Basking in the warm glow of the optimism of the approaching spring - not just your typical spring optimism but the really positive vibe that seems to be emanating from Dunedin, Florida (yes, I'm going to claim that it's better than your typical optimism, deal with it) is a wonderful feeling, and it's so much better than the cynical skepticism that seems to be the whole reason for posting on the internet for some folks. I freely admit i'm a well not "glass-half-full" gal and make no apologies for it. When I look ahead to the future I tend to frame the question of what will happen around certain basic ideas:
1. What a player is reasonably capable of. NOT what he might do if he had a career year but what is reasonably consistent with his normal recent work. When I say "normal" I mean unimpaired by injuries or other obvious factors (which examples of I'll mention along the way in this post). when I say "recent" I mean the last 3-5 years usually, depending on the length of the career. And noting that the first year or two of a career is not normally as instructive as those which come after.
2. I assume health. Injuries WILL happen and some projections WILL be to high because of it. but there's no way to assume an injury unless you are dealing with JD Drew or some such who has a reputation for being made of glass. In the group of players which project to the Jays 25 man roster, only Dustin McGowan is that sort of player.
3. Within the context of the above, I assume good things. I'll say more about this when I get to Snider but basically, it's easy to get down on a player and expect him to fall apart, and it's true that "hot prospects" do tend to fail with regularity. But again, it's often hard to know WHICH to apply this regression to and, frankly, it's no fun. When I'm projecting how my team might possibly do, I'm trying to say "THIS outcome is REASONABLY POSSIBLE" much more than I am "take it to the bank, THIS WILL HAPPEN."
So process what you are about to read in that light.
Over the next couple of weeks I want to do a series of posts which directly compares the Blue Jays to the Big Three rivals in the AL East. Before I do this, it's best to establish a baseline of what I believe this team is capable of so when I make comparisons I don't have to repeat my explanation for why I make the claims I do about the Jays. The subsequent posts will refer back to the projections made here. The team I discuss will be the 25 players I project to be on the roster, with some comparisons where relevant to last year's squad, and in one or two places, a note about the alternative player at that position. As much as possible the team is described as per what team officials have said about their own expectations for the team (batting order, offensive priorities, etc) more so than my own opinion of what I would do. to that end, the offense is listed according to the expected batting order as discussed by John Farrell, and I make no effort to defend or attack any specific placement.
(stats for hitters are as follows: slash line averages - counting stats for doubles, triples, homers, RBI, SB, walks and strikeouts)
Here we go...
Yunel Escobar / SS / age 29
Projected stat line: .290 - .369 - .418 - .787 - 3o - 3 - 12 - 53 - 3 - 67 - 77
Explanation: Essentially, I replicated his 2011 season except that I added a few more doubles. He's basically at the top of the curve as far as age relative to performance and other than being another year older, there's nothing that would negatively impact his outcome. Admittedly bumping the double total is arbitrary but there's always some seasonal fluctuation.
Kelly Johnson / 2B / 30
Projected stat line: .260 - .343 - .441 - .784 - 31 - 6 - 18 - 64 - 16 - 65 - 127
Explanation: This line is his career rates averaged out to 150 games, with a tiny bump in the SB number to reflect that Jays seeming interest in the running game. Like Escobar, all I'm asking him to do is what he has a demonstrated history of doing.
Jose Bautista / RF / 31
Projected stat line: .302 - .447 - .608 - 1.056 - 24 - 2 - 43 - 103 - 9 - 132 - 111
Explanation: Yes, this is exactly what he did last year, yes it was his best career year and it is perfectly reasonable to assume regression. but he's had such an unusual career path that it's impossible to reliably project how MUCH regression. The most logical place to expect a regression would be to expect a 50-70 point drop in OBP. But when we are discussing the "possible" - it's certainly possible Jose stays in the same general neighborhood this year.
Adam Lind / 1B / 28
Projected stat line: .268 - .319 - .505 - .824 - 34 - 0 - 33 - 93 - 2 - 41 - 120
Explanation: This projection reflects an average of the last the seasons - two bad and one great as you know - with an additional 4 homers. The discussion here will be longer because no hitter on this team provokes as much passionate opinion as Lind. There seems to be an incredible amount of pessimism regarding Lind among the most popular Jays bloggers out there juxtaposed against what would seem, from the outside, to be an irrational amount of optimism from the Jays personnel.
The team is apparently convinced, or wants us to be, that Lind collapse last year after his back pain put him on the DL was a direct result of reversible circumstances regarding conditioning and the position switch. Those close to the team insist that the physical stresses of playing 1B are wildly different from those connected with playing the outfield and one has to beconditioned specifically for the rigors of 1B or you'll run into the issues Lind dealt with last year. The unstated but strong implication being that he was playing through pain for over half of last season. As much as I respect my fellow bloggers, they are on the outside and AA & company are much closer to the situation. I don't believe anyone as smart as Alex would deliberately carry a bat into this season as weak as Lind's would appear to be if he didn't think things would get much better. It's not THAT hard to add a powerful 1B if you don't believe in the guy you have. so I'm going with the team and expecting what is, really, a fairly modest turnaround. He MIGHT do quite a bit better than this.
Edwin Encarnacion / DH / 29
Projected stat line: .260 - .336 - .502 - .838 - 34 - 0 - 30 - 69 - 10 - 59 - 84
Explanation: I essentially pro-rated his stats from last year over the last 4 months of the season to 145 games and turned 3-4 doubles into homers and bumped the RBI up enough to reflect the place in the lineup. Nothing crazy here
Colby Rasmus / CF / 25
Projected stat line: .276 - .361 - .498 - .859 - 28 - 3 - 23 - 66 - 12 - 63 - 148
Explanation: This is exactly what he did in 2010. given his age it would not be insane to see him take a big leap even above this level. Think that's crazy? Consider this: Jacoby Elsbury had been a good little middling hitter for two full seasons before 2010. A guy who was obviously going to get somewhat better to be sure but nothing said "future MVP candidate. Due to injuries he went off the rails in 2010 and had an atrocious line when he played. All the more reason to mitigate expectations. That didn't keep him from exploding in 2011. Talent is talent, and all other things being equal one ought to assume talent wins out. It remains to be seen whether things will "be equal" for Rasmus this year, but I think that getting back to a level he reached at 23 is a conservative projection. If I was being bold I'd add something like 8 doubles and 4 or 5 homers and a half dozen steals to that line and not be nervous about it.
Brett Lawrie / 3B / 22
Projected stat line: .281 - .359 - .539 - .898 - 42 - 6 - 27 - 77 - 24 - 56 - 108
Explanation: The second most difficult task here (behind figuring how much Bautista might regress, which I simply punted). The sample size is so small and the pro-rated projections so impressive for a 22 year old that I felt I HAD to assume SOME regression, but how to balance that caution with the widespread impression he is THE "next big thing"? My solution was to look at the guy who was, in my opinion, the most comparable guy I could find. Evan Longoria. As Matt Germain wrote for Jays Journal the comparison is entirely defensible. So I took Longoria's age 22 season as a baseline for my projection.
Lawrie is considerably faster and better on the base-paths so he has quite a few more steals here, on the other hand I turned several homers into singles and doubles to get a higher BA and OBP and, ironically, a slightly higher slugging. one has to admit the possibility of a sophomore slump, but at the same time one has to recognize that Lawrie is one of the safest bets in a long time to NOT regress like that.
Travis Snider / LF / 24
Projected stat line: .281 - .334 - .494 - .828 - 33 - 0 - 30 - 61 - 27 - 42 - 145
Explanation: My theory here is that if Snider is going to ever be what we all thought he would be, he'll step up THIS year, and by step up I mean do better than he has before in almost every respect. In fact, there really ought to be about 3 triples in there but I'm too lazy to refigure the rates. If you wish to assume he will fail and Thames will have this job, you will probably still not be shocked by any of these totals except the steals, albeit if I was projecting Thames the stats wouldn't be this good.
I arrived at these figures by this method: I took his best season so far (2010), projected to a full season (150 games) and added 10% more hits and walks, and turned 4 doubles into homers. That's really not a radical supposition is it?
JP Arencibia / C / 26
Projected stat line: .237 - .292 - .493 - .785 - 25 - 1 - 27 - 94 - 2 - 34 - 122
Explanation: In this case I'm assuming he will get marginally better. But not in a massive way. last year he had an injury that he insisted on playing through whose timing coincided with a significant drop in performance (for about six weeks beginning just before the first of June he was really not good at all) and this likely paralleled with opposition pitching adjusting to him (on May 30 he'd had an OPS of .824). He came out of that about a week after the All-Star break and hit fairly well (for a catcher) on the balance of the season, 62 games for the team and 55 for him. what you see above is a pro-rating of that part of the season figured for 132 games played. I had to slightly tweak a few numbers to get the averages to come out close but it's a real close approximation.
Bench: You can't really do too much with this because you can't reasonably project the amount of playing time. the two most important bench players are Mathis and Vizquel and neither is an offensive factor. Raji Davis might well hit somewhat better than he did last year but i'm not projecting it. That leaves Ben Francisco. Francisco is to this team essentially what Juan Rivera was to last year's team. The last two previous years (age 28 and 29 seasons) Francisco's OPS was .731 and his OPS+ was 97. In his last two previous seasons Rivera (age 31-32) posted an OPS of .710 and an OPS+ of 95. Being three years younger Francisco stands to be a better player in 2012 than Rivera - better in fact than Rivera was last year during his time with the Jays, and should get a similar amount of playing time on the whole season as Rivera got during his time with the Jays. but I'll take a pessimistic view for ease of calculation and assume he's just as bad as Rivera was.
For ease of reference, here are the projected stat lines stacked up (this is opening day - I figure a good possibility that Lawrie and EE flip in the second half):
.290 - .369 - .418 - .787 - 3o - 3 - 12 - 53 - 3 - 67 - 77
.260 - .343 - .441 - .784 - 31 - 6 - 18 - 64 - 16 - 65 - 127
.302 - .447 - .608 - 1.056 - 24 - 2 - 43 - 103 - 9 - 132 - 111
.268 - .319 - .505 - .824 - 34 - 0 - 33 - 93 - 2 - 41 - 120
.260 - .336 - .502 - .838 - 34 - 0 - 30 - 69 - 10 - 59 - 84
.276 - .361 - .498 - .859 - 28 - 3 - 23 - 66 - 12 - 63 - 148
.281 - .359 - .539 - .898 - 42 - 6 - 27 - 77 - 24 - 56 - 108
.281 - .334 - .494 - .828 - 33 - 0 - 30 - 61 - 27 - 42 - 145
.237 - .292 - .493 - .785 - 25 - 1 - 27 - 94 - 2 - 34 - 122
Now direct comparisons are difficult in some cases and not in others. We're assuming basically steady production year over year at C, SS, and from Bautista (albeit part of his work last year was at 3B) along with the only really decent hitter on the bench.
On the other hand, compare the following OPS by position to what I'm projecting here - noting particularly 3B, CF, 2B, and LF as well as DH and 1B:
SS: .744 - Esco relieved by Vizquel should be about same.
2B: .634 - Johnson, even though spelled, should easily do better
RF: .912 - Less time at 3B means this should be this good even with regression.
1B: .757 - I project both Lind and EE to do better
DH: .770 - EE at 1B means Francisco hitting...this is about right.
CF: .596 - Wildly better in '12
3B: .773 - Wildly better in 12
LF: .667 - Even if both Snider and Thames fail, they can do this, should do considerably better
C: .747 - A better JPA mitigated by a worse (than Molina) Mathis, should work out about the same.
And the bench contribution is mostly a wash when you consider how much more the starters get the AB in this projection - except for the loss off offense from the reserve catcher.
How can this team - NOT be remarkably better offensively (and it wasn't bad last year)? and remember, there are not big "career year" projections here. Remember that in 2011, six players, five of whom are gone and the other is Mike McCoy, combined for almost 1,500 at bats in 2011 and accumulated a combined OPS of .632. some of those will go to Vizquel of course, but a lot of them will go to much better hitters.
Turning to the pitching...
This part is much more difficult. Pitchers fluctuate in weird ways that defy projection, particularly relievers. We do the best we can. With all these guys, I factor age and experience and where they are on the bell curve of their career, including noting unusual development patterns as with Santos. I note their actual ERA, their FIP and the xFIP not just for the last season, but also their best rate within the last 4 years and their career rate (in context).
I'm only projecting ERA here as far as hard numbers because the rest is just too much of a wild guess. But there will be comments on the other stuff.
1. Ricky Romero (age 27) - 3.64 ERA: This is actually his xFIP from 2010. He out-preformed his xFIP last year by almost a full run, and even those his defense will be better this year it's prudent to assume a bit of reconciling of those two figures. I arbitrarily picked the 2010 figure as a reasonable compromise. if this is different, it will be lower.
2. Brandon Morrow - (27) - 2.92: This is the bold prediction, possibly the boldest of the whole team (yes I'm aware I spoke in similarly bold terms last year). his xFIP over the last two seasons, while he was admittedly a work in progress and beset by some inconsistency, was about 3.50, which is a bit better than Romero's was over the same period. Essentially, I just gave him Romero's ERA from last year. The difference being that Morrow will actually be pitching this well or better. Are you going to tell me it's crazy to project a pitcher's ERA to fall from 4.72 to 2.92? Then I'm going to direct your attention to James Shields. I'm convinced that if Shields can play in the neighborhood a year after having an ERA over 5, then Morrow certainly can, because he has more talent.
3. Brett Cecil - (25) - 4.22: I'm just giving him the 2010 ERA. I think he will pitch better than he did in 2010 but i'm not certain it will be enough better to drive the ERA down by any projectable degree. it's enough for him to be as good as he was before, more than that is a bonus.
4. Henderson Alvarez - (22) - 3.72: literally impossible to guess. A kid this age is an obvious candidate to regress, but nothing in his skill set or performance demands it. I'm just chalking this up to natural fluctuation and resisting the temptation to have EVERY guy here get better (though that is certainly possible)
5. Dustin McGowan - (30) - 3.69: all depends on health, there's no credible way to be sure he will reach the 150-ish innings the Jays plan to pitch him this year, but I have a hunch that if he does he will be the talk of the league. what I WANT to do here is shave one full run off that ERA but i can't back that up with anything at all. but the pre-injury McGowan was a guy who was credibly talked about as projecting to the kind of pitcher Verlander turned out to be. and everyone who comments on him now says he has virtually all his stuff back. I'm gullible enough to believe that. so I gave him an ERA that reflects a season something like the one Michael Pineda had last year and if healthy I'll be mildly shocked if I haven't been too conservative.
6. Kyle Drabek - (24) - 4.15: I'm just filing this as a season to get his feet back under him. I'm crediting him as the guy who finishes the season's last 4-6 weeks after they shut down McGowan, and assuming there's probably another tour or two when he fills in for an injured starter. The ERA is slightly optimistic but as the 6th starter, no one should spend a lot of time figuring this one out - if he sucks Hutchison or McGuire will be here and probably won't suck.
If you get past six guys there's the aforementioned McGuiire and Hutchison, as well as Villianueva and Listch in a pinch - contrast that to the memory that in 2011 the Jays gave 31 starts, basically one full rotation turn over a season, to Reyes, Mills, Perez, and Stewart.
The combined ERA for those 31 starts was 5.82 - and that's without including Drabek's adventures.
Sergio Santos - (28) - 2.64: His 2011 xFIP, and since I expect his walk rate to continue to drop, i consider this a conservative projection, although admittedly ERA is not a great measure for relievers anyway given how one or two bad appearances can skew the figure.
Francisco Cordero - (37) - 3.84: this was his highest ERA in the last 10 seasons and was in 2010. This could get considerably worse given the difference in the level of competition, but I have no reliable rule for how much worse so i'll be optimistic without being silly.
Darren Oliver - (41) - 2.75: if the recent trend continued (ERA lower each year for five straight years) then this would be much too high. I gave him the xFIP from 2010 as a compromise.
Jason Frasor - (34) - 3.64: overall ERA for the last two years - but here's the interesting thing: In his first 6 appearances after the trade, which had to be very unsettling, he gave up five runs in four IP. Take that out and his ERA last year was 3.05, furthermore, his ERA over the last three seasons without those 4 IP is 3.10, so my projection is quite conservative.
Casey Janssen - (30) - 3.04: this is his xFIP from last year, which was the best year of his career. There's no real reason to assume a major regression, but relievers do fluctuate.
Carlos Villianueva - (28) - 4.04: a most interesting and confusing case. In the first three weeks of the season, his walk rate was far too high (7 in 11.1 IP) but he managed to have a solid ERA anyway (2.38), at the end of his run as a starter when he was running out of gas and ended up on the DL, that control went south again somewhat, though not remotely as bad, and the ERA was very ugly. when he came off the DL he was getting September slop innings so i'm not inclined to regard those too highly. In between he threw 67 innings and posted a 3.09 ERA that's pretty consistent with his other stats. I wouldn't be scared to use THAT for my projection but I'm trying to not show irrational exuberance.
Luis Perez - (27) - 4.27: that was his ERA as a reliever last year, and his xFIP in that role was 3.39 so there's room for improvement there but again, I'll show caution.
Should replacements be needed, there's Jesse Litsch (4.08 as a reliever last year with an xFIP of 2.99 in that role) and Joel Carreno who opened a lot of eyes last year before you get to the more remote options.
The unanimous consensus is that the bullpen is considerably deeper and more solid than what the team had last year, even before the big trade.
Every year I make a win prediction, with the caveat that what I mean is +/-3 games, and having spent several hours putting this together, it's only fitting that I go ahead and stake my claim in conclusion. My prediction for the upcoming season is 89 wins. I have to acknowledge that the track record the competition has exceeds the track record most of these guys have, but of the three other contenders in this division, i think only the Yankees are clearly a considerably better team.
I'll save detailed comparisons for the future but I think the Jays are right their with the Red Sox and Rays on talent, and they could finish in any order as a result of injuries, luck, and unpredictably good or bad seasons by individual players. I think it will be the most exciting season since the glory days and a sign of even bigger things to come. The second coming if 1985 is near. It might not be this year, but it is very close.