MLB: Five Areas of Concern For The Blue Jays

THE STRAW THAT STIRS THE DRINK: Wily veteran and ageless wonder Darren Oliver may hold the key to the Jays bullpen success

BY THOMAS DRANCE

We’re a month and a half away from the opening of Spring Training, and the Blue Jays, with two big blockbuster trades and a bold free agent signing, have improved to the point that they are among the favourites to win the World Seriesand probably the “top dogs” in the AL East (on paper) headed into the season.

But there is still work to be done, and there are still a few troubling areas of concern on the Blue Jays roster (even if you have to squint really super hard to see them). Today we go negative, and poke at some of the Jays’ remaining issues.

1. NOT ENOUGH LEFTIES IN THE BULLPEN
The Blue Jays bullpen should be way, way better than it was in 2012 (when it had to pitch way to many innings as a result of injury) or in 2011 (when the Jays bullpen was just plain terrible), but the lack of lefties in the bullpen is some cause for concern. On Toronto’s current 40 man roster, there are eight right throwing bullpen arms (Lincoln, Jenkins, Janssen, Santos, Rogers, Janssen, Jeffress, Delabar), but only four left throwing bull pen arms, one of whom might retire or request a trade to Texas before the season begins: (Loup, Cecil, Happ, Oliver).

Assuming that Oliver chooses not to return to Toronto, that leaves the Blue Jays with three LHP in the bullpen – though one of them (J.A. Happ) will be the “sixth starter” and long-relief guy, so presumably he often won’t be available to be used as a lefty specialist in high-leverage situations. Looking over their splits at fangraphs, both Loup and Cecil appear to be reasonably capable of handling such a specialist role (though the sample is tiny in Aaron Loup’s case), but needless to say neither of them are likely to approach the level of effectiveness Darren Oliver has shown over the past couple of seasons.

Should Oliver hang them up, or demand to be closer to his family, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Anthopolous look to add a LHP to fill out the Blue Jays’ bullpen. He’d be wise too.

2. THE BLACKHOLE AT DH
For all the improvement the Blue Jays have made over the course of this winter, they still appear very likely to head into next season with Adam Lind – who at this point, should never ever face left-handed pitching – as their designated hitter. Adam Lind is okay against righties, actually he’s solid against right handed pitching, but he’s proven (over a large sample) that he just can’t hit left-handed pitchers at the major league level.

While the top of the Blue Jays order (presumably: Reyes, Cabrera, Bautista, Encarnacion) is deadly, the Blue Jays are going to need more than what Lind can likely provide in the heart of the order and it would be great if they picked up a guy who can mash left handers to act as Lind’s platoon partner. Unfortunately there aren’t any guys who match that description on the free-agent market, and I tend to think that the Blue Jays will do something like, having Lind bath fifth in the lineup against right-handers, and substitute him with either Bonifacio or Rajai Davis against lefties, and bump the DH to the bottom of the order (8th or 9th).  Either way, this is my biggest lingering concern about the makeup of Anthopolous’ ball club at this point.

3. JOSH JOHNSON’S VELOCITY
Jon Hale is an excellent independent baseball analyst who writes smart analytical takes on the Jays over at his personal blog called The Mocking Bird. Earlier this winter, he looked deep into Josh Johnson’s Pitch F/X data and made some startling conclusions. In particular, he noticed that Josh Johnson’s fastball was down almost three miles per hour in 2012:

If that doesn’t scare you, it should. As soon as a power pitcher known for his 95 mph heater and a killer slider starts talking about ‘hitting his spots’ and not being concerned about his velocity…run. Anyone remember B.J. Ryan? Seem Tim Lincecum lately? You can talk heart and location and pitching all day but strikeouts matter. And unless you’re a control pitcher to begin with, losing 2-3 mph on your fastball without anything to compensate for it is obviously going to affect your K rate in some way.

In addition to the drop of velocity, Josh Johnson’s fastball also lost a fair bit of its movement last season, and Josh Johnson’s “Power Slider” – which was his strike out pitch – isn’t really as effective as it used to be. While Josh Johnson has added a curveball to his repertoire (a pitch that became his “go-to” strike out pitch over the course of last season), he’s simply not the flame thrower he was when he dominated in 2009, 2010.

4. CAN RICKY ROMERO REDISCOVER HIS GAME?
Quite seriously, Ricky Romero was one of the worst starting pitchers in all of major league baseball in 2012. Fortunately for the Jays, he was excellent the season previous and quite good the year before that as well. No one is doubting Ricky Romero’s talent, but he basically couldn’t throw a strike last season, he’s now coming back from off season surgery, and his reliability going forward has to be an area of concern for the Blue Jays.

The good news is that the Jays won’t have to count on Romero, seeing as they’ve added Johnson, Dickey and the ever reliable Mark Buerhle to the rotation. But Romero’s still going to be counted on to eat up innings, and for a team with playoff aspirations and several older or injury-prone pitchers, he’ll have to do much, much better than he did in 2012.

5. MELKY CABRERA AND PED’s
You know in Toronto, no one can ever stop having to ask the question.