Winter report card: Toronto Blue Jays
With less than a month before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012, and I’ll revisit and adjust their grades to account for late-winter deals as spring training begins.
Toronto Blue Jays
2012 Results: 73-89, 4th place in AL East (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: RHP Henderson Alvarez, C Travis d’Arnaud, SS Yunel Escobar, RHP Jason Frasor, C/IF Yan Gomes, 2B Kelly Johnson, IF Adeiny Hechavarria, RHP Brandon Lyon, C Jeff Mathis, RHP Carlos Villanueva, IF Omar Vizquel
Key arrivals: C Henry Blanco, IF/OF Emilio Bonifacio LHP Mark Buehrle, OF Melky Cabrera, UT Mark DeRosa, RHP R.A. Dickey, IF Maicer Izturis,RHP Jeremy Jeffress, RHP Josh Johnson, C Mike Nickeas, SS Jose Reyes, RHP Esmil Rogers, C Josh Thole
No team has done more to remake its roster this winter than the Blue Jays. They’ve pulled off not one but two blockbuster trades, a 12-player deal with the Marlins in mid-November and then a seven-player one with the Mets in mid-December, and they even traded last year’s manager, John Farrell, to the Red Sox and rehired John Gibbons, who piloted the team from mid-2004 to mid-2008. Meanwhile, general manager Alex Anthopoulos has been active on the free agent market as well as the waiver wire, cycling through a dizzying array of relievers and catchers, some of whom have already been lost via additional waiver claims. One way or another, the result is a vastly different lineup and rotation from the ones in place for Toronto’s worst season since 2004, one that will represent drastic increase in the team’s payroll from last year’s $83.7 million to $113 and counting and could give the Jays an excellent chance to return to the postseason for the first time since 1993.
The marquee addition is Dickey, fresh off winning the NL Cy Young award despite toiling for the hapless Mets; he finished second in the National League in wins (20) and ERA (2.73) while leading the league in strikeouts (230). The 38-year-old knuckleballer, who is signed for a mere $5 million this year, agreed to the deal only on the condition of a contract extension; he’ll receive $24 million over the next two years, with a $12 million option and a $1 million buyout for 2016, his age-41 season. Also coming over with Dickey were catchers Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas, two extremely light-hitting backstops whose familiarity with Dickey’s signature pitch might be their only ticket to the roster. They’ll have to battle the 41-year-old Blanco for the job behind J.P. Arencibia, who now has some breathing room with the top prospect d’Arnaud (along with well-regarded righty prospect Noah Syndergaard and two other warm bodies) having been sent to New Yrok in the Dickey deal.
Behind Dickey in the remade rotation are Josh Johnson and Buehrle, two of the key pieces from the Miami trade, making for a formidable front three ahead of holdovers Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero, the last men standing in a unit that combined for 4.82 ERA and numerous injuries, including Tommy John surgeries for both Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchinson. Johnson, 29 later this month, rebounded from an injury-shortened season to throw 191 1/3 innings for the Marlins, though his 3.81 ERA was a career worst, and his 7.8 strikeouts per nine was his lowest rate since his 2006 rookie season. Signed only through 2013 at $13.75 million, he’s a win-now piece who obviously carries some risk given that he’s never made 30 starts in back-to-back seasons. Buehrle, who turns 34 in March, is signed through 2015, with a hefty $48 million remaining on his backloaded deal. He put up a fairly typical Mark Buehrle season in his lone year in Miami, with a 3.74 ERA in 202 1/3 innings. That work was accompanied by his best strikeout-to-walk ratio since 2005 (3.1), somewhat offset by a swollen 1.2 homers per nine.
Reyes, 29, is here on a heavily backloaded deal as well, with $96 million remaining through 2017, including a $4 million buyout on a $22 million option for 2018. Last year was his healthiest since 2008, as he played in 160 games and hit .287/.347/.433 with 11 homers and 40 steals. While he’s an obvious upgrade on the disappointing Escobar (.253/.300/.344, not to mention a suspension for a homophobic slur) as well as the .237/.294/.355 the Jays received from their leadoff hitters (Brett Lawrie, Rajai Davis, Escobar and Kelly Johnson), the question is how well his body will hold up playing half his games on the Rogers Centre turf.
Of the seven players sent to Miami, none of the four major leaguers — Alvarez, Escobar, Hechevarria and Mathis — is likely to be missed; whatever sting will be felt will depend upon whether minor league pitchers Anthony DeScalfini and Justin Nicolino and outfielder Jake Marisnick develop into usable major leaguers. Meanwhile, Bonifacio is the other remaining piece Toronto acquired, since catcher John Buck was flipped to the Mets in the Dickey deal. The 27-year-old Bonifacio will slot in at second base after a season in which he hit just .258/.330/.316 in 274 plate appearances while missing 98 games — including all but three after Aug. 3 — due to thumb and knee injuries. If he can rediscover his 2011 form (.296/.360/.393), he’ll be a substantial upgrade on Kelly Johnson’s dismal .225/.313/.365/ showing.
Izturis, who was signed to a three-year, $10 million deal, will provide some support in the infield. The 32-year-old former Angel didn’t have a season up to his own standards either (.256/.320/.315, 17 stolen bases in 319 PA) but he’s a competent defender at second and third base who can spot at short and get on base at a better-than-average clip against both righties and lefties. Less likely to help is the soon-to-be-38-year-old DeRosa, who hit just .188/.300/.247 in 101 PA with the Nationals last year, part of a three-year-trend in which his utility has been eroded by a steady stream of injuries.
Cabrera, 28, was fresh off All-Star Game MVP honors and in the thick of a chase for a batting title when he was suspended for 50 games due to a positive test for testosterone in August. The Jays signed him for two years and $16 million, less than half of what he might have gotten on the open market coming off two straight outstanding seasons had it not been for his transgressions. How much he owes PEDs for the .322/.360/.489 he has hit over the past two seasons after a dud of a 2010 campaign is an open question, but one to which the Blue Jays are willing to find the answer, particularly given the .245/.297/.359 they received from their left fielders.
Jeffress and Rogers are hard throwers who should help upgrade Toronto’s bullpen, which ranked last in the league in both ERA (4.33) and home run rate (1.2 per nine). The 27-year-old Rogers, who put up a 3.06 ERA and 9.2 strikeouts per nine in 53 innings with the Indians after a June trade from the Rockies, could work his way into the team’s late-game plan. Jeffress, 25, is a former prospect whose career was slowed by a pair of suspensions for positive tests for marijuana; he has a 4.89 career ERA in 38 2/3 innings with the Brewers and Royals.
Unfinished business: You’re still here? The Blue Jays have addressed nearly every area of need this winter except whichever half of their designated hitter/first base combo isn’t being occupied by Edwin Encarnacion, who thumped 42 homers while making 82 starts at DH and 66 at first. The disappointing complement to the slugger is 29-year-old Adam Lind, who hit .255/.314/.414 with 11 homers in 353 PA. Lind hasn’t been able to live up to the promise of his 35-homer 2009 campaign; he has hit a pathetic .186/.226/.281 against lefties in the three seasons since then, and even his .268/.321/.480 since righties in that span is near replacement level for a player on the far left of the defensive spectrum. Lefty David Cooper, 26, represents an in-house alternative; alas, the .300/.324/.464 he hit in 145 PA last year is superficially shiny but not much more substantial than Lind’s recent work. A low-cost free agent such as Jim Thome or Travis Hafner would force Encarnacion to the field more often than not and require a platoon partner, but either could probably outhit Lind even given their latter-day limitations.
Preliminary grade: A. No team has remade its fortunes in more impressive fashion this winter than the Jays, who are poised to seize the day in the AL East given the relatively lackluster winter work of the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays.