Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays

2012 Record: 73-89, 4th AL East
2012 Pythagorean Record: 74-88
Impact Player: RF Jose Bautista
Impact Pitcher: RHP Brandon Morrow
Top Prospect: RHP Aaron Sanchez

Significant Acquisitions: SS Jose Reyes, RHP Josh Johnson, RHP R.A. Dickey, LF Melky Cabrera, LHP Mark Buehrle, RHP Esmil Rogers, UT Emilio Bonifacio, C Josh Thole, C Henry Blanco, IF Maicer Izturis, UT Mark DeRosa, RHP Michael Schwimer, RHP Jeremy Jeffress, RHP Mickey Storey, RHP Justin Germano

Significant Departures: SS Yunel Escobar, 2B Kelly Johnson, RHP Henderson Alvarez, LHP Aaron Laffey, RHP Carlos Villanueva, RHP Jason Frasor, RHP Brandon Lyon, C Jeff Mathis, IF Omar Vizquel, SS Adeiny Hechavarria

Watching the 2012 Blue Jays was a bit like watching the third season of HBO’s Six Feet Under. For those unfamiliar with the show’s ebb and flow, the third season starts off oddly happy. For the first few episodes, you get the impression that things might turn out alright for this down-on-their-luck funeral-home-owning family. Something is still amiss—some of the characters are merely pretending to be happy, but for the most part, things are humming along about as well as could be expected.

Then…disaster. Every character seems to enter a sort of crisis and suddenly within a few episodes all the happiness — unsustainable though it might have been — evaporates and the viewer is left with a complicated tapestry of death and misery.

Such was the season for the Toronto Blue Jays. On July 4, they beat the Royals to move to 42-40. Not great, but they were only two-and-a-half games out of a wildcard spot and appeared to be in nice position to make some key acquisitions and take a run at their first playoff berth in nearly 20 years. Then it all came apart. Seemingly every valuable player spent significant time on the DL and the Jays went 31-49 from that point on.

Knowing that his contention window was quickly getting away from him, General Manager Alex Anthopoulos finally struck this offseason after years of slowly building the team’s farm system. This winter, he traded no fewer than seven of the organization’s top eight prospects—as well as a few Major League assets—in order to build a team with a chance at contending for the first time in a long time.

First, he pulled the trigger on one of the biggest trades in baseball history netting shortstop Jose Reyes, starting pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, utilityman Emilio Bonifacio and catcher John Buck from the Marlins for a package of players headed by Yunel Escobar and prospects Justin Nicolino and Jake Marisnick. But he wasn’t done. He proceeded to sign outfielder Melky Cabrera and then pulled off another mega-deal acquiring ace knuckleballer R.A. Dickey from the Mets for the team’s remaining top two prospects in catcher Travis d’Arnaud and right-hander Noah Syndergaard.

The transformation was complete. Adding the newly acquired core of players to the already established core puts the Blue Jays into the contention conversation in the AL East in a way they haven’t been since winning the World Series in back-to-back years in 1992 and ’93.

Pitching

There’s almost no reason to talk about how the Jays’ pitching performed last season since the staff has been completely revamped heading into 2013. Dickey, Johnson and Buehrle join incumbents Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero to form one of the better rotations in baseball—at least on paper.

Dickey became the first Cy Young Award winner to be traded the offseason after winning the award since Toronto dealt Roger Clemens following the 1998 season. The career path of the 38-year-old has been well documented and analyzed, but it’s still nearly impossible to project what he’ll do from this point forward. Last year, he was doing things no other knuckler had ever done before. He was striking out a ton—230 in an NL-leading 233 2/3 innings—he was walking close to no one and he trailed only Cliff Lee in strike-thrown-percentage. Somehow Dickey has become one of the most prolific strike throwers in baseball with a pitch that’s known for its unpredictability.

Johnson finally managed to stay healthy with Miami last season, making more than 30 starts for the first time since 2009 and for only the second time in his career. However, his velocity was significantly lower than it had been in previous years and he threw just over six innings per start—the lowest mark of his career. Still, he was a well-above-average pitcher in 2012 and should continue to be going forward—health permitting.

Buehrle did exactly what you’d expect him to do again last season. He threw over 200 innings and had an ERA in the mid-high threes. He’s not great, but he’s about as dependable as a pitcher can be. He’s entering his age-34 season and will now ply his wares in the AL East so you’d be excused for worrying, but it’s hard to bet against the usual Buehrle performance at this point.

Morrow might actually be the best pitcher on the staff. For three consecutive seasons now, he has put up peripheral numbers which rival the best pitchers in the game and last year, it finally started to be reflected in his result-based numbers. Unfortunately he missed a good portion of the year with an oblique injury. If he can finally put it all together and stay on the field for 30-plus starts, he could be a darkhorse Cy Young contender.

Finally, there’s Ricky Romero. After proving himself to be an above-average Major League pitcher over the previous two seasons, Romero proceed to lose all sense of the strike zone last year and became one of the worst pitchers in baseball. He posted the worst walk-rate in the AL among qualified pitchers and ranked near the bottom in both fielding-independent pitching and wins above replacement. Offseason elbow surgery might help things and there’s almost no way he’s that bad again. Even if he is, at least he won’t be counted on the way he was last year.

What the bullpen lacks in high-impact arms, it makes up for in depth. Casey Janssen took over as closer after Sergio Santos went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in April and was very impressive. He led the AL among qualified relievers in walks-per-nine and finished fifth in xFIP.

Santos, meanwhile, could be a major weapon at the back of the bullpen if he’s healthy. His poor mechanics finally caught up to him last season and he made only six appearances before eventually needing surgery on his shoulder. How he bounces back in 2013 will go a long way to determining the success of the bullpen. Plus, sliders y’all.

Left-hander Darren Oliver was the focal-point of some controversy this offseason when his agent tried to demand more money or a trade from the Jays in order to lure his client out of retirement, but Oliver said those reports were erroneous and decided to return under his current contract. Even entering his age-42 season, Oliver can be counted on for 60 to 70 very good innings.

The other left-hander in the bullpen will likely be converted starter Brett Cecil who will get every opportunity to stick in relief, but it could be his last opportunity. If he falters, he’s out of options and his days with Toronto could be numbered. Fellow starting pitcher castoff J.A. Happ could also be in the mix for a bullpen spot, but could still start if injuries hit the rotation.

A host of hard-throwing right-handers will round out the bullpen with Steve Delabar, Esmil Rogers (ostensibly the compensation for John Farrell’s dream job pursuit), Jeremy Jeffress, and Brad Lincoln the most likely to crack the team. Michael Schwimer, Chad Jenkins, Mickey Storey, Rich Thompson, Justin Germano and many others will start the year in Buffalo as insurance. With that many arms, one would think there is some combination that will be very successful at the Major League level.

Left-hander Luis Perez is recovering from Tommy John surgery and last year’s first-round draft pick Marcus Stroman still has 42 games to serve on his 50-game suspension for taking a banned stimulant last summer. Both, however, could be nice boosts to the bullpen in the second-half.

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Lineup

When Jose Bautista first went down with the wrist injury that caused him to miss most of the second-half the Jays were scoring an average of 4.81 runs per game. They scored just 3.88 runs per game afterwards. Not all of that had to do with Bautista being absent, but there’s no questioning that the lineup is drastically different with him in it—even now with all the improvements.

Between May 10 and the time of his injury in July, Bautista hit .279/.383/.637 with 22 home runs in 58 games and appeared to have put a terrible first month behind him. How he recovers from the injury should probably be a bigger story than it has been in Jays-land since severe wrist injuries can have a several-year recovery time.

At least there’s a lot more depth around Bautista this season with the addition of Reyes and Cabrera. Reyes has a somewhat unfair reputation as an injury-prone player, but was really only affected by hamstring problems for a year-and-a-half and has otherwise been fairly durable. Last year in Miami, he led the NL in plate appearances and was worth 4.5 WAR according to FanGraphs.

Cabrera, meanwhile, will be the everyday leftfielder and number-two hitter behind Reyes and is coming off a fantastic season with the Giants. He had accumulated 4.6 WAR in only 113 games before being suspended for PEDs in August after which he did not return to the team. Even if you think a lot of his performance over the last two years was due to PED-use, he should still be at least an average hitter with decent defensive ability in left.

Edwin Encarnacion finally put everything together last season and hit consistently over the whole year. He finished with a .280/.384/.557 slash line and 42 home runs—just two behind Miguel Cabrera for the league-lead. He’ll likely split time between first base and DH with Adam Lind who should never face another lefty in his career.

Third baseman Brett Lawrie will have to tone down the AGGRO to stay on the field for a full season, but if he does, he looks poised to become one of the best third basemen in baseball. He had a bit of a sophomore slump last year, but was still an average offensive player and seems to have developed enough defensively that he should have no problem sticking at the position going forward. If he can improve this year, he’ll slot in to the middle-of-the-order with Bautista and Encarnacion. A minor oblique injury has caused him to pull out of the World Baseball Classic for Team Canada, but he should be ready for Opening Day.

The rest of the Jays lineup is filled with potential, but also with question marks. Centerfielder Colby Rasmus continues to get further and further away from the player he was in 2010 with St. Louis and could be on his way out of a starting role if he continues to fall flat. He had one great month last year and was otherwise putrid. Lind is in the same boat. He actually saw time in AAA last year and should be considered at best a fringy platoon player at this point.

With d’Arnaud included in the Dickey deal, the Jays appear content to go forward with J.P. Arencibia as their everyday catcher. He allegedly works well with the pitching staff, but otherwise there’s not much to like about his game. He’s a bad defender and although he’ll run into the occasional home run, his career .275 on-base percentage should impress no one. Either Josh Thole or Henry Blanco is expected to land the backup job and become Dickey’s personal catcher.

The only real positional battle heading in to the spring will be at second base where the outgoing Kelly Johnson has been replaced by Maicer Izturis and Bonifacio. Both are versatile players, but Bonifacio’s ability to play the outfield could relegate him to a utility role off the bench leaving Izturis to play most of the time at second. Neither is fantastic at the plate, but neither is terrible either.

The rest of the bench will be rounded out by fourth outfielder Rajai Davis—who could end up being a creative platoon partner for Lind given his decent numbers against left-handed pitching—and veteran utility man Mark DeRosa who has been brought in almost exclusively for his clubhouse presence.

Defense

Toronto finished seventh in the AL in defensive efficiency last season, but could be slightly better this year with the additions of Reyes, Izturis and Cabrera who are all well-regarded with the glove. Still, the presence of Bautista, Arencibia and Rasmus ensure that they won’t be elite. If outfielder Anthony Gose ends up seeing regular playing time this year for any reason, he will improve things greatly, but if that’s the case, the Jays could have bigger problems to address.

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2013 Outlook

Anthopoulos has finally assembled the contending team he promised when he took over as GM a little over three years ago and the next couple seasons will define his legacy in Toronto. There are significant question marks with every core player on the team, but he has put the Jays in a position to overcome some decline from a few of their players.

Toronto finally has the pitching staff and deep lineup to keep up with the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox—and it helps that the AL East is in somewhat of a state of flux. If the injury bug makes another appearance like it did last year, it shouldn’t completely tank the team, but they’ll still need the likes of Johnson, Reyes and Bautista to stay on the field if they truly want to compete for their first playoff appearance in 20 years.

2013 Prediction: 88-74, 2nd AL East

For a detailed depth chart with statistics, click here. Stats obtained from FanGraphs (Toronto’s team page here) and Baseball Prospectus. Depth chart info provided by MLB Depth Charts.