The Mitchell Report: Big questions surround Jays going into 2018
It’s been more than four months since the Blue Jays flew their separate ways for the winter when a disappointing 76-win season came to an end on the first day of October.
Since then, general manager Ross Atkins has been busy tinkering and adjusting an aging and injury-riddled roster.
The big changes most fans were hoping for? Not happening.
Instead, there’s been a focus on not only depth at the big-league level, but overall depth throughout the organization.
While that has been accomplished to a certain degree, the question everyone is asking is: Are the Blue Jays a contender again?
After all, that is the stated goal of the front office.
The answer probably depends on your definition of a contender, but once you factor in the return to health of a number of key players, projection models see the current roster landing in the range of 84 wins, which is to say they’re a fringe wild-card contender.
With pitchers and catchers reporting to Dunedin on the horizon next week, we’ll delve into each area of the roster this week and try to answer some pressing questions that will be facing the Jays in 2018.
Trying to predict what’s in store for the Toronto Blue Jays this season isn’t an easy exercise.
The variables and the question marks far outweigh the constants and the answers.
No matter what area of the roster you look at, there’s some finger-crossing involved – for different reasons, too.
Most are health-related, but there are questions about aging, upside, depth and production as well.
We’ve tackled the pertinent questions at each position group over the first four parts of this series, but here are five overarching points to debate in what promises to be a course-charting year.
The schedule still runs through September, but will the Jays’ start to the season tell the story?
We can confirm the season is still six months and 162 games, but the Blue Jays don’t have that kind of time.
The first two months of baseball will not only decide the season for the Jays, it’ll help set the direction for the future, as well.
If Josh Donaldson isn’t signed by Opening Day, the countdown to the July 31 trade deadline will start.
Aside from where negotiations stand and how realistic a long-term pact seems, where the Jays sit in the standings will play a role in where things go with Donaldson.
If the Jays look the part of contender during April and May – which is what the front office envisions – then trading their best player becomes even tougher than it already is.
If they stumble like last year, Donaldson’s expiring contract will be dangled in front of contenders all summer, and the Jays would be wise to cash that chip in, with the fallback being the compensation pick they’d receive if he walks as a free agent next winter.
How the Jays play early on will also decide the fate of free-agents-to-be Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Curtis Granderson, Steve Pearce and Aaron Loup, among others.
The worst-case scenario for GM Ross Atkins is a team hovering around .500 that’s probably more pretender than contender, but good enough to not completely throw in the towel on a wild-card berth.
Who’s the key to the Blue Jays’ hopes in 2018?
With so many things needing to go right for the Jays to get back into contention, it seems unfair to pin their hopes on one player.
That being said, Aaron Sanchez is absolutely the key.
In the next question we’ll go over the rest of the names looking to redeem themselves, but if Sanchez can’t get back to what he was in 2016, none of it will matter.
When you sit down and brainstorm ways the Jays could look more like the 89-win team of 2016 rather than the 76-win version of a year ago, it starts with the duo of Sanchez and Marcus Stroman atop the rotation.
Each and every American League contender boasts a strong 1-2 punch, and the Jays do have their own, health permitting.
If Sanchez and the Jays can find a way to manage his blister issues, the rotation has a chance to be really good, and it will help the 25-year-old righty get his career back on track after a lost season in 2017.
If the blisters persist, it will not only throw the future of the rotation into question, but Sanchez’s long-term role, as well.
Can the bounce-back candidates actually bounce back as much as the front office hopes they will?
How good the Blue Jays’ lineup is this season will likely be decided by the middle infielders.
If Devon Travis could ever stay healthy, he has a chance to be one of the better offensive second basemen in baseball, evidenced by his .292/.331/.462 career slash line.
Beside him, Troy Tulowitzki is simply being asked to go from below-replacement level to acceptable major-league shortstop.
His 2016 production – .254/.318/.443 with 24 homers and solid defence – helped Tulowitzki get to 2.9 WAR, but even that might be a lofty goal coming off a season-ending ankle injury at the age of 33.
Russell Martin and Steve Pearce also hit the disabled list multiple times in 2017 and need to rebound.
Underperformance was also an issue last season, and the two players the Jays are desperately hoping for more out of this year are Estrada (4.98 ERA) and designated hitter Kendrys Morales, who’s untradeable thanks to his $23 million owing over the next two seasons.
Morales was able to pop 28 home runs in his first season with the Jays, but that’s about all he brought as the soon-to-be 35-year-old’s walk rate continued to drop while his strikeout rate continued to rise.
The Jays will need the majority of these names to significantly improve in 2018, which is asking a lot.
What’s a realistic win total expectation for this roster the way it’s constructed currently?
Additional improvements could be on the horizon, but most of the Jays’ upside this season is baked into better health, anyway.
Currently, FanGraphs’ ever-moving projection sees the Jays as an 85-77 team, which would leave them one game back of the Angels for the second wild-card berth.
Conversely, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections, which were released this week, are a little more bearish on the Jays’ chances, forecasting a 78-win season and a fourth-place finish in the division.
The most interesting aspect of PECOTA’s projections have the offence improving to second-best in the AL East behind the Yankees and the pitching faltering in a way big, showing very little faith in Sanchez or Estrada.
Split the difference between the projection models and everything seems to be pointing to a team that hovers around .500.
What’s important about the next calendar year for this franchise?
The Donaldson decision is the focal point, but with each passing month the Jays are getting closer and closer to the next generation arriving in Toronto, which could make for an interesting marriage of past and present on the Blue Jays’ roster.
The odds are against Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette showing up in the big leagues later this season, but the possibility hasn’t been ruled out.
They’re close. How close will be answered at Double-A this spring.
It’s the same thing with outfielder Anthony Alford at Triple-A, which allows for some exciting lineup possibilities – perhaps, as soon as 2019.
As Atkins & Co. navigates through some crucial decisions, this will be the year the Jays really start to figure out where they stand as an organization and what their competitive window actually is.