Discussing the actual state of baseball is something that requires far more nuance and words than will be featured in this Toronto Blue Jays preview. But one of the more prevalent issues rears its head seemingly ever offseason. While other sports leagues feature a free agent “frenzy” and a massive influx of trade rumors and subsequent moves, baseball features no such thing. In fact, you could count the number of teams that “tried” over the course of this past winter on one hand.
Luckily, for the sake of this preview, the Toronto Blue Jays were one of those teams. A team already on the come up thanks to a potent young core of offensive talent, as well as a few arms on the way, managed to supplement their current group with a handful of extremely notable moves. Having signed George Springer and Marcus Semien to add to the lineup, along with Kirby Yates to the bullpen, the Blue Jays signaled that they do not intend for their 2020 playoff appearance to be a fluke or a byproduct of a shortened season. While there’s certainly an argument to be made that it was, these Blue Jays represent one of the more exciting teams currently in the sport.
The projections for Toronto in 2021 very much indicate the type of mixed bag you would expect from a team transitioning into contention. PECOTA places them at about 84-78, just a shade below the 86 games they were on pace to win in the shortened 2020 season. They’re also sitting at a 4.2 percent chance of winning the division, putting them behind both New York (86.6) and Tampa Bay (7.8) in the division within those same projections.
On the other hand, FanGraphs’ playoff odds like the Blue Jays a little more in 2021. Overall, the Jays are projected at 87.5 wins, with a 17.6 percent chance of winning the division and a 54.8 percent chance of reaching the postseason in some form or fashion. Perhaps more than anything, the Toronto Blue Jays represent the proverbial box of chocolates, in which none of us are quite sure about what we’re going to get. Yeah, I don’t get it either. I mean, any box worth anything is going to have a guide for you. You know exactly what you’re going to get.
Nonetheless! The Blue Jays can go in any number of directions in 2021. They’re a team in transition. Of course, that transition appears to be one of ascent in nature as they move out of their somewhat brief rebuild and into the contending phase of that window. The host of offensive talent is in place and they appear poised to continue their development into some of the larger threats with the stick. The big question for Toronto is whether or not that potent lineup can compensate for what they may lack in pitching and defense.
First, however, the positive side: that lineup. It’s an exciting group, only made more exciting by the addition of Springer and Semien. As a team, the Jays posted a 105 wRC+, painting them as an above average group. That figure ranked 12th in baseball and 6th in the American League. Their .186 ISO, as a team, trailed only three American League clubs, while only three AL teams struck out at a lower rate than their 22.4 percent.
Springer didn’t see his production tail off in the way that some other members of the Houston lineup have. He overcame a paltry .259 BABIP to post a slash of .265/.359/.540/.899, along with a .275 ISO and a strikeout rate (at 17.1 percent) that was almost five percent below his career average. Semien may have reached his peak already with a 2019 season that saw a wRC+ of 138, but the Jays are likely hoping he can regain some semblance of that year in which he just mashed the baseball to a tune of a 41.7 percent hard hit rate.
In any case, adding those two to a lineup that already featured Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Teoscar Hernández, and Cavan Biggio adds to a massively exciting group. Each of the four comes with big upside, but some questions about how they will continue to develop:
Vlad Jr. hits the ball hard (38.8 Hard%), but it winds up on the ground far too frequently to be as impactful as he could (54.6 percent groundball rate).
If Bichette had enough plate appearances to qualify, his 57.3 percent swing rate would’ve been the third-highest in baseball. Some more patience to build on strong average and on-base numbers could skyrocket him to elite status.
Hernández has been an above average bat in each of the last three seasons with Toronto, but has also struck out over 30 percent of the time.
Biggio likely has the fewest current holes in his offensive game at this point, but did outplay his peripherals last year considering his Hard% dropped by about seven percent.
Ultimately, though, this is a group that likely won’t struggle to score runs. There are no fewer than six above average bats, with big upside still to be tapped, in the case of Vlad Jr. and Bichette especially. Adding two of the upper tier offensive free agents to this group, as well as the likes of Alejandro Kirk or Rowdy Tellez to further supplement could make this one of the more imposing lineups not just in the AL, but the league as a whole. They’ve got the pop; it’s just a matter of reaching base more frequently in order to make said pop more meaningful.
And making the most of the lineup that they have in place is going to be key for the Blue Jays, considering the questions they have on the mound and in the field.
In regard to what they’ve got going on up on the bump, Toronto ranked 17th in the league in ERA (4.63), 21st in FIP (4.73), 19th in K/9 (8.90), 28th in BB/9 (4.29), and 26th in WHIP (1.46). It’s not a particularly inspiring group. Hyun-jin Ryu is one of the more elite starters in the AL, but the depth behind him in the rotation is a cause for concern. None of Robbie Ray, Tanner Roark, or Steven Matz are likely to garner too much positive attention. Nate Pearson is obviously one of the more notable pitching prospects in the game, but may not be healthy to start the season.
On top of that, how much do Kirby Yates, Tyler Chatwood, and swingman Ross Stripling move the needle for the bullpen, let alone the staff as a whole? Even wading into the prospect pool, the likes of Simeon Woods Richardson and Alek Manoah provide excitement over the future, but the likelihood that one or both sniff the big leagues in 2021 seems unlikely. Perhaps a cup of coffee later in the year? Either would make the staff more dynamic, regardless of role. But overall, in their current state, this staff lacks in power arms and is likely going to have to handle traffic on the basepaths on a pretty consistent basis. And given the lack of the former, you’ve got to deal with a lot of balls in play. Which leads directly into...
...the defense. For one, the Jays ranked 22nd in FanGraphs’ Def rating, at -5.0. They were 29th in Defensive Runs Saved, with -37, and 20th in UZR, at -6.0. Regardless of the angle at which you look, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. And questions still linger over the defensive configuration itself. How long does George Springer stick in center? How much time does Vlad Jr. see at third base? Who gets the bulk of the time behind the plate?
Unfortunately there’s not a lot of data on some of the potential changes that could indicate positive trends on the horizon. I’m willing to make a few assumptions, though. Bichette and Semien will be a formidable pairing on the middle infield. Bichette has been, at worst, league average in his career and Semien moves to an easier defensive position after working so tirelessly to improve his defensive game. Biggio will likely be an upgrade over both Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Travis Shaw, assuming he gets the bulk of the time at third base. Springer can handle center effectively until he inevitably has to move to a corner in the latter parts of this contract.
Any of those scenarios improves the defense. At the same time, we all know what they say about those that assume. The case with the defense is similar to the pitching in that the improvements made on paper were not terribly vast. It’s likely going to depend a lot on how the defense itself takes shape and where some of these players are deployed. Ultimately, though, there’s more reason for optimism that Toronto can improve on this front sooner than they can on the mound.
There’s an undeniable truth here and that’s that the Toronto Blue Jays are trending in the right direction. There will be some growing pains with a still-developing offense in 2021, no doubt. But the largest hurdles that they will still have to overcome in order to reach legitimate, and sustained, contention are not necessarily things that can click seemingly overnight in the way that they can for an offense. The approach to fixing the pitching staff and defense will require more nuance and, perhaps, more patience as they begin to transition to this next stage. Regardless of those shortcomings, though, Toronto’s influx of young offensive talent makes them absolutely worth your time in 2021 and beyond.
Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.