The 2011 edition of the Major League Baseball regular season will begin tonight for the Toronto Blue Jays when Ricky Romero throws his first pitch to Denard Span sometime after 7:00 PM ET at the Rogers Centre.
The Blue Jays will be playing the role of freshman this season. They’re young, new to the scene and in competition with the juniors and seniors of the American League East. Expectations among the more reasonable fans may be muted after the departures of Vernon Wells and Shaun Marcum, but despite no playoff action in almost 20 years, there’s reason to be hopeful.
This offseason, the Jays organization has been praised by numerous publications and pundits. Keith Law gave Toronto’s farm system a top five ranking, while FanGraphs named the franchise the eight best organization in all of baseball. Not bad for a team that’s likely not going to finish better than fourth in their own division.
So, what I’m saying here, is that instead of wallowing in the past, remembering the broken promises of former regimes and letting an immediate lack of success get us down, we should look to the future and get in on the ground floor of what’s sure to be a baseball renaissance in Toronto. Your sports credibility index will reap amazing benefits.
In order to do so, here’s a quick and easy guide to this year’s team:
The Starting Rotation:
Ricky Romero, LHP
Anyone looking at a player’s peripheral numbers is quick to point out when a player is lucky or unlucky. Romero is one of those exceptional players that doesn’t benefit or falter because of luck. His ERA, FIP and xFIP all closely resemble each other, which is good news for the Blue Jays. It becomes even better news when you look at the five year $30 million contract that Romero signed with the team last season.
Romero uses a fastball about half the time, choosing to rely on his great changeup, along with his curveball, cutter and slider.
Kyle Drabek, RHP
Jays fans have been waiting for Drabek to arrive ever since he was the big named prospect coming back in the Roy Halladay trade prior to last season. We got a three game preview at the end of 2010, and unless he falters in a major way, he should be here to stay. While Drabek can eventually become the ace that the team lost when Halladay was traded to the Phillies, anything better than a league average season in his first year is gravy.
In his brief September showcase, Drabek thew his fastball two thirds of the time, relying on a curveball, slider and changeup as secondary options. He hasn’t collected the amount of strikeouts you’d like to see from a guy who can hit 94 and 95 with his fastball, but he’s only two seasons removed from Tommy John.
Brett Cecil, LHP
If you ask Blue Jays fans who they most expect to regress after finding success in last year’s rotation, I’d wager that Cecil would be at the top of the list. He had league average command last season, striking out a little more than twice as many batters as he walked. I’m guessing that lack of command was mainly on his fastball as he recorded only 57% first pitch strikes and had positive pitch-type values on his slider and changeup.
Much was made of Cecil’s lack of velocity this Spring, but he was pitching 90 mph consistently in his final start of the Spring which is standard for him. He throws a fastball 50% of the time, complimenting it with a changeup, slider and curveball.
Jo-Jo Reyes, LHP
I don’t really understand the importance the Jays seem to be placing on keeping Reyes in the rotation. I’d love to be pleasantly surprised, but his inclusion at the expense of Rzepczynski seems questionable. Reyes has a penchant for breaking down and giving up meatballs like he’s the kooky old lady in an Adam Sandler movie.
He’ll throw a fastball that hovers around 90 mph about half the time, complimenting it with a slider, changeup and curveball. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Reyes in the bullpen where focusing on a fastball, slider combination could lead to better results.
Jesse Litsch, RHP
I’m officially christening Litsch the Ginger Beard Man for the rest of the season. I have no idea what to expect from him, but despite what Mike Wilner might try to tell you, he was never one of the best pitchers in the league in 2008. He’s a fine fifth pitcher option and it’s likely between him and Reyes to move to the bullpen once Brandon Morrow returns from injury.
GBM uses five different pitches ineffectively, including a fastball that rarely hits 90 mph. Good luck with that.
Casey Janssen, RHP
The best I can say about Janssen is that it looks like he tries really hard to make the ball arrive at the plate as quickly as it possibly can and he still have options available. His inability to deal with inherited runners makes him the mop up man in the bullpen, likely until the injured right handed relievers return, which can’t come soon enough.
Janssen uses a fastball, cutter, slider, curveball, and changeup. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to explain his effectiveness in 2007, which was clearly a bit of a mirage.
David Purcey, LHP
At the beginning of the offseason, there were people who were seriously suggesting Purcey for the closer’s role in 2010. A few additions to the bullpen coupled with some disastrous Spring outings and there isn’t even a quiet murmur for a promotion in the bullpen. I think most had given up on the left hander ahead of last season, so his contribution on the can-do-no-wrong Jays was noticed more than it probably deserved to be. RotoGraphs has an excellent profile on Purcey that I can completely agree with.
Purcey benefited from focusing on his fastball and slider as a reliever last year, pretty much giving up on his ineffective curveball and changeup.
Carlos Villanueva, RHP
It says something about my state of mind as a Blue Jays fan when Villanueva’s acquisition was probably my favourite of the offseason. Unappreciated in Milwaukee, his strikeout rate is otherworldly. He should be given every opportunity to stay in this bullpen for as long as he possibly can. Villanueva has a confirmed ability to miss bats. Consider that batters made contact on only 68.2% of his pitches that they swung at compared to the league average of 80.7%.
Villanueva is just as likely to throw his low nineties fastball as he is his changeup, slider or curveball. He’ll keep you guessing.
Marc Rzepczynski, LHP
It seems a shame that Rzepczynski wouldn’t be given the opportunity to become a starter on this team, but with a quick glimpse of the starting pitching in the pipeline, it’s somewhat understandable why the Jays wouldn’t have a defined role for the man fans affectionately call Scrabble. Giving a guy the option between being a starter at Triple A or a reliever in the Majors is really no choice at all. And I’m curious to see how Scrabble will contribute to the team this season. In limited time at the MLB level, he’s seen better success against left handed batters, so hopefully he’ll find a role in the bullpen.
Rzepczynski uses a fastball that averages out to be under 90 mph, as well as a slider and changeup.
Shawn Camp, RHP
I’m not sure if there’s been a more pleasant and underrated surprise in the Jays bullpen than Shawn Camp over the last three years. He’s not going to blow anyone away, but he’s been reliably consistent as a right handed reliever can get. He’s sort of like oatmeal. You can get oatmeal with sugar, peaches or cinnamon, but you’ll always know what you’re going to get with regular, plain old oatmeal.
Camp relies on a fastball, changeup and slider to fool batters.
Jason Frasor, RHP
I found it strange that Frasor’s name wasn’t mentioned as being in the mix for the supposed closer’s competition this Spring. Then I learned that Frasor is one of the few players in all of baseball who doesn’t have regular music play when he enters a game. Songs played while he warms up on the mound have ranged from Nickelback to the theme song to Frasier. Frasor. Fraiser. Get it?
Despite his diminutive stature, the Jays closer throws hard, reaching mid nineties with his fastball. A couple of years ago, the addition of a”changeup,” which might actually be a splitter, to his repertoire made his fastball even more successful. Unfortunately, he couldn’t bring that back last season, as the average velocity on his four seamer dropped an entire mph from the previous season.
Jon Rauch, RHP
Rauch is your prototypical closer: covered in tattoos, a million feet tall and he comes out to this:
Rauch throws a fastball around 90 mph, but it probably looks a lot scarier as his long arms reach halfway to the plate before he lets go. He also successfully mixes in a slider, curveball and occasional changeup. He is the interim closer until Frank Francisco returns from the Disabled List.
Rajai Davis, CF
Does anyone remember who started last season in the leadoff role? It was only home run king Jose Bautista. Two years ago Davis had an OBP of .360 and he stole 41 bases. He had an even better record on the basepaths last season swiping 50 and only getting caught 11 times. Unfortunately, he suffered a forty points decrease in his on base percentage to go along with that. Guess which year, the Blue Jays were banking on when they signed him to a two year deal this offseason after acquiring him from the A’s?
Yunel Escobar, SS
A return to glory is also a theme that Escobar hopes to share considering his 2009 with the Braves saw a .377 OBP, but he followed it up with a .337 on base percentage last year. No one on the Jays, outside of Bautista, was really getting on base at an acceptable rate so the change may not be all on Escobar. Perhaps more of a concern than his on base woes was a slugging percentage that went down 118 points from 2009 to 2010. However, what he lacked at the plate, the shortstop managed to make up for in the field putting together the best defensive season of his career.
Jose Bautista, RF
Do you remember this guy? While it’s almost certain that Bautista will both regress back to human numbers as well as decline over the course of the five year contract, the more immediate and pressing question is how will he perform in 2011. My prediction for Bautista is that he’ll do just enough not to make us regret that five-year, $65 million contract extension. There will be plenty of time for regrets in 2012 and 2013 and 2014 and 2015.
For more Bautista projections, check this out.
Adam Lind, 1B
Other than the huge drop off against left handed pitching, want to know the biggest difference between Adam Lind in 2009 and Adam Lind in 2010? It’s his approach at the plate. Lind is at his best when he takes a patient approach, not necessarily a virtue under Cito Gaston. He swung at exactly half the pitches he saw last year, including 35% outside the strike zone. In 2009, he swung at fewer than 44% of all pitches, and a mere 25% of pitches outside the strike zone. We’ll see good nights and bad nights for Lind at first, but as long as he shows some improvement over the course of the season, the team will keep trotting him out there.
Aaron Hill, 2B
Redemption seems to be a major theme with this Blue Jays lineup, and no one represents that better and the entire season in the way that Aaron Hill does. The terms of his contract dictate that as his 2011 season goes, so does his future. When pressed, I’m probably least hopeful of a return to success for Hill than I am for any of the other redemption projects. A lot is being made of his low BABIP last season, which has traditionally been used to measure luck, but I like what Jon Hale has to say on the matter.
Anyone who watched the Jays last year knows that Hill wasn’t getting unlucky in the slightest. His contact SUCKED. His whole season was one weak pop-up, head down, jog to first after the other. Hill looked like a completely different hitter, his beautiful compact line drive swing gone long and loopy – and a little deeper delving into the numbers agrees: his fly ball rate soared from his terrific 2009 (41.0), past his career average (41.4), to insane heights (54.2). His line drive rate also fell from 2009 (19.6) past his career average (18.5) to untold depths (10.6). His infield fly percentage (one of my favorites because it’s a 100% guaranteed out – like a hidden strikeout, but still included as a ball in play) rose from 11.6 to 12.9. Spraying balls like this will clearly and provably lead to a consistently much lower BABIP. And so the numbers actually overwhelmingly agree with what the old-timers would say: Hill’s swing went to hell last year. Luck had nothing to do with it.
My stomach feels ill.
Travis Snider, LF
I think I fall into the trap of assuming that everyone just accepts that Snider is going to be really good because, well, Snider is going to be really, really good. Think about this for a second: Kyle Drabek is older than Travis Snider. It’s almost impossible to believe that Snider who has shown flashes of what he’ll be able to contribute consistently is only 23 years old. If former GM J.P. Ricciardi will be remembered for doing one thing right, it will be drafting Snider. While Snider’s numbers last season weren’t overly inspiring, it should be remembered that he was juggled in and out of the lineup, and even spent 20 games at Double A. Looking at his wOBA of .331 is a vast improvement over his OBP of .304.
Edwin Encarnacion, 3B
Regular readers will know that I have high hopes for Encarnacion this season, even thinking for a while about a bet with Stoeten if he’ll hit more homeruns that Jose Bautista this season. Why am I so optimistic? He had left wrist surgery two years ago and finally started to show signs of a full recovery after a trip to the DL near the end of last season. I know that September isn’t the best month to judge a hitter on considering the amount of Triple A pitching he’s facing, but look for him to pick up where he left off at the plate, and continue a marked improvement defensively. Perhaps most importantly, there’s this:
Juan Rivera, DH
I wish Rivera all the luck in the world, but there is absolutely no way he’s on this team at this point next year. If the Jays get anything close to something resembling a trade offer, he won’t even be on this team by the time the first pitch is thrown tonight. That’s not to say that Rivera can’t contribute, his numbers over the last three seasons aren’t that much different fromVernon Wells’. It’s just that there isn’t much of a place on this team for an underachieving 32 year old corner outfielder who didn’t seem to inspire much confidence playing right field this Spring Training. I’d be surprised if Rivera finishes the season with the team. It doesn’t matter if he’s successful or falls flat, but the Jays would love to get something in return for the $5.25 million the team will be paying him this season.
J.P. Arencibia, C
In his first full season of Major League Baseball, Arencibia is probably under more pressure to perform than any other player on the Active Roster. The Jays have loads of depth at catcher in Travis d’Arnaud and Carlos Perez, waiting for Arencibia to falter. Arencibia was probably the best hitter in all of Minor League Baseball last season, so it’s not a matter of figuring out anything other than how to deal with the pressure and hit at an elite level. Well, that’s not necessarily completely true. There’s also the small matter of figuring how to guide a young pitching staff as a rookie himself.
Jose Molina, C
At least Arencibia has a defensive mentor in Molina on the bench. He’s not going to provide much of anything other than laughs at the plate, but his experience, defense and demeanor make him a worthy understudy who will likely be the one being studied.
Mike McCoy, IF/OF
Mike McCoy is a professional baseball player who can play the infield and/or the outfield. These are the nicest things I can say.
John McDonald, IF
This very well could be McDonald’s last season as a Toronto Blue Jays player. He’s not very good at anything other than defense at which he is without a doubt one of the best shortstops I’ve ever seen play. He single handedly saved the 2007 season from being a complete waste of time by making what seemed like an incredible play that no other shortstop in the league could make each game. The fact that he’s an incredibly nice guy, who’s about as well liked in the community as a baseball player who has spent more time on the bench than anywhere else in recent seasons can be. Perhaps John Farrell spends a little bit more time thinking about defensive replacements and we will get to see McDonald play some third base this year late in games, but otherwise he’s not going to be much useful.
He was also a part of what was probably my favourite moment of 2010.
Jayson Nix, IF/OF
See: McCoy, Mike. Nix is probably off the Active Roster as soon as Corey Patterson is ready to resume play.
Jesse Carlson, RP
The former left handed bullpen stalwart of the Blue Jays has never been the same pitcher after appearing in 142 games over the 2008 and 2009 season. He’ll begin this year on the 60 Day Disabled List still suffering from a sore left arm. Look for him to get back to the bullpen as early as May. Whether or not he stays on the Jays active roster depends on how David Purcey and Marc Rzepczynski do with their early opportunities.
Octavio Dotel, RP
In addition to not being able to get left handed batters out, the right hander will also not be able to join the team until the middle of April due to a sore left hamstring. He’ll likely join the team then, but God help us all if he’s sent to the mound to face anything other than a right handed batter. He makes average hitters look like Jose Bautsita from the left side.
Frank Francisco, RHP
As the best pitcher in the Jays bullpen, Francisco should take over the closing duties from Jon Rauch upon his return in the middle of April from a right pectoral injury. If the Jays wish to stick with Rauch they’d do well to ensure there are no nearby chairs in the room when they inform Francisco.
Dustin McGowan, RHP
Starting the season on the 60 Day Disabled List once again, McGowan is out of options, and if he’s simply not ready once he recovers it could be the end of his time with the Blue Jays. Almost all Toronto fans have been pulling for him to get over his various ailments for years and nothing has changed there. However, our expectations as to his effectiveness probably should.
Brandon Morrow, RHP
If you set the innings pitched minimum to 140, Morrow’s strikeout rate of 10.95 per nine innings was the best in Major League Baseball last season. Tim Lincecum’s 9.79 was second. His visit to the Disabled List was precautionary more than anything else, and he figures to only miss a single start due to elbow inflammation. If he remains healthy, I predict he surpasses Ricky Romero as the team’s ace.
Corey Patterson, OF
It’s difficult to forget getting plunked in the head with a Daniel Bard fastball, unless you’re the one getting hit. Patterson did just that and has appeared free from concussion symptoms since. As a precaution he’ll begin the year on Disabled List, but as soon as his time is up, look for him to supplant Jayson Nix or Mike McCoy on the Active Roster.
Scott Podsednik, LF
Just about the only asset that Podsednik offers at this point in his career is his speed. Having a cast on one’s foot until five days ago might inhibit that one quality. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Podsednik never plays a single game in a Blue Jays uniform.
And there you have it. The 2011 Toronto Blue Jays. A team looking for redemption and a fresh start. It should be a fun year.
If you’d like to talk more about the coming year, join Andrew Stoeten and I at TheScore.com following tonight’s game for a post game webcast. You can talk to us throughout the evening on Twitter (@DustinParkes and @AndrewStoeten) and be sure to tweet us your thoughts and questions during the live show immediately after the game.