Toronto Blue Jays
by James Graham
2018 Record: 73-89 (4th in AL East)
2018 Payroll: $150,946,147 (11th)
Projected 2019 Lineup:
1. LF Billy McKinney, .252 AVG/.318 OBP/.462 SLG, 0.9 WAR
2. SS Lourdes Gurriel Jr, .281 AVG/.309 AVG/.446 OBP, 0.4 WAR
3. 1B Justin Smoak, .242 AVG/.350 OBP/.457 SLG, 1.7 WAR
4. DH Kendrys Morales, .249 AVG/.331 OBP/.438 SLG, 0.2 WAR
5. CF Kevin Pillar, .252 AVG/.282 OBP/.426 SLG, 2.0 WAR
6. RF Randal Grichuk, .245 AVG/.301 OBP/.502 SLG, 2.1 WAR
7. 3B Brandon Drury, .169 AVG/.256 OBP/.260 SLG, -0.5 WAR
8. 2B Devon Travis, .232 AVG/.275 OBP/.381 SLG, -0.5 WAR
9. C Danny Jansen, .247 AVG/.347 OBP/.432 SLG, 0.7 WAR
1. RHP Marcus Stroman, 102.1 IP/5.54 ERA/1.48 WHIP, 1.5 WAR
2. RHP Matt Shoemaker, 131 IP/4.94 ERA/1.26 WHIP, 0.6 WAR
3. RHP Clayton Richard, 158.2 IP/5.33 ERA/1.38 WHIP, 0.7 WAR
4. RHP Aaron Sanchez, 105 IP/4.89 ERA/1.56 WHIP, 0.7 WAR
5. LHP Ryan Borucki, 97.2 IP/3.87 ERA/1.32 WHIP, 1.7 WAR
This offseason for the Blue Jays was quiet. With no big-name signings, the Jays are more focused on veterans that can try to perform here and be traded at the deadline for potential prospects that could have a future in this organization. The most notable transaction was the release of Troy Tulowitzki, especially given that he had two more years on his contract and was owed $38 million. Tulowitzki had his moments with the Blue Jays, but for the most part, he found himself on the disabled list, including missing all of last season after having surgery on both heels. The team felt it was time to move on even with the remaining salary left on his contract.
Recent pickups such as Clayton Richard and Matt Shoemaker will compete for a spot in the rotation, while Freddy Galvis enters the mix for playing time in the infield. David Phelps will compete for a bullpen spot, as well as John Axford, who signed a minor league deal. These are all unexciting signings, but the Blue Jays look to try and get the most value out of these players. Richard, who finished with a 5.33 ERA in 158.2 innings, should be an innings eater for the team in 2019; however, Blue Jays fans certainly hope the young pitchers such as Sean Reid-Foley and Thomas Pannone can pitch well enough to edge out Richard and take their place in the rotation long term. Matt Shoemaker has dealt with his fair share of injuries the past two seasons, and he will attempt to rebuild his value with the Blue Jays. While his 4.94 ERA this past season was not impressive, his 3.35 FIP offers some optimism for Blue Jays fans.
On the offensive side, the most notable addition is Freddy Galvis. He gives the Jays depth in the middle infield position, which is much needed given the injury history of Devon Travis and the loss of Tulowitzki. Possessing a strong glove, he should provide some competition for Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and offer the Blue Jays some flexibility and a veteran presence.
The Blue Jays are squarely in the middle of their rebuild. This team is filled with developing young players, and there is almost a 0 percent chance that they compete for a playoff spot. What makes this an interesting season to the more hardcore fans, however, is the position battles that will occur throughout the year between older veterans and young guns. I would say there are generally three types of players for the Jays this year.
The first group is the veterans, a list of players including Justin Smoak, Kevin Pillar, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Brandon Drury and Randal Grichuk. The position these players are in is very interesting. Smoak will most likely be dealt, as Rowdy Tellez attempts to show that he is the future at first base. He is a solid switch hitter that would be a good fit for any contender looking for a bat. Stroman and Sanchez are both trying to rebuild their value after injury filled seasons. If they both bounce back, they could be potential trade chips or extension candidates.
Grichuk and Pillar are in similar situations. Both outfielders have solid defense, but have had some question marks with their bats. They key difference between them is how hard they hit the ball. While the 30 year old Pillar is likely who he is at this point of his career, the 27 year old Grichuk has shown the power potential (with a .502 SLG in 2018) to be a force in the Jays lineup for years to come.
Brandon Drury is in a curious situation for the Blue Jays. His stronghold on third base will likely be temporary, as top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is expected to reach the majors in mid-April. Acquired as part of last season’s J.A. Happ deal, Drury has supposedly fixed the migraine issue that plagued him throughout his whole career. If that helps fix his vision, he could revert back to his 2016 form, when he had a wRC+ of 102. If he improves his hitting, he could be traded for a position of need or move over to the middle infield.
Second, there are the recently acquired veterans who are trying to rebuild their value and the Jays will be looking to trade for potential pieces at the deadline. Freddy Galvis, Clayton Richard, Matt Shoemaker and David Phelps fall into this category. Each of them is trying to improve their value, so when the trade deadline comes around, they could be dealt to a potential contender looking for reinforcements to help out.
The last group is the most intriguing — the young prospects who are looking to prove that they belong in the long-term plan. These players include Ryan Borucki, Sean Reid-Foley, Thomas Pannone, Teoscar Hernandez, Lourdes Gurriel Jr, Billy McKinney and Danny Jansen.
Borucki is projected to have a starting spot in the rotation, especially after posting a 3.80 FIP during his rookie season. Pannone, meanwhile, is not expected to start the year in the rotation, but he will have a chance to claim a spot as the year progresses. Both made starts for the Blue Jays in 2018 and had an uneven performance. Reid-Foley has more upside and with better control has a real opportunity to cement his standing in the rotation. Pannone is more on the outside. A lefty with sits around 88 MPH, he relies on deception, movement and command to succeed. While he has proven that it can be effective in the past, he has also gotten hit hard.
Hernandez will look to keep up his hitting; however, he must improve on a his -11 UZR in the outfield. Gurriel, the younger brother of Astros infielder Yuli Gurriel, had a 103 WRC+, and showed at times he could be the future shortstop. However, he also showed he can kick the ball around and not make plays. This year is about him improving his defense while building off a solid offensive year. McKinney was the second player to come over in the Happ trade and he has a solid 2018 offensive season posting a 112 WRC+. If he can continue hitting well, he could be another player forcing his way into the Jays future plans. Jansen was one of the Jays top prospects last year and when called up he showed his offensive upside with a 115 WRC+. While is DRS was -2, he is still young enough to try and improve. If he can build off an impressive offensive showing last year and get his defense to an average level, he could be the Jays future catcher and possibly one of the best catchers in the MLB.
If each of these players can improve off last year, the Blue Jays have found a good young core to build around, especially when superstar talents Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette arrive in the Major Leagues. If not, the team might have to look elsewhere as they prepare for their top prospects to arrive. This season will be about battles for the future, who gets traded and who is good enough to lead this team to contention in a few years. Blue Jays fans hope that many of those questions can be solved with good years from both young players and veterans. It is an interesting time to be a Blue Jays fan, and how this season shapes up will impact how quickly they can contend.
Record Prediction: 75-87
Player to Watch: SP Marcus Stroman
Marcus Stroman is the closest thing the Blue Jays have to a star at the moment. After experiencing arm issues early last spring, he never truly regained form. In 102.1 IP, he had an unsightly 5.54 ERA and 1.476 WHIP. However, he is only two seasons removed from his breakout year, where he posted 3.09 ERA in 201 IP and led the MLB in highest ground ball rate.
Interestingly enough his FIP was only .01 off from last year. While this a slightly above average FIP it shows that he was not as bad as last year suggests, but also, he was not as good as 2017 really suggested. Going into his age 28 season, I would expect a season closer to 2017; however, he will be hard-pressed to have a complete replication due to his low K/9 rate. Look for Stroman to have a bounce back year if he can remain healthy.
Player to Watch: 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Guerrero is the most hyped Blue Jays prospect and the consensus #1 prospect in all of baseball right now. No one has ever gotten a scouting grade of 80/80 on hitting before Vlad. He has proven that he can handle every league he plays in, posting .381/.437/.636 with 20 home runs in 408 plate appearances between AA and AAA this year. What also makes this so impressive is he only struck out 38 times. In an age where players strike out more than ever before the ability to make contact, this only increases his value. While he did miss time with a knee injury, it was not severe and when he returned, he continued to rake. His hitting ability is electric and watching him will be a treat to any baseball fan, especially for Jays fans in a season that will most likely be forgettable.
The only thing keeping Vlad in the minors is the service clock. If the Blue Jays wait until mid-April to call him up, they get an additional year of team control. GM Ross Atkins has already made comments that would suggest Vlad will not get the call until after this deadline. The Blue Jays have stressed they want Vlad to be completely ready both offensively and defensively for his call up. While offensively he looks completely ready, his defense is a little less solid and there are already suggestions that he will end up at designated hitter.
Player to Watch: Elvis Luciano
In a season where the Jays won’t be contending for a playoff run, I find the most interesting storyline of the spring to be Elvis Luciano. Luciano is a Rule 5 pick by the Blue Jays this past offseason. He is currently 19 and has never played above rookie ball. What makes this such an interesting pick is how risky it is for the Jays. While he has electric stuff, for the Blue Jays to keep him in the organization he must finish the 2019 season on the 25-man roster. This could potentially be a very important piece to the Blue Jays future, but they must find a way to keep him on their roster. With a fastball that gets into the mid 90s and a curveball that can generate swings and misses he is an intriguing piece.
It is hard to bring statistics into this conversation, as rookie ball and the MLB are about as far apart in professional baseball. While he was injured for much of the season, his stats were quite impressive when he was on the mound, with a 2.88 FIP and a 11.45 K/9 in 11 IP. The Blue Jays are gambling with a high-risk high-reward player in the draft, and they will do as much as they possibly can to ensure they can keep this young player. This will be an intriguing storyline throughout spring as he tries to make the team, and throughout the season as he and the Blue Jays attempt to keep him around. If he makes the team out of Spring Training, he will be the Blue Jays youngest pitcher in franchise history, a milestone currently held by former closer Roberto Osuna.