2014 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 2014 season. Next up: The Toronto Blue Jays.

The Big Question: Isn’t doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results the definition of insanity?

That’s what Albert Einstein said, anyway. To be fair, it’s only “over again,” not “over and over again” for the Jays. Last year was the big shakeup in which they traded for R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle and signed Melky Cabrera. That didn’t work. They’re back with almost the same team for 2014, however, and are hoping that last year’s expectation — a strong team contending for the playoffs — becomes this year’s reality.

There’s reason to think that things should improve, of course, because a lot of players lost time to injury last season. Jose Bautista was the biggest blow on offense, but Jose Reyes played fewer than 100 games too. The pitching staff was even more decimated with injuries, as 13 different men started games for Toronto last season, and only R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle pitched more than 20. But it wasn’t just injuries here. Dickey and Buehrle both posted below average ERAs, as did every other starter (we call that “The Reverse Woebegone”). Overall the Jays’ rotation ranked 14th in the AL in ERA.

The Jays are going into 2014 with basically the same pitching staff and most of the same offense. If Bautista, Reyes and the other 3/5 of the rotation can stay healthy — and if Dickey and Buehrle can simply pitch better — things should improve. But they finished 23 games back, and there is little if any reason to believe that even a healthier Blue Jays team can improve by anything close to that many games. They needed more than better health heading into this season. They didn’t get it.

What else is going on?

  • The bullpen isn’t bad. A lot of teams would like to have Casey Janssen,Sergio Santos and Steve Delabar in the late innings. They and their friends in the Jays’ relief corps were overworked last season, however, and the pressure is on the starting rotation to take the pressure off the pen.
  • The worst player on the Jays last year — and maybe the worse in all of baseball — was J.P. Arencibia. He’s gone, Dioner Navarro is in and even if Navarro comes nowhere close to his flukey .300/.365/.492 13 HR season from last year, catcher should not be a black hole like it was a season ago.
  • Edwin Encarnacion, hit 36 homers last season while walking 82 times and striking out only 62 times. In this age of whiffs, that’s a pretty damn amazing accomplishment.
  • The rotation, should it need reinforcements, may include Marcus Stroman at some point this season. He was the Jays’ first round pick in 2012 and struck out 129 guys in 111.2 innings at Double-A last season.

Prediction: They could be better, but I doubt it’ll be anywhere near better enough to contend. Fifth Place, AL East.

Astros push ALCS to Game 7 with 7-1 stunner against Yankees

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There’s just something about playing in your home ballpark. The Astros decimated the Yankees at Minute Maid Park on Friday, riding seven scoreless innings from Justin Verlander and a pair of big runs from Jose Altuve to win 7-1 and force a Game 7 in the American League Championship Series.

Through the first four innings, however, the teams looked equally matched. Luis Severino no-hit the Astros through 3 2/3 innings, losing his bid on Carlos Correa‘s line drive single in the fourth. The Astros returned in the fifth to do some real damage, drawing two walks and plating the first run of the night with Brian McCann‘s ground-rule double off of the right field wall. Things didn’t get any easier for Severino. Jose Altuve lined a two-RBI base hit into left field, upping Houston’s advantage to three runs.

Verlander, meanwhile, muted the Yankees’ offense with seven innings of five-hit, eight-strikeout ball. While he didn’t come close to matching his complete game effort in Game 2, he was still plenty dominant against a struggling New York lineup. No player reached past first base until the sixth inning, when a pair of base hits from Chase Headley and Didi Gregorius gave the Yankees their first runner in scoring position. That didn’t last long, though, as Gary Sanchez grounded out on a 3-0 slider to end the inning.

In the seventh, Houston’s ace got into another spot of trouble. He walked Greg Bird on six pitches to start the inning, then plunked Starlin Castro on the wrist. Aaron Hicks struck out, in part thanks to a questionable call by home plate umpire Jim Reynolds, but it was Todd Frazier who presented the biggest threat after returning an 0-1 fastball for a 403-foot fly out to left field. Luckily for Verlander, George Springer was there to bail him out with a leaping catch at the wall.

The Yankees kept things exciting in the eighth, too. Aaron Judge ripped his third postseason home run off of Brad Peacock, taking a 425-footer out to the train in left field to spoil the Astros’ shutout. That was the only real break the Yankees got, however, as Altuve, Alex Bregman and Evan Gattis returned in the bottom of the inning to tack on another four runs, including Altuve’s solo shot off of David Robertson:

Ken Giles handled the ninth, expending 23 pitches and giving up a base hit and a walk before retiring Frazier and Headley to end the game. Thanks to Houston’s winning efforts, the two teams will compete in their first seven-game Championship Series since 2004 — and this time, at least one of them is guaranteed to come away with a win.

Game 7 of the ALCS is set for Saturday at 8:00 PM ET. Houston right-hander Charlie Morton (14-7, 3.62 ERA) is scheduled to face southpaw CC Sabathia (14-5, 3.69 ERA).