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After a 2012-2013 offseason that involved two franchise-altering trades, the signing of disgraced-but-effective outfielder Melky Cabrera and a reunion with former skipper John Gibbons, the Blue Jays and their fans hoped that the team would be positioned to make a trip to the post-season for the first time in two decades. The 2013 Blue Jays were so well regarded that they entered the season as Vegas favourite to win the World Series.

Instead, a sell-out Rogers Centre crowd (to which I tried and failed to obtain tickets) was treated to watching new staff “ace” R.A. Dickey surrender four runs in six innings as part of a 4-1 loss to Cleveland. Dickey threw a wild pitch. J.P. Arencibia’s three passed balls in a game, and two in one inning, both set Blue Jays records. The Blue Jays staggered to a 10-21 start, and while a franchise-record 11-game winning streak in late June brought them to within three games of a playoff position, they never seriously contended before or after, finishing with 74 victories. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Pirates enjoyed their first post-season appearance (and winning season) since 1992, leaving only the Kansas City Royals between the Blue Jays and the longest active post-season drought in the Big Four sports leagues.

Buoyed by a resurgent Cabrera (who unknowingly played through a tumour on his spine in 2013), Edwin Encarnacion’s 16-home-run May and Mark Buehrle’s 2.43 RA/9 over the first two months, the Blue Jays sported a record of 38-24 after a June 6 victory, positioning them six games ahead of the New York Yankees for first place in the AL East and with playoff odds of 86%. Unfortunately from there, the wheels came off. The Blue Jays lost the next day and fell out of first place on July 3, first to a share (after 42 days alone) and then completely the next day, never to return. Injuries were a major culprit, as the Blue Jays gave 21.9% of their (non-pitcher) plate appearances to hitters with a wRC+ of 85 or lower, most of them represented injury-driven replacements. Two exceptions were Josh Thole (150 PA mostly as Dickey’s personal catcher) and Maicer Izturis, who tore ligaments in his knee after 11 games (38 PA) tripping up the dugout steps – costing him the season. A nadir was reached on July 28 when ten of eleven starters had played for the Bisons at some point (although Dickey had done so as Mets property).

The Blue Jays stumbled to a 45-55 finish for a total of 83 wins, but within a disappointing season, there were plenty of positive moments to be found. 2012 first-round pick Marcus Stroman emerged as the team’s best starter, leading the starters in both RA/9 and FIP at 3.44 and 2.79 respectively. 2010 first-rounder Aaron Sanchez also received a late season call-up to bolster the bullpen and pitched to a 1.36 RA/9 and 2.80 FIP, albeit in merely 33 innings. Additionally, local kid Dalton Pompey (Mississauga, Ontario, Canada) played 17 September games in lieu of the benched pending-free-agent Colby Rasmus, and hit his first major-league home run off Felix Hernandez while showing elite defensive ability in centre field.

While the Blue Jays yet again failed to qualify, the Kansas City Royals made the post-season, overcame a 7-3 deficit against Jon Lester in the Wild Card game and took the San Francisco Giants to seven games in the World Series. This left the Toronto Blue Jays heading into 2015 with the longest active playoff drought in the Big Four sports.

Roster Turnover

The Blue Jays have made significant changes to their 25-man roster, with the departures of Adam Lind (traded), Colby Rasmus, Brett Lawrie (traded), Casey Janssen (longest-tenured Blue Jay as of end of season), Sergio Santos, Dustin McGowan, Melky Cabrera, J.A. Happ (traded), and Anthony Gose (traded), while Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson, Michael Saunders and Justin Smoak represent the major additions this club has made, although Johan Santana and (to a lesser extent) Dayan Viciedo and Andy Dirks are intriguing minor league signings. With regards to the seeming roster purge, much has been said about the improvement in clubhouse chemistry it will bring. Largely ignored, however, is the issue of the Blue Jays disabled list being a crowded place in 2014, and of the departed players listed above, all but the last two have significant injury histories.

Run Production

The Blue Jays can score runs in a variety of ways, but the lineup is built to take advantage of one of the smallest parks in the major leagues. The Blue Jays rank sixth in both three-year weighted basic and home-run park factors according to Fangraphs, with right-handed hitters holding a four-point edge over their left-handed counterparts in terms of home runs. The Blue Jays have a speedster in Reyes atop the lineup, but hitters two through six are all below-average to very poor base-runners in terms of speed, although Bautista and Encarnacion grade out as above-average by UBR (no SB component) and BsR (UBR plus SB component) since the start of 2012. The lineup is not as deep as in years past, with the losses of Colby Rasmus (103 and 129 wRC+ the last two years – 117 total – and 40 HR) and Adam Lind, the sixth-best hitter against right-handed pitching the last two years by wRC+ (minimum 200 PA total). Rasmus had difficulty making contact, with a strikeout rate of 31.1% over that span. Rasmus’ issues would send him into prolonged slumps of several days to weeks and the strikeouts were a regularly drew the ire of casual fans. Lind posted a 141 wRC+ in 2014 while posting a 131 mark the year prior, needing 45 points of BABIP (up to .389) to achieve the increase. Alarmingly, Lind’s home run output dropped from 23 in 2013 to six in 2014 and of his home runs this year none were pulled. Going from Melky Cabrera to a Michael Saunders/Kevin Pillar platoon in left field represents an offensive downgrade, although it should be at the very least largely offset, if not surpassed by defensive gain.

Beyond Reyes, Martin, Bautista, Encarnacion and Donaldson, the lineup becomes murky. Hitting ninth will be one of the second baseman options: Maicer Izturis of the 2014 injury and a 2013 worth -2.2 fWAR, good for being the worst player in baseball; fan favourite Munenori Kawasaki who hit a ball to the warning track (hey, it went out!) for the first time in his career last year; or Ryan Goins of the 26 wRC+ last year, good for third worst (minimum 150 PA) ahead of Leury Garcia’s 2 and Jose Molina’s 23. In 2014, Goins’ bat was historically putrid. Fangraphs recorded 32,502 non-pitcher player seasons of at least 150 PA (including Goins’). Only 130 seasons have been equal or worse (0.4%). If we increase the minimum to 190 PA (Goins had 193), the number drops to 66 of 29,756 (not including Goins) or 0.22%. Despite being the best defender of the group, it will be hard for Goins to have any shot in any role greater than a defensive replacement unless he makes significant strides with his offensive ability. At 27, time is not his friend, although the need to rest Reyes regularly could earn him a bench spot. Smoak/Navarro (a possible platoon DH situation), a Saunders/Pillar platoon, and Pompey should fill out spots six through eight to open the season. However, Saunders tore a meniscus tripping over a sprinkler head and will likely start the season on the disabled list (note that the first article linked was written before Saunders opted for removal of the meniscus instead of repair).

As suggested previously, Gibbons freely utilizes platoons. However, despite three regular switch hitters in Reyes, Pompey and Smoak/Navarro, the overall platoon advantage will likely be fairly moderate, given that the starters batting second through fifth are all right-handed hitters. While Smoak is technically a switch hitter, he historically performs much better from the left side (99 wRC+ vs. RHP to 82 vs. LHP). Conversely, Navarro has been much better from the right side (107 wRC+ vs. LHP to 78 vs. RHP). If Gibbons and the Toronto Blue Jays recognize this, there is the potential for a nicely productive platoon to form. Despite his hamstring injury last year and some history of back problems, Encarnacion will primarily play first base. This may suggest that the Blue Jays have already considered this platoon, or at the very least having Navarro hit for Smoak against lefties late in games. Saunders, the only pure lefty in the Toronto lineup, will also be platooned with Kevin Pillar.

In terms of plate discipline, the Blue Jays are patient (25th in swing% over the last two years), while posting the 19th-lowest O-swing%. This, along with their 11th-ranked 8.2% walk rate suggest a good batting eye, while their 26th-ranked Z-swing percentage indicate that they show strong selectivity for pitch type and location within the zone itself, and are not afraid to hit behind in the count. These traits are exemplified by Bautista and Encarnacion, while Reyes is more aggressive, swinging at the first pitch nearly 50% of the time overall and 60% of the time in the zone. 3-0 swings by any player other than Bautista or Encarnacion are almost unheard of.

The Blue Jays are a wise team on the base paths as they generally avoid blunders, and while they may not steal much (outside of Reyes), up and down the lineup the hitters will pick their spots and all but the slowest of runners will pick up a handful of steals. Even Dioner Navarro stole a base last year (botched hit-and run but still…). Gibbons will utilize the hit-and-run to try and avoid double plays, although much of their position just above MLB average — despite below-average speed — was helped along by the large number of fly balls the power-heavy Blue Jays hit as a team (35.6% fly ball rate – 7th in MLB last year). Oddly, despite his reputation as a progressive manager, Gibbons will call for the bunt. Toronto had the third most sacrifice bunts in the American League last year with 58, yet their 60% success rate was third-worst. With so many of the Blue Jays replacement players last year being speedy low-power types (Gose, Goins, Kawasaki come to mind here), I would imagine that some of the “sacrifice bunts” would have been failed attempts to bunt for a hit with a runner on base. Both Goins and Kawasaki have a tendency to get overmatched by anything beyond average velocity and appear to take very uncomfortable swings at it. For those two, sacrificing against hard throwing pitchers (especially lefties) is likely their best option.

The Blue Jays’ optimal batting order has Bautista batting second, Donaldson third, Encarnacion fourth and Martin fifth, with the rest being as I previously discussed. However, Bautista feels most comfortable batting third, so he will do that with Martin batting second and Donaldson fifth. While somewhat frustrating, I would rather see the Blue Jays’ best hitter be at his most comfortable, so I have little problem with this. The bigger issue I see with the batting order is having Martin bat second. Martin doesn’t have as much pop as the other big three bats (career high in homers is 21, which he hasn’t approached in any other year) and in between his 112 wRC+ 2008 and his 140 wRC+ 2014 (the latter with a .336 BABIP that raised his career BABIP to .289) he has a decent .332 OBP, but a paltry .370 slugging percentage, leading to 2442 PA of 95 wRC+. Of the Blue Jays’ top five hitters both in talent and the lineup, the most important lineup position will be occupied by the weakest of them. I would prefer to see a switch between Donaldson, a career 129 wRC+ (with a 138 wRC+ in two years as a full-time regular) hitter, and Martin. Although, I have no reason to believe that it will be done by — perhaps ironically — a manager whose job likely hinges on the 2015 season outcome.

Run Prevention

The Toronto Blue Jays place the primary burden of run prevention on their defense, especially their outfield. Of the four pitchers with guaranteed spots in the Blue Jays rotation, Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman eclipsed the league average strikeout rate (per batter) for starting pitchers of 19.1% last year.

Stroman posted an elite groundball rate (league average 41.9%) on the strength of pounding down, especially with his nasty sinker. Sound familiar? Hutchison made great strides in the second half, including a K rate spike, thanks primarily to changes to his slider. Dickey is essentially average in these two metrics, although his knuckleball is a better groundball pitch. Dickey commented recently that he was tipping his pitches in 2014, which led to periods of great difficulty, especially when using the fastball. On the other hand, Buehrle relies on a lot of contact into the air to record his outs, and when a 2.4% HR/FB from the first two months regressed back to his career average, the remainder of the season was challenging for him. Buehrle is in no danger of being removed from the rotation and he will give the Blue Jays 30+ starts and 200+ innings again without missing a turn. That said, look for Buehrle — while likely second starter by rotation order — to be the worst of the regular starters. Note: I have only mentioned four starters here, because there are three main candidates for the fifth spot: Daniel Norris, Aaron Sanchez and Marco Estrada, with no clear favourite. I do think Norris is ahead ever so slightly, although he probably shouldn’t be for reasons revealed later on.

In terms of the projected relievers, only Cecil (30.3%) posted an above average strikeout rate (which is 21.3%) last year. If Sanchez ends up a reliever then he would have also fit that group with a strikeout rate one point above average (for relievers). Flyballs will be another issue for the Blue Jays bullpen. Brett Cecil, Chad Jenkins and Aaron Loup all posted above-average groundball rates last year, well above 50%. Unfortunately, Jenkins’ inability to miss bats (13.2% K rate) makes him a liability in any moderate-, or high-leverage situation. Adding Aaron Sanchez to the bullpen mix seems like the quick and easy solution, and it would work. The issue is that he would essentially become a fastball/curveball pitcher, and shelve his changeup, which lags well behind. That combined with the short stints he would be getting reveal a path to a relief career probably much earlier than either the team or player wants. Of course, Sanchez’s persistent issues with his stride could do that anyway, unless the Blue Jays are willing to admit the adjustments they made were expedient and are willing to help Sanchez reverse them.

The starting rotation is primarily two-tiered. Stroman and Hutchison are similar (although Stroman is still much better) and Dickey and Buehrle are similar. There is a lot of value in accumulating innings though, so if someone called Dickey the Jays’ second best starter over Hutchison, I wouldn’t quibble. The Blue Jays as a team tend to be stringent about a 100-pitch limit for their starters and thus they tend to focus on having their pitchers pick up quick contact outs. Blue Jays starters recorded 19 or more outs 69 times. When the condition is changed to at least 21 outs, 50 games remain in the sample. However, only 25 times did a pitcher throw 110 or more pitches. As you can see, many of the outings that were long came in games where contact outs allowed the pitch count to remain suppressed.

As far as pitching changes go, Gibbons’ hook is a bit long, especially with the veteran pair of Dickey and Buehrle. Dickey’s struggles in the 7th inning and beyond have been well documented and have become a source of frustration for the fan base. Of all the things Gibbons receives criticism for (much of which is unwarranted), this is one that baffles both traditional fans and analytically-minded fans alike.

The bullpen has a defined closer, although maybe not so to begin this year, but Gibbons is otherwise flexible with matchups as needed. Making multiple pitching changes in an inning is no problem for him and at times; it may have been something he did too frequently in his first tenure as the Blue Jays skipper. Given the lack of dominant strikeout arms in the Blue Jays bullpen, Loup, Sanchez and Cecil will get the last three innings in some fashion and the rest will just be a matchup game. While Redmond and Drabek are out of options, look for Ryan Tepera, flamethrower Gregory Infante (100 MPH in 2014) or Miguel Castro to push one or both of Delabar or Jenkins off the roster at some point this year, with Tepera having the inside track due to already being on the 40-man roster.

Defensively, under Gibbons the club has shown a willingness to shift, especially more in the past year. The Blue Jays stress that the quality of the data is important in making decisions on shifting. One question for the Blue Jays will be how Josh Donaldson handles the shift. Brett Lawrie was the main shift player in Toronto and while Donaldson is superior defensively, he does struggle with throws at times. Donaldson’s ability to make throws from the shifted position may prove to be the major factor in determining the degree of usage. Jose Reyes’ strong arm allows the team to employ some shifts on right-handed hitters, but those dropped off noticeably last year after a shoulder injury.

The Blue Jays’ largest defensive weakness is in the middle of the infield. Neither Reyes nor Izturis have very good range. Reyes’ range is worse, but he makes up for some of that with his arm. Coming off major knee surgery, Izturis’ defensive rage will be something worth pay attention to in the early going. Reyes will likely be replaced for defensive purposes regularly and this may be enough to secure Goins, despite his atrocious bat, a spot on the team. The outfield has areas of strength and weakness. They are very strong in centre field with Dalton Pompey whom I mentioned earlier. Saunders and Pillar are slightly above average in left field (Pillar more so, he is a fine centre field backup), but Bautista struggles with routes and cutting balls off. Bautista has a strong arm, but his misplays, even if they aren’t scored as errors; often cost him a chance to use it. UZR has Bautista has a positive fielder each of the last three years, but he has produced negative range value in two of those. While I am generally sympathetic to defensive metrics, this output is questionable (yes, I know, question the method, not the output), but I just cannot buy it here.

When the Blue Jays went out and signed Russell Martin to a five-year contract, it was a move that perplexed some. After all, didn’t they already have a two-win catcher in Dioner Navarro already under contract, with 2014 first round pick Max Pentecost on the way? Was it because Martin was born in Canada and grew up between a Toronto suburb and Montreal? Maybe, but doesn’t $82.5 million over five years with the contract heavily back-loaded seems a bit extreme to bring in a Canadian? Remember at this point they still had Lawrie, and Pompey was already ticketed for centre field. How many Canucks did they need? Well, apparently this one. However, while heritage and a homecoming of sorts may have made the decision easier for Martin, the Blue Jays were more interested in what he could provide on the field, specifically behind the plate (GIFs in the links). While Navarro often receives pitches awkwardly, Martin does so cleanly and is able to earn extra strikes from it (second-most behind Brian McCann since Baseball Prospectus started tracking). The other, lesser, but important, benefit that this move provided is that it brought in a quality catcher who had a chance of being able to handle Dickey’s knuckleball. If this works out (it has so far), it would allow the Blue Jays to option Josh Thole and his unspectacular glove and powerless bat to Buffalo, while retaining Navarro as the backup. This will give the Blue Jays the opportunity to form one of the best offensive catching tandems in the league, while also allowing Navarro to spend some time at DH, where he hit much better and has done so historically (125 wRC+ as DH vs, 84 wRC+ as catcher).

The biggest question that the Blue Jays face about run prevention at home is the roof. Does it have an impact? It should, in the sense that it limits cold weather games and we know cold weather games to have poorer offense. Also, does it have an impact on Dickey’s knuckleball? Dickey seems to think so, and data appears to bear this out.

Managerial/Miscellaneous

The farm system is well stocked. Baseball Prospectus ranked it tenth in their preseason analysis. The Jays added Jeff Hoffman in the first round of the draft, after Tommy John surgery knocked him off a possible perch of being the first overall pick. Since the Blue Jays had a compensation pick for not signing Phil Bickford a year earlier, they were willing to gamble on Hoffman, who with the high success rate of Tommy John surgery still showed great potential. They also drafted catcher Max Pentecost, although he has been lost for a large portion of the 2015 season due to labrum surgery on his throwing shoulder. Since he will likely never hit enough to be a first baseman, his big league future is almost entirely dependent on this recovery. The system will undergo some change though as Sanchez, Norris and Pompey (1-3) are set to graduate.

While they have all of this young talent, they also have players ready to contribute from the minors if needed. A.J. Jimenez is a defense-first likely backup catcher who was thought to be in the mix to possibly even take over for Thole, but now he is thoroughly blocked. The most interesting prospect on the near horizon is Devon Travis, a second baseman acquired from the Tigers in the Anthony Gose trade. While opinions on him have varied wildly (even as low as non-prospect), some feel that he could be a major league contributor as early as the latter portion of this year, which given the competition seems realistic. At his peak, he could be a league average hitter at second base. While not spectacular, it would be a substantial upgrade over what the Jays have used in the wake of Aaron Hill’s departure. Daric Barton is kicking around in Buffalo, as are Dayan Viciedo and Johan Santana. Viciedo has a shot to make the team out of spring with the injury to Saunders, while Santana is not ready to pitch in games yet and will not be ready for opening day. Barton is just a nice depth piece; a high-OBP first baseman who can field competently in the event that Encarnacion suffers a new or repeat injury. Andy Dirks is another minor-league outfielder with a shot to be an injury call-up as well.

As previously discussed, the Blue Jays did an excellent job of offloading players with checkered health histories. The primary concerns for the Blue Jays now lie with Encarnacion (hamstring & back) playing in the field regularly, Reyes (hamstrings, throwing shoulder, generally poor mobility at need for rest), Izturis (knee surgery) and Saunders (meniscus removal – currently on DL). I mentioned that there is depth at all of these positions; however the depth is just that. The players next in line are the quintessential replacement-level players. If they see significant playing time, the Blue Jays 2015 campaign could derail quickly.

It appears the Blue Jays are trying to win, or at least the best they can under the ownership of Rogers Communications. Rogers Communications is Canada’s largest telecommunications company and owns both the major television and radio outlets for the Blue Jays. Despite this, they have been rather fickle with the purse strings. While they are far from a low-budget team, Rogers’ unwillingness to push payroll slightly to cap off a quality club has hurt the Blue Jays for many years. Although the issue started with previous ownership, the strange financial policies have routinely left the Blue Jays in the unproductive middle. Their highest draft pick in the post-World Series era was in 2005 where they selected Ricky Romero over Troy Tulowitzki, despite protestations from many staffers. Knowing that many officials were promoting Tulowitzki has led this pick to be considered one of the worst of the decade. This is what makes the overhaul so questionable in hindsight, as the Blue Jays are one of the oldest teams, and they have dealt a lot of their prospect depth to acquire veterans. Fans can see a rebuild on the horizon, but Rogers either cannot, or more likely does not care. The Blue Jays have $6 or 7 million (mild language here) left to spend, which is not really enough to solve a problem and yet the Jays found up to nearly $7 million for Johan Santana. The whole financial scenario is unfortunate, because adding a reliever like Jonathan Papelbon would have been a perfect fit for Toronto. If they could pay the full freight, they would have to only give up very little, but alas this is not the case.

Will the Blue Jays compete? Yes. Are they a shoo-in? No. The mutually thrilling yet frustrating nature of this team is that while PECOTA projects them to win 83 games, placing them third behind Boston (87) and Tampa Bay (86). However, I could see anywhere in the range of 70 to 90 wins being possible, depending on health and development.

PREDICTION

The Blue Jays will make the Wild Card game, finally ending their playoff drought, and Marcus Stroman will finish top-five in AL Cy Young voting.

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