Playing Pepper 2018: Toronto Blue Jays

In 2009, before my second full season of blogging the Cardinals, I reached out to other bloggers to other teams to get insights on their clubs.  This year, instead of going through the teams alphabetically, we’ll approach it a little differently, spending a week with each division.  For the tenth straight season, get ready for the upcoming MLB season by playing a little pepper.  

Toronto Blue Jays
76-86, fourth in AL East
Website | Twitter

Last year’s Pepper

The Toronto Cardinals.  After this winter, when the Cardinals made two trades with the Blue Jays and had two former Redbirds sign as a free agent up there, it’s not surprising that this club has been on the minds of many in St. Louis.  (That third baseman they have up there has been part of that interest as well and the two teams end the exhibition season with games in Montreal.)  So what is going to happen with this club in 2018?  Will they be contenders or will there be a lot of buzz in July?  Toronto is a club that always has a lot of great bloggers ready to chime in and this year is no exception.  Settle in for an enjoyable read!

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

Ian: The Blue Jays didn’t bowl anybody over with their offseason moves but I think they did a really good job of back-filling the roster by improving their overall depth. They picked up some infield insurance in the form of Yangervis Solarte and Aledmys Diaz and the Jays outfield insurance comes in the form of Randal Grichuk and Curtis Granderson. They could do well by acquiring another pitcher or two (one starter and one bullpen arm), but for the most part, this is the 25-man roster.

Jeremy: I thought they had a decent offseason. The Jays are in a really weird place right now, in that they have a bunch of really good prospects that are a few years away but not quite ready, and they had a terrible year last year. What makes it extra awkward is that last year I don’t think the team was nearly as bad as they looked as they were decimated by injury and several players had off-years. So the front office had to figure out whether to blow everything up and build for 2020 when guys like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. would be here or try to squeeze another few years out of the current core. I would have voted for the latter, and so did the front office. The moves certainly weren’t splashy, but the Jays added depth to the bullpen, infield, and outfield that was sorely needed and improved the back of the rotation. All should help the club improve.

Joshua: While the Blue Jays offseason certainly wasn’t an exciting one – especially relative to some of the other clubs in the division – they ended the 2017 season with clear needs: Better infield depth, at least one outfielder, at least one starter, bullpen depth. They accomplished all of that. The biggest upgrades came in the form of the backup infielders (Solarte and Diaz), while Granderson and Grichuk should provide power production in the outfield. The pitching additions (Jaime Garcia and Seung-hwan Oh) also provide some level of upside, with very manageable floors. So all in all, it was a successful offseason that upgraded the floor tremendously while also still having some level of upside.

Shaun: Heading into the winter, the Blue Jays had their work cut out for them. Their 76 win season looked bad. You’ll hear lots about the injury bug infesting this roster. But, the real culprit of their demise was the fact that they had no depth to cover for injuries. Injuries to guys like Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Devon Travis, Aaron Sanchez meant that the team had to try and compete with Ryan Goins, Darwin Barney and a string of guys like Mat Latos and Mike Bolsinger.

So, this offseason, management went about addressing this. The Blue Jays pulled off a grand total of zero blockbuster deals, but brought in lots of depth in the form of Yangervis Solarte, Aledmys Diaz, Randal Grichuk, Gift Ngoepe, Curtis Granderson, Jaime Garcia and a host of other bullpen arms. Now, the issue the Blue Jays have is how they are going to find playing time for the depth they do have. So, yes. This club improved over the winter. It wasn’t as sexy an offseason as landing Giancarlo Stanton, but it has raised the floor of the team, which should make things very interesting this season.

Scott: I’m still on the fence with regards to how I feel about this offseason. The Blue Jays definitely did a lot of things, but I’m not sure any of them made much of an impact on the upside of this team. They went out and got Curtis Granderson and Randal Grichuk to play in the outfield, which screams treading water, coupled with adding Yangervis Solarte and Aledmys Diaz for infield depth. They also added a plethora of bullpen arms, including Al Alburquerque, Craig Breslow, John Axford, and Seung-hwan Oh. These moves all elicit a “meh” from me when looking at what the division rival Yankees and Red Sox did this winter.

While I think the Jays did improve in some positions compared to 2017, I don’t think it’s a big enough leap forward to strike fear into any of the top teams in the American League. This type of offseason seems to be the new norm with Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins steering the ship. Most transactions are safe, low-risk acquisitions of average players which keeps the roster in a middle ground between tanking and competing. The fact they came out and said that they would have hit the reset button last year if they didn’t have any fans to satisfy doesn’t fill me with a lot of confidence. If tearing it down was the best baseball decision (it probably was), then the team’s fans should not factor into that call. At the end of the day, this offseason extended the post-2016 run of mediocrity that seems destined to last for another year or two in Toronto. Hopefully not any longer…

Mike: The first moves the Blue Jays made were to acquire Aledmys Diaz and Yangervis Solarte, and I thought these were solid acquisitions given how injury prone our infielders have been not just last year but over much of their careers. But then Toronto went out and traded for Randal Grichuk and signed Curtis Granderson. When these moves happened, I was a bit confused and not all too happy. I didn’t like that Toronto was adding two strikeout prone hitters to a line-up already chalk-full of these sort of players. Since then, I’ve had a bit of time to mull it over and think a little more positively about both Grichuk and Granderson. Both players make our outfield defense much better…Grichuk has a huge upside (even if Toronto did have to part with a quality reliever in Leone)…and Granderson I think should still be capable of hitting lead-off, which Toronto desperately needs to set the table for Donaldson, Smoak, and Morales. Overall, these moves make Toronto a better club than they were at this time last year.

Alyssa: While the offseason seemed to go very slowly for all MLB clubs, I definitely think that the Blue Jays improved this offseason. Thanks to the new additions of Grichuk, Granderson, and Oh, I think the Jays improved their lineup and rotation/bullpen, compared to the 2017.

C70: A couple of trades sent Aledmys Diaz and Randal Grichuk from St. Louis to Toronto. What do you expect out of those two this season?

Ian: From a Blue Jays perspective, the Diaz and Grichuk trades came completely out of nowhere. Those moves weren’t on anybody’s radar, but I actually like the acquisition of both players. Not exactly the sexiest names when it comes to middle infielders and outfielders, but Diaz is some nice infield insurance and Grichuk is an improvement for the Jays in right field. 

It’s difficult to envision how much playing time Diaz will get in Toronto, so he may ultimately be a bench bat for the Blue Jays. Grichuk looks to be the Blue Jays’ everyday right fielder. Moving to a home run-friendly ballpark should give Grichuk a bump in his power numbers, and if healthy he should hit 30-plus home runs for the Blue Jays in 2018.

Jeremy: To be honest, I don’t really know. In a perfect world, Diaz wouldn’t have much of an impact as Tulowitzki and Travis would stay healthy, limiting his playing time. But that won’t happen. I hope for solid defense and a league average bat from Diaz when he’s called upon. I have higher expectations from Grichuk (hopefully in the 28-30 HR range), but the last time we brought in an outfielder with a high ceiling from the Cardinals it didn’t work out all that well so I have my doubts (see: Rasmus, Colby).

Joshua: While Diaz is probably the tougher to predict of these two players, he’s also the one who is least likely to have a huge impact. With the presence of Solarte, Diaz is really only backing up Tulowitzki. That said, even his poor 2017 numbers would be an upgrade over the Blue Jays backups last year, so an minor bounceback should be useful. Grichuk is essentially going to be Kevin Pillar with power. I think we’re going to see 30+ home runs out Mr. Randal, but an OBP at or around .300 and lots of strikeouts. He’ll also likely spend the vast majority of his time in right field, which should provide for some nice outfield defense. So all in all, we’re likely looking at approximately a 3-win player and huge upgrade over what the Blue Jays received from franchise icon, Jose Bautista, last year.

Shaun: Early commentary on Aledmys Diaz is that he is not in the best shape. This adds to the question mark he already came with. Will he be the previous All Star, or will he be the player the Cardinals sent to AAA? Maybe, he’ll be somewhere in between. Really, all he has to be is better than Goins and Barney, which we should be confident he can do.

Grichuk will enjoy hitting in the AL East. His power potential should play up in Toronto. And his defense is a major upgrade over what Blue Jays fans have seen over the last year. He’ll be replacing the 2017 version of Jose Bautista, so the bar for him is set rather low. That said, he has the potential to be the most impactful move of this club’s offseason.

Scott: I think I speak for a lot of Blue Jays fans when I say that I’m not too sure what to expect from those two this season. With St. Louis rarely crossing paths with Toronto, we never got to see a lot of Diaz or Grichuk in action unless we went out of our way to watch Cardinals games.

Based on what I’ve gathered since the trades occurred, Grichuk figures to be a positive replacement for Jose Bautista in right field bringing some raw power and solid defense to the position. With the way the ball flies out of the Rogers Centre, Grichuk should hit 25 home runs and provide some much-needed athleticism to an aging Blue Jays roster. Based on his time in St. Louis, I’m also expecting a lot of strikeouts and a pretty low OBP.

Diaz on the other hand is a little bit more of a wildcard. I’ve seen very little of him in game action, but he projects on paper to be an interesting low-cost acquisition. While the Jays starting middle infield will almost certainly consist of Troy Tulowitzki and Devon Travis, it’s realistic to assume at any point in the season that there is a 50% chance that one of them is on the 60-day DL. This opens the door wide open for Diaz, along with Solarte, to make a claim for extended playing time. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Diaz get 350+ plate appearances in the middle infield, and should be able to put up a pretty good batting line in the friendly Dome.

Mike: I wish I knew what a hardcore Cardinals fan/insider knows about Grichuk and Diaz. Based on what I’ve been reading in a lot of baseball forums, many Cardinals fans wish the best for Grichuk and said they would have liked for him to reach his full potential with St.Louis. Toronto has a knack for bringing out the best in power hitters (e.g. Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Justin Smoak), and fingers crossed Grichuk is just the next player to be added to that list. Diaz is interesting. I want to believe he can be every bit as good as he was in 2016, but I have no idea, and I think no one really does until he shows us again that he’s capable of hitting for a respectable AVG. Ideally, it would be great if Grichuk could establish himself as Toronto’s RF of the future and also prove to be able to cut down on those strikeouts. As for Diaz, if he can provide more offensively than what Toronto got from their utility infielders last year, I think that’s a good place to start with him and build from there.

Alyssa: The acquisition of Diaz and Grichuk were crucial signings for the Jays. I have been following Grichuk ever since his days with the St. Louis Cardinals. Since he will be hitting in the hitter-friendly ballparks that are within the American League East, I think he will improve both his hitting and defence while being with the Blue Jays. Earlier during Spring Training, Blue Jays starting SS Troy Tulowitzki suffered an injury and will not be ready for opening day. This gives Diaz a huge opportunity to show his skills to the Jays coaching staff, in hopes of gaining a roster spot/starting lineup job. Both Grichuk and Diaz have shown flashes of brilliance, but they both lack consistency. If they are able to play well throughout the majority of the season, they could be a big part of the Blue Jays hopeful success during the 2018 season.

C70: What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Ian: The Blue Jays starting rotation carried them into the playoffs during the 2016 season and an injury-decimated rotation last year really hurt the team’s chances. I think a lot of people are underestimating how good this starting staff could be in 2018. With a healthy Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ, factor in a Marco Estrada who figured things out and Marcus Stroman (who is nearly a top-10 pitcher), and you have the makings of a solid starting rotation.

Jeremy: I mentioned this in the first question, but this team really wasn’t as bad as they looked last year. Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Devon Travis, Russell Martin, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, and Roberto Osuna all missed chunks of the season. It’s hard to compete when so many of the core players are out. To ask for a return to health for all of those guys might be far-fetched, but talk that Toronto is entering a significant down year might be a bit premature.

Joshua: The Blue Jays’ position player depth is formidable, which is something they haven’t been able to say in over a decade. In addition to the aforementioned Diaz and Solarte, the Blue Jays have one of the best minor league outfields ready and waiting in AAA in Anthony Alford, Teoscar Hernández, and former top prospect Dalton Pompey. They also have 2017 breakout prospect Danny Jansen ready to take over at catcher if Russell Martin were to get injured, with Reese McGuire ready to help out as a glove-first backup. This is a far cry from last year when the Blue Jays used six different catchers, 13 different outfielders, and gave a combined 821 plate appearances to Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney.

Shaun: People will sleep on the Blue Jays because of the division they play in. The powerhouse Yankees and Red Sox have, and will continue to steal headlines. And, that’s OK. The Blue Jays will be happy to play under the radar. People will overlook their overall depth, which they should be able to weather thanks to their moves. That said, people will overlook the starting rotation the most. Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Jaime Garcia and a healthy Aaron Sanchez will be a solid group of 5 that will use their ability to get weak contact to carry this team. Book it!

Scott: I think one thing people may overlook about the Blue Jays is just how old they’ve gotten. Curtis Granderson is 36, J.A. Happ and Russell Martin are 35, Marco Estrada and Kendrys Morales are 34, Troy Tulowitzki is 33, while even their ‘young’ superstar Josh Donaldson is 32. When you look around the division at a team like Boston who have all their stars in their 20’s, it’s definitely not a good place for Toronto to be in. This Jays roster is currently not as good as the Yankees or Red Sox, and yet this will be the most competitive they ever are. I fear that after this year, the front office will have no choice but to begin a full-scale rebuild and wait for some of the top prospects to make their way through the system. As we’ve seen with the Cubs and Astros in the last few years, the truly great teams usually have an infusion of young talent to go along with productive veterans. The Blue Jays don’t have a ton of young talent aside from some of their pitching staff, and their veterans just aren’t that productive anymore. Sigh…

Mike: Good question. One thing that really bothers me about the Blue Jays is how often they strikeout. With so many strikeout prone players, this is a serious problem that has yet to be addressed. The few potent bats that Toronto does have, Donaldson, Travis, Smoak, will need to remain healthy or else the Blue Jays offense in 2018 could look much like it did in 2017 when they ranked last in the AL in runs and AVG.

Alyssa: I think that people will overlook the depth of the Blue Jays 2018 Team. Not only do the Jays have great prospects in their farm system, but they have several great relievers and backup/bench players on the 25-man roster that should play a pivotal role in the Blue Jays possible success this year.

C70: Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Blue Jays to do well?

Ian: Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins has mentioned this numerous times, but it’s difficult to envision the Blue Jays being competitive without Josh Donaldson. He only played 113 games in 2017, but still managed to post a 5-win season. Donaldson has done nothing but play MVP-calibre baseball for the Blue Jays and I’d expect him to continue that trend in 2018.

Jeremy: Aaron Sanchez. He won the American League ERA title in 2016 then only threw 36 innings across 8 starts due to blister issues last year. A rotation of Stroman, Sanchez, Happ, Estrada, and Jaime Garcia looks great on paper, but if Sanchez is limited again this year the Jays don’t have a replacement for him.

Joshua: With all the mention of offensive depth, the real key to the Blue Jays this season will be the pitching – and the upside of this rotation lies entirely in the hands (and especially fingers) of Aaron Sanchez. In 2016, Sanchez put up 192 innings of a league-best 3.00 ERA. Last year he threw just 36 innings thanks to a constantly recurring blister problem. If he’s healthy and clear of those issues, this could once again be one of the best rotations in the American League. If not, the Blue Jays will be in tough to grab one of the wild card spots.

Shaun: Aaron Sanchez. No question. If he is healthy after his 2017 blister issues (and early signs say he is) the Toronto Blue Jays will be in contention all year. Think about how many starts went to Latos, Bolsinger and the like. Replacing mediocre starts with 25 or so from the former AL ERA leader will dramatically change Toronto’s fortunes.

Scott: I think there’s a lot of players that could be the answer to this question, including Troy Tulowitzki, Marcus Stroman, and Russell Martin. The guy I’ll go with though is Aaron Sanchez. He had a terrible season in 2017 with blisters limiting him to just eight starts. After such a dynamite 2016, it was a real disappointment to see the young righty essentially waste a year of development fighting such a nagging injury. Toronto really needs him to step up this year and help shoulder some of the load that Marcus Stroman took on by himself last season. Happ and Estrada aren’t getting any younger, so Sanchez and Stroman staying healthy is a massive key to the 2018 campaign for the Jays. If Sanchez misses extended time again this year, the team will struggle to finish any better than their 76 wins in 2017.

Mike: Josh Donaldson. As mentioned above, the Blue Jays offense even with such a talent like Donaldson is already thin. As Donaldson goes, the Blue Jays offense goes.

Alyssa: As I have said every season, the one player that must have a good year for the Jays to do well is Devon Travis. Devon Travis is a force to be reckoned with when he is healthy. However, we have not seen a healthy Travis for a large part of any season. As you may recall, last May the Blue Jays were doing very well and were edging closer to the .500 mark after the Jays began the season with a horrific April. Travis had a phenomenal May, and was a major part of the Blue Jays offence in May. Later in the season, Travis got injured again, and was not able to rejoin the team. Travis is one of the best all-around players on the Blue Jays roster, and when healthy, he is one of their best players on the field.

C70: What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

Ian: Given the team’s struggles last year, I’m apprehensive to give them a high win total, so I’m guessing somewhere around 84-85 wins for this team. The beauty of the second Wild Card spot is that very well could be enough wins to clinch a playoff spot; 85 wins got the Minnesota Twins into the 2017 Wild Card game, after all.

Jeremy: I’m always a February and March optimist, so I can see this team being in postseason contention. I know that everybody is already conceding the division to the Yankees, but you still have to play the games and I think the Jays have enough left in the tank to be in the conversation of at least the second wild card. Maybe 86-89 wins and playoff spot, but don’t make me put money on it…..

Joshua: The Blue Jays will finish the 2018 season with 87 wins and earn the second wild card. They will win that wild card game, then get crushed by Houston in the ALDS.

Shaun: Right now, the Blue Jays are projected to be a Wild Card team. I think that is a safe bet. However, if everything goes right, they could be a 90 win team. Now, that is a very optimistic outlook. It would depend on Tulo being Tulo. It depends on Sanchez. It depends on getting at least 120 games out of Travis. It depends on a lot. But, it is not out of the realm of possibility.

Scott: In 2016 I predicted 87 wins for the Blue Jays and was short by two wins. Last year I predicted 87 wins again and ended up overestimating by eleven wins. Despite Fangraphs actually projecting the team to win 87 games this year, I will break my personal trend and predict the Jays to go 84-78. While I think the team got better this winter, the Red Sox and Yankees are loaded and it’s going to be extremely difficult winning games in this division.

Toronto has too many aging players and the time to start a rebuild has already passed, but after another mediocre year the wheels will finally be set in motion. Band-Aid acquisitions have kept the Blue Jays in the conversation for 2018, but to compete with the beasts of the AL it’s going to take a few years of building a younger foundation before they have a legit shot at challenging for a World Series berth.

Mike: My expectations of this team aren’t what they were prior to the start of last season. If our starting rotation can remain relatively healthy, than Toronto could get a good number of wins from what is a solid group of starting pitchers. If they get 30 starts from each of Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, and Jaime Garcia, this team could win 88 games.

Alyssa: I think the Blue Jays will finish third behind the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox and above the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays. The success of the Blue Jays this season will majorly depend on the health of the starting rotation and lineup this season. If they are able to win around 85 games, I could see the Jays clinching the second wild card spot. I think they will be able to compete with the Red Sox and Yankees, but it definitely won’t be easy. The Blue Jays play the Yankees eight times in April, and I think those match-ups will determine the overall outcome of the Blue Jays season.

C70: What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

Ian: I’m surprised there wasn’t a Josh Donaldson-Cardinals trade rumour question! It was reported ad nauseam this offseason, but if the Blue Jays are completely out of the playoff picture come mid-season, I’m convinced the Blue Jays will trade Donaldson. Perhaps they turn to the Cardinals, as they could use an upgrade at the hot corner.

Jeremy: What do I expect to happen with Josh Donaldson? As I’m sure everybody knows, Donaldson is set to become a free agent after the season and he’s already said that he’s interested in exploring the market. So do the Jays let him get there or deal him in July? Obviously it all depends on where the team sits in the standings, but I might seriously consider dealing him regardless. Judging by his comments and based on how Toronto’s front office has operated in the last few years I don’t see him returning to Toronto in any scenario so we might as well recoup something while we can.

Joshua: What do we make of Roberto Osuna? If you just looked at ERA (3.38) and Saves/Blown saves (39/10), you’d think Osuna was a pretty mediocre closer, maybe even a bad one. But if you look at the underlying metrics, he looks like one of the very best relievers in baseball. He posted career bests in K/9 (11.7), BB/9 (1.3), HR/9 (0.4), and WHIP (0.859).

Thankfully for Blue Jays fans, the likely 2018 result seems to lean heavily towards the latter. His strand rate was an insanely low 59.5%, coming off years of 79.5% and 82.5%, which are much closer to the league average. His BABIP with runners on base was also extremely elevated, sitting at .350 which is nearly 100 points higher than his regular in play numbers. He should also have better outfield defense this year with Grichuk and Granderson replacing Jose Bautista and Steve Pearce, respectively. He carries some injury risk thanks to his extreme workloads, but Roberto Osuna should go back to being one of the elite closers in baseball.

Shaun: You should have asked about the farm system. The Toronto Blue Jays have seen their organizational stock rise. With Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette leading the charge, the Blue Jays have a Top 3rd system. They have several arms like Ryan Borucki ready to make some noise. They have Anthony Alford waiting for his big league shot after making his debut last year. They have a lot of younger talent like Logan Warmoth, Nate Pearson, Kacy Clemens, Ryan Noda and others who are primed to make some noise in 2018.

Former GM Alex Anthopoulos used a bevy of minor league talent to make a playoff push in July of 2015. It worked, but left a rather empty system. Toronto is starting to turn the corner and people will start to take notice in 2018.

Scott: I think the question that is on everyone’s mind north of the border is what to do with Josh Donaldson. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a very different answer. Some fans believe that he’s one of the best players the franchise has ever had and should be given a massive extension to make sure he stays in Toronto to finish his career. Others feel the team should take one more run at the playoffs with him in 2018 before letting him walk in free agency. Then you have the pessimists like myself who think the best course of action is trading Donaldson for young prospects to help quick start the inevitable rebuild that is right around the corner.

It seems as though the team has no intentions of re-signing Donaldson, so it’s probably best to acquire what you can for him before he leaves after the season with nothing to show for it. The only possible reason not to do this would be if the Jays expect to challenge for a division title this year, which would make trading for young prospects counterproductive. But I personally don’t see it happening, which means keeping Donaldson is shooting yourself in the foot long term. That being said, I highly doubt they have the guts to trade such a massive favourite in Toronto, especially when they’ve stated how they feel obligated to field a competitive team every year.

Mike: Why have the Cardinals and Blue Jays been making so many trades with each other this off-season? Just an assumption, but I think it might have something to do with how many discussions Ross Atkins and Mike Girsch must have had this off-season about Donaldson. And when they couldn’t figure out a deal for Donaldson, the conversation just naturally moved on to other players like Grichuk and Diaz.

Alyssa: I think a question you could’ve asked is if the Blue Jays are mediocre/not good half way thru the season, what should they do? Honestly, I would start the rebuild process. With prospects like Vladdamir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Anthony Alford, it’s hard not to get excited about the future. With Donaldson likely becoming a free agent come this next offseason, I would possibly consider trading him if there’s no possible way the Jays could make a wild card spot.

My thanks to everyone that took the time to give us the lowdown on the blue birds.  We’ll see if a little of The Cardinal Way makes it through customs for this season!

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