Rival Roundup – The Toronto Blue Jays

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Part three of a four part series, Rival Roundup takes a look at the American League East rivals the New York Yankees will have to navigate for almost half of the team’s games in 2014. After visiting the Orioles on Friday and the Rays on Monday, our next stop is the Toronto Blue Jays. To offer insight and perspective of someone who covers the Jays closely, we turned to one of our fellow members of the ESPN SweetSpot Network, Matthias Koster of Mop Up Duty. Koster’s thoughts will pop up throughout.

Imagine being told by someone close to you that you were going to get a shiny new car for a present, but when the day finally arrives, you find out the car was a Matchbox car and it wasn’t even one that was made in England. That’s what it felt like to be a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays last season when a series of moves were made after the 2012 season and everyone predicted a renaissance of Canada baseball.

The reality hit early when the team lost six of its first nine, 17 of its first 27 and 32 of its first 55. It was a dreadful season in Toronto. The starting rotation was highly touted and crumbled through injuries and poor performance, Jose Reyes got hurt and Jose Bautista still wasn’t right from his wrist injury the year before.

To make matters worse, the Yankees, who did not have a fun season either, beat the Blue Jays 14 times in 19 games. In fact, the Jays had a losing record against every team in the AL East.

Jays fans, feeling restive and disappointed eagerly awaited this off season to see how the Blue Jays would address the problems…and they waited…and they waited…and nothing happened! Every rumor fell by the wayside  The sum total of the off season brought the team two catchers, Dioner Navarro and Erik Kratz, the first via free agency and the latter by trade.

Not that bringing in some new catchers was a bad idea. Blue Jays’ catchers put up this slash line that made Chris Stewart look good by comparison: 194/.235/.348. Ouch. Navarro and Kratz should help. And Kratz is a guy you root for after playing twelve years in the minors to get his shot. He will back up Navarro, a catcher who has had a rebirth of sorts in his own career.

The nice thing for Jays fans this season is those lofty expectation are gone and things might actually go much better in 2014. In the words of Matthias Koster:

“Touted to compete for the World Series, the Jays won a mere 74 games last season. To combat this, the club did next to nothing in the off-season!?!? However, the Jays are expecting three legitimate all-star candidates that missed time to injury (Reyes, Bautsita, Rasmus) last season. If they can stay on the field the Jays have a chance to slug their way to 85 – 90 wins in 2014.”

And Koster is not just looking for pie in the sky either. Fangraphs.com has the Blue Jays projected to win 82 games, or one less than the Yankees with odds of reaching the post season very similar to the New York team. But how can this team do pretty much nothing and pick up nine or more games in the standings?

Koster gave three offensive keys in the health of Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista and Colby Rasmus. If Bautistathose three stay healthy and perform as expected, they join Melky Cabrera, Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind, Navarro and Brett Lawrie for a potentially dynamic offense.

Rasmus seemed to come into his own a bit last year and was a 3.5 rWAR player who could push that to five wins if the plays like that with good health all season. Koster thinks Rasmus can take the next step this season.

Lawrie has been a disappointment in Toronto where much was expected of him, but the signs are there that he might be figuring it out. His OPS in the second half last season was .764 and he has carried that over and is hitting well this spring.

The offense was not great for the Blue Jays last season as they finished in the bottom half of the league in most categories. But the pitching, particularly the starting pitching was awful. Josh Johnson walked to the San Diego Padres after it just did not work out for him in Toronto last season. And while Matthias Koster is quite worried about the rotation, it might be okay.

First of all, Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey are going to give you more good games than bad. Yes, there will be a lot of base hits. But those two will pile up their usual innings and give the Blue Jays league average pitching. There is something to be said for that. After those two are the questions.

Esmil Rogers is penciled in there as one of the remaining rotation mates. But sometimes he looks good and other times, he is lit up like the a July 1, Canada Day extravaganza. The same has held so far this spring as he has had a good outing or two and then has given up three homers in nine innings.

Brandon Morrow is also a bit of a mess. At one time, Morrow looked like he was going to be one of the most dynamic pitchers in baseball, but injuries and perhaps a lack of mechanics or confidence has reduced him to a point where he has trouble getting anyone out. He has not looked good this spring.

Perhaps Koster’s concern is well founded. After those mentioned, you step into the likes of J.A. Happ and Todd Redmond. That would be a problem. Fortunately, the Blue Jays have some major talent on the way and Drew Hutchinson should be the first to dent the rotation. He is only 23 and has only a few reps in Triple-A and no Major League experiences. Heck, he hasn’t even made it to Baseball America‘s Top 100 prospects. But he looks fantastic.

Hutchinson has blown people away this spring and is going to get a rotation spot. If all the Morrows, Redmonds, Happs and the like do not work out, then there are two more great prospects waiting in the wings in Marcus Stroman and Sean Nolin and don’t discount Aaron Sanchez getting fast-tracked either.

It will be interesting to see if the Blue Jays play it out with a patchwork in 2014 and then go for it in 2015 or whether they are willing to give those young guns a chance.

Comparing the Blue Jays to the Yankees, I would take Reyes over Jeter at this point in their careers, Bautista over Carlos Beltran and Encarnacion slightly over Mark Teixeira. The Yankees have the edge with McCann at catcher, Jacoby Ellsbury over Rasmus in center, thought it’s closer than you’d think. There is pretty much a wash with second base, third base and DH.

The Yankees are set up much better right now with their rotation and the two bullpens as pretty much even. Koster believes that Ryan Goins will be the top rookie but the belief here is more on Hutchinson. But Koster is right that Stroman might take it if given a chance.

This is one case where the Yankees seem to have the edge with their manager. I went on record last year as saying that John Gibbons was not the right guy for the Blue Jays and I stand by that today. I think he was a bad hire.

Looking ahead at the schedule, the Yankees play the Blue Jays in Toronto:

  • April 4-6 for three games
  • June 23-25 for three games
  • Aug 29-31 for three games

The Yankees play the Blue Jays at home:

  • June 17-19 for three games
  • July 25-27 for three games
  • Sept 18-21 for four games.

Playing the Blue Jays for nineteen games in 2014 will not be as easy as it was in 2013. No one should expect the Yankees to take 14 of the 19 games again. But it does seem that at this point, the Yankees have the better team. Nobody will know, of course, until the two teams play the games. In parting, one quote from Matthias Koster caused a smile when he was asked what gave him hope for the Blue Jays 2014 season. His answer: “It can’t be as bad as last season, can it?”

William Tasker grew up in Bergenfield, New Jersey but has lived in New England since 1975 and in the far reaches of northern Maine since 1990. Tasker is the author of nine (non-baseball related) books and, besides writing here for three years, has written for his own site at www.passion4baseball.blogspot.com since 2003.

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