I’ve been thinking about the Jays recent upgrades lately (who hasn’t?), and wondering about where they stand relative to the rest of the AL East. These deals aren’t made in a vacuum: the Jays want to be more competitive, and their main obstacles to getting better are the four other teams in the AL East.
The offseason just began and some teams, like the SFG and DET, are just catching their breath. Also, the free agent season is barely under way. Teams are talking to free agents and free agents are considering different teams, while each tries to assess whether the other is a good fit. In addition to these factors, the Winter Meetings are a week and a half away.
For these reasons and a host of others, the question posed in the title is a difficult one to answer because it’s premature. Still, there’s good value just in asking the question. Opinions about where the Jays stand (relative to the AL East; relative to their deeply disappointing 2012) are pretty sharply divided.
The initial reaction to the blockbuster deal with the Miami Marlins was predictable: finally, we thought, the Jays have made a substantial change to the team in order to be more competitive. Heading into the 2012 season with two very young pitchers (Drabek; Hutchison), an unproven #2 (Morrow), and an underdeveloped #3 (Alvarez) proved to be disastrous. Injuries to three of them, and poor performances from the other two contributed to a 73-win season.
Injuries (Bautista; Arencibia; Lawrie; Rasmus; Encarnacion) and poor performances (Lind; Johnson; Lawrie; Escobar) also played a role. Good performances by some players (Encarnacion; Rajai) were overwhelmed. These, coupled with unnecessary distractions (Lawrie; Escobar), resulted in a 73-win season and, as we’ve seen, a host of changes. [This is just a rabbit trail, but are you as intrigued as I am at HOW the changes occurred? John Farrell wasn’t fired, Lind wasn’t released, Escobar was a footnote in a major trade, and the Jays have made a slew of unpredictable moves (Melky; Izturis; etc.). It’s fascinating.]
How do the Blue Jays’ recent upgrades stack up against what we’ve seen from NY, BOS, BAL, and TB over the last few seasons? Let’s consider each of them individually.
Five pitchers in their ‘pen had career years. Joe Saunders pitched well. Rookie Wei-Yin Chen was terrific. Tillman, Gonzalez and Hammel all pitched pretty well.
Everything, and I mean everything, went BAL’s way for them to make the playoffs. When someone was hurt, someone who produced replaced him. When a significant change was made (Markakis to the top of the order; Reynolds to 1B), it worked. Adam Jones had a career year. Chris Davis had a career year. 19 year-old Manny Machado showed his potential and contributed meaningfully. Matt Wieters is the real deal.
They will look to improve by filling holes and gaps with good players in cost-effective ways. One question that the ’13 season will answer is, ‘were the 2012 Orioles for real, or were they the result of so many unpredictable factors?’ I suspect it’s the latter. Run differentials of +7 don’t often translate into 90+ wins.
The Red Sox imploded at the end of ‘11 and made a host of changes (notice how differently their changes were handled), and they finished last in the division in ‘12. Owing to the nature of their collapse and their injury issues, I wasn’t surprised. Several things weren’t predictable, though, like blockbuster trade with the LAD and sub-par performances by front-line starters Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.
Hiring John Farrell as their new skipper to replace Bobby Valentine is a move that has some Blue Jay supporters snickering, albeit very quietly. The Red Sox still have a lot of talent. How will they use this talent? The scuttlebutt is that John Farrell was brought in to deal with the residual clubhouse/personnel issues and the pitching problems. If that’s the case, then it’s a lead pipe cinch that they won’t trade key pitchers. Given his track record in ‘dealing’ with clubhouse problems in TOR, I’d say that there might be more turbulence in their future. One significant item in their favour is that the trade with the LAD freed up substantial resources, which they’ve demonstrated that they’re prepared to use to improve.
Two significant changes were made before last season: the Bombers shipped Jesus Montero and others to SEA for Michael Pineda and others; and they signed veteran Hiroki Kuroda. Kuroda pitched very well but Pineda was hurt, and didn’t pitch at all. Yes, Pettitte was re-signed and pitched well but he didn’t pitch very much, and the NYY drama queen is still deciding whether he will pitch in 2013.
They’re always looking improve because they like it on top. They spend a lot of time on top because they acquire top-flight talent. Top-flight talent likes it in NY because they pay well and they win a lot. ‘Round and ‘round it goes. They won the division, but looked like an old team when they faced DET in the playoffs. Who knows how well Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter will recover from their injuries? Expect the Yankees to re-load (they’ve already re-signed Kuroda), using their significant resources (the YES network generates more revenue than most teams in MLB, and it’s just the entertainment and broadcasting wing of the Yankees empire…), to sign players to one-year deals (so as to avoid the 2014 luxury tax threshold). It’s easy to imagine NY signing a player like Josh Hamilton to a huge one-year deal.
Perhaps the most consistently surprising team in the AL East has the strongest management team. Anyone who can identify talent as they do, then translate that talent into yearly contention deserves our admiration. Seriously, is anyone surprised that Fernando Rodney had a career year? Evan Longoria missed most of 2012, but they still competed until the very end.
They like to keep their payroll low, so they won’t likely be big players in the free agent market. That said, they have the means to sign low-cost players and coax terrific years out of them. Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman are top-notch talent evaluators, who get the most out of what they have, and what they have is considerable. Their biggest concerns are offense and returning to form defensively. The offense can be boosted by one or two (1B; DH) key acquisitions. Expect them to contend, unless they experience a rash of season-ending injuries or Joe Maddon decides to pursue some as-yet-unknown, life-long dream, like being a world tiddlywinks champion. Still, Dave Martinez would jump in and they’d still be in the mix.
Is this overwhelming? No. As a matter of fact, the Jays seem well positioned to make some noise. Sure, it hinges on a lot of things, but when doesn’t a successful run hinge on a lot of things? Players need to be healthy and perform to their capabilities. Managers need to make good decisions and manage the team well. General managers need to make the requisite moves to improve the team, whether by addition or subtraction. Then there are the innumerable other factors that need to go just right…
During the press conference when John Gibbons was introduced as the Blue Jays’ manager, Alex Anthopoulos stated very clearly that they would continue to look into improving the team. They have surplus in several areas, most notably at C, which leads to some healthy speculation. However, even if they don’t acquire anyone else before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, there are good reasons to believe that they are in a (much) better position to contend than they were at the beginning of the 2012 season. Part of the reason is that the Jays are poised to usurp a position traditionally reserved for AL East ‘Big Guns’, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Why? The Jays have higher-quality players on the roster than they did before the ’12 season started.