As the cleats take to the green grass of Dunedin competitively for the first time this year, it’s a good time to look ahead to the coming season. I, like the bulk of the Toronto fanbase have been a bit critical of the moves (or lack thereof) of the new front office – Mark Shapiro and puppets – this winter, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of how the glass is still at least half full.
The Jays are coming off their best year in over two decades, falling only a couple of games short of the World Series, have most of the roster from that team in place still and are the favorites to repeat as AL East champs. Not bad!
As much as I would have liked to have seen the starting rotation beefed up and perhaps a solid bench player or two added via free agency, even if things go wrong, the Blue Jays could still win.
So, barring serious injury problems (A proviso applies to every team. If David Price rips up his rotator cuff and Ortiz broke a leg in spring, the Red Sox would be talking about 2017, not competing this year. A Diamondbacks team with Greinke on the 60 day DL and no Paul Goldschmidt would be rivalling Colorado for last place…and so on down the list) let’s look at some scenarios and why they might mean the sky is falling.
1. Josh Thole is the backup catcher.
Fans weren’t happy Dioner Navarro was allowed to walk away and less pleased still that the team did little to replace him. Josh Thole isn’t the most popular bench player with fans, but he might still have a solid role to play. Lord knows he will never be the next Johnny Bench or Carlton Fisk and much was made of his poor hitting last year (.204, no homers and a meagre .245 slugging pct, albeit in a small sample of only 18 games.) That was a bit below his career norm (.249 average, .634 OPS) but backup catchers aren’t typically kept around for their bats. Thole is an adequate receiver and more importantly, as we all know,he works well with RA Dickey. Russell Martin may be a better catcher overall, but he never excelled at catching the knuckleball and what’s more , seemed to get tired doing so, resulting in less output from his bat on Dickey games. If Thole catches all of Dickey’s games we might see a reduction in opposition base runners and a slight bump upwards in Martin’s already admirable hitting stats.
2. Devon Travis doesn’t bounce back quickly. Reports on how Devon is recovering from shoulder surgery vary and it seems apparent he’s likely to start the year on the DL. A healthy Travis is exciting to watch and might – just might- become the next Roberto Alomar. But having Ryan Goins at second isn’t so bad. He likely won’t match Travis’ hitting or even his actual range, but Goins is still a plus-player in the field. Last season he commit only 3 errors in 66 games at second and had a praise-worthy .989 fielding percentage. His 4.27 range factor was up and compares nicely to other AL East second baseman like Johnathon Schoop and Dustin Pedroia and is sure to better the Yankees new second-bagger, Starlin Castro. He had a weak .957 fielding percentage with the Cubs at 2B and made 6 errors in only 29 games. His performance at his usual position, shortstop shouldn’t encourage pinstripers that he’ll do much better. Goins will deliver all star calibre defense and should hold his own at the plate. Given regular playing time, he hit better last year- .250, 5 HR, 45RBI, career-best .672 OPS in 128 games (compared to 101 in the past two seasons combined). He increased his ribbies to about 1 in 8 at bats from 1 in 13. He won’t post Alomar-like numbers, but in the current Jays lineup, he won’t have to .
3. Josh Donaldson falls off after his MVP season. He might. On the one hand, this is only his fifth year and it took him a little while to adjust to the new team and stadium last year; he could still improve. But it may be unrealistic to expect another 122 run, 41 homer, 123 RBI, .939 OPS campaign. A look at the recent past suggests we don’t have too much to worry about.
Looking at other AL MVPs this decade we see some fall-off a little, but none have been “one hit wonders”. In 2010, Josh Hamilton won for Texas, with a massive .359 average, 1.044 OPS, and 32 HR/100 RBI in 133 games. In time injuries and personal demons would come to make his road very rocky but in 2011, he followed up with a .298 average, .882 OPS, 25 HR/94 RBI in 121 games.
2012 winner Miguel Cabrera was the 2013 winner! Not much decline there! In ’12 he had a career best 205 hits and hit .330 with 44HR, 139 RBI and a .999 OPS. The next year he hit .348 with a 1.078 OPS, 44HR, 137 RBI- a bit better than his previous season. In ’14 he tailed off a little, to .313, .895 OPS, 25HR, 109 RBI.
Then there was 2014’s Mike Trout. That year he posted Jose Bautista-like numbers, .287 avg, 36 HR, 111 RBI, .939 OPS. Last year he followed it up with a .299 avg, 41 HR, only 90 RBI and a .991 OPS.
In short, the past might suggest Donaldson’s future should be quite bright. even if he drops off a bit, a .280 average, 30-35 HR and 100 RBI should be quite realistic.
4. No last minute star pitcher signings mean fifth spot up for grabs.
As I’ve written here several times this off-season, I find it perplexing at best and ridiculous at worst that the team has let David Price walk off without an offer. JA Happ might possibly be a decent replacement for apparently retiring Mark Buerhle but who replaces Price?
To me Marcus Stroman is still a crap-shoot. He has talent and potential, no question, but is he ready to take on the #1 role after fewer than 30 big league starts? MLB and many others seem to think so.
However, even in a bad-case scenario all is not lost. If Happ is the typical Happ, not the Happ of the last two months of last season in Pittsburgh and Marco Estrada goes backwards a step or two, the team still has three ordinary, decent starters (that pair and RA Dickey) plus Stroman. Barring a sudden trade for a Strasburg or Shields, that leaves us with the likes of Jesse Chavez, Drew Hutchison and Aaron Sanchez competing for the final spot. It could be worse.
Chavez was horrible in his previous stint here, but made progress in Oakland where he was converted into a starter. Only 49 of his career 253 games have been starting, but 47 of those were in the past couple of years. After a decent 2014, his record at first glance looked horrible last year – 7-15 – but examining the numbers, he was more a victim of a crappy team than failed pitching. He made 12 quality starts, reduced his walks by a little , hit a career high 157 innings and had about equal numbers of ground outs to flyouts (.99) which is typical of his career. I still don’t like the trade for Hendriks, but as a #5 starter, with Toronto’s offense, he could be fine and maybe win a dozen.
Sanchez seems fairly unneeded in the ‘pen now with the additions of Drew Storen and even Rafael Soriano, leaving him wide open to reprise his role as a starter. Last year, we recall, he began in the bullpen, suddenly was made a starter in May, went on the DL in June and was back in the bullpen (and it seemed manager Gibbons’ doghouse) when he came back. He allowed far too many walks (44 in about 92 innings) but wasn’t bad overall. In his final start before going on the DL, he kept Houston to one earned run in 8 innings and after acclimatizing to being a starter, had logged 40 2/3 innings with a good 2.88 ERA in his last 6 starts. If they get him set up to start right from now in Dunedin, he could perhaps have that efficiency right from the get-go.
That still leaves Hutchison, who can’t be as terrible as he seemed in road games last year, and Gavin Floyd who early indications tell us is healthy and in good form this year.
No one will mistake the Jays ’16 staff for the next generation of early ’70s Orioles or mid-90s Braves, but it could be an adequate one which boosted by 5+ runs a game might just propel the team into the playoffs.
5. Troy Tulowitzki is still mad at leaving Colorado. We get mixed messages from Troy, on the one hand he’s happy to be with this great bunch of guys, etc., on the other headlines on Yahoo today say he’s “still bitter about trade.” But he’ll be present on opening day, not in court defending against criminal charges. The trade is still a win!
The glass isn’t overflowing, but it is quite full! Let the fun begin!