Toronto Blue Jays 2021 Season Preview

 

       This year there are about 3-4 teams that I am not sure just how to predict. The Blue Jays are certainly one of them. They nearly beat out the Yankees for second place in the AL East, and they still made the playoffs. The team was also determined to spend money in the offseason, and while they missed out early in the offseason, they were able to improve with an amazing second half. That included one of the biggest fish on the market, center fielder George Springer.

Offseason additions: OF George Springer, IF Marcus Semien, RHP Kirby Yates, LHP Steven Matz, RHP Tyler Chatwood, RHP David Phelps, LHP Francisco Liriano, LHP Tommy Milone, LHP Travis Bergen.

Offseason subtractions: RHP Anthony Bass, RHP Taijuan Walker, RHP Chase Anderson, RHP Matt Shoemaker, 3B Travis Shaw, RHP Sean Reid-Foley, OF Derek Fisher, IF Jonathan Villar.

Trade Deadline 2020 summary

Acquired: LHP Robbie Ray, IF Jonathan Villar, RHP Ross Stripling.

Traded: LHP Travis Bergen.

2020 record: 32-28

2020 placement: 3rd

2020 WAR leader (batter): Cavan Biggio

2020 WAR leader (pitcher): Hyun-Jin Ryu

Starting Pitchers

The biggest area for concern with the Blue Jays entering 2021 is easily their rotation. They do have a legitimate ace, but afterwards things really fall off. Hyun-Jin Ryu proved that his 2019 NL Cy Young runner-up season was not a fluke, as he finished 3rd in AL Cy Young voting. Ryu had a 2.69 ERA with 72 strikeouts in 67 innings. He had just a 6.2 walk rate, with a 29.2 hard hit percentage. Ryu\’s main pitch is a slow curveball, which had a .185 average and a .261 slugging against, and it had just a 1478 rpm spin rate. The Blue Jays really need Ryu to stay healthy, because things will get ugly if he is injured. Robbie Ray always had walk issues, but those became more than issues last year. Ray was acquired at the trade deadline after he had a 7.84 ERA with 31 walks in 31 innings. Despite only making seven starts, he still allowed more walks than anyone in the National League. Add his 14 walks in 20.2 innings with Toronto, Ray walked an MLB leading 45 batters. He had a 6.62 ERA with 68 strikeouts in 51.2 innings. Batters also had a 91.6 mph average exit velocity against the lefty. Tanner Roark had been a dependable starter for a number of years, but his debut season in Toronto was easily his first. He struck out 41 batters in 47.2 innings, with a 6.80 ERA and a 6.53 xERA. Batters had a .539 xSLG against Roark, who also allowed a 13 barrel percentage. Batters also hit at least .300 against Roark\’s main three pitches each. The Blue Jays gave up three players for Steven Matz, who lost his spot in the Mets\’ rotation last year. Matz had a 9.69 ERA while striking out 36 in 30.2 innings. He also had a 7.09 xERA, a .302 xBA against and a .570 xSLG. Matz could not even limit hard contact, with a 49 hard hit percentage, and a 13.5 barrel percentage. At the very least, Matz has had a good Spring Training, striking out 12 while allowing one run in 10 innings. Closing out the Blue Jays\’ great rotation from 2016-17 is Ross Stripling, who was acquired from Los Angeles at the trade deadline. Stripling was a pretty good swingman for a few years, but had a rough 2020. Combined between two teams, he had a 5.84 ERA with a 6.49 xERA and a 91.2 mph average exit velocity. He could either start or come out of the bullpen, and that probably depends on Nate Pearson\’s health. Pearson walked 13 in 18 innings with a 6.00 ERA, but the team\’s top prospect can hit 102 mph, and he had a 2.30 ERA with 119 strikeouts in 101.2 minor league innings in 2019. Injuries have been a problem for Pearson, and he could start in AAA, or the alternate training site. 

Relief Pitchers

The Blue Jays are betting that Kirby Yates\’ elbow injury has healed. Yates allowed six runs with eight strikeouts in 4.1 innings before missing the rest of the year. Yates was arguably the best reliever in baseball in 2019, with a 1.19 ERA, 101 strikeouts and a league leading 41 saves in 60.2 innings. He had a .170 xBA and a .254 xSLG against, and his main two pitches, a split-finger and fastball, almost exactly spilt his strikeouts while each had a whiff rate of exactly 34.4%. Rafael Dolis pitched for the Cubs from 2011-2013, but reinvented himself from 2016 to 2019 in Japan, earning him a deal with Toronto. It worked in year one, as Dolis split closing duties with Anthony Bass, and had a 1.50 ERA with 31 strikeouts in 24 innings, while only allowing 16 hits. Dolis had a .170 xBA with an 85.4 mph average exit velocity, but he also had a 14 percent walk rate. Leading the Toronto bullpen early last year was Jordan Romano, before he missed time with a middle finger injury (yes, I am serious). Romano had a 1.23 ERA in 14.2 innings, while striking out 21 and allowing just eight hits. His high-90s fastball really showed off, as batters went 1-for-20 with a 52.4 percent whiff rate against the pitch. Ryan Borucki was a productive starter in his rookie season of 2018, but he missed almost all of 2019, before moving to the bullpen last year. Borucki struck out 21 in 16.2 innings with a 2.70 ERA. Batters went 2-for-26 with 14 strikeouts against Borucki\’s slider. His sinker averaged 94.8 mph, and in 2018 that averaged 91.5 mph. Tyler Chatwood can also be a starter, but after succeeding out of the \’pen in 2019, he will start there. Chatwood had 5.30 ERA with 25 strikeouts in 18.2 innings over five starts for the Cubs last year. His pitches have amazing spin rates, as his curveball had a 2977 rpm spin rate, and his cutter was at 2739 rpm on average. David Phelps had a 2.77 ERA with 20 strikeouts in 13 innings for the Brewers last year, but was traded to the Phillies and immediately experienced their bullpen curse. Phelps did strikeout 11 batters in 7.2 innings, but allowed 11 runs. He had an 85 mph exit velocity against despite a terrible barrel percentage of 14.6 percent. AJ Cole may be in camp on a minor league deal, but his performance for Toronto last year should earn him a spot. Cole had a 3.09 ERA with 20 strikeouts in 23.1 innings, but he had a 2.48 xERA with a three barrel percentage and a .292 xSLG. While his fastball dropped by one mph from 2019, its slugging against dropped by over 200 points. Another player who could start or come out of the bullpen is Tom Hatch, who had a 2.73 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 26.1 innings after an impressive camp. Hatch allowed an 86.4 mph average exit velocity, and his fastball had an average spin rate of 2598 rpm. Veteran Francisco Liriano did not pitch in 2020, but he had a pretty good season out of Pittsburgh\’s bullpen in 2019. Liriano had a 3.47 ERA with 63 strikeouts in 70 innings. Liriano had 60 hits allowed, but he walked 11.9 percent of batters. He had a 29 hard hit percentage and an 85.8 mph average exit velocity. Tim Mayza was a big part of their 2019 bullpen, but missed 2020 with Tommy John surgery. Mayza pitched in 68 games, and struck out 55 in 51.2 innings. He has allowed just one baserunner in 3.2 Spring Training innings. 

Catchers

The Blue Jays have an interesting catcher race, as it is possible for one player to start, or not make the team. 22 year old Alejandro Kirk skipped AA and AAA, and played in nine games last year. Kirk had a .400 OBP with a .983 OPS. He walked 56 times while only striking out 39 times in Single-A and High-A in 2019. If the team keeps Kirk down, then Danny Jansen will start. Jansen hit six home runs with just a .671 OPS last year. He did have a 14.3 percent walk rate, but Jansen\’s 85.1 mph average exit velocity was 10 mph less than Kirk\’s. He is the only catcher who is a lock to make the team, so at least he has that going for him. Reese McGuire had an .872 OPS in 30 games in 2019, but he went just 3-for-41 last year. He has just a 4.9 walk rate in his career as well. McGuire is out of options, so he could be DFA\’d so the team could bring up one of the non-roster invitees like Cole or Liriano. 

Infielders

Entering 2019, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was easily baseball\’s top prospect after hitting .381 with a 1.073 OPS in the minors the year before. His first two seasons have not been so eye-popping, aside from the 2019 Home Run Derby. He played in all 60 games last year, hitting nine home runs with a .791 OPS, a 50.8 hard hit rate and a 92.5 mph average exit velocity, while striking out just 15.6 percent of the time. That is above-average, but it doesn\’t compare to the second best prospect at the time, Fernando Tatis Jr. After -19 outs above average at third base in 2019, Guerrero moved to first base, where he had -2 OAA. Don\’t freak out, since Guerrero just turned 22. Bo Bichette followed up his great debut in 2019 by having a good 29 games in 2020. Despite walking just 3.9 percent of the time, he had an .840 OPS with five home runs and four stolen bases. Bichette had a .292 xBA while improving defensively. A right knee sprain cost him half of the season. 2019 MVP finalist Marcus Semien will move from shortstop to second base after signing with the Blue Jays. His OPS dropped to .679 in 2020 from .892 the year before. Semien had just a .203 xBA with a 28.6 hard hit percentage. His defense at short really fell off, with -7 outs above average, so moving away to an easier position should help. Semien\’s arrival will move Cavan Biggio to third base. Biggio decreased his strikeout rate to 23% in 2020, with a 15.5 walk rate. He hit eight home runs with six stolen bases and an .807 OPS. Biggio\’s versatility will help the Blue Jays a lot, as they do not have many bench spots. He can play second and third base, as well as all three outfield positions. Semien can also play short and third, while Joe Panik fills in as a utility backup infielder. Panik had a .640 OPS in 41 games for the Blue Jays last year. From 2015-2019, his highest strikeout rate was 9.7%, but that rose all the way to 19.1 percent in 2020. At the very least, it came with a career best walk rate of 14.2 percent. He was strictly a second baseman with the Giants and Mets, but the Blue Jays tested his versatility, playing him at third and shortstop. Another option is Santiago Espinal, a shortstop who had a .641 OPS in 26 games last year. Rowdy Tellez will be the backup first baseman, a DH option and a good pinch-hitter option. Tellez hit eight home runs with an .886 OPS, while nearly cutting his strikeout rate in half, down to 15.7%. He had a 90.7 mph average exit velocity, and a 95.8 mph against fastballs. 

Outfielders

The Blue Jays\’ signing of George Springer will complicate the outfield picture, as now the team has four good outfielders. After hitting 39 homers with a .974 OPS and winning a Silver Slugger in center field, Springer was one of the few Astros to not slow down last year, hitting 14 home runs with an .899 OPS. He walked 10.8 percent of batters with a .290 xBA and a .560 xSLG. Springer only stole one base, but he had an above average sprint speed of 28.2 ft/s. There are concerns with Springer not being able to be a center fielder for the long-run, but he did have two outs above average last year. The right fielder Silver Slugger went to Teoscar Hernandez in 2020 after he had a career season. Acquired in 2017 from Houston for now-teammate Francisco Liriano, Hernandez hit 16 home runs with six stolen bases, a .289 average and a .919 OPS. Hernandez also had a .294 xBA with a .608 expected slugging. He crushes baseballs, with a barrel percentage of 18%, a 93.3 mph average exit velocity, and a 53.1 hard hit rate. Two things that he did not do well was play defense, with -5 outs above average, and not strikeout, with a 30.4 K%. The arrival of Bichette in late 2019 pushed Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to left field, but he just kept hitting. In 57 games last year, Gurriel hit 11 home runs with a .308 average and an .882 OPS. He had a 49.4 hard hit percentage, and slugged .616 against breaking balls. Randal Grichuk is an above-average hitter, and he will have to split time between DH, the bench, and any open outfield space. He hit 13 home runs with a .793 OPS last year, which would have been higher if not for a 5.6 BB%. Grichuk had a pretty good 11.2 barrel percentage and a .463 xSLG. Jonathan Davis has good speed, and has seven stolen bases with a .582 OPS in 70 career games. He can be a 5th outfielder if the team needs one. 

Projected Rotation
Hyun-Jin Ryu (L)
Robbie Ray (L)
Tanner Roark (R)
Steven Matz (L)
Ross Stripling (R)
Projected Bullpen
Kirby Yates (R)
Rafael Dolis (R)
Jordan Romano (R)
Ryan Borucki (L)
Tyler Chatwood (R)
David Phelps (R)
Tom Hatch (R)
AJ Cole (R)
Francisco Liriano (L)
Projected Lineup
CF George Springer (R)
SS Bo Bichette (R)
RF Teoscar Hernandez (R)
1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (R)
2B Marcus Semien (R)
LF Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (R)
DH Randal Grichuk (R)
3B Cavan Biggio (L)
C Alejandro Kirk (R)
Projected Bench
C Danny Jansen (R)
1B Rowdy Tellez (L)
IF Joe Panik (L)

Projection 

Last year I didn\’t pick the Padres or White Sox to make the playoffs if they weren\’t expanded, because I felt that they were one year away. Now with the Blue Jays in a similar situation, I\’m making the same mistake again. The Blue Jays can definitely make the playoffs, and I won\’t be surprised. But that rotation is just awful, and you can\’t win with one good starter, even if that starter is not just good, but great. 

Published by carterhud

Carterhud.com. SI Kids Kid Reporter, Prime Time Sports Talk writer

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