The Toronto Blue Jays were expected to be one of the league’s top teams last season. The blockbuster trade with the Miami Marlins that included Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle plus the big trade with the Mets that gave the Jays R.A. Dickey led to a massive overreaction in the betting market. The Blue Jays fell very short of expectations with a 74-88 record in a season where oddsmakers put their win total at 87.5.
The Jays were never able to overcome a 10-17 month of April and a 30-46 record in the American League East was the worst record in that division by six games. The top four teams in the division combined to win 359 games, which meant that somebody had to lose. That team was the Blue Jays. They finished three games worse than their Pythagorean Win-Loss mark of 77-85. Only the White Sox and Astros had fewer road wins.
It wasn’t all lofty expectations and performance issues that hampered the Blue Jays. Health was a concern as well. Several players missed a month or more, including Jose Bautista, Brandon Morrow, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, Melky Cabrera, and Sergio Santos. Rajai Davis and Edwin Encarnacion also missed time and R.A. Dickey spent most of the first half of the season dealing with neck and back issues.
The Blue Jays are a different team at full strength, there’s no question about that. This is a team that hit 185 home runs and stole 112 bases last season, so their offense should have put together a better performance. In all honesty, it’s hard to see why the Blue Jays struggled so much. Their strikeout and walk rates were right around league average and low batting average on balls in play can be attributed to the fact that home runs don’t count towards BABIP. The Blue Jays finished ninth in run scoring in the Majors, which was good enough for eighth in the AL.
Defensively, the Jays were a trainwreck and that hurt a pitching staff that wasn’t spectacular to begin with. The Blue Jays ended the year 46.5 runs below average defensively last season, despite finishing 12th in defensive runs saved as a team with 15. The Blue Jays made 111 errors, leading the AL in throwing errors and, with the first year of Dickey as the main culprit, Jays catchers allowed 30 passed balls. Those fielding miscues led to 68 unearned runs allowed.
Between shoddy defense, average strikeout and walk rates, and the league’s second-highest HR/9 rate, the Blue Jays staff gave up the fourth-most runs of all teams. It was a combination of things that led the Blue Jays to a last-place finish in the AL East and better health and lower expectations may be what helps the Blue Jays back into contention.
Oddsmakers are expecting the Blue Jays to be better in the AL East this season. BetDSI.eu has the lowest number with a 79.5 and standard vig. 5Dimes.eu, BetOnline.ag, and Bovada.lv are all showing 80.5 with varying juice as high as -130 on the over and as high as -115 on the under.
Key additions: Dioner Navarro, Erik Kratz, Chris Getz
Key losses: Brad Lincoln, JP Arencibia, Rajai Davis, Josh Johnson, Darren Oliver
There wasn’t much excitement for Blue Jays fans this offseason, except for the near signing of Ervin Santana before Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy needed Tommy John surgery for the Braves. The team replaced JP Arencibia, he of the less than .600 OPS, with Dioner Navarro after his solid performance with the Cubs and Erik Kratz as catching depth. Chris Getz, a below average player, left via free agency.
The biggest loss for the Jays will be Rajai Davis, who stole 45 bases in 108 games, but even with the speed, he’s around league average as a player and was a below average defender. Josh Johnson was awful for the Blue Jays in his handful of starts and it’s not surprising that the team moved on. Brad Lincoln was a league average swingman and Darren Oliver, while valuable in his role, is a replaceable commodity and was on the wrong side of 40.
Why bet the over?
As mentioned in the intro, the Jays were bit hard by the injury bug last season. Missing two or three players at a time from the lineup is undoubtedly going to have an impact. Dickey’s injury issues made his transition to the AL more difficult than it was already going to be. Not to mention, with a neck/back issue, Dickey would be unable to finish his delivery properly. At Citi Field in New York, fly balls are a bit more manageable than they are at Rogers Centre. In all, 13 pitchers made starts for the Jays because of injury or poor performance. Most teams tend to write up around nine or 10 starters for a season, so that’s definitely a bad run of health. An additional problem with injuries is that they require the use of depth and the Blue Jays had very little last season.
Perhaps no injury was more detrimental than Jose Bautista. Bautista was going to be counted on to provide the huge middle of the order bat that the Blue Jays need, but injuries shortened his season, much like they did in 2012. Bautista was on pace to put up similar numbers to both 2010 and 2011 in each of the last two seasons, but hip and wrist injuries affected his performance and playing time. Bautista seems healthy this Spring and is having a great performance in Florida, so of course theres hope that he will stay in the lineup and continue to contribute.
One of the few silver linings to an injury-riddled season is that other players can step into the spotlight and shine. That’s what happened to Colby Rasmus. Once a top prospect in the Cardinals organization, Rasmus racked up over four wins above replacement player per Fangraphs last season with a .501 slugging percentage in just over 450 plate appearances. An oblique injury likely prevented Rasmus from hitting close to 30 home runs as that probably cost him 100-150 plate appearances. Rasmus was also one of the few bright spots defensively for the Jays. At 27, it’s entirely possible that the light came on for Rasmus and this is the player we can expect to see.
Edwin Encarnacion silenced critics in 2013 by following up his spectacular 2012 season with perhaps an even better one. While EE didn’t repeat the same counting numbers, improvement in his peripherals signal that his performance is not only sustainable, but extremely likely to continue. Encarnacion struck out less and walked a small amount for, while still hitting 36 home runs. Even though there was a minor drop-off in almost every other category, the plate discipline stats are important because, at 31, there could have been some signs of aging, but those don’t appear to be a concern. Expect another big year from Encarnacion and an even better one if the guys around him stay healthy.
It’s important to realize that the Blue Jays kept the core of the offense in tact and will be getting Jose Reyes back in the mix from the start. An injury in April really derailed the start of his season and it’s hard to get back on track after that. Adam Lind provided a lot of value and a healthier team will help keep him off the field, where he loses most of his offensive value. As a DH, Lind is a nice piece to have. There’s always hope that Brett Lawrie will start to show the promise that he showed in the minor leagues. It feels like he’s been around forever, but he’s just 24 and has only two seasons worth of plate appearances. Lawrie’s .280 BABIP is low for a player with his strikeout rate and average power, so expect him to make some positive strides this season.
Either way, while the offensive output last season wasn’t ideal, it’s the pitching staff that will dictate the Blue Jays season. R.A. Dickey dealt with injury early in the season and it really put him behind the pace he needed to put together solid full-season numbers. A lack of velocity hurt Dickey last season and he stressed to reporters that his goal was to reclaim that lost velo in Spring Training. As the season wore on and treatment started to work, Dickey’s numbers improved.
In the first half, Dickey posted a 4.69 ERA, a 4.90 FIP, and a terrible strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.96. In the second half, Dickey posted a 3.56 ERA, a 4.15 FIP, and a much better strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.54. Knuckleballs are completely different from any pitch and the way Dickey throws his is reliant on velocity. The slower it’s thrown, the more it has to move and the harder it is to control.
At 39, there’s going to be concern with Dickey, but predominantly throwing knuckleballs should prevent arm/shoulder problems. As long as the back and neck are improved, Dickey won’t put up similar numbers to what he did with the Mets, but a 3.50 ERA and a 3.80 FIP aren’t impossible and that would be well above league average.
Steady southpaw Mark Buehrle will be in the middle of the Jays rotation and his performance is about the only one that you can project with some sort of certainty. He’s a crafty innings eater with good control and a lot of pitchability. The Rogers Centre turf plus the hitter-friendly AL East parks led to a bump in Buehrle’s overall numbers, but the 35-year-old still projects to give the Jays 200 innings at league average or slightly better. Teams could do a lot worse than a 200-inning guy at league average.
Drew Hutchison is the wild card of this group because of the hype following his Spring Training performance. Hutchison returned from Tommy John surgery to make nine unimpressive starts in 10 appearances in the minor leagues. Hutchison won a job during Spring Training and there are reasons to believe in him. For starters, he holds a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 4.00 in the minor leagues to go along with an above average strikeout rate. Whether his strikeout rate translates or not, guys with command can make it at the Major League level and Hutchison allowed just nine home runs in 270 minor league innings.
The sky remains the limit for Brandon Morrow if his body will cooperate. Once a highly-touted strikeout pitcher, Morrow made just 31 starts over the 2012 and 2013 seasons. As his command sagged, so, too, did his swing and miss rate and the pain eventually became too much. There’s talent and upside in that right arm that the Jays will hope for. Bettors probably shouldn’t, but he could surprise.
The bullpen, which was a strength last season, appears to be a strength again this season. With Casey Janssen, Steve Delabar, and Sergio Santos, the Jays have three power righties that miss bats and have experience in high-leverage situations. Brett Cecil made the All-Star team last season as a matchup lefty, which wouldn’t have happened prior to Bud Selig’s absurd declaration that the winner of the game would decide home-field advantage in the World Series, but, the fact remains that Cecil was good enough to be considered. With four strong bullpen options, the Blue Jays are able to stock the rest of the pen with depth quality arms and still have a very strong group.
Why bet the under?
A lot of sabermetricians and advanced baseball thinkers believe that staying healthy is a skill and there aren’t a lot of Blue Jays who possess that skill. Not all injuries are created equal, but Bautista has been plagued by various ailments over the last two seasons and he’s approaching his mid-30s. The Jays rotation is stocked with guys who have had arm trouble or are on the wrong side of 35, so there’s a lot of risk with that group. Jose Reyes is already dealing with a hamstring issue and that’s unlikely to go away. Another consideration is that turf ages players faster than natural grass because of the strain of playing on that surface everyday. Advancements to playing surfaces have done wonders to improve career lengths for players, but it undoubtedly takes a toll.
The Blue Jays certainly hit home runs at a good pace, but home runs aren’t the only part of the game and the Jays were just barely below average offensively as a team with a wRC+ of 99. The Jays performed similarly with men on base as they did with bases empty, so there’s not really a bad luck element at play. As seen by the transactions list above, this is still pretty much the same team that it was last season. You’re literally betting on health by playing the Blue Jays over. The track records of the players in question would suggest that isn’t the best course of action.
Outside of the health of the rotation, it’s simply not very good. At best, the Jays rotation probably shakes out to be an above average Dickey and four average or worse pitchers. The depth options are clearly not upgrades since they couldn’t win jobs in a wide open competition. In a division like the AL East, there has to be something that sets the Jays above their opponents and the bullpen is the closest thing that they have. That’s great and it is a strength, but how many leads will they have to protect?
Depth remains an issue and the Jays project to be the league’s worst team at the second base position. Rasmus had a fine season last year, but a repeat of 2013 looks almost impossible. He posted a .365 BABIP while hitting 22 home runs and striking out nearly 30 percent of the time. The last time Rasmus posted a BABIP like that, in 2010 with a .354, he followed it up with .267 and .259 seasons in 2011 and 2012. That would drop Rasmus’s average down into the .230-.240 range and that would drop his on-base percentage below .300. The power is great, but so is not making outs.
Pick: Under 80.5 (-110, 5Dimes)
Ultimately, it’s hard to buy the Blue Jays rotation. Dickey and Buehrle are up in age and all of Morrow, Hutchison, and McGowan have arm troubles in their very recent past. The offense will perform, but the team projects to be bad defensively once again and that will only exacerbate a below average starting rotation. The AL East has too many good hitters to survive with a bad starting rotation, no matter how good the bullpen can be.
Health is such a big issue on this team that it takes way too many things to go right for a .500 season in a tough division. There will be stretches where the Jays look elite, but they will be overshadowed by sustained stretches of bad play. That was the case last season when the Blue Jays had an 11-game win streak in June that got them to within five games of the division lead. The Jays finished 24 games out. The Jays were 17 games under .500 against teams with .500 or better records and they’re likely to have four of them in their own division yet again, along with very few doormats in the other divisions.
The Blue Jays have pitching help down below with Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, but Stroman was at Double-A last season and Sanchez has never pitched above High-A. There’s hope on the horizon, but there’s not a whole lot of hope for 2014.
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.