The 2017 season was a disheartening one for the Blue Jays. After back-to-back trips to the ALCS in 2015-16 — their first two postseason appearances since 1993 — they faceplanted out of the gate, losing 11 of their first 13 games. They never reached .500, going an improbable, Sisyphean 0-8 in games that would have evened their record. Amid injuries to Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin, Aaron Sanchez, Troy Tulowitzki and others, not to mention the collapse of Jose Bautista, they finished fourth in the AL East with a 76-86 record, their worst showing since 2013. This winter, they stayed out of the deep end of the free-agent pool, making a few low-cost additions plus a handful of trades that hardly qualified as blockbusters. Yet as of Opening Day, they were projected for 84 wins, the league’s fifth-highest total. What in the name of Cito Gaston is going on?
To these eyes, the Blue Jays’ projection is like the flip side of the Brewers’ one that raised my eyebrows a few weeks ago. Recall that the Brew Crew quickly turned around from their rebuilding effort and won 86 games last year while remaining in the NL Wild Card hunt until the season’s final weekend. They added Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich over the winter, and didn’t lose anyone of importance save August acquisition Neil Walker, yet their projection called for just 78 wins.
As for the Blue Jays, when one considers that they had the majors’ oldest lineup (weighted average age of 30.9 years according to Baseball-Reference), and that even with the jettisoning of Bautista, all of this year’s projected regulars save two are on the wrong side of 30, it’s at least worth wondering why our projection system (which is driven by Steamer and ZiPS but with manual judgment in terms of distributing playing time) is so keen on them.
As I did for the Brewers, here’s a position-by-position comparison between our Depth Charts (as of March 29, Opening Day) and last year’s splits. All rankings are AL-only:
|Position||2017 WAR||AL Rk||2018 WAR||AL Rk||Dif|
The first thing to note is how distressingly godawful the Jays were at so many positions last year. In terms of WAR, they ranked among the league’s bottom four teams at five positions, including dead last at catcher and shortstop, and received 0.5 WAR or less from six different positions including DH, with a net of 0.1 WAR for those half-dozen spots. Only at first base (Justin Smoak) and third base (Donaldson) did they receive significantly above-average work; in the latter case, that was despite the majors’ top third baseman playing just 104 games at the position due to a calf strain. Thankfully, they also received above-average production from their pitching staff, without which they might have been relegated to the independent Canadian-American League.
Even with their relatively modest offseason, the Blue Jays are projected to improve by at least two wins in four spots, by at least 1.5 wins in two others, and by 0.9 to 1.3 wins in three others. They’re projected to fall back only in two areas, albeit with both remaining in the middle of the AL pack.
As our staff has gone in depth at each of these positions within our positional power rankings, I will be a bit more brief in running through the biggest changes, positive and negative.
In his age-34 season, Martin matched the previous year’s wRC+ (an even 100) despite a modest .221/.343/.388 line. However, his 91 games represented a career low, as he served stints on the disabled list for nerve irritation in his shoulder as well as an oblique strain. He started just 78 times behind the dish and another nine at third base in Donaldson’s absence. While his body of work was worth 1.8 WAR, his backups (mainly Luke Maile, Miguel Montero, and Raffy Lopez, with a bit of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Mike Ohlman thrown in) netted a combined -1.5 WAR, primarily by “hitting” a combined .155/.216/.267. Come back, J.P. Arencibia, all is forgiven!
Martin is expected to provide similar offense and defense over a larger swath of playing time in 2018. His projected 447 PA is 22% more than last year, but down about 17% relative to 2016, a fairly age-appropriate adjustment for a player who’s been durable enough to qualify for the batting title (502 PA) six times in 12 major-league seasons. Maile, their top backup, and the rest of the backstop bunch is projected to be merely replacement level, which would be a vast improvement over last year’s gaping vortex of suck.
For the third year out of four, Devon Travis was the Blue Jays’ Opening Day second baseman, and this time, hopefully the outcome will be different. In his previous three years, Travis has averaged just 71 games due to injuries, most notably a left shoulder problem that required 2015 surgery and a bone bruise in his right knee that ended his 2017 season. The now-27-year-old has been productive when he’s played; his 5.3 career WAR in 880 PA prorates to 3.6 WAR in 600 PA. His projection, for 413 PA, is less sanguine (1.5 WAR), but that’s still more than one win better than the team’s output at the keystone in 2017.
What’s more, the Jays have upgraded their insurance policy by acquiring versatile switch-hitter Yangervis Solarte from the Padres. While the knock on Solarte during his years in the minors pertained to his glove, he’s demonstrated enough competence at second base, shortstop, and third base to come within a few runs of average at each. He projects to provide 1.0 WAR in 300 PA spread across those three positions, including 0.6 WAR at second, which would be a substantial upgrade on last year’s -0.3 WAR provided by Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins.
As Solarte is to Travis, ex-Cardinal Aledmys Diaz is to Tulowitzki, a stronger insurance policy than Barney, Goins, and Richard Urena were able to provide in 2017 (net -0.4 WAR as shortstops). The difference is that Diaz has already been pressed into service, as Tulowitzki began the year on the 60-day DL and, on Monday, underwent surgery to remove bone spurs in both heels.
Limited to 66 games last year by a hamstring strain and an ankle sprain, Tulo was merely replacement level himself due to a 78 wRC+. He’s projected for 341 PA, about 30% above last year’s total, and a modest 1.5 WAR, with Diaz and Solarte adding another 0.7 WAR in 283 PA here. That’s with Diaz projected for just an 85 wRC+; he hit .300/.369/.510 for a sizzling 133 wRC+ as a rookie (and NL All-Star) in 2016 before slipping to .259/.290/.392 (78 wRC+) last year. If he can recapture some of that old mojo, he could further the Jays’ gains here, even if the man they intended to hold the position for remains on the sidelines, as he has all too often in his 13-year career.
Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ, and Marco Estrada combined for 532.1 innings and a very solid 8.9 WAR last year, and together, they’re projected to occupy a similar footprint with similar production (8.1 WAR) in 2018. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast, which combined for just 1.8 WAR out of the rotation (1.1 by holdover sixth starter Joe Biagini, who is being stretch out at Triple-A Buffalo) is expected to more than double that value.
Aaron Sanchez, who produced 3.8 WAR while leading the AL with a 3.00 ERA in 192 innings in 2016, was limited to eight starts totaling 36 innings last year due to a maddening middle-finger blister problem that sent him to the DL four times. He’s projected for just 137 innings and 2.1 WAR in 2018, but that’s 2.1 more than last year’s goose egg. The other big addition is 31-year-old lefty Jaime Garcia, who split 2017 between the Braves, Twins, and Yankees, compiling a 4.41 ERA, 4.25 FIP, and 2.1 WAR in 157 innings. He was Toronto’s biggest free-agent addition, signing a one-year $10 million deal that includes a $2 million buyout on a $10 million club option for next year; he could also earn another $2 million in incentives.
Though Garcia has endured just about every major arm surgery known to man, his 127-inning projection is probably underselling him, as he’s averaged 25 more than that over the past three years. Again, though, his projected 1.4 WAR would be a boost over what the likes of Brett Anderson, Mike Bolsinger, Francisco Liriano, et al. provided.
The Bautista era did not end well. After signing a one-year deal that paid $18 million for 2017, with a $17 million mutual option and $500,000 buyout for 2018, and a vesting option for 2019, the 36-year-old slugger slumped to a sub-replacement level season, hitting .203/.308/.366 with 23 homers but just an 80 wRC+ and -0.5 WAR. Turning down their end of the option was a no-brainer for the Blue Jays, and in January, they traded pitchers Dominic Leone and Conner Greene to St. Louis for Randal Grichuk, who had fallen out of favor in St. Louis to the point that he was demoted to Triple-A for the second year in a row.
The 26-year-old Grichuk has tremendous power, but also very little command of the strike zone. Last year, he homered 22 times in 442 PA, albeit with strikeout and walk rates of 30.1% and 5.9%, respectively. His .285 OBP was the NL’s fourth-lowest mark among players with at least 400 PA — and it was hardly a fluke, given his .289 the year before, and .296 for his career. But for as hacktastic as he is, he’s also an above-average defender, with a UZR/150 of 3.5 in center field (where he has the most innings) and even higher in left and right. Even if he doesn’t improve his approach at the plate, he’ll be a significant upgrade on end-stage Bautista. He’s forecast for 1.9 WAR overall, including 1.6 WAR in right field — again, that’s a two-win upgrade overall.
This is the one area where the Blue Jays are expected to take a significant step back, mainly because they lost two of their three most valuable relievers, trading Leone (70.1 IP, 2.94 FIP, 1.5 WAR) and Joe Smith (to Cleveland on July 31, after he delivered 1.0 WAR). Much of the drop is a bet on substantial regression from closer Roberto Osuna, from 3.0 WAR to 1.6. In his age-22 season, Osuna struck out 83 and walked just nine in 64 innings en route to a 1.74 FIP, the third-best mark among relievers with at least 50 innings behind Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel. He owns a 2.68 FIP through 209.2 career innings but is projected to regress to 3.12 in 2018, because that’s what projections do. It’s not worth worrying about.
Elsewhere, Danny Barnes, Aaron Loup, and Ryan Tepera have all returned, while John Axford, Seung Hwan Oh, and the well-traveled Tyler Clippard have joined via some free-agent bargain hunting; they’re guaranteed $5 million between them. Oh can earn another $1.5 million with incentives and can vest a $2.5 million club option for 2019 with 70 appearances. He’s begun the year in a setup role, and while he is forecast for just 0.3 WAR, the 35-year-old righty is just one year removed from a 2.13 FIP, 2.6 WAR debut with the Cardinals. If he can recover the delivery that made him so dominant in 2016, he could be a real asset.
Those are the big changes. I’ll assume you don’t need me to walk you through the more-or-less offsetting ups and downs of Smoak and center fielder Kevin Pillar, and for now, I’ll take the Blue Jays at their word that Donaldson’s Opening Day throwing woes are the result of a dead arm — muscle fatigue — and not a larger structural issue that could send all of Canada into a funk. Elsewhere, the addition of 37-year-old Curtis Granderson (signed to a one-year, $5 million-plus-incentives deal) to a platoon with Steve Pearce is a relatively low-wattage one, but even the Grandyman’s 0.8 WAR projection is 1.3 wins beyond what the departed Ezequiel Carrera gave them. Granderson still has the power, patience, and defensive ability to be a two-win regular, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he steals time from Grichuk, as well.
The overarching point is that, while the Blue Jays have brought back a very similar, and relatively old, cast of characters, they’re a deeper team than they were before, one better able to handle the outages from Tulowitzki and Travis and whoever else — not Dodgers deep, but then, who is? Between that and a promising rotation, it’s not hard to see them challenging for a Wild Card spot even with the Red Sox and Yankees looking quite strong. And hey, if things don’t pan out, top prospects Bo Bichette and Vlad Guerrero Jr. are right around the corner.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.