25 Deep: The Blue Jays’ Adaptive April

By: Dan Grant

In our newest monthly feature (an homage to the great Jonah Keri), 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. 

Holy hell, it’s Opening Day this Sunday! Hoo boy!

Drink it in, Toronto. It’s time celebrate. This season is smooth and rich, like a perfect human specimen raised on a desert island. Then he comes to the USA, only to find out he has a brother!

Wait. That’s something else.

Anyway, the Blue Jays celebrated in style, naming the first iteration of the 2016 roster, rewarding some guys who had strong  adequate camps but mostly deciding not to decide. It’ll be an adaptive April for Toronto; as many as four players on the Opening Day roster could be gone by May.

In case you missed them, you can look at the February and March versions of 25 Deep here. The rankings haven’t actually changed much since the Jays haven’t played any games that matter, but we’ve worked our way through the roster and looked at potential questions marks. To date we’ve covered: Drew Hutchison (welcome to Buffalo!), Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman, Ryan Goins, Kevin Pillar and Russell Martin. We’ll make our way through the whole roster as the season progresses.

Today we’ll look at three guys who won jobs and a guy who might have a bit of an inflated reputation, as well as cheating and tossing in some shorter thoughts here and there, as usual.

EzequielCarrera1280_k4d7t077_9cucnppj

The Turner Ward Ward

25. Joe Biagini/Arnold Leon

Only one of these guys will be with the team past the first week of the season, as Marco Estrada’s DL stint has been backdated and he’s set to make his first start April 10th. My money is on Biagini, who has thrown plenty of strikes and shown good velocity. Leon has been fine, but his talent is nowhere near Biagini’s and he’s out of options, so I don’t think he’s long for the roster unless they can sneak him down to Buffalo.

24. Josh Thole (C)

23. Darwin Barney (INF)

22. Ryan Tepera (RP)

At the very beginning of camp, I said there could be only one (Highlander style, but way less cool), and shortly afterwards it was revealed that Bo Schultz had off-season hip surgery and would miss all of spring training. I’m not saying I’m a sorceror, but I’m not NOT saying that, if you catch my drift. So Ryan Tepera gets first crack at being the non-descript right handed middle reliever, but if Schultz takes his spot at some point and you don’t notice, don’t feel bad.

[Ed. Note- He couldn’t even wait for Bo. Goodbye Ryan, hello Franklin!]

21. Ezequiel Carrera (OF)

I wrote about the ‘Mystery Fourth Outfielder’ in an earlier version of 25 Deep, and detailed my thoughts on Carrera there. A brief summary, quoting myself:

He played 91 games for Toronto last season, though often as a defensive replacement, managing only 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.

Far from inspiring! Carrera won the job to begin 2016, so he must have had a great camp right?

Uh, well, about that.

Carrera played in 16 games, getting in 30 plate appearances. He posted a .154/.258/.346 line, which amounts to just four actual hits. Woof.

This would normally be something you could shrug off, especially if it was an established commodity. But the lack of confidence inspired by Carrera’s below average numbers from last year, combined with his sub-par spring at the plate are further exacerbated by the fact that his direct competition had the best spring of almost any Blue Jay.

Darrell Ceciliani played in 19 games, getting in 41 plate appearances and posted a sizzling .417/.500/.833 slash line, adding four home runs and leading the team in total hits with 15. However, he’ll be heading to Triple A Buffalo, likely just because he still has options and could be sent down without having to clear waivers, while Carrera doesn’t offer that luxury. I’d certainly expect to see Ceciliani in Toronto some time this season.

20. Gavin Floyd (RP)

Aaron Sanchez

Maldonado’s Misfits

19. Justin Smoak (1B)

18. Jesse Chavez (RP)

17. Michael Saunders (OF)

16. Ryan Goins (2B/INF)

15. Aaron Sanchez (P)

I chronicled the Jays fifth starter battle here, and Sanchez was my pick. Thanks for making me look good, Jays! I did think that Gavin Floyd would get first crack at it with Sanchez taking over later, but Toronto’s current strategy actually makes sense to me, because it gives them the highest potential ceiling.

If Sanchez comes out and is as good as he showed this spring, improving as the season goes on and developing into the kind of starter they hope he can be, well then that’s awesome for the team and you look good for trusting him out of the gate. Not to mention the fact that Sanchez put in a huge off-season, adding muscle and generally doing everything you’d want a young player to do, showing a dedication to his craft that is admirable. Rewarding him for that makes sense on an organizational level, particularly considering he performed at such a high level in Spring Training.

Now, if he struggles, you can say you gave him the chance he wanted and move him back to the bullpen where he’s been lights out. You’ve got multiple in-house replacements with Floyd, Jesse Chavez and Drew Hutchison ready to step in at a moments notice.

As for John Gibbons assertion that Sanchez will move to bullpen at some point in the season no matter what, well, I think you almost have to say that. You then temper Sanchez’s (and the fans) expectations, and if he comes out and is excellent, you can manage his innings throughout the year, letting Chavez or Floyd spot-start at times, skipping him when off-days allow it, etc. and keep him in the rotation later into the year.

If he’s as good as he can be, I don’t think it’s a lock that he goes back to relieving, but even if he does, giving him this shot to start makes the most sense for his development and for a Jays team that is shooting to win the whole enchilada.

14.  Chris Colabello (1B)

osuna

The Fernandez Fraternity

13. J.A. Happ (SP)

12. Drew Storen (RP)

11. Brett Cecil (RP)

10. Roberto Osuna (RP)

Bobby Bear! 

In a classic surprising-but-not-really move, Roberto Osuna was named the Blue Jays closer to start the season.

It’s surprising to some because Drew Storen was the teams biggest off-season acquisition and he’s been a truly excellent closer in stretches during his career. Many thought his struggles in the second half of last season were directly related to his losing the closer role in Washington, and even though he said all the right things upon his arrival in Toronto, most expected (read: hoped) him to be the 9th inning specialist, while the excellent Osuna would be used in other high leverage, late-inning situations. At the last Pitch Talks event in Toronto, Sportsnet’s Arden Zwelling floated the idea of Osuna being used like the Yankees Dellin Betances, pitching multiple innings whenever he was needed most, an idea that certainly tickled the fancy of the Blue Jays fan currently tickling these keys. So much tickling.

The news shouldn’t be that surprising however, because Roberto Osuna has been this teams closer since May of last season, and he hasn’t done a damn thing to lose the job. John Gibbons noted that this familiarity was important, speaking to the fact that he knows and trusts Osuna as a large factor in naming him to the role. Despite being the youngest player in the major leagues last season, he averaged more than a K per inning, spinning a 2.58 ERA, 0.911 WHIP and holding opposing batters to a punishing.191/.241/.351 slash. While there have been rumblings about the club converting him back to a starting pitcher long term, Osuna has publicly expressed a desire to remain in relief. He was leaned on heavily during the Jays playoff run last year, and didn’t bat an eye.

Osuna began to flag slightly as last season went on — he pitched far more last year than he ever had before and it was reflected in his late season numbers. He was still good but his fastball lost a little zip and his slider lost its depth, making him eminently more predictable, and thus, more hittable. Storen will help ease his overall workload and is still expected to close out some games. Both he and Osuna have said they don’t care where they pitch, as long as the team is winning. While we can’t know for sure, they’ve said it often enough and strongly enough that it seems like they probably mean it, at least in theory. With both Storen and Cecil approaching unrestricted free agency, keeping Osuna at the back end this season isn’t the worst idea, even if the Jays do eventually want to try him out in the rotation. Remember, he’s still just 21, but has already been through a Tommy John surgery. The Jays have something special in Bobby Bear, and whatever role he fills, you know they’ll treat him with extra care moving forward.

9. Marco Estrada (SP)

8. Kevin Pillar (CF)

7.  R.A. Dickey (SP)

Toronto Blue Jays v Texas Rangers

Stieb’s Stallions

6. Edwin Encarnacion (DH)

Edwin Encarnacion is probably not going to be a Blue Jay next season. It’s sad but true. After imposing a negotiating deadline during spring training, the word was that they didn’t even get to discuss money, because the two sides were so far apart on term that it didn’t make sense. For his part, Encarnacion’s camp is rumoured to want a four or five year deal (and why wouldn’t they?) while the Jays apparently offered just a one year deal back at the Winter Meeting, later upping that to two years.

Many seem to think that the Jays are undervaluing the 33 year old Edwin, believing that he’s just as valuable to the team as Jose Bautista, that he’s significantly younger and that he’s actually been a better hitter for the Jays, if you eliminate Bautista’s breakout 2010 season from the mix.

This may be true on a cumulative front, but if you had to bet on one of the two to continue producing, I think you’d have a hard time justifying choosing Encarnacion over Bautista, which is what it may come down to for Toronto.

While Edwin’s numbers over the past four seasons are remarkably similar each year on the whole, he didn’t always get there as smoothly as you might remember. After being consistently awesome for 2012 and 2013, the past two seasons he’s taken to having one mammoth hot streak and riding both sides of average the rest of the time. In 2014, after a slow April in which he hit just two homers and struck out 25 times, he went supernova in May and early June, going deep over 20 times in just 6 weeks. Despite that monster stretch, he finished the year with only 34 homers, after a long DL trip in July/August and a nice September. In 2015, it took him even longer to heat up; he posted just a .205/.258/.352 month of April. He managed to hit 16 round trippers before Canada Day, so many ignored the fact that he simply didn’t look like himself, even as he gradually improved in May and June. His walk rate was depressed and he struck out more times than he had since his 2008 season with Cincinnati. He made fans forget this by having one of the best offensive months in team history in August and following it up with a red hot September. Over the last two months of the season, he hit .344 with a .438 OBP and went yard 20 times.

That’s the Edwin that everyone wants to sign. I’d want to sign him too!

Look, I hate when writers do the selective stats game. You see it all the time. You can’t criticize Encarnacion for his bad months and not give him credit for the good ones. That’s not my goal here. It’s just that just about every piece of evidence we’ve seen in baseball history suggests that power hitters stop having these hot streaks in their mid-thirties. That once the walk rate starts declining and the strikeout rate begins rising, there might be a plateau here or there, but those things don’t generally get better. Couple that with the fact that Encarnacion rarely plays the field and is seemingly always nursing a litany of injuries on top of his constantly wonky lower back, and you start to see why Toronto is hesitant to retain him in the long term, with their already aging offensive core.

Edwin is going to be a massive part of the 2016 Blue Jays, a team with legitimate World Series aspirations. I’d love it if he re-signed on a high money, short term deal, and we could enjoy him for another couple years. But as that’s far from guaranteed, we need to remember to enjoy every walk of the parrot this season, and hope he can put together another one of his patented hot streaks, right when it matters most.

Happy Opening Day, everyone. Baseball!

5. Russell Martin (C)

4. Troy Tulowitzki (SS)

3. Jose Bautista (RF)

2. Josh Donaldson (3B)

1. Marcus Stroman (SP)

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