Blue Jays 2014 .. a little luck and hope may not be such a bad thing

Apr 5th, 2014 | By Rob Sparrow | Category: Sporting Life

John Farrell : watching the former Blue Jays skipper and current Boston Red Sox manager hoist the World Championship trophy at Fenway Park made 2013 even worse for Jays’ fans!

After an agonizing summer of 2013, and a long winter that brought about loss, the coming of spring is a welcome respite, and with it baseball. A disappointing 2013 season was made to hurt even more watching former Blue Jays skipper, and current Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell, hoist the World Championship trophy on the pitchers’ mound at Fenway Park. All considered, it capped off what our counterweights editors deemed to be the worst Blue Jay season in recent memory. Leaving many of their faithful to wonder how did it all happen?

Expectations were sky high when this counterweights contributor checked in with you last April.  The massive trade with the Florida Marlins, and the signing of a batting champ and a Cy Young award winner made the Blue Jays the darlings of baseball prognosticators for the 2013 season.  But buried within all the trades and acquisitions was a decision, no more of a bet, on one player whose fate will inexplicably be tied to the fortunes of the ball club over the next few years.  And with time, it is now prudent to ask if that single bet was one worth making?

The bet whose ramifications would reverberate within the organization occurred sometime early during the month of July of 2012.  It was a bet that the Blue Jays could build a winner around Jose Bautista as their main core player and leader.  Bautista, who only a couple years earlier was a journeyman player, had at that time caught lightning in a bottle, transforming himself into a superstar slugger midway into his career. The only problem was that Jose was now over 30 and the Blue Jays were then a middling team with many holes. Although they had a slew of young fledgling prospects in the pipeline, they were at best still a few years away.  Management was then at a crossroads fearing that they would waste the best years of his career in mediocrity.

Was it a good bet that the Jays could build a winner around Jose Bautista as their main core player and leader?

Timing in sports is tricky, in fact you can say in many ways it is all about timing. Knowing the Blue Jays position, and Jose’s club friendly below market contract, other suitors were circling the team inquiring about his availability. So a decision had to be made and made quickly. Do they trade Jose to another team for prospects that would add to their budding bounty of developing young players? Or do they dip into their list of prospects and trade them to help fill some of the gaps of the parent Blue Jays?

* * * *

To compound matters, Jose himself was lobbying management at that time to make a deal and shore up the then depleted pitching staff.  So in the offices of the former Skydome, the Blue Jay brain trust got together and made its bet. General Manager Alex Anthopoulos pondered the roster he had, the window of opportunity for a playoff push, and the immediate projections for what he would be possibly relinquishing. According to Anthopoulos, “Our timetable had moved up a lot. Jose Bautista had become a superstar. Guys like Edwin (Encarnacion) and Colby (Rasmus) were hitting their prime. We had great kids with high ceilings, but I thought their development might not be on the same timeline to fit in with the current group we had.”  The bet would then be made.

The trade consummated on July 20, 2012 was the first signal that the club would hitch its wagon to Jose.  In it, the club traded five prospects and a couple of major leaguers to the Houston Astros for pitching depth that included J.A. Happ, Brandon Lyon, and David Carpenter.  In Jose they would trust.

Alex Anthopoulos. Photo: Nathan Denette/Canadian Press.

Things shortly then began to unravel for Jose and the teams, as a wrist injury occurred that would sideline him for the rest of 2012 season.  The unknown of his injury and rehabilitation would play into the clubs off season moves, in which they decided to double down on its “window of opportunity” to surround Jose with proven veterans.  The Blue Jays had decided they were in “win-now” mode.

Then in bang-bang deals, Anthopoulos orchestrated blockbuster trades that altered the baseball landscape on three major league clubs. First, on Nov. 18, 2012, he extracted all-stars Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson in a 12-player swap with the Marlins that sent a prospect-heavy septet the other way, which included budding prospects, Henderson Alvarez, Adeiny Hechavarria, Jake Marisnick and 20-year-old lefty Justin Nicolino.  Twenty-nine days later, Anthopoulos reeled in reigning National League Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets, the seven-player exchange cost coveted comers Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard.  In those heady days, Toronto ball fans were far giddier about the incoming infusion of veteran talent than vexed about the outgoing promising youth.

Did the deal for R.A. Dickey make sense?

A disastrous 2013 has cast a different light on the goings on of 2012.  The Blue Jays find themselves to be an “in-between” team, not good enough to win now, who mortgaged a big part of its future for a “now” that looks like it will not materialize.  To wit, a rival executive mused in spring training of this year that “the Jays’ farm system would be one of the two or three best in baseball if they had not made their blockbuster with the Marlins and Mets”. Instead, they went for broke, acquiring a slew of expensive veterans on the wrong side of thirty, while parting with those players who according to Baseball America are now three of the Marlins top five prospects and the Mets top two.

In retrospect, both of these deals now look very short-sighted, especially the deal for Dickey that frankly would not have been made in absence of the previous moves and the original bet on the aging Bautista.  But that is at the heart of gambling, where rational decisions are put on the backburner to follow ones guttural instinct, and decisions made in another context that would normally never even be considered.

Which forces one to ask the question, was the bet on Bautista a wise one?

Rogers Dollars

To compound the dilemma in which the team now finds itself, perhaps the Jays’ greater mistake was a failure, or refusal, to follow through on their original bet and spend on free agent players this past winter in an attempt to fully max out.

The 74-win-88-loss team with its “win now” roster made no moves of significance to upgrade a few glaring deficiencies, and goes into this season with the same cast and recycled manager. The Blue Jays made only one free-agent signing during the off-season, landing catcher Dioner Navarro for $8 million over two years. Yet their pressing need was a starter to shore up their 29th ranked pitching staff passing on proven free agent starters such as Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza, and Ervin Santana.

The Jays made only one free-agent signing during the off-season, landing catcher Dioner Navarro for $8 million over two years.

That has left many people scratching their heads and wondering; Is this franchise committed enough? Has GM Alex Anthopoulos become timid? Is owner Rogers Communications under new CEO Guy Laurence too cheap?  Did a drop in the Canadian dollar to 90 cents wipe out a 2014 baseball payroll increase?  Or did Rogers spend their earmarked Blue Jay dollars to its other conglomerate interests that include an over $5 billion hockey television package?  And what, for a franchise that is supposed be “all in”, is their strategy going forward?

“There is no one in baseball who has the asset base of Rogers”, according to super-agent Scott Boras.  “It’s a premium city. It’s a premium owner with equity. And it’s a very, very good team that with additional premium talent could become a contending team.  He goes further “They’re a car with a huge engine that is impeded by a big corporate stop sign … a successful and committed ownership that needs to give their baseball people financial flexibility.”

Instead, fans and players are left wondering and are served with the Blue Jays 2014 opening day promo that talks of “standing tall” and “tackling adversity”, definitely not compelling arguments to a tired and rather disillusioned fan base who are starved for postseason baseball.

So just who are these Toronto Blue Jays anyway?

Last year, the Toronto Blue Jays were a popular pick to finish first in the American League East. This year, they’re a popular pick to finish last. One lousy season was all it took to change the perception of essentially the same group of players.

The reality is, the 2013 Blue Jays weren’t as good as the expectations suggested, nor as bad as they looked during their 74-88 slog.   Toronto’s underachievement was a group effort. It was also about missed opportunities.  They were 15-17 in games decided by two runs, and 20-29 in games decided by one run, and had the worst interdivision record (30-46) amongst their AL East rivals.

Key Blue Jays like Melky Cabrera missed a lot of time and/or played through nagging injuries in 2013.

The Blue Jays starting pitching was terrible ranking second last in the league, defense on many nights was painful to watch, and their pull-happy, grip-and-rip approach resulted in fewer base runners and contributed negatively to their overall offensive production.  Compounding that, key Blue Jays missed a lot of time and/or played through nagging injury (e.g. Jose Reyes, Brandon Morrow, Melky Cabrera), giving far too many innings to replacement level players like J.P. Arencibia, Munenori Kawasaki, Maicer Izturis, and Mark DeRosa. With very few exceptions, 2013 was a year to put in the Mcluhanesque “rear view mirror.”

Yet, last season also can give us a perspective on what it will take to win this year. There were 10 teams that made the playoffs in 2013: Dodgers, Cardinals, Pirates, Braves and Reds in the National League; and the Tigers, Red Sox, A’s, Indians and Rays in the American League. One thing they almost all had in common was successful starting pitching. In fact, the average record of those teams starting rotations was 68-47, logging on average 976 innings pitched, translating to over 6 innings per game. Their starters pitched well and deep in the games.   Conversely, the Blue Jays starters had a 46-57 record in 2013 and could barely get through 5 innings on average per start. Clearly, a long way away from a playoff-caliber rotation.

What do the 2014 Blue Jays need to contend?

For the Jays to contend this season they will need a lot to go their way.  And what team doesn’t? But, the margin of error for the club is small.  Here then are five main concerns as we get ready for the home opener weekend:

Injuries

Dealing with a massive number of injuries was easily the biggest challenge the Blue Jays faced last season.  A total of twenty-one Blue Jays spent time on the Disabled List (DL).  A roll call of the walking wounded included: Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, Brett Lawrie (twice), Colby Rasmus (twice), Darren Oliver, Drew Hutchison, Dustin McGowan (twice), Edwin Encarnacion, J.A. Happ, Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson (twice), Kyle Drabek, Luis Perez, Maicer Izturis, Melky Cabrera, Rajai Davis, Ramon Ortiz, Sergio Santos, and Steve Delabar.  The banged up Jays had the 4th most disabled games lost to injury, and of the 162 games last year, their core starting lineup played as a group only seven times.

Brandon Morrow : another Jay who spent time on the Disabled List in 2013.

If the team wants to compete this season, it will need to find a way to keep its key players on the field for a larger part of the season.  Compounding this is that a bulk of their starting rotation is attempting to come back from major arm injuries, while questions remain regarding the durability of their aging roster.  For example, Jose Bautista has averaged just 105 games over the last two years, while Jose Reyes has played in more than 133 games just once in the last five years.

If the Blue Jays can stay healthy, and that is a big “IF”, they can tighten up an already strong division, but a season without injuries in Toronto seems unlikely.  The season is not four days old and already the Jays have lost their closer Casey Janssen to an arm injury, and oft-injured Jose Reyes is out of the lineup with a pulled hamstring.  An ominous start to the season indeed.

Pitching

Pitching was a major problem for the team last season.  Toronto starters combined for a 46-57 record and a 4.81 ERA (only Minnesota was higher at 5.26), and gave up 195 home runs (only the Baltimore Orioles yielded more 202).  As mentioned, good pitching is THE key to success, and very rarely do great offensive teams win with borderline pitching. It is far more often that teams win with marginal offence and a great pitching staff. That said, we know the Blue Jays are going to score a bunch of runs, but their success will be driven by the arms of the pitchers, and not by the bats in the lineup.

Mark Buehrle : consistently unspectacular but once again a reliable innings eater in 2014?

Looking toward 2014, this clearly is the weakest area on the roster and could very well end up being the reason the team isn’t able to compete.  Toronto’s starting pitchers are made up of either past-their-prime arms (R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle), young, unproven starters (Drew Hutchison), or guys who have never been able to really put it together in the majors (Brandon Morrow, Dustin McGowan).  Fact is, beside Dickey and Buehrle, they are banking on a trio of pitchers who provided a total of 56 major league innings last season.

Toronto manager John Gibbons says the Blue Jays will go as far as their pitching takes them this season.  And the odds of the five current projected starters making 162 starts and pitching well all season, according to the baseball pundits, lie somewhere between “wildly unlikely” and “no chance in hell.”  Buckle up it could be a bumpy ride through the talent-rich AL East.

The rotation of hope:

* R.A. Dickey : He was 14-13 with a 4.21 ERA for the Blue Jays, and struggled with the roof open in Toronto, conditions that produced a 5.73 ERA. He ground through back pain, including multiple cortisone injections, to log 224 innings (second in the American League) and went 6-3 with a 3.46 ERA after the All-Star break. Dickey was far from the Cy Young conversation of 2012, and is still a question of ever replicating the same numbers that he put up in the National League.

* Mark Buehrle : Buehrle should, once again, be a solid innings eater in the rotation. While his numbers don’t appear impressive, when looked at individually, the 35-year-old has the ability to pitch deep into games and keep his team in the contest. Last season was the 13th straight year the left-hander pitched over 200 innings and won at least 10 games. Look for Buehrle to be consistently unspectacular and once again be a reliable innings eater of the Blue Jays rotation.

* Drew Hutchison : Coming back from a major arm injury he has started a total of 11 major-league games in his life.  One could also argue Hutchison has the best stuff in in spring training this year. The right-hander possesses a mid-90s fastball, along with a very effective changeup and good control.  Yet what is the most the Jays can expect from him this season? Around 150 innings? Can he make 20 starts or 30 starts?  Questions abound, but a good year from Hutchison would definitely take some pressure off from the rest of the rotation.

* Brandon Morrow : Morrow is arguably the biggest factor in determining how successful Toronto’s rotation will be this season. Morrow’s 2013 season was cut short by an impinged nerve in his right forearm. He went 2-3 with a 5.63 ERA in 10 starts before being shut down. Morrow’s always had potential and ability to be a frontline starter, as he possesses a high-90s fastball and throws a devastating slider that has the ability to generate a ton of strikeouts.  Yet the questions remain, he’s entering his eighth major league season, and we still don’t know if he can be effective over 30 starts, or if he can even make 30 starts.

Dustin McGowan : has always had good stuff, but health is the biggest concern for him.

* Dustin McGowan : McGowan hasn’t been a starting pitcher since 2008, and in many ways is in the starting rotation by default.  The Blue Jays simply don’t have another viable arm to put in the rotation.  McGowan, now in his 15th season with the Blue Jays organization, has always had good stuff, but health is the biggest concern for him. Since 2008, McGowan had pitched just 21 innings in the major leagues because of various injuries, and his durability is a major concern. That it’s come to relying on someone who’s unsure how his body will react to the heavier workload speaks to the desperation the team finds itself in.

Depth

Last years’ bevy of injuries really exposed the team’s lack of serviceable depth in their system. With so many regulars on the Disabled List, the Blue Jays were forced to rely on inexperienced prospects and minor league veterans to fill the voids. These players largely proved to be ineffective.

Manager John Gibbons will not have a lot of flexibility to make substitutions during late-game situations.

Moreover, because of the question marks in its starting rotation, the Blue Jays will likely carry eight relief pitchers in its bullpen. This means that the team will only have a three-man bench. This won’t be ideal, as manager John Gibbons will not have a lot of flexibility to make substitutions during late-game situations.

Fact is, the difference between a productive bench and a poor one adds up to many wins or losses over the course of a long baseball season.  It was clear that having a reliable and deep bench was a consistent part of the playoff teams last season. It proved especially critical for the World Series champion Boston Red Sox.  This is an area that Blue Jays fans should be concerned about. One significant injury to an everyday player, like Jose Reyes, and the Blue Jays are in a big hole.

Leadership

The Blue Jays’ faithful are looking for real leadership in 2014.

Last year saw the Blue Jays regress in terms of basic baseball fundamentals.  Many pointed to the alleged laxness of spring training a year ago as team-wide affliction that segued into a hideous start to the season, from which the club never recovered.  Recycled manager, John Gibbons, described as more of a players’ manager, may be somewhat miscast on a team that has shown to be lacking in overall fundamentals and discipline.

Quite frankly, many Blue Jay faithful were miffed at his hiring in the winter of 2012, especially after all the many personnel changes.  He was not successful in his previous stint here last decade, and has never managed a winning team at any level.  He was GM Anthopoulos’s comfort pick after being shunned by former manager John Farrell.  But questions remain; Is he the right steward for this ship? And does he have what it takes to lead a winning team?

Moreover, one level up, GM Anthopoulos has proven he is great at finding talent, but he has also never proven he can put together a winning baseball team.

The Start

A year ago, the Jays opened the season with five losses in their first seven, on the way to 10-17 April and a 74-win season.  Hence it is vital to get off to a good start for both the confidence of the team and support of the fan base.

“We’re going to face seven strong starters out of the box,” said first baseman Adam Lind, of the Jays’ opening four-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays and a three-game set at home against the revamped New York Yankees.  In fact, the Blue Jays play 16 of first 25 against the AL East to start the season.  The Blue Jays were atrocious last year against their AL Rivals (30-46), losing all 10 games at Yankee stadium and failing to win a series in Tampa Bay since 2007.

Another slow start for the team would hint at larger issues with roster construction, and prompt real questions about where the organization should go from there.

Final Thoughts

Many Blue Jays’ fans are hoping for a better season. Why not?

Last season was a gut-punch to a fan base that expected much more than it got, raising the playoff drought to 20 years; the second longest streak in baseball.  A whole generation of supporters has yet to see the team perform in the postseason, and the club is under pressure to field a winning team or risk alienating them.  Another season like last could be a severe blow to its fan base.

The team is in a precarious situation.  The middling Jays seem to be forever “in-between”, not good enough in a powerful division that has gotten stronger, and one where mediocrity is exposed for the folly it is.  Adding to the team’s issues is the fact that the future isn’t as bright as it was a couple of years back. The Bautista bet has truly compromised the future of the team.  Their aging roster and weakened minor league system could easily place them in bottom half of the AL East for the foreseeable future.

But there’s still plenty of talent gathered at the place formerly called the Skydome, lots of players with quality major-league resumes, and if they can actually stay on the field this time around, Toronto will have a team that could surprise a whole lot of people.

Hope can be a dangerous sentiment in this town, Toronto’s fans have a history of being burned when they dare to hope.

Yet after this long painful winter, a little luck and hope may not be such a bad thing after all.

Robert Sparrow is a Toronto marketing analyst and noted local authority on the sporting life.

CW EDITOR’S NOTE : Mr. Sparrow’s, as usual, excellent and interesting post on this key subject (and not just for Torontonians, in at least some parts of the rest of Canada and the Carribean and elsewhere too) was being put up on the site by the alleged Toronto technical staff, just as the Jays were winning their second home game, against the  New York  Yankees, 4-0. With the sounds and moods of the Silicon Valley Country Retreat and Seminar 2014 still ringing in the staff’s ears, and so forth.

So far the Toronto Blue Jays have split their four-game opening series with Tampa Bay in Florida at two games apiece. And now today’s victory (quite dramatic in the last few innings) means they have done the same with the Yankees at home in what used to be the Skydome in Toronto. (See Blue Jays Game Notes ; Toronto Blue Jays.) So they are at a nice enough .500, for the time being, as of 4:30 PM ET, Saturday, April 5, 2014, etc. As Rob Sparrow says,  a “little luck and hope may not be such a bad thing after all.”

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