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.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Indians 12, White Sox 0: The Indians gave Corey Kluber 12 runs of support which, c’mon, that’s a bit of overkill, innit? To make it fair they should be forced to begin all Corey Kluber starts with, like, negative three runs. Or make him pitch with his left hand or something. As it was, he allowed one hit over seven shutout innings. Jason Kipnis and Jose Ramirez each homered and drove in three. The entire Cleveland team was then referred to The Hague for crimes against compassion.

Yankees 7, Mariners 5: Seattle had to feel pretty dang good being up 5-0 after their half of the fifth inning. They shouldn’t have. New York clawed back with two on an Aaron Judge RBI single in the bottom half, got one more with a Didi Gregorius sac fly in the seventh and then Gary Sanchez tied things up with a two-run shot in the eighth. Then, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and extras looming, Gregorius reached base and Giancarlo Stanton reached for the lumber:

Ballgame.

Note: if you get annoyed at the concept of who is a “True Yankee” and who is not a “True Yankee” or the larger notion that players who join the Yankees don’t really become part of the team until they’ve delivered some sort of signature moment, you may want to avoid all coverage of the Yankees today, because it’s only 6:30AM and I’ve already seen like five different articles and video features playing that jazz.

Blue Jays 5, Braves 4: J.A. Happ‘s audition for contending teams continued, as he wins his fifth straight start, almost going the distance in doing so. He wasn’t sparkling — he allowed four runs and six hits — but he didn’t walk anyone and struck out eight dudes. Between that and the long start, it’s as if Toronto is showcasing him in a window display with the words “traditional workhorse, nothing flashy but built solidly” written on the glass. “Go ahead, take him for a spin,” the salesman says. “I’ll be talking to my manager to see if I can get you his best deal!”

Phillies 4, Cardinals 3Odubel Herrera hit a go-ahead solo home run off of Cardinals reliever Sam Tuivailala in the bottom of the seventh inning and the bullpen actually showed up to hold that lead, allowing the Phillies to go home with the W. Herrera has now homered in four consecutive games and in five of his last six. Which, if my experience with Philly talk radio is still up-to-date, means that only 60% of the callers will be complaining about Herrera’s “work ethic” and “hot dogging” today instead of the usual 85%.

Cubs 4, Dodgers 0: Jon Lester was fantastic, twirling seven shutout innings. Kyle Schwarber went deep and a couple of RBI singles and a fielder’s choice later this one was in the books. Javier Baez had two doubles and a triple, scored a run, stole a base and flashed some decent leather. He just needed to get hit by a pitch and, I dunno, sing the National Anthem to fill up every column of the scorecard. They have that on the scorecard, right?

Reds 5, Tigers 3: The Tigers led early and held the Reds to only two singles for the first five innings, but back-to-back homers from Scooter Gennett and Eugenio Suarez, followed by a later dinger by Adam Duvall, put Cincy over. Tyler Mahle won his fourth start of the month. It’s not a riveting competition, but he’s been the Reds’ best starter this year.

Athletics 12, Padres 4: Petco Park in San Diego is known as a pitcher’s park, but the ball flies there during day games before that marine layer rolls in. That was the case yesterday as the A’s hit five homers, going back-to-back twice. Franklin Barreto, Josh Phegley, Mark CanhaMatt Olson and Jed Lowrie all went deep for Oakland. Barreto and Phegley went back-to-back in the second, each hitting their first dinger of the season. Canha and Olson went back-to-back in the third.

Giants 6, Marlins 5Brandon Belt had three hits Gorkys Hernandez hit a two-run single during San Francisco’s five-run sixth inning and no one threw at anyone and no benches cleared. How refreshing. The Marlins behaved themselves and it’s almost as if the Giants realized that it’s not worth getting players injured just to protect the misguided notions of honor espoused by notorious red-ass Hunter Strickland.

Orioles 3, Nationals 0: Andrew Cashner and four relievers combined on a five-hit shutout and Mark Trumbo hit a two-run blast. There was a long rain delay here which chased Cashner after four and, if it had been longer and wetter, might’ve washed out the game entirely before it was official. The Baseball Gods have not smiled on the O’s much this year, but they at least did them this one solid and let this one resume.

Twins 4, Red Sox 1: Lance Lynn allowed only an unearned run in five innings and four relievers allowed the Red Sox bupkis over the final four. Max Kepler hit a two-run homer, Robbie Grossman hit a solo shot and Brian Dozier doubled in a run. The Twinkies have won four of five.

Astros 5, Rays 1: Charlie Morton allowed only an unearned run in six innings and three relievers allowed the Rays bupkis over the final three. Jose Altuve hit a homer, Jose Altuve also hit a solo shot and George Springer and Alex Bregman each homered. The Astros have won four of five.

Yeah, the games sometimes blend together for me. Sorry.

Rangers 3, Royals 2Austin Bibens-Dirkx — pitching to similarly hyphenated catcher Isiah Kiner-Falefa — pitched excellently into the seventh inning and Rougned Odor homered to give the Rangers their fifth straight win. The Royals lose for ninth straight time.

Rockies 10, Mets 8: Same score as Tuesday night. In this one New York led 3-0 at one point but such leads are meaningless at Coors Field, especially early. After blowing that they led once again — 8-6 in the fifth — but Ryan McMahon‘s three-run homer put the Rockies back on top to stay. These two teams have combined for 50 runs in three games. They still have one more to play in this series today. Everyone be aware of the location of your nearest fallout shelter.

Brewers vs. Pirates — POSTPONED:

The rain is falling through the mist
Of sorrow that surrounded me.
The sun could never thaw away
The the bliss that lays around me.

Let it rain, let it rain,
Let your love rain down on me.
Let it rain, let it rain,
Let it rain, rain, rain.