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Season Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

As we prepare for the 2021 season, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s off-season and previewing the season to come. Today, Quinn Sweetzir takes a look at the Toronto Blue Jays! 

For a team which is just one season removed from losing 95 games, an awful lot of optimism surrounds the 2021 Toronto Blue Jays. There is good reason for this. Going into this offseason the Jays already had themselves an elite group of young hitters, an ace at the top of the rotation, an underrated bullpen and a deep prospect pool. They then supplemented this impressive core by spending more in free agency than any other club in MLB. Although they still have their flaws, this core, along with their new acquisitions, should be good enough to compete for a playoff spot in 2021. 

2020 Season-In-Review

2020 Record: 32-28 (3rd in AL East)

Team MVP: Teoscar Hernandez 

Team Cy Young: Hyun-Jin Ryu 

Maddie Meyer: Getty Images

2020 was a massive step forward for the Blue Jays, who improved their winning percentage by .119 points en route to an appearance in the expanded postseason. Their best position player in 2020 was, in my view, Teoscar Hernandez, who broke out with a .289/.340/.579 slash line and a 143 wRC+. Not being the son of a former MLB star, Hernandez is often overlooked in discussions of the Jays. Despite this, he is in my view, the most interesting player in the Jays lineup in 2021. Projection models are not high on him, with Steamer projecting a 2021 wRC+ of 98 and ZiPS projecting a wRC+ of 115. But, if he can come close to replicating his stellar 2020 performance – and for what it’s worth, I think he will – it helps make a Blue Jays lineup which is already deep without him even moreso. 

The key to the Blue Jays pitching staff in 2021, as it was in 2020, is Hyun-Jin Ryu. Ryu did everything the Jays could have asked of him and more, pitching to a 2.69 ERA in 12 starts and earning an AL Cy Young nomination in the process. Despite this strong performance, Ryu’s injury history is undoubtedly concerning to a Jays club which lacks the depth to overcome his absence. If Ryu can stay healthy, and performs close to as well as he did in the regular season last year, I would expect the Jays to be one of the teams in the hunt when the season reaches October. 

Off-season Review

Key losses from 2020: Anthony Bass, Ken Giles, Travis Shaw, Matt Shoemaker, Taijaun Walker, Jonathan Villar

Notable Free Agent Additions: Tyler Chatwood, David Phelps, Marcus Semien, George Springer, Kirby Yates

Notable Trades: Acquired Steven Matz in exchange for Sean Reid-Foley, Yennsy Diaz, and Josh Winckowski

Ezra Shaw: Getty Images

Without a doubt, the signing of outfielder George Springer to a six year and $150 million contract was the most significant transaction the club has made since the 2015 trade deadline. The 31 year old hit .265/.359/.540 with a 146 wRC+ and 1.9 fWAR in 51 games in 2020, and has posted an OPS below .800 in just one season since his career began. He’ll replace Randal Grichuk as the Jays full time center fielder in 2021, and figures to hit near the top of what should be one of MLB’s best lineups in 2021. In addition to Springer, the Jays also added 2019 AL MVP finalist Marcus Semien to their lineup on a 1 year, $18 million contract. Semien’s outstanding 2019 season – when he hit .285/.369/.522 and posted 7.6 fWAR – is the outlier in an otherwise unremarkable career. In 2020, he hit .223/.305/.374, for a 92 wRC+ in 53 games. If you add his seven 2020 postseason games to this sample however, his numbers rise to a much more respectable .244/.325/.408 and a 107 wRC+. This production, coupled with what should be strong defense at second base, should help the Jays improve considerably on both sides of the ball in 2021. 

The Blue Jays also made a number of additions on the pitching side of things. Of these, Kirby Yates is the most notable. Yates signed a 1 year deal worth $5.5 million plus incentives. Although the former Padre struggled with performance and injury in 2020 (12.46 ERA in 4.1 innings), the Jays are hoping that a return to health will push Yates back towards his 2020 form, when he posted a 1.19 ERA (and 1.30 FIP) in 60.2 innings. Yates figures to serve as the Blue Jays primary closer in 2021. Beyond him, the Jays also added Tyler Chatwood and David Phelps to 1 year deals worth $3 million and $1.75 million respectively, and both are expected to serve in middle relief roles for the Blue Jays in 2021. Lastly, the Blue Jays also acquired starting pitcher Steven Matz from the Mets in exchange for pitchers Sean Reid-Foley, Yennsy Diaz, and Josh Winckowski. Despite posting a horrendous 9.68 ERA in 30.2 2020 innings, Matz will most likely begin the season in the Blue Jays starting rotation, who will hope Matz can return to something resembling his form in 2019, when he posted a 4.21 ERA. 

2021 Season Preview

Projected Lineup: 

1) George Springer CF

2) Bo Bichette SS

3) Lourdes Gurriel Jr. LF 

4) Teoscar Hernandez RF

5) Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 1B

6) Rowdy Tellez DH

7) Marcus Semien 2B

8) Danny Jansen C

9) Cavan Biggio 2B

Sarah Stier: Getty Images

It’s hard to go wrong when ordering a lineup as good as this one. The biggest question mark surrounding this lineup is probably the question of who should leadoff. The main candidates are Springer, who led off for the Astros last season, and Cavan Biggio, who led off for the Jays. I’ve gone with Springer here, because although Biggio’s OBP was higher than Springer’s in 2020 (.375 for Biggio, .361 for Springer) Springer is a much better overall hitter, and for that reason should be getting as many plate appearances as possible. I also think Biggio can also use his on base skills by getting on base in front of Springer from the final spot in the batting order. 

Following Springer, I have Bo Bichette, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Teoscar Hernandez. These three posted a wRC+ of 122, 135, and 143 respectively in 2020, and although there may be some regression (especially for the latter two), I still expect all three to continue to be productive hitters for the Jays in 2021. 

After this group I have Vladimir Guerrero Jr., fresh off an offseason workout program where he lost a reported 42 pounds. In his first two seasons, Guerrero Jr. has posted wRC+’s of 105 and 112 respectively. His biggest issue offensively has been his career 51.3% ground ball rate, which has prevented his impressive raw power from showing itself in games. Weight loss probably won’t help Vlad Jr. hit the ball in the air more often, but being in better shape should help him avoid tiring as the season progresses, as had been the case September in 2019, when his wRC+ was just 45. I’d personally project Vlad Jr. to put up a wRC+ of around 125 in 2021. 

Rowdy Tellez is extremely difficult for me to project heading into 2021. On one hand, he hit .283/.346/.540 for a 133 wRC+ in 2020, after he improved his conditioning and altered his approach at the plate. On the other hand, his strong performance came in just 127 plate appearances, and his career wRC+ is a much less impressive 107. Tellez should benefit from the Jays decision to play its home games at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, where it is just 363 feet to right-center. If Tellez struggles however, expect the Jays to give Randal Grichuk regular at bats in right with Hernandez shifting to DH. 

In the bottom third of the Jays lineup I have placed Marcus Semien, Danny Jansen, and Cavan Biggio. Semien will serve as the Jays everyday second baseman, and the addition of what should be slightly above average offensive production helps lengthen the Jays lineup even further. After Semien, I have catcher Danny Jansen, who hit just .183/.313/.358 in 2020. Despite this, he’s still a very good pitch framer and thrower (although his game calling leaves something to be desired), and his wRC+ did improve from 68 in 2019 to 86 in 2020. Jansen will probably never be the good offensive catcher that some, including myself, had hoped, but he’s not going to bring down the lineup either. 

Last in the lineup, I have Cavan Biggio. Although he figures to play most of his games at third, I expect him to be used more as a super utility guy, filling in when needed. His numbers on the whole were very good in 2020, with a .250/.375/.432 slash line and 124 wRC+. As the season went on however, it became apparent that Biggio struggled against high velocity fastballs. He’ll make adjustments to help correct this issue, but I still don’t expect Biggio to perform as well in 2021. My guess would be a OBP of around .340 and a league average wRC+. 

Projected Bench:

Randal Grichuk OF

Reese McGuire C

Joe Panik IF (NRI)

Jonathan Davis OF 

The Blue Jays bench piece who will get the most playing time is probably Randal Grichuk. Though he’s far from being a solid regular (he has just 0.8 fWAR per 600 plate appearances since 2019), he’s good enough to fill in at this role. Look for him to serve as the Jays fourth outfielder, and receive regular playing time against left-handed pitchers in place of Tellez in 2021. Reese McGuire is also expected to be on the roster and should serve as the Jays primary backup catcher, despite a horrendous .073/.073/.146 slash line in 2020. Assuming he is not that bad in 2021, he fits as the backup catcher. The Jays also brought back infielder Joe Panik on a minor league deal. Panik was mediocre in 41 games for the Jays in 2020, but he’s just an injury or two away from receiving regular playing time in 2021. He’s acceptable in his role as a depth infielder. Outfielder Jonathan Davis is in a similar situation to Panik. The 28 year old played in just 13 games for the Jays in 2020, and although he should be fine as the last guy on the bench, he also should not be counted on in any significant role. 

Projected Rotation:

1) Hyun-Jin Ryu

2) Nate Pearson

3) Robbie Ray

4) Steven Matz

5) Tanner Roark

Mark Brown: Getty Images

Once again, the Jays rotation is headlined by Hyun-Jin Ryu. As I mentioned previously, Ryu carried the Jays starting rotation in 2020, and will likely have to do the same in 2021 for the Jays to seriously contend. Ryu does have a lengthy injury history, and projection models do not expect the same kind of performance from him in 2021 (Steamer projects his ERA at 3.96, ZiPS at 3.58). If he replicates his 2020 performance over 25 or more starts, then the Jays should make the postseason. If not however, their starting pitching could be desperately bad for a team looking to contend. 

Following Ryu is the 24 year old Nate Pearson, the number 10 prospect in baseball by both MLB.com and Fangraphs. Pearson debuted in 2020, pitching in 18 regular season innings and posting an ERA of 6.00. He was far more impressive in his lone postseason appearance, when he recorded five strikeouts in just two innings. Pearson has serious durability concerns – the most innings he has ever pitched in a year are his 101.2 in 2019. Because of this, it is almost impossible to project how much and how well Pearson will pitch in 2021, but a solid campaign would go a long way in a rotation with so many question marks. 

The final three rotation spots will most likely be filled by Robbie Ray, Steven Matz, and Tanner Roark. Of those three, Ray is by far the one with the most upside. Ray struggled immensely in 2020, posting a 6.62 ERA thanks primarily to a career worst 17.9% walk rate. Ray does however, have a career 28.6% strikeout rate, and was worth at least 2.0 fWAR in all but one season from 2015 to 2019. The Jays also re-signed him to a 1 year, $8 million contract, so they clearly believe in his ability to return to form. 

Towards the end of the rotation, Steven Matz and Tanner Roark are similar in a lot of ways. Both had the worst seasons of their careers in 2020 (6.80 ERA for Roark, 9.68 ERA for Matz), and neither are expected to be better than back-end starters. I would expect both to post ERA’s around 4.50, and for Charlie Montoyo to have a particularly quick hook in games where they are starting.

Projected Bullpen:

1) Kirby Yates (CL)

2) Jordan Romano

3) Rafael Dolis

4) Tyler Chatwood

5) David Phelps

6) Ryan Borucki

7) Ross Stripling

8) AJ Cole (NRI)

Because their rotation is filled with so much uncertainty, the Blue Jays are going to rely heavily on their bullpen to pick up the slack. Luckily, the Jays front office has quietly put together a really solid group of relievers. The aforementioned Kirby Yates is likely going to be relied upon heavily and serve as the clubs primary closer, but the rest of the Jays bullpen is in my opinion, very underrated. For example, many of you likely have not heard of Jordan Romano, yet he put up a 1.23 ERA with a 36.8% strikeout rate and just a 8.8% walk rate in 14.2 innings before an injury last season. The same can be said for Rafael Dolis, who had a 1.50 ERA with 31.0% and 14.0% strikeout and walk rates respectively in 24 innings. Relievers are inherently unpredictable so it is quite possible their strong 2020s were just a mirage, but I would be very surprised if both Romano and Dolis proved to be completely incapable of being effective in 2020. 

The Jays middle relief should also be solid in 2021. New addition Tyler Chatwood for example, struggled as a starter for the Chicago Cubs in the last three seasons. When pitching as a reliever in 2019 however, Chatwood posted a respectable 3.67 ERA in 54 innings. David Phelps, another reliever who the Jays acquired this offseason and who previously pitched for the Jays in 2019, is also likely to be productive in middle relief. Although he struggled in 2020 (6.53 ERA in 20.2 innings), his ERA was no higher than 3.41 in any season from 2016 through 2019, which would indicate that his 2020 performance was a fluke. The Jays also re-signed AJ Cole to a minor league deal after non-tendering at the start of the offseason. Cole is far from being considered an elite reliever, but he has posted an ERA below 4.00 in each of the last two seasons. None of these three options are players the Jays would be comfortable letting pitch in high leverage situations, but together they should combine to give the Jays capable middle relief. 

The final two relievers I expect to be on the Jays opening day roster are Ryan Borucki and Ross Stripling. In my personal opinion, Stripling should be in the starting rotation over Roark or Matz, but even in the bullpen he should be useful. Like many of the Jays pitchers, Stripling struggled in 2020, posting a 5.84 ERA in 49.1 innings. In his prior four big league seasons however, his ERA never exceeded 3.75. For his part, Borucki was quite good in 2020, putting up a 2.70 ERA in 16.2 innings in his first season as a reliever. As the lone lefty in the Jays pen, he may find himself pitching in a much bigger role than he had in 2020. 

Record Projections

FanGraphs Projected Record: 87.5 – 74.5, 2nd in AL East

(Available here: https://www.fangraphs.com/standings/playoff-odds)

PECOTA Projected Record: 84.6 – 77.4, 3rd in AL East

(Available here: https://www.baseballprospectus.com/standings/)

Personal Projection: 86 – 76, 3rd in AL East

Timothy T Ludwig: Getty Images

The Blue Jays are a difficult team to project in 2021 because they have so many players who had outlier seasons in 2020. On the offensive side for example, guys like Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernandez, and Rowdy Tellez all had career years in 2020 which projection models do not expect them to match. Conversely, pitchers such as Robbie Ray, Tanner Roark, Steven Matz, and Ross Stripling performed terribly in 2020, but were all (to varying degrees) productive prior to last season. Because there are so many players with such uncertainty however, there is a lot of variance in ultimate win projections for the Jays. 

I’ve personally projected the Jays to win 86 games in 2021, which is slightly above the 84 win pace the Jays were on last year. While I do think the Jays’ true talent level has improved by more than two games this offseason, their 29-31 Pythagorean record (79-83 pace) would indicate that the Jays overachieved in 2020. In terms of the playoff race, I expect the Jays will contend for a Wild Card spot through most of the season, although I think the Yankees are, barring serious injuries, too good not to win the AL East. The Jays could well win more games than the Rays, but as a Jays fan myself I am predisposed to assume that the Rays will overperform their projections. Thus, I have the Jays finishing third. 

Final Thoughts

The Toronto Blue Jays performed surprisingly well in 2020, making the expanded playoffs when most assumed the team wasn’t ready to contend yet. Because they exceeded expectations, I wrote in the offseason outlook for the Blue Jays that it was time for the Jays to seriously invest and push for some top free agents. GM Ross Atkins and President Mark Shapiro delivered, adding to their core with a 2019 MVP finalist in Marcus Semien, an elite reliever in Kirby Yates, one of the best players in all of baseball in George Springer. This is now a team which is expected to seriously push for a spot in a normal postseason. Only time will tell whether they are up to the task. 

Quinn Sweetzir

Economics and History double major, University of Regina '22. Blue Jays fan for life. Twitter: @Quinn_Sweetzir

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