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.