2017 Toronto Blue Jays Season Primer

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Last year’s installment of my Blue Jays season primer was done through a “Plus Minus Predictions” feature. While the concept gave me good talking points to express my thoughts on the core of the Blue Jays roster, the conservative Steamer Fangraphs projections that I used left me making some pretty lame “cold takes” with every prediction given the “barring injury” caveat. “Josh Donaldson is awesome.” Yikes you’ll need an ice bath after that hot take.

To recap some of the few highlights:

Last Year’s Plus Minus Predictions

My record: 7-4

Nailed it:
Chris Colabello’s Batting Average .260 (Under)
“I love the guy and love his story, but the clock is about to strike midnight. When the season begins I guess we really will see whether this guy is a legitimate slugger or a pumpkin.”

Swing and a miss:
Ezequiel Carrera’s Plate Appearances 226 (Under)
“I do not understand the fear from Blue Jays management of losing Ezequiel on waivers. Just send the guy down already. He is the definition of a replacement level player and if someone else picks him up off of waivers, it certainly will not keep me up at night.”

Yeah, so, enough of that.

The New Guys

I miss Edwin.  But, as the 2017 season kicks off, it’s time to move on. Contrary to the “Fire Shatkins” faction of the fanbase, I didn’t mind the team’s offseason. I feel that using the money initially set aside for Edwin’s contract to sign Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce has the potential to yield similar returns as the Happ and Estrada contracts of last summer.

Morales had a pretty nice Spring Training, mashing an impressive triple slash line of .354/.392/.563. Pearce hit a more underwhelming .250/.311/.300, but Spring Training numbers are not all that’s cracked up to be. Both players have passed the eye test in taking quality at-bats and (most importantly) neither are Justin Smoak. A power bat like Morales will surely (hopefully) play up in the power-friendly Rogers Center.  It should be an upgrade over hitting in the cavernous Kauffman Stadium, where speed is rewarded with doubles and triples galore and slow guys pray to the golden arches that the ball clears the wall. Despite his larger frame and slow feet, Kendrys still managed an OPS of .821 over 2 seasons with the Royals. As a switch-hitter, Morales adds some much-needed balance to a right-handed prominent lineup.

If Pearce can stay healthy then his potent bat (.852 life-time OPS versus left-handed pitching) will create a pretty strong DH-first base combo with Morales. But if (when) Pearce succumbs to his injury prone ways… it’s gonna get a little Smoakie in Toronto…

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Not to be overlooked is the offseason refurbishing of Toronto’s bullpen. After losing Brett Cecil and Joaquin Benoit to free agency, the Jays locked up lefty J.P. Howell and right-handed side-arm hurler Joe Smith to fill the unoccupied late inning roles.

From 2012 to 2015 Howell was a pretty dominant reliever for the Rays and Dodgers with an ERA of 2.24 over 205.1 innings over that span. His mediocre 4.09 ERA last season could have been an outlier considering a lack of signficant change in his strikeouts per 9, walks per 9 and home runs per 9 between his spectacular 2015 and disappointing 2016 season.

Joe Smith and his funky delivery have made him a pretty effective relief pitcher throughout his 10 year career. He sports a career 2.93 career ERA and after a strong five year stint from 2009 to 2013 with Cleveland, a reunion with a Shapiro and Atkins for a team in need of relief pitching seems like a perfect match.

Obviously, the hope is that Howell and Smith will fill out the bullpen, but at the season’s midway point who knows where we’ll be. The end of season high-leverage spots may belong to a guy currently on the Bisons or he may not even be in Toronto’s organization at all. Going into last season, who would have thought that Joe Biagini, Joaquin Benoit and Jason Grilli would be the ones bridging the game to the ninth for Osuna?

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Last but not least of the offseason moves saw the Jays shuttle out knuckleball-catching turnstile Josh Thole, and in his place sign Jarrod Saltalamacchia (who at the end of the day is just a guy). Now I didn’t have the same T-Hole hate that a lot of other Jays fans have because *very cool take alert* all backup catchers kind of suck. While Salty probably won’t be a dramatic improvement over Thole, he does have enough power to occasionally walk into a bomb (as evidenced by his 12 home runs in limited playing time last season), which certainly can’t be said about his predecessor. If Russell Martin and Steve Pearce miss any significant time to injury, then fans will get dizzy from watching Smoakie and Salty constantly whiffing on every other pitch, effectively corkscrewing themselves into the earth’s core. If that’s the case then god help us all.

Pitching Power Rankings

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5. JA Happ

There’s just something about Pittsburgh and pitching coach Ray Searage. Since the Pirates worked their magic on him, Happ has been awesome in his second stint in Toronto and much noticeably less garbagy than the first time around.  Last season he won 20 games (which is impressive to people who don’t think that it’s kind of a dumb stat) with an ERA of 3.18 with 7.52 strikeouts per 9 innings. If this Pittsburgh juju doesn’t wear off then the Jays will have four potential studs in the rotation.

4. Marcus Stroman

After a “disappointing” season that saw his ERA balloon to 4.37 (a 3.6 WAR with an FIP of 3.71 points out that really it wasn’t that disappointing) the young pitcher is poised for a big season. He was an absolute star in the World Baseball Classic’s championship game and there’s still hope that he can develop into the team’s second ace.

3. Roberto Osuna

While I’m disappointed that Osuna doesn’t seem interested in leaving the bullpen for the rotation, the bullpen would be an even bigger question mark without him solidifying it. Since his rookie season in 2015 Osuna has been the 12th most valuable reliever in the MLB with a WAR of 3.2 and he’s only 22 years old.

2. Marco Estrada

Marco has found unconventional success as a fly-ball pitcher who makes half of his starts at the launching pad that is the Rogers Center. His success can be attributed to owning one of the best changeups in the game. Marco uses this deceptive change of speed to keep hitters off-balance, often resulting in a lazy fly ball to the outfield. This strategy has made him one of Toronto’s best pitchers since he was acquired from Milwaukee in the controversial-at-the-time trade of Adam Lind. In 2017 look for a third consecutive strong season in the Blue Jays rotation.

1. Aaron Sanchez

While there isn’t a tonne of precedent of such a fastball heavy pitcher with sustainable success as a starter (unless you’re painting corners with a low 80s fastball like Big Sexy Bartolo), Sanchez’s fastball might just be that special. A fastball that tops out at 98 MPH (but typically sits at 95) Sanchez uses different grips that make it dart any which way. Even with limited off-speed stuff, Sanchez rode his fastball to a 2016 ERA of 3.00 and has claimed the title of team ace that has been vacant since Ricky Romero flamed out.

Hitter Power Rankings

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5. Devon Travis

A healthy Travis will do wonders for the batting order. His presence thankfully kicks Pillar and Carrera to the bottom of the order. A good blend of contact, on-base skills, power and speed, Travis is an ideal leadoff man to set the table for the line of sluggers that follow him. Only two seasons into his career he owns an impressive .302/.342/.468 slash line, but he has to stay healthy to quash the “small sample size” caveat.

4. Kevin Pillar

Despite an atrocious .303 on base percentage and only 7 home runs, Pillar makes up for his undisciplined, slap-hitting approach with elite center field defence. Even though he had a very limited season at the plate in 2016, his next-level defence made him the third most valuable position player on the Jays with a 3.2 WAR. As long as he keeps making plays in the field, the Jays can’t possibly take him out of the lineup. Considering he’s hit well at every level he’s played (except for the MLB), there’s always a chance that he figures out how to hit major league pitching. If he can then, that’s just gravy.

3. Jose Bautista

He’s back. I’d like to chalk up an uncharacteristic .234 batting to a season full of nagging injuries, but in the back of my head it doesn’t escape me that he’s a 36 year-old right fielder. He has looked pretty good in limited action in Spring Training and the World Baseball Classic. I’d like to hope that his bat can age gracefully, kind of like 39 year old corner outfielder Carlos Beltran. If Joey Bats bounces all the way back this season then that’s a huge addition over last season’s team.

2. Troy Tulowitzki

Even though his hitting has declined since coming over from Colorado, Tulo is an above-average defender at the most important infield position. In his limited time with the Blue Jays, Tulo has hit 250/.318/.427 which is about league-average for a shortstop. Regardless of this noticeable decline, Tulo’s soft contact % in 2016 held steady and has actually decreased at 15.4% since his Colorado days. I believe there’s still an elite bat in there and if he can start to show it with more consistency then it will definitely help Toronto’s case as contenders this season.

1. Josh Donaldson

No Surprise here. Since his breakout 2013 season with Oakland, Donaldson has had the second highest Fangraphs WAR with 30.5, only trailing Mike Trout. Not to mention the gap between Donaldson and the next highest valued player, Paul Goldschmidt is 7.8 wins. Peak Donaldson might be the best and most electrifying player to ever take the field/turf for the Blue Jays franchise. Enjoy this guy while you can.

Opening Day Decade Time Capsule

To think that this iteration of the Blue Jays was a decade ago has me in utter disbelief. It doesn’t feel too long ago (at least to me), that Roy Halladay was a lock for the Opening Day start year-after-year, Vernon Wells was always in the Gold Glove conversation and Zaun wasn’t trying to be the Don Cherry of baseball. Then I realize that the 2007 season was my summer before grade seven and the though of that hits me hard.

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I remember the 2007 season vividly. Expectations were high for a Jays team that had finished second in the AL East in 2006 with an 86-76 record (a pretty big deal at the time). My favourite slugger from MLB 2k5, Frank Thomas, signed with Toronto in the offseason with the Jays. Even at age 39 the Big Hurt still got me fired up and out of my seat. He joined a strong core (at least in my mind) of Halladay, Wells, AJ Burnett, BJ Ryan, Troy Glaus, Aaron Hill, Lyle Overbay and Alex Rios. It was a team that I certainly thought could contend.

I will also remember  it as the summer where the “Thomas Waind curse” was realized. Not a week after getting Josh Towers’ autograph during a pregame batting practice, Blue Jays management sent Josh packing, ultimately ended his career as a relevant MLB contributor. Over the coming years, a similar story can be told with my autograph sessions with Gustavo Chacin, Jesse Litsch, Brian Tallet, Jeremy Accardo, Luis Perez, Esmil Rogers and Brett Lawrie. I also got Mike Weir’s autograph on my Jays cap in 2007 because he happened to be sitting three rows down from us. Let’s just say he never won a relevant PGA tournament after our brief encounter. My autograph collection is a graveyard where careers go to die.

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Better call Sal. Image retrieved from theScore

The Jays’ 2007 season, just like my autograph collection, turned out to be pretty disappointing given the expectations. A 83-79 record was good for a middling result as the third place team in the AL East. It was a far cry (13 games to be exact) from the division winning Red Sox. The Jays weren’t even that bad, but when the highlight from that season was witnessing third-string catcher Sal Fasano bunt for an infield single live at the Rogers Center Skydome, it just wasn’t the most electric season to say the least.

While this 2007 roster stirs up a certain amount of nostalgia, I am much more confident in the organization these days with Shapiro and Atkins at the helm than I ever was with a loose-canon like JP Riccardi.

Over/Unders

Welp so much for no over/under predictions…

“Swing and a drives!” from Buck Martinez set at 221 (HRs hit by the Jays last season)

This isn’t as simple as predicting whether the Jays will have more or less home runs than last year. There are a lot more factors in effect. Buck will typically take a couple weeks vacation where, I can only imagine, he’s basking in the Florida rays in his Tommy Bahama apparel baking himself into a different shade of orange. Sometimes he misses a “swing and a drive” while he and Tabby are breaking down how much grit it takes for Ryan Goins to even wake up in the morning. Other times he has a quick trigger and mistakenly calls a “swing and a drive” for an off-the-wall double or warning track catch. Ever the optimist, I’m taking the over for more dingers and more Buck.

Gibby ejections set at 6

Last season Gibbons tied Bobby Cox for the franchise record for manager ejections with eight. It has always amazed me how this mellow “is what it is” cattle rancher flips the switch and relentlessly goes after umpires and players alike. I love it. I’ll never get the affinity for ol’ Smoaky and Uncle Loupy but that’s a rant for another day. I feel that after receiving a three year contract extension that he will feel much more subdued. While Gibby has always gotten fired up, I chalk up his record setting 2016 season to the wiley vet trying to show the new bosses that he’ll go to bat for his boys. I’ll take the under but I hope that I’m wrong. Get this guy a beer.

 

2017 Toronto Blue Jays wins set at 88.5

With a strong rotation, a lineup with healthy balance of power, on-base skills and defense, and a potentially solid bullpen, the Jays could and should make the playoffs as one of the AL Wild Cards. With an aging roster, the Jays need to make some playoff noise sooner rather than later. If the Red Sox get dealt with some injuries, they’ve already lost David Price for extended time, who knows? I am worried that a lack of talent in the upper minors could leave the Jays very vulnerable in the case of injury. There definitely is a steep drop-off between Fransisco Liriano and Matt Latos on the depth chart.

But anyways, why not us? The Yankees, Mariners, Rays, Rangers, Royals and Orioles certainly don’t wow me. For the third straight year in a row this Jays team will be fun to watch and if all breaks right I think they could surpass last season and win over (or at least) 89 games.  See ya in October.

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