Jays From the Couch looks at the possibility and feasibility of the Toronto Blue Jays competing in 2018
The 2017 vintage of the Toronto Blue Jays was a bad baseball team. Not only were they a bad baseball team, but they were also a poor entertainment product. In the infamous words of Dean Wormer from Animal House, “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son”, well “Slow, old, and striking out too much is no way to entertain baseball fans, Blue Jays.” As we look ahead to 2018, I want to take a look at the question on most fans’ minds – compete or rebuild?
There continues to be much debate within Blue Jays fandom and analytical circles as to whether they should try to compete against the dual Death Stars of the 2018 Yankees and Red Sox or tear down for a rebuild. With the team finishing 2017 with a dreadful record of 76-86, the Jays seem miles off of what are likely to be mid to high 90’s projected win totals for their main division rivals. Add in the improved projections for Wild Card candidates such as the Angels, and some fans seem to be asking whether the front office is placing cynical business priorities above realistic baseball analysis. My goal in this column is to try and figure out why/how the front office may put together a contending team in 2018, and whether such an endeavor is reasonable.
The 2017 Jays team was projected to win in the mid-80’s by the major projection systems. Please remember that such systems are probabilistic and that a 76 win season was not a statistical outlier given the age of the Jays’ roster. I think it is reasonable to expect older teams to have a skewed probability distribution in the negative-i.e. a fatter right tail. A quick caveat- the discussion of WAR for individual players does not “add up” to team win totals when looking across a team roster. WAR remains a useful analytical tool in its various iterations, but it is not a sum of the parts equation for team win totals in a linear sense. But to further place into perspective how bad the 2017 Jays were, they ranked 29th out of 30 teams in offensive fWAR with 9.8 and 27th in defensive fWAR with -24.3. Pitching fWAR was 16.5 and ranked a solid 11th despite the injury to Sanchez and lack of serviceable rotation depth.
First the good news – the 2018 Blue Jays have a lot of different ways to return to mediocrity! The unholy nexus of Troy Tulowitzki (0.0), Devon Travis (0.6), Ryan Goins (-0.3), Darwin Barney (-0.6), Richard Urena (-0.2) and Jose Bautista (-0.5) resulted in three positions being absolutely putrid for the 2017 Jays. The aggregate fWAR for that group of players was -1.0! Throw in a zero from Aaron Sanchez and terrible depth players (Chris Coghlan was -0.5 fWAR in only 38 games!), and that is 4 major starting positions that accounted for most of the performance swing from an 84-86 projected win team to an actual 76 win team. An average big league player is worth about 2 WAR, so that is at least a net change of 9.0 wins for the SS, 2B, RF and one SP.
I believe this reality is why the front office continues to focus on adding one more big league quality middle infielder to the roster, as that should raise the probabilistic floor for the 2018 to the mid-80’s win level. That would be without making any silly projections such as Tulo and Travis both playing 150 games, Sanchez making 30 starts, or Donaldson staying healthy and having another MVP-type season. Replacing Bautista is perhaps the easiest task facing the Jays, even as the prospect of Teoscar Hernandez, Kevin Pillar and Ezequiel Carrera being the opening day OF may be nauseating for many Jays fans.
The 2017 version of Jose Bautista was objectively terrible. He “won” the triple crown of being really bad, as he was an awful batter, base runner and defender. The 2018 ZiPS projections for Teoscar Hernandez (wRC+88 projected) and Anthony Alford (wRC+73 projected) combine for about 2.5 zWAR, which assumes both will be well below average offensive performers. Having young and athletic players replacing Bautista would provide significant value as defenders and base runners. Left field currently projects to about 0.8 WAR between Carrera and Steve Pearce, which could also be upgraded pretty easily to league average.
Just by raising the floor of middle infield production and not having one of the worst players in baseball playing RF, the Blue Jays are more likely than not to get into the neighborhood of Wild Card contention. That would create a platform from which the Jays would have optionality, where a little luck and roster enhancements could mean contending for the AL East and/or winning a Wild Card spot. There are a lot of different things that could go right. Devon Travis could play 140+ games in 2B and/or LF and be a 3-4+ WAR player. Tulowitzki could play 120+ games and be a 2+ WAR player. Aledmys Diaz could be the 2B starter and/or provide depth and be a 1-3 WAR player. Sanchez could make 25-30 starts and be a 3-5 WAR pitcher. Josh Donaldson could play 150+ games and be a 7-8+ WAR player. Kendrys Morales could perform like an above average big league batter. Of course, the Jays could still add a free agent or two, and/or make a trade which improves the big league roster. Also, one or more of the Jays’ increasingly deep list of prospects could force their way onto the team and produce.
What if the Blue Jays sign Lorenzo Cain, who was a 4+ WAR player last season, and is projected to be about a 3+ WAR player in 2018? What if the Jays also add someone like Josh Harrison in a trade? If they enjoy some combination of good luck and/or upgrades, it isn’t that hard to get to 5-7 additional wins and get the Jays to project closer to 90 wins. That would be before any positive surprises/luck. For example, Donaldson, Sanchez and Travis being healthy and performing to expectations could provide 6-8 in extra wins alone.
While the Yankees and Red Sox are likely to be powerhouses in 2018, they are not impervious to mean regression and/or bad luck. Aaron Judge may never have a better season than he just enjoyed. Giancarlo Stanton may get hurt again or have trouble coping with the pressure of playing in the NYC media pressure cooker. Their starting pitching depth is questionable, with one of their key starters nearing 40 years old, and another possessing an elbow with an UCL issue. They also have a ton of strikeouts in the lineup, which as Bill James has written, can reduce overall run production even with gaudy power numbers. It may be more likely than not for the Yankees to score fewer runs in 2018 than they did in 2017, despite the addition of Stanton.
The Red Sox? What if Chris Sale gets hurt and/or David Price is actually in decline? Mookie Betts’ 2016 season of many wall-scraping home runs mean reverted last season and could happen again. Dustin Pedroia has missed huge portions of 2 of the past 3 seasons due to injury and is older than Tulo. It is not a statistically insignificant probability that one of the two teams will drop into the mid to high 80’s in wins.
It is also reasonable, that if the Blue Jays add another 3-5 wins between now and opening day, that they could be a 90+ win team. Statistically probable? No – but given the roster’s makeup and now burdensome contracts of Tulo and Russell Martin, the timeline for elite prospects in the system, and the financial resources of the team, I think the front office is pursuing a reasonable path. Should the Blue Jays make meaningful additions in the coming weeks, it will probably still not be statistically likely for them to win the AL East, but that chance won’t be remote, and they may have a really good shot at a Wild Card. In other words, they’d start the season about where they have in 2015, 2016 and 2017. What is everyone getting all worked up about again?
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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