The Blue Jays have decided to go for it once again. After a surprising offseason following the 2012 season that saw the Blue Jays trade for Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes and R.A. Dickey, the Blue Jays struck again with the signing of Russell Martin and the trade for superstar Josh Donaldson this offseason.
While the Blue Jays' last attempt at contention was derailed by a series of injuries, the Blue Jays are starting from a winning season this time around. There are still major holes on the pitching staff, but the top of the lineup is definitely among the best in the league. The Blue Jays may not be the most threatening team in the division for the O's, but they definitely should not be overlooked.
The headliner of the Blue Jays offseason is undoubtedly Donaldson. After having two consecutive seasons where he placed in the top 10 in MVP voting, the Oakland A's unexpectedly traded their burgeoning superstar with four seasons of control remaining. Despite non-elite traditional stats (batting average of .255 in 2014), Donaldson is clearly one of the best position players in baseball. Both Steamer and ZiPS project Donaldson to be the fifth most valuable position player in all of baseball, projecting him to contribute 5.5 WAR for the Blue Jays.
Donaldson's value is masked by playing in the Oakland Coliseum and his elite defense, which both UZR and DRS measure to have saved more than 10 runs for the A's in each of the last two seasons. Replacing Brett Lawrie, whom they traded along with three prospects for Donaldson, is a clear upgrade for the Blue Jays.
Another player undervalued by his traditional stats is Russell Martin. Martin had a breakout year offensively in 2014, posting an OBP above .400 with a wRC+ of 140. However, Martin is an extremely valuable player even without his offensive contribution. According to Baseball Prospectus's estimation of catcher framing, Martin has added at least 15 runs for his team by framing since 2008, the first season with complete PITCHf/x data.
He is also among the best in the league in preventing stolen bases, throwing out 40% of the base-stealers in the last two years while the league average remains slightly below 30%. Even assuming that Martin reverts to his pre-2014 batting line, his above-average hitting for a catcher and superlative defensive skills make him an All-Star under-appreciated by the casual fans.
Other than the two players adored by the sabermetric community, the Blue Jays also made a low-key move in exchanging J.A. Happ for Michael Saunders. Saunders also had an offensive breakout last season, albeit in just 78 games due to shoulder and oblique injuries. The injuries did not stop when he was traded to the Blue Jays. Saunders tore the cartilage in his left knee stepping on a sprinkler while shagging fly balls in spring training. He is expected to return in mid-April and to start in left field for the Blue Jays, who have lost two of their starting outfielders in free agency.
Another under-the-radar move the Blue Jays made was exchanging Adam Lind for Marco Estrada. Estrada had difficulties controlling homers last season and was demoted to the bullpen as a result. His peripherals remain solid, and the Blue Jays hope that Estrada can regain his form as a starter in 2012 and 2013.
The two outfielders they lost are Colby Rasmus and Melky Cabrera. Neither is more than an average outfielder, though Rasmus's spot in CF filled by Dalton Pompey will represent a downgrade in the short term.
Brett Lawrie was sent to the A's for Donaldson. Lawrie never lived up to his rookie season and had difficulties staying on the field with various injuries. He would not be missed in the lineup as his position is replaced by a healthier and better third baseman in Donaldson.
On the other hand, Adam Lind, traded to the Brewers for Estrada, leaves a larger hole in the lineup. Despite his struggles early in his career, Lind has become a stable part of the lineup for the Blue Jays over the last two seasons, posting wRC+ of 131 and 141 respectively. Lind's position is replaced by Justin Smoak, who also failed to live up to his prospect hype but has never hit at Lind's level in the majors.
The most significant loss the Blue Jays have suffered may be a player still on the team. Marcus Stroman tore his ACL during spring training and will miss the entire season. Stroman was the best pitcher on the Blue Jays in 20 starts in his rookie season, posting an ERA of 3.65 and FIP of 2.84. Stroman's injury is a significant hit to the Jays rotation, which has to rely on rookies Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez to replace Stroman.
The top of the lineup, featuring Reyes, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Donaldson and Martin, may be the best in the league. All of them except Reyes had wRC+ above 130 last season (Donaldson actually had a wRC+ of 129 last season, but everyone likes round numbers). Few teams, if any, can produce as much damage as the Blue Jays at the top of the order.
The rotation of Buehrle, Dickey, Drew Hutchinson and some combination of Norris, Sanchez and Estrada, is inconsistent at best. None of the starters projects to be anything above average, similar to the O's rotation. There are serious question regarding whoever occupies the last two spots of the rotation. For Norris and Sanchez, can their success in the minors continue in the majors? For Estrada, can he limit fly balls and homeruns to stay in the rotation? Or is he destined for the bullpen?
The key difference between the Blue Jays and the O's in terms of pitching is the bullpen. Casey Janssen, the former closer, has signed with the Washington Nationals as a free agent. While the O's have multiple reliable arms out of the bullpen, the Blue Jays have two, Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup, and a bunch of question marks behind them. By Fangraphs depth charts, the Blue Jays have the second worst bullpen in the league, just ahead of the Texas Rangers.
There is unquestionably talent in the lineup on the Blue Jays. It will be difficult for any pitcher to go through the lineup multiple times unscathed. However, there remain significant holes at 1B and CF. The pitching staff is too thin and the rotation is too shaky for the Blue Jays to make any real noise in the AL East this season.
All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs unless otherwise noted.