|Sportsbook||Win AL East||Win AL Pennant||World Series|
|Over/Under Season Win Total: 75.5 (BetOnline)|
As a general rule, it helps to have a sense of direction. You have to know where you are going in life. The Toronto Blue Jays have been virtually directionless for the last three seasons. After back-to-back ALCS appearances in 2015 and 2016, the Blue Jays have finished with 76, 73, and 67 wins and have finished 35 and 36 games out of first place in the AL East.
Attendance has cratered. In 2017, Rogers Centre welcomed 3,203,886 fans. That number dropped by nearly 900,000 in 2018 and dropped another 575,000 spectators in 2019. In order to help the attendance figures, perhaps the players cycling through the team over the course of the season should count. Over the last three seasons, the Jays have used 61, 63, and 60 players total and 39, 36, and 34 pitchers.
Health has played a role, but ineffectiveness has played a bigger role. Quite simply, the Blue Jays haven’t had enough good players to compete on a regular basis. Now that some of the minor leaguers, like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio, have graduated to the Major League level, that is starting to change.
Better pitchers are making their way up the system, with guys like Nate Pearson, Anthony Kay, and TJ Zeuch just about ready to crack the MLB roster full-time. The organization has been bare of pitching talent in the minor leagues since guys like Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez made it to The Show.
I’ll preface my write-up by saying this: The Blue Jays are really intriguing for 2020. They aren’t going to challenge for a playoff spot, but the lineup looks to be much improved and the Toronto front office was pretty aggressive in the offseason about upgrading the pitching staff. Four newcomers are penciled into the starting rotation and Shun Yamaguchi was signed out of Japan to likely be a primary setup man to closer Ken Giles. Yamaguchi wants to start. We’ll see what the Jays decide.
For the first time in a while, the Blue Jays actually have some semblance of a plan and a direction. The arrow is actually pointing up, as opposed to down, which is what has been the case the last three years with declining win totals and attendance. Signings of Tanner Roark and Hyun-Jin Ryu aren’t going to bring attendance back to its previous levels, but the Blue Jays don’t look like a complete doormat for every other team to walk over this season.
Quite frankly, I sympathize with Blue Jays fans. The team is far from cash-poor, but ownership doesn’t seem to want to put much investment into the team. Head exec Mark Shapiro left Cleveland in search of more operating income and hasn’t really gotten much of that. He brought former farm director Ross Atkins with him as the GM. It hasn’t worked. To some degree, an entire overhaul is needed. After all, this is a team with two playoff appearances since the World Series win in 1993.
They won’t get to the playoffs this season, either, but maybe this year will provide a glimmer of hope and a view into the not-so-distant future.
|BaseRuns Run Differential||-114 (4.51/5.21)|
|3rd Order Win% Record||66.4-95.6|
|Record in One-Run Games||18-23|
|Additions: Brian Moran, Jake Petricka, Rafael Dolis, Caleb Joseph, Joe Panik, Ruben Tejada, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Travis Shaw, Shun Yamaguchi, Tanner Roark, Justin Miller, Phillippe Aumont, AJ Cole, Patrick Kivlehan, Chase Anderson, Anthony Bass|
|Losses: Derek Law, Jason Adam, Luke Maile, Ryan Tepera, Devon Travis, Clay Buchholz, Clayton Richard, Justin Smoak, Buddy Boshers, Justin Shafer, Chad Spanberger, Breyvic Valera, Richard Urena|
[Hank Hill voice] I’ll tell you what [/end Hank Hill voice], the Blue Jays look a LOT better on paper than they did last season. I like Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark, and Chase Anderson. I think all of them have some upside, though the division and the park factor changes, particularly for Ryu, could be a bit problematic. The Jays added a lot of experienced innings to a rotation that sorely needed them.
We’ll also see what Japanese import Shun Yamaguchi can do. I’ll talk more about him in a bit, but this is totally revamped and retooled starting five on the pitching side.
Joe Panik and Travis Shaw are competent Major Leaguers to add with a young and growing position player core. All in all, I think the Jays had one of the better offseasons in baseball. They lost very little of consequence and upgraded several positions on the big league roster. I like the offseason quite a bit. We also see a win total line pumped up by what looks to be a pretty good set of additions.
All of the sudden, this Toronto roster looks pretty good. The youth movement fully took hold last season with the call-ups of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and some extra playing time for catchers Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is only 26. Teoscar Hernandez will turn 28 later this year. Derek Fisher is only 26. The Blue Jays are in an exciting position to see how their kids develop. Sure, they will take some lumps in a division with the Yankees, Rays, and, to a lesser degree, the Red Sox, but there will be something to follow night in and night out and that is huge for the fan base, particularly with the attendance drop I mentioned in the intro.
I’ll start by saying this. This offense is going to be quite a bit better this season. The .280 BABIP is going to be on the rise with a much higher level of contact quality across the board, so I would expect the Jays to move up quite a few spots in batting average. Young hitters are always going to strike out, but the Jays were in the middle of the pack in average exit velocity at 88.3, which doesn’t quite correlate to a .280 BABIP. Now, of course, home runs don’t count towards BABIP and the kids should hit quite a few of those, but I still expect this offense to be a lot better overall.
The nice thing for the Jays is that their young guys didn’t just have cameo appearances. Vladdy Jr. had 514 plate appearances. Biggio had 430. Bichette had 212, but showed a tremendous offensive profile with a .311/.358/.571 slash, a .384 wOBA, and a 142 wRC+ in that span. Guerrero started with a .318 wOBA and a 97 wRC+ in the first half, but finished strong in the second half with a .340 wOBA and a 112 wRC+. Biggio was consistent across both halves and his extremely high walk rate in the 16.5% range is solely needed for an offense that has rarely walked a lot.
It isn’t just the homegrown talent that shows promise. Randal Grichuk had a .340 wOBA and a 115 wRC+ in 2018, but dropped to a .307 wOBA and a 90 wRC+ in 2019 with less BABIP luck and fewer fly balls. Generally, fewer fly balls would lead to a higher BABIP since ground balls go for hits more often than fly balls. He’s something of a bounce back candidate. Hernandez and Gurriel have 30-homer power. Hernandez was in the 85th percentile in exit velocity this past season and the 93rd percentile in 2018.
We’ll see if it translates to the big leagues, but Fisher has plus power and borderline plus-plus speed. If he can get on base more and translate his minor league success to the big leagues, that would deepen this lineup. Jansen profiles as the better offensive catcher, with McGuire the better defensive catcher, but it should be a valuable tandem. Jansen’s offense didn’t translate to the Majors last season, but his minor league track record was impressive.
I look at Toronto’s offense and I’d call it streaky. Last season had some learning curves. Young lineups that strike out a lot can go through prolonged slumps, but also long periods when hitting is contagious.
I’ve also mentioned before how much depth factors into the equation for me. With the graduation of several prospects, a guy like Brandon Drury becomes a super utility player and injury replacement. Joe Panik is a nice, low-risk signing. The Jays have some versatility and some MLB-caliber depth in the minors in guys like Billy McKinney, Anthony Alford, and Jonathan Davis.
All in all, this group looks like a lot of fun to watch. There are going to be frustrating, bang-your-head-against-a-wall days, but also days when this group hangs some huge numbers. To me, the Blue Jays look like a team that will struggle against good pitching staffs and obliterate bad ones.
This is the area under the microscope for the Blue Jays. We can all agree that the offense will be better. How much better will the pitching staff be? In all honesty, I was surprised to see the Jays only rank 21st in ERA and 20th in FIP. It sure seemed like they were a lot worse than that. Marcus Stroman was traded away at midseason after 21 really good starts. Aaron Sanchez was traded to the Astros after 23 pretty bad starts. The only other pitchers to accumulate at least one fWAR were Trent Thornton, a personal favorite of mine, and closer Ken Giles, who was limited to 53 games.
Toronto had 21(!!) different starting pitchers last season, ranging from Thornton, Sanchez, and Stroman with 21+ starts to Edwin Jackson, Clayton Richard, Clay Buchholz, Jacob Waguespack to openers like Derek Law, Daniel Hudson, Ryan Feierabend, and Neil Ramirez. Basically, the team was all over the map.
From the starters, the Blue Jays got a 5.25 ERA with a 4.90 FIP and a 5.01 xFIP over 711.1 innings of work. That is terrible. We can see from a comparison of the starter-only numbers to the full body of work that Toronto’s bullpen was actually pretty decent. A 4.35 ERA is decent enough in last year’s run environment, though it is worth noting that the relievers collectively posted a 4.75 FIP and a 4.74 xFIP with some massive home run and walk rate problems.
For the sake of argument, let’s replace Stroman’s 2.96 ERA, 3.51 FIP, and 4.06 xFIP with Hyun-Jin Ryu, who, quite frankly, is probably only good for about 125 innings with his injury history. I think his numbers will regress more than that going from Dodger Stadium to Rogers Centre and the American League with a full-time DH. But, I doubt he’ll be that far off.
For this experiment, let’s also replace Sanchez’s 6.07/5.02/5.09 with a league average-ish starter like Tanner Roark. Let’s take Clay Buchholz’s 6.56/5.62/5.18 pitcher slash and add in Clayton Richard’s 5.96/6.28/5.32 pitcher slash over 104.1 combined innings to replace it with Chase Anderson, who had a 4.21/4.83/5.26 in 139 innings with the Brewers last season.
I don’t think that Ryu will pitch like a #1 starter with the move to Rogers Centre and the move to the AL East. His home/road splits aren’t bad, but keep in mind that he has a career 2.58 ERA in 11 starts at Oracle Park , which is his most frequent road venue. He did struggle through nine starts at Chase Field and six more at Coors Field. Other than that, he hasn’t made more than four starts in any other road venue. Rogers Centre is no picnic and neither are Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.
That being said, he is still part of an upgraded starting rotation and the sum of all of the parts makes Toronto a much better team.
Ryan Borucki is still around, and hopefully healthier, but he has already been slowed by shoulder discomfort in Spring Training. Matt Shoemaker is also in the fold with a bevy of health questions. The young kids that were serviceable, like Sean Reid-Foley and Jacob Waguespack are a year older and wiser. We’ll likely see top prospect Nate Pearson at some point after the Super Two deadline and the Jays also have plenty of prospect arms like Anthony Kay, TJ Zeuch, and Thomas Hatch.
I’m also a big believer in Thornton, who posted a 4.84 ERA with a 4.59 FIP and a 4.94 xFIP. I would love to see some usage changes for him. Thornton was hurt by cluster luck, as he allowed a .305 wOBA with the bases empty and a .352 wOBA with men on base, including 13 of his 24 home runs. Solo homers are okay. Multi-run homers are no-nos. Thornton, who hails from the Houston Astros pitching factory, ranked in the 88th percentile in fastball spin rate and 88th percentile in curveball spin rate. Among pitchers with at least 400 slider results, Thornton had the highest average spin rate and it wasn’t close with #2 (Chaz Roe). Adam Ottavino was third. Sonny Gray was fourth. Marcus Stroman was fifth. We’re talking about guys considered to have elite sliders. Opposing batters only posted a .261 wOBA on Thornton’s slider. They decimated his fastball and cutter.
The stuff is there to be really good. His first full season in the Majors had some bumps in the road, but he pitched well in September with something to build on. Let’s see the Jays up his slider usage to 35-40% and bump the curveball up to 10% or so. He’ll be a completely different pitcher. His stock is one I will buy quickly if I see some usage changes. He also has potential to be an elite reliever in my estimation if Toronto goes that route.
Admittedly, the bullpen worries me. Ken Giles is solid. Anthony Bass had a terrific second half with the Mariners last season, holding the opposition to a .198 wOBA in 110 plate appearances. Yamaguchi could be a starter or could be a reliever, but likely ends up in relief, where his 10.0 K/9 in Japan last season can play up a little more. Depth is a question beyond that and Bass and Yamaguchi are questions themselves. Wilmer Font, who was wildly valuable for the Jays in the second half of last season, may be the second-best pitcher behind Giles. Let’s see how he is deployed.
Positives & Negatives
Toronto went 7-21 in May and 10-17 in June. Once the kids really took hold for the second half, the Blue Jays were 33-38 and were only outscored by 18 runs. If we extrapolate that .465 win percentage to the full 162 games, we end up with 75.33 wins, which is essentially where the season win total sits for this season. With a young, developing, and wildly talented position player core and a lot of upgrades on the pitching side, we have to consider if they can play at that pace or better, while keeping in mind that 57 of 162 will be against the Rays, Yankees, and Red Sox.
It can be dangerous to make assumptions about young players. The sophomore slump isn’t just a media narrative. Pitchers adjust. Teams adjust. Sometimes hitters don’t adjust. Sometimes the numbers just don’t show up. Sometimes those players press to impress with that first full season. The rotation is significantly better than last season, but still full of injury risks and concerns. The offense will define the ceiling for this team because there will still be a lot of nights when the Jays need to outhit the other team to win. It will be up to the kids to accomplish that.
The jury is out on Charlie Montoyo, but I do have relatively high hopes. Expectations still aren’t high, but the pedigree is impressive. He worked his way up the Rays org in spite of a ton of challenges along the way. I find Kevin Cash to be one of the best skippers in baseball and Montoyo got to work alongside him before taking the Jays job. I would expect him to do well with better talent across the board.
Pick: Over 75.5
I honestly didn’t expect to like the over here. This is a pretty big adjustment off of last season, but when you look at the upgrades in the aggregate, you find that this team is just vastly more talented than last year’s version. You have all the young kids in the lineup that graduated from the minor leagues to the bigs. You have Ryu and Roark and Anderson and actual competent Major League pitching. You have upside in Thornton and Pearson and Yamaguchi.
I am usually a little bit hesitant of big leaps like this, but like I mentioned, the Blue Jays we saw after the Midsummer Classic were a lot different than the Blue Jays that we saw in May and June. You could see and feel the energy. You could feel the promise and potential. You could feel a different vibe. And at that point, they played like a 75-win team with a much weaker pitching staff than what they have now.
Depending on how the rest of Spring Training goes, I may add this one to my list of bets. I really need to see everybody get through healthy to March 26 because depth is still a bit of a concern for me with multiple parts of the roster. I truly believe a healthy team can flirt with .500, but that could all go by the wayside in a flash. Some pitchers are already hurt and others have injury histories. Toronto could outscore the opposition with some slow-pitch softball games, but there are some other very good offenses in the American League. Toronto needs that improved pitching staff to balance some things out.
This one is on the cusp of making it as a bet, but I really do like what I see and the offseason that the Blue Jays, so the pick is easily on the over.