Five Reasons To Be Worried (And Excited) About The 2016 Blue Jays
Heading into the 2016 MLB season, there are plenty of questions surrounding the Toronto Blue Jays, who had a memorable 2015. A slumbering fan base was awakened by the bold trade deadline moves of GM Alex Anthopoulos, as the team played meaningful late-September baseball for the first time in two decades. With a new administrative team in place of President Mark Shapiro, and GM Ross Atkins, there are also plenty of reasons to be enthusiastic about next year’s team.
5 Reasons to Worry
1. The Bullpen
For the first half of last year, the Toronto pen was very much a work in progress. Brett Cecil seemed set to inherit the closer’s job from the departed Casey Janssen, as he and dependable first Lefty out of the pen Aaron Loup were the only placeholders from 2014. The bullpen was rounded out by a washed out starter (Liam Hendriks), a pair of rookies who had not pitched above High A (Miguel Castro and Roberto Osuna), a pair of journeymen longmen (Todd Redmond and Colt Hynes), and a swingman (newly acquired Marco Estrada). Cecil missed most of Spring Training with a sore shoulder, and predictably struggled during the first week, forcing Manager John Gibbons to move 20-year-old Castro into the role, who fared no better.
Cecil regained his form, Hendriks experienced a bump in velocity in his new role, and Osuna gradually moved into the closer’s role by late June, but the bullpen as a group (Loup in particular) continued to scuffle until Anthopoulos acquired LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe in his deadline week flurry, and Aaron Sanchez, who had been a revelation when converted to relief and promoted to the majors in July of 2014, was sent back to the pen after a month on the disabled list dealing with the assorted strains and stresses of being an MLB starter.
Down the stretch, the vastly upgraded bullpen was a major force for Toronto, locking down late-innings leads. Lowe and Hawkins greatly stabilized the 7th inning for the Blue Jays, Cecil was lights out when restored to his 8th inning set-up role, and Osuna was 20-23 in saves as the Blue Jays captured the American League East pennant.
Entering 2016, Hawkins has retired, Lowe left as a free agent, and Hendriks was dealt to Oakland for swingman Jesse Chavez, leaving the Jays bullpen with more holes than Donald Trump’s foreign policy. Shapiro and Atkins have been pursuing free agent help, but building a bullpen, with its history of volatility, remains one of a GM’s toughest jobs. Osuna and Sanchez may be given a chance to crack the starting rotation (although Osuna, with better command of his fastball and secondaries, and a better starting pitcher history as a minor leaguer should have a greater chance), and Loup is still a huge question mark. Bo Schultz and his 95mph fastball should be able to replace Hendriks, and rookie Ryan Tepera, who showed promise, but had his share of ups and downs, may get a chance at a long relief role. Rule 5 draftee Joe Biagini may also get a shot at the long man’s role, while new 40-man roster additions Blake McFarland and Chad Girodo face long odds to make the team, although the sidewinding Girodo could take over Loup’s role if he continues to struggle. The acquisition of Chavez gives the team some flexibility, and he might start in relief as Estrada did last year.
This potential hole can become a strength for the team if one or both of Osuna and Sanchez fails in their respective bids to win a starting job. Sanchez had some issues coming into games with runners on base down the stretch, but redeemed himself in the post season. If the club had more starting pitching depth, this discussion might be academic.
All in all, there are some holes to fill before spring training.
2. An Aging Core
Russell Martin, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, and Troy Tulowitzki make up the heart of the Blue Jays lineup. They also average 32.6 years in age. Tulo, of course, has a lengthy injury history, Bautista battled a sore shoulder much of last year, Donaldson has played 158 games in each of the last three seasons, and if Martin catches at least 100 games this year, he will move into the Top 50 all-time in games played at the position. All 5 are at a stage of their careers when decline and time lost to injury are almost inevitable, and the minor league depth behind them is paper-thin. For the moment, with the departure of free agent Dioner Navarro, Martin will be likely be backed up by Josh Thole, and you have to question if it’s wise to give him the 150 or so PAs he will get. If the injury bug hits this team, it may find itself out of contention quickly.
3. The Starting Rotation
The most noticeable missing element from the rotation, of course, will be Price, who likely could be counted on to deliver 220 innings, and innings will be a constant them with this group. Estrada was perhaps the team’s most effective post-season starter, but it remains to be seen if he can repeat his success – a flyball pitcher has a much smaller margin for error. Stroman will available for the whole season, and despite the shot he gave the rotation after his miraculous recovery from ACL surgery, expecting 200+ innings from a starter who’s previous season high is 130 could be a stretch. Dickey can be counted on for his usual 200, but after a second half when he was one of the best starters in baseball, he was hit hard in the playoffs, and while a knuckleballer can defy the calendar, he will be 41 this season. Gone are the 200 innings you could pencil Mark Buehrle in for, and Drew Hutchison scuffled mightily all season after a breakout 2014. The competition at the back end should be intense between Hutchison, possibly Osuna and Sanchez, as well as newcomers Chavez and J.A. Happ, but questions exist with all four, most noticeably Happ, who dominated NL hitters when he came over to Pittsburgh from Seattle, but made 5 of his 11 starts for the Pirates against the Reds, Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Marlins.
Adding to the concerns about the rotation is a lack of depth at Buffalo. Most MLB teams need to dip into their AAA starting staff for up to a dozen starts every year, and while Shapiro has been busily trying to shore that up in the past few weeks, there is a noticeable drop off between the 25 and 40-man roster starters.
4. The Outfield Defence
Much was made of the vast improvement in the Blue Jays’ infield defence. Donaldson and Justin Smoak helped upgrade the corners, while Tulowitzki (for half a season), Ryan Goins, and Devon Travis vastly improved the team’s up-the-middle defence.
The outfield was a different story. Kevin Pillar was a human highlight reel in CF after taking over from the demoted and distracted Dalton Pompey in May. Michael Saunders‘ knee injury and Pompey’s struggles meant that Chris Colabello had to play 33 games in LF, and the outfield defence suffered accordingly. Toss in the elephant in the room in Bautista’s injured arm and declining defensive skills, and the Blue Jays outfield accumulated -7 Defensive Runs Saved. Bautista’s -3 DRS ranked him 42nd among MLB outfielders (UZR ranked him 55th), and while the acquisition of Ben Revere stabliized the left side of the outfield somewhat, his -1 DRS was only slightly better than Bautista’s. Saunders’ health will always be something of a question mark, and Pompey has yet to prove that he can hit MLB pitching on a consistent basis. And it’s hard to see Bautista or Revere’s defence getting much better; for the former, such is to be expected from a 36 year-old, and the latter has never been hailed as a great defensive player.
5. A Lack of Minor League Depth
We would argue all day and night about the merits of Alex Anthopoulos trading almost 20 farmhands, at least half of them top 10 prospect-types, in a little over a year. Flags fly forever, and prospects are good/parades are better, and all that stuff aside, what Anthopoulos’ wheeling and dealing did do was empty the system of much of its depth, which is why the Jays this past week re-signed Scott Copeland, and signed retreads like Brad Penny, Roberto (Don’t Call Me Fausto) Hernandez, and Wade LeBlanc.
Say what you want – I was as excited about playoff baseball as anyone, but when you’ve traded your top five starting pitching prospects (Daniel Norris, Jeff Hoffman, Sean Nolin, Matt Boyd, and Kendall Graveman) in the space of 9 months, you are skating on incredibly thin ice.
The Blue Jays under Anthopoulos have preferred to draft and develop pitchers, taking the odd position player with higher picks, but sticking for the most part with high school arms in the top rounds. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because that was where the organization’s comfort level was, and they were one of the best in MLB at it, but other than Anthony Alford, there is no close-to-ready talent. Max Pentecost, because of ongoing shoulder issues, is not ready for prime time, and there are no middle of the infield options in the system that are even replacement-level at this point. There’s no one at the corners, and no outfielders beyond Alford (and perhaps Roemon Fields, whose bat is a question mark) that are even remotely close.
But it’s not all doom and gloom………
5 Reasons to Be Excited
1. The Return Of A High-Octane Offence
The Blue Jays position players had baseball’s highest collective Wins Above Replacement in 2015, and there’s every chance they could repeat that feat in 2016. The lineup that posted the largest margin of runs scored over the 2nd place team in that category in 60 years will be returning almost intact.
It’s hard not to oversell last year’s offence. Not only did they score 137 runs more than the next closest team, they also led MLB in OBP, Slugging, OPS, OPS+ and walks. This was a group that could outscore the limitations of their pitching staff. And it promises to be more of the same. They are not one-dimensional sluggers – this is a patient, at bat-grinding offence, and can put crooked numbers on the scoreboard quickly. Encarnacion has come into his own as a dangerous hitter (only half a dozen hitters have bettered his .919 OPS since 2012), Bautista’s discerning eye at the plate has never been better, and Donaldson had a season that you can put side-by-side with George Bell‘s 1987, Carlos Delgado‘s 2003, and Bautista’s 2010 as the best in club history. Colabello, the indy ball refugee who was rescued from the scrap heap, had a career year, and even Martin, who was criticized widely for an August slump (which completely ignores the fact that he was signed for his receiving skills first and foremost), set a career high for Home Runs, and ended up with a slash line of .240/.329/.458, not far off from his career .257/.352/.405.
There are some holes, of course, like Thole, and Ryan Goins, who plays defence at an elite level, but whose bat keeps him as a below replacement level player. If Pillar could show an improvement in pitch recognition and get on base more often in front of the thunder bats at the top of the order, with his speed and baserunning smarts he could be among the league leaders in runs. The return of Devon Travis in June may give this offence a boost – he was playing like a Rookie of the Year candidate before his shoulder troubles hit. Travis gets on base, is an intelligent base runner, and showed surprising pop.
2. A Vastly Improved Defence
The Blue Jays paid a heavy price to acquire Tulowitzki, but his steadying influence of the infield defence over the departed Jose Reyes was staggering.
Let’s face it – MLB hitters are whiffing like never before:
#MLB swing & misses by year: 2015 – 75349 2014 – 72799 2013 – 72131 2012 – 69412 2011 – 67238 2010 – 66043 2009 – 65354 2008 – 64672
— Daren Willman (@darenw) December 17, 2015
Despite that trend, more and more teams are discovering the merits of the two-seam fastball, which tends to allow for contact, but of the groundball variety. The Blue Jays are clearly on board with that trend, and now feature one of the strongest up the middle defences in the game to support it. Pillar made a huge difference in CF, and while Martin’s pitch-framing numbers may have been off this year, he still remains one of the game’s premier defenders. Donaldson and Justin Smoak greatly stabilized the corners, and Goins played Gold Glove-caliber defence at 2nd and Short.
3. The Starting Rotation
Huh? Didn’t I just say this was an area of concern?
It is, but it will have both Stroman and Estrada in it for a full year, and his post-season difficulties notwithstanding, Dickey was the most effective he has been in his time in Toronto after the All-Star break. And with the competition looming for the back end spots, the fourth and fifth slots in the rotation should be upgraded over the start of last year. Happ morphed into a groundball pitcher during his half-season with the Pirates, which should play into one of the team’s strengths.
As much as Osuna was an integral part of the team in the closer role, if he’s able to transition to a starting role, his fastball and full mix of pitches could play even better at the front of a game. Sanchez had command issues in April as a starter, but in May and early June gave us a tantalizing glimpse of the potential many Blue Jays have been waiting for since he joined the organization as a sandwich round pick in 2010. And it’s hard to put a finger on why Hutchison’s performance fell off during 2015, but an increased line drive rate indicates that he was likely missing his spots with greater frequency this year. At 25, there’s still a strong possibility that he pulls out of this nose dive. Say what you will about Jesse Chavez – his 43.1% GB rate was lower than every Blue Jays starter other than Price and the small sample size of Stroman’s. He pitches to contact, and should be the beneficiary of that improved infield defence.
The stars will have to align mightily, but this could prove to be one of the team’s surprising strengths.
4. A Full Season Of Tulowitzki (And Stroman)
Tulo fully admitted that the trade caught him completely off guard, and he had troubles adjusting to his new baseball home. Having put his Denver home up for sale, he appears to have made the break with Colorado, and is looking forward to spring training, which is music to Blue Jays fans ears.
If Jays fans think Tulowitzki can return to his All-Star, perennial MLB-candidate form may be disappointed, as he’s shown some trouble with the high fastball (once his bread-and-butter pitch), he hasn’t been healthy enough to amass 600 PAs since 2011, and is no longer a Gold Glover. Just the same, he doesn’t need to carry this offence, and even a slowing Tulo is still an upgrade over Reyes. The Blue Jays’ plan to install a dirt infield in time for next season should be of benefit to him.
All signs point to Tulowitzki’s best years being behind him at this point, but he still can be a well above league average player.
Stroman’s return to competition was nothing short of miraculous. As late as July, the team was sticking to the line that his 2015 was over. Stroman threw himself fully into his rehab, and gave the team an immeasurable lift when he joined it in September. This is a player who has had to prove his critics wrong at almost every turn in his career, and we really should start to take those front-of-the-rotation projections seriously. His 2015 spring training injury created a ripple effect throughout the pitching staff, and threw a huge monkey wrench into the team’s plan for the season. It’s easy to overlook that, but his absence at the start of the season was huge. It changed the plans for Norris, Sanchez, and maybe even Castro, and it forced the bullpen to throw more innings than it otherwise would have over the first two months of the season.
5. A Hungrier Team?
It’s not mandatory, but post-season experience is huge, and while there was a sprinkling of it throughout the roster, 2015 was the first taste of post-season play for many Blue Jays. And a second trip to the playoffs often tends to be more successful – just ask the Royals. Between them, Encarnacion and Bautista had played 2500 games without a sniff of the post-season. It was also the first trip to the playoffs for Revere, Dickey, Colabello, Justin Smoak, Goins, and the young homegrown Blue Jays like Sanchez and Stroman, who had barely even pitched in the playoffs in the minors.
The core of this group knows that their window of opportunity is closing. They won’t lack for motivation this year. Many of them commented to the media that they had never experienced an atmosphere like the one in Toronto this season.
Bautista and Encarnacion are both playing for their next contract, while Estrada is looking to build on the value he created this year when he’s next eligible for free agency in 2018. For most of the core of this may be their last kick at the post-season can.