MLB 2014 Year in Review: Taking a deeper look at the “playoff-less” Toronto Blue Jays

At the beginning of the season, the headlines about the Blue Jays were players supposedly willing to defer salary in order to sign Ervin Santana. At the end of the season the media is questioning the future of the organization and particularly the management running the ball club. So what happened in between?

Well if you ask majority of fans what happened in between, you will likely hear a wide variety of responses. Some will talk about the Jays being plagued by injuries while some would talk about Edwin Encarnacion having an insane month of May. Majority will talk about the push for the playoffs that fell short. Many will point to a quiet trade deadline as the reason for not making the playoffs. Not only will you hear this used for explaining the late push for the playoffs that fell short, but you will hear this used as an excuse for firing Gibbons, Anthopolous, Beeston and yes even blowing up the team and starting from scratch.

I speak for many Jays fans when I say how frustrating it has been to read peoples comments about blowing up everything. Let me first start by expressing my thoughts on the season that was for the Blue Jays. I began writing blogs at the beginning of the season after being inspired by an intriguing article written by Arden Zwelling on Marcus Stroman who was just coming off an exciting start – one of the many to come in his career (http://www.sportsnet.ca/baseball/mlb/hes-going-to-be-big/) I cant predict the future but I can say with a high degree of confidence that this kid is going to be good. And if he is going to be good the Jays will be good too. Hopefully. My first article came after a ridiculous start by the Blue Jays. I mean the Jays have gotten off to great starts earlier on in seasons before but they separated themselves from the rest of the AL East. I would be lying if I said I thought this was the year. The year when they went all the way and finished first. Not third. Not second. First place. I mean it’s been over 20 years since the Jays have been a legit contender in baseball. It was when they came back to life that made the season very fun to watch (Shout out to Juan Francisco). Many thought the Jays couldn’t hold on as other teams would get hot and the Jays would cool down. Some hoped that if the Jays played well before they could do it again despite some glaring issues in their team. But the truth of the matter was these holes were too big to fix.

Lets take a stroll around the diamond to assess the Blue Jays. The first spot is none other than the pitching rotation; the anchor of the team.

Usually people like saving the best for last but I have nothing to lose about talking about Marcus Stroman right off the bat. This kid is the real deal. The young and relatively short man from Duke has become a household name all across the league and not just in Toronto alone. He shot his way up the farm system and made his debut in the show out of the bullpen. For a fan who wanted to see what he was all about, it didn’t take long. Soon after being sent down to the Bisons, Stroman made his mark in the rotation and made it deep enough to last the rest of the way. There was no question about his potential, but rather his ability to continue to dominate when it meant the most. I was calling him the Jays ace in my recent blogs, and it was no joke. You look at the names of Stephen Strasburg, Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey – well you should see Marcus Stroman as a young dominant pitcher in the league. When Masahiro Tanaka went down with injuries, I was excited to see Stroman make a push for Rookie of the Year (too bad Jose Abreu is an absolute beast) and earn an appearance on Intentional Talk with former Blue Jay Kevin Millar and company. I am beyond excited to see Marcus Stroman pitch in a Jays uniform for the years to come and I predict he will soon be the face of the Blue Jays. (Eric Sogard is not the face of MLB I am sorry).

The Knuckleballer was coming off a rough season. For someone who was reading his autobiography (which I must say was a great read for anyone just baseball fans) I was really cheering to see him bounce back from a disappointing season. This didn’t seem to be the case in his first few starts in the season. R.A. Dickey is no CY Young pitcher anymore and the criticism keeps rolling in about his performance. His second half was quite good as he pitched some great games. At the end of the day, if the knuckleball is knuckling and is really moving (just look at the past balls on the box score) he can be a real threat to anyone in the batters box but if he is not on his game and his knuckleballs are flat, hitters can really hit him hard. That is the problem with R.A. Dickey. It is as if he picks out of a hat in the clubhouse before every game if he will pitch a solid game or not. Fans hope that more than every other game this happens but this should be expected from someone who is a bottom of the rotation guy and will pitch to a high 3 point or low 4 point ERA for the season.

Moving on to Drew Hutchinson, let me just say this kid has some real good stuff. You have to look no further than his complete game start in Texas where he was on his game from the first pitch to the last out of the game. Of course this will not be something to expect game in and game out but the potential is there and he is just scratching the surface. For a young starter who was coming off Tommy John surgery to pitch the way he did this season was very satisfying. His home splits were nothing to be concerned about but for some reason he was just better on the road. It semt as if his arm was running out of strength towards seasons end but he is a key piece in our rotation for years to come.

If you looked at early CY-Young odds at the beginning of the season you would have seen Mark Buehrle on the list. For a veteran pitcher who throws 85mph fastballs it was an unreal start. If Jays fans got caught up in the buzz he created at the beginning of the season that’s unfortunate. Mark Buehrle started to slow down at the wrong time when the Blue Jays were going from doing everything to nothing right. Buehrle is a good veteran pitcher who has been around the league long enough to know the season is a long journey. He had his up and downs after the All-Star break but pitched as expected by the end of the season.

JA Happ was a question mark for the Blue Jays but stepped in with the injury to Brandon Morrow and the departing of Dustin McGowan to the bullpen. He still remains a question mark though, which is a problem. JA Happ had a string of good outings throughout the season including a start where he stuck out (15?). You may say this about other pitchers in the rotation and no offense to Happ or anything but Happ still hasn’t earned my confidence to pitch every five games. For a team who was in the thick of the playoff race at the end of the season, it was hard as a fan to see the Blue Jays throwing Happ in meaningful games and it left me thinking whether or not there were any other better options. The problem was that there wasn’t. This brings me to a bigger problem about the Blue Jays this year.

For a team that had people saying their name and the word playoffs in the same sentence, their rotation was not satisfying enough compared to the other playoff contenders. Does that mean if they made the playoffs other strong pitching rotations would knock them out? That’s another topic of discussion in itself but pitching wins ballgames and that is a fact. Starting pitchers have to go out every five days and pitch long games and keep their team in ballgames. And not get injured of course.

Sometimes people like to call upon the trades teams don’t make. I am one of them and here is why. David Price. Cliff Lee. Cole Hamels. Fans wanted at least one of these guys at the deadline. Okay. So you get Price and then you take out Stroman and Hutchinson from your rotation. (Mike Wilner says Sanchez/Stroman and Lawrie) Which rotation is better? For a guy that pitches every five guys its hard to see him making the Jays good enough to make the playoffs. I mean you could argue making the team better but the mortgaging would be useless in this scenario if they didn’t make the playoffs. Jays fans saw the Yankees making small moves on marginal players who were arguably not going to be an improvement to what they had. I am no fortuneteller, but these small moves didn’t save the Yankees and it would likely not have for the Blue Jays. The problem was that this season was deceiving. The Blue Jays are a good team and better than years prior to this one, but they were not good enough to make the playoffs. It was like getting an A instead of an A+ on a test, just a few marks away from being at the top. That was the case with the Jays and that is why fans were eagerly awaiting big moves – and now asking for new management believe it or not, to get them to the top. Jays fans have waited so long to make another run in the playoffs and to say “you have to wait one more year” is just becoming a nuisance in itself. Well will the Jays take the leap from an A to an A+ caliber season is yet to be determined. The pieces are there but they may be even more questions pertaining to the Jays at the end of the season then at the beginning.

Here are my questions.

The Return of Melky Cabrera?

This is hands down the biggest question and concern of many Jays fans going into the offseason. Melky Cabrera was arguably one of the best players game in and game out and taking him out of the lineup makes me wonder if then Jays would compete like they did this season. Fans will remember what he went through last year; playing with a tumour and struggling to even run around and catch fly balls. This year we saw him making highlight worthy catches season long and his performance at the plate was more than fans expected. Lets just remember the Jays gave him hope by taking a chance on him after his monstrous season with the help of performance enhancing drugs. It now looks like this guy is cashing out and in a big way. Should he decline the Jays qualifying offer and test the free agent market he is going to get paid quite big as he is one of the best outfielders on the free agent market. Powerhouse teams like the Yankees will likely be willing to spend more money than the Jays will and that is the problem. I fear the Jays will not be able to compete with other teams offers and lose him. He will be hard to replace with the current internal options and a solid hitter in front of Bautista and Encarnacion. The fact is that the Jays need him back regardless if we plan to sign free agents or acquire players via trade. 

Can Bautista and Encarnacion really walk to contending teams?

You might have people say that the “core” is here for one more year. If the Blue Jays are going to stick with this core they must strongly feel they will remain competitive season long next year. When the trade deadline comes they will have to decide whether or not they want to make a final push and risk out on getting nothing for their players bound to be free-agents; notably Jose Bautista. For a guy like Jose of his caliber, his current contract is like gold. After coming off a season like this year, where he expressed his dis-pleasure for the lack of movement at the deadline, it brings up the idea of Bautista’s desire to play for a playoff team. I mean if the Jays aren’t playoff bound, why bother staying here?

If you fire someone who do you fire?

9 out of 10 fans will say John Gibbons sucks, fire him now. Now I know his demeanor on the bench may not seem very attractive but at the end of the day he hasn’t had much to work with. He lost Santos, Delebar and has had to deal with a very inconsistent and shaky bullpen. It wasn’t his fault Rasmus and Francisco had no real plate discipline. That was just their inability to change their ways whether we like to agree or not. One wrong decision and it’s like he is the worst manager in the league. Now of course there are many other attractive managerial names across the league and John Gibbons doesn’t come to mind when you think of a playoff team but he hasn’t been very awful. The Jays were a very streaky team and when the Jays were doing well fans were praising Gibbons for his good work. The dramatic collapse at the end of the year from what was a sure playoff spot to losing the division by a landslide made things worse for Gibbons. His future as a Jays manager seems about certain for next year but the Jays should be open for change nevertheless.

How much is in the tank for R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle?

Going into the season, Dickey and Buehrle were likely slotted to be the top two in the rotation with Hutchinson, Morrow and Happ to follow. Though their position in the rotation changed, their performance remained positive. Mark Buehrle pitched a CY-Young first half, which made his not so great second half look as bad. It semt like Dickey struggled every other start but he came out strong giving the Jays quality outings while giving the Jays a good amount of innings. Dickey is a knuckleballer and seems to be able to pitch for a long time but like Buehrle his age is quite old. The veteran experience should not be overlooked with young arms like Stroman and Sanchez in the rotation but their performance should not be held with the highest of expectations.

Will Marcus Stroman be just as good as last year?

One thing fans learned was that Marcus Stroman was the real deal. So real that he could be the sole reason to look forward to next season. I mean, the Jays played meaningful baseball in the late months of the season and Stroman wasn’t there at the beginning of the season so having him for a full season (baring any injuries) could make things a whole lot closer. Other than changing his jersey number to 6, its hard to tell if he will be the same next year but sophomore slumps can exist if one chooses to let it get to them. With his confidence and the experience in his back pocket, Stroman should be a solid pitcher going forward.

Can Lawrie play 162?

With all the injuries the Jays faced, if we learned one thing it was that Lawrie solidifies defense. The whole Juan Francisco seems like a joke now that we look back at his performance. This so called experiment, which went on for too long illustrated the Jays hope for some magic when it never really existed. Brett Lawrie was coming back at a key time when the Jays were in the thick of the postseason race but his appearance off the DL stint didn’t last very long. His relatively short MLB career has been plagued by injuries and his absence has had a huge toll on the Jays. The lack of a second baseman doesn’t help either but without Lawrie playing majority of the season its hard to compete without his gold glove caliber glove in the hot corner.

Gose or Pillar? Or both? Or someone else?

Rasmus is gone. Many like myself knew it was time to say goodbye long before the season ended but now that means the CF position is vacant for the Blue Jays. The current options assuming no trades were to occur would be Anthony Gose or Kevin Pillar. Dalton Pompey is still not ready and will likely not be in the race for the starting role. Many will remember the Eric Thames and Travis Snider battle for the final position in the outfield a few years ago – well its like dejavu all over again. Regardless of who takes over as the starting CF, both players have a relatively good chance to make the major league roster. Though we have seen glimpses of talent with both players, the lack of skill in the big leagues is still evident and it is hard to say if the Jays will be confident with a lineup with them at the bottom of the order. Look for the Jays to make some moves to acquire some outfield help but once again signing Melky Cabrera will help put things into perspective.

Too much or too little payroll?
Going into this season the Jays new they needed to fix some holes and to do so that was going to require spending money. Well it turned out at the end of the season that only 2 playoffs teams had a higher payroll on the Jays. Is payroll a sound measure of success? If the Jays need to spend more this offseason to be better so be it but teams like the A’s have proven you can spend the big money but sometimes its not the money that matters. The contracts of Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle aren’t very attractive but regardless the Jays will be taking some money off the books with the departure of several players who wont be receiving qualifying offers this season. To get the big names to come up North the Jays will likely have to put some big money on the table.

Is there such thing as too much power?

We all love the long ball. Buck Martinez calling homeruns has become a common thing to hear when you turn on the Blue Jays. Names like Bautista and Encarnacion have and will continue to hit their fair share of homeruns but that won’t guarantee wins at the end of the day. In other words, I feel that the lineup is not very balanced. The Jays certainly have a intimidating 2-3-4 combo but the rest of the supporting crew just seems to not get on base enough. The Jays are missing the average/get on base hitters. These don’t have to be exciting names but look no further than playoff teams who have played small ball with players who don’t swing for the fences every at bat but rather come up with timely hitting.

What if Earvin Santana?

The first moments of the Jays season was revolving around Earvin Santana.. He was basically a sure thing and the media was going on about how he was coming to the Jays. Somehow he ended up in Atlanta and it was the Jay’s loss and not his. Looking back at his performance this season, he would have been a good fit for the Blue Jays. Santana was not as good as last year where he played for a nice contract, but he pitched his way close to the 200 inning plateau posting a respectable 3.95 ERA including back to back starts with more than 10 strikeouts – I just felt like pointing that out because it paid big dividends for fantasy owners as I recall. If Santana chose to come to Toronto instead of Atlanta that doesn’t mean he would perform the same because of factors such as the ballpark. Having him as healthy he was would likely have meant J.A. Happ would have not got as much time to start (who gave the Jays solid outings in the second half) but would it have given the Jays a chance to make the playoffs, who knows. Remember Ubaldo Jimenez who was also in the pitching mix? Some Jays fans were quite upset the Jays didn’t get him but funny enough it turned out that he made Orioles fans quite upset for posting a horrid ERA of 4.81. It isn’t rare to see pitchers play well in their contract year and perform less the following year but the hottest free agent pitchers this year like Scherzer, Lester and Shields won’t be in that category.

The Biggest Offseason need?

The Jays need to make changes whether it is free agency or trade. Now this question brings up lots of debate because of the several issues facing this ball club. I personally feel the bullpen should be the top priority. Bullpens can literally make or break a ball club. Look at the Tigers for example. Their dominance last year was not gone un-noticed and adding an MVP like season from Victor Martinez and a late addition of another (I repeat another) CY Young award winner in David Price makes them sound like World Series bound. A famous baseball saying comes to mind when I think of teams facing the Tigers: “Stay in the game as long as possible so the other team can beat themselves”. That’s what fans witnessed in the playoffs. Their bullpen, which has been shaky for several seasons, now basically blew them their chance to move on to the ALCS because of their inability to keep their team in ballgames in the late innings. Look at the Kansas City Royals for example. They are not an overpowering team but their bullpen has kept them in ballgames all season long. Being able to be confident to have shut down innings on a consistent basis late in games shouldn’t be overlooked. In the Jays case, too many games were lost because of bullpen problems. Take those missed opportunities and the Jays could be a whole lot closer in the playoff hunt if not in the playoffs believe it or not. There will be many intriguing pitchers and position players I would love the Jays go after especially someone like Pablo Sandoval but you can read my Offseason Wish List in … you guessed it right, the offseason.

At the end of the day, no ballclub is perfect, even the World Series champs will be looking for ways to improve. The AL East might have a whole different look next season for all we know with the Orioles possibly losing Markakis or Cruz if not both in free agency. The Rays will continue to have solid pitching but recent changes in management might impact their performance next season. The Yankees … are the Yankees and they always find ways to compete even though they will be Jeter-less. The Red Sox made some big improvements believe it or not at the trade deadline but to go from last like they did will be tough but they have shown its not unheard of.

Reflecting on the season that was, I am tired of hearing we didn’t do anything at the deadline. The Jays had a lack of top intriguing prospects and whether we like it or not starting pitching prospects will continue to be high demand. Would Jays fans be okay with not having two of our young arms of Stroman, Sanchez and Hutchinson going into next year even after MAYBE a chance at the playoffs? Would Jays be willing to give away their third best prospect going into 2014 (equivalent to what Orioles gave up) – Dalton Pompey for a hard throwing lefty reliever who would be gone at the end of the year? Look I get it, the Jays haven’t made the playoffs in 21 years and I haven’t had to go through the drought in its entirety but the Jays fans should be optimistic. As Jose Bautista said at the end of the year, the talent is still here. I mean of course, what else would he say? The Jays should start all over again. No. This homegrown talent we are finally witnessing are “ifs” but at least they are something. This offseason will be crucial and will decide whether or not the Jays will finally make it to the next step – the MLB playoffs.

As a Jays fan I am very thankful for another wonderful season but a special thanks must be given to Tyler Beede for giving us Marcus Stroman.

Blue Jays play a game in Montreal vs the New York Mets

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