Last Updated: 2019-03-04
The worst place to be in Major League Baseball is in the middle. That’s really the worst place to be in any professional sports league. Teams that aren’t good enough to make the playoffs, but also aren’t bad enough to get one of the top five draft picks, are just stuck in limbo. There is the off chance that everything simply falls into place and a magical run happens, but the likeliest outcome is that the team does the same thing again the next season.
That brings us to the Toronto Blue Jays. The Blue Jays weren’t in the middle in a traditional sense, but they finished 22nd in win percentage, which is in the middle enough for me. It was a 73-89 season that resulted in the Blue Jays “parting ways” from manager John Gibbons. Further discontent was added to an already maligned fan base that star prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. got to sit in the minor leagues all season to avoid the start of his MLB service time clock. The Blue Jays have already alienated fans and media members about that situation for 2019 and the season hasn’t started yet.
As an Indians fan, the writing was on the wall when Toronto hired Mark Shapiro to be Team President. Shapiro subsequently hired some of his buddies from Cleveland, including former farm director and assistant GM Ross Atkins to be the General Manager. The Blue Jays are owned by a communications company with coffers full of cash, but the transition to a couple of guys well-versed in working with tight budgets suggested that cost cutting was in the near future.
Let’s be honest. This is an organization that alienated its best pitcher over $300,000. Marcus Stroman wanted $3.4 million heading into his first arbitration-eligible offseason in 2017. The Blue Jays were sitting at $3.1 million. Under Shapiro, the Indians didn’t have a single player negotiation go to arbitration. With Toronto, it didn’t take long and it was over a paltry amount of money.
The dysfunction runs really deep right now. With the Raptors as a perennial NBA threat in the Eastern Conference and the Maple Leafs as exciting as they have been in a while, there hasn’t been as much said about the Blue Jays as there could be, but the 2019 campaign looks like another long one. At least Vladdy G Jr. should be up at some point. Probably in June after the Super Two deadline…when the Blue Jays are already 15 games out.
Former Tampa Bay Rays bench coach Charlie Montoyo is the new manager. Pulling a bench coach from one of the league’s most successful and innovative front offices worked out pretty well for one of Toronto’s division rivals this past season, so maybe there is some hope in that regard. On the other hand, this is a deeply flawed roster and a front office that can’t seem to get ownership’s blessing to spend money to plug the holes.
So far, I’ve painted a really negative picture. Let’s see if I can Bob Ross this thing up and give Toronto fans some more hope for the season.
Season Win Total Odds
2018 Standings Data
Actual Record: 73-89
Run Differential: -123
Pythagorean W/L: 69-93
BaseRuns Record: 71-91
BaseRuns Run Differential: -104 (4.50/5.14)
3rd Order Win% Record: 70.4-91.6
Record in One-Run Games: 23-17
Additions: Freddy Galvis, Matt Shoemaker, Clay Buchholz, Clayton Richard, Elvis Luciano, David Phelps, Eric Sogard, Ronny Brito, Trent Thornton, Julian Merryweather, Willy Ortiz, Andrew Sopko, Javy Guerra, David Garner, John Axford,
Losses: Troy Tulowitzki, Yangervis Solarte, Marco Estrada, Tyler Clippard, Aledmys Diaz, Connor Panas, Russell Martin
The two biggest additions that the Blue Jays could make are Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, but we’ll see how long it takes them to do that. The cost-cutting Blue Jays didn’t do much in free agency. They picked up a few intriguing arms, but didn’t make any noteworthy upgrades on the position player side.
In fact, they lost some guys with some name recognition. Troy Tulowitzki never really panned out and it’s for the best that the two sides have gone their separate ways. Yangervis Solarte filled a really nice role as a super utility guy and will have value for his new team. Aledmys Diaz was actually fourth on the Blue Jays in fWAR last season, so he’s a bigger loss than you might think.
The Jays cut some more money by trading Russell Martin and also saw Marco Estrada and Tyler Clippard head off to free agency. It’s easy to see why people are down on this team for 2019. Clay Buchholz, Matt Shoemaker, Clayton Richard, and post-Tommy John David Phelps are the biggest additions on the pitching side. Freddy Galvis will slot in as the starting shortstop.
BA: .244 (19th)
OBP: .312 (22nd)
SLG: .427 (7th)
wOBA: .319 (13th)
wRC+: 101 (10th)
BABIP: .286 (26th)
K%: 22.8% (22nd)
BB%: 8.2% (19th)
Toronto should be heavily invested in dudes that hit fly balls and pull the ball because Rogers Centre and its playing surface suppress ground ball batting average. It isn’t an accident that Randal Grichuk led the Blue Jays in fWAR last season. Grichuk only posted a .301 OBP, but his 25 homers in 462 plate appearances and added 32 doubles and a triple. He also pulled the ball 49.8 percent of the time and only had a ground ball rate of 35.1 percent.
This is one of many reasons why the Jays offense could make some big strides if the correct decisions are made to start the season with Vlad the Impaler Jr. and Bo Bichette in the everyday lineup. Young Vladdy has an 80 power grade and mauled both Double-A and Triple-A pitching last season. He makes a ton of contact and the bulk of it is to the pull side. Bichette doesn’t have the same power projections and uses the whole field a little bit more, but he’s got a speed tool that Guerrero doesn’t have.
Kevin Pillar was second on the Blue Jays in fWAR, largely because of his defense, as he posted an 89 wRC+. Justin Smoak hit 25 homers and posted a 121 wRC+ to lead the team among regular players. Teoscar Hernandez had a .468 SLG and hit 22 home runs. Kendrys Morales has the mobility of an Easter Island statue, but he still hits for some power.
The Jays really need to go all in on power and just own it. They need to be a low-average, low-OBP, high-SLG team and hope it works. The problem is that power typically costs money and that seems to be against the wishes of the major communications company that owns the team.
I do actually kind of like the lineup a little bit. Billy McKinney looked serviceable at the plate in his 132 plate appearances with a .335 wOBA and a 112 wRC+. Danny Jansen posted a 115 wRC+ and a .340 wOBA in 95 PA as a catcher and has hit at every level. So much, though, is contingent on whether or not the Jays stop screwing around with Vlad Jr.
The defense won’t be too bad for this team, especially with Freddy Galvis as the anchor at shortstop.
ERA: 4.85 (27th)
FIP: 4.53 (23rd)
xFIP: 4.54 (24th)
K%: 20.7% (21st)
BB%: 8.8% (21st)
LOB%: 70.0% (26th)
You can’t fault the Blue Jays for trying to load up on ground ball pitchers. Rogers Centre does play better for ground ball guys than fly ball guys, but it wasn’t a big advantage to the Blue Jays last season. A big reason why is because the Blue Jays were -100 defensive runs saved and actually had the third-worst UZR/150 in the league. Up-the-middle defense was the weakness, which is what Galvis should solve, but still, it won’t change overnight.
Marcus Stroman is the lone Blue Jay projected for more than 1.0 fWAR per the Depth Charts projections at FanGraphs. Stroman heads into his age-28 season on the heels of a 5.54 ERA, but he had a 3.91 FIP and a 3.84 xFIP. His 60.5 percent LOB% was the lowest among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched, so he should be better, but it’s fair to wonder how much.
After all, Stroman only made 19 starts and saw his K% drop, his BB% increase, and his Pull% against increase in a big way. Stroman did induce a ground ball 62.1 percent of the time and cut his HR/FB% from 17.8 percent to 13.6 percent, but neither seemed to do him much good. He actually didn’t benefit from the friendly ground ball conditions at home as much as he probably should have, so there are some reasons to expect better.
Aaron Sanchez won’t turn 27 until July, but he feels like one of those “what could have been” players. After posting a 3.00/3.55/3.75 pitcher slash in his first full season as a starter, Sanchez was limited to 36 innings in 2017 and 105 subpar innings in 2018. Between blisters and other ailments, Sanchez lost his control, as his walk rate ballooned from 8.0 percent in 2016 to over 12 percent in 2017-18. When the margin for error is thin as a pitch-to-contact guy with a bad defensive team, that is problematic.
One of last season’s silver linings was Ryan Borucki, who posted a 3.87 ERA with a 3.80 FIP, but his 4.62 xFIP is a sign that rockier times could be ahead with low strikeout rates and a small margin for error. The theme remains the same throughout the rotation, with extreme ground ball guy Clayton Richard, who will get eaten alive on the road in the AL East, and Matt Shoemaker, who, has only worked 108.2 innings over the last two seasons. Clay Buchholz is interesting, but can never stay healthy.
Prospects Sean Reid-Foley, Thomas Pannone, and Julian Merryweather, depending on how he looks in his return from Tommy John, may provide some decent depth, but overall, this is a subpar rotation in a division where you really don’t want one of those.
Ken Giles left a situation in Houston that was growing toxic for him and performed pretty well in Toronto, except for the big park factor and division changes that forced his HR/FB% up to 21.1 percent in his final 19.2 innings of the season. His strikeout rate came back up and he is the least of this team’s worries in the bullpen. The Jays should have probably cashed in on Ryan Tepera when they had the chance, as his HR/FB% jumped five percent and he went from a 3.75 FIP and a 1.0-fWAR season in 2017 to a 4.17 FIP in 2018. If David Paulino stays healthy, he’ll be the primary setup man at some point over the course of the season, but the next best reliever is probably David Phelps, who is coming back from Tommy John. This group isn’t a strength.
Positives & Negatives
Life as a ficus among the tall redwoods isn’t easy. The Jays lost 41 of 57 games against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays. Things don’t appear to be much different in that department this season either. They are just so far behind their division brethren that it makes it really hard to endorse any kind of decent record for this team. That’s even with beating up on Baltimore.
Moving on from John Gibbons was the right call. Charlie Montoyo does have an intimate knowledge of the rest of the AL East, including the Rays. It’s a little surprising that execs from a progressive front office like the Indians took this long to get somebody who should have more of a numbers background in the dugout. Montoyo is a branch of the Kevin Cash managerial tree and Cash is one of the stronger branches from the Terry Francona coaching tree. This feels like a good hire on the surface.
Pinching pennies doesn’t help anybody. The Jays need to be more aggressive with their development plans. Bo Bichette should be challenged more. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. should be in the bigs. Instead of dudes like Clayton Richard and Matt Shoemaker, Thomas Pannone and Sean Reid-Foley should pitch every five days at the MLB level. Anthony Alford should be on the big league roster. This hurts organizationally over the long-term and also hurts my thoughts on the team for this season.
Pick: Under 76.5
The Blue Jays just don’t have enough firepower. As much as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. can improve this team, he can’t improve the pitching staff that much. This is also a team that will be open for business at the Trade Deadline with Kendrys Morales, Justin Smoak, and Clayton Richard as impending free agents and players like Marcus Stroman, Ken Giles, Randal Grichuk, and Kevin Pillar entering expensive third years of arbitration after the season. Freddy Galvis is also an impending free agent, though he has a club option for 2020.
Initially, I looked at this team and postulated that a four-win improvement doesn’t seem to be that farfetched. Then I took a second and third look in the editing process and realized that this is a deeply-flawed flyweight trying to punch up against a light heavyweight and two heavyweights. Even with bad teams abound in the other two divisions, the Blue Jays don’t stack up well in a lot of ways and playing the service time game with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. makes me wonder how bad things will look before his MLB career actually begins. This is an under team.
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