Posts Tagged 'AL East'

Riding with the Wind, ’14: An Apology

Usually we use the word “apology” to say “I’m sorry”. That’s not what I’m doing here. I’m using the word apology as the transliterated form of the Greek word ‘apologia’, meaning ‘defense’. In other words I’m going to defend something or someone. In this case I’m going to defend something AND someone, because the something can’t be separated from the someone. They are linked inextricably.

On Friday April 11, 2014 Dustin McGowan was credited with his first win as a starting pitcher since 2008. It was one of those feel-good moments that have been too few and too far between for the Jays over the last several seasons. Not only did he get the win, but he threw 6.1 IP of shutout ball against the Orioles at Camden Yards. It was heady stuff.

Perhaps you recall the immediate variables that helped to make this a story:

  • a good fielding team had to make 2 errors to help a scuffling offense;
  • hard-hit balls had to be caught by the Jays’ defense, an Achilles heel in 2013;
  • Dusty had to shut down a potent offense that typically feasts on Jays’ pitching;
  • good coaching decisions and timing needed to play a role, since Dusty’s still just getting his feet wet in MLB again.

I suppose a host of other unseen and unthought-of factors played roles, too, but this is good enough for a good story.  These don’t even scratch the surface of all the years of agony and disappointment for McGowan, the Jays, and their fans.

The Something

The bullpen for the Toronto Blue Jays is the Something. A lot of effort and energy has gone into this facet of the team. It has been somewhat frustrating and more than a little bewildering to watch the Jays focus so intently on this as the something. Why not the rotation? Why not the defense? Why not the offense? Why spend so much time on the bullpen, for crying out loud?

Since 2010, its several incarnations have appeared as follows. The players listed are the most oft-used bullpen pitchers:

  • 2010: Gregg, Camp, Janssen, Frasor, Downs;
  • 2011: Francisco, Janssen, Camp, Rauch, Frasor, Rzepczynski;
  • 2012: Janssen, Villanueva, Oliver, Frasor, Cordero, Perez;
  • 2013: Janssen, Loup, Cecil, Delabar, Oliver.

The first couple of seasons, 2010-2011, were years of ‘try, try again.’ Not many cried when Gregg wasn’t re-signed; I almost did when Downs wasn’t. Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch still give some Jays’ fans recurring nightmares, partly because Frankie F cost the Jays Mike Napoli. That’s another story for another time, though. Rzep was a quality LOOGY+ and young, too, but he was part of the price for a young CF.

It began to come together in 2012, experimenting with Janssen as the Closer and bringing quality LHP Darren Oliver on board. Cordero was a bust. Frasor was reliable and had a rubber arm. The starting rotation fell apart in mid-June, though. JA Happ and others were acquired near the deadline to shore up the ‘pen and the rotation, but the season was lost anyways. Shipping Travis Snider to PIT for Brad Lincoln was a little painful, too.

It was supposed to gel in 2013. Big off season trades, combined with a stronger ‘pen, were key parts of a seemingly well-rounded team. Steve Delabar showed he was for real, Brett Cecil was looking sharp early and if they could ever get Sergio Santos to stay healthy, his fastball and slider were deadly. But nothing gelled, nothing at all. It all fizzled amid great-but-frustratingly-unmet expectations. Well, check that: the bullpen gelled. They were solid all season.

Fast forward to 2014 after an off season of virtual non-activity, and the Jays’ ‘pen is even more of a shut down ‘pen than they were previously. The offense has sputtered, but the defense, starting pitching, and bullpen have been good.

At present, the ‘pen consists of:

  • Casey Janssen (CL; DL); Sergio Santos (CL); Steve Delabar; Brett Cecil; Aaron Loup; Neil Wagner; Todd Redmond; and Esmil Rogers.

They have two closers, and two other guys (Delabar; Cecil) capable of closing. They have two high quality LHP capable of going 1+ IP, striking out plenty, inducing ground balls, but also can be used as LOOGYs. Career minor leaguer Neil Wagner throws hard (95+ mph), has good control, and he’s their sixth/seventh inning guy. Rogers and Redmond are both long men who can start in a pinch and give them quality innings. Then there’s JA Happ, the LHP on the DL, who’s at least the equal, talent-wise, to Rogers and Redmond.

The Someone

This of course is Alex Anthopoulos, the much-maligned GM of the Toronto Blue Jays. A quick perusal of the transactions page at baseball-reference.com (here) will show that the majority of deals made by Anthopoulos have involved at least one reliever going in one direction. Several deals have been larger, involving a number of relievers. This focus on the bullpen was frustrating, since the on-field product was poor and getting worse. After all, why waste time on something that exerts so little influence on the game’s outcome? Because it’s the AL East, that’s why.

There are currently two bullpens dominating the American League. They have everything they need to succeed. They stand head and shoulders above the rest of the AL, and actually could get (much) better as the season wears on. Rather than reproducing the table, I’ll just include the link so you can see for yourselves. (We don’t want to use up virtual paper unnecessarily here at AL Eastbound.) Keep in mind that the sample sizes are miniscule (9-12 games; fewer than 50 IP; etc.). Also bear in mind that Toronto’s ‘pen did this last year, too, for the most part.

Against Baltimore, Dustin McGowan gave up some rockets. It’s not surprising: he’s still just getting his feet wet again, and those Orioles have some rocket launchers. His 6.1 IP of shutout ball was pretty impressive, as was the 2.2 IP by Brett Cecil and Sergio Santos. Cecil and Santos struck out 5 of the 8 batters they faced. No hits, no walks, no blips or glitches, just shut down ball. It was a nice period at the end of that particular sentence. Dustin McGowan, good start, blah, blah, blah, bullpen. Lights out. Well done, Alex Anthopoulos, well done.

Wes Kepstro

Riding with the Wind, ’14: It might not be that difficult to repeat…

But that’s NOT what we want; too many sub-.500 records are hard on the constitution.  Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs has just posted a piece offering WAR-based strength-of-schedule predictions for 2014.  The Orioles have the toughest schedule, while Washington plays the weakest opponents.  The Blue Jays have the third-toughest schedule.

The bad thing is that this confirms that the Jays have their work cut out for them.  The AL East is as strong as usual.  The decline of the Yankees is offset by the ascendancy of the defending World Champion Red Sox (ugh), the usually-strong Rays, and the strong off season moves by the Orioles.  If the Orioles sign Ervin Santana, the Jays are almost assuredly a lock for 4th or 5th place in the division.

The good thing about this is, well, um…ah…what I mean to say is…crap.  There isn’t much good about this.  It’s not very encouraging at all.

Anyways, keep this in mind as you watch the standings during the season.  A strong schedule will suppress win totals somewhat artificially, while an easy schedule will tend to inflate win totals, again somewhat artificially.  The impression I have from watching/following sports over the decades is that teams with artificially-inflated win totals don’t do well in the postseason.  At least they frickin’ make it to the postseason though…

Wes Kepstro

 

 

 

Mission ’13: Did Anthopoulos Boot a Routine Grounder in a Tight Game? A Response to Giving Him a ‘Pass’

Alex Anthopoulos does not get a pass from me. I’m not part of the radical fringe that screams for his head or whines game-in and game-out, but he’s responsible for this mess. I wouldn’t be upset if he was fired, I just don’t think it will happen. A results-based assessment recognizes that they’ve declined every year that he’s been at the helm. 2013 may be slightly better than 2012, but they had to double the payroll to do it.

I, too, think John Gibbons has done okay, given the teams’ indifferent/poor play and the overall circumstances (‘new’ manager; lots of new players). The problem is that someone needs to be held accountable and, since John Gibbons is AA’s man, the finger points at AA.

He rebuilt the farm quickly, then used it as currency to assemble a contender at the ML level. I like that strategy. As a matter of fact, it’s encouraging: it didn’t take long to restock a long-neglected aspect of the organization.

The problem is that the talent he assembled hasn’t contended. This problem is magnified by 2 other factors: an emptied farm; and different rules for draft pick acquisition. No longer can they sign the Miguel Olivos of the world for the purpose of acquiring a supplementary round draft pick when he signs elsewhere. Rebuilding the farm is more difficult now.

A Brief Review

I believe Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Mark DeRosa have lived up to advance billing. Reyes was injured for 60+ games, but that’s not surprising. When he’s played, he’s played pretty well. His defense isn’t great, but his offense has been good (.347 wOBA; 117 wRC+).

Buehrle had a rough start but has pitched as expected for some time now. He owns a 4.14 FIP and 4.17 xFIP for his career; this year they’re 4.18 and 4.19, respectively. He’s also on pace for 200+ IP.

Mark DeRosa’s real value has been on the bench: he’s a leader and he’s intelligent. On top of that, they’re getting unexpectedly good offensive production from him (7 HR, .328 wOBA, 104 wRC+). Offensively he’s playing slightly above the level of an average major leaguer, which is excellent for a utility player. It means the Jays don’t lose anything on offense when he starts occasionally or pinch hits.

Here’s the sordid side of the off season tale:

  • Maicer Izturis is the worst player in Major League Baseball;
  • ‘Ace’ RA Dickey presently has a FIP north of 4.75, which is 4th or 5th starter territory;
  • Melky Cabrera came injured, and has been one of the worst outfielders in baseball;
  • Emilio Bonifacio played so poorly in TOR that he’s already been dealt;
  • Josh Johnson is Ricky Romero 2.0. He may go down as the worst acquisition that the Toronto Blue Jays have ever made (at least Mike Sirotka didn’t play fast and loose with our hopes by subjecting us to AAA quality pitching);
  • Josh Thole catches Dickey, but he can’t hit and he’s not much better behind the plate than JPA; and
  • Mike Nickeas gave them veteran depth at catcher for AAA Buffalo.

Several other trades have produced a mixed bag of results, which is normal. Steve Delabar was a great pick-up, especially since Eric Thames did nothing with SEA and has since moved. Dumping Vernon Wells’ huge contract was a boon, as well. Other acquisitions (Brandon Morrow, Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch, Brad Lincoln, Francisco Cordero, Sergio Santos, Kelly Johnson, etc.) haven’t worked out very well.

What Can They Do?

I’d like to see Bautista dealt. It’s nearing the last opportunity to get a good return for him. His defense has been shoddy in the 2nd half—missed cut offs, misplayed balls, poor throws, etc.–and his offense is nothing like it was a couple of years ago. Trading him, plus some expiring contracts (Oliver, Rajai, etc.) may give them some wriggle room. The expiring contracts are (over) balanced by some arbitration cases (Rasmus, etc.) that loom.

The glaring weaknesses are: the rotation, left field, 2B, C and team consistency. The rotation needs 2 upper level pitchers but so does every other team in MLB except the Tigers. Where are the Jays going to find those pitchers? I don’t know. Someone may want to dump salary (LAA? TEX?), opening previously-closed doors, but I haven’t heard any rumours.

The free agent market, which AA is generally loath to use, isn’t very promising either. Perhaps they can re-sign Josh Johnson and get Tim Lincecum for serious bargains in the hopes that they’ll rebound from their poor performances. One problem is that dumpster diving hasn’t really worked very well for the Jays, partly because it’s a strategy they overuse.

I’d love to see them make a play for Cano, but that’s a pipe dream. Not only are the NYY and LAD likely to get into a bidding war but Jay-Z’s his new agent, and Jay-Z wants to make a splash. AA said he’s looking to go for a defense-first 2B. I don’t know who fits the bill here.

I’m not interested in Ellsbury: more injury-prone players are unnecessary. No, the next 100 games or so are make-or-break for Anthony Gose, AA’s ‘golden boy’. He pouted when he was demoted earlier in the season and has played poorly ever since (regardless of where he’s played). He’s yet another speed merchant that hasn’t performed because he doesn’t fit the Jays’ in-game strategy: they’re boppers, not bunters.

I don’t expect another year like this from Rasmus (Matt Klaassen wrote a good piece about him at http://www.fangraphs.com). I like what CLE and, to a lesser extent, BOS did when they acquired good OF. The Jays need a good all-round, reliable OF to play with Rasmus. They also need Colby to repeat his success this year…

Team consistency is likely going to be an issue again. The Jays have too many players who aren’t good enough to be consistent. Jose Bautista is a good player but a terrible leader. Leaders don’t argue, whine, or make as many misplays as he does. He’s also pretty inconsistent, and the team takes its cues from him. Adam Lind’s not consistent enough to play everyday. Then there are all the utility-level players (Rajai, Izturis, DeRosa, Thole, JPA, Kawasaki). These guys are a petrie dish for inconsistency, especially when they play full time.

Also if they don’t do something about their catching situation, they’re in trouble. They hitched their wagon to JPA, but he’s not a good catcher for reasons that have been flogged mercilessly. What other possibilities exist, though? How about Carlos Ruiz? Chooch is at the end of his tenure in Philly: he wants to stay, but they don’t seem interested. Another former ped abuser, nearing the end of his career, who isn’t wanted by his own team?

The Skinny

Adding it all up, the Jays need: 2 starters, a #1 catcher, a 2B, and an OF. Each one of these players needs to excel on offense or defense, preferably both. To acquire these needs, the Jays have: a bunch of underachieving MLers and a farm that’s been ransacked, but they’ve also ‘promised’ to maintain or increase payroll as necessary.

At this point my guess is we’ll see more of the same next year. There are too many needs and not enough talent or resources to fill all those needs, even if they trade roster players. They’d be selling low on almost everyone on the team. Also, do we seriously expect the ‘pen to be this good again?

Finally…

A key element of strong, contending teams is good homegrown talent. The Jays have Romero, McGowan, Lind, JPA, Lawrie, Pillar, and several ‘pen arms. Another element is good, astute trades that work out well. They haven’t been successful enough on the trade front for me to be confident that another round of trades will make a significant difference.

If Alex Anthopoulos is fired after the 2013 debacle, I won’t miss him. He’s not responsible for the poor play by good players, but he is responsible for the results. He assessed the talent, acquired the talent, but didn’t alter the talent. He’s given hope to the fan base, but it’s been a false hope.

In 2010, he promised 2 trips to the playoffs over the next 5 seasons. 2013 will be the 4th year of missing the playoffs under his direction, and the 19th straight overall. Pittsburgh and Kansas City have positioned themselves for the post-season, and Baltimore has leap-frogged the Jays in the AL East. Toronto is no longer the 4th-best team in their division: they’re the worst team 2 years running with only a fool’s hope of improvement. What more needs to be said? I used to sing his praises. Seeing as how I don’t think he’ll get canned, I won’t do that until anymore he gets some positive results. Why? I don’t trust him.

Wes Kepstro

Mission ’13: Can We Expect a Hot Streak?

No, not because of the weather in Atlanta, San Diego, or San Francisco. This is more of a schedule-related hot streak.  Let’s look at some facts.

Fact: with 4 teams above .500, the AL East is again the toughest division in Major League Baseball.

Fact: the Blue Jays have played more games against their own division (32) than any other team in MLB.

  • Interpretation of these 2 facts: for a variety of reasons the Jays struggled out of the gate, and playing so many game against their own division has exacerbated these struggles; it’s not only prolonged them, but it’s made them seem worse than they are.

Fact: the Blue Jays are playing better.

Fact: they don’t play against an AL East team until June 21.

  • Interpretation of these 2 facts: the Jays are poised to make some noise and maybe, just maybe, move up in their division.

We all know that the Jays have underachieved to a startlingly degree. The idea is that there have been a variety of factors exerting negative influences on the Jays (injuries, new teammates, a new manager, poor play [in all facets of the game], and their schedule), but that one of them is changing significantly:

  • The new teammates explanation doesn’t really apply any longer since the core group has played 50+ games together. Can they still learn about one another? Sure. Is it still a valid explanation? Nope;
  • The same goes for the new manager thing: John Gibbons is showing good promise as a manager, now that he knows and understands his troops. I enjoy watching him do the x’s and o’s;
  • Apparently the injuries thing is going to be with them for a while. Besides, everyone else is suffering various major and minor maladies. Heck, the Yankees are missing four-fifths of their infield and they’ve been replaced by new teammates;
  • Their play is improving in most facets (except the starting rotation) and is a major reason that the Jays are playing better;

That leaves the schedule. The Jays have played AL East opponents 32 times; no other team in MLB has played against their own division more than 29 times (COL). For the most part other teams have played in their own division between 15-24 times. The Jays are 12-20 against the AL East. Toronto’s extra-division AL opponents were Cleveland, Kansas City, Detroit, the White Sox, and Seattle. The Jays are 6-7 against the AL Central and 1-2 against the AL West. Their interleague opponents have been San Francisco and Atlanta. Heading into tonight’s game, the Jays are 4-1 (!) in interleague play. The Jays are a .375 team against the AL East and improving; they play .524 ball against the rest of MLB.

This is what the Jays’ schedule looks like for the next little while. Their next 19 games are against teams from other divisions. Then they play BAL, TB, and BOS for 10 games. Then they play 31 of 37 versus other divisions. That means 50 of the Blue Jays’ next 66 games are against opponents from other divisions.

One difficulty is that, by the percentages, they’re looking at a 32-34 record over their next 66 games. However, that doesn’t account for their improvement of late.  Another is that they’re weak on the road.

Also, after San Diego, they don’t face another lower-quality opponent from another division until early July.

On the plus side, they don’t play the Yankees again until August 20.  The Jays are 1-8 against the Yankees, and 11-12 against the rest of the AL East.  This means they’re a .500 team against the rest of MLB (22-22).  Improved play of late could spike their winning percentage.

How many times will they win over the next 66 games? How many wins do they need to climb back into the thick of things?

Wes Kepstro

J.P. Arencibia, Mashed Literature, and the Relative Importance of Quality Catching

There’s been a lot of virtual ink spilled about J.P. Arencibia. He’s the #1 catcher on a team that some favour to win the World Series. Most people are a little more cautious than that, though: they think the Jays are a solid playoff contender. The World Series dreams are just that: dreams. For now. However there’s been a major overhaul of the pitching staff and Jays’ fans are at least modestly aware of J.P’s shortcomings.

Joining the team are starters Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, and R.A. Dickey. Incumbent starters include Brandon Morrow, Rickey Romero, and J.A. Happ. Gone from the 2012 rotation are Henderson Alvarez, Kyle Drabek, and Drew Hutchison (who replaced an ineffective Joel Carreno). The upgrade is intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer. This presents a sticky situation, so we should ask: is J.P. Arencibia the right man for the job?

At the Dish

This is the least important facet of any catcher’s game but, as history shows, talented offensive catchers add dimensions to clubs with playoff aspirations. Names like Gabby Hartnett, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Ernie Lombardi, Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, Thurman Munson, and Gary Carter are splashed across the pages of baseball playoff history. More recently, fellas like Ivan Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, Jason Varitek, Joe Mauer, Buster Posey, and Yadier Molina have emerged as game-breakers.

Does J.P. Arencibia add dimensions to the Jays? Well, the bad news is that he’s not as good as any of these guys. The good news is that players like Tim Laudner and Pat Borders have been successful in the playoffs.

So, what is there to commend him offensively? He has pretty good power, as catchers go: in his first two ‘full’ seasons he has 81 xbh (36 doubles, 4 triples, 41 HR; .211 career ISO). Aside from that, the cupboard’s pretty bare. He doesn’t draw many walks—only 56 in 893 career PA’s (6.3% BB rate for his career)— and he doesn’t hit very many singles, meaning he hasn’t been on base very often. Then there are all those strikeouts. For his career, JP strikes out at an alarming rate (28.2%). On the other hand, several projections for the 2013 season have him pegged somewhere between 25.0% and 27.1%, down from his 29.0% rate of 2012. Perhaps they’re right. He likes to swing the bat; hopefully there are fewer misses when he swings.

Behind the Dish

Game-calling, defense, and pitcher handling are a catchers’ bread and butter. The problem is that we have a terrible time trying to quantify this stuff, but I digress. Several catchers over the past few decades have been weak offensively, but have been successful. Jim Sundberg of the Royals in the early-to-mid ’80s comes to mind. He had a reputation as a superb defensive catcher, game caller, and handler of pitchers. Every now and then he would chip in offensively, but it wasn’t his forte.

Arencibia has a good reputation as a teammate and seems eager to learn. Already the story is circulating that he and fellow Nashville resident R.A. Dickey have been doing the MLB equivalent of playing catch since Dickey was acquired and signed. Of course, R.A. Dickey and his knuckleball are key challenges facing J.P. Arencibia this season.

However, his struggles defensively are well known and are the focus of any contribution he can make. Let’s think laterally for a moment. Now that Jarrod Saltalamacchia plays in Boston, he and Arencibia are very comparable on offense. (It should be noted, however, that if JPA played half his games in Fenway he’d likely be good for an extra 10-15 xbh per season, which would put him well ahead of Salty on offense.)

Defensively they have similar struggles: passed balls and wild pitches sort of rule the day for these two. There are several catchers at or near the bottom of MLB in these departments and two of them are Blue Jays (JPA; Thole). Right down there with them is, you guessed it, Jarrod Saltalamacchia. (Of course, wild pitches count against pitchers but the point is the number of balls that get past the catcher.) When we think of J.P. Arencibia, we wouldn’t be crazy to compare him to Salty. If that helps us, great; if not, dump it.

J.P. Arencibia’s RPP (passed pitch runs) is a MLB-worst -11.6 over the past two seasons, meaning he doesn’t block pitches very well. When we combine this with a -8 rSB figure (he costs his team runs runs when opponents steal bases), it gives us a picture of what he’s like as a catcher. Just dividing his game numbers in half, it’s like having about 52 pitches sailing to the backstop each year. Is this the kind of guy in whom pitchers will place their confidence? I’m not so sure. After all, he costs his team about 10 runs per season on defense and his offense isn’t strong enough to counterbalance it.

In his favour, of course, is the trend: he’s getting a little better each year. He’s also willing to learn, and with the veterans that the Jays have acquired to compete for the back-up backstops job (Thole, Nickeas, Blanco), there’ll be plenty of opportunities for him to learn.

To J.P. or not to J.P., that’s the bare bodkin…

Okay, so I’ve mashed William Shakespeare and Mark Twain together to suit this article. Sue me. If J.P. Arencibia was a greater factor in Toronto’s offense, I’d be concerned. Because he isn’t, I’m not. We’re not talking about Mike Piazza or, sadly, Matt Wieters here: it’s J.P. Arencibia. Management has given him the starter’s job and have committed to him in that role. Trading away several catching prospects, including Travis D’Arnaud, is evidence of their commitment.

Offensively, I’d say that if the Jays were more like the Tigers of the late ’80s/early ’90s or the Diamondbacks of several years ago, there could be troubles. Teams that strikeout a lot tend to be one-dimensional and don’t do very well. These Jays won’t strike out as much (sayonara, Kelly Johnson), and are multi-dimensional. They have speed, power, and will get on base. JPA is one of perhaps three Jays that will K more than 100 times (Bautista; Rasmus).

Their offense may also be the key to his poor defense. As the Jays of the early ’90s and the Yankees with Jorge Posada proved, a lot of runs will make up for some pretty poor defense.

These Jays aren’t the Baltimore Orioles of Earl Weaver’s heyday (pitching, defense, 3-run homers; several 100-win seasons). No, they’re more like the Yankees of the last two decades, with their suspect defense at key positions (Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Chuck Knoblauch, and even Derek Jeter), and their terrific offense and ‘pen (Mo). I’m not saying that the Jays are the next dynasty or anything like that. But if they can win a title, all the talk about J.P. Arencibia’s suitability will be water under the bridge. And not the Golden Gate Bridge, either.

Wes Kepstro

Will the Toronto Blue Jays Contend in 2013?

I’ve been thinking about the Jays recent upgrades lately (who hasn’t?), and wondering about where they stand relative to the rest of the AL East.  These deals aren’t made in a vacuum: the Jays want to be more competitive, and their main obstacles to getting better are the four other teams in the AL East.

The offseason just began and some teams, like the SFG and DET, are just catching their breath.  Also, the free agent season is barely under way.  Teams are talking to free agents and free agents are considering different teams, while each tries to assess whether the other is a good fit.  In addition to these factors, the Winter Meetings are a week and a half away.

For these reasons and a host of others, the question posed in the title is a difficult one to answer because it’s premature.  Still, there’s good value just in asking the question.  Opinions about where the Jays stand (relative to the AL East; relative to their deeply disappointing 2012) are pretty sharply divided.

The initial reaction to the blockbuster deal with the Miami Marlins was predictable: finally, we thought, the Jays have made a substantial change to the team in order to be more competitive.  Heading into the 2012 season with two very young pitchers (Drabek; Hutchison), an unproven #2 (Morrow), and an underdeveloped #3 (Alvarez) proved to be disastrous.  Injuries to three of them, and poor performances from the other two contributed to a 73-win season.

Injuries (Bautista; Arencibia; Lawrie; Rasmus; Encarnacion) and poor performances (Lind; Johnson; Lawrie; Escobar) also played a role.  Good performances by some players (Encarnacion; Rajai) were overwhelmed.  These, coupled with unnecessary distractions (Lawrie; Escobar), resulted in a 73-win season and, as we’ve seen, a host of changes.  [This is just a rabbit trail, but are you as intrigued as I am at HOW the changes occurred?  John Farrell wasn’t fired, Lind wasn’t released, Escobar was a footnote in a major trade, and the Jays have made a slew of unpredictable moves (Melky; Izturis; etc.).  It’s fascinating.]

How do the Blue Jays’ recent upgrades stack up against what we’ve seen from NY, BOS, BAL, and TB over the last few seasons?  Let’s consider each of them individually.

Baltimore

Five pitchers in their ‘pen had career years.  Joe Saunders pitched well. Rookie Wei-Yin Chen was terrific.  Tillman, Gonzalez and Hammel all pitched pretty well.

Everything, and I mean everything, went BAL’s way for them to make the playoffs.  When someone was hurt, someone who produced replaced him.  When a significant change was made (Markakis to the top of the order; Reynolds to 1B), it worked.  Adam Jones had a career year.  Chris Davis had a career year.  19 year-old Manny Machado showed his potential and contributed meaningfully.  Matt Wieters is the real deal.

They will look to improve by filling holes and gaps with good players in cost-effective ways.  One question that the ’13 season will answer is, ‘were the 2012 Orioles for real, or were they the result of so many unpredictable factors?’  I suspect it’s the latter.   Run differentials of +7 don’t often translate into 90+ wins.

Boston

The Red Sox imploded at the end of ‘11 and made a host of changes (notice how differently their changes were handled), and they finished last in the division in ‘12.  Owing to the nature of their collapse and their injury issues, I wasn’t surprised.  Several things weren’t predictable, though, like blockbuster trade with the LAD and sub-par performances by front-line starters Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.

Hiring John Farrell as their new skipper to replace Bobby Valentine is a move that has some Blue Jay supporters snickering, albeit very quietly.  The Red Sox still have a lot of talent.  How will they use this talent?  The scuttlebutt is that John Farrell was brought in to deal with the residual clubhouse/personnel issues and the pitching problems.  If that’s the case, then it’s a lead pipe cinch that they won’t trade key pitchers.  Given his track record in ‘dealing’ with clubhouse problems in TOR, I’d say that there might be more turbulence in their future.  One significant item in their favour is that the trade with the LAD freed up substantial resources, which they’ve demonstrated that they’re prepared to use to improve.

New York

Two significant changes were made before last season: the Bombers shipped Jesus Montero and others to SEA for Michael Pineda and others; and they signed veteran Hiroki Kuroda.  Kuroda pitched very well but Pineda was hurt, and didn’t pitch at all.  Yes, Pettitte was re-signed and pitched well but he didn’t pitch very much, and the NYY drama queen is still deciding whether he will pitch in 2013.

They’re always looking improve because they like it on top.  They spend a lot of time on top because they acquire top-flight talent.  Top-flight talent likes it in NY because they pay well and they win a lot.  ‘Round and ‘round it goes.  They won the division, but looked like an old team when they faced DET in the playoffs.  Who knows how well Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter will recover from their injuries?  Expect the Yankees to re-load (they’ve already re-signed Kuroda), using their significant resources (the YES network generates more revenue than most teams in MLB, and it’s just the entertainment and broadcasting wing of the Yankees empire…), to sign players to one-year deals (so as to avoid the 2014 luxury tax threshold).  It’s easy to imagine NY signing a player like Josh Hamilton to a huge one-year deal.

Tampa Bay

Perhaps the most consistently surprising team in the AL East has the strongest management team.  Anyone who can identify talent as they do, then translate that talent into yearly contention deserves our admiration.  Seriously, is anyone surprised that Fernando Rodney had a career year?  Evan Longoria missed most of 2012, but they still competed until the very end.

They like to keep their payroll low, so they won’t likely be big players in the free agent market.  That said, they have the means to sign low-cost players and coax terrific years out of them.  Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman are top-notch talent evaluators, who get the most out of what they have, and what they have is considerable.  Their biggest concerns are offense and returning to form defensively.  The offense can be boosted by one or two (1B; DH) key acquisitions.  Expect them to contend, unless they experience a rash of season-ending injuries or Joe Maddon decides to pursue some as-yet-unknown, life-long dream, like being a world tiddlywinks champion.  Still, Dave Martinez would jump in and they’d still be in the mix.

So…

Is this overwhelming?  No.  As a matter of fact, the Jays seem well positioned to make some noise.  Sure, it hinges on a lot of things, but when doesn’t a successful run hinge on a lot of things?  Players need to be healthy and perform to their capabilities.  Managers need to make good decisions and manage the team well.  General managers need to make the requisite moves to improve the team, whether by addition or subtraction.  Then there are the innumerable other factors that need to go just right…

During the press conference when John Gibbons was introduced as the Blue Jays’ manager, Alex Anthopoulos stated very clearly that they would continue to look into improving the team.  They have surplus in several areas, most notably at C, which leads to some healthy speculation.  However, even if they don’t acquire anyone else before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, there are good reasons to believe that they are in a (much) better position to contend than they were at the beginning of the 2012 season.  Part of the reason is that the Jays are poised to usurp a position traditionally reserved for AL East ‘Big Guns’, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.  Why?  The Jays have higher-quality players on the roster than they did before the ’12 season started.

Wes Kepstro

AL East Rumour Roundup: Friday February 17

Slow day outside of a few links and stories:

-The New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates finally consumated the long rumoured AJ Burnett trade with Burnett heading to Pittsburgh in exchange for minor leaguer pitcher Diego Moreno and outfielder Exicardo Cayones.

Scouts like the power arm of Diego Moreno, but there are a lot of questions about his maturity, tweets Buster Olney of ESPN.com.

Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com (via Twitter) had the early reads on the Yankees’ imports from the Pirates.  Moreno can reach 98 mph on the gun but has command issues while Exicardo Cayones can hit but doesn’t have much in the way of power.

-Boston Red Sox hurler Tim Wakefield called it a career at age 45 after a 19-year career.  He owns a career 200-180 record, a 4.41 ERA and 2156 strikeouts over a whopping 3226.1 IPs.  He is Boston’s all time  leader in starts and innings pitched and was only 6 wins behind Roger Clemens and Cy Young for the all-time franchise mark.

Before deciding to call it a career, Tim Wakefield had offers from four clubs, writes Alex Speier of WEEI.com.  Agent Barry Meister says that one of the four offers was a guaranteed big league deal.

Wakefield didn’t consider any of those offers for long, tweets Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald.  Upon hearing of the offers, the pitcher asked his agent, “Do they play for Boston?”

-In other Red Sox news veteran catcher Jason Varitek is leaning towards retiring.


AL Eastbound On Twitter!

  • @timandsid how about we guess what Donovan's shirt actually says? #timandsid 1 hour ago
  • You know summer is winding down when Canadian networks start rolling out the cheesy, sentimental, heart warming hockey is life ads. #barf 4 hours ago
  • What a surprise the #BlueJays not in on Rusney Castillo. Who wants a potential 4-tool OFer that will cost nothing but #Rogers money? 2 days ago
  • Baseball needs to focus on shortening games. You should be allowed three total dugout "leaves" to visit mound, challenge etc. That's it. 4 days ago
  • I was tempted to live bet the Jays heavy after Melky hit that 2-run jack. I was that optimistic, glad I didn't. 6 days ago

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