Baseball fans in Canada have not had much to cheer for in the past two decades. They have seen the Montreal Expos move to the American capital. Since winning back-to-back titles in the ’90s, the Toronto Blue Jays have not even made the playoffs. Last year, with the Yankees and Red Sox looking the most vulnerable they had been in years, the Blue Jays pulled off a flurry of off-season trades that had made them the early favorite to win the World Series. But the Jays season went down in a hurry once prized shortstop Jose Reyes was injured. Finishing at 77-85 that included a series of injuries to key players, the 2014 expectations are much more down to earth. However, if the Jays can stay healthy, expect them to challenge for the second Wild Card spot.
The Jays will open with a legitimate one-two duo consisting of former Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle. Considering 12 starts against the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox, Dickey overcame an early season slump to finish with a 4.21 ERA. He was impressive pitching 224 innings (second in the AL) including three complete games and one shutout. His 1.237 WHIP (walks/hits per inning) ranked in the top-10 for starting pitchers. A proven winner, Buehrle is wildly regarded as one of the games clutch performers. He has a World Series title and perfect game to his résumé. During the past 13 seasons, Buehrle has pitched over 200 innings and won 12 games every year but one. He is a solid and dependable starter with an elastic arm as a 15-win season is certainly doable. Most important for the Jays pitching staff is the return to form for Brandon Morrow and Rickey Romero. Just two years ago, Morrow led the league with a 10.2 strikeouts/9 innings. Romero won 13, 14, and 15 games in his first three seasons but lost 14 games in 2012 and was demoted to the minors last year. These two know how to win and the onus is on manager John Gibbons to invigorate them back to shape.
Even if Jays pitchers avoid injury, winning in Canada revolves around baseball’s best player: Jose Bautista. ‘Joey Bats’ possesses one of the quickest bat speeds reminiscent of Gary Sheffield. A dead pull-hitter with an unconventional high leg kick, Bautista established himself as one of the most exciting hitters in 2010 clubbing 54 home runs and a .617 slugging percentage. While his OBP (on-base percentage) has increased, he has missed huge chunks from each of the past two seasons. Bautista’s presence completely changes the complexity of the Blue Jays lineup. Should he remain healthy, All-Star Edwin Encarnacion’s numbers will only increase, as will the runs scored for Reyes. It also allows more RBI opportunities for solid hitters Adam Lind, Colby Rasmus and rising star Brett Lawrie. On the eve of spring training, Bautista is motivated to return as the game’s top home run hitter since Barry Bonds. If he plays 150+ games, the Jays will have one of the highest scoring offenses in the league.
As expected, there is definite optimism heading into opening night. This is a playoff team and fans around the game want to see what can materialize if the Jays players can remain on the field. Is it another season teetering around .500 or is it a return to the glory days? It is a big if, but if Bautista is healthy, look for the Jays to be playing in October.
All stats are courtesy of http://www.baseball-reference. com/.