In case you weren’t aware, the Blue Jays were pretty mediocre for about two decades before 2015. There were underachievers, overachievers, and mediocre clubs. Superstars and busts. In the early part of this decade, Jose Bautista was usually the only reason you’d want to tune into a Jays game. Before him was Roy Halladay.
Expectations for this season are low again. Most prognostications have the club winning somewhere between 80-84 games. Again, mediocre at best.
But there are waves of talent on the horizon, ready to ride into battle to combat the behemoths in Boston and New York. The projected win totals may be accurate, but for the first time in a long time, the pipeline of young players is finally running through the big leagues, and not being peddled for older established stars. Assuming the playoffs are out of the equation, here are the storylines I’ll beeyeing this season.
Matt Di Nicolantonio & Asher Roth discussed these storylines and much more on the season preview episode of The 7th Inning Stretch Podcast.
1. Where In The Country Is Vladimir Guerrero Jr?
Vlad Jr hasn’t played since March 8 when he strained his oblique, but it was reported Tuesday he’s ahead of schedule. He’ll report to Buffalo once cleared to resume playing, and as soon as that happens, all eyes will be on the transactions page to see when he’ll make his Blue Jays and MLB debut. Conspiracy theorists believe it will happen on the road, so as to minimize distractions and media hoopla, and could on the road trip which swings through Anaheim and Texas, both cities where his father played, adding to the mystique.
Once he debuts, the focus will finally shift to his play on the field, whether he lives up to the billing as a generational talent and prodigious power hitter, and if the defence he was held down in Buffalo to improve is actually Major League calibre.
2. Blue Jays In The Outfield
Randall Grichuk, Teoscar Hernandez, and Billy McKinney all had strong camps and will vie for playing time around centre fielder Kevin Pillar. But Pillar is starting to feel like yesterday’s news, and certainly a feature of the previous administration. Reports indicate people inside the organization believe Grichuk to be the superior defender in centre, perhaps it’s time to move on from Superman and his cape. A trade of Pillar would open up more regular playing time for McKinney, and possibly a promotion for Anthony Alford, who also impressed in Grapefruit League action. It could also create a rotational spot for players like Lourdes Gurriel Jr, Brandon Drury, and (if healthy) Devon Travis.
3. The New Boss
How does Charlie Montoyo’s managerial style differ from that of John Gibbons, who sat in the chair since 2013? Gibby-haters long called for an increased use of small ball, and ironically this roster might be better built for it than any the previous manager ever had. But there’s more than those in-game tactics. Will his bullpen usage differ? Defensive shifting? (We’ve already seen him use the four-man outfield.) How about willingness to change the batting order, or the vigour with which he talks to umpires. I somehow doubt he’ll follow in his predecessors footsteps and lead the MLB for managerial ejections.
4. Health of the starting rotation
Ryan Borucki was the only member of the (scheduled) starting rotation not to miss time with injury last year. So of course he’ll miss his first 1-2 starts with an elbow issue. In 2018 Marcus Stroman (blister/shoulder), Matt Shoemaker (forearm), Aaron Sanchez (finger), Clayton Richard (knees) and Clay Buchholz (forearm/elbow) all spent time on the Disabled List. There’s finally some internal depth behind the first wave, with the likes Sean Reid-Foley, Thomas Pantone, Trent Thornton, and David Paulino all set to join the rotation in Buffalo. But without a high number of quality innings from the veterans, it’s going to make for a long year. With the exception of Borucki, each starter is a candidate to be traded later in the year, as the team continues to pursue its objective of younger players who fit into the competitive window of Guerrero and Bo Bichette. Speaking of which …
5. Progress of other minor league prospects
We all know Vlad is the big-name prospect, and Bichette is slowly starting to pull out of his shadow. But there’s an exciting group of players here. Names like Alford, Cavan Biggio, Reese McGuire, Kevin Smith, Rowdy Tellez and pitcher Nate Pearson will be the first fans look up when checking the minor league reports. The development of these players will be instrumental in bringing the organization back into the discussion of contention. As the Los Angeles Angels are proving, you can’t win simply by having the best player in the game. You need a foundation of strong players around the superstar, and that’s what the Blue Jays hope they have percolating.
6. The development of Danny Jansen as an everyday catcher
His rise through the minor league system has been swift, and the Blue Jays Catcher Of The Future Highway is littered with the carcasses of those who have come before him and didn’t make it. The focus will be not only on his continued offensive success, but his ability to call a game, manage a pitching staff, and control the run game and defence. He’ll have “veteran” Luke Maile to lean on, and fellow prospect McGuire pushing him from Buffalo, but the organization is hopeful he’s the main man behind the dish for years to come.
7. Jacks of all trades
For three years, we’ve heard the front office say they want to acquire players who can play multiple positions effectively. Everyone is looking for the next Ben Zobrist or Marwin Gonzalez. There’s been plenty of talk we’ll see Drury, Gurriel, McKinney, Travis, and Richard Urena move around the diamond. Their versatility will become necessary once Guerrero claims third base. Drury has been primarily a third baseman in camp, and hasn’t played the outfield since 2017. Gurriel didn’t spend any game time in the outfield in spring training. Will playing time be awarded to those who are hitting best? Will infielders be able to effectively play the outfield? Where is the balance?
8. Defensive Improvement
One of the talking points out of spring training last year was how much better the Blue Jays were going to be on defence. Then they came out in 2018 and were one of the worst teams on the field in Major League Baseball. They’ve addressed that by adding Freddy Galvis, a defensive wiz, to play shortstop every day. Hernandez is said to have made strides in left field and Galvis is working with Gurriel, who will play a lot in the middle of the diamond, and maybe a bit in the outfield. It’s possible Morales doesn’t have to wear a glove this year. Will Guerrero’s bat be enough to play him at third base if his defensive deficiencies are as pronounced as some advertise, especially if we’re to believe Drury is as adept as the manager says he is? It can’t be much worse than it was last year, but it seems there’s going to be an awful lot of innings spent on players fielding positions that are secondary to them.
9. Veterans On The Trade Block
As we move into July, if the Blue Jays are out of contention as expected, another summer of selling will get underway. Bullpen arms Bud Norris, John Axford, Daniel Hudson, and even Ken Giles will likely be available. You could probably find a home for Justin Smoak, Morales, or Pillar. However the most intriguing names will be Stroman and Sanchez. The Jays listened to calls on both this winter, but given their relatively low value after injured and ineffective seasons, there are probably better offers to be made. If both are healthy and excelling, they are the type of players who can help a contending club down the stretch, while also fetching the Jays more young bodies to add to their prospect cupboards. Both starters have playoff experience, and another year of club control; traits that are coveted by playoff-bound teams.
10. Elvis Luciano
Now that he’s made the club, will he last all year? At just 19 years old, he’s very inexperienced in pro ball. Does he get sheltered so much that his mistakes aren’t too damaging to the club or to his own psyche? Does his presence on the roster mean they need to carry 8 relievers all year to insulate him? Or will he shock us all and fast track his development into a power bullpen arm, a la 2015 Roberto Osuna?
I’m petitioning the Blue Jays official motto this year to be: “they may not be good, but at least they’ll be fun to watch.”
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