Friday, March 30, 2012

30 Teams in 30 Days: Toronto Blue Jays (Part 1)

2011 Record: 81 - 81, Fourth in AL East.

Key Additions: Sergio Santos (P), Francisco Cordero (P), Ben Francisco (OF), Jason Frasor (P), Aaron Laffey (P), Jeff Mathis (C), Darren Oliver (P), Omar Vizquel (IF), Brian Bocock (SS), Kyle Phillips (P), Nelson Figueroa (P), Luis Valbuena (IF)

Subtractions: Shawn Camp (P), Jesse Carlson (P), Frank Francisco (P), Jon Rauch (P), Brad Mills (P), Adam Loewen (OF), Jose Molina (C), Brian Tallet (P), Mark Teahen (IF), Dewayne Wise (OF), PJ Walters (P), Nestor Molina (P)

2012 Outlook: Could there be a better, more exciting time to be a fan of any other franchise than the Toronto Blue Jays? The Jays have gone back to their roots when they announced new uniforms, going “Back to Blue,” to the delight of fans everywhere. They have the reigning 2-time MLB Home Run Champ in Jose Bautista. They are likely the team that may benefit most from the addition of a second wild card, and despite playing in the AL East, notorious for being the toughest division in all of baseball, the Blue Jays have quietly become everyone’s favorite underdog. After shedding all of the bad contracts that AA inherited, and building a farm system that is among the highest ranked in all of baseball, many baseball insiders believed that the Blue Jays were on the cusp of contending, which lead many fans and insiders alike to believe this was the Blue Jays offseason to finally spend big, and make a run for the postseason.

The Blue Jays offseason needs were obvious. A premier bat to fit into the 3-4 hole, a frontline starter, and an overhaul of the bullpen would put the Jays into contention, and as if fate had intertwined, the offseason free agent market was a perfect storm to answer the Blue Jays needs. Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder were two of the finest hitters in the National League over the past five years, and would’ve easily slotted into the Jays lineup with amazing results. Yu Darvish, the young Japanese phenom, was all but officially announced as a Blue Jay hours before the official bidding results were released, only for him to be snatched out of the welcoming arms of Jays fans by the Texas Rangers. The loss ignited a powder keg of frustrations among the Blue Jays fanbase, as hope turned to anger, and patience turned to distrust as fans began to question the ownership and leadership of the Blue Jays all leading into the State of the Franchise event. Was Rogers willing to spend the money necessary to win? Would Alex Anthopoulos ever be able to bring himself to sign a big free agent and give up the necessary draft picks? Was the plan to rebuild the Jays really working? Some “fans” showed up to the State of the Franchise event, and let their frustrations be known, but for most, hearing what Alex Anthopoulos, Paul Beeston, and John Farrell had to say mellowed most out enough to continue with the offseason.

The one thing the Blue Jays did do, was to complete an almost total overhaul of the bullpen after it turned out that it was not the strength many thought it to be last spring. Alex did so by signing veteran relievers Darren Oliver and Francisco Cordero, and by trading for the Jays closer of the future in Sergio Santos, who will be under team control until 2017. Santos was previously a part of the Blue Jays system as a shortstop, but struggled until the Chicago White Sox converted him to a pitcher in the spring of 2009. The benefit of that late transition is that he still has thrown a relatively small amount of innings and his arm should be in great condition with limited wear, and he has already shown that he can be highly effective, saving 30 games for the White Sox in 2011. Again, Alex Anthopoulos has shown how effective he can be, as he turned one of the Jays apparent weak spots into yet another area of strength, as now the Jays starters should feel more comfortable turning the game over to the bullpen with a lead, and despite not adding any big name free agent batters, the Blue Jays should have a lot more leads to turn over this year as well.

While many wanted the Jays to spend, in reality, the need to spend wasn’t there. Last season the Blue Jays seemed to have a new third baseman every month. Jayson Nix, Edwin Encarncion, and Jose Bautista all spent time at the hot corner, among others, and with the exception of Bautista, the offensive output was relatively lacking, and then the Blue Jays Nation welcomed Brett Lawrie to The Show and things quickly turned around as Lawrie posted a .293 avg with 9 home runs, 26 runs scored, 7 stolen bases, and 25 RBI in 161 plate appearances. To say that things at the hot corner have already improved is an understatement. In a similar vein the Blue Jays were able to acquire from a young, very high upside, center fielder in Colby Rasmus, who despite not finishing the season on as bright a note as Lawrie, is expected to be a big part of Toronto’s future.

In a bid to shake things up, Alex Anthopoulos also flipped Aaron Hill and John McDonald to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for Kelly Johnson, who can hopefully rebound and be a bright spot near the top of the Blue Jays lineup, and possibly play up to the level Aaron Hill once did. All things considered, the Blue Jays finished sixth in runs scored in the MLB last year, and with the addition of full seasons from Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, and Kelly Johnson that number should only improve, which should lead to more leads late in the game, which when turned over to the bullpen, results in more saves, and in turn, more wins for the Blue Jays who still have the enviable tasks of likely having to win at least 90 games, if they want a shot at the postseason, even with the addition of a second wild card spot.

Part 2 of the Toronto Blue Jays season preview is coming soon!

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