Toronto Blue Jays
2011 Record: 81-81; 4th place, American League East
The Blue Jays are simultaneously developing their young starting pitchers and putting together an offense and bullpen that can compete in an impossible division.
Manager John Farrell showed his inexperience as a rookie by allowing his baserunners to run and attempt to steal bases with reckless abandon.
Jose Bautista had his second straight MVP-quality season. Brett Lawrie emerged as a notable rookie and possible future star. But the inconsistent offense and growing pains of the young pitchers led to a season of undeniable mediocrity at the bottom line with an 81-81 record and 4th place.
RHP Sergio Santos was acquired from the Chicago White Sox.
RHP Francisco Cordero signed a 1-year, $4.5 million contract. (Reds)
OF Ben Francisco was acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies.
LHP Darren Oliver signed a 1-year, $4 million contract with 2013 club option.
RHP Jason Frasor was acquired from the Chicago White Sox.
C Jeff Mathis was acquired from the Los Angeles Angels.
RHP Jim Hoey was selected off waivers from the Minnesota Twins.
LHP Aaron Laffey signed a minor league contract.
RHP Jesse Chavez was selected off waivers from the Kansas City Royals.
INF Omar Vizquel signed a minor league contract. (White Sox)
LHP Trystan Magnuson was purchased from the Oakland Athletics.
RHP Rick VandenHurk signed a split contract. (Orioles)
SS Jerry Gil signed a minor league contract.
RHP Cole Kimball was selected off waivers from the Washington Nationals.
RHP Andrew Carpenter was selected off waivers from the San Diego Padres.
INF Luis Valbuena was purchased from the Cleveland Indians.
RHP Robert Coello signed a minor league contract.
INF Brian Bocock signed a minor league contract.
RHP Frank Francisco was not re-signed. (Mets)
RHP Jon Rauch was not re-signed. (Mets)
C Jose Molina was not re-signed. (Rays)
OF Adam Loewen was not re-signed. (Mets)
LHP Brad Mills was traded to the Los Angeles Angels.
RHP Nestor Molina was traded to the Chicago White Sox.
LHP Wil Ledezma was not re-signed. (Dodgers)
OF Darin Mastroianni was claimed off waivers by the Minnesota Twins.
RHP P.J. Walters was not re-signed.
OF Dewayne Wise was not re-signed. (Yankees)
INF/OF Chris Woodward was not re-signed.
INF Jayson Nix was not re-signed. (Yankees)
RHP Shawn Camp was not re-signed. (Mariners)
INF/OF Mark Teahen was released. (Nationals)
2012 POSSIBLE CONTRIBUTORS: INF-Omar Vizquel; C-Travis D’Arnaud; LHP-Aaron Laffey; RHP-Jesse Chavez; RHP-Jim Hoey; LHP-Trystan Magnuson; INF-Luis Valbuena; LHP-Evan Crawford; RHP-Alan Farina; RHP-Danny Farquhar; INF-David Cooper; SS-Adeiny Hechavarria; OF-Moises Sierra; RHP-Rick VandenHurk.
FANTASY PICKS: RHP-Carlos Villanueva; RHP-Brandon Morrow; RF-Jose Bautista; 3B-Brett Lawrie; SS-Yunel Escobar.
Early last season, GM Alex Anthopoulos was the newest member of the media-anointed “genius” club.
Yes, he was remarkably clever in somehow managing to get the Angels to take Vernon Wells and almost his entire contract off the Blue Jays’ hands, but that didn’t make him a genius. He lost the “genius” label almost immediately by trading the player he got in the Wells deal, Mike Napoli, to the Rangers for mediocre reliever Frank Francisco.
Anthopoulos is a good, smart and aggressive young GM. But he’s not a genius.
There’s a constant movement to name someone as a “genius” and this particular time it was Anthopoulos.
Is it for the sake of a story? Is it because for there to be an idiot, there has to be a genius and they’re interchangeable?
I don’t know.
But what I do know is that a baseball executive is only as good as the moves he makes. The perception of “good” or “bad” GMs is determined based on what passes as “analysis” from the masses, but the majority of the masses don’t know what they’re talking about. So what’s the appellation of “genius” worth?
If what a GM does makes sense, then he’s got a foundation to keep his job. If not, he doesn’t.
It’s that simple and has little to do with results. If a move makes sense and it fails, he shouldn’t be criticized for it after the fact.
The Blue Jays needed a bat this winter and didn’t get it. They looked into Prince Fielder and his demands for years and dollars were too pricey for the Blue Jays.
Instead, they’re making do with the moves they made in a frenzied flurry last summer when they acquired Colby Rasmus from the Cardinals and Kelly Johnson from the Diamondbacks.
They could’ve used a starting pitcher as well, but their bid for Yu Darvish fell short after a few days in which it was rumored that they’d won the bidding. Interest in Roy Oswalt was not reciprocated. Instead, Anthopoulos beefed up the bullpen with the re-acquisition of Jason Frasor; the signings of veterans Darren Oliver and Francisco Cordero; and the trade for Sergio Santos.
The moves make sense.
Whether or not they’ll work is the question and determinative factor for the masses to judge Anthopoulos.
John Farrell is still learning how to manage in the big leagues and the Blue Jays overaggressiveness on the bases cost them runs last season. Capricious stolen bases are the opposite of what I would assume Farrell had been exposed to while he was pitching coach for the Red Sox and I don’t understand why he allows his baserunners such leeway especially with an all-world basher like Jose Bautista in the middle of the lineup.
Farrell is well respected and knows how to handle the pitching staff, but he has to improve his in-game strategies and running the lineup. He exhibited some of the same strengths and weaknesses that Bud Black has shown as Padres manager and the absence of experience in manipulating the lineup and offensive strategies are why I would be very reluctant to hire a former pitching coach as a manager.
The Red Sox were interested in possibly having Farrell replace Terry Francona and the Blue Jays had a strange policy of allowing people under contract the option of leaving if that’s what they chose to do. This public disclosure lasted for a few days until the widespread indignation at such as bizarre policy spurred them to backtrack and say the Red Sox could not speak to Farrell.
If the Blue Jays are going to improve from their 2011 record of 81-81 (the essence of mediocrity), their manager is going to have to improve as well.
Ricky Romero was selected in the 2005 draft one slot ahead of Troy Tulowitzki. Obviously most teams would prefer to have the shortstop, but it’s not as if Romero is a bust. He’s become a top of the rotation starter whose innings have increased year-by-year in his three big league seasons. Now he’s a 220-inning man and had a fine season in 2011 going 15-11 with 176 hits allowed and 178 strikeouts. Romero is predominately a ground ball pitcher who benefited from the Blue Jays good infield defense and had a BAbip of .245 that’s going to be hard to repeat.
Romero has been compared to Johan Santana because of his fastball/changeup combination and deceptive motion. With a little bit better support from his offense, Romero would easily have won 20 games in 2011 and is a good bet to break out and become a household name in 2012.
The Blue Jays have rebuilt Brandon Morrow’s motion and confidence after a disastrous tenure with the Mariners in which he was jerked from the starting rotation and bullpen and had to live with the ignominy (through no fault of his own) that Giants’ star Tim Lincecum—from the University of Washington—was passed over in the draft in favor of Morrow.
He’s shown flashes of unhittability and racked up the strikeouts, but if the Blue Jays are going to contend, they’re going to have to take the shackles off of Morrow and he’s going to have to be durable and consistent.
The Blue Jays signed him to a contract extension for 3-years and $21 million with a club option at $10 million for 2015.
Now they need him to produce.
Morrow struck out 203 batters in 179 innings in 2011, but he’s still a work in progress. There are games that Morrow gets crushed and allows crooked numbers in bunches and it blows up his ERA.
In 2012, Morrow has to come close to 200 innings and slide in behind Romero as a legitimate co-ace. He has the stuff to do it, but he must harness his brilliant stuff with consistency, command and control.
As Morrow goes, so go the Blue Jays.
Righty Henderson Alvarez made his big league debut in 2011.
Alvarez was an undrafted free agent signed in 2006 and was impressive in 10 starts as a rookie. He’ll be 22 in April. His control and maturity stand out for someone so young. He walked 8 hitters and struck out 40 in 63 innings and wasn’t intimidated by being in the big leagues.
He changes speeds and has a wide array of pitches including several variations on his fastballs, a cutter, a slider and a changeup. He’s willing to pitch inside and has a plan to attack the hitters and executes it.
Jim Palmer used to say that pitching is a matter of getting ahead in the count and expanding the strike zone. That’s what Alvarez does.
Brett Cecil went 15-7 in 2010 but wound up back in the minors after an awful start in 2011. He pitched better after his recall in late June and was undone by a few more bad starts and a lack of run support. His season ended with similar across the board numbers as what they were in 2010, but his record in 2011 was 4-11.
The lefty doesn’t have overpowering stuff, loses the strike zone and is prone to giving up homers.
After spending the majority of his career as a reliever with the Brewers and Blue Jays, Carlos Villanueva moved into the starting rotation for 13 starts in the summer and acquitted himself well. He has the starter’s arsenal of four pitches—fastball, curve, slider, changeup—and, as long as he throws strikes, could do the job serviceably.
Villanueva has been a decent middle-reliever as well, so the Blue Jays have options on where and how to use him.
Kyle Drabek pitched reasonably well for a rookie into June, got knocked around in three starts and was sent back to the minors. He was recalled in September and pitched out of the bullpen. His numbers look far worse than they actually were with an ERA over 6. After he was sent down, he got pounded in Triple A Las Vegas with an ERA over 7 and a woeful hits/innings pitched ratio of 111/75.
He’s only 24 and his pedigree as the son of former NL Cy Young Award winner Doug Drabek is beyond reproach. Eventually, he’s going to be a very good starting pitcher in the big leagues. If it’s in 2012, the Blue Jays are going to make a playoff run, if not he’s eventually going to be part of a young, deep starting rotation with Romero, Morrow and Alvarez.
After allowing both their closer Frank Francisco and set-up man Jon Rauch to depart (for the Mets), the Blue Jays traded for White Sox closer Sergio Santos and signed veteran former closer Francisco Cordero. Santos is going to start the season as Blue Jays’ closer.
Santos is an interesting story.
Drafted in the 1st round in 2002 as a shortstop by the Diamondbacks, he wasn’t such a bad hitter that it became obvious that he should either quit or find another position. He had power and that lightning arm. In December of 2005, Santos was traded to the Blue Jays along with Troy Glaus for Orlando Hudson and Miguel Batista. Still playing shortstop, he stagnated in Triple A and in 2008, the Twins selected him off waivers. He batted .228 for the Blue Jays’ and Twins Triple-A clubs and became a free agent.
In 2009, the White Sox signed him and made him into a pitcher.
He pitched in 26 minor league games at four different levels in that one year, posted an 8.16 ERA and 20 walks and 37 hits in 28 innings. He also struck out 30.
Making the White Sox roster as a relief pitcher in 2010, he appeared in 56 games and struck out 56 in 51 innings. By 2011, after Matt Thornton faltered in the closer’s role, Santos took over and saved 30 games. He struck out a ridiculous 92 batters in 63 innings and, because he spent so much time as a shortstop, he doesn’t have the wear and tear on his arm a full-time pitcher would.
He’s still learning how to pitch and loses the strike zone, but he has a power, moving fastball, a changeup and a slider and can be a dominant closer once he grows accustomed to the role and actually being a pitcher.
Veteran righty closer Francisco Cordero was left out in the cold during this winter’s saturated market for closers and took a 1-year deal from the Blue Jays to function as a set-up man/tutor/insurance for Santos.
Cordero no longer throws as hard as he once did and doesn’t strike out as many batters, but he’s a competent veteran reliever. He can be prone to the occasional longball, but deals well with both righties and lefties and will benefit from the Blue Jays solid infield defense.
Jason Frasor was sent from the Blue Jays to the White Sox amid the mid-season deals Anthopoulos made last summer. A longtime Blue Jay who was a durable, effective and versatile reliever, they reacquired him on New Year’s Day for two minor leaguers. Frasor strikes out around a batter per inning, is more effective against righties than lefties, but can get lefties out as well.
To the best of my recollection, Darren Oliver talked about retiring in 2006 after the Mets cut him late in spring training and only decided to keep pitching after the Mets changed their minds and brought him back.
That was six years ago.
Since then, he’s gone from the Angels to the Rangers and now to the Blue Jays. Going to Canada, he certainly can’t claim that he’s going to pitch as long as he’s near home.
The 41-year-old lefty is still a highly effective long reliever who, like the other relievers in the Blue Jays’ bullpen, can get out both lefties and righties. Having pitched in the hitters’ heaven of Texas, Oliver only allowed 7 homers combined in his two seasons with the Rangers.
He’s a solid and respected veteran pitcher and a positive, professional presence in the clubhouse.
Righty Casey Janssen has developed into a good reliever after missing the entire 2008 season with a torn labrum. Janssen is a ground ball pitcher who will benefit from the Blue Jays’ solid infield defense and only allowed 2 homers in 55 games in 2011. He has a wide arsenal of pitches, good velocity and, as appears to be a trend for Blue Jays’ relievers, he can get out both righties and lefties.
Dustin McGowan nearly had his career destroyed by shoulder injuries but made it back to the big leagues and in four September starts working on a limit of 80 pitches, he was able to reach the mid-90s with his fastball and showed promise in returning to some semblance of effectiveness.
Injuries—a torn hip labrum and shoulder problems—sabotaged Litsch just as it did Janssen and McGowan. He returned in 2011 to appear in 28 games, including 8 starts. Litsch’s stuff has never been overpowering, but he battles and pounds the strike zone. Now, in spring training, the injury bug has hit him again. Litsch had an infection in his shoulder from the site where platelet rich plasma was injected to speed his recovery from shoulder inflammation. He’s going to miss at least 6 weeks.
Lefty Luis Perez spent his career in the minor leagues as a mediocre starter and may have found a home in the Blue Jays bullpen in 2011. He can reach the mid-90s with his fastball and has a slider and changeup.
25-year-old righty Joel Carreno has put up massive strikeout numbers in the minors. He has a 90 mph fastball, a sharp-breaking slider, a cutter, a changeup and a curve. His stuff and minor league results profile him as a starter, but his strikeout numbers in the big leagues (14 in 15 innings) and 325 in 271 minor league innings in 2010-2011 show that he could be a useful arm out of the bullpen.
Jesse Chavez was claimed off waivers from the Royals. Chavez was somewhat effective as the nominal closer for Triple-A Omaha in 2011 and will be an extra arm for the Blue Jays. He’s never pitched as well as his stuff indicates he should.
After the season he had with the Rangers, I’m wondering if the Blue Jays are regretting trading Mike Napoli for Frank Francisco days after acquiring him for Vernon Wells.
Sure, they had J.P. Arencibia “ready” for the big leagues and Travis d’Arnaud on the way up, but Napoli had 30 homers and a 1.046 OPS for the pennant-winning Rangers; he also threw out 36% of basestealers.
Arencibia on the other hand, hit 23 homers and did little else of use. He threw out 24% of basestealers (exactly what he’d posted in his final two minor league seasons); batted .219 with a .282 OBP and struck out 133 times. He had a .255 BAbip, so maybe he was hitting in a bit of bad luck, but slightly better luck wouldn’t repair his poor defense or rampant strikeouts.
It wouldn’t surprise me if, once d’Arnaud is deemed ready, Arencibia is traded or becomes a part-timer or backup.
Adam Lind had a terrific first half, but injuries to his back and wrist ruined what looked like it was going to be a repeat of his massive 2008 season in which he was a blossoming star.
Lind will hit 25 homers and 30-40 doubles; he strikes out a lot and adjusted well to a new position at first base. The Blue Jays could use a more consistent and threatening bat behind Jose Bautista than what Lind has been in the past two seasons. He’s more suited to batting sixth than fourth.
Kelly Johnson was acquired from the Diamondbacks for Aaron Hill in a trade of two disappointing players who, in the past, have shown better production than what they were giving to their former teams.
Johnson has 20+ homer power, provides 30+ doubles, and will steal a few bases while playing good defense at second base. He walks a fair amount and strikes out a lot. Since 2009, he’s alternated good and bad seasons with the Braves and Diamondbacks. He had a .781 OPS in 33 games with the Blue Jays after the trade.
Brett Lawrie was acquired from the Brewers for Shaun Marcum before the 2011 season and spent the first four months of the season in Triple-A Las Vegas demolishing the Pacific Coast League to the tune of a .353 average, .415 on base and 18 homers. He was scheduled to be recalled earlier in the season before he was hit on the hand with a pitch and delayed. Once he got to the big leagues, he made it clear that he had no intention of ever going back down.
He had 9 homers with a .953 OPS in 171 plate appearances. He’s a fine defensive third baseman and can play second as well. At 22, he’s brimming with confidence and is poised to become an entrenched entity for the Blue Jays and an All-Star.
After being driven out of Atlanta by Bobby Cox and the Braves’ veterans because of his frequent gaffes and selfish behaviors, Yunel Escobar has found a home in Toronto.
He signed a contract extension for 2-years (2012-2013) at $10 million and the club holds options for $5 million annually in both 2014 and 2015. If Escobar plays the solid defense and hits as he did in 2011, he’ll be a ridiculous bargain. He had 11 homers, 24 doubles and a .782 OPS in 133 games last season and could be even better as he matures.
25-year-old, lefty-swinging outfielder Eric Thames took over in left field after Juan Rivera was traded and Travis Snider was demoted; Thames hit 12 homers in 394 plate appearances. He strikes out a lot, but has shown some on base skills. He struggled badly against lefties as a rookie batting .209, so he might be platooned in 2012.
Colby Rasmus was being torn in multiple directions while with the Cardinals. His drafting was questioned by the old-school people in the front office who chafed at the new school thinkers who were brought in and seen as unwanted interlopers; his father Tony openly interfered with the way the Cardinals wanted Colby to hit; Albert Pujols called him out for his perceived whining and unhappiness when it got out that he’d asked to be traded; and Tony LaRussa didn’t want to play him.
The Cardinals made a series of drastic trades at mid-season and dealt Rasmus to the Blue Jays.
That they won the World Series after Rasmus was gone has resulted in the specious reasoning that it was Rasmus who was the problem and once he was gone, everything fell into place for the Cardinals.
Of course, it’s ludicrous. The Cardinals wouldn’t have made the playoffs had the Braves not collapsed.
Rasmus wasn’t a clubhouse problem because of personality, lack of ability or attitude. He was a clubhouse problem because he was caught in the middle of a war zone between multiple parties and couldn’t deal with the pressure to perform amid the shots being fired over his head.
He’s 25 and it’s not easy to be a coach’s son and live an enabled life with the game coming easy and then be the rope in a tug-of-war.
He’s better off with the Blue Jays.
Are the Blue Jays better off with him?
Rasmus batted .173 after joining the Blue Jays, but he battled a wrist injury and missed most of September.
He showed his ability in 2010 as he had an .859 OPS and 23 homers in 144 games. He had good power numbers and on base skills in the minors and is a solid, if not spectacular bat with pop. If the Blue Jays simply tell him that he’s going to be their everyday center fielder and leave him alone, he’ll be fine.
Jose Bautista proved that his 2010 season—in which he hit 54 home runs—was not a fluke with another 43 homers in 2011 to lead the American League. He also led the league in walks, slugging percentage and OPS.
Because of the bizarre and overaggressive way in which manager Farrell allows his runners to try to steal bases and self-defeating lineup decisions, Bautista only drove in 103 runs with those 43 homers. For a hitter who’s on base 44% of the time, Bautista only scored 105 runs.
This is nowhere near enough and if the team is going to take advantage of the basher that Joey Bats has become, they have to bat him fourth and surround him with hitters who get on base in front of him and won’t try to steal bases for no reason to risk running them out of innings. They need hitters behind him who can and will drive him in.
As for Bautista himself, he’s become one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball and is a good choice for the MVP.
Edwin Encarnacion may have had an epiphany in the second half of the 2011 season when he batted .291 with a .383 on base percentage and 11 homers. For the season, he hit 17 homers and had an .787 OPS. Encarnacion has always had All-Star talent and was so oblivious to his surroundings that two of the most patient managers in recent baseball memory—Dusty Baker and Cito Gaston—wanted to strangle him.
He’s listed as the Blue Jays DH for 2012, but I’d hesitate to think that he’s going to continue the good work that he showed over the final few months of last season only because he’s Edwin Encarnacion and it’s in his DNA to aggravate, tease and regress.
Veteran righty-swinging outfielder Ben Francisco was acquired from the Phillies and will see plenty of at bats as a possible platoon partner for Thames and occasional DH. Francsico has 10-15 home run power if he gets significant at bats; he can steal a few bases and doesn’t strike out much.
Jeff Mathis was acquired from the Angels as a defensively-minded backup to Arencibia. Mathis can’t hit—he’s a .194 career hitter—but he can handle a pitching staff and in a strange twist, hits really well in the post-season. The Blue Jays only hope that they have the opportunity to see Mathis become a different player in October.
Travis Snider has received every opportunity to stake a claim in the Blue Jays’ lineup, but hasn’t grabbed and run with it. The 6’0”, 240 pound Snider has posted good power/on base numbers in the minors, but has yet to show much in the big leagues. With the Blue Jays’ DH spot in flux, he might get another chance in 2012. He’s only 24, so there’s time for him to right himself.
Rajai Davis is a backup outfielder who stole 34 bases in 95 games for the Blue Jays in 2011. He can play all three outfield positions and has hit well in the past when given a chance to play semi-regularly.
Mike McCoy is a 31-year-old, journeyman utility player who can’t really hit (career big league average of .194), but can play multiple positions well and has a good eye at the plate. He also stole 12 bases in 80 games last season.
The Blue Jays 2012 season will come down to a series of “ifs”.
If manager John Farrell takes his foot off the gas with the ridiculous stolen bases and does a better job of running his offense…
If the young pitchers Morrow, Alvarez, Cecil and Drabek slot in solidly behind Romero…
If the “good” Johnson and Encarnacion show up…
If Lawrie and Rasmus continue their development…
If Lind is healthy and hits somewhere close to as he did in the first half of last season…
If Santos is able to close for a team with designs on contention…
If the Red Sox and Rays are downgraded enough for the Blue Jays to slip past them…
If, if, if.
The Blue Jays are very talented and have many questions surrounding them. This is why they would be a legitimate playoff choice if they’d gotten another proven basher to team with Bautista in the middle of the lineup and if they’d gotten a legitimate, frontline starting pitcher.
But they didn’t.
So they’re left with the multitude of “ifs”.
I wanted to pick the Blue Jays to make the playoffs or enter the last week of the season with a chance to make the playoffs in 2012, but when the “improvements” are limited to Santos, Cordero, Mathis, Oliver and a lot of hope, I can’t pick them to surpass the big guns in the American League.
The extra Wild Card team is giving teams like the Blue Jays an opening that wasn’t there before, so if they get into the mid-80s with their win total, they’ve got a legitimate shot of getting in and once they’re in, they have the components—young pitching, a deep bullpen and that mauler Bautista—to put a scare into anyone.
If they’re in contention at mid-season, they’re going to have the minor league talent to make a big acquisition at the deadline along the lines of David Wright or Matt Garza, but that’s not going to come to pass until June or July.
As of right now, they’re hovering between the innocent climb from 81-81 mediocrity to 90+ wins and playoff contention.
It could go both ways and they’re going to wind up somewhere in the middle of those two conclusions.
PREDICTED RECORD: 87-75
The above is a clip from my book Paul Lebowitz’s 2012 Baseball Guide.