MLB: Reasons To Be Optimistic About The Blue Jays

GETTING DOWN AND DIRTY: The Blue Jays have made it obvious that they are serious about contending in the AL East in 2013

BY THOMAS DRANCE

At the Blue Jays Press Conference on Tuesday morning, General Manager Alex Anthopolous was boastfully introduced as the “busiest man in baseball.”

It wasn’t an empty boast. Clearly Alex Anthopolous has earned that title (and then some) over the past week. First, Anthopolous completed a 12-player trade that netted the Blue Jays two elite pieces, a quality utility player, a reliable middle of the rotation starter, and an overpaid backup catcher from the Miami Marlins. Arguably he didn’t even give away any of the team’s most highly regarded prospects.

Anthopolous then doubled down on his spending spree, signing Melky Cabrera – a top free-agent and the best hitter in the National League last season – to a two year contract worth $16 million dollars; a considerable steal, even after you account for Cabrera’s inconsistency and his positive test for heightened testosterone levels last season. Then, Anthopolous announced that what is old is new again, as he hired quality tactical technician and renowned hot-head John Gibbons to manage the new look Blue Jays.

With two wild card spots to compete for, the Red Sox and Yankees looking relatively haggard, and the absence of an NHL season (there are a fair few extra Torontonians  with disposable income that they’re willing to spend on sports entertainment options at the moment) – Anthopolous’ Blue Jays are doing their utmost to take advantage of a perfect storm. There’s an opportunity for the Toronto Blue Jays, and its right now from both a competitive and a marketing standpoint. You’ve got to give Rogers credit for putting their money where there mouth has often been, loosening the purse strings and allowing their General Manager to get after it.

While Blue Jays fans across the country recover from the shock of Alex Anthopolous’ three-punch combo, let’s look over five reasons to be optimistic about the team. Later in the week we’ll come back, rain on the parade, and look at five reasons for pessimism, but first: it’s all sunshine, rainbows and lollipops in Blue Jay land.

EVEN WITHOUT THE SPLASHY MOVES, THE JAYS WERE DUE TO IMPROVE
Let’s pretend for a moment that the will of a vengeful god was responsible for the Blue Jays’ injury situation in 2012. Realistically, had a vengeful god been the root cause of the Jays’ injury woes, well, the result wouldn’t have been all that much different from what actually went down.

In June the Blue Jays lost three starting pitchers in a week. Not three weeks later they proceeded to lose two of their lynchpins in Jose Bautista and Brett Lawrie to injuries in the same game. Ricky Romero pitched on, partly as a result of attrition elsewhere in the lineup, despite being too hurt to consistently find the strike zone.

It was a righteous reckoning for the Blue Jays.

While patching the holes in an injury ravaged roster, the Blue Jays got an awful lot of games last season from prospects who weren’t ready or were replacement level (or worse) players. From Yann Gomes and Jeff Mathis, to Anthony Gose and Adeiny Hechavaria – it was ugly. Even without the team’s recent additions, when you account for a full season worth of Bautista, Lawrie, Morrow and a return to full health for Ricky Romero; the team was likely to improve over last season regardless (provided they, you know, did just about anything to address the holes in their rotation).

In addition to some natural internal improvements (like, not having to hold the roster together with duct tape) adding pieces like Cabrera, Johnson, Izturis, Bonifacio, Buerhle and Reyes into the mix, you can begin to see the outline of a 90 win baseball club.

VERSATILITY
The Blue Jays are unlikely to be as blighted by poor health as they were last season, but if they’re ravaged again, they’ll be positioned to handle it more gracefully than they were able to last season.

Rajai Davis was probably the teams most reliable starting left fielder last season, which is okay if you’re loaded everywhere else I guess (which the Blue Jays weren’t), but ideally on a good club he’s your fourth outfielder. With the Cabrera signing – that’s exactly the role he moves into.

Bonifacio is another guy who, in a fourth outfielder role, represents a massive improvement over the likes of Travis Snider, Anthony Gose and Eric Thames; and he can also fill in at second base.

Meanwhile Maicer Izturis can lineup at shortstop or at third base in a pinch (and he might have to what with Jose Reyes playing on the green basketball court at the field formerly known as Skydome).

Beyond the team’s deep bench and increased versatility, they’ve got a lot more flexibility in the batting order as well. Last season’s Blue Jays relied on Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus to set the table at the top of the order last season. No disrespect to those two, but the Jays will now have two switch hitting OBP machines and former National League batting champs in Melky Cabrera and Jose Reyes filling that role. That represents a massive upgrade.

If the team goes with Cabrera and Reyes in some order, then Bautista third and Edwin Encarnacion batting clean-up; that pushes Lawrie down to fifth or sixth (depending on what the Jays can do to upgrade their DH between now and the end of January) and Colby Rasmus down to sixth or seventh in the lineup. So if Rasmus can find anything resembling his 2010 form, let’s say a 800+ OPS, or if Brett Lawrie re-finds the power in his swing; then that’s house money, especially considering the defensive value of both players.

ANTHOPOLOUS SECRETLY FIXED THE BULLPEN OVER THE PAST 12 MONTHS
In 2011, the Blue Jays bullpen was truly and thoroughly godawful. That season, Toronto’s relief pitchers only converted 57% of save opportunities (2nd worst in the majors) and blew 25 saves in total, 7 above the American League average.

Before last season, Alex Anthopolous acquired Francisco Cordero and Sergio Santos to shore up the team’s bullpen, and frankly his efforts were a dismal failure in the short-term. Santos was injured early in the season and didn’t return, while Francisco Cordero pitched himself out of the closers role in short order and was ultimately traded mid-season. While Cordero and Santos didn’t work out (though there’s still some hope that Santos could return from injury and contribute at some point this season), the emergence of Casey Janssen and the superlative play of the ageless Darren Oliver allowed the Jays bullpen to become somewhat average. They’re not quite average, but they can see average from where they’re at, which, is an achievement made even more impressive in light of John Farrell’s historically inept meddling.

Once Casey Janssen became the Jays’ full-time closer, the bullpen situation stabilized. As a group, Jays closers doubled their WAR last season and only blew 10 saves once Janssen was entrenched in the closers role (obviously this number looks better than it is because the 2012 Jays didn’t often put themselves in position to win ball games). Meanwhile Janssen personally capitalized on 88% of save opportunities.

And Alex Anthopolous has continued to add to his bullpen. He’s added so many different arms to the Jays pen, that his loved ones must occasionally consider contacting the television show Hoarders in an effort to cure him of this mania.

First he used a first round draft pick to select undersized relief pitcher Marcus Stroman, probably the most polished prospect in the 2012 MLB draft. Stroman’s a player whom most expect will make his Jays debut by midseason (he would’ve made his first appearance last season, probably, but he tested positive for PEDs). Anthopolous then acquired J.A Happ in the massive 10 player deal from Houston. Happ is currently pencilled in as the teams fifth starter, but he could become their sixth starter (i.e. their go to long-relief guy) by the start of the season. The Jays then flipped Eric Thames for flame thrower Steve Delabar, who impressed last season and traded Travis Snider (much beloved by Jays fans despite being a human strikeout machine) to Pittsburgh for power reliever Brad Lincoln (much despised by Blue Jays fans for not being Travis Snider).

There are admittedly some major question marks in the Blue Jays bullpen going into next season. At this point in the offseason we can’t be sure that Darren Oliver will be back, or if Sergio Santos might be able to contribute, or whether or not Stroman is really ready. We also don’t know whether or not Happ will be an overmatched fifth starter, or an ace long-relief guy.

But we know for sure that Casey Janssen will be closing (and probably doing a fine job of it) and that Delabar and Lincoln are at least serviceable, with an outside shot at being better than that. With a few breaks their way, the Blue Jays are on the verge of having an impressive, deep bullpen. If they’re not so lucky on the other hand, they should still be better than they were in 2012, and miles ahead of where they were at in 2011.

QUALITY OF THE ROTATION
As we mentioned previously, in the span of one godforsaken week last June, the Blue Jays lost three(!) of their five starters. Two of those starters (Steve Hutchison and Kyle Drabek) had season ending surgery, while the other (Brendan Morrow) was the team’s best starter by a wide margin.

That left a hobbled Ricky Romero, who couldn’t throw a strike to save his life last season, and Henderon Alvarez, a pitcher who was rushed to the majors and probably doesn’t project as a starter long-term unless he can refine a third pitch and start to miss some bats, to carry the load – a task they unsurprisingly weren’t up to.

Brett Cecil got a shot but he’s really not a Major League starter at this point, while outgoing free agent and ace swingman Carlos Villanueva was effective, but concerns about his health made him a bad bet as a permanent fixture in the rotation going forward.

Partly as a result of all of the man games lost to injury (in addition to Ricky Romero’s combustion) the Blue Jays as a club finished in the bottom-5 in every major pitching metric including old stats like ERA, and newer sabr metrics like xFIP and WAR.

But forget the injuries, last season the Jays five starters were Ricky Romero, Brendan Morrow and three guys who should’ve probably been in triple-A except that the Blue Jays triple-A affiliate (Las Vegas last season, Buffalo this season) play in a funhouse ballpark that isn’t conducive to developing pitchers.

Now in newly acquired pitcher Josh Johnson – a 6,7 behemoth and a legitimate ace when he’s healthy (he’s got one of the sliders in the majors) – they’ll have a legitimate top of the rotation hurler, one of the best in the business when he’s healthy. They’ll also have unimpressive, but extraordinarily reliable innings muncher Mark Buerhle. Graft those two onto a core built around Brendan Morrow and Ricky Romero (with J.A. Happ or maybe Steve Hutchison once he’s returned from injury) and you’ve got a rotation that, on paper at least, can hold its own against any team in the AL East (non-Tampa Bay Devil Rays category).

THE JAYS ARE PROBABLY NOT DONE YET
At the close of his press conference today, John Gibbons reiterated to Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi that the club would look to continue to upgrade their rotation and their bullpen in particular during the duration of the offseason. Whether or not they dip into free-agency (and they’ve been linked to Edwin Jackson throughout the fall), or address the need through a trade (they’ve got a potential logjam behind the plate) we’ll have to wait and see. The Rangers are rumoured to be interested in Arencebia for example, and there are reports that the Jays are considering shopping super prospect Travis D’Arnaud as well.

So the busiest man in baseball probably isn’t finished yet, and that is damn exciting.