The Blue Jays went 81-81 last season, marking the sixth time in seven seasons that they won at least 80 games. And yet they haven't reached the playoffs in 18 years. Their tale isn't one of futility, though. By acquiring closer Sergio Santos in the offseason, general manager Alex Anthopoulos gave an optimistic assessment of the team's progress: After two years of purging bad contracts and accumulating draft picks, it's ready to take the next step forward.
And somewhere in its tangled mess of arms and outfielders, it should have the pieces in place to do so. The Blue Jays' ongoing project this season will be to appraise the underachieving ex-prospects -- such as Colby Rasmus and Travis Snider -- and overachieving minor-leaguers -- such as Eric Thames and David Cooper -- to determine which ones are legitimate building blocks for the future.
If nothing else, their middle of the lineup is already intact. Jose Bautista followed up his fairy tale rise to superstar status in 2010 with an even better 2011. Joining him as a cornerstone of the franchise is third baseman Brett Lawrie, who lived out a fairy tale of his own last year by giving his best Mike Schmidt impression once he reached the big leagues. For Fantasy owners, the two should be among the hottest commodities on Draft Day, with Lawrie closing in on the elite class of third basemen and Bautista a possibility for the first overall pick.
The Blue Jays have as much to sort through in the starting rotation, where only Ricky Romero has established himself as a legitimate front-liner. Beyond Brandon Morrow and Henderson Alvarez, the questions abound, but with Kyle Drabek, Deck McGuire and Drew Hutchison waiting in the wings and a whole slew of higher-upside arms in the lower levels of the minors, the Blue Jays have the means to fill whatever holes develop.
The hard part is over. The talent is there. Now, they just have to figure out how to make the most of it.
Breakout ... Brandon Morrow, SP
By the most superficial accounts, Morrow took a step backward last year, his ERA rising from 4.49 to 4.72. But before you dismiss him as a lost cause condemned to perpetual mediocrity, consider all he did right. He lowered his WHIP to 1.29 by improving both his hit rate and, more importantly, his walk rate, which checked in at a palatable 3.5 per nine innings, and yet his strikeout rate was still tops in the AL. Best of all, he continued his steady accumulation of innings, putting him in a position to cross the 200 threshold for the first time this season. So why don't more Fantasy owners care? Apparently, somebody decided that last year was supposed to be Morrow's breakout year, inflating his draft value and setting up the Fantasy-playing world for disappointment. Coming off a 146-inning season and with the same control issues as always, he wasn't ready to make the leap to elite status last year. Now that he is, he's actually more affordable to Fantasy owners.
Bust ... J.P. Arencibia, C
Arencibia was one of five catchers to hit 20-plus homers last year, and he did it as a rookie. But before visions of Mike Piazza start dancing in your heads, keep in mind he was especially old for a rookie, turning 25 before the start of the season. He's 26 now, which means he's already in the thick of his prime, which means what you see with him might be exactly what you get. And it's even worse than it looks. Arencibia hit only .219 in 2011, which is discouraging enough, but when you consider he got worse over the course of the season, hitting .199 over the final four months, you have to wonder if his excessive strikeout rate makes him a sitting duck against major-league pitching. And considering the Blue Jays' top prospect is a catcher (Travis D'Arnaud) nearing major-league age (23), Arencibia might have a shorter leash than you think. He's fine as a second catcher in mixed leagues, but he'll get drafted in most as more.
Sleeper ... Henderson Alvarez, SP
Alvarez wasn't considered a high-profile prospect at this time last year, so understandably, his 10 starts during a late-season trial weren't enough to put him on most Fantasy owners' radars. But consider just how impressive those 10 starts were. Better yet, consider how impressive his final eight were. He pitched at least six innings in each, posting a 3.06 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. He also issued only six walks during that stretch. Six. In 53 innings. And this isn't some soft-tosser who took the league by surprise simply by throwing strikes, a la Zach Duke in 2005. Alvarez throws in the mid-90s. He has top-of-the-rotation stuff to go along with a good feel for the strike zone and has already tasted success in the heavy-hitting AL East. The 21-year-old won't be a workhorse or anything -- not at this stage of his career -- but for the price of a late-round pick, he's a good bet to outperform his draft position.
|Projected Lineup||Pos.||Projected Rotation|
|1||Yunel Escobar||SS||1||Ricky Romero||LH|
|2||Eric Thames||LF||2||Brandon Morrow||RH|
|3||Jose Bautista||RF||3||Henderson Alvarez||RH|
|4||Brett Lawrie||3B||4||Brett Cecil||LH|
|5||Adam Lind||1B||5||Dustin McGowan||RH|
|6||Edwin Encarnacion||DH||Alt||Kyle Drabek||RH|
|7||Colby Rasmus||CF|| |
|8||J.P. Arencibia||C||CL||Sergio Santos||RH|
|9||Kelly Johnson||2B||SU||Francisco Cordero||RH|
|Top bench options||RP||Jason Frasor||RH|
|R||Rajai Davis||OF||RP||Darren Oliver||LH|
|R||Ben Francisco||OF||RP||Casey Janssen||RH|
|Unfortunately, D'Arnaud broke out in the minors the same year that Arencibia broke through to the majors. D'Arnaud is better, but he'll need help to debut in 2012.|
|Gose's numbers finally began to live up to his unbelievable tools last year. His blazing speed will make him a Fantasy asset even if he never refines his approach.|
|The 2010 first-rounder doesn't profile as a Cy Young winner, but he's about as safe as pitching prospects get. He could arrive midseason, so stay tuned, AL-only owners.|
|4||Jacob Marisnick||21||OF||Class A||Class A|
|Marisnick is still a ways away, but he's looking like an offensive force, hitting for average and power with plenty of speed. He's sort of an under-the-radar keeper.|
|Cooper hit .364 in the minors last year, but his major-league showing wasn't so hot. His lack of power limits his appeal, but he'll be in the DH discussion this year.|
|Best of the rest: Noah Syndergaard, SP; Justin Nicolino, SP; Drew Hutchison, SP; Aaron Sanchez, SP; Asher Wojciechowski, SP; Adeiny Hechavarria, SS; Joel Carreno, RP; A.J. Jimenez, C; Danny Farquhar, RP; Chad Beck, RP; Chad Jenkins, SP; Moises Sierra, OF; and Michael Crouse, OF.|