How the Blue Jays might assemble a competitive team for 2020

The 2019 season has only just finished, but plenty of Blue Jays fans are already looking ahead to 2020 and asking the question: how competitive can the Blue Jays expect to be?

 

 

 

 

Last off-season, it was made clear that 2019 was going to be a write-off in terms of genuinely competing for a playoff spot. However, the expectation was that a younger, rebuilt Blue Jays team should be a roughly .500 team in 2020. With a little over-performance, wild card contention might not be out of the question.

 

Well, 2019 was indeed a write-off, to an even greater degree than I had expected—I was expecting something more like 77-85, rather than 67-95. That said, after Bo Bichette was called up and a more future-oriented was fielded, the team went 27-28, despite having the third-toughest schedule in the AL from that point forward. Looking forward, it’s useful to look at what the Jays’ internal options for 2020 look like and where external options are most necessary.

 

Catcher

This season saw the birth of what might be Toronto’s catching tandem of the medium-term future: Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire. At the very least, barring injury, we can expect to see the two on the 25-man roster come Opening Day 2020.

 

Jansen, expected to be the number one, had a rough season at the plate, posting a 68 wRC+. While his plate discipline was league-average, he struggled to make effective contact, posting a .153 ISO and .230 BABIP. That said, his expected ISO was a slightly better .161, while his xBABIP was .294! That gap between his xBABIP and BABIP is massive (the sixth-largest among 264 batters with at least 200 balls in play) and suggests that he dealt with some bad luck.

 

One thing that isn’t in doubt is the catching abilities of Jansen and McGuire. Blue Jay catchers finished the season with 17 DRS, the third-best mark in the majors, and 11.8 framing runs above average (FRM), the MLB’s sixth-best mark. Jansen, the team’s primary catcher, finished fourth in the majors in catcher DRS and seventh in FRM (min. 600 innings).

 

The pair combined for 2.6 fWAR this season, which is a very strong foundation for them to build from next season. If Jansen ends up being the hitter he can be, the Jays should have one of the most productive catching tandems in the majors next season.

 

First Base

I’m very curious to see how the Jays handle 1B this off-season. In 2019, the team primarily used Rowdy Tellez and Justin Smoak, but with Smoak entering free agency and Tellez not having securely grasped his opportunity in 2019—his 91 wRC+ ranked 29 out of 33 among 1B/DH (min. 350 PA)—the position remains in a state of flux.

 

After Tellez, the system is a bit thin in terms of first basemen or even defensively-limited outfielders with legit bats (though Chad Spanberger did produce a 160 wRC+ over his last month at Double-A). Moreover, I’m firmly in the “leave at Vlad at third for the foreseeable future” camp.

 

Given the premium placed on defensive versatility, the usefulness of using a rotating DH spot and the sheer number of outfielders, I can’t imagine the Jays would want to plan to have two first base-only players on their roster again. At the same time, while Tellez didn’t run away with the first base job this year, he probably did enough to earn another shot—I’m mainly looking at that 8.1% barrel rate that ranked 39th in the majors in 2019.

 

This all leads me to guess that the Jays will head into 2020 banking on Tellez to put it together as an everyday first baseman, while hoping that a guy like Spanberger goes to Triple-A and sees his already solid ISO soar, thanks to the MLB ball used there. If the team is in the thick of the wild card race and first base is a particular weakness, the front office can always look for an upgrade via trade.

 

In terms of external adds, an ambitious option would be Josh Bell (135 wRC+, 2.5 fWAR). The Pirates are notoriously cheap and Bell is entering arbitration, so maybe they’d be open to moving him. Signing Eric Thames (118 wRC+, 2 fWAR), in the off-chance his club option isn’t picked up, is another proactive choice.

 

I’m also curious how interested the Jays are in re-signing Smoak. While he took a step back in terms of offensive production (101 wRC+), relative to 2017 (133 wRC+) and 2018 (121 wRC+), he actually improved upon his 2018 expected production (.367 xwOBA this season, .335 xwOBA last season), also outpacing his xwOBA in 2015 (.345) and 2016 (.328). That makes me think that a bounceback in 2020 is a definite possibility.

 

Second Base and Shortstop

Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette have established themselves as everyday players, with Bo looking like a potential multiple all-star (4.8 fWAR/600 PA) and Cavan looking like a solid regular—he produced the 14th-most fWAR (2.4) among MLB second basemen over 100 games. It should, however, be pointed out that Biggio out-fWAR’d Bichette after the latter’s promotion, 1.8 to 1.7, with both ranking among the MLB’s Top 40 over the last two months of the season.

 

In addition to above-average hitting (114 wRC+), Biggio displayed some quality base running skills, which show up in the data—his 4.7 BsR ranked 29th in the majors over the whole season. He also showed decent fielding skills at the keystone, producing roughly average marks in terms of both DRS (-1) and UZR (-0.4). Similarly, Bichette produced both offensively (142 wRC+) and defensively at short (3 DRS, -1.2 UZR).

 

These are two positions that seem set up well for 2020.

 

Third Base

It was always going to be difficult for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to immediately live up to his potential, but it’s hard not to look at his numbers and not be a little disappointed, particularly when other touted prospects (like Ronald Acuña Jr. and Juan Soto) seemed to immediately dominate.

 

All told, he produced 0.4 fWAR, thanks mainly to only slightly above-average hitting (105 wRC+) and struggles while running the bases (-6.6 BsR). In fairness to him, another factor limiting his fWAR is FanGraphs’ use of UZR over DRS—while UZR pegged him as a bad third baseman (-9.7), he’s moreso just below-average in terms of DRS (-3). For what it’s worth, his 2019 WAR with DRS in place of UZR would be around 1.

 

At the plate, his main issue was generating far too many grounders, with his 49.6% GB rate ranking 29th among batters with at least 400 PA this season. As a result, while he hit the ball hard—Vlad Jr. was responsible for the third-, fourth- and fifth-highest exit velocities of the season (!)—too many were worm burners—he owned the ninth-highest rate of batted balls with an exit velocity of 95-plus mph and a launch angle less than or equal to zero (11.3% of his plate appearances).

 

Looking ahead, it’s fair to say that Vlad Jr.’s 2020 projections would be a lot rosier if he dominated in his rookie season. That said, few will be betting against him to be an above-average producer next season.

 

The Outfield

2019 was a very mixed bag for the Blue Jays’ outfield in terms of what we learned about its make-up in the coming seasons. There were some clear positives, so let’s start there.

 

From his recall on May 24th to his injury on August 8th, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. was excellent in left field, producing 2.1 fWAR (the 33rd-best mark in the majors over that stretch). That lead Jays fans to pencil him into the outfield of the 2020s (kudos to Jays from the Couch’s resident “Lourdes will be an excellent outfielder” advocate, Roy-Z). Similarly, after Teoscar Hernandez was recalled from AAA Buffalo on June 5th, he produced a 126 wRC+ and 1.8 fWAR, the latter of which ranked 33rd among all outfielders.

 

While I’m a little more confident in Lourdes’ medium-term role with the Jays—Teoscar still struck out 34.4% of the time after his recall—they both represent solid options for two outfield spots in 2020.

 

Randal Grichuk represents a third outfield lock for 2020. Now, a big part of that is thanks to the extension he signed earlier in the season, not so much because he’s contractually locked in but because it shows how highly the front office regards him.

 

Grichuk’s overall numbers (0.6 fWAR, 90 wRC+ in 2019) are certainly not where he needs them to be, but there are signs that 2020 will be different (I understand that is not a ringing endorsement for a player in his late-20s). Grichuk has made a lot of progress cutting down on the strikeouts that have been his primary weakness throughout his career. If he can keep that improvement going forward and repeat his typical power numbers, he’d be a solid hitter.

 

Also worth mentioning: it’s important to avoid looking at his -10 DRS in RF this season and say that he’s no longer a capable defensive outfielder. First off, DRS viewed him as a solid CF in limited action (3 DRS). Second, his UZR in RF was league-average (-0.4). Finally, his outs above average (6 OOA) ranked a very solid 22nd among everyday MLB outfielders.

 

Four other outfielders saw some action for the Blue Jays in the second half of the season: Billy McKinney, Derek Fisher, Jonathan Davis and Anthony Alford. Ultimately, we probably haven’t seen enough of any of them to say anything definitive about their futures. Moreover, in a world where Gio Urshela is the clean-up hitter on a very strong Yankees team, can one really assign a ceiling to anyone? Nevertheless, a limited number of roster spots and growing expectations regarding the team’s performance mean that choices must be made.

 

McKinney has one more season of minor league options left, which will likely need to be used in 2020. Given his below-average defence in the corners, it’s everyday player or bust for McKinney. Unfortunately for him, that requires him to hit at a level he just hasn’t been able to get to in the majors.

 

Fisher is out of options next season, which will make his situation interesting come Spring. Unlike McKinney, Fisher could carve out a role as a fourth outfielder, as he’s been a solid corner outfielder and has the speed to play CF. This should give him some more runway next season to show that he is, in fact, an everyday outfielder.

 

Fisher needs more runway to do so because he definitely hasn’t yet. Defensively, the big miscues haven’t moved me from the idea that he’s a solid outfielder—in nearly 1000 innings out there, he’s produced 6 DRS and 4.9 UZR, so he’s comfortably average.

 

At the plate, his strikeout rate is a massive issue. It’s really the issue for him. He appears good for a 10%-plus walk rate and even with the Jays his production on batted balls was above-average—he posted a .411 wOBA and .387 xwOBA on batted balls after the trade.

 

Another post might be needed to dig into those strikeout problems, but I can’t imagine him putting up a 40% strikeout rate in 2020. Regardless the details, if he can run even just a bad strikeout rate—say, around 27-30%—while still walking a lot and making good contact, he can be an everyday guy. My guess is he’ll get the chance in early 2020 to show whether or not he can.

 

Rounding out the list are Davis and Alford. While Alford has had far more prospect shine than Davis—Alford was a Top 100 prospect, while Davis has not made many Top 30 Blue Jays prospect lists that I can remember—Davis has easily been the better Triple-A hitter, generating fewer strikeouts (22.4% K rate vs. 27.7%), more walks (9.4% BB rate vs. 8.3%) and more power (.169 ISO vs. .124), leading to much better overall production (110 wRC+ vs. 91). While that doesn’t mean Davis will be the better MLB hitter, it is evidence that points in that direction.

 

Davis, like McKinney, has minor league options (two more years in his case) which means he could start 2020 at Triple-A. Alford is out of options, so it’s either the Opening Day roster or the waiver wire for him. This fact made it a little curious that the Jays didn’t give him more playing time in September.

 

If the Jays opt to go with one pure 1B to start 2020, going with five outfielders is an option—in a given game, three could play the field, one could DH and the fifth would have a day off—which would allow them to start the season with all of Gurriel, Grichuk, Hernandez, Alford and Fisher on the roster.

 

While possible, it’s really hard to say if the team will go in that direction. If the team used that outfield for the 2020 season, I would neither be surprised if it collectively produced below-replacement level value—as was the case for the Jays before the all-star break (-0.7 fWAR, 29th in the majors)—or was actually decent enough to be middle-of-the-pack—as was the case for basically that group in September (1 fWAR, 17th). This group’s potential has a lot of variance attached to it.

 

With this number of MLB-ish outfielders on the 40-man roster, any external addition should really only be of the established, everyday variety. In free agency, only Marcell Ozuna and Nick Castellanos seem to fit that bill. Both are Statcast darlings, a type that the Jays front office has been partial to in the past, but it might make more sense to give the internal guys another year and throw all the money in the world at Mookie Betts in 2021. Joc Pederson, George Springer and others might also be available next off-season, should Betts elude the Jays.

 

Starting Rotation

The Blue Jays really had some rough luck with the health of their starting pitchers this season. The plan was to have a rotation with five of Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Ryan Borucki, Matt Shoemaker, Clay Buchholz and Clayton Richard. While the Stroman and Sanchez remained healthy, Borucki only made two appearances due to elbow issues, Matt Shoemaker blew out his knee after five promising starts, Buchholz was limited to 12 starts due to shoulder problems and Richard was limited to ten starts after hurting his knee in Spring Training.

 

The injuries did allow/force the Jays to give chances to a number of upper-level pitching prospects. Trent Thornton was the clear success story of the bunch and seems pencilled into the 2020 rotation. He made 32 appearances and produced an impressive 1.9 fWAR, eighth-most among rookie pitchers. He was a very average starting pitcher—he struck out 22% of batters (vs. the MLB average of 22.3%), walked 9% of them (vs. 7.4%) and gave up homers at a rate of 1.4 per nine innings (vs. 1.44 HR/9), producing a FIP- of 99—which is quite a positive thing for a rookie to be.

 

Jacob Waguespack was another young pitcher to be unexpectedly thrust into action. His back story—undrafted reliever who gets a shot as a High-A starter and debuts in the majors within two years—has made him a personal favourite of mine and I was calling for his promotion early on in the season. While he didn’t succeed to the extent that Thornton did—he produced 0.7 fWAR and a 106 FIP- over 16 appearances—I think he’s shown enough to stay in the mix for 2020.

 

In particular, I think he can generate weaker contact than he did in 2019. For one thing, 50% of the batted balls he gave up in Triple-A were grounders, but he only mustered a 40.3% GB rate in the majors. Secondly, he had been very effective at limiting homers (0.68 HR/9 at AAA in 2018) before having to deal with the juiced ball of 2019 at both the Triple-A and MLB levels (1.54 HR/9 at AAA in 2019, 1.38 in the MLB). Whether he figures out some useful adjustments or the ball gets de-juiced again, I think there’s a real possibility he could get that home run rate under control next season and perform as a legit #5 starter.

 

Also seeing action this season were Thomas Pannone and Sean Reid-Foley. Pannone gives up a lot of fly balls (45.8% FB rate), which wasn’t ideal with the 2019 ball (1.60 HR/9). Reid-Foley’s characteristically high walk rates (14% in the majors this season) are one thing when he’s striking out around 30% of batters. It’s quite another thing when he’s only striking out 18.7% of batters, like he did this season.

 

September also saw the debuts of Anthony Kay (one-half of the Stroman return) and T.J. Zeuch (the front office’s first-ever draft pick). Both pitched pretty well in their limited action, with Kay producing a 57 FIP- over 14 innings and Zeuch posting an 88 FIP- over 22.2 innings.

 

While he didn’t make his MLB debut, Nate Pearson did finish the season with three starts at Triple-A, after a strong season with AA New Hampshire (2.90 FIP). He had one good start, one decent start and one bad start there, not bad considering he blew past his previous pro innings maximum by the end of April.

 

I think Borucki and Thornton are solid bets for the 2020 rotation, assuming good health. Tendering Shoemaker seems like a no-brainer. He was effective as a Jay, appears ahead of schedule in his recovery, is expecting he’ll have a regular off-season and was a great teammate throughout his recovery process. Waguespack, Kay and Zeuch should also get long looks in Spring Training and will battle for any open rotation spots, if the team doesn’t make a couple of external additions (or unforeseen injuries create an opening). While Pearson seems certain to start 2020 at Triple-A, Jays fans probably won’t be waiting much longer for him to make his MLB debut.

 

Nevertheless, in order for the team to really get things going in 2020, the front office should be in the market for another SP or two. They don’t need to aim for Gerrit Cole or even Zack Wheeler, but there is a solid group of #2/3s on the market, with a lot of variation in terms of track record, age and expected term/salary: Jake Odorizzi (4.3 fWAR), Homer Bailey (2.9), Kyle Gibson (2.5), Cole Hamels (2.5), Adam Wainwright (2.2), Tanner Roark (2), Wade Miley (2) and Ivan Nova (2). Signing a couple of them would bolster the MLB rotation, while putting less pressure on guys like Waguespack, Kay and Zeuch to deliver immediately.

 

Combine two of those free agent pitchers with Borucki, Thornton and Shoemaker and the Jays would head into 2020 with a rotation befitting a team that is starting to transition from rebuild to contention.

 

Bullpen

The 2019 Blue Jays saw 33 different pitchers make relief appearances, second only to the Mariners (36). As such, I’m going to focus on those primed to contribute in 2020.

 

Ken Giles represents the most important question mark. He was phenomenal in 2019, posting the league’s fourth-best FIP (2.27), sixth-best xwOBA (.246), fifth-best ERA (1.87), ninth-best xFIP (2.73) and sixth-best SIERA (2.49) among qualified relievers. Trading him for a big prospect package at the trade deadline was a logical move, but his nagging elbow injury and the Yankees being tools led him to remain a Jay.

 

Now, the balance might have shifted away from moving Giles and towards keeping him for 2020 and beyond. Hanging onto a hard-throwing reliever with elbow issues could easily blow up in their face, but if the team wants to take a step forward in 2020, Giles would have to be a big part of that. Perhaps the right move is a familiar compromise: hang on to him, try to be as competitive as possible and see what happens. If things are going well, the Jays could discuss an extension. If not, they could move him at the deadline. There’s risk involved, but there’s different types of risk in every choice with this situation.

 

Wilmer Font and Jason Adam look like solid supporting pieces going forward. Font (who I wrote about back in August) owns an 81 FIP- with the Jays, while his .245 xwOBA is a point better than Giles’ 2019 mark and ranked 19th among MLB relievers after his Jays debut on July 20th. Similarly, Adam pitched to a very solid 85 FIP- and .270 xwOBA as a Jay.

 

Buddy Boshers didn’t wow Jays fans, but a lot of that seemed to be due to some serious bad luck—no Blue Jay reliever had a bigger gap between his xwOBA and wOBA. He struck out 28.6% of batters and his 17.6% K-BB% was above-average for an MLB reliever (14.2%). Impressively, his underlying contact (.338 xwOBACON) was way better than average (.370). Add the fact that the Jays could really use a lefty with Tim Mayza out until 2021 (we all look forward to your triumphant return, Tim) and bringing back Boshers makes a lot more sense than one would first think.

 

Sam Gaviglio pitched more relief innings than any pitcher in baseball this season. In spite of the workload, he managed to post a FIP- (100) that was exactly league-average for relievers and an xwOBA (.302) that was better than the average reliever (.314). His 0.1 fWAR does not reflect his contribution to the Jays in 2019. I expect him to ably play the same multi-inning relief role for the team in 2020.

 

Derek Law had a weird season. Through the end of July, he owned a solid 26.2% strikeout rate and 14% K-BB%, but was giving up two home runs per nine innings. Then, over the course of August and September, he didn’t give up a single homer, but ran a tiny 2.6% K-BB%. Ultimately, in spite of a 16.8% walk rate, Law ran a decent 3.98 FIP and .306 xwOBA over the last two months. Given his late inning usage towards the end of the season, I think the team intends to use him in the 2020 bullpen. Ideally, he can combine the 26.2% strikeout rate and low home run rate throughout the entire season.

 

Ryan Tepera had a rough, injury-plagued season, but has been reliable enough recently enough that he should be given another shot next season. Justin Shafer will also be in the mix. His 112 FIP- wasn’t great, but like Boshers, he was a bit unlucky and posted a solid xwOBA (.312).

 

Jordan Romano will hopefully be part of the Jays pen at some point down the road but, given his 138 FIP- and .382 xwOBA, he could use a bit more time at Triple-A to master his new role as a reliever. Lending further support to the major league bullpen will be a AAA Buffalo ‘pen that includes prospects like Bryan Baker (31.3% K rate, 3.58 FIP), Ty Tice (27.3% K rate, 3.93 FIP) and even Matt Dermody (19.6% K-BB%).

 

As always, there will be a wide range of relievers on the free agent market, ranging from very good to replacement-level. Signing a top free agent reliever seems like one of the last steps a team takes on its way to contention, so the Jays are probably a year away from dipping their toe in the deep end of that pool. They probably will, however, dish out a couple major league contracts to relievers closer to the middle of the market.

 

This is a .500-ish team, with lots of room to over or underperform

The 2019 Blue Jays won 67 games this season. A replacement level team is expected to win 47.7 games and the Jays produced 20.6 fWAR in 2019, so their expected win total via WAR was 68.2, pretty close to their actual total. In 2019, Blue Jay position players produced 11.5 fWAR, by way of their hitting, base running and fielding. The starters combined for 7.2 fWAR, while the bullpen produced a total of 1.9 fWAR.

 

Let’s look ahead to a hypothetical 2020. The Jansen-McGuire tandem combines for 3 WAR. Tellez gets the 1B job, improves a touch and produces 0.5 WAR. Biggio (3 WAR) and Bichette (4.5 WAR) each have solid seasons, producing slightly behind their pro-rated 2019 WAR. Guerrero (3 WAR) starts to get the hang of major league hitting, but is still a few years from competing for MVP trophies. Santiago Espinal provides backup after winning the job in Spring Training (as I’m assuming, for simplification, that the regulars will get 600 PA, I won’t account for WAR from the backups).

 

In the outfield, Gurriel (3 WAR) and Hernandez (2 WAR) each have career years, with production in line with their post-recall levels. Grichuk (2 WAR) has a bounceback season, producing at a level similar to 2018. Alford and Fisher spell the three regular outfielders when they need a rest or are used as DH (for simplicity, I won’t bother estimating any value from the DH position either).

 

Mystery SP Signing #1 and #2 get comfortable in Toronto and produce 5 WAR between them, while returnees Borucki, Shoemaker and Thornton produce 2 WAR each. Waguespack, Kay and Zeuch provide capable options whenever depth is required. Pearson coming up and providing real value right away would be a bonus.

 

Ken Giles (1.5 WAR) has a solid season, once again ranking among the top fifteen relievers by WAR. Let’s treat the rest of the bullpen like a mystery box and assume that the other Blue Jay relievers combine for 0 WAR.

 

All of those position players, starters and relievers combine to produce 33.5 WAR, giving the hypothetical 2020 Blue Jays a projected record of 81-81. If you go through the roster, you will find plenty of players who may end up falling short of my placeholder WARs , particularly in the outfield and rotation. You will also find plenty of areas where the team could overperform them (catcher, third base, designated hitter, the bullpen).

 

I’m primarily optimistic about the Blue Jays near- and long-term future because I’m an optimistic guy by nature. But I’m also optimistic about their chances to win a lot more games next year because I believe in the foundation that’s been built. It’s been a rough three seasons and there are no guarantees with rebuilds, but potential has begun to turn into performance. Looking ahead to next season, there are clear reasons to believe that the transition to contention will continue.

 

 

 

 

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Jeff Quattrociocchi

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.