2014 Team Preview: The Toronto Blue Jays will probably be better, but the AL East takes no prisoners

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

The AL East is an absolutely lethal division, and the Blue Jays don't seem to have the depth (or the pitching) to compete in 2014.

It is amazing how quickly things can change in one year. Last March, everyone in baseball -- myself included -- was singing nothing but praise for the Toronto Blue Jays and their chances at winning a World Series. Personally, I titled my article "The Toronto Blue Jays are going to win more than 73 games this season... but how many more?"

They won one more.

That said, this is still a talented, if extremely flawed roster. The Jays have the star power to compete in 2014, but it will take a lot of improvement from their role players. If they run into the same injury problems they suffered in 2013, it will be another long season north of the border.

Manager: John Gibbons (2nd year)

2013 record: 74-88, 5th in AL East

SB Nation blog: Bluebird Banter

Other Blue Jays coverage: Toronto Star, Toronto Sun, Drunk Jays Fans

First series vs. Tigers: June 3-5 @ Comerica Park

Lineup

The Blue Jays were one of three American League teams last year who had only one player tally at least 600 plate appearances. Unlike the Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros, however, the Blue Jays were still able to put together an offense that scored 712 runs. This was only good enough for eighth in the AL, but considering the circumstances -- namely, losing almost everyone to the disabled list at some point during the year -- they were pretty solid. They have ranked in the top five in the league in home runs in every season since 2008, and that should not change in 2014.

The firepower starts in the outfield, where Jose Bautista has continued to lay waste to the idea that his spectacular 2010 season was a fluke. Sure, his power has eroded some, but injuries to his groin, wrist, back, ankle, and hip -- all within the last two seasons -- might have something to do with it. Don't expect 50 home runs again, but a .900 OPS isn't out of the question if he stays healthy. Bautista's rash of injuries may seem like child's play to Melky Cabrera, who saw a disappointing 2013 season come to an abrupt end when doctors discovered a benign tumor in his spine. Luckily, the surgery to remove said tumor was successful, and Cabrera has taken advantage with a .942 OPS so far this spring. In between Cabrera and Bautista will be Colby Rasmus, who led the team with 4.8 fWAR in 2013. It was the second time that Rasmus has put up a four-win season, but teams might like to see a drop in his 29.5% strikeout rate before they fork over the cash next offseason when he hits free agency.

In the infield, Edwin Encarnacion has quietly become one of the most lethal bats in the American League. Encarnacion hit .272/.370/.534 with 36 home runs and 104 RBI, just off his 2012 pace of a .941 OPS with 42 bombs and 110 RBI. He has also stolen 20 bases in 24 attempts and scored 183 runs in the past two years. He will make a paltry $9 million in 2014. Adam Lind will give him the occasional spell -- and by that I mean Lind started 62 games at first base last year -- when he isn't serving as the team's designated hitter. Lind hit 23 home runs for the fourth time in the past five years last season, but his .854 OPS was his highest by over 100 points since 2009. The reason? He only totaled 100 plate appearances against left-handers, who have held him to a .603 OPS in his career.

On the other side of the infield, third baseman Brett Lawrie and shortstop Jose Reyes are both scheduled to be in the lineup on Opening Day. Unfortunately, that's about the only time they spent together in 2013. Both made multiple trips to the disabled list, and they combined for just 861 plate appearances the entire year. Reyes put up his usual above average numbers, but Lawrie put up a lowly .712 OPS with 11 home runs and 46 RBI. Patience is starting to wear thin among Blue Jays fans, but the Canadian born Lawrie is only 24 years old and doing everything he can to improve at the plate. He could probably stand to draw a few more walks, but the 15.4% strikeout rate is promising.

Meanwhile, second base and catcher look like unmitigated disasters in the making. Ryan Goins put up a .609 OPS in 121 plate appearances last season -- his first in the big leagues -- and he look like the team's starting second baseman for the moment. Chris Getz and Munenori Kawasaki are also in camp this spring, but the only decent thing either one of them offers is excellent post-game interviews.

Behind the dish, Dioner Navarro looks to get the lion's share of the playing time. He had a career season with the Chicago Cubs last year, hitting .300/.365/.492 with 13 home runs in 266 plate appearance. If he approaches that sort of offensive production with the Blue Jays, Alex Anthopolous should win an award for locking him up at $4 million per season. Odds are Navarro will regress to something near his career line of .251/.313/.371. Josh Thole will probably have a roster spot thanks to the fact that he took over as R.A. Dickey's personal catcher right around the time Dickey stopped pitching horribly. Thole was Dickey's catcher in New York, so I'm slightly less inclined to call this a coincidence for the moment.

Rotation

How bad were things in Toronto in 2013? Todd Redmond started 14 games for the Blue Jays, and his 4.32 ERA was the fourth-best among anyone who started a single game for them. Unfortunately for the Jays, Redmond is still in the picture. He is one of several guys -- Esmil Rogers, Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, and Marcus Stroman the others -- vying for a spot in the back end of the rotation. Rogers was a solid part of the rotation in June, but got lit up by the Tigers in early July and was never the same. Hutchison and Stroman have both impressed so far during Spring Training. Drabek... not so much.

Right-hander Drabek, coming back from his second Tommy John surgery, was the tandem starter for Hutchison, going three innings and showing average to below-average stuff across the board.

Moving up the ladder, J.A. Happ was said to be locked into a rotation spot before he started to have back issues. He has not been impressive so far this spring, and last year's 4.56 ERA and 4.31 FIP were not much better. He walked 45 batters in 92 2/3 innings last season, just above his career rate of 3.99 base on balls per nine innings. Right-hander Brandon Morrow had better command, but allowed a whopping 1.99 home runs per nine innings en route to a 5.63 ERA and 5.42 FIP. At this point, he might be better served going back to his gunslinger ways that produced strikeout-per-nine-innings rates in the 10s in 2010 and 2011.

If and when the injuries start to pile up, the Jays will have a hard time getting above .500.

Mark Buehrle topped 200 innings for the 13th (!) consecutive season in 2013, and tallied the highest strikeout of his career in the process. He allowed a 4.15 ERA, which led the Jays' rotation. There is a good chance he is a robot that was sent here to mildly annoy us with a mix of mid-80s fastballs located on the outside black. Speaking of mid-80s fastballs, R.A. Dickey put up his worst season since he tried that whole "knuckleball" thing four years ago. His strikeout and walk rates were not particularly egregious, but his home run rate understandably climbed after moving from the expansive Citi Field to the launchpad known as the Rogers Centre. Of the 35 home runs he allowed in 2013, 23 came at home.

The Blue Jays' bullpen posted the fourth-best ERA in the American League last season, but their 3.82 FIP ranked among the worst in the AL thanks to one of the highest home run rates in the league. This was not the fault of the better arms in the pen, however. Steve Delabar, Aaron Loup, Brett Cecil, and closer Casey Janssen were the only four bullpen arms to top 50 innings pitched, and they combined to allow just 16 of the 59 dingers the Jays' pen surrendered. All four are back in 2014, along with Dustin McGowan, Sergio Santos, and Neil Wagner. Santos and McGowan both allowed sub-2.50 ERAs, while Wagner's homer troubles led to a 3.79 ERA and 4.13 FIP.

Wish you were here

The most interesting storyline in Blue Jays camp this spring is not physically in Blue Jays camp... yet. Ervin Santana is making a late attempt at starting a bidding war between multiple clubs. Notably, the Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles were rumored to have offered similar one-year deals for Santana's services. The Blue Jays offered more guaranteed money, while the Orioles lined their deal with performance incentives. Blue Jays players have gone out of their way to publically ask the club to sign Santana. Now, it seems that the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves have joined the fray. Santana would be a bonus to any of the four clubs listed, but he would provide the biggest upgrade for the Jays, who are staring at a less-than-impressive cast of characters in the back of their rotation.

Player to watch: R.A. Dickey

The Blue Jays' pitching staff was a mess in 2013, and it started at the top. Coming off a National League Cy Young award in 2012, Dickey got off to a horrible start in Toronto. He went 4-7 with a 5.18 ERA in April and May, allowing an uncharacteristically high 3.86 walks per nine innings. Things got slightly better after that, but his 3.72 ERA in 150 innings from June through September is still higher than the Jays were expecting when they shipped a pair of top 100 prospects to the New York Mets for his services. His 3.03 strikeout-to-walk ratio during those four months was encouraging, but the 23 home runs he allowed were not. If the Jays want to compete in 2014, Dickey will have to be the ace he was in New York.

Outlook

The Blue Jays have the offensive firepower to compete in the AL East if everyone is healthy, but a porous rotation and 162 game season suggest otherwise. Ervin Santana could be a big help if he gets signed, but even that looks to be a long shot given Alex Anthopoulos' resistance to amending contract offers. If and when the injuries start to pile up, the Jays will have a hard time getting above .500. They would have more wiggle room in another division, but for now they look to be the worst team in an unforgiving AL East.

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