TORONTO, CANADA - Jose Bautista #19 of the Toronto Blue Jays hits a double during MLB game action against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. (Photo by Brad White/Getty Images)
How will the Toronto Blue Jays do this year? If history's any guide, that should be easy to predict.
The Toronto Blue Jays are the baseball team for people who don't like their highs too high or their lows too low. If you're in the market for a favorite baseball team, and you're sitting in a Toyota Camry while eating some plain Lay's and listening to The Strokes, the Blue Jays might be for you. Things that are too good make your heart race. Things that are too bad make you sad. That middle ground, baby. That's what it's all about.
Since winning back-to-back World Series two decades ago, the Blue Jays have finished between 80 and 89 wins eleven times without once finishing with 90 or more. They've finished with fewer than 70 wins just once since the strike-shortened season of 1995. They're the team that you think of when you want to clear your mind and start meditating. Nice. Even. Soothing. Blue Jays.
Blue Jays fans, for the most part, would probably be pretty okay with the dizzying highs of a really good team. They can take it. They'd like to try. And this offseason there was some scuttlebutt that the Jays were going to make a big splash. They could have used a first baseman. They could have used a pitcher. They're owned by Rogers Communications, a nice mom-and-pop conglomerate that wasn't in political cartoons from the early 1900s only because the company didn't exist yet. Some fans figured they'd have some interest in a superstar like Prince Fielder or Yu Darvish. An international player like Darvish in an international hub like Toronto could have been something.
Instead they got three relievers to replace the three relievers they lost. Oh, and Jeff Mathis.
They did a good job of filling the bullpen holes with quality. Sergio Santos is the perfect closer for a team that's aware that overpaying for relief rarely works out -- Santos is under contract for the next three years at bargain prices, and if the Blue Jays want to pay him after that, there are three one-year options they can exercise. He's like a low-risk closer designed in a lab. Francisco Cordero and Darren Oliver are also solid additions. The bullpen shouldn't be the reason the Blue Jays fail to make the playoffs again.
If you're looking for reasons why the Blue Jays aren't going to make the playoffs again -- specific, easy-to-pinpoint problems with the roster -- well, they're hard to find. That's the magic of the Blue Jays. There's a lot to like about the lineup. At this time last year, everyone was wondering if Jose Bautista was for real. That's not happening much this offseason; he's a monster, one of the most exciting players in baseball. The up-the-middle offense is filled with youngish castaways like Yunel Escobar, Kelly Johnson, and Colby Rasmus. At some point in the past two seasons, all three of those players were among the most valuable in baseball at their respective positions. If J.P. Arencibia can't mash relative to other catchers, Travis D'Arnaud is waiting to.
There are things to like there. So it must be the starting pitching that's the problem. Except … that's not it. Ricky Romero had his best season (albeit with some curious BABIP help), and Brandon Morrow continued to progress, cutting down on his walks and keeping the strikeout rate at ridiculous levels. The back-end of the rotation has several interesting options, including Brett Cecil, Henderson Alvarez, and Dustin McGowan, the latter of whom is making a bid to be Vogelsong North. At least one of those three should break out, and there's a chance of upper-level help from Deck McGuire and Kyle Drabek.
This is the kind of team that could be leading the Wild Card chase in July and make us all think, "Well, of course they're good. We should have seen that coming." If the could-be goods scattered all over the roster are actually good, it could be a loaded team. And armed with the knowledge that it isn't just a team filled with unlocked, latent talent, it will all seem so obvious.
Which is to say, this is a completely typical Blue Jays team: talent and question marks, but not enough of the former to overcome a strong AL East. They'd probably do pretty well in the NL West, NL Central, or AL Central. Which doesn't make the Jays or their fans feel better. Seriously, even if you get all fancy with clip art and WordPerfect and make them a "Good Enough To Win Other Divisions!" certificate, they act all offended and ungrateful. Trust me.
The weird thing isn't that the Blue Jays have hovered in the 80-win zone for most of the past 20 years; it's that there hasn't been that magical season where everything coalesces and goes right, where the pitching and hitting picked the same year to break out, or where the team outperformed their Pythagorean projection and had an amazing record in one-run games. A team that's successful enough to win as many as they lose will luck into a playoff berth every so often. That the Blue Jays haven't done that since winning the World Series is the real surprise.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Hole they didn't fill)
It was only two years ago that Adam Lind hit .305/.370/.562 in his age-25 season. Since then his plate discipline and power have both gone the other direction. Even weirder was his lack of doubles -- only only four other full-time players had 16 or fewer doubles last year. The other four players who did it were a catcher, two middle infielders, and Vernon Wells. That isn't the company a starting first baseman should keep.
Lind is under contract for the at least the next two seasons for a minimum of $12 million, so the Jays will give him another chance before committing to a huge contract like Fielder, or even a smaller one like Casey Kotchman or Carlos Pena. It was an easy position to upgrade, but the Blue Jays are hoping that Lind will take care of that on his own.
Brett Lawrie can't be that good, can he? After a hand injury, Lawrie arrived in the big leagues and hit .293/.373/.580 as a 21-year-old, which puts him in rare company. If he can sustain even most of that, he'll be Canada's greatest living hero, other than Geddy Lee. Right now, MLB Depth Charts has Lind and Edwin Encarnacion as the fourth and fifth hitters. That will probably change by the end of the first month.
Somewhere between 80 and 87 wins. Some things go right. Some things go wrong. That's the thing about Toronto, man. I get older, they stay the same Jays.