The Toronto Blue Jays Aren’t The Juggernaut Many Thought They’d Become

January 13, 2023


The future appeared limitless for the Toronto Blue Jays at the end of the 2021 season. Though they finished 4th in the AL East, barely missing the playoffs with a 91-71 record, the underlying batted ball data told a different tale. The club ranked 5th in my year-end team true-talent rankings, the highest any non-playoff team has ranked since I began compiling them.

Their core position players were extremely young, the pitching staff featured Cy Young winner Robbie Ray and had been fortified by the midseason addition of Alek Manoah from the minor leagues and Jose Berrios via a blockbuster trade with the Twins. Their team defense was the club’s only identifiable weakness, they knew it, and would set out to fix it. What could go wrong?

Well, though the Jays did make the playoffs in 2022, it still had to go down as a disappointing campaign for them. They blew a massive lead and bowed out quickly in embarrassing fashion to the postseason debutante Mariners. Their regular season record was only a game better at 92-70, despite the loss of free agents Ray and Marcus Semien, with the club integrating catcher Alejandro Kirk, defensive ace third baseman Matt Chapman and outfielder Raimel Tapia into the mix at the expense of Danny Jansen, Cavan Biggio and Randal Grichuk. Meanwhile, a retooled rotation featured free agent signees Kevin Gausman and Yusei Kikuchi in place of Ray and the injured Hyun-Jin Ryu.

Along the way, Manager Charlie Montoyo was fired and replaced by John Schneider, Berrios’ performance deteriorated significantly, and franchise linchpins Guerrero and Bichette regressed and plateaued, respectively. The 2022-23 offseason loomed as a big one, with the club really needing to take the next step into the inner circle of World Series contenders.

And now that the smoke has cleared from the big-money phase of the offseason, the Blue Jays have seemingly moved........sideways?

Four primary transactions define this phase of the offseason for the Jays:

1 - Trade RF Teoscar Hernandez to Seattle for relievers Erik Swanson and Adam Macko

2 - Sign free agent RHP Chris Bassitt from the Mets (and lose RHP Ross Stripling to the Giants)

3 - Trade C Gabriel Moreno and LF Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to Arizona for OF Daulton Varsho

4 - Sign free agent CF Kevin Kiermaier from the Rays, allow OF Raimel Tapia to depart via free agency

Lets take these four deals as a unit and try to evaluate the pros and cons:

PROS:

  • Bassitt is a modest upgrade over Stripling. Qualitatively, they’re close, but Bassitt can be relied upon for more bulk.
  • I guess it improves the defense incrementally, as George Springer will be better in RF than in CF, and Kiermaier has historically been an exceptional defender. Of course, the idea of Kiermaier in center may be better than the reality, as he ain’t what he used to be.
  • Their lineup now has better lefty/righty balance with lefties Varsho and Kiermaier replace righties Hernandez and Gurriel.
  • Their pen is now deeper with the additions of Swanson and Macko.

CONS:

  • Moreno is a potential superstar. Yes, the Jays had excess at the catching position, with Kirk, Jansen and Moreno all in place. But they traded the guy with clearly the highest upside, albeit with arguably the lowest downside. Now, I could see trading Moreno if you were getting a true difference-maker in return, but.....
  • Despite his stellar mainstream 2022 numbers, Varsho is not that guy. Yes, he hit 27 homers, stole 16 bases, and is athletic enough to be both a former catcher and a present solid corner outfield defender, but his underlying batted ball profile is, shall we say, not good? His average liner (90.5 mph) and grounder (79.7 mph) exit speeds were both over a full standard deviation below league average. Toss in an unremarkable K/BB profile and an extreme grounder-pulling tendency (yes, I know shifts are out in 2023), and there is quite a bit of risk here. Varsho “should have” hit .222-.284-.396 last season for an 89 “Tru” Production+ mark, well below his 106 wRC+ per Fangraphs. Plus, the player he most reminds me of is fallen Jays’ star Biggio, another son of a big leaguer who had one big MLB season despite underwhelming underlying metrics, only to gradually fade afterward.

The Jays still have Guerrero, Bichette, Manoah and Gausman, a heck of an inner circle nucleus. Springer should remain productive in the near term. Kirk’s 2022 may represent an offensive peak, but he’s also a fixture.

But this no longer looks like an offensive juggernaut, and questions remain on the mound.

Sure, Guerrero could revert to his 2021 form and Bichette could take things to another level, and all will be OK. It’s unlikely that both of those things will happen immediately, however, and in Kiermaier and INF Santiago Espinal, there will be at least a pair of subpar bats in the lineup almost every day. In addition, Whit Merrifield and Matt Chapman’s best offensive days appear to be behind them. If Springer’s injury-prone ways continue, this will not be a top-tier offense, and for the Jays to reach their ceiling it needs to be one.

On the mound, their top three of Manoah, Gausman and Bassitt is superb. But Berrios and Kikuchi were arguably the two worst contact managers in baseball (Berrios’ 122 Adjusted Contact Score was worst among ERA qualifiers, and Kikuchi’s 156 was worst among, well, everyone) last season, and at present are slated for regular starting workloads in 2023.

So, the Jays are contenders, but based on where they were competitively and financially just two offseasons ago, they should be in a much better place. They haven’t used their assets efficiently, and haven’t developed their own talent optimally. Their ceiling remains among the highest in baseball, but their floor is lower than a top contender’s should be.



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