Last Updated: 2018-02-22
Maybe the memo about the offseason didn’t make it to Canada. While most teams have been sitting on their hands until they’re numb, the Toronto Blue Jays have been one of the more active clubs in the league. Three new faces are slotted into their projected starting lineup and another one is firmly entrenched on the bench as a utility infielder. Five new additions are ready to compete for bullpen spots. At least somebody has been busy this winter.
As we head into the 2018 season, I really like where the Blue Jays are. They’ve built a team capable of contending for the Wild Card this season and have two prospects with a ton of helium in Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. Toolsy outfielders Anthony Alford and Dalton Pompey are still in the system. Unfortunately, the Blue Jays are in the AL East with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, which is more than enough to cast a dark cloud over the season, but this is a team that I will be watching very closely.
One thing working against the Blue Jays is how the alternate standings metrics finished up last season. Toronto was a 76-86 team, but 72-90 by both Pythagorean Win-Loss and BaseRuns. A lot of people like to look to those metrics when looking for regression the following season and Toronto was on the wrong side of those numbers. That being said, per BaseRuns, which is a standings metric derived from a context-neutral calculation of runs scored and runs against based on individual outcomes, the Blue Jays actually should have been -85 runs instead of -91 runs. But, as you can see, that also equates to a worse record than what Toronto finished with.
The Blue Jays were virtually a .500 team after the first month of the season. They were badly outscored at home, where they managed a 42-39 record. They were only 5-14 in extra-inning games. Losing by five or more runs 27 times with only 16 such victories is a good way to post an ugly run differential.
It was a long and winding road for the Blue Jays, who ranked 29th in position player fWAR and had one of the worst offenses in baseball. They were also used 60 different players and 33 pitchers, which ranked second and third, respectively, in Major League Baseball. Only Seattle used more players overall and Jerry Dipoto has traded about 74 players since he took over.
With more stability and more depth, will the Blue Jays be a surprise team in the AL East? Will they be a playoff contender? Will they fall completely flat? There seems to be a difference of opinion out there about the Blue Jays, so let’s put the pieces together and see where we should stand.
Season Win Total Odds (as of February 22):
5Dimes: 81.5 (-105/-115)
BetOnline: 81 (-105/-115)
Bovada: 81 (-125/-105)
Additions: Curtis Granderson, Yangervis Solarte, Randal Grichuk, Aledmys Diaz, Jaime Garcia, Ivan Castillo, Gift Ngoepe, Taylor Guerrieri, Deck McGuire, John Axford, Al Alburquerque, Craig Breslow, Jake Petricka, Rhiner Cruz, Drew Muren
Losses: Mike Bolsinger, Lucas Harrell, Nick Tepesch, Brett Oberholtzer, TJ House, Jeff Beliveau, Brett Anderson, Darwin Barney, Miguel Montero, Michael Saunders, Cesar Valdez, Jose Bautista, Tom Koehler, Dominic Leone
As you can see, Toronto has been busy. As a fan of the Cleveland Indians, this type of offseason makes so much sense to me. The Blue Jays are run by President Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins. This is what the Indians have done for years. They pick up a lot of no-risk deals and non-roster invites to see who can stick. Most of those relief pitchers fall into that category.
What is not like the Indians, at least when they were in this similar spot of being a fringe contender, is the additions via trade of guys like Yangervis Solarte, Randal Grichuk, and Aledmys Diaz. The Blue Jays are fortunate in that they have star power in the minor leagues, so they can afford to trade some of those middle-of-the-road prospects to get some proven MLB talent.
Curtis Granderson is one of my favorite free agent gambles of the offseason thus far. He’s a consummate professional who almost always takes good plate appearances and his power tool should play well at Rogers Centre. It doesn’t hurt to have Kevin Pillar covering a ton of ground in center field when it comes to that roll of the dice.
Why bet the over?
I’m gonna come right out and say it. Maybe I’m letting the cat out of the bag. I really like this team. I like the core in place and I like the offseason. I like how a lot of these players complement each other. Certainly I’m worried about having seven over-30 players projected for the starting lineup and two more on the bench, but this is a team full of veteran hitters that should be better than last year’s bunch.
Quite frankly, it would be tough to be worse. The Blue Jays were a victim of bad luck. They posted a .276 BABIP, which was the lowest in the league. To make matters much, much worse, the Blue Jays were abhorrent with RISP. They batted .230 as a team and had a .304 wOBA. Some of the low BABIP had to do with team speed, which isn’t a whole lot better, but some of it also had to do with contact quality. A lot of it had to do with luck. We’ll see if that gets fixed. Josh Donaldson’s .289 BABIP was 12 points under his career average. Kevin Pillar was 17 points below his career average. Russell Martin was 24 points below his career average and 30 points below his 2016 campaign. Troy Tulowitzki was 42 points below his, although, it was the same as his 2016 season. The Coors Field effect does wacky things.
Toronto’s best offensive player, Josh Donaldson, was limited to 113 games and 496 plate appearances. He still managed to post a five-win season with a .270/.385/.559 slash, a .396 wOBA, a 149 wRC+, and average defense. Donaldson is in a contract year and just got the highest award ever in arbitration at $23 million. At 32, it will be interesting to see how a slugger of his age is valued in the current marketplace, so it would certainly benefit him to have another huge year. He should. He’s an elite hitter with an outstanding walk rate and great power. Positive regression in his BABIP and K%, which was 5.4 percent higher than his 2016 season and 3.6 percent higher than his career average, should lead to an even bigger offensive season. He would have been close to a six-win player over a full season and he should return to at least that this season.
Justin Smoak was the only other Blue Jays position player to finish with an fWAR above two wins. While I don’t expect a similar offensive season, with a .371 wOBA, a 132 wRC+, and 38 home runs, he should be a solid contributor. Projection systems still have him around a .344 wOBA with a 114 wRC+. That would be about a 30-homer campaign, as long as he can stay healthy. Don’t expect last season, but he shouldn’t actively hurt the ballclub.
The new additions should inject some life into the offense. I’ll include Teoscar Hernandez here, who has an interesting set of tools. He was acquired in the Francisco Liriano deal with the Astros. Curtis Granderson is still a useful piece at 36 years of age. Grandy has posted above average wRC+ marks every season since 2013. He’s not a good defender anymore, but he’s not a major detriment either. He walks and hits for a bit of power, so he fits nicely into this lineup. He’ll be an interesting table-setter at the top with Donaldson and Smoak. Following those guys, the lineup will be lengthened with all-or-nothing swinger Randal Grichuk. He got more of nothing than all last season with a 30.1 percent K% and 22 HR in 442 plate appearances. He’s a decent outfielder and really fits the homer-happy environment we’re living in. He’s a good gamble in a park that is good for power. Yangervis Solarte is more of a bat-to-ball guy with a decent power stroke.
Kevin Pillar added a bit of power last year to go along with his exceptional defense and his decent speed. Steve Pearce is still useful on the thin side of the platoon. Aledmys Diaz is a good insurance policy for Troy Tulowitzki. Russell Martin remains a solid defensive catcher as the offensive profile declines. This is something of a ragtag group of players that are all flawed in their own way, aside from Donaldson, but I think it can work. There are platoon guys. There is decent depth. There are guys that carry a little bit of trade value when the prospects are ready to graduate to the big leagues. I expect this offense to be quite a bit better this season.
For right now, Jose Bautista won’t take up 686 bad plate appearances. Darwin Barney won’t take up 362 bad plate appearances. Ryan Goins won’t take up 459 bad plate appearances. Miguel Montero won’t take up 101 bad plate appearances. You’ve heard the phrase “addition by subtraction”. Yeah, that’s what this is. Those four guys combined to be worth -2.0 fWAR last season.
Those plate appearances now go to Randal Grichuk, Aledmys Diaz, Yangervis Solarte, and probably Luke Maile. While Maile isn’t much of a hitter, the other three should be clear upgrades.
The bullpen has some hidden upside for me. Everybody knows about Roberto Osuna and how good he is. Even dealing with anxiety issues last season, Osuna was a three-win pitcher per fWAR, which is really not easy to do. He had a 3.38 ERA because of a 59.5 percent LOB%, but had a 1.74 FIP and a 2.57 xFIP. He had an exceptional K/BB ratio with 83 strikeouts against just nine walks in 64 innings. Osuna is putting himself into the elite category as far as closers go. Somehow he lost his arbitration case over $500,000 difference between his offer and the club’s offer. There’s a time and place for this, but no wonder we’re in the situation we’re in.
Assuming Aaron Sanchez has better health this season, Joe Biagini should be back in the bullpen full-time. Biagini made 18 starts and 26 relief appearances last season and really did an admirable job swallowing up innings. The final numbers weren’t great, with a 5.34 ERA, but his 4.27 FIP and 4.11 xFIP were better than league average by a good margin. He had 60 appearances out of the pen in 2016 with a 3.06 ERA, a 2.95 FIP, and a 3.71 xFIP. He’s a solid pitcher. Ryan Tepera was very durable with 73 appearances covering 77.2 innings of quality relief work. Aaron Loup is no Dominic Leone, who could be a big loss for this bullpen, but he’s certainly serviceable. Loup and Avilan tied for 12th in average exit velocity against among all pitchers with a minimum of 50 batted ball events.
What I love are the risk-free lottery tickets. Al Alburquerque hasn’t been a fixture on a Major League roster since 2015, but he’s got a plus slider and some untapped upside. In 49 batted balls last season, he did not allow one barreled ball and had an 85.3 mile per hour average exit velocity against. Jake Petricka, who was limited to 27 appearances in 2017 and nine appearances in 2016, has a decent arsenal that can minimize hard contact. Native son John Axford gets a chance to pitch in Canada and he isn’t that far removed from being a competent relief arm. There could be some solid depth here behind the primary guys, who are very good.
I really like the starting staff. Marcus Stroman led MLB in pitches of 95+ last season and posted a 3.09 ERA with a 3.90 FIP and a 3.58 xFIP. After missing most of 2015 and throwing 200 innings in 2016, Stroman had some signs of wear and tear in the second half with a drop in his K% and a spike in his BB%, but he’s a short-statured 26-year-old that needed some time to learn how to manage his body. I would expect him to come back stronger this season and I think we could see him finally sustain a 20 percent K%. I like the contact profile and really like the makeup, so I think we’re looking at a kid ready to take that next step. I think we see his first four-win season this year. The high GB% is a beautiful attribute given the league wide trend to “elevate and celebrate”.
JA Happ is solid and reliable. He had a terrific second half after the Blue Jays opted to keep him and he responded with a 2.81/2.62/3.58 pitcher slash over his last 67.1 innings with 72 strikeouts. He also had a 50 percent GB% over those last two months and a career-high 46.9 percent GB%. Again, keeping the ball on the ground is huge these days and Happ is coming off of a 22.7 percent K% with that improving ground ball rate. I love that profile.
Marco Estrada is what he is. The projection systems hate him, but he’s reliable and capable of something resembling league average work. Aaron Sanchez is the upside piece in this rotation. Blister problems limited Sanchez to just 36 innings and he wasn’t particularly effective in those frames. Sanchez was worth 3.8 fWAR back in 2016 over 30 starts with a 3.00/3.55/3.75 pitcher slash. The most unfortunate thing about last season is what it did in terms of stunting his development as an MLB starter, but he’ll be plenty fresh for this season.
The Blue Jays grabbed some cheap upside with Jaime Garcia, who is traditionally a ground ball wizard. Garcia owns a 56.2 percent GB% over the course of his career. With Stroman, Sanchez, and Garcia, there should be a lot of ground balls on this staff. Home runs were way up last year, but we had the fewest number of singles in a season since 1977. As you know, fewer games were played back then. Teams don’t manufacture innings anymore. They hit home runs. Last time I checked, you can’t hit a ground ball home run.
Be on the lookout for Thomas Pannone if injuries pop up. The former Indians prospect was acquired in the Joe Smith deal that also brought over toolsy infielder Samad Taylor. Pannone really studies the craft and has a lot of pitchability as a 23-year-old left-hander. The Jays are lacking a bit of starting pitcher depth, but Pannone could wind up throwing some important innings for this team.
Why bet the under?
I penned a pretty compelling case for the offense, but the facts remain that this was not a good offense last season. Many players suffered drops in the BABIP department, which could very well be a sign of declining contact quality. The Blue Jays were in the middle of the pack in average exit velocity, but 11th out of the 15 teams in the American League. Curtis Granderson is in his age-37 season. Josh Donaldson is 32. Justin Smoak is 31. Kendrys Morales, who was nowhere near what Toronto expected last season, will turn 35 later this year. Troy Tulowitzki is over 33 and is showing big signs of aging. Russell Martin is 35. Steve Pearce will turn 35 in a few months. Ezequiel Carrera will turn 31. Morales was actually one of the worst everyday players in baseball last season.
The aging curve is a cruel mistress. We are seeing players maintain their bodies better and the specialization of the game with platoons hasn’t hurt. But, playing on that carpet at Rogers Centre can be really tough on older legs. It has to be a consideration that this is one of the oldest teams in baseball and it is a team that doesn’t have a ton of MLB-ready reinforcements in the minor leagues just yet. Most of the top prospects are a year away from being options. Toronto is better positioned with a guy like Aledmys Diaz coming off of the bench in a utility role, but Diaz also slashed just .259/.290/.392. That rookie season wound up not being sustainable. Will he be able to bounce back?
Can Josh Donaldson stay healthy? Will Justin Smoak not completely tank? Smoak was worth 3.4 fWAR. Over his previous SEVEN MLB seasons, he was worth a combined 0.3 fWAR. Guys typically don’t have their careers turn on a dime at 30 years of age. I am very skeptical of Smoak coming into this season. Again, maybe he was just healthy. He has always had a decent power stroke, but the big drop in K% was the primary catalyst for his big offensive year. Was that health-related? Mechanical adjustments to the swing? When (not if) he does fall off, how far does he fall?
That’s a big deal because the Blue Jays did not have a single position player outside of Donaldson and Smoak that graded out as “average” per fWAR. Kevin Pillar was the closest at 1.9 fWAR, but he had a .302 wOBA and an 85 wRC+, so he was saved by his defensive prowess. Russell Martin can’t hit anymore. He still walks, but he can’t find the barrel with a compass, a map, and a GPS. After Pillar and Martin, no other position player even managed 0.8 fWAR. Teoscar Hernandez and Ezequiel Carrera had 0.7 fWAR. So the Blue Jays really need to create a lot of production with a full season of Hernandez and additions like Grichuk, Granderson, and Solarte.
Tulo has posted wRC+ marks of 92, 103, and 78 in his 2.5ish seasons with Toronto, but he only managed to stay out there for 260 plate appearances last season. It’s hard to figure out how much to count on him, but I would say that it really isn’t very much. That brings Diaz into the mix in a big way and I mentioned his fall from grace last season.
Things like that make me really wary of backing a team from a season-long standpoint. My ultimate goal in every win total is to estimate what a team’s floor is and what the team’s ceiling is. At that point, I’ll look to see where the win total line is and then decide if I think there is enough value to make a play. The Blue Jays lineup could certainly be better than last season. It could be a league average type of offense with a pitching staff that I believe to be above average. A team like that has the makings of an 84 or 85-win team. A team with Toronto’s offense from last season, well, we’ve seen what the Pyth W-L and BaseRuns records were. Even if we add a full season of Sanchez to the mix, we’re likely talking about a 75 or 76-win team. That is a pretty big range to try and figure out.
Aaron Sanchez has reportedly been throwing pain-free since January, so hopefully the blister issues are in the past. Still, I need to see it to believe it. Also, I need to see if the .247 and .267 BABIPs that he posted in 2015 and 2016 are legit. He posted ERAs of 3.22 and 3.00, but his peripherals were a lot higher than that. He’s an important piece to this puzzle of trying to find surplus value to justify a play on the over.
I really like Marcus Stroman. The arsenal is sick and the makeup might be even better. There are injury concerns with every pitcher, since every pitcher is throwing hurt in some way, shape, or form, but those concerns are magnified when you’re talking about a 5-foot-8 right-hander that led the league in pitches of 95 mph or higher. Stroman has worked back-to-back 200-inning seasons. I mentioned that his K% fell in the second half last year and his BB% rose. I’m not so much worried about the high HR/FB% because he has a limited sample size of fly balls, so it’s naturally going to be high, but the 78.1 percent LOB% with a guy that has a below average strikeout rate does sound some alarm bells.
The tail end of this rotation does present some issues with Marco Estrada’s pixie dust no longer working to the degree that it was. Ryan Borucki started 2017 in High-A and finished with one start in Triple-A. The kid has a ceiling and some helium, but he probably isn’t ready for the big time. Jaime Garcia is a replacement-level type more often than not.
Dominic Leone was pretty clearly the second-best reliever on this team behind Roberto Osuna. Joe Smith had 38 top-notch appearances before he was traded to Cleveland. There are some bullpen worries here. I talked about the lottery ticket guys on the minor league deals with the non-roster invites. There’s a reason why those guys aren’t getting guaranteed deals. I like Joe Biagini, but Ryan Tepera has to come back from a career-high in appearances and the most innings he has thrown since he was converted to relief in 2013.
What a complex team. This is why I do what I do and why I write as much as I write.
Pick: Over 81 (-105; BetOnline)
As far as the AL East goes, this is my favorite win total bet. I’m willing to go down with the ship if all over these over-30 guys are busts. The Blue Jays are a team capable of being a seller at the Trade Deadline. The second Wild Card is the best-case scenario for this team because the loser of the Boston/New York sweepstakes will grab home field in the one-game playoff.
With that in mind, the Blue Jays could trade Josh Donaldson to a contender in need of help (hi, Cleveland). They could move Curtis Granderson if he is effective. JA Happ would be a sought-after rental starter. Ross Atkins will probably have that decision to make. The difference here is that Toronto does have some intriguing prospects that can get the call, like Bo Bichette or Vlad the Impaler Jr. Anthony Alford and Dalton Pompey are close. I would like the increased athleticism of this team in the second half if that all happens.
I really like what Toronto has done this winter. I like the starting staff. I like the bullpen. I like this team. I think they’re in a position to surprise and be right there for that second Wild Card with 84-85 wins. The juice is reasonable and the line is manageable.
Furthermore, one other angle I do want to point out is that sportsbooks post adjusted win totals for the second half. Last season, for example, Detroit’s season win total was adjusted to 76. With 75 games to play, they needed to virtually go .500 at 38-37 to get over that. It wasn’t happening. That was an easy play. If Toronto does become a seller, we can buy out of this at the All-Star Break and I like knowing that I’ll likely have that option. I like them to go over the total regardless, but it’s never bad to plan ahead.
-END OF 2018 PREVIEW-
An epic American League Wild Card Game turned into an ALCS berth for the Toronto Blue Jays last season. With the Texas Rangers in search of revenge for Jose Bautista’s shot heard ‘round the world in the 2015 ALDS, Toronto swept the year-long overachievers right out of the postseason to advance to the ALCS for the second straight year. Toronto was no match for Cleveland in the ALCS and Blue Jays fans were forced to wait for another chance at cracking a long AL pennant drought.
It was a very busy offseason north of the border, as former Cleveland Indians Team President Mark Shapiro and former Indians farm director Ross Atkins tried to put together a team capable of doing what the Indians did last season. The Blue Jays haven’t appeared in the World Series since 1993. A lot of decisions had to be made over the cold Toronto winter and it will be very interesting to see how those work out over the course of the upcoming season and subsequent seasons.
The Blue Jays were a really interesting team last year. They played down to inferior competition and played up to quality competition. Toronto was just 31-28 against teams with a losing record last season. Boston was 38-21. Baltimore was 36-19. Cleveland was 46-24. Texas was 35-36, but they were a paper tiger all year anyway. Toronto was a couple games worse than their Pythagorean Win-Loss record, but it wasn’t out of the normal range like we saw with a handful of teams last season. The Blue Jays went 89-73, with a 91-71 Pyth W-L and a 91-71 BaseRuns mark. A good starting point for those looking to play win totals is to compare those two standings metrics with the actual standings to find clear regression.
One thing worth pointing out in the introduction is that Toronto was not the same team after the All-Star Break. The Blue Jays were 51-40 with a +75 run differential before the Break and 38-33 with a +18 run differential after it. The Blue Jays actually had a losing September, but managed to get into that one-game Wild Card playoff. Toronto went from 4.9 runs per game in the first half to 4.39 runs per game in the second half. The pitching staff stayed pretty consistent with 4.08 runs per game to 4.14 runs per game.
Is that predictive of anything heading into the 2017 season? Maybe, maybe not. We’ll have to dig deeper to find out, but this is a very strong team that has an excellent chance to return to the playoffs and potentially do some damage.
Season Win Total Odds:
BetDSI: 85.5 (-105/-115)
BetOnline: 84.5 (-105/-125)
5Dimes: 85.5 (-115/-115)
Additions: Kendrys Morales, Joe Smith, JP Howell, Lourdes Gurriel, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Steve Pearce, Mat Latos, Lucas Harrell, Brett Oberholtzer, TJ House
Losses: Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Saunders, RA Dickey, Scott Feldman, Joaquin Benoit, Brett Cecil, Dioner Navarro
The Blue Jays were very quiet on the trade front over the winter, but there were a lot of decisions to make. Toronto entered the offseason with nine unrestricted free agents and one player with a club option. The club option on Jason Grilli was picked up, but the only other free agent retained was Jose Bautista. The market cratered for power hitters over the winter. The Jays seemed to prefer a reunion with Edwin Encarnacion over Jose Bautista and his declining skill set, but Bautista became a necessary piece once the market shook out. Michael Saunders is a bigger loss than it would seem after he posted a 117 wRC+ last season with a 24 HR and a quality walk rate.
Always seeking out relief bargains in Cleveland, the Shapiro fingerprint was once again visible in Toronto. Former Indians sidearmer Joe Smith was added to the bullpen mix. Rubber-armed lefty JP Howell was a nice, low-risk addition to fill the role of Brett Cecil at a fraction of the cost. Joaquin Benoit was a great Trade Deadline addition, but Toronto didn’t really make much of an effort to retain the 39-year-old.
Kendrys Morales will attempt to fill the large production lost with Encarnacion’s departure. The rest of the losses were mostly dead weight, especially RA Dickey, who had worn out his welcome as the resident innings eater in the rotation. There’s a bit of starting depth with the late signings of Mat Latos and Lucas Harrell.
Why bet the over?
For the sake of changing it up a little bit, let’s focus on something a little bit different right out of the gate. This will be a recurring theme through the write-up anyway, so why not start with it? One of the strongest assets about the Blue Jays is that they have a terrific defensive ballclub. Kevin Pillar is one of the game’s top defensive outfielders. Troy Tulowitzki had an outstanding season at shortstop and is a plus defender. Ezequiel Carrera is capable of playing either corner well and can fill in as an average center fielder if needed. Josh Donaldson is spectacular at the hot corner. Devon Travis was an above average defender. Russell Martin is very good at handling a pitching staff.
That’s a big edge for Toronto and something that needs to be acknowledged and celebrated. As a general rule of thumb, a team gains a win for every 10 defensive runs saved. Toronto was +28 defensive runs saved last season and rated well in UZR and UZR/150 as well. You’ll notice that Toronto posted a team ERA of 3.79 with a FIP of 4.04 and an xFIP of 4.02. They were seventh in baseball in terms of left on base percentage (LOB%). That speaks to how important the defense is to this team and it should be more of the same this year at several positions.
I’m not going to say that the Blue Jays are on the Royals level from the last few seasons because that’s totally inaccurate, but Kansas City is the best example of how much a good defense can help a starting staff. Toronto’s starting staff is light years better, but this group is definitely elevated by having fielders that can catch the ball and make plays that other players can’t. It’s an important thing to keep in mind as we go throughout these win totals. Pitching talent is important. Hitting talent is important. Guys that can consistently catch and make plays can elevate both areas.
Let’s dig into that starting staff. It’s not unreasonable to refer to Aaron Sanchez as an ace already. Sanchez worked 192 innings in his first full season as a starter at the big league level and posted a 3.00 ERA with a 3.55 FIP and a 3.75 xFIP. Sanchez’s 54.4 percent ground ball percentage really helped with a strikeout rate that was about league average. His walk rate was a tad elevated as well, but the total package is exciting and the raw stuff is exquisite. He won’t go 15-2 again, not that pitcher win-loss record should matter to you anyway, but there’s reason to believe that he could improve with more knowhow of the craft. It doesn’t hurt to have a guy like Russell Martin helping a 24-year-old with a lightning bolt of an arm.
Marcus Stroman’s 2016 season was interesting. He was one of very few Toronto pitchers not to benefit from the defense. He posted a 4.37 ERA with a 3.71 FIP and a 3.41 xFIP. Stroman had problems from the stretch and had the lowest LOB% among the starters at 68.8 percent. He had a .308 BABIP against with a 60.1 percent ground ball rate, so balls just happened to find holes more often than they did for other pitchers. Here’s the catch: Stroman missed almost all of 2015 with a torn ACL. In the first half of 2016, he had a 4.89 ERA with a 16.9 percent K%. In the second half of 2016, he hung a 3.68 ERA with a 22.7 percent K%. That’s what you want to see. A pitcher that got stronger as the season went on. Stroman did and big things are coming in 2017. We’ll see if the K% can stay, but a high ground ball guy with a league average or better K% is really excellent.
JA Happ is a late bloomer and there’s nothing wrong with that. He’s 34 and is coming off of back-to-back fantastic seasons. He was a huge benefactor of the Toronto defense with a 79.7 percent strand rate and a 3.18 ERA despite a 3.96 FIP and a 4.18 xFIP. Happ gives this rotation a change of pace from the left side and he’s been pretty durable with 63 starts over the last two seasons. It’s very important to remind you that league average starters capable of throwing 180+ innings are remarkably valuable in baseball because there are a lot of starters that simply aren’t good. Even with some ERA regression from Happ, which is almost a certainty, he’s still going to be average or above and that means a lot.
Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano are interesting guys. Both have a ceiling, but both have a floor. The crazy thing is that we saw both from them last season. Estrada BABIP’d his way to an incredible first have with a 2.93 ERA. His BABIP against was .193, which was an historic mark. His second-half BABIP against was .285 and his ERA ballooned to 4.27. Estrada was pitching through a back injury, so it’s fair to wonder if he’s going to be at one extreme, like he was for the better part of three years, or be more like the second-half guy. Similarly, Francisco Liriano was great in the second half for Toronto with impressive peripherals and a 2.92 ERA with a 3.52 xFIP. He also had a 5.46 ERA with a 5.28 FIP and a 4.53 xFIP before the Pirates gave up on him.
The bullpen could actually be a little bit stronger overall this season. Brett Cecil is a big loss, but Roberto Osuna is one of the game’s better closers and the setup righties are really good with Jason Grilli, Joe Biagini, and Joe Smith. There are two capable lefties here in Aaron Loup and JP Howell.
The offense is probably going to take a step back without Edwin Encarnacion, who bashed 42 home runs and drove in 127 runs, and Michael Saunders, who was fourth on the team in wRC+. That doesn’t mean that this is some Triple-A offense, however. Any lineup with Josh Donaldson has a bona fide star and Toronto has the only one in the league. Donaldson slashed .284/.404/.549 last season with a wOBA that was 30 points higher than Encarnacion’s and a wRC+ that was 21 percent better than Encarnacion’s. He’s one of the game top-10 players in an all-around sense and was a dynamic offensive player. Troy Tulowitzki finally stayed healthy for most of a season and hit 24 HR.
Devon Travis is a bat-to-ball guy with a little bit of pop. Russell Martin really struggled at the start of the year, but eventually got to almost league average with 20 home runs. After posting a 78 wRC+ in the first half, Martin posted a 123 wRC+ in the second half. We should see a bounce back that looks more like his 2015 season in which he had a 114 wRC+ and a 3.5 fWAR. He only had a 1.9 fWAR last season. One name to keep in mind is Dalton Pompey, who is a plus defender with great speed. It won’t take a lot to unseat the Melvin Upton/Ezequiel Carrera platoon in left and Pompey could be that guy.
Jose Bautista will try to bring the thunder for the Jays in Encarnacion’s absence. Even in a down year, Bautista still posted a 122 wRC+ with a .234/.366/.452 slash. He still draws walks at an elite rate and will probably draw even more of them without Encarnacion’s presence in the lineup. If he’s willing to be patient, he’ll put up strong OBP numbers again. If not, we’ll see what happens. His ISO dropped from .285 to .217 last season, but he did battle some injuries, including a bruised ego from Rougned Odor’s right hand. It was the lowest ISO he’s posted since 2009, which is before he became a thunderous power hitter.
Kendrys Morales is a wild card in this lineup. The biggest problem with Morales is that he can’t even pretend to play a position. He’s in a much friendlier hitting environment at Rogers Centre, so last season’s 30-homer outburst might be repeatable. His fWAR value will never encapsulate his practical value because he can’t play defense, which drags down his offensive profile. He posted a 110 wRC+, which was 20 points below his 2015 output due to a drop in BABIP and a decrease in walks. A bounce back is very possible and some of the Statcast metrics were really big fans of the batted ball profile.
Why bet the under?
As talented as the Blue Jays are, I’m looking at what I believe to be a fairly high-variance team. The offense is relying on two players on the wrong side of the aging curve to carry them to the top of the American League. Kendrys Morales saw a 3.3 percent increase in strikeouts last season and a rather surprising power increase. His HR/FB% jumped by 5.5 percent and I’m not sure if that’s a sustainable trend heading into what is basically his age-34 season. With the power spike and a drop in other categories, Morales’s wRC+ dropped 20 points, so he went from 30 percent above league average to 10 percent above league average. Offense was up across the league, so that was a contributing factor, but I always worry about older players that regress in K% and BB%.
In that same breath, Jose Bautista has some of these concerns as well. He, unlike Morales, has to play a defensive position and he’s gotten progressively worse at that over the last three years. There were some injuries in the mix last year, but he’s also in his age-36 season now, so injuries don’t just miraculously go away. They probably become even more detrimental. Recently, Andrew Perpetua at Rotographs wrote about batted ball data for aging sluggers using Statcast. You can interpret the data for yourself, but Perpetua’s conclusion is that Bautista’s power may be declining quicker than we expect. This, of course, implies that he can stay healthy at all. He was put on the DL twice for different lower-body ailments. In 2015, he had a shoulder problem. The DH spot is out of commission unless the Blue Jays want to trot Kendrys Morales out to a position. This is a big problem because the loss of power from Encarnacion needs to be replaced and Bautista’s walk rate is impossible to replace. Using Baseball Info Solutions’s pitch values, Bautista was actually a below average hitter against fastballs. PITCHf/x shows he struggled on hard stuff with movement (two-seamers and sinkers). We’re looking at a declining player. It’s anybody’s guess as to how quickly that decline happens, but I think it’ll be noticeable this season.
Troy Tulowitzki was quietly criticized in Colorado for his inability to stay in the lineup. Some felt it was the altitude. Some felt it was an unwillingness to play for a bad team. Tulo’s 131 games and 544 plate appearances were the most he’s had since 2011. Playing on the surface at Rogers Centre is not easy. Tulo’s average increased in the second half and his slash line remained about the same, but he wasn’t driving the ball as much. His SLG was down 20 points and his HR/FB% was down 5.4 percent. Though he stayed mostly healthy, he’s still a bigger risk than most players.
As much as I could see a Russell Martin bounce back, we also have to consider that he’s a 34-year-old catcher. His K% went from 20.9 percent to 27.7 percent last season. His walk rate increased, but his power didn’t. He hit three fewer home runs in 28 more plate appearances and had seven fewer doubles. Some of this may have simply been batted ball luck and noise, especially because his first half was so bad, but we’re no longer talking about the player that amassed 12.5 fWAR from 2013-15. We’re probably looking at something like 2.3 to 2.4 fWAR.
That brings me to the pitching staff. We’ve seen that there isn’t a great correlation year-to-year in the defensive metrics. Great defenders are great defenders, like Kevin Pillar, but average defenders can move one way or another. The Blue Jays really need the defense to be good. Aaron Sanchez posted a 3.00 ERA with a 3.55 FIP and a 3.75 xFIP. One of the primary components of FIP and xFIP is strikeouts. With an average number of those, he’s dependent on batted ball luck. He got a lot of it holding opposing hitters to a .267 BABIP. The same can be said about JA Happ, whose K% was just below the league average. Happ had a .268 BABIP against. Sanchez stranded 76.9 percent of baserunners, which was above the league average rate of around 72 percent. Happ stranded 79.7 percent. If we keep going down the list, Marco Estrada, king of the low BABIP, had a .234 BABIP against with a 3.48 ERA, a 4.15 FIP, and a 4.64 xFIP. His BB% was not good and his K% was up 4.7 percent from the previous season. I’m not sure that’s sustainable. Steamer projections agree and have him taking a massive step back to 4.69 ERA with a 4.79 FIP and a 4.97 xFIP. Estrada has posted great BABIPs against in each of the last four seasons, so I think he can be better than the projections, but an ERA in the 3.75 range would hardly surprise me. He battled back issues last season and was coming off of a career-high in innings pitched in 2015. He worked five fewer innings last season, but had another year with some postseason starts, so we’ll have to watch his health closely.
It’s entirely possible that the Blue Jays rotation continues to outpitch the metrics. Sanchez’s stuff is good enough and I’m buying the second-half Marcus Stroman over the first half Marcus Stroman. I’m not buying Francisco Liriano. I’m not enamored with any of Toronto’s depth options like Mat Latos or Lucas Harrell. The position player depth is just fine and I like some of the platoon elements, but the Blue Jays are pretty thin with starting pitchers. Mike Bolsinger is okay and would be the sixth starter in my mind.
Jason Grilli is 40 and he’s coming off of a pretty poor season with a 4.12 ERA, a 4.33 FIP, and a 4.05 xFIP. He still missed bats, but he also missed the zone and hit a few too many barrels when he was in it. Grilli gave up as many home runs in 2016 as he did in the previous three years combined. Joe Smith saw a big drop in strikeouts and a big spike in walks. It seemed like he wasn’t very healthy last season. He’s a different look with a unique arm slot, but he got barreled a lot last year with the highest HR/FB% of his career. Joe Biagini is an interesting case. He was a starter in the Giants system before making his MLB debut in 2016 as a reliever. He worked 60 games plus playoffs. It seems clear that his arsenal works better in a relief capacity, but I’m curious to see how he’ll bounce back from a workload that he has never experienced before.
John Gibbons isn’t a great manager. His lineup construction leaves something to be desired and I’ll be curious to see what adjustments he makes to a lineup without Encarnacion. Case in point, Devon Travis led the Blue Jays in plate appearances batting first. He had a .323 OBP. That’s not optimal. I don’t have a ton of faith in him to figure it out, but maybe he’ll surprise me.
Season Win Total Pick: Over 84.5 (-105; BetOnline)
I had a bit of a hard time making this pick. My main reasoning behind siding with the over is that I believe the Blue Jays have a pretty high floor. This is not a team that will suddenly fall to 76 or 77 wins. On the other hand, I also don’t see a team likely to win 90 or more games. I think this is a pretty fair number and anything from 83 to 86 wins would not surprise me.
The depth in the starting rotation is worrisome for me. I think provisions should have been made to account for the likely regression of Sanchez, Happ, Liriano, and Estrada by acquiring more depth. Those haven’t been made, which will require the Blue Jays to hit a little bit more than they did last season. Kendrys Morales should replace a good chunk of Edwin Encarnacion’s production, but I’m not exactly sure how much. I do like the versatility of the lineup and the upside of guys like Marcus Stroman. The quality defensive numbers also lead to a rather high floor.
The bullpen has some worries and the manager doesn’t really know how to put a lineup together. If pitching regression is coming, optimizing the lineup needs to be a priority because every little offensive gain could have an impact. Because the Yankees are a high-variance team and Baltimore and Tampa Bay don’t look like contenders, Toronto is probably the only team capable of chasing down Boston. I don’t think they do it and I think Boston wins this division by a handful of games, but I think Toronto has more than enough to win 85 games.
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