Winning the battles in November, December, and January brings no guarantee that the real battles will be won on the field and the Toronto Blue Jays are about to find that out the hard way. The consensus champions of the offseason brought a whole host of new players north of the border in their quest to return to the postseason for the first time in nearly 20 years, but that doesn’t guarantee results. R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and others will have to prove that they mesh as well on the field as everybody seems to think they do on paper. Here are just a few of the reasons I think the Blue Jays will be watching October baseball instead of playing it:
1. R.A. Dickey won’t repeat his 2012 performance
A year ago R.A. Dickey was one of the best pitchers in the National League, that much cannot be denied. He led the NL in innings pitched, strikeouts, complete games, and shutouts thanks to his devious knuckleball, which baffled batters all year long. But when you actually look at who he pitched against, his numbers quickly fall apart. Dickey made 35 starts a year ago and a mere 11 of those outings came against offenses that ranked in the top half of baseball and to make matters worse, 8 of his starts came against offenses that ranked in the bottom 5 in the league. Dickey won’t get to face that kind of cupcake schedule in 2013 which will lead to a fair amount of regression in his numbers and performance.
It’s also worth asking if Dickey is a one-year wonder. He’d never been anything close to a dominant strikeout pitcher in his career until a season ago when his strikeout rate was nearly double his career average. He’s going to be 38 this season so another big strikeouts per inning season just isn’t in the cards. Dickey should still be a solid starter, which is something the Jays had too few of last year, but another Cy Young season is out of the question and I’ll bet he struggles to perform at even an All-Star level.
2. A change in management will hurt the defense
A season ago the Blue Jays were under the management of John Farrell, who is one of the most aggressive defensive managers in baseball. If their was a hitter at the plate who was pull-heavy they Jays were going to shift and shift they did. Toronto was only ranked behind the Rays and their mad scientist Joe Maddon in terms of number of defensive shifts used and those shifts worked more often than not. Toronto ranked among the most effective teams in baseball in terms of defensive runs saved despite having a lousy pitching staff which is directly a result of Farrell’s shifting.
In his three years in Toronto, the Blue Jays annually had one of the lowest opponent’s batting averages on ground balls hit in play.
|YEAR||AL BABIP||BLUE JAYS’ BABIP|
That’s 40 or 50 hits a year that Farrell was saving the Toronto pitching staff and yet even with all that success, new manager John Gibbons is unlikely to shift as often. New Toronto 3rd base coach Luis Rivera, who will be coordinating the defense, has already said as much:
“I don’t think I’m going to be that aggressive as we were,” said Rivera. “It all depends on who is hitting. If I do that to David Ortiz and he wants to bunt to third, it’s late in the game and they’re down by two runs, I’m probably going to take that [bunt] away — because if he gets on base, it’ll be the tying run [at the plate].”
There’s also the issue of swapping out Yunel Escobar, a brilliant defender, for Jose Reyes, a mediocre one, at shortstop. Reyes, for all his offensive brilliance, has never been anyone’s idea of a good defender. He’s sloppy with his throws and his range is sub par for someone with his speed and quickness. Don’t believe me? Well, check the numbers. A year ago Yunel Escobar played 160 fewer innings at shortstop than Reyes did, yet he was still able to make nearly 30 more plays in the field. Reyes also made 6 more errors and he annually ranks among the league leaders in mistakes at his position.
3. The bullpen may be the worst in baseball
Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos is generally considered to be one of the better general managers in baseball. If you can swap Vernon Wells for Mike Napoli without having to lose, you’re going to look brilliant. But the one thing he’s never quite gotten the hang of is building a quality bullpen. The Blue Jays haven’t ranked better than 19th in baseball in bullpen ERA under Anthopoulos and this year’s edition probably won’t end that streak.
Casey Janssen is the best arm in the Toronto bullpen and he’s going to start the season as a closer. Darren Oliver is back at age 42 as the team’s nominal lefty out of the pen and that’s about it. Sergio Santos throws real hard but he struggles to find the plate most of the time he’s on the mound and he’s trying to return from shoulder surgery. Toronto’s going to be counting on these guys and a few others to throw somewhere around 500-600 innings next season, a dangerous prospect for a team with playoff aspirations.
4. The AL East is a meat-grinder
There is only one division in baseball where all five teams legitimately have a aspirations of making the playoffs in 2013: the AL East. Tampa Bay has more quality pitching than any other team on the planet, Boston reloaded, Baltimore is improving, and once the Yankees are healthy they should start to resemble the team that led the American League in wins a year ago. Toronto was 22 games off the pace a year ago and to be honest, there is just too many good teams in this division for the Jays to pick up that many wins.
Make no mistake, I think the Blue Jays will be a much improved team after last season’s disappointing 73 win campaign but they have far too many flaws and far too many question marks to take the division. Is Jose Bautista going to bounce back from his wrist injury? Was Edwin Encarnacion’s big 2012 season a fluke? Will Brett Lawrie be able to stay on the field? How will the former Marlins pitchers fair outside of the biggest ballpark in baseball? Is Mark Buerhle’s terrible spring a sign of things to come? And the most important one: can you mesh together the pieces of three terrible ballclubs in order to build one good one? Color me a skeptic, but I don’t think you can.