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.
Ken Lott of the National Post has an interesting article on Zach Stewart in today’s National Post.
A thank you to April Whitzman, a fellow Jays fan and blogger, for bringing Mr Lott’s article to my attention. April can be found at http://jaysprospects.com/ or on Twitter: @Alleycat17
Back to Mr. Stewart. Zach is turning some heads in camp and after two stand-out innings in the Jays’ intersquad game yesterday has put himself firmly in the picture for a starting rotation spot.
It’s not like Zach Stewart has come out of nowhere. He was the key player the Jays received as part of the Scott Rolen trade in 2009. He has a great arm but it wasn’t clear if he’d end up being a starter or a late-inning reliever/closer but after a great year in 2010 in New Hampshire as a starter a rotation spot appears to be in his future. Alex Anthopolous noted late last season that Zach Stewart matched-up favourably to Kyle Drabek so it’s clear the Blue Jays think Stewart is close to being ready for the big leagues.
Now it has been well documented that the Blue Jays have two open spots in their rotation after Romero, Cecil and Morrow. The fourth spot is apparently Kyle Drabek’s for the taking and many believe after three solid starts last September that Drabek is virtually a lock for this spot. Assuming this is true that leaves one rotation spot open for one of Zach Stewart, Jesse Litsch, Mark Rzepczynski or Jo-Jo Reyes.
My thinking is that a solid spring from Litsch would land him the job given his experience at the big league level. That being said, Reyes is out of options so he’s going to get an extra long look as a possible starter or for a spot in the bullpen. Rzepczynski looked great in 2009 and struggled a bit in 2010 but has also shown he can get big league hitters out so he’s also a possible fifth starter or fit in the bullpen in long relief. Odds are that Stewart starts the year in AAA Las Vegas unless he completely dominates this spring unless Drabek and Litsch really struggle and he significantly outperforms Rzepczynski and Reyes. Of course any trade or injury to any of these arms could open the door for Stewart as well.
What is clear however, is that in 2011 more that five pitchers will start for the Blue Jays over the course of the season. Injuries occur, pitchers struggle, the odd double-header happens where starts become available and then of course there are expanded rosters in September where a team out of the playoff race can give a pitcher 2-4 starts to see where they’re at. Barring injury, I think it’s virtually a lock that we’ll see Stewart on the mound for the Blue Jays in 2011.