Five questions: Toronto Blue Jays

There won’t be many teams more closely scrutinized this season than the Toronto Blue Jays. In a matter of hours the team went from penny-pinching also-ran to prospective favorite in the AL East with a blockbuster deal that raided the Miami Marlins.

Fast forward a couple weeks and the acquisition of NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey further reinforced the pitching staff, giving Toronto another bona fide front line arm.

This team has speed at virtually every spot in the field, depth in the rotation and a potentially electric bullpen. The Jays will be an exciting group to watch regardless of how their season plays out, but it remains to be seen whether they will be capable of reaching the lofty expectations many have set for them.

Will the team find a way to stay healthy?

The 2012 Blue Jays came in with quite a bit of hype in their own right, though not nearly as much as this season’s incarnation does. Realistically last season’s team ought to have hit 81-85 wins with the available personnel. However, injuries took hold all over the field and in the pitching staff and the Jays mustered a 73-89 record.

Injuries are obviously a part of any sport. Each team in baseball warrants a health-related question heading into this season. Still, the Blue Jays have quite a bit more cause for concern than many. Last season the Blue Jays were forced to use 21 position players and 33 pitchers (34 if you count the two innings thrown by Jeff Mathis).

The only key players to not miss any significant time due to injury were Edwin Encarnacion, Colby Rasmus, Ricky Romero, Henderson Alvarez, Darren Oliver and Casey Janssen. With the exception of Oliver, each of those Jays played through injuries at some point of the season.

What’s also concerning on this front is the extensive injury history of many of their key acquisitions this offseason. If this season is to end well, they will need key contributions from Josh Johnson in the rotation, and Jose Reyes in the lineup. Both have missed significant time in recent years. Depth players like Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis, who will be relied upon for their versatility, also have a knack for picking up ailments here and there. Should the Blue Jays lose one or more of their middle infielders at a time, there will be reason to temper expectations.

If this team stays healthy, it will be productive and competitive. But, while the Jays are more equipped to deal with losses than they were a year ago, problems to significant pieces will be a major setback to any serious aspirations.

How will Jose Bautista fare?

Injuries to joints are always cause for concern. With a mess of bone, ligament and tendon comes any number of things that can go wrong during the recovery process.

Coming off wrist surgery to repair a tendon injury which caused instability in his left wrist, Bautista could produce anything in 2013. It’s certainly unlikely that he’ll surpass the 50-home run mark once again, but if he can regain his form as a consistent power hitter in the middle of a lineup that should be more effective getting on base, he will be a massive asset.

The emergence of Encarnacion takes the weight off of Bautista’s shoulders to a degree, but having the most prolific power hitter of the last three seasons play a meaningful role would make the Jays an explosive opponent.

Two natural comparisons for Bautista’s issue are David Ortiz and Rickie Weeks.

Ortiz, relative to Bautista, decided to forego the procedure in 2008 and struggled, posting the three lowest WAR seasons of his time in Boston to date (1.9, 0.3 and 2.6) before rebounding in 2011 with a 4.1 WAR.

Weeks, meanwhile, opted to have the surgery and, in the subsequent season, set a career high in home runs with 29.

Bautista is already expected to be in decline by virtue of his age (32), but if Weeks is an indication of what recovery is like after surgery, there should be room for optimism in Toronto.

How will John Gibbons handle Adam Lind?

There have been few things more infuriating for Blue Jays fans over the last couple of seasons than the play of Adam Lind. Not only has he been underwhelming in his performance, he was grossly mismanaged in the eyes of many by former manager John Farrell.

Lind has failed to produce a wRC+ over 100 since his breakout 2009 season, when he posted a 140 mark. The frustration for fans doesn’t stem from his production as a whole, but the manner in which he was set up to fail.

Lind is an effective hitter against right-handed pitching, but against lefties he is a black hole in the lineup, with a career wRC+ of 59. Yet, for whatever reason, Farrell’s Jays insisted on leaving Lind in the lineup—batting fourth, no less—to face left-handed pitching.

If Gibbons can effectively manage Lind, the Jays will benefit immensely. He can be productive, as evidenced by his career wRC+ of 120 against righties, and offers power to the lineup as well as solid defensive play when he takes the field at first base.

Even if it means relying on the likes of Rajai Davis, Bonifacio or Izturis to fill in against a left-handed pitcher, the team as a whole would be much better served by using Lind exclusively against right-handers. They need him creating runs, not outs, and he is incapable of producing the former against a left-handed pitcher.

Will the bullpen be consistent enough?

The Blue Jays have done well to bolster a bullpen that cost them many games early on during the 2012 season. Casey Janssen thrived as the team’s closer and Darren Oliver was a quality setup man, despite his advanced age.

The team was dealt a blow early on when Sergio Santos was forced to undergo shoulder surgery. He appears to be on track to return for Opening Day 2013, however, and reportedly feels as good, if not better, than he did prior to his injury last season.

Janssen is also recovering from shoulder surgery. He is on track to return at some point in March.

With two key pitchers coming back from operations, and Oliver turning 43 there will be a lot of weight placed on pitchers who aren’t necessarily trustworthy.

Steve Delabar and Esmil Rogers will bring heat out of the bullpen. Delabar consistently touches the mid-90s with his fastball and throws a nasty splitter. Rogers possesses a full arsenal of pitches, including a fastball that hits the high 90s in addition to swing-and-miss breaking pitches. Neither pitcher is particularly proven—Delabar had a 0.6 WAR in half a season with Toronto in 2012, while Rogers had a 0.8 WAR between Colorado and Cleveland—but both have the tools to get the job done.

Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup will be relied upon to be left-handed specialists. Cecil has been in a steady decline as a starter since his 2.6 WAR in 2010, but fared well against left-handed batters last season, limiting them to a .268 wOBA. He should be able to carve out a niche in that role. Loup was a pleasant surprise for general manager Alex Anthopoulos. There weren’t high expectations for him coming into last season, but he posted a 0.9 WAR in 30.2 innings. While a thicker book on how he operates may cause a decline in his numbers, he has been successful at the major league level and is cut from the traditional specialist mold.

The theme here is there are plenty of capable arms, but not many sure things. Other pitchers like Brad Lincoln, Jeremy Jeffress, J.A. Happ and Chad Jenkins will be in the mix in various capacities, but with the perceived depth of the starting rotation—one that should eat a lot of innings—the bulk of the load will fall on the explosive arms at the back of the bullpen. How they hold up will decide much of the season, particularly in competitive AL East games.

Which Brett Lawrie is the real Brett Lawrie?

Last season was, if not a step back for Lawrie, a step to the side. In 125 games, Lawrie produced a WAR of 2.9, just 0.2 higher than the 2.7 he posted in his first 43 games at the major league level.

The plateau can largely be explained by the dip in his power numbers. He hit 11 home runs in 536 plate appearances, a substantial drop from nine in 171 during his 2011 stint.

And the power decline can be explained by his over-zealousness at the plate. While he had a 5.9 percent jump in his contact rate, he attacked pitches that could be put into play and not necessarily driven. If Lawrie is to continue his development, he’ll need to get back to a more patient approach at the plate and focus on driving pitches.

The good news is that Lawrie will be put in much more favorable positions to succeed. Last season, Farrell often relied upon Lawrie as a leadoff hitter despite his ability to hit for power. While it is unfair to put Lawrie’s struggles squarely on misuse, his placement in the batting order did him no favors.

With Reyes and Melky Cabrera at the top of the lineup and Bautista and Encarnacion locking down the middle, Lawrie should be in his best position to thrive yet. He will no longer be a focal point for opposing pitchers.

Moreover, off the field, Lawrie’s role in the Jays marketing scheme has diminished from a year ago. With an influx of new faces and big names, the pressure will be off the lone Canadian in the lineup to bring the franchise back to glory. Again, while his struggles can’t be attributed to the pressure away from the field of play, lifting that burden ought to help, particularly for a player who actively tries to make things happen.

The less pressure he feels to force his game in order to be the star, the better for the Jays.

This season will be the best indicator we have yet of where Lawrie’s career will be headed. His strength and athleticism indicate that his power numbers should return. The pressure on him will be minimal. There will be ample amount of talent around to help him succeed.

Lawrie will be a key to the Jays’ success this season and, provided his development continues as planned, he should hit the 4.0 WAR mark this season and play a key role in the team’s success. Conversely, if he hovers closer to 2012′s production, it will be clear that the expectations set for him were too ambitious.

To summarize, if the Jays can stay healthy, have a productive Bautista, handle Lind properly, get quality relief pitching and see progress from Lawrie, they will be in the conversation to not only make the playoffs, but potentially contend for a World Series title. With so much talent up and down the roster, the Blue Jays will be a handful for any team they come up against.

References & Resources
All stats are courtesy of Fangraphs.

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Comments

  1. Jack Lynch said...

    A lot of if’s and maybe’s…..and not a mention of the questionable, and downright lack of performance by Romero and Rasmus. I can see these two being the Achilles heel of the team, moving forward!

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