Skip to content

Springtime Storylines: Are the Blue Jays doomed by baseball’s toughest division?

Mar 29, 2011, 4:16 PM EDT

john-farrell-blue-jays-spring Reuters

Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: New manager John Farrell’s tall order in Toronto.

The Big Question: Are the Blue Jays doomed by baseball’s toughest division?

Toronto has won at least 80 games in 10 of the past 13 years, but because the Blue Jays are in MLB’s toughest division they’ve finished higher than third place just once during that time while never winning an AL East title.

Last season was a familiar story, as outgoing manager Cito Gaston led the team to a 12-game improvement and 85-77 record … which was good for fourth place. To replace Gaston the Blue Jays hired former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell and his challenge isn’t to simply remain consistently competitive, but rather to get over the third-place hump and actually secure a playoff spot for the first time since back-to-back Gaston-led World Series titles in 1992 and 1993.

Unfortunately, as usual the Red Sox and Yankees look like 90-win teams and the Rays are capable of making a playoff run as well, which leaves the Blue Jays needing to out-perform their expectations and have a couple rivals under-perform theirs. Those are long odds, yet if switched to the AL Central or AL West the Blue Jays would be legitimate contenders. But that’s nothing new. Consider that since 1998 they’re one game below .500 versus the AL East and 30 games above .500 versus the AL Central and AL West.

In a different division the Blue Jays would have made the playoffs several times in the past 13 years and Farrell might be taking over a team looking to defend its division title. Instead they seem destined to win 80-something games and finish third or lower for the 16th time in 17 seasons.

So what else is going on?

  • Toronto’s lineup was one of the most powerful in baseball history last season, slugging 20 percent more homers than any other team while finishing just seven long balls short of the MLB record. Jose Bautista won’t go deep 54 times again and they replaced 31-homer Vernon Wells with light-hitting speedster Rajai Davis in center field, but J.P. Arencibia and Juan Rivera are very capable of topping the 40 homers lost in free agent departures John Buck and Lyle Overbay, and another 200-plus bombs are in sight.
  • Despite blowing away the competition in homers the Blue Jays ranked just sixth among AL teams in runs, due largely to a measly .312 on-base percentage that was third-worst in the league. They got particularly bad OBPs from the supposed table-setters, as the first two lineup spots combined to get on base at just a .309 clip. That should change this year, as Davis posted a .337 OBP with 91 steals in 2009/2010 and Yunel Escobar and his .364 career OBP will be around for the whole season.
  • I don’t expect the lineup to be any worse overall, but even if runs are harder to come by the pitching staff actually has a chance to carry Toronto. Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow are among baseball’s best young one-two punches and 23-year-old prospect Kyle Drabek is a third potential top-of-the-rotation starter, while the rebuilt bullpen boasts no fewer than six established, setup-caliber relievers in Frank Francisco, Octavio Dotel, Jon Rauch, Carlos Villaneuva, Jason Frasor, and Casey Janssen.
  • Unfortunately the season hasn’t even started yet and that pitching depth is already in danger, as Morrow, Francisco, and Dotel are expected to spend at least part of April on the disabled list. Morrow’s return is the biggest key, but so far at least the Blue Jays don’t think he’ll miss significant time.
  • If everyone is reasonably healthy pitching depth will be a strength, but the position players are a different story. Arencibia needs to hold his own as rookie because backup Jose Molina is one of the worst hitters in the league and fellow glove-first reserves John McDonald and Corey Patterson fill out the bench. The lineup can’t afford a rash of injuries like the pitching staff is already dealing with.
  • Bautista’s monster season ranks as one of the most out-of-nowhere breakouts in MLB history and the decision to sign him to a five-year, $65 million extension a year before free agency was a risk, but he doesn’t need a repeat of 2010 to justify the deal. Bautista was worth significantly more than $13 million in 2010, so even going from 54 to, say, 34 homers and maintaining most of the improved plate discipline would make him worth the money.
  • And while Bautista is almost certain to see his production decline significantly, Aaron Hill is one of the best bounceback bets around. He hit just .205, but his homer rate remained nearly the same as his 2009 breakout and his awful batting average was due to an unsustainably bad .196 mark on balls in play that ranked worst in MLB by a wide margin.

So how are they gonna do?

It’ll likely involve fewer homers and better pitching, but give or take a few games last year’s 85-77 record is a realistic expectation for the Blue Jays in 2011. The only question is whether that will put them in third place or fourth place.

  1. dodger88 - Mar 29, 2011 at 4:30 PM

    The key for the Jays the next few years is their pitching. It will be near impossible for them to match the offensive fire power of the Yanks or Bosox even if Hill & Lind return to 2009 form and Bautista proves worthy of his 5 year deal. If the Jays can get great pitching from a crop of young hurlers with lots potential, they could challenge for the division perhaps as early as 2012. However, they will have virtually no room for error, much like the Rays and evetually the Orioles.

  2. shawnuel - Mar 29, 2011 at 4:30 PM

    Not sure how the Jays could be doomed by that division if the Rays are not. Exceedingly well run teams can win in any division. Maybe not consistently……

    • florida76 - Mar 29, 2011 at 4:59 PM

      Exceedingly well run teams can make a miracle run like the Rays did in 2008, but Tampa was mediocre in 2009, and the Yankees rested people in the last few games last season. How many home playoff games did the Rays win last year, and what was the overall attendance?

      Tampa was only two games out of missing the playoffs last year, and they took a tremendous personnel hit in the offseason. 84 wins top, and a mediocre year like 2009 for the Rays.

      • Ari Collins - Mar 29, 2011 at 5:39 PM

        I wouldn’t call it one miracle year when the Rays have averaged 92 wins the last three years.

        Agree with the other posters: if the Rays can do it, the Jays can do it, especially given how much more payroll flexibility the Jays have. They could be big movers this next offseason.

      • Reflex - Mar 29, 2011 at 6:23 PM

        There was nothing ‘miraculous’ about the 08 Rays. Or the 2010 Rays. Its a well designed ballclub from the ground up, and I see no reason they won’t be routine competitors the way they are running the place. People point to thier run of top draft picks, but they ignore just how well thier down level picks have been doing. They have fantastic talant scouts and a good farm system for developing those picks.

        Will losing Crawford hurt in 2011? Sure. But by 2012 he’ll be hardly missed IMO.

    • scatterbrian - Mar 29, 2011 at 5:22 PM

      Cannot thumbs-up this enough. The “poor Blue Jays” meme is getting really tired. It’s the same stuff people were saying about the Rays a few years ago.

      • cshearing - Mar 30, 2011 at 9:05 AM

        …so now the Jays have to fight through the Red Sox & Yankee juggernauts, AND a Rays team that is run incredibly well. Yeah, those stupid poor Jays comments…

        You can say that all it takes is running your team better than anyone else in baseball, but it is not like that is easy. Especially when the best-run team is in your own division.

  3. thinman61 - Mar 29, 2011 at 4:51 PM

    I expect the Orioles to finish higher than the Blue Jays this year. A lot of last year’s homer-happy lineup is either gone, or due for some serious regression to the mean. Toronto will be doing well if they manage to win as many as 80 games. I’m expecting more like 75.

    • proudlycanadian - Mar 29, 2011 at 5:41 PM

      You are doomed to be disappointed.

      • thinman61 - Mar 29, 2011 at 5:51 PM

        We’ll see. That’s why they play the games.

  4. proudlycanadian - Mar 29, 2011 at 5:11 PM

    The Jays will win more than 90 games this year.

    • bigharold - Mar 29, 2011 at 6:22 PM

      Yeah but that’s in Candian wins, which like the currancy usually is discounted. So in American wins it’s probably still 87 wins.

      • missthemexpos - Mar 29, 2011 at 7:29 PM

        These days the Beaver currency is kicking some serious Yankee butt. Certainly makes travelling stateside much cheaper. I will be content for the Jays to win more than they loose, and hope that proudlycanuck’s prediction of 90 wins comes true.

      • proudlycanadian - Mar 29, 2011 at 7:34 PM

        Since our currency is worth more than yours, I will up my best guess to 93 games.

  5. reospeedwagon916 - Mar 29, 2011 at 7:51 PM

    Divisions seem so unnecessary now with expanded teams and playoffs. Get rid of all the geographic divisions and just pick the top 6 teams in each league. Problem solved.

  6. Travis Reitsma - Mar 29, 2011 at 8:46 PM

    Hill’s BABIP was the lowest in modern history among qualified players. When I found that out I was blown away.

  7. frankvzappa - Mar 29, 2011 at 9:04 PM

    Jays finish ahead of the yanks and rays both, no doubt about it…

    • Ari Collins - Mar 29, 2011 at 9:38 PM

      That sure, huh? I’m sure you’ll be putting money on it, then.

  8. stew37 - Mar 29, 2011 at 11:35 PM

    The thing about Hill last year was the nagging groin injury he battled all season. Based on recent performance in the GL it looks like he’s coming into the season healthy and raking. Really impressed with Rivera, but a little worried about Encarnacion at third. He’s lost weight and shown solid power in the spring, but he played a disgusting third base last year. I think the Jays are good for 90 with Drabek and Morrow having breakout years.

    • explodet - Mar 30, 2011 at 2:23 PM

      The thing about Hill is that he had the lowest line drive percentage of any player since at least 2002.

  9. homerj2112 - Mar 30, 2011 at 10:57 AM

    I have been a Jays fan since I was a kid and I can’t remember feeling as good about the team at the start of a season since 93. I love what Alex Anthopoulous has done be re-building with youth like the Rays yet still spending the cash on established players when warranted. I think the playoffs are in sight now, which is something I couldn’t say for years. Probably not this season but soon (I hope) Can’t wait for Friday’s opening day.

Leave Comment

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Not a member? Register now!

Top 10 MLB Player Searches
  1. G. Stanton (2779)
  2. B. Crawford (2685)
  3. Y. Puig (2457)
  4. G. Springer (2377)
  5. C. Correa (2290)
  1. H. Ramirez (2259)
  2. H. Pence (2175)
  3. J. Fernandez (2136)
  4. J. Hamilton (2130)
  5. D. Wright (2120)