Sunday, March 18, 2012

Playing Nice With Others

Photo credit to Daylife, because it was a picture I could find with the Jays in first place.

Our blogging pal the Tao has been doing yeoman's work with his 30 Jays in 30 Days series, and I've done my best to add an off-field dimension to the body of work during my weekend time. But I got an email from a chap named Bryan O’Connor, who puts together the Replacement Level Baseball Blog, asking me to contribute a bit of a preview of the Blue Jays as part of a collaboration between him and some other bloggers who follow and write about AL East teams. I thought I'd press pause on the Jays previews to look at the team and a division as a whole. Below is my submission. You'll be able to find all the stuff on Bryan's site, and I'd encourage you to visit.

What is your team's ceiling in 2012? What has to go right for them to win the AL East?

“Ceiling” is a funny word to apply to a team, especially during Spring Training and the early season, when we all cling to the mythology about every team having a shot at the division and the World Series and other untold glories. Reality eventually gets in the way for teams like the Blue Jays, who play in what is obviously the toughest division in baseball and probably the toughest division in professional sports.

There’s no doubt the Jays have improved, although there seems to be a tendency to discount how much they’ve improved after a quiet offseason. They didn’t add Prince Fielder (like a lot of fans wanted), or Yu Darvish (like a lot of fans were led to believe they would). They picked up what should be some helpful bullpen pieces in Francisco Cordero, Darren Oliver and Sergio Santos, and reacquired Jason Frasor to stabilize the relief corps as well. They said goodbye to Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch and Shawn Camp. On the offensive side, they picked up just some marginal pieces in Ben Francisco (thereby maintaining their Francisco quotient as mandated by Canadian law) and Jeff “Worst Hitter in Baseball Hahaha I Can’t Believe Someone Gave Him a Job” Mathis as backups.

So yeah, nothing earth-shattering was added between October and March. But don’t forget that the 2011 Blue Jays gave regular playing time to the likes of Corey Patterson, Juan Rivera, and Jayson Nix – useful players in certain situations, but not the kind that are going to help you cut the mustard against the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox. Those guys are gone, and the 2012 edition will feature full seasons of Brett Lawrie, Kelly Johnson, Colby Rasmus and one of Eric Thames or Travis Snider. Every one of them is (or should be) an upgrade over what was in place last year.

Still, a lot has to go right for the Blue Jays to win the Al East. Jose Bautista, arguably the best hitter in baseball, needs to have another season like 2010 and 2011. Lawrie, Rasmus and Johnson will need to perform better than the various occupants of their positions for most of 2011. I don’t think that will be all that difficult. Where the rubber meets the road for the Jays is in the starting rotation. Ricky Romero looks more like the real deal with every passing season, and expectations are high for Brandon Morrow to finally see his results match his excellent peripherals. After those two, though, it’s a lot of hope. Henderson Alvarez impressed during his ten games last season, but he really only has two pitches. Brett Cecil has arrived to camp in the much-ballyhooed “best shape of his life” but questions about his fastball velocity remain troublesome, and he spent much of last season in AAA-ball. Dustin McGowan could be an amazing and inspirational comeback story; or he could pitch 40 innings and never be heard from again. Kyle Drabek could begin putting it together, finding the strike zone and showing the world why he was the prized prospect in the Roy Halladay trade, but he’s just as likely to start the season in the minors.

Rumours (with a “u”!) abound about Alex Anthopoulos seeking out another arm to add to the mix before the season. I wouldn’t discount the possibility of that happening; as mentioned above, Anthopoulos has shown a talent for acquiring pieces during the course of the season, including at the trade deadline. In fact, if this team finds itself legitimately in the hunt for a playoff spot, it has the depth in the minor league system (with a near-consensus rank of second in all of baseball) to move prospects for additional talent this year. That’s the sort of deal that could really raise the ceiling for the team.

What is your team's floor in 2012? What has to go wrong for them to miss the playoffs (even with a ridiculous second Wild Card)?

Almost all you need to know about the Jays and the AL East, quite frankly, is that the floor that many see for the team is the ceiling that many others see: fourth place. The Yankees are still going to be awfully good. So are the Rays. And Boston was the best team in baseball for about half of last season (with such intense focus on the team’s September troubles, people forget just how good they were before that). The Jays need to overtake one of those three teams to even glimpse a one-game play-in against another wild card team. But with the Angels and Rangers in the West getting even better, there are no guarantees a third-place finish in the East gets you anything but a warm, fuzzy feeling heading into October.

Really, not much needs to go wrong for the Jays to miss the playoffs. That’s the status quo. I expect the team to be better than they were last year – say, 86 wins? – but I don’t think that would be enough to keep them playing into the fall.

In 1 to 5 paragraphs, how do you see the division playing out this year? Is there a team you're particularly afraid of?

I’ve mostly answered that above. I expect that by the end of September, some combination of the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox will be in a 1-2-3 position in the East. Really going out on a limb, I know.

But… but… players get injured. Players have breakthrough seasons. Players go into terrible slumps. I think the Jays have a superior lineup to most teams in the American League. I think they can hang with the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Tigers, Angels and Rangers – maybe not well enough to get to 90+ wins if all teams field run their best out there every inning, but well enough to be the sort of team that you don’t want to see coming into town for a four-game set when you’re in the running for a playoff position yourself. And you never know, maybe this is the year the Jays are the ones in the running.


the professor said...

sure we need to have a realistic approach to this season of high expectations, so let's look at th NYY: CC has been hitable reularily in the past; Pineda has the rookie swagger but, another Alvarez???; Hughes had dead arm issues, can he come back?;Freddie on Elm street, scarey; that other rookie phenom, can't remember his name has been hit hard all spring ah yes Nova; their pen is solid, but, Mariano did join humanity and blew some saves. Their bats are ok but ARod is breaking down from all the 'roids, Jeter, God love him is only a few years behind Omar V., they're very much at risk

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