2013 Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

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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 2013 season. Up next: The Toronto Blue Jays.

The Big Question: The Blue Jays went for it this offseason. They gonna get it?

There’s every reason to think so. Look, normally I don’t look too kindly on assuming 20-win swings by any given team from year to year, but in 2013, in the AL East as currently constructed, and with all of the moves the Blue Jays made, I don’t think it’s irrational to think they can do it.

You don’t need me to recap the dramatic changes the Jays made this offseason, but I will anyway: They picked up Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Melky Cabrera and R.A. Dickey and gave up little if anything that would have helped the 2013 team. What’s more, they will be getting Jose Bautista back for a full season and can expect improvement from young players like Brett Lawrie and (maybe, because we’ve been saying this for years) Colby Rasmus. The rotation went from a flaming crater to a team strength and everyone else who was already there save Edwin Encarnacion can be expected to either be healthier or to improve. Most things went wrong for this team in 2012. It won’t take miracles for most things to improve. Even cautiously optimistic projections for this roster make them a strong, strong team. If some things break right, well, it’s a darn good team.

But the biggest reason why I think the Jays have a good shot at taking the AL East is that there simply is no alpha team in this division at the moment.  The Yankees are probably gonna be better than the current gloom-and-doom surrounding them would have you believe, but they are not the 2012 Yankees and, for the first month or two of the season before they get some injured players back, they may be way worse than that.  The Red Sox are in transition. The Rays lost James Shields and always operate on thin margins. The Orioles are no longer doormats, but they got an awful lot of good luck last year.

The Blue Jays can win this division because they got a lot better over the winter. But they can also win this division because no one else did, and because anyone can win this division. And anyone can probably finish fifth, with the spread between first place and fifth place being a relatively small number of games compared to the way these things usually go. Any person who tells you that they have some certainty about that to the contrary is full of it.

So what else is going on?

  • Not that there is reason for unbridled optimism. All of the additions contain some bit of risk. We probably saw the best R.A. Dickey will ever pitch last year. He’s 38. It’s possible that he found some new kung-fu that will help him be an elite pitcher well into his 40s, but it’s more likely that he takes a step back. Buehrle is still only 34, but he has a lot more mileage on the odometer than most 34 year-olds. Josh Johnson has been a mess of injuries for year. Rickey Romero is way better off being a back of the rotation risk than a front of the rotation risk but he’s been a hot mess this spring. On paper the Jays really turned that rotation over, but in practice there is risk here.
  • The back end of the bullpen is something of a question mark. Casey Janssen is just now getting game action in Dunedin thanks to collar bone surgery in the offseason and Sergio Santos’ 2012 season ended early due to shoulder surgery.  Darren Oliver is 146 years-old. Again, good on paper — I like Janssen a lot — but  it could go sideways in practice. Which doesn’t make it a liability. It’s an uncertainty, the kind of which goes to why one does not hand the Jays the AL East now.
  • Melky Cabrera has a lot to prove. He had two great seasons at an age when you can expect a player with promise to take a step forward, but then he tested positive for testosterone last year. Now everyone wants to forget that Cabrera had such promise when he broke in, claiming he was a marginal-at-best talent then and a PED-fueled fraud now. In the public relations arena Cabrera can’t win. If he hits again people will just claim he’s on PEDs and continue to believe he’s a fraud. If he falters, even a little, people will nod their heads in a self-satisfying fashion. Thing is, though, the public relations arena doesn’t matter. Cabrera could be the bargain pickup of the offseason if even approaches the production he provided in San Francisco and Kansas City.
  • John Gibbons is back. I always find it weird when a guy manages a team, leaves, and then comes back and manages the same team. The Blue Jays have done that twice now, with Cito Gaston and now Gibbons. If Gibbons screws up I predict either Jimmy Williams or Bobby Cox to return. And that’s just because Bobby Mattick and Roy Hartsfield are dead.

So how are they gonna do?

First place, American League East. Because fewer things have to break just right for that to happen to this bunch than for any other team in the division.

Giancarlo Stanton will defend his Home Run Derby title

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The Marlins announced on Sunday that outfielder Giancarlo Stanton will defend his Home Run Derby title when the city of Miami host’s the All-Star Game festivities next month.

Stanton, 27, defeated Todd Frazier in the finals of last year’s Home Run Derby at Petco Park, hitting 20 home runs to Frazier’s 13. Stanton hit a total of 61 home runs in the Derby. This will be the third Home Run Derby in which Stanton has participated.

Stanton also went 1-for-3 with a solo home run to help the Marlins defeat the Cubs 4-2 on Sunday. He’s now batting .274/.357/.551 with 20 home runs and 49 RBI in 311 plate appearances.

Aaron Hicks to go on the disabled list with an oblique injury

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Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks left Sunday’s game against the Rangers after four innings due to soreness in his right oblique. After the game, Hicks said he expects to go on the 10-day disabled list and miss the next three to four weeks, MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch reports.

Hicks was 1-for-2 with a single before departing on Sunday. He entered the game batting .288/.397/.515 with 10 home runs and 37 RBI in 198 plate appearances. It is by far the best season of his career.

Jacoby Ellsbury is on his way back from a concussion, so the Yankees will only have to bridge the gap in center field for a week or two. Mason Williams could draw some starts in center field in the meantime.