donaldson

The Toronto Blue Jays have become the hottest ticket in town or should I say Canada since the trade deadline in 2015. After 22 years of uselessness the Jays returned to the playoffs in 2015 and 2016. A whole generation of young Blue Jays fans now have multiple memories from those playoff runs, but as a new season is upon us the Jays are now at a crossroads. The team is still good enough to compete for the playoffs, but are they good enough to sustain this success long term? Nonetheless the Jays are likely in it to win it for 2017 or at least to the best of their abilities.

The Players

Similarly to the Orioles, The Blue Jays possess a very strong left side of the infield. Josh Donaldson won an MVP award in 2015 and continues to provide  slightly above average defense at the hot corner while Troy Tulowitski continues to have a solid glove and arm at shortstop. Whereas Donaldson’s MVP skill set is mainly derived from his ridiculous bat, Tulo brings value primarily with his glove, but has been a disappointment since his trade to Toronto at the plate.

I do expect Tulo to slightly improve upon his 2015 and 2016 hitting production, but to do so he will have to make some adjustments at the plate and be more aggressive early in the count. In 2016, Tulo had trouble hitting fastballs and cutters. I’m not sure if this was age related regression of an approach issue. The Jays and Tulo better hope it’s the latter because they are going to need Tulo to be a healthy and productive player in the heart of the order. The key here is health because Tulo is almost always hurt at some point in a season.

On the right side of the infield Devon Travis is currently slotted in at second base, but he has had his fair share of injury problems as well. Backup Darwin Barney can fill in admirably at times, but Travis has the skill set to be a good lead off man for the Jays if he can remain healthy. He can provide plus defense and has a little bit of pop in his bat. The potential for 20 home runs and 75 runs/rbi’s is there but he will have to be healthy to do so.

First base is a fun mess for the Jays. After bungling up the Edwin Encarnacion negotiations, the Jays quickly brought in Kendrys Morals from the Royals. This is the same Kendrys Morales who broke his leg jumping on home plate after hitting a walk off home run. Morales will serve almost exclusively as a DH and brings streaky home run power to the table. He will be serviceable as a DH but doesn’t have any utility value otherwise as he has only played 16 games at first base and 5 in the outfield in the past two seasons combined.

Justin Smoak was re-signed late last season as an insurance policy for Edwin’s departure, but boy was he dogshit awful down the stretch for the Jays. John Gibbons recently was asked about the first base position and he wouldn’t commit to any names but did hope for a Smoak bounce back. I’m not holding my breath as he cannot hit off lefties if his life depended on it and has way too much swing and miss in him. Smoak is the literal definition of a replacement player, the Jays need more from their first basemen but the fucker struck out 33% of the time last season which was a career high. Fuck.

I am however very high on Steve Pearce who signed as a free agent on an affordable two year deal. Pearce can play a bit of corner outfield and second base in a pinch. I think he is going to end up being the every day first basemen at some point though. The man can hit for average, take a walk and hit for a bit of power. He’s exactly the kind of player that the Jays need in the 5/6 hole. He’s played in the AL East his entire career so the past production is likely repeatable. He’s my sleeper pick for the Jays this year.

At catcher, Russell Martin will be coming off a December off-season knee surgery. It turns out he was indeed playing pretty banged up from the half way point onward last year. It was evident into the playoffs that Martin was playing through pain and hopefully his surgery cleaned up whatever issues he had. Martin is a great catcher if not one of the top 5 in the game. His pitch framing abilities have been well documented and he has a great rapport with the Jays pitching staff. However, Martin’s defensive contributions were not as great in 2016 likely due to his knee issues. Runners were able to steal on him at an unprecedented rate when compared to previous seasons which was interesting and concerning to see. But  now that the Jays signed serviceable backup catcher, Jarred Saltalamachia (I can’t wait to hear Buck Martinez pronounce that name every 4 or 5 days) Martin will surely get more time off then any of his previous seasons where Josh Thole (R.A. Dickey’s usless catcher caddy) was his backup.

Speaking of salty, this is where I get a bit salty. The Jays outfield is a bit of a hot mess. Kevin Pillar hopes to provide a third season gold glove calibre defense and TV dives. I worry that his aggressive dives will begin to take a toll on his health, especially due to diving on the lovely concrete and astro turf at the Rogers Centre. His bat is essentially useless so his value is entirely dependent upon his defense, which is fine for the time being.

Now that Jose Bautista is back in the fold he will likely man right field on most days, but will likely see some time at DH and maybe first base. His once above average arm appears to no longer be a thing and his range is limited at best. I already wrote about Bautista at length prior to his Toronto signing but I think he will bounce back at the plate this year. If his turf toe issues are behind him I expect some of that missing power to return and 30+ home runs should be a lock if Jose remains healthy.

Left Field… oh left field. Between Melvin/BJ fucking Upton and Zeke Carerra the Jays do not have a capable starting Left Fielder. Carerra played well in the playoffs for the Jays but he is not an every day player. His hitting reverse splits are bad. In 2016 he hit .329 average against lefties and only 0.218 against righties. As a lefty this isn’t good and a surefire sign that he is not an everyday left fielder in your line up.

Upton however is just bad. He’s so bad the Padres ate most of his remaining contract to literally give him away. After a productive start to his career in Tampa, Upton hit the free agent market in later 2012 and put in one of the worst seasons for an MLB starting player in 2013. He did slightly rebound in 2015 and early 2016 but around the trade deadline the princesses’ carriage turned back into a pumpkin and he reverted back to his useless self.  His swing is so disgusting. Sure he has a bit of power but if he isn’t connecting he’s missing the ball entirely and the Jays already have too many of those types of players (Smoak, Pillar, Martin).

Steve Pearce will likely get some time in left field but is likely not the every day answer there due to the hole at first base. I am crossing my fingers that off season signing, Lourdes Gurriel or Dalton Pompey can squeeze their way onto the Jays roster. Of course their bats will have to carry some weight to do so though. I have a hard time believing the Jays are going to contend with Upon and Carerra… what a mess.

Starting Pitching

The Blue Jays starting rotation was extremely healthy in 2016. Besides some back issues to Marco Estrada, the Jays rotation was relatively unscathed throughout the season. Aaron Sanchez emerged as a reliable work horse last season. With all the talk about innings limits hopefully behind us, the team’s new ace will likely be the opening day starter and will be depended upon for 33 starts.

Marcus Stroman had an up and down year but for the most part performed relatively well in his first true full season as a starter. For all the talk about innings limits to Sanchez, there was no such mention to Stroman who cracked 200 regular season innings pitched for the first time. Stroman’s strike out rate stabilized in 2016 and he also saw some bad luck for balls hit in play. Stroman’s slider and cutter continue to be his best pitches, but I suspect he will never become a 9 K/9 type pitcher due to his mediocre fastball. If Stroman can remain a reliable innings eater his value will remain tremendous for the Jays pitching staff.

The initial return of JA Happ was met with skepticism by critics and fans after the loss of David Price.  Ironically, Happ over achieved to some degree and Price had a bit of a down year for the Red Sox. This doesn’t mean that he is the better pitcher, but he most definitely provided better bang for the buck. By most statistical measures Happ had some good luck on his side last year.  His strand rate was above league average and his batting average for balls in play was below league average. These rates should go back to the norm and Happ’s ERA will take a hit. Nonetheless, I expect Happ to provide quality starts and valuable innings once again as a mid rotation man.

Marco Estrada is the one who worries me the most. His back barked all season and he missed several starts, but he remained relatively effective throughout.  For the second year in a row he continued to induce above average weak contact and weak fly balls. I am fearful that his regression could come this year and come fierce as any regression to a fly ball pitcher in Rogers Centre is frighting. Estrada posted a near high for strike outs, but I believe his increased strike out rate was an anomaly.  Estrada is in his free agent walk year and will be hungry to prove himself yet again, but statistically speaking he is due to probably have his worse season as a Blue Jay. If he is set up as the number 4 pitcher in the rotation this might not be a huge issue though and similar to Happ if he can eat innings he will add value.

Francisco Liriano was rejuvenated once reunited with his former Pirates catcher, Russel Martin. After an absolutely awful 2016 season with the Pirates he was sent to the Blue Jays at the trade deadline for Drew Hutchinson. Once in Toronto he was pretty darn good. Walks have always been an issue for Liriano, but in Toronto that issue seemed to go away to a level not seen since his breakout season in 2010 with the Minnesota Twins. I’m not so sure he will be lights out all season for the Jays, but they cannot afford for him to be dogshit like he was in Pittsburgh in 2016 either. I do expect him to be somewhere in the middle. As a number 5 rotation man if he can eat innings and steal a few games we will have no issues. On a nostalgic note how good was he out of the pen in the Wild Card game against the Orioles?!

 The Bullpen

 22 year old Roberto Osuna once again proved he has the cohuna’s to be a Major League closer. John Gibbons often asked him to pitch multiple innings in tight games down the stretch which eventually led to some shoulder issues. Nonetheless, Osuna was usually good when it mattered. Outside of 6 blown saves he was by far the Jays best reliever. He will likely never develop into a lights out strike out machine but what he does provide is a stabilizing force out of the pen. I expect a bit of regression for the young reliever but he will continue to likely be the Jays best reliever in 2017.

Jason Grilli turned out to be a savvy pickup for the Jays last year. He definitely ran out of gas down the stretch as he was over used in tight games and the Jays lack of bullpen depth forced this situation. Grilli has had a great career and he hopefully has another year of life in his old arm in a setup role.

An arm who intrigues me in the pen is former Angel, Joe Smith. From 2011 to 2015 Smith was fairly reliable and even served as a closer from time to time. In 2016 the wheels fell off a bit for Smith. He  lost the closer position and was eventually sent to the Cubs at the trade deadline but was left off the playoff roster. Smith is a sinker and slider reliever who relies on command amd movement to fool his opponents. He won’t blow the ball by his opponents as he tops out around 89 Mph at best. Problem is that his sinker just didn’t work very well in 2016 and batters hit him hard and out of the park more then any other time in his career.  The soon to be 33 year old may not have a lot of juice left in the arm but if he can go back to his old ways he will serve as a solid 7th inning set up man for the Jays, otherwise he could be a disaster out of the pen and be pushed off the 25 man roster by mid season.

The Jays brass are hoping that the other late off season signings J.P. Howell will replace the recently departed Brett Cecil as the main lefty specialist out of the bullpen because the only other lefty at the moment is Aaron Loup… yikes. Howell served as a loogie for the Dodgers the past four years and has been fairly serviceable during that time period. Howell has some flyball tendencies and I will be crossing my fingers that he can keep the ball in the park because routine fly balls have a tendency to become home runs in the Rogers Centre.

Outside of those names discussed, the Jays will rely upon sophomore Joe Biagini as the long man and a couple of other spring training roster position battles that will be fought for by Gavin Floyd, Ryan Tepera, and Danny Barnes. Not much to see here folks.

 Outlook

 The Jays play in the meat grinder called the American League East. I like how their pitching lines up in the division, but there are some serious starting lineup issues in the outfield/bottom of the order. I fully expect the usual suspects (Donaldson, Bautista, Tulo, Martin) to contribute, but I have almost no faith in the current left field platoon of barf. The Jays are going to need some luck and will need to win games against division rivals in order to compete for the division or more realistically a wild card position.

I expect the Blue Jays to win 84 games this year but with a bit of luck they may push upwards. This unfortunately will not be enough to make the playoffs but the marginal difference between 84 and 88 wins is within reach.

 Fantasy Stud

 Josh Donaldson – The Bringer of Rain will continue to be in the MVP conversation as he heads into his final year of arbitration eligibility. The man can seemingly do it all both with the stick and his glove. How did the Jays trade Brett Lawrie and trash prospects for this baseball god?! Donaldson is a lock for 35 home runs, 100 runs,110 RBI’s. He won’t help you much in terms of stolen bases, but his average and OBP will be well above average and within the elite range. In non-keeper leagues he is a low end first round pick that you can make with confidence.

Fantasy Dud

Troy Tulowitski – The days of Tulo flirting with MVP performances are gone. There are so many great young short stops without the lingering injury risks who will provide better stats in basically every category. From what I have seen in mock drafts his stock is already low, but I expect someone in your draft to reach on Tulo due to name recognition. Remember it was only 2014 where he likely would have won an NL MVP had he not gotten hurt in July of that season. I expect Tulo to hit 20 home runs, 70 RBIs and have a mediocre average and that’s all if he doesn’t miss a lot of time. You can do better at Short stop in fantasy and if you want to gamble on Tulo you’d better have a backup plan.

Sleeper

Steve Pearce – If Pearce ends up with an every day position for the Jays he will be a serviceable fantasy option with outfield, second base and first base eligibility. As a late round pickup Pearce will hit for average and probably see an increase in run production due to a nice spot in the Jays order. He will benefit from hitting half his games at the Rogers Centre and the possibility of 20 home runs is realistic. He won’t provide any speed but if you need a solid bench option with a bit of power upside I think Pearce is your guy.