Frank Ammirante | October 21st, 2019
The Toronto Blue Jays entered the 2019 season with low expectations in a rebuilding year, so their 67-95 record was not surprising. The bright spot of the season was the development of promising young hitters like Bo Bichette, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Cavan Biggio, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The lackluster performance by the starting rotation was the main negative of this past year. Let’s delve further into Year Two of the rebuild for the Blue Jays.
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What Went Right
Bichette was the most impressive rookie for the Toronto Blue Jays, posting a .311 AVG/.358 OBP/.571 SLG slash with 11 HRs and 4 SBs in 46 games. His .384 wOBA (3rd among shortstops) and 142 wRC+ (2nd among shortstops) would have placed him in the elite ranks of the position, ahead of stars like Trevor Story and Gleyber Torres. The sky is the limit for young Bo.
Gurriel was in the midst of a breakout season before the injury bug struck, with a .277 AVG/.327 OBP/.541 SLG slash and 20 HRs in only 84 games. He has established himself as the everyday left-fielder for the team, as a free-swinger with strong power. He needs to improve on his 5.8 BB%, but it will be interesting to see what the young Cuban can do for a full season.
Vlad Jr. did not live up to the massive expectations, as he slashed a modest .272 AVG/.339 OBP/.433 SLG with 15 HR in 123 games. However, young Vlad did show an advanced approach at the plate, as his 17.7 K% ranked 13th among third basemen. He also improved as the season went on, posting a .293 AVG/.349 OBP/.452 SLG slash with 7 HRs after the All-Star Break.
Biggio showed terrific plate discipline, especially for a rookie, posting an elite 16.5 BB%, which would rank 4th in MLB, behind only Mike Trout, Yasmani Grandal, and Alex Bregman. Biggio turned it on in September, slashing .300 AVG/.424 OBP/.563 SLG with 4 HRs. The future is bright for young Biggio. His combination of power and patience is highly valuable.
What Went Wrong
When your team uses 21 different starting pitchers, you know that the rotation is a problem. Their best pitcher for the season was rookie Trent Thornton, who posted a 4.84 ERA (4.94 xFIP), 9.0 BB%, and 22.0 K%. He showed some bright spots, including a start where he threw seven shutout, one-hit innings against the Texas Rangers, but he looks like a number five starter at best.
Former top prospect Sean Reid-Foley did not show much in his brief stint this year, with a 4.26 ERA (6.26 xFIP), 14.0 BB%, and 18.7 K%. He really needs to improve on his control if he wants to stick in the big leagues. He might be better suited in the bullpen, as he has the stuff to eventually develop into a high-leverage option in the later innings.
Jacob Waguespack is another young arm with low upside. He posted a 4.38 ERA (5.20 xFIP), 8.7 BB%, and 18.8 K%. He’ll compete for a rotation spot in 2020, but it’s hard to view him as more than a depth piece due to his underwhelming stuff. Perhaps he would be better suited as a long reliever who can perform mop-up duty when the starter has a bad outing.
Thomas Pannone had a terrible season, with a 6.56 ERA (5.54 xFIP), 9.5 BB%, and 21.2 K%. There’s no reason for Pannone to ever start games on a competitive team, so it’s best if he’s used as organizational depth, honing his craft in Triple-A, in the hope that one day he could become a semi-useful long-reliever.
Impending Free Agents
The only notable free agent for the Jays is first baseman Justin Smoak, who struggled in 2019, with a .208 AVG/.342 OBP/.406 SLG and 22 HR. The Jays will let Smoak explore free agency, as they want to provide playing time to younger players like Rowdy Tellez. Starting pitcher Clay Buchholz is also a free agent and there is a chance that he is brought back to compete for a spot in the rotation.
The hope for many Blue Jays fans is that the front office attempts to pursue some veteran pitching to help bolster this staff. A couple of options that could come at a reasonable price are Michael Pineda and Jake Odorizzi. Both of these players have prospect pedigree and AL East experience. This signing, along with the return of Matt Shoemaker (who pitched very well before his season was derailed by injury), would be a first step to the rebuilding of this rotation.
2020 Players to Watch
The aforementioned young quartet of hitters (Bichette, Gurriel, Guerrero, and Biggio) are the most exciting players to keep an eye on for the 2020 season. However, the most important player to watch is young pitcher Nate Pearson. Pearson dominated the minors in 2019, posting a 2.59 ERA (3.12 xFIP) with an 8.6 BB% and 28.3 K% at Double-A. A brief stint in Triple-A showed some regression, as Pearson put up a 3.00 ERA (4.45 xFIP) with a 4.4 BB% and 21.7 K%. But this is a young pitcher with electric stuff, including a fastball that routinely exceeds 100 MPH. Pearson should be with the team by May and would immediately become the best pitcher in the rotation.
The Blue Jays have a ton of talented young hitters, but the team really needs to improve the pitching staff. There’s a chance that the Jays could become a .500 team if the young hitters continue to build on their rookie numbers, but they need to address the rotation in order for this hope to come to fruition. A rotation that includes Pearson, Pineda, Shoemaker, Thornton, and Wilmer Font as an opener (who was successful in this role in 2019), would at least make the team much more competitive in 2020.
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Main Credit Image: Embed from Getty Images