Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Team Postmortem: Toronto Blue Jays

Record: 74-88, -44 Run Differential

Summary: Congratulations to the 2013 World Champi-- What? They didn't win the World Series? Didn't even play in it? Well, the postseason is a crapshoot, they probably just got unlucky. In that case, this season the AL East Champion Toro--Huh? They didn't win the division, either? They finished last? Oh... So, yeah, despite being crowned the easy favorites by just about everyone in the media, the Blue Jays actually finished dead last in the East, with a sub-.500 record. Seeing a window of opportunity, with the Red Sox and Yankees both apparently weakened and the Orioles likely to regress, the Blue Jays pushed all their chips to the center of the table in the offseason, trading nearly their entire farm system for R.A. Dickey and the entire Miami Marlins roster. Unfortunately, everything that could go wrong from that point basically did. Let's take a look.

The good news is that the Blue Jays actually had a pretty good offense this year. They scored 712 runs (9th in baseball), while hitting .270/.323/.411 with a .320 wOBA (11th) a 99 wRC+ (12th). They also posted one of of the best K/BB ratios in the game 0.45 (6th). Edwin Encarnacion had an excellent year hitting .272/.370/.534 with 36 homers and a 145 wRC+. Jose Bautista had another solid year with a wRC+ of 134, as did Colby Rasmus (130 wRC+, .501 SLG). The problem was injuries. Bautista (118 games played), Jose Reyes (93), Rasmus (118), Rajai Davis (108), and Brett Lawrie (107) were all among players who missed significant time. These players were all key pieces of the Blue Jays' offense and, when they were on the field, gave above-average results. Perhaps the biggest disappointment was Melky Cabrera who was limited to 88 games by injuries; even when he did play, he only hit .279/.322/.350 with a 87 wRC+ and -0.9 fWAR. He was coming off a 150 wRC+ season--albeit one that ended with a steroid suspension--but certainly the Blue Jays had hoped for more out of him than being below replacement level. Catcher was also a black hole for the Jays, where J. P. Arencibia was healthy--but many Jays fans probably wished he wasn't. He swatted 21 homers, but the rest of his line is an ugly .195/.227/.365 with a wRC+ of 57 and a -0.6 fWAR. It doesn't get more scary than that.

For all the injury problems on the offense, it was the pitching and defense that truly sunk the Jays season. They allowed 756 runs, ranking them 27th in the majors, with a 4.33 FIP (27th) and a 4.04 xFIP (25th). The big off-season pick-up for the Jays had been R. A. Dickey. In 2012, the knuckleballer had gone 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA, 3.27 FIP (note: FIP does have issues dealing with knuckleballers, who have a tendency to consistently out-perform the stat), 8.86 K/9, 2.84 BB/9, a 4.7 fWAR and winning the NL Cy Young Award. In 2013, Dickey dropped off dramatically. His ERA and FIP ballooned to 4.21 and 4.58. His K/9 dropped to 7.09 and his BB/9 rose to 2.84. Batters also teed off on his knuckler, with an HR/9 of 1.40 (0.92 in 2012). A possible culprit is that Dickey lost about 1.5 mph off all of his pitches. Losing the velocity would cause the knuckleball to float more, which may have resulted in it being more difficult for Dickey to control and thus more balls over the heart of the plate. No matter the cause, it was not the performance Toronto was looking for from its new ace. Another significant disappointment was Josh Johnson, acquired from the Marlins in the Mega-Trade. The book on Johnson has always been that he's an excellent pitcher who simply can't stay healthy. The Jays bet that this would be the year that he was healthy and that he would be an excellent #2 behind Dickey. Unfortunately, he was neither healthy (only pitching 16 games) nor effective. When on the mound he had the worst season of his career, posting a 6.20 ERA and 4.62 FIP. While he still had an excellent 9.18 K/9, he had the worst BB/9 of his career at 3.32 and batters hit for a .369 wOBA (he essentially turned all hitters into Giancarlo Stanton, Brandon Moss, or Mike Napoli) against him. Like the offense, health was an issue for the rest of the rotation. The only staters to make more than 20 starts were Mark Buerhle (33 GS, 4.10 FIP) and RA Dickey (32 GS). The rest of the team was plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness, forcing the Jays to give starts to names like Brandon Morrow (10 GS, 5.42 FIP), Chien-Ming Wang (6 GS, 5.42 FIP), and Ramon Ortiz (4 GS, 6.72 FIP).

It was about as bad as could be, especially given the high hopes the organization had going into the season. Last off-season's trades with the Marlins and the Mets decimated Toronto's farm system--dropping it from one of baseball's best systems to one of the very worst. In the pre-season, Baseball America ranked it 22nd and in its post-MiLB season rankings Bleacher Report put it at 28th. As a result, the Blue Jays are locked into "Win Now" mode. That may sound terrifying, given their 74-88 record this season, but there is hope. If the Jays can get even some reasonable semblance of health from their roster (certainly, it'd be hard to be worse), and some better results from their starting pitching (Dickey, we're looking at you), they can significantly improve on their record in 2014, perhaps even into the contention that everyone predicted for 2013. They'd better too, as another losing season will probably land GM Alex Anthopoulos on the hot seat.

Team MVP: Colby Rasmus, 4.8 fWAR

Team LVP: Maicer Izturis, -2.1 fWAR

Down On The Farm: As I said, there's really not much to see here anymore. Last year's trades which sent, among others, Travis D'Arnaud, Wuilmer Becerra, and Noah Snydergaard to the Mets and Adeiny Hechavarria, Justin Nicolino, and Jake Marisnick to the Marlins utterly decimated Toronto's farm. What remains is a system that is a shell of its former self. To make matters worse, the Jays failed to come to an agreement with 2013 first round pick Phil Bickford, preventing them from restocking badly needed talent. Let's take a look at what talent is left.

Aaron Sanchez is a 21-year-old right-handed pitcher, with a fastball that sits mid-90s and can top out in the high 90s. He also possesses an average curveball that has plus potential and he is developing a changeup. The fastball has the potential of being a truly spectacular pitch, he throws it with easy velocity and natural movement. The problem is that his control and command is currently extremely lacking. In each professional season thus far he's posted a BB/9 over 4 , often over 5. He spent the majority of the season in A+, posting a 7.82 K/9, 4.12 BB/9 and 3.34 ERA. If he can develop his command, he has a ceiling of a #2 starter--or even an ace.  Without that, however, there are a lot more question marks in his future.

D.J. Davis is a 19-year-old centerfielder who spent 2013 in Rookie-ball. His biggest calling card has always been his incredible speed, both in the field and on the basepaths, which scouts rank as a pure 80. However, this season Davis also flashed some good power for a teenager, hitting for a .178 ISO and belting 23 extra base hits. He's still very raw and struggles with off-speed pitches which lead to his 29.5% strike-out rate. He'll probably open the season in A ball and, given the Blue Jays' aggressive tendencies with promoting outfield prospects, could make his way to Toronto by 2016.

Offseason Outlook: The Blue Jays are about as locked into attempting to contend as any team could be. As such, any moves they make this offseason will be designed to make the postseason in 2014. For better or worse, the team will be returning much the same roster as last season. However, there two biggest holes will be at catcher (where J.P. Arencibia was beyond horrible) and a front-line starting pitcher to bolster the rotation (their biggest weakness in 2013) and replace the departing Josh Johnson. As for catcher, while I expect Brian McCann or Jarrod Saltalamacchia to be priced out of the Blue Jays budget, they could make a run at Dioner Navarro. Finding a starting pitcher will be a bigger challenge.  The Jays will certainly pursue guys like Bartolo Colon, but may have to settle for more of a durable innings-eater like Bronson Arroyo. Given the injuries to the rotation in 2013, durability would be a nice change of pace. Ultimately, the Jays' 2014 rests less on who they acquire and more on bounceback seasons from the guys already on the roster.

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