By: Dan Grant
In our newest 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.
How does the old addage go?
‘March comes in like a lion, but goes out like a lamb’.
It’s a lovely sentiment, meant as a harbinger of springtime, but it sure as hell isn’t about baseball. On the diamond, things are just the opposite. March begins gently enough. You’ve got split-squad and intrasquad games, weird lineups and guys focusing on process over results. The level-headed among us beg the casual fan not to put any stock into pitching results, to check exactly who that unheralded journeyman has hit his four home-runs off of, and to always, always settle down, just in general. Many don’t pay heed, and by the end of the month, fans can look like our friend down below.
The passion is fantastic, but it’s important to remember, this March is where the first iteration of the 2016 Blue Jays will be melded together; it won’t be the final version of team, not by a long shot. Remember the Opening Day lineup from last season? Jose Reyes was still entrenched at shortstop. Kevin Pillar was just a left field fill-in for the injured Michael Saunders. Dalton Pompey had won the job in center field. Dioner Navarro was the third catcher and was DHing. Drew Hutchison took the mound and was supported in the bullpen by untested rookies Miguel Castro and Roberto Osuna, as well as long-man Marco Estrada and lefty Colt Hynes, while Brett Cecil had been named the teams closer. Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris looked forward to being a big part of the teams starting rotation, picking up the slack for the injured Marcus Stroman.
Remember what happened next?
Pompey struggled and was quickly demoted. Pillar took over in center, leading to a tumultuous carousel of defenders in left until the acquisition of Ben Revere in late July. Castro initially stole the closer job from an injured Cecil before being sent to the minors; Osuna would then grab the role and never let go. Navarro missed much of the early part of the season with injury, but formed a dynamic tandem with Estrada, newly minted as a starter, upon his return. Sanchez moved to the bullpen after a stint on the DL. Norris was dealt in a package for David Price. Reyes, along with Castro, was dealt for Troy Tulowitzki. And so forth and so on- the crux of the roster wasn’t finalized until August, and even then, faces would come and go. Remember Danny Valencia? Steve Tolleson? Cliff Pennington? How about Jeff Francis and Felix Doubront?
All told, the Jays used 52 players on their big league roster last year, pretty evenly split with 28 pitchers and 24 position players. This was on a team that stayed relatively healthy during the season. It’s true that the bevy of mid-season trades inflated that number marginally, but it simply illustrates a key fact about baseball in 2016: depth is key. Nothing is going to go as you plan, and you need to try to prepare for every eventuality. Even on a Jays team that’s basically set (minus a few key role-based battles), uncertainty in key roles will rear it’s head again and again over the course of the 6 month schedule.
For any team loaded with superstar talent, the glue that holds that talent together is key. Just ask Mike Trout and Bryce Harper; you can’t do it all yourself. For this Toronto team, a lot of that glue lies smack up in the middle of the defense. Can these players again be as effective as Toronto needs them to be, and help this club push itself over the top?
The Turner Ward Ward
25. Reliever #7
Who’s in and who’s out? It’s one of the two truly open spots on the roster.
We took an in depth look at the Blue Jays Bullpen Build here.
24. The Fourth Outfielder
We tackled this one in last months 25 Deep, and nothing has yet come to fruition, though Ezequiel Carrera would be my bet.
23. Josh Thole (C)
22. Darwin Barney (INF)
An injured pitching elbow (yikes) will sideline Loup for at least the near future and he’s unlikely to start the season with the team. If you read our Bullpen Build piece linked to above, you’ll see that he might have been in-tough to keep his job anyway. Who will take his spot on the roster? Pat Venditte? Chad Giorodo? Does it have to be a lefty? The eight-ball is murky!
19. Justin Smoak (1B)
18. Jesse Chavez (RP)
17. Michael Saunders (OF)
16. Ryan Goins (2B/INF)
Our first glue guy is one that will likely have an evolving role this season. Ryan Goins will begin the season as the Blue Jays starting second baseman pretty much by default. With Devon Travis sidelined until at least early June, Goins will man the keystone bag with very little competition for playing time.
Goins won the hearts of more than a few bandwagon Jays fans during the stretch run last season, and for good reason. He’s an excellent defender at multiple positions and did an admirable job filling for in for an injured Troy Tulowitzki and then Travis, posting by far the best offensive numbers of his career in the second half. He split his time fairly evenly last season, playing 445.1 innings at shortstop and 537.0 innings at second, posting a +8 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) at short, and a +4 at second. A positive note for me is his types of plays he makes, particularly at second base. Fangraphs Inside Edge Fielding ranks the types of plays that players are asked to make during the season, and categorizes them by how likely an average player would be to make that play. Routine plays are 90-100% success rate, Likely plays are 60-90% and so forth and so on.
Where Goins shines is on Even plays, where the average fielder has a 40-60% chance of success. Goins completed 4 of 5 of these at second base in 2016 for an 80% success rate, and over three seasons and nearly 1200 innings at second, has posted a 75.5% number, which is outstanding. There are a lot of players that can make the Routine and Likely plays, and every now and again it’s nice if a player can make a play in the Unlikely or Remote categories, but having someone consistently making those Even plays is pure gold, because they could easily go either way. An extended inning here, a double play turned there — these things can really make a huge difference.
The bat is certainly an area for concern, improved though it was. As mentioned above, Goins posted career high numbers in the second half, with a .278/.321/.387 line. He did a good job in 2016 of improving his overall plate discipline; he swung at fewer pitches out of the strike zone and actually just swung less in general, seeing more total pitches and making slightly better contact when he did choose to have a rip. These are all positive developments and certainly seem like they should have a chance to be repeatable.
I think many see those second half numbers and don’t realize that they were propped up by an insanely hot August, which almost certainly won’t happen again in 2016. In 25 August games (23 starts) Goins hit .314/.442/.443, a huge leap from his career slash of .234/.281/.330. In September/October, while he was still better, those numbers normalized to .263/.324/.374, much closer to his career averages.
Most projection systems (ZiPS and Steamer in particular), say that he’s likely to come back to the norm. However, even if he can repeat those September/October numbers, Goins glove makes him a solid member of the roster, whether it’s as a fill-in starter or a roving utility man, when Travis returns.
15. Aaron Sanchez (P)
14. Chris Colabello (1B)
The Fernandez Fraternity
13. J.A. Happ (SP)
12. Drew Storen (RP)
11. Brett Cecil (RP)
10. Roberto Osuna (RP)
9. Marco Estrada (SP)
8. Kevin Pillar (CF)
Our next glue guy will play behind Goins, and is the man my wife refers to as ‘The Wood Nymph’. Kevin Pillar was one of the best stories in baseball in 2015, coming seemingly out of nowhere to take over center field for the Blue Jays and giving them 159 games and 4.3 WAR (Via Fangraphs version of WAR, or fWAR. According to Baseball Reference’s version of the stat, he was even more valuable, at 5.2 bWAR). To provide some context, that WAR ranked him second on the Blue Jays roster, behind only Josh Donaldson. That’s right: ahead of Bautista, ahead of Encarnacion, ahead of Russell Martin. Pillar’s bread and butter was his defense, where he posted 22 Defensive Runs Saved, good for 5th among all MLB outfielders. He was solid at the plate as well, slashing.278/.314/.399, popping 12 home runs and scoring 76 runs, even though most of his at bats came in the bottom third of the order. He also stole 25 bases and was caught only 4 times, an excellent success rate. He had a hell of a season. Can he do it again?
It’s that last stat that has many fans clamouring for Pillar to lead-off for the Jays this season, but I’m not a big fan of this idea. While Pillar definitely has repeatable skills, with a solid contact rate (83.3%, in the top third of all qualified hitters) and a low strikeout rate (13.5%), he also had the 12th worst BB rate in all of baseball (4.5%) in 2015 and his on-base percentage of .314 just isn’t what you want at the top of the Toronto order. It’s possible that he’ll improve his patience and also that he’ll see good pitches to hit in front of Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista, but even if Gibby experiments with him at the top of the order to start the year, I don’t think he’s long for the role. If he stays there, it might clip his wings on the basepaths; despite being a speed demon, former lead-off man Ben Revere stole just 7 bases in 56 games as a Blue Jay, as skipper John Gibbons wasn’t eager to risk running into outs in front of the Jays big boppers, and I can’t see that strategy changing this year. Pillar is perfectly suited for the 7th or 8th spot in the order, where he can hack away and utilize his speed before the line-up turns over.
The Blue Jays badly need Pillar to follow up his unexpected breakout with a solid 2016. I don’t think anyone expects him to be second on the team in WAR again, but if he can maintain his slash line, steal a few bases and continue to provide stellar center field defense, that will be a boon for a team that needs a steadying influence in the outfield.
7. R.A. Dickey (SP)
6. Edwin Encarnacion (DH)
5. Russell Martin (C)
Our final man up the middle is the one who wears the most gear. On a team filled with superstars, Russell Martin often manages to fly under the radar. Sure, he’s the face of a million Rogers ads, and he was the big free agent acquisition last off-season, but after the splashy mid-season trades, he quickly became an old hat in the clubhouse, rather than the new kid in town. It’s somehow easy to forget that last year was only Martin’s first with the Blue Jays; not as easy to forget is that he has four years and nearly $75 million remaining on his contract, which takes him to age 36.
Well worth the hefty price tag, Martin came as advertised for Toronto. He was an All-Star for the fourth time in his career and received MVP votes for the third straight year. He set a career high in home runs with 23 and had a .240/.329/.458 slash line in 129 games (117 behind the plate). His 3.3 WAR was good for third among qualified MLB catchers. No problems here!
Despite the fact that he just turned 33, there’s reason to believe that Martin might have an even better 2016, and it’s directly due to the severing of his partnership with knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. With Dioner Navarro now a member of the Chicago White Sox, the full-time Dickey-Josh Thole combo has been resurrected, and Martin stands to benefit.
In a truly outstanding piece at Capital Jays, writer Kyle Matte broke down just how badly catching Martin affected Dickey. I recommend that you read it in full, but my favourite quote from the piece was this:
To give you an idea of just how much punch catching the knuckleball took out of our All Star catcher, in his 120 games in a Blue Jays uniform, Josh Thole has hit .212/.283/.258… for a .250 wOBA. On days Russell Martin caught R.A. Dickey, he basically transformed into Josh Thole, and unlike Thole who simply gets removed from the lineup the following day, the physical toll of the knuckleball effect appeared to hinder Martin the following day, too.
The statistical breakdown of how much catching Dickey hurt him at the plate is truly astonishing. Please, go read the piece. I’ll wait.
Beyond how much it affected him at the plate, Martin also missed time with a thumb-injury sustained, you guess it, trying to grab the ol’ butterfly ball. While he might still catch Dickey here or there, not doing it on the regular should help him remain productive and healthy in 2016. This is hugely important, as catcher is one of the shallowest positions in the organization, and should Martin miss any significant time, the Jays would be in rough shape.
And yes, I’d love to see him leading off, at least until Devon Travis returns. He has a career .352 OBP and posted one over .400 just two seasons ago, when he was Dickey-free. It probably won’t happen, but a man can dream. Regardless, all hail Russ Martin, the king of the glue guys. Along with Goins and Pillar, he’ll be a key to whether or not this team is again great or merely very good.
4. Troy Tulowitzki (SS)
3. Jose Bautista (RF)
2. Josh Donaldson (3B)
1. Marcus Stroman (SP)