All offseason, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s 2020 season and looking forward at what moves each team might have to make to set themselves up for improvement in 2021. Today, Quinn Sweetzir takes a look at the Toronto Blue Jays!
2020 was very much a roller coaster of a season for the Toronto Blue Jays. Whether it was the coronavirus outbreaks in summer camp, not having a home ballpark as the season began, or having their fair share of injuries, there were plenty of justifiable reasons for this young Blue Jays team to have crumbled. Yet, the Jays still managed not only to overcome these obstacles but exceed expectations to earn their first playoff appearance since 2016.
It wasn’t all positive for the Blue Jays, however. The starting pitching was (with one exception) unspectacular to say the least, the offense was inconsistent, and defensive and baserunning gaffs were aplenty. However, the Jays are currently only due to pay around $84 million in payroll, including arbitration-eligible and pre-arbitration players, a relatively meager total for a team whose payroll was around $175 million as recently as 2017. This apparent flexibility, especially given the unpredictable offseason which is upon us, certainly leaves room for optimism in Jays circles.
The Blue Jays’ best hitter in 2020 was, without much doubt, Teoscar Hernandez. In his age-27 season, Hernandez broke out to slash .289/.340/.579 with 16 home runs and a 146 wRC+ in 207 plate appearances, earning his first Silver Slugger award in the process. While one might be tempted to dismiss this season as a mirage, if you date back to July 1st of 2019, the wRC+ only falls to 142 over 454 plate appearances, indicating that there might be more to this apparent breakout than small sample randomness. Beyond Hernandez, some of the Jays’ best position players include Cavan Biggio, who slashed .250/.375/.432 while making starts at four different positions, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who put up a 138 wRC+ and received an (admittedly questionable) Gold Glove nomination for his defensive play in left field.
Although I gave Hernandez the award MVP, one could just as easily have given it to Blue Jays ace Hyun-Jin Ryu. In 12 starts and 67 innings, the Cy Young candidate put up a 2.69 ERA along with a career-high 26.2 percent strikeout rate. In a pitching staff where he, Tanner Roark (6.80 ERA), Chase Anderson (7.22 ERA), and Matt Shoemaker (4.71 ERA) were the only other pitchers to exceed 28 innings, Ryu’s contribution was invaluable. Pending Free Agent Taijaun Walker was the only other starter to make any meaningful positive contribution, posting a 1.37 ERA in 6 starts following a trade from the Mariners. The Jays bullpen, however, was quite productive, with Jordan Romano, Anthony Bass, Rafael Dolis, AJ Cole, Thomas Hatch, and Ryan Borucki all pitching at least 14 innings with an ERA below 3.60.
For the biggest positive surprise, I put 21-year-old Alejandro Kirk, who managed to hit .375/.400/.583 in 29 plate appearances, despite having never played above high-A entering 2020. Though small sample size caveats obviously apply with regards to his expected future performance, Kirk nonetheless provided the Jays with a welcome addition down the stretch, becoming a fan favorite in the process. Besides Kirk, some of the bigger positive surprises include Hernandez, Romano, Dolis, Rowdy Tellez, and Julian Merryweather.
Given that the Jays, on the whole, exceeded expectations, there is consequently only a handful of players whose performance could be described as disappointing. Nate Pearson however, was among those disappointments. The number eight prospect in baseball according to Fangraphs managed just 18 innings thanks to a stint on the IL and pitched to a 6.00 ERA and 7.19 FIP when he was on the mound. His performance against the Rays in the postseason, in which he logged five strikeouts in just two innings, shows why he remains a big part of the Jays plans going forward, although his 2020, on the whole, was undoubtedly disappointing. Beyond Pearson, Ken Giles and Trent Thornton could also be considered negative surprises by virtue of injury, while Danny Jansen, Roark, Anderson, and maybe Vladimir Guerrero Jr. could be considered negative surprises by virtue of underperformance.
2020-2021 Offseason Preview
The two most significant losses for the Jays are probably Walker and Giles, although even these two, however, may prove to be not that consequential. Although Walker managed strong results as mentioned previously, he did only make 6 starts for the Jays, does have legitimate injury concerns, and only managed a 4.56 FIP over the season, indicating that his results were likely unsustainable. Giles meanwhile, put up a 9.82 ERA in 3.2 innings and is slated to miss all of 2021 with Tommy John Surgery, despite entering 2020 as the Blue Jays closer. Although these losses are far from meaningless, the Jays should feel comfortable knowing that virtually all of their most significant contributors from 2020 remain under control for 2021 and beyond.
Addressing the starting pitching should be priority number one for the Blue Jays. Ryu and Pearson are, barring injury, the only arms in the Jays organization which are safe bets to open 2021 in the starting rotation. The recently re-signed Robbie Ray should also join this group, although this is far from guaranteed given his overall performance in 2020. Besides these three, the Jays do have some potential internal options in Hatch, Borucki, Anthony Kay, and Patrick Murphy, all of whom pitched almost exclusively as relievers this season – although none of them are certainties to become useful starters going forward. Given that at least some of these arms will likely move from the bullpen to starting options in the majors and in AAA, improving bullpen depth should also be a target for the Jays. Lastly, the acquisition of an infielder who is an upgrade over Villar and Travis Shaw should help the Jays improve both offensively and defensively. Considering that the Jays have a relatively deep prospect pool, appear to have significant financial flexibility, and are reportedly being among the most aggressive pursuers of a number of free agents, addressing most of these needs should be possible. In fact, I would be very surprised if the Blue Jays offseason concluded without at least one very significant addition to their club.
It’s difficult to predict the extent to which the Jays will make moves on the starting pitching front. While they should be at least among the contenders to land a top tier starter like Trevor Bauer, I’ve been far more conservative in my predictions for who the Jays will actually end up with. The same could be said for position players, where the Jays could be options for free agents like DJ LeMahieu or George Springer, although I feel (as shall be revealed) that the Jays are more likely to acquire this caliber of position player through trade. For these reasons, I’ve predicted the Jays will sign starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi, infielder Ha-Seong Kim, and re-sign starting pitcher Taijuan Walker.
There are a number of reasons why an Odorizzi signing is likely for the Blue Jays. Toronto was rumored to be very interested in the 30-year-old last offseason after he recorded a 3.51 ERA and 3.36 FIP in 30 starts in 2019. When he instead accepted the qualifying offer and struggled in four 2020 starts, his stock surely went down by a meaningful margin. It has not gone terribly far down, however, and I still expect Odorizzi to be a mid-rotation contributor going forward with whoever he signs with. I would expect the Jays would have an interest in a medium-term deal with a middle-tier AAV.
Prediction: Jake Odorizzi signs with the Blue Jays for 24 million over 2 years with a third-year mutual option.
The other name I mentioned on the starting pitching front is a re-signing of Taijaun Walker. As mentioned already, Walker’s performance in 2020 was strong (2.70 ERA), albeit not entirely sustainable (4.56 FIP). Even if he cannot sustain totally his results, however, Walker should still be more than serviceable at the back end of major league rotation. In addition, Walker has already expressed a desire to re-sign with the Blue Jays. Thus, a reunion between Walker and the Jays seems to make sense for everyone involved.
Prediction: Taijaun Walker re-signs with the Blue Jays for 16 million over 2 years.
The last potential target I mention for the Blue Jays is Korean shortstop Ha-Seong Kim. It has already been confirmed that the Kiwoom Heros, Kim’s club in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), will post him this offseason. For his part, the 25-year-old Kim hit .314/.405/.542 with 30 home runs and more walks than strikeouts during the KBO’s regular season. Additionally, although one would not expect this kind of performance to be maintained at the big league level, ZiPS still projects to put up 18.7 WAR over the next five seasons. Perhaps the biggest question mark in general with Kim is whether he can play shortstop at a major league level. Because the Jays already have a major league caliber shortstop in Bichette however, Kim would slot in nicely at third base should his defensive play at short prove to be inadequate, or if the Blue Jays were to make a move for a bigger name at the position. This is advantageous for the Blue Jays, as they have the roster and financial flexibility to find the correct major league fit for Kim, given that he is a fairly unknown entity. In addition, the presence of Ryu as a Korean ambassador for the Blue Jays likely helps the Jays chances of signing Kim. Lastly, because of the Jays’ financial flexibility, they presumably would be more prepared to take the risk of Kim’s KBO performance not translating at the major league level.
Prediction: Ha-Seong Kim signs with the Blue Jays for 50 million over 5 years.
The sexy trade idea among Jays fans for this offseason has long been a trade for Francisco Lindor and considering his reputation, rightfully so. Here’s the thing, however: there’s an argument to be made that Trevor Story is actually better. Since the start of 2019, Story has slashed .294/.361/.544, with a 120 wRC+ (over Lindor’s wRC+ of 110 over that stretch), while recording 19 DRS and 12.6 UZR defensively. This performance has resulted in Story earning 5.4 fWAR/600 PA over that stretch, while Lindor has managed “just” 4.0 fWAR/600 PA. This performance, combined with the fact that the Rockies appear set for a rebuild, makes Story an obvious trade candidate.
This begs the question of what makes Story particularly appealing to the Blue Jays. First, the aforementioned offensive performance is certainly an upgrade over Travis Shaw (whose spot Story would most likely take), who put up a 95 wRC+ in 2020, while Story’s defensive numbers not only improve the Jays defensively at short but also at second where Bo Bichette would presumably move should this trade be made. Thus, acquiring Story makes dramatically improves a team on the fringes of contention both offensively and defensively. Second, whereas a Lindor trade would almost certainly include meaningful big league pieces due to Cleveland’s apparent desire to remain contenders, the Rockies being in a rebuild would mean they likely won’t demand as much from the Jays’ current big league roster. Third, the Blue Jays’ financial flexibility gives them the ability to take on the remaining $8 million on Ian Desmond’s contract to lessen the cost of the trade, and the presumptive ability to extend Trevor Story.
So why does this trade work for the Rockies? Let’s start with 1B Rowdy Tellez. The 25-year-old managed to slash .283/.346/.540 for a 136 wRC+, in 35 games in 2020. While small sample size caveats obviously apply, Tellez strong power numbers (career 33 home runs, .239 ISO in 169 games), and a career hard-hit rate of 42% should work particularly well in Colorado even if the complete 2020 performance is not sustainable. The next piece I included was SS/3B Jordan Groshans. Currently, his overall future grade per MLB Pipeline is 55, with average or better grades at every tool resulting in him being baseball’s 70th best prospect. He fits well in Colorado as a potential replacement for either Story or (if he is also traded) Nolan Arenado down the line. Lastly, I included the Blue Jays #8 and #10 prospects in Gabriel Moreno and Adam Kloffenstein into this trade. Moreno is a 20-year-old catcher put up solid numbers in A ball in 2019 (.280/.337/.485) As of now, there also is little to suggest he wouldn’t stick at catcher down the line. Kloffenstein meanwhile, recorded a 2.24 ERA in 13 games, all starts, in 2019 in short-season A ball. Furthermore, both his fastball and changeup received 55 grades from MLB Pipeline, which is significant as breaking balls tend to be less effective in Colorado.
In terms of less major trades, I’ve come up with this one between the Jays and the Pirates. Pirates GM Ben Cherington worked in the Jays front office as recently as 2019, and the Blue Jays were connected to Kuhl during this seasons trade deadline, so there’s sufficient reason to think a trade similar to this one could potentially happen.
For his part, the 28-year-old Chad Kuhl pitched to a 4.27 ERA in 2020, and although his FIP was an alarming 5.48, his career ERA and FIP being 4.36 and 4.45 respectively would indicate that he should continue to pitch around his 2020 performance level going forward. These numbers are, however, unspectacular, and because he’s only a back end starter/long relief option, his cost should be fairly minimal. The same goes for the 30-year-old Chris Stratton, who pitched to a 3.90 ERA and 3.19 FIP in his first full season as a reliever in 2020. Should the Jays acquire him, he would most likely slot into a middle relief/depth role, most likely as a replacement for pending free agent Anthony Bass.
The first piece I have going the other way is 25-year-old catcher Reese McGuire. McGuire, who played in the Pirates system prior to his trade to the Jays in 2016, put up a measly .073/.073/.146 slash in 45 plate appearances in 2020, although his career .243/.281/.444 slash is far more respectable. In addition, McGuire also has a reputation for being a solid defensive catcher, which should interest a rebuilding team hoping to develop a pitching staff. 19-year-old Dasan Brown meanwhile, profiles as a defense-first outfielder with 80 speed. However, his hitting ability grades out as a 50 (albeit with only 40 power), which would need to improve for him to become anything than a 45-grade player. Considering that the Jays are not exactly receiving Cy Young candidates in return, however, this level of prospect seems reasonable.
2021 Projected Roster
1) Cavan Biggio RF
2) Bo Bichette 2B
3) Teoscar Hernandez DH
4) Lourdes Gurriel Jr. LF
5) Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 1B
6) Trevor Story SS
7) Randal Grichuk CF
8) Ha-seong Kim 3B
9) Danny Jansen C
In my opinion, the most intriguing situation in this lineup is that of Cavan Biggio. Although I have him as the starting right fielder, I expect he would be used more as a utility player, filling in throughout the lineup as required. The big additions in Kim and Story have an important impact both offensively and defensively. At worst, they’re a significant offensive upgrade over both Travis Shaw and, unless his 136 wRC+ performance over 35 games turns out to be for real, Rowdy Tellez as well. Defensively, these moves give the Blue Jays three capable shortstops in their infield, which should result in a meaningful defensive upgrade. In terms of the batting order, I have given Biggio the leadoff spot because of his on-base skills, and have the remaining hitters in approximate order of their offensive skill.
1) Hyun-Jin Ryu
2) Jake Odorizzi
4) Taijuan Walker
5) Robbie Ray
6) Chad Kuhl
The presumed additions of Odorizzi, Kuhl, the presumed re-signing of Walker, and the confirmed re-signing of Robbie Ray combine to be a significant upgrade on the Blue Jays rotation over their rather poor performance from 2020. With these acquisitions, the Jays would have improved their rotations upside and floor without dramatically increasing their long term financial risk. Combined with the Jays’ offensive improvements, and I would expect this rotation to be more than capable of helping the Jays back to the postseason.
- Jordan Romano
- Rafael Dolis
- Ryan Borucki
- Julian Merryweather
- Ross Stripling
- Chris Stratton
- AJ Cole
- Shun Yamaguchi
- Thomas Hatch
- Anthony Kay
- Patrick Murphy
- Sean Reid-Foley
I expect the Jays will surely add a free agent bullpen arm or two in the bullpen, although considering their current management has generally refused to go big in bullpen spending, I also expect the additions will be more on the depth side than anything else. Regardless, I project the Jays will open with Rafael Dolis operating on in the closer’s role, although I would imagine Jordan Romano will be the most important reliever, operating as a high leverage stopper. Besides him, I expect all the names I mention, with the possible exception of Stratton, depending on if the Jays believe trading for him makes sense, to contribute in some way to the Blue Jays bullpen in middle and long relief roles.
The Blue Jays have finally exited the rebuild and are trending towards becoming legitimate contenders. Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins have done an exceptional job of building a formidable core, and now all that is left to do is to plug the holes with external additions. Thus, I expect the Blue Jays will make some major moves towards achieving this status during the offseason. Although winning the AL East over the Rays and Yankees is an unlikely (though not impossible) challenge for the Jays, competing for a Wild Card spot would be my realistic expectation for the club in 2020, especially if some form of expanded playoffs returns once again.