2015 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 2015 season. Next up: The Toronto Blue Jays.

The Big Question: Is it going to be all-mash, no-pitching for the Blue Jays once again?

The Blue Jays made some intriguing additions this past offseason. They signed Russell Martin. They made a couple of key trades in acquiring Josh Donaldson and Michael Saunders and, according to some, made some additions by subtraction in getting rid of Colby Rasmus, Brett Lawrie and Adam Lind. Now, leaven your excitement at least a little here given that (a) Melky Cabrera also left, and he’s been a big contributor (as was Lind last year for that matter); (b) Russell Martin’s 2014 was his best offensive season ever and, coming as it did at age 31, it’s not likely to be replicated at age 32; and (c) Saunders has battled injury all spring and, frankly, all career, so expecting him to be an impact player is not the safest bet ever. But those caveats aside, this is a team that should, once again, be one of the most mash-happy offenses in baseball. As it has been for the past several years.

The knock on the Jays those past several years, however, has been that the pitching staff has been mashed in return. Toronto had one of the worst AL staffs in runs allowed and homers allowed in 2012 and 2013 and, while it took a moderate step forward in 2014, it was only moderate. And the most promising part of that improvement came from Marcus Stroman, who tore his ACL early in spring training and will be gone for the year. Add that to a bullpen which was near the bottom of the ladder last season and didn’t really improve in the offseason, and it seems like the Jays, for all of their changes, stood mostly still this past offseason.

Not that that keeps them out of contention, of course. They won 83 games last year in a league where 88 wins got you into the Wild Card Game. The AL East, as we’ve noted several times this spring, is something of a crap shoot. And, as we’ll note below, the Jays have a couple of intriguing dice they’re getting ready to roll.

But if you are a betting man, it’s hard to look at the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays and see anything radically different than what you’ve seen in the past: some big bats, some holes in the bottom of the lineup and a lot of question marks with the pitching staff. That’s the sort of thing that makes a gambler want to hedge his bets.

What else is going on?

  • The impact of the Stroman loss is so, so big. With R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle getting long in the tooth, Stroman’s electric stuff looked poised to put him at the top of the Jays’ rotation. Now his transition into ace-hood is delayed a year, and the bottom half of the Jays’ rotation is filled with uncertainty. But it’s worth noting it’s not without promise: Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris are two rookies with oodles of talent and each will get a chance to stick there all season. Still, rookies are rookies and sometimes rookies take some time to adjust. If Sanchez and Norris do — or if innings limits or what have you limit them at some point this year — the starting pitching depth available to John Gibbons is less-than-stellar.
  • The bullpen has some issues of its own. Saying bye-bye to last year’s closer Casey Janssen is no big tragedy — the guy was falling off — and replacing him with strikeout machine Brett Cecil is an upgrade. Beyond him, though, it’s not a scary bunch of relievers. Marco Estrada and even Johan Santana could be contributing here. That is if they aren’t pressed into duty as starting pitching reinforcements. Not exactly encouraging.
  • For all of the thump (Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Josh Donaldson), on-base ability (Russell Martin) and table setting skills (Jose Reyes) near the top of the order, there are some question marks farther down. Another pickup from Seattle was Justin Smoak. He and his career line of .224/.309/.380 is the starting first baseman. There is some promise at second base with Devon Travis — picked up in a steal from the Tigers last year — and center field with Dalton Pompey slated to start. But each are young and unproven, so you have to expect some sort of growing pains here.
  • Indeed, there are all kinds of youngins being paired with oldins here. Norris, Sanchez, Travis and Pompey as mentioned, but also some bullpen arms like Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro are all embarking on rookie seasons. Sometimes youth can inject vitality. Sometimes youth can induce some frustrating slaps to the head. John Gibbons’ biggest job this year will be getting out of the way of the former and limiting the damage from the latter.

Prediction: It’s not hard to write a story of the 2015 Blue Jays in which Reyes and Martin are on base for a lot of those Bautista, Encarnacion and Donaldson homers, Dickey and Buehrle show that they still have something left in the tank, the young arms of Norris and Sanchez surprise and the young bats of Travis and Pompey don’t embarrass themselves. It’s not hard to tell another story, however — a quite familiar story, actually — in which the Jays mash but the pitching stinks and they find themselves in either third or fourth place, depending on whether the Yankees crater. I’m going to take a pessimistic approach here, because the Jays have not exceeded expectations in some time and say Fourth Place, American League East. It’s up to some young guys to prove me a fool.

Yankees pound Hyun-Jin Ryu, beat Dodgers 10-2

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“We haven’t had many games like this,” Dodgers manager Dave Robert said after last night’s loss to the Yankees. That’s for sure.

There were no wild walkoff hits. There were no home runs by Dodger batters. There were two, including a grand slam, from Didi Gregorius, however, and he and New York batters pounded Hyun-Jin Ryu, perhaps the stingiest pitcher in baseball this year, for seven runs on nine hits in four and a third as the Yankees beat the Dodgers 10-2 in Dodger Stadium.

Aaron Judge, who has been slumping something terrible, opened up the scoring with a solo home run in the third. Two batters later Gary Sánchez matched him with a blast of his own. An A.J. Pollock RBI single in the bottom half of the inning made it a 2-1 game but after that the Yankees stepped on the gas with a five-run fifth highlighted by a Didi Gregorius grand slam. Gleber Torres would homer in the sixth, Judge would single home a run in the eighth and Gregorius would strike again in the ninth with a solo homer for his second blast of the night. That one gave the Yankees 57 bombs in the month of August, which sets a team record. There’s still a week left in August too.

As for the Dodgers, Ryu was uncharacteristically rusty, though it probably should be noted that this was his second poor outing in a row. struggled through his second straight sub-par outing. The last time out he lost to Atlanta. allowing all four Braves’ runs in 5 2/3 innings as the Dodgers fell 4-3. His ERA came in to this game at a still-MLB-best 1.64, but those seven runs in fewer than five — his shortest outing in nearly two months — puffed it up to an even 2.00.

The Yankees scored just nine runs in their three losses in Oakland. Last night they beat that by one. And they brought themselves to within one game of the Dodgers for the best record in all of baseball, which would determine home field in the World Series should these two powerhouses meet.

For now, though, Roberts is limiting the implications of all of this to Friday night, saying “fortunately, it only counts for one loss.” Yep. But man, it was an ugly one.