It’s easy to forget that the Blue Jays had two consecutive ALCS appearances only a few seasons ago. The memories of 2015 and 2016 — particularly the infamous Jose Bautista bat-flip, will remain in Jays’ lore for decades, the last three seasons quashed any hope of an AL pennant in the nearer term.
Toronto’s lack of success has compounded over the last few years, with the team following up 93 wins in 2015 and 89 in 2016, with 76 wins, then 73, then 67 last season. 2020 will be a pivotal time for them to stop the bleeding, and show that the fruits of their labors in player development and trades are primed to yield fruit.
This is a team that is really solid in some areas, and is far below league average in others. In total, PECOTA’s projections peg the Jays as a mid-70s-win team, an improvement over 2019, but hardly a number that generates any real excitement.
Looking beyond the win projections, the 2020 Jays will field a boom-or-bust type roster, with some young exciting early 20s players spread throughout the lineup, unfortunately surrounded by many players projected to be just slightly above replacement level.
The reasons to get excited about this year’s Blue Jays team emanates from the promotion of multiple exciting players last year, highlighted by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio. In addition, the Jays have high hopes for catcher Danny Jansen and outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. This supplemented by the fact that Toronto actually went out and signed one of the top starters available in Hyun-Jin Ryu. There are going to be days where this team looks like it’s clearly on the way to contention, and there will be days where it looks like a middling 65-win team.
Guerrero played in 123 games last season, and had the ups-and-downs typical of a 20-year-old. He is projected to be the most productive player on the team by FanGraphs’ depth charts, and hopefully benefited by the reps he saw in 2019. One of the key areas of measurement for Guerrero will be how his power plays-out for an entire season. The expectation is that Guerrero turns into a player who hits for both power and average. While his .272 average and .339 OBP is respectable, throw 30 homers on top of it, instead of the 15 he hit last year, and it’s a completely different conversation. The upside is there, and 2020 will be a key year in Guerero’s development.
Third baseman Guerrero is joined in the infield by two other second-generation players in double-play tandem Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette. Bichette in particular showed his upside in his limited appearances in 2019. Over the course of 46 games, he cemented his reputation as the shortstop of the future in Toronto, putting up a 142 wRC+.
Last season Cavan Biggio’s .234 batting average looked unimpressive, but his 16.5 percent walk rate earned him a solid .364 OBP. Biggio will man second base for the Jays, presumably for years to come, and he could be part of a young trio of 20 to 25 home run infielders. Adding to the trio of infielders, 24-year-old Danny Jansen will be taking most of the reps at the plate.
This all sounds pretty good so far: cost-controlled players, a newly acquired free agent ‘ace’ in Ryu, and potential for multiple young 20-somethings to string together some magic. The problem is that the players around the aforementioned youngsters is pretty bad.
The Blue Jays have Travis Shaw and Rowdy Tellez slated for the most games at first base, and while both players have 20 home run potential, 20 home runs is not what it used to be. Despite being at a power position like first base, the Jays simply need to see more value in other areas beyond home runs, something neither player has ever really proved he can do. Tellez posted a sub-.300 OBP last year, and Shaw had the worst year of his career, posting a negative fWAR in just 86 games. Few teams can overcome such a black hole at first base.
Similarly, the two of the three outfield spots are major deficiencies as well. One spot belongs to Teoscar Hernandez, the other Randal Grichuk. Last season Hernandez K’d 1⁄3 of his plate appearances, and walked fewer than 10 percent of the time, while Grichuk K’d 1⁄4 of the time, and walked fewer than six percent of the time.
As of now, the plan seems to be to rotate the positional players through the DH spot, meaning there’s no real advantage to the purely offensive position for Toronto. It’s not a terrible strategy considering the infamous turf at the Rogers Centre, but it certainly is not a position of strength.
On the other side of the ball, the Jays have one strong starter, a three question marks in the rotation. Ryu was a good add, no doubt about it, but 33-year-olds Tanner Roark and Matt Shoemaker, and 32-year-old Chase Anderson provide much risk with limited upside following Ryu in the rotation.
Shoemaker hasn’t thrown more than 80 innings since 2016, and Anderson has put together only one three-win season in his entire career. Roark has been the most reliable, but even he seems to top-out around 2.5/3 wins above replacement. The fifth spot may end up being an opener, but really, very few teams have a good fifth starter, so we can call that a wash.
Last season the Jays used 21 different starters including 7 openers. 14 non-opener starting pitchers is really something to behold, and just shows how in-flux the rotation was all season. Sure the Jays traded Marcus Stroman, but no contending team has ever touted their dozen-plus starters as any sort of advantage.
The Jays will likely have a volatile 2020. There may be glimpses of an exciting future, where Ryu looks like an ace, and the young players are firing on all cylinders. There will undoubtedly be times however, when it’s apparent we are watching a team going through growing pains. It’s unlikely a team constructed with so many players in their early 20s won’t struggle, add to that the sub-par players surrounding them, and it will make for a long summer.
A successful season for the Jays will include clear steps forward by any majority combination of Guerrero, Bichette, Biggio, Jansen, and Gurriel. The fruits of Toronto’s labor in player development will be on full display this season, and even if they don’t contend for a playoff berth, flirting with .500 would be a major step in the right direction.
It may not always be pretty, but there at least will be reasons to watch the Jays this season.