The Jays need Colby Rasmus to rebound if they want to take advantage of the new Wild Card system. (Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE)
The Blue Jays are exceptional at finishing fourth in the American League East. This isn't meant to be a slight. Toronto has finished fourth for four straight years, and have finished better than third just once since the three-division format was created in 1994.
It's not entirely their fault, either. They have a .509 winning percentage since 2005, and have had to contend with the three-headed monster of Boston, New York, and Tampa Bay since the 2008 season. That's tough on anyone, and helps keep them from ever being a serious Wild Card threat in the American League.
Things might be changing up north, though, between moves general manager Alex Anthopoulos has made in both the off-season and in summer drafts, as well as the addition of a second Wild Card to each league. These two items should close some of the distance in the AL East soon, if not in 2012.
The Jays as is likely aren't destined for the playoffs this season, but they are close enough to contention that a breakout or two, injuries to their competitors, or a well-timed impact trade could change the landscape of the division. There's no guarantee any of these things happen, but they're as close to breaking out of fourth place as they have been in years.
All projected starters come from the valuble MLB Depth Charts.
C - J.P. Arencibia: Arencibia had a .219 batting average last year, and his on-base percentage was sub-.300, but he can hit the ball pretty far, often. He went deep 23 times in 2011, in under 500 plate appearances. I mean, he was no Mike Napoli, but he was average for a catcher offensively. In a related story, catchers are not great hitters.
1B - Adam Lind: Lind had a huge 2009, but it was almost entirely due to a fluke great performance against the left-handers who normally destroy him. In the two years since, his split-adjusted OPS against southpaws has been zero (no, really -- zero) and 94. He is well below the expected offensive levels for a first baseman, and unless he can solve lefties again, that isn't going to change. Given he's now 28 years old, don't bet on it.
2B - Kelly Johnson: His batting average vanished with the Diamondbacks last year, but he kept hitting for power. Then he went to the Jays, where the average resurfaced but the pop disappeared. Still, he's hit .248/.331/.442 the last three seasons, and that's more than enough out of a second baseman, even in this division.
3B - Brett Lawrie: Lawrie had 171 plate appearances last year, and that's the only reason he's not near the top of the prospects list you've seen released all spring. He hit .293/.373/.580, and is expected to continue to tear it up in his first full season. There aren't many 22-year-old players out there who are as exciting as Lawrie, and the outcome of the Jays season rests heavily on his bat.
SS - Yunel Escobar: He hasn't regained the production he had back in Atlanta, but his .286/.360/.395 showing with the Jays has been more than enough at shortstop. In his 193 games with Toronto, Escobar has been worth 5.1 wins. The bat might not be perfect anymore, but his glove hasn't gone anywhere.
LF - Eric Thames: He's perfectly serviceable in left field. The .271 True Average he put up last year wasn't exciting, but it was enough for the position. The problem is that having too many Eric Thames on the roster means you end up being the .500-ish Blue Jays.
CF - Colby Rasmus: If Rasmus hits like he did last year (.225/.298/.391) then the Jays are in trouble in center field. If he goes back to being the Rasmus of old, the one who was well above-average and hit .276/.361/.498 as a 23-year-old, then the Jays are that much closer to surprising people in 2012.
RF - Jose Bautista: He's Jose Bautista, you guys.
We tend to forget Ricky Romero is a pretty good pitcher, since he's given up a .328/.413/.544 line to the Red Sox, but that's 71 percent worse than his overall numbers. When he's not facing Boston, he's usually mowing down lineups. Brandon Morrow has far more potential than he has production to this point, and at some point, that potential is likely to manifest itself. Like Rasmus, Morrow's 2012 will heavily influence whether the Jays are adequate or competitive.
Brett Cecil is average-ish, but he's the third starter -- the Jays will lean heavily on the development of Henderson Alvarez and Kyle Drabek in order to have a competent rotation.
The bullpen is solid, though. Sergio Santos was acquired in a winter trade with the White Sox, and anchors the bullpen. Francisco Cordero, Darren Oliver, Casey Janssen, and Jason Frasor make up a high-quality group of setup and middle relievers. They'll need all of them, given the back-end of that rotation. Carlos Villanueva is the Jays version of Alfredo Aceves, in that he's a long reliever and spot starter who can give them 100-plus innings a year.
The Jays are close. They are average or better at nearly every position in the lineup, and have a few high-upside players on the roster, in addition to a stellar farm system. They aren't quite where they need to be, but their time is soon.