The Blue Jays will be good next season -- I'll even go on the record to say that I anticipate they will win more games than they did in 1979. That's a little Blue Jays humor for you. Go ahead, you can laugh.
The Jays' aggressive moves of this offseason shocked baseball. While their sheer volume was sometimes confusing (reserve-catcher roulette: John Buck in, Jeff Mathis out, then Buck was also out, which meant Josh Thole was in and Travis d'Arnarud was out -- and all the while, J.P. Arencibia stood in place, watching), the end result was the most improved rosters in baseball and the organization's best shot at winning the AL East in a long, long time. For an organization that has finished fourth in the AL East for five consecutive season, that sort of upside makes waiting for April seem like torture, except that this time it's caused by palpable excitement instead of a feeling of impending doom.
That excitement is just a bit premature. It's still going to take a huge, and, sad to say, unlikely improvement over last season's 73-89 record to win the AL East next season. Jays' pitching allowed 784 runs, the 11th-most in the AL, and were seventh in the league in runs scored with 716. These totals are very hard for an organization to budge. Even if the reconfigured pitching staff performs as well as can be expected, it remains to be seen if a healthy Jose Bautista and new offensive additions Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Josh Thole, and Maicer Izturis will supply enough oomph to budge what turns out to be a very stubborn runs-scored needle.
It took an average of 95 wins to capture the AL East title over the last ten years, though it could be a little bit lower given that perennial overdogs like the Yankees and Red Sox are limping. To reach 95 wins, the Blue Jays will have to win 22 more games than they did last season, a huge jump. In the last 10 years, there have been only 11 of 300 possible seasons when a team improved its record by 20 or more games in a single season. Just seven improved themselves by 22 or more. We could say it happened about two percent of the time, or we could turn it around and say that 98 percent of the time it didn't happen. Either way, it's rare.
Still, the Jays have had a unique winter, so let's figure that the foregoing does not apply and look at something more elemental, runs. Runs scored and runs allowed have a predictable relationship with a team's Win-Loss record, which is something we've known since Bill James promulgated his original Pythagorean theorem. In looking at data from the past 10 seasons, the average change in runs scored from one season to the next is seven percent in either direction.
That won't be enough for the Blue Jays to grab those 95 wins. Let's say they reduce their runs allowed in 2013 by 10 percent. That would drop them to 709 runs allowed, and from 4.8 runs allowed per game to 4.4. To win 95 games, they would need to score at least 860 runs -- 144 more than last season, a 16 percent increase, which is more than double the average improvement since 2002 and something only five teams have accomplished since 2002. While last year's run total may not have been indicative of their full potential -- after all, they were the first team to reach 500 runs before the wheels fell off due to injuries, among them the one to Jose Bautista's left wrist -- there's no reason to believe that last year's roster would have been even 100 runs better even in perfect health.
The biggest one-season improvement since 2002 was by the 2004 Tigers who added 236 runs (28 percent) by upgrading to Ivan Rodriguez, Omar Infante, Carlos Guillen, and Rondell White from Brandon Inge, Warren Morris, Ramon Santiago, and Craig Monroe. Nothing is impossible, and the Blue Jays have made improvements to the lineup, but the fact remains that most teams have only been capable of adding about half the offense the Blue Jays would need to reach 95 wins next season.
The math makes the rise to the top of the AL East seem a little more daunting than one might expect. Given that the Blue Jays allowed 784 runs and scored 714 last season, they will need to shave off at least 100 runs next season AND score 100 more runs, or some combination of runs scored/runs allowed that keeps the numbers congruent.
Winning a wild card slot has required an average of 91 wins, so the numbers get a little easier. Let's go back to our 709 runs. To reach the postseason via the wild card route, the Jays would have to score 810 runs, a nine percent improvement over 2012. That is hardly inconceivable, but still asking a great deal of the new lineup.
So, can the Blue Jays add enough runs? They will undoubtedly have a better offense in 2013, but probably not 150 runs better than they were last year. Reyes will fix the on-base percentage shortfall from the leadoff spot (just .294 last year), Bautista's return will provide a boost in home runs, and Cabrera, should he not regress too much (he's due for multiple reasons) strengthens the middle of the lineup, and Edwin Encarnacion will still be an asset even if he regresses.
But the Jays have problems still unsolved: Second basemen Maicer Izturis and Emilo Bonfiacio might not be more productive than Kelly Johnson, who hit home runs and walked even if he couldn't get his batting average over .225; J.P. Arencibia's inability to get on base is not wholly offset by his home runs; Colby Rasmus who has been in a two-year slump; and Adam Lind remains an enigma. The Blue Jays will really need Brett Lawrie to have a breakout year --Bill James projections have him jumping from .319 wOBA to .348 -- if they're going to achieve that drastic improvement in runs scored, but there's little room for disappointment from any of the players if the team is going to improve by nearly 150 runs next season.
The Blue Jays do have the potential to make the playoffs, even if it's just snagging a wild card. Anthopoulos has made great moves which will hopefully benefit the lineup beyond 2013, but the postseason is far from assured. Improving by 22 games and 150 runs to win the AL East isn't impossible, but it certainly isn't going to be easy.