The Blue Jays — Now Competitive On Paper

The Toronto Blue Jays are going for it. They’ve hit the jackpot on Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, and it’s time to cash in. They’ll try to do it with Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio, John Buck joining from Miami.

As lopsided as the blockbuster trade seems in their favor, make no mistake, the Blue Jays did pay a price in acquiring most of the Marlins’ payroll. Between the $165 million in contract obligations and the prospects sent out, the Blue Jays hampered their ability to improve their roster beyond this trade.

So the new roster better be worth it. How does it stack up?

Last year’s Blue Jays scored only 0.03 runs per game fewer than the average AL team. Although being sub-average in any sense is hardly impressive, the Jays received just 92 games out of Jose Bautista and gave over 100 plate appearances each to Jeff Mathis, Omar Vizquel, Eric Thames, Moises Sierra, David Cooper, Adeiny Hechavarria and Yan Gomes. They combined for -29.7 batting runs in 1100 plate appearances.

The middle infield is completely redone between Reyes and some combination of Bonifacio and free agent acquisition Maicier Izturis. Although the trio combined for exactly 0 batting runs above average in 2012, it’s a far sight better than the old double play combo of Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson — -23.7 batting runs in 1189 plate appearances last season.

The main punch in the lineup still comes from Bautista and Encarnacion, as they combined for 69 home runs in just 1043 plate appearances. Brett Lawrie was still a league-average hitter despite failing to showcase his rookie season’s definitive mammoth power. Those three and Reyes will form the base of this lineup. Together, the four have combined for 192 batting runs above average and 34 WAR since 2011. That is, all four have played at or near an All-Star level over the past two seasons.

The installment of Reyes and the return of Bautista alone should make the Blue Jays lineup an above-average one. Will the rest of the squad be able to push it to the next level? Colby Rasmus and J.P. Arencibia each hit for (41 homers combined) but nothing else. Each posted a second straight sub-95 wRC+. Adam Lind was demoted to the minors and posted just a .414 SLG and 98 wRC+ split between DH and first base. Anthony Gose struck out more than once per game in his debut. There’s still big upside, though, at least in the catcher and left field spots: Gose is an exciting prospect with speed and defense already, and club top prospect Travis d’Arnaud could take the starting catcher spot from Arenicibia at some point in 2013.

The bench should be improved. Between Bonifacio, Izturis and Rajai Davis, the Jays can cover the entire non-battery, non-first base field with just three players. John Buck still outhit Jeff Mathis with a .235 BABIP.

If the pitching staff doesn’t improve, though, all hitting points are moot. At 4.84 runs allowed per game, Toronto was nearly a half-run worse than the league average. The Jays suffered injury after injury, forcing 27 starts to effectively replacement level or worse pitchers (Brett Cecil, Chad Jenkins, Kyle Drabek, Jesse Chavez).

The starts doled out to those four pitchers and Henderson Alvarez (187.1 IP, 4.85 ERA, 5.18 FIP) are now slated for Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle. Even with Johnson’s down year, the duo combined for a 3.77 ERA and 3.79 FIP. The move to the AL could hurt, but Buehrle spent most of his career succeeding in an even tougher park and Johnson could return to his 2010-2011 levels (2.14 ERA, 2.47 FIP in 244 innings). Johnson’s shoulder could go at any time, but he could also return more than most free agent starters will in a full season over 20 starts if he finds his 2010-2011 performance.

Then there’s the two returners: Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero. Morrow figured it out last year. He missed two months with an oblique injury, but in 21 starts he posted a 2.96 ERA and 3.65 FIP — the season roundly squashed the idea he was a new Ricky Nolasco-esque prototype for pitchers who always underperform their peripheral statistics. He induced more ground balls than fly balls for the first time ever and maintained a solid 2.6 K/BB. He’s not an ace, but he serves well as a number two or number three in a good rotation — exactly what the Blue Jays will ask of him this season.

There was thought for a time Ricky Romero could be an ace; 2012 may have squashed that concept as well. Romero underwent arthroscopic surgery and said he was pitching through pain for much of the season; if injury was the root cause or even just part of his problem, he should serve well as the Jays’ fourth starter if healthy for 2013. He still induced tons of ground balls — 53.5 percent of batted balls against 54.4 percent career — but oddly enough, he just can’t retire left-handers. Fellow southpaws own a .370 wOBA off him in 996 chances, including 33 home runs — just 14 fewer than against nearly 1500 more righties. Combine that with a K/BB mark never exceeding 2.23 for a season and expecting more than a number two-number three type is unrealistic. Thanks to the other additions, it’s all they need.

J.A. Happ and Brett Cecil look like the top competitors for the fifth starter job. Neither may be on the team in two months. Bigger problems have been solved in shorter order, although it is worth noting the Jays are already some $10 million over their 2008 record $97 million payroll and may not have much more to spend.

The bullpen was an issue, but post-Francisco Cordero most problems came from the middle-inning relievers. Casey Janssen excelled in Sergio Santos’s absence, posting a 2.54 ERA and 3.08 FIP. Darren Oliver remained one of the best (and most versatile) left-handed relievers in the league, posting a 2.06 ERA and 2.95 FIP in 56.2 innings while stifling batters from both sides of he plate and will be back if he doesn’t retire. Steve Delabar showed some of the biggest strikeout stuff in the majors (14.1 K/9 in 29.1 innings for Toronto). And Santos should be back and ready to go when 2013 rolls around.

Like the issues with the fifth starter, the final few bullpen spots will work themselves out. The Jays could use veterans like Brandon Lyon (3.10 ERA, 3.23 FIP in 61 innings last year between Houston and Toronto) or Jason Frasor (4.12 ERA, 4.10 FIP in 43.2 innings) or they could dip into the ever-plentiful free agent reliever market; it is far too early to map out yet.

If the Blue Jays plan on making the playoffs, they probably need to find 22 more wins this year than the 73 they squeezed out of 2012. It’s difficult to make that happen with one trade, but if one ever had a chance it’s this. The new middle infield looks to pick up anywhere from four to six wins; the improved starting pitching another six to 10. Add another one for the better bench and we’re still a little short — maybe 17 wins instead of 22. But with improved health — from Jose Bautista and Ricky Romero specifically and the entire team generally — the Blue Jays have a distinct chance at 95 wins in 2012, and with it a playoff berth either through the division championship or a Wild Card.

How meaningful is it to be competitive on paper? Plenty of teams have done it before and fizzled out, never to be heard from again. But for this Blue Jays club and Alex Anthopolous specifically, this was the next step — find a team with the potential to reach the playoffs if just a few things go right. Now it just has to come together on the field.

Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.

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/AA places trophy next to consecutive Fangraphs GM of the year awards.

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Hey. They won on the field last year… 2012 Grapefruit League CHAMPS!