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

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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.

Ever wonder what umpires and players say to each other during arguments?

LAKELAND, FL - FEBRUARY 27:  J.D. Martinez #28 of the Detroit Tigers poses during photo day at Joker Marchant Stadium on February 27, 2016 in Lakeland, Florida.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images
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Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez was ejected by home plate umpire Mike Everitt after he struck out looking in the bottom of the sixth inning of Saturday’s game against the Angels. He had a brief conversation with Everitt, which resulted in Martinez getting ejected.

MLive.com’s Evan Boodbery spoke to Martinez about what happened and got a word-for-word recollection of what happened. If you’ve ever wondered what umpires and players say to each other during their arguments, here’s a look:

No one has ever accused umpires of having thick skin.

Martinez finished the game 1-for-3. After an 0-for-4 performance on Sunday, he’s hitting .315/.377/.561 with 18 home runs and 52 RBI in 385 plate appearances.

Josh Donaldson pads MVP case with a three-homer day

TORONTO, CANADA - AUGUST 28: Josh Donaldson #20 of the Toronto Blue Jays hits his second home run of the game in the seventh inning during MLB game action against the Minnesota Twins on August 28, 2016 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
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Reigning American League MVP Josh Donaldson padded his case for the 2016 AL MVP Award and helped the Blue Jays overcome the Twins by slugging three home runs in a come-from-behind victory on Sunday afternoon.

Donaldson broke a 1-1 tie in the third inning with a solo home run off of Twins starter Kyle Gibson. He gave the Jays a 6-5 lead in the seventh inning when he drilled a two-run home run to center field off of reliever Pat Light. And he bolstered the Jays’ lead to 9-6 in the ninth with another homer to center field off of Alex Wimmers.

Here’s video of home run number two:

After Sunday’s performance, Donaldson is hitting .294/.407/.578 with 33 home runs and 91 RBI. In the AL, Donaldson’s 6.9 WAR trails only Angels outfielder Mike Trout (7.2) according to FanGraphs. Jose Altuve, another strong candidate, is at 6.7. Mookie Betts sits at 6.5 and Manny Machado has an even 6.0.