The Toronto Blue Jays clearly understand what it takes to compete in the AL East. The Yankees are the Yankees. Despite a few down years in a row, the Red Sox remain a constant threat. The Rays have turned themselves into a perennial contender and are still a dangerous team, even after losing James Shields and B.J. Upton. Now even the Orioles, who advanced to the ALDS in 2012, present a challenge. The AL Central, this is not.
The Blue Jays, who couldn't have realistically expected to compete in 2013 with their 2012 roster, went out and easily won the offseason, swinging two huge trades. The first infuriated the 100 or so remaining Miamians who pay attention to baseball, with the Marlins sending Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Emilio Bonifacio, Mark Buehrle and John Buck north of the border for a package of prospects. The second netted Toronto R.A. Dickey, the National League Cy Young Award winner from 2012, giving them potentially one of the best rotations in the American League. They also signed Melky Cabrera to a four-year deal. Say what you will about Cabrera's drug suspension from a year ago, but the bottom line is he hit .346/.390/.516 and, at 28 years old, is in the middle of his prime years. He and Reyes join holdovers Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Lawrie, J.P Arencibia and Colby Rasmus. This is a team with realistic World Series aspirations, not to mention a slew of fantasy studs.
1. Jose Reyes, SS 2. Melky Cabrera, LF 3. Jose Bautista, RF 4. Edwin Encarnacion, 1B 5. Brett Lawrie, 3B 6. Adam Lind, DH 7. J.P. Arencibia, C 8. Colby Rasmus, CF 9. Maicer Izturis, 2B
1. R.A. Dickey 2. Brandon Morrow 3. Josh Johnson 4. Ricky Romero 5. Mark Buehrle
No matter how you slice it, 2012 was an abject failure for Romero. But I'm bullish on him this year. When you look at his peripherals, not a lot changed. His BABIP leapt up to .311 from .242 and his first-pitch strike percentage plunged to 53.3 percent, well below league average. Other than that, I see a pitcher who was largely the same guy, but struggled for reasons that are hard to define. That happens from time to time. He induced ground balls at a 53.5-percent clip, and upgrading the middle infield to Jose Reyes and Maicer Izturis should help more of those balls find gloves. If he can get in front of hitters with more regularity, I think he'll continue on the trajectory he set from 2009-11. He's one of my favorite buy-low candidates this year.
While we can probably assume the PEDs inflated Cabrera's stats a bit, they didn't create them out of thin air. What's more worrisome to me is his .379 BABIP from 2012. That is simply an unsustainable number. As that inevitably regresses, so will all of his rate stats. In 2011, when he theoretically could have been using PEDs, he posted a .332 BABIP, so he does have a bit of a track record for a higher-than-average BABIP. On the other side of the ledger, he's entering his age-28 season, so there is reason to expect some growth in his prime. It's a tough call, but I value Cabrera as a strong second outfielder, though one I'd want to pair with a reliable power hitter.
While Encarnacion's walk and strikeouts rates were never egregious, they weren't ever a strength, either. Last year, he posted a career-best 13-percent walk rate to go along with a 14.6-percent K-rate, just one-tenth of a point worse than the best mark of his career. His 7.2-percent swinging-strike rate was also nearly a career low. He offered at just 24.5 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, the second best total of his career. In other words, he was far more patient last year than he ever had been, and he converted that into a .280/.384/.557 slash line with 42 homers. When a hitter makes this drastic of a change in his approach, he rarely goes back. Draft Encarnacion with confidence and take about 35 homers to the bank.
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