Playing Pepper 2019: Toronto Blue Jays

Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team.  It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams.  We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well.  Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.

Toronto Blue Jays
73-89, fourth in AL East
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

It’s got to be tough playing in the AL East.  Going up against Boston and New York when they are going strong can get a team’s record pounded pretty quickly.  Toronto was 16 games under against other AL East teams, though that wasn’t the entirety of their issues.  Can they work their way back into contention or is this year going to be mainly a countdown for a certain prospect?  We have a load of Toronto bloggers here to fill you in!

Writer Site Twitter
Kate Stanwick Bluebird Banter OhKStan
Jeremy Gibson 500 Level Fan 500LevelFan
Mike Weiler Everything Bluebirds everythingbbird
Joshua Howsam Baseball Prospectus Toronto JoshuaHowsam
Shaun Doyle Jays From The Couch JaysFromCouch

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?

Kate: While many Jays fans would have loved to see Bryce Harper in a maple leaf Spring Training hat, the Blue Jays offseason was pretty close to what I think they should have done. The front office stated at the end of the regular season that they wouldn’t be in on any of the big ticket free agents, so while the Yankees, Rays and most of the National League made their teams better, the Blue Jays picked up several low risk/high reward place holders (Freddy Galvis), veterans with bounce-back from injury potential (Matt Shoemaker, Clayton Richard, David Phelps) and some upside guys (Clay Buchholz, Bud Norris, Trent Thornton) on short term deals, along with one intriguing Rule 5 pick (19 year-old Elvis Luciano). The most surprising and newsworthy moves were the players who left the roster; primarily the release of Troy Tulowitzki and the trade of Russell Martin. Any players who were added are essentially deadline trade bait, should they perform well enough to gather any attention from contending teams. While it would have been fun to see the Jays land a bigger fish like Gio Gonzalez or Dallas Keuchel, it seems a little too early in the re-tool process to be spending big money.

Scott: The Blue Jays offseason unfolded pretty much how most fans expected it to unfold. They’re clearly rebuilding and made a bunch of cost-effective short-term moves to ensure they could at least field a mediocre team this season. It became clear that the front office was intent on shedding veterans like Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki in favour of giving younger players like Danny Jansen and Lourdes Gurriel a chance to show what they’ve got at the major league level. In three years, we’ll look back and realize that in the 2019 offseason the Blue Jays essentially just trode water while waiting for their highly touted prospects to get one year older and doing almost nothing else of value. None of their acquisitions, such as Matt Shoemaker or Clayton Richard, figure to be in the picture a few seasons down the road so it’s not likely that fans will get too attached to the majority of the 2019 roster.

In terms of what was good about this offseason, the front office finally committed to a rebuild after wasting a season trying to pretend they could still contend. The duo of CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins has struggled to convey a clear plan to fans since they arrived a few years ago, so it was refreshing to see them finally make a concrete decision and fully get behind it with the moves they made. This is a full-blown rebuild and it’s going to take a few years before they’re ready to compete.

I don’t think anything was really that bad this offseason as expectations are as low as they’ve been for half a decade or more in Toronto. I suppose some of the acquisitions they’ve made such as Clay Buchholz and Bud Norris are not fan favourites, so not only do we have to watch a bad team but we also have to not enjoy the players wearing the jerseys. At the end of the day though, this offseason was a big “meh”.

Jeremy: Toronto wasn’t really expected to do all that much over the winter and they really didn’t. Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins seem intent on rebuilding slow and steady so they made no big splashes. I did like the pickup of Matt Shoemaker as a solid buy low candidate and he could help stabilize the rotation. But it seems like they just acquired a bunch of guys that they hope will be good (Clay Buchholz, Bud Norris, Clayton Richard) instead of spending money. I would have loved to see them go crazy and shock the world by signing Bryce Harper. Throw a ton of money at him and have him anchor the young guys for years to come. Oh well. 

Mike: With respect to free agents, it’s what I expected. No big signings as the Blue Jays try to make way for some of their young talent. I was surprised that they released Troy Tulowitzki. Although it’s something that had to happen, I just figured they were going to do it a year from now when he had less time remaining on his sizeable contract. The Clay Bucholz signing was a solid move. Toronto’s starting rotation needed some help and hopefully Bucholz can remain healthy and bridge the gap until prospects like Sean Reid-Foley and T.J. Zeuch are ready to make the permanent jump to the big leagues. 

Joshua: Given the transitional nature of the roster, there really wasn’t a strong likelihood the Blue Jays would go in a different direction than they did. They added Freddy Galvis and some depth in the rotation and the bullpen. That’s about it. The release of Troy Tulowitzki was somewhat shocking, but logical at the same time. They don’t want to devote the full-time starting SS gig to a veteran. 

Shaun: I think overall, many would say that the offseason was not overly active, but it likely could be described as ‘addition by subtraction’. By that, I mean the Blue Jays shed themselves of Russell Martin, Aledmys Diaz, Yangervis Solarte and Troy Tulowitzki. Sure, they ate a lot of money to do this, but they’re quite confident that this path will actually pay off for them. Freeing up spots for younger guys to get their feet wet and establish themselves with the big league club is the priority here. Developing the core moving forward is the real goal. That said, they’ve almost taken an opposite approach to their pitching staff by bringing in veterans on cheap deals to insulate themselves from forcing their young arms into the fire of the big leagues. The thing about this kind of offseason is that you won’t really know if it was productive for quite a while.

C70: There’s going to be a lot of focus on Vladimir Guerrero Jr. this season. Will they let him start the season in the bigs or will they do the service time manipulation again? When he does make his debut, what kind of year do you think he’ll have? (Also, is there a limit to how many Juniors you have on a team?)

Kate: The Blue Jays have come this far in their manipulation of Vlad Jr’s service time, so it would be highly illogical not to see it through at this point. The hype around Vlad Jr is so high that it feels like a major league average season from him would be a disappointment. Fortunately, Vlad Jr doesn’t seem to be fazed by all the extra attention, so we will continue to watch him play with the team during Spring Training, and anxious await his big league debut.

As you’ve noticed, the Blue Jays have really cornered the market in juniors as a result of all their bloodline acquisitions. I suppose the limit was two and the Jays have already hit it with Vlad Jr and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.because Dwight Smith now a Baltimore Oriole. Luckily, the next son of a major league to inevitably make his debut after Vlad Jr will be Bo Bichette, and his brother was the one who received the junior suffix. Cavan Biggio, another son of a major leaguer, could also be close behind.

Scott: There’s almost a 0% chance that Vladdy Jr. starts the year at the big league level. The front office has already started dropping hints about how he’s not ready to be a major leaguer, which is just a drawn out way of avoiding any grievances being filed by the Players Association. He’ll almost certainly be up in Toronto by the summer and we can only hope he reaches the lofty expectations that have been set for him. It will be a lot easier to stomach a rebuilding year if he gives fans a reason to watch every single night. I expect him to hit quite well as every scouting report notes that he’s ready to mash at the big league level despite turning just 20 on March 16th. I think the growing pains will be on the defensive side of the ball, as I’m not sure he’ll be able to stick at third base for the long haul. He’s already a massive human (his weight was just updated to 250 pounds this spring) and I don’t think he’s going to be able to handle the hot corner for 150 games per season.

Jeremy: Zero percent chance he starts in the bigs. Atkins has already said he doesn’t see him as a big league player yet so he’s clearly talking the talk to avoid any penalties. I expect him to be up in mid- April and to start dominating.  

Mike: Even if Guerrero had not strained his oblique, the Blue Jays would have had him in Triple-A Buffalo to begin the season. Come the third week of the regular season, if he’s healthy he should be with the Blue Jays. Statistically speaking, he’s a lock to hit for at least a .300 AVG, and if he plays more than 140 games I see him leading Toronto in AVG, OBP, HR, RBI, and BB. I’m a little concerned about his lack of speed and have a feeling some teams might try to lay down a good number of bunts on the 3rd base side to test him.

Joshua: The service time manipulation question seems to have been answered on its own with Vlad’s spring injury, but the club definitely was going to do it. It’s horrible, but Ross Atkins really didn’t have much of a choice here. When he finally comes up in late-April or early May, I expect him to absolutely mash. His combination of bat control, power, and strike zone judgement is so advanced for his age. I expect him to win the Rookie of the Year Award in a walk. (And if the Blue Jays could field an entire roster of second-generation players, they probably would.)

Shaun: Limit to Jrs? Heck, no! What’s Griffey doing these days? When it comes to Vlad Jr, the front office has had a tough time convincing the fan base that they’ll keep the phenom in AAA until he’s MLB ready. They say he has work to do to become a complete player, particularly with regards to his defense. That’s been perceived as just a way to avoid looking like they’re manipulating service time. The world knows what is going on. To his credit, Vlad Jr has taken it all in stride, not really concerning himself with when he gets called up. When he does, you can bet he will be have an instant impact. Even with a later big league appearance, he’s projected to be rather productive. Sure, he’s human and likely to struggle a bit, but he hasn’t yet.

C70: What does the rotation look like and how good can it be?

Kate: The Blue Jays rotation is one gigantic question mark. The pitcher who had the best year on the Jays last year, Ryan Borucki, may be poised start the year in AAA Buffalo. Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman both have front of the line potential as Sanchez led the American League in ERA in 2016 and Marcus Stroman finished in the top 10 of Cy Young voting in 2017, however both battled blisters, injuries and ineffectiveness last year, so it’s hard to predict how they’ll fare this season. New additions Matt Shoemaker via free agency and Clayton Richard via trade are also coming off of seasons marred by injuries. The newest signee, Clay Buchholz, had a 2.01 ERA in 16 starts for the Diamondbacks last year, but he was shut down at the end of last season with an injury as well. There is strong potential for a terrific year for most of these pitchers, but good health and a solid performance will most certainly lead to a departure via trade. In addition, the front office has made acquiring pitchers an offseason priority, so the Blue Jays have much better starting pitching depth in AAA than they’ve had the last few years.

Scott: Our rotation will likely feature Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Matt Shoemaker, Ryan Borucki, and Clayton Richard. We’ve seen what the first two guys are capable of a few years ago, but they’ve struggled since then and the rest of the rotation is a massive mixed bag. As I mentioned earlier, this year is meant to just tread water and that’s the vibe that this rotation gives off. Apparently the Jays are trying to actively shop Stroman as they don’t see him as part of the future, so there will likely be a lot of young prospects being given a chance on the mound in Toronto this year. It should at least be interesting to watch.  

Jeremy: It could be good, sure. But there are just too many question marks to truly believe they will be good. They basically need bounce back years from Stroman and Sanchez, hope for good health from Shoemaker, and pray that Richard and Buchholz can get outs. I’d love to see them give a shot to Ryan Borucki and Sean Reid-Foley but I doubt they break camp with the team. 

Mike: The rotation looks a lot better now with the addition of Bucholz. Even with the Blue Jays rebuilding, I always say they at least need a somewhat respectable rotation or else it makes for an incredibly long season when playing 19-times against the the powerhouse Red Sox and Yankees. If Bucholz, Marcus Stroman, and Aaron Sanchez can remain relatively healthy (and that’s a big if), their rotation should do pretty well. If they do end up getting injured, the good news is that unlike previous years, Toronto has plenty of solid starters in reserve down in Triple-A, including Sean Reid-Foley, Sam Gaviglio, Thomas Pannone, and Trent Thornton.

Joshua: The Blue Jays probably have one of the biggest variances in rotation performance of any club. Right now the rotation consists of four players who spent most of the year injured (Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, Matt Shoemaker, Clay Buchholz) and Ryan Borucki (I refuse to accept that Clayton Richard – another guy who ended the year injured – will beat him for the gig). If everybody stays healthy, there’s actually some pretty good upside for this group. Not division-contending upside, but good enough to help the team beat its current projections.

Shaun: The rotation looks like a mixed bag of average effectiveness. That said, Aaron Sanchez has looked good early on this spring. If he can return to previous form, this rotation looks that much better. Marcus Stroman says he is feeling good after battling some physical issues last season. They have the potential to be an effective 1-2 punch. After that, what the Blue Jays get out of their rotation is anyone’s guess. Additions of Clayton Richard, Matt Shoemaker and Clay Buchholz mean that Ryan Borucki gets bumped to AAA, but considering how many question marks surround the previously mentioned trio, don’t be surprised to see him back in Toronto in short order. He’s earned it.

C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?

Kate: If the Blue Jays finished anything other than fourth place, it would be pretty shocking. It will be nearly impossible to be worse than the Orioles, and the Jays don’t have much of a chance of catching either the Red Sox or the Yankees. If everything swings right, they could possibly surpass the Rays, but they are a team that the Blue Jays have really struggled to beat. If the Jays were the AL Central, the outcome could be very different, but sadly they will have their work cut out for them in the “AL Beast”.

Scott: As you can probably gather by now, the feeling for 2019 is that it would be nice if this was a video game and we could simulate the season. Other than Vlad Jr. and some other prospects, this year will probably be relatively uneventful as the team builds up to contention in 2021 and beyond. It will be interesting to see how well the farm system performs at the big league level, but losing baseball is only fun to watch for so long regardless of how many homers Guerrero is hitting at the Rogers Centre.

The Blue Jays and Orioles will be in a race to the bottom this year in the AL East and who wins (or loses?) really depends on injuries and roster moves. I don’t think the Blue Jays will be too concerned about their win totals after April or May, so whether they finish four or fifth is pretty irrelevant to the front office. If they get a year of good development from guys like Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Danny Jansen, Sean Reid-Foley, and Ryan Borucki, etc. then I think it will be considered a successful year.

Jeremy: 2019 will be a rough year in terms of wins and losses. But I think it will be a fun year with all the kids coming up. I hope that Vladdy, Biggio, Bichette, and company all get a chance. Luckily the Orioles are in the same division so Toronto should avoid the cellar. 

Mike: This is a difficult question simply because of how well they’ve been playing of late in the Grapefruit League. For a so-called rebuilding team, they are absolutely crushing teams lately. Their solid play this spring is making it tricky to predict what could happen during the regular season. Because they’re such a young team however, they’ll encounter plenty of growing pains throughout the course of the lengthy 162 season. I see them being a .500 team.

Joshua: That rotation upside notwithstanding, there really isn’t much hope for this Blue Jays club. The best they can probably hope for is a record around .500 and even that could be tough. They’re a firm fourth in this division. Not as good as Tampa, but not nearly as bad as Baltimore.

Shaun: The general outlook is one of optimism. It isn’t the usual playoff hope kind of optimism that other teams have, though. Instead, it is the excitement that we will see a host of young talent make their way to the big leagues, that we will see the construction of a future built around some very high end talent. As well, I’m excited to see what new manager, Charlie Montoyo, brings to the field. His approach is vastly different than John Gibbons and it will be fun to watch a different style of play in Toronto. Thankfully, the Blue Jays play in the same division as the Baltimore Orioles, so a 4th place finish is what you can expect, with the Os taking up the basement.

C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?

Kate: There are a couple big questions for this team going into the season. First and foremost, which rookies will thrive at the big league level and prove to be a part of the next great team? The Blue Jays have picked up several young players in trades over the past couple years, and they have cleared playing time for them by shipping off veterans, so it’s time to see what they can do.

Secondly, which trade chips will build up the most value? Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman and Ken Giles all seem to be poised to be shipped off at the deadline this year if they can accumulate enough value, in addition to Justin Smoak, Kendrys Morales and every single player acquired in the offseason.

Lastly, does this team look like they can be a contender in 2020? The front office will seek to determine whether there is enough of a strong core based on homegrown players they’ve developed in addition to any players acquired from outside the organization to switch gears from their re-tool and begin the next competitive wave.

Scott: The biggest question for the Blue Jays going into the season is how they will turn this farm system full of potential into a contender by 2021. There’s no immediate question that needs to be solved in 2019, but the year will be more about beginning to piece together answers to questions still a few years away.

It’s one of the most depressing feelings as a sports fan, going into a season knowing that the year is going to be a write-off. That being said, if fans see the big picture it could still be an exciting year to dream of success with some of these young guys as part of the future core of the team.

Jeremy: How many of the kids will get a chance? As I said above I hope that most will get a call up at some point. My guess is that we’ll see Vladdy and maybe Bo Bichette. That’s it. 

Mike: I think the biggest question is who hits leadoff. The Blue Jays have lacked a true leadoff hitter since 2015 when they had Ben Revere for the final few months of the season. I’d like to see them find a hitter of some quality to fill that role and set the table for the heart of the order that will include Guerrero, Justin Smoak, and Kendrys Morales. Although he doesn’t draw a ton of walks, I can see Lourdes Gurriel Jr. hitting at the top of the order. With his speed, hustle, and ability to hit for contact he should do just fine in that role. And once Bo Bichette is ready to make the jump to the majors (which shouldn’t be too long now), the Blue Jays can insert him into the second spot and have a very good top of the order that includes Gurriel, Bichette, and Guerrero.

Joshua: I suppose there are two main questions: What will happen with Stroman, Sanchez, and Ken Giles; three pitchers with tremendous upside who have been hurt or ineffective and are free agents after 2020. Will they pitch well and be traded? Or will some of them be extended?

But the main question has to be about the improvement of the young players on this roster. Nothing will determine the future of this club more than that. If Lourdes Gurriel Jr. Vlad, and Danny Jansen (and later Bo Bichette) all show signs of reaching their lofty ceilings, then it becomes easier to invest in putting a winner on the field in 2020.

Shaun: The biggest question is how many of the young players coming up will assert themselves into future plans of this organization. We know about Vlad Jr, but can guys like Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette, Nate Pearson and others force themselves into the conversation? Can guys like Ryan Borucki and Sean Reid-Foley take their game to another level? Outside of that, will Aaron Sanchez return to form? The answer to all of this is to let the season play out. 2019 is not a playoff year, so let’s see what the Blue Jays can do to lay the foundation to return to one.

C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?

Kate: After sitting through a couple years of an older and slower team, or which the above average players couldn’t stay healthy or consistent with their performance, there is a slight sense of excitement brewing this year. There will be a much needed injection of youth and speed that has been mostly absent over the past few seasons, and there will be more players on the roster with much higher ceilings. It will likely be another season or two before we are able to see just how high those ceilings are, but watching those elite skills develop and seeing just how much potential there is should be exciting. Some of the most memorable games last season came toward the end of the year when the young players called up late season contributed significantly to miraculous 9th inning comebacks, made nifty defensive plays and had some offensive explosions to boot. I’m sure there will be many growing paints to come, but this team should be far from dull. I’m also looking forward to seeing if new Manager Charlie Montoyo and his analytic friendly staff will make a significant and positive difference with the team.

Scott: This is the easiest question of them all, as there’s only one answer that can be given. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is destined to be one of the biggest stars in the major leagues for (hopefully) decades to come. The chance to get to watch some of his first at-bats at the big league level will be very exciting and give some meaning to the 2019 season. If he has a big debut season, I think it will go a long way to helping fans ignore the struggles that go along with following a rebuilding team. At least going down to see Vladdy Jr. in person at the Dome will be dirt cheap this year!

Jeremy: Vladdy. Enough said. 

Mike: I look forward to watching a team play under a new manager. Thankfully, Charlie Montoyo brings a fresh approach to how the Blue Jays will play the game. Previous manager John Gibbons was far too predicable and it made for some terribly boring baseball. I expect the Blue Jays under Montoyo to be far more aggressive on the base paths.

Joshua: I was tempted to just say “Vlad Jr.” and leave it at that. He’s the answer though, and I don’t think it’s close. The club has never had a prospect like him in its 43 year history just on a talent level, but Vlad also just seems to truly love playing the game and that radiates out to the fans. 

Shaun: This team will be fun to watch because of the influence of manager, Charlie Montoyo. We’ve already seen him go with an unorthodox shift against Bryce Harper this spring. He put 4 guys in the outfield and everyone else on the right side of the diamond. The Blue Jays will have more young, athletic pieces with which Montoyo can feel free to experiment with on both sides of the ball. Bet you thought I was going to say Vlad Jr.

My thanks to these guys and lady for all their thoughts on the Jays.  If you are in for a rough season, better you’ve got a legendary prospect to watch than not, huh?

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