2011 Season Forecast: Toronto Blue Jays

Last Five Years:

2010: 85 – 77 (4th in AL East)
2009: 75 – 87
2008: 86 – 76
2007: 83 – 79
2006: 87 – 75

Consistently good, not always as competitive in the toughest division to win in baseball.

Runs Scored: 755 (6th in AL, but 4th in the AL East)
Runs Allowed: 728 (9th in AL)

With this combination of run scored and allowed, you’d expect 84 wins, so Toronto was pretty much on the money.

2010 Recap:

Most everyone had them fourth – so no surprises here.  Well, not at a team level anyway…  A LOT of surprises at the player level – but we’ll cover that down below.

After trading wins and losses for a month, the Blue Jays got hot in May and raced toward the top of the division.  Unfortunately, the Jays were equally cold in June and fell back to fourth.  June was their only losing month – from July 7th on, the Jays were 14 over .500, so if they hadn’t gone cold for the 30 days from June 6 to July 6, it’s very likely that the Jays could have sneaked into the playoffs.

What made Toronto competitive on heals of losing the best pitcher in their team’s history, Roy Halliday, was a BUNCH of home runs.  Jose Bautista hit 54, Vernon Wells slammed 31 dingers, John Buck had 20, Edwin Encarnacion hit 21, even Alex Gonzalez had 17 in just 85 games.  Aaron Hill didn’t hit much, but clocked 26 homers.  Adam Lind tallied 23, Lyle Overbay slashed 20, and even the half season of Travis Snider was good for 14.  Toronto hit 257 homers but only allowed 150, a gap that covered for other weaknesses.

During the season, the Jays made a few minor deals, but the one that made a splash was the trade in July that sent shortstop Alex Gonzalez and two minor leaguers to Atlanta for Yunel Escobar and Jo-Jo Reyes.

Starters:

As mentioned, Roy Halliday was gone, and the Blue Jays were forced to rely on a bunch of young arms – many of whom were returning from prior shoulder and elbow injuries.  Ricky Romero improved on an impressive 2009 rookie season and made 32 starts, logged 210 innings and win 14 games, pitching like an ace for much of the season.  Shaun Marcum returned to go 13 – 8 and missed by a start of hitting 200 innings.  Brett Cecil, the #1 pick in 2007, raced through the minors and showed moxie – leading the team with 15 wins.  Brandon Morrow, who never seemed to live up to the hype in Seattle, fanned 178 batters in just 146.1 innings, kept hitters off stride, and won 10 decisions.  The fifth starter role was given to Marc Rzepczynski and Dana Eveland, but at the end was given to former Phillie prospect Kyle Drabek, who looks to make the rotation in 2011.

Looking ahead, Shaun Marcum is gone, having been moved to Milwaukee for Brett Lawrie, a top second base prospect.  That leaves Romero, Cecil, Morrow, and either Rzepczynski, Drabek, Reyes, or Jesse Litsch – another former Jays starter coming back from hip surgery.  Drabek comes with the most hype – the top prospect in the Toronto chain, having gone 14 – 9 for New Hampshire in the Eastern League.  Reyes can pitch some, but more likely will start the year in the bullpen and pick up a start from time to time, which leaves Litsch and Rzepczynski battling for the fifth slot.  I think Drabek can be every bit as good as Marcum was in 2010, and if Litsch or Rzepczynski can make 25 healthy starts, this will be a slight improvement – if only because you won’t have the nine less than stellar starts of Dana Eveland in the mix (or, for that matter, Litsch’s nine less than impressive starts).

Bullpen:

Gone is Kevin Gregg, who saved 37 games last year.  Gregg is NOT a dominant closer – but rather a tolerable one,  He was ably supported by Shawn Camp, Scott Downs, Jason Frasor, Casey Janssen, and David Purcey.

For 2011, the closer looks to be former Ranger closer Frank Francisco, who can be much better than Gregg but historically is just marginally better.  Other closers are in camp, including Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch, as well as Frasor, Janssen, Camp, and Purcey.  This is a very deep staff and should continue to keep Toronto in games.

Catching:

Last year’s duo of John Buck and Jose Molina were impressive defensively – above average in six different categories, and league average in terms of basic mobility.  Buck also hit well – an all-star level performance.

Looking ahead, Toronto will be depending on rookie J.P. Arencibia.  After struggling through a rough 2009 season in Las Vegas, Arencibia pounded PCL pitchers to the tune of 32 – 85 – .301 in 104 games.  That translates to about 20 – 65 – .250, which is not too far from a typical John Buck season.  Molina remains as a capable defensive backup.

Infield:

The changes continue from the infield that started the 2010 season.  Basher Jose Bautista showed to be more consistent at third than Edwin Encarnacion, who will move to first or DH in 2011.  Yunel Escobar can find his groove and hopefully contribute like the hitter he was in 2009, and second baseman Aaron Hill will rebound from his .205 2010 season and hopefully retain his power.  Adam Lind moves to first base, replacing Lyle Overbay.  I’m nervous about this unit.  The left side will be marginally better than 2010 defensively, but the right side will not be.  Lind has yet to produce as many runs as Overbay, and the 85 games Alex Gonzalez played were productive and hard to immediately replace.

John McDonald is still around to back everyone up – as is Encarncion.

Outfield:

Left field will be manned by former Angel Juan Rivera, who replaces Fred Lewis – a fourth outfielder at best.  While an improvement, Rivera is starting to get old and in ten seasons has never played 140 games in a season.  Vernon Wells is gone, replaced by Rajai Davis.  Davis is faster than Wells, but about 25 runs behind him as a hitter.  In right is Travis Snider, who replaces Bautista’s role.  Snider is due to step forward as a hitter, but hasn’t been a strong fielder.

Down on the Farm:

AAA Las Vegas wasn’t loaded with prospects other than Arencibia, who will start on opening day, and Brett Wallace, who was traded to Houston for Anthony Gose – a low level centerfielder with speed to burn, but a problem with contact and little power.  (I’ll be honest, I don’t see the reasoning there unless one thinks Wallace didn’t have a future in Toronto, but I think he’s better than Encarnacion.)

AA New Hampshire had Drabek, but also Zach Stewart, who is a year older but not quite as good.  David Cooper is a first baseman who has stats that look like Lyle Overbay – but at AA.  He might be a year away, but he’s not quite there yet.  Eric Thames has more power and a touch of speed.  He could replace Juan Rivera and you might not lose a step.  Darin Mastroianni is a leadoff type hitter, great speed and good on base percentages.  At 25, he’s getting old for a prospect, but he could help somebody for a months if needed.  The guy who is really interesting is Cuban import Adeiny Hechavarria, who looks like Davy Concepcion did when he was 21 years old – great glove, could grow into a hitter (but not yet).  Tristan Magnuson was successful as a reliever in AA, with great control, but Danny Farquhar has better stuff – 79Ks in 76 innings, just 50 hits allowed.  He’s a touch wild.

Alan Farina didn’t look like a prospect after a season of struggle at A+ Dunedin, but he DOMINATED A+ in 2010 and moved up to New Hampshire and kept right on going (74Ks in 55.2 innings).  If he does this in Las Vegas, he may make the roster in September, 2011.  Joel Carreno is a starter with moxie who will start in AA this year after a successful run in 2010 with Dunedin.  Catcher Travis D’Arnaud will get to build on a reasonably successful 2010 season, but it would help if he shows a little more power.

2011 Forecast:

There are things to like.  The outfield defense should be stronger.  The team will be spending less money at a couple of positions, which helped pay for a Jose Bautista contract.  The pitching staff is rather deep, especially in the bullpen.  The only slip defensively is at first base – which means the team will likely stay around 715 runs allowed, if not a few less than that.

The things that make you nervous?  I think the offense has to fall back.  I can see Bautista having a good season, but will it be as good as last year?  Probably not.  You have a drop in offense at first and center and possibly at catcher against potential improvements in left and second.  But there are too many “downs” to make up for the possible “ups” – and I see this as being sixty to eighty runs less than 2010.  As such, I see Toronto falling below .500 to about 77 – 85, which could very well be last in the AL East.  This isn’t a BAD team, just a team in the wrong division and falling back because a couple of guys were over their heads last year.  On the other hand, there are signs that this team is trying to build a new foundation of young players that can get them over the 90 win plateau and finally get back to the playoffs.

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Strasburg #1 Pick; Nationals Apply for Bailout Funds

As expected, the Washington Nationals took Stephen Strasburg with the first pick in the draft.  Getting someone with his credentials (195Ks in 105 college innings this year) is certainly exciting and one hopes he is immensely successful for both the team and his career.   I wonder if any Jayhawks will get drafted…  I mean, we need more Jayhawks in the Majors (Tom Gorzellany!).

The draft dominates most baseball coverage, but a few other things happened and are recounted here:

Brad Lidge, erstwhile Phillies closer, goes to the DL with a sprained knee.  I first saw this on a twitter post by Will Carroll, who writes the Under the Knife articles for Baseball Prospectus.  Carroll’s comment suggested that the injury was his pitching and the knee is a convenient DL excuse.  If you have Lidge on your fantasy roster, look for Ryan Madson to get save opportunities.  However, J.C. Romero is also back from his PED suspension and might get a shot or two.  Joining the Phillies is backup catcher Paul Bako.  Really?

Joining Lidge on the DL is another struggling pitcher, Bartolo Colon, who also heads to the DL with a sore knee.  Getting a shot is the White Sox’ 2007 top pick, Aaron Poreda.  Poreda has been solid in his two years and is carrying a 2.16 ERA in 10 starts with AA Birmingham.  Until this year, he showed great control, a lot of strikeouts, few homers allowed, and has been ranked by Baseball America as one of the two best prospects in the ChiSox chain.  He’ll start in the pen, but he COULD be a rotation fixture in the near future.  I’d certainly be interested in giving him a shot.

Toronto’s Jesse Litsch, a 13 game winner last year, has been on the DL with soreness in his elbow since mid-April.  Now, his season is done, as he’s heading to Dr. James Andrews for surgery.  He and Shawn Marcum were solid rookie starters last year, and now both are going to be recovering from Tommy John surgery.  Very sad.

Welcome back Scott Schoeneweis, who was removed from Arizona’s restricted list.  Schoeneweis has been out following the stunning death of his wife several weeks back.  Also returning from the bereavement list is Brewers Mark DiFelice.  Heading to the bereavement list, however, is Giant first baseman Travis Ishikawa.

Nobody signed Kip Wells or Kris Benson off the waiver wire, so both got assigned to AAA.  Meanwhile, Blaine Boyer is with his third major league team this year as sort of a fluke.  Boyer was traded from Atlanta to St. Louis in late April.  A few days ago, Boyer pitched five innings of relief for St. Louis.  St. Louis, needing arms, couldn’t just send Boyer to the minors (he was out of options) so they had to ask waivers and bring up a new pitcher.  Hoping he’d sneak through, it didn’t work – Arizona claimed him.  So, now Boyer is a Diamondback reliever.

J. J. Putz, injured Mets reliever, had surgery to remove bone spurs.  He should be back in a couple of months.  The question is whether or not the wounded Mets can still be in the NL East race then.

Not sure why,  but the Rays signed released reliever Jorge Julio to a minor league deal.  Bad idea.

Colorado traded struggling reliever Jason Grilli to Texas for cash.

2009 Season Forecast: Toronto Blue Jays

Toronto Blue Jays
2008: 86-76 (3rd AL East, 11 games back)

If the Tampa Bay Rays were the team of destiny, then the Blue Jays represent the team of destiny lost.  My pick to win the wild card, the Blue Jays played just as well as Tampa, but didn’t play as well as they should have – and probably could have.  Allowing just 610 runs, the Blue Jays had the best pitching/defense combination in the American League.  Their offense was below average – only three teams scored fewer runs – but because they outscored their opponents by 104 runs, you would have expected this team to win 93 or 94 games.  They didn’t.   They missed that mark by 7 or 8 games, enough to have projected them into the race on the last weekend of the season had they just done what was expected.

Looking Back on 2008

Every good team has a bad month.  Toronto had two – one in April, the other in June.  That made it seem like the Jays were out of it all season.  Losers of eight of nine as the month closed, the Jays fell to the bottom of the division and had a long climb to get back in the race.

Then, after a decent May – actually, let’s call it what it was – an awesome May, where Toronto climbed all the way back to 31 – 26, the Blue Jays hit a HUGE losing stretch.  Seven in a row and 15 losses in 19 games put the season out of its misery.  And, yet, the Jays played three and a half solid months from there to get back to ten games over .500.  They were just too far back with three really good teams ahead of them to make any headway.

Looking at team splits, the only thing that stands out is that they couldn’t hit left handed pitching.  Righthanded hitters fared just as well against righties as southpaws, and left handed hitters couldn’t hit lefties at all – a .299 OBA and a .313 slugging percentage.  That’s a good year for Mario Mendoza, perhaps, but not enough to win any ballgames.

Tell me about that offense

When you think about the big hitters of the AL East, do you think about anybody in Toronto?  Frank Thomas was supposed to help, but 60 ugly at bats and that idea went out the window (and finally to Oakland).  Vernon Wells hit well, but missed a third of the season with injuries.  Alex Rios fought through nagging injuries and his own early season slump (tied to his signing a big contract and pressing?), but was rather ordinary in 600+ plate appearances.  So, with the three best hitters looking rather pedestrian, the Jays were rarely going to blow away opponents.

Behind the plate, Rod Barajas was a below average contributor, producing 4.3 runs for every 27 outs.  He has a little power (11 homers in 349 at bats), but hitting .249 with just 17 walks, he’s not helping the team keep rallies alive.  This is his third straight year with comparable numbers (for three different teams), so the likelihood that he’s going to improve any is null.  Greg Zaun backed him up and was no better – walked more, but hits for less power, and his batting average didn’t clear .240.

Lyle Overbay doesn’t hit nearly as well as his AL East brethren.  His batting average fell to .271, with average power and some walks as he played through a hand injury.  He’s an above average hitter – but not for a first baseman.  He needs to get back to .300 with 20 homers, otherwise his bat in this lineup is a liability.  Aaron Hill missed four months with post-concussion symptoms following a collision with David Eckstein.  The two months he played weren’t his best months.  Replacement Joe Inglett actually played pretty well – some speed, plate discipline, and the speed helps in hitting doubles and triples, making it look like he has some power (he doesn’t, really).  The Jays tried David Eckstein at short, but he’s really not a good enough hitter (or fielder anymore), then tried John McDonald, who struggled at the plate and apparently it affected his fielding, and even tried Marco Scutaro there, who played well.  Between the three, you had no better than league average hitting, though.  At third, you had the regularly injured Scott Rolen, who batted like 80% of Scott Rolen – okay, but not a great hitter anymore.  Scutaro played enough around the horn to get 517 just average at bats.

Consider this – all three teams that finished ahead of the Blue Jays last year are better at EVERY infield position.  That’s a huge hole to fill when trying to win this division.

Moving to the outfield, Alex Rios was disappointing, maybe, but not a problem.  He cleared 40 doubles, hit 8 triples, stole 32 bases, and was a decent outfielder.  You wish he’d walk more, but he still put 100 runs on the scoreboard.  Vernon Wells was a productive hitter, but missed a third of the season with hamstring problems (which, by the way, already recurred in spring training).  The problem with losing Wells is that there were no backup outfielders who could help.  The best left fielder (hitting-wise) was probably Adam Lind, and he’s tolerable.  Brad Wilkerson was miserable, and former Jays outfielder Shannon Stewart was equally unproductive in 52 games.  Having two less productive bats  in the lineup (when Wells was out) didn’t help.

The DHs were awful, from Thomas, through Stairs (who was a league average hitter – which is weak for the spot), and Kevin Mench.

The team did hit better after John Gibbons was fired and Cito Gaston was made manager – but for the Jays to compete in 2009, they’ll need to get healthy seasons from Aaron Hill, Vernon Wells, and Scott Rolen – and at this point, only one of three is really likely.

Defensively:

Normally, the Jays have a number of quality fielders helping the staff.  The defense in 2009 was good – but not as good as it used to be.

Overbay remains one of the best fielding first basemen, period.  If you don’t believe it, check out the putout numbers for his pitchers; 144, where no other was over 106.  And, he still makes a lot of plays throwing out runners on the paths. Aaron Hill, normally at least a league average second sacker wasn’t in 2009.  Joe Inglett was league average, but no better.  Eckstein has lost a step (and his job), but John McDonald wasn’t very good last year, and Scott Rolen is less mobile than he used to be.  Only Marco Scutaro looked like (and played like) a healthy and valuable defender.  And he was good all over the infield.

In the outfield, Alex Rios is pretty good – he actually played very well in center while Wells was gone.  Wells has been below average for each of the last three years in center – perhaps he should be in left with Rios in center.  Lind, Wilkerson, and a host of others had scattered skill sets but basically helped make outs.

Behind the plate, Barajas and Zaun were as good as any tandem in the American League.  They win more than they lost, the team ERA (despite the defense) was great, they were mobile, made few mistakes, and held the running game in check.  Barajas caught 22 of the 64 people who tried to steal, one of the best in the AL.

Now Pitching…

The Tampa Bay Rays pitchers had decent ERAs and Hits/9 ratings in part because the defense behind them was so good that it likely saved everybody about 110 runs in 162 games.  The Jays had off-seasons from a few players but remained agile in the field.  And, with only 84 errors, the team rarely allowed unearned runs – which makes the pitching look a little stronger than it might be otherwise.

That being said, the Jays pitching is still great.  Roy Halliday was a machine, winning 20 games, leading the league in complete games, and saving his team 40 runs more than the average pitcher – over a league leading 246 innings.  The best pitcher in the AL, bar none.  Behind him was A.J. Burnett, who won 18 games and led the league in strikeouts.  Jesse Litsch and Shaun Marcum were given more prominent roles and combined to save the team 30 runs.  Only the fifth slot, where Dustin McGowan and David Purcey struggled, was there an off slot in the rotation.

And, the bullpen was equally strong.  B. J. Ryan returned from elbow surgery to save 32 games with a 2.95 ERA.  Brian Tallett was successful in middle relief, and Jesse Carlson had a fine ERA and seven wins in relief.  Carlson has good control and keeps the ball in the park, exactly what you want a seventh inning guy to do.  Scott Downs was solid as the set up man, and two others, Shawn Camp and Jason Frasor were better than league average.  With four good rotation slots and a complete bullpen, the Jays were able to stop other lineups and stay competitive despite a lack of support from their own hitters.

Forecasting 2009:

Cito Gaston lost a couple of key contributors and will be relying on other players to stay healthy in 2009.  He needs a new #2 starter, and he could use three hitters to raise their gaimes.

McGowan was supposed to be the next rotation anchor, but hasn’t shown it yet.  If he or Purcey can’t make significant strides, I don’t see who is going to replace Burnett.   From a predictive standpoint, I don’t think Halliday stays 40 runs above average – maybe 25 after such a busy season.  Throw in a drop from the #2 slot, and that’s probably a 30 run decline from last year.  The bullpen had two or three guys pitching over their heads a bit – so I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a ten run drop here, too.

Defensively, the team isn’t getting better.  Hill may be back but he wasn’t magic.  McDonald can’t hit well enough to play short – Scutaro may have to take his position.  Rolen isn’t going to get better.  Overbay is at his peak already.  The outfield would be better if Wells were moved to a corner spot (he might not pull as many hamstrings, too), but I don’t see that Gaston has many options here.  They will be relying on 20 year old Travis Snider, who has young legs but a build (5’ 11” and 245) that doesn’t suggest mobility.  Oddly, the defense gets better when Wells is not in center.  Michael Barrett will likely back up Barajas this year – on the whole the defense is probably a wash over last year but might fall back ten runs.

Offensively, there is room for improvement, but only because Hill could come back and Rios could step up, and Wells might play a full season, and because Kevin Millar or somebody should be a better DH than what has been there.  Overbay could be better.  Or – they could not.  If the pitching and defense slides 40 to 50 runs (and it will), will the offense be 60 runs better?  It should be better, but not that much better.  Kevin Millar may be the DH – but he’s not that much better than what was here last year.  I see the team scoring 25 runs more than last year – but no more than that.

That puts the runs scored/runs allowed at 740/670, which is still good enough to win 89 games.  My hunch, though, is that even with Gaston running the ship, I have no idea how it’s going to be that good.  The system says 89, but I say 83 or 84.  The rest of the division is strong, the Orioles could be stronger, and even though Litsch and Marcum were good last year, they don’t give me the same feeling as 34 starts of A.J. Burnett.

Down on the Farm…

The Toronto AAA club, for years in Syracuse, will be in Las Vegas for 2009.  Last year, Syracuse was devoid of prospects.  The best players were discarded prospects like Buck Coats (former Cub), and Russ Adams (former Blue Jay starting shortstop), and they aren’t good enough to replace who is already here.  If Coats or Adams could play short, they wouldn’t be logging time in the Syracuse outfield.  The best AAA pitcher was John Parrish, a 30 year old Baltimore castoff, who went 9 – 1.

Robert Ray and Brad Mills pitched well for AA New Hampshire, but will likely start the year at AAA.  Travis Snider made a AAA call and cup of coffee with Toronto after hitting 17 homers in 362 at bats as a 20 year old.  He’ll be a major leaguer for a long time – and a DH by 2013.  Scott Campbell, from Auckland, New Zealand, looks like a future second baseman and #2 hitter – he hits for a high average, walks some, but he’s not a burner.

Brian Dopirak continues to hit and hit for power, but can’t find his way past high A or AA.  He was the leading threat for the Dunedin Blue Jays.  He’s 25 now and has to move up quickly to have a career.  Kenny Rodriguez didn’t have the best record, but he had the best stuff at Dunedin.  The palindrome named Reidier Gonzalez went 12 – 4, but doesn’t strikeout enough guys to make it far in the big leagues.  Mark Rzepczynski could win Scrabble tournaments with a name like that – but it’s his stuff that will get him promoted to AA soon.  124 Ks in 121 innings, few hits and homers allowed, and good control helped Mark to a winning record for the Lansing Lugnuts.  A slew of 19 year olds got most of the at bats, but struggled to hit .250 on the season.