Springtime Storylines: Are the Blue Jays doomed by baseball’s toughest division?


Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: New manager John Farrell’s tall order in Toronto.

The Big Question: Are the Blue Jays doomed by baseball’s toughest division?

Toronto has won at least 80 games in 10 of the past 13 years, but because the Blue Jays are in MLB’s toughest division they’ve finished higher than third place just once during that time while never winning an AL East title.

Last season was a familiar story, as outgoing manager Cito Gaston led the team to a 12-game improvement and 85-77 record … which was good for fourth place. To replace Gaston the Blue Jays hired former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell and his challenge isn’t to simply remain consistently competitive, but rather to get over the third-place hump and actually secure a playoff spot for the first time since back-to-back Gaston-led World Series titles in 1992 and 1993.

Unfortunately, as usual the Red Sox and Yankees look like 90-win teams and the Rays are capable of making a playoff run as well, which leaves the Blue Jays needing to out-perform their expectations and have a couple rivals under-perform theirs. Those are long odds, yet if switched to the AL Central or AL West the Blue Jays would be legitimate contenders. But that’s nothing new. Consider that since 1998 they’re one game below .500 versus the AL East and 30 games above .500 versus the AL Central and AL West.

In a different division the Blue Jays would have made the playoffs several times in the past 13 years and Farrell might be taking over a team looking to defend its division title. Instead they seem destined to win 80-something games and finish third or lower for the 16th time in 17 seasons.

So what else is going on?

  • Toronto’s lineup was one of the most powerful in baseball history last season, slugging 20 percent more homers than any other team while finishing just seven long balls short of the MLB record. Jose Bautista won’t go deep 54 times again and they replaced 31-homer Vernon Wells with light-hitting speedster Rajai Davis in center field, but J.P. Arencibia and Juan Rivera are very capable of topping the 40 homers lost in free agent departures John Buck and Lyle Overbay, and another 200-plus bombs are in sight.
  • Despite blowing away the competition in homers the Blue Jays ranked just sixth among AL teams in runs, due largely to a measly .312 on-base percentage that was third-worst in the league. They got particularly bad OBPs from the supposed table-setters, as the first two lineup spots combined to get on base at just a .309 clip. That should change this year, as Davis posted a .337 OBP with 91 steals in 2009/2010 and Yunel Escobar and his .364 career OBP will be around for the whole season.
  • I don’t expect the lineup to be any worse overall, but even if runs are harder to come by the pitching staff actually has a chance to carry Toronto. Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow are among baseball’s best young one-two punches and 23-year-old prospect Kyle Drabek is a third potential top-of-the-rotation starter, while the rebuilt bullpen boasts no fewer than six established, setup-caliber relievers in Frank Francisco, Octavio Dotel, Jon Rauch, Carlos Villaneuva, Jason Frasor, and Casey Janssen.
  • Unfortunately the season hasn’t even started yet and that pitching depth is already in danger, as Morrow, Francisco, and Dotel are expected to spend at least part of April on the disabled list. Morrow’s return is the biggest key, but so far at least the Blue Jays don’t think he’ll miss significant time.
  • If everyone is reasonably healthy pitching depth will be a strength, but the position players are a different story. Arencibia needs to hold his own as rookie because backup Jose Molina is one of the worst hitters in the league and fellow glove-first reserves John McDonald and Corey Patterson fill out the bench. The lineup can’t afford a rash of injuries like the pitching staff is already dealing with.
  • Bautista’s monster season ranks as one of the most out-of-nowhere breakouts in MLB history and the decision to sign him to a five-year, $65 million extension a year before free agency was a risk, but he doesn’t need a repeat of 2010 to justify the deal. Bautista was worth significantly more than $13 million in 2010, so even going from 54 to, say, 34 homers and maintaining most of the improved plate discipline would make him worth the money.
  • And while Bautista is almost certain to see his production decline significantly, Aaron Hill is one of the best bounceback bets around. He hit just .205, but his homer rate remained nearly the same as his 2009 breakout and his awful batting average was due to an unsustainably bad .196 mark on balls in play that ranked worst in MLB by a wide margin.

So how are they gonna do?

It’ll likely involve fewer homers and better pitching, but give or take a few games last year’s 85-77 record is a realistic expectation for the Blue Jays in 2011. The only question is whether that will put them in third place or fourth place.

Alex Rodriguez credits Tom Ricketts and Theo Epstein with Cubs’ turnaround

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 13:  Tom Ricketts, owner of the Chicago Cubs, celebrates after the Chicago Cubs defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in game four of the National League Division Series to win the NLDS 3-1 at Wrigley Field on October 13, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. The Chicago Cubs defeat the St. Louis Cardinals with a score of 6 to 4.  (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
Getty Images

It isn’t difficult to see the fingerprints left by Cubs’ president Tom Ricketts and general manager Theo Epstein on the club’s remarkable 2016 season. In a piece for, former Yankee Alex Rodriguez highlighted the duo’s effectiveness in liberating the Cubs from a five-year losing streak and six-year postseason drought, citing both the unrelenting work ethic and passion that Ricketts and Epstein brought to the club as major factors in their success.

Rodriguez’s first brush with sabermetric savant and all-around baseball wizard Theo Epstein came in 2003, when the then- 27-year-old All-Star was eyeing a deal with the Red Sox. The Major League Baseball Players Association eventually nixed the trade, and the Rangers’ young shortstop was sent to the Yankees shortly thereafter, but not before Rodriguez glimpsed the inner workings of Epstein’s mind.

What I remember best about that time was watching Theo furiously scribbling out the Red Sox lineup for the upcoming season on a room-service napkin. That’s when I saw Theo’s baseball mind at work. I saw he had a passion for the game, a depth of knowledge, and a thirst to be great. Theo’s passion was contagious. We were three 20-somethings convinced we were about to turn baseball upside down together. Though I never got a chance to work with Theo, I knew then that he was going to be a force.

A-Rod also referenced Ricketts’ thorough approach to rebuilding the organization. Ricketts, who purchased the franchise for $875 million in 2009, first made it his mission to transform Wrigley Field into a comfortable and enticing playing environment, then targeted top-tier management to run the show behind the scenes. With Ricketts fully backing Epstein’s transformative approaches — including an overhaul of the Cubs’ farm system, investments in international player development, and a comprehensive understanding and practical application of sabermetric advances — the Cubs’ path to a 97-win season in 2015 seemed a natural consequence of the pair’s hard work.

This year, the attention has been even more intensely focused on the Cubs’ elusive third World Series title. Rodriguez, however, believes that winning a championship is secondary to the strides Ricketts and Epstein have taken with the club.

Together, Ricketts and Epstein have built one of the greatest franchises in baseball and transformed 1060 W. Addison St. It’s a task that no one could quite get right for a hundred years. While four more wins would put a giant exclamation point on five years of focused work and determination, I won’t worry if this team doesn’t win the World Series in the next nine days.

Mets expected to pick up 2017 option for Jose Reyes

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 22:  Jose Reyes #7 of the New York Mets celebrates after hitting a game tying two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies Citi Field on September 22, 2016 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Mike Stobe/Getty Images
1 Comment

Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News reports that the Mets are expected to pick up the 2017 option for Reyes, but they haven’t done it yet. The option will be worth the major league minimum salary ($507,500), as the Rockies will continue to pay down the remainder of Reyes’ $41 million remaining on his contract.

The Mets signed Reyes after the Rockies released him in June. He had a .659 OPS in Colorado but improved to a .769 OPS in 279 plate appearances with the Mets, mostly playing third base in place of the injured David Wright. Bringing Reyes back next season will provide them more insurance at the hot corner.

Reyes, 33, served a 51-game suspension due to an offseason domestic violence incident while on vacation in Hawaii with his wife. As a result, he didn’t make his season debut until July 5, having spent some additional time in the minor leagues to get into game shape.