TORONTO - After Ross Atkins appeared on TSN 1050’s OverDrive and compared the 2019 Toronto Blue Jays to the 2014 Houston Astros, a club on the verge of being a wild-card team the following season, I was asked Wednesday morning on First Up if the GM's assessment was realistic.
My answer was this: The Astros have always been one of the templates the current Jays regime has been trying to emulate, but I’d have to investigate the reasons for Houston’s 16-win jump – from 70 in 2014 to 86 and a postseason berth in 2015 – and what they did that off-season.
The next 800 words are the results of that high-level investigation.
First of all, the similarities in organizational philosophies are evident and have been for some time. That’s no secret.
At the root of it all is a strong position player group.
The Astros have Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and George Springer.
The Blue Jays have Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
Drafting and developing is at the core of everything, and in 2015 the investment in that started arriving and making a huge impact for the Astros.
Altuve was already a star, but Correa showed up for 99 games and won the American League Rookie of the Year Award with an .857 OPS, while Springer went from 1.9 fWAR in 2014 to 3.9 in 2015, accounting for a two-win improvement all by himself.
Bregman was just entering pro ball as the second overall selection that summer so he doesn’t factor into this discussion, but he’s helped turn a good offence into a great offence when he arrived a year later and then really started to develop in 2017.
The biggest gains made from 2014 to 2015 were on the pitching side.
In 2014, lefty Dallas Keuchel, at the age of 26, threw 200 innings and posted a 2.93 ERA, a big improvement over his 5.15 mark in 2013.
Another huge jump ensued in 2015 when he claimed the AL Cy Young on the back of a sparkling 2.48 ERA, 20 wins, and a horse-like 232 innings that led to a 5.6 fWAR, another two-plus win jump from a single player.
Collin McHugh, a 3.0-win arm in 2014, won 19 games, threw 203.2 innings and was worth 3.5 fWAR in 2015.
Lance McCullers Jr., the 41st overall pick in 2012, also broke into the majors for the first time with a dominant breaking ball and provided a 3.22 ERA across 22 starts, good for 2.5 fWAR.
That’s a pretty solid 1-2-3 punch atop the rotation, backed by an improving offence that ended the season seventh in baseball in runs per game at 4.5, well behind the powerhouse Blue Jays at 5.5.
The Jays will be able to score runs next season, but are those types of internal pitching performances on the horizon?
That could be a stretch for 2020 considering Trent Thornton leads all starters on the roster with 1.1 fWAR this season and the next best is Jacob Waguespack, who has made all of five starts, at 0.5
Could it happen in 2021? That seems much more realistic, assuming a couple of mini breakouts happen in 2020.
Predicting pitching breakouts is an exercise in futility, however.
So what outside improvements did the Astros GM Jeff Luhnow make that winter?
It was more about depth than big spending on impact talent, another similarity between Atkins’ strategy and the Astros’ model.
Jed Lowrie was brought aboard for $23 million across three years.
That one didn’t work out so well.
After one middling season and only 69 games played in 2015, he was traded away.
Outfielder Colby Rasmus for $8 million on a one-year pact provided value, as the former Blue Jay hit 25 homers and gave them 2.9 fWAR.
Trades for infielder Luis Valbuena (RIP) and defensively deficient catcher Evan Gattis helped provide even more depth and versatility.
But the bullpen was where Luhnow focused most of his attention, investing a total of $31 million in right-handers Luke Gregerson (three years) and Pat Neshek (two years), and then getting quality innings out of both of them.
It also helped that Will Harris (1.90 ERA), a savvy waiver claim that winter, and Tony Sipp (1.99 ERA) authored career-best ERAs, helping turn the worst bullpen in baseball — 4.80 ERA in 2014 — into the sixth best with a 3.27 mark.
Could the young stars that have arrived in Toronto this year propel the Jays to the seventh-best offence in baseball next year?
Will the rotation be able to match the Astros’ 3.71 ERA (eighth in baseball) and the 3.27 bullpen ERA?
With a 5.24 rotation ERA (25th in baseball) and a 4.14 bullpen ERA through 116 games so far this season, the former at least feels like a huge stretch when you look at the pieces currently in place.
A bullpen can be revamped and rebuilt each and every winter with the right moves, but unless Atkins has a winter trade or free-agent signing up his sleeve that pops out a Cy Young contender – the final step of the Astros’ rebuild was using farm system surplus to acquire top-of-the-rotation arms in Justin Verlander and current free-agent-to-be Gerrit Cole to help put them over the top – he may be a year or two early on the Astros comparison.
But the similarities of the rebuilds are there on many levels in the early stages, and that should provide hope.