his fastball plays up.
LH    Aaron Loup     
Doesn’t have Cecil’s stuff, but had better ERA than his fellow lefty.

2013 Top Draft Pick
Clinton Hollon, RHP
After failing to sign their top draft choice in 2011 — right-handed pitcher Tyler Beede, who chose Vanderbilt over the Jays — Toronto did not sign Phillip Bickford, whom they chose 10th overall but who enrolled at Cal State-Fullerton instead. The Jays did not make another pick until the 47th selection, when they nabbed Hollon, a high school righthander from Kentucky. In 17.1 innings spread between the Gulf Coast and Appalachian leagues, Hollon had 15 strikeouts and a 3.12 ERA. He has a mid-90s fastball and an exceptional slider, and a March 2012 report on ESPN.com called him the best pitcher among all high school juniors. Scouts did not share that opinion when Hollon was a senior — there was a reported issue with his ulnar collateral ligament — but only seven high school pitchers were drafted ahead of him, and the Blue Jays had reason to be pleased by his brief pro debut.

Top Prospects
OF D.J. Davis (19)
Faded after a hot start for rookie-level Bluefield, hitting .240 with 76 strikeouts in 225 at-bats. He does, however, have 38 steals in 118 career games.
RHP Aaron Sanchez (21)
Followed up a solid season for Class A Dunedin by posting a 1.16 ERA in 23.1 innings in Arizona Fall League.
RHP Marcus Stroman (22)
Duke product transitioned from bullpen to rotation and went 9–5, 3.30 in 20 starts at Class AA New Hampshire.
RHP Roberto Osuna (19) 
Held his own in Midwest League at age 18 and has more strikeouts than innings over three pro seasons.
LHP Sean Nolin (24)
Lost his MLB debut last year, but is 23–10, 2.95 across four seasons in minors.
LHP Daniel Norris (20)
Second-rounder from 2011 has 143 strikeouts in 133.1 pro innings, but a 5.40 ERA.

Beyond the Box Score
One and done Chad Mottola got just one season to try to spark the Blue Jays’ offense as hitting coach. When Toronto’s run total decreased for the fourth year in a row, the Jays let Mottola go and replaced him with Kevin Seitzer, the former All-Star third baseman who previously coached for the Royals and preaches using the whole field.
Feelin’ the love The Blue Jays improved their record by just one win last season while dropping in the standings from fourth place to last. But they were big winners at the box office. Their makeover after the 2012 season boosted ticket sales significantly, and the club exceeded 2.5 million fans for the first time since 1997.
Head games J.A. Happ missed three months last season after suffering a fractured skull when a line drive by the Rays’ Desmond Jennings struck him just below his left ear. Happ, who also sprained knee ligaments when he fell, said he first worried that the blood he felt around the ear was brain fluid. But he insisted after returning that he would not — and could not — be afraid. “I think it’s just knowing that hesitation is going to cripple your ability to perform,” Happ told the New York Times in August. “If you pitch a little scared, you’re not going to be finishing pitches.”
Good as Gold At 14–13, R.A. Dickey did not come close to repeating as a Cy Young Award winner in 2013. But in his debut season in Toronto, Dickey did become the first Blue Jays pitcher ever to win a Gold Glove Award. The Jays had gone seven years without a Gold Glove winner, since Vernon Wells won in 2006.
On the move The Blue Jays’ spring training home in Dunedin, Fla., sits next to a library, fitting snugly into a residential area with limited parking options and tight workout facilities for the players. But while other teams have fled their complexes for plush new surroundings, the Jays have been loyal to Dunedin since their first spring as a franchise in 1977. That appears to be changing now, with the Jays and the Houston Astros close to finalizing an agreement to move across the state to a shared complex to be built in Palm Beach Gardens. Tentatively, the new facility would open in 2016, with help from $100 million in taxpayer funds.

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