The Toronto Blue Jays aren’t all that different than the Baltimore Orioles coming into 2011. They both are more or less overlooked (even the O’s get more hype than the Jays), both are relying on a young, unproven staff, and both are coming into Spring Training with a new(ish) manager. The bullpen is going to be a strength after losing Kevin Gregg (you’re welcome), with the additions of Jon Rauch, Octavio Dotel, and Chad Cordero. However, that is where the similarities stop. While the Orioles will be relying on young players in the field with the exception of Derrek Lee (if he ever happens to take the field) and Luke Scott (if he can straighten out his swing), Toronto has a few more reliable commodities to count on to make an impact. Mind you, this does not mean that they are high-producing players- but you know what you are going to get. Remember, this team still went 85-77 last season in this ultra-competitive division. The Blue Jays will get overlooked, but they aren’t going to be an easy out.
The starting rotation looks rather familiar to O’s fans, as it relies on promising young arms, but those arms outperformed the Orioles pitchers last season, at least on paper. Maryland product Brett Cecil continued from his promising rookie year en route to a 4.22 ERA in 28 starts, and Brandon Morrow emerged as a strong power thrower with 178 strikeouts in just 146.1 innings. And I haven’t even gotten to Ricky Romero, who has emerged as the ace of the staff after improving across the board in his second season in the majors. They traded Shaun Marcum, the lone veteran on the staff, to Milwaukee in the offseason, and didn’t add anyone to bolster their rotation- though star prospect Kyle Drabek (the jewel of the Roy Halladay trade) should be ready to take his spot. This unheralded group is going to be dangerous if they can all stay healthy, despite a battle in camp for the 5th starter spot. From the sounds of it, they will be in good shape whether they go with star or Jo-jo Reyes or Marc Rzepczynski and will be deep enough to handle an injury or two. There is no #1 slam-dunk ace on the staff, but there are enough twos and threes to put together a strong season.
New Toronto manager John Farrell wants to have clearly defined roles for his relievers (despite evidence that roles don’t matter), and he will have his pick of a number of solid options. They managed to sign veterans Octavio Dotel, Jon Rauch, and Chad Cordero to bolster an already solid group that included Jason Frasor and David Purcey. The fact is, the Blue Jays will be able to have confidence in whoever gets the ball in the 7th or 8th inning, and will have depth at AAA to bring up in case of injuries. Rauch performed very well as a closer last year in Minnesota, and again, while the bullpen has no singular star, they have plenty of solid role players.
And now we finally get to the lineup. J.P. Arencibia will be a drag on the lineup after John Buck left in free agency as a surprisingly good hitting catcher. Arencibia is still young, and at 24 has plenty of time to grow into his role. But a decent hitting catcher is tough to find, and the Blue Jays won’t have one this year. They gave up the overpaid Vernon Wells and got back about the same amount of production (almost) in Juan Rivera, but that may not have been the biggest move. Rajai Davis will be quite the pickup if he can steal 50 bases like he did last season while playing a strong defensive center field; he will be a test for Matt Wieters to catch stealing. Scott Podsednik could be a nice addition, but I wonder how much he will be able to play and whether he will look more like he did late in the season in LA when he struggled or early on putting up strong numbers in Kansas City. Overall the team didn’t add much (Corey Patterson competing for a roster spot doesn’t inspire much confidence), but will instead be relying on Juan Bautista to keep up his statistical anomaly of the decade season from 2010, when he led the league in home runs with a whopping 54. At the same time they will be hoping for Adam Lind and Aaron Hill to return to form after a dismal 2010.
The biggest thing the Jays offense have going for them is their power, with a number of players not named Jose Bautista very able to hit the long ball. Last season the team had 8 players hit at least 14 home runs- new starting right fielder Travis Snider hit 14 in just 82 games as a 22-year old, and will finally be given the chance to see what he can do with a full season in the majors. However, of those 8 players 4 are gone, and it has yet to be seen whether their replacements can duplicate that power. Juan Rivera will help, but new starters Yunel Escobar and others will have to pick up the slack.
The offense will struggle at times, but may also be more balanced with some speed added to the lineup. The pitching staff will likely have one of their young guns (Romero) seize the role of ace for the next several years, and the bullpen will be solid. Again, everything on this team is good, but nothing about it is great. The offense is actually average at best. However, they will not be an easy out for any team this year. Their record was inflated last year as a result of Bautista’s home run total which is bound to come a bit back to Earth this season. One or more of Toronto’s young pitchers won’t be able to continue their unabated improvement of recent years and take a step back, which is always a risk with a rotation that reliant on youth. With their emphasis on rebuilding I expect the Blue Jays to field an unremarkable but competitive team that hovers around .500 and will likely finish slightly below that by the end of the year. In the AL East, it’s becoming clear that for the Orioles there will be no easy division games.