'Jose Bautista' photo (c) 2011, Keith Allison - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/“The Tampa Bay Rays certainly have enough young talent, but they’re in the toughest division in baseball, and it’s going to be hard to win anything with the Red Sox and Yankees looming above them.” This quote comes from no one in particular, but it was the general consensus around baseball before the start of the 2008 season. Plenty of young talent, just stuck in the wrong division. Four years later, they’ve won the AL East twice, made the postseason three times, and even made a run to the World Series. So here we are in 2012, and what are people saying about the Toronto Blue Jays? “Plenty of young talent, just stuck in the toughest division in baseball.” Add in an additional wild card in each league, and the future just gets brighter and brighter for the Blue Jays. Let’s take a closer look at a roster that has dreams of October on their mind:

Statistics code: AVG/OBP/SLG for hitters. W-L, ERA, WHIP for starters. ERA, WHIP, IP for relievers. (*denotes minor league numbers included)


Catcher: J.P. Arencibia (2011 stats: .219/.282/.438); Jeff Mathis (2011 stats: .174/.225/.259)

Arencibia’s 23 home runs and 78 RBI’s were tops among rookies last year, so he’s certainly looking to repeat that. His .219 average and .282 OBP were certainly not tops in the league. Arencibia still needs to develop better pitch recognition before he moves out of the bottom of Toronto’s potent lineup. His 27.5 career K% is absolutely unacceptable.

You know what you’re getting with Jess Mathis. Excellent defense, an average teetering around the Mendoza line, and a lot of strikeouts. Like Arencibia, his 26.5 career K% is almost hard to believe. As far as backup catchers go, you could do worse. *cough* Kevin Cash *cough*

First Base: Adam Lind (2011 stats: .251/.295/.439)

Since his breakout year in 2009, Lind has regressed back towards his career averages. He’s a serviceable player, but doesn’t come close to stacking up with the top first baseman in the American League. He has power, but has always been weak. His career BB% is only 6.5, compared to a career K% of 19.6. (Seeing a common thread among the Blue Jays so far?) It will be interesting to see where manager John Farrell bats him in the order this year. He spent most of last year protection Jose Bautista, but with Brett Lawrie emerging, he may take over the cleanup spot soon enough.

Second Base: Kelly Johnson (2011 stats: .222/.304/.413)

General Manager Alex Anthopolous made a smart move in trading for Kelly Johnson, who has proved to be a surprise power threat the past two years. Unlike some of the other Blue Jays, Johnson has a decent eye at the plate to go along with the power. His .277 BABIP last year makes it seem unlikely that he will improve too much, but I like his chances to at least raise his average. His power may decrease moving to Toronto after playing in the hitter friendly Chase Field.

Shortstop: Yunel Escobar (2011 stats: .290/.369/.413)

Toronto’s leadoff man had solid numbers last year, with every category right around his career average. This was another sneaky deadline move that Alex Anthopolous made, shipping out defensive whiz Alex Gonzalez for a younger, and ultimately superior player in Escobar. If he continues to put up the numbers he did last year, no one can complain. Sure, he could take a few more walks as a leadoff man, but all around he’s a very solid player, worth around 10 WAR over the last three years.

Third Base: Brett Lawrie (2011 stats: .293/.373/.580)

This is where things start to get interesting. In a small sample size at the end of last year (150 at bats), Lawrie put up monster numbers: a .293 average, nine home runs, eight doubles, and even four triples. His BABIP was only .318, so while he did get lucky, it’s not like every bounce was going his way. If Lawrie comes out this year and proves that the end of last year wasn’t a fluke, then the Blue Jays have a legitimate bat protecting Jose Bautista, and the rest of the league is really in trouble.  Remember this?

Left Field: Eric Thames (2011 stats: .262/.313/.456) ; Ben Francisco (2010 stats: .244/.340/.364)

Thames killed Triple A last year, and was called up for the final 95 games of the regular season. He demonstrated real power, jacking 12 home runs, but his average certainly leaves something to be desired for. Thames is only 25, so he certainly still has time to develop, and he projects to be a real star for Toronto a few years down the road if not sooner.

It seems pretty likely that Thames will start the season in a platoon with Francisco. No matter what, Francisco will play the main fourth outfielder role on the team as he can play every position in the outfield. For a fourth outfielder, he’s certainly a solid option. He doesn’t have too much power, but he’s always been able to take a walk, and plays solid defense.

Center Field: Colby Rasmus (2011 stats: .225/.298/.391)

It’s hard to believe that Rasmus is only 25. It seems like he’s been in the spotlight for years now. That being said, everyone is still waiting for his breakout season. He and Tony La Russa reportedly did not get along well, and in another smart move by Anthopolous, they acquired Rasmus for nothing more than spare pieces. Like Lawrie, if Rasmus has a breakout season, then the Jays have yet a very legitimate middle of the order threat. He only had a .267 BABIP last year, so there’s some reason to believe that he’ll fare at least marginally better this year.

Right Field: Jose Bautista (2011 stats: .302/.447/.608)

Take a look at those numbers one more time. There are no typos in that slash line. Now add 43 homers. Now imagine he’s not protected by Adam Lind. Bautista is truly one of the great talents in the game right now, and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t put up incredible numbers like these for a third year in the row. He is by far the most valuable player on the team, the type of player you feel comfortable building a franchise around.

Designated Hitter: Edwin Encarnacion (2011 stats: .272/.334/.453)

Pretty prototypical player for the Blue Jays: solid power threat, doesn’t take quite enough walks, and hits for mid-tier average. It will be nice to have Encarnacion at designated hitter full time, as is fielding is sub-par (although Lawrie isn’t that much better.) All in all, a solid option at DH, who will provide a big homer now and then.

Starting Pitcher #1: Ricky Romero (2011 stats: 15-11/2.92/ 1.14)

Romero was very solid last year, and is poised to continue to be the ace of Toronto’s staff. While he’s a strong option, unless he proves he can compete for a Cy Young this year, Toronto’s staff will still be on the look out for a real ace. This is Romero’s age 27 season, so great things are expected.

Starting Pitcher #2: Brandon Morrow (2011 starts: 11-11/4.72/1.29)

This is the guy who could turn out to be the ace of the staff. While his record and ERA don’t speak very highly of his performance last year, his peripheral stats are outstanding (10.19 K/9 and a 3.64 FIP). Morrow is certainly a strikeout pitcher, he just has to get the rest of his game under control. Keep an eye on him, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he becomes a headline pitcher by the end of this year.

Starting Pitcher #3: Brett Cecil (2011 stats: 4-11/4.73/1.33)

He had a breakout year in 2010 before coming down to earth last year. The concerning thing is that his FIP (5.10) was higher than his already high ERA. He should be a serviceable number three starter, but that’s about all.

Starting Pitcher #4: Henderson Alvarez (2011 stats: 1-3/3.53/1.13)

The Blue Jays haven’t officially announced their rotation, so these last two spots are educated speculation, but speculation nonetheless. Alarez is only 21, and he proved to be a solid pitcher in his ten starts at the major league level. His 5.65 K/9 could certainly use some work, but the 1.13 WHIP is very good.

Starting Pitcher #5: Dustin McGowan (2011 stats: 0-2/6.43/1.57)

Yes, the numbers look rough for McGowan, but he only started four games at the major league level last year. After not pitching since July of 2008, it’s hard to complain about a guy who struck out almost a batter an inning, even if his ERA was a little high. All signs point to him being a very decent fifth starter.

Relief Pitching: Segio Santos (2011 stats: 3.55/1.11/63.1); Francisco Cordero (2011 stats: 2.45/1.02/69.2); Darren Oliver (2011 stats: 2.29/1.14/51); Casey Jansen (2011 stats: 2.26/1.10/55.2); Jason Frasor (2011 stats: 3.60/1.40/60); Carlos Villaneuva (2011 stats: 4.04/1.26/107)

The bullpen is actually the area that could see the greatest improvement this year. Sergio Santos was probably the most under the radar pick up of the offseason. He was a very reliable closer last year with Chicago, and being backed up by two veterans, Francisco Cordero and Darren Oliver provides a strong safety net. Cordero and Oliver are two guys who have solid numbers but scary peripherals. That being said, Anthopolous waited long enough to snag them, that the Blue Jays didn’t sink serious cash into them. Worst case, their age catches up to them and they fizzle out, best case, they become a very strong 7-8 inning duo. Casey Jansen is another very reliable option who not many people have heard of. He’s another guy that could be key in the seventh. Frasor and Villaneuva round out the ‘pen, both bland but serviceable options, with Villaneuva playing the role of the long man.