As the Toronto Blue Jays embark on their 35th season in major league baseball there is a renewed sense of optimism and hope resonating through Blue Jays nation. General Manager Alex Anthopoulos has taken the reigns as new leader of the team and has shown himself to be quite capable, even shrewd.
The Blue Jays surprisingly finished the 2010 season with an 85 win season in the super tough AL East division and again showed they are one of the better teams in baseball when considering strength of schedule – a major crutch for the team over the past decade, and certainly an ongoing challenge going forward.
Heading into 2011 the optimism isn’t necessarily only for the current roster and chances for a playoff run but the overall direction of the team. Simply put the Toronto Blue Jays are poised to join baseball’s elite in the next 2-3 seasons given the new commitment to player development, draft resources and controlling costs with young assets.
Ownership has given the team the needed resources to ensure the Blue Jays are competitive in the international free agent market and the Jays were among the final few teams to nearly land Cuban lefty Aroldis Chapman (and his 105.1 MPH fastball). The Jays were able to land a Cuban of their own in 21-year old SS Adeiny Hechavarria. It continued last summer when the Jays landed top Venezuelan teenage pitching prospect Adonis Cardona, a right handed pitcher signed for record 2.8 million dollar bonus (in Venezuela).
The Blue Jays have told fans that money will not be an issue if and when the team is ready to compete at the highest level (playoffs) and have gone on record as saying the payroll will easily eclipse $100MM if needed. With a few big name free agent hitters hitting the open market at the end of this season (including Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder) the Jays could be in a prime spot to land one of the big free agents.
This past offseason saw Alex Anthopoulos pull off one of the biggest heists in recent memory when he managed to unload the entire Vernon Wells contract to the Los Angeles Angels, saving nearly $90MM over the next few years. Notice I do not even need to mention if a player was returned to the Jays for this to be an unbelievable deal for the Jays, Wells’ contract was that horrifying and crippling.
The Blue Jays also dealt their best pitcher from 2010 (stat wise) when they moved SP Shaun Marcum to the Milwaukee Brewers for their top prospect 2B/3B/OF Brett Lawrie. His bat and being a Canadian are the makings of an instant fan favourite. His suspect defence, lack of position and questionable facebook pictures are the detriments at this point.
My money is on a solid, if not spectacular Blue Jays career and Lawrie was considered the best prospect moved in an offseason that also saw Zack Greinke and Matt Garza moved you have to be happy hearing that if you are a Jays fan. Shaun Marcum will be missed mind you but on a pure talent basis he was likely our fourth or fifth best pitcher, and oldest to boot.
The Blue Jays decided that Jose Bautista was for real and signed him to a five year contract worth $65MM ensuring the top HR hitter in 2010 remains with the team. I like the contract as Bautista is more than just empty HRs, he plays defence, gets on-base and has proven to be a solid clubhouse influence. I reviewed his massive 2010 campaign against the best in Jays history, who had the best all-time Jays offensive season?
There have been more than a few reviews of this contract if you want a more thorough evaluation, here and here. There is no trade clause attached so if the Blue Jays are so inclined, they could potentially move Bautista if the market dictates.
Other key departures:
RP Scott Downs, C John Buck, RP Kevin Gregg, LF Fred Lewis
Other key arrivals:
RP Frank Francisco, RP Jon Rauch, LF Juan Rivera, CF Rajai Davis, LF Scott Podsednick, RP Octavio Dotel.
The Blue Jays also said goodbye to a familiar face as manager Cito Gaston stepped aside as the team’s skipper and the Jays hired Boston Red Sox pitching Coach John Farrell to be the new manager. The consensus around baseball is he will make an excellent manager and is a great leader for a young emerging ballclub like Toronto. If only the Blue Jays could have brought back Dan Schulman to do their play-by-play on a nightly basis, this would have been a stellar offseason as opposed to only a good one.
Overall it is hard to argue against a solid offseason as the Jays saved a boatload of money, added a top Canadian prospect and really didn’t weaken their current team all that much in my mind. The last bonus is with some of the shrewd moves made by AA the Blue Jays hold a ton of picks in the top 3 round of the upcoming 2011 Amateur MLB draft, one of the strongest drafts in recent memory.
Let’s take a look at the current 2011 team:
Catcher – JP Arencibia & Jose Molina.
Synopsis – There has been a lot of pressure placed on JP Arencibia heading into 2011 and more than a few people worried he might crack under it. Arencibia lit up Las Vegas and AAA in the ultra-friendly hitters paradise (301/359/626 – .412 wOBA) and after Blue Jays fans enshrined him in Cooperstown after a 5-hit debut he struggled at the major league level.
Arencibia is 25 years old and just sniffing the show now and unlike a lot of folks I am not sold that he is our catcher of the future. I would give him every opportunity this year to prove me wrong but I am excited about the depth at catcher the organization has amassed with Travis D’Arnaud and Carlos Perez. But he is a concern for me, as well as for Drew at Ghost Runner on First (great blog).
Jose Molina is our backup catcher with the required skills for that position.
This spot could be a real weakness for the Jays in 2011.
First Base – Adam Lind
Synopsis – Lind is hitting his prime offensive years (he will be 28 in July/2011) and after lighting up MLB pitchers in 2009 (.394 wOBA) he came back to earth hard in 2011 (.309 wOBA). His BABIP was down 30 points compared to his career average, his HR/FB mark was down 6 percent but he also showed less patience and more hack-tastic tendencies at the plate. I like the fans projection (at Fangraphs) of 278/333/487, around 25 HRs and below average defence.
Second Base – Aaron Hill
Synopsis – Hill is hitting his prime offensive years (turning 29 this month) and after lighting up MLB pitchers in 2009 (.357 wOBA) he came back to earth hard in 2011 (.291 wOBA). His BABIP was down nearly 100 points compared to his career average, his HR/FB mark was down 5 percent but he also showed less patience and more hack-tastic tendencies at the plate. I like the Bill James projection of 260/319/446, around 20 HRs and average defence.
Yes, eerily identical as both Hill and Lind struggled mightily in 2010 after tearing it up in 2009, both are being counted on to rebound in 2011 and both should.
Third Base – Jose Bautista
Synopsis – Possibly the most discussed player in baseball heading into 2011 with the widest range of projections and expectations. One of the better seasons in Blue Jays history in 2010 the 30-year old Bautista heads into 2011 as the everyday third basemen and a guy the team will lean on heavily in the middle of its order.
I’m going to take Bill James projection again (251/355/509, 34 HRs) and I wish the Jays could play him in RF because his defence isn’t exactly stellar at the hot corner based on past reviews (-24 UZR for his career at 3B). His patience will be highly valued in this line-up of mostly hackers, the Jays could be poised
Shortstop – Yunel Escobar
Synopsis – Another solid move by Alex Anthopoulos was managing to get a guy who some considered one of the best up-and-coming middle infielders in baseball only a few years ago. Escobar is 28 years old and coming off a subpar offensive season in 2010 (.301 wOBA) but he plays an excellent SS (4.3 UZR in 2010) and should rebound with the stick.
Marcel projections look most reasonable (273/350/378, possibly 10 HRs) with excellent SS defence and a definite asset for the Jays in 2011.
Left Field – Juan Rivera
Synopsis – Though not often discussed Rivera does provide an intriguing option at the plate. Looking at 2009, Rivera was basically Vernon Wells 2010 with a slash line of 287/332/478 to go with 25 HRs. The 32-year old provides a veteran presence in the line-up who has a career .834 OPS versus left handed pitchers (an area the Jays struggled with last year).
He is below average defensively and provides little value outside of his bat, if that doesn’t rebound he could be one of the least valuable players in the game (WAR).
Centre Field – Rajai Davis
Synopsis – Acquired by the Blue Jays in the offseason the 30-year old Davis will be counted upon to play the majority of innings in centre field. UZR was not kind to him last season (-7.1 in CF) however he has been an above average defender at the premium CF spot for most of his career, hopefully 2010 was the outlier.
Davis is another hacker in the sense he isn’t keen on taking the walk (career 5.9 BB%) like most of the Blue Jays line-up this year. Davis biggest contribution will be on the base paths as the speedster has stolen 41 and 50 bases in the past two seasons. Expect 280/325/390 with good CF defence and a lot of SBs as new manager John Farrell said he wanted to be more aggressive in this regard.
Right Field – Travis Snider
Synopsis – Here is the real wildcard for me heading into 2011. Few remember that Snider is only 23-years old and was an extremely highly touted prospect – could this finally be the season he shows us why? He’s another guy who won’t walk much but Bill James projects 274/338/499 with 22 HRs in 2011, numbers most Jay’s fans would accept.
Scott Podsednick and Corey Patterson could see some time in the outfield and each brings a little something to a team, whether it is speed, bench help or defence.
Designated Hitter – Edwin Encarnacion
Synopsis – If there ever was a candidate to not own a baseball glove, Encarnacion might be near the top (though in fairness it is his arm that is most erratic). Say what you want about his porous defence but EE can do one thing well, hit for power. He cranked out 21 HRs in only 367 PAs to go with a solid .482 SLG, .238 ISO and .339 wOBA.
He fits right in with the rest of the Blue Jays hitters in the fact that he doesn’t appreciate ball four nearly enough (career 8.9 BB%) and this could be a real issue for the Jays again this season if the HR/FB ratio dries up. EE will spell Lind at 1B occasionally and should provide some decent value as the teams DH this year.
Starting Rotation – Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, Kyle Drabek, Jesse Litsch
This is a pretty solid group again for the Blue Jays with Romero anchoring the young rotation. Brandon Morrow has to prove 2010 wasn’t a fluke and continue to build on his solid peripherals. Brett Cecil might emerge as the ace of the staff by the end of this season if he continues to develop. Kyle Drabek will be on a strict pitch/innings count but he has the promise to develop into a solid #2 or 3 pitcher. Jesse Litsch isn’t flashy but when given the chance he has shown the ability to get hitters out consistently.
Here are the “Fans” (at Fangraphs) projections for each of our starting five for 2011:
*Bill James projection (fans projection not available)
Marc Rzepczynski is another candidate for the fifth starter spot but I have to think that if Jesse Litsch is healthy the Jays will hand him the job. Litsch could provide a decent trade return for a team looking for an arm at the deadline if he can establish his 2008 form (a league average starter). With a staff as young as the Jays there are sure to be some hiccups along the way and health is always the big unknown from season to season.
The bullpen should be fairly strong again even with the loss of Scott Downs who has been consistently our best reliever during his Blue Jays career.
The group should consist of Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch, Octavio Dotel, Jason Frasor, Shawn Camp, David Purcey and Jo-Jo Reyes. AA is apparently enamoured with Reyes, enough so to keep Reyes on the roster as opposed to losing him to waivers as he is out of options (thank you reader Adam, Reyes was acquired in the Escobar trade from the Braves). The Blue Jays have a ton of depth in the pen and this should serve them well come trade deadline day or again qualifying them and hopefully receiving compensatory draft picks.
It appears 2011 will be a year of transition as we prepare and groom some of our minor league prospect (more on that below) to hopefully turn the Blue Jays into full fledged contender in 2012. This season won’t be embarrassing and the Jays have some surprise to the upside this year but I think Jays fans are willing to take a step back in the win column when considering how much long term ground is starting to be gained.
I think the Jays will be a .500 baseball club.
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Up next: Top 10 Toronto Blue Jays Prospects
Most (or all) of the top prospect guru’s and sites and ranked or handed out grades to the Blue Jays group of prospects including Baseball America, Keith Law, John Sickels, Fangraphs and B-Pro and I have read nearly every scouting report, ranking and grade known to man. I have participated in deep minor league drafts, have a keen interest in the top young ballplayers due to my active role in a DMB based simulation league and have basically been addicted to prospect porn for the past decade or so.