If you were reading a preview of the upcoming Toronto Blue Jays season a year ago, you would be expecting to find a series of arguments asserting the Jays as the no-doubt winners of the American League East, and maybe even the World Series. Such enthusiasm would be warranted given the additions of R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera and Emilio Bonifacio. But now we are looking ahead to 2014 where, following a miserable 2013 season, and more or less the same group of players on the roster, the Jays are a reasonable pick to finish at the bottom of their division. It is truly remarkable what one poor season can do to alter perception of a team.
The Blue Jays have not made the playoffs in the last 20 years; the second longest active streak in major league baseball (Royals haven't been in 28 years). They Jays seem to perpetually be a team in the middle. Over the last 10 years their winning percentage is 0.492 (877 - 904). While they have been good in some seasons, they have never been great; peaking at 87 wins over the same time frame. Playing at this relatively mediocre level is not going to breed much success, especially in the unforgiving AL East.
As much as recent history suggests that the Jays will be a middling team again in 2014, perhaps the fact that the majority of last season's roster is back should be considered positive. There was great expectation for the Jays' core group of players last year that will be taking the field again this year. So maybe this team should be considered a contender for 2014.
2013 Season in Review
74 - 88 (0.457 win percentage), 5th place in the AL East. The 2013 Jays' season was a real disappointment. Their starting pitching was terrible, defense was painful to watch, and key players missed a lot of time and/or played through nagging injury (e.g., Jose Reyes, Brandon Morrow, Melky Cabrera). In fact, the Jays had the 4th most Disabled List days in 2013. They also gave far too many innings to replacement level players like J.P. Arencibia, Munenori Kawasaki, Maicer Izturis, and Mark DeRosa. With very few exceptions, 2013 was a year to put in the rear view mirror.
The exceptions came in the form of Colby Rasmus, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Cecil, and Casey Janssen. Rasmus produced 4.8 fWAR in 118 games; showing the potential he displayed in 2010. Bautista and Encarnacion combined for 64 home runs, once again anchoring the Jays' offensive attack. Cecil and Janssen were consistently effective parts of a strong bullpen. Some, including myself, expected Jays' GM Alex Anthopolous to trade one of both of them this offseason to improve the club's starting rotation. But that did not happen.
Key Offseason Moves
With most of the core group in place for 2014, Anthopolous and the Jays' front office needed to address their efforts around improving the team in a few critical areas: catcher, starting pitching and second base. While they were rumored to be in on a few of the big name free agent pitchers (most notably Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza and Ervin Santana), and could have signed Stephen Drew to play second base, nothing much materialized beyond Scott Boras ripping the Jays ownership. In the end the offseason moves have really only addressed needs at catcher and re-signing a fan favorite.
Signed Dioner Navarro (Catcher; bats: switch; throws: right) for 2-years, $8M.
The release of J.P. Arencibia and his 0.227 OBP left an opening for Navarro. Navarro is probably not as good as he seemed to be in Chicago last year, but he is an upgrade over Arencibia. Navarro will make more contact, draw more walks and provide reasonable defense. Ideally Navarro can also avoid getting into spats with local media.
Traded for Eric Kratz (Catcher; bats: right; throws: right).
Soon after acquiring Navarro, the Jays traded Brad Lincoln to the Phillies for Eric Kratz and Rob Rasmussen. Rasmussen will start the year at Triple-A Buffalo. Kratz had a shot to make the team out of Spring Training as the Jays primary backup catcher and likely R.A. Dickey's personal catcher. He performed well this Spring, hitting .400/.444/.720, but was optioned to Triple-A Buffalo, as the Jays have decided to go with Josh Thole to start the year. Overall, Kratz will not be expected to hit very much. He just needs to be able to catch the knuckleball if he is going to stick with the big league club this year.
Signed Munenori Kawasaki (IF; bats: left; throws: right) to minor-league contract.
Kawasaki is a fan favorite in Toronto. He is a quirky player with loads of personality. Unfortunately, very little of that translates to production on the field. Kawasaki is a replacement level utility infielder that will get time at 2B with Ryan Goins and Izturis. Second base continues to be an issue for the Jays. Maybe having Kawasaki along for the ride again can put a few extra bums in the seats.
One to Watch
Here is where I should be proposing one player on which you should focus your attention this season. But I am going to get a bit sneaky and instead suggest that you focus your attention on one specific position on the Jays' roster: the 5th spot in the starting rotation.
The Jays' rotation was terrible in 2013. They posted a 4.81 ERA, second-worst in the major leagues (only the Twins' 5.26 was worse). This performance came as a result of injuries (Morrow, J.A. Happ, Dickey), poor performance (Josh Johnson), and relative inexperience (Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond).
Coming into 2014, the rotation remains a question mark but looks to be set with Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Morrow, Hutchison and Dustin McGowan. The 5th spot is McGowan's for now, but could (read: will) also be filled at some point by Happ, Kyle Drabek, Marcus Stroman, or Ricky Romero. McGowan is a great story, but his injury history makes it really difficult to know what to expect going forward. As a group these players are real points of interest for the Jays. Hutchison and Drabek are potential future stars coming off Tommy-John surgery. Stroman is ranked as the game's no. 55 prospect according to Baseball America, but has yet to pitch an inning above Double-A. Together these three pitchers represent the rotation of the future. Finally, there is Romero. Once an All-Star and Cy Young candidate, he has been relegated to a reclamation project following his meltdown in 2012.
The ability of these young players to competently fill the 4th and 5th spots in the rotation, and even fill in for an injury here and there throughout the season, will be important for the Jays' success in the AL East. This seems like a lot to ask of such inexperienced players, but perhaps as a unit these four pitchers can provide the necessary effective innings.
Blue Jays by the Numbers
Let's focus in on some of the Blue Jays batting numbers from 2013:
.158 - isolated slugging (ISO). The 4th highest rate in baseball behind Orioles, Red Sox and Athletics.
Taken together, these numbers clearly show that the Jays are mashing away at the plate. And overall it led to a productive offense: 712 runs scored (9th best in baseball). But did this approach have a limiting effect on the offense? Here are some things to consider:
.284 - batting average on balls in play (BABIP). This is the 4th worst rate in baseball above only the Marlins, Mariners and Cubs. When the Jays were not hitting the ball over the fence they were struggling to get hits. Perhaps this was just a matter of being unlucky, but then we consider...
20.4% - line drive rate (LD%). This is the 5th worst rate in baseball. Line drives are known to be more likely to fall in for hits than ground balls or fly balls. So perhaps the Jays were not so much unlucky, as they were not making quality contact. We can also consider...
11.2% - infield fly ball rate (IFFB%). This is the 3rd highest rate in baseball. Infield fly balls are effectively strikeouts. They are routine plays at the major league level and do nothing for advancing runners. So again we have some evidence that the Jays were not making great contact in many of their plate appearances.
Integrating this second set of numbers with those above provides evidence that while the Jays scored many runs with the long ball, the approach of swinging for the fences may have contributed negatively on their overall production. The pull-happy, grip-and-rip approach of the Jays hitters may have resulted in fewer base runners overall.
It will be interesting to observe the impact that new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer has on the team. Research investigating the impact hitting coaches have on team performance has found that Seitzer is among the best. Early reports suggest that he will be focusing on moving Jays' hitters away from the all-or-none approach of previous seasons, to one that encourages using the whole field and being well-rounded hitters.
The Jays are set to try and make right on the 2013 season. The core group of players assembled for 2014 is basically the same as last year. While concerns remain about the rotation, and production at second base, this team should improve from 2013. A lot of things went wrong last season, and we should avoid overreacting to a bad season. With all that said, I suspect we are headed for another middling Blue Jays season.
My prediction: 84 wins and 3rd place in the AL East.
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Chris Teeter is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_mcgeets.