Sunday, March 30, 2014

New season, same team?

Disappointment will be less as our expectations are much lower

The Toronto Blue Jays open their season tomorrow at Tampa before the Yankees come to town this weekend. I've been away for five months and it's great that baseball is back. I managed to listen to and watch some of the spring training games looking for something different. I watched the off-season moves, hoping that Alex Anthopolous and Rogers would come up with some scratch to sign a big name pitcher for 2014. 

So, what I see is the same players (save Navarro, thank God) on the same team using the same techniques to win and lose games. 

The exception this year is that our expectations were so high this year, while this year I think the fan base will be happy with anything over .500. Certainly, Rogers Media has toned down the rhetoric for this year, and that's a good thing. I think the fan base at Rogers Centre will remain steady, making no gains on 2013, while the fan base around the country will remain tied to the Blue Jays' win-loss record, with some extra interest as it looks like only one Canadian team will make the NHL playoffs.

Let's take a look at this year's roster and point out some of the questionable roster moves for opening day. This article will focus on the hitters, while the next focuses on the pitching.

Overall, this team should be hitting better than they did last year, which was absolutely abysmal. Last year featured some terrible offensive outages due to really poor seasons by Maicer, JP, and Bonifacio, bad streaks by Jose, Colby, Lind, and Lawrie compounded by injuries by most everyone on the offence, leaving them with inferior replacements like Kawasaki, Thole/Blanco, Gose, and Pillar. 

Once again, the key to this year's performance offensively will be consistency and injury avoidance. While the addition of Navarro might help the offensive performance as will a return of Melky to his former self, the team is now lacking formidable speed with the departures of Emilio (who could never get on base anyway) and Rajai Davis (a true weapon), and Anthony Gose sitting in AAA. This means that the team must attempt to move runners forward by ways of the bat. And with a three man bench and no one on the bench particularly good, late game situational hitting will be lacking.

This leads me to believe that while the numbers overall will be better, run production will suffer.

Here's my player by player analysis.

C - Dioner Navarro with a .300 / .465 / .492 slash last year and an all star 2008 (with Tampa) under his belt, this guy brings veteran experience behind the plate, which is what the pitching staff and John Gibbons needs defensively. Offensively, he comes with a caveat, in that there were years where he suffered at the plate. For example, after his all-star year with the Rays where he hit .295, he hit just .218 in the following year. So, it is unclear which Dioner we are going to get this year. Still, it's a huge improvement over the train wreck which was JP Arencibia last year. He seemed to have some power last year too, hitting 13 homers in 266 plate appearance. In Rogers Centre, playing full-time, he might have the potential to hit 20 dingers. I also like the fact that he came from Tampa, a Blue Jays rival, with some knowledge of the pitching system there.

C - Josh Thole is here to catch RA Dickey, and will figure into games only if he manages to crack .200. He was quite the batting disappointment last year, but I think part of that was the fact that he was only in games where the opposing pitcher was the team's ace (in that RA is the Blue Jays ace, and aces tend to play each other).

I am surprised that the Jays chose Thole over Kratz as the backup catcher. In the end, I think the Jays traded offense for the ability to catch and hopes that Thole can have a little bit of offense one game of five. I think it's a very tall order to push Thole into action one day out of five, and I would like to see the Jays play him in two of five games, especially if his offense shows a bit of spark.

1B/DH - Adam Lind has had an excellent spring, with Buck quoting that he was looking like the Lind of 2009. Well with the goatee, he definitely looks like the Dr. Hyde version of Lind in 2013. The issue with Lind always is his back health and his ability to stay consistent. If he can remain warm for 2014 and Gibbons uses him in every day situations (against LHP and RHP) and gives him breaks so that he can rest (using him as DH, sitting him from time to time), Lind can relive his glory from 2009.

1B/DH - Edwin Encarnacion, for a Jay, is Mr. Consistency. From oblivion three years ago when the Jays let him go to Oakland (only to be reclaimed), the former "E5" has turned into a decent first baseman sporting a .275 / .364 / .517 line over the past three years with not much in the way of injuries.

At issue here are the away National league games (against Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati) where both Edwin and Adam can't play.

2B - Ryan Goins -- The Blue Jays draftee of 2009 is the starting 2B, sporting a paltry .177 batting average over spring training. Last year, in his MLB debut, he hit .252 / .264 / .345 over 121 plate appearances, with 2 walks and 28 strikeouts. He is supposed to be excellent defensively.

I seriously question the decision of putting in Goins over Kawasaki. Now, one could point out Muni's slash last year (.229 / .326 / .308) as being worse than Goins, but that OBP is meaningful. Muni drew a heck of alot more of Pitches per Plate Appearance than pretty much anyone else in the majors. He is extremely popular with the fan base, and he is defensively capable all around the infield. One could argue that this year represents that natural progression for Goins, and that it's his time to prove himself at the MLB level. But the fan base loves Muni. He is JAPANESE!!!

The good news is that if Ryan doesn't prove himself, Muni will be on that bus from Buffalo.

SS - Jose Reyes, while defensively average, Jose is a necessary and vital piece of the Jays offense this year. Our hope is that his hamstring doesn't have any issue. His injury last year was not related to his hamstring. I hope that he improves on his already excellent .296/.353/.427 line from last year.

3B - Brett Lawrie -- We were hoping collectively that LAST year would have been the year for Brett, and looking that the downward trend year over year, we find that we have been making excuses for this man's offensive performance (at .254/.315/.397) last year. He had a terrible spring, got injured, tried 2B (stupid idea), and finally broke out after the all star break, where he had a string of 42 games hitting .324 / .384 / .507 before having a meh September. Defensively, he's a gem. If he stays healthy, it will be HIS year to show MLB his star quality. He becomes arbitration eligible next year, and the Jays are going to have to show him the money if he has a great year, which we all hopes he has. He seems to have matured and slowed down his waggle at home plate and seems to have more control.

UF - Maicer Izturis is the team's utility infielder and after a crappy year (his worst year offensively in MLB), we are all hoping that he does better. When he had regular play with Brett's injury, he managed to hit .309 / .351 / .397 over 150 plate appearance, which was pretty good. But he started off terribly and ended the season terribly as well, batting just .167 for the rest of the season over 103 plate appearances. Defensively, he is okay. 

LF - Melky Cabrera, with an undiagnosed tumour in his back and an absolute defensive liability in LF last year, the man still managed to hit .279 last year with no power. This year, he looks absolutely white hot, hitting .400 in spring training. We can only hope that Melky is the Melky of 2011 this year. We shall see if the turf in LF doesn't hurt him.

CF - Colby Rasmus was hot and cold last year, pretty much like the rest of the club, and with a strikeout rate near 30% and a propensity to look foolish against LHP, he can be a frustrating player to watch. Still, overall, he had an excellent year in 2013, batting .276 / .338 / .501. He demonstrates power. Defensively, he has moments where he is excellent, and moments of complete lapses. I'm looking forward to seeing him perform this year, and hopes that he has a consistently good year with a measure of better plate discipline.

RF - Jose Bautista has had an excellent spring, and that wrist and his violent swing hopefully will not lead to injury as it has over the last couple of years. Still, a HR every 15 or so plate appearances is not a bad thing, and his arm and defence is most helpful.

OF - Moises Sierra had an excellent 2013 in limited action as Jose's replacement last September and represents a capable 4th OF for the Jays and represents the good choice versus Gose and Pillar.

The Outsiders: Anthony Gose, Kevin Pillar, Muni Kawasaki and Kratz are the four outsiders looking in. I see all four of them in Jays uniforms at some point this year.

Next: the Pitchers.

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