November 10, 2014
Fantasy Team Preview
Toronto Blue Jays
With the Royals’ magic carpet ride to Game Seven of the World Series in October, the dubious distinction for longest playoff drought in Major League Baseball now belongs to the Toronto Blue Jays, who haven’t played a meaningful game since Joe Carter touched ‘em all. But despite those real-world sorrows the Canadian club continues to produce valuable fantasy players year after year, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Rogers Center again played as one of the best ballparks in baseball to catch a souvenir in 2014, and the Blue Jays’ high octane offense checked in third in the Majors in both homeruns and team ISO, fifth in runs scored, and eighth in TAv. And for its part, the pitching staff, while overall poor and inconsistent, managed to produce some sneaky interesting performances. With a wave of young pitching talent set to break imminently, there is promise for more in the immediate future as well.
The Jays will enter this off-season set up for a relatively modest amount of turnover. Two of their starting outfielders from a year ago, Melky Cabrera and Colby Rasmus, will hit free agency, and while the club recently shipped Adam Lind to Milwaukee in order to clear some payroll, it appears unlikely either will be back with Toronto in 2015. Pitching-wise, the rotation cup is poised to runneth over. Last year’s starting five should all remain under club control, and while the club recently declined injury-riddled Brandon Morrow’s option several young MLB-ready prospects will be waiting in the wings for trial runs throughout the year. The departures of closer Casey Janssen and injured set-up man Sergio Santos will open up the back of the bullpen for a competition or free agent signings as well. Let’s take a look at how the roster is currently shaping up as we enter the offseason.
A note for our readers. While informative, since we are still months away from pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training, these previews are far from definitive or complete. Free agent signings, trades, and other offseason news will change the landscape for most if not all teams. For any moves that take place after a team preview is written, please look to our Transaction Analysis coverage for instant reactions, and then check back on the Team Previews for more detailed updates (including lineups, rotations, bullpens, etc.) as we get closer to Opening Day.
Another note for our readers. The characterizations below (for example, “stud”) are designed to be taken in context for each team. Not every team has a Mike Trout or Giancarlo Stanton, so the “stud” category represents the best player or players on each team, not necessarily in comparison to the league.
Jose Bautista – OF/1B
After a couple seasons of injury-aided light regression Bautista rebounded to post the second-highest TAv of his career en route to the 13th-best season overall in standard leagues last year. His lower BABIP profile leaves him less margin for error year to year in the batting average department than some of the other elite sluggers in the game, and he’s going to be 35 next year. But there were no obvious signs of a slowing bat last season and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect at least another year or two of elite production from Bautista, health provided. In OBP leagues, he’s probably still knocking on the door of a top five pick.
Edwin Encarnacion – 1B
Losing 3B eligibility in the leagues he had retained it last year hurts, but with a slugger the caliber of Encarnacion positional scarcity shouldn’t really be a defining concern. Still, entering his age-32 season there are some warning lights beginning to flash. He dealt with nagging back pain on top of a quad injury that knocked him out for 20 percent of the season last year. Both his walk and (previously exceptional) strikeout rates took steps in the wrong direction when he was healthy, and those trends were driven in part by an increasingly significant problem diagnosing and handling breaking balls. Despite some chinks in the armor, his elite power profile and stable-when-healthy production should keep him around the top-tier of first-base targets for another couple years even as he enters the probable decline phase of his career.
Jose Reyes – SS
What to do with Jose Reyes for 2015 is a question that deserves its own much longer article. Healthy for 143 games last year Reyes put up a top-three season among shortstops on the strength of a .287 average, 94 runs, and 30 stolen bases. There are warning signs plastered everywhere you look in Reyes‘ profile, none bigger than the health of his all-important legs entering his age-32 season. But given the shallow depth of the shortstop position, even a declining, injury-prone Reyes still deserves to be valued as a top-five option on draft day.
Marcus Stroman – SP
I waxed philosophic about my love for young Marcus in a piece a couple months ago, and nothing’s really changed since. He pounds the bottom of the zone and shows an exceptional feel for his craft at such a young age. His combination of limiting walks, keeping the ball on the ground, and generating just enough whiffs is already a potent one. Better still, his minor league track record hints at some additional as-yet-untapped strikeout upside to boot. His overall line last year was dinged by a couple stinkbombs, so there may just be a bit of room to grab him at a discount next spring. He’s one of the more exciting young starters in the American League and will enter 2015 as one of my favorite bets around for a full-season breakout.
Marco Estrada – SP
Estrada’s spent some time in previous off-seasons as a sleeper pick on account of his strikeout potential, but he’s never managed to stay healthy or effective enough to realize his upside. Now entering his Age 31 season it’s highly unlikely he ever will. Last year’s 150 2/3 innings were a career high for him despite losing his rotation spot in Milwaukee and being relegated to swingman status. Despite the demotion and relatively modest workload he still somehow managed to lead the National League in homeruns allowed. He’s always been an extreme fly-ball pitcher, and now he heads to one of the most homer-friendly parks in baseball. He doesn’t have a clear path to a rotation spot out of spring training, and even if he were to lay claim to one on the heels of injury the profile is dangerous enough in context that he should be avoided on draft day.
J.A. Happ – SP
It looked ever-so-briefly last August like Happ may have made legitimate improvements based on a mechanical tweak to get better extension on his release, but the rainbows and puppy dogs only lasted for about four starts before it was back to business as usual for Happ. The Blue Jays just exercised their perfectly reasonable $6.7 million option for him next year, but with a whole bunch of talented young starters knocking on the door, it’s likely that Happ’s days of providing even steaming value for AL-only league are probably numbered.
Maicer Izturis – 2B
After a season lost to injury, Izturis will also now lose the only thing previously appealing about his fantasy profile: his versatility. After retaining 2B/SS/3B eligibility across each of the past four seasons he’ll most likely be limited to 2B-only out of the gate next year. As a 34-year-old whose speed is long gone the best-case scenario here if he does manage to claim the starting keystone gig is a modest, empty batting average.
Ryan Goins – 2B
The other in-house option for second base is Ryan Goins, who put up some truly heinous numbers (.190 TAv, 42-to-5 K:BB) over a 193 plate appearance trial last season. Goins will have dual 2B/SS eligibility in leagues with a 15-appearance threshold, so there may be a handful of AL-only leagues where he’s a last round flier consideration on draft day. But there’s really no reason to be the guy doing the considering. He lacks power or speed, and thus his best-case scenario is roughly 70 percent of Maicer Izturis’ production. So… yeah. Let’s move along.
What You See Is What You Get
Mark Buehrle – SP
In some points formats that reward innings pitched there’s probably a legitimate case to be made to include Buehrle in the “Studs” section of this breakdown. He’s now gone a staggering 14 consecutive seasons pitching at least 200 innings, and only twice during that stretch has he failed to post at least a league-average ERA. His strikeout numbers are abysmal and he gives up a ton of hits, so his WHIP is also a liability. But for bulk accumulation leagues and AL-onlies, he remains a reasonable high-floor target to round out the back half of a rotation.
R.A. Dickey – SP
I’ve never been a fan of pinning one’s fantasy hopes on the volatility of the knuckleball, but similar to his rotation-mate above Dickey’s proven a remarkably durable option to effectively eat innings. He’ll pitch at 40 years old next year, and while not as big a deal as it would be for a non-knuckleballer that’s not an insignificant number. Still, he offers better WHIP and strikeout potential than Buehrle, and he should be a decent-enough bet to return top-50 value among starting pitchers again next year.
Dioner Navarro – C
Navarro checked in as the eighth most valuable catcher in standard leagues last year, with an assist in part to the Jays for sneaking him into 19 games at DH to supplement his time behind the plate. Navarro doesn’t offer an especially exciting profile, but he does offer a safe, productive floor. That has value, particularly in a Toronto lineup that should again be positioned to aid his counting stat accumulation. As long as he manages to compile a high enough volume of plate appearances he’ll provide return on investment as one of the better low-cost options in medium-depth leagues.
Brett Lawrie – 3B/2B
If your league has a category for guys with the most career “sleeper” articles written about them Lawrie’s your guy. Otherwise, your guess is as good as mine at this point. After bursting onto the scene with a glorious half-season debut as a 21 year old in 2011 Lawrie has now produced three straight injury-riddled, hugely disappointing seasons for fantasy owners. Even when he has been on the field he hasn’t really shown much in the way of encouraging signs of development. After a season in which he failed to attempt a single stolen base, it’s probably fair to doubt that even in a best-case scenario Lawrie will evolve into the 20/20 monster that his minor-league potential once teased. And yet… he’ll still only be 25 next year, and he’s still got that 20 homer pop in his bat if—IF—he can manage to stay healthy for a full season. Unfortunately, given his aggressive of play and a body that just hasn’t seemed to heal on normal time scales from a litany of strained muscles over the years expecting that full season to come is an increasingly significant leap of faith. His injuries and inconsistency should lead to another modest price tag on draft day though, and he’ll offer attractive dual 2B/3B eligibility. So if you’ve got the infield depth to take a flier he still, somehow, won’t be the worst option.
Drew Hutchison – SP
Hutchison was a nice surprise for the Blue Jays and (particularly AL-only) fantasy owners alike in 2014, putting together a strikeout an inning over 184 2/3 innings at the back of their rotation. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Hutchison’s season was his improvement as it went along. Those 184 2/3 innings represented a massive uptick in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, as he’d logged all of 35 1/3 during his 2013 rehab season. But despite the workload Hutchison got progressively better as the season went on. He showed no signs of diminished velocity in September, and in fact benefitted greatly from creating even more velocity separation between his fastball and slider thanks to a new grip with the latter pitch. His whiff rates ticked up across the board over the last several weeks of the season, and all told he struck out over 10 batters per nine after the All-Star break. It’s not all gravy here, however. The massive innings jump is obviously a red flag in a vacuum, and he’s an extreme fly-ball pitcher in a really bad park for extreme fly-ball pitchers. There’s some exciting raw material to dream on, but caution is certainly warranted if you’re looking for a full season of above-average production.
Justin Smoak – 1B
I just… I can’t help myself. It feels like I’ve been waiting for Smoak to do something—anything—in a big-league uniform since I was knee high to a fantasy baseball-playing grasshopper. And now that he’s free from the tyranny of Safeco and, best of all, en route to Canada to hang out with Bautista and Encarnacion and study the hidden way of late-blooming I just…I can’t help myself. Let’s throw out last year. Between injury and Seattle’s admittedly justified impatience he never really got himself going, he started pressing, and his approach collapsed. But you give a healthy 28 year-old Justin Smoak even 450 at-bats in that delicious maple syrup factory up north and he’ll give you 20 homers. Throw in a nigh-on 12% career walk rate against righties and an infinitely better lineup around him, and suddenly it becomes conceivable that even as just the strong side of a DH platoon hitting seventh he could be a guy that threatens 120 R+RBI. Given that he’s not likely to warrant much of a price tag on draft day that’s potential for a lot of bang for your late-round buck, particularly in AL-only and deeper mixed leagues.
Brett Cecil – RP
Worrying about middle relievers with limited closing prospects is generally a fool’s errand, but if you play in a Holds league Cecil’s certainly someone to have on your radar. He finished fifth in the AL in Holds last year, and while year-to-year variance among relievers makes projecting a similar result for 2015 difficult to say the least, Cecil does appear to have settled into his role over the past two seasons. He’s compiled a 2.76 ERA while striking out 11.5 batters-per-nine over 114 innings during that time, though Toronto’s increased deployment of him in LOOGY situations last year further limits his already-limited value to roto formats.
Anthony Gose – OF
The power Gose teased at AA in 2011 hasn’t really ever materialized since, and Gose has flashed an extreme groundball profile during his time in the Majors to go along with a persistent swing-and-miss problem. Still, with the likely departure of Colby Rasmus, Gose stands as the top internal option to man centerfield. He’s posted strong walk rates to date despite his contact issues, and he stole 36 bases last year in 500 plate appearances between the International League and Toronto. He’ll likely do battle with Dalton Pompey for the early-season nod in center, and depending on how that shakes out he’s an end-of-the-bench target as a one-category contributor for now. But he’s still young enough to ostensibly improve, and the on-base skills at least offer some projection to dream on.
Andy Dirks – OF
Dirks missed all of 2014 after back surgery and was claimed by Toronto on waivers a couple weeks back. If healthy he will presumably figure into the mix as a fallback option for leftfield if and when the Jays fail to re-sign Melky Cabrera. He’s been exactly league-average offensively over a little more than a thousand career big league plate appearances, and at 28 he’s probably best-suited to a fourth outfielder role. Still, he can show a bit of pop against right-handed pitching, and if the Jays do lose Cabrera, he’ll be a guy to keep an eye on in spring training if you’re in an AL-only league where warm bodies with playing time have value.
Prospects for 2015
Daniel Norris – SP
Norris checked in fourth on the team’s top 10 last winter, and the left-hander subsequently took a huge step forward in 2014, advancing all the way from High-A to a major-league cup of coffee down the stretch. His velocity ticked up and he showed improved command of a deep arsenal en route to punching out 11.8 batters-per-nine to pace all starters across the minor leagues. A fastball-slider combo is his bread-and-butter currently, though both his change-up and curveball project to average pitches or better. He’s posted a fairly extreme reverse split in his minor career, racking up particularly devastating strikeout numbers against right-handed hitters. That bodes well for his impressive whiff rates to transfer to the Show, particularly if his command continues to progress. He underwent a procedure to remove some bone chips in his elbow after the season, so there’s some injury red ink here, but it doesn’t appear to be a structural concern. He’ll likely open the season in Triple-A, but he has quickly emerged as one of the top left-handed pitching prospects in baseball and should get his shot to grab a rotation spot in Toronto and run with it by the second half.
Dalton Pompey – OF
Perhaps nobody in all of prospect land did more to put himself on the map last year than Pompey. Long-known to prospect hounds on account of his knockout tools and athleticism, he hadn’t ever really been able to stay on the field long enough to develop those tools into baseball talent. That changed dramatically over the course of the season, as Pompey erupted (volcano term) through the Jays’ system to establish himself as a legitimate candidate to start in centerfield next season after Colby Rasmus presumably departs. Despite the successful season Pompey remains somewhat raw, and in the short-term he probably shouldn’t be looked at as someone who will immediately produce an elite power/speed combination. But thanks to a 12 percent career walk rate in the minors, there’s reason for optimism that the speed—he stole 44 bases in 51 attempts last year—can play relatively quickly. He’s got enough pull-side power to where he should eventually be able to deliver homerun totals in the mid-teens as well. His defensive chops give him a leg up in the real world where such things matter, and thanks to the plus defensive profile he’s one of the more intriguing fantasy prospects with a shot at landing a starting job next year. The off-season helium around him should make him a highly coveted asset in dynasty leagues this winter.
Aaron Sanchez – SP
After watching Sanchez thoroughly dominate (1.09 ERA, 0.70 WHIP, and only 14 hits in 33 innings) out of the Major League bullpen last year the Blue Jays will have an interesting decision on their hands about what to do with Sanchez going forward. Control has long been a bugaboo for the young right-hander, but he attacked hitters with confidence throughout his relief campaign and it’ll be awfully enticing for Toronto to avoid fixing what didn’t look particularly broken—especially with Casey Janssen set to hit the open market and depth at the back end of the bullpen scarce.
Kendall Graveman – SP
An eighth-round pick in 2013, Graveman was the pitching answer to Dalton Pompey last season. After starting the year in A ball he exploded across four levels, posting a combined 1.83 ERA and 1.03 WHIP over 167 1/3 innings and making his Major League debut in a brief September call-up. His plus control of a two-seam/cutter combination proved deadly for minor league bats. He lacks a strikeout pitch and doesn’t profile as a frontline starter, but he showed an impressive ability to induce weak contact and limit walks during his meteoric rise through the minors. He should enter 2015 high on the Blue Jays’ organizational depth chart and will be a strong candidate to be the Blue Jays’ first recall if and when injury strikes the rotation.
Sean Nolin – SP
Despite a groin injury that limited him to just shy of a hundred innings in 2014, Nolin’s basically Major League-ready at this point and will likely see at least a handful of starts in the Toronto rotation next season. He’s a prototypical finesse lefty, and he doesn’t project to be a particularly interesting name outside of deep AL-only and very deep mixed leagues. The fastball lacks explosiveness and he relies on an above-average change and good command to keep hitters off-balance. He’s a solid enough real life prospect, but his fly-ball tendencies and lack of strikeout pitch don’t make for a particularly appealing fantasy package in Rogers Centre.
Wilson Karaman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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