Out of all 30 teams in baseball, the Toronto Blue Jays are perhaps in the most perplexing position of all of them. While their offseason acquisitions have significantly improved their squad, there still remains many question marks on the Blue Jays roster.
There are experts out there that make a living dissecting all those question marks, and do a very good job at it. Of course when it comes to projections, the annual Baseball Prospectus book immediately comes to mind.
Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus was kind enough to answer some questions about key members of the Blue Jays roster this upcoming season, and how he sees them finishing in the division.
Which Blue Jay do you think will take the biggest leap forward this season?
Brett Lawrie should be better. Expectations were fairly high last season, probably a little too high based on how good he was the previous season, but I think he will improve and step forward.
On the pitching side, I like Brandon Morrow. I’ve liked Brandon Morrow a few seasons now, as a lot of sabermetric-leaning people have. If he can stay healthy, then I would peg him as a person to take a big step.
And on the opposite side of the coin, which Blue Jay do you think will take the biggest step backward in 2013?
The obvious choice would be Melky; not so much because of whatever he was taking last year, but I just felt like he was a guy who was in for line for some decline even if he hadn’t tested positive.
It just seemed like he hadn’t made a lot of fundamental improvements in his game. Even if he hadn’t tested positive, I still feel like he was a guy who would outperform his recent history, if you look at his peripherals and his rates, they were almost identical as they were the season they were before.
He wasn’t walking a lot more, he wasn’t striking out a lot less, he wasn’t hitting for much more power, he was just hitting a lot more singles than he ever had before. So he was getting fortunate and hitting the ball in the right place.
I guess 2011 would be a realistic baseline, and I’m sure the Blue Jays would be happy if he was as good as he was that season when he was an above average hitter.
The big key to the success of the Blue Jays this year is invariably going to rest on the shoulders of R.A. Dickey. How do you see him adjusting to the AL East?
Our projections for R.A. Dickey are pessimistic, but he really breaks projection systems because our projection system is based in part on comparable players … and there really aren’t any comparable players to Dickey.
He did things last year that nobody has done. I think the strikeout rate from last year was kind of an anomaly. Normally you’d look at a pitcher his age and you’d say that he probably won’t be as good again. But if he continues to throw the knuckleball as well as he did last year, then the AL East won’t be a problem.
In the absence of Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion stepped up and had a career year, putting up the best offensive numbers on the team (4.1 BWARP). Aside from 2012, Edwin has been a notoriously streaky hitter, though.
Is the real Edwin Encarnacion closer to his 2012 season or closer to his 2011 season?
I think he will be closer to his 2012 self. Normally we’re conservative about guys who have a breakout season. When Jose Bautista went crazy all of a sudden, our projections for him were that he would come back to earth a bit.
You’re inclined to believe in a breakout like that more when there’s a mechanical change associated with it. It seemed to me like that was the case with Edwin Encarnacion. He revamped his approach at the plate and concentrated more on going the other way, he hit to the opposite field with a lot of power, so I’m optimistic about him.
Just the fact that there really seemed to be real changes and he seemed to be a difference player in a meaningful way. And it wasn’t a case like Melky where he had a high BABIP thing with a lot of balls falling in.
Mark Buehrle has been the consummate innings-eater over his career, but I noticed he’s one of the Blue Jays that’s projected to take a bit of a step back this year. How do you think he’ll fare in the AL East facing the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays and Orioles this season?
I think there is some concern about the AL East compared to the AL Central , and the fact that he’s a fly ball pitcher and he’s pitching in a park where a lot of home runs are hit and a division where a lot of home runs are hit.
In our Blue Jays essay, the AL East had 4 of the top 6 home run parks. As a fly ball pitcher and a guy who doesn’t miss a lot of bats, it’s something I would worry about. Our projections for the Blue Jays defensively are not strong, as we have them projected to have the worst defense in the division.
If that’s not the case, then without the greatest defensive outfield coupled with a park that’s not all that great for flyballers, then I expect him to decline. He’s never been on the disabled list in 12 seasons of 200 innings in a row. It’s an incredible thing you don’t see anymore; Buehrle’s about a sure a thing as you can get.
Strikeout pitchers are usually good pitchers and it’s a good thing not to rely on your defenders to get outs, but at the same time, health is also a skill. Buehrle clearly has it and the control to survive without a lot of velocity or a lot of strikeouts, and you can pretty much pencil him in for 30 starts.
Ultimately, where do you expect the Blue Jays to finish this season … and the million dollar question, will they make the playoffs this year?
Purely looking at the stats, we have the Yankees in first and the Orioles in last and then the other three teams are just bunched together in the middle of the division. But I think the Blue Jays as strong as any other team in the division.
Maybe they’re a higher risk team because of the injury concerns, but I would see them probably winning close to 90 games and I’ll pick them as the Wild Card team.
Thanks again to Ben for answering my questions. Of course, you can check out the full preview of every Blue Jays player in the 2013 Baseball Prospectus, out in book stores now. And follow Ben on Twitter, @ben_lindbergh.