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September 20, 2011

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Toronto Blue Jays

by Ben Lindbergh, Kevin Goldstein and ESPN Insider

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Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fade -- whether in September (or before), the league division series, league championship series or World Series. It combines a broad overview from Baseball Prospectus, a front-office take from former MLB GM Jim Bowden, a best- and worst-case scenario ZiPS projection for 2012 from Dan Szymborski and Kevin Goldstein's farm-system overview.

Today we say so long to the Toronto Blue Jays, who continue to make progress in competing the tough AL East, but still found themselves coming up short. It's time to kiss them goodbye, eh?

Projected 2012 Lineup
The Blue Jays will rely heavily on their bats to contend in the AL East, but they can't do that without their young pitchers taking a big step forward.

Batting order
SS: Yunel Escobar
2BKelly Johnson
RF: Jose Bautista
CF: Colby Rasmus
3B: Brett Lawrie
DH: Edwin Encarnacion
1BAdam Lind
LF: Travis Snider
C: J.P. Arencibia

Rotation
SP: Ricky Romero
SP: ?
SP: Brandon Morrow
SP: Kyle Drabek
SP: Henderson Alvarez
 

Baseball Prospectus' Take
Signs of hope:
 The Jays haven’t been bad at bat, featuring the second-best offensive team that won’t be going to the playoffs. Jose Bautista has made his offseason extension seem like a steal by sustaining his offensive onslaught over a second campaign, and Brett Lawrie, a BC native whose exuberant style has already made him a Canadian cult hero, trails just behind the American League’s top five third basemen with 3.1 WARP despite not making his debut until early August. The Jays have also been the AL’s best baserunning team, adding roughly nine runs, or just under a win (over half of that attributable to Rajai Davis) with their legs. Despite their struggles on the mound, the Jays have established two strong young starters in Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow (whose 4.98 ERA, inflated by an utter absence of double plays turned behind him, has obscured the highest strikeout rate among AL starters), and they enjoyed both the successful late-season debut of Henderson Alvarez and the unlikely return of Dustin McGowan, who was prevented from pitching over the past two seasons after undergoing serious shoulder surgery. GM Alex Anthopoulos has yet to make a major miscue, and the Jays have enjoyed both financial (Vernon Wells) and on-field (Yunel Escobar) fruits of his swaps with other organizations.

Signs of disaster: The Blue Jays have had to rely on their bats, since the team’s pitching hasn’t held up its end of the bargain. Among AL teams, only the Orioles and Twins have run up a higher Fair Run Average than Toronto’s 4.88. The Jays were again victimized by their undesirable division assignment and the unbalanced schedule, going 20-30 to date against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays. The good news is that they’re 13 games over .500 against everyone else, but that doesn’t change the unfortunate fact that the Jays are still stuck behind three seemingly immovable obstacles. They also endured disappointing seasons from Travis Snider and Adam Lind, two players who were expected to be offensive stalwarts but haven’t lived up to their billing lately, and top pitching prospect Kyle Drabek made the team out of spring training only to lose his control and continue to struggle even after a demotion to Triple-A. 

Signs you can ignore: The Jays endured a sign-stealing controversy that erupted in Augustand briefly made them the object of unwanted attention from armchair baseball ethicists, but the bad publicity blew over before long. If in fact that Jays had been up to something sneaky and were forced to reform, it didn’t affect their ability to hit balls a long way; the team has gone yard even more frequently at the Rogers Centre after the report’s publication on August 10, as a percentage of balls in play:

 

Pre-8/10 HR on Contact%

Post-8/10 HR on Contact%

Home

4.65

5.47

Away

3.45

5.31

 

However, the Jays have improved their home-run hitting to an even greater degree on the road, where they’ve presumably been playing without any foreknowledge of upcoming pitches, which suggests that they’ve derived a bigger benefit from the hot second halves of Lawrie and others than any illicit activities in which they might have engaged. —Ben Lindbergh, Baseball Prospectus

Bowden's Bold Move
The Blue Jays are 11th in the American League in both ERA and WHIP, while the offense is one of just five teams in the league to have scored more than 700 runs. In other words, they need some help in their rotation.

The bold move the Blue Jays should make this off-season is to sign a proven veteran starting pitcher with leadership capabilities. Specifically, they should target starting pitchers C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle. Either one would bring a 15-win and 200-innings pedigree along with veteran leadership to the top of the Jays' rotation. Romero remains the "ace", but either veteran would help develop the young pitchers who follow.

The Jays should also take a chance and sign Jonathan Broxton of the Dodgers to a low-salary deal with incentives based on games pitched. Broxton, 27, had elbow surgery recently to clean out bone spurs. If he is healthy, he could bounce back to his 2009 form, when he saved 36 games with a 2.61 ERA and a WHIP of 0.961. His ineffectiveness the last two years had to do with command problems that were directly related to health.

Signing Wilson or Buehrle would give Toronto the pitching boost it needs to legitimately compete for a playoff spot in 2012. —Jim Bowden

Hopes and Fears
Best-case scenario ZiPS projection: 89-73

In most divisions, an 89-73 record makes you a serious contender. In the AL East, however, it gets you a third- or fourth-place finish. The Jays have pitching on the way, but it probably won't be enough in 2012. But if the Jays are going to flirt with 90 wins and September relevancy, they're going to have to get better pitching behind Romero and his unhittable changeup. And unless they are active in the Wilson or Buehrle market, Morrow's going to have to figure out how to pitch with runners on base (.847 OPS allowed with men on), and Drabek and Brett Cecil need to step forward and improve their inning-to-inning consistency. It's possible given the talent involved, but it's a lot to put together suddenly.

Worst-case scenario: 70-92
There are a lot of young players with upside on the team, so the Jays will probably at least be moderately respectable without some truly awful luck intervening. The Jays could help their case by having role players who won't drag down the Bautista-and-Lawrie-fueled offense, like Corey Patterson or the now-departed 2010-11 version of Aaron Hill; the current pitching staff isn't good enough to prop up an offense getting .650 OPS or worse performance from three offensive positions. Another season of both Lind and Snider underperforming their potential, would leave the Jays without the proper secondary cast to safely outpace the Orioles. —Dan Szymborski, Baseball Think Factory

Organizational Future
The Blue Jays are trying to get out from under those looming AL East shadows, and everything towards that is moving in the right direction under Anthopolous, thanks to a series of excellent trades and remarkably aggressive drafts. The Blue Jays have already gotten big-league production from Lawrie, but there is more to come if Jays fans can be patient, as the organization possesses arguably the most impressive collections of young arms in the game, even after failing to sign 2011 first-round pick Tyler Beede. While it's hard to see them competing for a playoff spot in either of the next two years, there are plenty of scenarios to see them playing with the big boys by the middle of the decade. Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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