It was just last October when Salvador Perez struck out to the energizer bunny of pitchers, Madison Bumgarner, to end Game 7 of the World Series and give San Francisco its third World Series Championship in 5 years. Many remember the 2014 post season that the Kansas City Royals had because of their historically great bullpen, timely bursts of power, and use of speed on the bases. Jays fans, however, were left to dwell on a more negative accomplishment. With Kansas City’s playoff appearance, the Royals left Toronto in possession of the longest current post-season drought in all of North American professional sports. It has been 21 years since Joe touched ‘em all (here it is if you haven’t watched it again this week), and since then, the Blue Jays have had as many games of baseball in October as Toronto has had Stanley Cup parades down Yonge Street (hint: zero). Yes, there have been a few exciting moments for the team and a few great players have graced downtown Toronto with their grit and skill. But in the end, October has been a time for watching the players of other teams as they play for distant cities. So the question is, “Will this year be different?”
It’s been two years since Blue Jay’s General Manager Alex Anthopoulos pulled off the big trades that left the city buzzing and left Jays fans salivating for a taste of post season glory. It didn’t happen two years ago. Then last year, despite a record setting May and a six and a half game division lead, misery again filled the concrete confines of the Rogers Centre as it seems to do every summer. However, this off season’s moves and the cast of characters that make up this team leave us with legitimate new hope and excitement for the 2015 season.
Alex Anthopoulos was busy early on this off-season. In late November, he signed catcher Russell Martin for 5 years at a whopping $82 Million. This was the largest free agent signing in franchise history, and sent a message to fans that the front office is serious about winning. Martin, a Canadian, is credited for having turned the Pittsburgh Pirates from major league laughing stock into a 2-time playoff team. His presence behind the plate has been thought to sharpen young pitching staffs through leadership, game calling, and a top notch ability to frame pitches. His leadership has also been said to extend through the whole clubhouse and instill a winning attitude. If the intangibles are not your thing, he brings with him some pretty nice tangibles as well. His career OBP of .354 sure looks good amongst the power heavy line up sported by the Jays. According to FanGraphs.com, he has a career wRC+ of 106 (Weighted Runs Created: a measure of total run creation by an offensive player with 100 being league average). That’s some nice, if not spectacular, offensive production for a catcher and it looks even better when you consider his 2014 numbers. He hit .291, with an OBP of .402 and a wRC+ of 140. Granted, that uptick in production was probably due in no small part to his BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) of .336 which is almost definitely unsustainable, but he’s still projected to have a WAR of 4.3 this season. And finally, let’s not forget about his blocking skills and his ability to throw out base stealers (CS% of 40% and 39%, respectively, over the past two seasons).
AA didn’t stop there. He brought in another big name in Josh Donaldson for Brett “Glass Man” Lawrie as well as Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin, and Franklin Baretto. Donaldson needs no introduction as he’s spent the last two seasons making the cavernous Oakland Coliseum look smaller than a T-ball diamond next to a primary school. Over the last two seasons he hit 53 home runs with an OPS of .883 in 2013 and .798 in 2014. Defensively, he saved 31 runs in that time. Although Lawrie was also great defensively, we never saw much of it. Juan “Please Don’t Throw Him A Curveball” Francisco actually had the most time at the hot corner for the Jays last year, and well…we know how that went. Simply put, Donaldson stays on the field and Lawrie doesn’t (knock on wood). One thing Donaldson might not replace is the over-the-top personality of Brett Lawrie.
But I think that might be for the best…
Another notable off-season addition is Michael Saunders. This move was a prime example of our boy genius selling high on a fifth starter, who happened to have a good second half, for a legitimate everyday left fielder with plenty of upside.
And finally, try as hard as you want but you’ll find it impossible not to love Devon Travis. Factor in that second base has been the blackest of black holes since way back when Aaron Hill was good and factor in all of the times you threw your remote at the TV after Gose struck out on a pitch meant for a cricket game and you’ll probably be able to smile about this trade. I could go on about Justin Smoak, Dan Duquette, the lack of bullpen moves, and a million other things, but I think it’s time to get into this 2015 Season Preview.
The Jays main strength is the top of their batting order. It’s rare to have 3 guys in a row who on their own could hit 30 dingers with 100 RBIs without anybody being surprised, but that’s what the Jays have in Bautista, EE, and Donaldson. A healthy Jose Reyes to set the table and an OBP machine like Martin pre-empting this “trio of doom” should score lots and lots of runs. Six through nine will be a little more interesting. Pompey and Travis each had good springs but both are rookies with a lot to prove. Then again, considering the 2014 occupants of these positions, with Rasmus in centre and Izturis/Tolleson/Lawrie/Kawasaki/Goins/Getz/God knows who else at second, the bar is set pretty low for these two rookies. Will the Smoak/Valencia platoon experiment at first base work? Who knows, but batting sixth or seventh, the pressure on them to produce won’t be too high. Overall, if this lineup stays healthy, it should be very competitive.
Man I miss watching these.
Starting pitching is a little more complicated. After posting the a 22nd ranked ERA in 2014, the starting pitching could use a little improvement and at the very least it can’t afford to get any worse. Dickey and Buehrle are a year older but we might as well expect them to do their thing (200+ IP with ERAs around 4 and hopefully around 13-15 wins). Hutchison is seen as a potential breakout candidate now that he’s another year removed from Tommy John surgery and after posting a K/9 of a whopping 10.17 in the second half of last year, thanks to this slider. Stroman’s injury means that both Sanchez and Norris will be starting. That’s another example of the Jays going with high upside/high risk youth. These guys can come out and be unhittable or they could have the all too common control issues endemic to rookie starters. Sanchez needs to show that his changeup and curveball can get hitters out, in addition to the 10,000 mile an hour sinking fastball that he showcased last year. Norris can also pitch (when he’s not being confused for a homeless dude in parking lots). He will need to have the fastball command that eluded him in his September stint and show us why he’s seen as the Jay’s top pitching prospect. The depth is scary thin so needing good health from all these guys goes without saying.
Finally, the bullpen (insert nervous swallow here). Last year, it was 25th in the league with a 4.09 ERA and key pieces Casey Janssen and Dustin McGowan were lost in free agency. Surprisingly, little was done to address the bullpen over the winter, and now the Jays are rolling out with Redmond, Estrada, Hendricks, Loup, Cecil, Castro, Osuna, and Hynes (Hendricks will probably be snuck through waivers soon, though). I’m sure that I’m not the only one who didn’t have that list on their bingo card. Cecil’s been handed the closer’s role after his two years of consistently getting outs in high leverage spots. His state of mind and curve ball will determine whether he remains there. Loup could use a lower walk rate this year after posting a career high BB/9 of 3.9 in 2014. As for Castro and Osuna (whose ages combined equal Dickey’s), the sky is the limit and if one (or both) of them could take off and cement themselves as the go to righty at the back of the pen, it could go a long way. As with the starting pitching, the talent is there for the bullpen, but the track records are lacking.
No matter what happens, this year’s Blue Jays will be a helluva fun team to watch as they take on a pretty weak AL East over the next six months. And you never know, maybe after this season is over, this horrible post-season drought will be naught but a distant memory for us fed up Toronto sports fans.