Some of you might take issue with who comprises the Blue Jays’ “four horsemen.” For instance, Edwin Encarnacion is not on this list. How can that be? He hit 36 home runs with 104 RBI, ranking among the AL’s top five hitters with a .904 OPS. All right, but Toronto still won only 74 games and finished last in the AL East despite Encarnacion’s production. So will his success or failure truly influence the outcome of the Blue Jays’ 2014 season? The belief here is that the following four players will be far more crucial to how well Toronto plays this year.
Is it a coincidence that the Blue Jays finished .500 or above during the seasons in which Bautista put up MVP-caliber numbers? That’s surely an oversimplification, but the slugger’s 97 home runs between 2010 and 2011 made Toronto a far more formidable team to deal with in the AL East. However, injuries have kept Bautista from being a major factor over the past two years. In 2012, a left wrist injury ended his season in late August. Last year, Bautista was done by September due to a bone bruise in his left hip.
Even with those injuries, the Blue Jays right fielder hit at least 27 home runs in each of the past two seasons. So just imagine what he’s still capable of if he can stay healthy and play in 150 games. Slugging 40 homers or more seems entirely possible, which is some serious run production to have near the top of the batting order. (Bautista batted second and third in the Jays’ lineup last season.) Being healthy should also boost his batting average from last year’s .259 mark and .498 slugging percentage. Yet he still hit 24 doubles and 28 homers with 73 RBI.
Bautista has two years remaining on his contract with a club option for 2016. Whether he has two great years and is again one of MLB’s top sluggers or continues what could appears to be the downside of his career could heavily influence the Blue Jays’ chances of contending for a playoff spot during that span.
Something else that will be a major factor in whether or not the Blue Jays can compete in the AL East and wild-card races will be their starting pitching. For Toronto’s starting rotation to be successful, its No. 1 starter needs to pitch like one. Dickey didn’t pitch like an ace, let alone a reigning Cy Young Award winner, last year. In 34 starts, the knuckleballer compiled a 14-13 record and 4.21 ERA with 177 strikeouts in 224.1 innings. Along with a reduced strikeout rate, Dickey posted career-highs in home runs and walks allowed.
To say Dickey needs to pitch better would be an understatement. The Blue Jays traded top prospects and signed him to a two-year contract extension with the expectation that he would be an ace-caliber starter. Dickey was reliable enough in terms of starts and innings pitched to be considered a staff leader. But his results need to improve significantly for Toronto to have a chance every time he takes the mound.
Regaining velocity and reducing his fly ball rate would make that much more possible. At his most successful, Dickey’s fastball had enough on it that it presented a huge contrast to his knuckleball. And when that knuckleball is floating, darting and dropping at its best, he’ll get a lot of groundballs. Upper back and neck injuries caused Dickey to alter his mechanics, which surely contributed to his struggles. Being healthy, along with a year of experience pitching in Rogers Centre, should help give the Blue Jays the ace they need.
Santos might seem like an unusual pick here. He’s not even the Blue Jays’ closer! But he could be the difference between Toronto having a good bullpen and a great one. The Blue Jays had a strong bullpen last year, with a 3.36 ERA that ranked it among the top-third in MLB. Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar were named to the AL All-Star team, while Santos and Casey Janssen developed into an excellent back end of the bullpen.
Shoulder inflammation and bone spurs limited Santos to nine appearances in 2012 and he didn’t pitch last season until after the All-Star break. But in his 29 games, Santos again looked like one of the best relievers in the AL. He compiled a 1.75 ERA with 28 strikeouts in 25.2 innings as Janssen’s setup man. The right-hander also issued only four walks, a significant figure for a reliever who’s had control issues during his career.
However, Santos could be important to the Blue Jays for reasons other than what he might contribute to their bullpen. He might also be Toronto’s best trade piece if general manager Alex Anthopoulos needs resources to acquire another starting pitcher or second baseman. Relievers are always in demand among contenders by the trade deadline. If the Blue Jays aren’t in contention and playoff hopefuls need a setup man or closer, Anthopoulos could yield a nice return for a reliever in the final year of his contract (though he has three club options in the deal).
As explained above, the Blue Jays need Dickey to pitch like a No. 1 starter to hope for any success this year. But who lines up as the No. 2 guy behind him? Realistically, it’s Mark Buehrle, who isn’t dominant but he is reliable. The left-hander, soon to be 34 years old, pitched 203.2 innings last season, giving Toronto two workhorses at the top of its rotation.
However, manager John Gibbons will likely line a hard thrower in that No. 2 slot between Dickey and Buehrle to give opposing lineups a different look in a given series. That pitcher’s stuff could look even more formidable after facing a knuckleball. Or Buerhle’s soft tosses could be even more perplexing coming after someone with a better fastball. With approximately two weeks before opening day, Hutchison looks like the favorite for that role.
The 23-year-old right-hander has been the Blue Jays’ best starting pitcher this spring, striking out 16 batters in 9.2 innings and compiling a 2.79 ERA in three starts. Yes, it’s a small sample size and it’s spring training. But Hutchison has been pitching for a job this spring and had to demonstrate that he’s all the way back in anticipation of his first full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012. With so much at stake, he’s excelled.
Brandon Morrow has pitched his way toward the back end of the rotation. J.A. Happ might not be healthy by opening day. Marcus Stroman likely isn’t quite ready for the major leagues yet. And Todd Redmond has pitched well enough to earn strong consideration for the fifth starter job. No one else has shown himself more deserving of that No. 2 spot than Hutchison. If he’s successful, the Blue Jays have a top three — maybe a top four — to their rotation that could keep them competiive in the AL East.