With the season just around the corner, the staff at Sons of Sam Horn is taking a look at the Boston Red Sox’ division rivals. The Toronto Blue Jays are next, and the 2016 AL East Division Champions lost their ace, but retained the slugging core that powered them to the playoffs. Jimmy Wulf examines their chances at repeating in one of the tougher divisions in MLB.
|Wins||Losses||Winning %||Games Back||Home||Road|
|Josh Donaldson||158 GP||23 2B||41 HR||.297/.371/.568||155 OPS+|
|Jose Bautista||153 GP||29 2B||40 HR||.250/.377/.536||149 OPS+|
|Edwin Encarnacion||146 GP||31 2B||39 HR||.277/.372/.557||153 OPS+|
|R.A. Dickey||214.1 IP||126 K||3.91 ERA||1.194 WHIP||101 ERA+|
|Mark Buehrle||198.2 IP||91 K||3.81 ERA||1.243 WHIP||104 ERA+|
|Marco Estrada||181 IP||131 K||3.13 ERA||1.044 WHIP||126 ERA+|
Third, fifth, fourth, fifth, third, third, third, third, third, third, fifth, third, second, third, fourth, fourth, fourth, fourth, fourth, fifth, third.
Those are the finishing places in the AL East standings for the Toronto Blue Jays in the 21 seasons since MLB expanded into the three-division format in 1994. Even that lonely second-place finish is a mirage of faint success, ending 2006 a full ten games behind the division-champ Yankees and eight games out of the wild card. A Canadian born while Joe Carter was leading Toronto to back-to-back World Series titles in ’92 and ’93 has been buying alcohol legally for six years (depending on the province) and may have even graduated college, but had never seen the Blue Jays in the playoffs. They always seemed to have a talented lineup that could never stay healthy or fire on all cylinders for long enough, or a perpetually rebuilding pitching staff with either youth or retreads that couldn’t quite hold down the back-end of the rotation well enough. Whether the players were Alex Gonzalez, Vernon Wells, Alex Rios, or Jose Bautista; Woody Williams or Brandon Morrow; this seemed to be the eternal story of the Blue Jays in baseball’s new economy.
For much of 2015, it looked as if it would be more of the same for Toronto. General manager Alex Anthopoulos continued to throw haymakers in the trade market in search of short-term success, shipping out the talented-but-inconsistent Brett Lawrie before the season along with a bevy of prospects for Oakland third baseman Josh Donaldson. All Donaldson would do is go out and win the AL MVP. Healthy seasons from Donaldson, Joey “Bats” Bautista, and Edwin “Parrot” Encarnacion, buttressed by a Russell Martin/Dioner Navarro combo behind the plate and unexpectedly solid contributions from Kevin Pillar and Chris Colabello, gave Toronto the AL East’s most dangerous lineup. However, the roster still bore the weight of Anthopoulos’ previous makeover attempts, and the pitching was thin both at the top and bottom. Venerable starters R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle ate innings voraciously, but with only league-average success.Marco Estrada’s stunning 180 innings of 126 ERA+ was the lone bright spot in the rotation. Toronto’s potent bats couldn’t earn them more than a 53-51 record and third place in the AL East heading into the trade deadline.
Teetering on the brink of another also-ran season, Toronto responded by turning their makeover efforts up to 11. The deadline swap of Jose Reyes and prospects for Troy Tulowitzki and LaTroy Hawkins cemented an elite middle of the order that will carry over to 2016. Most importantly, the addition of David Price as a bona-fide ace shaped their starting rotation into something that could be considered playoff-caliber. Finally a complete, balanced, and healthy roster, Toronto roared to an eye-popping 21-6 record in August, followed by an 18-9 September. Instead of being submarined by injuries, busts and a lack of talent, the 2015 Jays bashed the competition into submission down the stretch, ending with a 93-69 record and the AL East crown – six games ahead of the second-place Yankees.
Remarkably, as this was all happening, Blue Jays ownership sacked Anthopoulos, announcing former Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro as the new president of the organization with full roster control. Much like a similar situation that occurred in Boston with Dave Dombrowski and Ben Cherington, Anthopoulos was offered a reduced role to remain, but declined. One could certainly argue the Jays’ roster-building under Alex had been enough of a zig-zagging hot mess to ignore short-term success and make the change, but a GM getting fired in the same month his team won more than 20 games, in a division-winning season, has to be just about unprecedented.
The ride would end in the ALCS against the eventual World Series champs, but not before Joey Bats gave Jays fans a last moment for the ages to keep them warm through the cold Canadian winter.
After the roster upheavals of the last two years under Anthopoulos, Toronto’s first offseason under Shapiro was relatively quiet, with no elite players coming in through free agency or trades. While it was probably unfulfilling for Jays fans pining all winter for an over-the-top name to cross the border, it’s unsurprising that Toronto mostly chose to stand pat with their division-winning core. Eight of the nine position players who started Game 6 of the ALCS against Kansas City last October are likely to return to their spots in the starting lineup on Opening Day.
What moves they did make centered around bolstering their just-good-enough rotation and middle relief, trading OF Ben Revere to Washington for RHP Drew Storen as well as welcoming back starter J.A. Happ with a three-year $36 million contract. In a pretty good sign of how rickety the back end of the pitching staff was last year, Mark Buehrle, LaTroy Hawkins, and Jeff Francis were all ’lost’ to retirement. Most critically, rent-a-staff-ace David Price departed via free agency to Boston, with the closest incoming replacement being a return to health for stud prospect Marcus Stroman.
Toronto in 2016 looks an awful lot like Toronto at the start of 2015 – a playoff-caliber middle of the order that needs to shoulder the burden for an average collection of complementary position players and pitching staff, saddled with enough health concerns to question whether or not they’ll be able to carry that load..
The good news for the lineup is in all the obvious numbers – as long as the heart of Toronto’s order stays healthy, and if the surrounding pieces repeat what they did in 2015, they’ll easily return to being one of the league’s top run-producing machines. The bad news is, that last sentence contains a couple of Big Gulp-sized “ifs.” Let’s start with the alpha and omega of the 2016 Blue Jays, the Big Four in the middle of the order.
|Pos||Age||2016 ZiPS Projections|
|2)Donaldson, J||3B||30||.277/.353/.517||32 HR||573 AB|
|3)Bautista, J||RF||35||.262/.379/.522||30 HR||439 AB|
|4)Encarnacion, E||DH||33||.270/.363/.514||29 HR||477 AB|
|5) Tulowitzki, T||SS||31||.261/.335/.442||17 HR||414 AB|
Four elite talents to be sure, and with variables aligned just so to give both optimists and pessimists reasons to rejoice. Edwin Encarnacion has turned into a power-heavy version of Edgar Martinez over the past four seasons, a pure designated hitter and a guaranteed bet to light up the slash line (153, 145, 152, 153 OPS+ from 2012-2015) at an All-Star level while being overshadowed by his more famous teammates – Joey Bats, in particular, and his 227 home runs over the past six seasons. You can’t find a more consistently productive duo anywhere, but at 35 years of age for Bautista and 33 for Encarnacion, it’s time to start wondering when their career paths will start angling downwards. ZiPs is certainly wondering, projecting them both for nice but lukewarm seasons of regressed OPS and less ABs due to missed games. Encarnacion is already struggling with a strained oblique and may miss Opening Day, although there’s no specific reason to believe it will become chronic and continue to bother him.
Bracketing the two heavyweights are question marks of a different kind in Donaldson and Tulowitzki. Donaldson posted OPS of .687, .883, and .798 in three years with Oakland before his MVP campaign at age 29 last year. It’s clear he’s a quality hitter, but was that last step up to a .900+ OPS a breakout to a new level of performance, or a career year for an otherwise very good player? It’s quite easy to shake his career numbers into a defense for either, but to me at least a teeny bit of natural regression feels inevitable. As for Tulowitzki, the calculus is much more simple. When he’s healthy, he’s the best-hitting shortstop in the game. He’s rarely healthy. Based on his past there’s about a 50% chance he’ll get on the field for 120+ games, and about a 50% chance he’ll be out for half the season. Go flip a coin and get back to me.
Now, to the remainder of the lineup:
|Pos||Age||2016 ZiPS Projections|
|1)Pillar, K||LF||27||.271/.306/.406||12 HR||576 AB|
|6)Colabello, C||1B||32||.254/.308/.440||19 HR||441 AB|
|7)Martin, R||C||33||.236/.336/.415||16 HR||386 AB|
|8)Saunders, M||CF||29||.246/.322/.418||8 HR||244 AB|
|9)Goins, R||2B||28||.235/.280/.326||8 HR||472 AB|
Chris Colabello was one of the feel-good stories of 2015. The 31-year-old Framingham, MA native started the year as a cast-off Minnesota Twin sporting a tragically low .649 OPS over parts of two seasons. He was given the chance to play in Toronto and seized it to the tune of a .321 batting average and 15 home runs in 360 plate appearances (sound familiar, Boston fans?). How well the Jays’ lineup extends around the Big Four depends largely on Colabello proving last year wasn’t the mother of all fluke seasons, as well as whether Kevin Pillar can continue to hit just well enough to justify a slot in front of all the RBI machines. At second, most Toronto fans are just looking at Ryan Goins to keep the seat warm until prospect Devon Travis, last season’s AL April Rookie of the Month on the strength of a .325 batting average, regains his health and timing. There’s not much new to say about Russell Martin – he continues to be the very model of a modern major-league catcher, and has a couple more seasons to go before he hits the 1,500-game wall that shatters all catching careers.
David Price and his 2 months of top-shelf ace pitching are gone. Mark Buehrle and his 180 innings of reliably league-average pitching are gone. Replacing them are an old friend and a couple of in-house lottery tickets.
|Age||2016 ZiPS Projections|
|Marcus Stroman||25||3.80 ERA||1.20 WHIP|
|R.A. Dickey||41||4.41 ERA||1.32 WHIP|
|Marco Estrada||32||4.06 ERA||1.20 WHIP|
|J.A. Happ||33||4.38 ERA||1.33 WHIP|
|Aaron Sanchez||23||3.92 ERA||1.41 WHIP|
Stroman is the 24-year-old stud who, more than any single player, carries the hopes and dreams of Toronto’s 2016 with him. Featuring a mid-90s sinker and an unholy breaking ball that looks like it should belong to a 1-inning shut-down closer, he can be the ace this rotation needs to be playoff-viable. Personally, I’m buying his future as much as any young pitcher this side of Chris Archer – he has the makeup and drive to match the stuff and I wouldn’t bet against him. Tearing his ACL in March last year, Stroman incredibly made it back to MLB action by the end of the year, looking as sharp as could be expected over 27 innings with a 3.54 FIP.
The other side of the prospect coin is Aaron Sanchez, a 23-year-old righty who has been in the bullpen mix the past couple seasons while grabbing 11 starts in 2015. Sanchez carries around a plus-plus-plus arm with him, generating 97-mph 4-seamers and 94-mph sinkers at will, and even playing around with a cutter at the end of last year. However, he has yet to show that his changeup or curveball can rise above show-me status to complement his arsenal of fastballs.
Poor Drew Storen. The 27-year-old reliever earned 29 saves for Washington last year, became publically upset when his job was unceremoniously handed to the newly-acquired Jonathan Papelbon, got traded north of the border, only to lose out on a closer’s slot once again to sophomore Roberto Osuna. The latter debuted on the scene with 33 saves for the Jays last year, including 10 during that insane August run – another unsurprising instance of a successful team sticking with what worked. Storen will combine with bullpen stalwart Brett Cecil and Gavin Floyd, loser of the 5th starter job, to bring leads into the 9th inning for Osuna and hopefully papering over any leaks that spring in the starting rotation.
Looking at Donaldson, Bautista, Tulo, Colabello, Pillar… it’s hard to escape the feeling that there was just something good in the water around the Toronto batting cages last year. All of the hitters pretty much stayed healthy and hit their upside projections across the board. Forgetting about the specifics of any particular player, that kind of luck has historically been a bad bet to repeat – ask fans of the 2007 or 2013 Red Sox. 1 through 9, you can construct compelling individual cases that each player will build on, or at least repeat, their 2015 seasons, but in the aggregate I just don’t buy enough of it happening to repeat their group success.
In the worst case scenario, Tulo gets injured out of the gate, Colabello and Pillar turn into pumpkins, and two of Bautista/Encarnacion/Donaldson return to Hall of Very Good production level. The best case scenario for the Jays lineup is, well, 2015 happening again. The most likely way it plays out is roughly that one of the core four hitters (not to pick on Tulo, but… probably Tulo) has a down or injured season, and the surrounding pieces are a little bit worse on average then they were last year. Hey, that still adds up to a pretty good offense! Just not good enough to retain the AL East title, or probably even grab a wild card slot, unless…
…Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez absolutely deliver the goods. Both of these starters have ace-level stuff and showed signs of breaking out last year, having all the attendant spring training buzz to go along with it. Certainly Sanchez and possibly Stroman will be on an innings limit that may cause a move to the bullpen down the stretch, but if those two can combine to contribute around 300 innings of top-tier starting pitching, Toronto has an excellent chance of still being the monster team from last August and September. The more the pair miss that target, the more the Jays start to look like a collection of so-so talent surrounding a brilliant but too-small hitting core, unable to stand out in a competitive division.
Final Prediction: 85-77, 3rd place in the AL East
Follow Jimmy on Twitter @JimBoSox9.