You made it! After 4 weeks, 29 teams, and countless hours spent writing when I probably should have been paying attention in class, it’s finally Day 30 of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series. With Spring Training games well underway, I yesterday detailed the alternative options vying for a back-end spot in Texas’ already injury-riddled rotation. Today though, a team which suffered from more injuries than most in 2013 is on the clock; it’s (somewhat obviously via simple deduction) the last team of the alphabetical AL, the Toronto Blue Jays, who will be looking to rebound in 2014 behind healthier showings from their top talent.
Ask the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles, 2012 Angels of Anaheim, or a host of other momentarily hyped, but ultimately disappointing teams. They’ll attest that a splashy offseason often doesn’t manifest itself in immediate on-field results, a cruel fact that last season the Toronto Blue Jays unfortunately learned the hard way. After seemingly taking advantage of Miami’s fire sale to acquire Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and Jose Reyes, they parted with top prospects Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud in order to nab NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets, and rounded out their offseason by inking NL batting champ and All-Star game MVP Melky Cabrera to a two-year, $16-million contract. With a presumably wide open AL East ripe for the taking, and tipped for much more than simply a division crown, Toronto improved their lowly 2012 record by a measly one game, finishing 74-88 and in last place.
But as is often the case when considering lost seasons, injuries lay at the heart of Toronto’s struggles. Per Baseball Prospectus, the team ranked 29th in days lost to the DL (1449 in total), a figure only exacerbated by the quality of those players who went down; Franchise centerpiece Jose Bautista suffered a twisted ankle on just April 4th, and saw his season end in mid-August after being shut down with an ailing hip. Promising center fielder Colby Rasmus finally experienced a pseudo-breakout, but only garnered 417 at-bats, missing time with an oblique strain, and late in September, a case of takingaballtotheface-itis. New addition Josh Johnson made only 16 starts due to a variety of injuries, though probably helped the team by his getting so many splinters from the trainers table – in his 16 starts the righty went 2-8 with a brutal 6.20 ERA. Even Edwin Encarnacion put off putting up career numbers for 20 games. Perhaps no more statistic was more telling of the Jays’ fragility than the fact that no regular played more than designated hitter/first baseman Adam Lind, who himself only appeared in 143 games. No one absence however, hurt more than that of shortstop Jose Reyes.
The prized capture of the Marlins haul, Reyes started out strong in April, even as the rest of the team foundered; entering Game 10 against the Royals on April 12th, the Dominican Republic native was raking to the tune of .395/.465/.526, and had already racked up five stolen bases. In the sixth inning however, his feet got tangled up underneath him on a further steal attempt; Reyes severely sprained his left ankle, and would miss the next 2 1/2 months. Without him, the Jays became mired in a funk; after being tapped as pre-season contenders, by the end of April alone, the team was already 9 1/2 games back of the Red Sox for first place in the AL East.
Though his replacement Munenori Kawasaki made a noticeable impact on the fans, his lack of production only highlighted the powerful absence of Reyes – both at the dish and on the left side of the infield. R.A. Dickey perhaps voiced the powerful absence of Reyes to the team best, surmising ”Imagine a car trying to start without a spark plug, that’s what it was like.” Defying medical expectation by making it back before the All-Star break however, Reyes tried his best to play catalyst to the team, but was clearly still hobbled – his lingering injury robbing him of the trademark speed that led GM Alex Anthopoulos to call the shortstop in his introductory press conference, “my favorite guy in the league to watch.”
Despite his best efforts, Reyes just wasn’t the same post-injury. Though he finished with a more than respectable (especially so given his position) slash line of .296/.353/.427, his extra-base-hit percentage (7.2 percent) was the second-lowest rate of his career with a minimum of 300 PAs. As noted by ESPN‘s Jayson Stark too, after hitting 12 triples the year prior, Reyes failed to noth a single one in his 93 games in 2013, and was beten in the category by Dillon Gee and Hyun-Jin Ryu. And though Fangraphs still pegged him as a 2.2 WAR player, both his base running and fielding value dropped off a cliff from his usual standards; perennially amongst the lead leaders in the category, Reyes stole just 15 bases on the season and was 7-for-13 in attempted steals of second post-injury – his 0.9 BRR significantly below his 4.6 BRR in 2013. Similarly, his range in the field was noticeably limited, an observation borne out in the statistics. Fangraphs rated his 2013 fielding to be —8.0 UZR/150, a substantially worse return than the -3.1/150 mark of 2012.
When told of his numerical decline last week, Reyes remarked “That wasn’t me, that was somebody else playing.” Entering the third year of a six-year, $106 million contract, the Blue Jays will need him to make good on his promise to return to full-speed – after averaging just under 110 games played per season since 2009, the soon-to-be 31 year old Reyes has vowed to play in at least 150 games this year, Rogers Centre’s artificial turf be damned. With few expectations upon them heading into 2014 after lying low through the winter, the everyday presence of their spark plug atop the lineup would certainly go a long way towards Toronto surprising some folks in 2014.
The talent is there for the Jays to make a push. It just needs to stay on the field.