Only the Dodgers came close to matching the Blue Jays in terms of change this offseason. But while the Dodgers did it by spending big money and courting free agents, the Jays did it by swinging two big trades, essentially raiding the Marlins for almost their entire stock of upper level expensive talent, and by acquiring Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets.
They look poised to terrorize what may be the weakest AL East in more than a decade. Of course that’s on paper, not on the field, where they’ll find the Rays, O’s, Yankees, and Red Sox unwilling to just concede the point. That said they have to be favorites to make the playoffs, if not win the division outright.
Due to the level of talent here, I had to skip some of the more consistent players (and a few marginal ones) to focus on the questions, upsides, downsides and potential regressions.
Here are 10 to watch in 2013.
R.A. Dickey (SP): Dickey’s numbers last season were outrageous and possibly the best ever put up by a knuckleballer, and therein is the rub. He’s a knuckleballer, and knuckleballers are unpredictable from game to game let alone year to year. But we’ve been hammered over and over with the fact that there has never been a knuckleballer like Dickey. He throws harder, faster, mixes up his speeds dramatically and his knuckleball isn’t a consistent 60 mph “junk” pitch, unless he wants it to be. Odds are he’ll be fine, though some regression seems inevitable since he’ll have to face a DH, and we just don’t see that many back to back 20 game winners. Truthfully I hope he proves me wrong and wins 30 while striking out 250, but I think 15-18 wins and fewer than 180 Ks are more likely.
Jose Reyes (SS): Tout his “terrible” season last year and try to buy him at a discount, and you still probably won’t be able to get him as one. As the leadoff hitter for a potent offense Reyes should score a ton of runs and get plenty of steals to boot. The worst part of grabbing Reyes will be the risk that comes from playing so many games on turf and the associated injury risk. He might face a few bumps learning the new league as well, but I’d treat 35 steals as a baseline. Emilio Bonifacio (2B/OF): Playing time and spot in the batting order could both be significant issues for Bonifacio and cut deeply into his fantasy value going forward. While he has 50-stolen base upside, the Jays view him as a super utility kind of guy and expect him to get most of his ABs at second and third. They seem to prefer the defense of Macier Izturis to Bonifacio’s bat. Even worse, when he does start, he’ll likely be hitting in the No. 9 slot, since the Jays have christened Melky Cabrera as their No. 2 hitter. He might not get to see more than 400 ABs.
Melky Cabrera (OF): So how much of Melky’s 2011-12 was Melky and how much was PEDs? The Jays believed it was him and signed him to a two-year deal. If spring numbers mean anything the Jays may certainly be right. At the time of this writing he was hitting .367 with three home runs in 60 ABs. On his side was that his two breakout seasons were during his prime 26-27 year old seasons. Since he’s available at a discount this season he should turn a nice profit if he can put up 75% of his 2011 numbers. Josh Johnson (SP): At this point in his career Johnson is no longer elite, but he’s got the potential to bounce back. Now four years past Tommy John surgery and two years past shoulder pain, Johnson has looked like his old dominating self in spring training, striking out 21 in just 15 innings and posting an ERA of 1.13 in that span. It’s a small sample size, but it could be a harbinger of things to come -- especially a return of his dominance, which he’ll need to be better than an average pitcher. Happily for you he’ll be cheap, and upside is always good. Not getting to face the No. 8 hitter and the pitcher isn’t quite as good.
Mark Buehrle (SP): Buerhle is 34 and many people are declaring that he’ll struggle now that he’s in the AL East. Folks, the AL East isn’t what it used to be in terms of offense. Just look at the lineups of the Yankees and Red Sox and remember that Buehrle survived well in the AL for most of his career. He’ll likely throw another 200 innings, win 12-15 games with the Jays' offense behind him and strike out a paltry 120. Call him Mr. Dependable.
Edwin Encarnacion (1B): Saw it coming did you? Encarnacion finally put all of his skills together and had the monster year that everyone believed he had in him. Admittedly it took a long time for him and Encarnacion is going to be 30 this year. That means he probably won’t post a season quite like that one again but so long as he doesn’t fall apart he should post something reasonably close. J.P Arencibia (C): Arrencibia has big time -- no make that huge -- power, but his average could very easily fall to the sub-Mendoza level. His abysmal contact rate every season threatens to throw him over that cliff. So far he’s managed to toe the line and keep the average between .219 and .233 during his three major league seasons. If he can build on last year's .233 maybe he’s got the potential for 30 home runs and a .245-.255 average. If not, he could end up back in the minors. At least he’ll be cheap in all but the deepest of leagues. Jose Bautista (OF): Bautista only managed 332 ABs last year but still hit 27 home runs. He looks to be perfectly healthy coming into spring training this year. There was concern that his surgically repaired left wrist might sap his power going forward but he hit five home runs so far this spring, so things look good. Not sure the average will bounce back, but he makes good contact, so .250 is probably the floor while the ceiling could be a lot higher.
Brandon Morrow (SP): It took a long, long time for the breakout to come, but when it did, it looked great. Ace type skills have always been there, and last year they surfaced. Morrow only managed 125 innings but posted a sub 3.00 ERA and struck out 108. If he can build on that, he and not Dickey could be the star pitcher of this staff. He won’t match that 2.98 ERA, but 3.50 should be possible. Throw in a strikeout per inning and things should be just dandy.