Have the Blue Jays Improved Enough?

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

The Jays have made some huge additions. But is it enough to get this 73-win team into the playoffs?

The Toronto Blue Jays have done a lot so far this offseason. As Jonah Keri pointed out on the BtB Podcast this week, Winter Meetings are normally when the offseason starts to heat up, and those don’t start until Dec. 3.

As it is, the Jays have been the biggest movers in the 2012 offseason. But with the team likely nearing the end of their movement, it’s worth wondering if the big moves they’ve made are enough to make them a competitor or simply enough to appease the fanbase.

The Moves

*Traded Manager John Farrell and David Carpenter for Mike Aviles.

*Allowed Brandon Lyon, Kelly Johnson, Jason Frasor, Carlos Villanueva and Omar Vizquel to become free agents.

*Traded Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes for Esmil Rogers.

*Signed Maicer Izturis, 3yrs $10M.

*Signed Melky Cabrera, 2yrs $16M.

*Traded Henderson Alvarez, Adeiny Hechavarria, Yunel Escobar, Jake Marisnick, Justin Nicolino, Jeff Mathis and Anthony DeSclafani for Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio, John Buck and Jose Reyes.

The difference between their primary players from 2012 (in the table below – "start" vs "bench" and pitching order determined by plate appearances and innings pitched) and the start of 2013 is stark, especially in a few key positions.

Position 2012 2013
C Arencibia Arencibia
1B Lind Lind
2B Johnson Izturis
3B Lawrie Lawrie
SS Escobar Reyes
LF Davis Cabrera
CF Rasmus Rasmus
RF Bautista Bautista
DH Encarnacion Encarnacion
BN Mathis Bonifacio
BN Gose Buck
BN Vizquel Cooper
BN Thames Davis
BN Sierra Sierra
SP Romero Johnson
SP Morrow Morrow
SP Alvarez Buehrle
SP Villaneuva Romero
SP Laffey Happ
CP Janssen Janssen
RP Oliver Santos
RP Frasor Delabar
RP Perez Lincoln
RP Cordero Loup
RP Loup Rogers
RP Delabar Dyson
RP Lincoln Oliver/Cecil

As has been pointed out by some, the players the Jays acquired from the Marlins are not superstars at this point. Johnson is injury prone, Reyes is slowing down and Buehrle is just an innings eater at this point. However, they are also replacing contributions that were mor or less garbage for the Jays this past season.

Keith Law summarized the deal thusly: "The Blue Jays get a lot of impact talent in this deal, making them contenders (at least for the moment) in 2013 without substantially damaging their chances to contend in future years." Dan Szymborski predicted the trade made the Jays "a team with a mean expectation for wins somewhere in the high 80s or low 90s." Jack Moore figures that with the trade "the Blue Jays have a distinct chance at 95 wins in 2012, and with it a playoff berth either through the division championship or a Wild Card"

All three of those positive reactions came before the Melky signing was announced, too, filling a relative weakness in LF.

Analyzing a trade like this isn’t as simple as looking at WAR and making the adjustments to the team’s win total, but some of those authors linked above attempted to do that, so I won't replicate it here (I was going to do it with WARi, maybe another time).

The Lineup

Beyond that, the Jays have a lineup that is a better one through nine outfit that makes more "baseball sense." Reyes is a strong leadoff hitter when his OBP is in check, and he provides the speed most managers like to have from that spot. He’s also a switch-hitter. Cabrera is a high-average switch-hitter who had a somewhat BABIP-fueled season last year but has a two-season track record of being a strong offensive player now. The switch hitters are something the Jays haven’t had since Gregg Zaun and provide a nice luxury for Gibbons by allowing him to trot out the same lineup every day.

Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are establish power hitters in the middle of the order (Edwin is established in the power department, if not the overall value department), that should provide one of the league’s most feared duos with Reyes and Cabrera getting on base at decent clips.

Things get a bit dicey from there, with one of Adam Lind (a sink-hole for at bats), Brett Lawrie (too many righties?) or Colby Rasmus (far too unreliable) filling in the next three spots in some order. Lawrie should improve but Rasmus is an enigma and Lind has proven to not be a capable MLB starter at 1B/DH. If the team is still to upgrade anywhere, it’s likely at 1B/DH, possibly with a platoon-mate since he had a 48 wRC+ against lefties last year and 72 the year before.

The bottom of the order is relatively strong with power-hitting J.P. Arencibia and John Buck sharing catching duties and sinking the team’s OBP otherwise, and Maicer Izturis providing a league-average middle infielder to round things out.

Add it up and the Jays have an elite top-four, a questionable five-seven, and an acceptable eight-nine. If they can solidify the five-spot by finding a left-handed power bat or a platoon-mate for Lind, this lineup will look dangerous on any given day.

The Rotation

Josh Johnson becomes the de facto ace of the staff with the highest previous level of performance in the group. He’s followed by Brandon Morrow, who broke out when healthy last year, creating a potentially dominant one-two punch. The risk is that the rotation depth is lacking at the higher levels of the minors, so being anchored by two pitchers with injury histories is a little scary. As it is though, if both were to give the team 180 innings, the Jays could be looking at seven wins or more from these two alone.

Mark Buehrle was league-average last season, but a league average 200 innings is still an appreciable contribution. He’s provided over 200 innings for 12 straight years, usually at a three to four win level, making him a crucial stabilizing force behind the potentially less-available Johnson and Morrow.

Ricky Romero was atrocious last year, one of the worst pitchers in baseball. He had three above-average seasons before that, so even a return to normalcy would mean the Jays rotation goes four-deep with serviceable pitchers, hiding the fact that the fifth spot will be occupied by a carousel of J.A. Happ, swingmen (Jenkins, Cecil, Drabek) and returning injured players (Hutchison, McGowan).

The Bullpen

It might be better, it might be worse. There are so many names with limited track records that it’s impossible to know.

The Verdict

The Jays got just 5.2 WAR from pitchers last year, a total that should be exceeded by Johnson and Morrow alone. If Buehrle and Romero can provide league-average innings as a duo, even a replacement-level fifth starter gives this team a six-win improvement from the rotation. The AL’s fourth-worst run prevention should be much improved.

The lineup just looks better from top to bottom, didn’t lose much in the field and gained quite significantly at the top of the order. Bautista and Encarnacion should have plenty of opportunities to knock in extra runs, while the everyday lineup shifts should be a thing of the past. A league-average AL offense should be above average next year.

Add it up and there’s no doubting the Jays will be much, much better. Is 90 wins unreasonable? I don’t think it is.

What may be unreasonable, though, is looking at the current rosters of Boston, New York and Tampa Bay and licking your chops at the thought of 95 wins and a division title. The Rays have just $33M committed before arbitration and their payroll was $63M last year. The Red Sox still only have $60M committed before arbitration and can be safely penciled in for at least $125M. And the Yankees, despite the desire to stay below the repeater luxury tax line in the coming years, likely aren’t done with $131M plus arbitration salaries (and another $15M if the Kuroda signing becomes official).

The Jays are definitely a better team than they were in 2012. But whether they are a better team than their AL East rivals is yet to be seen. Winter Meetings should tell us more.

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