Birds of Prey: Jay’s strike

Written by: Russell Shaffer

I always thought blue jays were rather timid and docile creatures.  Who knew they had such a killer instinct?

Perhaps that killer instinct is a regional mutation affecting only Toronto’s Blue Jay population – a form of natural selection brought about by 20+ years of postseason absence.

Whatever the case while the real birds were flying south for the winter and his front office brethren were still closing the books on 2014, Toronto General Manager Alex Anthopoulos was preparing to strike first blood in the Hot Stove League.

And that’s exactly what he did in inking impact catcher Russell Martin to a free agent contract, trading high-upside yet oft-injured infielder Brett Lawrie to Oakland for slugger Josh Donaldson, and flipping a middling SP (J.A. Happ) to Seattle for the potentially electric Michael Saunders.

The Rich Get Richer?

Anthopoulos added all of this offensive fire power to what might have already been the most imposing lineup in baseball.

Only 11 Major Leaguers bashed 30 or more home runs in 2014 and Toronto boasts two of them – Jose Bautista (35) and Edwin Encarnacion (34).  The Blue Jays also possess one of the game’s prototypical leadoff hitters in Jose Reyes who still managed to finish in the top 12 in MLB in runs (94) and SB (30) despite having a “down year” by his standards that included losing most of April to a DL stint.

Add to that mix the guy (Donaldson) who finished 12th with 29 HR and two others in Martin and Saunders with 20 HR potential and you might have the closest thing we’ve seen to a Murderers Row lineup since the PED-inflated ‘90s.

Russell Brings Muscle

Early reports have Martin slotting into the lineup in the #2 hole behind Reyes and most likely ahead of Bautista, creating an opportunity for the offensively gifted backstop to compile the best statistical season of his career.  The soon-to-be 32-year-old still has plenty of gas in the tank and is the ideal table setter as he ranked 4th in MLB last season with a .402 OBP.

Reyes’ speed on the bases and Bautista’s looming thunder should provide Martin with plenty of good pitches to hit and his compact line-drive swing should enable him to play close to his .290 AVG from a year ago.  Martin’s move from the pitcher-friendly PNC Park to the launch pad that is Rogers Center – along with his position in the lineup – should almost certainly result in lifts to his 2014 counting stats of 45 R, 11 HR and 67 RBI.

He’s incredibly durable – having played at least 111 games each of the last four seasons – and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a final line something like 130 GP/70 R/17 HR/75 RBI/.285 AVG.  He might run a little bit, too – don’t forget this is a C who’s swiped as many as 21 bases in a season (2007).

Catcher is deep this year, however I think Martin is a safe bet to finish in the top 10 and is a likely bargain you can snag in the middle to late rounds.  I’d circle him on your cheat sheet if you’re looking for draft day value.

The Stunner

Martin’s signing was Toronto’s first salvo of the offseason and might have surprised a few observers; however it made a lot of sense for the Canadian-born Martin to make a homecoming of sorts.  It was the team’s next move, however, that sent shockwaves through the baseball world and delivered a clear signal to the American League East that Toronto means business.

In dealing Lawrie – another native son – to Oakland for Donaldson Toronto not only upgraded their defense with a Gold Glove-caliber 3B they also added a third thumper to the heart of their lineup possessing 30-HR power.

Donaldson finished 2014 8th in American League MVP balloting on the back of a final line of .255 AVG, 29 HR, 98 RBI and 93 R.  His run production swooned in the second half as he compiled just 9 HR and 33 RBI after the All-Star Break; however his second half AVG actually went up considerably (.280 vs. 238).

The dip in HR production is of slight concern, however I chalk up a lot of Donaldson’s eroded counting stats in the second half to the loss of lineup protection resulting from Brandon Moss’ injury-plagued slump and the trade of Yoenis Cespedes.  Leaving the Oakland Coliseum should help solve the problem as Donaldson hit just .233 with 11 HR and 45 RBI at home last year compared to a .276/18/53 tally on the road.

Something of a late bloomer, the 29-year-old converted catcher is no flash in the pan as his .301 AVG, 24 HR and 93 RBI from 2013 can attest.  In my estimation he’s established himself as a legitimate big league run producer and I’m expecting a monster year from him.

Put me down for having Donaldson at .275 with 33 HR, 105 RBI and 85 R at season’s end.  He’s a solid 3rd round selection and only Adrian Beltre should come off the board before him among 3B.

The Forgotten Man

The acquisitions of Martin and Donaldson have rightfully overshadowed Toronto’s most recent move – the trade that netted them Saunders.  Yet in a typical offseason landing a player with Saunders’ pedigree and potential would be considered the crown jewel of a successful winter.

Another native Canuck, Saunders swaps the spacious Safeco Field and other cavernous AL West venues for the inviting Rogers Center and other AL East band boxes.

Saunders flashed signs of blossoming into a fantasy stud in 2012 when he hit .247 with 19 HR and 21 SB.  He struggled with inconsistency in 2013 and even was briefly demoted to AAA but still managed 12 HR and 13 SB.

Last season was marred by a myriad of injuries yet Saunders showed growth in his contact skills with a career-best .273 AVG and 8 HR in just 231 AB across 78 games.  Reduced pressure in not needing to try to be a leadoff man or primary run producer could result in the 28-year-old settling in for a breakout performance.

My bold prediction here is that Saunders cracks 20/20 this year and is 2015’s Michael Brantley minus the .320 AVG.  Saunders will be solid at about .265.

Take him in the late rounds as your 4th or 5th OF and be thankful for the bargain when he’s a fixture in your starting lineup by late May.