2011 Toronto Blue Jays: Ninja-like GM gives Jays’ fans high expectations for 2011, but are they warranted?

2010 Record: 85-77, 4th AL East
2010 Prediction: 68-94, 5th AL East
Diff: 17
2011 Prediction: 4th AL East

Impact Player: 3B/RF Jose Bautista
Impact Pitcher: RHP Brandon Morrow
Best Reliever: RHP Frank Francisco
Top Prospect: RHP Kyle Drabek

General Manager: Alex Anthopoulos
Manager: John Farrell

Significant Acquisitions:
RHP Octavio Dotel, RHP Jon Rauch, RHP Frank Francisco, OF Juan Rivera, OF Rajai Davis, RHP Carlos Villanueva, OF Corey Patterson, UTIL Brett Lawrie

Significant Departures:
C John Buck, 1B Lyle Overbay, OF Fred Lewis, CF Vernon Wells, OF Dewayne Wise, RHP Shaun Marcum, RHP Kevin Gregg, LHP Scott Downs, LHP Brian Tallet, RHP Jeremy Accardo

Is there a better way for me to be wrong?  After trading away Roy Halladay prior to last season, I thought the Jays would have a hard time in 2010.  After all, this was a losing team in ’09 with Halladay, the Jays really had no business surprising everyone and winning 85 games in 2010.

My prediction made sense, I mean how many people really thought the Jays would get career years from players like Jose Bautista and John Buck?  How many people, besides this guy, thought Vernon Wells would have a bounce-back season?  How many people thought the young starting rotation would mature so quickly?

The Jays made perhaps the biggest trade of the offseason and certainly the most surprising when they hoodwinked Angels’ GM Tony Reagins into taking Wells and his remaining four years and $86-million off their hands.  In return, the Jays grabbed outfielder Juan Rivera and catcher Mike Napoli who was then flipped to the Rangers for reliever Frank Francisco.  The move made Jays’ GM Alex Anthopoulos look like a genius (some would say ninja, or even a witch) and gives Toronto unprecedented financial flexibility going forward.

It would be easy to forecast the Jays 2011 season as one of continued growth, but looking at this roster, some questions arise.  Without Shaun Marcum (who was traded to Milwaukee for prospect Brett Lawrie) does the rotation take a short-term step back?  Can Bautista build on his historic season with another MVP-like year?  Even though the trade was nothing but positive, will the Jays be able to replace the offense lost by Wells in 2011?  These are questions that a lot of Jays’ fans are asking and they may not like the answers they get.

Starting Rotation
With Marcum gone, the Jays are still left with three premium young starters about to enter their prime.  Ricky Romero has strung together back-to-back solid seasons and improved immensely over his successful rookie year.  He threw over 200-innings for the first time in 2010 and improved his K/9 rate from 7.13 to 7.46, his BB/9 rate from 3.99 to 3.51 and his HR/9 rate from 0.91 to 0.64.  His FIP dropped to an excellent 3.64 and he was fifth in the AL in GB% at 55.2%.  He enters the 2011 season as the probable Opening Day starter.

Brett Cecil led the staff with 15 wins and improved his walk rate to a solid 2.82 BB/9.  At just 24, he should finally be rid of an inning-limit and allowed to pitch deeper into games.  He still has plenty more potential to grow into.

The pitcher with unquestionably the most upside on this team is Brandon Morrow.  Morrow just missed qualifying in stat categories, but if he had, he would have led the majors in K/9 at a ridiculous 10.95.  He got better as the season went on which can only mean good things heading into 2011.  His 17 strike-out one-hit performance was the best single-game pitching performance in the Majors last year, perfect games and no-hitters included.  He was shut down for September, but he should be allowed to approach 200 innings this season.  By this time next year, we’ll be talking about Morrow as the ace of this team.  Remember how Anthopoulos acquired him for a struggling middle-reliever and a low-level prospect outfielder?  Me too.  That was awesome.

The trading of Marcum allows the Jays to give an increased role to Kyle Drabek, the centerpiece of the Halladay deal.  Drabek did not look overwhelmed in three September starts and put up 14 wins and a 3.87 FIP in AA-New Hampshire last season.  If he struggles, the Jays will have no problem letting him develop further in AAA.

The fifth spot in the rotation will be a spring competition between lefties Marc Rzepczynski and Brad Mills and righties Jesse Litsch, Robert Ray and possibly Carlos Villanueva who may get crowded out of the bullpen.

Bullpen
Anthopoulos confused some people by acquiring a stable full of right-handed relief in the offseason, first by trading for Villanueva, then by signing veterans Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch, and then by flipping Napoli for Francisco.  Considering the Jays already had Jason Frasor, Casey Janssen, Shawn Camp, and Josh Roenicke all of these deals seem unnecessary.

It is likely, however, that Anthopoulos is stock-piling depth to stave off injuries and field a shut-down bullpen.  He may also trade one of the holdovers for some outfield help or more prospects before the season gets underway.  Villanueva has starting experience which could lead to him anchoring the back end of the rotation.

Having several potential typed free agents also doesn’t hurt since Anthopoulos has shown a willingness to take advantage of the free agent compensation system.  Several of these relievers could end up Type-A or Type-B free agents at season’s end, allowing the Jays to continue stock-piling draft picks.

Either way, bullpen depth such as this is rare and it could lead to the Jays having a situational late-inning dream-team for new manager John Farrell to work with.

No closer has been named but Francisco seems the most likely choice considering he has easily posted the best numbers in the last few years.  His fairly even splits suggest he would do well in the role.

Dotel, on the other hand, can’t get lefties out to save his life so he will likely only pitch when there are several tough righties to face late in a game.  Rauch would work well as an eighth inning option.

There will likely only be room to carry one left-hander which means one of David Purcey and Jesse Carlson will fill that role.  Mills, Luis Perez, Jo-Jo Reyes, Rzepczynski, or non-roster players Rommie Lewis, Sean Henn, Mike Hinckley, and Wil Ledezma might also be in the mix for that spot depending on circumstance and spring performance.

Catchers
The Jays apparently feel that Pacific Coast League MVP J.P. Arencibia is ready to be an everyday catcher at the Major-League level.  Despite some concerns about his approach and his defence, Arencibia will be given every shot to prove that he’s the catcher of the future for this franchise.  If his .985 OPS, .412 wOBA and 32 home runs in Las Vegas last year are any indication, he could be an impact player right away.

With the trading of Napoli, there isn’t much insurance if Arencibia struggles and has to be demoted.  Jose Molina was retained to be the backup and he’s fine in that role, but the 36-year-old would not make a suitable starter.  Brian Jeroloman is on the 40-man roster but has not lived up to his once promising prospects and doesn’t appear at all ready to make the jump to the majors.  The only other available catcher is non-roster invite Ryan Budde.

Infielders
Up the middle, the Jays are solidified with Aaron Hill at second and Yunel Escobar at short.  Hill hit just .205 last season after his breakout ’09 campaign, but he still hit 26 homeruns.  His .271 OBP and .665 OPS won’t impress anyone, but he should rebound slightly in 2010.  Before you get your hopes up too high, he’ll never be close to the player he was in 2009; that was an aberration.  Despite all that, he’s still an above-average all-around second baseman.

Escobar, on the other hand, was ditched by the Braves in a mid-season deal and is primed to return to his 2009 form.  That year he had a .299/.377/.318 slash line with 14 home runs and a 4.3 WAR rating.  In 2010, he proved he was a well-above-average defensive shortstop with a 4.3 UZR rating which means any positive offensive outcome is a bonus.

At the corners, things are a little muddier for Toronto.  Lyle Overbay signed with the Pirates leaving former DH Adam Lind as his most likely predecessor.  Lind is unproven defensively but will be given every opportunity to prove that he belongs there.  At the plate, like Hill, he had a set-back season after his breakout ’09, but with solid swing mechanics and a more patient approach now that Cito Gaston is gone, Lind is a strong candidate to bounce back.  Edwin Encarnacion was retained on a free agent deal and could also see time at first base.

54-homerun man Jose Bautista (that still sounds weird) is currently the starting third baseman, but could move to right field if the Jays acquire another bat to play third, first or DH.  My personal opinion is that he’s much more valuable to the team as a third baseman, but he has stated that he’d prefer to play in the outfield.  Either way, he’ll likely still see some time in right which means Encarnacion will still see some time at third.

Before you ask, I don’t think Lawrie has much of a chance of cracking the big league roster this season, barring a stupidly good performance.  He still hasn’t found a position and has only two full seasons of pro-ball under his belt.  2012 is more realistic; there is absolutely no rush.

Outfielders
This is the year Travis Snider could finally have his breakout season.  Jays’ fans have been growing impatient with the baby-faced slugger even though he is still just 23-years-old.  Patience is a virtue my fellow Jays’ crazies, just keep it together, Snider is going to be a very good player.  He’ll likely start most of his games in right field, sliding over to left when Bautista gets a day off from playing third.

Speedster Rajai Davis was acquired for a couple minor-league relievers from the A’s in the offseason and should take over as the everyday centerfielder for the departed Wells.  He’s the fastest player the Jays have had since the days of Roberto Alomar and Devon White but won’t produce offensively in quite the same way.  He still hit .284 with a decent .697 OPS in 2010.

Rivera will likely open as the everyday leftfielder although he could be traded before Opening Day.  Either way, he’s a free agent at season’s end and will likely not be back in 2012.  Rivera is a serviceable player whose numbers have been comparable to Wells’ over the past couple seasons.  His .312 OBP in 2010 doesn’t exactly produce positive emotions.

If the Jays acquire another bat to play one of the corner infield spots or DH before the season, Rivera will likely shift into a fourth outfielder role.  Right now, the best option for said role is likely non-roster invite Corey Patterson.  The Jays also added Darin Mastroianni to the 40-man roster last month and he could end up cracking the Opening Day lineup.  Mastroianni is a terrific centerfielder with great speed and a knack for getting on base.  Some insiders believe he could be the Jays’ version of Brett Gardner.

For a chartified breakdown of the Jays’ current roster and lineup, click here.

Overview
I may have to trade in my fan card, but I believe the Jays will take a small step back in 2011.  Their starting depth is thin outside of the big three and like it or not, their lineup has little chance of putting out the offensive performance they did last year. Bautista will be hard-pressed to come close to replicating 2010’s numbers and Hill and Lind bouncing back won’t make up for the loss of Bautista’s production and the loss of Wells.  If Arencibia experiences a setback then the catcher situation is dire.

Don’t get me wrong, the Jays are clearly headed in the right direction and it is truly an exciting time to be a fan of this team, but I think expecting them to equal last year’s win total in the cut-throat AL East is asking for disappointment.  I hope I’m as wrong as I was last year.
Final Prediction: 79-83, 4th AL East

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6 responses to “2011 Toronto Blue Jays: Ninja-like GM gives Jays’ fans high expectations for 2011, but are they warranted?

  1. Disagree slightly about the outside of the starting 3 being thin. Drabek could have a breakout season giving the Jays 4 rock solid starters.

    • My concern is that he skipped AAA. He’s certainly a high-ceiling player, but he’s still unproven. You can’t say you’re going to get a certain level of production until you see it. The same goes for Arencibia: We just don’t know how they’re going to adjust to being everyday major-league players yet. If they both prove ready right away then that alters things

  2. Sounds about right, thery are probably taking a step backwards this season, but the future certainly looks bright!

  3. Drabek skipping AAA is a good thing, the last thing you want for a young pitcher is to pitch in the PCL. Until the Jays get their affiliate out of that league (which they’re desperate to do, but can’t find another dance partner). I wouldn’t plan on a lot of the Jays best arms (McGuire, Jenkins & Stewart) stopping over in Las Vegas. Plan on seeing a lot of AA -> Toronto Call-ups from the mound.

  4. This last trade for infielders Hill and MacDonald was unique.None of these players will ever set any houses on fire,but they will all be free agents in about 4 weeks.MacDonald will be invaluable as an extra coach and a great club house man in general.He requested the opportunity of playing on a potential championship team which was afforded him He is a valuable asset to any team,and can certainly be a difference maker. He may well end up back with the Jays next year.Hill has a far greater upside,but seems to have staled here.

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