“Bautista with a drive, deep left field, no doubt about it!”

Independently, those eleven magical words don’t add much value, though when collectively exclaimed from the voice of Kenny Albert they evoke an unparalleled escape of pure exhilaration. Being 5 months older than Joe Carter’s Game 6 home run, to me Sam Dyson’s 1-1 pitch to Jose Bautista was the most emotional moment I have ever witnessed as a Toronto sports fan, and believe it will likely still be on the day that I die.

However, this home run didn’t simply give Bautista free meals for life. This home run didn’t just shift Toronto’s ALDS win expectancy 35% (from 59% to 94%) and essentially hand them a date with Kansas City. This home run changed the evaluation of their entire season, and changed the general perception of the team from a flash-in-the-pan outbreak performance to a perennial contender. The Jays ended 2014 (pre-Donaldson) with a plethora of young prospects, but according to Keith Law’s 2016 rankings, they now rank 25th, thanks to the acquisitions of Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki and David Price. How would those moves have looked after another home field loss to a theoretically weaker Texas Rangers team? Would perceptions of an aging team with a defloured farm system have been cast? And while the heart of the team is in fact still aging, the shrills of excitement generated from an ALCS appearance outweigh that same thinning farm system, a farewell to Alex Anthopolous and some maturing veteran contracts.

All the same, the Toronto Blue Jays 2016 season should still carry that aforementioned flare and in addition, roster, once again, some of baseball’s top players.

TorRecordwRC+SP ERA-RP ERA-DRSUZRBsRPay – $M
2013 .457 (22)99 (13)119 (27)83 (7)15 (12)-25 (22)5 (10)132 (9)
2014.512 (14)107 (5)102 (17)105 (24)-31 (23)-7 (21)1 (15)146 (9)
2015.574 (5)117 (1)97 (9)86 (8)15 (9)1 (16)10 (5)138 (10)

 

2016 Outlook

Run Production

Last season, the offense was a force to be reckoned with. The Jays led the majors with 891 runs scored, 127 more than the next place team. They hit the most home runs and the most doubles. Their team OBP was higher than that of Adrian Beltre and Yoenis Cespedes. And when looking at the core of the lineup card, the offensive output is far from surprising.

After fleecing Billy Beane for 2015’s AL MVP, the core of Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson himself make for a terror in the eyes of any opposing pitcher. This is probably the most offensive firepower any team will find among their entire roster, let alone among 3 position players. While the pessimists will point out the ages of Jose, Edwin and Josh, (35, 33, 30, respectively), this factor has yet to lead to notable decline or injury. We know these guys figured out the whole baseball thing much later in their 20s, but in fact their last few seasons have been relatively healthy. Donaldson is coming off 3 seasons of 158 games played. Encarnacion has averaged 142 games played over the last 4 years, which amounts to a mere 15 day DL stint. And even in the last two years, Bautista has avoided the DL himself. There is no reason to believe in a drop off of performance from this core in 2016, but with Jose and Edwin’s contracts expiring at the end of the season, it is likely one of this group will be either let go or traded away mid-season.  Certainly the Jays would be better off swooping up their core guys long term, but with the organization bringing in Russell Martin in 2015 on a backloaded contract, and absorbing Troy Tulowitzki’s $20MM annuity, there probably isn’t enough funds left to lock everyone up. If you add in Bautista’s insane alleged demands, you can probably count on him walking in October. As a result, to compete in the future, the team will need to rely on some positive performance from unlikely contributors.

First, Chris Colabello’s career year was certainly a bonus for the 2015 group, but all signs point to significant regression. With his utter lack of strike zone recognition and minimal power for a first baseman, last year’s .411 BABIP will be essential for him to generate offense. Unsurprisingly, Steamer is forecasting more than a .100 point drop off in OPS. Another question mark in the lineup is at 2nd base, carrying two players who also exceeded expectations. Coming over in the Anthony Gose swap, Devon Travis established himself as a tablesetter for the big bats, filling a much needed void in the leadoff spot at times.

The problems arise in two areas. Firstly, while it is possible that evaluators simply missed on Travis, Keith Law was even quoted calling him a “non-prospect”. Even based on the minor league data, Steamer expects him to merely be a league average bat. But more importantly, Travis only played in 62 games in 2015 due to shoulder bug that continued to linger all season long, leading to multiple setbacks in his recovery. In fact, he received surgery in November on the very same shoulder, and with its history, he is reportedly going to miss the start of the 2016. In that case, they can rely on defensive first Ryan Goins, who, despite having the weakest hit tool out of all these question marks, showed the most promising improvement at the plate in 2015, doubling his walk rate in the second half. Then again, Go-Go is 28 and counting.

The leadoff spot is still undetermined. I think Saunders will get an opportunity if he continues to hit like he has so far this spring, and Pillar has also been given chances, though that could impact his running opportunities. While it seems as though Pillar will get the first go, I do not expect that experiment to pan out; and with the big bats typically unwilling to move in the lineup, I expect Tulowitzki to settle in atop eventually.

Coming into 2016, the organization has brought in some familiar names to fill in bench spots (or Triple A). It’s certainly comic relief to see how bad Dominic Brown and Junior Lake have become, but both newly acquired pieces are still young and the Jays have a history of revitalizing hitters’ careers (see Chris Colabello, oh, and Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion).

There is clearly some worry outside of the core, but this is still the league’s best offense. They still have Troy Tulowitzki, who may be banged up at times, but still delivers on the field. They still have Russell Martin. Kevin Pillar can easily be close to a league average hitter again if he stops sneezing. In short, if you want to knock 100 runs off last year’s team total as a result of BABIP regression and some injury misfortune, then go ahead. They will still probably lead the league.

Opening Day Projected Lineup

  1. Kevin Pillar
  2. Josh Donaldson
  3. Jose Bautista
  4. Edwin Encarnacion
  5. Troy Tulowitzki
  6. Chris Colabello/Justin Smoak
  7. Michael Saunders/Dalton Pompey
  8. Russell Martin
  9. Ryan Goins

 

Run Prevention

In 2015, the Blue Jays pitching could have gone in a terrible direction. In fact, when Marcus Stroman blew out his knee in the spring, it looked like it might, with many Jays fans in belief that without their young right-hander, the team would never be able to get outs. And it could have been worse. R.A. Dickey could have showed his age. Marco Estrada could have continued to give up meatballs. The youthful bullpen could have exploded to pieces. That being said, it didn’t completely turn out great. The team finished with a 104 ERA+ (4% worse than league average). Sure, they were near the bottom in walks, but also near the bottom in strikeouts. Coming into 2016, there is a lot to be bullish about from the younger arms, though some regression is also in store from one veteran, and the loss of David Price won’t be easy to swallow.

Starting pitching

As he showed in the playoffs by superseding David Price as the go-to pitcher, Marcus Stroman has quickly eliminated the height concerns thrust upon him two years ago. Sure, he’s 5’8, but strong mechanics and a well-developed repertoire will allow him to take the reins full-time in 2016, especially coming off an injury unrelated to his arm. Steamer is forecasting roughly 200 innings and a mid-3 ERA, which isn’t the making of your prototypical ace, but in the AL East and in the Rogers Centre the Jays will be plenty satisfied.

On another positive note, R.A. Dickey should continue to be ageless in 2016, showing how UCLs simply cause more problems than they solve. Mark Buehrle is happily free now, albeit after a rough ending to a career. Drew Hutchinson was dreadful in 2015, and will likely not be given those 28 (!!) starts again. So in those regards, there is some positive consistency projected. But additionally there are some spots to fill, one of which will be taken by the recently signed J.A. Happ, who presumably hasn’t had enough of snow and downtown Toronto congestion. On the other hand, one arrow pointing upwards last season should not be given the same outlook going forwards – Marco Estrada.

In theory and in practice, fly balls typically generate low BABIPs, especially when you are throwing straight fastballs at 89 miles per hour; they tend to either get pummelled or popped up, and thus may be a rationale for your ERA (3.13 in 2015) to be lower than your FIP or other ERA estimators. In fact, this tactic has been used effectively by major league starters in the past, including most recently Chris Young. However, Marco Estrada sported a league low .216 BABIP in 2015, despite not generating much weaker contact on batted balls (equal soft contact % as 2014). His FIP was 4.40, his xFIP was 4.90 and his SIERA was 4.64. It is one thing to outperform your peripherals, but to do so at such an extreme level leaves plenty of skeptics waiting for the run prevention collapse.

The rest of the rotation might not be decided until the end of Spring Training, as external candidates like Jesse Chavez and Gavin Floyd could earn the 5th spot, though the most likely case is that it is given to internal candidates including Aaron Sanchez, who has expressed a desire in getting out of the bullpen (despite his success there). Having a few options is certainly a positive, but that depth hardly offsets what looks to be a fairly mediocre-at-best middle of the rotation.

Bullpen

Despite losses of Mark Lowe to free agency and likely Sanchez to the rotation, the Jays bullpen should continue to be dominant in 2016. The acquisition of Drew Storen for Ben Revere gives the Jays 3 excellent arms at the back end, with Brett Cecil and his filthy curveball posting career bests in 2015 and Roberto Osuna’s heat likely moving to the 8th, allowing Storen in the 9th. In reality, any 3 of these relievers could close for the Jays, but until more teams remove the “set inning” model it will be Drew Storen’s job to lose. If it were up to me, Roberto Osuna and his platoon split-combatting repertoire (changeup, slider, fastball) is probably more suited for the rotation instead of the 8th inning, but Osuna has stated he would like to remain a reliever.

The Jays have also added other depth including Jesse Chavez, the aforementioned Gavin Floyd, who will likely fit in as a long man, David Aardsma, Randy Choate and perhaps most notably switch-pitcher Pat Venditte, someone exciting to watch if he makes the team out of Spring.

Opening Day Projected Rotation and Bullpen

  1. Marcus Stroman
  2. Marco Estrada
  3. R.A. Dickey
  4. J.A. Happ
  5. Aaron Sanchez

 

  1. Drew Storen
  2. Roberto Osuna
  3. Brett Cecil
  4. Jesse Chavez
  5. Aaron Loup*
  6. Steve Delabar
  7. Ryan Tepera

*Injured

Defense

With Kevin Pillar highlights expected to continue in 2016, that part of the outfield defense should remain solid, even considering that Ben Revere didn’t grade out as much of a defensive whiz (-1 DRS in 2015). In right field, Jose Bautista is still plenty serviceable as a full-timer, despite an ugly UZR rating skewed by a nagging throwing shoulder injury. There have been thoughts of him being transitioned to first base, but I see no blatant reason why his defense will slip to that point – thanks to his rifle arm.

An infield of Donaldson, Tulowitzki, with a mix of some Ryan Goins and some Justin Smoak deserves a lot of respect, despite Donaldson’s 13 “errors” (but an 11 DRS?). However, big changes are coming to the Rogers Centre this year, with the organization installing a dirt infield to replace a bounce-killing 2015 turf. This should have a positive impact on the infielders, giving them more consistency in home and road games. More excitingly, what once were dreams of a real grass Rogers Centre seem slightly more possible in the medium term, if the young prodigies at the University of Guelph  can figure out how to adapt it to the infrastructure.

Front Office/Management

The biggest change for the Jays is presumably the front office rehaul – fairly odd for a winning ball club. Young whiz GM Alex Anthopolous is now in Los Angeles, and a few ex-Indians are running the show in Canada. While on paper GM Ross Atkins is in Anthopolous’ seat and President & CEO Mark Shapiro is taking over for Paul Beeston, as we have seen with the Dodgers, among other teams, it isn’t one person completely in charge. Shapiro is likely going to be much more involved than Beeston was. In terms of style, early quotes from Shapiro indicate that he won’t tend to be as risk-taking with trades and youth as Anthopolous was. Nonetheless, the two new men will first be tasked to handle the Bautista and Encarnacion extensions, trade packages or walking papers; the horrible Canadian dollar isn’t going to help with the former.

Farm and Future

As one can imagine, when you trade for David Price, Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki without having a top farm system to begin with, your prospect pool is going to be bleeding. A year after having 4 prospects in Baseball America’s top 100, the newest lists have a mere one ball player in the top 50 – Anthony Alford (technically Aaron Sanchez graduated. Per the 2016 BP Annual. “His plus-plus speed is present and his above-average raw power in not, but the hit tool and approach that can tie it all together were on display for much of the season.” In fairness, it is an issue to be that thin in the minors, but in the win-now window the Jays currently sit in, their current farm depth makes some sense. Additionally, if management elects to not lock up Encarnacion and Bautista, the possibility of shipping one of them for a mid-season haul isn’t a crazy thought, and could add at least something to the farm.

Expectations

The 2016 Blue Jays are going to compete. The offense shouldn’t lose much of a beat, and if Ray Searage magic is true for J.A. Happ, players don’t show their true ages, and the dirt infield makes ground balls that much easier to field, the Toronto Blue Jays will win the AL East. In the tough reality that we live in, those things aren’t going to all come true. The pitching very well might get ugly. Hopefully the bullpen can save Dickey from 7th innings. Moreover, the Red Sox are going to win a lot, the Yankees are going to win a lot (despite barely signing any MLB talent this offseason), and even Pecota is picking the Rays to win the division. Sure, I’m a pessimist. I get that. But 2016 isn’t going to be 2015 unfortunately. But hey, it’s not going to be 2014 either.

 

Win-Loss Prediction: 88-74

Place Prediction: 2nd in AL East

Bold Prediction: Michael Saunders hits 22 home runs

 

Check out Effectively Wild‘s season previews and the schedule of our own companion previews.

2013-15 team stats via FanGraphs. Salaries via Spotrac.

 

 

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