Brace yourself, because this news may shock you... The Toronto Blue Jays might field a half decent lineup this upcoming season.
I, like many others, have been very critical of the work that the tandem of Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins have done in their time with the Blue Jays so far. Coming from small market Cleveland, it seemed as though they were trying to change the way things were in Toronto to put maximum talent together on a small budget.
To do so, the group was outbid for David Price (a bit of a blessing in disguise now), they let fan favourite Edwin Encarnacion walk and replaced him with Kendrys Morales, and left a sour taste in everyone's mouth as they shipped player after player out of town. Basically, they gave me zero confidence in their ability to run a bigger market team.
This year however, the front office shocked all with a more aggressive spending attitude. It started with the acquisitions of both Tanner Roark and Travis Shaw. While these moves don't seem like much to the average fan, by adding the two veterans the Blue Jays found some added stability in their rotation, and a quality middle of the order bat to fill out the lineup.
Their next big move was the one that got everyone talking, and brought a little hope for the front office into the fanbase. The Blue Jays shocked the baseball world and brought in the biggest remaining fish at the time with their acquisition of 2019 Cy Young runner up Hyun-Jin Ryu. The move gave the Blue Jays a bonafide number one starter on a rotation that has desperately needed it the last few years.
The Blue Jays now have seven or eight guys that could step into the rotation this season and compete for the team. This is a pretty big step for a team that used an opener more than any team not named the Tampa Bay Rays last season. If I'm picking the team today, my rotation looks like this.
1. Hyun-Jin Ryu
2. Matt Shoemaker
3. Tanner Roark
4. Chase Anderson
5. Ryan Borucki
The biggest question marks come from the four/five spots in the rotation. For me, I think Anderson's experience and Borucki's ability to dominate when he was healthy give them the leg up on the final two spots of the rotation. Unfortunately for them, it's looking like top prospect Nate Pearson is on track to do the same thing Vladdy Jr. did and join the rotation in May or June.
Personally, if everyone is playing to their potential, I believe the move to make is to slide Anderson into the long reliever role (something he is not new to) and to use Pearson and Borucki as the four/five guys. As established as Anderson is, you would still like to see your young arms getting as many starts as possible to continue their growth as Major Leaguers and to give this team the best chance to succeed for the forseeable future.
Some fun names to watch in the battle for the final spot will be Anthony Kay, Trent Thornton, and Jacob Waguespack. All three young starters showed some promise in their stints in the majors last season. Thornton, the more accomplished of the three, finished just nine Ks back of Merrill Kelly for the Major League rookie lead. He struggled to find consistency on the mound, but with a little more experience under his belt, the goggled wonder may be able to contribute at the back end of the rotation.
Kay and Waguespack are a bit of a different story. Both don't really have the track record to throw their names in as competitors for the final two spots in the rotation. However, they both showed flashes of quality starting pitching against legitimate Major League hitters last season. Either one of them could walk into Spring Training and impress their way into that rotation.
On the position player side of the ball, this could be one of the most exciting times we've seen in Toronto in a while. Last season, we caught a glimpse of what youngsters Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. could do at the Major League level. All three showed signs of being legitimate stars at different points, while trying to find consistency as youngsters in a league of grown men. If all three of them manage to perfect their game this season, then a 1,2,3 of Bichette, Biggio, and Vlad will be a lot of fun to watch all year.
Not to be forgotten is recently transitioned left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. The 26 year old Cuban was easily the best player on the Jays when healthy last season, and even managed to dazzle some people with his absolute cannon of an arm from left people. While injuries have derailed the start of his career a little bit, if he manages to stay healthy, then he will continue to be a top of the lineup hitter while filling a gigantic hole in left field.
The rest of the lineup has a few question marks, but those question marks should be answered by some legitimate talents. The first question is the situation at first base and DH. The most likely scenario is that Travis Shaw takes the starting role at first, with the DH spot going to either Rowdy Tellez or Teoscar Hernandez depending on the Blue Jays trust in Teoscasr's ability in center field.
Travis Shaw is my favourite asset in this situation. The former Milwaukee Brewer has the ability to play first, second, third, and even some outfield if need be. He has better defensive numbers than any infielder the Blue Jays currently possess, and brings an incredible amount of pop into this lineup with his bat. While last season was a serious off year for Shaw, he did manage to hit 30+ home runs, and 80+ RBIs in the two seasons prior. If he can manage to get anywhere close to that this season, while playing above average defence, then he will be a great piece for the Blue Jays all year long.
The biggest benefit to the likely first base situation, is that Rowdy doesn't have to play defence every night, and can focus on doing what he does best at the plate. This also allows Shaw to move around the diamond to give guys a night off, while plugging in a fresh Rowdy to man first base. Ideally, Teoscar can work out his issues in the outfield so that there is little question between him and Derek Fisher to see who gets everyday playing time at center as opposed to DH.
The other big battle on the team is the starting catcher position. Personally, I still believe that the role is Danny Jansen's to lose; but if Reese McGuire continues to do what he did at the plate in the final two months of last season, then we'll have ourselves a serious competition for who takes more playing time this year.
One thing that has impressed me with Reese this offseason is his eagerness to give himself the best chance to start for this team. This was demonstrated when the Blue Jays announced that they had signed Ryu. That same day, McGuire called former Dodgers catcher Russell Martin (Ryu's personal catcher last season) to get some tips and tricks on how to catch the Blue Jays new ace. He set himself up to lock himself into catching the Blue Jays number one guy right from opening day and that shouldn't be overlooked.
Jansen is no slouch either. The sophomore catcher finished last season with 13 HR and 43 RBIs as a catcher in 107 games played. While he struggled to find some consistency at the plate, he was a consistent rock behind the plate. He finished in some elite territory and managed to net a Gold Glove nomination at the catchers position, eventually losing to Roberto Perez of the Cleveland Indians. Jansen has a rocket of an arm and does a great job of cutting down the run game, something he holds over McGuire by a hair.
Barring any more offseason moves, I believe the opening day lineup should look like this:
1. Bo Bichette, SS
2. Cavan Biggio, 2B
3. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., LF
4. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 3B
5. Travis Shaw, 1B
6. Randal Grichuk, RF
7. Rowdy Tellez, DH
8. Teoscar Hernandez, CF
9. Danny Jansen, C
Bench: Reese McGuire, Brandon Drury, Jonathan Davis, Anthony Alford, Joe Panik
The final piece to the puzzle is the same thing that has burdened the Blue Jays for many years... the bullpen. This year, there are a few more promising pieces in the pen, starting with closer Ken Giles. Giles was statistically one of the better closers in the MLB before going down with an arm injury for a brief period of time. If he can bounce back to form, then Jays fans should feel plenty confident holding onto ninth inning leads.
After Giles I believe there are two locks that were with the team last year that weren't talked about near enough last season. The first of the two is Sam Gaviglio. Gaviglio quietly had a more than serviceable year last year, racking up 88 Ks in 95.2 innings out of the bullpen. His ERA is inflated, but his 1.11 WHIP is pretty impressive for a reliever on a pretty horrible team. His quietly good year has more than earned him a spot on this year's team.
The other name that comes to mind is Thomas Pannone. His numbers are pretty skewed by the fact that he was moving around from AAA to the Majors, and from the bullpen to the rotation all year long (7 of his 37 appearances were starts), but this kid has some really good stuff. There have been flashes of him dominating major league hitters already in his young career, and I believe with a bit more experience he will be a great piece in the Jays bullpen.
Outside of those three guys, the bullpen looks like it'll be a decision to be made once the starting rotation is hammered out. For me, I'm thinking something along these lines:
Closer: Ken Giles
Setup: Sam Gaviglio
Middle Relievers: Anthony Bass, Wilmer Font, Thomas Pannone, Sean Reid-Foley,
Long Reliever: Shun Yamaguchi
While it's definitely not competing with some of the better bullpens in the Majors, I think there are enough pieces to make this a competitive pen.
For Jays fans, there has been a whole lot of disappointment the last couple of years. I myself can admit that I had zero interest in attending games at the Rogers Centre last season after attending nearly 15 games the season prior. This year, however, there should be a bit of a buzz in Toronto come baseball season. This team isn't going to be the Toronto Raptors by any means, but don't be surprised if this group of youngsters are playing meaningful baseball in September of 2020.