One of the most interesting things to watch during the offseason is the list of teams willing to spend money. The Toronto Blue Jays were willing to spend money. It remains to be seen if they’ve spent money wisely, but with a depressed free agent market due to the pandemic and several other factors, including the uncertainty with the upcoming CBA, fortune may favor the bold and it sure looks that way on paper.
The Blue Jays were forced to become road warriors last season. Because of COVID-19, they could not play home games in Toronto, instead playing at Sahlen Field in Buffalo, New York. The ballpark wasn’t ready for play until August 11, which meant that the Blue Jays played their first 13 games on the road.
Ultimately, when all was said and done, the Blue Jays played 26 games at Sahlen Field, slashing .276/.345/.478 in the process. In their 34 road games, the Blue Jays slashed just .239/.309/.412. How to interpret and include the 2020 season is a major question that all of us baseball handicappers will figure out. I’m pretty confident in saying that I’m not going to take much of anything away from the season for the Blue Jays.
It is perfectly fair to give them credit for the way that they came together as a team and for the way that Charlie Montoyo navigated them through what was a challenging and very unique season. They made the playoffs for the first time since 2016. They were also outscored on the season and outperformed their alternate standings metrics across the board. They were also 14-13 in September despite a -24 run differential.
The offense improved, but the pitching staff did not. Oddly enough, while the Blue Jays offense greatly enjoyed playing in Buffalo, other offenses did not, slashing just .256/.332/.396 in the smaller ballpark. The Jays were 17-9 in their adopted home and outscored the opposition 159-136.
This season’s home ballpark, at least at the outset, looks to be the Spring Training facility in Dunedin, Florida. That will be another small ballpark that should help a very potent Toronto offense, but it should also help opposing teams. If it doesn’t, then we may be facing a situation similar to last year wherein the Jays have a home field advantage that would dramatically alter their projections.
The additions of George Springer and Marcus Semien are huge to lengthen the lineup and put power and on-base skills throughout. The ceiling for the Blue Jays will be determined by a high-variance pitching staff. The floor should be high with this offense, so the worst-case scenario isn’t nearly as concerning as it has been in the past.
Ceiling and floor are huge factors in my win total picks. Depth is another one. We’re talking about 162 games and we’re talking about what the likeliest range of outcomes will be. If everything goes perfectly for the pitching staff, we’re talking about a legitimate playoff contender. If not, we’re probably talking about a top-10 offense that finishes somewhere in the realm of .500.
Given that we don’t have much to go on from 2020 and 2019 was an outright debacle that has no bearing on 2021 because of the youth movement and the free agent moves, this is easily the toughest team to project in the AL East and maybe the entire American League.
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win AL East
|Team||Odds To Win|
|New York Yankees||-200|
|Tampa Bay Rays||+350|
|Toronto Blue Jays||+350|
|Boston Red Sox||+2000|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||-10 (5.02/5.19)||-114 (4.51/5.21)|
|3rd Order Win%||29.1-30.9||66.4-95.6|
|Record in One-Run Games||13-10||18-23|
Additions: David Phelps, Francisco Liriano, Marcus Semien, George Springer, Kirby Yates, Tyler Chatwood, Tyler White, Richard Urena, Steven Matz, Anthony Castro
Losses: Shun Yamaguchi, Travis Shaw, Joe Panik, Jonathan Villar, Anthony Bass, Ken Giles, Matt Shoemaker, Taijuan Walker, Chase Anderson, Ryan Noda, Derek Fisher, Yennsy Diaz, Josh Winckowski, Sean Reid-Foley, Hector Perez, Wilmer Font
This is the picture of a strong offseason for the Toronto Blue Jays. George Springer could very well represent the missing piece at the top of the lineup. Marcus Semien slots in at second base to fill about the only hole this offense had. Springer and Semien are over 30, but six of the other nine projected starters are under 28, so a lot of homegrown talent will hold down key spots around the diamond.
The Blue Jays bullpen could be extremely interesting. There are several ex-starters, including additions Francisco Liriano and Tyler Chatwood. We could see some multi-inning relief work or some serious creativity with this unit. Ross Stripling isn’t listed here, but he was an August 2020 addition that also looks to be in a relief role, but he could very easily start as well.
There are quite a few MLB-caliber players on the losses list. A lot of part-time, platoon-ish sorts of guys that are decent Major Leaguers, but they’ve simply been replaced by better options or younger guys worthy of a look.
|Batting Average (BA)||.255 (12th)||.236 (30th)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.325 (13th)||.305 (27th)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.441 (9th)||.428 (17th)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.329 (12th)||.310 (23rd)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||105 (12th)||92 (20th)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.297 (14th)||.280 (30th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||22.4% (11th)||24.9% (25th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||9.0% (15th)||8.4% (19th)|
Admittedly, this will be the hardest team preview to write. The Blue Jays had arguably the weirdest 2020 season because of COVID-19. While they weren’t forced to endure a team-wide outbreak like the Cardinals or the Marlins, Toronto couldn’t play at home. Travel restrictions prevented the Blue Jays from being at Rogers Centre and they were forced to play at Sahlen Field in Buffalo.
At least the Blue Jays got to be as close to home as possible, but there were likely players that never saw their families because of travel restrictions or had to have their families in tow, largely sequestered from the outside world so as not to put the players at risk of contracting COVID-19. It had to be a really uncomfortable season for all involved, but the Blue Jays persevered and were a highly competitive team as the youth movement became the new normal and the offense saw spikes across the board.
Of course, Sahlen Field was also a band box. The facilities weren’t MLB-ready, so Toronto played the first 13 games on the road. I remember seeing pictures of a “weight room” on the concourse. The locker room was small and cramped, both for the home team and especially the visiting team. Toronto settled into its adopted home and performed very well, posting a 17-9 record with a .276/.345/.478 slash in Buffalo.
The Blue Jays batted .230/.300/.438 at home in 2019. It was .248/.313/.447 in 2018 and then .244/.314/.417 in 2017 and .260/.341/.444 in 2016, which is the year when the Blue Jays lost to the Indians in the ALCS. The lineup certainly looks a lot different now with the infusion of young talent with guys like Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and a strong supporting cast of others.
This season, the plan appears to be that the Blue Jays will play the start of the season at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Florida. This is a ballpark that reopened on February 24, 2020 after a major renovation and hosted a few games before Spring Training was shut down. The Blue Jays did a major overhaul to all of the facilities in Dunedin as well, including a larger weight room, more locker rooms, and better training facilities.
Team President Mark Shapiro was with the Indians when they were building their new complex in Goodyear, Arizona and there are some teams that realize the importance of player development and what I like to call “hidden spending”. The only spending often discussed in the mainstream is the kind that comes on the Major League roster. Teams that dedicate resources to improving their infrastructure can often get a nice boost by preparing their players better from the instructional league levels on up through the big leagues.
So, if the Blue Jays are in Dunedin for a long time, I don’t think it will be a detriment. Left field is 333 feet, with left center at 380, center field at 400, right center at 363(!!), and right field at 336. From a park factor standpoint, the Blue Jays are a very right-handed-heavy lineup. Biggio and projected DH Rowdy Tellez are left-handed and so is backup catcher Reese McGuire and non-roster invite Joe Panik. I’d like if the Jays had more left-handed punch for the power alley in right center, but they do have good power to all fields overall.
It remains to be seen how long the Blue Jays will be forced into being Florida Men, but the facilities will be an upgrade over what they had last season. They still found a way to band together and be a playoff team last year, so I wouldn’t expect this to have any sort of negative impact. If anything, Florida would probably be a more favorable destination for families and likely for the players as well.
Buffalo is still an option for the sweltering summer months if Toronto is not, so the Jays could have a midseason ballpark switch.
Putting together a comprehensive offensive profile of the Blue Jays is hard. Like I noted, teams with more left-handed power could have a lot more success at TD Ballpark than the Blue Jays, but this should be a great venue for scoring no matter what with pretty short dimensions to the middle of the field.
Teoscar Hernandez could hit the ball out of Yellowstone, let alone TD Ballpark. He had a monster offensive campaign with a .384 wOBA and a 143 wRC+. Of course, he was also one of nine players with a HR/FB% of at least 30%, so modest regression in the power department is possible. He makes violent contact and could carry a high BABIP, even though home runs don’t count towards that stat. He had a .348, which was easily a career-high, last season. With a low walk rate, I’d absolutely expect Hernandez’s overall numbers to drop, as he’s not running a .340 OBP, but the power is there. So are the strikeouts.
While Hernandez is likely to regress some, I’d anticipate that guys like Biggio, who had a .355 wOBA and a 124 wRC+, and Bichette, .353 and 122, will stay about where they were or improve. Bichette’s 3.9% BB% is likely to increase, even as a lot of others around the league decrease with a regression of BB% that I anticipate league-wide.
It’s fair to expect more from Guerrero, who had a .338 wOBA and a 112 wRC+ while hitting far too many ground balls. Nearly 55% of Guerrero’s balls in play were hit on the ground. That absolutely has to change and I would expect the Blue Jays to do more work with him to elevate the baseball. He makes a ton of hard contact, so he got a fair number of ground ball hits, but hitting worm-burners limits power potential.
With additional power from Tellez, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Randal Grichuk, this is a lineup that will feast on mistakes. Add in Marcus Semien, who hit 33 HR for the A’s in 2019 and George Springer, who fell one homer shy of 40 in 2019, you really do have a lineup with a high floor and an extremely high ceiling.
While Semien’s 2019 is a major outlier relative to his career numbers, he’s worked tirelessly on his shortstop defense and should translate well to second base. The Blue Jays were 28th in fWAR at third base with -0.1. The position was shared by Joe Panik, Travis Shaw, and Brandon Drury. With Biggio sliding to third and Semien at second, we’re probably looking at an upgrade of probably four to five wins above replacement player overall between those two positions.
The Blue Jays don’t have any lineup weaknesses. There is a realistic possibility that every position on the diamond is manned by a league average or better player. I anticipate the offensive numbers to climb across the board and this has potential to be a top-five lineup, especially with the dimensions in Dunedin for an indefinite period of time.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||4.63 (17th)||4.79 (21st)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||4.73 (21st)||4.82 (20th)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||4.72 (22nd)||4.88 (27th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||22.5% (21st)||21.1% (26th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||10.8% (29th)||9.6% (29th)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||70.3% (20th)||71.8% (19th)|
One of the most surprising developments of 2020 was that the Blue Jays enjoyed hitting at home, but the opposition did not. Road teams only batted .256/.332/.396. Despite the pedestrian numbers, road teams still scored over 5.2 runs per game against the Toronto staff at Sahlen Field. They scored 5.18 runs per game off the Blue Jays on the road.
Like so many other things about Toronto’s season, evaluation is tricky. This isn’t unique to the Blue Jays, but playing all games within the division and then the corresponding National League division can and will have a huge impact on the numbers. Out of the nine teams Toronto played last season, they faced five lineups that finished in the top 10 in wRC+ (Mets, Braves, Yankees, Rays, Phillies) and the others were 11th (Red Sox), 13th (Orioles), 14th (Nationals), and 18th (Marlins). Every team but the Marlins graded better than league average by wRC+. It was a grueling slate of teams to play. The Jays didn’t make life easy on themselves by posting the second-highest BB% in baseball, so their pitchers were constantly in messes.
The Blue Jays staff had the fifth-most batters faced with a runner in scoring position, but managed to navigate those situations pretty well. The .321 wOBA allowed by Blue Jays hurlers ranked 10th. Performance with runners in scoring position doesn’t really have any year-over-year correlation, so I’m not really sure how to interpret this data, other than to say that a 162-game season will balance out the quality of opponents, but could also balance out those fortunes with RISP.
There were a lot of moving parts for the Blue Jays last season. Hyun-Jin Ryu led the team with 12 starts and they were mostly terrific. He had a 2.69 ERA with a 3.01 FIP and a 3.32 xFIP. Tanner Roark was second in starts with 11 and had a 6.80 ERA with a 6.86 FIP and a 5.84 xFIP. Chase Anderson was next with seven starts and three relief appearances with a 7.22 ERA, a 6.16 FIP, and a 4.09 xFIP. On the whole, the starters for the Blue Jays were pretty disappointing beyond Ryu. Even with Ryu’s heroics, Toronto was 27th in fWAR among starting pitchers and ranked 21st in FIP.
Like I mentioned above, the slate of opposing offenses was very daunting. I see no reason to expect Ryu to bottom out. He’s probably not exactly keeping last season’s pace, but he’s got a career 2.95 ERA with a 3.30 FIP and a 3.41 xFIP in 807.1 innings. He’s the least of my worries.
The rest of the rotation is a major worry and this is why I mentioned in the transactions section that the Blue Jays could look to do some creative things. Toronto was decimated by the third time through the order penalty (henceforth referred to as 3TTO). Opposing hitters posted a .243/.323/.449 slash the first time through and a .256/.328/.420 slash the second time through. The third time through? .343/.395/.590 in 147 plate appearances. You can cry sample size bias if you want, but this is a tried and true philosophy that a lot of teams have employed. Even Ryu wasn’t immune to the 3TTO penalty, as opposing hitters slashed .327/.362/.473 in 58 PA.
The fact of the matter is that hitters adjust and pitchers get tired and mistakes happen the deeper you get into a game. As hitters get additional looks at the arsenal, they’re going to figure things out. The league average for the 3TTO last season was .253/.320/.433. It was actually better than it had been most seasons because really only the elite to well above average pitchers are turning lineups over.
The Blue Jays easily had the highest OPS allowed in that split. If we go back to 2019, the 3TTO offensive split was .269/.330/.474. It really makes a huge difference.
So, I look at how this rotation is set up. Ryu is fine. The 3TTO penalty exists for him in the same way it exists for every pitcher, but he’ll be the workhorse with the benefit of the doubt. Robbie Ray runs up pitch counts like crazy, so he’s largely a five-and-fly guy anyway. Nate Pearson, the team’s prized pitching prospect, was limited to 18 innings because of injury last season. He’ll have the kid gloves, if he even makes the team. Tanner Roark and Steven Matz are largely five-and-fly guys.
The Toronto bullpen was pretty average last season, but Ken Giles only worked 3.2 innings. Shun Yamaguchi was awful as he struggled with transition to baseball in the United States during a really unconventional season. Now Giles is gone. Yamaguchi was DFA’d. The Blue Jays added Kirby Yates and will have a full season of Ross Stripling. Tyler Chatwood had a .292 wOBA against in 54 innings as a reliever in 2019.
I don’t know if Charlie Montoyo has this in him. He should because he was with Kevin Cash in Tampa Bay. But, the Blue Jays should be a five-and-fly staff outside of Ryu and utilize the multi-inning capabilities of their relievers. I would love to see something creative here like piggybacks or openers. I think that would enhance the upside of this Toronto team in a big way.
However, we have to call it what it is. The Jays are going to have to score a lot of runs. Dunedin will hurt their pitching staff, too. There aren’t a lot of above average pitchers on the roster. Until Montoyo and the Blue Jays make a commitment to be creative and innovative, I have to assume that they won’t.
There are promising arms in the minor leagues like Anthony Kay, Thomas Hatch, T.J. Zeuch, and my personal favorite, Trent Thornton. The Jays re-committed to Ray with $8 million. They had another $12 million to pay Roark. Matz is a one-year rental after being acquired from the Mets. It would be extremely challenging to railroad these guys with free agency on the horizon to experiment with what I’ve talked about in terms of piggybacks and five-and-fly scenarios.
While it may be in the best interest of the team, it could hinder the ballclub with signing future free agents or hurt the team’s rapport with player agents and agencies. Status quo would lower the ceiling of the Blue Jays pitching staff in my opinion and that is, unfortunately, what I expect to see.
Positives & Negatives
I’m not a big believer in the intangible, but there is something to be said about where this current Jays team is. A lot of their prospects that have played together have graduated to the big leagues together. You’re not taking a bunch of spare parts to try and put together an engine. You don’t have a Dodge and a Chevy and a Kia and a Ford dismantled in front of you while you try to construct a working car. These are guys that have been within the system, hearing the same messages, likely becoming good friends.
You see your teammates more than your families for eight months out of the year. The Blue Jays went through a lot together last season and appear likely to do the same this season by not being able to be at home. With a second-year manager, they found a way to be a playoff team last season, overcoming a lackluster pitching staff and a weird set of circumstances. Those are positive things.
The Blue Jays were awful defensively last season. They were 29th in Defensive Runs Saved and 18th in UZR/150. Springer is a huge upgrade over Grichuk in center field. Biggio and Semien will be upgrades at their new spots over Drury, Shaw, and Panik. Defensive improvements are often overlooked, but they should help a below average pitching staff and could give the offense more of a chance at outscoring teams.
Toronto Blue Jays Pick & Prediction: Under 86.5
I still can’t get there with the Blue Jays. They will be better. The offense will be good. I just don’t see much in the way of big improvements for the pitching staff. The park factors aren’t going to help a whole lot, whether they play at TD Ballpark or Sahlen Field. The road parks in the division are still a concern. The AL as a whole seems to be a bit better offensively than it has been in recent seasons, at least as far as I can tell.
This is a really big ask of a team that finished under .500 in last year’s small sample by every alternate standings metric and a team that hasn’t done as much to improve the pitching staff as it has done to grow and develop a legitimate Major League offense.
Major League Baseball is an offense-first league, like just about all of the other major sports out there. In that respect, the Blue Jays could surprise me. They could live up to these extremely lofty expectations. I just can’t see it. I still expect to see some growing pains from the lineup. I expect to see teams feast on the starting rotation. I don’t think Montoyo and the Blue Jays will do what I suggested to limit exposure with the starters, even though Montoyo came from Tampa Bay, where they do it really well.
As of the day the Guide was published, February 25, I don’t have the Blue Jays under as a bet, but I do think this win total line is closer to their ceiling than their floor. This is one I will keep looking at as Spring Training goes along. I want to see if we get some intel on how the pitching staff will be handled. Some more intel potentially on the home ballpark situation.
Toronto will be better. Toronto will be a team in the 80s somewhere. I just see 87+ wins being more of a best-case scenario than anything else.