Coming off a run to the ALCS that marked their first playoff appearance in 22 years, the Blue Jays faced questions relating to a repeat of their success.  Would regression and the nearly inevitable loss of David Price clip their wings, or would a full season of Stroman and the addition of J.A. Happ be enough to stave it off? Would 2016 be the year Aaron Sanchez broke out as a starter, or would he be destined for a career in the bullpen?

As it turned out, Happ continued his incredible success from his 2015 Pirates stint, Estrada kept popping people up and not only did Sanchez find a home in the rotation, but he managed to lead the American League in ERA and ERA- while posting 5.6 RA9-WAR.  Injuries to Bautista and Devon Travis, along with expected regression (Ryan Goins cannot hit after all), slowed down the offense from legendary to elite, but the Jays still won 89 games and had a Wild Card date with the Orioles.  I was at the Wild Card game, and oh what a game it was.  The ending was the most exciting sports moment I have ever seen live.  The Jays swept the Texas Rangers in the ALDS (marking six straight playoff victories against that franchise) before falling in five games to the Cleveland Indians in the ALCS.  With Bautista and Encarnacion’s contracts having expired, the off-season was one of uncertainty.

Roster Turnover

Notable Gains: LHRP J.P. Howell, OF Lourdes Gurriel (international), RHSP Mat Latos, DH Kendrys Morales, 1B Steve Pearce, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, RHRP Joe Smith, RHRP Glenn Sparkman (Rule 5)

Notable Losses: RHRP Joaquin Benoit, LHRP Brett Cecil, RHSP R.A. Dickey, 1B Edwin Encarnacion, RHRP Scott Feldman,  C Dioner Navarro, OF Michael Saunders, C Josh Thole

 

Run Production

Though not as historic as the 2015 version, the Blue Jays 2016 offense held its own above average.  The out-avoidance slipped (non-HR OBP fell from 1st to 15th), but they still banged out the fourth-most home runs in the Majors (221) en route to a 102 wRC+ (seventh).  The 2017 Blue Jays offense should have a similar composition.

The most notable change for the Blue Jays offense in 2016 was the increased strikeout rate.  After spending 2015 feasting on fastballs, the hitters saw a lot more off-speed pitches from opposition to start the year, which gave them fits.  The Blue Jays started to see more fastballs again after the All-Star break, but they struggled to adjust back.  Hitters spent the first half swinging helplessly at breaking balls (my most frequent nightmare is a recurring clip of Bautista flailing at a breaking ball down and away) while getting locked up by fastballs they crushed the year prior, as the Jays were near the top of the league in called strikeouts.  This is a trend I expect to continue going forward as the hitters a veteran Blue Jays lineup continue their slogs towards rigor mortis.

As bleak as this may seem, there are reasons for optimism.  First, the lineup is deep with each of the first six hitters being above-average over the spans of their respective careers.

The second is health; both Bautista (turf toe after crashing into an outfield wall) and Martin (falling in a sauna) suffered freak injuries that hampered their performances for a time.  Bautista hit for a 112 wRC+ on the season, low for his standards, but hit .255/.381/.467 (131 wRC+) from August 1st onwards, while hitting 47.9% of his balls in play hard in that time.

Bookended by a stiff neck (first six weeks) and a sauna accident in late July, Martin put together a two month stretch of .270/.372/.454 (123 wRC+).  He had a slow end to the season thanks to the accident and a finger injury, but his ability to be a well-above-average offensive catcher is undoubted.

Troy Tulowitzki made his obligatory disabled list visit from May 28 to June 17th with a quadriceps strain, but he returned to post a .280/.333./.474 line (115 wRC+) the rest of the way, which would have ranked sixth among shortstops over a full season, ahead of offensive shortops of good repute Xander Bogaerts, Francisco Lindor, Brad Miller, Brandon Crawford and Didi Gregorius.  On the whole, he posted a 102 wRC+ and is projected between 103 and 110, making him a nice length addition to the lineup for the time he remains on the field.

I am excited by the addition of switch-hitting Kendrys Morales, a flyball-heavy hitter who has been suppressed by cavernous Angel Stadium and Kauffman Stadium as home parks throughout his career.  The loss of Encarnacion does make the Jays weaker, though I fully expect Morales to cover that at the plate.  Morales also helps reverse some of the imbalance of right-handed hitting in a Toronto lineup second-last in MLB in platoon advantage PA (percentage) last year.  With a 93.9 mph exit velocity in 2016 that ranked twelfth (minimum 30 PA), Morales will be able to take good advantage of the smaller park when he hits the ball in the air and the turf when he hit it hard on the ground.

Manager John Gibbons will use platoons in 2017 more frequently than in years past.  Ezequiel Carrera, Melvin Upton Jr., Steve Pearce and Dalton Pompey will battle for left field.  Upton figures to see the bulk of the time against left-handers while Carrera will see much of it against right-handers despite being a left-handed hitter with a reverse split.  That said, Gibbons recently reversed his position and suggested to Mike Wilner of Sportsnet that Upton may see the large end of the platoon despite his career 93 wRC+ (68 in 2016) against right-handed pitching.  Carrera hit for a putrid 35 wRC+ in the second half of 2016 and is highly BABIP-dependent, making him a poor candidate for all but the most sparing of use.

Ultimately, I would like to see Dalton Pompey win the left field job against right-handed pitching (platooned with Upton), but his Opening Day status may be in doubt after exiting Canada’s WBC game against Colombia with a head injury on Saturday and being placed on the concussion protocol.  The other platoon will be seen at first base, with Steve Pearce and his 130 wRC+ against left-handers drawing in against southpaws, with Justin Smoak getting the bulk of the time.  Smoak has largely been a failure given his role as the central piece of a Cliff Lee trade many years ago, but he hits the ball hard, when he is able to make contact.  That said, I expect Pearce to become the full-time first baseman in fairly short order, barring health concerns.

Devon Travis may start the year on the DL due to a nagging shoulder injury from 2016, in which case Darwin Barney would play second base and bat ninth.  Otherwise, Travis figures to lead off.  The bench will consist of the aforementioned Barney, Saltalamacchia, Smoak/Pearce and whichever outfielder is not playing.  With the exception of Carrera and Travis, the team lacks speed in the projected lineup, though Upton and Barney should provide some off the bench.  Morales has a -45.4 career BsR, good for 16th-worst in MLB history, so I expect to see him getting pinch-run for late in games fairly frequently.

Gibbons rarely sacrifice bunts, though Carrera bunts for hits on his own with success, some turning into “sacrifices”.  Gibbons will hit and run with Travis, Carrera and Kevin Pillar (who refuses to walk so ardently that @KPRatherWalk on Twitter is a thing).  Unfortunately, this causes Pillar to make much weak out of zone contact.  Out-of-zone contact produces an average EV of 84 mph and a BA of ~.140.

 

Run Prevention

Run prevention was the largest key to success for the Blue Jays in 2016.  Despite questions over the back of the rotation and the future of Aaron Sanchez looming to open camp, the Jays hoped that full season of Marcus Stroman and the return of J.A. Happ would provide enough pitching to supplement the offense.

However, it turned out better than anyone could have imagined.  The Blue Jays led American League in ERA (3.79), ranked second in Fangraphs WAR (19.2) and fourth in FIP (4.04) as a whole, yet it was their starters that truly led the way.  On the backs of seven starters, two of which (Drew Hutchison and Francisco Liriano) were traded for each other; the Blue Jays led the league in ERA (3.64) and fWAR (15.3), and ranked second in FIP (4.07).

Aaron Sanchez made 30 starts for the Blue Jays, pitching to an American League-leading 3.00 ERA while posting a 54.4% groundball rate good for fifth in the Majors.  I expect Sanchez to continue where he left off; with perhaps even some improvement given that he has worked on a changeup (his weakest pitch) with Marco Estrada over the spring.

Marcus Stroman eclipsed 200 innings (204.0) for the first time as a major-leaguer and despite early season struggles, settled into a nice groove in the second half, posting a 3.68 ERA, 3.49 FIP along with a strikeout boost to 22.7%; a stark contrast to the 4.89 ERA, 3.88 FIP, 16.9% strikeout rate of his disappointing first half.  While Stroman led qualified starters with a 60.4% groundball rate, his 89.1 average exit velocity on groundballs was 15th-highest among pitchers with at least 190 batted balls against, while 95.5 mph average on flyballs & line drives led MLB.  His second half success correlated well with a dramatic reduction in his sinker use while incorporating a slider and cutter:

If Stroman can continue making adjustments, he could well be on his way to a solid SP2-type season, which would be critical for the Jays’ success in both the short- and long-term.

J.A. Happ is a unicorn and a successful one at that.  Signing a three year deal in Toronto before the 2016 season, owing in large part to the presence of pitching coach Pete Walker, J.A. Happ continued his tinkering ways.  After relying heavily on his fastball in 2015, he re-incorporated his sinker and toyed with a cutter again, though in an even further twist he scaled those changes back in the second half (see below):

There is little telling what Happ, Martin and Walker have cooked up for the 2017 season, but if he can continue to miss bats (9.6 swinging strike rate was a career high), he should give this team a lot of value.

Marco Estrada pitched 2016 with a herniated disc in his back, sustained during an off-season workout, that ultimately landed him on the disabled list and his season was truly a story of two parts.  From April 27th to June 27th, Estrada reeled off 12 consecutive starts of at least 18 outs recorded while allowing five or fewer hits, a major-league record.  Placed on the DL for twenty days following his next outing, in which he laboured and repeatedly grabbed at his injured back, his return was less than stellar.  Up to that point he had a 2.93 ERA, was on pace to set a BABIP-against record of .193 (thanks to his weak and infield flyball generating strategy) and he was selected for the All-Star team.

After returning from the DL, he stumbled to a 4.27 ERA while allowing a BABIP of .285, though his complete game in Game 2 of the ALCS against Cleveland was stellar.  While Estrada’s 22.8% strikeout rate was his best since 2013, his 9.0% walk rate was his worst since 2010.  The velocities of his fastball and changeup were both career-lows, and the increase in spread between the two was driven by a loss of over 1.5 MPH on the changeup.  Estrada claims to be fully healthy again, but there is little room for his velocity to fall while remaining effective.  If these changes are permanent, or worse yet, the decline continues, Estrada is an early favourite to be the Jays’ worst starter.

The biggest single upgrade for the Jays starting staff is a full season of Francisco Liriano over R.A. Dickey.  Dickey struggled to his worst season as a Blue Jay in fWAR, ERA, FIP and walk rate and was left off the postseason roster.  Francisco Liriano was acquired along with Harold Ramirez and Reese McGuire at the trade deadline for Drew Hutchison, as a minor upgrade for 2016 and a nod toward the following year.  Liriano posted a 25% strikeout rate in Toronto while cutting his walk rate nearly in half from his time in Pittsburgh.  In Toronto, Russell Martin (who caught Liriano in Pittsburgh previously) exchanged some sliders for changeups while re-introducing his four-season fastball.  This led to increases in whiff/swing for both the changeup and the slider.  While some regression can be expected, even if Liriano’s walk rate stays around his career 10.2% mark, he has a legitimate claim as the best fifth starter in the league.  The rotation as a whole lacks a truly elite starter and could post uninspiring strikeout numbers, with the exception of Liriano, but the Blue Jays should be able to avoid the Dickey-style disaster start much easier. Given health, the rotation could again be among the best in the game.

Unlike the rotation, the bullpen remains an issue.  With the departure of Brett Cecil, the Blue Jays lost their longest-tenured player and their best non-closing relief weapon.  Roberto Osuna remains entrenched in the ninth inning, while Jason Grilli, Joe Smith and J.P. Howell are locks for spots.  Joe Biagini posted a 3.06 ERA and a 2.95 FIP along with a 52.2% groundball rate as a Rule 5 pick out of the Blue Jays bullpen in 2016, but may be sent down to stretch out as starting depth as well as open a spot for Mike Bolsinger who is out of options.  Mat Latos looked like an interesting candidate to make the Opening Day roster on a minor league deal, but his spring has been atrocious.  Being out of options, Bo Schultz figures to claim a middle relief role.

Aaron Loup is the favourite for the second lefty role, but I would love to see Tim Mayza wrest that away with his dominant spring, although the Jays would need to open a 40-man roster spot for him.  The Jays also acquired Glenn Sparkman from the Royals in the Rule 5 Draft, but he is currently on the DL with a fractured hand.  When he heals and completes a rehab assignment, the Jays will need to find a spot for him, which may prove difficult.  I imagine he ends up back in Kansas City, or acquired by the Jays in a minor trade.

Gibbons is an average manager in terms of matchups and will make mid-inning pitching changes but the bullpen is fairly hierarchical.  Osuna will pitch the ninth and Grilli the eighth (despite allowing a .372 wOBA to southpaws last season).  Gibbons will use the Howell/Smith pair in matchups in the seventh, while the others will get sprinkled in.  I suspect Biagini takes the seventh (with Schultz passed through waivers) if he makes the club after all.

Defensively, the Jays are elite at third base, centre field and catcher, while the right side of the infield and left field are average.  Jose Bautista is the only truly poor defender, with a lack of range and an arm that has never recovered from injury.  The 88 mph throw he uncorked in his team’s WBC game against Colombia was the third hardest throw he made since the start of last year.  Dalton Pompey would provide above-average to borderline elite defense in left, with above-average defense in centre, but he faces the challenges discussed earlier.  Justin Smoak will enter games as a replacement at first base when Pearce plays and Barney will be used as a super-sub.

 

Manager/Miscellaneous

John Gibbons’ job is safe though the rolling option has been removed from his contract, which expires after 2017.  The farm system is well stocked on the position player side with the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Richard Urena and Rowdy Tellez, while Conner Greene, Jon Harris, and Sean Reid-Foley lead the pitching side. Tellez hit .297/.387/.30 (152 wRC+) at Double-A New Hampshire as a 21-year old and could easily unseat Smoak at first base if the latter struggles for long or if Steve Pearce gets hurt, as he does frequently.  Lourdes Gurriel could also make a push for left field if Pompey has lingering concussion issues.  Devon Travis will start the season on the DL with a shoulder issue, which could vault Ryan Goins onto the Opening Day roster.

The Blue Jays likely have some financial room to make a mid-season acquisition, but Ross Atkins is less keen on parting with prospects than his predecessor Alex Anthopoulos despite this team clearly trying to win right now.  A case could be made for a rebuild based on the ages of the key players, but the Blue Jays have emerged from over two decades of irrelevance and the fan base would not support such a decision.

The Blue Jays have one of the richest owners in the sport, Rogers Communications Inc., and their payroll is only limited by what Rogers is willing to spend. Unfortunately, the earnings of the Blue Jays as an entity do affect Rogers’ stock price, so this can lead them to be more financially conservative than one may expect.  2018-2020 may possibly be rough as Bautista leaves and Tulowitzki & Martin enter steeper declines.

The Blue Jays have a decision to make on Josh Donaldson this winter as well.  He could possibly be traded (as soon as this July) if the Jays fall out of contention, as he is set to hit free agency after 2018.  Edward Rogers has shown a willingness to spend and ultimately the decisions surrounding that free agent class will speak volumes for the direction of the franchise for many years to follow.

Prediction: The Jays will take a step back and win 87 games.  Morales will outproduce Encarnacion offensively, but the team will narrowly miss the second wild card, spending the postseason at home for the first time in three years.

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