By Marc Normandin
The 2013 Blue Jays were a disaster. Many expected them to represent the American League in October thanks to their high-profile trades, but instead, they finished in last place in the AL East, with a protected draft pick as a reward for one of the game's worst records. You could see it coming if you looked past the trades and recognized there was a significant depth problem for a team with as many question marks as the 2013 Jays had.
Now, it's a new season, and the Jays' roster hasn't changed much. Josh Johnson, whom they acquired from the Marlins more than a year ago, has departed for the Padres, but Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey are still around, as is last winter's free-agent signing, Melky Cabrera. Given how 2013 went, it's understandable analysts and fans are pessimistic about the Jays heading into the new season, but it's possible this is simply an over-correction of last year's overly optimistic preseason thoughts.
While the Jays had obvious holes and question marks a year ago, there was also the potential for success. A whole lot of things went wrong for Toronto, though. Jose Bautista played in just 118 games due to a bone bruise in his hip. Reyes was limited to 93 contests after suffering an ankle sprain in April that cost him 74 days of the season. Brett Lawrie suffered a strain in his ribcage in spring training, costing him a few weeks in camp and bled into the regular season. He also spent time on the disabled list with his own ankle sprain, cutting him to just 107 games and keeping him from rebounding after 2012's tough season. Cabrera missed 72 games thanks to knee problems, and then had back surgery to remove a benign tumor that had caused him to have weakness and pain in his leg. J.P. Arencibia was allowed to collect 497 plate appearances because backstop Josh Thole, acquired along with Dickey from the Mets, failed to recover the competence of his past work, and couldn't wrest the job from Arencibia, who it turned out was in the midst of his last chance with the Jays.
Most of those were unexpected occurrences, the kind of thing you can't be too hard on the Jays about. Reyes was productive when he was on the field in the way Toronto hoped he would be, but his ankle injury kept him from being on the field enough. Bautista had generally been healthy as a regular, but 2013 marked the second year in a row he missed significant time. Lawrie had been a highly regarded prospect and was a season removed from batting .283/.373/.580 as a rookie. It wasn't hard to dismiss 2012 given the third baseman was going to be all of 23 and still likely had all that talent. While it was difficult to know what the Jays would get from the inconsistent Cabrera, they probably expected him to be sans leg-ruining tumor when they signed him to a two-year deal -- that's a reasonable expectation.
The pitching staff was far more questionable. No one knew how knuckler Dickey was going to do transitioning from the relatively tame parks and lineups of the NL East to its notoriously brutal AL cousin. Buehrle, similarly, had less success against AL East lineups than anywhere else during his otherwise productive career. Josh Johnson had pitched well in the past, but his name could only be penciled into a rotation, and after a tough 2012, so too could any projected production. Brandon Morrow had never combined talent with health -- and still hasn't -- and Ricky Romero was and still is looking like a lost cause on a major-league mound.
The lack of reliable arms was the real problem that was going to keep the Jays from being great. The lineup following suit only exacerbated the issue and fully tanked the season.
So, what's changed between last year and now? It's more difficult to believe Lawrie is going to suddenly produce, but he wouldn't be the first player to rebound after some difficult learning experiences heading into his peak years. It's fair to believe Cabrera will be better after the root of his 2013 injuries was addressed. Bautista and Reyes can be a dominating part of a lineup so long as they're on the field, and that's not an impossibility for either of them, even if it is risky. Edwin Encarnacion and his powerful bat are still around, as is Colby Rasmus and, if nothing else, his glove in center. Dioner Navarro should be a significant upgrade at catcher even if he's a disappointment -- Jays' backstops combined to bat .194/.235/.348 in 636 plate appearances last year. Similarly, while Ryan Goins' bat is lacking at the keystone, Toronto second basemen were 43 percent worse than the average offensively in 2013, batting .216/.258/.297. Adjusting for position, that's even worse than what Arencibia and crew put up. If Goins is replacement-level at the plate but excels afield, he's a massive upgrade on one of 2013's most significant issues.
It's not a perfect lineup, but it's not difficult to envision things clicking and the Blue Jays sitting among the AL's top scoring clubs. The defense should be solid as well, thanks to Goins, Reyes, Rasmus, and Lawrie. The rotation remains the major question mark.
Dickey is difficult to predict, as knuckleballers inherently are. He was significantly better in the second half of 2013, though, posting a 3.57 ERA while cutting down on the homers he allowed, and if nothing else, he is a workhorse who still managed to lead the AL in starts while tossing 224 frames, even if they were just average ones. Buehrle's ceiling at this point is likely average, but that's not a bad thing: only his position within the rotation, as the team's likely No. 2, is. Josh Johnson's brutal 16 starts of 6.20 ERA ball are gone, at least, and there's the chance Morrow is closer to his career numbers than his abysmal 2013. Kyle Drabek, who was a quality pitching prospect likely pushed to the majors too soon, has recovered from Tommy John surgery and should get a chance to stick in the bigs.
More important, though, the Jays actually have an arm worth talking about who could step in from the minors this year. It's the depth they didn't have a year ago when they needed it. Marcus Stroman could be ready early in 2014 if his debut at Triple-A is a breeze, as Double-A was before it. The 22-year-old struck out more than 10 batters per nine in the Eastern League, nearly five times as many as he walked, and while he's short for a pitcher at 5-foot-9, he has a plus slider and plus cutter, a mid-90s fastball and a changeup that could still turn out to be plus, according to Baseball America. He might just be a No. 3 starter in the end, but that's much better than what the Jays have been pulling from the minors of late, and might be better than a few of the arms currently slated for this year's rotation. If his changeup improves, he might be even better than that, but given the Jays' track record with young arms, let's keep thinking he's a 3 for now.
The offseason also isn't over: Ervin Santana remains unemployed, and the Jays have been connected to him repeatedly. The lineup has the potential in place to be special so long as it can stay healthy -- it could even weather another disappointing campaign from Lawrie so long as Reyes and Bautista combine for 300 games -- but the rotation is once again the likely downfall of the team. Adding Santana to the mix, and possibly Stroman midseason, could keep the dream that is seemingly dead alive. Like a year ago, though, it could take an awful lot of luck to make it work, and that's a dangerous game to play in baseball's toughest division, as the Blue Jays are already all too aware.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.