Blue Jays' Offense Could Be Ready To Breakout

BY @CHRIS_TOMAN

Save for an 11-run outburst in Sunday's series-clinching win over the Orioles, the Blue Jays' offense has left a lot to be desired in the early goings of the 2014 season.

Toronto enters Tuesday's contest against the Twins averaging 4.0 runs per game, below the major-league average of 4.24 runs, and down from the 4.4 runs a game the club averaged in 2013. As a team, the Blue Jays are slashing .228/.300/.394, while the MLB average is .248/.316/.397. The Blue Jays offense is hitting slightly worse than a league-average team but on paper this looks like a club that -- when healthy -- should have one of the top lineup's in the game.

A big reason why Toronto's offense hasn't been firing on all cylinders is because of the club's lackluster hitting with runners in scoring position. The Blue Jays are batting a measly .179/.233/.337 with RISP. Only the Astros and Padres have a worse batting average with RISP than Toronto, and San Diego is the only team which has gotten on base at a less frequent rate. Don't expect this to last, though.

There's absolutely nothing to be worried about, especially since the Blue Jays have a 7-6 record and have played better than .500 ball without much offense, which should be the major strength of the club's this season. The Blue Jays' lineup should also receive a massive boost, potentially as early as this weekend, when All-Star shortstop and leadoff man Jose Reyes returns to the lineup.

With Reyes back in the mix, the top of the order -- specifically the two-hole -- should be settled, with Melky Cabrera, who has filled in at the top during Reyes' absence, likely sliding back to the No. 2 spot. Although the Blue Jays have been without just one regular in Reyes, his return looks especially appealing to the club after Maicer Izturis was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a torn knee ligament, which could sideline him for the remainder of the year. Toronto's current crop of middle infielders -- sans Reyes and Izturis -- of Jonathan Diaz, Ryan Goins and the recently promoted Munenori Kawasaki is extremely light offensively.

There's more good news besides Reyes, too. The Blue Jays' bats as a whole are bound to see some improvement, which could help offset a production dropoff from the pitching staff. The Blue Jays have a team ERA of 3.61, sixth best in the American League, and better than the major-league average of 3.94.

Blue Jays hitters are putting balls in play -- the club has the sixth-lowest strikeout rate in baseball -- but they aren't falling for hits. Toronto's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .251 is the second-lowest mark in baseball; the major-league average is .296.

We know Jose Bautista has done his job, as he's off to a monster start despite hitting .225. He's hitting for power -- his five homers are the most in the AL and his .400 ISO, a stat which measures a player's ability to hit for extra bases, is tied with the Dodgers' Adrian Gonzalez for the top mark in the game. Bautista also leads the majors with a 28.6% walk rate.

Cabrera, too, has gotten off to a hot start, hitting safely in all 13 games and he has already surpassed his home run total from last season. Adam Lind, hitting .313/.450/.500, is swinging the bat, as well.

Brett Lawrie isn't, neither are Dioner Navarro, Goins or Diaz. Edwin Encarnacion is off to a slow start, too, but unless his surgically-repaired wrist is causing him issues -- which there has been no mention of -- he's bound to start punishing the ball soon. Colby Rasmus has struggled but when we are working with such small samples, a hot streak can alter numbers in a hurry.

Rasmus has two three-hit games over his last four contests, including three homers, so he might be set to ride out a little hot streak. The center fielder did, however, tweak his hamstring in Sunday's victory but it doesn't appear that it will force him to miss much, if any, time. While Rasmus' average and on-base percentage are below the major-league average for center fielders, he has hit for enough power to give him a 116 wRC+ -- a league and park-adjusted stat that examines how many runs a player creates relative to league average. League average is 100, so any number north of that mark is good.

The other Blue Jays regulars with a wRC+ above league average are Bautsita, Lind, and Cabrera.

Goins and Diaz are known as glove-first players but Toronto can't afford to have two black holes in its offense if others like Lawrie aren't contributing at the plate. The Goins-Diaz duo are hitting a combined .121 with a .228 OBP and have little-to-no pop, so they are going to have to do a better job getting on base or Toronto will consistently have two very weak spots in its order. Once Reyes is back, however, you can live with one of those guys in your lineup if they are playing at a high-defensive level.

The addition of Reyes cannot be understated, but Toronto's offense will look much better when players like Lawrie and Navarro start contributing. Navarro is hitting .234/.260/.319 with a 57 wRC+. The current average hitting line for major league catchers is .243/.308/.398 with a 94 wRC+. Although Navarro has struck out just once, he has only walked twice. The low strikeout rate looks nice, as Navarro can put the ball in play much better than former catcher J.P. Arencibia, who struck out 37 times last April. Arencibia also didn't walk or hit for average, giving him extremely poor OBPs, and didn't play much defense. That's what crushed his value, not the strikeouts. Navarro needs to start getting on base a bit more, especially if he's going to continue getting starts at designated hitter vs. lefties.

The lineup will really be lengthened out if, and when, Lawrie starts hitting. He's off to a lousy start, as the third baseman sports a .122/.173/.245 slash line. He had some good at-bats and had a couple loud hits, including his second homer of the season, in Sunday's win, but that's just one game. He has made a lot of weak contact on the ground and doesn't look good at the plate, a theme which has remained fairly consistent over his young career.

Lawrie receives flack about his bat because he came to the majors after posting strong numbers in the minors, hit the cover off the ball over his first taste of the big leagues in 2011, and has been maddeningly inconsistent since. But, you know what, he has been a league-average third baseman with his bat over his career and brings something to the table with his glove. Lawrie needs to hit more but, at 24 years old, there is still ample time for him to progress at the plate.

Lawrie's career numbers are as follows:

.262/.321/.419, 6.8 BB%, 16.2 K%, .156 ISO, .324 wOBA, 101 wRC+.

League-average numbers at 3B, starting in 2011:

.254/.314/.391, 7.5 BB%, 17.2 K%, .137 ISO, .310 wOBA, 92 wRC+

2012:

.262/.323/.415, 7.7 BB%, 18.9 K%, .153 ISO, .320 wOBA, 100 wRC+

2013:

.256/.317/.398, 7.6 BB%, 18.3 K%, .142 ISO, .314 wOBA, 97 wRC+

2014:

.248/.316/.393, 8.4 BB%, 20.9 K%, .145 ISO, .311 wOBA, 96 wRC+

Sure, Lawrie is supposed to be an impact player offensively, so his league-average showing isn't going to have anyone doing backflips. But while he hasn't progressed the way many want, and feel he can, he's still a big asset and has major room for growth. Let's not forget that Lawrie posted back-to-back 2.5-win seasons, per Fangraphs, over his first two years in the majors. His defense helped contribute to that but his bat hasn't been a non-factor, either.

If the Blue Jays start getting more production from some of their slumping players, particularly Encarnacion and Lawrie, combined with the return of Reyes, this league-average offense is going to start putting plenty of runs on the board. The offense is not the thing to worry about, especially after 13 games. The Blue Jays are likely to go as far as their pitching takes them, and if the team's offensive production steps up -- as it should -- this is going to be a competitive ball club.

h/t Fangraphs and Baseball Reference for stats