TORONTO — Seven months and 67 wins later, the Toronto Blue Jays ended up in almost exactly the spot everyone expected them to be in when spring training opened in February.
A non-contender sitting in fourth place in the American League East, sandwiched between three really good teams and one epically bad outfit residing in Baltimore.
The kids arrived and were good.
The pitching staff got hurt and was bad.
Via trades, the front office let more current talent escape than what was brought in.
All in all, Blue Jays baseball in 2019 went pretty much by the book.
“It didn’t come without a ton of frustration,” Jays GM Ross Atkins said Tuesday as he broke down the year in his annual post-mortem inside Rogers Centre. “We obviously understand how difficult that was for fans, it was very difficult for us. But now we shift our focus to continuing to build upon this young core and feel that we have the flexibility and an incredible opportunity ahead of us to do that.”
By now, most are aware of what went wrong in 2019 and why, so let’s look ahead to 10 questions the Jays and the Atkins-led front office will try to answer this off-season.
Will this off-season be different than last year’s quiet winter?
On the surface, the answer is yes.
Last year was about moving out veteran players — Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, Kendrys Morales, Kevin Pillar — in order to open up playing time for the youth, and that process gradually took place over the course of the summer as the Jays transitioned from one of the oldest position player groups in baseball to one of the youngest.
Along the way, the front office learned a whole lot about which players are long-term pieces and, more importantly, the ones who aren’t.
This off-season should be different, and has to be if the Jays truly want to take a step forward in 2020, after three seasons of taking giant leaps backwards.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be free agency, but the relative inactivity that defined last off-season isn’t expected to be the case over the next four-and-a-half months, and the front office is in position to be more aggressive now that they have a better handle on what’s in the cupboards and the holes they need to fill.
“It’s not good enough to have depth,” Atkins said. “We have to have guys who can contribute in significant ways and I think what I can tell you, what I can tell you is that our off-season will look much more like it did after ’15, after ’16, where we’re much more open to different structure and term.”
Is the pressure on this front office regime to significantly improve the roster heading into 2020?
Atkins and president/CEO Mark Shapiro being under contract for just the 2020 season has created some outward intrigue surrounding how ownership views where the franchise currently sits.
Make no mistake, the plan Shapiro presented to Rogers when he came aboard in 2015 definitely had an element of this type of pain to it, but the long-term sustainability of an organization that drafts and develops well is what drew them to the group of Clevelanders.
That plan takes time.
But a plan is a plan and results are results, and at some point the latter will matter.
Will that be the case in 2020?
Likely not, but this winter and next season should be seen as the final stretch of low expectations, and there is without a doubt a certain level of pressure to go out and improve the major-league roster, which wasn’t the case as recently as a year ago.
Jumping from 67 wins to the 85-90 range — it took a staggering 96 wins just to claim an American League wild-card spot this year — you need to call yourself a legit contender won’t happen in one off-season, so it has to start now if they want to be a team that’s taken seriously in 2021 or 2022.
They’ve definitely heard the fans’ discontent with the situation.
“Listen, it’s just not what I focus on,” Atkins said. “We see it as an honour and a responsibility that comes from passion. It comes from the passion of this fan base. They care deeply about winning and we’re trying to do that to the best of our ability as quick as we possibly can. We just want to do it in a way that’s lasting, not in a way where we’re hoping from year to year but in a way that that’s what sustainable means for us, is that it’s lasting.”
How do you improve the starting rotation?
There was a point this season that the Blue Jays were rolling out two starting pitchers and then piecing together the rest of their rotation with scrubs and openers.
That has to change.
But don’t just look at free agency as the avenue for the Jays to improve.
“We’ll look to add pitching in every possible way and free agency is obviously one way,” Atkins said. “We’ll consider trades if they’re there, and we have to continue to think about developing the core that is here.”
While buying a mid-rotation starter for, oh, maybe $40 million or so over the next couple of years would be a good start — Jake Odorizzi, Rick Porcello or Dallas Keuchel, anyone? — there’s also a chance the trade market is where Atkins can make a splash.
Figuring out where some of the pieces fit positionally this past season gives the front office a better picture of where the surpluses are in the system, allowing them to find a creative trade or two in order to add viable rotation arms.
The issue, as everyone around baseball knows, is that every single team is always searching for pitching, making it really hard to acquire.
Right now, only Matt Shoemaker, who needs a new contract, and 26-year-old Trent Thornton, who just posted a 4.84 ERA across 154.1 innings, are seen as rotation favourites as the roster stands today.
Will the Jays be in on any of the top free agents?
There’s no doubt who’s the best starting pitcher on the market this winter.
Potential Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole is hitting the market at the age of 29 and coming off a season that saw him post a 2.50 ERA and strike out 326 hitters across 212.1 innings.
He’s the definition of an ace, and you’re going need to back up a Brinks truck and hand out significant term, always a dangerous proposition when it comes to pitchers, in order to secure his services.
While Atkins says they’ll investigate every tier of the free-agent market, Cole will be left for the major players.
The next tier is intriguing.
Zack Wheeler, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Odorizzi are all coming off nice seasons and will have a number of suitors, which is likely to drive up the price.
After the uncertainty surrounding the overall market the last two off-seasons and the reluctance from front offices around baseball to hand out large contracts, how much that trio will cost remains to be seen.
Atkins seems eager to add some impact to the rotation, however.
“The way we think about it is there’s value in every aspect of the market,” Atkins said. “At the very top, there’s significant value. There are going to be deals that have massive numbers attached to them that end up being great deals for teams. And then there’s going to be deals that have significant value at the bottom in free agency numbers, but we just want to make sure we’re making, we’re doing the best of our ability to pick the right players and whether or not they cost X or Y is not what we’re focused on. But we’ll have the opportunity to consider all of them.”
Will Vladimir Guerrero Jr. be able to stay at third base?
As expected, the Jays will give Vladdy Jr. another year at the hot corner, but they want to see him put in the work needed over the next six months ahead of opening day on March 26.
What does that mean?
First and foremost, it’s about working on his body and dropping some weight heading into spring training. He told me recently that losing 15 to 20 pounds is his goal.
From there, with better conditioning as his base, they want to see him take more ground balls in the off-season, something they’re hoping to help him do by getting him to their facility in Dunedin for a good portion of the winter, rather than allowing him to train on his own in the Dominican Republic.
“We’re committed to giving him this off-season to do everything he can to put his best foot forward there,” Atkins said.
Atkins also admitted there’s ongoing evaluation on a month-to-month basis.
While there were flashes of ability in 2019, the defensive numbers were ugly to begin his career.
Of 32 third basemen that played at least 500 defensive innings, Vladdy Jr. ranked dead last in defensive fWAR at minus-8.0 and dead last in Ultimate Zone Rating at -9.4, while Defensive Runs Saved liked him a whole lot better and assigned him a minus-3, 22nd overall at the hot corner.
He also committed 17 errors in 94 starts at the position, tied for second most in baseball.
Do you keep or trade closer Ken Giles?
The Jays came oh-so-close to dealing Giles to the New York Yankees in July, but uncertainty surrounding the health of his elbow helped quash that trade.
While you may be able to question his health and whether he has the demeanour needed to close out postseason games when the lights are the brightest, there’s no doubting Giles’ stuff.
Across 53 innings this season, Giles struck out 83 batters on his way to posting a pretty 1.87 ERA and closing out 23 of the Jays’ 67 wins.
Atkins, unsurprisingly, was non-committal when asked if they’ll market Giles to contenders this winter, but he definitely didn’t go out of his way to say the 29-year-old won’t be traded.
Unless the Jays go out and unexpectedly make a flurry of moves to load up and make a run, there’s little reason to hang onto Giles if you’re offered a solid package of prospects in return.
The other option is keeping him until next year’s trade deadline, but we’ve seen what can go wrong with that strategy (hello, Josh Donaldson).
Other than adding pitching, what other areas of the roster can be improved?
This is one of the reasons the Jays may not be as close to turning things around as some may believe.
The rotation needs to be overhauled and the bullpen needs depth, but there are also obvious holes in the lineup, as well.
They may not be able to patch them all in one winter.
Centre field, both in the near-term and down the road, doesn’t have an obvious solution.
Most of the depth options currently on hand fit better in the corners, and the one who can play a capable centre field, 27-year-old Jonathan Davis, isn’t expected to hit enough to make an impact.
They’re set to head into the year with Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire sharing duties behind the plate, and three quarters of the infield is locked down by Guerrero, Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio, but first base is another story.
Currently, Rowdy Tellez is the only internal option, but the jury is out as to whether he’s anything more than a quad-A player with an ability to hit home runs in an era where everyone hits home runs.
Maybe Vladdy Jr. ends up there by 2021, but it’s clear an impact bat at one of the corner infield spots will be a need.
For all the talk about how much pitching the Jays need, let’s not forget that the offence scored 4.5 runs per game, good for 12th in the American League.
With many of the organization’s top young players now big leaguers, when does top pitching prospect Nate Pearson arrive?
Last year at this time, we knew the cream of the position player prospect crop would be arriving shortly, and that came to fruition with Guerrero being summoned in April, Biggio in May, and Bichette in July.
Pearson’s timeline could be similar, but isn’t as certain, and there are a few more wrinkles when it comes to the 23-year-old flamethrower.
Expect to hear his named bandied about as a ready-made rotation option next spring.
Based on the results — a 2.30 ERA in 25 starts across three levels — it’s reasonable to believe Pearson could find success from the jump and be one of the club’s better starters next April, but with just three Triple-A starts on his resume and an innings limit to navigate, the likely scenario is that he ends up back in Buffalo to begin the year.
If that happens, they could try to limit his workload early on — the five-inning/two-inning rotation they put him on to begin 2019 would work — before letting him loose and calling him up in June or July.
After throwing a career-high 101.2 frames this year, Pearson will likely be held to around 140 innings in 2020.
Are there any other prospects on the verge of contributing?
If you go through MLB Pipeline’s top 30 Blue Jays prospects, it’s a very different situation than a year ago.
Instead of having a group of players closing in on the majors at Double-A and Triple-A, most of the organization’s top prospects are now at least a year or two away from being legitimate options.
If you take MLB’s top 15, left-hander Anthony Kay, the No. 4 prospect who has already arrived, and Pearson, the obvious No. 1 in the system, are the only players who are expected to contribute.
There won’t be the same type of roster overhaul internally throughout the 2020 season that we saw over the last six months.
That’s neither good nor bad; the pipeline is simply in a different state and there isn’t a whole lot of impact help on the immediate horizon like there was last year.
A Giles trade could quickly change that, as could a creative trade that shifts organizational redundancy and surplus into an area of need.
What defines a successful 2020 season?
Ask 10 different people and you may get 10 different answers, but that’s because it’s October.
Give it four or five months for the real response to be crafted, and it will be pretty easy to figure out the front office’s internal expectations simply by watching what they do this winter.
The easy answer is this: Incremental improvement.
Going from 67 wins to 90 wins isn’t realistic.
But improving by 10-15 wins may not be out of the question when you factor in improvements by young players and a full winter of roster building.
“If you look at what happens from teams coming off 65 or 70-win seasons, we recognize there’s work to do,” said Atkins, doing his best to temper any sort of expectation of contention in 2020.