By Karen Soutar
The start of spring training, which baseball fans everywhere have been waiting for.
This is a good time to take a look at where things stand with the Toronto Blue Jays, considering moves made (and non-moves as well).
There are some teams that are going for it, who've added proven star players in an attempt to contend, and win, in 2018. This includes teams such as the Yankees, Mets, Giants, Brewers, Cubs, Twins and Angels.
Some other teams are clearly rebuilding for the future, trading away those established players in the hopes of building a contender down the road. Rebuilding teams include the Marlins, Pirates and Rays.
The Jays are somewhere in between going all in and rebuilding. They have made a number of moves this off season, and all appear to be solid but unspectacular moves, especially when you consider the players they've replaced. Let’s go around the horn and look at the current state of the team, including some comparative numbers with last year’s team.
The corner infield positions appear to be set with 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson at 3B and 2017 all star Justin Smoak at 1B. If they are both healthy and Smoak plays like he did in 2017, the Jays will have no problems at corner infield. Middle infield however is where things are less certain. The first string SS Troy Tulowitzki has averaged 108 games played in the last 3 years and the first string 2B Devon Travis just 71 over that same time period. Tulo is a five time all star and Travis has shown a great deal of promise in his young career with a .292/.331/.462 slash line but it is reasonable to think that one if not both could spend significant time on the DL, given their respective history. Tulo, it was revealed early on at Jays’ spring training is dealing with a chronic bone spur in his right heel and he isn’t certain that he will be ready for the regular season opener. (www.numberfire.com/.../toronto-s-troy-tulowitzki-heel-unsure-if-he-ll-be-read..) Back up infielders become key to the team’s success.
Last year, the back up infielders were Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney. Now, both are with other organizations, while the Jays traded for Aledmys Diaz from the Pirates and Yangervis Solarte from the Padres. In terms of performance in 2017, Diaz/Solarte are significant upgrades over Goins/Barney.
Offensively Solarte slashed .255/.314/.416 in 2017, and Diaz .259/.290/.392. The Jays hope that Diaz will hit closer to his all star season in 2016 when he hit .300/.369/.510 however even if Solarte and Diaz only duplicate their 2017 numbers, it will be an improvement over Goins/Barney. Goins hit .237/.286/.356 and Barney .232/.275/.327. In terms of defence, both Goins and Barney used to be elite defenders, but their skills decline. Barney was a gold glove 2B in 2012 for the Cubs and Goins had 8 DRS (defensive runs saved) in 2015. In 2017 both had -5 DRS. Solarte in 2017 had +1 DRS and Diaz had -9.
One prospect to keep an eye out for is Lourdes Gurriel jr. As a 21 year old playing in Cuba, he slashed .344/.407/.560.
The Cuban league is not MLB and Gurriel did struggle initially in his first season in the Jays’ minor league system, but he seemed to find his stride playing in the Arizona Fall League, slashing .291/.309/.494. He plays second base, shortstop and left field. If any of the above mentioned infielders need to go on the DL, he could be called up sooner than later.
The Jays figure to use Kevin Pillar as their everyday CF again in 2018. Pillar has finished in the top three in gold glove voting for AL centre fielders in each of the last three seasons. The Jays went in to the off season with questions at both corner outfield positions. In 2017 the everyday RF was the very popular (among Jays fans anyway) Jose Bautista, he is still on the free agent market after the Jays declined a mutual option on him for 2018. In LF, the majority of the innings were shared by Steve Pearce and Ezeqiuel Carrera prior to the arrival of September call up Teoscar Hernandez. It has been speculated that the Jays plan to use Grichuk as the everyday RF replacing Bautista, and in LF to play Granderson against right handed pitchers (in 2017 Granderson posted a .214/.337/.470 against right handed pitching, good for an OPS of .806) and Pearce against left handed pitching (Pearce’s career slash line vs LHP is .262/.345/.492 for an OPS of .837).
Jays fans also have to face that Bautista’s best days appear to be behind him. At the plate in 2017, he posted a .203/.308/.366 slash line while setting a Jays single season record with 170 strikeouts. On the defensive side of the ball, Bautista had -8 DRS. 25 year old Grichuk figures to be an upgrade on both sides of the ball. Before the all star break, Grichuk struggled. He was demoted to the minor leagues on May 29, recalled on June 25 and then went on the 10 day DL from July 10 to July 21. After the all star break; however, he posted a .265/.303/.550 slash line. Defensively, Grichuk was good for +6 DRS. In terms of defence in LF, Granderson should be an improvement over Carrera, based on 2017 number. Granderson who will be 37 on opening day in 2018 had -3 defensive runs saved in 2017, which is far better than Carrera’s -14.
Other prospects who could see time with the Jays if any of the above get injured are the aforementioned Teoscar Hernandez, Anthony Alford, and Dalton Pompey. Hernandez hit 8 HR and 20 RBI with the Jays in September 2017 however he has 64 strikeouts in 188 major league at bats. Pompey has hit well in his minor league career to the tune of .280/.366/.403 and he also has 155 stolen bases in MiLB, an element of speed that the Jays have been severely lacking in recent years. Canadian Pompey is looking for another shot at MLB after making his major league debut in September of 2014 but struggling in 2015 and being sent back to the minor leagues. Unfortunately in 2017 he was limited to 13 games due to injuries. Alford was ranked the 60th best prospect by Baseball America. (https://www.baseballamerica.com/minors/top-100-mlb-prospects-2018/#tO3wi4d4AIm60UpQ.97). He hit .299/.390/.406 in MiLB in 2017 and a very impressive .352/.386/.505 in the Mexican League this past off season.
The Jays’ 1-4 starters Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, JA Happ and Marco Estrada are returning from 2017. Of those four, only Stroman was healthy and effective all season in 2017, posting a 13-9 record with a 3.09 era which was 4th in the AL. Sanchez and Happ both spent significant time on the DL in 2017 and Estrada struggled mid-season with an era of 9.11 in June and 6.48 in July. Sanchez’ health will be key to the Jays’ success or failure in 2018. The good news for Jays fans is that Sanchez has looked dominant so far in camp, with no signs of the injuries that plagued him all of 2017. (https://www.mlb.com/bluejays/news/aaron-sanchez-feels-good-after-live-bp-session/c-266775566) In 2016 he was an All Star and the AL Era champion (3.00) but in 2017 he played in only 8 games due to recurring blister problems and three separate DL stints. The Jays signed free agent Jaime Garcia to a one year contract plus club option for 2019 and he figures to be their number 5 starter. Garcia posted a 4.41 era with three teams in 2017 and figures to be a big improvement over the parade of number 5 starters the Jays used in 2017. Joe Biagini, who it was assumed would fill the 5th starter’s spot prior to the Garcia signing has had much more success as a relief pitcher than he has as a starter. In 2017 he posted an era of 4.26 out of the bullpen and 5.73 as a starting pitcher. The Garcia signing allows the Jays to use Biagini in relief where he has had success or to send him to AAA to refine his abilities as a starting pitcher for the future and rotation depth as needed.
If any of the top 5 should get injured, Biagini would be an option to rejoin the Jays rotation. In terms of minor league prospects, the closest to major league ready is LHP Ryan Borucki. Borucki played at A ball, AA and AAA in 2017. He started the season at Dunedin (A) where he went 6-5 with a 3.58 era in 98 innings. He was then promoted to AA where he went 2-3 with a 1.94 era in 46.1 innings. Finally he finished off the season in AAA where he went 0-0 with a 0.00 era in 6 innings.
Jays have returning RHPs Ryan Tepera, Danny Barnes and closer Roberto Osuna, and possibly Biagini from the right side. LHP Aaron Loup figures to be joined by either Matt Dermody or Tim Mayza. Dominic Leone who excelled for the Jays in 2017 was traded to St Louis in the Grichuk trade so his innings will need to be replaced. Barnes and Tepera both had solid seasons in their first full year in MLB with a 3.55 and 3.59 era respectively. Osuna had 22 saves and a 2.06 era before the all star break which earned him his first all star selection; unfortunately he struggled with 7 blown saves and a 4.97 era after the break.
The Jays signed a number of veteran pitchers to minor league contracts including Craig Breslow, John Axford, Jake Petricka and Al Alburquerque in hopes that at least one of them can recapture some of their prior MLB success and provide bullpen help. However, if they could manage to acquire at least one more pitcher with recent major league success, it should go a long way toward helping the team contend in 2018.
Russell Martin will be in the fourth year of a 5-year contract with the Jays in 2018. With his veteran status and career success including four All Star selections, Martin is the number one catcher if he is healthy. But he was limited to 91 games in 2017 at age 34, and catcher is one of the most taxing positions on a player’s body. Having decent back up catching options is important. Barring an acquisition, Luke Maile figures to be the backup catcher. Maile hit .121/.154/.202 prior to landing on the DL on July 5 where he had a procedure to repair a torn meniscus. After he was activated from the DL, his hitting improved dramatically, going .226/.250/.323 the rest of the season. These are decent numbers for a backup catcher who is good defensively.
Other catchers on the 40 man roster are Danny Jansen who hit .323/.400/.484 combined for 3 Jays minor league teams and Reese McGuire, who has been known as a “defence first” catcher for most of his minor league career but who has made good progress with the bat lately (.295/.376./.483 with three minor league teams in 2017). Either Jansen or McGuire could make their major league debut in 2018 if Martin or Maile end up on the DL.
When the Jays signed Kendrys Morales to a 3-year, $33 million contract on November 11, 2016 for roughly half of what it might have cost them to re-sign Edwin Encarnacion, it seemed to be a good signing on paper. The results were disappointing. He hit .250/.308/.445, all lower than his career averages of .270/.328/.462 and did so with hitter friendly Rogers Centre as his home ballpark where it had been speculated that he would excel, while also setting a career high with 132 strikeouts. If the Jays have any hopes of contending in 2018, they need more production at the DH spot. As it stands, Jays fans have to hope that Morales rebounds from a down season. Another possibility, if they can manage to trade Morales to a team looking for an established bat, would be to use Granderson/Pearce as a DH platoon and call up one of the aforementioned outfield prospects for LF.
Pearce is not a natural outfielder, he was used there out of necessity in 2017, and it showed on many occasions.
Getting younger and more athletic especially in the outfield would give the Jays a much better chance of contending.
The current state of the Blue Jays is one of a team that looks pretty good on paper, but a lot will need to go right for them, including health, if they're to contend for the postseason in 2018.