Springtime Storylines: Have Toronto Blue Jays brought in enough help for Jose Bautista?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The Toronto Blue Jays.

The Big Question: Have the Jays brought in enough help for Jose Bautista?

Several times this spring I was asked “can Jose Bautista do it again?”  The “it” being doing something like hitting 40-50 homers and leading the majors in OPS again. My answer has been “well, maybe, but if he has to do that, the Jays are screwed.”

And the thing is, he doesn’t have to do that. He has to be a great slugger in the middle of the lineup, but the plan in Toronto right now depends less on him being an MVP-caliber player again and more on some guys with good track records and/or promise, simply living up to their reputations and/or expectations. I’m talking about the additions from last season in Adam Lind, Kelly Johnson and Colby Rasmus.

Rasmus is two years removed from an .859 OPS season that had him pegged as a future megastar. Lind hit 35 homers three years ago. That same year Johnson hit 26 homers and had an .865 OPS.  While that is probably on the outer edges of Lind and Johnson’s abilities, the point here is that all three of these guys have the potential to be solid — or in Rasmus’ case more than solid — complementary pieces to a Bautista-led lineup.  And that’s before you even get to Brett Lawrie, who we’ll discuss more below.

The point here is that there is a bit of a lightning-in-a-bottle element to the Jays this season, but it’s not comprised of a bunch of unreasonable risks and expectations. In the AL East things always have to break just right. The Jays are counting on that too, but the plan this year seems decidedly less pipe-dreamish than usual. I like the looks of this team.

So what else is going on?

  • Rasmus, Lind and Johnson aside, Brett Lawrie could be the real key here. After his August call-up, he hit .293/.373/.580 with nine homers and seven stolen bases in 43 games. Everyone is talking about Bryce Harper as the brash, powerful young stud about to take over the game. Lawrie is already ahead of him on all of that.
  • The rotation is worrisome. Rickey Romero is coming off his best season and looks like a solid top-of-the-rotation guy. Brandon Morrow is always interesting and, if he can put it together, could be ace-like as well. Beyond that it’s shaky, with Brett Cecil, Dustin McGowan — who, not surprisingly, is hurt — and Henderson Alvarez. I have this feeling that the Jays will be one of those teams who are rumored to be in the market for a starter all season long.
  • Speaking of McGowan, why on Earth did he get a contract extension after missing most of three years? I thought the Jays, coming off of two of the all-time epic salary dumps in the form of Vernon Wells and Alex Rios, would have learned not to do silly things like this. Yes, I know it’s low money, but c’mon.
  • The back of the bullpen looks different. In comes Sergio Santos, who struck out 92 batters in 63 and a third innings last season. He was actually with the Jays during his days as an infielder. Also in comes Darren Oliver who had a fantastic season last year. He never played for the Blue Jays, but he actually pitched in the majors the last time the Jays won the World Series. That’s not quite a Jamie Moyer fact, but it is something.

So how are they gonna do?

If things break right — and it’s a lot of things — they could challenge 90 wins and be in the wild card conversation all year. But I worry about that rotation. Unless it’s upgraded — or unless a couple of guys greatly exceed expectations — this looks to once again be the best fourth place team in baseball.

Nationals Acquire Ryan Raburn From White Sox

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The Washington Nationals have acquired outfielder Ryan Raburn from the Chicago White Sox. Raburn had been playing at Triple-A Charlotte. He’ll be assigned to Triple-A Syracuse in the Nats organization. The Nationals will send cash or a player to be named later to the White Sox to complete the deal.

Raburn has yet to play in the majors this season. Last year he hit .220/.309/.404 with nine homers in 113 games for the Colorado Rockies. The year before that he hit an excellent .301/.393/.543 in part time play for the Indians. Over the course of his 11 year career the 36-year-old has hit .253/.317/.436, which breaks down to an OPS+ of exactly 100, which is league average. Primarily an outfielder, Raburn has played every position except shortstop and catcher in his career. He’s even pitched twice.

The Nats plans for him aren’t entirely clear, but depth it depth.

If the Tigers are sub-.500 at the end of June it’ll be fire sale time

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Jon Morosi reports that that the Detroit Tigers will make all veterans available via trade if they’re still under .500 by the end of June.

This was the position they entered the offseason with — everyone is available! — but they ended up gearing up for one more push with the core of veterans they currently employ. It was not a bad move, I don’t think. With the exception of the Indians, the AL Central is mostly down, or at least appeared to be over the winter, with the Royals in decline and the Twins and White Sox seemingly a few years away from contention. The Twins, however, have been fantastic and the Tigers have mostly underachieved.

So we’re back to this. Which veterans the Tigers can reasonably unload, however, is an open question. J.D. Martinez is in his walk year, so while tradable, he may not bring back a big return. Guys like Justin Upton, Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera either have very large contracts or no-trade protection.

The end of June is still a while from now, of course, and while the Tigers are under .500, they’re only 4.5 games behind the Twins. But they had better turn it around or else it sounds like the front office is going to turn the page.