There are lots of reasons to believe the 2018 season represents the first step in a new era for the Toronto Blue Jays. Jose Bautista, the standard-bearer of the era that brought the first two playoff appearances since the 1990s, is no longer with the team after 10 seasons. That alone makes this feel like a new era. Many will have you believe the window on the Blue Jays’ run of success is likely closed.
But there was never a time prior to the 2015 or 2016 seasons when it seemed certain that the Jays were a lock to make the playoffs. It took a one-of-a-kind July trade deadline to kick-start the 2015 run. The 2016 team spent a good portion of August in first place in the AL East, but faded in September to slip into a wild-card spot. Both seasons ended in the American League Championship Series. But Toronto entered neither season in an exalted position in which they seemed pre-destined to be a playoff team. Lots of things had to break the right way in both years.
This season, it already seems fait accompli that Houston, Cleveland and either New York or Boston will win the three AL divisions, and that the lesser of the Yankees or Red Sox will take the first wild-card spot. At the other end, it seems certain Chicago, Kansas City and Detroit have little hope of contending and that Texas, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Baltimore don’t show much promise, either. That would suggest there’s one playoff spot up for grabs between Seattle, Minnesota, Los Angeles and Toronto.
Like 2015 and 2016, lots of things will have to break the right way for Toronto to claim a playoff spot. Banking on all those factors falling into place would be foolish, but the pieces are there for the Blue Jays to earn a third playoff berth in a four-year span.
The Twins were something of an accidental wild-card team last season, and the Angels will be trying to make the playoffs with questionable starting pitching. The Mariners haven’t made the playoffs since 2001 and always seem to find a way to stumble.
That’s not to say the Blue Jays have an open road. Josh Donaldson will have to perform at or near an MVP level. The starting pitching, with five proven major league starters, will have to be a strength of this team. This team will have to show marked improvements in baserunning and defence, two areas in which it performed poorly last season.
Let’s look at five players who will likely have an impact on any success the Blue Jays enjoy this season:
1. Aaron Sanchez
Sanchez announced himself as a potentially elite starting pitcher in 2016 when threw 192 innings and led the American League with a 3.00 ERA. The spate of injuries that wrecked his 2017 season — a blister on his pitching hand that led to minor surgery on a fingernail and never became healthy enough to allow him to return to the field after mid-July — was perplexing from the outside.
His absence (and shorter injury stints from J.A. Happ and Francisco Liriano) opened the door to a rogues gallery of replacements: a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Joe Biagini made 18 starts, while Brett Anderson, Mike Bolsinger, Cesar Valdez, Chris Rowley, Mat Latos, Nick Tepesch, Casey Lawrence and Tom Koehler made a combined 27 starts. Getting 33 starts from Sanchez at his 2016 level (5.0 WAR, Baseball-Reference; 3.8 WAR, FanGraphs) would solve a lot of problems. And he’s still only 25, on the upside of the age curve.
2. Randal Grichuk
Grichuk, acquired from the Cardinals in the off-season for reliever Dominic Leone and minor-league pitching prospect Conner Greene, is now with his third organization at the age of 26 after being a first-round draft pick by the Angels in 2009. He has yet to earn 500 plate appearances in a season and will be expected to anchor right field this season, which Bautista held down for the better part of a decade.
Grichuk is not Bautista, but that statement cuts both ways. It seems unlikely Grichuk can be the 6.0-8.0 WAR monster that Bautista could be. What Grichuk can offer is significantly better defence then Bautista provided over the last three seasons. And if he can come close to 600 plate appearances as a regular, the various pre-season analytics projections indicate he could be a 30-HR guy. If he can raise his batting average above last season’s .238 and improve somewhat on his career .297 on-base percentage, that would help improve an offence with a lot of question marks.
3. Aledmys Diaz
Injuries to Troy Tulowitzki and Devon Travis forced Ryan Goins into being a near-regular in 2017 (143 games played, 459 plate appearances). As beloved as he was by fans, Goins is the very definition of a replacement-level player — not withstanding his preternatural ability to hit with men on base last season. Unwilling to roll into another season with Goins and Darwin Barney as their infield insurance policies, the Jays added an almost comically large number of middle infielders: Diaz, Yangervis Solarte and Gift Ngoepe in off-season deals, and veteran Danny Espinosa during spring training. Travis is healthy to start the season but Tulowitzki is not, and he has no timetable for a return.
It will likely fall to Diaz initially to play shortstop everyday. Playing for the Cardinals, he made the National League all-star team as a 25-year-old rookie in 2016 — he hit .315 with a .380 on-base percentage and 13 homers in the first half. Last season he lost the shortstop job and was sent back to Triple-A briefly. Paul DeJong had a breakout season and Diaz was deemed expendable (in the same way Grichuk became expendable when the Cardinals traded for Marcell Ozuna from Miami).
Analytics projections believe Diaz will only see about 250 plate appearances this season, but with the questions around Tulowitzki’s injury recovery, Diaz will be needed out of the gate and it’s not inconceivable he could approach the 400 plate appearance Goins occupied. The question then becomes: where on the continuum does Diaz fall between the rookie all-star first half of 2016 and the guy who lost his job last season? The Jays will need him to be closer to the plus side.
4. Justin Smoak
It’s not a stretch to say that Smoak carried the Blue Jays offence in 2017 when he finally lived up at the age of 30 to being the 11th player drafted in 2008 (by Texas). His .883 OPS, 38 homers and 90 RBIs were impressive on a daily basis. He became the middle-of-the-order hitter the Jays had signed Kendrys Morales to be.
A breakout like that at age 30 is unexpected and the question will be whether he can consolidate those gains and not regress to the player he had been. He would contend that finally getting regular playing time allowed him to unlock his potential. And it’s not unreasonable to believe that to be true. But he’ll have to prove it if the Jays have a chance to contend this season.
5. Ryan Tepera
The entire bullpen, beyond Roberto Osuna, holds questions. Are fringe veterans John Axford and Tyler Clippard capable of being key pieces? Can yet another Cardinals castoff, Seung-Hwan Oh, emerge as the key setup man for Osuna? One reliever the Jays ought to be able to count on is Tepera, who’s shown over 125 innings in the last three seasons to be an excellent piece to a capable bullpen.
Tepera has the 95-mph stuff to be an above-average strikeout guy and his career ERA+ is 130. Tepera could be the primary eighth-inning guy and he could also be the guy who manager John Gibbons calls on in the sixth or seventh inning to face the middle of the opponent’s order, if Gibbons were inclined to step outside the old way of thinking about bullpen usage. Regardless, an effective Tepera could lock down a lot of bullpen outs for a successful team.
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