2021 Season Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

(Tommy Gilligan, USA TODAY Sports)

Toronto Blue Jays
by Matthew Sussman

2020 Record: 32-28 (.533 win%, 3rd in Division)

2020 Payroll: $137,393,571 (19th)

Projected 2021 Lineup (All projections from Steamer and Rotochamp):

1. CF George Springer, .263 AVG/.355 OBP/.485 SLG, 3.9 fWAR

2. 2B Marcus Semien, .252 AVG/.336 OBP/.427 SLG, 3.1 fWAR

3. SS Bo Bichette, .279 AVG/.331 OBP/.466 SLG, 3.8 fWAR

4. RF Teoscar Hernández, .236 AVG/.307 OBP/.453 SLG, 0.6 fWAR

5. 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr., .297 AVG/.367 OBP/.511 SLG, 3.1 fWAR

6. 3B Cavan Biggio, .234 AVG/.351 OBP/.400 SLG, 2.5 fWAR

7. LF Lourdes Gurriel Jr., .265 AVG/.312 OBP/.465 SLG, 1.4 fWAR

8. DH Rowdy Tellez, .255 AVG/.325 OBP/.469 SLG, 0.7 fWAR

9. C Danny Jansen, .235 AVG/.323 OBP/.404 SLG, 1.9 fWAR

Projected 2021 Rotation:

1. Hyun Jin Ryu, 179.0 IP/3.97 ERA/1.26 WHIP, 3.2 fWAR

2. Robbie Ray, 163.0 IP/4.31 ERA/1.36 WHIP, 2.4 fWAR

3. Tanner Roark, 135.0 IP/5.15 ERA/1.43 WHIP, 1.0 fWAR

4. Steven Matz, 132.0 IP/4.54 ERA/1.34 WHIP, 1.7 fWAR

5. Ross Stripling, 122.0 IP/4.29 ERA/1.30 WHIP, 1.4 fWAR

Offseason Recap:

The Blue Jays went into the offseason with one main motivation: land a big name free agent. They did just that by signing George Springer. The Jays gave him $150 million over six years to be their leadoff hitter and man center field. Since entering the league, Springer has the 5th most fWAR (26.6) of all outfielders and 2nd most, trailing only Mike Trout, for center fielders. Throughout his career, Springer has always been a very solid hitter and above-average defender despite his relatively slow speed at the position. Springer has been especially superb during the postseason, leading the Astros to many deep runs, including being named the 2017 World Series MVP. Although Springer has been amazing to this point in his career, the Jays signed him until his age-37 season. The projection tool ZiPS has Springer performing around his career average for the first three seasons before declining in production. Still, the Jays got their big name guy who will definitely be an impact, especially down the stretch. Right after signing Springer, the Blue Jays were rumored to have also signed his teammate Michael Brantley. The deal was supposedly a two- or three-year deal. These rumors were ultimately proven false when Brantley resigned with the Astros for $32 million and two years. While the Blue Jays would have solidified their outfield with the former Astro duo, missing out on Brantley did give them flexibility with other free agents.

Shifting their focus to the infield, the Blue Jays signed Marcus Semien to a one-year, $18 million deal. In 2020, they had Cavan Biggio and Travis Shaw at second base and third base, respectively, for a majority of their games. While Biggio, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette are all valuable young players, Shaw had been underwhelming for the past two seasons. Semien should fix that hole moving forward into this season. Because Bichette is the Jays’ franchise shortstop, Biggio will slide over to third and Semien will likely see the majority of his time at second. Since joining Oakland in 2015, Semien has been a slightly above-average hitter and typical defender. Semein’s biggest appeal is his massive upside. In 2019, he finished 3rd in AL MVP voting with a whopping 7.6 fWAR season. Because the floor is league average and the ceiling is an MVP-caliber season, the Blue Jays decided to offer Semien a low-risk, high-reward one-year deal. While it is unknown which Marcus Semien the Blue Jays will get, they will not have to worry about potential long-term repercussions.

The Blue Jays also added a trio of solid relievers in Kirby Yates, Tyler Chatwood, and David Phelps. All of them are on one-year deals, and they will be paid $5.5 million, $3 million, and $1.75 million respectively. After a dominant 2018 and 2019 season, capped by a first-team All-MLB honor in 2019, Yates had surgery to remove a bone chip in his throwing elbow in 2020. This signing will hopefully fill the closer vacancy temporarily filled by Anthony Bass and Rafael Dolis, who had a combined 12 saves in 2020. Chatwood, the former starter, will eat up many early reliever innings. Finally, Phelps will add some needed depth to a somewhat thin bullpen.

After additions to the field and bullpen, starting pitching was the clear next focus. The Blue Jays decided to grab lefty Steven Matz from the Mets. In return, the Jays sent off right-handers Sean Reid-Foley, Josh Winckowski, and Yennsy Diaz. The former Mets top prospect has shown flashes of potential, but ultimately has been disappointing. They add Matz to the crowded back of the rotation that includes Robbie Ray, Tanner Roark, and Ross Stripling. The Jays hope for the 2015 to 2016 Steven Matz, who enjoyed a 3.16 ERA, rather than the Steven Matz who’s posted a 4+ ERA ever since his elbow injury in 2017. Matz will surely be a main focus of pitching coach Pete Walker as they hope to get his career back onto an elite track.

Overall, the Blue Jays had a great offseason and addressed many issues. They brought in their star in the form of George Springer. They upgraded their infield from good to great. Lastly, they added a stud closer and some rotation and bullpen depth with upside. Although they lost many free agents to other teams, the Blue Jays’ offseason has put them in a great position to win in 2021. 

2021 Season Preview:

The Toronto (or rather, the Dunedin) Blue Jays will yet again start playing their home games outside of the Rogers Centre in 2021. Due to Canadian-US border shutdowns, the Blue Jays will be playing in their minor league stadium for at least the first month of the season. Despite the same difficulty with finding a home stadium, a significant amount of other parts of the game will be back to normal during the 2021 season as the pandemic hopes to become under control. With the elephant in the room out of the way, let’s focus about the product on the field.

The Blue Jays are building up to be a serious contender. Transitioning from the Donaldson, Bautista, and Encarnación era has been rough, as they were below the .500 mark for three straight seasons. In 2020 though, the Jays won 32 of 60 games, good enough to find themselves as the second wild card and eighth seed in the expanded playoffs. Although they made a swift exit at the hands of the eventual American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays in two games during the best of three Wild Card Series, this is hopefully a sign of things to come in the future as the team is only improving and gaining experience.

To start with the positive, their lineup is shaping out to be one of the top in the MLB. Bringing on Semien and Springer will solidify their young core. As mentioned earlier, both of these players are very solid hitters, and there is no reason this won’t continue for their new team. In two seasons, Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio have emerged as a pair of awesome hitters, posting a .372 and .368 wOBA respectively. As mentioned later in the article, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is in a position to have the best season of his young career. From the corner outfield, Teoscar Hernández and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. are above-average hitters, with a 112 and 120 wRC+ respectively in their careers. At designated hitter, Rowdy Tellez will primarily face righties and Randal Grichuk will face lefties. Lastly, Danny Jansen is mostly in the lineup for defense, but the Blue Jays will not be missing out as not many teams have solid offense catchers. This mix of young stars and veterans in their prime will definitely score a lot of runs this season.

While their run total might be high, they will need to prevent runs to get to the next level. This first starts with defense. In 2020, their defense was less than impressive. Of their starters, only Bo Bichette had a positive OAA (outs above average) for the year. Adding Springer will take a step in the right direction, as he has been a plus defender in his career. Their other addition, Marcus Semien is a giant question mark defensively. In his career, he has been a subpar defender at shortstop, but most of this can be attributed to balls to his right in the shortstop hole. Now playing at the easier second base, the Blue Jays can hope that he will improve, that remains to be seen as the season unfolds. Behind the dish, Jansen is an above-average pitch framer in the past two years, adding two extra runs defensively, but his poptime was 0.05 seconds over the MLB average of 2 seconds. Their defense has room to grow in 2021, and a possible improvement could help them win a few extra games.

Secondly, pitching will be a giant question mark for both the bullpen and starting rotation. The anchor of the staff Hyun-Jin Ryu has been fantastic, with an ERA under three for the past three seasons. After Ryu, there is a lot of uncertainty. It also seems to be the same story for the next four guys in the rotation. There were times where these starters have been solid, but they have seemed to lose it in the last few years. Robbie Ray had a FIP under 4 for the first three years, but it has ballooned over the last three as his home run and walk rates have increased despite steady strikeout rates. Tanner Roark had a sub-three ERA for the Nationals in three of his first four seasons, but that number has exceeded four in the last four seasons. His struggles are likely due to opponents’ increasing hard hit rate. As mentioned in the offseason recap, Steven Matz is another mixed bag due to injury. Ross Stripling kept his ERA and FIP between three and four for the first four years of his career, but his 2020 season was abysmal. More importantly, Stripling has only started more than 20 games in his five-year career once as the Dodgers used him in the bullpen as well. Therefore, we can also place him in the unknown category. One last pitcher to throw into the mix is top prospect Nate Pearson – more on him later. Unfortunately, the report on the starting pitchers was very repetitive. Behind Ryu, all of the pitchers were great in the beginning of their careers, but they have not done much since. If somehow manager Charlie Montoyo could get all of these pitchers to perform to their stats in 2016, their rotation would be elite. This is pretty unlikely, though, so Blue Jays fans will probably use their starting rotation as a scapegoat all season if the team does poorly.

Lastly, the bullpen according to fangraphs will likely feature Kirby Yates, Jordan Romano, Rafael Dolis, Tyler Chatwood, David Phelps, Ryan Borucki, Julian Merryweather, Francisco Liriano, Trent Thornton, and Anthony Kay. This group of lesser-known relievers will have a lot of work cut out for them with the Blue Jays rotation. Before his injury Yates has been fantastic, so he will slot into the closer role as long as he can stay healthy. In his second MLB season, Romano pitched well with an extremely high ground ball rate. When paired with an extremely low BABIP of .207, as he did last year, his numbers can be eye-popping. After four years in the Japanese league, Dolis only let up one home run in 24 innings, but his high walk rate is alarming. Chatwood and Liriano, both former starters, should expect to eat up many innings in relief of the lackluster rotation. The rest of the crew has had very mixed results in their careers, and probably won’t be relied on in high-leverage situations. If things go right, the back end of this bullpen can shape out to be solid with the rest of the bullpen just trying to piece together games that don’t feature Hyun-Jin Ryu.

Overall, the 2021 Blue Jays will be exciting to watch, as a majority of their games will be high scoring. The real test will be how their pitching holds up. Although the Blue Jays will be able to win the 10-8 or 7-6 barnburners, they need to be able to win when their bats go cold as well. This year can go a variety of ways, and most of them depend heavily on their second through fifth starters. If the back half of the rotation can find their way, this team could contend with the Rays and Yankees for the division. On the other hand, the rotation could implode, and it will be a long season of watching the opponents circling around the bases. 

Record Prediction: 86-76

Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection has the Blue Jays with 84.8 wins, placing them third in the AL East, while Fangraphs’ projection has them at 88 wins, finishing second in the AL East. My prediction takes the middle ground between these two projection systems. With the Rays and Yankees in their division, the Blue Jays will have tough competition to win the division. Still, the Blue Jays sit in a great position for one of the two Wild Card spots. Assuming the Yankees, White Sox, and Astros all win their respective divisions, the Jays are primarily competing against the Twins, Athletics, and Rays for the Wild Card spots. 86 wins should be enough to find themselves in the playoffs, but it is unlikely that they do make a deep run with their less-than-impressive pitching rotation. While this team does not look like an AL pennant-winning team, this season will be important to develop experience, hopefully both in the regular season and postseason, for their young players.

Player to Watch #1: CF George Springer

The spotlight of the Blue Jays’ fan base will definitely be on their new superstar. He is an instant boost on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball at center field. With Springer, we are not really watching if he will perform; rather, the focus will be on how much he will perform. He’s a proven veteran in his prime who has demonstrated his worth in the postseason. If the Jays can make it to the playoffs this year, they will lean on Springer as a team leader. 

Player to Watch #2: 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Despite losing the 2019 Home Run Derby to Pete Alonso, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. smacked a record-breaking 91 home runs with authority. If having an well-known MLB father did not put enough hype around his name, the 2019 Home Run Derby display of raw power definitely cemented him as one of the next young superstars. The only thing keeping Guerrero was his figure. Towards the end of the 2019 season, he struggled with fatigue, especially in the field, resulting in a move to first base. In the offseason, Guerrero Jr. lost an impressive 42 pounds. He says he “[feels] quicker in all aspects of my game right now…Before I would feel a lot of fatigue after taking ground balls. Now I can take 50, 60 ground balls and I’m feeling good.” Although this weight loss is targeting his defensive play, expect to see the results at the plate too as his legs will be a bigger part of his swing. A skinnier, quicker Vladdy could be tearing up the league with monster home runs before we realize it.

Player to Watch #3: SP Nate Pearson

For those who don’t know, Nate Pearson is the Blue Jays’ top prospect. He also ranks in the top 10 on MLB.com’s prospect list. He was the 28th pick of the 2017 draft, which happened to be Cleveland’s compensatory pick for signing Edwin Encaración. Pearson is massive, standing at 6’6” and weighing 245 pounds. Because of his size, he can light up the radar gun above triple digits. His electric fastball averages 94 to 98 miles per hour, but it maxes out at 101 miles per hour. Besides his best pitch, he also has an above-average slider that sits in the low 80s that has been effective against both righties and lefties. He has the ability to change the movement on his slider to either pitch it in or out of the strike zone, which adds an extra dimension against hitters. In addition, he has been improving his changeup and curveball. He posted a 0.90 ERA in rookie ball back in 2017, but a comeback line drive injured his right forearm in his high-A debut the next year. Pitching in three different minor league levels in 2019, Pearson had a 2.30 ERA, 119 strikeouts, and only 22 walks in 101 ⅔ innings. Although there was no minor league play in 2020, Pearson was active at the alternative site and made 4 starts at the major league level. Unfortunately, his control, which was great in the minors, could not be replicated in the big league. This issue can hopefully be attributed to the wacky and unconventional 2020 year. We will probably see Pearson at the major league level at some point this year. The Blue Jays have high hopes for their top prospect, expecting him to become a top of the rotation guy. While it might not happen immediately, Pearson’s hunger to compete will drive him to continue to improve.

Categories: 2021 Season Preview, Articles

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