This was a huge disappointment for the Jays, whose offseason maneuvering made them look like potential favorites in the AL East after five straight fourth place finishes (I know; I picked them to go to the playoffs). Instead, they improved by just a single game and dropped another spot in the standings.
Diagnosis: Not just some of the injuries, all of the injuries
In 2012, the Jays' promising rotation was devastated by elbow injuries to Brandon Morrow, Drew Hutchison, and Kyle Drabek, while former ace Ricky Romero fell to pieces. In the bullpen, newly acquired closer Sergio Santos pitched only five innings before getting diagnosed with a shoulder injury that required surgery. On the offensive side, vaunted slugger Jose Bautista suffered a major wrist injury that knocked him out for essentially all of the second half.
No problem, Alex Anthopoulos thought, let's get some new players. And that's what he did, acquiring R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Melky Cabrera, and Emilio Bonifacio within the span of a month. At first glance, he had upgraded three-fifths of his rotation, shortstop, left field, and had acquired a premier utility player. Things looked pretty promising up in Canada.
Then the same curse that struck the club in 2012 returned. It knocked Reyes out for 75 days with a sprained ankle. Brett Lawrie had a bad ankle too, one that kept him out for 40 games. This was after he lost half of April to a strained ribcage. Johnson missed 90 days with two separate arm injuries and had a knee injury that plagued him all year. Melky sat out with knee injuries for more than 70 games, and had a benign tumor removed from his back on August 30. Colby Rasmus lost a month with an oblique strain. Bautista lost another month and a half to a hip injury. A triceps strain kept Sergio Santos out for more than 100 days. By far the most frightening injury was suffered by J.A. Happ, when a line drive back to the mound fractured his skull, and he missed almost half the season.
In their stead, the Blue Jays turned to various solutions that proved in turn highly entertaining (Munenori Kawasaki), sad (Chien-Ming Wang and Ricky Romero), horrifying (Ramon Ortiz), and surprisingly effective (Mark DeRosa and Todd Redmond), none of whom could adequately replace the production the wounded would have provided. Significant drops in production by Dickey, Buehrle, and J.P. Arencibia just sealed the Jays' fate in 2013.
Key Stat: 4.81
That's the combined ERA of the Jays' starting pitchers in 2013, 26th in the major leagues. It wasn't a mirage either; they finished 28th in FIP and xFIP too. They finished 28th in innings, 26th in strikeouts, and 28th in homers allowed. Dickey, Buehrle, and Johnson, who were supposed to anchor and revitalize the pitching staff, combined for a 4.53 ERA. Once again, the Jays will have to improve their pitching if they're going to get out of the cellar in the AL East.
Breakout: Colby Rasmus, Adam Lind, and Todd Redmond
Even in a terribly disappointing season, the Jays continued to coax great hitting performances out of players previously left for dead. It took a season and a half, but Rasmus clubbed the ball in 2013, even managing to not embarrass himself against lefties. Combined with excellent defense in center, Rasmus was clearly the most valuable Blue Jay on the club and his relative youth means he could hold much of that value going forward.
I'm much less optimistic about Adam Lind, who finally hit again after three straight seasons of putrid offensive performance. Like Rasmus, he benefitted from a big spike in BABIP, but unlike Rasmus, has few other skills to fall back on. Lind is already limited to first base and DH, and gives back almost as much on defense as he gains on offense when he's put out there. He has one more guaranteed year on the huge extension he signed in 2010, and whether he stays probably depends on whether Jose Bautista is still around, healthy, and ability to play defense.
I just wanted to throw this on here because I like him so much: Redmond was a great find, plucked off of the waiver wire at the end of Spring Training, and thrust into the rotation when Toronto got desperate enough in May. There's very little that's exciting about Redmond. He's a big righty with a low-90s fastball who is an extreme fly-ball pitcher. He allows a ton of homers, but his strikeout rate and control make it easy to live with him at the back end of a rotation. If Anthopoulos acquires more pitching, he may not have a spot in Toronto. Nevertheless, I'm glad he finally got an extended shot, and happier that he made the most of it.
Breakdown: J.P. Arencibia
Arencibia got some positive reviews for improving his pitch framing skills in 2013 thanks to his work with Sal Fasano, but it's hard to see how any improvement could make up for his offensive freefall. Arencibia hit just .194/.227/.365, a 59 OPS+, with 148 strikeouts (which was typical for him) against just 18 walks. Among players with more than 400 plate appearances, only A.J. Pierzynski, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Wilin Rosario walked fewer times. Even if we remove the three passed balls and one wild pitch he allowed on Opening Day with R.A. Dickey on the mound (the only time the two were paired all season), Arencibia still ranks among the worst catchers in the game at blocking balls in the dirt. All in all, Arencibia was probably the worst regular catcher in baseball last year and is about to go to arbitration for the first time. If the Jays want to improve, his is a great spot to start.
Prescription: Fire the catching
That terrible Hunger Games reference was brought to you by synergy. I assume I will be paid many dollars for throwing in that reference. It's also tempting to throw in the towel and assume that a rebuild is in order, since the big 2013 push was a flop. Yet, the same pieces that made the Jays so attractive a year ago are all in place (except for Johnson) and the money is all spent. The Jays can't divest themselves of enough salary for it to make a difference anyway, and doing so would risk alienating a fan base that has improved its attendance for four straight years. Eventually, those fans will stop coming to see a losing club, but the Jays may be able to keep expectations high with a strong offseason.
Anthopoulos has already been linked to big trades potentially involving Domonic Brown and Jeff Samardzija, and there are reports that Jose Bautista is quietly being shopped. The GM says he wants to make a big splash, but it's hard to imagine Toronto being able to deal for more talented players than are on hand. While the pitching was a huge problem in 2013, the biggest single upgrade the club could make would be to bring in a competent catcher. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is likely to be expensive, but would provide a huge upgrade on both offense and defense (which is saying something given that no one has mistaken Salty for a Gold Glover). Pierzynski is a cheaper, one-year solution, though he's too much like Arencibia to be too excited about. A better option would be to trade for Ryan Hanigan of the Reds or Chris Iannetta of the Angels, helping those teams to clear some payroll.
As for the pitching, the Jays can probably count on some bounce-back from Dickey. Brandon Morrow will be a year further removed from surgery and was having the year of his life when he went down. Drabek will also be healthy again and was strong in 11 rehab starts last year. Hutchison had a rougher rehab, but still will be ready for spring training. J.A. Happ is a perfectly capable fourth or fifth starter.
Even after the purge that brought in Dickey and Reyes, and all their buddies, the Jays also have starting pitchers on the cusp of being able to contribute. Sean Nolin debuted last year, Aaron Sanchez should finish 2014 in the majors, and Marcus Stroman could have been up in September (seriously, read this report on Stroman and salivate). So if the Jays can't acquire a cost-controlled young pitcher like Samardzija to start 2014, there should be more than enough arms on hand to build an improved rotation to pair with an already imposing bullpen. Indeed, run prevention should not be a problem in Toronto for the third year in a row unless the voodoo curse strikes again and everyone gets hurt. Through it all, I still like the Blue Jays, and think the deals that seemed like disasters last year could wind up making the difference going forward in a tough AL East.