Toronto flirted with contention in the early stages of the season, staying on the edges of the AL East race through the end of April. But then April showers brought May flowers — lilies — to the pitching staff and while the Jays never lost at the amusing rate of the Orioles, the patient was already in rigor mortis by midseason.
The Blue Jays had high expectations going into the 2017 season. Not even expectations I can make fun of, given that the ZiPS projection system had them at 87 wins going into the regular season. Even with the benefit of hindsight, it still doesn’t seem like thinking the Jays had a good shot at the playoffs in 2017 was all that ludicrous a proposition.
The 2016 Jays went 89-73 and most of the pitching staff was returning in 2017. Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, the team’s build-around pitchers, would still anchor the rotation. Jose Bautista surely had a bounceback season left in him and Kendrys Morales, while inferior to Edwin Encarnacion, would at least be ok at designated hitter for a couple of years. Francisco Liriano was terrific down the stretch in ’16 and seemed to have conquered the control demons; it seemed possible he could get back to his early-career self.
Stroman did in fact have a solid 2017, but that’s just about the only bit of the show that went as advertised on the poster. While a 76-86 season is hardly the worst thing ever — in 2016, the first-place Red Sox were coming off seasons of 78 and 71 wins — but the team’s 5-14 start served as an amuse bouche of suntan lotion mixed with mayonnaise dating from the Carter administration.
The Orioles crashing the ROFLcopter into the Bromo Seltzer in September saved the Jays from last place in the end, but the team was still bleak enough to be in last place after 137 of the team’s 162 games. There was no doubt some back luck with injuries (Sanchez, Tulowitzki, Travis), but there was also a lot of plain good ol’ fashioned lousiness from Bautista, Liriano, and Morales. Of the ten players with 300 plate appearances, only Josh Donaldson, Justin Smoak, and Ezequiel Carrera finished with an OPS+ over 100. The offense finished 15th in runs scored, which I think is bad in a league with only 15 teams. Darwin Barney is a name you want as a utility infielder or perhaps for frightening Carl Everett, but not as your de facto starting second baseman.
Faced with a lot of things that went wrong and few that went right, Toronto took the risk of neither rebuilding not retooling, but rather simply hoping that enough things going right in 2018, combined with improving the team’s depth, would preserve just enough oomph on the roster to be competitive. Then Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette would arrive, like Blücher and Zieten at Waterloo and the Jays could…uh…exile Brian Cashman and Dave Dombrowski to Elba? I need to work on that analogy.
The Blue Jays did buttress their depth. They made minor acquisitions of Aledmys Diaz, Yangervis Solarte, and Randal Grichuk, upgrades on the team’s secondary talent that had largely let them down in 2017. They then made some Feburary signings to improve the edges of the roster, with pitchers like Jaime Garcia, John Axford, Tyler Clippard, Jake Petricka, and made a buy-low signing I really liked in Seung-hwan Oh.
The ZiPS projection system believed there would be some improvement from 2017, giving the Jays a mean projection of 80-82 wins with a 17% chance of making the playoffs. In other words, a third-tier contender that wasn’t hopeless. The numbers felt — and I agreed with them — that while the Blue Jays didn’t need to take a chainsaw to the roster, the situation had called for a machete rather than a scalpel. After all, the team was last in runs scored and the $5 million spent on improving the offense, combined with depth moves, just wasn’t enough of an investment for a middle-class team.
Surprisingly, though the 73-89 season ending up being a second-consecutive disappointment, it didn’t quite turn out the same way as I expected. The truth is the team did largely revive the offense, even with Josh Donaldson injured for most of his last year in Toronto. Justin Smoak stayed good, Teoscar Hernandez and Kendryls Morales were legitimately average-ish, Randal Grichuk led the team in slugging percentage, and Aledmys Diaz was a cromulent-plus replacement at shortstop for the still-missing Troy Tulowitzki.
If the Blue Jays could have combined this offense with 2017’s pitching staff, you’d be reading this article a lot later in the series. But the starting rotation imploded in 2018 and you could make an argument that every member was less valuable than they were in 2017. Stroman went from a Cy Young contender to a Matt Young contender, and was a walk machine early-on before being shut down with shoulder fatigue. Sanchez’s finger injury while moving a suitcase may have been his season highlight. Estrada’s changeup continued to not fool batters.
Only J.A. Happ remaining effective and Ryan Borucki’s second-half callup kept the rotation from dooming the Jays to their first sub-.450 season since 2004 (and only their third since being a young expansion team).
I suspect the organization was aware how lost the 2018 season was by mid-May. If Toronto had been likely to remain a legitimate contender, I’d have expected more urgent promotion of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who terrorized AA ball to the tune of a 1.120 OPS. If the Jays had been fighting for a wild card spot in September, I’m pretty sure a lot of the boxes that needed to be checked would have been filled in.
What Comes Next?
Like the Tigers a few years ago, the Blue Jays have definitely found themselves at the crossroads. 2018 was kind of the “let’s keep everything going the same way and see if it works out” season and I don’t think they can justify that kind of thinking going into this offseason. Guerrero, Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio are exciting prospects, but I don’t think the Jays have the core to just wait for reinforcements in 2019.
Even if you’re optimistic about the pitching bouncing back, it’s an enormous risk to take given its recent lack of effectiveness. I’m a fan of T.J. Zeuch and Sean Reid-Foley and think they both have a good shot at being plus major leaguers in the near-future (there are higher-ceiling prospects that are a lot further away), but I no longer think that this is enough.
If the Jays are going to compete in 2019, they’re simply going to have to invest more in the team than they did last winter. While getting involved in the Harper/Machado shenanigans is unlikely, I don’t think they can afford to stay out of the next tier, with players like Dallas Keuchel, Josh Donaldson if he’s willing to take a pillow deal, and Eduardo Escobar.
But if you’re not going to take steps to compete in 2019 and go all-in on the future, the team needs to spend the next year talking about new homes for Smoak or Sanchez or Stroman, especially if you find someone optimistic on the latter two. If Toronto doesn’t go one way or the other, I can see another 75-80 win season in wait and this time, it will come without the high possible upside of a Donaldson.
Being in this scenario always reminds me of a scene from The Karate Kid, which if you’ve forgotten, is a movie in which the drive-in owner from Happy Days tricks a kid from New Jersey into doing housework but accidentally gives the kid the tools to bully a local teenager named Johnny. Mr. Miyagi tells Daniel that you have to choose between “karate do yes” and karate do no” and can’t go with “karate do guess so.” If they continue to go with “competition guess so,” Toronto is at risk of being squished like a grape.
Way-Too-Early Projection – Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Do you want to know the terrifying truth? Or do you wanna see me sock a few dingers?
Let’s go with dingers.
I think I need a cold shower.
I went back and looked at the best projections ZiPS has ever given a position player prospect. The previous highs were Mike Trout, Kris Bryant, and Ronald Acuña. Vladito’s projections are better than any of those. The only player in his top 10 offensive comps that wasn’t a perennial All-Star is Bob Bailey. When I ran Vlad’s projections earlier this year for the Trade Value series, I literally went in and made sure something wasn’t broken.
There’s no guarantee for Guerrero — skewness of risk essentially means there are a lot more things that could make him fall short than exceed his projections — but if he’s not even a good player, it would be one of the largest busts in the history of baseball. Scouts love him just as much as the stats do, after all, and even if we could design projection systems that could feel love, it would certainly be beyond my ability. I just report what ZiPS says!
Also, don’t take this as a prediction he’ll be better than Trout. It’s a prediction he’ll be better than ZiPS predicted Trout would be going into the 2012 season. ZiPS projected Trout an All-Star in 2012 and still underrated him by six wins.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.