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.

Jim Crane thought the heat over sign-stealing would blow over by spring training

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The Astros’ sign-stealing story broke in November, a steady drumbeat of coverage of it lasted through December and into January, when Rob Manfred’s report came out about it. The report was damning and, in its wake, Houston’s manager and general manger were both suspended and then fired.

After that a steady stream of media reports came out which not only made the whole affair seem even worse than Manfred’s report suggested, but which also suggested that, on some level, Major League Baseball had bungled it all and it was even worse than it had first seemed.

Rather than Manfred and the Astros putting this all behind them, the story grew. As it grew, both the Red Sox and Mets fired their managers and, in a few isolated media appearances, Astros’ players seemed ill-prepared for questions on it all. Once spring training began the Astros made even worse public appearances and, for the past week and change, each day has given us a new player or three angrily speaking out about how mad they are at the Astros and how poorly they’ve handled all of this.

Why have they handled it so poorly? As always, look to poor leadership:

Guess not.

In other news, Crane was — and I am not making this up — recently named the Houston Sports Executive of the Year. An award he has totally, totally earned, right?