Saturday, December 29, 2012

Bolstered Blue Jays

The Toronto Blue Jays pillaged the Miami Marlins
Most of the ink that's been spilled this offseason has focused on the pricey free agent acquisitions made by baseball's two burgeoning West Coast superpowers. 2012 saw the Dodgers and Angels grapple for splashy headlines the way competitive siblings battle for their parents' undivided attention. Hollywood has emerged as the center of the baseball world with its pair of star-studded teams, both of whom are flush, aggressive, and hungry to end an interminable three-year postseason drought.

Meanwhile, in a foreign land called Canada, the Toronto Blue Jays have quietly assembled baseball's most dangerous and intriguing ballclub.

Last preseason many tabbed Toronto as a dark horse candidate to make the playoffs, but injuries decimated John Farrell's starting rotation and caused a promising season to end with 89 losses. 2012 was a frustrating year on many levels. Brett Lawrie did not mature into the Ryan Braun clone that scouts hoped he would become. Adam Lind, Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar looked lost at the plate. The bullpen struggled. Ricky Romero pulled a Tim Lincecum and went from Cy Young candidate to one of baseball's worst pitchers overnight.

Instead of crossing his fingers and waiting to see what his personnel could achieve when healthy, GM Alex Anthopoulos adopted an aggressive, win-now approach that sacrificed some of his organization's most promising young talent in the process. But unlike, say, Kansas City's much criticized trade of Wil Meyers for James Shields, he made sure he got plenty of established big league talent in return.

In the span of a few short months, he overhauled his roster into one of the most formidable teams in the league. The Blue Jays are going all in for 2013 as they gun for their first playoff appearance in 20 years. With their retooled roster they will try to take advantage of the aging Yankees and rebuilding Red Sox, both of whom are flawed and could be watching from the sidelines come October. After a flurry of trades, Toronto is poised to usurp the kings of the American League East

And for that, the Jays can thank the Miami Marlins.

Less than a year after spending money like a drunken playboy in a Vegas casino, the Marlins dismantled their roster piece by piece, trading away all their talent Harry Frazee style. Now, all that's left is the wildly inconsistent Rick Nolasco, a disgruntled Giancarlo Stanton (who may not see a decent pitch to hit again for the rest of the decade), and Twittaholic Logan Morrison. I envision many solo home runs in Stanton's future, for the basepaths will be just as empty as the seats in Miami's shiny new baseball stadium.

The mass exodus began during the summer when the losses began to mount and it became clear the Marlins weren't going to contend for a playoff spot. Hanley Ramirez took his fading star to Hollywood. Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante packed their bags for Motown. A struggling Gaby Sanchez got dumped on the Pittsburgh Pirates. After the season ended Heath Bell was banished to the Arizona desert. Ozzie Guillen got canned.

Then, to top it all off, the Fish pulled off a fire sale that rivaled Boston's late summer housecleaning. Miami jettisoned its remaining stars north of the border in a blockbuster 12-player trade that rocked the baseball world and ignited a media firestorm.

But instead of focusing on the pathetic Marlins and their winning-adverse ownership, I want to look at the newest members of the Toronto Blue Jays and what can be expected of them in 2013.

Jose Reyes
After signing a nine figure contract, the speedy shortstop played a full season for the first time since 2008 and even led the league in plate appearances, but many considered his lone season with Miami a mild disappointment even though most of his numbers were right in line with his career averages. Health is always a concern with him, especially now that he's playing half his games on artificial turf, but when the switch-hitter's in the lineup he will be a great table-setter for Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Plus, he can't possibly be any worse than Escobar was last year.

Projection: 104 runs, 13 home runs, 58 RBI, 37 steals, .301/.353/.446

Josh Johnson
Managed to stay healthy last year but was clearly not the same dominant pitcher who won the NL ERA title in 2010. However, it's worth noting that his numbers were inflated by a brutal start; from May 9th to the end of the season he posted a more respectable 3.26 ERA while limiting opponents to a .229 batting average. On the flip side, it's concerning that his home run rate more than doubled given that the Rogers Center is very conducive to the long ball. The oft-injured starter could struggle in the American League, but to his credit he was solid during interleague play by going 8-3 with a 2.95 ERA. Not an ace anymore, but he's a great number two when healthy.

Projection: 12-8, 3.62 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 185 innings, 164 strikeouts.

Mark Buehrle
After taking a productive sabbatical in the National League, Buehrle returns to the AL coming off another strong season in which he produced 3.2 bWAR, received his fourth straight Gold Glove and posted his best WHIP since 2001. One of the game's most consistent and durable hurlers, the 33 year-old workhorse has compiled twelve consecutive seasons with at least 200 innings pitched, 30 starts and double digit win totals. The perfect middle-of-the-rotation starter, Buehrle should stabilize Toronto's rotation and adds another southpaw arm to complement Ricky Romero. He's no stranger to hitter-friendly environments after calling U.S. Cellular Field home for nine seasons.

Projection: 13-12, 4.04 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 204 innings, 112 strikeouts

Toronto also received super-utility man Emilio Bonifacio and catcher John Buck in the megatrade. Since the Blue Jays already have a young power-hitting backstop in J.P. Arencibia, they packaged Buck with three prospects (including Travis d'Arnaud) in a trade to the New York Mets that netted R.A. Dickey and two minor leaguers, Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas.

R.A. Dickey
Toronto secured an ace in the reigning NL Cy Young winner. Although Dickey became a household name in 2012, he'd been a very good pitcher in the two previous years. Over the past three seasons he's made 91 starts, compiled a 2.95 ERA, averaged 206 innings per season and struck out more than three batters for every walk. The 38 year-old knuckleballer is a good bet to fall back to earth next year but his recent record indicates he will succeed in the American League.

Projection: 15-9, 3.43 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 212 innings, 198 strikeouts

Last but not least, Anthopoulos has made one notable free agent signing to date that could pay huge dividends if it pans out.

Melky Cabrera
The Melk Man followed up a breakout 2011 in Kansas City with an even better year in 2012 for the Giants that was truncated by a 50-game suspension for PED use. While it's unrealistic to expect him to repeat his performance from the past two years, I think it's equally unfair to assume he'll regress into the light-hitting outfielder he was in New York and Atlanta. For a two-year, $16 million investment, there's quite a bit of value to be had here. If Cabrera is anything close to the player he was in 2011 and '12, he will be a massive bargain. He teams up with Joey Bats and Colby Rasmus in Toronto's outfield.

Projection: 80 runs scored, 12 home runs, 64 RBI, 15 steals, .291/.330/.432

So with a strong starting rotation of Dickey, Johnson, Buehrle, Romero and Brandon Morrow, the Jays have addressed their biggest weakness and now boast five frontline starters. Adding Reyes and Cabrera makes a good lineup even better, adding balance with their switch-hitting abilities and giving the offense a nice blend of power and speed. On paper, Toronto is loaded. All the pieces are in place for new manager John Gibbons, so expect his Blue Jays to win upwards of 90 games next year and challenge their division rivals for the AL East flag.

For the first time in a long time, Blue Jay fans can say that without sounding like they're riding a maple syrup-induced sugar high.

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