Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bullish on the Blue Jays

Yes, we know, we know: Spring Training stats mean nothing. Heck, there was a post here by that title just a week ago. Even so, it is hard to look at what the Toronto Blue Jays are doing this spring and not be a little impressed. Yesterday, on a piece for MLB Dirt, it was explained why the prognosis for the Tampa Bay Rays was bearish. This was a justification for the prediction earlier on that site that the Rays have too many holes to capture a playoff spot for 2012. Before this preseason started, there was already the thought that the Blue Jays were going to be a lot better in 2012 than people thought. The spring they are having merely gives a hint that this thought might be valid.

In a comical response to the aforementioned Bay Rays piece, the terrific Michael Weber (@m_weber) asked MLB Dirt's proprietor, Jonathan Mitchell (@FigureFilbert), if anyone could name the 3-4-5 starters of the Blue Jays rotation. Mitchell responded that he didn't agree with the bearish projection of the Bay Rays but that the piece was well written. But the real answer to Weber's question is that the 3-4-5 rotations spots are going to be better than a lot of people think.

That rotation starts with two studs. Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow are two terrific starting pitchers but for different reasons. Romero is a ground ball guy (54.7 percent) who won fifteen games last season with a 2.92 ERA. His FIP was a lot higher at 4.20 but that is somewhat understandable in that his homer rate was over one per nine innings and his BABIP and strand rates have regression shouted all over them. But even if he comes in with a solid ERA in the mid-threes, he's going to be a solid starter in 2012 and will get his share of wins.

Brandon Morrow on the other hand is a guy with an amazing arm who has the ability to just blow people away. Morrow struck out over ten batters per nine innings a year ago. His ERA of 4.72 was very high but his FIP was a lot lower at 3.64. If Morrow can be a little better at home and lower his walk rate just a bit, he is going to be a Cy Young Award candidate. He has that kind of talent.

But Weber's question still hasn't been answered yet. Who are the next three starters? There is the forgotten Brett Cecil for one. Cecil had just about as bad a season in 2011 as a pitcher can have. He went 4-11 with an astronomical ERA (and a FIP that was even higher), a 1.60 homer per nine inning rate and a whole lot of messiness. But we are talking about a guy who won fifteen games the year before and by all accounts, he has used 2011 as a wake up call and is on a mission for 2012. Look for a much better season for Cecil in 2012. Book it in fact.

Then there is Henderson Alvarez, who is a lot better pitcher than people realize. He has amazing control and his only limitation will be that the Blue Jays have to monitor his inning count, probably to about 150 innings.

The fifth starter is a problem. By default, the position will go to Dustin McGowan, a guy we all root for because of what he has overcome to get back to the major leagues. But McGowan isn't a long term solution. Kyle Drabek looks a lot better this spring and could regain his once terrific prospect standing. If McGowan falters, Drabek could step in nicely.

So, yes, this rotation isn't filled with the big names everyone knows about. But it's a lot better than people think and since run prevention was the Jays' biggest problem last year, could show a lot better in 2012 and surprise a lot of people. Add this to a much improved bullpen and the Blue Jays could prevent fifty or more runs over last year's total allowed.

Last year's bullpen for the Blue Jays was a disaster. The top two guys, Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch simply couldn't close the deal at the end of the game. The projected bullpen of Sergio Santos, Francisco Cordero, Casey Janssen, Darren Oliver, Jason Frasor and Carlos Villanueva should be very good.

Add an improved pitching staff to a potent offense and you have a surprise team. Jose Bautista has proved that he's a real force and will remain so for years to come. Brett Lawrie looks like the real deal and is killing the ball this spring. The Blue Jays will get his benefit all season which will help tremendously. Adam Lind needs to be better and he has showed that in the past, but his last two seasons lead to a big concern. All the Blue Jays need is for one of the three enigmas of Colby Rasmus, Eric Thames and Travis Snider to have a big season. Edwin Encarnacion will be a good designated hitter and J.P. Arencibia should improve offensively and defensively in his second full season as the everyday catcher. 

Yunel Escobar has proved to be a terrific shortstop away from Bobby Cox and Kelly Johnson is solid if unspectacular at second.

The view here is that the Toronto Blue Jays are a dangerous team. Baseball Prospectus projects them to win 77 games in 2012. Take the over on that big time. There is no reason this team can't win 85 games. For more of an in-depth look at the team's players, The Tao of Stieb has had a fantastic series called "30 Jays in 30 Days." It's highly recommended reading.


Thomas Slocum said...

Sorry just don’t see the Blue Jays as having a potent offense. Certainly any offense that features Jose Bautista has to be respected, Yunel Escobar has solid on base skills, even if he doesn’t have base stealing abilities, and Brett Lawrie certainly looks to be the future face of the franchise. After that the supporting cast, virtually to a man, is a bit suspect. Edwin Encarnacion is serviceable as a DH and really nothing more, J.P. Arencibia has plenty of pop but otherwise can be expected to use up plenty of outs, and Kelly Johnson has good power, particularly for a second baseman, but remains an enigma himself - .220 or .280 BA, .300 or .370 OBP and probably nothing much in between either.

Expecting Adam Lind to be anything other than he’s proven himself to be (a .250 hitter who won’t take a walk and who’s good for perhaps 25 home runs – in other words, WAY down the list of major league first baseman) is asking too much. It’s pretty clear by now that 2009 was an outlier and what one now sees is what one is most likely to get. Except for that 2009 season, he hits lefthanders just barely well enough to avoid a platoon. Of course anything’s possible but Lind as even a major league average first baseman with the bat is not very likely.

Colby Rasmus certainly may reclaim his top prospect status but his allegedly Tony Larussa-induced regression only accelerated once he got away from the then Cardinal manager. At 25, he still offers promise but he’s already ridden as far as his raw talent will take him – whether it’s a gut check or a head check, he needs to rely on more than physical ability. Travis Snider is even younger (24) but his splits seem to have defined him as a fourth outfielder/platoon player. Unless he shows more against portsiders, and quickly, that’s what he’ll stay. Eric Thames, the third left handed bat in this trio of young outfielders (he’s 25), is, in more limited exposure, profiling pretty much exactly the same as Snider and, when it comes to scuffling against left handers, as Rasmus. Fortunately for all three, they’re young, they may master putting hard hit balls into play against southpaws, and right handed pitchers still outnumber left handers rather significantly. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, they may be looking at two outfield slots (positions where offense is expected) being ceded to Rajai Davis and/or Ben Francisco when the guy on the mound does throw from the first base side.

I’m with you on the pitching and I’m REALLY pulling for McGowan (like many). Every team has questions and the Blue Jays may well answer the offensive ones nicely and record those 85 wins you project. Still, that may not be enough to escape 4th place in the AL East.

Jonathan C. Mitchell said...

I have the Jays with 84 wins because I see them as too much of a high/low team, especially with guys like Morrow who look like they can no-hit a team one game then give up batting practice the next.

I also see some real regression in Romero.

ondeckcircle.wordpress.com said...

Although I enjoyed this post, I think it is a bit overly optimistic. There is not one bona-fide, proven ace on the staff. Romero and Morrow could turn into true aces, but neither of them are there yet.
If the Jays played in almost any other division, I'd say they have a chance to make the playoffs, but not in the A.L. East. Even if most things break right for them, I still see an 85-win, third place team here.
Nice post, though,

Budyzer said...

The jays scored the 5th most runs in the AL last year buddy.... And if they dump Adam lind on the first sucker who asks about him and get a real first base bat that number will go up.

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