By: Dan Grant
In our new monthly feature, intrepid Blue Jays fan Dan Grant takes a look at the current team roster and ranks what he finds within. An important distinction to make is that this set of rankings is not one designed to judge overall talent, current skill, potential upside or even strength of character. It is one simply designed to reflect how important the performance of the ranked players are to the success of the team, both in the recent past and near future. From top to bottom, who’s hot, and who’s not? And more importantly still, who needs to be?
This is 25 Deep.
February is an odd month in the baseball world. It’s the calm before the storm. Noisy free agent signings and roster moves leak from November into December. January was more active than ever this year, with free agents taking longer and longer to find homes. March is when Spring Training hits its stride, of course. But February? It’s no mans land. A minor trade might be made here or there, and sometimes there’s a free agent tweak lurking on the horizon, but most teams are pretty much set, the Blue Jays included.
With the addition of outfielder Darrell Ceciliani from the Mets last week, Toronto currently has a full 40 man roster. It’s one populated by most of the familiar favourites from last season; mid-season acquisitions David Price, Mark Lowe and Ben Revere have departed, as have Mark Buehrle, Munenori Kawasaki and Dioner Navarro. Other than that? Everyone is back!
The first 22 spots of the 25 man roster that will break camp in Florida are pretty much set. Unless there’s a huge spring training surprise or (knock wood) an injury of some kind, there isn’t much wiggle room. That isn’t to say there’s none. Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins have spent a lot of the off-season replenishing the depth that Alex Anthopoulos ravaged in his trade deadline spending spree, and the fruits of that replenishment are the names you see filling out the 40 man, or on minor league contracts. These acquisitions will be given at least an outside chance at competing for the big league roster, but none are likely to be around in the long term. Names like Gavin Floyd, David Aardsma, Brad Penny, Robursto Hernmona and Scott Copeland are likely slotted to provide depth in Triple A Buffalo, if all goes according to plan, but could play a role if things don’t. The thing is, those kind of guys are a necessity, because most of Toronto’s top prospects are at Double A or lower, or already with the big team. While you may see the likes of Anthony Alford, Connor Greene, Rowdy Tellez and Sean Reid-Foley in Major League camp, there is virtually no chance that they start the season with the big club, and in fact, there is little chance any of them see big league time this season, unless something goes horribly awry. Those are names you hope to see pushing for big league spots in 2017 and beyond.
If February is no mans land for baseball, it also is for this column. As an homage to Jonah Keri‘s now defunct ‘The 30’ feature of the late Grantland (RIP) we will group the players and take a deeper dive into one player per group. This first iteration will focus on the main questions key to a roster shooting for an AL East title defense. Throughout the season, the criteria will change slightly, as the rankings will attempt to both examine past performance and project future results.
Today, we write about the question marks.
Honourable Mention: Devon Travis. Underwent off-season surgery on his left shoulder to correct the injury that cost him the majority of his promising rookie campaign. He is loosely projected to return around June 1st.
If one of these guys has a good camp, they have a chance at forcing managements hand.
Joe Biagini, Steve Delabar, Brady Dragmire, Chad Jenkins, Arnold Leon , Blake McFarland, Ben Rowen Pat Venditte
These guys are in play for two or possibly three bullpen spots. Each of these names has positives and negatives attached. Biagini has to make the Major League roster or be offered back to San Francisco. Delabar is a former All-Star with control issues. Dragmire is just 22 and hasn’t pitched above A ball, but had a fantastic Arizona Fall League stint. Jenkins is out of options and can’t be sent down without clearing waivers. Leon is a converted starter who pitched well at Triple A last season but struggled in his brief stint in Oakland. McFarland was excellent across 2 levels in the Toronto organization in 2015 but is 28 and has progressed slowly. Rowen is an effective submariner, but barely cracks 80 mph with most of his offerings. Still, how do you argue with a 1.76 ERA and 0.98 WHIP over 225 minor league games? Venditte gained some brief fame a couple years ago because he’s a rare ‘switch’ pitcher. He can throw with both hands. But can he be effective with either? He was decent for Oakland last season, but it appears he would be most effective as a lefty specialist, meaning he’ll be competing with Aaron Loup, while the others do their best to unseat Bo Schultz, Ryan Tepera or both.
Matt Dominguez, Darrell Ceciliani, Junior Lake
The Turner Ward Ward
25. The Missing 4th Outfielder
The only everyday spot not completely locked in for Toronto is left field. Michael Saunders, who appears in the next grouping, appears to be a lock to grab either the starting job or at the very least, this fourth outfielder slot. If (and it’s a big if), he’s healthy, of course. He’s under contract at a good number and he’s a much needed lefty bat in a very righty heavy batting order. When he’s going, he gives you a nice power-speed combination, though it remains to be seen if the knee issues he went through last year will limit him at all on the basepaths. If he does lock up the starting job, which I think is the safest bet to start the season, then the club has several depth options. Dalton Pompey is the most talented of these, and he could platoon with Saunders in theory, but the team may prefer to have him playing consistently in Triple A Buffalo.
If this is the case, Ezequiel Carrera, Junior Lake and Darrell Ceciliani may have a good old fashioned mediocre-off during camp to see who starts the season in the majors. Jays fans are quite familiar with Carrera. He played 91 games for Toronto last season, though often as a defensive replacement, managing 191 plate appearances. He did hit .273 with a .321 on base, but managed zero power and whiffed 48 times. Also, for a ‘defensive replacement’, he put up a -10 in Defensive Runs Saved and a -10.1 in UZR/150 while spending time in all three outfield spots. Not ideal. Ceciliani hit a sizzling .345/.398/.581 in Triple A last season, but it was in the bandbox Las Vegas park of the PCL. Blue Jays fans may remember this as the park that helped JP Arencibia win a PCL MVP once upon a time, so take the numbers with a grain of salt. To wit, he hit just .206/.270/.279 in 39 games with the Mets and struck out 25 times in only 75 plate appearances. Woof. Even if you dismiss that as a small sample size, he managed only 9 home-runs in Triple A, despite his favourable surroundings, and he struck out 48 times in 255 plate appearances, to go with only 21 walks. Not encouraging numbers. He does offer speed, having stolen 21 bases in 26 attempts between Vegas and New York last season, which is a strong success rate. You’ll notice I haven’t said much about Lake; he’s been all-around unimpressive the past two seasons after a decent half-rookie campaign for the Cubs in 2013.
Personally, I’d love to see Pompey come in to camp and win the job outright, lefty-righty balance be damned. He’d look great hitting lead-off until Devon Travis returns and he has the most long-term upside of any of the names mentioned. A boy can dream!
24. Darwin Barney (INF)
23. Josh Thole (C)
22. Bo Schultz/Ryan Tepera (RP)
21. Aaron Loup (RP)
20. Justin Smoak (1B)
19. Jesse Chavez (RP)
18. Michael Saunders (OF)
17. Drew Hutchison (P)
Hutchison is one of two lynch-pins (along with Aaron Sanchez) in regards to how the rest of the pitching staff will be configured. If he comes in to camp and really wows, it’s possible that Sanchez will find himself back in the bullpen. However, as Sanchez is the more talented of the two, if the Jays are set on having him begin the season in the rotation, Hutchison could wind up starting the season in Triple A, as the first man up if there is any kind of injury in the starting rotation. I don’t think Toronto is ready to give up on him as a starter yet, as he’s only 25 years old. If they are, I actually think he’s a good sleeper candidate to become a future closer. Despite his struggles, he’s always been able to get strikeouts and has a potential wipeout pitch in his slider. Hutchison has been hit harder than most by the ‘third time through the order’ tax, so the bullpen might be his ultimate destiny. Regardless of what happens, a lot of Toronto’s future plans depend on how he performs to start the season.
16. Aaron Sanchez (P)
15. Ryan Goins (2B/INF)
14. Chris Colabello (1B/DH)
The Fernandez Fraternity
13. J.A. Happ (SP)
12. Drew Storen (RP)
11. Brett Cecil (RP)
10. Roberto Osuna (RP)
9. Marco Estrada (SP)
One of the first moves that Mark Shapiro made was bringing back Marco Estrada, and how could you not, really? The price was certainly right, as Estrada eschewed the chance to test the open market when he accepted the Blue Jays offer of 2 years and 26 million. It’s a ton of guaranteed money for the pitcher that led the National League in home runs allowed in 2014, but it’s also a bargain for the guy that posted the 5th best starters ERA in American League in 2015, and came up huge during the playoffs.
So the question now is, which Estrada will we get?
Many have pointed to the fact that Estrada’s success was buoyed by a Major League leading .216 batting average on balls in play. Predictive stats like FIP (4.40) and xFIP (4.93), which attempt to track the success of a pitcher adjusted for their team and for their park, certainly like Estrada a lot less than his ERA (3.13) showed. Should we be concerned?
He was definitely aided by Toronto’s strong defense, but that in and of itself shouldn’t be a worry, as that same defense is returning for 2016. In fact, the defense has a chance to be even better, with Kevin Pillar in centre to start the season and Troy Tulowitzki at short full time. Out of 78 qualified starting pitchers in 2015, he ranked 34th in terms of contact rate, slightly above average. However, he had the 11th best rate of induced soft contact in 2015, and ranked just 49th in hard contact. Hitters managed line drives on just 15.5% of their contact against him, second best in all of baseball (all stats per Fangraphs). In other words, guys are hitting him, but they’re not hitting him hard. This may be a product of using his excellent change-up on 28% of his offerings, the second highest percentage of any starting pitcher. He also had the 4th most effective change-up (per Fangraphs Pitch Values) but it may surprise many to see that he also had the 19th most effective fastball.
All this means what we knew already: Marco Estrada was really friggin’ good last year. But can he do it again?
Well, the loss of Dioner Navarro won’t help. Navarro caught Estrada for 19 regular season games last year and he worked to a 2.61 ERA over 119.2 innings. When Russell Martin caught him? 14 games, with a 4.11 ERA over 61.1 innings. It doesn’t look great, but this isn’t a death knell. Some perspective: Navarro caught the majority of Estrada’s games once he moved to the starting rotation, which is when he became most effective. Several of Martin’s 14 games came when Estrada was working out of the bullpen, either in high leverage situations or mop-up duty. His time with Martin is also a supremely small sample size; he gave up 28 runs in those 61.1 innings. If he had given up 25, the ERA becomes a much more palatable 3.68, with only three runs difference. If he had given up 22… well, you get the picture. Since Martin won’t be catching R.A. Dickey this year, and because of this magic invention called ‘video’, and because, you know, Estrada was actually there, I’m sure Martin will be a quick study, and be able to implement many of the same strategies that Navarro did. Whether or not they’re as effective? That of course, remains to be seen.
8. Kevin Pillar (CF)
7. R.A. Dickey (SP)
6. Edwin Encarnacion (DH)
5. Russell Martin (C)
4. Troy Tulowitzki (SS)
3. Jose Bautista (RF)
2. Josh Donaldson (3B)
1. Marcus Stroman (SP)
‘More important than Donaldson?’ you gasp. ‘More than Joey Bat Flip?’ you wonder. ‘More than the Wood Nymph, Tulo, Ed-wing and Speed Limit?’ you breathe.
‘Yes, sweet fool’ I admonish, lovingly. ‘Yes, he is’.
For anyone who hasn’t totally grasped the point of this column, it’s not a referendum on talent. The Blue Jays have the reigning AL MVP on their roster. They have four others who have received MVP votes and they have a roster littered with All-Stars. None of those people are Marcus Stroman, the first ever Sultan of Stieb’s Stallions.
More than any of his teammates, Stroman’s continued development is key to the success of the 2016 Blue Jays. The rest of them just need to be themselves. Stroman needs to be better.
33. 27. 177.
That’s the number of games, starts and innings Marcus Stroman has pitched in the big leagues, including playoffs. It’s not meant as an indictment, but it is meant to remind everyone of the obvious; that despite his strength of character, this guy is inexperienced. Despite his magnetism, he’ll turn 25 on May 1st. And despite his overwhelming talent, he is going to be tested. Two years ago, it happened when he struggled out of the bullpen to begin the season. Last year, it was a freak knee injury during spring training. Both times, he found himself and returned to lift his team. Both times, the team could have used him a lot sooner.
This year, they’ll need him at 100% for the long haul. His amazing recovery last season showed that he’s committed to making that happen, from a physical perspective. Anyone who’s watched him pitch or heard him speak believes that he’s capable of it from a mental perspective. He’ll be the lodestone for a pitching staff that features few foundational pieces. This makes him the most important player on the roster, because as dynamic as Toronto’s hitters are, there’s a huge portion of the game where they can’t contribute. Stroman is the lone burgeoning star on a pitching staff that needs one. Roberto Osuna and Aaron Sanchez may join him eventually, but in 2016? It’s the Stro-show.
The term ‘ace’ gets thrown around way too much in baseball, especially in this age of social media and 24/7 news cycle, which beget rampant rumours and a crippling need for narrative. It’s not that aces don’t exist, it’s that the term is applied too liberally; prematurely to those who don’t and won’t deserve it and speculatively to those years away from earning it. Marcus Stroman is not an ace, not yet. But he has the makings of one. 2016 is his next test, and the Blue Jays badly need him to pass.