Thursday, September 5, 2013
What went wrong with the Blue Jays?
By David Schoenfield
In the offseason, Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos sensed an opportunity to seize control of the AL East. The Yankees were a year older and refusing to make any big moves in order to, gulp, save money; the Red Sox were coming off a 93-loss season; the Orioles were a good bet to regress after going an all-time best 29-9 in one-run games; the Rays were once again trying to patch together an offense.
So in an attempt to make the Jays relevant for the first time in years and bring the baseball fans in Toronto back to the Rogers Centre, he made the plunge few GMs are willing to take: He dealt from his wealth of prospects and acquired NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets and high-priced veterans Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson from the Marlins. He dipped into the free-agent market and signed the PED-tainted Melky Cabrera to a two-year contract.
The moves were widely praised. The computer projections were positive -- Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system predicted Toronto would go 94-68 and win the AL East, making the playoffs in 68 percent of his simulations and finishing last just 6 percent of the time. Twenty of 43 of ESPN's baseball contributors picked the Blue Jays to win the division.
So what happened? The Blue Jays head into the stretch run at 64-76 and the announcement on Wednesday that Jose Bautista will miss the rest of the season with a bone bruise in his femur was sort of the exclamation point on the team's disappointing season. (The one piece of good news: The fans did respond to the acquisitions, as attendance is up over 30,000 per game for the first time since 1998.)
The obvious answer: The pitching has been terrible. Only the Astros have allowed more runs in the AL. The offense has been OK, but not the powerhouse lineup you would have projected with Reyes, Cabrera, Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.
Look at what happened to the projected rotation. Could it have been expected to fall apart?
R.A. Dickey: 11-12, 4.30 ERA. A predictable result. He was coming off a career season and was likely due for some regression, even before switching to the tougher league and a tougher park. His road ERA is 3.34, not far off the 2.90 mark he had with the Mets in 2012, but he's allowed 20 home runs at home with a 5.21 ERA.
Josh Johnson: 2-8, 6.20 ERA. He made just 16 starts and was terrible, so while the health issues were a risk the poor performance was certainly a surprise. Was he bad or unlucky? His xFIP -- expected fielding independent pitching with a normalized home run-to-flyball rate -- is 3.59, right at his career mark of 3.57. But he allowed 105 hits in 81.1 innings (a .361 BABIP) with 15 home runs. He may have been striking guys out, and while the BABIP was high he also got creamed when falling behind in the count (.387 average after 1-0, .487 after 2-0).
Brandon Morrow: 2-3, 5.63 ERA. Ten starts. He's been unable to stay healthy at any point in his career, so it was no surprise he went down again.
Ricky Romero: 0-2, 12.46 ERA. Spent most of the season in the minors, unable to throw strikes. He was a wild card heading into spring training considering his bad season in 2012 and it all fell apart.
Of the projected five starters, only Buehrle panned out, doing his usual solid work. But it was pretty clearly a high-risk rotation heading into the season, Johnson and Morrow with their injury histories, Romero with his control, and Dickey with his regression.
The bullpen was supposed to be the big concern coming of a league-worst 4.33 ERA in 2012, but it's been very good with a 3.41 ERA (second-best in the East behind the Yankees), although the rotation was so bad the bullpen has had to pitch the most innings in the AL -- 30 more than the Astros, and 100 more than Tigers. That the relievers have held together with such a heavy workload is a big plus and the only thing separating this staff from Houston's.
Anyway, once those starters got hurt/struggled, the Jays had no depth, resorting to replacement-level starters like Esmil Rogers, J.A. Happ and Todd Redmond.
Offensively, Encarnacion had a big year, Adam Lind had his best season since 2009 and Colby Rasmus has been solid, but Cabrera has been awful (.906 OPS to .682), J.P. Arencibia has been all-power, no-OBP once again, Reyes missed 50 games, Brett Lawrie hasn't developed into a big run producer and their second basemen have been the worst in the majors (.546 OPS). I was worried about the bottom of the lineup heading into the season, and there was always the chance that Reyes wouldn't stay healthy and Cabrera wouldn't come close to matching his big numbers with the Giants. Yes, the offense had upside, but the holes loomed large.
What's happened isn't really that surprising. It was a high-risk team, maybe higher risk than most anticipated. This doesn't mean Anthopoulos had a bad offseason; it just didn't work out like it could have.