December 6, 2005.
That day, the Blue Jays signed A.J. Burnett.
Until this offseason, that was the last time that the Blue Jays signed a major starting pitcher out of free agency.
That’s mostly why the Toronto fanbase was both stunned and thrilled about the team signing Hyun-Jin Ryu. To put it bluntly, it’s a bit unbelievable that he’s a member of the Toronto Blue Jays.
It’s true that the Jays needed him, though, and it’s not hard to see why they made the gamble. He might be injury-prone, but he gives the rotation some stability regardless — and they really needed that.
So, where does the team stand as a whole now that they’ve finished the bulk of their offseason? It’s time to grade each position.
NOTE: In the 2018 version of this piece, we used a five-star scale as a way to give a quick grade to each position, and we did that again for this year’s preseason entry. The yellow stars represent the current grade, while the black stars represent potential. The grey stars are not filled in.
For example, if second base has three yellow stars, a black star, and a grey star, it means we’ve graded the position at three stars with a four-star potential.
On the player list, the starter at each position is listed in bold.
NOTE WITHIN A NOTE: The Blue Jays “notable prospects” are listed with their ranking number within the Blue Jays system on MLB Pipeline.
Players: Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire
Notable Prospects: Gabriel Moreno (8), Alejandro Kirk (12)
For the most part, this should be Jansen’s everyday job to lose despite McGuire’s impressive debut in 2019.
McGuire might be the flashier player, but, among other factors, Jansen’s minor-league stats were far better, leading to the top source of projections favouring Jansen.
That said, it’s not quite that simple. Both players had a matching bWAR despite a significantly longer 2019 sample size for Jansen. Offensively, there’s a strong argument to be made that McGuire was actually the more productive player. McGuire and Jansen are seen as relative equals defensively, both with above-average reputations. McGuire is a left-handed hitter, while Jansen is a righty at the plate.
At the very least, there could be a platoon opportunity in 2019 behind the plate. If McGuire impresses in the spring, it could be a true battle for playing time.
The Blue Jays also seem comfortable with the thought of trading one of them for a position of need, although that idea hasn’t really returned to the public lately — it mostly buzzed into the rumours in the days before Yasmani Grandal signed with the White Sox.
Yes, the Blue Jays did reportedly meet with Grandal before he went to Chicago. Meeting with Grandal, signing Roark, and then also signing Ryu? This is different.
Players: Travis Shaw, Rowdy Tellez
Notable Prospects: None
Travis Shaw isn’t exactly an upgrade over the now-departed Justin Smoak, but is he really that much of a downgrade? Ignoring his dreadful 2019 (the Blue Jays certainly seem to be ignoring it), Shaw had a higher bWAR in 2017 and 2018 with Milwaukee than Smoak did in Toronto.
The Blue Jays may have also noticed a key detail — Smoak’s actually been trending downwards in a way that’s different to Shaw’s 2019 decline.
Seemingly, Shaw’s sudden struggles have come from a botched swing adjustment. “Last year was about as bad as you could possibly go,” he told The Canadian Press on January 3rd. “It didn’t work out obviously, it kinda backfired on me.”
In several ways, that makes a lot of sense when connecting it to a sudden drastic change in production.
Smoak’s decline, however, is a lot more typical of a bat that’s slowing down as his career gets older.
Comparing his 2017 to his 2019, Smoak went from 38 home runs to 22, from 90 RBI to 61, and 3.5 bWAR to 0.6 bWAR.
Justin Smoak just celebrated his 33rd birthday, and he should be absolutely fine with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2020, but those stats aren’t likely to get significantly better than the 2019 totals. An optimistic projection would be that he could return to his 2018 stats, but 2.0+ WAR feels slightly high for him now.
The worst case scenario for the Jays is one where Shaw can’t fix his swing, leading to more playing time for Rowdy Tellez or Brandon Drury.
Shaw’s a true buy-low candidate for the Blue Jays. At $4 Million over just a single year, he’s low-risk and potentially high-reward.
A sneak-peek at the potential: If you put 2018’s Travis Shaw on last year’s Blue Jays, he’d have led the entire team in WAR.
Players: Cavan Biggio, Brandon Drury, Breyvic Valera
Notable Prospects: Leonardo Jimenez (14), Samad Taylor (26)
It’s hard to fully buy into the hype Cavan Biggio brings when he struck out 110 times in 100 games, but he was strikeout-prone through the minors as well. Still though, the rest of his game should be solid enough to warrant relaxation at the position in 2019. Even with the holes in his early-career game, he led the Jays* in bWAR in 2019.
Don’t be entirely surprised, however, if before too long he finds himself lower in the batting order than the #2-spot he’s been used to so far.
Brandon Drury’s under-performed since moving to the American League, and unless something changes in a major way, his role will be as a backup utility infielder.
The Blue Jays likely think of Breyvic Valera as a minor-league backup option to the main group of infielders, but Santiago Espinal is on the 40-man roster now.
Because of that, they may opt to go with the 25-year old Espinal in those situations instead.
The official MLB YouTube upload of Cavan Biggio’s first big game, embedded above, has over 39 thousand views. Having your Dad in the Hall-of-Fame can’t hurt the chances of fame, though he might be tired of hearing that by now.
*Excluding Marcus Stroman, who was traded mid-season to the New York Mets.
Players: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Drury
Notable Prospects: Jordan Groshans (2), Miguel Hiraldo (9), Kevin Smith (13)
It wasn’t as glamorous as many were expecting, but Vlad Jr.’s rookie season was still pretty good for a 20-year old. He produced a respectable .272 average and slammed 15 homers in 123 games, and his defense was slightly better than most were expecting.
Still though, not quite the rookie-of-the-year season many were hoping for, and he’ll no doubt be working hard to be that elite hitter that he was projected by many to be. At the moment, he’s an above-average third baseman with a ton of potential.
It also seems like, at the moment, he’s going to stick at third base. Depending on how all of that goes, he could also get some time at first (or as a DH) if Jordan Groshans can debut in the majors by the middle of the season.
It’s going to be pretty interesting to compare Josh Donaldson’s production in the next few seasons to Vlad Jr.’s, isn’t it? That’s not to say that the Blue Jays made the wrong decision in parting with Donaldson in favour of the 20-year old, but Donaldson’s resurgence last year makes it harder to forget that he was once thought of as a long-term option for Toronto.
Players: Bo Bichette
Notable Prospects: Groshans (2), Orelvis Martinez (7), Smith (13), Jimenez (14), Tanner Morris (24), Santiago Espinal
One of the most exciting prospects in baseball graduated to becoming one of the most exciting players in the sport last season.
Bo Bichette just figured everyone out for the majority of last season, and the biggest negative surrounding his 2019 was that he didn’t play even more — he didn’t make his MLB debut until July 29th.
There will be times that pitchers will figure Bichette out, and there will soon be some bumps on the road that’s been super smooth so far, but Bichette’s on a path that should make him one of the league’s top shortstops.
There’s no real reason to bring this up now, but something that’s likely to go overshadowed (and underappreciated) is the job that both Freddy Galvis and Eric Sogard did for the 2019 Blue Jays. There are plenty of Bichette-less years where both players would have received more attention.
Players: Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Derek Fisher, Billy McKinney
Notable Prospects: Will Robertson (19)
Unfortunately, since he only played in 84 games, nobody really knows for sure what kind of player Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is.
Still though, when he was on the field, Gurriel was a solid player, and there’s no reason for that to regress. Now that he’s got a single position to call his own, he should have a clearer route to fulfilling his potential.
That is, as long as he stays on the field. Most of his injury history is simply bad fortune, so it shouldn’t feel like a gamble to expect that first full season to happen in 2020.
If the Blue Jays have to pick between Derek Fisher and Billy McKinney in a backup outfielder role, McKinney is the obvious choice. Although he’s been largely unspectacular in the majors, he’s got some interesting pop in his bat (12 homers last year in 84 games).
That said, with their current outfield situation as a whole, it may actually suit the Jays more to try McKinney in a consistent centre field role first.
That Aaron Sanchez trade looked really bad at the time, but the value clearly wasn’t as high for him within front offices as it appeared to be externally. The trade seems a lot more even now, but unfortunately that’s come at the expense of Aaron Sanchez’s career path. It will be undoubtedly sad for all if Sanchez never matches the heights of his 2016 again.
Players: Teoscar Hernández, Jonathan Davis, Anthony Alford
Notable Prospects: Dasan Brown (18), Alford (20), Chavez Young (21)
It felt like a chapter had been turned when the Blue Jays traded Kevin Pillar last spring, but the current outlook in the middle of the outfield may have the front-office thinking twice about that. This is a thin group.
Let’s start with Teoscar Hernández, then.
Putting aside his bat for a moment, his defense simply isn’t going to be good enough for centre field. He’s produced a negative dWAR in all of his seasons in Toronto, and even the old-fashioned eye-test* will show that he’s just not comfortable out there in any outfield spot.
So, then, what about the bat? Simply put, it’s alright. Traditionally speaking, he’s coming off of a season where he hit .230 with 26 homers and 65 RBI.
His oWAR**, at 1.9, is alright, he still strikes out far too much (153 in 125 games), and he’s 27, so the ceiling isn’t quite as high as it once appeared to be.
He’d be an ideal fourth outfielder if he could control the strikeout rate.
Jonathan Davis got the majority of September’s bonus playing time over Anthony Alford, though that may have been because he’s two years older and they wanted to see what they had.
Overall, though, Davis was fairly disappointing. If the Blue Jays had no problem cutting Dwight Smith Jr. last year, they’ll likely have no problem cutting Davis in a similar situation this season.
Alford’s trickier, because he’s still fairly high on the team’s prospect list — but he’s really starting to run out of time to produce. That’s slightly unfair, since he’s only appeared in 33 career games, but the stats haven’t been there and the coaching staff doesn’t appear to be making his playing time a priority.
The 25-year old’s best bet might’ve been to start in Buffalo and hope for an all-star MiLB campaign, but he’s out-of-options in the spring, so the production will have to come in Spring Training.
It’s hard not to feel bad for the players that were so close to making huge impacts if not for major injuries. Thinking “what if” with the careers of Devon Travis and Dalton Pompey in particular brings some pretty sad feelings.
*The old-fashioned eye-test is subjective and should probably be edited out of this, but make sure to watch Hernández in the outfield before complaining in the comments
** Baseball-Reference’s version of oWAR.
Players: Randal Grichuk
Notable Prospects: Griffin Conine (15), Robertson (19)
Five years, $52 million.
That seemed high at the time, and it seems high now. Back when Grichuk was traded to Toronto, it seemed like an ideal trade — Grichuk’s offensive numbers should’ve inflated in the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre, and his power in particular should’ve made a jump.
That last part actually did happen — 31 homers in 2019 was a career high for Grichuk. The rest, though, really didn’t, and some of the offensive numbers actually got worse after the move to the AL East.
Ultimately, Grichuk’s in the same conversation as McKinney and Hernández. All three are really solid options for a fourth outfield role. You can probably get away with starting one on a playoff team.
Unfortunately, that’s not enough production to warrant the $52 million value.
This feels like a big year for how the Grichuk contract will be perceived. If he steps it up this year and has his best year since 2015, that’s ideal for the team, obviously. If he’s what he was in 2019, it’s going to look pretty bad.
Players: Rowdy Tellez, T. Hernández
Other DH Candidates: Drury, Guerrero Jr., Gurriel Jr.
Rowdy Tellez played in 111 games last year, and finished with a 0.0 bWAR, a 0.1 fWAR, and 21 home runs.
Unless something changes, the team is probably better off with Hernández as the DH, even with the strikeouts.
There’s only so much to talk about when it comes to the designated hitter, really, mostly because it’s a position that usually holds two solutions.
A: You have a strong hitter that can’t play defense or plays it with limited success.
B: You have several players fighting for spots, with the DH mostly sorting itself out with time.
Truthfully, this position depends on the performance of Guerrero Jr., Shaw, McKinney, Hernández, Tellez, Drury, Davis, Alford, and likely the other half of the roster.
If the Blue Jays weren’t willing to go to $12 million for Edwin Encarnacion, that might actually prove to be wise — especially since the Shaw signing has more upside at a fraction of the price. Good on EE for getting the contract though.
Rotation #1: Hyun-Jin Ryu (LHP)
Rotation #2: Tanner Roark (RHP)
Rotation #3: Matt Shoemaker (RHP)
Rotation #4: Trent Thornton (RHP)/Chase Anderson (RHP)
Rotation #5: Ryan Borucki (LHP)
Just Out: Jacob Waguespack, Sean Reid-Foley, Anthony Kay (4), Shun Yamaguchi, TJ Zeuch (16)
Notable Prospects: Nate Pearson (1), Alek Manoah (3), Eric Pardinho (5), Simeon Woods Richardson (6), Adam Kloffenstein (10)
“Opener” Candidates: Thomas Pannone, Jordan Romano, Wilmer Font, Reid-Foley
Hyun-Jin Ryu makes a ton of sense for the Blue Jays, whether they want to compete in two years or four. Ryu’s injury history might worry some, and the insane stats from last year might regress in the AL East, but Ryu’s still one of the absolute best finesse/control arms in the league. That’s not going anywhere just because of a divisional shift.
It’s not just Ryu that’s a boost, either. Excluding Marcus Stroman, who only counts for half of the season, Tanner Roark also would’ve been the Jays ace last season. He’s a very solid pickup on the two-year contract they agreed to.
Matt Shoemaker was on-track to becoming one of the best stories in recent Jays memory last year before a season-ending injury once again stole the spotlight away from him. Injuries are a major concern, but the 33-year old was seriously good in his limited 2019 campaign.
Speaking of good stories, Trent Thornton was pretty impressive for the entirety of the 2019 season. He should get another opportunity in the rotation without question, and this time he should have somewhat consistent support from the rest of his pitching staff.
Injuries stole his season, but Ryan Borucki is still the talented young left-hander that the Jays were so high on before 2019 was lost.
Jacob Waguespack, Shun Yamaguchi, and especially Chase Anderson should all battle for rotation spots, but they might project better in the bullpen, which is very thin on its own.
Anthony Kay, TJ Zeuch, and Sean Reid-Foley are all candidates to start in AAA (although Reid-Foley might also steal a major league bullpen spot), but they should find their way back to the major league club at some point in the season.
The “opener” was a fairly consistent strategy last year for skipper Charlie Montoyo, but the boost to rotation depth should make sure that it’s not a strategy used before the all-star break. Unless, that is, it’s something Montoyo grew to use as a preference. There’s a big difference between using one as a preference and using one as necessity. 2019 featured a lot of the latter.
Players: Ken Giles (Closer), AJ Cole, Anthony Bass, Thomas Pannone, Jordan Romano, Wilmer Font, Sam Gaviglio
Notable Prospects: Hector Perez (22), Yennsy Diaz (23), Kyle Johnston (29)
The depth of this bullpen depends on who makes the trip from the rotation to boost it. If it’s Waguespack, Yamaguchi, Anderson, and Reid-Foley to go alongside some combination of Thomas Pannone, Jordan Romano, Sam Gaviglio, Wilmer Font, Anthony Bass, and AJ Cole, it’s going to be a wildly unpredictable ride.
Those generally aren’t much fun, but that’s a pretty large generalization more than anything else. Going through the bullpen quickly, here are the options for Montoyo.
- Cole’s ceiling appears to be a 3.8+ ERA with about a 1.0 bWAR.
- Bass is coming off of a season where he was quite good, with a 3.56 ERA in 48 innings.
- Font was mostly used as an opener last year for Toronto, and although the stats don’t look remarkable, he was quietly pretty solid in that role.
- Gaviglio (4.61 ERA, 52 G) found his role in the bullpen exclusively last year, and he was a solid go-to option for the Jays. That should continue, but his role should sit ideally within lower leverage situations.
- Romano struggled quite a bit in 2019 (7.63 ERA, 17 G), but he’ll have an opportunity for redemption in the spring.
- Pannone sometimes seems locked-in and like he’s about to turn into a reliable pitcher, whether that be as an opener or as a reliever. At other times, he seems overmatched, leading to a fairly high ERA of 6.16 in 2019. The new season should answer some questions about the type of pitcher he is. He’s only 25, so there’s still time for development and coaching.
- Anderson’s a good talent with a good résumé as a low-end starter, but he’s prone to mistake pitches that lead to hard contact. In 2018, he led the NL by allowing 30 homers in his 30 games, which, to be polite, isn’t quite ideal.
- Reid-Foley’s still only 24, but his role may be more bullpen-focused going forward depending both on personal performance and team needs. If he sticks in the majors, his case is a lot like Pannone’s, where 2020 should answer any questions the team has about what kind of pitcher he’ll be.
- Waguespack was hit-or-miss last season for the Jays, with a few strong starts and a few misses. He might shift to a long-relief role if it suits the team needs, or he might go to AAA as depth for the rotation and prepare for a potentially similar role as 2019 if he does get called up later on.
- Giles was easily the most consistent pitcher for the Jays in 2019, and he was one of the best closers in the league overall with a 1.87 ERA. He was nothing short of absolutely brilliant, and although that’d be a tough repeat, there’s really no reason to expect a major regression.
No one really has too much context for what to expect from Shun Yamaguchi except for the Jays themselves. Embedded above is video from one of his outings from 2019. Last year in the NPB, he posted a 2.78 ERA in 28 games.
Top 5 players on the roster: Hyun-Jin Ryu, Ken Giles, Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio
Positions in need of an upgrade: Bullpen, Centre Field, Right Field
There’s a lot of potential here, but there’s also a lot that needs to be sorted out.
First, let’s recap the various worries about the 2020 Blue Jays.
The rotation is deeper than it was last year to be sure, but there’s also a few question marks there, behind Ryu and Roark…The bullpen has a chance to be solid, but it seems like there’s at least one more familiar arm missing from the equation to make it truly trustworthy…Centre and right field aren’t in great shape, as the team has several outfielders that are more suited to backup roles.
With the negatives, though, there’s always the positives to focus on — and for one of the first times since the post-playoff new direction began, there’s actually, genuinely, a lot to be looking forward to.
Hyun-Jin Ryu’s the ace of the Toronto Blue Jays after a career season last year in Los Angeles…Bo Bichette is a rising superstar, and Vlad Jr.’s producing pretty well at 20-years old…Ken Giles is a superstar, shutdown closer.
Without question, there are still pieces of the puzzle that need to be slotted in before this team can truly be competitive, and it might take a little while. The path, though, appears to be pretty solid at the moment, so there’s reason for some optimism around Toronto’s “Boys of Summer.”