So how do the 2015 Blue Jays compare to last year’s squad? The infield

Over the past few years the Toronto Blue Jays have employed some less than stellar options at second base. Guys like Ryan Goins, Munenori Kawasaki, Emilio Bonifacio and Kelly Johnson have all spent considerable time at the position. And none of them have done particularly well at it.

And for at least two years, we’ve known this. Heading into last year, especially, we all conceded second base was a bit of a black hole. Last year, by fWAR, it was 15th in baseball, buoyed entirely by the fact the team’s third baseman, Brett Lawrie, spent time there. The other options were all more or less replacement level.

So, with an aging but still top tier shortstop on board, coupled with a first base/DH combination that features one of the best hitters against right handed pitching and one of the best hitters in baseball period, as well as a starting catcher that was basically your team’s biggest move the previous off season and a 24-year-old third baseman who can also fill in admirably at second base, what do you do?

Surely you don’t focus on finding a legit second baseman, that’d be silly.

Nope, you basically turnover the rest of the infield/catcher/DH position.

And it might just work.

The Jays’ infield is going to look quite different in 2015. Gone are the aforementioned Lawrie and the righty masher Adam Lind. Last year’s starting catcher Dioner Navarro will either be backing up or moving to a new city in a trade, as Russell Martin takes over as the starting backstop. First base appears to be new acquisition Justin Smoak’s job for the taking. Edwin Encarnacion is slotted in, more or less, as the full time DH. Josh Donaldson has taken over the hot corner.

Basically, the only mainstays from last year’s team are EE, Jose Reyes and the black hole that is second base.

And I’m quite excited about it.

There is a lot to like about what GM Alex Anthopoulos has done with the infield/DH/catcher. For the past couple years we’ve been so focused on the black hole at second base that I think we’ve overlooked the problems with the rest of the infield. Yes, Brett Lawrie is still young. And yes, despite being kind of douchey I love the guy and hope he has a great career. And yes he has shown spurts of being the guy everyone hopes he will be.

But in the four seasons he’s spent time at the big league level, Lawrie has yet to show a) he can play a full season, and b) he’s got the potent bat everyone is dreaming on.

Since becoming a full time big leaguer in 2012, Lawrie has played in fewer games each season, and when he has played, his bat has been a fairly consistent one, with season wOBA totals of .319, .314 and .320 in the last three years.

With his defence, that’s actually pretty decent. Over a full season, he’d be pretty valuable.

But…Josh Donaldson. He’s been consistently good, and consistently healthy, since coming up. Comparing the two for 2015, you could safely argue that Lawrie’s ceiling is Donaldson’s floor.

And…Russell Martin. Again, Navarro’s not a bad player. In a position starved of real quality, Navarro is a solid piece. But also, in a position that’s starved of real quality, Martin is one of the very few star back catchers.

And then…Justin Smoak. OK, that’s not super exciting. But forgive me if I can’t be arsed into worrying too much about replacing a guy who’s 31 years old and brings quite literally one skill (hitting righties) to the table with a 28-year-old who maybe doesn’t have the top end skill of Lind, but who is at least more well rounded and who also has some upside. With the combination of youth and his playing so many games in Seattle, Oakland and Anaheim, there’s certainly reason for optimism when it comes to Smoak.

The Verdict

Throw all that together, and what do you have?

Well, significant upgrades in both skill level and certainty at catcher and third base. Shortstop and DH are still the same, and there’s some upside if you can find a way to keep Reyes healthy. Second base is still a bit of mess, albeit there might be enough to cobble together something, and there is potential help on the way in the form of Devon Travis.

First base might be a downgrade, but in the overall it might also be an upgrade. Yes, you’re not getting the 300-400 awesome plate appearances against righties that Adam Lind brings. But you’re getting that upside. And really, what’s the difference between EE/Lind/lefty masher and EE/Smoak/lefty mashers/starters who get a half-day off? Maybe I’m understating Lind’s ability to hit righties, but it simply doesn’t seem like a lot.

Overall, I think the Jays have more skill, more certainty, and more reason for optimism in 2015 when it comes to the infield.

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So how do the 2015 Blue Jays compare to last year’s squad? The outfield

Remember when I was writing about how unpredictable bullpens are? Apparently the same can be said for outfielders.

Last year at this time Jays fans were expecting one more year of Colby Rasmus patrolling centre field for the team before he cashed in with some major deal in free agency. Meanwhile, fans were hoping the tumour found in left fielder Melky Cabrera’s back would be key in turning his tenure in Toronto around.

Well they got one more year of Colby, he’s rumoured to be going to the Rays or perhaps the Orioles, but wow. After a tremendous 2013 that had people thinking he’d finally figured it out and was unlocking all that potential everyone talked about, Rasmus laid a big, steamy one in 2014. The power remained, he swatted 18 home runs in limited duties with an isolated slugging percentage within .002 of his supposed breakout year. However, the BABIP gods reined down on him and his on base percentage dropped to a fugly .287. His defence, meanwhile, which was seen as something of a strength in 2013 – both by the eye test and advanced metrics – completely disappeared by both tests.

Melky, meanwhile, rebounded quite nicely. He hit 16 home runs in 139 games, slashing .301/.351/.458 to the tune of a 125 wRC+ and 2.6 fWAR. His defence, again both by the eye test and by the metrics, wasn’t strong. Some argue his defence was average, but I’d say it was passable at best.

Either way, his bat certainly plays.

But both are gone. Melky signed with the Chicago White Sox for what many considered a very reasonable three years, $42 million, while Colby is still weighing his options on what one-year deal he’ll sign.

Coming in to replace them will be Dalton Pompey (maple boners!) and Michael Saunders (double maple boners!). Saunders apparently butted heads with the Seattle management the past year or so and was traded to Toronto for pitcher JA Happ. He represents what could be a very sneaky good acquisition. He was twice named to the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list, peaking at #30 in 2009.

Since making the big leagues, he’s been quite good…when he’s played. But Saunders has had a tough time staying on the field. In 2014 he went on the DL twice, missing a couple weeks in June with knee inflammation, and then missed two months with a strained oblique. The year before he was on the DL for two weeks with a sprained shoulder.

Saunders has never played 140 games in a season, and was called out a bit by GM Jack Zduriencik at the end of 2014.

On the bright side, his DL stints have been for different ailments, suggesting he doesn’t have a chronic issue. On the down side his DL stings have been for different ailments, so he may just be injury prone, or as the Seattle GM alluded to, not up to the grind of a 162 game schedule.

Joining Saunders in the outfield will be rookie Dalton Pompey, who appears set to man centre field in 2015. Pompey is somewhat of a revelation, rocketing through the system in 2014. He spent time in five levels this past season, culminating with a cup of coffee in the big leagues.

Pompey has a fairly high ceiling, and though he burst onto the scenes in 2014, his 2013 season in A ball was actually strong as well. He has speed, he appears to be a strong defender and his bat has potential. The question is whether that bat is ready for prime time.

So, are Saunders and Pompey in 2015 better than Cabrera and Rasmus were in 2014?

Sadly, Pompey could probably be expected to provide similar value to Rasmus’ 2014 season. He’d do it by different means, certainly, but the combination of his defence and speed, provided he can get on base at any decent clip, could be valuable.

If you put any credence in the Steamer projections, Cabrera and Saunders are pegged for the exact same fWAR in 2015. And that’s in 20 fewer games for Saunders. If the latter can stay healthy and on the field there’s a decent to good chance he outproduces Melky by a fair bit.

However, it’s more than that. With Pompey exceedingly green and Saunders’ injury history the Jays would be wise to have some depth. Unfortunately that’s not the case. Should either two players scuffle or get hurt the Jays have Kevin Pillar and…well, that’s actually it. Pillar’s a decent depth piece, he can hit, run a bit and play solid defence at all three outfield positions. He can’t take a walk to save his life, but…

So with the team taking fairly big risks at centre and right field, the lack of depth is a big negative for the team. It could work out just peachy in 2015, and in the long run I think the team has set itself up quite well with those two. But in a go-for-it year, it’s dangerous.

Oh, and one more thing. Jose Bautista will man right field for the Jays. He’s awesome. He was awesome in 2014 and he’ll likely be awesome in 2015.

The Verdict

After losing Melky Cabrera and Colby Rasmus – who, despite a dismal 2014 still put up a league average 103 wRC+ and could have a strong 2015 – and replacing them with a rookie who started last year in A ball and an outfielder who’s spent time on the DL each of the past two years, it’s hard to say they’re improved.

But the outfield defence is likely better, and there’s plenty of potential, so it’s hard to say they’re a ton worse. With reasonable health and if the front office knows what it’s doing with regards to Pompey there could be a marked improvement.

In the end, I’ll call it a wash, with a good chance of things going either way by a significant margin.

Experts knew that pitcher wins were b.s. the moment they began publishing them

Winner!

HardballTalk

This post by baseball historian John Thorn is about the various changes the record book has seen with respect to pitcher wins over the years and is well worth your time just to see how the messy business of compiling the historical record can be at times.

But an aside at the beginning makes it for me. In it, Thorn quotes the Sporting News which, in 1888, published pitcher won-loss records for the first time. And the VERY FIRST TIME they did it, the Sporting News said this:

On July 7, 1888, The Sporting News for the first time published win-loss records, and only then after the following disclaimer: ‘It seems to place the whole game upon the shoulders of the pitcher and I don’t believe it will ever become popular even with so learned a gentleman as Mr. Chadwick to father it. Certain it is that many an execrable…

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So how do the 2015 Blue Jays compare to last year’s squad? The rotation

* Editor’s note: Well 2015 is off to a roaring start. Was basically completely finished this, saved a draft and apparently it didn’t actually save. So as a result I’m gonna break what was originally one big post in to a few smaller posts.*

Been a while, eh?

A crazy couple months at work left me without much opportunity to think or write about the Jays, though apparently I didn’t miss much. After blowing out of the gates with the signing of Russell Martin and the trades for Josh Donaldson and Michael Saunders, the team has been quite quiet these past few weeks. And it’s rather frustrating for many of Toronto’s fan base who got excited when the team made substantial improvements early but have left the team’s main weak points from 2014 – second base and the bullpen – unsolved.

With more or more names on the free agency board being scratched off, it’s becoming increasingly likely the team will be heading into the new season without significant improvements at either position. And with that realization the popular “cheap Rogers” remarks have kicked back into gear.

But at the end of the day improvements are improvements, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and all that stuff. So, with what we have now, are the 2015 Jays better, the same, or worse than the team that suited up last year?

The Rotation

Steamer projections for the five that will likely make up Toronto's rotation to start 2015. From Fangraphs.

Steamer projections for the five that will likely make up Toronto’s rotation to start 2015. From Fangraphs.

On the whole, last year’s starting pitching wasn’t very good. By ERA, FIP, xFIP and SIERA they were all in the bottom third in baseball. However, three significant things happened: Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison and Aaron Sanchez.

Stroman arrived in May and when put in the rotation he ran with it. As a starter he pitched to a 3.29 ERA in a shade over 120 innings, holding opponents to a .274 wOBA and recording a .279 FIP.

His work, along with the work of RA Dickey, who was actually quite strong after a weak April, helped bolster a second half surge of sorts. From the all star game until the end of the season the team’s starters were in the upper-middle rankings as far as FIP, xFIP and SIERA go.

I wrote about Drew Hutchison earlier this offseason, and how his performance was likely better than many of his stats suggest.

Finally, top prospect Aaron Sanchez made his Major League debut last year. And while he pitched out of the bullpen, he showed some tantalizing potential. In 33 innings he threw to a 1.09 ERA, 2.80 FIP and 3.00 xFIP. There are still questions surrounding his ability to perform as a starter, namely his control and secondary pitches. Also, despite great stuff Sanchez has never shown big time strikeout ability.

However, as it looks now, Sanchez will simply be taking over for JA Happ, who was shipped to Seattle in the trade for left fielder Michael Saunders. Happ become somewhat of a fan favourite last year. But I think people overestimate who he is as a pitcher. True, he’d be a solid back of the rotation start on any club. And he has managed to shave down his ERA each of the past three seasons while seeing a continual increase in velocity.

But he’s 32 years old and is coming off a 4.22 ERA season, which was his best since he severely out-pitched his peripherals in 2009 with the Phillies.

I’d argue that Sanchez’ floor is probably not much worse than what the expectations for Happ would be.

Beyond the projected starting five the team also has Daniel Norris, another top prospect, waiting in the wings. Marco Estrada could also slot in as a rotation piece, but I have the feeling the team wants him in the bullpen, where he excelled  with the Brewers in 2014 after a mid-season move from the rotation.

I’m quite happy with the rotation as constituted. At worse I’d say they produce roughly what they did in the second half of last year, which is to say, quite meh. If any or all of Stroman, Sanchez and Hutchison – Heck, Norris could also be included – take a step forward then the rotation could actually be a strength.

However, Toronto can push for a playoff spot if the starters simply managed to not be a weakness. If this team is going to be successful, then it’s going to need its offence to excel. The rotation just has to be good enough.

If there is a weakness among the starters, it’s the depth. Should a couple pitchers go down with injury or ineffectiveness the Jays are going to have problems. As is, the team is likely to rely on a few of its young pitchers to perform quite well and are probably more reliant on those young guys than the team would like. Beyond Norris and Estrada the cupboards are bare. Prospects like Miguel Castro, Robert Osuna, Jeff Hoffman and Sean Reid-Foley could take big steps forward and become legitimate options, but that’s something you shouldn’t bank on.

There have been some whispers here and there about the Jays going after one of the bigger name free agents or trade options. While many would probably laugh at me, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Jays do get in on James Shields or Max Scherzer. That would give them a legitimate top of the rotation starter, while pushing everyone else down and creating more depth.

I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one, though. What might be more likely is the team makes a few minor league signings with invites to spring training, allowing them to possibly put Sanchez back in the bullpen to address issues there, or have him and Norris both start in AAA.

The Verdict

With a rotation that’s likely to be unchanged one through four I’d say it’s fair to at the very least assume they’ll perform as well as last year, putting them in the top 20 range, and they’re more likely to perform like they did in the second half, which would put them in the top 12-17 area.

So how do the 2015 Blue Jays compare to last year’s team? The bullpen

So continues my look at how the Jays stack up heading into 2015 over what they were last year.

The Bullpen

Uh, yeah.

Some would argue Toronto’s bullpen in 2014 was a bit of a disappointment. And those people would be drastically understating things.

It’s weird. We went into 2013 already planning the parade. On the heels of the Jeff Mathis Trade Jays fans figured they just had to wait a few months before celebrating the team’s third World Series victory in franchise history. The team supposedly had a fantastic rotation that was only rivaled by its offensive weapons.

Nobody cared much about the bullpen. We’ve got Josh Johnson for crying out loud!

Of course, in a cruel twist of fate that season quickly went down the tubes and the bullpen that had the sixth worst ERA and second worst FIP in all of baseball the previous year was the only bright spot in an otherwise dismal season.

So fast forward to 2014 and everyone thought the bullpen would be a strength. If the starters can just be decent, many argued, manager John Gibbons could turn things over to the bullpen and we’d be good to go.

Yeah, about that.

The Toronto bullpen returned to the cellar in 2014, pitching to a 4.09 ERA, 4.05 FIP and 4.00 xFIP. So, by every measure they were pretty bad.

And the worst part is: everyone hopes the one true bright spot in the 2014 bullpen will not be spending any time back there once the first pitch is thrown. Aaron Sanchez is likely to start the season in the starting rotation. Gibbons was forced to use the rookie more than probably he or anyone in the organization wanted to last year.

So how do you fix a broken bullpen? Apparently you move your set up guy to the rotation, let your closer go and do nothing else.

The Jays let Casey Janssen, who had handled closing duties for much of the past few years, go to free agency and there appears little chance he’ll return to Toronto. Janssen performed admirably for Toronto as closer, using pinpoint control to offset what was otherwise very pedestrian stuff. A bout of food poisoning during the 2014 all star break was to blame for a second half swoon, but there were plenty of red flags before his tummy ache that suggest his days as an elite reliever may be over.

But we’re getting away from the main point of this little exercise, which of course is to consider how the team’s bullpen compares to last year’s iteration.

With Janssen gone and Sanchez expected to fill a spot in the rotation, that’s about 90 high leverage innings that need to be replaced. In-house options include Aaron Loup and Brett Cecil, two lefties who have been quite strong for the team the past couple years.

Also gone from the team are Dustin McGowan and Sergio Santos. McGowan was decent but unspectacular as a middle reliever last year, while Santos continued to show fantastic stuff but a complete unwillingness to actually get batters out.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see old Dusty Lambchops re-sign with the team but Santos has signed on with the Dodgers, and really, will anyone miss him?

Marco Estrada came over from the Brewers in Adam Lind trade. After struggling as a starter in 2014 Estrada was moved to the bullpen and performed quite well, pitching to a 2.89 ERA, and holding batters to a .269 wOBA. He’s likely being penciled in as at least a fairly high leverage righty reliever.

Other names that merit a mention are Steve Delabar and Kyle Drabek. After two strong seasons in Toronto’s bullpen, Delabar fell apart last year, ending up in AAA Buffalo to work out the kinks. By all accounts his stuff was still good, but he completely lost control of his pitches, leading to a devilish 6.66 BB/9.

Drabek, meanwhile, was moved to the bullpen partway through last year while attempting to make his way back from Tommy John Jr. surgery. Doug’s kid certainly fits the reliever mould, and given he can’t be optioned to the minor leagues next year I’m sure he’ll be given every opportunity to make the team.

Chad Jenkins and Todd Redmond remain on the squad, but neither are really considered much more than innings eater, middle relief types.

So bottom line: they need someone to be a high leverage reliever. There are a few possibilities internally. GM Alex Anthopoulos claimed a few players off waivers, including Scott Barnes and Preston Guilmet.

Another name I’ve heard mentioned is Ryan Tepera. Over at Clutchlings, Tepera was briefly profiled as one of the team’s minor leaguers who could contribute. He found success after being moved to the bullpen heading into 2014, and apparently throws mid-90s. He struck out 9.42 per nine innings at AAA last year and pitched to a 3.66 ERA, so he’s…something. Unfortunately, the Clutchlings article was about the only recent thing I could find on Tepera, which doesn’t lead to a ton of optimism.

In the article Miguel Castro and Chad Jenkins are other names offered up. I’ve had my eye on Castro for a while, I remember reading good things from him from some writers in Vancouver last year when he was pitching in the Northwest League, but it’s hard to see him making the same strides Sanchez did in 2014. It’s just not terribly common. And even if he does that Jays are going to want somebody good to go right from April, so Castro doesn’t work for my little exercise.

Jenkins is, well, I don’t know. He’s done well in stints with the Jays, but just doesn’t seem like the kind of guy you’d rely on.

Richard Griffin, from the Toronto Star, said Gregory Infante is someone to watch. He did put up some numbers in New Hampshire and Buffalo last year, so…maybe?

The Verdict

I can’t in good conscience say the 2015 bullpen is better or even as good as last year’s. They lost their closer to free agency and likely have lost their other top righty reliever to the bullpen. So far they’ve replaced those players with Marco Estrada and some guys I’d never heard of until they were claimed by AA.

But two things here. First, so far is actually a pretty important part of things. While most of the big name free agents are off the board, including the #Proven closers, there are still quite a few names left. They’re not sexy names at all, but guys like Burke Badenhop, Joba Chamberlain and Jesse Crain have all had success in the past. And based on MjwW’s work over at Bluebird Banter, there’s reason to believe AA will acquire a reliever or two before spring training.

The second thing: bullpens are just so damned fickle. Relievers and entire bullpens fluctuate from year to year, with no rhyme or reason to it. The introduction to this article is evidence of that. Having said that, though, there’s been more bad than good for the Jays since Anthopoulos took over. The Blue Jays have the seventh worst bullpen ERA since AA became GM. The team’s FIP and SIERA aren’t impressive either, clocking in at the second and tenth worst in all of baseball, respectively, over that time.

So while things currently look kind of dire as far as the bullpen goes, and the team doesn’t have a strong history in building strong bullpens, I just simply can’t be arsed into worrying about it all that much. Analysis!