2018 Season Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

Photo: Keith Allison/Flickr

As winter draws to a close, temperatures rise—Ann Arbor aside—and the sweet sounds of bats hitting balls emanate from Florida and Arizona, echoing around the country, it can only mean one thing: Baseball is (almost) back!

Pitchers and catchers have reported, and here at M-SABR we are counting down the final 33 days until America’s favorite holiday: Opening Day. To brighten that final baseball-less month just a little bit, we will be bringing you 30 Teams in 30 Days! Check back every day for one of our staff members’ insights on what you can expect from your favorite team in 2018, how we thought their offseason went, and what players you should make sure to keep your eye on! Don’t forget to read up on their division rivals either.

Beginning yesterday with the Baltimore Orioles, we will work our way through all 30 teams, going from AL to NL by division in reverse order of last season’s standings. When the team previews wrap up, M-SABR’s Bold Predictions, Playoff Previews, and Awards Predictions will give you the big picture right in time for the very first first pitch of 2018. Enjoy!

Toronto Blue Jays
2017 Record: 76-86 (4th AL East)
2017 Payroll: 200,459,058 (4th)

Projected 2018 Lineup:

All player projections for 2018 from Steamer

  1. LF Curtis Granderson, .239 AVG/.340 OBP/.449 SLG, 1.2 WAR
  2. 3B Josh Donaldson, .275 AVG/.380 OBP/.536 SLG, 6.0 WAR
  3. 1B Justin Smoak, .249 AVG/.337 OBP/.475 SLG, 1.8 WAR
  4. DH Kendrys Morales, .257 AVG/.321 OBP/.467 SLG, 0.3 WAR
  5. SS Troy Tulowitzki, .261 AVG/.326 OBP/.446 SLG, 1.9 WAR
  6. RF Randal Grichuk, .241 AVG/.293 OBP/.487 SLG, 1.5 WAR
  7. 2B Yangervis Solarte, .272 AVG/.335 OBP/.443 SLG, 1.0 WAR
  8. CF Kevin Pillar, .269 AVG/.312 OBP/.412 SLG, 2.2 WAR
  9. C Russell Martin, .230 AVG/.334 OBP/.413 SLG, 2.3 WAR

Projected 2018 Rotation:

  1. Marcus Stroman, 200.0 IP/3.89 ERA/1.32 WHIP, 3.9 WAR
  2. J.A. Happ, 171.0 IP/4.30 ERA/1.32 WHIP, 2.4 WAR
  3. Marco Estrada, 183.0 IP/4.99 ERA/1.36 WHIP, 1.1 WAR
  4. Jaime Garcia, 121.0 IP/4.47 ERA/1.41 WHIP, 1.4 WAR
  5. Aaron Sanchez, 130.0 IP/4.46 ERA/1.44 WHIP, 1.6 WAR

Offseason Recap:
Though their moves haven’t been as flashy as the moves made by their division opponents, the Blue Jays remained active this past offseason. The biggest move was trading reliever Dominic Leone and pitching prospect Conner Greene to the Cardinals for outfielder Randal Grichuk. Additionally, they acquired infielders Yangervis Solarte and Aledmys Diaz from San Diego and St. Louis respectively, without giving up much in either deal. In free agency, Toronto signed outfielder Curtis Granderson and starter Jaime Garcia to 1-year deals. The Blue Jays did lose a few contributors to free agency. Darwin Barney and Jose Bautista combined for 923 plate appearances, but a dismal -2.4 WAR in 2017. Though it always hurts to lose contributors, the Blue Jays theoretically should be better off without them.

Season Preview:
As we head into 2018, the Blue Jays are a team without a clear direction. It doesn’t make too much sense to go all in this year, but at the same time, a full rebuild would be foolish as well. Toronto is just 16 months removed from the ALCS, but a lot of key pieces from that team are gone or took major steps back in 2017. The AL East is pretty clearly a 2 team race between the Red Sox and Yankees, and the Blue Jays are at least a step below them. Their best player and most valuable asset is a 32-year-old who becomes a free agent following the season. On the other hand, the Blue Jays have a wave of exciting young talent that is at or near the major leagues. Their two top prospects, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, will begin season in AA New Hampshire. Both sons of former major leaguers, they can make an impact at the major league level as soon as this September. For the Blue Jays, 2018 will likely be a stopgap year, but one where they can remain competitive on the field. This is the year they transition from the previous core of Bautista, Encarnacion, and Donaldson, to the exciting future core of Guerrero, Bichette, and Anthony Alford.
The Blue Jays didn’t make any big signings this offseason, but they were able to improve their lineup from last season. Yangervis Solarte is a big upgrade at second base over Darwin Barney, who put up -0.7 bWAR in 129 games. Solarte is 2 years Barney’s junior, and was roughly a league average hitter, posting a respectable 93 wRC+. Compare that to Barney’s dismal 58, and it’s a clear upgrade. Solarte’s .311 OBP in 2017 doesn’t inspire too much confidence, but he actually struck out less and walked more than he did in 2016, a year in which he put up 2.2 WAR. He will be a solid addition to this team.
Another new player the Blue Jays will bring in this season is Curtis Granderson. The 3-time all star is projected to be Toronto’s leadoff hitter, although his speed and ability to reach base have been greatly diminished. Granderson’s .212 batting average in 2017 is certainly not good, but he was actually an above average hitter last year by both wRC+ and OPS+. Even at 36, he was able to hit 26 home runs and slug .452. It is likely that Granderson will platoon with incumbent left fielder Steve Pearce. Granderson has hit much better against left-handed pitchers over the course of his career. Pearce has been better against righties, even though in 2017 he hit lefties slightly better. Despite his age, Granderson has been the better fielder over the past few seasons, so Blue Jays fans should expect to see more of him this year.
The most surprising breakout player of 2017, perhaps across all of baseball, was first baseman Justin Smoak. After an incredibly disappointing 2016, Smoak came out of nowhere to hit 38 home runs and be worth 3.4 WAR. He set career bests in just about every hitting statistic. He swung at far fewer bad pitches, and raised his contact rate by 7%. His BABIP actually decreased between 2016 to 2017, which means his improvements can’t be simply chalked up to pure luck. In fact, I’m not sure what caused Smoak’s breakout this past season. If you look past his obvious improvement in counting statistics, none of his underlying numbers seem too far out of line with his career norms. His Hard Hit % has been steadily increasing his entire career, but he actually experienced a bigger jump from 2015, an average Justin Smoak season, to 2016, a terrible season. It seems to be a combination of a bunch of smaller things such as his increased fly ball and contact rates. I see no reason to believe that Smoak won’t be a valuable player for Toronto in 2018 and going forward.
The rest of the Blue Jays’ lineup shapes up nicely in 2018. Josh Donaldson is a bonafide superstar and one of the best hitters in the game. Randal Grichuk should be a solid upgrade in right field over Jose Bautista. Though Bautista became a Jays legend in his 10 years with the team, it was pretty clear the 37-year-old was on his last legs in 2017. Grichuk may never replicate his 2015 season in which he was worth 3.1 WAR and slugged .548, but he is certainly an upgrade, especially on defense.
Toronto’s rotation in 2017 was solidly in the middle of the pack. Their combined 4.57 ERA ranked 14th in the majors, and that’s despite the fact that Joe Biagini made 18 starts. With Aaron Sanchez hopefully healthy, the rotation should be even better. Sanchez battled through multiple injuries in 2017 and did not pitch particularly well in his 8 starts. But injuries aside, there is nothing alarming that says he won’t return to his form from his stellar 2016 campaign. Marcus Stroman, meanwhile, is the team’s ace after putting together a phenomenal season in 2017. Just 26 years old but with plenty of big league experience, Stroman could take the next step toward stardom this coming season.
In my opinion, J.A. Happ is one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball. He finished 6th in Cy Young voting just two years ago, yet he still seems to fly under the radar on a national scale. Over the past 3 seasons, he has had a remarkable 3.43 ERA and posted 11.1 bWAR. Happ is a veteran, but he is showing no signs of slowing down. As a matter of fact, his average fastball velocity continues to rise as he gets older. Toronto’s #2 starter, J.A. Happ projects to have another strong season in 2018. If the Blue Jays rotation performs to its potential, it will be much better than it was in 2017 and keep the team in the playoff picture despite playing in a powerful division.
Much like the rotation, the Blue Jays’ bullpen was firmly average in 2017. Young closer Roberto Osuna struck out over 11 batters per 9 innings, en route to saving 39 games. Though his ERA was a career high, Osuna set career lows in FIP and xFIP, signifying he was a victim of batted ball luck and is likely to perform even better next year. Dominic Leone will be severely missed in this bullpen. He was incredible in his one season with the Jays, posting a 2.56 ERA and striking out over 10 batters per 9 innings. Ryan Tepera and Aaron Loup are both solid relievers, but it gets questionable beyond them. Brad Penny is even listed on the Blue Jays’ depth chart on Fangraphs, despite the fact that Penny has been retired for two years.
All in all, the Blue Jays shape up to be a solid, if unspectacular team in 2018. The lineup will be improved from last season, with Grichuk and Solarte filling offensive black holes. The rotation should be strong as well, especially if Aaron Sanchez and Marco Estrada can have bounce-back seasons. The bullpen is questionable, but how many teams can say 5 weeks before the season that their bullpen isn’t? With a wave of young talent that is close to major league level, the Jays look scary in 2019 and beyond, but don’t count them out this year just yet.

Predicted Record: 84-78

Player to Watch: Josh Donaldson
Josh Donaldson is not only the best player on the Blue Jays, but there’s a case to be made that he’s the best third baseman in all of baseball. From 2015 to the present, he ranks fourth in all of baseball with a 153 wRC+, a number that places him behind only Trout, Votto, and Harper. He is a full 10 points above Kris Bryant for first place among third basemen. Donaldson ranks first at his position in walk rate, second in WAR, HR, OBP, and SLG, and grades out as a very solid defender. But it may make sense to trade him away this year at the deadline. Donaldson is a free agent following this year, and the Jays have the top third base prospect in all of baseball in Vlad Guerrero Jr. If Toronto is out of contention in July, it wouldn’t make much sense to hold onto Donaldson for the final two months of the season. If they can get a hefty return for him in late July, the Blue Jays may be wise to trade away their star.

Player to Watch: Anthony Alford
While much of the Blue Jays young talent is still a year away from reaching the majors, they do have one top prospect who is just about there already. Alford, currently MLB Pipeline’s #47 prospect, had a brief cup of coffee in the majors last year, going 1-8 in May with a double that very nearly cleared the fence at Miller Park. A natural athlete, Alford played D1 football at Southern Miss before transitioning to baseball full time. He has tremendous speed and can be a solid fielder in center field, although he suffered a few injuries last year that could be a concern in the future. Alford in all likelihood will not start the season in the major leagues, but he will definitely get chances to prove himself in Toronto in 2018.

Player to Watch: Aledmys Diaz
In most circumstances, you wouldn’t call a team’s backup shortstop intriguing. But most teams’ starting shortstop isn’t Troy Tulowitzki. Tulo is beginning to appear like one of baseball’s tragic figures. A star hitter in his prime, he has been absolutely ravaged by injuries throughout his career, and it seems increasingly likely he will miss opening day. Enter Diaz. Much like Grichuk, Diaz was acquired from the Cardinals after a down year in 2017. He burst onto the scene in 2016, hitting .300 seemingly out of nowhere and finishing 5th in rookie of the year voting. In 2017, his numbers took a hit as he saw far fewer fastballs and more curveballs. As a result, his hard hit rate dropped from 31% to just 23%, ranking him towards the bottom of that category. It’s now up to Diaz to adjust. If he can even get 80% of the way back to his 2016 production, Diaz can be a valuable player this season.



Categories: 2018 Season Preview, Articles

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