I’ve heard a lot of people complain this offseason that the Toronto Blue Jays didn’t do enough to improve their team for 2012. Of course, these people tend to be those who believe the Jays should have thrown $300M at Pujols, $250M at Fielder, and $100M at Buerhle, but do they have a point that, on the whole, the Jays have stagnated to a detrimental degree?
The imrpovements, if any, have surely been of the smaller and more incremental variety. Primarily, the bullpen is almost completely overhauled, and it was done on the cheap. While you may think $4.5M for Francisco Cordero or Darren Oliver was too much, or that giving up prospect Nestor Molina’s potential for Sergio Santos was too hefty a price, the Jays have still revamped their bullpen to be a budget-conscious $14M unit heavy on experience. It’s also one that runs pretty deep, with some of Luis Perez, Carlos Villaneuva, Jesse Litsch, Joel Carreno, and more likely ticketed for Triple-A. $14M, I’ll remind you, is roughly what Jonathan Papelbon alone will make in the Phillies’ bullpen this year. While I find the “closer role” to be overvalued, the 2011 bullpen as a whole blew 25 saves, an area that appears set to improve with the back-end of Santos, Oliver, Cordero, Casey Jansse, Jason Frasor, and whoever fills it out.
The starting rotation, meanwhile, will look familiar. Ricky Romero and freshly-signed Brandon Morrow will anchor the group, and we’ll hope Morrow finally brings his ERA (4.72) closer in line with his FIP (3.64). Henderson Alvarez looked promising last year (3.53 ERA, 3.97 FIP) and will look to build on that, followed by a hopefully-healthy Dustin McGowan, who is likely to be on strict innings and pitch limits. The fifth and final spot appears to be an open competition between Kyle Drabek (2011′s biggest prospect fall-off), Brett Cecil (still trying to find out which Brett Cecil he wants to be), or long-shot prospect Drew Hutchinson, who has been fellated all winter long by the organization. Will this group improve on 2011′s numbers? It’s debatable, but with room for improvement in results from Morrow and Cecil, skills in Alvarez and Drabek, and opportunity in McGowan and Hutchinson, it’s certainly not a hard argument to make.
In all though, it’s difficult to surmise exactly how improved the Jays’ rotation and bullpen may be. We’ll have a better idea when spring training opens and we can see if the standard offseason tales (Cecil’s weight management, Hutchinson’s magic, Morrow’s cutter, etc) are truth or fiction.
What we can estimate with a slightly better microscope, though, is the improvement to the lineup. Hitting wasn’t exactly an issue in 2011, with the Jays finishing 6th in the MLB in runs and 11th in OPS. An issue, though, is that the Red Sox and Yankees finished ahead of them in both categories, putting the pressure on the Jays to take aim as the top offensive unit in the AL East. Is this too tall a task for a lineup with little-to-no turnover? ZIPS doesn’t think so.
ZIPS preojected the Jays hitters for 2012, and while imperfect, it’s a tool that can give us an idea of how the computer systems think the Jays’ hitters will fare. You can check the raw projections at that link, but the issue is that they predict full workloads for most players (if you totalled their projections, the Jays would take 6473 at-bats, nearly 1000 more than in 2011). So what I did was made assumptions about playing time, as outlined below, and scaled the number of at bats each player would have per the chart below (the green rows are ZIPS original projections, while blue cells are those same projections scaled for different playing time).
Playing Time Assumptions
* Eric Thames and Travis Snider would get nearly equal at bats, about 3/4 of a full workload for Snider and 2/3 for Thames. ZIPS had Thames for a full season and Snider for about 3/4, which would require one to DH full-time. Here I have assumed whoever doesn’t play LF may get some DH at-bats against righties. ZIPS also assumed some lost time for Bautista, allowing both to see some time in RF.
*Mike McCoy beats out Danny Valbuena and Omar Vizquel for the utility role.
*Rajai Davis and Ben Francisco both make the team as extra outfielders instead of an extra utility infielder, with Davis playing about twice as much but neither playing a tonne. While this may not make sense, ZIPS sees more time lost in the OF than IF, so it was an easier assumption to work with.
*Jeff Mathis is used sparringly as a back-up to J.P. Arencibia due to his anemic bat, J.P.’s youth, and the desire to see him handle a whole workload.
*No in-season call-ups or major injuries, which was just done for simplicity’s sake.
The Stats – 2012 Adjusted ZIPS Projections
|2012 – ZIPS|
The issue with these projection systems is that they rarely deviate too far from an established level of performance (i.e. they never would have predicted Bautista’s break-out, Dunn’s fall-off, etc). They’re based on component skills, opportunity, similar player profiles, aging and progression, and thousands of simulations. They can be accurate (I believe the best tools aim to predict about 70% of the annual variance in player statistics), but as I mentioned, they’re just a tool to help us here.
In this case, ZIPS sees the Jays OPSing .763, about 30 points better than last year, at a rate that would have bumped them to 6th in the MLB in 2011. Their runs total jumps 30 to 772, seeing them jump to 5th overall. These are incremental increases that still don’t see them pass Boston or New York (although I could run the analysis for those two teams as well, I’m assuming they will perform similarily to their established track records), but they close the gap. My adjustments may be flawed to some degree, as well, and therefore over- or under-count certain stats at the team level. Still, for illustrative purposes, please accept my assumptions and projections.
Of note on the team level is yet another mediocre batting average, .254 (middle of the pack), buoyed by a slight increase in OBP to .321 (middle of the pack), and an appreciable jump in slugging to .442 (would rank 4th in MLB in 2011). This isn’t really surprising given the Jays’ recent history and strategy, although it will be interesting to see if notorious swingers like Kelly Johnson, J.P. Arencibia, and Travis Snider can see an uptick in their OBP’s if Triple-A hitting coach Chad Mottola is kept up with the big club (he preaches patience in the minors, the anti-Dwayne Murphy). ZIPS sees the Jays’ somehow striking out even more than in 2011, cracking the top-5 with 1300 Ks, but also walking slightly more to balance it out (basically, ZIPS is turning the Jays into a Three True Outcomes monster, with so few balls put in play)
The key area ZIPS sees an improvement, though, is in power hitting. This may come as a bit of a shock since the Jays placed 5th in home runs in 2011, but ZIPS likes them to challenge for the league lead, even with a down year for Jose Bautista. In fact, ZIPS sees the Jays as having six 20-homer hitters (Lawrie, Lind, Rasmus, Johnson, Arencibia, Bautista), as well as a 19-homer bat (Edwin). Last year, just three Jays cracked 20 bombs (Bautista, Lind, Arencibia). Immediately, you can see the basis for the Jays’ potential improvement offensively.
The Jays will improve based on 2011 additions, not offseason additions. That is the crux of my argument for Blue Jays improvement this season. Yes, their offseason was quiet, but in 2011 they acquired Kelly Johnson (an upgrade on Aaron Hill, save for one outlier season), Colby Rasmus (an upgrade on the pu-pu platter in CF last year), and Brett Lawrie (by way of a promotion). The additional at bats from these three should yield positive returns over the 2011 outputs of Nix, McDonald, Hill, Davis, Patterson, etc.
No, ZIPS hasn’t given up on Rasmus, projecting him to be 5% better than an average offensive player (105 OPS+, before accounting for the fact that he plays a premium defensive position), and we shouldn’t either – the kid has tools for days, and has had an offseason to settle his head and recommit himself. Of course, it could all be for naught and he’s as bad as he looked last year, but I sincerely doubt it.
As for Lawrie…well, I don’t think I need to remind anyone of how hot and bothered he got us all after debuting last year. ZIPS likes him for 27 taters, 33 doubles, 10 triples, and 24 stolen bags, so uhh, yeah…try to get him on your fantasy team.
As for the Left Field issues, ZIPS likes Thames just a bit better than Snider (96 OPS+ to 89), based mostly on a few more walks and extra base hits. Neither has ample MLB data to project reliably, and I’m still firmly on Team Snider in this battle – I like Thames as an interview and as the team’s resident jack-show, but Snider has a greater pedigree and a better minor league performance at a younger age, which tends to bode better for MLB success. It’ll surely be an interesting spring training for these two.
Other notes: ZIPS sees Bautista’s OPS+ dropping to a still-unreal 158 (from 181), with only 136 games played, likely due to age concerns and a lack of a robust history to project from. I’m more optimistic. ZIPS likes Lind for a slight upgrade, Yunel for a slight downgrade, and Arencibia to be a carbon copy of 2011 J.P.
So no, the Jays didn’t sign Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, or even Carlos Beltran. They didn’t add a starter, and they went with a cheap closer with strong peripherals instead of an albatross contract waiting to happen. They didn’t add substantial pieces, but they’re banking on improvement based on acquisitions in 2011 and the development of what now ranks as a top-3 farm system in baseball. It wasn’t a sexy winter, and this still doesn’t look like an AL East divison winner, but they definitely look like a competitive team able to aim for much higher than 81-81.