Image: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Toronto Blue Jays
by Lucas Szentgyorgyi
2021 Record: 91-71 (.562 win%, 4th in Division)
2021 Payroll: $150,140,253 (12th)
On October 3, 2021 Washington Nationals’ reliever Joan Adon struck out Red Sox’ third baseman Rafael Devers. Baseball Savant calculated the Nationals’ win probability at 94%. When, not if, the Red Sox lose, the recently victorious Blue Jays will be slated to play the Sox in a game 163 to determine who will move on to the Divisional Series. Jays’ players watched from on the jumbotron in Rogers Centre, not ready to celebrate but starting to feel that tingling sensation that comes with mid-October baseball. After a hard fought 91 win season, they would be fighting for a playoff spot. Their first, disregarding a weird COVID year, since they were knocked out by the Indians in the 2016 ALCS.
But first, the Nationals must close out this all but assured win. This could prove to be more difficult than Baseball Savant may say, though. The 2021 Nationals’ bullpen finished with the second worst FIP and ERA in the league, only trailing the abysmal Orioles’ pen. And when Alex Verdugo steps up to the plate against Eric Fedde with runners on the corners, National fans sigh and Blue Jays fans clutch their manchettes. Jays fans’ white knuckles soon turn to fists of rage as Red Sox’ Alex Verdugo ropes a hanging slider, splitting the right center gap. The game is tied, five a piece.
It’s the ninth inning now. Neither the Nats nor the Sox have been able to push across a run for three innings. The winning percentage sits at an even 50% when Nats’ second baseman Jordy Mercer makes an error, allowing Kyle Schwarber to reach. ‘No matter’, says the Blue Jays fan. But it’s more of a pitiful attempt at self-assurance than a comment on the situation. These Canadian fans have endured the statistically least clutch team in the MLB for an entire season; they are not exactly professors of optimism.
Be it their fans’ pessimism, pitcher Kyle Finnegan’s too-high change up, or general Blue Jays chaos, both Jays and Nationals fans alike found themselves watching a Rafael Devers’ laser sail over the centerfield fence and land 447 feet from home plate for a two-run home run.
The following half inning, Nationals’ superstar Juan Soto is frozen on a two strike curveball. The game ends. The Red Sox win.
Blue Jays players descend into their clubhouse having seen Soto’s strikeout and the finality of their season displayed brightly on the jumbotron in center. “It hurts,” Vladimir Guerrero Jr. laments after the game, “Knowing that you win [sic] 91 games and you didn’t make the playoffs, it really hurts me, hurts all my teammates.” But he and his fellow sluggers have no option but to head for home, hoping to finally break through into the playoffs and challenge for a World Series next year. It’s a feat they haven’t accomplished since Joe Carter belted the biggest home run of his life in 1993.
They are looking forward to 2022, or so they say; Fangraphs predicts them to repeat as 90+ game winners and finish first in the AL East. A high bar indeed, but the Jays have the tools to do it. Let’s take a look at the projected starting lineup.
Projected 2022 Lineup:
1. CF George Springer, .258 AVG/.346 OBP/.499 SLG, 3.9 fWAR
2. SS Bo Bichette, .287 AVG/.339 OBP/.503 SLG, 4.9 fWAR
3. 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr, .306 AVG/.393 OBP/.612 SLG, 6.0 fWAR
4. RF Teoscar Hernandez, .256 AVG/.317 OBP/.488 SLG, 1.9 fWAR
5. 3B Matt Chapman, .223 AVG/.318 OBP/.446 SLG, 3.3 fWAR
6. DH Lourdes Gurriel Jr, .266 AVG/.314 OBP/.471 SLG, 1.5 fWAR
7. C Alejandro Kirk .279 AVG/.355 OBP/.501 SLG, 2.2 fWAR
8. RF Raimel Tapia, .263 AVG/.317 OBP/.388 SLG, 0.5 fWAR
9. 2B Cavan Biggio, .227 AVG/.342 OBP/.402 SLG, 1.5 fWAR
Projected 2022 Rotation:
1. Kevin Gausman, 188.0 IP/3.93 ERA/1.19 WHIP, 3.1 fWAR
2. José Berrios, 196.0 IP/3.95 ERA/1.21 WHIP, 3.1 fWAR
3. Yusei Kikuchi, 152.0 IP/4.17 ERA/1.31 WHIP, 1.7 fWAR
4. Hyun Jin Ryu, 168.0 IP/4.06 ERA/1.25 WHIP, 2.3 fWAR
5. Alek Manoah, 147.0 IP/4.10 ERA/1.24 WHIP, 2.1 fWAR
Projected 2022 Top 3 Relievers:
1. Jordan Romano, 66.0 IP/3.37 ERA/1.18 WHIP, 0.8 fWAR
2. Nate Pearson, 87.0 IP/4.17 ERA/1.30 WHIP, 0.7 fWAR
3. Tim Mayza, 62.0 IP/3.65 ERA/1.28 WHIP, 0.5 fWAR
The Blue Jays’ front office did not take this winter off. They signed Kevin Gausman, Yimi Garcia, and Yusei Kikuchi while acquiring Matt Chapman and Raimel Tapia through trade. Yimi Garcia is a decent reliever who had a great fifteen innings with the Marlins in 2020 but did not perform nearly as well in ‘21. He has the experience and ability to be a sub 4 ERA arm, but time is catching up to him and he might very well find himself just eating innings in 2022.
The Matt Chapman trade was not a steal for the Blue Jays, but it was about as close as you can get. Zach Logue is a 25 year old pitcher who had a high 3 ERA in Triple A and has bounced around the high levels of the minors, Kirby Snead is a 27 year old left handed reliever who pitched decent out of the pen in 2021, Kevin Smith is a shortstop who has hit well in the minors but hasn’t found his footing in 83 career big league ABs, and Gunnar Hogland is a first round pick who’s rehabbing from Tommy John. There are potential starters in there, mainly Smith and Hogland, but no top 100 prospect seems out of place in a trade for a player of Chapman’s caliber, even with his recent offensive struggles. The general consensus is that the Blue Jays won the trade, and I don’t think that narrative will flip any time soon.
There’s little to talk about in the Tapia trade, so I’ll only briefly mention that the Jays snagged a 19 year old utility player whose OPS in the Dominican Summer League was north of 1.000. It’s tough to tell at that young of an age and against inconsistent opposition, but Toronto got everything they wanted at the major league level and a promising youngster at the low minors. As for the Gausman and Kikuchi deals, the AAV seems appropriate but Gausman’s years are too long. He might have an ERA south of 5 by 2024, but I’m not sure his first two and a half years of production will make up for the last two and a half years. Kikuchi’s years are perfect; three allows the team to get to know him and his true potential and allows him to become comfortable and show Toronto if he can indeed live up to the hype.
2022 Season Preview:
This season preview will go player by player in the starting lineups and pitching staff beginning with one of Toronto’s best players, and a classic instance of a young, surging team signing the perfect veteran to fit right in.
George Springer is coming off a year hampered by injuries in which he saw less than a season’s worth of game action (78 games). He made it count when he did see the field, hitting at a .264/.352/.555 clip, good for a wRC+ of 140. This was with a .286 BABIP, lower than his career average, suggesting that there is more in the tank if more balls start to find grass. Fangraphs didn’t like his defense, but statcast rates him fairly; he ranks in the 82nd percentile in sprint speed. His jump ranked low, however, suggesting that he might be slower to react and could find himself in left field in a few short years. In 2022, he will certainly man center…so long as his legs stay healthy.
Bo Bichette finally had a full season to prove himself in 2021, and he didn’t disappoint. In 159 games, he hit to the tune of a .827 OPS and 122 wRC+. He walked at a tough clip, only managing a 5.8 BB% while striking out just under 20% of the time. Even in his best hitting year (142 wRC+), his walk rate only reached 6.6%, marginally better than that in 2021. Statcast is not a fan of his defense either, which could become an issue if top prospect Jordan Groshans continues to put pressure on the current Jays’ shortstop. But that’s a couple years down the road.
Vladdy Jr. is coming off a breakout season in which he sported an OPS north of 1.000, earning himself the AL Hank Aaron Award and a Silver Slugger. It’s safe to say that by 2021, Vlad lived up to the hype, and the peripherals don’t suggest he’ll be slowing down any time soon. The BABIP is not an outlier, and his Baseball Savant batting percentiles are blood red; he’s in the 98th percentile or above in six different categories. The man can hit. He hit fastballs better than anyone in the league, which suggests that he’ll get a healthy dose of offspeed and breaking balls in 2021. But he mashed those too! You cannot stop Vladdy Guerrero. You can only hope to contain him.
Teoscar Hernandez broke out in the shortened 2020 season, mashing at a 142 wRC+ clip. He continued that production in 2021 while cutting down his strikeout rate almost 6%. The BABIP was extremely high in 2020 and ‘21 (.348 and .352, respectively), but perhaps he can continue that in 2022. Even with regression to the mean there, he will continue to be a good hitter with a good ISO that will find himself in the middle of the Jays’ lineup. He’s a liability in RF but a solid defender in left. Even though he saw 2500 more PAs in RF than left in 2021, I’d expect that to change as 2022 progresses.
Matt Chapman is an odd hitter. Since his 139 wRC+ season in 2018, he’s hit worse each year, culminating in a league average 2021 performance. His stellar defense obviously adds to his overall value, but his production at the plate is something to be wary of. The BABIP was 22 points lower than his career average, and the Blue Jays actually didn’t give up a haul for the platinum glover. They immediately signed him to a deal that could be very team friendly if he begins to put up 6-fWAR numbers in ‘22 and ‘23.
Chapman raked against changeups in 2021 but struggled against all other types of pitches. This is the first year of that pattern for him, suggesting a swing or approach overhaul gone wrong. But the Jays are in a good position with their third baseman. If he performs how he did in ‘18 and ‘19, that’s highway robbery. If not, you’re paying 12 million a year for a stellar third baseman who’s going to put up 3-4 fWAR per year. Not a bad situation.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is not a good fielder. In fact, he’s the second worst fielder of the league according to Outs Above Average, racking up an impressively bad -9 outs. His 2021 offensive campaign was the definition of “meh”, as he only hit 7 points above league average (107 wRC+) and sported a league average BABIP. Gurriel’s best hitting year, 2020, featured a .351 BABIP, obviously unsustainable and due to regress to his career average. This does not mean there’s no hope for the Cuban outfielder, though. His 2021 numbers against fastballs are abysmal; Gurriel Jr. slugged .367 and had a wOBA of .289 vs four seamers in ‘21; all other pitches were hit at a .320 (wOBA) clip or higher.
Conventional wisdom might suggest that he increased his attack angle from ‘20-’21, as high spin fastballs would sail right over his bat, but downward-breaking pitches would sink right into said bat path. His 17.4% K rate against fastballs debunks this, however; it’s a couple points below his ‘21 average and suggests that his problem was more luck than any change. Furthermore, Gurriel Jr. recorded a .365 xwOBA on 4 seamers; 76 points higher than his recorded wOBA. If Gurriel starts getting fastball luck and continues his production on offspeed/breaking pitches he could get back to his 2020 hitting ways. The defense is still a question, and Lourdes could be in the starting lineup the majority of the year.
Alejandro Kirk is coming off of a relatively good offensive year (106 wRC+) as a 23 year old, but his minor league numbers suggest there’s more in the bat. The 5’8” catcher never recorded a wRC+ below 144 at any minor league level, and the BABIPs confirm it wasn’t just luck. Kirk was also the third best hitter against curveballs in the league, trailing only Adam Duvall and Luis Robert. Does that mean anything? Probably not, but it’s fun and weird.
Either way, the man has skill with the bat, and even though his framing rates are worse than Danny Jansen, Kirk will be getting some starts behind the plate in 2022. Jansen, on the other hand, is coming off two consecutive years of wRC+ improvement, culminating in an above league average 105 wRC+ in 2021. His framing is rated as right around average by Baseball Savant, and he doesn’t throw out runners at a particularly impressive clip. Jansen is a perfectly fine catcher who will help to bridge the short catcher-gap to top prospect Gabriel Moreno.
If this were the 1970s, Raimel Tapia would be the starting two-hole hitter on a playoff contender. He’s the stereotypical slap hitter; little strikeouts, good speed, and the ability to hit anything anywhere (so long as anywhere is the infield). His defense rates as above average, but it’s nothing special. The Jays have lacked a real right fielder since Joey Bats departed, so Canadians will be happy to see someone out there who won’t cost the team defensively. Offensively, they won’t be super pleased. He won’t strike out and with some BABIP luck maybe he could manage a 90 wRC+. But it’s not like the Jays’ management didn’t know what they were getting in Tapia. He’ll also serve as an quality outfield backup and a late-game, defensive substitution.
Cavan Biggio’s 2021 was somewhat of a mystery for the Jays. He was coming off back to back above-average offensive years and the defense was improving. It seemed as though Toronto had found its everyday second basemen in yet another child of a Hall of Famer. But out of the gates something was wrong. His OPS was sitting in the .600’s, significantly below his career average. After a rehab stint in the minors, he returned to all-star form in June before dropping back down to sub .700 OPS’s each month for the rest of the year. Biggio struggled heavily with fourseamers, sporting a measly wOBA of .275 against them.
Biggio will look to bounce back in 2022, but there will be competition in the form of Santiago Espinal. In the wake of Biggio’s plummet, Espinal took over the job and hit 15 points above league average while racking up 5 outs above average. He’s not a power hitter by any means, and the BABIP was high, but if Espinal can hit around or just above league average Cavan’s spot is not locked up. Or Jordan Groshans could move the infield alignment around and push both of them out of a job. Who’s to know?
Kevin Gausman is coming off of back to back solid years with the Giants, racking up just under 5 fWAR in 2021 and a FIP of exactly 3.00. He increased the usage of his splitter finger and decreased his changeup, essentially swapping the two. It generated a 45.9 whiff rate and an opponent wOBA of .175. In other words, it was disgusting. The fastball played fine, but he’ll be looking to continue that dominance with his split in ‘22.
The Jays have been excellent at developing and fostering pitching talent, but Gausman is a tough case. He has really only had one excellent year, and it came in a pitcher friendly park and largely leaned on the success of one pitch. Can he repeat his career performance at 31? Maybe, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some regression.
Jose Berrios continued his impressive 2021 performance when he crossed the border from the Twin Cities to Toronto, and he’ll be looking to dominate again in 2022. The Baseball Savant percentiles are not favorable, but his sinker/curveball combo helped him garner a 43% GB rate and a 26.1 K%. The sinker features over 16 inches of horizontal break and has similar depth to his fastball, making it a bat-munching machine.
Berrios’s consistency is remarkable; he won’t be challenging for a Cy Young, but he also hasn’t really ever had an off year. It makes perfect sense why Toronto chose to lock him up for seven years, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes their number 1 starter by midseason.
Yusei Kikuchi has always been something of a breakout-candidate poster child in the sabermetric community. A velo jump in 2020 combined with genuinely good peripherals indicated that a breakout should be on the horizon. His expected ERA differed by over one and a half runs from his actual ERA in 2020, and his FIP ended up at an elite 3.30. This was definitely helped by a 9.4% HR/FB rate, but the strikeout numbers were there; all Kikuchi had to do was keep it up and hope for more luck. He didn’t.
Kikuchi’s batted ball numbers plummeted in 2021; aside from a good K%, he didn’t rank higher than the 22nd percentile in any opponent batted ball category. The velocity was still there, even flashing high 90’s a couple of times, and his changeup remained at a 40% whiff rate, but there were few other silver linings. The Jays obviously believe they can return the Japanese pitcher to his 2020 ways, but it will remain to be seen. There is undoubtedly optimism, but be wary of the hype.
The Korean lefty Hyun Jin Ryu had somewhat of a down year in 2021, pitching to the tune of a 4.37 ERA and 7.62 K/9. That K/9 number is down a whole two strikeouts from 2020, and the average exit velocities have climbed over two miles an hour. At 35, it seems as though it may be the dawn of Ryu’s career. He still throws a bunch of strikes, but his changeup is not nearly as effective and the Jays have opted to increase his fastball usage despite a slight decline in RPM and no significant jump in velocity. Hitters mashed his fastball in ‘21, and if Ryu wants to be effective in ‘22 he’ll have to find other ways to keep hitters off balance.
Perhaps his days as a starter are done and he will be relegated to the pen, but I have hope that he will be able to work with his tools and put together one last quality season. After all, he’s never had anything near overpowering stuff; Ryu has relied on dotting the corners and utilizing that fading changeup to get ground balls. If he can do just that this year, there’s a chance Ryu can last one more year in the rotation. After that, he’s probably headed for the pen.
Alek Manoah made his major league debut in 2021, and he did not waste it. Putting up a 3.22 ERA in 111 innings in your rookie year is a feat on its own; striking out 10.29 per 9 is a whole other ballgame. Albeit, his BABIP was low, but if two of your pitches (fastball and slider) have a whiff rate of over 33%, you can take some regressionary hits without losing too much.
Manoah could face a sophomore slump in 2022, but nothing arsenal-wise is slowing him down. In fact, he might improve. His sinker is most likely a seam-shifted wake pitch (due to its observed axis being lower than its spin based one), and was his best pitch on a run value rate basis. As well, Manoah’s pull rate sat at just over 37%. Ground balls to the left side are going to be sucked into the human vacuum that is Matt Chapman in 2022. I’m not calling Manoah a sleeper Cy Young pick in 2022, but he certainly could be down the road.
Record Prediction: 96-65
A 96-65 record is only 161 games. I’m just feeling a cancellation in there somewhere. With all of the chaos of 2021, all of the star power and lack of pitching, all of the recent offseason moves, it seems only right that the Blue Jays make the postseason but don’t quite play all of the regular season. Just a tad bit of scheduling oddity for you Canadians. As for said postseason, it’s impossible to predict, but without a significant upgrade to the bullpen I don’t see them advancing past the ALCS.
They don’t have the top-line starters necessary to muscle through teams without relying on their bullpen a la the 2019 Nationals. But, who knows. Baseball is weird. Baseball is random. Baseball is never how we think it will be. But, as a baseball fan, I can only hope that if Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and crew don’t end the season hoisting the trophy, they at least won’t watch their season end on a jumbotron. The world deserves Vladdy, Bo and Alejandro Kirk on the biggest stage, and they deserve it now.
Player (target) to Watch #1: RP Emmanuel Clase (!)
Barring Nate Pearson turning himself into 2016 Andrew Miller, it’s likely that the Jays will be shopping for big name relievers at the deadline. Their top reliever is currently Jordan Romano, who was good but not sustainably so in 2021. After adding only Yimi Garcia in the offseason, the Jays are looking at another bottom 10 finish in ERA for their ‘pen. Likely they would pursue (and possibly trade for) multiple relievers, but the man I see them pushing the hardest for is Guardians’ flamethrower Emmanuel Clase.
Clase racked up an impressive 69.2 innings for Cleveland last year, averaging (that’s right I said averaging) 100.4 on his fastball and pitching to a 2.11 FIP. The Guardians would want a solid return, but I would not be surprised to see an Anthony Kay-level pitcher headed to Cleveland in return for Clase and his demon cutter. It would improve them where they are most vulnerable; likely without having to give up a top prospect.
Player to Watch #2: C Gabriel Moreno
I’m sorry to say it, but there’s no surprise with this pick. It’s Gabriel Moreno. The Venezuelan catcher only signed for $25,000 as a teenager, but once he got to the minors, he blossomed into a top ten prospect in baseball. The kid can flat out rake. He stands comfortably and balanced, with his front arm parallel with his front shoulder. It looks stiff and odd at first, but just as his front leg begins to land in his stride, his front arm shoots down and his back arm flicks up. This allows him to use his arms like a pendulum instead of twisting or turning his hips or shoulders to clear his bat.
Moreno stays in a line and uses his extension with loose, relaxed arms to create power. His bat path is relatively flat, suggesting that there’s more power if he starts to focus on driving up and through the ball a tad more. But I shouldn’t critique too much; Moreno’s AA wRC+ was just under 200 in 32 games. That’s over a month of absolutely crushing the ball. Scouts rate his defense highly for a catcher with his offensive toolset. Many in the industry predict a perennial all star out of the kid, and I think it’s achievable. Even if he doesn’t quite reach those lofty goals, I’m confident Blue Jays fans will see him start sometime in 2022, even if it’s only for September call ups.
Player to Watch #3: RP Julian Merryweather
That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, my breakout candidate is a thirty year old reliever who’s pitched a total of 26 innings in the MLB in his career. Julian Merryweather will be a top ten reliever in the league this year. That’s it. That’s my prediction. Dear reader, I’m sure you are just now frantically googling this obscure man, only to find out that his 2021 FIP was an astoundingly bad 6.48. But, dear reader, I know all of this already. I wrote this. I’m one step ahead of you.
Merryweather’s 2020 FIP was an elite 2.27, so if you put stock in the ‘21 numbers, you should be wary of his great (albeit, brief) 2020. He averages over 97 on the fastball and can touch 100, and features two breaking pitches with whiff rates of over 33%. The slider is a fantastic pitch on a rate basis (3 RV/100), and really the only pitch that got hit hard was the fastball. It is not a high spin pitch (around 2200 RPM), which is likely what led him to throw it lower in the zone in 2021. This makes sense from a movement standpoint, but not from a velocity one.
In that 2020 season, Merryweather primarily threw his fastball up in the zone and opponents were only able to manage a .247 wOBA, 130 points lower than their 2021 number. All of Merryweather’s pieces are there. If he can manage to stay healthy and mix his fastball, curveball, and slider well, Toronto’s got a really solid reliever on their hands in 2022. And it could just save their season.
Categories: 2022 Season Preview
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