The Blue Jays won just 73 games last season, finishing fourth in a division where the top three teams all reached 90 victories. It's been 13 years since any team claimed an AL East flag with fewer than 95 wins. Thus, Toronto's front office entered the offseason knowing that it wouldn't be enough to make only small changes at the margins.
With this fact in mind, general manager Alex Anthopoulos has spent the past three months overhauling and upgrading the Jays' roster, completing a transformation that would be difficult to execute in, say, a 10-team dynasty league. Toronto completed a 12-player deal with the Marlins in November — adding Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Emilio Bonifacio — then pulled off a seven-player trade with the Mets in December, picking up Cy Young winner RA Dickey. They acquired John Buck in one deal, then flipped him in another. Along the way, the Jays also signed PED offender Melky Cabrera to a relatively modest make-good contract (two years, $16 million). This team traded its manager, too, which isn't the most common occurrence.
Toronto has added tens of millions of dollars in salary in a short period of time, substantially improving the big league roster at the expense of the farm system. (Prospects Travis d'Arnaud and Noah Snydergaard were shipped to New York, Jake Marisnick, Adeiny Hechavarria and Justin Nicolino to Miami). Without question, the Jays are going to be a whole lot better in 2013. It's no stretch to imagine this team in the postseason — which, again, will require something like a 20-win improvement. Toronto has depth and talent in the rotation, plus plenty of speed and power in the lineup.
In most fantasy drafts, the early rounds will be full of Jays. Let's review...
Q: How 'bout we begin with the new additions to the starting rotation? The transition from the NL East to the AL East can't be easy, right?
A: Nope, we don't generally expect such moves to be kind to pitchers, fantasy-wise. But we also need to be careful not to overstate the impact of these switches. Last season, the league-average ERA in the NL was 3.95, WHIP was 1.31 and BAA was .254. In the AL, the numbers were 4.08, 1.31 and .255. So the degree of difficulty goes up for Dickey, Johnson and Buehrle, but not by orders of magnitude.
Rogers Centre has been a hitter-friendly park over the past three years, we should note, and it's generally a nice power environment (better for right-handers). Marlins Park, by comparison, was a tough place to clear the fences last season, ranking 26th in HR park factor. There's little question that Johnson and Buehrle will find themselves in a more challenging home environment. Still, for me, the principal concern with Johnson is health, not home. He has a history of elbow and shoulder issues, his velocity is in multi-year decline, and his strikeout-rate is trending the wrong way. He's also coming off a perfectly ordinary season in Miami (3.81 ERA, 7.8 K/9). There's no obvious reason to jump on him in mixed league drafts until the mid-to-late rounds.
Buehrle is ... well, he's Buehrle. He spent a dozen years in the AL (in a hitter-friendly park), so he knows what's coming. Buehrle will pile up innings — he's thrown 200-plus in 12 straight seasons — but he won't pile up Ks. In mixed leagues, you're not drafting him. He's a spot-starter for fantasy purposes, a guy that streamers will add and drop all season long. He's low-risk, low-reward.
Dickey is clearly the most interesting new name in Toronto's rotation, and perhaps the trickiest to project. You'll go broke betting on players to repeat career years, particularly at age 38. But Dickey was so good last season — 20 W, 230 Ks, 2.73 ERA, 1.05 WHIP — that he can take a backward step (or two), yet still be a solid fantasy asset. We also shouldn't fret so much about mileage and age with knuckleball specialists. It's tough to find comps for a guy like Dickey, because not only does he have a non-traditional arsenal, but he's actually something of an oddball within the community of knuckleballers. The guy varies speed significantly on his signature pitch, hitting every number on the radar between 67 and 83. He's different from Tim Wakefield, who threw the knuckler with consistently lower velocity (mid-60s) while mixing in the occasional low-70s fastball.
Over the past three seasons in New York, Dickey maintained excellent fantasy ratios (2.95 ERA, 1.15 WHIP from 2010-12), so it's not as if he hadn't helped us before 2012. His strikeouts spiked last year, obviously, as his K/9 jumped from 5.78 to 8.86. My expectation is that he'll keep some (though not all) of the strikeout gains — let's give him a K/9 of 7.6 — while still delivering an ERA in the low-to-mid 3s, tossing perhaps 220 innings. Can you use a guy who'll win 15-plus games, strike out something like 185 batters, and give you quality ratios over a significant number of innings? Of course you can.
Q: There's no reason to worry about Jose Reyes heading north, is there? His legs won't explode on the artificial track?
A: Well, I refuse to offer any assurances about the health of Reyes' hamstrings, calves or quads. That would have been the case if he'd remained in Miami, too. This is a speed-dependent player with a deep history of leg issues. What I can comfortably guarantee is that Reyes is moving to a better run-scoring environment, and he's coming off a season in which he played 160 games and swiped 40 bags. If he remains healthy (huge if), he's a good bet to rank among the category leaders in runs and steals, and possibly batting average.
For what it's worth, there's actually been some discussion about the installation of a grass surface at Rogers Centre, though it presumably wouldn't happen until 2015.
Q: OK, one last question about the new arrivals: What should we expect from Melky, post-suspension?
A: Honestly, it's difficult enough to forecast performance when dealing with a player who's healthy, all-natural, and who isn't changing teams. When you toss in the PED variable, this becomes a ridiculous exercise. There's no universal PED multiplier. I have no idea of the extent to which Cabrera (or any other player) was artificially enhanced, nor do I know that he (or any other player) is now entirely clean.
Here's what I can say about Melky with relative confidence: He's extremely unlikely to repeat last year's .379 BABIP, so you're going to see the batting average take a nosedive, perhaps by 50-plus points. Yes, he's been a line-drive/groundball machine across multiple seasons; we should expect him to be a contributor in AVG, with double-digit power and speed. And as we've already established, the team context here is favorable. If you're projecting a batting average in the .275 to .300 range for Cabrera, you probably won't be disappointed. I can't sign off on anything better.
Q: What's the scoop on Jose Bautista? We should worry about sluggers coming off wrist injuries, yeah?
A: Sure, the wrist is a legit concern. Bautista only appeared in six games after the all-star break last season. He was shut down in late August, then had surgery soon after.
The good news here is that Jose has said that he's pain free and swinging at full strength. He didn't receive permission to play in the World Baseball Classic, but, according to Anthopoulos, he was "dying to play." There haven't been any reported setbacks in Jose's recovery. I can't see any obvious reason to panic, except for the usual worries about wrist injuries and power. The nice thing with Bautista is that he's been an absolute power monster over multiple seasons, a category leader — he hit 27 bombs last year in just 332 at-bats — so even if his homer total dips, he's still likely to post a useful number. He'll be drafted near the Round 1-Round 2 turn in most mixed leagues (Mock Draft Central ADP 13.93), in Fielder-Upton-Tulowitzki territory. If you choose to pass on him at that price, I get it. He could be a liability in batting average, and he no longer has 3B eligibility.
Q: Any chance that Sergio Santos can reclaim the closer's role from Casey Janssen this year?
A: Sure, there's always a chance. Closer turnover can hit any team, any year. But Janssen was outstanding in the ninth last season, converting 22 of 25 save opportunities, rarely issuing free passes (11 BBs in 63.2 IP) and holding opponents to a .195 average. What's not to like? Santos is coming off a shoulder injury that cost him nearly all of the 2012 season, except for 5.0 messy April innings (6 H, 5 ER, 4 BB, 4 Ks). He looks like a handcuff at this point. I'm drafting Janssen for late-round saves.
Q: After Toronto's flurry of trades, are there any prospects left worth discussing?
A: No, not really — at least not for 2013 fantasy purposes. Speedy outfielder Anthony Gose has graduated from prospect status, logging 189 plate appearances over 56 games with Toronto last season, and he's currently without a starting spot at the major league level. He's a guy to maybe snag in AL-only as a potential category specialist, but that's it.
In those multi-player deals with Miami and New York, the Jays actually traded away the prospects who were ranked first, second, third, fifth and eighth in the organization, per Baseball America. The highest-rated farmhand remaining in the system, RHP Aaron Sanchez, is only 20 years old, and he pitched in the Single-A Midwest League last season. We aren't likely to see him in Toronto this year.
Q: Aren't you going to make any outrageous predictions about Brett Lawrie this year?
A: Shut up. That was uncalled for, anonymous questioner. We're done here.
(Just for the record, I'm still plenty bullish on Lawrie. We're talking about a talented hitter who just turned 23. If you need a forecast, here you go: .279 AVG, 80 R, 22 HR, 74 RBIs, 15 SB. Book it. And with that, we're done).