This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 12: the Toronto Blue Jays.
2014 Record and Finish: 83–79 (.512), third in AL East (14th overall)
2015 Projected Record and Finish: 84–78 (.518), second in AL East (12th overall)
The Case For
Last year the Blue Jays finished with their best record since 2010 and their best finish since '07 thanks to both an improving roster and a declining division. According to the advanced metrics, Toronto's 83 wins were no fluke, either: Pythagorean formula translated their run differential to 85 wins, and third-order record pegged them at 84 wins. Given that 88-win teams have secured wild-card berths in two of the last three years, that made the Blue Jays legitimate contenders last year and gives them hope that they will reach the postseason in 2015 for the first time since winning the second of back-to-back World Series titles in 1993. In fact, the Jays are the only team in baseball that has not reached the playoffs in the Wild-Card Era.
The question then is: Did they get better this winter? The answer appears to be yes. Toronto had a lot of turnover at key positions this offseason, but when you do the math on all of those moves, it comes out ahead thanks largely to its two most significant additions, third baseman Josh Donaldson and catcher Russell Martin. Here’s some quick accounting on the four spots in the lineup the Jays turned over this winter based on the average annual Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version) compiled over the last two seasons:
That’s approximately a four-win improvement, enough to get the Jays up around that 88-win mark, but that turnover is actually even more favorable than that. To begin with, Navarro isn’t gone, but has just been demoted to backing up Martin. With Martin willing and able to catch knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, that means Navarro is bumping Josh Thole to third-string, so the Jays won't be losing the 2.3 WAR Navarro has contributed in each of the last two seasons, but the -1.1 WAR Thole compiled in those years combined. Also, Pompey is a rookie who was merely replacement level in his 17-game major league debut last year. We'll leave him at replacement level here, so any value he or the Jays’ centerfielders in general provide this season can be added to the net improvement illustrated above.
Two other items to note here. First, Lawrie’s 1.8 bWAR is due in part to his having averaged just 89 games per year over the last two seasons. It's hard to be optimistic about the injury prone 25-year-old staying any healthier in 2015. Similarly, Melky Cabrera, now with the White Sox, had an injury-plagued 2013 season that brought his bWAR down, and Michael Saunders only played 78 games for the Mariners in '14. The most significant thing about that swap is their relative value, which is close to even above and should be close to even in the coming season if both stay healthy.
Beyond that expected improvement in the lineup, the pitching staff as a whole should benefit from the presence of Martin, both for his pitch-calling and, more objectively, his pitch-framing skills, as well as his effectiveness against the running game. There may not be a rotation in baseball that would benefit from Martin's skills as much as this one, comprised as it is of a pair of soft-tossing veterans like Dickey and Mark Buehrle and several live-armed kids in their early 20s. Among that latter group, Marcus Stroman is out for the season following a torn ACL. But the back of the Jays’ rotation still has tremendous upside thanks to the presence of top prospects Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris, both of whom have front-end potential and may now make the rotation.
The Case Against
Talented as Norris, 21, and Sanchez, 22, are, they have a total of one major league start between them. Each could be restricted by innings limits, which could hinder their availability down the stretch, and Toronto's rotation options after those two are uninspiring at best (Marco Estrada? Johan Santana? Liam Hendriks? Jeff Francis? Randy Wolf?). The Stroman injury was devastating: The Blue Jays were looking for a breakout season of close to 200 innings from the sophomore righty, and neither Norris nor Sanchez can replace that this season. Beyond that, there’s no guarantee that the 40-year-old Dickey, 36-year-old Buehrle or 24-year-old Drew Hutchison will be any better than ordinary.
The lineup still has significant holes at first and second base. Pompey, though talented, is unproven in center. Saunders is expected to be ready soon after Opening Day, but he has spent most of spring training recuperating from surgery to repair the meniscus in his left knee after missing 65 games due to shoulder and oblique strains last year.
Despite all that, the bullpen could prove to be Toronto's biggest problem. Incumbent closer Casey Janssen departed as a free agent, but the Jays were right to let him go after the 33-year-old experienced precipitous drops in both velocity and strikeouts last year. But Toronto did almost nothing to improve what was already one of the weakest bullpens in baseball in 2014, ranking 25th in the majors with a 4.09 ERA. The new closer is Brett Cecil, but he has been struggling with rotator cuff inflammation this spring.
Cecil is also the only reliever on the Jays’ 40-man roster who had an above-average strikeout rate in the major leagues last year, and groundballer Chad Jenkins, who struck out 5.1 men per nine innings a year ago, is the only one to have posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio as high as 3.00. It seems unlikely that any lead the lineup and rotation are able to build will be safe with this bullpen.
X-Factor: Sanchez and Norris
Though neither may be allowed to throw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, Sanchez and Norris (pictured above) may be the players on which the Blue Jays’ season hinges. Both are likely to make the Opening Day rotation, and their upsides are significant. Sanchez has a mid-90s sinker with nasty movement that hit 99 mph when he was working out of the bullpen late last year and generates a ton of ground balls. To that he adds a plus curveball and a developing changeup. Norris has no single pitch that’s as impressive as Sanchez’s sinker, but he has more above-average pitches, starting with his low-to-mid 90s fastball and moving through a sinker, slider, curve and changeup.
Analysts are mixed as to who the better prospect is, though Norris—who won’t turn 22 until the end of April yet appears to be mature beyond his years—seems to have pulled ahead last year. Regardless, if they can combine for roughly 320 above-average innings this year, the Blue Jays should be in the hunt all season long. However, if either of them struggles significantly, gets sent back to Triple A or gets hurt, Toronto could be sunk. The range of possibilities with this pair is too large to settle the stomach of any Blue Jays fan, though their potential is enough to make one hopeful.
Number To Know: 26.8
That’s how many runs Martin saved with his pitch framing last year relative to Navarro’s performance behind the plate, according to Baseball Prospectus’s numbers. Martin saved 16.5 more runs than average, while Navarro was 10.3 runs below average as Toronto’s primary catcher. With nine runs being roughly equal to a win in the current low-scoring environment, that 26.8 figure makes Martin a three-win improvement over Navarro in pitch-framing alone. It’s unclear if the defensive metrics in Baseball-Reference’s WAR capture any of that effect, but pitch framing is not explicitly factored in. You can therefore add a significant portion of those three additional framing wins to the calculations in the table above, making Martin something close to a full five-win improvement over Navarro on the whole.
Most Overrated: Mark Buehrle
“The guy throws 80 miles an hour. Top-of-the-rotation guys, for me, factor in three games: The game before they’re going to pitch, the other team goes, ‘Oh no, we’re gonna get that guy.’ Then he pitches and he dominates his game. Then the game after, the bullpen’s rested. Buehrle is not that guy. Other teams are not going, ‘Oh no, we’re going to Toronto, we’re getting Buehrle.’ He works fast and throws strikes. So what?”
Most Underrated: Jose Bautista
“He’s the real deal for me. What’s not to like about 40 to 40-plus home runs? In this day and age when we have the lack of power, anybody who can accomplish that can help the team. He plays good defense in rightfield. He doesn’t always look like he’s hustling, but he puts up the numbers.”