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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.

Brandon Belt signs $6.2 million deal, avoiding arbitration with Giants

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In a last-second compromise before a scheduled heading today, first baseman Brandon Belt and the Giants have avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year, $6.2 million deal.

Belt requested $7.5 million and the Giants countered at $5.3 million, so they’ve settled slightly on the team-friendly side of the midpoint. Belt will be arbitration eligible again next season for the final time before hitting the open market as a free agent.

He’s coming off a very good season in which he hit .280 with 18 homers and an .834 OPS in 137 games and Belt has a lifetime .803 OPS through age 27, making him one of MLB’s most underrated all-around first baseman.

Orioles sign ex-Padres reliever Dale Thayer

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Right-hander Dale Thayer and the Orioles have agreed to a minor-league contract that includes an invitation to spring training.

Thayer had a rough 2015 season for the Padres, posting a 4.06 ERA and spending time in the minors, but he was a solid part of San Diego’s bullpen from 2012-2014 with a combined 3.02 ERA and 173/50 K/BB ratio in 188 innings.

At age 35 there’s no guarantee that Thayer will look good enough to claim a spot on the Opening Day roster, but he’s got a strong chance to wind up pitching middle relief for Baltimore.

Phillies acquire Taylor Featherston from Angels

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Taylor Featherston, who was designated for assignment by the Angels last week, has been traded to the Phillies for a player to be named later or cash.

Featherston stayed in the majors with the Angels for all of last season due to being a Rule 5 pick from the Rockies organization, but the 25-year-old infielder hit just .162 in 169 plate appearances.

He’s been much better in the minors, but nothing about his track record there screams quality regular and the Phillies are likely viewing him as a defense-first bench option for now.

Keith Law: The Braves have the best farm system in baseball

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Flags fly forever! Hooray for The Process championship!

Ah, sorry. This is about as much rooting as I’ll get to do this year, so cut me some slack.

This is the week when ESPN’s Keith Law releases his prospect and farm system rankings. He kicks off his content this week with a top-to-bottom ranking of all 30 farm systems. As a rule he limits his analysis to players who are currently in the minors and who have not yet exhausted their rookie of the year eligibility. The top system: the Atlanta Braves. The bottom: the Los Angeles Angels, about whom Law says “I’ve been doing these rankings for eight years now, and this is by far the worst system I’ve ever seen.” Enjoy Mike Trout, though, you guys.

If you want to know the reasons and the rankings of everyone in between you’ll have to get an ESPN Insider subscription. Sorry, I know everyone hates to pay for content on the Internet, but Keith and others who do this kind of work put a lot of damn work into it and this is what pays their bills. I typically don’t like to pay for content myself, but I do pay for an ESPN Insider subscription. It’s worth it for Law’s work alone. And though he drives me crazy sometimes, Buster Olney’s daily column/notes thing is also worth the money over the course of the year.