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Toronto Blue Jays 2014 season preview


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For the Toronto Blue Jays and their fans, 2013 was supposed to be the year. Splashy move gave way to splashy move as GM Alex Anthopolous made use of a stockpile of prospect capital to acquire marquee players from the Marlins and Mets. Hype surrounding the team hadn’t been so high since the halcyon days of the early nineties WAMCO squad. Despite strong seasons from blossoming superstar Edwin Encarnacion, workhorse Mark Buehrle and others, Everything went wrong, and the team’s penchant for injury magnetism didn’t take a break to give them a shot at their long-coveted playoff spot. R.A. Dickey pitched through soreness and a move to a hitters’ paradise and wholly underperformed expectations. Jose Reyes missed almost 70 games when he sprained his ankle on an awkward slide into second. Brett Lawrie was hurt practicing for the WBC. Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow pitched far below expectations before landing on the DL. Jose Bautista missed extended time with various maladies. Melky Cabrera plodded about the field most of the season before learning that he had a tumor the size of a ping pong ball growing between his vertebrae. A very large amount of bad luck befell the Jays in 2013, and they were simply unable to crawl out from beneath the heft of their misfortune.

MAJOR ADDITIONS

The Jays only real move this offseason to date has been signing former Rays and Cubs catcher Dioner Navarro to a two year contract ($8 million) to replace the departed JP Arencibia. The Jays hope that last year’s .300/.365/.492 slash line that Navarro posted in part time duty with the Cubs was at least partly sustainable, as they appear poised to give Navarro his first shot at a starting gig since 2009 with the Rays, when he played 115 games of below-replacement-level ball. A couple weeks ago,  Jays Journal’s Lucas Silva noted mechanical changes that Navarro appears to have made to his swing, which may suggest that he is more capable than it may seem of sustaining some of his impressive improvements, especially in the power category.

MAJOR DEPARTURES

After a season in which he posted the second worst OBP in the live ball era (worst since they lowered the mound in 1969!) of any batter with over 450 plate appearances, the Jays decided not to tender a contract to it’s starting catcher the last three years, J.P. Arencibia. It was no surprise, then, that the Jays pounced on Navarro like they did. Arencibia has caught on with the Rangers and figures to split playing time with their other question mark behind the dish in the more-promising Geovany Soto. Offseason acquisition Josh Johnson left after making only 16 starts with an unsightly 6.20 ERA. He signed with the Padres on a one year deal to attempt to rebuild some value as everyone who was in Toronto in 2013 tries to wash the proverbial stink off. Speed demon Rajai Davis (one of the few Jays who were regularly showing up on the top-MLB-anything leaderboards the last two years) left for free agency and signed in what appears to be the same role with the Tigers.

PAYROLL

Despite not making much of a splash this offseason, the Jays’ payroll will make a leap in 2014. They opened last year with a payroll just below 120 million dollars and the always-excellent Cot’s Contracts has them pegged at $132 million committed to players in 2014, largely due to the escalating cost of paying Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes’ backloaded deals.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Colby Rasmus led last year’s Jays squad in WAR with an impressive 4.8. The center fielder put up big numbers at the plate and defensive metrics finally began to come around on something Jays’ fans have trumpeted for a while – Colby can go out and get it in the field. As he enters his final year of arbitration with no extension in sight, it will be interesting to see how he plays in 2014. The walk year effect has largely been proven to be a myth, but Colby’s troublesome seasons at the plate often seemed to be rooted in his mental game. It’s possible the extra motivation could see Rasmus build on his 2013 gains in the OBP department (don’t expect that average to hold though.) The Jays are playing a risky game by not locking Rasmus up now. If he continues to put up the type of numbers that he did last year into the summer, it will be nearly impossible for the team to sign him to any kind of reasonable extension. If he can’t put it together and they can afford his pricetag, there may be legitimate questions as to what that tag may be. (and legitimate differences in each side’s valuation of the slugging center fielder)

NEEDS TO SHINE

Brandon Morrow seems to be the unlikely key to the Blue Jays season in 2014. The hard-throwing, high-K righty has shown a lot of signs of putting it all together in recent seasons, and of justifying all the faith the front office has shown in him in that time. Morrow undoubtedly has the stuff to be mentioned amongst the league’s top pitchers, but staying on the field has been a bit of a problem for him the past two years. If Morrow can stay healthy and pitch to his abilities, it would bode very well for the team’s chances at having an above average rotation.

REGRESSION CANDIDATE

Adam Lind hit .288/.358/.497 in 521 plate appearances and generated 1.8 WAR despite starting over half his games as the DH. He hit predictably badly against lefties, as he is wont to do, (.208 avg vs. .309 against righties) but was able to be somewhat sheltered from them due to the presence of Rajai Davis. The Jays currently lack much of a partner off the bench with whom to platoon Lind, and his numbers should suffer from regression due to that alone a slight BABIP correction and a return to Earth by his HR/FB% (his was nearly double the league average at 19.2%) Lind will likely not put up such a solid line in 2014, especially if the team is forced to lean too much on him against tougher lefties due to a lack of replacement.

LOOKING AHEAD

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The Jays undoubtedly have a very talented roster. Many teams who aren’t projected to easily contend would gladly trade their core for one of Encarnacion, Bautista, Reyes, Rasmus, Lawrie, Dickey and Morrow. It’s less that the team needs everything to break right to succeed in 2014 and more that the only way things go as bad as last year is if their luck is improbably just as bad. They’re a strong club on paper, despite their puzzlingly quiet offseason, and doubly so if they can dance between the raindrops for a year and avoid the injuries that seem to spring up through their maligned turf. It would have possibly done them well to sign a starter this offseason, but they could have serious questions about whether Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana were really going to perform more than 9 million dollars better than any combination of Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ, Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, and a slew of other serviceable depth arms at the Jays’ disposal. Their refusal to address their glaring hole at second base, however, is less easy to explain. I’m hesitant to say they won’t make a play for the notable remaining free agent middle infielder, even if he’d be changing positions, but the club’s strained relationship with super-agent Scott Boras makes a deal look even less likely, even when considering the team’s advantageous position due to their two protected draft picks. Ryan Goins does not project to be useful enough to play full time for any team that wishes to contend, but the trade deadline is not until July, and it appears that most of the options that would suit the Jays best at the keystone are available by that route anyway. That glut of fifth starters is going to look a lot more appetizing to teams in the coming weeks as injuries ravage the league anew, as they do with every spring.

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