Friday, February 24, 2012

Bearish on the Blue Jays in 2012

The Toronto Blue Jays' general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, is on everyone's list of up and coming baseball executives. He's already made some stunning coups like dumping Vernon Wells on the Angels and has piled up draft picks like they were trinkets at a yard sale. And there is optimism that the Blue Jays are on the right track of becoming a force again in the American League. But looking at this year's roster heading into the 2012, the payoff won't come this season.

Which seems strange to type. Every preseason, this space has provided optimistic outlooks for the Blue Jays. Last season's preseason projections that the Blue Jays would finish behind Baltimore were cited here as absurd, and they proved to be so. It was thought here that if there was one more wild card spot, the Blue Jays would be the one to benefit. In the end, if the toughest division in baseball, the Blue Jays won 81 games. They won't win 81 games this season. Are the Blue Jays doing the right things? Yes, it seems. But the fans there will have to wait it out through a season of mediocrity.

Yes, the Blue Jays have one of the best players in baseball in Jose Bautista. Buatista proved the doubters wrong last year and followed up his 54 homer season in 2010 with another 43 in 2011. He again led the American League in slugging and OPS. Look for more of the same in 2012 but unless he gets some help in that line up, his chances will get diminished with each passing month. He was walked intentionally 24 times last season and many of his amazing 108 walks that weren't "intentional" were certainly of that variety though not official. Those diminishing opportunities seemed to get to Bautista last year as the season wore on as his second half was mundane by his standards with a .257/.419/.477 slash line. And those hitting around Bautista haven't really changed any.

Adam Lind will still be hitting behind Bautista and has now endured two sub-par seasons in a row after posting a .932 OPS in 2009. The last two years were 200 points below that. After posting a .370 on-base percentage in 2009, Lind has not even reached .300 in that category for the past two seasons. Lind's precipitous drop in on-base percentage reflects the malaise in that category for the entire team. The Blue Jays as a team had a .312 on-base percentage in 2010 and followed that up with a .317 mark in 2011 despite Bautista drawing over a hundred walks in both seasons. In fact, Bautista accounted for a full 25 percent of his team's walks.

Having a full season of Brett Lawrie will help. Despite playing only 43 games last season, Lawrie still came in third on his team in WAR for position players. But Lawrie's terrific introduction into the majors last season builds some expectations he might not be able to reach. The Blue Jays would be happy if he bats .280 with a .350 on-base percentage over a full season and can slug around .500. Lawrie will help the Blue Jays in 2012, but it won't be enough.

Let's look at the rest of the position players. Yunel Escobar has rebounded nicely after the young shortstop was banished out of Bobby Cox's sight in 2010. He had a very good season last year and was surprisingly second on the team in walks with 61. His season last year certainly put him in the top five among AL shortstops. If he can continue that kind of play, he will give the Blue Jays a dynamic left side of the infield with Lawrie. But the right side of the infield is not nearly as strong with Lind at first and Kelly Johnson at second.

Kelly Johnson has improved his fielding since his Atlanta days but no one knows if Johnson is the .866 OPS guy he was for Arizona in 2010 or the .717 guy he was last year. Most projections split the difference (naturally) and suffice it to say the Blue Jays would be happy with that. Johnson is certainly an improvement over what Aaron Hill gave the Blue Jays his last couple of seasons in Toronto.

Other than Bautista in right, the Blue Jays outfield is a bit of a crap shoot. Who knows what Colby Rasmus will do in 2012. Once one of the most promising young stars in the game, Rasmus suffered a complete breakdown last season. He's a decent fielding center fielder who needs to get back on track at the plate. He will get the full shot as the starting center fielder as Rajai Davis simply can't offer anything close to enough at the plate.

The starting left fielder is Eric Thames who had a decent offensive season last year. His fielding isn't very good, however, and if he stumbles out of the gate, the Blue Jays have a back up plan with Ben Francisco, the former Phillie. It wouldn't be surprising if Francisco eventually took over the position, but he isn't that great either.

The biggest weakness for the Blue Jays for position players is behind the plate. Edwin Encarnacion should be one of the better designated hitters in the league but J.P. Arencibia has not developed as a hitting catcher despite running into a fastball once in a while and putting it over the fence. That would be fine if Arencibia was a good catcher, but, unfortunately, he is not and rated in the brutal category in many of the advanced metrics we now have for catchers. His back up is the newly acquired Jeff Mathis, who finally lost his Mike Scioscia halo after one of the worst offensive performances in recent history last season. Mathis is still fine as a defensive catcher but the Blue Jays should have kept Jose Molina. But until Travis d'Araud is ready (another year?), this is what the Blue Jays have. And it isn't pretty.

The front two guys in the Blue Jays' rotation are great in Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero. But it gets real iffy after that. Morrow is a stud who suffers some from his home ballpark in Toronto. If he can solve his home woes a little bit, he can put up a monster season. He's that good. Normally, a guy like Romero would cause some concerns about regression after posting a .242 BABIP and a 79 percent strand rate in 2011. But Romero is an extreme ground ball pitcher and that fact explains a bit of the BABIP and shouldn't lead to large concerns. Romero should have another strong season.

After those two, you have Brett Cecil, who had a disastrous 2011 campaign. Most projections see a bit of a bounce back, but still point to mediocrity and not to the fine season he had in 2010. The Blue Jays hope the projections are wrong. Cecil, among other things, needs to keep the ball in the park as he became a gopher machine last season.

But what comes after Cecil? Henderson Alvarez showed great control last season and is also a ground ball pitcher. He's never pitched a full season though and there just is no knowing how he will respond getting the ball every fifth day. The fifth starter is even more of a concern because the leading candidate right now is Dustin McGowen. McGowen is certainly a feel good story with what he's had to overcome, but in a small sample from last season, gave up homers at an alarming rate and walked far too many batters. Carlos Villanueva is another option.

The Blue Jays' bullpen appears solid with Sergio Santos on top followed by Francisco Cordero, Casey Janssen, Darren Oliver and Jason Frasor. That should be a much better bullpen than last year's fiasco out there.

Baseball Prospectus pegs the Blue Jays at 78 wins for 2012, which is three less than last year. That sounds about right. It would be a surprise if this current team could win more games than that. AA is a very good general manager and John Farrell seems to be a very good manager. But Blue Jays fans will have to wait another year or two before the pieces are in place for this team to contend again. 


Anonymous said...

Regardless as to what the metrics indicate, it is worthy to understand that players require time to understand the game, especially in the AL East. Did you expect JP to be able to hit CC's fastball all the time or to be a major league catcher from day 1? No, it is a learning process. It is for the majority of the BJ players. I am going to assume that these (young) players are in the middle of a process of getting better and the only way to accomplish that is in the big leagues. We know the skillset is there. Now it becomes an issue of building on the processes already set in motion. Does that mean 78 wins? Maybe, but if each individual can improve their own processes and thus performances, than they are really not that far away.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Fair points, Anon. Time will tell.

Tom Froemming said...

Good to see Toronto getting some love. I didn't realize how good Henderson Alvarez was last year in his cup of coffee. Did you know if he would have pitched enough innings to qualify, Alvarez would have led of baseball in BB/9 (1.13). He walked just eight batters in 10 starts. I think he's the most underrated young pitcher in the game.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Yeah, Tom, his walk rate did jump out upon viewing his stats. He could be really good if he can carry something close to that for a full season. Thanks for the comment.

Thomas Slocum said...

You're right, of course. The Blue Jays have virtually no chance to be better than a 4th place team in the 5 team AL East. That said, think back to 2007 when things were looking up for the Blue Jays, particularly on the mound. 25 year old Dustin McGowan went 12-10, 4.08 with very solid peripherals in 27 starts, 25 year old Shaun Marcum chipped in with 12-6, 4.13 in 25 starts, and 23 year old Jesse Litsch made 20 starts, going 7-9, 3.81 and showing superb command. Along with a pair of 30 years olds - Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett - the Blue Jays looked to have a solid rotation for the next several years.

Alas, it was not to be. McGowan made 19 starts in 2008 and then missed all of 2009 and 2010. Litsch had a fine 2008, going 13-9, 3.58 in 28 starts, seemingly delivering on his promise. Then he contributed a total of 11 starts in 2009 and 2010. Marcum had a solid 2008 in 25 starts (9-7, 3.39) but was then lost for all of 2009. A.J. became an 18 game winner in 2008 and parlayed that into a big contract with the Yanks and Halladay continued to be Halladay. Of those 5 starters back in 2007, the older guys are gone (though Halladay has merely improved with age) as is Marcum. McGowan and Litsch just began the comeback trail in 2011. Ah, what might have been.