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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Mulliniks’ Moustache #3 – 2014 Blue Jays Season Preview

It’s every baseball fans’ favourite time of year - Spring Training is on the horizon*! Teams are taking shape, optimism abounds and everyone is in first place! Now is an opportune time to look ahead at what I expect from the Toronto Blue Jays in 2014.

In a word? Not much.

Shut up. I know that’s two words.

One small proviso, though: There is an almost microscopic kernel of optimism nestled firmly in my medulla oblongata that has me excited for the upcoming season. You may be asking yourself: “Why would this dimwit be optimistic?” Well that’s a great question, and here’s my answer: the 2014 Blue Jays are, essentially, the 2013 Blue Jays**, who were a near-consensus pick to not only make the playoffs, but to also win the World Series, and the team that played most of last season was decimated by injuries. If a few things go well, really well, and everyone stays reasonably healthy, they have a chance!

Without further adieu, below is my in-depth analyses of the 2014 Toronto Blue Jays.***

Yes, I’m giving “Catching” its own category. I’m doing that for two key reasons:

  1. Catching, overall, is tragically overlooked by fans. I feel it’s such an important position that I’m choosing to start my team analysis with it.
  2. At this point, the only move of consequence made by GM Alex Anthopoulos has been the jettisoning of JP Arencibia for the marked upgrade of Dioner Navarro via free agency.
I truly believe that the addition of Navarro alone will account for 5 more wins over last year. The extra 10-15 homeruns that Arencibia would provide over Navarro will, in no way, make up for Arencibia’s sub-.200 batting average, his massive strikeout totals, his less-than-average defensive skills and his abysmal game-calling. Navarro will help our abundance of young pitchers (who the Blue Jays are apparently going to be leaning on pretty heavily) learn to actually pitch, plus our veteran and young pitchers alike won’t be afraid to throw breaking balls and pitches in the dirt like they were with Arencibia catching.

Starting Pitching
Unless Anthopolous goes out and signs Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, AJ Burnett or a retread looking to regain past glory like Johan Santana (none of which has happened as of February 5, 2014), then a couple of the Blue Jays young guns are going to have to step up if they want even a snowball’s chance in hell of competing for a playoff birth in 2014.

A rotation of RA Dickey, Brandon Morrow, Mark Buehrle, JA Happ (!) and one of: Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison, Sean Nolin, Esmil Rogers, Marcus Stroman, Todd Redmond, Chad Jenkins or everyone’s favourite Komeback Kid™, Dustin McGowan has a chance to be solid, but that requires a whole mess of assumptions. For fun, let’s list everything we’ll have to assume:

  1. Dickey pitches like he did in the second half of the 2013 season
  2. Buehrle pitches like he has the past decade
  3. Morrow rebounds from the past couple of up and down, injury-plagued years
  4. JA Happ doesn’t pitch anything like JA Happ
  5. Drew Hutchison pitches like he did before his Tommy John surgery (which I describe as Josh Towers-esque. And yes, that’s a compliment)
  6. Kyle Drabek puts it all together
  7. Dustin McGowan’s arm doesn’t turn completely to dust in mid-pitch
  8. Four starters each start 30 games
  9. If one, JUST ONE of the “other” youngsters (Nolin, Stroman, Redmond or Jenkins) does ANYTHING of positive consequence
 Oy…that’s a lot of assumptions.

The one overwhelming positive is that the Jays have much more starting pitching depth than last year, which means, at the very least, there should be no Chien Ming Wang’s or Aaron Laffey’s toeing the rubber for the Blue Jays in 2014. The question remains, though: are the Blue Jays deep in quality pitchers? If having too many starting pitchers is your problem, then that’s a great problem to have.

The bullpen is the one aspect of the 2014 Blue Jays for which I have unbridled confidence and an abundance of wide-eyed optimism towards, due to a combination of quality arms, experience, talent, (reasonable) health and incredible depth.

Casey Janssen receives an almost unending stream of flack, but all he does is go out, throw strikes and get people out. Low strikeout totals? Who cares? Even if he falters, Sergio Santos is right there to step into his shoes (assuming he stays healthy). Does anyone expect Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar to repeat their All-Star seasons? Maybe, maybe not, but anything in that general vicinity would obviously be great, and even some regression still means incredible seasons. If Esmil Rogers doesn’t crack the starting rotation, then he slides in perfectly as the long man, which I feel he is far better suited for. And then there’s the plethora of young, hard-throwing pitchers like Jeremy Jeffress, Mickey Storey and Neil Wagner for John Gibbons to rely on. (Wagner and Jeffress are out of options though, so there may be some movement on that front before the season starts).

Let’s not forget about two other lefties that can be called upon – Luis Perez, who should be closer to regaining his form after Tommy John surgery in 2012, and Aaron Loup, who has been solid as a lefty specialist since establishing himself in 2012.

Where is the bullpen hole? Personally I don’t see it. The old saying is that a major league baseball team wants their starters to go 7 innings, with the bullpen closing the final two innings out, but maybe the Blue Jays bullpen strength will make them into a 6-inning team? That doesn’t bode well once they’re in the playoffs, but it might help them get there.

How much will the Blue Jays miss Mark Derosa? How the heck would I know? Obviously, Derosa’s main contribution to the team was that of a mature, steadying force to a couple of the youngsters, primarily the human Pop Rocks and Red Bull container – Brett Lawrie. As of yet, he has not been replaced, so the Blue Jays may be looking for a more valuable player rather than a calming veteran presence.

Maicer Izturis is the sometimes-starting second baseman and back-up infielder who can play anywhere to the left of first base, which is valuable; the back-up catcher (probably Josh Thole) should see as many starts as RA Dickey (and lord help us if injuries befall the Blue Jays to such a degree that he becomes our starter for an extended period).

Which brings us to Moises Sierra. I have to say, I’m not sold on Sierra. Maybe he can hit suitably, but the Jays already have a “can sort of hit but not play defence” player in Adam Lind. Two players like that may help the offence, but the 2013 Blue Jays showed us how foolhardy it is to overlook defence. (As an aside, and just because I’m a glutton for punishment, I want to see Sierra play a single inning at first base, where he has reportedly been taking some reps in winter ball). I would much prefer Sierra OR Lind on the team, rather than Sierra AND Lind, but he’s out of options as well so it’s either put him on the Major League roster or let him go.

On the flip side of the Moises Sierra coin, the head to his tails if you will, is the other utterly unproven, young player slated to make the team - second baseman Ryan Goins. This won’t be a popular sentiment, but I am 100% okay with Goins at second base. Would an upgrade be nice? Of course! But if the Blue Jays start the season with Goins on the right side of the infield, turning double plays with Jose Reyes? I won’t lose any sleep. We know he’ll play solid defence, and he projects to be a line-drive-hitting singles/doubles player. Basically, if his slash line approaches anything resembling what he did last year –  .252/.264/.345 – then we shouldn’t complain (although that On-base Percentage could afford to come up a little).

By all accounts, the Blue Jays should also be set defensively at shortstop (Reyes may have lost half a step, but he’s still an upper echelon defender) and third base, with the young and defensively dynamic Brett Lawrie (the only bold prediction I’ll make: Lawrie wins a Gold Glove this year). Edwin Encarnacion is better at first than he has any right to be, and even Lind has shown improvement there as well. Colby Rasmus is borderline great at centre field and Jose Bautista is significantly underrated at right field. We’ve already discussed Dioner Navarro at catcher, so, to me, the only true question mark is left field - did Melky Cabrera’s tumour removal really improved his mobility as has been speculated? No one should see him as a Gold Glover, but the Cabrera we saw last year won’t get the job done. If he continues to play as he did last year, then it’s him and Sierra in a coin flip at left field. At that, my optimism I mentioned earlier flies right out the window.

The Blue Jays overall lineup looks to be solid, with only a few question marks – Goins, Navarro, Sierra. Here’s how I see the batting order taking shape:
  1. Jose Reyes
  2. Melky Cabrera
  3. Jose Bautista
  4. Edwin Encarnacion
  5. Adam Lind/Moises Sierra
  6. Brett Lawrie
  7. Colby Rasmus
  8. Ryan Goins
  9. Dioner Navarro
I think any of Lind/Sierra, Lawrie and Rasmus can be swapped in/out and dropped/bumped up depending on who’s hot and who they’re facing on a given day (of course, any lefty starter means Lind will be on the bench). I can also see Goins sliding into the number two hole (if necessary) depending how he fares early on in the season (there’s nothing worse than a #2 hitter who strikes out too much).

In terms of team offense, there shouldn’t be much to be concerned about, aside from the bottom of the line-up, where the 8/9 hitters (Navarro/Goins) are obvious “defense for offense” trades. The highlights:
  • Reyes is a prototypical leadoff batter (the first one the Jays have had in years) who should hit over .300 and steal some bases.
  • Cabrera doesn’t strike out much and takes a lot of pitches, which is ideal for a #2 batter.
  • Bautista has had a couple of injury-shortened season, but he’s still one of the most feared sluggers around.
  • Encarnacion has turned himself into one of the most complete hitters in baseball.
  • Look for Rasmus to continue to build off of his strong 2013 season, in which case he’ll plant himself firmly in the 5/6 hole, which is ideal for him because he still strikes out too much.
Bautista/Encarnacion are the real meat of the lineup and combine to give the Blue Jays one of best 3/4 hitter combinations in baseball. As mentioned above, the 5-6-7 hitters can be moved around based on matchups, hot streaks or John Gibbons’ gut feelings. Although, Gibbons prefers to trot out the same line-up day after day (when possible) so he may stick to one formula, assuming it’s working.

The hiring of Kevin Seitzer as hitting coach may have some impact, maybe not. He is supposedly a line drive, doubles, use-the-whole-field-type of coach, which is right in the wheelhouse of both Goins and Lawrie, not so much Rasmus or Sierra. All of the veteran players should pretty much be left alone to do what they do best.

The Bottom Line
It comes down to health – I know, that’s a revolutionary thought. If the Blue Jays aren’t decimated by injuries, and a few other things go well, they have a definite chance at making the playoffs. However, the Red Sox are defending World Series Champs, the Yankees retooled big time (while eliminating any concept of fiscal responsibility), and the Tampa Bay Rays are as solid as ever. Despite what I think is a pretty solid team, I predict the Blue Jays will be in a dog fight (bird fight?) for fourth place with the Baltimore Orioles.

* Blue Jays’ pitchers and catchers officially report on February 16th, 2014.

**Yes, I know one of the missing pieces is Josh Johnson, whom many were factoring into their predictions last year. I was less influenced by his presence.

***I’ll probably be wrong about all of this.
Starting Lineup/Batting Order
Jose Reyes – Short Stop
Ryan Goins – Third Base
Jose Bautista – Right Field
Edwin Encarnacion – First Base
Adam Lind – Designated Hitter
Melky Cabrera – Right Field
Brett Lawrie – Third Base
Colby Rasmus – Centre Field
Dioner Navarro – Catcher

Maicer Izturis – Infielder
Moises Sierra – Outfielder/First baseman (please)
Josh Thole – Catcher

Starting Rotation
RA Dickey – RHP
Brandan Morrow – RHP
Mark Buehrle – LHP
JA Happ – LHP

Casey Janssen – RHP
Sergio Santos – RHP
Steve Delabar – RHP
Brett Cecil – LHP
Aaron Loup – LHP
Esmil Rogers – RHP
McGowan/Jeffress/Storey/Wagner/Perez/Random Frequent Flier


  1. Great read! Gold Glove for Lawrie? I can see that happening! Wish you talked about his offense more though - interested in how you think he'll do this year at the plate,


  2. This comment has convinced me to write a whole entry about young Lawrie. I should have it done this week.