Toronto really is the dark horse candidate in the vaunted American League East division. The club will face an uphill battle for division supremacy against the likes of Boston, New York and Tampa Bay. But each club has its weaknesses, so a fourth or fifth place finish for the Canadian club is not guaranteed. New manager John Farrell is a bit of a wild card. Fans of the team have no idea what to expect from the first-time manager. The strength of the team appears to be its pitching, so the former big league hurler and pitching coach should be the right man for the job.
This is not a lineup that will strike a lot of fear in its opponents. With any luck, though, the grip-and-rip approach of the 2010 Jays under now-deposed manager Cito Gaston is long gone. But hitting coach Dwayne Murphy kept his job during the off-season so it remains to be seen how quickly the old approach will morph into a more balanced offensive attack. General manager Alex Anthopoulos has given the team flexibility on the base paths with the additions of Davis and (currently injured) Scott Podsednik. The club loses some pop with the surprising trade of former No. 1 draft pick Vernon Wells, who played parts of 12 seasons in Toronto. To help fill the power void, Rivera – obtained in the Wells trade – could see his power output increase with the move to the homer-happy home stadium, while rookie catcher Arencibia has the potential to produce a .200+ ISO rate (He might, though, hit just .220).
The club will look for big bounce-back seasons from Hill and Lind. The second baseman produced a Major-League-low BABIP of .196, which is unsustainably low to the extreme.
After slugging 36 homers in ’09, Hill spent the ’10 season trying to hit every ball out of the park but he saw his line-drive rate nosedive from 18.5% career to 10.6%. He’ll be a much more valuable player to Toronto if he once again focuses on simply hitting the ball hard. I’ll have more on Lind in a moment.
The new No. 1 go-to guy in the lineup will be Bautista, who is coming off of an unexpected season in which he just missed becoming a 7 win player. Although no one expects another 54-homer season (expect perhaps Bautista himself), there are signs that point to a true breakout, rather than a one-time blip. He posted a 14.6% walk rate and also saw his strikeout rate improve by 5.0% over the past two seasons. His BABIP in 2010 was only .233, which is hard to believe (His career rate is .270) despite the fact that he’s never hit for average. Bautista could be a valuable player for Toronto if he can produce a 5.0 WAR season and help fill the void at the hot corner (after spending much of 2010 in right field).
Escobar is entering his first full season with Toronto after coming over in a surprise 2010 trade with Atlanta. The Cuban shortstop had overstayed his welcome in Atlanta’s conservative organization but he has the potential to be an impact player – both on defense and at the plate. Even with a so-so season in 2010, Escobar matches up favorably to the other shortstops in the league, and he possesses the most upside of the bunch.
Escobar also has a positive relationship with Bautista, who has been mentoring the younger player since his arrival in Toronto. Speaking of young players, Snider will look to have a fully healthy season (although he’s off to a bumpy start this spring with an intercostal muscle injury). With two part seasons at the MLB level already under his belt, it’s easy to forget that he’s still just 23 years old.
With the trade of veteran No. 3 hurler Shaun Marcum (to Milwaukee), the club’s depth in the starting rotation has been significantly impacted. There are a lot of arms in the picture but Major League experience is limited. No starting pitcher should be older than 26 years of age (Romero, Morrow, and Litsch). Only Romero has surpassed the 200.0 inning mark in a season, and he’s done that just once. Cecil has a good shot at hitting the 200.0 innings threshold in 2011 but Morrow would have to see an increase of 54.0 innings to hit that mark, which means he’s going to have to be a lot more efficient with his pitch counts.
Litsch has pitched just 55.0 innings over the past two seasons after undergoing significant surgeries on both his throwing elbow and hip; hoping for more than 130-150 innings might be a bit much. Rookie Drabek is penciled in for the fifth spot in the rotation but he could experience some growing pains with just 17.0 innings above the double-A level. Extra starters like Rzepczynski, Jo-Jo Reyes (although he’s out of options) and Brad Mills, all left-handers and all currently slated for triple-A work to begin the year, could become important depth players for the club.
The club went out and spent a fair bit of money on improving the bullpen depth after losing two key contributors from 2010’s relief corps (Scott Downs and Kevin Gregg), as well as long man Brian Tallet. The newcomers include three veteran pitchers with experience at closing games: Francisco, Dotel, and Rauch. Those three appear set to eat up the majority of the eighth- and ninth-inning duties.
Returnees Jason Frasor and Shawn Camp are also near-locks to make the club out of spring training. That leaves a number of bodies vying for another two spots: Villanueva (acquired from Milwaukee during the off-season), Janssen, Roenicke, as well as lefties Purcey and Carlson. Rzepczynski and Reyes also have outside shots at breaking camp as southpaw relievers.
Prior to the 2010 season, Lind signed a lucrative contract extension with the Jays after a breakout ’09 season. As a result, he may have put too much pressure on himself and he produced a wOBA of .234 in May and .207 in June. After digging himself a hole that was difficult to climb out of, he still ended up with overall disappointing numbers on the season (.237/.287/.425) despite producing solid wOBAs in the final three months: .353, .368, and .336.
He was a 3.5 win player in ’09 and has a good shot at returning to that level in 2011. The 27-year-old player will also move from being a full-time DH to manning first base, and he’s reportedly displayed respectable work at the bag so far this spring. The club is hoping that his work in the field will help him avoid dwelling on his struggles at the plate. With Wells gone, someone is going to have to offer Bautista some protection and Lind needs to step up and be that player.
The 2011 Jays do not enter the season looking like a 90-win club but there is enough young talent on this team – and impact prospects on the cusp of the Majors like Drabek and Brett Lawrie – to make things interesting. Although the club many not be playing postseason ball, it’s definitely headed in the right direction and should be competitive in 2011, even against the likes of New York, Boston and Tampa Bay.
Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.