“When I was around the Blue Jays — major, major questions about their bullpen,” said Buster Olney during a recent appearance on Boston’s WEEI. “I think the Red Sox are going to have a good bullpen, Yankees are going to have a good bullpen, Orioles, Rays are going to have good bullpens, and that’s a real problem for Toronto and that’s why I’m picking them fourth.”
Now, let’s be clear: this isn’t a prediction that I’d make. It certainly isn’t the sort of myopic reasoning I’d use if I were making a prediction– and, frankly, I don’t think the Jays have any more “major, major questions about their bullpen” than any other club does in any other season. Olney also picked the Orioles to finish first, earning hearty praise from Baltimore, in both the mainstream media, and the blogosphere, so… perhaps he’s simply trolling. But hoo boy, some Jays fans are positively aghast that anyone might dare think such things.
Parkes experienced some of this particular brand of insanity when, in a Ten Stray Thoughts On A Friday post back in February, he dared highlight numerous questions that surround this best-in-two-decades version of the Jays.
Thing is, there isn’t a whole lot between the five clubs of the American League East– even the Baltimores, who tend to get dismissed too quickly because of how they fluked their way to so many wins in 2012. In 2013 the Orioles will get a full year of Manny Machado, who is quite comparable at third base to Brett Lawrie. They could get upwards of 60 more games from Nick Markakis and his .359 wOBA. Nolan Reimold played in just 16 games last season, has a career .346 wOBA in over 900 plate appearances and should get regular playing time, as well.
Add in the fact that Adam Jones is Adam Jones, Matt Wieters can get even better, Brian Roberts looks finally to be healthy, and JJ Hardy can’t possibly be worse, and it means that the club may not even have to rely on repeat performances from last year’s biggest surprises, Chris Davis and Nate McLouth. And if those two stay productive? It could be a much scarier lineup than people want to give it credit for– especially people relying on Adam Lind, J.P. Arencibia, Colby Rasmus, Maicer Izturis and Emilio Bonifacio to not cash in on their very real abilities to fucking suck.
The O’s bullpen still looks good, and while it’s likely the starting pitching won’t be quite as magical, they’ve now got Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman waiting in the wings, and some other potential lightning-in-a-bottle options still lingering in the organization. So… they’re certainly not perfect, and certainly not as good as a Jays club that’s healthy and producing optimally. But no team ever is that, and I just don’t think it takes a whole lot of mental gymnastics for a person to get to a place where they’re generally more down on the possibility of the Jays’ key guys staying on the field and doing what they need to do, and more up on the Orioles’ chances.
Dave Cameron got to the nut of the trouble with assessing the Jays when summarizing FanGraphs’ recent positional power rankings:
The Blue Jays don’t grade out as a top tier team, even after their aggressive off-season of upgrades. I think the forecast is underselling R.A. Dickey here, and they have a decent chance to beat the 85 win forecast, but they are betting big on some high variance players coming off career years. Their season might very well come down to whether Dickey and Melky Cabrera can retain a good chunk of their breakout 2013 performances. These forecasts are down on both, but there’s certainly upside with both players beyond what is projected here.
Though the Jays’ win total is a shade low, for FanGraphs the Jays still project better than any team in the division, but that’s not the case for the similarly calculated projections at Baseball Prospectus, where the Jays are currently ranked fourth in the division– albeit ahead of the Orioles, surely much to Buster Olney’s chagrin.
In BP’s standings the Jays trail the Yankees by seven games, and are marginally behind the Rays and Red Sox as well. There are some reasons to think this represents a genuine flaw in the system, as I discussed back in February, including that– as Cameron admitted in the FanGraphs summary– the projection system’s (in this case PECOTA) trouble with the knuckleballing Dickey, or with the variance in the seasons in Cabrera’s track record. We can try to explain this away to ourselves by insisting that a differently– perhaps “ideally”– calibrated system would surely see the Jays being ahead the Rays and Red Sox, but that hardly means people ought to be surprised when the Jays aren’t automatically considered the best team in the division– especially when they see just how many people don’t see it that way.
Forty-three ESPN personalities made predictions last week, with twenty taking the Jays, twenty going for the Rays, Olney and Rick Sutcliffe picking Baltimore– which… OK, not-entirely-crazy as I may be suggesting that is, is pretty fucking hilarious– and Mark Simon taking the Yankees.
Keith Law breaks the tie at the Worldwide Leader by taking the Rays at 93 wins to the Jays’ 90, largely because of the Jays’ lack of depth and the fact that “the Rays have a history of exceeding expectations, perhaps due to their lack of name value, and they have reinforcements sitting in Triple-A ready to help by June or so, including top prospect Wil Myers.” (For what it’s worth, he throws Jays fans a bone later in the piece by taking Josh Johnson as his Cy Young pick in the AL.)
Similar to the breakdown at ESPN, Baseball Prospectus has 20 writers tapping Tampa as the AL East champs, with 16 for the Jays. The pattern repeats itself at FanGraphs, where the Jays were edged by the Rays in their writers’ poll, because the Rays received more Wild Card love, though the clubs split the AL East vote at fifteen apiece.
I do think that in there, colouring the predictions in ways that, while perhaps not exactly faulty, are assumptions I probably wouldn’t make– ones about organizations who have done it before, who’ve pulled rabbits out of their hats, who’ve miraculously fought off old age or developed young players into Major League-ready ones with frightening efficiency, being surer bets to do it again– and so I do feel no worse about the Jays’ chances of overcoming their myriad potential obstacles than I would if I were fans of those other teams. But it’s just slightly ridiculous to think anything but that the AL East is damn close.
Even the Red Sox– who will hit, especially in their ballpark, with Pedroia, Napoli, Gomes against lefties, and full health from Ellsbury and (eventually) Ortiz– need only for Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz to regain their form of two years ago in order to be a club capable of winning the division themselves, really. It’s a tall order, but I suppose the point I’m trying to make is, so is having Dickey pick up where he left off in 2012, keeping Johnson on the path to regaining his dominance, getting a healthy season from Brandon Morrow, and keeping the regression demons at bay when it comes to Mark Buehrle.
Saying, with the kind of certainty that I’ve seen, that one team– the team the person making the claim happens to live and die with– is that much more likely than the other to hit on their most positive outcome in this regard is simply wrong– not because it won’t necessarily end up that way, but because this has nothing to do with certainty– or even the kind of near certainty we had last year when it came to the Orioles and their inevitable fall back to earth that failed to come.
The Jays may have the most talent in the division in some abstract way that looks only at their optimal output at full health, but there’s enough nuance when it comes to the likelihood of that health or that kind of peak-capability performance– both for them and for their division rivals– to make clear that the “on paper” analysis is hopelessly narrow. Vegas, some may point out, in the latest iteration of their 2013 World Series odds, may have the Jays as the favourites, but that probably tells us more about how bookies think they can make money than it does anything about who might actually come on top. So, in my view, insisting with any kind of certainty that one team in this division is clearly ahead just doesn’t hold up. They’re close enough that, at this point, there really is no wrong answer to the question of who will win the AL East.
Mercifully for all of us, starting today for the Yankees and Red Sox, tomorrow for the Orioles, Rays and Jays, we get to the part where we actually start finding all of this out for real. Bring it the fuck on already.
Image via @TrippingOlney.