Despite frustrations pointing to a bleak outlook, the Toronto Blue Jays are a franchise heading in the right direction
Wednesday afternoon, during my daily review of Blue Jays Aggregator, I came across Scott Mitchell’s take on the Blue Jays’ 2020 roster. Curious to see what he had to say about the team’s near-future, I clicked the link and started reading. His projected roster was pretty standard, filled mostly with the usual upper-minors prospects that all Jays fans are dreaming on. What caught my eye and precipitated this post was a sentence in his introduction (emphasis mine): “From injuries to poor performance to legal troubles, there’s no shortage of problems to point to and no shortage of work to be done to get a seemingly directionless franchise back on course.”
The 2017 and 2018 seasons have been nothing but frustrating for the big-league team and its fans. However, at the franchise level, things have gone much, much better. Player development has turned lower-level prospects with potential into upper-level prospects that are near-MLB ready, while good drafting and solid international signings have restocked those lower-levels with a new batch of guys with potential. Plus, Drew Hutchison was turned into Reese McGuire, Harold Ramirez and Teoscar Hernandez.
In my opinion, this franchise is not directionless and in need of a course-correction. By no means am I declaring that “the Jays are great and might even close the 23.5 game chasm between them and the AL East division lead”. The 2018 MLB team has not been good (though that seems mainly due to issues with returning players, rather than the additions made over the last year).
The future, on the other hand, appears to be very bright. For example, six Blue Jay prospects made the recently released Baseball America Midseason Top 100 list. Applying the standard 100 points for #1/1 point for #100 method, the Blue Jays’ crop of top prospects rank 7th in the majors.
Mitchell’s projected 2020 infield is made up almost entirely of BA Top 100 prospects. Danny Jansen (#76) is behind the plate. Vlad Guerrero Jr. (#1) is moved to first base, with Kevin Smith (#95) is shifted from short to third. Bo Bichette (#5) is holding down shortstop, a likelihood that BA is increasingly positive about, while Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (#88) is pencilled in at second. Cavan Biggio is alongside Gurriel at second, though either could end up in a utility role. While Biggio didn’t crack the Top 100, BA believes that he “has gone from fringe organizational player to a legitimate prospect”.
Two big positives emerge from this infield. One, it’s full of quality near-ready prospects who each have a good shot at being at least everyday-quality players, with at least one likely to be much better than that. Two, it doesn’t include any of the veteran infielders the Jays currently employ. Justin Smoak has one more cheap year of team control. Yangervis Solarte and Devon Travis have two. Aledmys Diaz has four. While none of them would be confused for stars, they each have varying amounts of value that could be swapped for prospects with some upside. There’s also Josh Donaldson. I won’t bother speculating on how his Jays future will unfold, but there’s certainly potential to receive useful pieces in return for the Bringer of Rain.
Given that no Blue Jay outfield prospects made the Midseason Top 100, it’s not surprising that Mitchell is pessimistic about the 2020 outfield. As he points out, Anthony Alford is the only outfielder generally viewed among the Jays’ Top 15 prospects. His hunch is that this area will need to be filled via trade or free agency, which could definitely be the case. He pencils in Ryan Noda in left, Alford in centre and Randal Grichuk in right. Current Blue Jays outfielder Teoscar Hernandez (under team control until 2023) is deployed as a designated hitter who can play the field a couple of days a week
Ryan Noda, a college pick from last season’s draft, is a very interesting prospect. In both of his pro seasons, he has produced a walk rate above 20% and an ISO above .200, a rare feat. He currently ranks fourth among qualified A batters in wRC+ (156). He’s played mainly at first base, though he has gotten some action this season in left, where Mitchell slots him in. An ETA of 2020 seems doable, particularly if he is promoted to High-A this season and continues putting up an impressive wRC+.
While Alford’s lost some of his prospect shine this season, falling out of the BA Top 100, he is still a guy with the tools to be an everyday player. FanGraphs remains positive enough on him to include him in their Midseason Top 131 list, only dropping him from #36 to #46. He has continued to display above-average defence in centre field and is one of the league leaders in AAA baserunning (as measured by wSB).
Grichuk and Hernandez are known quantities for Jays fans. This season, Grichuk has combined an average xwOBA with above-average defence in right, while Hernandez has produced a well above-average xwOBA, but pretty terrible defence. Slotting them into the 2020 lineup at RF and DH makes a lot of sense to me.
Beyond this group, however, lies a handful of prospects with some upside. Alone, their potential may not be enough to count on. As a group, the odds that one becomes an everyday player increases some. In this vein, Mitchell mentions Dwight Smith Jr., Dalton Pompey, Roemon Fields and Jonathan Davis.
Jonathan Davis seems like a guy who can be a late-blooming everyday MLB regular. He’s shown himself to be an above-average defensive centre fielder and base runner. The main knock on him had been his hitting. However, it’s important to note that he accumulated only 497 PA over his first three pro seasons, due to injury. So, like Alford, Davis’ age is not a true reflection of his stage of development. He’s been healthy since 2016 and has proceeded to produce at an above-average rate at each stop, currently finding himself in AAA Buffalo.
Again, it should be noted that current outfielders like Curtis Granderson and Kevin Pillar could be moved in order to further bolster the system. Granderson has been an above-average hitter against righties this season (119 wRC+), while Pillar is on track for another two-win season. Neither will fetch a team’s top prospects, but they are both worth something of value.
In terms of the starting rotation, Mitchell slots in Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Ryan Borucki, Sean Reid-Foley and T.J. Zeuch. Borucki has looked very comfortable in his first four big-league starts, SRF has regained all of his prospect shine in 2018 and Zeuch has continued to look like a high-floor prospect at AA. It seems reasonable to view this as a major-league quality rotation in 2020.
Beyond this group lies a handful of prospects from High-A Dunedin to AAA Buffalo with a shot at being MLB starting pitchers in the near-future. If it wasn’t for his PED suspension, Thomas Pannone might have already made his MLB debut. Like SRF, Jon Harris has performed well enough recently to excise many of the concerns that arose from his poor 2017 season. Jordan Romano is a work-in-progress, but is on the right track. Down at High-A Dunedin, Patrick Murphy, Yennsy Diaz and Angel Perdomo have all impressed this season. Murphy has been promoted to AA New Hampshire, where he had a strong debut performance.
Like Mitchell, I won’t bother going to deep into bullpen speculation. But there are tons of relief prospects in the system, to say nothing of the starters who may eventually converted into a bullpen role. Conor Fisk, moved to the bullpen this season, has performed well at AA and AAA. Ditto for Justin Shafer. Zach Jackson can strike guys out. If he figures out how to avoid walking them, he could be a very dangerous reliever. Jake Fishman has dominated High-A and even put in a clean inning and a third for Buffalo.
Moreover, there are some valuable MLB pitchers that the Jays could move in the next month which could further bolster the system. J.A. Happ is the obvious guy and will net the biggest haul. Out of the bullpen, any (or all) of Seung Hwan Oh, Tyler Clippard, John Axford, Ryan Tepera or Aaron Loup could be moved for prospects of value.
Baseball America also points to optimism beyond the prospects that Jays fans have already started to get excited about: “with a strong 2018 draft class, good early returns on their 2017 international signing class and the addition of Dominican shortstop Orelvis Martinez, whose $3.5 million bonus is the highest so far of the 2018 international signing class…the Blue Jays have one of the best farm systems in baseball and it should get better soon.”
In that vein, there are tons of promising prospects that I left out of this conversation either for the sake of brevity or because the player is currently injured or likely too far away from being a major-leaguer in 2020. Nate Pearson is probably the Jays best pitching prospect and was given an ETA of 2020 before his elbow injury sidelined him for much of 2018. Logan Warmoth has provided solid SS defence for High-A Dunedin and was always going to need a little time to develop his approach at the plate. Harold Ramirez, long plagued by Eric Hosmer disease, has increased his fly ball rate and is posting his lowest-ever ground ball rate. The extra power, in conjunction with his low strikeout rate and high BABIP, has made him an above-average hitter at AA. Middle infielder Santiago Espinal, whom the Jays received in exchange for Steve Pearce, avoids whiffs and grounders at an elite rate. After conquering High-A, he has just been promoted to AA New Hampshire, where he hit a double in his debut.
It sort of feels like the very early days of prospect waves that Mark Shapiro has spoken of. The system would be able to provide enough quality prospects to build a roster in 2020, while a second wave develops in the lower levels. Case in point, Blue Jay affiliates in AA New Hampshire, High-A Dunedin and Rookie-ball Bluefield are each leading their respective divisions.
Ultimately, we’re all entitled to our opinions about the Blue Jays future. Being exposed to these different ideas can help us better develop our own thoughts about where the team is headed. But it just feels overly pessimistic to suggest that the franchise is directionless. I think it’s a mistake to project one’s opinions about the team’s recent major-league troubles onto the franchise as a whole. The goal for 2017-18 was to rebuild the system, while putting together enough big-league to contend for a wild card spot. The latter didn’t happen, though I believe that poor luck played a much larger role than poor decision-making.
Nevertheless, the former has absolutely happened. The Jays farm system is viewed positively by virtually every major prospect evaluator. John Sickels of Minor League Ball rates them sixth-best. FanGraphs’ June update has them sixth-best as well. BA has them seventh-best. MLB Pipeline has them ninth-best.
In my opinion, this franchise is very much headed in the right direction.
I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.