Toronto Blue Jays: 3 Up and 3 Down

Having put together a respectable 85-77 record in 2010, many expected the Blue Jays to take another step forward in 2011.  The team was loaded with young talent, a stocked farm system and had all of its key pieces returning.  Instead, the Jays hit the .500 mark two weeks into April and basically lingered there the rest of the year, ending the 2011 season with a record of exactly 81-81.

Looking back, a number of factors prevented the Jays from matching or exceeding 2010’s success.  The team reasonably assumed that pitchers Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil would continue to improve on strong seasons and that Aaron Hill and Adam Lind would bounce back from disappointing campaigns.  Lind was slightly better but

Brandon Morrow

Morrow and Cecil took steps backwards and Hill was eventually shipped to Arizona for Kelly Johnson after he failed to prove 2010 was a fluke.  2011 wasn’t a complete loss, however; the trade for Brett Lawrie from Milwaukee started bearing fruit after his call-up in August and after many previous failed attempts, GM Alex Anthopoulos finally nabbed Colby Rasmus from the Cardinals.

[2012 MLB Preview Central]

During the off-season, the Blue Jays were mentioned as a front-runner for acquiring just about every big name free agent available (Carlos Beltran, Prince Fielder, Gio Gonzalez, Yu Darvish, etc.).  Ultimately, while the Jays did not make any headline-grabbing acquisitions, they did manage to strengthen the bullpen substantially by adding Francisco Cordero, Sergio Santos and Darrin Oliver.  With a rotation consisting of four less-than-sure-bets, a strong bullpen is essential for this team.

3 Up

Best case scenario for 2012
So where does this leave the Toronto Blue Jays going into the 2012 season?  Frankly, while it’s hard to predict where the team will end up record-wise, it’s pretty easy to guess where they’ll be in the standings come year-end.  The bottom line is, they still play in the AL East and the Yankees in particular have been anything but quiet this off-season.  Even if everything goes right for the Jays and a few things go wrong for the Red Sox and Rays, this team will find itself third place at best in the East.

Most important Blue Jays
There is no doubt Jose Bautista is the most important man on the roster.  Not only did he lead the team in every meaningful offensive category last year, his worth ethic, discipline and quiet leadership are critical for a team full of young players striving to reach their potential.  Over the past few seasons Ricky Romero has come from virtually nowhere to become one of the most consistent young starters in baseball.  He already has a killer curve and changeup and if he adds a solid cutter to the mix (something he’s working on this spring), he could move himself into the upper echelon of starting pitchers in the AL.  Finally, there’s Brett Lawrie.  It may seem premature to add him to this category but given the hype already surrounding him, his success in limited time last season and his “hometown hero” status (in Canada, as long as you were born somewhere in the country, you qualify), a poor season from Lawrie would be a huge punch to the gut for the Jays.  Don’t worry, he’ll be fine.

Potential breakout players in 2012
As much as I want to put Travis Snider on this list, I just can’t.  He may not even make the opening day roster and if he does, chances of him staying with the big league club all season are slim.  I know he’s only 24 and has a ton of potential but I think it’s another year before any sort of breakout occurs.  Hopefully I’m wrong.  Instead, I’m eying two of the team’s starters as strong candidates for breakout seasons – Brett Cecil and Henderson Alvarez.  Cecil did win 15 games two years ago but he has struggled mightily with consistency his first two plus seasons in the majors, posing an ERA of 4.64 over his short career.  Word is, Cecil dropped over 30 pounds in the off-season (much of it put on last year) and has been working hard on a more repeatable delivery and getting more velocity on his fastball.  Cecil has shown promise in spits and spurts and was a top prospect in the not-so-distant past.  His renewed commitment will reward him with an ERA around 4.00, a WHIP of 1.20 and 13 or 14 wins.  Alvarez is just 21 years old so it’s probably more likely he’ll take a step back than breakout in 2012 but I think his success from last season will carry over.  After being called up in August, Alvarez went 1-3 in 10 starts for the Jays with a 3.53 ERA and 1.14 WHIP.  Alvarez loves the strike zone and challenging hitters (only 8 walks in 63.2 innings last year) which could get him into trouble especially considering he relies almost exclusively on two pitches – a fastball and sinker.  However, he gets a ton of ground balls and as he adds more pitches to his repertoire, his strikeout rate (5.7K/9 last season) should improve over time.  Don’t be surprised if Henderson nets around 10 wins (his innings will be limited) with an ERA under 4.00 this season.

3 Down

Worst case scenario for 2012
If the best case scenario for this team is third place in the AL East, worst case isn’t much lower than that.  Since the Baltimore Orioles did virtually nothing this off-season and are already battling injuries, it’s unlikely they will see much competition for last place.  Another fourth place finish for the Jays is likely in 2012.  Record-wise, improvement over 2011 should be expected and another .500 season is the absolute floor for this team.

Areas of concern
The starting rotation was a major problem for the Jays in 2011 and with no significant changes in personnel, it’s the biggest concern heading into this season.  When Roy Halladay was traded two years ago the expectation was that the Jays would have a fairly solidified staff of young arms by now but with a projected starting rotation of Ricky

Colby Rasmus

Romero, Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, Henderson Alvarez and Dustin McGowan, clearly there is still work to do.  The good news there is a slew of exciting young arms like Drew Hutchison, Dan Norris and Noah Syndergaard waiting in the wings should any of the initial starting five stumble.  Another related concern is the Jays continued reliance on “promise”.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m as excited about the young talent on this team as anyone, but relying almost exclusively on up-side means just about everything has to go right for the team to be competitive.  More likely, a bumpy road lies ahead and growing impatience from the fan base will continue.

Who needs to bounce back from a down 2011
There are a handful of guys on this team that didn’t exactly live up to expectations last season.  Probably the most obvious being Colby Rasmus who was acquired from the Cardinals last July.  Two years ago with St. Louis, Rasmus hit 23 home runs, batted .276 and had an OPS of .859.  Last season in 35 games with the Jays, Colby batted just .173 over 133 at bats.  Rasums loves to talk about “putting the stuff that happened in St. Louis” behind him so hopefully a more relaxed attitude will help him regain some of his swagger and return to 2010-like numbers.

Adam Lind is another whose offensive production has left a lot to be desired the past two seasons.  To start 2011, it seemed he had put his 2010 struggles behind him after batting .300 with 16 home runs before the All-Star break but an abysmal second half (.197 BA, 10 home runs) got everyone worrying again.  Lind claims a persistent back injury has limited his ability to maximize his potential the past two seasons and unfortunately, comments he has made this spring signify his back still isn’t 100%.  If Lind doesn’t come back around quickly in 2012, it may force the Jays to look for someone else to protect Jose Bautista, especially against lefties.

Finally, but most importantly, there’s Brandon Morrow.  It may be a bit unfair to put Morrow in this category considering he’s never really had a full season of success as a starter but the Jays desperately need a strong #2 to emerge and Morrow has the skills to be that guy.  Going into 2011, expectations were extremely high after Morrow put together an exceptional August (3-0, 2.97 ERA, and 49 Ks in 30.1 innings) to finish 2010.  Brandon had a couple of decent starts in April but had another up-and-down season after that on his way to a 4.72 ERA in 2011.  When Morrow is on, he’s a lot of fun to watch but until he starts exhibiting some consistency on the mound, each of his starts will be met with more anxiety than excitement from Jays fans.