TORONTO — From 76 wins in 2017 to 73 wins a year ago, the Toronto Blue Jays are now hoping there’s nowhere to go but up.
In his first year at the helm, manager Charlie Montoyo managed to avoid the first 100-loss season for the franchise in 40 years, but a 67-95 record clearly isn’t a reason for celebration.
The difference between this year and the past two losing seasons is this one was fully expected, changing the dynamic and the feeling around the team as another 162 is in the books.
Losing with an aging group that was expected to contend is much, much different than watching a group of kids who are expected to be the future drop ballgames this summer.
The 2017 and 2018 seasons were the end of an era.
This season was the beginning.
Of what, you ask?
That’s the million-dollar question and only time will tell, but there’s a young core of position players in place that provides hope.
Now the front office is tasked with supplementing that group even further, and building a pitching staff capable of competing in the American League East.
But before we look to what’s in store this winter, let’s grade out the players who took the field in 2019:
C Danny Jansen - C
Coming off an impressive debut in 2018, Jansen struggled with the bat for much of the season, eventually losing playing time down the stretch and finding himself in a timeshare with Reese McGuire. Even though the offensive production was muted, Jansen took a major step forward defensively – he’s one of the best pitch-framers in baseball – which led to a 1.4 fWAR season, placing him ninth among American League catchers.
C Reese McGuire - B
Slashing just .247/.316/.366 with five home runs in 72 games for Triple-A Buffalo when he was recalled at the end of July, McGuire shined in a 30-game cameo, showing a whole lot more power than he did in the minors – 12 extra-base hits in 105 trips to the plate – and continuing to build on his excellent defensive reputation. McGuire and Jansen will form an intriguing tandem behind the plate in 2020 and Montoyo has already said either could end up being the starter.
C Luke Maile - D
After posting a 2.1 fWAR campaign in 2018 on the strength of his solid defence, the 28-year-old cratered with the bat this season after winning the backup job in spring training. Before suffering an oblique injury in July, Maile slashed just .153/.203/.243.
1B Justin Smoak - C
With the shift absolutely killing his batting average, Smoak has had trouble replicating his career year from 2017, but there was a little bit of bad luck involved this summer. Smoak posted a career high walk rate, but the power wasn’t there, partially due to a nagging quad injury, and his batting average on balls in play (thanks, shift) was sunk to a career low, offering hope for a bounce back in 2020.
1B Rowdy Tellez - C
At the age of 24, Tellez was gifted a chance to play regularly this season, showing a skillset that isn’t exactly in demand in today’s homer-happy game. Tellez did bash 21 bombs, but a sub-.300 on-base and a penchant for swinging at bad pitches earned him a demotion in July. The jury is still out heading into 2020.
2B Cavan Biggio - A
Called up at the end of May after scorching Triple-A, Biggio ended up leading Blue Jays position players in fWAR, despite playing in just 100 games. In addition to playing a capable second base, Biggio piled up 16 homers and 14 stolen bases, showing sneaky speed and proving that he’s already the best base runner on the team. He also finishes the year with a 29-game on-base streak, a Blue Jays rookie record. Fantastic debut.
3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr. - B
Grades are tough because it’s based on performance versus expectations, and those are different for every player. For some, Vladdy Jr.’s rookie season will be seen as a disappointment because of how high the expectations were coming in. Take away the expectations and the bloodlines and a .272/.339/.433 slash line and 15 homers as a 20-year-old is pretty impressive, but the numbers aren't otherworldly like some other youngsters around baseball have put up from the jump.
SS Bo Bichette - A
While Vladdy Jr. failed to meet the enormous expectations, Bichette somehow exceeded them, crushing the baseball and playing with swagger from the moment he arrived on July 29 in Kansas City. The glove at short was solid, the pop was surprising, and Bichette looks like an absolute star, slashing .311/.358/.571 with 29 extra-base hits in just 46 games.
UTIL Brandon Drury - F
The key piece in the J.A. Happ trade struggled mightily, posting a negative fWAR at -0.6 in 447 plate appearances. Versatility – he played six positions this season – is about the only thing he has going for him at this point.
OF Randall Grichuk - D
Handed a five-year, $52-million contract extension by GM Ross Atkins in April, Grichuk went out and had a typical Grichuk season. He continues to hit the ball hard and did crush a career-high 31 home runs, but his wRC+ was below league average. Grichuk said it was a down year and he’ll search for some answers this winter. The front office made him a part of the core and he needs to be more of an all-around contributor, not just hit the ball out of the ballpark.
OF Teoscar Hernandez - C
Shockingly handed the primary centre field gig early in the season, Hernandez actually held his own defensively, even if it didn’t look pretty at times. It was also a weird year at the dish for the soon-to-be 27-year-old. Power is the main component of Hernandez’s game, but he hit just three homers over the first six weeks of the season, earning him a demotion to Triple-A. Hernandez caught fire after the all-star break, hitting 18 home runs in just 52 starts to finish out the year.
OF Lourdes Gurriel Jr. - B
Another bat that needed some time in Triple-A to work out the kinks, Gurriel was finally moved to the outfield full time and has positioned himself to be the everyday left fielder in 2020 thanks to 20 home runs and a .277/.327/.541 slash line. His 1.8 fWAR in just 84 games is exciting and Gurriel could be in store for a big breakout in 2020 … if he can stay healthy.
OF Billy McKinney - D
The other piece of the Happ trade, McKinney missed a chance to carve out a role early in the season by posting a .636 OPS through the first two months and being sent back to Triple-A. It wasn’t much better when he returned and he continues to profile as an extra outfielder.
OF Derek Fisher - F
In the hours leading up to the July 31 trade deadline, Atkins packed up Aaron Sanchez, Joe Biagini and outfield prospect Cal Stevenson to acquire Fisher from the Houston Astros, a team loaded with outfielders. There’s an interesting blend of speed and power, but Fisher hit just .163 in 39 games, striking out an ugly 42 times in 92 at-bats.
Incomplete: OF Anthony Alford, OF Jonathan Davis, INF Richard Urena, 2B/OF Alen Hanson, OF Socrates Brito, 2B/SS Breyvic Valera.
Traded: 2B Eric Sogard, OF Kevin Pillar, SS Freddy Galvis (waivers).
SP Trent Thornton - B
Not one arm in the rotation, for various reasons, went wire to wire this season, but Thornton came the closest. Including openers, the Jays used a record 21 starters this season, the second-most ever behind the 1915 Philadelphia Athletics. Thornton showed glimpses of being a capable mid-rotation starter, throwing 154.1 innings and striking out 149 batters, but he also struggled with walks at times and gave up 24 home runs. He’s one of the only names you can confidently plug into the 2020 rotation.
SP Matt Shoemaker - B
Shoemaker looked like a nice buy-low roll of the dice from the moment he was signed last winter. Arm issues have ruined a number of Shoemaker’s seasons, but this time it was a torn ACL suffered on a freak rundown play that ended his season after five terrific starts. He’s a mid-rotation arm when healthy.
SP Jacob Waguespack - B
Of all the young arms Montoyo was forced to sift through this season, Waguespack showed the most. The numbers didn’t wow anybody and he finished with a 4.38 ERA, but the big 6-foot-6 right-hander has a deep repertoire and looks like a pitcher that could exceed modest expectations.
SP Clay Buchholz - D
The well-travelled 35-year-old has evolved into a great clubhouse presence, but the results weren’t exactly what he wanted in 2019. Once again, he spent a significant portion of his season on the injured list, and ended up with a 6.56 ERA in 12 starts.
SP Ryan Borucki - D
Unfortunately for Borucki, a bone spur in his left elbow sewered his entire season and limited him to just two big-league starts. The 25-year-old lefty is no stranger to elbow issues and while he’s expected to be ready to go in February, the 2019 season was a disappointing turn of events after he looked so good in his debut in 2018.
SP Sean Reid-Foley - F
SRF failed to build on a breakout 2018 season, falling back into his old ways of walking the world and giving up too many home runs. With rotation spots wide open all year, Reid-Foley failed to capitalize and he could find himself in the bullpen at some point soon.
RP Ken Giles - A
Giles was unhittable almost all year, finishing with a sparkling 1.87 ERA and 1.8 fWAR. In 53 innings, Giles whiffed a whopping 83 batters, providing Montoyo with a dominant ninth-inning option. If there’s one black mark on Giles’ season, it’s the mysterious elbow issues that kept him from pitching on back-to-back days for much of the summer.
RP Ryan Tepera - D
Worked hard in 2017 and 2018 with 141 total appearances, Tepera broke down this season, eventually undergoing surgery to remove bone spurs at the end of May and finishing the season with a 4.98 ERA.
RP Elvis Luciano - B
You might be asking how a pitcher with a 5.35 ERA and 24 walks in 33.2 innings gets a B grade. Being a baby-faced 19-year-old thrust into an unenviable spot as a Rule 5 draft pick is how. Considering the circumstances, Luciano’s first taste of pitching above rookie ball has to be considered a success, and the Jays will now be able to send Luciano back to the minors next season for more development.
RP Sam Gaviglio - B
Gaviglio was given a heavy workload out of the bullpen, and came within 13 outs of being the first Blue Jays reliever to throw 100 innings without making a start since Duane Ward tossed 101.1 frames way back in 1992. Gaviglio finished with a 4.61 ERA, but he provided a ton of quality innings for a beleaguered pitching staff.
RP Tim Mayza - C
Mayza was slogging through an up-and-down season when his left arm gave out in ugly fashion on a pitch, sending him crumpling to the ground on the mound Sept. 13. The result was a torn UCL and a torn flexor tendon, forcing to the 27-year-old lefty to quickly undergo Tommy John surgery, which will wipe out the next 12 months.
RP Wilmer Font - B
Acquired from the New York Mets for cash in July, Font quickly stepped into the opener role and found success. While the overall numbers – he posted a 4.59 ERA with three different teams – aren’t that pretty, the underlying numbers are solid and he was much better with the Jays, pitching to a 3.68 ERA in Toronto.
RP Derek Law - C
Part of the early-season Kevin Pillar trade, Law made 58 appearances and even closed out five games, but he finished with a 4.90 ERA and usually walked a tightrope.
RP Thomas Pannone - D
Another young arm who never could find a consistent groove, Pannone has trouble getting his 88-mph fastball by major-league hitters. The fact he’s a lefty means he’ll get multiple chances to carve out a role, but the stuff is far from elite and his 6.16 ERA in 73 innings this year backs that up.
Incomplete: SP Clayton Richard, SP Anthony Kay, SP T.J. Zeuch, SP Edwin Jackson, SP Ryan Feierabend, RP Jason Adam, RP Buddy Boshers, RP Jordan Romano, RP Brock Stewart, RP Zack Godley, RP Neil Ramirez, RP Javy Guerra, RP Jimmy Cordero, RP Nick Kingham, RP Zac Rosscup, RP Justin Shafer.
Traded: SP Marcus Stroman, SP Aaron Sanchez, RP Joe Biagini, RP David Phelps, RP Daniel Hudson.
GM Ross Atkins and the front office - D
Even though the 2019 season was a set-it-and-forget-it situation as the front office decided to let the kids play and figure out what they had on their hands internally, Atkins & Co. failed to piece together anything resembling a major-league rotation last winter and weren’t exactly creative in terms of trying to fix it on the fly. The jury is out on the trade deadline deals that shipped out Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez – both were panned by most pundits – and the Grichuk extension isn’t exactly looking good. With a contract that matches president Mark Shapiro’s term through 2020, Atkins & Co. are facing an important off-season in terms of adding to the core that they drafted and developed.
Manager Charlie Montoyo and the coaching staff - B
You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken you know what, and that’s exactly the situation Montoyo found himself in as a first-year manager. Pitching coach Pete Walker was churning through replacement-level arms all season long, while 34-year-old hitting coach Guillermo Martinez spent his days trying to fix a number of hitters with poor approaches. Montoyo brought defensive shifts and the opener along with him from Tampa, and both helped at various points, but his affection for bunting is something to monitor moving forward. All in all, it’s a forward-thinking coaching staff that worked well together, but talent and pitching is what wins ballgames.