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2014 Season Previews: Toronto Blue Jays

After going big and then going very wrong in 2013, the Blue Jays essentially sat out the 2014 offseason.

Brian Blanco

After swinging blockbuster deals with the Marlins and the Mets to add Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, R.A. Dickey and Josh Thole, the Blue Jays entered the 2013 season as tentative favorites in the AL East. With sluggers like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind and speedsters like Reyes, Colby Rasmus and Rajai Davis, the Toronto lineup looked like a juggernaut and the rotation boasted the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, a former ace and one of the most consistent inning-eating lefties in the game.

Unfortunately, those projections never materialized on the field. Reyes fell to injury, Dickey struggled to adapt his knuckleball to the new environment. Buehrle showed signs of decline and Josh Johnson was an unmitigated disaster, posting a 6.20 ERA while trying to pitch through an elbow injury. Instead of competing for the division title, the Blue Jays dropped from their accustomed spot at fourth and finished last in the division for the first time since 2004. They entered the offseason in a bad place. The deals they made prior to the 2013 season had pushed their payroll up to almost $120 million and left them with little financial flexibility to replace the dead-weight that brought down their playoff hopes. They wavered on the idea of signing several free agent pitchers to upgrade their weak starting rotation, but ultimately choose to stand pat, content to hope that a few key players could rebound and the competitor they tried to build for 2013 would emerge a year late.

Additions: Dioner Navarro, Erik Kratz

The only upgrade the Toronto managed this winter was behind the plate, where they beat out several teams in the bidding for Dioner Navarro. The Venezuelan catcher has been in the league for 10-years, which makes it easy to overlook the fact that he is only 30-years-old. His career at the plate has been a mixed bag, but he delivered the best hitting performance of his career with the Cubs last season. Navarro hit .300/.365/.492 in 266 plate appearance in 2013, well-above average for any position and a monstrous offensive season by the standard of major league catchers. He has always been far more effective against lefties in his career, but the gap was not as severe last season and his .279/.333/.430 against righties might be a sign that he is heading toward a late career renaissance. Even if that is not the case, former starter J.P. Arencibia did not set a high bar for offensive performance at the position during his tenure in Toronto.

Apart from Navarro, the only other player the Blue Jays added to make the Opening Day active roster is third-string catcher, Erik Kratz. The Blue Jays picked up several notable minor-league depth pieces in Dan Johnson, Chris Getz, Jonathan Diaz, Liam Hendriks and the recently-added Juan Francisco, but it would be difficult to find another team in recent years that has done so little to remake their roster after tying to build a competitor and watching it fall completely flat.

Loses: Rajai Davis, Josh Johnson, Darren Oliver, J.P. Arencibia, Mark DeRosa, Brad Lincoln

If there is good new for the Blue Jays, it is that they did not lose any important pieces either. Rajai Davis is the most valuable player to have left Toronto this winter and at 1.2 fWAR, his production is hardly irreplaceable. Josh Johnson was never the pitcher the Blue Jays though they were getting and the version of Johnson Toronto fans saw will certainly not be missed.

Players to Watch

Brett Lawrie has not quite lived up to the hype he received as a top-100 prospect, but at 24-years-old he still has plenty of time to get there. His glove has been an asset at third base, saving the Blue Jays about 12 runs over his 276 games in the majors, according to Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), but his bat has hovered just under league-average to this point. He has shown the ability to avoid strikeouts but his walk rate has been slightly below average and he has not hit for much power. There are reasons to believe that could change, however. He reduced his swing-rate on pitches out of the zone between 2012 and 2013 and if that indicates a growing ability to seeking about pitches he can drive, Lawrie could take a step forward soon. Combined his plus glove, a slight bump in power and walk rate could turn Lawrie into something close to the star his minor league career promised.

2012 National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey was practically two different pitchers in 2013. In the first half of the season, he posted a 4.69 ERA. In the second half, that number dropped to 3.57. Dickey had a harder time controlling the knuckleball in his first few months as a Blue Jays, resulting an elevated walk rate and a reduced strikeout rate. When he was able to get hitters to chase, they made more solid contact than they would later in the year, as evidenced by his higher ground ball and line drive rates from the first half. His strikeout and walk numbers in the second half were much closer to the ones that helped carry him to the Cy Young. The rough Opening Day aside, Dickey should be much better this season for the Blue Jays. He will probably never recapture the magic of his 2012 season, but he should be a quality starter who gives them above-average results on a consistent basis.

Best Case Scenario

Everyone is a year older and Jose Reyes has already landed on the DL, but much of the optimism about the 2013 team should still apply to this group. They have power, speed and on-base ability in the lineup. They have a mix of young players with promise and veteran stars. If the core of Reyes, Bautista, Encarnacion, Rasmus and Lind all stay (relatively) healthy and play up to their potential, Melky Cabrera bounces back and starts to hit again, and a few young players step up, the lineup could compete with the other powerhouse offenses in the division. The starting rotation is the bigger question mark, but Dickey and Beuhrle are both bounce-back candidates and Brandon Morrow could finally harness his quality stuff and become the quality middle-to-top of the rotation arm his peripherals have suggested he could be at times. The bullpen has been one of the major strengths of this club in recent years and it should remain an advantage in 2014. If all of those elements come together perfectly, Toronto still has playoff contender upside. It would take at least three teams ahead of them falling part for this team to walk away with the division title, but a Wild Card run is possible.

What Could Go Wrong

Of course, all of the issues that sabotaged the 2013 season are still present this year. The starting rotation is not good. Even if Beuhrle and Dickey preform to their potential, there is little proven depth and far too many players who are fringe major leaguers in line to pitch substantial innings. The offense has the potential to be a strength but it is built around a group of players who have trouble staying healthy. Just two games have been played and Jose Reyes is already on the DL. Key contributors like Brett Lawrie, Jose Bautista and Colby Rasmus have also struggled to stay healthy recently and the multitude of minor league hitters Toronto acquired this offseason are a basically an acknowledgment of the fact that this team lacks quality minor-leage depth on offense as well. This team would not look so bad if it did not play in such an ultra-competitive division, but with the Yankees, Rays, Red Sox and Orioles all looking stronger, another last place finish is a good bet.

Final Thoughts

The Blue Jays may not have had many options this season. Realistically, the team probably cannot spend the type of money it would have taken to revamp the rotation, patch the holes in the offense and build up enough depth to turn them into a true contender. Selling off the win-now pieces they bought heading into the 2013 season might have been a decent option, but if they had taken that path, they would have been selling low on many of those players. The Blue Jays are not a terrible club, but they almost certainly won't win in the AL East with this group. At some point, Toronto will need to become sellers and not buying may just be the first step in that direction. If that is the case, this offseason's inactivity is justifiable, and may even prove to be the smart move.