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.

Pujols has 2 more RBIs, Cardinals beat Pirates 8-7 in 10

Cincinnati Reds v St. Louis Cardinals
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PITTSBURGH – Albert Pujols drove in two more runs and the St. Louis Cardinals went on to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 8-7 in 10 innings Tuesday night.

Pujols hit a two-run single in the third inning to push his career total to 2,218 RBIs. That came a night after he broke a tie with Babe Ruth for second place on the career list. Hank Aaron holds the record with 2,287.

Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol then removed the 42-year-old Pujols at the end of the inning. St. Louis opens postseason play Friday when it hosts a best-of-three National League wild-card series.

Juan Yepez gave the Cardinals the win when he hit a tiebreaking single with one in the 10th inning off Chase De Jong (6-3) to score automatic runner Ben Deluzio.

“Tonight was interesting because you’re fairly scripted in who you want to use and who you don’t want to use and what you want tomorrow to look like so you can get ready for Friday,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “It was a good one to still figure out a way to come out on top.”

The Cardinals threw out the potential tying run at home in the bottom of the 10th when automatic runner Kevin Newman tried to score from second base on Oneil Cruz‘s line single off the glove of first baseman Alec Burleson. The ball deflected to second baseman Brendon Donovan, who threw home to catcher Andrew Knizner.

The Pirates challenged the call, but it was upheld on video review.

“I thought we were going to get it overturned,” Newman said. “I just thought he didn’t tag me until he got higher up on the body.”

It was the Pirates’ 100th loss, the second year in a row they have reached that mark.

The Cardinals got two hits each from Donovan, Corey Dickerson, Knizner and Paul DeJong.

Cruz had three hits for the Pirates and Bryan Reynolds, Rodolfo Castro, Jack Suwinski, Ke'Bryan Hayes and Ji-Hwan Bae added two apiece. Miguel Andujar drove in two runs.

Chris Stratton (10-4) pitched two scoreless innings for the win.

“They weren’t the prettiest two innings I’ve ever pitched but I got a great play from the defense in the 10th inning to help me out,” Stratton said. “It was a good play all the way around.’

Pujols’ hit put the Cardinals ahead 3-1 but the Pirates answered with six runs in the bottom of the third. Andujar’s run-scoring double highlighted an inning that includes RBI singles by Castro, Suwinski, Ben Gamel and Bae.

The Cardinals then scored four runs in the seventh inning to tie the score at 7-all. Donovan hit an RBI single, Dickerson drove in two runs with a double and the tying run scored on a throwing error by Cruz, the rookie shortstop.

Both starting pitchers lasted just 2 2/3 innings. The Cardinals’ Dakota Hudson was rocked for seven runs and nine hits while the Pirates’ JT Brubaker allowed three runs on four hits.

Brubaker was activated from the injured list before the game. He had been out since Sept. 16 with right lat discomfort.

HELSLEY HURT

Reliever Ryan Helsley, the Cardinals’ closer, left in the eighth inning with a jammed right middle finger. Helsley was injured after catching a line drive by Bae and using his hands to brace himself while dodging a piece of a broken bat.

Helsley said he expects to be ready to pitch Friday.

“I don’t think there was anything super wrong with it,” Helsley said. `Just give it some rest and let it resolve itself.”

ROSTER MOVES

The Pirates optioned right-hander Roansy Contreras to Triple-A Indianapolis to clear a roster spot for Brubaker. They also recalled infielder/outfielder Tucapita Marcano from Indianapolis and optioned catcher Jose Godoy to the same club.

PIRATES AWARDS

Center fielder Bryan Reynolds was voted the winner of the Roberto Clemente Award, emblematic of the Pirates’ MVP, by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Mitch Keller won the Steve Blass Award for best pitcher. Former infielder Michael Chavis was voted the Chuck Tanner Good Guy Award.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Cardinals: OF Tyler O'Neill (strained right hamstring) has been ruled out for the wild-card series but St. Louis is hopeful he can play in the NLDS round if it advances. . 3B Nolan Arenado (left quadriceps tightness) missed his second straight game but could play Wednesday.

UP NEXT

Cardinals: Have not decided on a starter for Wednesday, though Marmol said LHP Matthew Liberatore (2-1, 5.46) and RHP Jake Woodford (4-0, 2.33) are possibilities.

Pirates: RHP Johan Oviedo (4-3, 3.12), who was acquired from the Cardinals on Aug. 1, gets the start.