MLB Coverage: Boston & Toronto Reverse Roles

One of these AL East teams was aggressive in the offseason, made a big splash and is getting a lot of attention as the candidate to displace the New York Yankees atop the American League East. The other team is coming off a bad year, one of the biggest salary dumps in history and is laying relatively low. Normally you’d have no trouble identifying which of these teams is the Toronto Blue Jays and which is the Boston Red Sox. But this year, the Jays & Sox have reversed roles—Toronto even traded Boston their manager for good measure. TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage previews both teams and measures their chances against the projected win total Las Vegas has posted for each.

Boston: John Farrell has returned to town after a mostly unsuccessful two-year run managing north of the border. Farrell was still a popular choice in the Hub—he was a successful pitching coach here, notably with the 2007 World Series winner, and he’s said to have an especially good rapport with Jon Lester and Clay Bucholz.

Lester and Bucholz are where a Red Sox Revival would have to start. Lester, after a steady run of seasons where he won at least 15 games and had an ERA in the 3s, ended up at 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA in 2012. Given the chaotic environment he worked in, betting on a return to form from the lefthander seems pretty safe. But that same can’t be said for Bucholz. The 28-year-old has electric stuff, but he’s been in the majors regularly since 2008 (his 2007 no-hitter came as a call-up) and there’s only been once season where Bucholz pitched consistently well and stayed healthy. It’s reasonable to hope for a year where he has 20-25 starts, a couple DL stints and pitches like an All-Star, but 2010 was the only year where the righthander stayed healthy and pitched well all year long.

Farrell will be relying on a couple veterans to balance out the rotation. Boston added Ryan Dempster, a move I find highly questionable. Dempster only had one really good year pitching with the Chicago Cubs and that was 2008. Otherwise he was a steady, if unspectacular pitcher. Before you argue that’s all the Red Sox need, let me point that “steady and unspectacular” against NL Central lineups usually translates into “mediocre to bad” against American League lineups. And that’s exactly what Dempster was in Texas during the stretch drive after he was dealt at the July 31 trade deadline. The other vet the Sox will turn to is John Lackey. If he can overcome Tommy John surgery and the otherwise horrible performance that has marked his tenure in Fenway, the Sox will be fine.

Suffice it to say, I see more problems than potential when it comes to the rotation. The bullpen is a similar mix of question marks, although I think with more positives. Joel Hanrahan is the new closer and he’s saved 76 games with a composite 2.26 ERA over the last two seasons. Andrew Bailey and Koji Uehara are strong setup candidates, Andrew Miller is a nice lefthanded option and if Daniel Bard can revive his career, this corps could be very strong. Bard’s comeback might be necessary though, because as good as Bailey can be in the setup role (or closer if necessary) he spends a lot of time on the disabled list.

It’s tough to get a feel on how good the offense might be. The positives start with Dustin Pedroia—he had the worst offensive season of his career in 2012 and still ended up with a .347 on-base percentage/.449 slugging percentage. If that’s the worst we’re going to see from Pedroia, the Red Sox are in good shape. Will Middlebrooks is a young stud at third base, who hit .288 with 15 home runs before being derailed by a thumb injury. Mike Napoli hits for a ton of power and draws a lot of walks, something he shares in common with David Ortiz. Throw in a healthy Jacoby Ellsbury and possibly a revived Shane Victorino and you have the makings of a team that can score runs.

Now the negatives—let’s start with the fact that hoping for Ellsbury’s health is like hoping for Bucholz—it’s a nice wish, but little to suggest it will come through all year. Your best hope is just that the disabled list time isn’t extensive or with a hangover effect after the return. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is an incredibly overrated catcher—he hits some home runs, but with an OBP of .288, he better hit about 40 before we can consider him anything other than a liability. Stephen Drew is dealing with a concussion and the shortstop has had major injury problems the last two years. A Victorino comeback is far from a sure thing, Ortiz has an Achilles problem and it’s tough to know what to expect from the leftfield tandem of Jonny Gomes and Danny Nava.

The soap opera has left town with the firing of Bobby Valentine, although the media in Boston usually works overtime to get a sequel underway. At least for now though, it’s a little quieter and there’s no reason to think the Red Sox will lose 93 games again. In fact, getting back over .500 is a very reasonable goal. But if you want to think about contending for an AL East title or playoff spot, it requires a lot of optimism in thinking everything will seamlessly come together. I’m a Red Sox fan who’s getting ready to go to Fort Myers and watch some spring training games in the week leading up to Easter, and I’m feeling a lot of optimism. Enough so, that I would take the “Over” on the posted win projection of 83. But I’m feeling realistic enough to say they won’t go Over by very much.

Toronto: Pitching has been the Toronto problem in the twenty years that stand between now and their back-to-back World Series titles of 1992-93—also the last time they were in the postseason. The Jays went all-in to solve the problem this offseason. They traded for NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, and also added Josh Johnson and Mark Buerhle, formerly of Miami.

Maybe I’m just in a pessimistic mood today, but like Boston, I still see more problems here than is generally being reported. I know Dickey can keep throwing his knuckleball five more years, but does anyone really expect the 38-year-old to perform at anywhere close to his level of his 20-win season with the Mets? Especially facing lineups stacked with DHs and considering the Rogers Centre won’t swallow up fly balls the way Citi Field did.

Johnson is Toronto’s version of Bucholz—very talented and very fragile. If nothing else, Buerhle can be relied on—he’s steady in giving you 30-plus starts every year, chewing up innings and being at least respectable in the ERA category. And unlike Dickey and Johnson, almost all of his previous success was compiled in the American League, back in his run with the White Sox.

Toronto might be pleasantly surprised at the bottom of the rotation though. 28-year-old Brandon Morrow had a 2.96 ERA in 21 starts last year. And while Ricky Romero had a bad year, he is just two years removed from looking like an emerging ace. Maybe the presence of a veteran like Buerhle can help him stabilize.

Offensively this team has been defined by Jose Bautista for three years and in that light I think his dropoff last year was paradoxically good. Using similar logic to what I wrote about Pedroia further up, if a .385//527 stat line is the worst you’re going to get from Bautista, then life is very good.

The rest of the lineup could go any which way. Is Edwin Encarcion really going to replicate his .384/.557 year with 42 home runs? I doubt it. Will Melky Cabrera return to his relatively mediocre offensive numbers that marked his career prior to the injection of PEDs? Probably. Jose Reyes is at shortstop, but has anyone else noticed that he’s only one good year in the last four and it’s the season he played for his free agent contract? Colby Rasmus has tremendous potential at center, but he hasn’t done it on the field since 2010 and Tony LaRussa gave up on him in St. Louis. Adam Lind is the DH and hasn’t’ been productive since 2009.

I haven’t hidden the fact that I’m on the pessimist side of these players, but we do have to be fair and acknowledge that every one of them have some sort of record that suggests that can deliver. The swing vote, to use a political term, is going to be the development of catcher J.P. Arencibia and third baseman Brett Lawrie. Both are highly regarded young players. Arencibia is at a key crossroads—he has not hit well in two full years, but the organization still traded away a top young catcher in the deal to get Dickey. Now it’s up to Arencibia to live up to the confidence at age 27. Lawrie isn’t under the gun quite as much, but the third base job is clearly his and he needs to hit if this lineup is going to fulfill its potential.

The offense and the starting pitching needs to deliver, because there are questions in the bullpen. If Casey Janssen and Sergio Santos stay healthy and consistent they can be a good—albeit not great—duo for the last two innings. But here again, you’re having to go on blind optimism that they can do it. Darren Oliver is reliable in a setup role and if J.A. Happ could get his career on track in the bullpen it would give manager John Gibbons a lot of flexibility.

Gibbons himself is one of the more mysterious hires. He was fired here in a previous run and I’m not sure why the front office would bring him back in a year where they’ve obviously shoved all their chips on the table. Gibbons might be the only first-year manager on the hot seat leading up to Memorial Day. Las Vegas is very high on this team, with a projected win number of 89. I see them somewhere in the 83-88 win category, not a lot different from the Red Sox. But because expectations are different, I have to go Under on Toronto.