2013 was a very tough year to be a Jays fan. One friend stated that following the Jays last year was the single most frustrating season of following a team (of any sport) in all the years he had watched sports.
Most fans of the Jays realized that having them as World Series favourites in 2013 was a bit of a stretch. However, all of the offseason moves brought an expectancy of meaningful baseball in September to a city that had been starving since the riches of back to back World Series teams 20 years prior. We all know the story of last year. Injuries, inconsistency, underperforming, lack of fundamentals, starting pitching that ranked near the bottom of the league, and ultimately another last place finish. Their response so far this offseason has been nothing more than minor tinkering. So the conventional thinking would be more of the same from the Jays in 2014. Their bench is thinner, they’ve lost a leader (in Mark DeRosa) on a team that already has a dearth of true leaders, some of the key veterans are getting older and have contracts that are paying them more for past performance than expected future output, and John Gibbons is still the manager.
However, in spite of all this, I see some reasons for optimism for the Jays in 2014. Here is this week’s counterpoint:
5 Reasons why the Jays will be a contending ball club in 2014:
Lowered expectations: As mentioned above, the 2013 Jays were looked at as World Series favourites. There was a lot of pressure for the team to gel quickly and start winning. A combination of poor pitching and poor fundamental baseball, as well as early injuries to Jose Reyes and Brett Lawrie, put the team in an early slump that they never recovered from. The 2014 Jays do not have this same pressure. After last year, the buzz around the team has turned into pessimism, fuelled by last year’s performance, and the fact that the team hasn’t made any substantial improvement over the winter. The expectations of this team are considerably lower. With the pressure off, this team can focus on gelling together and winning games.
Better starting pitching depth: Last year’s starting staff was supposed to be a strength of the team. However, slow starts from RA Dickey and Mark Buerhle combined with injuries to Brandon Morrow, the ineffectiveness of Josh Johnson, the complete disappearance of Ricky Romero, along with the inability of anyone to consistently step up in their place, led to one of the worst starting staffs in the league. No one could have foreseen Morrow and Johnson getting 2 wins each last year. Now Johnson has moved on. However, I think this year’s starting staff will be markedly improved, whether they pick up an extra starter or not. Dickey and Buerhle had much better second halves after they had settled in, and I expect this trend to continue this year. When healthy, Morrow has the potential to be a top starter in the league. But the greatest advantage the Jays have over last year is in their depth. Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison weren’t available last year due to injuries from the year before. A number of our fill in starters from last year have a bit more experience now, and some of our young prospects may see some big league starting time as the season goes on. One guy who is a darkhorse for a rotation spot is Dustin McGowan. I hold out hope that he is a Chris Carpenter story in the making: a guy with tremendous talent taking a long road back from a seemingly unrecoverable injury (or series of injuries, in McGowan’s case.) Overall, I expect a much stronger year from our starting 5, and much greater depth to fill in when injuries inevitably happen.
Catching stability – One of the offseason moves the Jays made was to let go of the power of JP Arencibia in order to get a more veteran catcher in Dion Navarro. He will not replace JP’s raw power, but we have upgraded the position in every other way. More solid veteran defense and handling of the pitching staff, not to mention a lot fewer strikeouts.
One more year together – As I mentioned before, there were a lot of changes to last year’s ball club. I was in favour of the changes, because the status quo wasn’t going to get this team to the playoffs. However, getting a new team to gel together takes time. One factor that is widely ignored is this: this team is almost the same team that we started with last year, and there was a reason why last year’s team had such high expectations. We have lost the potential of Josh Johnson and some bench depth, but on the flipside, guys like Lawrie have grown a year older (and hopefully a year wiser) and the team itself has had a year to get to know each other better. Without the spotlight or pressure to succeed, I think this team can relax a bit and let their talent start winning games. They just need to stay healthier. Which leads to my last point…
Law of averages – I remember saying before the 2013 season that the big difference in that Jays team from the year before was that in 2012, everything had to go right for them to contend. No injuries, all the breaks and bounces. In 2013, they had a bit more margin for error. A couple of things could have gone wrong and they still could have contended. However, a lot of things went wrong. The Jays in recent years seem like they have way more than their share of injuries. I have yet to figure out whether that is true, or whether it only seems that way because I follow them way more closely than I follow other teams. I’ve also wondered whether there is a problem with their training staff or training methods. Or whether they’ve focused on acquiring higher ceiling talent at a reasonable cost, and in order to do that, they’ve taken on a lot of guys who have had major surgery in the past and are at increased risk. Maybe all of these things are factors. Or maybe the Jays were just horribly unlucky last year. In order for 2014 to be a successful year, that law of averages has to swing in our favour. When this team is fully healthy, it has the talent to compete with the top teams.
So, hope springs eternal once again. I know it’s easy to be pessimistic as a Jays fan, but these are 5 reasons to come out to the ball park again, hoping against hope that this is the year we turn it around. For Toronto sports fans, this is a familiar feeling.
Authors note: my series of Counterpoint articles is an attempt to take the unpopular side of current discussions. I welcome suggestions for future topics in the comments section.