2011 Record: 81-81, 4th AL East
2011 Prediction:
79-83, 4th AL East

Impact Player: RF Jose Bautista
Impact Pitcher:
RHP Brandon Morrow
Best Reliever:
RHP Sergio Santos
Top Prospect:
C Travis d’Arnaud

Last Year
In the first half of the 2011 season, the Blue Jays gave a fair amount of playing time to the likes of Corey Patterson, Rajai Davis, Jayson Nix and Aaron Hill. By the end of the year, General Manager Alex Anthopoulos had acquired a potential All-Star centerfielder in Colby Rasmus and an undervalued asset in second baseman Kelly Johnson. The call-up of The God of Maple Syrup, Brett Lawrie, completed a mid-season transformation and suddenly the Blue Jays looked like a team on the verge of contending. The results on the field did not necessarily reflect this, but combined with the complete revamping of the farm system over the last few years, it’s clear that not only are the Jays headed in the right direction, but they’re suddenly a very dangerous and capable team.

Still, the Jays gave up more runs than they scored and at times the pitching was so bad it was hard to watch. Anthopoulos largely stood pat this offseason, upgrading the bullpen significantly and adding some bench depth in outfielder Ben Francisco and the older-than-time Omar Vizquel. Some fans and media members scolded Rogers, the Blue Jays well-heeled owners, for not opening the purse strings for players like Prince Fielder and C.J. Wilson, but not making those moves is going to turn out to be a much wiser move for the club long-term; even if it doesn’t benefit the team in 2012.

Pitching
Only the Orioles, Twins and Royals allowed more runs in the AL than the Blue Jays last season. Ricky Romero led the team with an impressive 2.92 ERA and 225 inning-pitched, but his peripherals actually took a step back in 2011. His 3.80 xFIP, although still solid, was behind Brandon Morrow for the best on the team. Morrow led the AL in K/9 rate for the second straight season at 10.19. He vastly underpitched his peripherals once again and saw his home run rate jump dramatically. If he can put it all together and avoid some bad luck, he will probably be the best pitcher on the team.

After Morrow, the rotation depth drops off. Henderson Alvarez has yet to have his 22nd birthday, and although he pitched well in a 63-inning cameo last year, he lacks a quality breaking ball. Pitchers that lack a true swing-and-miss breaking ball tend to have limited ceilings; especially in the AL East. Lefty Brett Cecil was inconsistent in 2011, pitching to a 4.47 xFIP and losing his modest ability to accrue groundballs, but if he’s healthy, he should rebound slightly and be a quality back-end starter.

The fifth spot could go to Dustin McGowan who has miraculously come back from multiple shoulder and knee injuries. After missing more than three full seasons, McGowan performed reasonably well in a September call-up, averaging just less than 94 MPH on his fastball. However, relying on him to make 30 or more starts is probably foolish at this point. Another option for the fifth spot is Kyle Drabek who completely lost his ability to throw strikes at any level last season. The upside is still tremendous and he is just 24-years-old; he has plenty of time to figure it out and could still turn out to be an above-average pitcher. Rick VandenHurk, Nelson Figueroa and lefties Luis Perez and Aaron Laffey are also options. The front office is also reportedly toying with the idea of bringing prospect Drew Hutchison up from AA to get a shot.

The bullpen that included Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch, Shawn Camp, and Octavio Dotel is no more as Anthopoulos’ main order of business this winter was improving upon a group that struggled at times in 2011 (although not nearly as badly as some would have you believe). Anthopoulos first pulled off a trade that ESPN’s Keith Law said was “the trade of the offseason by any club” by pilfering closer and slider-artist Sergio Santos from Kenny Williams and the White Sox for middling prospect Nestor Molina. Santos has an extremely team-friendly deal that could potentially see him in a Jays uniform until 2017. He then signed veteran lefty Darren Oliver and re-acquired Jason Frasor from the White Sox (sent there as part of the Colby Rasmus acquisition) for two fringe-prospect relievers. Finally, he added Francisco Cordero to help out incumbent Casey Janssen in the late innings. Swing man Carlos Villanueva is back and will likely see time in both the rotation and the bullpen. His strikeout-rate fell from 11.45 in 2010 to just 5.72 last year.

Lineup

While the pitching was mostly abysmal for Toronto in 2011, the offense scored the fifth-most runs in the AL, being outdone by only the Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers and Tigers. Bautista finished third in MVP voting (heresy!), leading the AL in home runs, slugging, wOBA, wRC+, ISO and finishing second in on-base percentage and fWAR. He proved many (including me) wrong by not only repeating his improbable 2010 performance, but surpassing it easily.

Yunel Escobar finished third among AL shortstops in wRC+, solidifying him as one of the best in the league, while his double-play partner Johnson should improve upon his .316 wOBA which was brought down by an unusually-low BABIP. He’s only a year removed from a 5.9 fWAR season which ranked him third among all second basemen in baseball.

Third baseman and noted Canadian deity Brett Lawrie accumulated the highest fWAR among all AL rookie position players in 2011 despite playing just 43 games which has led many to predict Bondsian numbers going forward. He’ll very likely be an excellent player, but expectations should probably be tempered slightly. Across the diamond, the Jays are going to continue to run Adam Lind to first base. Lind was very good in 2009, but he has now posted two straight years with an on-base percentage below .300.

Rasmus will get a full season to play every day away from St. Louis and will hopefully get back to the form that saw him finish second among NL centerfielders in wOBA in 2010. Suggestions that Rasmus is done after one bad (and rather hectic) season are entirely overblown. There’s no reason to think that with a bit of mechanical adjustment and a more settled environment he can’t return to at least most of that level of production. The final outfield spot will be a spring competition between Eric Thames, Travis Snider and possibly Ben Francisco and (sigh) Rajai Davis. Snider without a doubt has the highest ceiling of any of these options, but has to show he can put it all together for long stretches of time. The other three offer little in terms of overall ceiling.

Catching will be the domain of J.P. Arencibia who showed he can certainly hit home runs in 2011, but has yet to show the ability to take a walk or hit particularly well. Combine that with his sub-par defense and Arencibia might be playing his last season as the Jays’ everyday catcher. Top prospect Travis d’Arnaud will start the year in AAA and is primed for a mid-season call-up. He could surpass Arencibia on the depth chart as early as next season.

The DH will once again be Edwin Encarnacion who will also see time at first base, third base and potentially even in leftfield. His defensive value is null, but when he’s on, he can hit it out of the park with just about anyone. His .367 career wOBA against lefties does make him a decent platoon option with Lind at first if the Jays want to give one of their many outfielders a day off from the field.

Bench

Jeff Mathis was curiously brought in to be Toronto’s backup catcher in 2012 despite costing nearly as much as it would have taken to re-sign incumbent Jose Molina. Mathis has a .246 wOBA since coming into the league semi-regularly in 2006; only Brandon Wood and Tony Pena (who’s now a pitcher) have had lower marks among players with at least 600 plate appearances in that time. Francisco and Davis will be extra outfielders with one of three infielders, Mike McCoy, Luis Valbuena or Vizquel taking the final roster spot.

For a detailed statistical look at the Blue Jays’ depth chart, click here

Outlook
The Blue Jays farm system has witnessed a monumental turnaround in the two short years Anthopoulos has been running the team. Although many people would like nothing more than to have him spend on high-priced free agents, he’s building the team the right way. The results have yet to be seen at the Major League level, but they are not far off. Barring a catastrophe, the Jays should be marginally better than they were last year with full seasons from Lawrie, Johnson and Rasmus. However, the rotation will be no better (at least to start the year) and true contention is probably at least a year off.

2012 Prediction: 83-79, 4th AL East