Tampa Bay: never has a team done so much with so little. The Rays annually are at or near the bottom of the league in terms of attendance and budget yet have managed to create a powerhouse that now stands shoulder to shoulder with the baseball behemoths. Credit great scouting and a veritable ball genius in Joe Maddon for the two division titles in the past four years.
Nevertheless, fans hoping that their recent trend of winning the East in even-numbered years are likely to be disappointed. TB looks pretty good on paper again, which given recent seasons will probably translate to being very good on the field. That said, it’s hard to imagine a club which was 13th in AL batting average, and merely 8th in scoring being able to knock off a rejuvenated yankees squad. And the return of Carlos Pena isn’t going to improve their next to worst rate of striking out (1193 times last year without Mr K himself, who struck out 161 times in 493 at bats). Expect Evan Longoria to return to form after some injury problems, and with “form” being an average of over 100 RBI a season at only age 26, that will win some games particularly if Pena can re find his sweet swing. If BJ Upton ever lived upto his real potential, the team could be an offensive juggernaut, but then again although only 27, he’s five years removed from what’s rapidly looking like his ‘career year” and only a year or so away from earning the nickname Alex Rios Part II.
The pitching will keep the Rays competitive this season; james Shields was alledgedly dangled on the trade market in the winter but returns a Ray, and why not? Besides leading the AL in complete games last season, his WHIP was fully a quarter better than CC Sabathia or Jon Lester and given some more run support would be a shoo-in to top his 16 wins. David Price is still developing but already among the best in the league and there was a reason jeremy Hellickson was rookie of the year last year. Shields perhaps better continue to finish what he starts though; the Tampa bullpen is a little wobbly and with Kyle Farnsworth injured they now have Fernando Rodney as closer. A week or so in, he’s not imploded yet but this is a guy who last year walked more men than he struck out and has put an average of three players on base every two innings this decade. Assuming he doesn’t tap into the Roger Clemens Special Anti-aging Remedy, at 35 he’s not likely to sparkle much in the 9th by the time August rolls around.
Ace: Evan Longoria- when he’s on his game, Tampa wins as we saw last year.
Wild Card: Desmond Jennings- said to be the “next Carl Crawford” there is no doubt as to his ceiling but is he yet a certified Big league star?
Joker: Carlos Pena- certainly he hits home runs. Unfortunately except for the 35 or so times he’s doing that during a season, he’s not doing much except killing rallies.
2012 Prediction: 92 wins, 2nd place. Which should be good enough for a trip to the playoffs again for the disinterested west Floridian fans. Maddon adds about 6 victories to an otherwise run-of-the-mill squad
Toronto: the Jays are already winners in one respect: there is more buzz about the city for the birds of summer than there has been in over a decade. The uniform change (recommended here several times last year) has been a massive success, so much as to make it impossible for this Jays blogger to even find a new cap for sale in Oshawa last week… everywhere I went they were sold out. I’ve had senior citizens stop me in coffee shops when I’ve been wearing my (old) cap and talk up the fantastic team and great promise it shows. The slow decline in patience of long-suffering Maple Leafs hockey fans has only helped garner interest for the only major sports franchise in the area to post a non-losing season this decade. So, the world is Rogers’ oyster… what will they make of it?
I will of course, look at this team in more depth soon, and throughout the year. They are my team and the main subject of this blog, after all. However, to speed things through…
Last year the Jays were the absolute picture of mediocrity. Not terrible, not good. 81 wins, 81 losses. 42 wins at home, 42 losses on road. Average hitting, close to average pitching. If not reverting to the traditional blue tones for the hat and uniforms, they could well have picked 18% photo gray, completely neutral and bland. Despite public agreement that they needed to upgrade the starting rotation and add at least one big bat, and rampant rumours of them going after Prince Fielder, roy Oswalt, Felix Hernandez, Joe Nathan they managed to come up with less than a new guy to sell Nathan’s hot dogs in the stands or a scratched up Prince CD…and sold the public on this being a significant upgrade to the team!
That said, there is some reason for restrained optimism. The team is better than it was three or four years ago and has a solid minor league system. They learn from the Tampa system, which is to find and develop young talent of course. What they lack is mature talent, which can play and win now on a consistent basis.
The Jays once again remain the model of mediocrity. Nothing on this team stinks. Neither is anything on this team exceptional. Yunel Escobar is quickly becoming one of the best all-around shortstops in the game, Kelly Johnson to his left can hit but didn’t much last year (mere .222 average and .304 on base) , but early this season he seems to have regained his stroke of years gone by. Jose Bautista, of course, is now recognized as one of the game’s best hitters and may just lead the league in homers for a third straight year. Don’t be too concerned by his slow start this season, and if he can have some solid bats behind him in the lineup look for him to increase his average still and come close to Carlos Delgado’s team record for RBI in a season (145).
Where there is reason to be concerned is with Adam Lind, since 2009 a major underacheiver at the plate -particularly for a first baseman– , JP Arencibia, improving as a catcher but despite occasional big blasts, not very good at getting on base and of course the extraordinarily over-rated in both leagues Colby Rasmus. Rasmus alledgedly ws once the third highest rated prospect in all of baseball. He alledgedly has talent coming out of the wazoo. Maybe so, but since Toronto sold the farm to get him, he’s hit all of .176 with four mighty homers in three months. Yet he’s etched in stone as the everyday centerfielder for the Jays, even as he tells the media that he doesn’t like Toronto (for the record he didn’t like St Louis either). He’s a small town boy who doesnt’ like cities, maybe explaining why he seemed to have peaked in the low levels of the minor leagues— Knoxville and Springfield, MO are not quite St Louis let alone 5.5 million people metro Toronto. Colby could still develop into one of the game’s best. And pigs could still fly across a glittery rainbow-bedecked sky. The silver lining for the Jays offence is everyday Edwin encarnacion, who had a solid second half last year and now with his job guaranteed and the tutelage of Bautista seems to be on a tear. He led the team in doubles last season and this year seems poised for a breakout season. Given the decline in the quality of Dhs around the league, he will give Ortiz and Morales a run for the money as best designated hitter. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him hit .290 and drive in 90, especially if John farrell bats him in the cleanup role more often.
Everyone wanted to slag the jays bullpen last year, and why not? It blew 25 saves and was an adventure every time it was called upon late last season. BUT, too many people ignored the fact that the pen was overused and if the starting rotation had done its job, maybe the bullpen might have not sucked. (not to mention that the best arms in the ’11 bullpen were mostly all traded away for Colby Rasmus). Alex Anthopopolous, to his credit, did do some work to improve the bullpen by re-acquiring Jason Frasor and bringing in classic old man Darren Oliver and the guy whose #2 in saves among active pitchers- Francisco Cordero, of 37 saves last year with Cincinnati fame. Unfortunately , for reasons known only to Alex, he chose to trade off a quality young arm (Nestor Molina) for a supposed new closer, Sergio Santos. The same Sergio Santos who not long ago was a mediocre infielder in the Toronto minor league system. Santos so far has delighted his wife by being present for the birth of their child ,and delihted Jays fans by taking time off to be there for the birth of his child and hence not throwing away even more games. His two blown saves already are the difference between first place and humdrumness for toronto.
The biggest disappointment for the Jays and their fans though, is the lack of improvement to the starting rotation in the off season. Ricky Romero is the real deal. Few other pitchers have gotten consistently better over the past three years and spring training (can you say”Zero ERA”?) and his recent start against onetime bugaboo Boston suggests he will do the same again for a fourth year. No surprise if he wins 18 and is in top 3 in ERA this season.
Beyond that though, the rotation looks like a bit of an adventure. Kyle Drabek has looked poised and solid through his two starts this year and young (22 this week) Henderson Alvarez has an array of effective pitches and maturity beyond his years. But youngsters often have to take two steps back before taking one forward so it’s a risky shell game to count on them to continue to dazzle, and then there’s the enigma that is Brandon Morrow. One of the hardest throwers in the game, capable of tossing a no-hitter and imitating Nolan ryan (no toronto fan has forgotten his 17 strikeout one hitter against Tampa in ’10) but other days worse than ordinary. If he can keep his fastball low in the strikezone and trust his fielders once in awhile (therefore not try to strikeout every batter and run his pitch count off the chart in 5 innings) he could be dominant. But despite his great finish last year, he still had a craptacular 4.72 ERA in 2011 and just last night served up taters to Tampa like a McDonald’s fry cook. Potential is uncommon; potential realized is extremely rare. Morrow has potential. Three, four years from now, the Jays could have quite a roster of potential arms for the fifth starter’s role: Deck mcGuire,Chad jenkins, Jesse Chavez and others all show great stuff in the minors. But for 2012, there is no obvious #5 starter and no chance of the team rivalling the likes of Tampa, LA/Anaheim or Texas for a competitive rotation.
Ace: Jose Bautista. Not just that he leads majors in home runs two years running, it’s that he leads Albert Pujols by 18 in that time!
Wild Card: JP Arencibia. Developing as a catcher but despite winning awards and batting titles in minors shows little poise or discipline at plate. His 2 for 32 start this year is reason for concern.
Joker: Colby Rasmus. He can makes some good catches on days when he’s motivated. He can’t hit even if or when he is . Memo to Jays- ditch this over-rated dude (too old now to still call a “kid”) while you can still get a sack of baseballs for him.
2012 Prediction: 83 wins, 4th place. It is to weap, jays fans. Had Alex A done what he said he would– get a good starter to add to mix (ala Gio gonzalez, Michael Pineda or maybe felix Hernandez) and added in one more big bat (perhaps an outfielder or dare we dream?a first rate first baseman even if the cost added 10 cents a month to people’s cable bills in Ontario) the Jays could go for 90 and be back in the playoffs again for the first time this century. But the Jays management assure us that willhappen in 5 years and they mean it this time.