The Case for the Blue Jays

A healthy Aaron Sanchez represents a real benefit for Toronto’s postseason odds. (Photo: Keith Allison)

At the beginning of the season, the Blue Jays were a clear playoff contender. In the American League, only Boston, Cleveland, and Houston had higher playoff odds than Toronto’s 52.1%. On June 1, those odds had dropped considerably, down to 36.3%, but were still near the top of the heap. The only other AL team that had passed them in those first two months of the season were the New York Yankees. Things improved briefly afterward, but then they took a turn south again. Let’s take a look:

That dark blue line on top represents the Blue Jays. Well, it’s on top for a portion of the graph on the left — the equivalent of a few weeks — before descending to roughly 25%, where it meets up with the rest of the pack. Now, Toronto’s no longer the top dog in the race for the second Wild Card, they’re just… dog.

All told, Toronto’s probability of qualifying for the postseason in any form has declined from 36.3% to 18.0%, including their loss yesterday in Detroit. In other words: not great.

But as Craig Edwards noted just over a month ago, there are quite a few American League clubs with a reasonable chance of claiming a Wild Card spot. Today, I’d like to focus on Toronto, specifically — and, in particular, why the odds might be in their favor.

No Strong Reason To Sell

Toronto doesn’t have a player who’s due to hit free agency after the season who’s also likely to bring back a sizable return. Some of their free agents to be — Darwin Barney, Chris Coghlan, Marco Estrada, J.P. Howell, Francisco Liriano, Miguel Montero, and Joe Smith — would fetch something of marginal value, but not the sort of package that’s going to kickstart a major rebuild.

Two of the club’s players, meanwhile — Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki — are well into their 30s and are signed to long-term contracts that will prevent a return of great substance. Tulowitzki might not even be tradeable at this point. As for Josh Donaldson, he would absolutely receive interest from many clubs. Given that he missed time this year and didn’t make the All-Star team, though, the Blue Jays wouldn’t exactly be selling high on him. The better strategy may be to let him remind everyone of his true MVP form and move him in the offseason.

Offense Can’t Be Any Worse

If you look at the team leaderboards, you’ll see that the Blue Jays appear near the bottom in terms of Offense. Specifically, they place 24th, when you take out pitchers’ hitting. But much of that stems from their horrid April. In April, the team’s wRC+ was just 71. It hasn’t been as bad since — 114 in May, 91 in June, and 85 in July. Obviously there’s a downward trend there since May, but April is still dragging down their season numbers. Also, some of the players who haven’t been hitting are either not playing now (Coghlan, Luke Maile) or are localized to one position (like Barney and Ryan Goins at second base).

More importantly, the projections haven’t given up on them. Our depth charts still see Toronto as possessing the seventh-best offense the rest of the way. Looking at season-to-date wOBA vs. projected rest-of-season wOBA, all of the team’s regulars save Justin Smoak and Russell Martin are expected to post wOBAs 10 points or more higher the rest of the way.

Second Base Can Be Upgraded

The depth-chart projections also reveal that the Blue Jays are projected to derive 0.0 WAR from their second-base situation the rest of the way. Literally replacement level. Devon Travis is an impressive talent, but he is frequently hurt. In his place, Barney and Goins have been a terrifyingly terrible platoon. Enter Dee Gordon rumors. It’s hard to know what the cost would be for the Marlins’ second baseman, given the possibility that the Marlins will take less if the team to which they deal him agrees to eat a bunch/all of his contract. Toronto has shown a willingness to do just that in the past, and may do so again. It would create a headache for the team when Travis is healthy enough to return, but the bet is that Travis could work his way into the outfield mix to stay in the lineup.

Gordon makes sense because he would not only be an upgrade for the rest of this season (0.6 WAR), but he’s signed to a cheap, long-term contract. But there could be other keystone players on the market. It’s not hard to see the Padres trading Yangervis Solarte or the Phillies dealing Howie Kendrick. Perhaps if Neil Walker can get back on the field the Mets will deal him. There will be options. When your current players are literally replacement-level players, then most anyone represents an upgrade. The Blue Jays can upgrade, in other words, without breaking into the vault.

The Bullpen Is Fine

One of the reasons the Blue Jays can avoid the fire sale for another year is that they really don’t need to upgrade their bullpen. As Jeff wrote last week, Roberto Osuna has been just about perfect, and with Aaron Sanchez back in the rotation, Joe Biagini is transitioning back to the bullpen. He’s working low-leverage situations for now, but it probably won’t be long before he’s back in a setup role. This is good news for Toronto. Biagini’s season splits for start vs. relief look similar now because he was rocked in his second relief stint back just before the break, but from the beginning of the season until May 3rd (before he was put in the rotation), he posted a 3.38 ERA / 2.82 FIP / 3.18 xFIP, with a 58.3% ground-ball rate and 19.7-point strikeout- and walk-rate differential (K-BB%).

Biagin will join Osuna, Danny Barnes, Joe Smith (who is set to return this week), seasoned-lefty killer Aaron Loup and less-seasoned lefty killer Jeff Beliveau. It’s not a group filled with household names, but they’ve been getting the job done. All told, they’ve been the eighth-best unit in the game by WAR.

Teams that need to spend big at the trade deadline to improve their bullpen are often in a precarious spot. Why make a big push to add players who may not make a huge difference in the grand scheme of things to aid a playoff push that may only result in one extra game? This may be the case for teams like the Mariners and Rays, but it won’t be the case for Toronto.

Aaron Sanchez

Last season, the California native posted a 3.00 ERA, and his 3.9 WAR was the 17th best among all pitchers and eighth best in the AL. This season, he’s made just seven starts and tossed just 32 innings while dealing with right-middle-finger issues. But he’s back now, and in his second start back from the disabled list on Friday, he threw six innings of one-run ball against Detroit. By Game Score v 2.0, it was his second-best start of the season, with his best coming in his season debut back in April. A healthy Sanchez will make a big difference for a starting rotation that has held its own without him.

Not much has gone right for Toronto this season. They started out as one of the favorites and have slunk further and further back to the pack as the season has progressed. But they should start hitting better, they have one of their best starting pitchers back, and they have a good bullpen. Second base is a major black hole, but it can be upgraded without costing them their future. Things have looked better for the Blue Jays, but don’t count them out just yet.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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6 years ago

Further, all the valuable pieces are here next year and most of the under performing guys are coming off the books. Bautista, estrada, carrera, Howell and liriano are making 50m$+. Better health and/or better luck next year and they can be a wild card contender.

6 years ago
Reply to  jerkstore

Sure, but then there’s arb raises for Donaldson and Stroman, and Osuna, Sanchez, Pillar, and Travis all hit it for the first time and will make considerably more than the league minimum level salaries they currently have.

That will eat up a lot of that 50 mil, and then there’s still a lot of wins you have to buy to catch up with Boston, New York, and TB. And that’s just within the division.

Tear it down.

6 years ago
Reply to  jerkstore

Building around “could be a wildcard contender” is the worst idea ever. Pretty much every team in baseball save a couple is in that position. So, maybe they could sneak in next year and the year after that? They’d lose Donaldson and Happ for nothing. You should not put off a rebuild for an outside shot at a wildcard.