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We Might Be Underestimating The Blue Jays

It’s difficult to predict that a team will go from a losing record to reaching the postseason in any given season without sounding like a contrarian or someone who’s trying too hard, but in baseball, it’s a legitimately prudent exercise. Every year since 2006 has produced at least one playoff team that finished with a record under .500 in the previous season. Odds are good that it will happen to somebody this year too, and if you’re guessing who it will be, there are no shortage of options to choose from. The Angels have beefed up their lineup. The White Sox are pushing their chips in. The Reds are something close to favorites in a weak NL Central. The Padres fancy themselves close as well. If you’re looking for a good old-fashioned comeback story to cheer for in 2020, you can take your pick. My personal favorite might be the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Blue Jays are rarely mentioned in the same breath as the teams listed above, but they share something in common with each of them. Like Los Angeles, they overhauled a major portion of the roster. Like Cincinnati, they improved their team in a division that mostly either stood pat or took a step back. And like Chicago and San Diego, they enter this season with a boatload of young players who are excellent candidates to break out. But when you think of teams who might suddenly contend this season, Toronto probably doesn’t come to mind, and for good reason. Our Depth Charts project them to be 21st in team WAR in 2020, and Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections have them at just 76 wins and a 3% chance of making the postseason. Depending upon how you look at things, the Blue Jays are probably somewhere between the ninth and 11th-best team in the American League on paper, either at the bottom of baseball’s middle class or the top of its lower class.

Recent performance backs that up, of course. By WAR, they had just the 20th-most valuable position player group in baseball last year and the 21st-most valuable pitching staff. Their record was 67-95 in their third-straight losing season, their worst since 1995. Playing in a division with three solidly above-average teams and fighting through a crowded Wild Card field won’t be an easy task, so I’m not going to try to convince you that Toronto is a playoff team. What I’d merely like to convince you of is that the 2020 Blue Jays are a completely different team from the 2019 squad, and they ought to be dramatically better as a result.

We’ll start with the pitching staff, since that is where the Blue Jays devoted so many resources this winter. Toronto starters were dreadful in 2019, amassing just 7.2 WAR. Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez accounted for four of those wins, and those two throw baseballs for different teams now. Twenty-one pitchers made starts for the Blue Jays in total in 2019, a reflection of just how little stability the organization had on that front.

This year should be better, to say the least. The team signed Hyun-Jin Ryu and Tanner Roark to multi-year deals while also bringing in Shun Yamaguchi from Japan on a two-year contract. Throw in the acquisition of Chase Anderson from Milwaukee and that’s three new starters who compiled a total of 8 WAR in 2019 plus a 32-year-old who is coming off 181 innings, 194 strikeouts, 64 walks, and a 2.78 ERA for the Yomiuri Giants. As for the No. 5 starter, the most likely option is Matt Shoemaker, who made just five starts for Toronto last season after returning from injury. If things go according to plan, none of the Blue Jays’ top five starters by innings pitched in 2019 will crack this year’s Opening Day rotation.

Toronto’s Most-Used Starters, 2019
Name IP ERA FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WAR
Trent Thornton 139.1 5.04 4.80 8.7 3.8 1.5 1.6
Marcus Stroman 124.2 2.96 3.51 7.2 2.5 0.7 3.0
Aaron Sanchez 112.2 6.07 5.02 7.9 4.7 1.2 1.0
Jacob Waguespack 65.1 4.13 4.81 6.9 3.4 1.2 0.7
Clay Buchholz 59.0 6.56 5.62 6.0 2.4 2.0 0.1
RosterResource Projected TOR rotation, 2020
Name IP ERA FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WAR
Hyun-Jin Ryu 182.2 2.32 3.10 8.0 1.2 0.8 4.8
Chase Anderson 139 4.21 4.83 8.0 3.2 1.5 1.2
Tanner Roark 165.1 4.35 4.67 8.6 2.8 1.5 2
Matt Shoemaker 28.2 1.57 3.95 7.5 2.8 0.9 0.6
Shun Yamaguchi* 181 2.78 N/A 9.6 3.2 0.4 N/A
*Pitched season in NPB

Are there still potential issues here? Absolutely. Projections do not like the top four starters, injuries have limited Shoemaker to just 26 starts over the last three seasons combined, and we have no idea how the transition to major league baseball will go for Yamaguchi. But the Blue Jays still have Thornton and Waguespack in the organization, whose peripherals were roughly league average last season, and guys like Wilmer Font and Sean Reid-Foley offer upside as well. Toronto also has Nate Pearson, who Eric Longenhagen ranked as the top right-handed pitching prospect in baseball, just one level away from the majors. There are a number of things that could go wrong for this rotation, but there is no doubt that the depth in place entering 2020 far exceeds what this team could offer a year ago.

And if the Blue Jays wind up turning heads this season, it won’t be because of their pitching staff, anyway. It’ll be because of the offense, which boasts one of the most exciting groups of young players on any team in baseball. According to Eric and Kiley, Toronto entered 2019 with the No. 1 (Vladimir Guerrero Jr.), No. 9 (Bo Bichette), and No. 47 (Danny Jansen) prospects in the majors. Then Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. each broke out. This is now the Blue Jays’ core, and it’s a good one.

“Core” Blue Jays’ 2019 stats
Name Age PAs AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Def WAR
Cavan Biggio 24 430 0.234 0.364 0.429 114 -2.7 2.4
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. 25 343 0.277 0.327 0.541 122 -4.7 1.8
Bo Bichette 21 212 0.311 0.358 0.571 142 0.2 1.7
Danny Jansen 24 384 0.207 0.279 0.360 68 17 1.4
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 20 514 0.272 0.339 0.433 105 -10.6 0.4

My logic for singling out these five players is that they are all in their early-to-mid 20s, debuted in the past two seasons, and were all highly regarded as prospects just before their debuts. Toronto would love to get great seasons out of Randal Grichuk or Teoscar Hernández or Rowdy Tellez, but those aren’t the players that the franchise is relying upon to carry it for the next several seasons. These five are, and the early returns from them have been promising.

You might be thinking something along the lines of, so what? These guys all logged hundreds of plate appearances last year, and it still wasn’t enough to move the Blue Jays from finishing in the bottom third of the AL in wRC+. After how much fanfare surrounded the debut of Vlad Jr. and how quickly Biggio and Bichette succeeded, when you look back on the 2019 season, it might seem to you like these guys spent the majority of the season batting in the same lineup — at least, that’s the way I remembered it. But while it’s true that all of these players individually amassed nearly a half or whole seasons worth of playing time, the truth is that only a fraction of Blue Jays games featured all or most of these players making an appearance. I went through each game of Toronto’s 2019 season and counted how many of these five players appeared in each one. This is how that playing time distributed itself:

There were just six games last year in which all five of Vlad Jr., Bichette, Biggio, Gurriel Jr., and Jansen made an appearance and just 51 games in which four of them did. Put another way, the Blue Jays played 105 games in 2019 — almost 65% of the season — without at least two of these very important players. This was surprising to me given how much each of these players played on their own, but for various reasons, playing time never coalesced. Vlad Jr. wasn’t called up until late April, Biggio wasn’t called up until mid-May, and Bichette was in the minors until late July. Gurriel Jr., meanwhile, spent five weeks early in the season ironing things out in Triple-A and then missed more time with an injury in the second half.

This is significant because, barring multiple catastrophes, Toronto is certainly planning to play more than just a third of its season with at least four of these players in the starting lineup in 2020. According to our RosterResource, each of these players is expected to have a starting role with the exception of Jansen, who should get a fairly even split of catching duties alongside Reese McGuire. Like the rotation, there’s a very good chance the lineup that Blue Jays fans see throughout 2020 looks totally different than what they saw for most of last year.

It’s also significant because when these young players did get the chance to play together, the difference in production was enormous. While tracking how many of these players took part in each game, I also logged how many runs Toronto scored, how many runs it allowed, and whether it won or lost. Here’s what I found:

Blue Jays’ Team Performance By No. of Core Players Appearing
No. of Players Appeared Games RS per game RA per game W-L
4-5 57 5.84 4.84 31-26
2-3 80 3.84 5.44 25-55
0-1 25 3.52 4.08 14-16
Season Average 162 4.48 5.11 67-95

When at least four of Vlad, Bo, Biggio, Gurriel Jr., and Jansen were active, the Blue Jays raised their average run production by nearly one and a half runs and won more games than they lost despite the average pitching performance being close to what it was for the season. And 57 games is not that small of a sample size for something like this — if a team were 31-26 at the end of May and scoring nearly six runs per game, we would at the very least take them seriously. If that team then went out and added four starting pitchers at the start of June, we would almost certainly think of them as contenders.

Is that a perfectly rational way to think of this Blue Jays team? Perhaps not. After all, there are still plenty of holes here. The outfield is in bad shape, as is first base. Vlad Jr.’s defense was as awful as advertised, and a 21-year-old DH is a tough pill to swallow, regardless of how well he hits. The bullpen is probably trouble. And the position player depth is concerning enough that a couple of injuries could spell disaster. There is no shortage of ways in which this can all fall apart.

But it isn’t difficult for me to see a universe in which enough things go right. Vlad Jr. should be better; a full season of star-level production from him or Bichette wouldn’t shatter our understanding of baseball as we know it. Jansen, a bat-first prospect in the minors, shouldn’t be over 30% worse than the average hitter again. Nobody would be shocked to see Biggio or Gurriel Jr. repeat something similar to last year’s production, nor would they be blown away to see a bounce-back season from Grichuk or Travis Shaw, each of whom had been plenty reliable for several consecutive seasons before falling off a cliff in 2019. The rotation is full of workhorse-like arms capable of average-ish production over the course of a season, and Ken Giles is one of the better options a team could hope to have closing games.

It probably won’t be enough. The Yankees are a fire tornado, the Rays are great, and the Red Sox are still pretty good, too. The Angels can hit better than Toronto, the Indians can pitch better than Toronto, and the White Sox are about to roll out a youth showcase for the ages. Conventional wisdom says the Blue Jays shouldn’t be able to keep up with any of these teams. But that’s the thing about surprise contenders: You’re not supposed to see them coming.


Red Sox Sign Kevin Pillar to Complete Outfield Reconstruction

Trading a star player is easier to sell to a fanbase when said player’s potential replacement is part of the return package. When the Pirates traded Andrew McCutchen, they got back Bryan Reynolds. When the Marlins traded Christian Yelich and J.T. Realmuto, they got back Lewis Brinson and Jorge Alfaro. The exit of a star player always begs the question of who will take his spot, and if the team can point to a shiny young newcomer from another organization and say he’s the answer, it helps to maintain at least an illusion of stability at that position. Fans might miss their old star player, but fear not, because the new guy could be just as good, and so on. This has worked out better in some situations (McCutchen to Reynolds) than others (Yelich to Brinson), but it’s easy to see why a front office would want to employ this kind of strategy.

That’s how the Boston Red Sox behaved when scouring the market for potential returns in their efforts to dump the transcendent Mookie Betts (and, importantly, mountains of salary commitments), and they found their match in the Dodgers, who offered 23-year-old outfielder Alex Verdugo as part of their package in a deal that was completed earlier this week. On the outset, it seemed like a seamless transition. Verdugo certainly won’t be as valuable as Betts in any phase of the game, but he’s a decent enough bat and capable fielder who the Red Sox can plug into right field and forget about. Seems easy enough, right? Well, not necessarily. Verdugo, a left-handed hitter, will be replacing the right-handed-hitting Betts. The other two presumptive starting outfielders for Boston, Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr., are also lefties. Since the plan for right-handed-hitting J.D. Martinez should be to use him in the field as little as possible, and the rest of the projected bench combining for little-to-zero big league outfield experience, the Betts trade still left Boston in a vulnerable spot where outfield platoons are concerned. Read the rest of this entry »


Zack Britton Isn’t A One-Pitch Pitcher Anymore

One of the most exciting and maddening things about baseball is its unpredictability. A guy who fell to the 25th pick of his draft turns out to be the greatest player of his generation? Sure. A 36-year-old returns from a major achilles injury to have his best offensive season ever and hits the decisive home run of the World Series? Of course. One of baseball’s richest teams goes from winning the World Series to claiming it’s out of money, firing the guy who put the championship roster together, and trading away its superstar player to cut costs in the span of 18 months? That… well, we probably should have seen that coming.

Baseball is a game without sure things, which means the few precious certainties we get tend to stand out. One of those certainties, for the past five years, has been that if Zack Britton is pitching to you, he’s going to throw you a sinker. No need for guesswork, or a chess match, or an ear trained toward a nearby trash can. Since he switched from starting to relieving in 2014, 88% of the pitches Britton has thrown have been sinkers. Not a lot of pitchers can get by on just one pitch — so few, you can probably name them off the top of your head right now — but Britton’s been so successful, no one’s called it into question. That’s because the pitch every hitter knows is coming is still a 94 mph bowling ball thrown at their knees, and virtually no one can get a barrel to it. Because of that, Britton’s made 349 relief appearances, and owns a 1.81 ERA and 2.94 FIP over that span, with two All-Star selections and some MVP and Cy Young votes for his trouble. He’s one of the great relievers of his time, and it’s all because of one pitch.

That’s the Britton I know, you know, that everybody knows. Trouble is, that description might no longer be accurate. From 2014-18, Britton didn’t throw a non-sinker offering even 10% of the time over a given season. In 2019, however, he threw his breaking ball 13.6% of the time. That might sound like only a slight bump year-to-year, but this was no gradual change. This was Britton using the second half of 2019 to try something he’d never done before:

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The Phillies Sign Four Veterans Who Were Good Once

Building a competitive roster requires a lot of things from a major league club. Often it requires that the team spend a substantial amount of money, make smart trades, and draft well. But it also requires a decent bit of good luck when it comes to minor transactions. Ask a fan of the 2019 Yankees how they think the team might have fared without Mike Tauchman, Gio Urshela, and Cameron Maybin — three players acquired after the 2018 All-Star break for virtually nothing. There is, of course, skill involved in knowing which players to target in those low-risk moves and which tweaks to make to turn them from fringe 25-man players into legitimate starters. But there is a certain degree of guesswork, educated or not, involved in every step of that process. The odds of one of these small-scale pickups evolving into much of anything are always low, which is why teams make lots of them every winter.

The Philadelphia Phillies have already tried spending money and making smart trades. Last winter, they signed two starting outfielders and traded for a starting shortstop, a starting catcher, and a bullpen anchor. The math of their offseason worked out in theory — the players they lost amassed 5.3 WAR in 2018, and the players they picked up were worth 19.2 WAR. That windfall of talent boosted their record all the way from 80-82 to… 81-81. They’ve continued to be aggressive this winter, signing right-hander Zack Wheeler to the offseason’s fourth-largest free agent contract and adding the top shortstop on the market, Didi Gregorius, on a one-year deal. This week, however, they tried something else — looking to get lucky. They reached into the bucket of free agents and grabbed a handful of players in their mid-30s, who were once solid major leaguers but were struggling to find work. On Tuesday they signed Bud Norris and Drew Storen. On Wednesday, they added Francisco Liriano and Neil Walker. All four were signed to minor league deals. Read the rest of this entry »


Are Defensive Concerns Holding Up the Outfield Market?

Last winter, a 26-year-old Bryce Harper — a former No. 1 overall pick, MVP winner, and the 13th-most valuable player in baseball since his debut — hit the free agent market for the first time in his career. Because of his combination of age, pedigree, and the peak he’d shown in 2015, the bidding war for his services was expected to be as feverish and exciting as any in baseball history. The reality, however, was much different. Only a few teams ever emerged as serious contenders, and a deal didn’t get done until February 28, six days after the first spring training games began. He got his record contract, with the Phillies signing him for 13 years and $330 million, but it took the whole winter for him to secure it.

The forces that conspired to delay Harper’s signing were numerous. As a whole, the free agent market developed more slowly than any in recent memory, sparking rumors of collusion and swelling existing suspicions of how committed teams were to prioritizing wins over maximizing profits. But there was also the pressure placed upon Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, to negotiate the record-breaking monster contract people had been forecasting for them for years, as well as genuine concerns about whether Harper’s actual on-field play lived up to his fame and financial desires. There was little question about the bat, of course — his career 140 wRC+, 14.8% walk rate, and 184 homers made him one of the most fearsome hitters in the game. But his defense was a real issue after a horrific 2018 that saw him finish with the second-worst DRS total (-26) and the worst UZR (-14.4) of any outfielder in baseball. There are fickle defensive ratings painting an unclear portrait of how much a fielder is really contributing, and then there is a near-unanimous statistical case for a player’s glove being a dangerous liability. In 2018, Harper seemed to fit into the latter.

One year later, it seems those awful defensive numbers for Harper weren’t terribly predictive of his actual abilities. In his first season with the Phillies, he went from -26 DRS to +10 and -14.4 UZR to +10.0. In some respects, it was the best defensive season of his career. But while the numbers Harper displayed in the field in 2018 haven’t turned out to be prescient, the way his market played out as a result of them might have been. Read the rest of this entry »


Orioles Sign José Iglesias, Who Is Both Safe And Fun

Once blessed with the greatest run of consistency ever achieved at shortstop, it’s now been a few years since the Baltimore Orioles have seen solid all-around play at that position. That probably won’t shock you, given how badly the Orioles have performed all over the diamond in recent seasons, but it has affected the shortstop spot as badly as it has anywhere else. J.J. Hardy still had big league defensive skills in 2017, but his 49 wRC+ that year dragged him down nearly a full win below replacement level. Manny Machado was the reverse of that in 2018 — an MVP-caliber hitter, but bad in the field, though a rebound in his defensive numbers after a trade to Los Angeles suggested he was better than a half season’s worth of defensive metrics made it appear. And Richie Martin might be a productive big league player someday, but bumping him from Double-A to the majors in 2019 after making him the first selection of the 2018 Rule 5 draft resulted in an ugly 50 wRC+ and -1.0 WAR.

With Martin likely better served to start next season in the minors and no one else on the roster with substantial major league experience at shortstop, the Orioles were left with little choice but to go get someone who could field that position. The Orioles opted for competence, signing José Iglesias to a one-year contract, as first reported by MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand. Read the rest of this entry »


The Angels Have a New Starting Catcher

A few days after the Minnesota Twins further emptied what was already a depleted bin of free agent starting pitcher options, one of the most pitching-starved teams in baseball opted to improve themselves behind the plate. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported late Thursday that the Los Angeles Angels had reached an agreement with former Twins and Astros catcher Jason Castro, signing him to a one-year deal.

Castro will slot in as the starting catcher in Los Angeles, delivering a boon to a team that had the fourth-worst group of catchers in the majors last season in terms of WAR. Five backstops combined for -0.6 WAR, and the only one to finish the season above replacement level — Dustin Garneau — signed a minor league deal with the Astros this winter. Max Stassi, the presumptive starter behind the plate before the Castro signing, offers some of the best framing skills in baseball, but his wRC+ of 5 — not a typo — was the third-worst in the majors out of all players with at least 100 PAs last season. Stassi was league-average with the stick in 2018, so there is some hope he can bounce back in that area as a backup, but asking him to catch 100 games was never going to be a wise strategy for the Angels. Read the rest of this entry »


Dallas Keuchel’s Wait Is Over, and the White Sox Are Going for It

After the last couple of winters in which seemingly fine candidates for substantial multi-year deals were forced to settle for one-year contracts, this offseason has seen those same players finally land the kind of commitments they always seemed deserving of. Mike Moustakas signed a four-year, $64-million deal with the Reds after signing back-to-back one-year deals in Kansas City and Milwaukee. Yasmani Grandal signed a four-year, $73-million contract with the White Sox after taking just a one-year deal with the Brewers the previous season. And after health concerns limited Josh Donaldson to a one-year deal a year ago, he seems poised to collect a hefty payday as the best remaining bat available on the market this winter.

On Saturday, another player previously abandoned by the market finally landed his own multi-year deal. The White Sox signed former Braves and Astros left-hander Dallas Keuchel, as first reported by ESPN’s Jeff Passan. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman was first to report the terms of the deal:

Keuchel, 31, was one of the longest hold-outs in free agency last year, as he and formidable closer Craig Kimbrel each waited until June 7 — two days after the conclusion of the amateur draft, when draft pick compensation was no longer attached to them — to sign a contract. While Kimbrel received three years and $43 million in his deal with the Cubs, Keuchel signed just a one-year, $13-million deal with the Braves. In Atlanta, he was part of a starting rotation that finished sixth in the National League in WAR while guiding the team to a second-straight NL East title before bowing out to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS. Read the rest of this entry »


Astros Begin Bullpen Rebuild, Give Joe Smith Two Years Again

If one organization is repeatedly making headlines during the months of October, November, and December, it’s generally a safe assumption that there is a positive reason for that. Those are the months in which teams are either winning titles, adding major talent, or both. The reasons the Houston Astros have stayed in the news, however, have been consistently terrible. Their assistant GM belittled female reporters. The players cheated. Their world-beating ace left to join the their ALCS opponent. And they’ve considered trading their franchise shortstop in an effort to — stop me if you’ve heard this before — gain payroll flexibility. Since the offseason began, there’s been a lot to talk about when it comes to the Astros, but most of it had nothing to do with actual roster moves that usually get a team attention in the winter.

On Monday, Houston finally changed that. The Astros signed 35-year-old right-hander Joe Smith to a two-year, $8-million contract, giving him a little more than half of the deal they gave him this time two years ago. It’s just the second contract handed out by the team this winter, the other being a six-figure commitment to backup catcher Dustin Garneau. Smith, a 13-year veteran, has pitched for Houston since signing that two-year, $15-million contract with them before the 2018 season. He’s one of four relievers to reach free agency after finishing 2019 with the Astros, along with Will Harris, Collin McHugh, and Hector Rondon. Read the rest of this entry »


Rendon Signing Shouldn’t Distract from the Angels’ Pitching Needs

Entering the 2019-20 offseason, Gerrit Cole and the Los Angeles Angels seemed as natural a fit as any potential pairing in the free agent market. Cole just finished a historically great season and was free agency at 29 years old in search of a record-setting contract. The Angels, meanwhile, had the least valuable rotation in baseball by WAR and are a large-market team that plays in the same area where Cole was born and raised (and where he played his college ball). In terms of need, in terms of finances, and in terms of mutual interest, matching the two up made perfect sense.

But it wasn’t to be. It was the New York Yankees who inked Cole to his gargantuan new contract late Tuesday night, with the two parties agreeing to a nine-year, $324 million deal. The Angels then made a hard pivot to the best remaining free agent, signing third baseman Anthony Rendon to a seven-year, $245-million contract. The benefits of adding Rendon are abundant — at perhaps the deepest position in the sport, Rendon might be the best, and adding a second superstar to a lineup that already includes Mike Trout will at the very least make this an exciting offense for years to come. Throw in top prospect Jo Adell, two-way stud Shohei Ohtani, and maybe even a bounce-back year for Justin Upton, and this offense could be quite scary. The signing of Rendon unambiguously makes the Angels oodles better, but it’s worth mentioning that it doesn’t address the biggest hole on the team. And if Los Angeles is going to get Trout back to the postseason in the near future, that hole is going to need filled quickly.

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