MLB March Report: Toronto Blue Jays

The Toronto Blue Jays have been a steady, winning franchise for several years now. Four times in the last six years they’ve won more than they’ve lost. Of the two non-winning seasons one was last year’s 81-81 campaign and they only losing season was 75-87. Not bad. But in the rugged AL East it hasn’t gotten them within sniffing distance of the playoffs. Now the MLB has added an extra wild-card to the postseason format, perhaps that can change. TheSportsNotebook sizes up Toronto’s chances in 2012 based on their ability to get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: In a division renowned for lineups that grind up starting pitchers with long at-bats and good walk totals setting the stage for power surges, Toronto has question marks when it comes to players who can set the table. The answers to the questions hinge on four players—second baseman Kelly Johnson, third baseman Brett Lawrie, shortstop Yunel Escobar and centerfielder Colby Rasmus.

Johnson played at an All-Star level for Arizona in 2010 and had a good year in Atlanta in 2008. Each ensuing year he was terrible. If the pattern of new city/even-numbered year continues, then manager John Farrell will have someone who can put up good OBP numbers. At the very least, Johnson shouldn’t be the complete liability he was in Arizona last season. Lawrie is being given the third base job at the tender age of 22, and he had a .373 OBP in 150 at-bats a year ago. Escobar had the best year of his career at 29 last year, thanks mainly due to a sharp increase in his batting average. Even if he doesn’t hit, he’s still patient enough at the plate to at least be respectable. If he continues to hit, he becomes a major asset. We’re now waiting to find out if 2011 was a one-year wonder or a player taking his game to a new level. Finally we come to Rasmus, who had a great year in 2010, was off to a great start last year and then completely tanked. That was in St. Louis, and Rasmus fell out of favor with manager Tony LaRussa and was shipped north at the trade deadline. Rasmus is only 25 years old and I think the Jays got a great deal in picking him up. So all four of these players—Johnson, Lawrie, Escobar and Rasmus, have legitimate question marks and none is a slam dunk, it’s also very realistic to think that all four will play well in 2012.

POWER: It’s all built around Jose Bautista. The rightfielder has hit 97 home runs over the past two years and last year showed his ability to put the ball in play, as he lifted his batting average forty points and past the .300 threshold. Lawrie and Rasmus are expected to be supporting players in this area, and catcher J.P. Arencibia hit 23 home runs last year. Arencibia needs to be more consistent when he’s not going deep, but at 26 and with just one year of starting in the big leagues, there’s every reason to think improvement is on the way. A couple other contributors could be DH Edwin Encarcion, who is an above-average offensive player, but given he does nothing other than hit, it seems fair for Farrell to want more than that. And Eric Thames slugged .456 in part-time duty as the leftfielder a year ago.

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STARTING PITCHING: Unless you play in a deep Fantasy League you may not have heard for Ricky Romero, but the 27-year-old Toronto lefty is a pitcher steadily on the rise. He’s had three years in the majors and has improved in every major category every single year. The wins have gone from 13-14-15. ERA has dropped from 4.30 to 3.73 to 2.92. Innings pitched have jumped from 178 to 210 to 225. At this rate, he’s one small step from winning the Cy Young Award. And that’s what he’ll have to do—or at least get very close—if his team is going to push for a spot in the wild-card game. Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil are right behind him, and while both are still young, at 27 and 25 respectively, neither has given signs of imminent development. Dustin McGowan hasn’t been healthy consistently since 2007. Toronto’s best bet after Romero is 21-year-old Henderson Alvarez who posted a 3.53 ERA in ten starts last season.

RELIEF PITCHING: Farrell has fantastic depth in his bullpen this year, giving him plenty of options for covering the weaknesses of the starting rotation. At the back end Sergio Santos is expected to be the closer, after showing he could handle that role with the White Sox. But the Jays also signed Francisco Cordero. While he’s 36 years old, Cordero has been going strong as a closer for several years now, including 37 saves with a 2.45 ERA in Cincinnati last year. One way or the other, the 8th and 9th innings look to be in very good hands.

The depth in front of these two is imposing. Jason Frasor has become a reliable middle man, and can also handle a heavy workload. Darren Oliver is 41 years old, but has been a vital part of playoff bullpens with the Mets (2006), the Angels (2007-09), and the Rangers (2010-11). He still gives you 60-70 innings of work and his ERAs are in the 2s. Casey Janssen is as reliable as anyone in the American League if you need to get through the seventh inning. Carlos Villanueva had a 4.04 ERA last year in extensive work that included some crossovers into the starting rotation, a circumstance I would imagine will continue this year.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL—81: I really like this Blue Jay team and the 81 number has to be more reflective of the strength in their division—playing 54 games against the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox doesn’t help anyone’s win totals. Still, I strongly think this team will win more than it loses and that a run at the wild-card game is at least an outside possibility. Take the Over.