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MLB Analysis: Can the Toronto Blue Jays Contend for a Title?

We've come to a point where Toronto has become the land where talk of next season reins supreme. This is not without merit these days as the Blue Jays finally appear to have amassed the weapons to give the big boys of the AL East a run for their money.

Between Jose Bautista, Brett Lawrie, Ricky Romero, etc., Toronto is not without building blocks, but they are far from having a rival empire. With Alex Anthopoulos at the helm and John Farrell in the dugout, the team certainly appears to have the right braintrust. Now it's simply a matter of filling in the gaps and picking up the wins.

Let's look at some of those gaps and what the team can do to fill them.

This position is more an issue of asset management for the Jays. As things stand, J.P. Arencibia returns as the team's starting catcher while last season's platoon mate, Jose Molina, is a free agent. What creates an interesting situation for Toronto is the organizational depth that sits immediately behind them in the minor leagues ranks.

Travis D'Arnaud, acquired as part of the Roy Halladay trade, was the MVP of the Eastern League as a member of the Jays' Double-A affiliate in New Hampshire. While he is likely a year away, it creates an interesting situation when you also factor in the presence of Carlos Perez in the Jays system. There are folks out there who feel that Perez is, in many ways, a better prospect than D'Arnaud, which really boggles the mind.

Long term, Arencibia may be in another organization, perhaps playing first base. You have to wonder if the Jays will bring in a veteran catcher—they have been linked to Ivan Rodriguez and still really like Molina—to give Arencibia another mentor to further his defensive game.

The next two years will be make or break for him at the position, though he'll certainly be employed somewhere with a great power swing—he did, after all, just set the team record for home runs by a catcher.

If he can find more consistency in terms of avoiding strikeouts and hitting balls on the outside part of the plate, he'll muddle the scenarios for the Jays brass even further. The fact he developed into a decent defensive catcher who could call a good game really helps his cause, but Arecibia just might be a better fit elsewhere on the field.

Second base
Since sending Aaron Hill and John McDonald to Arizona, the Jays put Kelly Johnson on an extended tryout of sorts to close out the year. Results were mixed, to say the least. Johnson was marginally better than replacement level after the swap with his WAR of 0.8—not a bad run considering the time frame, but certainly underwhelming when juxtaposed with Hill's 1.6 in Arizona.

If the Jays hang on to Johnson, there are benefits, namely the presence of a left-handed bat in the lineup that can hit for some power, and the fact he's a guy whose best days make it worth dealing with his worst. The 2012 Bill James projections have Johnson putting up numbers similar to his career averages with 19 home runs, 13 stolen bases and a weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .336.

Defensively, Johnson is a downgrade from Hill, but this may be a situation where it's the best they can do under the circumstances. Beyond Johnson, Yunel Escobar could be playing this position in the near future when Adeiny Hechavarria makes the jump.

Left field
This is an interesting spot for the Jays, as they have a fair amount of talent invested in the position. Obviously, early-season front runners to start have to be Eric Thames and Travis Snider, who handled most of the duties there last season. When you factor in that Rajai Davis will play less of a role with the arrival of Colby Rasmus, and that right field is locked down with Jose Bautista for the long haul, this spot is getting pretty crowded.

Add in the suggestions that Edwin Encarnacion will be given left field reps as much as possible for the purposes of getting his bat into the lineup, and now you have a logjam. For what it's worth, Thames will come in as the incumbent starter, and it will be his job to lose.

Snider turns 24 in February, and in the grand scheme of things, he is still very young for a pro baseball player at his developmental stage. In 239 projected plate appearances next season according to Bill James, Snider should have eight home runs and an OPS of .781. All told, a Toronto fan has to be happy with that.

As far as things stand with Davis, it's hard to see him as more than a very occasional spot starter and pinch runner. He was totally ineffective last season with a bat in his hands and only justified his place on the roster with his stolen base numbers. His OBP is projected to head back over .300 in 2012, but even if it does, it will be hard for him to find the plate appearances.

Encarnacion in left field at this point is just a rumor, and it's tough to fathom that moving past that stage into reality. He'll get most of his playing time in the infield or as the designated hitter.

The rotation
The Jays can fill in the top line of their rotation using pen, as Romero has only gotten better each season as a starting pitcher. Whether or not this will be his plateau is obviously a question mark as the 2012 Bill James projections have Romero going 12-13 with a 3.91 ERA and a WHIP of 1.34. These numbers seem a little conservative but certainly not out of the realm of possibility, especially when you consider the lack of run support he's had over the years.

Brandon Morrow is the wild card of the bunch as he has recently added a cutter to his power pitcher's repertoire. In many ways, Morrow's talent is reminiscent of A.J. Burnett, minus the off-putting demeanor. The James projections have his WHIP pegged at 1.30 with over 200 strikeouts, and it's hard to object to that.

After those two at the top, it's open season for Jays pitchers to earn spots. Dustin McGowan appears poised to start the season with the team for the first time since 2008 when a series of injuries and complications from diabetes set his career off the rails. He's projected to make 20 starts in 2011, and with his history of arm problems, that would be more than you could ever ask for considering plenty of people were willing to toll the bell on his career.

Henderson Alvarez has a phenom quality about his game, with a high-90s fastball and an awareness of how to pitch, not just throw. Whether or not he starts the season with the team is up in the air.

Kyle Drabek will also be in the mix after a rough attempt at his rookie season. He needs to have enough confidence to attack big league hitters before he can be considered a lock going forward.

Brett Cecil is a question mark after a brief stint in Triple-A in 2011. He gave up an improbable number of home runs last season, averaging 1.60 against him every nine innings. When he's on, he's a very effective pitcher who is a solid asset at the back end of a rotation.

There is a big push in the fanbase to go after a veteran pitcher to bolster the rotation, though it may be a case of not enough on the market. The team is considered a front runner for Yu Darvish, who would be a huge asset to the team and would really alter the landscape of the pitching staff.

As far as people with MLB pedigrees go, the Jays have always had love affairs with Joel Pineiro and Mark Buehrle, so there may be offers there, though they don't necessarily offer clear improvements long term.

You have to add in the Canadian factor, as Erik Bedard, Jeff Francis and Rich Harden are all on the market and could get offers from the Jays. Anthopolous has stated repeatedly he won't sign someone just because the player is Canadian, but you'd have to think that if he can kill two birds with one stone, he just might.

The bullpen
Easily the biggest question mark going forward is the relief pitching. When you consider they finished an even 81-81 and still had the lowest save conversion rate in the American League at 57 percent, you have to wonder what could have been.

Jon Rauch won't be retained after having a team-high five blown saves last season.

Frank Francisco had a great second half of the season after a rough early stretch and should figure as a late-inning pitcher once again if the Jays keep him.

Casey Janssen is a reliable pitcher late in games, and it is unlikely he'll be shuffled at all, though the James projections have his WHIP regressing to a more reasonable 1.31 rate after putting up a 1.10 line in 2011.

The rest of the bullpen is up in the air once again, though, and should have some new faces making contributions this year. One name to keep an eye on is prospect Joel Carreno, who made 11 appearances last season, all of which came in relief. He performed well, posting a WHIP of 0.96 while striking out 14 and only giving up four walks in 15.2 innings.

Jesse Litsch was inconsistent at times, but still appeared to be comfortable coming out of the bullpen. Last season in high-leverage situations, Litsch had a 4.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opponents to a paltry .148 batting average.

Luis Perez had a 2.44 strikeout-to-walk ratio as a reliever.

This is a group that will have plenty of painful moments, but it certainly has the talent to stop the bleeding internally.

The Jays clearly aren't ready to push the Yankees for an AL East crown, as that looks to be another year or so away. As it stands, for things to come together in 2012, the Jays would need top-end seasons from Alvarez and Drabek, minimal issues in the bullpen from a largely patchwork relief corps and big strides from the likes of Lawrie, Rasmus, Snider, Thames and Arencibia.

Adding all of those variables together, you get a highly unlikely scenario. The focus for Toronto next season will be competitive development: adding veterans with good track records and creating a clubhouse that is hostile to losing. This is a team that should have the capacity to win something in the neighborhood of 85 games. Anything more than that would be gravy.

References and Resources
All stats and projections were found on Fangraphs.

Chris is a writer-at-large, web editor and diehard baseball fan. You can follow him on twitter under @thechrislund. Feel free to send him an e-mail at chris (dot) lund AT gmail (dot) com

Get more great baseball stuff over at The Hardball Times.


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