Toronto Blue Jays Season Preview: A Redeem Team?

With a loaded offense, the Jays need resurgent seasons from R.A. Dickey and the rotation to compete for the playoffs.

The 2013 Toronto Blue Jays bore a striking resemblance to the 2012 Miami Marlins. These teams featured new managers, shiny offseason acquisitions, and the same disappointment. Oh yeah, and a lot of the same players, too.

After a new ballpark and an expensive offseason for “fan-favorite” Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria led to some steep expectations, Loria (you really think GM Larry Beinfest did that?) shipped those expectations, along with shortstop Jose Reyes, starters Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, catcher John Buck, and utility man Emilio Bonifacio to Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos. The highly controversial package headed back to Miami featured shortstop Yunel Escobar, starter Henderson Alvarez, and prospects.

Within the next month, Anthopoulos signed Melky Cabrera to a two-year deal and traded for reigning Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. Like the 2012 Marlins, the Blue Jays were projected by many to win the division, only to struggle mightily en route to a 74-88 record and 77-85 Pythagorean (expected) record.

What went wrong? I'm always weary of a team that makes the biggest offseason moves, whether it be the Blue Jays, Marlins, Brooklyn Nets, or Philadelphia Eagles “Dream Team”. When a team brings in many new players, there's often an adjustment period before players return to their normal performance levels. However, the two biggest tangible issues for the Blue Jays were pitching and injuries.

As a staff, the Blue Jays allowed 4.7 runs per game, worse than only the Astros and Twins. Let’s talk about the bullpen first. Despite a 3.80 FIP (23rd in MLB), the bullpen posted the eighth-best ERA in relief appearances with a 3.37 figure, due to some luck in the BABIP department (.275). The three top pitchers in the bullpen are easily closer Casey Janssen, Aaron Loup, and Brett Cecil. The highest ERA (although not a great indicator for relievers) between those three in 2013 was 2.82.

Steve Delabar also had a great season and even made the All-Star team, but walked 4.4 hitters per 9 innings (BB/9) and bloated his WHIP to 1.347. In most cases, when the Blue Jays handed their bullpen a lead, they won the game. However, more than four pitchers make a bullpen, as converted starters staffed the rest of the bullpen and struggled when used.

Speaking of struggling starters, Blue Jays starters combined to produce a 4.81 ERA last year, second-worst in the majors. 13 pitchers started games for the Blue Jays (more about injuries later), and of the seven who started 10-plus games, Buehrle won the “Lowest Bad ERA Contest” at 4.15. For comparison, the Detroit Tigers only had one starter, Rick Porcello, start at least 10 games and finish with a higher ERA (4.32) than the best Blue Jays starter.

These abominable statistics were accrued due to two main causes: walks and home runs. The starters, namely Dickey, combined to walk 3.02 hitters per 9 innings and allowed a second-worst 1.36 home runs per 9 innings (HR/9). It’s bad to give a team extra baserunners, but worse to allow so many runners free trips home.

Most baseball fans, upon a second glance, will also point to injuries as the main cause of the Blue Jays’ demise. I hold the opinion that the pitching was so anemic it wouldn’t have mattered, but the Blue Jays could, in fact, be a completely different team when the cogs are healthy and functional. Only two starters, Dickey and Buehrle, made at least 30 starts, and only J.P. Arencibia, Edwin Encarnacion, and Adam Lind played in at least 120 contests. Toronto’s ninth-best offense could have been even better.

This article is a team preview - not review - so let’s transition into talking some 2014 baseball!

Just a Bunch of Belly-Itchers

Luckily for the Blue Jays, their bullpen will remain mostly intact leading into 2014, so they can focus most of their attention on allocating the spots in the starting rotation.

Dickey and Buehrle are locks to return, and J.A. Happ is also likely to return if he can recover from a back injury in time for the season. The competition for the remaining two slots is wide open between holdovers Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond and prospects Drew Hutchinson, Marcus Stroman, and Kyle Drabek. Ricky Romero, whose last watchable season was in 2011, also has an outside chance for a spot and has fantasy upside if he can recapture his old form.

By now, we know of what Buehrle is capable of. The big question mark is which version of Dickey to expect this year. Last year, the knuckleballer followed up his 2012 Cy Young performance with decreases in WAR and strikeout rate paired with increases in BB/9, HR/9, fly ball percentage (FB%), ERA, FIP, xFIP, tERA, and SIERA. I think you get the point: this > 2012 Dickey > 2013 Dickey. The 2013 season for the knuckler was a tale of two halves. Going into the All-Star break, Dickey registered a 4.69 ERA. In the second half, Dickey pitched to a 3.56 ERA and even a 7.97 K/9. Unfortunately, the increased amounts of home runs and walks allowed stayed in place, meaning they might follow Dickey into 2014, leading me to believe Dickey will be unable to match his 2012 ERA of 2.73.

There are two reasonable causes for Dickey’s resurgent second half: rest and velocity. Dickey could have been hiding an injury that healed over the break, or he regained his previous levels of knuckleball velocity. They're not necessarily independent or mutually exclusive, so I won’t argue that one is wrong. What I do know is that the success of Dickey’s “hard” knuckler is dependent on velocity, which was down to about 75 miles per hour from April to July of 2013.

In August and September, 95% confidence intervals place the average hard knuckler at about 77 miles per hour. In Dickey’s successful 2012, the average knuckler speed varied between 76.5 and 77.5 miles per hour, so it appears that Dickey’s knuckleball returned to form. Let’s also keep in mind that Dickey’s HR/9 and BB/9 have large upward trends over the past four seasons and are likely to continue.

Tim Horton's, The Breakfast of Sluggers

Manager John Gibbons should be ecstatic to fill out his lineup card. For an offense that rarely had all of its pieces together, Toronto claimed the majors’ ninth-best run-scoring unit and hit the fourth-most round-trippers. Even better, the lineup seeks to improve in structure by replacing the one-dimensional Arencibia with the overpaid Dioner Navarro.

Ryan Goins will also play some second base instead of Maicer Izturis and Bonifacio, but is in the lineup because of his glove. While Anthopoulos made some moves this winter, he seems to have forgotten the bench. Rajai Davis and Bonifacio are gone, leaving Izturis and speedster Anthony Gose as the main bats on the bench. Backup catcher Erik Kratz also has power, should Navarro need a day off. Keep in mind that both Navarro and Kratz are far superior defensive catchers than Arencibia, so pitching might also improve from this change.

Even with the injuries, Toronto brings back four players who clubbed 20 homers in 2013: Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Lind, and Colby Rasmus. If third baseman Brett Lawrie can stay healthy and liven up his bat, he can also pack some power into the middle of the order.

Filling out the order are Reyes at short and Cabrera in left. Both players have likely already had their career years considering Reyes has battled injuries and Cabrera’s top performances appear to be the product of PEDs. However, it's worth noting that, although Reyes will probably not approach his 2005-2008 average of 64.5 steals per year, his OBP, SLG, BB%, and K% are aligned with his career numbers. Essentially, Reyes will set the table for the meat of the order and limit his stolen base attempts.

As for Cabrera, the power from 2011-2012 appears to be an outlier, but he could regain his past success in 2014 if he hits lefties, as his pedestrian hitting in 2013 can be largely attributed to a .516 drop in OPS versus southpaws (not a typo) from 2012 to 2013.

Although Rasmus is looking to stay in the lineup more often after playing only 118 games in 2013, we can't assume that he will greatly improve upon his .276/.338/.501 line with 22 homers. Despite walking less and striking out more, Rasmus saw a batting average spike of 53 points largely thanks to a BABIP increase from .259 to .356. His career BABIP is .298, and Rasmus carried a .354 BABIP in 2010, which fell to .267 in 2011. He also continued his long-standing trend of decreased stolen bases, as he was thrown out in his only attempt. numberFire projects Rasmus to hit 22 home runs and for a .261 average with an expected additional 100-plus plate appearances, and agrees with other projection systems such as ZiPS, Steamer, and Oliver.

I'm fairly confident that the Blue Jays will lead baseball in home runs. With an oft-injured lineup, the Jays still hit for massive power, and Bautista and Encarnacion have peripheral stats that suggest they are due for massive seasons. Joey Bats, nagged by injuries, hit fewer fly balls in 2013, and the ones he hit left the park less often (decreases in FB% and HR/FB). Assuming everything else is constant and that Bautista can stay healthy, those numbers should regress to career levels. Even at the reduced levels, he hit 28 homers in 118 games. You might say that’s R.A.Dickulous!

As for “The Artist Formerly Known as E5”, his power “shortage” was due to a 6.2% decrease in FB%. This is normally an alarming trend, but the missing fly balls were redistributed as line drives and not ground balls. He also suffered from a paltry .247 BABIP and improved his discipline, as he walked more and struck out less. While not recognized, he is easily one of the most complete hitters in baseball.

Can They Compete?

Last year, the Jays were supposed to conquer the challenging AL East. This year, the task remains the same. If we ran many simulations of the 2014 season, there would be an insanely strong correlation between ERA and wins. Last year, a top offense couldn’t overcome a horrendous starting rotation, which features many of the same players as this year’s rotation. Nevertheless, the team should be able to make a run at the playoffs if the roster avoids injuries.