Spring Training is over finally! Opening Day is just around the corner. It is time to really focus in on the upcoming season.
As always, the Blue Jays are in tough this season in the American League East Division. You have your usual powerhouses of New York and Boston who are going to be strong again this year. Then there is the Tampa Bay “Don’t Call Us Devil” Rays coming off a playoff season in 2011 and look to be an improved club in 2012.
There is an extra wild card spot available in 2012 which has raised hopes for Blue Jays fans but even with an extra playoff spot, the Blue Jays will have to have a lot of things go right to be in contention. Outside the East you have two big teams in the AL West in the back-to-back American League champions, the Texas Rangers and the Los Angeles Pujols of Anaheim (Angels). Then in the Central you have the home of the hefty infielders in the Detroit Tigers. In my opinion, these are the six teams that have the inside track at the playoffs (Yankees, Rays, Red Sox, Tigers, Rangers, Angels).
In all honesty, I don’t see the team making the playoffs this year. That’s not to say I’m not excited for this team and the 2012 season, I just think they face an uphill battle this year and a lot of things have to go right for the playoffs to be a consideration. I really this team is built to start contending in 2013 and beyond. However, I’ve been known to be wrong (ask my wife) and unlike last year I do not have to look at the Blue Jays lineup and see Juan Rivera in right field, Edwin Encarnacion starting at third base, Frank Francisco/Jon Rauch as the team’s closer and a starting rotation featuring Jo-Jo Reyes. The 2012 Blue Jays could possibly avoid being the best fourth place team in baseball and push “The Big Six” for a playoff spot but as I mentioned earlier, a lot of things have to go right.
In my humble opinion, here are the top five keys to the Blue Jays contending this year:
1. The best players need to continue being their best players: Jose Bautista and Ricky Romero need to perform to their abilities this year. Any down season for either of these players would be extremely tough to overcome. I’m not saying that Jose has to duplicate the monster season he had last year but a season where he has an OPS of 1.000 (.600 slugging, .400 OBP) will be no small feat but that’s the type of production the Jays need from him barring any breakout seasons from others in the lineup. Ricky needs to continue to be the team’s ace, pitch 200 plus innings and have a WHIP close to his 2011 total of 1.15.
2. Protection for Jose Bautista: Without any protection in the number 4 and 5 spots in the batting order, teams simply will not pitch to Jose Bautista. This is taking the bat out of the hands of MLB’s home run leader the past two seasons. This is not good. Someone has to step up and provide another middle of the order threat. Right now the spot light is on Adam Lind who looks to start the season in the #4 slot in the lineup and Edwin Encarnacion who will be in the fifth spot. Personally, I don’t think Lind is the right fit in the number four spot. Right now, I think Encarnacion has the most promise in the four spot with Lawrie moving the fifth spot. However, given that Bautista, Encarnacion and Lawrie all bat from the right side, John Farrell is not likely to have Bautista, Encarnacion and Lawrie grouped together in the lineup so Adam Lind will need to produce.
3. Brandon Morrow: We’ve been hearing how Brandon Morrow has the potential to be a front of the rotation starter and has the best ‘stuff’ on the team. He had an impressive 2010 campaign, his first as a Blue Jay, and was pegged to have a breakout season in 2011. However, 2011 was a struggle filled with inconsistent starts and early exits from ball games. Morrow is optimistic about 2012 and has mentioned that he has figured out what his approach should be on the mound. He’s going to focus on being more efficient (i.e. pitching to contact) and lasting deeper into ballgames. The Blue Jays need him to be a legitimate #2 starter if they have any hopes of contending in 2012.
4. Emergence of Young Stars: I’m focussing here on Brett Lawrie and Henderson Alvarez. Lawrie made a huge splash in 2011 and needs to continue to emerge as an impact, all-star calibre player for the Blue Jays in 2012. It looks as if he’s ready to do so as he picked up where he left off last September this spring. Can Lawrie play up to the level he did in 2011 over the course of an entire 162 game season? How well will he adjust to the adjustments AL pitchers are surely going to try and make as they get more familiar with the young Canadian? If all goes well, Lawrie could make a good Blue Jays offense a great one.
Based on his spring results and what we saw in late 2011, Henderson Alvarez appears to be poised to have an impressive 2012 campaign. If he does that will go a long way in solidifying the Blue Jays rotation giving them a solid top three (even if Alvarez is technically the #4 starter).
Although I focussed on Lawrie and Alvarez, the Blue Jays feature a number of young players who could take the next step forward in their development and contribute significantly a strong season. J.P. Arencibia is coming into his second full season as the Blue Jays’ starting catcher and if he can figure out how to reach base a little more, he can build on the impressive power numbers he put up in 2011. Kyle Drabek seems to have learned from a disastrous 2011 campaign and appears to be back on track. He possibly could be a mainstay in the rotation in 2012 given the door has swung wide open for him with Brett Cecil being sent to AA New Hampshire. Of course there is also Eric Thames who is the Blue Jays starting left fielder to start the season. He seems to have a mature approach at the plate and clearly is in great physical shape. Can he consistently produce? Or if he doesn’t, does Travis Snider finally establish himself as an everyday big leaguer?
I should also mention the much maligned Colby Rasmus who seems to have been labelled by an alarming number of Blue Jays fans as a bust and a malcontent despite only a brief time with the club in 2011. If Rasmus can find his 2010 (and early 2011) form, he can put up some big numbers and endear himself to the Blue Jays faithful. Of course if he goes 0 for 4 on Opening Day in Cleveland, fans will start asking when the Blue Jays are going to call up Anthony Gose which I find absolutely ridiculous.
5. The Bullpen:
The bullpen, especially the back end of the bullpen was much maligned in 2011. Exit stage left: Jon Rauch, Frank Francisco, Shawn Camp. Enter: Sergio Santos, Francisco Cordero, Darren Oliver and Jason Frasor (again). Add to that the incumbents, Janssen, Villenueva, and Luis Perez and Blue Jays fans should see a much improved bullpen. Now a good bullpen on paper doesn’t always guarantee performance but if this bullpen performs, it will go a long way to the Blue Jays improving on their win total from 2011. Sergio Santos bringing stability to the closer’s role will be key.
There, of course will be other factors that I’ve not included such as the ability of the team to stay healthy and consistent performance from the back end of the rotation (4,5 starters) etc. that will also determine the Blue Jays success in 2012 but the above represent solely what I think will be the most significant factors in the success of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2012. Now can we watch some real baseball please???
What I’m Listening To: As a recurring feature in my blog posts, I like to let the readers know what music I’m listening to while writing my blog. This week it’s Chris Cornell’s Songbook. This is a live acoustic album from recorded on his 2011 tour of the same name. Cornell is best known as the lead singer for the recently reformed Soundgarden as well as the former lead singer for Audioslave. The album features acoustic versions of some Soundgarden hits, his other solo releases, covers and even a Temple of the Dog song. I consider Cornell one of the best rock/alternative/grunge vocalists of his time and this album did not disappoint.
For this week’s post, I had planned on doing a piece on what spots on the roster were actually still undecided besides left field. I noticed on Twitter that an surprising number of people were posing questions to the likes of Sportsnet Radio’s Mike Wilner (@Wilnerness590) , and well known bloggers Tao of Stieb (@TaoofStieb) and Drunk Jays Fans (@drunkjaysfans) regarding the chances of certain players making the opening day roster. Questions such as:
What are the chances of Anthony Gose making the team in 2012?
Why don’t the Jays put Snider in centre and Thames in left?
I don’t see why the Jays don’t just move Escobar to second and play Hechevarria at short!
Can Snider or Thames play first base?
The first two questions to anyone who follows this team closely are quite easy to answer. Colby Rasmus is the Blue Jays’ centre fielder in 2012. Gose will be spending his 2012 in Vegas. Why people think Gose is a better option in centre having never played an inning in the majors is beyond me. Yes he’s fast and a plus defender but he’s at least a year away from being ready for the Show. Barring injury, you won’t see Gose playing for the Jays this summer. He’s a prime candidate for a September call-up but the Blue Jays have no need to rush him and remember that Colby Rasmus fellow???
The second question is also an emphatic NO!!! Again, this Colby Rasmus fellow who everybody was thrilled to see the Blue Jays acquire last season is the Blue Jays’ centrefielder. Yes both Eric and Travis are having fine springs but one of them is going to start the year in Las Vegas. It’s probably going to be Travis but I discussed that in my last post so I won’t go into any further detail as to why I think this to be the case.
As for the third statement, similar to Gose, the Blue Jays have no reason to rush Adeiny Hechevarria. From all accounts, Hechevarria is already an elite defender and major league ready with his glove. However, he is very much a work and progress at the dish. He’s improving at the plate and is apparently much stronger this spring then he was at the end of the season last year but he still needs time to develop. Again, the Blue Jays have a shortstop and second baseman in place for 2012; Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson.
Again for the fourth question, the answer is ‘NO’. It’s not that Snider and Thames can’t play first base it’s just that the Blue Jays have Adam Lind slated to play first. If that fails then you’ll see Edwin Encarnacion try his hand there and if E5 turns into E3 then you’ll likely see David Cooper get a shot. There is no chance the Blue Jays would throw Snider or Thames at first in 2012. It is conceivable I suppose that the Blue Jays might consider converting one of them to a first baseman in 2013 but I find that rather unlikely.
This brings me to the main subject of this post and that is who will be the Blue Jays fans’ whipping boy in 2012? In 2011, the Vernon Wells trade presented us Juan Rivera on a silver platter. His struggles at the plate and his total lack of speed did nothing to help Mr. Rivera’s cause and mercifully, the Blue Jays dealt him to the Dodgers in June. The fan’s ire then shifted fully to the back end of the Blue Jays bullpen where Jason Frasor, Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco drew heat for a multitude of late inning meltdowns.
Given the fan’s attention in Spring, I think it’s pretty clear that the prime candidates for whipping boy 2012 are, in no particular order: Colby Rasmus, Kelly Johnson and Adam Lind.
I don’t get why some fans have given up on Rasmus already. My best guess is that these are Blue Jays fans that watch the Blue Jays and only the Blue Jays and see Rasmus as a player with an attitude problem who only batted .173 with 3 homeruns as a Blue Jay. They don’t see the five-tool player with a huge upside who had an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .859 and 23 homeruns in 2010 as a 24 year old. In 2011, the kid got run out of St. Louis by Tony LaRussa who then proceeded to throw him under a bus after the trade to Toronto. He got to Toronto and then dealt with a wrist injury and only got in 35 games. Hardly time to give up on a player this young and with this much upside. That being said, if Rasmus gets off to a slow start, you’ll see fans calling for the Jays to play Snider or Gose in centre.
Kelly Johnson was another player who had a really rough 2011 season and has Blue Jays questioning whether he should be the team’s second baseman. However, given that the previous everyday second baseman for the Blue Jays who the Jays traded to get Johnson was having an equally bad 2011 (and a brutal 2010 for that matter), a change of scenery could bode well for both Johnson and Hill. Johnson is only signed to a one year deal so fans won’t resent him for his contract but again may be the target of fan’s ire simply because some fans don’t want to wait for Hechevarria.
Then there is Mr. Adam Lind. Lind had a great 2009 season. A breakout year for Mr. Lind. Then came 2010 where as the team’s DH, he struggled mightily with an OBP of a mere .287. Some writers pointed to the fact that he was a DH at such a young age and had to dwell all game over his failures at the plate as a reason for such a drop-off from 2010. The 2011 season was supposed to be a comeback season for Adam given that he was back to a full-time defensive player. Despite a promising start to the year, he again put up horrific numbers batting .251 and an on-base percentage of .295. He did put up 26 homeruns and 87 RBIs but given first base is generally a power position, these numbers don’t hold water. This kind of production is also not acceptable for a team’s #4 hitter who is supposed to provide protection to one of baseball’s premier power hitters in Jose Bautista. There is a reason why Bautista led the majors in walks last season. If you want to really put how bad Adam Lind’s numbers were in 2011, just look at his Wins Above Replacement of 0.7 and compare that with those players that played 50% of their games at 1B last season and had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. He ranks 18 out of 20. To me, this is the guy who is going to be your whipping boy for 2012 Blue Jays fans. He’s had two consecutive bad seasons, he’s the player who is supposed to be providing protection for the Jays’ best hitter and he’s the guy who was quoted this spring as saying that he’s ‘not much of a workout guy’ and still doesn’t like it but now knows he has to work out and is willing to put in the twenty minutes a day he believes is necessary. Maybe he’ll return to his 2009 form but all signs are pointing to another rough season. I just hope that if he does struggle, John Farrell has enough sense to take him out of the lineup or at least move him down in the order.
The Blue Jays open up a four game set at Fenway Park in Boston on Jackie Robinson Day against the last place Red Sox. I had to describe the Red Sox as last place as I really don’t think this will hold for long.
The Red Sox have struggled out of the gate but the team is stacked and its a 162 game season. They’ll get back on track soon enough. I’m just hoping it’s not this weekend.
That being said, things look good for the Red Sox this weekend. As a result of a rainout in Baltimore, they’ve had two days off to rest and because of the extra day off they got to skip John Lackey’s turn in the rotation. As a result, the Blue Jays get to face Buchholz in game one, Beckett in game two, Jon Lester in game three, and Matsusaka in game four. The Jays are countering with a struggling Brett Cecil in game one, Reyes in game two, Litsch in game three and Romero in game four.
Buchholz has pitched well against the Jays in the past but sports a 7.20 ERA heading into tonight’s game. That coincidentally is Brett Cecil’s ERA as well. So you have two starters who both had impressive 2010 campaigns but struggling so far in 2011. It should be interesting tonight to see if either of these two pitchers regain their 2010 form.
For the rest of the series there appears to be pitching mismatches. Saturday and Sunday appear to favour the Red Sox with Beckett and their ace Jon Lester throwing against Reyes and Litsch respectively. Beckett looked horrible in his first start but then looked like his old self against the Yankees last week. Lester is a Cy Young contender and will be tough to beat. So I give the edge to the Red Sox for these two days.
Monday sees a Romero vs. Matsusaka matchup with definitely favours the Blue Jays. Matsusaka has been anything but impressive this year. Romero has been lights out in his three starts.
The Red Sox lineup is as impressive as any despite the team’s early struggles. Adrian Gonzalez just inked an new contract extension so he’ll be ready to live up to that contract to the Red Sox faithful. Another newcomer is of course, Carl Crawford. Crawford is struggling but the Jays have seen him enough times in Tampa to know what he can do. These two added to an already formidable lineup that includes the likes of Pedroia, Youkilis, and Ellsbury. Also given how well the Red Sox play at home in Fenway (to me, the biggest home field advantage in the majors), it’s going to be a tough series.
To me, if the Jays come out of this series at 2 and 2, it will be a success and anything more would be a bonus.