The Toronto Blue Jays occupy a unique status in the MLB landscape right now and not one that other teams would admire. Of the teams playing .500 or better, and thus viable playoff hopefuls, Toronto is the only one with zero shot at a division title and reduced to playing for a one-game wild-card shot by mid-May.
There’s simply no way the Jays will beat out both the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox this year and even finishing ahead of one is highly unlikely. But get Toronto into a one-game shot in either the Bronx or the Fens, and then a lightning best-of-five against the other if they win that? That’s doable.
The Blue Jays are currently sitting on a 21-21 record and if you believe—as I do—that the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners are unlikely to play at the 95-plus win pace they’re currently on, that means the bar for the second wild-card is probably going to be in the 88-90 win range and Toronto would need only a modest upgrade in performance to reach that level.
Toronto has used opportunistic hitting and pitching to keep themselves afloat in this early portion of the schedule. They’re a respectable sixth in the American League in runs scored despite being substantially worse in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Why? They hit with runners in scoring position, ranking third in the AL when runs are out there. On the pitching side, their staff ERA is a woeful 11th, but it rises to 5th with men in scoring position. That will enable you to steal some wins that you probably shouldn’t have gotten.
Manager John Gibbons has overseen a stellar bullpen, that ranks second in the league. Two veteran journeymen, Tyler Clippard and John Axford have been the keys, working the most innings of anyone in relief and posting sub-2.00 ERAs. That’s enabled Toronto navigate through some subpar starting pitching, where Aaron Sanchez’s 4.08 ERA is the best in the rotation, while Marcus Stroman, Jaime Garcia and Marco Estrada have been hit hard.
Taken on its face, that’s not sustainable—the opportunistic play is likely to come and go through the long season and banking on veteran bullpen castoffs to cover for poor starting pitching is an even worse bet. But fortunately for Toronto, that’s not the entire story.
Josh Donaldson, the one-time MVP third baseman, can be expected to show some sharp improvement. His early season has been marred by injuries, but he’s healthy and in the lineup now. Kevin Pillar, already one of the best defensive centerfielders in baseball, is showing a bat to match, as he’s ripped 17 doubles and I don’t believe that’s a fluke.
Teoscar Hernandez, an outfielder acquired last year from Houston in a trade deadline move for Francisco Liriano, is an exciting talent who’s slugging .537. Even with Toronto having parted ways with Jose Bautista and Kendry Morales in decline, there’s plenty of reason to think this offense will be consistently productive. As far as the starting pitching goes…well the ERAs are 7.71 (Marcus Stroman), 6.28 (Jaime Garcia) and 5.32 (Marco Estrada). I don’t really see how it gets worse.
Having to compete with the American League’s two financial heavyweights puts Toronto in a rough position with no margin for error. But I still like them over the other candidates on the American League’s wild-card fringe right now.
The American League wild-card race has five teams vying for the final spot in the playoffs. Assuming that the runner-up in the Oakland A’s/LA Angels race for the AL West title will be in the wild-card game, that leaves five more teams within five games of each other for the last spot. Those teams are, in order of the current standings, the Seattle Mariners, Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians. Here’s nine thoughts on that race as it heads into the homestretch…
*Detroit is the best positioned of the contenders, even though they would be out of the money (by a game and a half) if the season ended today. That’s because the Tigers are also only three games back of the Kansas City Royals in the AL Central, while everyone else is six or more out of first place. Detroit is the one team in this group of five that will be reasonably assured of making the playoffs in some capacity, as long they play good baseball down the stretch.
*In that same vein, how much longer can a team with David Price, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander at the top of the rotation continue to struggle along? I know Verlander’s having a very tough year, a 4.82 ERA that would be worse if he didn’t have such a pitcher-friendly environment to work in. But Rick Porcello’s strong year has made up for that and the Tigers have swung the bats well this season. Jim Leyland would have managed this team into the playoffs. Brad Ausmus has to prove he can do the same.
*As an avowed Yankee-hater, I always tend to overestimate the boys in Pinstripes, if only because I don’t want to ever let my guard down. Consequently, I’m still thinking they have a big run left in them. Michael Pineda is pitching extremely well, a 2.05 ERA since his return from what amounts to two years’ worth of injuries. Hiroki Kuroda has gotten going, and if Masahiro Tanaka can get back on the mound and be effective again, that’s a tough 1-2-3 Joe Girardi can throw at people. And the inspirational value of Derek Jeter’s final year is the big intangible.
*Where New York has failed this year is in their offense, and I’m going to single out Jacoby Ellsbury. It’s not that the centerfielder who crossed the Rubicon from Boston this past offseason has had a bad year—he hasn’t. He’s got a .340 on-base percentage and does a great job defensively in centerfield. Boston is worse off for not having him this season. But was he really worth the 7-years/$150 million deal the Yanks gave him? Yankee Stadium hasn’t provided the upgrade in power numbers that was expected, and this early years of that contract are when Ellsbury should be most productive. Instead, he’s merely pretty decent.
*I just don’t see where Toronto has the pitching to make it. Mark Buerhle is the only starter with an ERA under 4.00, and that’s mostly on the strength of a great start to the season. The Jays can hit with anyone. Edwin Encarcion is back in the lineup, Jose Bautista and Melky Cabrera are having a big years and players like Juan Francisco and Adam Lind are steady contributors. But to make up 4.5 games in a multiple team race in a month-plus requires sustained winning streaks that are only possible with starting pitching.
*Terry Francona is nothing short of a genius to have Cleveland still holding a puncher’s chance, with a 65-63 record. The Tribe’s own pitching woes have been there all year, they dealt Justin Masterson to the St. Louis Cardinals at the trade deadline and other than Lonny Chisenhall at third base, have not gotten any pleasant surprises. But Tito still has the Indians over .500. I can’t see them making up five games and leapfrogging four teams with their flaws, but Francona has done a terrific job to even have his team in this conversation.
*Felix Hernandez is a lock for the AL Cy Young Award, and in a race where everyone has vulnerabilities, is the biggest X-factor. Any team that’s on the borderline of being #5 in the league is going to have problems, but when your rotation is the one that comes around every fifth day to King Felix, that’s a very steady anchor. Not to mention an arm that scares the heck out of the A’s or Angels if Felix were able to pitch the wild-card game.
*Was Robinson Cano’s decision to leave New York for Seattle this offseason the deciding factor in this race? Cano has given at least a little bit of life to the Mariners’ punchless offense, batting .328. And though the home runs haven’t been there (11), power is down across baseball, so the effect isn’t as dramatic. And Cano’s great ability to drive the ball in the alleys still has a slugging percentage at a solid .467. If he’s in New York, this race isn’t a race.
*Time for a prediction—I’m picking the second wild card to be…the Kansas City Royals. I’ve got the Tigers chasing them down in the AL Central, but KC’s pitching is still good enough to hold on. And on that same note, watch to see if New York or Toronto can make a run at the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East. It’s a tough climb (seven games), but the Orioles just lost Manny Machado for the year and could come back to the back. But those are topics for a separate column. For now we’ll just say the AL Central produces the second wild-card.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
The Toronto Blue Jays bullpenis the biggest question mark this team faces as they’ve sprinted out to a three-game lead in the AL East in this final month of May. Toronto is atop the American League in runs scored and their starting pitching ranks fifth in the league. But the bullpen ERA is at the bottom of the AL.
There are two reasons the bad bullpen ERA hasn’t bit the Jays yet, and those reasons are directly related. The first is that it hasn’t translated into a serious problem with blown saves. The Toronto pen has closed 18/25 chances, and that 72 percent success rate ranks sixth in the American League.
The second reason is that closer Casey Janssen recently returned from the disabled list and has been lights-out. Janssen has closed all eight save chances, quickly revived the back end of the bullpen and has yet to give up an earned run.
Janssen, like the offense, might not be quite this dominant all year, but he will continue to pitch well and won’t be the reason for any potential Toronto failure. So let’s further narrow the scope of the concern and look at the three pitchers who are now in key setup roles.
Brett Cecil, Steve Delabar and Aaron Loup are the arms who are going to have sustain the pen during the long summer months ahead. Here’s a rundown on what they are doing this year, along with a look at what they did in 2012 and 2013, so we have a good handle on what they’re capable of.
Steve Delabar 2014: 4.29 ERA 2013: 3.22 ERA 2012: 3.82 ERA
Aaron Loup 2014: 2.96 ERA 2013: 2.47 ERA 2012: 2.64 ERA
Brett Cecil 2014: 3.80 ERA 2013: 2.82 ERA 2012: 5.72 ERA
One thing to note on Cecil is that 2012 marked his transition out of the rotation and into the pen, which has obviously worked better for him.
When you look at this staff, Toronto has reason to feel optimistic. All of these pitchers have shown track records, albeit limited, of being able to pitch at modestly higher levels than what they have been doing. It’s not as the Jays’ pen struggled with a bunch of has-beens and never-will-bes, to borrow a phrase from the 1989 movie Major League.
The 2014 Toronto Blue Jays relief corps might not conjure up images of the Nasty Boys the Cincinnati Reds trotted out in 1990 (Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton and Randy Myers) to win a World Series, but they have the capacity to be better what they have been.
There are still questions Toronto faces—can the Jose Bautista-led offense continue to churn out runs? Can Mark Buehrle and the rest of the starting rotation keep up their steady pace? Can Janssen stay strong in the ninth inning? All are fair subjects for exploration. But the most obvious concern about Toronto’s staying power is their bullpen depth, and the evidence suggests a group that can pitch better.
I won’t say I don’t still question the Blue Jays. At this time in 2011, the Cleveland Indians were off and running in the AL Central. The 2012 Los Angeles Dodgers were rolling in the NL West. The 2013 Arizona Diamondbacks were doing the same.
None of those teams made the playoffs, and in fact, all were well off the radar by the time the year ended. Toronto could be the same. But as a partisan Boston Red Sox fan, I felt a little worse after researching this post than I did when I began. That’s something the Jays fans can hang their hat on.
The Toronto Blue Jays have endured a mostly rough first half of the season after a series of high-profile acquisitions in the offseason made them the favorite to win the AL East. Injuries and underperformance followed, and the Blue Jays spent the bulk of the first half running away with the division, but in the opposite direction.
Now, after a strong run over the last two weeks, the Jays are nudging back to the fringes of contention. Are the expected Blue Jays finally ready to show up?
STARTING PITCHING WOES
Toronto’s problems begin with starting pitching. This is a team that’s 14th in the American League in starters’ ERA and the prime culprit is R.A. Dickey. The Cy Young Award winner from last year with the Mets has turned into the man with the 4.90 ERA now that he’s in the American League. Josh Johnson, acquired from Florida, has only been healthy enough to make seven starts and has a mediocre 4.38 ERA.
I suppose you can call Dickey and Johnson disappointments, and by mainstream standards you’d be right. But as one who never drank the Toronto Kool-Aid, I don’t see why an aging knuckleballer in a tougher league starting to fade, and an injury-prone pitcher getting hurt add up to a big surprise.
The rest of the rotation has been worse. Mark Buehrle’s ERA is in the high 5s, and Brandon Morrow first pitched poorly, then got himself on the disabled list. The same goes for J.A. Happ.
Toronto has found some signs of hope from two unlikely sources. Esmil Rogers was pulled out of the bullpen and given four starts. Rogers has a 3.14 ERA. Then an even more unlikely move came when Toronto signed Chien-Ming Wang. It’s been five years since Wang was the ace of the Yankee rotation before injuries felled him, and his comeback efforts have been largely unsuccessful. But he’s gotten two starts and also has a 3.14 ERA. If Wang can keep himself healthy and keep his velocity up, he can be a functionable part of the rotation.
What’s happening with the starting pitching is wasting a good year from the bullpen. It’s ironic, because the pen has the no-names, while the rotation has the stars, but Toronto is 4th in the American League in bullpen ERA, and has closed 72 percent of their save chances, a figure above the league average.
Casey Janssen is the biggest reason, and the closer is 16/17 on save opps with 2.28 ERA. The Jays are getting good work from Steve Delebar, Aaron Loup and an old reliable in Darren Oliver. Even a brief stint on the DL by Oliver opened up some work for Neil Wagner and Juan Perez, and they were both lights-outs. If the starting pitchers can hand this group more leads, they can get on win streaks—not unlike the one they’re on right now.
WHERE ARE THE BASERUNNERS?
On the offensive side, it’s getting on base that’s the problem. Toronto is 10th in the AL in on-base percentage and only three players—Edwin Encarcion, Jose Bautista and Adam Lind—are really effective and getting aboard consistently. Given the importance all three have in the power game, you can see the Jays can’t afford having their run producers reduced to table-setters.
Much like the starting pitching is wasting the good relief work, the failure to just get on base steadily is wasting some good power hitting. Encarcion has gone deep 19 times. Bautista and catcher J.P. Arencibia have each hit 15 home runs. Centerfielder Colby Rasmus has 13. Lind is slugging .555. If this team gets runners on base, they can put up some big innings.
That’s where Jose Reyes comes in. The shortstop has been about almost the entire year with an ankle injury, but he’s rehabbing in the minors and his return is imminent. Reyes is capable of being the man with the .380 on-base percentage that can set the table for the offense. Although he could use some help from Rasmus and Arencibia, who are right now prototypes of the player whose only valuable when he’s hitting the ball out of the park.
Brett Lawrie is also out with an injury, though the highly-touted third baseman is having his second straight disappointing year at the plate. He’s still young, but it bears wondering why can’t at least give something like a .337 on-base percentage—the figure that Reyes fill-in Muneri Kawaski posted, making one wonder if Toronto will still find him some playing time when Reyes comes back. With Lawrie still injured and second baseman Emil Bonifacio not hitting, there’s certainly room for Kawaski somewhere, presuming he’s versatile enough to handle those positions.
THE ROAD AHEAD
I guess we’re back to square one when it comes to prognostication with Toronto. If you believed in this team at the start you look at the win streak, Reyes coming back, the fact they’re only 4 ½ games out of the wild-card and a reasonable 7 ½ back of first place, and think that we’re about see a real contender in action. If you share the view of TheSportsNotebook, the win streak per se doesn’t surprise you—most every team has one—but you certainly don’t see it as a harbinger of things to come.
The offense will likely produce, and if Reyes can keep himself in the lineup, they’ll score runs and with the good bullpen, that will be enough to at least ensure Toronto doesn’t look as awful as they did when the year began. But I don’t buy anything about this starting pitching—I think Dickey and Buehrle are finished, Johnson’s too brittle and the rest unlikely to sustain success or good health. At the start of the year I had Toronto finishing a little bit over .500, but missing the playoffs. This current win streak doesn’t change that.
AROUND THE AMERICAN LEAGUE
AL EAST: Boston continues to hold a slight lead over Baltimore, and the margin on New York is up to 3 ½ games. But the Red Sox sent Clay Bucholz to the DL, and while it doesn’t look long-term, Bucholz does have an injury history. Tampa Bay has slipped six games back and David Price’s rehab start tomorrow can’t come too soon.
AL CENTRAL: Detroit must like the idea of a competitive division race, because the Tigers still dink around and keep teams in it. The Tigers are 39-31 and 3 ½ back of a Cleveland team that’s only a game over .500.
AL WEST: Last week’s MLB coverage featured the Oakland A’s, and they are holding a two-game cushion on Texas. The prospect for the Rangers getting their injured veteran pitchers back by next month isn’t looking real promising and there’s potential for Oakland to open this up.
The American League East was seen as the most balanced of baseball’s six divisions when the season began, with no clear dominant team and no clear bad one. The question was whether someone would pull away in either direction in the early part of the season. After three weeks of play, both the Toronto Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays are, at the very least, having to play with some urgency. While the Red Sox, Yankees and Orioles are all off to good starts, the Jays & Rays are struggling. In today’s American League MLB coverage, TheSportsNotebook will examine why.
TORONTO LANGUISHES IN LAST
Toronto’s problems can be summed up thusly…
*They don’t get runners on base consistently.
*The starting pitching has been horrible.
*Some bad luck with injuries has hit them.
The Blue Jays are in the bottom third of the American League offensively and the main culprit is a team on-base percentage that’s 14th among 15 AL teams. It’s not that there are no signs of life—catcher J.P. Arencibia, rightfielder Jose Bautista and centerfielder Colby Rasmus are hitting home runs. The trio has combined to go deep 14 times, but none are getting on base with any regularity. Notable players like Edwin Encarcion, Melky Cabrera and Adam Lind are just having slow starts period.
Pitching was supposed to cure a lot of ills in Toronto, and maybe in time t will. But right now the ballyhooed acquisitions of R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson aren’t panning out. Johnson’s ERA near 7, Buehrle’s is 6.26 and Dickey, last year’s Cy Young winner, is at 4.30. I am not optimistic that Dickey will turn around—we’re talking about a 38-year-old pitcher who’s been moved from pitcher-friendly Citi Field in New York into an offense-heavy division in the AL East. Other starters include J.A. Happ and Brandon Morrow and they haven’t been any better.
Jose Reyes has been lost until June with a leg injury. Reyes was off to good start, with a .465 on-base percentage. That’s something that directly addresses the team’s biggest offensive problem and it’s done by a player who can be expected to play at a high level over the long haul. While his injury is not a shock, given Reyes’ fragile history, nor was it a foregone conclusion. The Jays can legitimately claim this kind of extended absence as a bad break.
Toronto was the betting-line favorite to win the AL East at the start of the season. If you were the many who believed in them, you will undoubtedly want to give Dickey, Buehrle, Johnson and a lot of those offensive pieces time to click. If I had been one of the believers, that’s certainly the tack I would take. But the Blue Jays were six games out of first coming into Sunday and already trailing all four division rivals. Toronto just began a 14-day stretch that has twelve games against the Yankees, Orioles and Red Sox. Believer or not, I think we can all agree that urgency has come early north of the border.
THE PRICE ISN’T RIGHT IN TAMPA
Tampa Bay is only a half-game better than Toronto coming into Sunday, and their early-season issues can be boiled down to this…
*The offense has been predictably subpar
*The bullpen has been unexpectedly problematic.
*David Price has really unexpectedly been terrible.
The Rays are 11th in the American League in runs scored and I don’t know that anyone—including myself who believes in this team—is all that shocked. Evan Longoria is swinging the bat well, with a stat line of .362 on-base percentage/.500 slugging percentage. While Rays fans can reasonably expect Ben Zobrist to hit for more power and Matt Joyce to pick up the pace, they can also reasonably expect James Loney’s good start to soon dissipate.
Whether this team can move into the top half of the American League offensively likely depends on whether Desmond Jennings can become a true table-setter. After a disappointing 2012 campaign, Jennings is off to a slow start. Another possibility might be for the middle infield tandem of Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson to hit, something they have not done thus far.
Either way, no one doubts that Tampa Bay has to pitch at a very high level if they’re going to make the playoffs. That’s what makes Fernando Rodney’s start so concerning. After a 2012 campaign where he was nothing short of lights-out, Rodney has a 4.76 ERA and an early blown save. The pen as a whole has coughed up three saves thus far, and its 2-for-5 closing ratio is the worst in the American League.
Price joins Dickey as reigning Cy Young winners who are struggling out of the gate. Price has a 6.26 ERA in four starts. In this case though, I think the positives in the rotation outweigh the negatives—Alex Cobb is off to a good start, with a 2.53 ERA and Matt Moore has been dominant, with a 1.00 ERA in his three starts. Given the certainty that Price will start to pitch better, the continued growth of Cobb and Moore is a more significant development.
That’s why I expect Tampa Bay to turn it around and climb back up with the Red Sox/Yankees/Orioles trio in a season-long joust, with the question of the bullpen and the offense determining whether Tampa can ultimately get over the top. The Rays host the Yankees to start next week, including an appearance on ESPN’s Monday Night Baseball. That’s followed by winnable road series at Chicago, Kansas City and Colorado. As with Toronto, Tampa Bay has to approach these early games with some extra intensity.
AROUND THE AMERICAN LEAGUE
It was an emotional week in Boston, and the Red Sox delivered a magical moment to their city on Saturday. After a pregame ceremony honoring the victims of the Marathon bombing, Boston beat Kansas City with a three-run homer in the eighth by Daniel Nava. The leftfielder has now hit a grand slam on his first major league pitch (2010) and then jacked the game-winning blast in the first home game after a terrorist attack.
As a Boston fan, I’ve said any number of derogatory things about Yankee fans, and you can be assured that I often thought worse than I actually wrote. As such, I have to tip my cap to their absolute class in singing “Sweet Caroline” to honor Boston this week at Yankee Stadium. And if you see the highlights, the Yankee fans sang the song with real gusto. I’m sure as time goes by I’ll have to throw in some jabs at Yankee backers, but the class and dignity they showed this week will not be forgotten.
The American League Central remains packed, with Detroit unable to gain traction. In the American League West the dynamic has not fundamentally changed since last week, when we looked at yet another slow start for the Angels. It’s still Oakland and Texas with some early separation and Los Angeles—now 6-10—trying to find their footing.
One of these AL East teams was aggressive in the offseason, made a big splash and is getting a lot of attention as the candidate to displace the New York Yankees atop the American League East. The other team is coming off a bad year, one of the biggest salary dumps in history and is laying relatively low. Normally you’d have no trouble identifying which of these teams is the Toronto Blue Jays and which is the Boston Red Sox. But this year, the Jays & Sox have reversed roles—Toronto even traded Boston their manager for good measure. TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage previews both teams and measures their chances against the projected win total Las Vegas has posted for each.
Boston: John Farrell has returned to town after a mostly unsuccessful two-year run managing north of the border. Farrell was still a popular choice in the Hub—he was a successful pitching coach here, notably with the 2007 World Series winner, and he’s said to have an especially good rapport with Jon Lester and Clay Bucholz.
Lester and Bucholz are where a Red Sox Revival would have to start. Lester, after a steady run of seasons where he won at least 15 games and had an ERA in the 3s, ended up at 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA in 2012. Given the chaotic environment he worked in, betting on a return to form from the lefthander seems pretty safe. But that same can’t be said for Bucholz. The 28-year-old has electric stuff, but he’s been in the majors regularly since 2008 (his 2007 no-hitter came as a call-up) and there’s only been once season where Bucholz pitched consistently well and stayed healthy. It’s reasonable to hope for a year where he has 20-25 starts, a couple DL stints and pitches like an All-Star, but 2010 was the only year where the righthander stayed healthy and pitched well all year long.
Farrell will be relying on a couple veterans to balance out the rotation. Boston added Ryan Dempster, a move I find highly questionable. Dempster only had one really good year pitching with the Chicago Cubs and that was 2008. Otherwise he was a steady, if unspectacular pitcher. Before you argue that’s all the Red Sox need, let me point that “steady and unspectacular” against NL Central lineups usually translates into “mediocre to bad” against American League lineups. And that’s exactly what Dempster was in Texas during the stretch drive after he was dealt at the July 31 trade deadline. The other vet the Sox will turn to is John Lackey. If he can overcome Tommy John surgery and the otherwise horrible performance that has marked his tenure in Fenway, the Sox will be fine.
Suffice it to say, I see more problems than potential when it comes to the rotation. The bullpen is a similar mix of question marks, although I think with more positives. Joel Hanrahan is the new closer and he’s saved 76 games with a composite 2.26 ERA over the last two seasons. Andrew Bailey and Koji Uehara are strong setup candidates, Andrew Miller is a nice lefthanded option and if Daniel Bard can revive his career, this corps could be very strong. Bard’s comeback might be necessary though, because as good as Bailey can be in the setup role (or closer if necessary) he spends a lot of time on the disabled list.
It’s tough to get a feel on how good the offense might be. The positives start with Dustin Pedroia—he had the worst offensive season of his career in 2012 and still ended up with a .347 on-base percentage/.449 slugging percentage. If that’s the worst we’re going to see from Pedroia, the Red Sox are in good shape. Will Middlebrooks is a young stud at third base, who hit .288 with 15 home runs before being derailed by a thumb injury. Mike Napoli hits for a ton of power and draws a lot of walks, something he shares in common with David Ortiz. Throw in a healthy Jacoby Ellsbury and possibly a revived Shane Victorino and you have the makings of a team that can score runs.
Now the negatives—let’s start with the fact that hoping for Ellsbury’s health is like hoping for Bucholz—it’s a nice wish, but little to suggest it will come through all year. Your best hope is just that the disabled list time isn’t extensive or with a hangover effect after the return. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is an incredibly overrated catcher—he hits some home runs, but with an OBP of .288, he better hit about 40 before we can consider him anything other than a liability. Stephen Drew is dealing with a concussion and the shortstop has had major injury problems the last two years. A Victorino comeback is far from a sure thing, Ortiz has an Achilles problem and it’s tough to know what to expect from the leftfield tandem of Jonny Gomes and Danny Nava.
The soap opera has left town with the firing of Bobby Valentine, although the media in Boston usually works overtime to get a sequel underway. At least for now though, it’s a little quieter and there’s no reason to think the Red Sox will lose 93 games again. In fact, getting back over .500 is a very reasonable goal. But if you want to think about contending for an AL East title or playoff spot, it requires a lot of optimism in thinking everything will seamlessly come together. I’m a Red Sox fan who’s getting ready to go to Fort Myers and watch some spring training games in the week leading up to Easter, and I’m feeling a lot of optimism. Enough so, that I would take the “Over” on the posted win projection of 83. But I’m feeling realistic enough to say they won’t go Over by very much.
Toronto: Pitching has been the Toronto problem in the twenty years that stand between now and their back-to-back World Series titles of 1992-93—also the last time they were in the postseason. The Jays went all-in to solve the problem this offseason. They traded for NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, and also added Josh Johnson and Mark Buerhle, formerly of Miami.
Maybe I’m just in a pessimistic mood today, but like Boston, I still see more problems here than is generally being reported. I know Dickey can keep throwing his knuckleball five more years, but does anyone really expect the 38-year-old to perform at anywhere close to his level of his 20-win season with the Mets? Especially facing lineups stacked with DHs and considering the Rogers Centre won’t swallow up fly balls the way Citi Field did.
Johnson is Toronto’s version of Bucholz—very talented and very fragile. If nothing else, Buerhle can be relied on—he’s steady in giving you 30-plus starts every year, chewing up innings and being at least respectable in the ERA category. And unlike Dickey and Johnson, almost all of his previous success was compiled in the American League, back in his run with the White Sox.
Toronto might be pleasantly surprised at the bottom of the rotation though. 28-year-old Brandon Morrow had a 2.96 ERA in 21 starts last year. And while Ricky Romero had a bad year, he is just two years removed from looking like an emerging ace. Maybe the presence of a veteran like Buerhle can help him stabilize.
Offensively this team has been defined by Jose Bautista for three years and in that light I think his dropoff last year was paradoxically good. Using similar logic to what I wrote about Pedroia further up, if a .385//527 stat line is the worst you’re going to get from Bautista, then life is very good.
The rest of the lineup could go any which way. Is Edwin Encarcion really going to replicate his .384/.557 year with 42 home runs? I doubt it. Will Melky Cabrera return to his relatively mediocre offensive numbers that marked his career prior to the injection of PEDs? Probably. Jose Reyes is at shortstop, but has anyone else noticed that he’s only one good year in the last four and it’s the season he played for his free agent contract? Colby Rasmus has tremendous potential at center, but he hasn’t done it on the field since 2010 and Tony LaRussa gave up on him in St. Louis. Adam Lind is the DH and hasn’t’ been productive since 2009.
I haven’t hidden the fact that I’m on the pessimist side of these players, but we do have to be fair and acknowledge that every one of them have some sort of record that suggests that can deliver. The swing vote, to use a political term, is going to be the development of catcher J.P. Arencibia and third baseman Brett Lawrie. Both are highly regarded young players. Arencibia is at a key crossroads—he has not hit well in two full years, but the organization still traded away a top young catcher in the deal to get Dickey. Now it’s up to Arencibia to live up to the confidence at age 27. Lawrie isn’t under the gun quite as much, but the third base job is clearly his and he needs to hit if this lineup is going to fulfill its potential.
The offense and the starting pitching needs to deliver, because there are questions in the bullpen. If Casey Janssen and Sergio Santos stay healthy and consistent they can be a good—albeit not great—duo for the last two innings. But here again, you’re having to go on blind optimism that they can do it. Darren Oliver is reliable in a setup role and if J.A. Happ could get his career on track in the bullpen it would give manager John Gibbons a lot of flexibility.
Gibbons himself is one of the more mysterious hires. He was fired here in a previous run and I’m not sure why the front office would bring him back in a year where they’ve obviously shoved all their chips on the table. Gibbons might be the only first-year manager on the hot seat leading up to Memorial Day. Las Vegas is very high on this team, with a projected win number of 89. I see them somewhere in the 83-88 win category, not a lot different from the Red Sox. But because expectations are different, I have to go Under on Toronto.