Friday, March 29, 2013

2013 Blue Jays Preview, part 1

Without further ado, I bring you my preview of the 2013 Blue Jays.  I've organized them by uniform number and divided them up into four groups of seven players, which will cover all 28 Blue Jays (the 25-man roster, plus 2 players on the 15-day DL and Ricky Romero) in neat, little, equal packages.  

1 – Super Utility-Man Emilio Bonifacio

Age (on Opening Day): 27
Nationality: Dominican
2013 Contract: $2.6 million

Acquired in the massive trade with Miami that brought so many other star players (Buehrle, Johnson, Reyes), Bonifacio’s versatility is his greatest weapon.  He can play all of the outfield positions and three of the infield positions and the Blue Jays think that he’s going to get a lot of playing time at second base this season but he will also be available to spell regulars in left field, center field, and third base.  Bonifacio’s next most important asset is his speed.  In parts of six seasons in the majors, “Boneface,” as he is sometimes called, has stolen 110 bases while being caught 28 times. 

I believe that it was his 2011 season, in which he earned 641 plate appearances and put up a .296/.360/.393 slash line while stealing 40 bases, that caught GM Alex Anthopoulos’s attention.  If he can return to this level of productivity (which he has never come close to before or since), Bonifacio can become one of the most exciting players in baseball.  I think the Jays would be happy with a slight improvement on his 2012 line of (.258/.330/.316) showing a little more power to the gaps while maintaining a stolen base percentage above 80%.  Much of his value comes from his ability to talk walks in the 9% range as is evidenced by his consistent ability to put up OBPs about 60-70 points higher than his batting average.  Again, for him to be really valuable, he needs to get on base a lot and set the table for  Jose Reyes hitting behind him when the batting order turns over.

3 – IF Maicer Izturis

Age: 32
Nationality: Venezuelan
2013 Contract: $3 million

Signed as a free agent this offseason before the big Miami trade, Izturis (half-brother to former Blue Jay Cesar Izturis) was expected to finally get a chance to play every day and be the second baseman after Kelly Johnson left.  Having shown decent batting skills with the Los Angeles Angels, he is known as an above average defensive player at three infield positions. 

When he plays, he’ll be batting either 8th or 9th, and will be able to get on base at a decent clip (career low OBP since 2006 was last season at .320) and he can drive the ball to the gaps when he’s in the zone (he has a 162 game average of 30 doubles over his career).  He also has respectable speed and knows how to steal bases efficiently, as evidenced by his four seasons with double digit stolen bases culminating in last season’s 17 successful swipes in 19 attempts.  Anyone expecting greatness from Izturis will be disappointed, but he is a useful and solid baseball player who can be productive when he plays.

7 – SS Jose Reyes

Age: 29
Nationality: Domincan
2013 Contract: $10 million ($3 million is paid by the Marlins)

Reyes is one of baseball’s most enthusiastic and exciting players who does so many things well.  As a shortstop, he may be slight downgrade from Yunel Escobar (who went to Miami in the trade) as the available fielding metrics basically show that Reyes is around a league average defensive shortstop. 

It’s on the other side of the ball that Reyes provides a real and large upgrade over Escobar.  Since his first full season in 2005, Reyes has led the National League in triples four times, in stolen bases three times, in hits once and in batting average once.  His career OBP is .342 and hits over 30 doubles per season and has the capability to hit occasional home runs (averaging 12 over a 162 game season).  Throwing out his injury riddled 2009 season, Reyes has accumulated over 4 fWAR* every year since 2006 except for his “down” year of 2010 (where he still managed a slightly-above-league-average wRC+ of 102).  His rWAR is a little bit less generous, having his 2012 season come in a 2.94 rWAR but overall, he is just as well rated in Baseball Reference’s calculation as he is in Fangraphs’. Seeing him play in Spring Training and the WBC, I can’t wait to watch this guy in the Jays’ lineup day in and day out.

9 – C J.P. Arencibia

Age: 27 (I just noticed that J.P. has the same birthday as I do.)
Nationality: American
2013 Contract: $2.059 million

J.P. Arencibia was given the ultimate vote of confidence in the off season by Blue Jays management.  The prospect most likely to usurp his status as the starting catcher was traded away.  A first round draft pick for the Jays in 2007, Arencibia gets a lot of flack for being a poor defensive catcher and having low OBPs.  Baseball people do say that catchers mature offensively later than other position players, because they spend so much time early in their careers working on the defensive game.

Personally, I’m comfortable with Arencibia for now.  He’s a very likeable guy and many people have commented that his defense has improved to the point that he’s now a league average receiver (Baseball Reference metrics support this).  To go along with that, he has produced offensively at slightly below league average levels (according to both OPS+ and wRC+), and I have a feeling that, with a new sense of job security and comfort at the major league level, he is set to have somewhat of a breakout year in 2013.  I don’t think he’ll be an all-star, but I think he can subtly improve both his walk rate (which was a terrible 4.8% last year) and his batting average to bring up his production into the league average levels.

10 – 1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion

Age: 30
Nationality: Dominican
2013 Contract: $8 million

Edwin enjoyed a Bautista-esque breakout year in 2012, hitting 42 HRS and putting up a monstrous .941 OPS, culminating in an 11th place finish in AL MVP voting.  Where did this power come from?  Well, in Edwin's case, scouts always knew he had a ton of power.  What he needed to do was become more selective and stay healthy for a full year.  In 2012, he had a career high 13% BB rate, meaning that he was much more selective about his pitches, forcing pitchers to throw him a pitch that he could destroy.  If nothing else, this is the single most similar development to Bautista.  Not that he ever had really bad walk rates, but 2012 was a huge step forward in this regard.

For his contributions, EE  was rewarded with a 3-year, $27 million contract and, with a healthy Jose Bautista, projects to be part of the slugging core of the Blue Jays lineup in this retooled roster.

11 – OF Rajai Davis

Age: 32
Nationality: American (Rajai comes from near Newtown, CT, where the tragic school massacre recently took place.) 
2013 Contract: $2.5 million

A 38th round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Davis's great speed and his ability to hit lefties is what keeps him in the game.  He's not a particularly good fielder (his speed helps him make up for some poor initial reads of fly balls), and except for an outlying 2009 season, he has never been even an average hitter.  But coming off the bench, Davis is a game-changer on the bases.  He has stolen more than 20 bases every season since 2007 (his first full season), and in his two seasons with Toronto, has stolen 80. 

Where Davis can become intriguingly useful is as a DH against left-handed pitchers.  Career, he has a 121 OPS+ when facing LHP and his OPS is over 100 points higher against lefties than against righties.  While Adam Lind has looked pretty good this spring, if he continues to have trouble hitting lefties this season, Davis provides a right-handed bat to share the load and keep the production up. 

13 – 3B Brett Lawrie

Age: 23
Nationality: Canadian (Langley, BC)
2013 Contract: around MLB minimum ($490,000)

Lawrie is a tempest in a teapot who is learning to control his over-aggressive, all-out attitude towards playing baseball.  He's going to start the season on the DL after straining a core muscle in a WBC tuneup game, but shouldn't miss significant time in the season.  He's showing maturity, shutting himself down immediately, rather than trying to play through it, apparently learning his lessons from last year where he missed time due to a rib injury.

One of the big questions that face the Blue Jays this year is how will Lawrie develop and mature as a baseball player in 2013.  He's a guy with only a season and a bit of MLB playing time and has shown flashes of greatness, and long stretches of goodness.  His 2012 season, in which he hit .273/.324/.405 with 11 HRs, 26 2Bs and 3 3Bs, was thoroughly average by just about any measure -- his 97 OPS+ and 100 wRC+ demonstrate this.  His outstanding fielding at 3B added greatly to his value, which was either 4.35 rWAR (Baseball Reference) or 2.5 fWAR (Fangraphs).  The great thing is that Lawrie contributed good, or very good value in his first full season while keeping his head above water offensively.  He's still only 23 and if he develops like many other players do, he should start improving at the plate.  Many scouts and pundits, including ESPN's Keith Law, think that this is Lawrie's year to break out and take his playing to a higher level.  Let's hope they're right.


* for more on advanced metrics, visit Fangraphs

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