It seems to happen every off-season, yet no one ever seems to learn from it. The Blue Jays made a pair of major trades over the winter that improved their club and made for serious headlines, and because of that, they became the favorites of many to win the difficult American League East after finishing fourth there in 2012. With a month of the season behind them, though, they find themselves in last in the East, 8.5 games back of the division-leading Red Sox and 6.5 back of the nearest wild card spot. It's far too early to count them out, but it's clear this was not in the plan.
No one should be surprised by this happening, though. That's not to say the Blue Jays lack talent, or that their roster -- which added R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, and more -- was never worthy of attention. They did have flaws, though, and there were many risks on the roster, yet they were seemingly ignored due to the positive potential of the Jays. The season's first month reminded everyone that not all of the roster's potential was positive, as it has for other off-season darlings in the past few years.
Before the 2011 season, the Red Sox traded prospects Casey Kelly and Anthony Rizzo for all-star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and signed free agent outfielder Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million deal. The Boston Herald wondered if the 2011 Red Sox were the greatest team ever before they even took the field in a regular season game, and many analysts expected them to be, at least, the greatest team in the league -- and why not, given they were in the hunt for much of 2010 despite countless injuries to their talented roster?
Instead, they lost their first six games, and finished the month of April with an 11-15 record and a negative run differential. While they more than recovered, and ended up spending 60 days in first place while peaking at 31 games over .500, the slow start ended up costing them in the end. Yes, they went just 7-20 in September, famously missing out on the playoffs thanks to dropping the last game of the season, but all it would have taken is one more victory in April to nullify their awful finish. It's early for the 10-17 Blue Jays, too, but in a division as tight as the AL East, their April could also end up costing them, even if they do rebound.
Photo credit: Stephen Dunn
Something similar happened to the Angels in 2012, after their off-season that saw them sign Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million contract at roughly the moment they also inked C.J. Wilson to a five-year deal. They could already pitch, and could already hit, and had just won 86 games in 2011: like with the Red Sox a year before, all the ingredients were there to fall in love with a team that made off-season splashes. The similarities went a little too far for the Angels, however, and they ended up going just 8-15 in April. Mike Trout would join the team right before the month closed out, and even though he was a major boost to the lineup, the damage was done. The Angels went 81-58 the rest of the way, but they needed 93 wins to force a tie for a wild card spot and 94 for the AL West -- their opening month kept them from those totals more than any other.
The Angels just might have been a bit overrated in a tough division. Wilson wasn't nearly as productive as he had been in his previous two seasons with the Rangers, and while Pujols ended up getting over his awful start, his final line also looked less imposing than his previous work. The team was good, and it was even better once Trout and Zack Greinke came on board, but too many at-bats went to Vernon Wells, too many innings to an injured and ineffective Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana piled on that problem with a 73 ERA+ over 30 starts. In the end, it was the production -- or lack of -- from those players that sunk them, as well as a bullpen that couldn't get it together soon enough for a rotation that needed their help.
Then, of course, there's the 2013 Angels. While we can't tell you how their season will end up, they're making life harder for themselves in April once more with a 9-17 record that puts them eight back of Texas and six back of the Athletics. This, despite already having Trout aboard, and the expensive addition of Josh Hamilton to the lineup.
The Red Sox had an issue with depth. Daisuke Matsuzaka underwent Tommy John surgery, and the lone replacement on hand was Tim Wakefield. Then Clay Buchholz suffered a stress fracture in his spine, but Boston's bloated payroll meant they could only afford to bring in the likes of the oft-injured Erik Bedard -- they also made an attempt at the even-more-injured Rich Harden. John Lackey had one of the worst full seasons for a pitcher in Red Sox history, but he had to -- despite his elbow, which would undergo Tommy John surgery once the year was over, he was one of the best options they had on hand. Failed starter Andrew Miller and minor-league depth options like Kyle Weiland tried to fill in the blanks, but even Boston's lineup couldn't support a rotation with only two productive arms in it, and the season was lost.
The Jays might be somewhere in the middle. They brought in high-risk players like Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, and R.A. Dickey -- yes, Dickey won the Cy Young award in 2012, but he's also a knuckler, and you never know when that's going to stop being a positive. Their rotation had a lot of upside heading into the year, but just as much risk, and almost every coin flip has landed on the negative side: Mark Buerhle has been torched in his return to the AL, Johnson has been ineffective and was already scratched from a start, Dickey has struggled, and even Brandon Morrow, who was already around, has had issues with strikeouts and his ERA. J.A. Happ has been their best pitcher to this point, and while that's good in some ways, it's also an awful thing when you consider what this rotation could have looked like in April.
Things aren't much better for the position players. Reyes, their high-profile offensive acquisition, is out for a huge chunk of 2013 thanks to an ankle injury. Injuries to Jose Bautista and Brett Lawrie slowed them out of the gate, and combined with slow starts for many hitters on the roster, has resulted in a collective OPS+ of 87, the third-worst in the AL.
Things aren't likely to stay that way forever -- there is too much talent here for that -- but the Red Sox and Angels serve as reminders of how well things have to go the rest of the way in order to make up for this disappointing start.